"My children ... shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth."
Ever since the publication of her mesmerizing, Pulitzer Prize winning debut collect...more"My children ... shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth."
Ever since the publication of her mesmerizing, Pulitzer Prize winning debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri has established herself as one of modern fiction's most powerful voices. The stories in that collection showcased what was to become Lahiri's trademark: acute psychological observations, eloquent writing, detailed descriptions, and a fiercely intelligent structure. As in poetry, each word feels carefully chosen, yet the overall ease with which the narratives flow belies the effort that undoubtedly went into them. "Interpreter of Maladies" also served to debut Lahiri's dominant theme in that each story featured Indian characters struggling to adapt to new surroundings after immigrating to the U.S. Her sophomore effort, The Namesake: A Novel expanded this theme into a wonderful full-length novel about the gap between a boy born and raised in America and his immigrant parents, who cling to their old traditions and ways of life. Lahiri, who was herself born in London but raised in New England, has made a career out of telling stories of cultural displacement, and until now she never once faltered when it came to crafting a powerful story.
"Unaccustomed Earth" marks Lahiri's return to the short story format, and while I had been looking forward to it with high anticipation, the product is surprising. Perhaps Lahiri succeeded at the transition from short stories to novels a little too well, because suddenly it feels like she has much more to say in an all-too-limited page count. The shortest story in the collection is "Hell-Heaven," which at twenty-four pages would have been right at home in "Interpreter of Maladies," and while it is one of the better offerings it feels clipped, as though there was so much more to say and not enough time to say it. Instead, the stories in "Unaccustomed Earth" verge on novella territory, allowing Lahiri to indulge in the slow-burn style she perfected in "The Namesake". The last three stories interlock to tell a single story in three parts, completing this effect. There aren't many authors who are at their best when they take their time, but Lahiri seems to be one of them. But this is a minor complaint.
I do, however, have more pointed concerns after reading Lahiri's latest work. Firstly, she seems to have acquired a taste for the melodramatic that doesn't suit her elegant style at all. Lahiri's writing is always very restrained when it comes to emotions, which is one of her strong suits, so when she indulges in plot contrivances such as alcoholism and abusive relationships it feels forced and more than a little jarring. Quiet desperation is more apt for her style; it is what makes it feel so authentic. Melodrama makes it feel theatrical. The high points of "Unaccustomed Earth" are its beginning and ending, "Unaccustomed Earth" and the saga of Hema and Kaushik, which notably steer clear of these plot elements. Luckily, Lahiri seems incapable of writing anything that doesn't maintain a grip on realism, but it still felt out of place to this reader.
Secondly, Lahiri's characters are starting to suffer from a degree of sameness. Perhaps that is why she infused the melodrama that I just discussed into the collection's middle section, but the fact that each character seems to have an ivy-league education and a doctorate and strikingly similar back stories still begins to feel stultifying.
Despite these complaints, Lahiri remains one of the most psychologically astute writers out there, and her keen plotting and pointed observations make "Unaccustomed Earth" tower head and shoulders above most other literary offerings. And even though I feel warier about what direction her next book will take, I still have the utmost faith in her abilities and look forward to it with the same degree of anticipation that I waited for "Unaccustomed Earth".
“A memoir, at its heart, is written in order to figure out who you are."
As lives go, Sean Wilsey’s was destined for a memoir; the life that he was b...more “A memoir, at its heart, is written in order to figure out who you are."
As lives go, Sean Wilsey’s was destined for a memoir; the life that he was born into is just too over-the-top to be ignored. Insane wealth, eccentricity, betrayal, confusion, power, celebrity, depression, and redemption are all present and make for a truly unique life story made better by Wilsey’s perspective. He doesn’t write with anger, bitterness or resentment – even though it would have been very easy for him to lapse into self-righteousness – but with the even-handed tone of a man trying to make sense of his wacky life journey.
