Sunday, June 26, 2011

Review: The Night Train by Clyde Edgerton (including a Remembrance of Clarence Clemons)

When legendary saxophone player Clarence “Big Man” Clemons died last Saturday of complications from a massive stroke, the music world bid a sad farewell to a titanic figure and to one of its most enduring partnerships, that of Clemons and his bandmate and bandleader of 40 years, Bruce Springsteen. And though the greatness of what they accomplished together needs no qualification, I’d be denying much of its significance if I didn’t also note that Clemons and Springsteen formed one of the most magnificent black-white partnerships in music history, one whose meaning resonated well beyond the music itself.

Over the last week, columnists, bloggers, and others have spun various versions of the Night the Big Man Met the Boss and its mythic meaning. It’s virtually impossible to get the facts straight in a tale this tall, given how many ways both men told it—on-stage and off—over the last four decades. But whether on that stormy 1971 New Jersey night the door actually blew off its hinges at the club where Springsteen was playing as Clemons strode through it doesn’t really matter. What does is that these two men saw rock ‘n’ roll future in each other’s eyes that night, and heard it right away in the sound they made together. It’s tough not to sentimentalize their meeting now, but to do so is to miss the point of what their friendship was all about: rock ‘n’ roll at its most raucous, rapacious, and redemptive—the wild and innocent howl of two men who wanted everything and were going to play their guts out until they got it, and, in the process, teach a world riven by racism a thing or two about friendship transcending race.

Less than 4 years after their fabled first meeting, Springsteen and Clemons posed for the gatefold cover of Springsteen’s Born to Run album in a shot that not only became one of the iconic images of rock ‘n’ roll, but also affected the American teenagers who bought the album in 1975 in ways they probably didn't realize at the time. There’s nothing overtly political about the way these two men pose on that album cover—after all, Springsteen is laughing, not raising a fist—but it’s an invitation to the world they create on the album, a world that’s better and more potentially post-racial than the one you’re living in, but accessible to you if you’re willing to take a ride.

So much of what’s been written about Clemons over the last week has focused on his magnificent solo on Born to Run’s closing track, “Jungleland,” which is certainly the piece of music that will outlive him the longest. But for me, Clemons’ defining moment in virtually every E Street Band show I ever saw was a more modest one, his solo in “The Promised Land,” a song from Springsteen’s 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town. The juxtaposition in that song is almost unbearably powerful: First, you have a white singer who watched his father lose his hearing, his youth, and almost everything he ever hoped for or believed in during a life of factory work, singing “I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man/And I believe in the promised land.” And then you have a black saxophone player wringing every ounce of meaning, pathos, defiance, faith, and pride from the song in a taut, note-perfect solo that leaves little doubt about what “I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man” means to him as a man living through the long, unfinished journey from slavery to freedom.

Rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm & blues, and soul music and the dismantling of racial barriers have never been entirely inseparable. The musical forms themselves were always a hybrid of black and white Southern roots, and most of the greatest soul performers in particular were usually backed by integrated bands. (Even Queen of Rockabilly Wanda Jackson toured with a rip-roarin' multiracial band at her commercial peak in the early '60s.) To give rock ‘n’ soul credit for, say, ending Jim Crow would be absurd, but there’s no question that the white supremacists who railed against race-mixing and portrayed rock ‘n’ roll as a point of intersection for black and white teenagers had a twisted, if not altogether inaccurate sense of what was happening. When rock ‘n’ roll exploded in the ’50s with the arrival of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, and others, the kids could feel the music’s pull, and the pushback from their parents was every bit as powerful. And in some locales where worlds may have collided, blacks and whites were legally separated and whites were determined to keep them that way.

Clarence Clemons knew whereof he blew on "The Promised Land." E Street Band creation myths aside, Clemons didn't spring to life on the Jersey Shore in the 1970s. He was born in Maryland in 1942, and like other African-Americans of his time and place, he grew up with de jure segregation, and latched on to rock ‘n’ roll and R & B early on as a release and escape. And though the racial barriers of the Asbury Park music scene in the early ’70s weren’t insurmountable, Clemons has freely admitted that he crossed some generally understood racial lines when he joined forces with Springsteen. That said, integrated bands weren’t unheard-of on the shore; they were just uncommon.

