The only other Kerouac I've read is On the Road, which I liked a lot. This one is a quick sketch of Kerouac's crowd of cool kids in San Francisco, and...moreThe only other Kerouac I've read is On the Road, which I liked a lot. This one is a quick sketch of Kerouac's crowd of cool kids in San Francisco, and a love affair gone bad due to the narrator being kind of an asshole (as are most of the cool kids). But at least he's an asshole with some insight about himself and others, and a good eye and ear, so there's a lot of dense, vivid description of places and people. There's not a whole lot else: in between boy-meets-girl and boy-chases-girl-away they mostly hang out with the gang in various places, and some aimless unruliness happens; you could put those scenes in any order. On the Road has a very loose shape but it is a shape - the places he goes are distinct, and we see Moriarty go through different stages of distress - whereas this book, despite the charged-up free-associating prose, is pretty static. Whenever it gets back to Mardou (the girlfriend) and the narrator's belated attempts to imagine what's going on in her mind, it comes to life and makes you love them both, sad and frustrating as that is.(less)
For years I had a vague feeling that I should read this, but really didn't want to, because people I knew in college wrote so much terrible crap under...moreFor years I had a vague feeling that I should read this, but really didn't want to, because people I knew in college wrote so much terrible crap under his influence - and maybe because I associated it with macho cool, and thought it might make me feel wimpy and naive. Fortunately I got over it and this really is a great novel.
Kerouac and his friend Neal Cassady (a.k.a. Sal and Dean) travel around, lose each other off and on, settle down once in a while, meet people. Dean is a broken person, kind of sociopathic in a non-aggressive way, but he's entertaining so he gets away with things; Sal is obsessed with trying to figure him out and describes him as a mythic figure, and Sal has some big ideas about himself too: writer, free spirit, representative of the new jazz bohemia, etc. But somehow even so, the book doesn't really allow him or Dean to become larger than life; things keep happening around them and in spite of them, and Sal keeps losing sight of his navel and getting caught up in the stories of others. Kerouac describes a diverse assortment of people, landscapes, towns, jobs, and relationships, all with such affection that you can see why Sal wants to keep moving and see them all, but he (mostly) manages to avoid the sense that they're all just about what they mean to the narrator - he values them for just existing, and Sal also understands at some level that Dean is whatever he is and has his own story.
It would be stupid to use this as a template for your own pursuit of happiness, and many of the characters behave very badly, but it's a very humane book. The prose has a casual elegance and it's also pretty funny. Read it for what's in it, not for the mythology.(less)
Every so often Ian McEwan picks up a familiar plot-driven genre and rebuilds it with a slow, dark emotional engine. The Innocent, which was made into...moreEvery so often Ian McEwan picks up a familiar plot-driven genre and rebuilds it with a slow, dark emotional engine. The Innocent, which was made into a movie I didn't like much, was a spy thriller and a Hitchcock-like can-things-possibly-get-worse murder thing, wrapped around a love story and a painful character study, and shaped by the two meanings of the title (the hero's youthful ignorance, and the way the plot leads him to do worse and worse things without being really guilty of anything); I mostly loved it. Similarly, the story of Enduring Love could have been done as a stalker-of-the-week movie leading up to a big chase scene, and some of its strength comes from how simple the premise is: a man finds that an unpleasant delusional stranger is romantically obsessed with him.
Again going in two directions from the title, McEwan writes about what makes love endure, even to the point of psychosis, and how it can dwindle into a thing to be endured, like the narrator's collapsing marriage. How you can care and fear for a guy who's almost more unpleasant than his persecutor (though I'm sure not everyone will) is part of what makes the book impossible to summarize. McEwan also tends to build his characters around some odd area of history or knowledge that he's researched lovingly, and in this case his helpless narrator, a popular science writer, applies the buzzwords of "sociobiology" to his love life, in ways that both satirize and humanize that currently fashionable school of thought -- all while keeping the threat of murder in the air.