It all starts with his parents; Wilsey’s mother, Pat Montandon (who has subsequently penned a memoir of her own in response to her son’s version of events, not so subtly entitled “Oh the Hell of It All”), truly has no shortage of needs to suit her expensive tastes and desire for big-named guests to rub shoulders with. To say that she has an outsized personality, prone to mountain highs and canyon lows, would be a terrible understatement. This is a woman who had a fan club for her San Francisco-based TV show in the 60s; regularly lunched with Gloria Steinem, Alex Haley, Joan Baez and more in a 70s-version of Parisian salons; once tried to talk her son (barely a teenager at the time) into a suicide pact to get back at his cheating father, became an unlikely friend and ally of Mikhail Gorbachev over the course of several peace missions ‘behind the Iron Curtain,’ and much, much more. She reflects such a powerful aura on crowds that meeting her, Wilsey recalls, “is like meeting a celebrity you’ve never heard of.” Then there’s his father, Al Wilsey, a butter magnate whose main loves in life are his helicopter, his name (and how often it appears in San Francisco’s crowded society column), his wealth, and his women (emphasis on the plural). Together, the three of them lead an extraordinary life of privilege, minor celebrity, and seeming bliss. And then Al ends it all by divorcing his wife and marrying her best friend, Dede Traina – a wicked socialite who proves to be the fabled evil stepmother come to diamond-studded life.
Suddenly, young Wilsey is adrift and lost at a mere ten years old. He’s shuttled between his mother’s sterile penthouse (which he calls ‘the marble palace’ because every square inch is covered in either marble or mirrors), where she encloses herself like a bear in hibernation to overcome the profound depression that follows Al and Dede’s betrayal, and Dede’s mansion in Pacific Heights, where he must contend with two seemingly perfect stepbrothers, Dede’s stunning hostility, and his father’s newfound embarrassment of him (Dede’s handiwork, as she maneuvers, Lady Macbeth-style, to have her stepson sent away to boarding school). And so begins Wilsey’s quest – not to find himself, but to find a version of himself that his family will notice, admire, and love. But the more he fails to please them, the more desperate and angry he becomes, leading to drugs, stealing, lying, running away, flunking out of numerous schools, and a serious downward spiral as he gets shipped to school after school, reformatory after reformatory. “I felt as if I was reinventing myself with every new place and every abandoned and replaced friendship. Reinventing myself, almost invariably, as a worse and worse person.”
Of course, as all memoirs go, Wilsey eventually has an epiphany and begins to pick up the pieces of his shattered life, but what makes the resolution of his memoir so much more poignant than other examples is that he is clearly still in search of some resolution, as most people who have been hurt are. He needs answers and closure to a degree that he will never adequately get, and this superb memoir is his big gamble to get it all out, examine it as closely as possible, and try to move on with his life.
Still, as with all memoirs, “Oh the Glory of It All” must be taken with a grain of salt. As Wilsey himself notes at one point: “I am pure emotion and pure manipulation united.” Is his version of events the honest, 100% truth? I don’t rightly know, nor do I pretend to; what I can say is this: Wilsey’s memoir is pure joy to read, and I’ll be feverishly recommending it to others (particularly to fans of “Running with Scissors”).
“Could there be anything more sad and more lonely than remembering what terrible things the future will bring?”
In his ambitious debut novel Stefan M...more “Could there be anything more sad and more lonely than remembering what terrible things the future will bring?”
In his ambitious debut novel Stefan Merrill Block shows off the wide range of his talent. “The Story of Forgetting” combines elements of science, history, and fable into four storylines that weave together to tell a single story. And it works, for the most part. I can see how some may have been turned off by the quirky nature of Block’s storytelling or grown bored with the genetic history storyline, but I have a feeling that the majority of literary fiction fans will enjoy Block’s novel just as much as I did.
The first storyline concerns Abel, an elderly hunchback living in isolation and haunted by the ghosts of his brother and sister-in-law and the daughter that ran away from home never to be seen again. He bustles around his dilapidated house in his failing body, desperately filling the void around him and trying to avoid stillness that might lead to reflection on how he got to this lonely point and whether or not it is deserved. The modern world is creeping up on all sides of his property, showing Abel just how little use the world can make of an outdated person like him, and his neighbors are trying to force him out so they can raise their property values. But Abel is holding onto the hope that someday his daughter might come looking for him, and he wants to be waiting when she does.
Second is the story of Seth, your typical gawky, angular teen and a stereotypical nerd and social outcast. His mother has recently been placed in a home after a nasty fall and a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease – an extremely rare genetic disorder that Seth, who may someday be a victim of the same disease, becomes obsessed with researching. In truth, his research is equal measures avoidance and an attempt to get closer to his family. All his life, Seth’s mother was careful not to reveal anything about where she came from or even why she felt the need to be so secretive, and his research allows Seth a unique opportunity to finally find out just who his mother is. At the same time, it allows him to escape the nightmare of his social life, visits to the home where his mother is by far the youngest resident, the paralyzing fear that he too may suffer her fate, and lonely nights where his father drinks too much and watches the History Channel, unable to bear the burden of disappointment and sorrow.