But what if the Boss and the Big Man had met a decade earlier in the segregated South? What if they’d been two rural North Carolina teenagers brought together by minimum-wage work, an upright piano in the backroom of a furniture repair shop, and a shared obsession with James Brown’s Live at the Apollo album? Without reference to Springsteen or Clemons, implicit or otherwise, this is, essentially, the question Clyde Edgerton explores in his rollicking, rhythm & blues-infused new novel, The Night Train. And though Edgerton’s book is only slightly more political than the cover of Born to Run, and no fairy tale of triumph over racial discrimination, it nonetheless affirms how rock ‘n’ soul kicked a steady drumbeat against the locked doors of segregation even if they didn't kick them open. And for that reason The Night Train feels true, as Clyde Edgerton novels always do.

The Night Train is the story of Larry Lime Nolan, an aspiring blues and jazz piano player who works in a furniture repair shop with Dwayne Hallston, whose father owns the shop. Dwayne, rhythm guitarist and trombone player in a 5-piece band (soon to grow to 7-piece with the addition of a horn section), shares not only Larry Lime’s penchant for rhythm & blues music but also his fondness for Alfred Hitchcock movies, basketball, and a countrified local TV variety show.

The barriers to friendship that Larry Lime and Dwayne experience in their hometowns of Starke and Prestonville, N.C. don’t drive them to moral outrage so much as simple frustration that they can’t do the things together that teenage boys do. They come up with an ingenious prank (riotously funny in Edgerton’s hands) involving Hitchcock’s The Birds, a theater balcony, and a hypnotized sleeping rooster, but can’t attempt it together in a whites-only theater (ever-true to his material, you can see Clyde Edgerton lull a chicken to sleep on YouTube). Larry Lime and Dwayne can’t sit on a wall together and shoot the breeze with other boys their age without fear of reprisal. And even though Dwayne imagines inviting Larry Lime to join his band, which seems like a natural thing to do after all their talk about R & B records and chord progressions and syncopation in the backroom of the furniture shop, he knows it’s impossible. And it pisses him off.

Though we spend nearly as much of The Night Train in Larry Lime’s head as we do in Dwayne's—the book begins and ends with Larry Lime at the piano—we never find Larry Lime struggling with the barriers to white-black friendship in quite the same “Why has it got to be this way?” sense that Dwayne does. For Dwayne, the knowledge that he can’t be anything but secret friends with a black guy comes only with the attempt to push beyond it; for Larry Lime, these rules of the rural South are bred in the bone. This is double-consciousness writ simply but surely.

Of course, 1963 wasn't just a time of segregation in the South; it was also near the peak of the struggle against it. The challenges to segregation waged by sit-in protesters 50 miles west of Starke in Greensboro are mentioned frequently in The Night Train, and the specter of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his influence on local clergy, are ever-present, and Larry Lime and Dwayne even debate the validity of the sit-ins openly, albeit briefly, at one point in the book. Much like desegregation itself—which didn't happen in most of North Carolina until the early '70s—black-white friendship not circumscribed by circumstances is an idea imagined but a dream deferred.

Which is not to say The Night Train is a downer of a book; it's every bit the rollicking good read that Killer Diller was. In fact, though The Night Train was probably written primarily for adults like all of Edgerton’s other books, it’s the first one I’ve read that would work just as well as young adult fiction (much in the way Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn do), because the teenage characters and family dynamics (black and white) are so well-drawn, funny, and real, and the message about the challenges to one-on-one race relations so clearly conveyed. There's no question I'll be encouraging my son to read this book in 5 or 6 years when I want him to know more about where I came from (Durham, N.C., just like Edgerton) than my own stories reveal.

