In his New York Times book review of Let The Great World Spin (2009) by Colum McCann, Jonathan Mahler called it “one of the most electric, profound no...moreIn his New York Times book review of Let The Great World Spin (2009) by Colum McCann, Jonathan Mahler called it “one of the most electric, profound novels I have read in years.” I certainly thought so. I loved it—and will get a copy for my library. (I mostly read books from the public library, but then buy them if they are worthy.)
Although not completely located there, this is a New York City novel. This is also a book mostly about the ‘70s. One gets a clear picture of Park Avenue living, Bronx slums, the life of hookers, and clubbing at the hot places of that era. As backdrop, McCann uses Philippe Petit’s amazing high wire walk between the World Trade Center towers on August 7, 1974, which affects the characters, but it isn’t the story.
I liked the way the author respects the reader. There are no easy or neat explanations. The unrelated characters are introduced slowly and you know—you just know— that they are somehow going to connect one day. You just don’t know how. And it all takes time to unfold. He doesn’t even tell you one of the main character’s names (Ciaran Corrigan) until late in the book. Or did I miss it? One of the early questions I had was how Petit, unnamed in the book, got the cable from one tower to the other. The question isn’t even asked until far into the novel. It’s answered near the end. I picture McCann saying to himself: “Patience, dear reader, patience. I’ll get there in my own good time.” His technique hooked me. The unanswered questions had a way of immersing me into the book, in anticipation of resolution. The constant introduction of new elements helped drive me through. It’s not a thriller, but like a kid, I kept asking, “what happens next?”
The book begins with “Those Who Saw Him Hushed...Up there, at the height of a hundred and ten stories, utterly still, a dark toy against the cloudy sky.” This is really an introduction. “Book One—All Respects To Heaven, I Like It Here”— begins in Ireland. The Corrigan brothers in the ‘50s. It’s told in the first person. The younger brother called Corrigan (John Andrew) is a pacifist who gets drunk with the low-life once a week after school. He began at age twelve or thirteen. He hangs around flophouses and charity centers. The father, a physicist, is no longer around. He just left the family one day. The mother dies while the boys are in their late teens. Corrigan becomes a kind of a monk, vowing chastity. His brother speaks of him:
Corrigan told me once that Christ was quite easy to understand. He went where He was supposed to go. He stayed where He was needed. He took little or nothing along, a pair of sandals,, a bit of a shirt, a few odds and ends to stave off the loneliness. He never rejected the world. If He had rejected it, He would have been rejecting mystery. And if He rejected mystery, He would have been rejecting faith.
What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday. The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth—the filth, the war, the poverty—was that life could be capable of small beauties. He wasn’t interested in the glorious tales of the afterlife or the notions of a honey-soaked heaven....Rather he consoled himself with the fact that, in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a light all the same. He wanted, quite simply, for the world to be a better place, and he was in the habit of hoping for it. Out of that came some sort of triumph that went beyond theological proof, a cause for optimism against all evidence.
The religious order sends Corrigan to New York City while the older brother stays in Ireland, drifts into his thirties, and eventually buys his ticket out, arriving at JFK “in a long necklace and an Afghan coat, carrying a copy of Howl.” He finds his brother’s place “in a gray block of flats...five locks on the doorframe,” hookers roaming the filthy streets. Corrigan gets beat up by the pimps, regularly, for allowing the girls to pee in his apartment and giving them coffee. Corrigan defends the hookers:
Ah, no, they’re good people...they just don’t know what it is they’re doing. Or what’s being done to them. It’s about fear. You know? They’re all throbbing with fear. We all are.
The older one asks, “What are you into here, Corr?” He answers:
“I suppose I have to put flesh on my words, y’know. But sometimes that’s my dilemma too, man. I’m supposed to be a man of God but I hardly ever mention him to anyone. Not to the girls even. I keep these thoughts to myself. For my own peace of mind. The ease of my conscience. If I started thinking them out loud all the time I think I’d go mad. But God listens back. Most of the time. He does.”
They had a brief spat about their father’s funeral, which Corrigan didn’t attend. Hating his father, he had “closed that path down.” The brother: “Corrigan wanted other people’s pain. He didn’t want to deal with his own. I felt a pulse of shame too, for thinking that way.”
Hookers, young hot Jazzlyn with two kids and her mother Tillie are introduced. The brother can’t stand what’s going on:
Don’t give me your shit about the Lord upholding all that fall and raising up all that bowed down. The Lord’s too big to fit in their miniskirts. Guess what brother? Look at them...No amount of sympathy is ever going to change it...You’re just placating your conscience, that’s all. God comes along and sanctifies your guilt...Tell me this—if the poor really are the living image of Jesus, why are they so fucking miserable...Why are they standing out there, displaying their misery to the rest of the world? I want to know. It’s just vanity isn’t it? Love thy neighbor as thyself. It’s rubbish....
The brother thinks Corrigan is shooting heroin, taking on the pain of others in his midst. But he really has TTP. Corrigan meets a Guatemalan lady, Adelita, with three kids—no husband. He falls in love with her but he’s taken vows of chastity. Pages of consternation, internal struggle, well-written. You can feel it.
“Miro, Miro On The Wall” introduces Claire, wife of Judge Soderberg living in an upper east side penthouse on Park Avenue. They lost their son Joshua in Viet Nam and Claire has joined a group of ladies to talk about their dead children from the war. They’d already met at four houses around the city—nothing out of the ordinary, but then went to Gloria’s, a black lady’s place in the projects. Claire had never seen anything like it, but really liked Gloria. Claire’s place would be next. Nervousness...what would they think? From her roof, they see the high wire act in the distance. It breaks up the talking but not Claire’s self-consciousness. Not her reflections on her son. Good build-up here.
“A Fear Of Love” introduces rich Blaine and Lara, artists, drug users, people about town who travel in a 1927 Pontiac Landua and take on an affectation—dressing like they’re in the 1920’s. There’s an accident with an old van on the FDR—just a bump, but the van loses control. Corrigan is driving the van and is crushed by the steering wheel. Jazzlyn, his passenger, is not wearing a seatbelt and flies through the windshield. Blaire and Lara take off. The vivid descriptions of their seamy life of drugs and sex-with-anyone made me think, “My, you are such a prude. You don’t even know what they’re talking about.” (I’m quite happy with that, by the way.) But Lara has a conscience...she goes to the hospital, fakes her identity and picks up Corrigan’s belongings. She goes to the projects and meets Ciaran. A funeral for Jazzlyn is about to happen. The black preacher gives a great sermon. Later, in a poignant conversation, Ciaran realizes that the Lara was in the car that killed his brother and Jazzlyn. He said only one thing: “You should have stopped.” They went to a bar with a sign that said, “Beauty is in the wallet of the beholder.” They talked. I wondered, “where is this going?” Lara the ex-druggy slut with a pleasant personality and a guilty conscience... with the older brother?
“Let the Great World Spin Forever Down” is the high wire guy reflecting on his life and work. There’s a sign inside his cabin in the Rockies: “Nobody Falls Halfway.” A thought:
The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium....
Book Two: “Tag” is a short chapter about tagging in the subway—it gives a flavor of New York life but actually doesn’t connect to the story. It’s brings forth more of the atmosphere. It’s followed by “Etherwest,” about some vets (and a “kid”), computer hackers in California talking to people on a pay phone near the World Trade Center getting direct feedback about the high-wire act. Some humorous dialog.
“This Is The House That Horse Built” is Tillie, the still young grandma hooker who is in jail, talking about her life, her daughter, and Corrie (Corrigan)—sad and funny at the same time. Examples:
When Jazzlyn was fourteen she came home with her first red mark on the inside of her arm. I as good as slapped the black off her, but she came back with the mark between her toes....I tried keeping her straight by keeping her on the streets. That’s what I was thinking.
And speaking of Corrigan:
He said to me once that most of the time people use the word love as just another way to show off they’re hungry. The way he said it went something like: Glorify their appetites.
She’s worried about her “babies,” Jazzlyn’s two little girls. She’s angry at God:
I don’t know who God is but if I meet Him anytime soon I’m going to get him in a corner until He tells me the truth...God is due His ass-kicking.
“The Ringing Grooves of Change” is more about the wire-walker, some of his background, his arrest.
Book Three: “Part Of The Parts” is about Judge Soderberg and his work with “the worst of the worst.” Scum.
A dirty tide coming in on the shores and leaving behind its syringes and plastic wrappers and bloody shirts and condoms and snotty-nosed children...It was like surveying the evolution of slime. You stand there long enough and the gutter gets slick, no matter how hard you battle against it.