The third storyline introduces us to the mythical world of Isidora, a “land without memory, where everything one needed was at arm’s length, where there was never reason to be afraid, where nothing was ever possessed and so nothing could ever be lost.” Isidora provides a curious link between the stories of Seth and Abel, because both of them were raised on fairy tales of the fabled city. While one may question whether or not Isidora is actually as utopian as the author would like you to believe, the charming element of fable that it brings to the novel and the creativity and passion of its creation will win you over in the end.
And finally is a storyline concerning the genetic history of Seth’s family and how the genetic variant that created the early-onset Alzheimer’s disease got started and spread, tracing the lineage all the way to Texas, where Seth and his family reside. If it occasionally feels superfluous and not that consequential to the plot, Block imbues it with the same charming element of fable that makes you forgive the excess in the end.
The main attractions here are Abel and Seth, and they make “The Story of Forgetting” well worth your while. And if the link between their two storylines is painfully obvious about sixty pages in, it is still a heartfelt journey seeing how their lives converge in the end. As for Block, he proves to be a remarkably thorough and creative writer, as well as a literary talent to watch in the coming years.
“Forgetting our lives might be the best we’ll ever do."
The stories found In “Knockemstiff,” Donald Ray Pollock’s raw and powerful literary debut, ar...more “Forgetting our lives might be the best we’ll ever do."
The stories found In “Knockemstiff,” Donald Ray Pollock’s raw and powerful literary debut, are not for the faint of heart. Brutal and uncompromising, they capture the hardscrabble lives of the residents of Knockemstiff, Ohio – the very same town that Pollock comes from (although he cautiously points out in his acknowledgments that the actual residents of his hometown are really “good people who never hesitated to help someone in a time of need”).
“My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old. It was the only thing he was ever any good at.” With these words Pollock opens his story collection, and over the next two hundred pages it doesn’t get any prettier. In many cases, it only gets grittier and more difficult. Substance abuse, neglect, loneliness, dependency, abuse (of both spouses and children), betrayal, shocking outbursts of violence, and even murder are found in virtually every episode. Undoubtedly this has led to those unfair one star reviews that dismiss Pollock’s work as depressing and unreadable. Those readers are justified to have that opinion, but I don’t know how they could deny the power of his prose. Having lived a hardscrabble life himself, dropping out of high school, working at a meatpacking plant and a paper mill for thirty years and struggling through stints in rehab, Pollock writes with an authority and packs a punch that can only come with experience, making it quite difficult to believe that this is only his first collection. Truly, his talent was a major discovery.
Reading “Knockemstiff” is a mesmerizing, if unsettling, experience unlike any other I’ve had since I read Denis Johnson’s superb “Jesus’ Son”. Sure, it isn’t for everyone, but I don’t see how anyone could put this book down after finishing the first story. Those of us with the stomach will thank Pollock for the ride when it’s all over.
“Inside every patient there’s a poet trying to get out.”
To be sure, Anatole Broyard was no shrinking violet. When diagnosed with terminal prostate c...more “Inside every patient there’s a poet trying to get out.”
To be sure, Anatole Broyard was no shrinking violet. When diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer in 1989 he did not “go gentle into that good night,” cowed by fear and anger, but rose up and fought to be heard as he struggled to come to terms with the end of his life. “Intoxicated by My Illness” is the result of that fight, a stunningly eloquent and well-reasoned treatise about how to die, how to treat the dying, and, indirectly, how to live.
Broyard takes his sharp critic’s eye and trains it on the process of dying, examining with careful precision what others have said on the subject and how it relates to his actual experience of the situation (Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, for example, is admirable for her “single-minded dedication,” but said devotion often leads her to be “a bit grotesque”). In his final weeks, Broyard seeks to improve our ‘literature of death,’ so that people will have a greater understanding of the process and, perhaps, will be better equipped when life throws a little curveball their way and they find themselves in a similar situation.