The Night Train, though Edgerton’s shortest book, is as rich in voices and comic characters as all his novels, populating the neighboring towns of Starke and Prestonville in Hanson County, with their well-delineated black-white divisions. The book’s cast of characters include not just the teenage boys at the heart of the story but also the irascible Flash’s Mama (mother of the foreman at the furniture repair shop, who's also a guitar player and singer, and a sexually conflicted, bumbling bigot as well), Larry Lime’s blunt Uncle Young, and Larry Lime’s Aunt Marzie, who takes a temporary job looking after Flash’s Mama after she has a stroke, and regrets missing the opportunity to verbally abuse the old misanthrope while Flash's Mama still had enough of her mind to make it fun.

Another delightful part of the book is the ever-present Brother Bobby Lee Reese Country Music Jamboree, a live variety show broadcast every Saturday night from Hanson County’s own WLBT-TV. Sponsored by a local dog food company, one of the show’s regular highlights—along with the country music acts and Bobby Lee’s rural family-story humor—was the host (Brother Bobby Lee) eating dog food on the air each week. One of the intriguing aspects of the show is that it's equally popular (or nearly so) with whites and blacks. Much of The Night Train, as it turns out, is about points of intersection between the separated black and white worlds, as well as the lives and likes of working-class blacks and whites in Hanson County that turn out to be not all that different.

Edgerton really builds this theme of unlikely points of cultural intersection around the Bobby Lee show, which brings us to the what’s probably the most didactic-sounding paragraph Clyde Edgerton has ever written in a novel:
And you might wonder why descendants of slaves in rural North Carolina, 1963, tuned in to a country music show. For one thing, the only other TV show at ten thirty on Saturday nights was a thirty-minute weather program hosted by Gabe Ferguson, who kept dropping his map pointer. But it was also because of Bobby Lee Reese: his apparent na├»ve generosity and his ability to talk to black people under the radar. Aunt Marzie said, He talk about us all sand lugging and suckering out there in that hot sun in a way you know he don’t feel superior-like. He gits it, and he ain’t all wound up and worried up.
Bobby Lee Reese’s show plays a pivotal role in The Night Train for several reasons. First and foremost is that both Dwayne’s band, the Amazing Rumblers, and Flash (the furniture shop foreman) are planning to audition for the show in different weeks. The other is that the narrative occasionally shifts between the primary action of the book in spring 1963 and snippets of an interview conducted in April 2011 between former Amazing Rumblers piano player Ray Wheeler and Bobby Lee Reese in a nursing home in nearby Summerlin, gathering Bobby Lee’s recollections about the show, its cultural impact, and the Amazing Rumblers’ appearance on the show (which becomes the stuff of legend for reasons too marvelous to reveal in a review).

As Dwayne’s band prepares for the show, Larry Lime is a constant presence at their rehearsals in the back room of the furniture shop. Initially, the plan is for the band to play two Hank Williams songs with Larry Lime’s dancing pet chicken joining the act (and thus giving them a leg up on others auditioning for the show). By the time the chicken dies (prior to their audition)—sparking a comical exchange in Larry Lime’s family over whether to eat it or bury it—the band’s sessions have moved in a different direction. Having already nailed “Hey Good Lookin’” and “I Saw the Light” for Bobby Lee’s show, they’ve dedicated themselves to a new project: reproducing James Brown’s life-changing Live at the Apollo album, note for note, beat for beat (one hell of a leap for a white drummer schooled in country and rockabilly), and dance step for dance step, with Dwayne as James Brown. Larry Lime has transferred the album to reel-to-reel tape and brought it to the shop so they can learn it, and hung around to work with them on everything from the dance moves to the horn charts to the on-the-one beat. And though the dance steps Dwayne is trying to master are as hot as they come—being the signature moves of the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business in his prime—these are also baby steps. There’s the telling moment when Amazing Rumbler sax player Gaston is chosen to say the emcee’s introduction of James Brown:
Okay, Gaston, said Dwayne, I got it written right here. “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s star time. Are you ready for star time?”
Should I say it like a nigger?
Yeah, but don’t say that.
Because. Go ahead.
When he’s not teaching the Amazing Rumblers to play soul, Larry Lime is undergoing a “practice yo’ ass off” jazz piano apprenticeship to a hemophiliac black musician player known as The Bleeder during off-hours at a local nightclub. His ambition is to learn to play like Thelonious Monk—and then to make Monk’s music his own. He tells his mother, Canary, about his lessons with the Bleeder, and she thinks, “Jazz might get him outen the South … It was a familiar thought for all her children—with other words for ‘jazz.’”