The first case was Tillie’s—with Corrigan and Jazzlyn in attendance. Jazzlyn’s case had been dismissed. Tillie got eight months on a plea of guilty for petty larceny. Great dialog in the court and the chapter ends with bringing the tight-rope walker up.
“Centavos” reveals that Corrigan and Adelita were, in fact, lovers.
He told me once that there was no better faith than a wounded faith and sometimes I wonder if that is what he was doing all along—trying to wound his faith in order to test it—and I was just another stone in the way of his God.
She never found out whether he would have stayed with her.
“All Hail And Hallelujah” starts with “I knew almost right off. Them two babies needed looking after.” This is Gloria giving us her background, her education at Syracuse, her views on racism, thoughts about her first and second husbands—and more tense details at Clair’s penthouse with the women. She tells about her mugging and her return to Claire’s, meeting the Judge. It ends with a lie, and she gets custody of the two “babies.”
Book four: “Roaring Seaward, And I Go” jumps ahead to October 2006. It’s about Jazzlyn, who changed her name to Jaslyn, the beautiful daughter of the dead Jazzlyn, from a long line of hookers, raised by Gloria. Her sister is in the Army. Jaslyn is an accountant who helps destitute people get their taxes done. She meets an Italian doctor on the plane from Little Rock to NYC. It looks like it’s going to go somewhere. She reminisces about her trip to Ireland to find Corrigan’s brother—to learn more about her mother. She found him, now a successful CEO with his wife Lara. Jaslyn had gone to New York to visit old Claire who was “not well.” It’s a beautifully written ending, with Jaslyn lying on the bed with Claire who cannot speak.
As the Times review said, this is a heartbreaking story, but not a depressing one. It’s about endurance, dealing with loss, and making it through, one way or another. The writing is superb and I liked the structure of the book—the way the author laid out the story. I thought it was one of the best novels I’ve read, and I’ve read some quite good ones, this year alone. Highly recommended.
The Los Angels Times called Chump Change “passionate, obscene and quite wonderful.” It is passionate and obscene...and well written, but wonderful? I...moreThe Los Angels Times called Chump Change “passionate, obscene and quite wonderful.” It is passionate and obscene...and well written, but wonderful? I must admit that my brief forays into Charles Bukowski and John Fante, the author’s father, have taken their toll. I keep remembering that one of my best friends in college, a bright and for a time successful businessman, ended up a derelict on the streets of Cleveland. He died too young because of alcoholism and left his wife—a friend also—and daughter in a pretty rough financial state. I used to drink with him while in college—never saw it coming. I knew when to quit drinking and could. He didn't and couldn’t and it killed him. So when I read about the utter degradation of what an alcoholic goes through, such as Dan Fante skillfully put on paper in Chump Change, I somberly think of my old pal and what might have been—except for the booze.
The book is confessional-autobiographical. The protagonist is named Bruno Dante, the son of a screenwriter and novelist who is dying. The story is about Bruno traveling with his wife (who hates him) from New York to Los Angeles and his experiences there around his father’s failing condition and death.
Early in the book, Bruno says, “I was decomposing from within, like this preposterous town. L.A. was the right place for me after all. I belonged here with the killers of my father: the mind-fucking twenty-two-year old movie producers and distribution gurus who’d dictated the course of his life. I was a true son of L.A.
“This was perfect. In a drunken sexual frenzy, I had disgraced myself, then cut my wrists in jail, and now I would show up to shake my brother’s hand and kiss my mother’s cheek.
“Standing there I made a decision. I didn’t care....”
In a conversation with his brother: “I had not planned to be crazy, I said. Arrests for lewd practices in public were things that happened when I drank. I’d not planned to be a degenerate. Life got away from me. Out of hand. I couldn’t figure it out either.”
He ends up with his father’s old bull terrier, Rocco, also dying. The feeding and care of Rocco becomes part of the story. Bruno particularly likes Mogen David Mad Dog 20-20 for its numbing effects. He meets a pimp, McBeth, who ditches his whore, Amy, after taking Bruno’s money. Amy is about fifteen, flat-chested, horse-faced, skinny like a young boy, and she stutters when she’s not drunk. She likes Mad Dog too. The whole Bruno-Amy relationship is funny in a sick way. It doesn’t last.
Bruno reminisces about his father and life as a child when he sees his old house, close to Paramount. His father couldn’t make it as a novelist and sold out for money as a screenwriter. I found this attitude interesting, as though there was something wrong with screenwriting. Who knew?
But...”Sometimes a Mad Dog run could last two or three days, sometimes weeks...Now , my mind out of THE DOG, self-judgement stabbed at me and ripped my guts until it would be impossible for me to exist in my thoughts. Without the wine, my head remembered only evil...A pimp junkie had stolen my money. I had allowed myself to get fucked by an absurd, handicapped child. My cowardice in leaving the hospital the night before and not facing my father’s death was completely selfish and without conscience. I’d stolen my brother Fabrezio’s car. I was a degenerate, with an insatiable capacity for perversion. Incapable of change. I could do anything except not drink.”
He needs a job and the story of his experiences selling for a video dating service is good writing. The job doesn’t last either. But the book actually ends on the upbeat. Bruno is thinking...about loving his father. He’s written a poem...and he’s gone one whole day without a drink. (less)
A brief commentary by Frank Wilson at the blog Books, Inq—The Epilogue stimulated me to read the book. More on his thoughts later.
The story begins wit...moreA brief commentary by Frank Wilson at the blog Books, Inq—The Epilogue stimulated me to read the book. More on his thoughts later.
The story begins with a two-paragraph recap of his his life—entering the University of Missouri in 1910, receiving his PhD, his acceptance of an instructorship there, his lack of ascension in the ranks, and his death in 1956. Right away, the reader knows there are problems ahead, e.g. ”Stoners’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity which they can associate themselves or their careers.”
From a poor farm background, Stoner’s reticent father suggests that he go to U of M to study agriculture—they’d saved some egg money; but professor Archer Sloane changes his life. He wasn’t going back to the farm after school; he was going to be a professor of literature. There is an awkward scene during his graduation when he tells his parents his plans. The poignant conversation concludes with his father simply saying, “If you think you ought to stay here and study your books, then that’s what you ought to do. Your ma and me can manage.”
In graduate school, Stoner has two friends—David Masters and Gordon Finch. They’d meet at a saloon Friday afternoons and one day, Masters asks them if they’d “ever considered the question of the true nature of the University.” They smile, but say nothing. Masters then offers his version of their inner thoughts: “Stoner, here, I imagine, sees it as a great repository, like a library or a whorehouse, where men come of their free will and select that which will complete them, where all work together like little bees in a common hive. The True, the Good, and the Beautiful. They’re just around the corner, in the next corridor; they’re in the next book, the one you haven’t read or in the next stack, the one you haven’t got to. But you’ll get there someday. And when you do—when you do—” After covering Finch, Masters expresses his view that it “is an asylum...a rest home, for the infirm, the aged, the discontent, and the otherwise incompetent. Look at the three of us—we are the University....” He further tells Finch, “you’re capable of work, but you’re just lazy enough so that you can’t work as hard as the world would want you to. On the other hand, you’re not quite so lazy that you can impress upon the world a sense of your importance.” And again to Stoner: “You think there’s something here, something to find. Well, in the world you’d learn soon enough. You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world....” The whole sequence is fascinating; and in the introduction, John McGahern suggests that it reflects the author’s own views.
WWI occurs. Finch and Masters entered the military with Finch stationed in New York while Masters got killed killed in France. Stoner got a deferment and received his doctorate in 1918. Sloane then offered him a full-time job. He meets Edith, a beautiful girl, and falls in love, although it is so distant and awkward, one wonders how. Williams describes her in a way that gave me chills: “She was educated upon the premise that she would be protected from the gross events that life might thrust in her way, and upon the premise that she had no other duty than to be a graceful and accomplished accessory to that protection, since she belonged to a social and economic class to which protection was an almost sacred obligation...She learned that she would have duties toward her husband and family and that she must fulfill them...yet she was ignorant of her own bodily functions, she had never been alone to care for her own self one day of her life....” It was a disaster in the making, confirmed at their first sexual encounter, the second night of their honeymoon, and throughout their married life. The only time she was sexual was a brief period when she wanted a baby. It ended after she became pregnant with Grace.