While Broyard’s observations are clear-sighted and deeply profound, to be honest I would have liked to hear more of his own personal reflections. The high points of “Intoxicated by My Illness” are its most confessional moments, when Broyard ponders his own circumstance, how he got to this point, and how he feels about it. His critical studies of death are fascinating and insightful, to be sure, but they almost feel like a shield, a crutch – something to help him avoid the reality of his situation rather than embrace it, as he set out to do. He essentially admits to this when he says that he has turned to what he understands and what he is best at (literature and being a critic, respectively) in order to make the un-knowable abyss he faces more palatable, so in the end you cannot fault him for this minor complaint, and instead you must continue to marvel at his remarkable self-awareness.
“It may not be dying we fear so much, but the diminished self,” Broyard ponders at one point, and if this is the case then Broyard needn’t have feared at all; in the decline of his life Broyard blossomed and thrived. “I’m going to say something brilliant when I die,” he promises to himself early on, and with “Intoxicated by My Illness” he certainly achieves this lofty goal.
“I want them to see me dying. That way, they’ll know I’m alive.”
Charles Bock’s hypnotic debut novel follows the ricocheting lives of several people...more “I want them to see me dying. That way, they’ll know I’m alive.”
Charles Bock’s hypnotic debut novel follows the ricocheting lives of several people in Las Vegas, whose lives intersect and separate in dramatic ways on the night that twelve-year old Newell Ewing disappears forever. But the narrative isn’t only focused on that one night, but on the myriad ways that the characters have been led to this point in time and, for some, where they will go from there. You see, on the night of Newell’s disappearance these people have been driven to the edge – and Bock wants us to understand how they got there. Bock shows great skill at characterization, I found every one of the characters compelling and thought it was mesmerizing to witness their unraveling as their circumstances and choices brought them to a boiling point.
“Beautiful Children” is about some seriously damaged people, some trying desperately to get out of their ruts and some determined to self-destruct. The Las Vegas setting looms large here, because it seems like every opportunity in the world is within reach, but they can’t take advantage of it. Bock’s characters are down in the dumps in a city where instant fortunes are supposed to be regular occurrences and happiness is there for the taking – at the right price, that is. Fortune is like a mirage in the desert heat, and Bock uses the parallel well (growing up in Vegas certainly helped him understand the city’s highs and lows). But there is also a sense of renewal and hope burning through these characters – a palpable desire to be a better person. “It is your sins that make you beautiful. But this does not necessarily give us license to do whatever we wish.” And it is this sense of overriding hope, an astonishing achievement in a first novel, that makes “Beautiful Children” such a great novel.
But Bock’s first outing does have its flaws, too. There is one character that gets a fair amount of page time but never overcomes his peripheral-to-the-plot status, making time spent on him feel irrelevant. As Bock brings us back and forth in time it is occasionally jarring to figure out just when this scene is taking place (he also makes one or two errors in his chronology that don’t exactly help matters – for instance, toward the end of one character’s storyline he doesn’t yet possess the cell phone that he has already used to call his girlfriend in her plotline). And while I appreciate that Bock didn’t make Newell the saintly-kid-that-goes-missing cliché that most writers go for in order to garner sympathy, did he have to make the kid such an insufferable jerk? He’s so irritating that you actually want bad things to happen to him, and it doesn’t really jibe with the all-too-abrupt conclusion.
Having said that, I believe “Beautiful Children” marks the arrival of a fierce new literary talent in Charles Bock. Forget what the haters say, the novel’s strong points far outweigh its faults, and if this is what Bock can do in his first novel, well, I for one can’t wait to see what he has in store for his second.
PS If you like this, check out Junot Díaz’s excellent “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”(less)
Picking up this novel (translated from its original Norwegian), it is easy to understand why “Out Stealing Hor...more Sumptuous Prose, but Largely Redundant
Picking up this novel (translated from its original Norwegian), it is easy to understand why “Out Stealing Horses” has earned such high praise from critics; its author, Per Petterson, is a writer of astonishing talent. There are moments where his astute observations and beautiful descriptions sent chills down my spine. Petterson’s depth of understanding for his main character, Trond, is palpable, and he is carefully rendered in an achingly believable portrait of an aging, grieving man. The novel’s setting gets an equally loving respect from Petterson, whose description of Norway’s trees, rivers, and skies should do wonders for the country’s tourism (“I shut my eyes into a squint and looked across the water flowing past below the window, shining and glittering like a thousand stars, like the Milky Way could sometimes do in the autumn rushing foamingly on and winding through the night in an endless stream”). I would compare Petterson’s writing to the heart aching beauty of Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson’s prose (her novel “Housekeeping” is every bit as poetic and haunting as this one). The problem I have with this otherwise stellar book is that I feel like I’ve read it before – many times at that.