And there it is: Escape. Busting out. Full stop. Urgent, but not desperate, and not random, either—tied to a real ambition close to the heart of both mother than son. And an ambition shared by both Larry Lime Nolan and Dwayne Hallston, even though both are mostly accepting of the fact that they aren’t going to fulfill that common ambition together. As a story of North Carolina in 1963, that’s what makes The Night Train feel true. To take these boys any farther down the path of liberation from the constraints of segregation at that moment in time would have transposed the book into the realm of myth—kind of like the less-likely-than-a-lightning-strike rock ‘n’ soul myth lived out by Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen, which still feels stranger than fiction in an era when a black man can become President of the United States and still get bullied into showing the world his birth certificate to prove he belongs here.

Clyde Edgerton’s The Night Train is not a novel of post-racial America (whatever that may be), either in its evocation of an era of significant but fitful racial progress, or in the interracial relationships it portrays. As such it’s as rewarding for where it doesn’t take Edgerton's characters as for where it does, a contradictory effect as delightful as the way it accomplishes the seemingly impossible trick of being a categorically quiet book (like Edgerton’s Walking Across Egypt and Lunch at the Picadilly) that pulses with music you can hear and feel as you read it. And unlike Edgerton’s previous books, which have dealt with race and racism more incidentally—Raney set the table perfectly with the moment when Raney thinks that her New South, Charlotte-bred husband Charles talks about blacks in the high-minded way he does only because he doesn’t know what the blacks are like around here—the message comes down decisively on the one in The Night Train, and it locks into an irresistible groove.

Maybe there’s as much that makes us different as makes us alike, Edgerton seems to say, but it’s the alike that matters, and the alike that brings us together and gets us somewhere. If rock and soul music didn’t matter enough to change the world overnight, it did its part to set the wheels in motion. If you listened from the first time you heard it—and if you climbed aboard the train when it rolled through your town (Raleigh, Nawth Carolina!)—then you know that train kept a-rollin’ all night long and into a better day.

Pre-order Clyde Edgerton's The Night Train from Powell's Books.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Review: When The Killing's Done by T.C. Boyle

One of T.C. Boyle's great gifts is to take subjects that would slide into polemic in most writers' hands and write about them even-handedly and dispassionately, reserving the force and intensity of his language for his characters and story rather than the ostensibly political topic at hand. Moreover, when his so-inclined characters launch into their jeremiads, you never get the sense that the author is on his soapbox, undermining the whole enterprise. On the contrary, Boyle's characters gain credibility and identity in these moments, rather than sacrificing them at the altar of the author's misguided desire to use them to speak his own mind.

Boyle has written the occasional, seemingly topical book—that is, stories that concern politically charged topics, such as The Tortilla Curtain, about the clashing lives of an illegal immigrant couple camping in Topanga Canyon and two gated-community middle-class liberals, which never dodged the volatility of the issues surrounding illegal immigration but mused, ultimately, on the complexities of realizing the American Dream, and the inevitability of frustration and hypocrisies great and small in the face of it.