Edith’s strange behaviors fill the book—Stoner sleeping on the couch, her “illnesses,” contrasted with periods of frenzied activity (usually for “good” ends), her manipulations (particularly with Stoner's home office), and her erratic dealings with Grace. All while Stoner accepts it, muddling through his life, and focusing on his work as an escape. There’s a new element introduced with a crippled but lazy student named Walker; and Lomax, soon to be department chairman and Stoner’s nemesis in the inner world of campus politics. Stoner got assigned the worst schedules possible and without any upper classes. “A kind of lethargy descended upon him.” Then...
Stoner falls in love with Katherine Driscoll, a younger member of the staff. “In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that...love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another...Nearly every afternoon, when his classes were over, he came to her apartment. They made love, and talked, and made love again, like children who did not think of tiring at their play....”
Consider these thoughts:
“Now in his middle age he began to to know that it [love] was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart....
“He dreamed of perfections, of worlds in which they could always be together, and half believed in the possibility of what he dreamed....
“They grew from passion to lust to a deep sensuality that renewed itself from moment to moment....‘Lust and learning,’ Katherine once said. ‘That’s really all there is, isn’t it?’...
“They had been brought up in a tradition that told them...the life of the mind and the life of the senses were separate...That one could intensify the other had never occurred to them; and since the embodiment came before the recognition of the truth, it seemed a discovery that belonged to them alone.” I definitely wanted it to work out.
He was, of course, deceiving Edith; and the word was getting out that “Old Stoner” was having an affair. Enter the “son-of-a-bitch” Lomax who wouldn’t let it go. The matter-of-fact discussion between Stoner and Katherine—of their love and happiness and the end of it—is sad and touching.
Life with Edith, Grace and at the university were a strain as Stoner plodded through that which needed done. He became an oddity on campus. Grace got pregnant, on purpose, escaping the unhappy home. But after WWII, he had the best years of his teaching. “He worked harder than he had ever worked, the students, strange in their maturity, were intensely serious and contemptuous of triviality.”
In 1949, he learned Katherine had written a book, dedicated to W.S., and he got a copy as soon as he could. “It was as good as he thought it would be. The prose was graceful, and its passion was masked by a coolness and clarity of intelligence.” When I read that second sentence I thought it described Williams’ book.
Stoner gets cancer and there’s a brief but satisfying comeuppance with Lomax, but Stoner dies with his thoughts, Edith nearby.
Frank Wilson thought it "approached a sort of American Existential" and said, "This book really is a masterpiece - a quiet, unassuming masterpiece in which Williams captures the missed opportunities that, in the end, return to us with a frightening, unavoidable consistency."
I just had to read it; and yes, it is a masterpiece. Beautifully written, the sad, lonely, but heroic life of college professor William Stoner emotionally grabs the reader—I wanted so much more for him—yet there was a fascination with how he dealt with his tribulations. After Katherine left, a little earlier in the book, there is this: “But Stoner knew of the world in a way that few of his younger colleagues could understand. Deep in him, beneath his memory, was the knowledge of hardship and hunger and endurance and pain. Though he seldom thought of his early years on the Booneville farm, there was always near his consciousness the blood knowledge of his inheritance, given him by forefathers whose lives were obscure and hard and stoical and whose common ethic was to present to an oppressive world faces that were expressionless and hard and bleak.” I'll leave it at that.
When I finished Play it as it Lays a fictional scene flashed through my mind: I was on an airplane—and since I...morePlay it as it Lays (1970) by Joan Didion
When I finished Play it as it Lays a fictional scene flashed through my mind: I was on an airplane—and since I spent half my working life traveling, this is an easy vision for me to have—sitting in first class, aisle seat, with a well dressed woman at the window. We hadn’t spoken for most of the flight. I finished Joan Didion’s book, set it down, and she casually said, “How did you like it?”
Me: “I thought it was quite good. She writes like a man.”
Slightly annoyed woman: “Oh, why do you say that?”
Me: “Sparse descriptions, punchy dialog, almost Lost Generation stuff, the Beats—life is meaningless. The main character, Maria Wyeth, wants and feels nothing—her life has degraded to pure nihilism. Didion's writing is completely unsentimental—no romanticism there.”
Now irritated woman: “And you don’t think women are capable of expressing that?”
Me: “Didion is obviously capable of expressing that because she did it, and quite well.”
Still irritated woman: “But why do you see being unsentimental as a trait generally ascribed to men as opposed to women?”
Annoyed me: “Because I’ve never met a nihilistic woman in my life. They find meaning even if they have to make it up. All the women I’ve known are nurturers, in various manifestations, mind you, but if they can’t mother their children because they don’t have any, or their boyfriends, or husbands, or girlfriends because they don’t have any, then they want to mother the world—save the gorillas, the polar bears, the children of Bangladesh or something. Men fall more easily into nihilism because many can't even save themselves.”
Now grumpy woman: “Hrumph.”
End of discussion. I think, “Almost every woman I know is in some way extraordinary. And Didion certainly is.”
Now to the book: I won’t offer a plot summary. There are plenty of them, e.g here; and it made Time Magazine’s All Time 100 Novels. Her writing was heavily influenced by Hemingway, Henry James and George Eliot. Author James Dickey said Joan Didion was "the finest woman prose stylist writing in English today." The book is excellent—just bleak.
One of the things I really liked about the book was that Didion respects the intelligence of the reader. Early on, characters are thrown at the reader without much context and no descriptions. The reader gets bits of information throughout, but the dialog carries the story and provides the context as the story unfolds. You have to think, pay attention. You’re well into the book when it starts to come together—when you begin to see what’s at work. And you know this can't end well. Example of her writing (page 103):
“There’s some principle I’m not grasping, Maria,” Carter said on the telephone from New York. “You’ve got a $1,500-a-month house sitting empty in Beverly Hills, and you’re living in a furnished apartment on Fountain Avenue. You want to be closer to Schwab’s? Is that it?”
Maria lay on the bed watching a television news film of a house about to slide into the Tujunga Wash. “I’m not living there. I’m just staying there.”
“I still don’t get the joke.”
She kept her eyes on the screen. “Then don’t get it,” she said at the exact instant the house splintered and fell.
And I thought this little bit about the post office added to the flavor of the book; this time from beyond her own making (page 166):
In the morning she went to the post office...”Could you put this on Box 674,” she said to the clerk at the one open window.. 674 was the number on the envelope of Benny Austin’s letter.
“It’s got to have postage. It’s got to go through the United States mail.”
Sullenly he studied the nickel and penny she gave him, then pushed one stamp under the grill and watched her stamp the note.
“Now could you put it in 674?”
“No,” he said, and threw the letter into a canvas bin.
And page 169:
For the rest of the time Maria was in Las Vegas she wore dark glasses. She did not decide to stay in Vegas; she only failed to leave.
Carter and Helen still ask questions. I used to ask questions, and I got the answer: nothing. The answer is “nothing.”
My final comments: So Maria is a depressed 31 year-old model, then actress, engaging in drugs, alcohol, casual sex, and meaningless long drives in her Corvette. She has an institutionalized daughter, has had an illegal abortion (this is the '60s; they're all illegal) arranged by her movie director husband Carter (it’s not his) and ends up in a mental institution. She’s a woman who has had complete freedom to chart her own path and this is the result of her life as a crap game.
I sometimes wonder about the notion that people who value independence and freedom—in many novels, anyway—almost always slide into a life of degradation. But maybe Maria Wyeth didn't value it; maybe it was just given to her and she couldn't handle it. I mean people are just as free to be and do good as anything else; and they learn how to cope with their flaws. We all have them. But this idea of the inevitable "slide on down," to quote Steely Dan, becomes an extension of the book: people can’t be trusted to manage their own lives. I saw this in Franzen's book Freedom. People are weak, dysfunctional, shifting with the flow of influences outside themselves. They need help, rules, laws to live by, and if they can’t do it for themselves then the hidden implication is, (1) we have to get back to our core pre-1960's values (organized and ruled by an evangelistic king perhaps) or (2) we have to have the state manage peoples' lives from any unacceptable consequences (run by a hopey changey messiah perhaps). I’ve known and know many people who don’t buy this tripe. They are free, independent individuals who take responsibility for their choices and the consequences of them...who in a world with debased values, remember that which brings true meaning to their lives. And for them, it just isn't that hard.
To be fair, Didion never goes this far; she just lays it out in such a way that the reader—at least a reader like me who looks for extensions or ultimate consequences—sees the implications of what she describes: People are screwed up; they willingly do damage to themselves. Sometimes it kills them. Yeah, I've known a few. It is what it is.