“Out Stealing Horses” finds Trond Sander living in a self-inflicted isolation as he heads into his twilight years. He has given up his former life for a solitary existence partially out of a life-long yearning to be left alone, but mostly out of grief for the sudden death of his beloved wife three years earlier. But when he realizes that his neighbor is a figure from his past it triggers a host of feelings and memories that Trond has been trying to avoid for a long time, and in flashbacks we are taken back with him to the summer of his fifteenth year – a summer that forever altered the course of his life, where friendly games of stealing horses gave way to tragedy and coming of age. Petterson acquits himself well enough in the unspooling of the narrative, but anyone who has ever read a Booker Prize winning novel will find the premise a little too familiar (“The God of Small Things,” “The Sea,” and “The Gathering,” to name only a few, all have a similar premise with the main character reflecting on their tragic past). But the real shame of it is that “Out Stealing Horses” peters out in the climax, leaving it without the oomph that might have distinguished it from those novels. And what we are left with is a painfully standard story told with stunningly beautiful writing. I wanted to like the novel more than I did because of Petterson’s talent as a writer, but the truth is that I just couldn’t shake the boredom in the end. Which is quite a shame, because Petterson has a lot more to offer.
“My soul is ambitious and mercenary in its desire to know itself.”
Steve Toltz’s sprawling debut novel is the saga of Martin and Jasper Dean, a fathe...more “My soul is ambitious and mercenary in its desire to know itself.”
Steve Toltz’s sprawling debut novel is the saga of Martin and Jasper Dean, a father and son whose complex relationship keeps them inextricably linked while simultaneously creating impassable rifts between them. They love and hate each other in equal measure for all of their differences, but mostly because of their inherent similarities. Jasper’s greatest fear is that he will turn into his father, a miserly philosopher who has “thought himself into a corner.” Martin, meanwhile, is seemingly incapable of being satisfied with anything due to his contradictory nature. He’s a megalomaniac too lazy to hold on to a dream, a philosopher too annoyed by his fellow human beings to attempt to enlighten them, a sometime humanitarian whose attempts at giving are marred by an ingrained selfishness, and much more. This is their story.
At the outset we meet Jasper, who has been mysteriously imprisoned following the death of his father. From his prison cell Jasper takes us through the story of his life and, via very lengthy asides, the life stories of his father, his uncle Terry (revered as Australia’s greatest outlaw), and Caroline Potts (the love of both Martin and Terry’s lives). Toltz shows remarkable dedication throughout, and his philosophical musings, at their best, are reminiscent of one of my favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut. At a whopping 530 pages, “A Fraction of the Whole” is a hefty, audacious debut that, for the most part works. Sadly, that page count proves to be too much for Toltz to adequately carry. Originally an 800 page opus that was edited down to this size, clearly the greatest challenge to Toltz as a writer is his own ambition. I loved this book to about page 400, and then began to grow weary of it at an alarming speed. I practically had to drag myself through the last fifty pages to see what happened to Martin Dean in the end, and how Jasper ended up in that prison. It isn’t easy to maintain suspense for such a lengthy journey, and unfortunately Toltz isn’t up to the task. And it’s a darned shame, too. “A Fraction of the Whole” is jolly good fun before it gets so waterlogged with details and plotlines.
Perhaps Toltz was trying to take on David Foster Wallace’s modern epic “Infinite Jest” by writing his own grandiose novel heavy on the philosophy, but he clearly over-reached in his debut effort. Perhaps he will scale things down in his next novel, but I don’t know – like his protagonists, he certainly doesn’t seem capable of thinking small. So I would recommend another quirky writer who understands that brevity is the soul of wit: the aforementioned Kurt Vonnegut. “Mother Night” is my personal favorite, but be sure to check out “Deadeye Dick” and “God Bless You Mr. Rosewater” as well.
When I first read about “Netherland” it was presented as a 9/11 novel. This is not entirely the case. In fact, 9/1...more “How do you re-imagine your life?”