Boyle's newest book, When the Killing's Done (Viking Press, due to drop February 22, 2011), focuses on the cataclysmic clash of two mighty wills (and two somewhat lesser ones) on opposite sides of a bitter ideological divide. Alma Boyd Takesue, a National Parks Service biologist spearheading the extermination of invasive species that are attacking the native animal populations of the Channel Islands off the California coast, goes 15 rounds with Dave LaJoy, an animal rights activist determined to stop the killing at any cost. The root of the problem is several centuries of intrusion by the original invasive species—human beings—whose occasional habitation and efforts to farm and raise livestock and hunt and vacation on Anacapa and Santa Cruz have compromised the ecosystems of these wild and sparsely islands located 2–3 hours by boat from Santa Barbara. The Parks Service's goal is to remove rat and feral pig populations before they kill off indigenous species that evolved there by natural—or at least prior—means. It's a scientifically logical plan but also a brutal one, the first project involving poisoning thousands of rats en masse, the second carried out in part by importing expert hunters from New Zealand to entrap and shoot 5,000+ pigs. There's certainly a reasonable ecosystem-restoration argument there. But given that the preservation of some species (such as the native fox population) involves the extermination of others, ask LaJoy and his folksinger girlfriend and fellow activist Anise Reed, who or what gives the Parks Service the right to make those arguably god-playing calls?

What makes When the Killing's Done such a gripping tale is that it's not about choosing a side, or determining who gets to live. Ultimately, it's about how life can get in the way of righteousness (and how funny and infuriating it can be when it does), how the notion of what's "natural" in our world or ourselves defies any attempt at rational reduction, and the hubris of humans who try—especially those who try hard—to remove their footprint from the world.

I'm reminded of something former Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau once wrote in a review of the 1982 album by The Police, Ghost in the Machine, in response to the group's assessment of the human race as "spirits in the material world." While conceding that the group was part right, Christgau asserted, "We're also matter in the material world, which is where things get sticky." Just because we, as humans, can think on a higher plane than animals doesn't mean we can think or theorize or strategize our way out of impacting their lives, or fixing those lives as cleanly as we'd like, as Boyle's characters reluctantly learn.

That said, When the Killing's Done isn't as much about humans' tempest-tost plight as the literal tempests that toss his characters thrillingly and terrifyingly, beginning with the stunning storm story that opens the book. But it's something that characters on both sides of the conflict struggle with: Respect nature, control it, fight it, get out of its way, analyze it, assist it, restore it—whatever your plans may be, however well you've designed them, and however much your education or commitment may qualify you to make them, they'll always be limited because you're part of it, and everything you fail to take into account is part of it too.

The best way Boyle signifies this fact is the way he dramatizes each character's (except LaJoy's, whose adopted convictions are more pissed-off than principled) historical connection to the Channel islands. These are engrossing histories of adventure and pain, each in their own way linked or intersecting with the biological detritus of human presence on the islands. The opening chapter in particular, the tragic tale of Takesue's grandmother's shipwreck, is so real as to make reading it surreal: at once, you're utterly captivated by the story, and at the same time starstruck by how well this man writes a storm.

And though this new tale takes us to wonderful new places, those of us who know the thrill of a new T.C. Boyle novel have been here many times before.

Pre-order When the Killing's Done from Powell's Books!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Review: The False Friend by Myla Goldberg

In The Counterlife, Philip Roth describes one of his characters as indifferent “to the consequences of transgression.” For most of us, the most dangerous, and often most intriguing people we encounter in our lives are those who regard their world as some sort of rogue laboratory of human behavior in which they’re willing to try just about anything to see what will happen as a result. We’re fascinated by these people because they not only recognize the fragility of the fabric that sustains social equilibrium in our everyday lives, but see no reason not to tear it apart before it unravels on its own.
The rare human beings who approach transgression with perverse fascination and the power they exert over the reticent rest of us is part of what Myla Goldberg seems to explore in her entrancing new novel, The False Friend. But that’s just a guess; the book’s title, which refers, in part, to a linguistic term for apparent etymological cognates with divergent meanings, is itself a cipher. And at the heart of the book is a reckoning for the long-term impact of manipulativeness, bullying, and cruelty among adolescent girls, which is a subject I’ll admit to knowing very little about. The book is also about dissecting the fact, fiction, and selective memory of the disappearance of a child two decades after the fact, with a Mystic River-like take on the way the abduction predicated the future lives of the girls at the scene, and the women they became.