And stories about people with their head on straight aren't as alluring.
Born in Denver, Colorado, Fante's early years were spent in relative poverty. The son of an Italian father, Nicola Fante, and an Italian-American mother, Mary Capolungo, Fante was educated in various Catholic schools in Boulder, Colorado and briefly attended the University of Colorado.
In 1929, he dropped out of college and moved to Southern California to concentrate on his writing. He lived and worked in Wilmington, Long Beach, Manhattan Beach, the Bunker Hill district of downtown Los Angeles, California, various residences in Hollywood and Echo Park, and Malibu. In 1955 Fante developed diabetes, which eventually blinded him and two years later he would have his legs amputated. He continued to write despite this though, by dictating the stories to his wife.
Such is the interesting background of John Fante (1909-1983), novelist and Hollywood screenwriter.
Ask the Dust is one of four novels referred to as "The Saga of Arturo Bandini." In this one, Arturo is a youthful struggling “Eyetalian” writer living in a cheap Los Angeles hotel who falls in love with Camilla, a waitress of Mexican descent. She discourages him, mocks him, and generally makes his life miserable In his frustration, he vacillates between love and expressions of hate while she really loves Sammy, a man dying of tuberculosis. She’s quite unstable, becomes a pothead, ends up in a mental institution, but then gets out and finds Arturo. He has just published his great novel and is now on his way to wealth. Is a happy ending coming? Read it and see. It’s good. They also made a movie of it with Salma Hayek and Colin Ferrell. (I haven't seen it, but it got mediocre ratings.)
This book is poetic; and one reviewer compared Arturo to Salinger’s character Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, published six years after Ask the Dusk. And I loved some of Arturo’s rants, which often resulted in a complete change of mind. Note the short punchy sentences and his choice of words in this example on page 22:
Here was the Church of our lady, very old, the adobe blackened with age. For sentimental reasons, I will go inside. For sentimental reasons only. I have not read Lenin, but I have heard him quoted, religion is the opium of the people. Talking to myself on the the church steps: yeah, the opium of the people. Myself, I am an atheist: I have read The Anti-Christ and I regard it as a capital piece of work. I believe in the transvaluation of values, Sir. The Church must go, it is a haven of the booboisie, of boobs and bounders and all brummagem mountebanks.
Arturo, on his knees inside the church, then bargains with God—a prayer, for sentimental reasons: “...Make a great writer of me and I will return to the Church.” And shortly thereafter, he mentally constructs an interview with a reporter prior to his departure to Sweden for his Nobel Award. Youthful delusions and contradictory feelings abound.
A passage of particularly elegant prose, this time with longer sentences. It's a commentary on Southern California in the '30s:
I went up to my room, up the dusty stairs of Bunker Hill, past the soot-covered frame buildings along the dark street, sand and oil and grease choking the futile palm trees standing like dying prisoners, chained to a little plot of ground with black pavement hiding their feet. Dust and old buildings and old people sitting at windows, old people tottering out of doors, old people moving painfully along the dark street. The old folk from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from boston, and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes and their stores, and they came here by train and by automobile to the land of sunshine, to die in the sun, with just enough money to live until the sun killed them, tore themselves out by the roots in their last days, deserted the smug prosperity of Kansas City and Chicago and Peoria to find a place in the sun. And when they got here they found that other and greater thieves had already taken possession, that even the sun belonged to others; Smith and Jones and Parker, druggist, banker, baker, dust of Chicago and Cincinnati and Cleveland on their shoes, doomed to die in the sun, a few dollars in the bank, enough to subscribe to the Los Angeles Times, enough to keep the illusion that this was paradise, that their little paper-mâché homes were castles. The uprooted ones, the empty sad folks, the old and the young folks, the folks from back home. These were my countrymen, these were the new Californians. With their bright polo shirts and sunglasses, they were in paradise, they belonged.
In the introduction author Charles Bukowski called Fante his “god” with a lifetime of influence on his writing—for his “distinct way of writing.” In the little I’ve read of Bukowski, I’d say he tried to honor Fante by copying his style, but so far in my recent explorations, Fante holds the higher acclaim. This was the first Fante book I've read. I’ll read more of him. (less)
I've had trouble over the years reading anything by John Irving. Admittedly, I didn't even try to tackle The World According To Garp, perhaps his most...moreI've had trouble over the years reading anything by John Irving. Admittedly, I didn't even try to tackle The World According To Garp, perhaps his most famous, and I simply couldn't get past the first fifty pages of The Hotel New Hampshire. In my library is a copy of A Widow For One Year, a gift, which I've been apathetic about. Nonetheless, I recently completed his 2009 novel, Last Night in Twisted River. It was a case of willing my way through his twelfth novel (all 554 pages), to break the pattern of avoidance. The novel bounces around, in time and story, and it took awhile to connect with it, but it was ultimately an enjoyable read full of odd characters.
It is a story spanning fifty years with father, Dominic Baciagalupo, a cook, and son Daniel, destined to be a writer, as protagonists. Set in a New Hampshire logging camp in the 1950s, it opens with two tragedies, the drowning of the wife and mother to the two main characters, and another drowning of a boy named Angel, which leads to connections later on. You quickly learn of the dangers of logging in a "world of accidents" early in the book. A third death of "Injun Jane," lover of the father, in rather unusual circumstances involving an 8 inch cast-iron frying pan, sends the cook-father and son on the run from Injun Jane's policeman husband. Their travels lead them to Boston (Italian restaurant) to Iowa City, Iowa (Chinese restaurant) and Toronto (French restaurant) with new characters and relationships, sexual and otherwise, as they age and move around, wondering when the New Hampshire cop will show up.
Threading through all this is a boisterous lumberjack friend named Ketchum, who keeps his distance, but is a rather constant giver of advice, which Dominic and Daniel tend to follow. There is a final confrontation with the cop, but in a "world of accidents," which seems to be one of the underlying themes, it comes as no real surprise. There is also a humorous event involving a big naked female skydiver landing in a pigpen. She leaves the story, but you sense that she's coming back. It was interesting that the slight of build Dominic and Daniel were attracted to large women throughout the book. I have no idea why that was an important element to the author, but it's noticeable, which may have been the sole purpose of it.
Daniel (later Danny) the famous writer, commenting on writing, is author Irving throwing in his own thoughts on the subject. In the New York Times review, Joanna Scott writes:
But there’s more at work than just plot here. At the same time that we are reading about Dominic and Danny as they run from town to town (both of them change their names along the way), we are reading about how, and why, the story came to be written. The narrator tells us, for instance, that “all writers must know how to distance themselves, to detach themselves from this and that emotional moment, and Danny could do this — even at 12.” He tells us that one day “the writer would recognize the near simultaneity of connected but dissimilar momentous events — these are what move a story forward.” He explains that Danny’s novels involve “small, domestic tragedies,” in which “the villain — if there was one — was more often human nature than the United States.” After a section in which the fictional events are intertwined with the events of Sept. 11, Danny comes right out and explains, “I’m a fiction writer — meaning that I won’t ever write about the Sept. 11 attacks, though I may use those events, when they’re not so current, and then only in the context of a story of my own devising."
I liked that—how a fiction writer looks, or needs to look, at reality—if he or she is going to write a good story.(less)
I am generally not sucked in by hype. I have no great need to see the latest movies as soon as they premier or view all the films nominated for best picture. I don't have to read the hottest book on the market, right away, so I can talk about it, appearing “with it” to those into the latest books (particularly a book that our dear leader, Prince Fluffy Bunny, selected as something to read). Nonetheless, I was intrigued by the subject title—how freedom would be treated—and in recognition that Franzen has built a celebrated reputation in literary circles, I got into the queue at the public library, some 260 down on the list, and waited.
It was worth the wait...sort of.
The New York Times book review of August 19, 2010 called it “a masterpiece of American fiction.” the Los Angeles Times book review of August 20, 2010 called it a “rich and nuanced novel.” And the Guardian-Observer book review of September 19, 2010 said it’s “funny and poignant” adding a cautionary note that it’s “only trouble is the weight of expectation it carries” due to Franzen’s prior success in 2001 with Corrections. (In contrast, there are a lot of negative reviews at amazon.com.) I enjoyed the book—it was difficult to put down. Its weird characters and their trials will be with me for a long time. But therein lies the problem: While Franzen uses a lot of big words (a sign that he's "literary"?), and the interesting device of having one of the main characters use "autobiography" to carry the story, everyone in the book is dysfunctional. There doesn't seem to be a normal person in it. I know there are those that would like these characters because of their sexual proclivities and their drug use (Charlie Sheen comes to mind). I was left with an empty feeling about them.