And after the "ending" -- where, as we expect, the plot spends itself in a bit of violence, followed by a pastoral recovery -- McEwan does something I've only seen done once before (by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid's Tale) and does it awfully well: he retells the whole thing in a few pages from a chilly academic perspective, as a psychiatric case study, removing both the suspense and the empathy while adding some new information that may or may not change how you see the characters. I don't know what to call this device or whether Atwood really invented it, but in both cases it had a delayed punch-in-the-gut effect on me, because the next time you read a case study or historical essay or news report like that, you can't help going through the same process in reverse and imagining the personal depths that were left out of it.(less)
Probably the strangest and most memorable approach to autobiographical comics I've seen, this is a story about the author, his older brother and young...moreProbably the strangest and most memorable approach to autobiographical comics I've seen, this is a story about the author, his older brother and younger sister and parents, and how they were affected by the brother's incurable epilepsy. David B. tells it and tells it, using everything at his disposal: childhood obsessions and dream images, long tangents about every other branch of the family, the history of macrobiotics and spiritualism, his present-day family's reaction to the ongoing book... every digression adding a new recurring piece to the visual language of the story. There are virtually no "scenes" of action spanning more than one panel, and much more narration than dialogue, so for a while you may feel like you're just seeing separate illustrations of a fragmented text, but it flows and builds effortlessly. I read somewhere that the artist described this approach as "personal mythology", but it's not just about David's own strange inner life; it's about the way all children develop their own mythology, and then succeed or fail in using it for other things as they grow up.
Kim Thompson's translation is good as usual, even though I wish there had been some way to use more of the original title, which is an evocative pun.(less)
For its first two-thirds, this historical thriller, set in the Spanish-American War, is my favorite of many good Leonard books. His formula -- trickst...moreFor its first two-thirds, this historical thriller, set in the Spanish-American War, is my favorite of many good Leonard books. His formula -- trickster who's not as smart as he thinks he is gets in trouble with even dumber guy, then allies with beautiful third party to swindle the highly competent villains -- is so familiar by now that the variations really stand out, and in this case he's made a serious and convincing attempt to explore the roots of the America that his 20th-century lowlifes inhabit. And then the last third of the book is a big Hollywood chase scene in which the villains are picked off in the usual way; oh well.(less)
Reading this was a little like reading The 120 Days of Sodom-- not so much because it has lots of outrageous, gross, scatological sex scenes, but beca...moreReading this was a little like reading The 120 Days of Sodom-- not so much because it has lots of outrageous, gross, scatological sex scenes, but because the author is pushing the limits of reality and tolerability in pursuit of an abstract principle. But in Delany's case, I think the principle is anti-Sade: it's about freedom rather than control. The title character may have encouraged some people to more or less destroy their lives, but they're having a good time doing it, and he's developed an innovative ethic of consensual slavery: it's only OK to sell yourself if the price is exactly one penny.
What's really jarring (assuming you can get past the obvious stuff) is that it starts out as a realistic novel, and gradually turns into what Delany calls a "pornotopia" where the sexual process has taken over completely. The scene that begins this process, where the narrator walks up to some homeless men in Central Park and propositions them to their great surprise (and his own), is very strange and moving-- it's a science-fiction effect.(less)
Anyone who was paying attention to self-published comics in the '80s knows about Silly Daddy, but I wasn't and I picked up the whole thing at once, wh...moreAnyone who was paying attention to self-published comics in the '80s knows about Silly Daddy, but I wasn't and I picked up the whole thing at once, which was pretty intense. Back in the days when an autobiographical comic was still a novelty, Chiappetta started doing some little stories about his daughter and his young marriage. The latter quickly fell apart and it became a story about divorce and unwelcome self-awareness. Harvey Pekar is an obvious reference but Pekar and Chiappetta didn't have a lot in common, besides being kind of hard to live with. Silly Daddy is weird and lonesome and often silly, and as Chiappetta gradually learned how to draw, the words and pictures played together unpredictably to very good effect. Toward the end of the first part (originally collected as The Long Goodbye), his stream of consciousness took an odd turn as he started rewriting his present and future in fantasy terms; for a while, Joe and his daughter became nomads in a scary but playful future world, in which his bizarre visuals really took off. That was followed by further solid stories about Joe and his friends; then a pause, during which he became a born-again Christian. He tried briefly to revive the comic in terms of his new interests-- not very successfully, but I still think whatever Chiappetta does is pretty interesting and I'd like to see more.(less)
By a strange coincidence I read this right after Bernard Malamud's A New Life, which is, like this one, a very bitter comedy about a grammar teacher...moreBy a strange coincidence I read this right after Bernard Malamud's A New Life, which is, like this one, a very bitter comedy about a grammar teacher in a small college becoming part of a love triangle. Unlike Malamud's hopeful dreamers, Barth's guy is a different and difficult creature: sort of an existentialist narrator, but one who doesn't assume that his own apathy says anything about the world in general. His life has been short-circuited by manic depression, but since he knows he can't trust his feelings, he sometimes ends up being the most clear-sighted and humane character around. Barth indulges in some vicious satire of Objectivist supermen, and of behaviorist psychiatry: the narrator's doctor prescribes meaningless activities just to ensure that he doesn't stop moving.(less)
A sort of prison-within-prison story, the outer prison being the whole country, as three guys-- a privileged wastrel, a black boxer/patsy, and a Depre...moreA sort of prison-within-prison story, the outer prison being the whole country, as three guys-- a privileged wastrel, a black boxer/patsy, and a Depression-era Elvis prototype-- get ground up in the economy in various ways. Their fates may be overdetermined, but the time and place are vivid. The invisible fourth character is money, and he's pretty scary.(less)
Don't read this until you read something else by Amis that you like. I read Lucky Jim first and it's good and funny, so that's okay; and The Old Dev...moreDon't read this until you read something else by Amis that you like. I read Lucky Jim first and it's good and funny, so that's okay; and The Old Devils, which he wrote much later, is great. But in between, Amis went through a long emotional meltdown and the result is really painful to read; by the end, this book is basically a street-corner rant on how women are, by nature, literally unable to tell right from wrong and are all manipulative liars. We know this because Stanley, a guy with no distinguishing characteristics, is jerked around by his ex-wife, and his new wife, and a female psychiatrist who's just no good; the only good woman is his new girlfriend, but she's okay because she hates women too. Unfortunately, buried in there is a really good novel about how Stanley and his wife try to cope with his son's descent into schizophrenia.