When I first read about “Netherland” it was presented as a 9/11 novel. This is not entirely the case. In fact, 9/11 the day barely figures into the plotline at all – it is the tumultuous after-effects of 9/11 that are explored in Joseph O’Neill’s infinitely clever, if flawed, novel. At the outset we meet Hans van den Broek in present-day London, where he has recently relocated in order to rejoin his wife and son after a trial separation. He gets some sad news regarding Chuck Ramkissoon, a former friend of his from his days as a single man reeling from 9/11 angst and his family’s abrupt departure, news which sets Hans off on the reverie that is the plot of “Netherland”. In his mind he retraces the years after that fateful September in 2001, when his happy marriage began to crack and, literally, split apart, he lost interest in his successful career, and a desperate loneliness led him into a friendship with the charismatic but morally suspect Chuck Ramkissoon. Through Hans’ odyssey O’Neill does not explore 9/11 so much as he explores life in the post-9/11 world. But that is not all; O’Neill also delves deeply into the immigrant experience and the psychological effects of adopting another country as your own.
“It is truly a terrible thing when questions of love and family and home are no longer answerable.” After finding himself abandoned and confused, Hans begins a quest to rediscover himself. It all starts with something most New Yorkers – most Americans, in fact – would not even notice in their everyday life: cricket. Hans discovers a cricket league formed mostly by cab drivers and such who moved to the US from countries where cricket was a regular pastime. Hans has been unmoored in his own life, so he welcomes the opportunity to revisit a beloved sport and, through it, he attempts to put his life back into perspective – to regain the sense of control that has been stolen from him (“what was an inning if not a singular opportunity to face down, by dint of effort and skill and self-mastery, the variable world?”). Hans quickly discovers that cricket in New York is very different from the European version of the game he is accustomed to, and with this metaphor intact O’Neill uses American cricket to explore the larger theme of immigration: what compromises are made, what are the sacrifices, and what aspects of the self are lost when one moves from one country to another? What does one find? What are the gains? It’s actually rather fascinating. Were this and Hans’ desolation as he wanders alone in the city the primary focus of the novel it would have been better.
Unfortunately, O’Neill is more interested in introducing Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian émigré who schemes to bring cricket to the forefront of the American consciousness, and a fortune to himself in the process. His is the more traditional, prosaic tale of one man’s desperation for the American dream – heightened by the fact that as an immigrant, Chuck feels like he is only seeking what he was promised, but nevertheless the plotline feels stale and unimaginative. And that is particularly disappointing because the rest of “Netherland” sparkles with originality and wit. When it inevitably comes to light that Chuck has been dealing with shady characters to make his American dream a reality, sealing his fate once and for all, it is not terribly surprising or compelling. It’s too fitting, really.
“Netherland” is at its best when it is telling Hans’ story, and it is unfortunate then that the bulk of it is tied up so intimately with Chuck’s story – because Hans’ journey is infinitely more effecting and touching. Still, O’Neill proves to be a remarkably talented writer, and it will be interesting to see what his next move is.
“That was the trouble with Wyoming; everything you ever did or said kept pace with you right to the end.”
When it comes to description, Annie Proulx...more “That was the trouble with Wyoming; everything you ever did or said kept pace with you right to the end.”
When it comes to description, Annie Proulx is undoubtedly one of the best and most unique writers out there. With her blunt, unsparing prose, a fierce intellect and a coal black sense of humor, Proulx can paint a vivid and stark portrait of American life, and nowhere is this on better display than in her Wyoming Stories, where the hardscrabble existences of her characters go hand in hand with the bleak words used to describe them. Here’s how she introduces one of her characters in “Them Old Cowboy Songs”: “Archie had a face as smooth as a skinned aspen, his lips barely incised on the surface as though scratched in with a knife.” There’s a paragraph from “The Half-Skinned Steer” in Close Range , the first installment of the Wyoming series, which still gives me the chills years after I first read it.
Proulx’s descriptive power is, primarily, what keeps me coming back to the Wyoming stories, even though neither of the sequels has been able to match the power of Close Range (which also has the distinction of birthing “Brokeback Mountain,” the story the movie was based on). To tell the truth, each installment pales in comparison to the one that preceded it. Proulx has a fascination for fantasy elements that pop up in her stories that doesn’t entirely suit her style (at least not when she’s writing about the devil, who puts in a whopping two appearances in Fine Just the Way it is ). “The Sagebrush Kid,” about a man-eating, giant-size sage plant, captures something of a Twilight Zone vibe that makes it work, and still almost the entire middle section of this collection is taken up with the weakest form of Proulx’s writing. Compare this to only one out-there story in Bad Dirt , and hardly any in Close Range.