My publisher had a comment in an e-mail in reference to my novel, (which I'm editing again) that I'll quote—and we weren't even discussing Freedom: "...there's a reason why there's so much out-ethics and angst-ridden crap these days in novels....that's what the buying public is picking up (but I wonder if it's just b/c that's what they're fed.) I believe that there are enough decent people out there who want to read decent literature, that I say carry on! " Yes, "angst-ridden crap" is a pretty good description.
And how was freedom dealt with? If you're one of those—liberal, leftist, conservative, or reactionary, it matters not which—that think the world simply must be organized into a moral structure that satisfies your utopian impulses, then freedom is something that must be restrained. As if to say,"We can't have too many people actually doing what they want and living like they want, now can we? These freedom lovers have it too good—must reign them in to the new rules, organized by philosopher kings of our choosing." So, if this is your basic assumption, there is plenty in the book that will support it—we have too much freedom, which apparently kills a lot of birds.
On the other hand, if you are one who sees freedom as mainly about sex, then there is plenty in the book to suggest that freedom is good, which is to say that there is a lot of screwing going on; and even more thinking about screwing. The author does, however, suggest that there are some pesky consequences...because, you know...people have feelings about such things.
Franzen never quite says so, but the freedom bit seems to be presented as a problem to be solved and the social forces for "good" need to solve it—by what? He doesn't say; but he does leave the impression that it must be solved (and we know who he thinks the social forces for good are). In my view, if it's a problem, it's a problem of an individual choosing how one shall live their life. Freedom is like arriving at a complex intersection that you have to navigate your way through knowing full well that you might take a wrong path, but you make your choices to the best of your ability and live (or die) with the consequences. You may have to backtrack and try a different path, if you're able. Not everybody does this well, all the time—a decent balance of good decisions and minor mistakes is the best most of us can achieve. That's not a problem; it's an opportunity to learn who you are.
To close, what follows is a poem by Anthony Madrid, who "has written a paradox, calls it the paradox of the leash. To solve it, you have to establish who's at the freer end of the strap." Is this what Franzen is saying? Life is a bitch because of freedom?
I Have Passed Too Many Years Among Cool Designing Beings
I have passed too many years among cool, designing beings. I have contracted their reptile manner in my soul.
Last night I lay awake, judging the earth and all its creatures. My dozen angry blood cells were frowning in the jury box.
Having nothing to say, I said nothing a long time. But now, Humiliated anger presses me cruelly ...
I sketch a human hand: I leave the outline open-ended. Then I close off
That open wrist—for I'm not here to draw but to quarter.
These worthless males! For them, the value of any sex act Is measured by the market price of the photographic evidence.—
And these worthless females! Their religion is needlessly esoteric,
And their Upper Realm is peopled by disreputable gods.
The novel was author Bukowski’s second, and it centers on the degenerate life of Hank Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter-ego. The story traces Hank as he consumes copious amounts of alcohol, interviews and changes jobs with regularity, either through quitting or being fired—I lost count of how many—and screws women, most of whom are alcoholic whores. A stark review might be: Having to work sucks but it finances the drinking; and women are necessary for sexual gratification.
This is not a pleasant book. It describes skid row life around World War II in places like Los Angeles, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Miami as failed writer Hank Chinaski moves from job to job and rented room to rented room, mostly drunk or with a hangover—with classical music in the background. What is pleasurable about the book isn’t the story; it’s Bukowski’s ability to develop the characters and his writing style. The fact that I didn’t like Chinaski—but wished he’d straighten out so I could like him—suggests that the author knew how to paint him. Examples:
“I got into bed, opened the bottle, worked the pillow into a hard knot behind my back, took a deep breath, and sat in the dark looking out the window. It was the first time I had been alone for five days. I was a man who thrived on solitude; without it I was like another man without food or water. Each day without solitude weakened me. I took no pride in my solitude; but I was dependent on it. The Darkness of the room was like sunlight to me. I took a drink of wine.”
“That was all a man needed: hope. It was the lack of hope that discouraged a man. I remembered my New Orleans days, living on two five-cent candy bars a day for weeks at a time in order to have leisure to write. But starvation, unfortunately, didn’t improve art. It only hindered it. A man’s soul was rooted in his stomach. A man could write much better after eating a porterhouse steak and drinking a pint of whisky than he could ever write after eating a nickel candy bar. The myth of the starving artist is a hoax. Once you realized that everything was a hoax you got wise and began to bleed and burn your fellow man....”
“When I got back to Los angeles I found a cheap hotel...and I stayed in bed and drank. I drank for some time, three or four days. I couldn’t get myself to read the want ads. The thought of sitting in front of a man behind a desk and telling him that I wanted a job, that I was qualified for a job, was too much for me. Frankly, I was horrified by life, at what a man had to do simply in order to eat, sleep, and keep himself clothed. So I stayed in bed and drank. When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn’t have you by the throat.”
A conversation with his live-in girlfriend:
Jan: “We sat here all day and evening yesterday. You told me about your parents. Your parents hated you. Right?”
Jan: “So now you’re a little crazy. No love. Everybody needs love. It’s warped you.”
Hank: “People don’t need love. What they need is success in one form or another. It can be love but it needn’t be.”
Jan: “The Bible says, ‘Love thy neighbor.’”
Hank: “That could mean to leave him alone....”
At a job:
“I wasn’t very good. My idea was to wander about doing nothing, always avoiding the boss, and avoiding the stoolies who might report to the boss. I wasn’t all that clever. It was more instinct than anything else. I always started a job with the feeling that I’d soon quit or be fired, and this gave me a relaxed manner that was mistaken for intelligence or some secret power.”
Later, at another job:
“...There were always men looking for jobs in America. There were always all these usable bodies. And I wanted to be a writer. Not everybody thought they could be a dentist or an automobile mechanic but everybody knew they could be a writer....But most men, fortunately aren’t writers, or even cab drivers, and some men—many men—unfortunately aren’t anything.”
And my favorite line: “Every man is a poet.”
I liked this book for the reasons expressed, but I must admit I wouldn’t want a steady diet of Bukowski. I will read more of his work—in occasional sprinkles, over time.
For reference, a factotum is a handyman, a jack of all trades; assistant, man Friday, gal/girl Friday; gofer; or as Wikipedia says, “...a general servant or a person having many diverse activities or responsibilities. The word derives from the Latin command (imperative construction) fac totum (‘do/make everything’).”
The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard (1945-), published in 2007
I'll start with a confession, actually two: First, Annie Dillard is one of those authors that reinforces the fact that sometimes I prefer books to people. I can become engrossed in her writing—contemplating difficult sentences or paragraphs over and over, wondering where meaning is found for us mortals—without a care for humanity at large while doing so. Reading her work is a form of meditation; and I am not alone when I read her work. It is also like spending time with an old friend, which gets to my second admission...her books are old friends that I never quite fully comprehend. But I relish her company anyway. She leaves me at peace in spite of her dangling philosophical questions. Annie Dillard's work has touched me, particularly Holy the Firm (1977) and Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), standouts by my reckoning, read many years ago, and again in 2007. Her novel, The Maytrees (2007), is another notch on her belt, so to speak.
The Maytrees is a short book, only 216 pages, but it took eight years to write. Daniel B. Smith, in a June 28, 2007 Slate magazine review, notes "that the first draft of The Maytrees was 1,400 pages long and that she ruthlessly cut the manuscript down section by section, character by character, syllable by syllable, until nothing superfluous remained. The result is a novel of almost drastic austerity. Dillard offers just enough fact that the reader can grasp the basics of the narrative...Some writers strip down their prose mainly in order to evoke a mood of bleakness or emotional detachment. Dillard strips down her prose because too much action or too much talking would distract from how her characters reflect on what happens and is said." The reflecting is where her characters address some of life's ultimate questions coupled with narrative of simple acts of moving through the day. There is a spiritual quality to this moving. Smith says, "This isn't new of Dillard, not entirely. It is characteristic of her to juxtapose high thought and mundane act; she delights in the fact that a person can strive for universal truths one moment and haggle with a mechanic the next."