Comics readers may be familiar with the similar spectacle of Dave Sim, who went off his nut about boys vs. girls in exactly the same way, but could still write a decent scene and a real human character when he remembered to.(less)
It took a while to figure out what I thought about this one. I love Richard Price's prose, his dialogue, and the way he depicts the city (especially i...moreIt took a while to figure out what I thought about this one. I love Richard Price's prose, his dialogue, and the way he depicts the city (especially in this one, which takes place in places I used to live). The first third of the book had me totally involved. Then it just kind of coasted, in a straight-line trajectory that was so unlike Price's usual piling on of complications that it felt like a deliberate exercise in how to frustrate everyone's ideas about crime novels. The police procedural part keeps moving along even though there's not much to resolve, and the people keep doing pretty much what they started out doing; it's clear that none of them are really going to learn anything from this, and solving the case is not going to help. The energy of the book is all in the inner floundering around of the main characters, and in the details of petty crime in different social classes, and the portrayal of a particular slice of lower Manhattan that's been conquered by gentrification without actually becoming a better place to live. It's well worth reading for those things, just don't go looking for a story.(less)
It's just ridiculous for a first novel to be this good. Yes, it sometimes wanders off into purple Beatness (which was one of the things I loved when I...moreIt's just ridiculous for a first novel to be this good. Yes, it sometimes wanders off into purple Beatness (which was one of the things I loved when I first read it way back when, and less so now) but it's still so rich and earthy and funny, and even when the humor is mean, there's a compassion to it that Stone didn't always bring to his later books. Rheinhardt is the kind of smart bitter wastrel that Stone has written about a lot and he's very good at writing that kind of dialogue (I still crack up every time I read the "seven years in Fernando Poo" scene), but if the book had all been about him, as it starts out seeming to be, it would've been empty. Geraldine and Rainey, the awkward characters with hearts, are what really ground the book and make Rheinhardt's choices feel so terrible.
Also, as well as being an often bizarre stream-of-consciousness satire and a tragic love story, it manages to be politically acute in a way that feels depressingly up to date. Stone makes it very clear where he stands, his right-wing radicals are definitely villains, but they're real people too (with the possible exception of one guy who may be the devil) and what they're doing makes as much sense as it ever did.(less)
Rereading this and A Hall of Mirrors, I was knocked over by both of them again in different ways... but while I still can't rate this one as any less...moreRereading this and A Hall of Mirrors, I was knocked over by both of them again in different ways... but while I still can't rate this one as any less than great, it now seems like a lesser kind of thing, a little more schematic. Where A Hall of Mirrors felt like it took place in a living world (though an often yucky one), Dog Soldiers feels more like a hollowed-out dream-world where the characters are totally alone with the results of their free will-- which is probably exactly the effect Stone was going for, but it's less interesting to me. Still, it's stunningly written, with his usual great ear for dialogue, and as a straight-up crime story it sure does convey the pure miserable terror of having to be around people who hurt and kill people. Also, if you stick it out to the end, there is one character who's not crazy, cowardly, or destructive, and that person does okay.
The movie adaptation, Who'll Stop the Rain, had a decent cast but left out pretty much everything interesting. This is 10,000 times better. Just don't read it without some ice cream and kittens nearby as an antidote.(less)
This looks at first like a straightforwardly political novel, a fictionalized version of the hideous behavior of U.S. allies in Central America in the...moreThis looks at first like a straightforwardly political novel, a fictionalized version of the hideous behavior of U.S. allies in Central America in the 1980s, as witnessed by a well-meaning Yankee academic, a speed-freak sailor on a smuggling boat, and a pair of Catholic missionaries out of Graham Greene. It's not. It sketches in enough of that to feel real, but only just enough; the civil war is represented by a couple of murders, a couple of betrayals, big plans whose outcomes we never find out. Stone trusts that you know the rest from the real world.