The bookends of Fine Just the Way it is are where it truly shines, and sure enough those stories are the ones that play to the intention of the Wyoming stories the best: slice-of-life vignettes that capture the essence of the hard living in such a violent, unpredictable location and the tough breed of human that it takes to live there. “Family Man” opens the collection by spotlighting Ray Forkenbrock, closing out his life in a retirement home and wondering just where the honor in his existence has gone, if there ever was any. Proulx closes it with “Tits-up in a Ditch” (which just might be the best name of a short story ever, although the meaning behind the title makes you feel bad for the immature giggle it gives you when you first catch sight of it), about naïve young Dakotah Lister, who enlists in the army and gets sent to Iraq after a failed marriage leaves her with no job prospects and no way to pay for the son her soon-to-be-ex husband left her with. While there are some winning moments in between, it is these stories that are the real winners in this collection. Aside from the fantasy element that bogs down at least three of the stories, “Deep-Blood-Greasy-Bowl” feels like a research project more than a story (indeed, Proulx pauses to explain that the impetus of the story was the discovery of an ancient fire-pit on her property and the research into Indian buffalo hunting that followed).
All in all, this is an uneven collection for Proulx, a supremely talented writer who may have been looking to shake things up a touch in her third visit to the Wyoming territory.
I decided to read this book because I have heard many good things about the mysteries written by Alafair Burke’s father, Jam...more Ally McBeal gets a badge
I decided to read this book because I have heard many good things about the mysteries written by Alafair Burke’s father, James Lee Burke. Unfortunately, I found the experience rather disappointing. Ms. Burke seems to be a capable enough plotter, but this novel suffers from an excess of twists and some supremely laughable dialogue (for example, when asked if she went out the previous night, main character Ellie Hatcher responds “Nah, maybe back in my old skanky days. I kicked it at home alone last night.” I’m not kidding). Such obvious attempts to sound hip and youthful are painfully common throughout the book, and they are not restricted to the dialogue alone. Pop culture references abound; suspects are described by what au courant celebrity they resemble (Jake Gyllenhaal and an older Zac Efron), TV commercials, trendy NYC hotspots, et al are tossed casually into the plot, and I want to say that it’s for realism’s sake, but the cynic in me believes that it’s a desperate bid to sound trendy through association.
Then there are the plot twists. I love a good mystery novel, but the genre as a whole tends to be too slavish to the idea that there has to be a big sucker-punch of a surprise at the end, and most writers can’t ever seem to make their ‘gotcha’ moment credible. Such is the case with Ms. Burke, who changes the direction of Ellie’s investigation not once, not twice or three times, but with a whopping four misdirections. It would be enough to give you a headache if the plot weren’t too frothy to take seriously in the first place. Strangely enough, Ellie’s partner doesn’t seem to have a problem with his partner’s proclivity to throw out everything they’ve been working on and put both of their careers on the line – despite the fact that they have only been working together for two weeks. Yes, that’s two weeks. Ellie and her partner, Rogan, have instantly fallen into a dynamic most long-term partners would envy, defying credibility because the plot requires that Rogan back Ellie’s wacky theories up.
Not to mention Ellie herself. She is meant to embody a strong woman trying to make it in a male-dominated field, and I respect that. But the message is constantly undermined when Ellie makes statements like the one I quoted above, and also when her romantic life suffers from more crises than you would find in an entire season of Ally McBeal. Her boyfriend is a reporter and they can’t seem to keep their professional lives from interfering in the bedroom. Is he using her to get a byline or is he the dreamboat lover she longs for? Then, of course, comes the tall dark and handsome distraction to fill Ellie’s non-case-related thoughts with romantic angst. Now we have two revelations to wait for: the identity of the killer, and which guy will Ellie choose? Leaving Ellie aside for the moment, the plot itself isn’t doing much to cry feminist. The victims are the very essence of murder-mystery cliché: beautiful girls with a ‘bad streak’ who doom themselves with their lust for partying. Their friends, who responsibly go home at a reasonable hour, are safe, while they must pay the ultimate price for staying out. The guys who party with them are fine – they may come across as sleazebags, but no one ever seems to question their morals when it comes to a good time.
Of course it is only a matter of time before it is revealed that the killer is personally targeting Ellie as the next victim, and in the style of the rest of the book it isn’t quite clear why. The reader must simply shrug and accept it, because it just wouldn’t be as exciting if the climax weren’t personal.
If you’re a fan of James Patterson or other by-the-book mystery writers than this will probably work for you. Otherwise I would suggest skipping it.(less)