Julia Reed's New York Times review of July 29, 2007 is less kind toward Dillard, implying that she reads too much—something I never thought possible—over-using obscure words—I certainly had to look up the word "alewife"—and name dropping: "In her new novel...a meditation on love set on Cape Cod from World War II to the present, there is some of the familiar straining, along with constant evidence of her energetic reading. The gang’s all here, including, but not remotely limited to: Diogenes, Tiresias, Plato and Aristotle; Blake and Kafka; Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Louis Stevenson; Vietnamese legend and prehistoric Aleuts; Wittgenstein, Galileo and, of course, Tolstoy. (When the subject is love, Levin must be summoned.)" Reed seems to be critical throughout but then concludes with, "Now, after a lifetime of probing, pontificating, huffing and puffing, Dillard has accomplished the reader’s payoff she so relentlessly detailed almost 20 years ago in The Writing Life. She too has pressed upon us 'the deepest mysteries.'" So did Reed like the book? It's hard to tell. I know I did. But I happen to like "probing, pontificating, huffing and puffing." Some examples:
On Maytree's idea for a new book length poem, Dillard writes, "Boston or New York embodies our condition in one aspect: We are strangers among millions living in cubes like Anasazi in a world we fashioned. And Provincetown shows, by contrast, that we live on a strand between earth and sky. Here are protoplasmic, peeled people in wind against crystal skies. Our soft tissues are outside, like unearthed and drying worms'. The people in cities are like Mexican jumping beans, like larvae in tequila bottles, soft bits in hard boxes. And so forth. The length to which we as people go to hide our nakedness by blocking sky!" I'll try to remember this idea. Later, on a similar theme, "Lou hoped scandalously to live her own life. A subnormal calling, since civilization means cities and cities mean social norms. She wanted to hear herself think. How else might she hear any original note, any stray subject-and-verb in the head, however faint, should one come?" It is a rather common yearning for us introverts. And another later thought: "But what was solitude for if not to foster decency? Her solitude always held open house...."
"She longed for the life she already possessed, a life large as clouds'" is a unique way of saying one is happy with their lot in life...and it need not be grand in any traditional sense.
Lou commenting on her mother's response to her father's complete departure from them: "Her mother's face hardened and stuck. She never spoke of the man. Lou knew then that her mother was tallying her father's fault's and perfidies. She did not know then that polishing this grudge would be her mother's lone project for the balance of her life." Yes...some of us like to feed our grudges even though it has a way of then defining who we are. Angry young men simply become angry old men.
Words about the son Pete: "He failed to still his bilge. He could replace its slosh with only more slosh. Why was this basic control so almighty tough? Other people appeared to think... He was taking pains to watch his brain take out trash...Why attend this nonsense? Because his hope of mastering himself attracted him." (Emphasis mine)
Pete again, thinking of his father running off to Maine with Deary: "Long ago when he was a boy he tried to talk himself out of hating his father. It worked for a while until the silences piled up... [But] He did not hate them. Observing, he saw that hatred is rare. Envy and begrudging wreck a man first. Other people lived in peace without knotting their brains."
Maytree, thinking of his love: "Early with Lou, then with Deary, and again now, he returned to this: Why can love, love apparently absolute, recur? And recur? Why does love feel it is—know for certain it is—eternal and absolute, every time?"
Lou, commenting on her experiences working at a local nursing home: "All the Manor residents watched television day and night, informed to the eyeballs like everyone else and rushed for time, toward what end no one asked. Their cupidity and self-love were no worse than anyone else's, but their many experiences' having taught them so little irked Lou. One hated tourists, another southerners; another despised immigrants. Even dying, they still held themselves in highest regard. Lou would have to watch herself. For this way of thinking began to look like human nature—as if each person...would spend his last vital drop to sustain his self-importance." (Emphasis mine)
Amy Frykholm reviewed the book in the October 16, 2007 edition of Christian Century. She says, "This book is a study in character. At its heart is a question about human love... Love remains mysterious, even to lovers, and if love persists over years, over failings, over erosion of time, then it is even more mysterious." It is a book also about mortality; and I cannot improve on Frykholm's final thought: "The Maytrees is a book worth pondering. Its seeming simplicity is seductive enough to draw the reader into the questions that Dillard poses and then to strike with unexpected emotional power. Once again, Dillard takes on the big questions of life, love, and meaning in a fresh and intriguing way."(less)
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1926-), published in 1960
I know more than one person who considers To Kill a Mockingbird their favorite book. My friend Bob cherishes his first edition and speaks glowingly of the time when the author signed his copy. Ms. Lee, who grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, was a young child during the famous Scottsboro, Alabama Case (nine black men were accused of raping two white women). This apparently had a significant influence on her as she wrote the book in the late 1950’s. It was published at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and two years later was made into an Academy Award winning film with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.
It’s an endearing story told through the eyes of a nine year old girl, Scout, and it meant several things to me:
It affirms that goodness ultimately overcomes evil, but always at a cost.
It condemns racial prejudices—as well as the fear and prejudices directed toward the Boo Radley’s of the world (who in the end becomes the protector and a symbol of goodness).
Innocents can and do suffer from man’s stupidity, e.g. Tom Robinson. The title is really about innocence, as Miss Maudie explains: “ Mockingbird’s don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
It reinforced a personal belief—that people are not basically good—a worldview leading to the assumption that everything bad a person does, is society’s fault. I believe that people are born innocent and we grow up absorbing, learning, and understanding that good and evil are a part of us, if we ever grow up to maturity, that is. What Atticus Finch teaches his children is to understand that evil is a part of the world and we should treat people with empathy, as though we were “walking in their shoes.” His understanding and treatment of crass old Mrs. Dubose was a lesson in patient understanding—her life was mixed with great courage yet she was openly racist, which Atticus abhorred. Like most, she was a person blended with both good and bad qualities of personality.
I found it interesting that, in the end, the protection afforded by Boo Radley was built on a lie of what happened on that dark path from the school pageant to home. It raises unanswered questions….
I read in an old magazine that Harper Lee lives half her time in New York and half in Alabama. She is no recluse—she can be seen in shops and restaurants—but she rarely gives interviews and most people wouldn’t recognize her if they saw her. She has always lived a normal and comfortable life, not the life of a celebrity author. To Kill a Mockingbird is her only published book and one gets the sense that she doesn’t really care—she said everything she had to say about life in her one great book. I think I would like this woman.
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (1857-1924); written 1898-1899
First of all, I cannot imagine anyone, let alone four people as in this story, being able to listen to Marlow’s telling of this adventure in one sitting without ever engaging in conversation. At the minimum, one would think that one of them would at least ask a question. If this seems an unfair criticism, I’ll just say that I don’t personally know anyone who could resist interrupting him. It’s a compelling tale; then why no response from those hearing it? Without response, how could anyone go on and on as Marlow does? On this second question—after thinking about it—I’ve known a few people who could go “on and on” to the point where the listener falls into a glassy-eyed stupor, whose primary desire is to exit. But I remain convinced that most people would find a way to break up the windbag's speech.
In the introduction of John O’Hara’s 1953 Modern Library addition of Appointment in Samarra, he noted his discovery from Lardner that “if you wrote down speech as it is spoken truly, you produce true characters, and the opposite is also true; if your characters don’t talk like people they aren’t good characters.” Marlow does not talk like “people.” O’Hara also said that writing good dialog is “almost totally lacking in the British.” This book is a good example of not even attempting good dialog. (Conrad was actually Polish but learned English in his early 20’s and became a British subject at age 29.)
Some have said that this classic novella of an excursion up the Congo River needs to be read more than once to fully appreciate its true meanings—they’re deeply embedded—very deep. Oh? Is that the reader’s problem or the writer’s fault? I realize that this is like the sophomoric criticism of studying Shakespeare—one has to understand the time and place the work was written. Okay...let me just say that I prefer reading good literature where people behave, think, and sound like people. Perhaps at my advanced age I’ve become conditioned to the crisp dialog of Elmore Leonard, and others like him, to fully appreciate Joseph Conrad.
My annoyance at Conrad’s style aside, this is a book worth reading. I am told when initially published, the critics did not at all see it as controversial. It condemned adventuring, the taking advantage of the opportunities presented by imperialism, or it was a sentimental reinforcement of Victorian values. Only later was it seen as a more profound study of moral confusion, doubt and the hypocrisy of imperialism. Men, not just Kurtz, behaved badly in Heart of Darkness. Some say it’s the natural result when people operate outside any social or moral constraint, especially when greed and the desire for power have totally corrupted them.