The heart of the book is all interior to the characters, who are all desperate people in some way but not really in the service of any cause, and they're all memorable. The least interesting to me are the two who are the most familiar as Stone characters go-- bitter alcoholic smart-asses-- although in this book their verbal flourishes aren't just stylish fireworks, but have some pretty direct consequences. But the nun and the sailor are amazing: the most clear-headed and sympathetic character Stone has written so far, and then the opposite of that. What happens with each of them is predictable, but not the way they get there.
The ending is chaotic in a way that I don't think entirely works, but still very moving. There's a scene about a page long that's the half-conscious thoughts of someone who's being horribly killed, and there's just about no description of what's happening, but it's one of the scariest and saddest things I've ever read.(less)
This is often described as a minor Stone novel, because it involves Hollywood shenanigans and who cares about that. I disagree: it's not his best but...moreThis is often described as a minor Stone novel, because it involves Hollywood shenanigans and who cares about that. I disagree: it's not his best but it's up there with the rest of them, and not because of the flavorful prose and the scenes of flamboyant boozery, but because it's a convincing and horribly sad portrayal of love and art at their worst. Gordon (the screenwriter) would read as just another drunken/coked-up wisenheimer except for two things: he's a solid writer who understands how to work with people even though he often chooses not to, and he deeply cares for Lu Anne (the schizophrenic actor) even though he can't resist wrecking her life. Similarly, Lu Anne, self-destructive though she is, is someone you'd want to know, and she's got other things on her mind besides Gordon and her hallucinations (although the passages that deal with her psychosis, and Gordon's attempts to work with/around it, are very well done— some of the best fiction about mental illness I've ever read— it's no surprise that Stone was writing from close family experience). The movie industry setting isn't arbitrary, it's perfect for these unmoored characters: a place where usual practical concerns are temporarily on hold, extreme behavior is indulged or managed as necessary, and there's no clear line between self-interest and creativity. Stone doesn't give short shrift to the creative side either; some of the characters don't care much about what they're doing, but the director, although he's nasty and flippant, is a competent artist and the movie they're making is one I'd like to see. (The director and his wife are also interesting examples of something that's appeared several times in Stone's books: a smart, hyper-worldly couple who are truly devoted to each other and to their closest friends, but are amoral jerks to everyone else. I wonder if that's from personal experience too.) It's more solipsistic than his other novels, in that the things the two leads are struggling with all come from inside themselves, but Stone writes about those things very well and this book felt real to me.(less)
This is one of my favorite novels of any kind. It brings together everything I like about Robert Stone: characters with great potential and terrible f...moreThis is one of my favorite novels of any kind. It brings together everything I like about Robert Stone: characters with great potential and terrible flaws, a variety of approaches to love, a strong feeling for place and for different kinds of work, physical danger described in unusual poetic terms while still being frightening, very dark humor and gorgeous prose. It feels grounded and whole in a way that his books don't always achieve, even though he's deliberately writing against his grain, giving two-thirds of the stage not to the wandering bohemian journalist character but to mainstream suburban New York Republicans. And despite being about people who don't know what they're doing, it's plotted like a graceful machine-- every step of the setup seems like a simple detail at the time, and then once the story gets going, those details align into something that feels inevitable.
The central event, a solo sailing race around the world, is sort of based on a real incident which would have made a good story by itself, but Stone uses very little of that story except for one particular infamously bad decision. The rest of it is perfectly constructed to examine how someone could make that decision, to imagine how the seeds of it might have been planted by interactions with other people without their awareness, and to relate it to the choices we make in less dramatic circumstances. Even though the characters are sometimes lost in introspection, the setting and the action are always very specific: this is how this or that person handles a boat, attends a convention, films an interview. The guy in the boat isn't just an abstract man facing nature and facing himself; his situation is influenced by his family and community and job, and even when he's alone it's a modern kind of solitude where you can make phone calls-- and that thread of contact affects the course of the story in a way that wouldn't have been possible in an earlier time and, for different reasons, wouldn't be possible now.
If you've ever read anything by this author, it's not really giving anything away to say that by the end of this book some extremely sad things have happened. The last page always kills me and makes me weepy; it's an ambiguous and in some ways hopeful ending, but it's not the kind of hope you would have hoped for. It's all worth it, though.(less)