The False Friend tells the story of Celia Durst, a 32-year-old auditor for the city of Chicago, who comes to the realization that she’s repressed the memory of how her best friend, Djuna, disappeared as they were walking in a forbidden forest one afternoon 21 years earlier. Instead of being abducted by an adult in a brown car, Celia realizes, Djuna fell into a hole—most likely down a well: “One minute she was there, and the next the earth had swallowed her up.” Celia concludes that her 11-year-old self quickly and decisively fabricated the abduction story because she believed that Djuna, a merciless bully and as much her enemy as her friend, got what was coming to her. She flies home to upstate New York the next day to confess.

One of the first things we learn about Celia and Djuna is that their friendship was largely based on their ability to torment three less confident girls—“rodent[s] to their parliament of owls”—who want, with varying degrees of desperation, to enter their circle. But I don’t think The False Friend is in any way a retread of pop-culture musings on teenage girl cattiness like Mean Girls or Heathers; for one thing, those are movies about high school girls, and The False Friend is a novel about kids who inflicted their damage on one another in the sixth grade. (If anything, The False Friend is more like E.L. Konigsburg's Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, but for grownups.) The teen/adolescent distinction is significant because Goldberg draws a clear line between the pre-sexual years and the ones that follow, characterizing the searing intensity of adolescent friendship as “the inarticulate ardor that presages sex.” Much as in her first novel, Bee Season, there’s an undercurrent of mysticism here, although not an explicit one. The False Friend portrays the command that a girl like Djuna can have over others for reasons that have little to do with popularity or looks, the magnetic sway of a fierceness that comes from not being afraid of the things everyone else is. It’s a power too compelling and too frightening to resist.

As Celia attempts, unsuccessfully, to convince her parents, her boyfriend, and—after tracking them down—the three former friends/disciples who were at the scene of Djuna’s disappearance of her newly reconstructed version of events, she begins to recognize the trajectories of all their lives and how they have radiated from their acquaintance with Djuna and the circumstances of her disappearance. Celia discovers in her parents’ rigid reluctance to cross carefully defined boundaries of conversational propriety why she found Djuna’s outspoken fearlessness so compelling. What’s more, she connects her stagnant relationship with her boyfriend, Huck, to her inability to reconcile the cruelty of her Djuna-era self with the more considerate self she’s constructed in the 20-year aftermath of what remains the most intimate relationship of her life: “’We will never be closer to anyone than we are to each other right now,’ Djuna vowed, to which Celia had agreed with all the certainty eleven years of life could provide. Twenty-one years later, she realized it was still true.”

There’s something about this book that just makes me want to quote it endlessly; it’s not just that it teems with exquisite turns of phrase, but that each one has the dual purpose of piercing perceptiveness and absolute cogency to the heart of the story and the characters. And a lot of those lines are damn funny too. Of course, there are other writers who do this as well as Goldberg (the first name she invokes in her acknowledgments, Nathan Englander, is certainly in her league, although, the title track of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges notwithstanding, he’s not as funny). But Goldberg’s words are so enveloping that to read her books is to inhabit a universe all her own. (A point perhaps best underscored by the fascinating marginalia in her second novel, Wickett’s Remedy, which simultaneously break the spell of narrative flow and effectively fill out the world, as if there’s the narrative and the rest of the Wickett’s world, and nothing else exists.)

In a sense, The False Friend is the anti-coming-of-age novel. Far from a saga of innocence lost, the book presents the arc of maturation as a makeshift corrective, something more like placing a band-aid of decency over the self-absorbed savagery of childhood. And though at first it seems to be venturing into the “did she jump or was she pushed” banality of, say, A Separate Peace, the story Goldberg ends up telling is false friend (in the etymological sense) to any of its apparent literary cognates.