Heart of Darkness is quite an indictment of colonialism and European behavior in carrying it out. It’s full of cruelties, casually referenced, and meaningless acts—such as the French ship shooting their big guns into the jungle, not knowing what, if anything, they were shooting at. It’s full of symbolism (e.g. fog), mystery, unanswered questions, folly, and absurdity.
I particularly liked the ending when Marlow visited Kurtz’s naive intended. Instead of telling her, his true last words, “the horror, the horror,” Marlow told the prissy Victorian bride-to-be who “knew Kurtz best” as an admirable man, that her name was the last thing on his mind. This lie symbolizes all that is right with Heart of Darkness.
Highly recommended by a friend, Life of Pi is a breezy fun read, full of adventure and rich descriptions of wild animals. (I’m assuming well-researched.) It’s the story of a sensitive 16-year old son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, India who dabbles in Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. He finds good in each of them seeing them as not mutually exclusive. His three mentors see it otherwise and are convinced of his undying devotion to each by virtue of their assumptions, not by anything Pi has said. (Perhaps this is a bit disingenuous. Pi always told the truth to each religious leader but not the whole truth of his experimentations; he saw no need to). They are shocked to learn that he has been trying the other religions on for size and argue amongst themselves over Pi’s loyalties.
The story then changes direction. The family decides to move to Canada, taking the whole family and their zoo. But the Japanese freighter on which they’re traveling, wrecks and sinks (we know not how) and Pi ends up on a lifeboat with a hyena, a seasick orangutan, a wounded zebra and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The hyena, zebra and orangutan ultimately don’t fare so well. Fortunately, the boat has enough supplies for 26 people and Pi industriously figures out how to stay alive for 227 days adrift on the Pacific Ocean with a 450-pound tiger. Some great thinking here—Pi has to feed Richard Parker, keep him alive, because he is physically unable to kill him and he doesn’t dare let him get hungry or young Pi becomes lunch. There is an exciting respite on a floating island full of meerkats but it’s all a harrowing experience with Pi detailing his thoughts and his plans, occasionally muddled by hallucinations. (Meerkats are South African varmints that look like a cross between a mongoose and a prairie dog. I saw some at the Toledo, Ohio zoo just prior to reading the book. There was a sign that said, “Meerkats are not prairie dogs.”)
The ending is where the point of this romp is brought home. Pi, saved on the coast of Mexico, tells the Japanese owners of the ship what happened. They think he’s lying or crazy so he tells them a completely different version of the wreck and his wild journey across the sea. Pi is saying to them, pick the story you like best, whatever helps bring it to closure, whatever works for your happiness. The reader is thus forced to question the events and their ultimate meaning. Get it? The truth and meaning of any story is open to question.
Early in the novel, a character calls it “a story that will make you believe in God.” I don’t think so. I don’t believe it would be enough to change the mind of any solid atheist secure in his or her position. This is more for the mercurial spiritualist who has an affinity for syncretism. Philosophically, this is another effort to advance the theme of religious relativity. The individual defines what is truth, defines God—whatever floats your boat.
From the perspective of reading it as an entertaining novel, I found it well written and wonderfully imaginative. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s one of those books I couldn’t put down.
It’s been perhaps 40 years since I’ve even thought about John O’Hara’s books let alone read him. I had never read this one, but in an act of pure spontaneity, I picked up a ratty old copy at the city library while browsing through the stacks. Oh, what joys we can find purely by accident!
This one apparently became an instant best seller in 1934 but not necessarily a critical success. Hemingway praised it but other notables thought it so-so and it did not win any prizes. Mr. O’Hara thought it tied for second best of his novels but he gave no other details.
I thought it an enjoyable read, with interesting characters, some of which were well developed; and there were clearly passions displayed, plausibly constructed. I loved some of the ideas and phrasings, worthy of expanded thought: In reference to Caroline, “…the Bryn Mawr manner; which means quick maturity and an everlasting tendency to enthusiasms.” I think I know women like that…and such qualities aren’t exclusive to Bryn Mawr. Julian English pondering his problems: “But the trouble with making yourself feel better by thinking of bad things that other people have done is that you are the only one who is rounding up the stray bad things.” How true! Caroline again: “She knew she never would do that, but one part of her threatened another part of her with it.” Julian again, thinking: “When was the last time there had been a change in himself? He thought and thought, rejecting items that were not change but only removal or adornment.”
Regarding the title, “Appointment in Samarra” refers to a little fable, thousands of years old, called “Death Speaks” that W. Somerset Maugham put to paper. O’Hara liked it. And it “fitted nicely into the inevitability of Julian English’s death.”
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989); published 1946
Robert Penn Warren, America’s first Poet Laureate, won a Pulitzer Prize for this 600- page novel, considered by many as one of the greatest works by any American author. Set in the 1930’s, it traces the rise and fall of a dictatorial demagogue loosely based on Huey “Kingfish” Long, governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1931. Long was loved by his supporters and hated by his detractors and ultimately assassinated in 1935 after he announced his run for the Democratic nomination for presidency against FDR. Warren was a professor at LSU during Long’s rise in politics.
What I actually read was the 2001 version taken from Warren’s original manuscript, held at Yale University. Noel Polk, a professor of literature from the University of Southern Mississippi, “restored” the author’s unedited version. There is debate among literary experts regarding Polk’s version. And Warren agreed, in fact, participated in the editorial changes back then—he never indicated dissatisfaction with the 1946 publication. The true work, perhaps, is the published version, approved by Warren, vs. the Polk version. Polk claimed that the editorial decisions of 1945-1946 tampered with authenticity and bastardized Warren’s first creative words. Well, I’ll just leave that argument to the pundits. The restored “Willie Talos” version is what I found at the library, so it’s what I read. And it was fantastic, as I’m sure the 1946 “Willie Stark” version is, since it’s the one that has been critically acclaimed for over fifty years.
I won’t retell the story. It’s long, complex, filled with multiple themes—and while Willie may seem to be the protagonist, the book is ultimately about Jack Burden, gopher for Governor Willie Talos. Just who is the protagonist is perhaps an interesting question for literary students (or old guys who like books). Does Willie or Jack drive the action? Regardless, one must conclude that Jack is the voice of Robert Penn Warren; and it’s Jack’s voice that is predominant. Jack is intelligent, from a southern genteel upbringing, but he seems to go through the motions, living in the Boss’s world of dirty politics and increasing corruption. He just takes orders, appears to lack personal ambition, and is an observer of his world. Jack’s got a sardonic wit. He’s a realist but inside, he seems to question his own human nature. He’s not a particularly happy person.
This book is filled with fascinating well-defined characters, richly described—even the minor ones. While it was difficult to be sympathetic with any of them, I could identify with pieces of them, became familiar with them and wanted to learn more about them. A couple times, it struck me that Warren went a bit over-the-top with detail, like his description of Anne Stanton’s laugh; it was so ornate, I concluded that only Pulitzer Prize winners must think like that! I particularly like the Cass Mastern episode. Jack did extensive historical research digging into the motives of this Civil War relative. Just why did Cass try so hard to find Phebe, the sold slave? Jack never finds out and in frustration, dropped his PHD work. Penn’s writing style, his descriptions, his word choices and sentences, his steady use of creative similes grabbed me. Examples:
Jack: “She kept on looking at me, not saying anything, with that look which always said, ‘You’ve got something I want, something I need, something, I’ve got to have,’ and said too, ‘I’ve got something for you, I won’t tell you what, not yet, but I’ve got something for you, too.’ The hollow in the cheeks: the hungry business. The glittering eyes: the promising business. And both at the same time. It was quite a trick.” (Italics mine)
Jack in an argument: “and the absorbent silence sucked up words like blotting paper.”
Willie: “Folks, there’s going to be a leetle mite of trouble back in town. Between me and the Legislature-full of hyena-headed, feist-faced, belly-dragging sons of slack-gutted she-wolves.” (It’s the voice of a creative cracker. While I’d love to be able say such a thing to somebody sometime, it wouldn’t be me).
“…like the ocean chewing its gums.”
Jack, cynicism on taking the state bar exam: “But maybe it had taken too long. If something takes too long, something happens to you. You become all and the only thing you want and nothing else, for you have paid too much for it, too much in wanting and too much in waiting and too much in getting. In the end, they just ask those crappy little questions.”
Jack, frustrated with Willie’s early speeches on the tax program: “Yeah… I heard the speech. But they don’t give a damn about that… so it’s up to you to give ‘em something to stir ‘em up and make ‘em feel alive again… Tell ‘em anything. But for Sweet Jesus’ sake don’t try to improve their minds.”
I can partly relate to Jack’s sensibilities: “At the hotel I ate a sandwich and went up to my room, and got the fan turned on and a pitcher of ice water sent up and took off my shoes and shirt and propped myself in a chair with a good book. There is nothing like a good book to put you to sleep with the illusion that life is rich and meaningful.” (But to me, good books do make life rich and meaningful.)
Jack: “There is a kind of snobbery of failure. It’s a club, it’s old school… and there is no nasty supercilious twist to a mouth like the twist a drunk gets when he hangs over the bar beside an old pal who has turned out to be a big-shot and who hasn’t changed a bit…”
Jack: “‘It’s a nice night,’I said in, I confess, the voice one reserves for small children, old ladies with ear-trumpets, and idiots.”
Jack, with the goods on his old mentor Judge Irwin: “So I had it after all the months. For nothing is lost, nothing is ever lost. There is always the clue, the cancelled check, the smear of lipstick, the footprint in the canna bed, the condom on the park path, the twitch in the old wound, the baby shoes dipped in bronze, the taint in the blood stream. And all times are one time, and all those dead in the past never lived before our definition gives them life, and out of the shadow their eyes implore us. That is what all of us historical researchers believe. And we love the truth.”
I loved the philosophical meanderings built into Warren’s developing story:
Jack Burden: “The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can’t know. He can’t know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can’t know whether he is killed because of the knowledge he has got or because of the knowledge he hasn’t got and which if he had, would save him.”
An example of Willie’s belief that everyone is bad and the moral man makes goodness out of badness: “… the trouble with Governors is they think they got to keep their dignity. But listen here, there ain’t anything worth doing a man can do and keep his dignity.”
Jack: “One feels incredulity at opening the breaking of a habit, but horror at the violation of a principle. Therefore what virtue and honor I had known in the past had been an accident of habit and not the fruit of will. Or can virtue be the fruit of human will? The thought is pride.”
Jack: “…is any relationship a relationship in time and only in time? I eat a persimmon and the teeth of a tinker in Tibet are put on edge.” (Or I buy a shirt at Dillard’s department store and somebody in China gets to eat, but not very much).
Jack, at Willie’s request (or order), asking Adam to be director of the new hospital: “ But I let my voice trail off, watching him shake his head again and smile now with a smile which did not forgive me but humbly asked me to forgive him for not being like me, for not being like everybody else, for not being like the world.” And more with Adam in the same conversation: “Listen pal, there was a man named Dante, who said that the truly proud man who knew his own worth did never commit the sin of envy, for he could believe that there was no one for him to envy. He might just as well have said that the proud man who knew his own worth would not be susceptible to flattery, for he would believe that there was nothing anybody else could tell him about his own worth he didn’t already know. No, you couldn’t be flattered.”
On Jack’s melancholy trip to the West coast, and back: “…you can go back in great spirits, for you will have learned two very great truths. First, that you cannot lose what you have never had. Second, that you are never guilty of a crime for which you did not commit. So there is innocence and a new start in the West, after all. If you believe the dream you dream when you go there.”
Or… just great writing:
An angry Sadie Burke: “…with her black chopped-off hair wild and her face like a riddled plaster-of-paris mask of Medusa except for the hot bituminous eyes, which were in full blaze with a bellows pumping the flame.” (Italics mine)
Jack, at the place where he got the proof about Judge Irwin taking a bribe, describing a scene that made me feel like I was there: “There was Miss Lily Mae Littlepaugh, whom, after five weeks, I tracked down to a dark, foul, fox-smelling lair in a rooming house on the edge of the slums in Memphis. She was a gaunt old woman, wearing black spotted and stained with old food, almost past the pretense of gentility, blinking slowly at me from weak red eyes set in the age-crusted face, sitting there in the near dark room, exuding her old-fox smell, which mixed with the smell of oriental incense and candle wax… And in that room. Before it, on the table, a candle burned fatly as though fed not merely from the wax but from the substance of the greasy air.” (Italics mine)
And finally, near the end, this:
“The creation of man whom God in his foreknowledge knew doomed to sin was the awful index of God’s omnipotence. For it would have been a thing of trifling and contemptible ease for Perfection to create more perfection. To do so would, to speak truth, be not creation but extension. Separateness is identity and the only way for God to create, truly create, man was to make him separate from God himself, and to be separate from God was to be sinful. The creation of evil is therefore the index of God’s glory and his power. That had to be so that the creation of good might be the index of man’s glory and power. But by God’s help. By his help and in His wisdom.” (Hmmm… I’ll have to think about that).
A good book, to me, has to have interesting believable characters, a setting (or settings) that can been pictured, writing so vivid that it makes me want to write down the words, steal them for future use. I want it to make me think, and it must be a well-plotted, plausible story where things happen and lives change. Reading All the King’s Men was a wonderful excursion. I’ll probably read the “Willie Stark” version some day.
Note: I wrote the above a few years ago. Yesterday, on October 21, 2010, at the Jefferson County Library book sale, I bought the Willie Stark version for $1.00.
East of Eden, by John Steinbeck (1902-1968), published 1952
I have read a good deal of Steinbeck’s work but years ago. Grapes of Wrath (1939) was his most famous and it won a Pulitzer prize. Others—Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, Travels with Charley, The Winter of Our Discontent—were all enjoyable but certainly Grapes of Wrath, more than any other, displayed his writing skills and his thinking. In it he portrayed poverty, pain and gloominess yet with a powerful optimism toward life.
I had never read East of Eden because long ago I’d seen the 1955 movie with James Dean and didn’t like it—too maudlin, whiney. But Steinbeck considered this book his greatest work. Someone said, “… he wrote that he believed he had imbued it with everything he knew about writing, everything he knew about good and evil in the human condition.” I picked it up at the library a few years ago because a friend, not Oprah, suggested it. Needless to say, it was a very pleasant experience.
The book is a wonderful and deep exploration of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, depicted through various iterations of familial conflict, woven into an epic tale of the settling of Salinas Valley, CA where Steinbeck was born and raised. It ultimately articulates Steinbeck’s optimism in dealing with the complex subject of good and evil—he rejects original sin, i.e. determinism, in favor of the idea that we are individually accountable, and free, to make our own moral destiny; we decide. He rejects any notion that we are tainted by the sins of our ancestors in favor of “timshel”, the Hebrew word meaning “thou mayest (overcome sin if thou so choose).”
He wrote beautifully, thoughtfully:
“I bet you do that just because you want to and then you take credit for it—like taking credit for…” being tall, having straight teeth, being able to hit a ball, having big tits, being blond, etc., etc.
“…triumph over sins never committed!”
“There are no ugly questions except those clothed in condescension.”
“Since we don’t know what he wanted, we can never know whether or not he got it!”
“The last bad habit a man will give up is giving advice.”
“Do you take pride in your hurt? Does it make you seem large and tragic? Maybe you’re playing a part on a great stage with only yourself as audience.”
“It is one of the triumphs of the human being that he can know a thing and still not believe it.”
To close, in chapter 34, Steinbeck skillfully summarizes his deep belief’s regarding the question of good and evil, and ultimately shares his optimism:
“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one…Humans are caught— in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil…A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard clean question: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill? …All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue is immortal. Vice has always a fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”
The Great Gatsby is known as Fitzgerald’s finest work. Some have said it is possibly the “Great American Novel.” It’s written spare rather than over-done, yet rich in language and well plotted. While I can honestly say I don’t personally know any idle rich Eastern effete snobs living very well off inherited or illegally earned money, I believed I got to know these characters. That’s a pretty good trick for an author.
While I could not directly identify with them, I could identify with their obsessions: greed, money, lust, ambition, success, shallow living, though I make myself feel better about it by saying, “to a much lesser degree, of course.” This is a book about “careless people… they smashed up things … then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”
It’s a book full of such great descriptions:
Nick, “Reserving judgment is a matter of infinite hope.”
The two girls in white dresses, “… their impersonal eyes in the absence of all desire”.
Tom, “Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart.”
Mrs. Wilson, “… there was an immediate perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smoldering.”
Nick, “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”
Jordan, “The bored haughty face that she turned to the world concealed something – most affectations conceal something…”
Nick, “but I am slow thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires…”
And, “My incredulity was submerged in fascination now; it was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines…”
Or, “There are only the personal, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.”
And, “I tried to go then, but they wouldn’t hear of it; perhaps my presence made them feel satisfactorily alone.”
And Nick referring to guilt, “… and it occurred to me that there was no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well.”