But what The False Friend does have in common with the best and truest books about childhood is the way it captures the feeling of standing on the precipice of a new, adult world that’s deliciously terrifying, that first moment when games stop being just games and danger becomes real. There’s a scene in The False Friend that describes a game that Celia and Djuna play, hiding behind a freezer-sized electrical box. It’s a sacred place to the two of them because they believe they’re the only people who have ever gotten close enough to the box to hear its foreboding hum. Hiding behind it with whatever they’ve just stolen from their parents, “They’d taken their first steps into the hugeness of the universe beyond, and found each other … the moment of union, the strongest alliance she’d experienced outside the inherited bonds of family, and the most powerful, vulnerable thing she knew.”

When I was 8 years old, a boy in my hometown, friend of a friend, was killed by electrocution while playing hide and seek in an electrical box much like the one Goldberg describes. His neighbor and best friend, the kid I knew, was badly burned as well. Who were those kids to each other, and what did that box mean to them before it killed one of them? What kind of adults did the kids who survived that game become and how much of it was just momentum from that life-changing game? I suppose I’ll never know, but I’m sure there’s more to the story than I ever thought to ask, or had any right to know either.

The False Friend is about all of that, and at the same time is a story of characters so rich in idiosyncracies that it's not really about anything I might project upon it. But I have no doubt that The False Friend will retain its hold on me for quite some time, which I suppose is no surprise, coming from a writer whose work is as consistently, compulsively affecting as Myla Goldberg’s.

Pre-order The False Friend from Powell's Books

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Review: The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle

Has any novel ever looked so squarely into a mythologized past as Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry, and shot it right between the eyes? In 1999 Doyle seized a moment when the darker, more unsettling realities of the last century of Irish history seemed to matter less than ever—as the old religions of independence and 85% mass attendance gave way to the boom-time rampant commerce of the Celtic Tiger—and wrote a book that’s as close to a Zinn-style People’s History of Ireland as any novel could be, a critical reality check for anyone who doubted that the Irish War of Independence had been fought ugly and won uglier.

Although A Star Called Henry was much more raucous picaresque than polemic, its position was crystal clear: The so-called Republicans won the war and misspent the spoils, establishing a free-for-some republic that still sold its poor down the Liffey, just like the old English order they had ousted. Granted, the sidelong glance at the then-roaring Celtic Tiger was barely even subtext; really, just the context in which emerged a book about a take-no-prisoners, working-class assassin who lived to kill for Ireland but refused to die for it when the men he’d helped put in power sold him out.

But the miraculous thing about A Star Called Henry was that it wasn’t really a book about politics, any more than it was a book about glorifying the Irish revolutionary heroes who people its pages. Henry Smart, who was bored by his second day on the hallowed ground of Dublin’s GPO in Easter 1916, and was riding his former teacher and future wife, Miss O’Shea, on a pile of stamps in the basement shortly thereafter, never paused to give much thought to the politics of revolution or Republicanism. But when it came time to take the revolution respectable and transfer power to a same-as-the-ould-boss Irish elite, Henry wanted no part of it, and became a marked man.

A Star Called Henry was as breathtaking a book as I’ve ever read simply because it never let up. Doyle landed every punch he threw, and it seemed as if the rain of blows would never end.

But it did. A Star Called Henry had been presented as the first book in a trilogy called The Last Roundup. (Two books later, with the impending publication of The Dead Republic, I finally know what that means.) Book two, Oh Play That Thing, showed up in 2004, and there was no mistaking that Henry Smart, the cheeky, badass interior monologist had survived his exile to the U.S., biting wit intact. But with a vast new country to conquer, it became clear that Henry had much less to do. (Spoiler alert.) He lit out for upstate New York and got laid a lot, which was always something he seemed to come to easily, even when he was a very young man. He hooked up with a young, before-he-was-Satchmo Louis Armstrong and became a sort of bodyguard to him. He found Miss O’Shea, improbably, when he broke into a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Oak Park, Ill., reunited with her and their daughter Saoirse, and began to raise their family in the boxcars and Hoovervilles of Depression America. He became an amputee like his father when he lost his leg trying to save his son from falling under a train, and lost his family when he himself tumbled under the car.

By the end of the book Henry Smart had crawled into Monument Valley to die, only to find Henry Fonda relieving himself on him on the set of a John Ford movie. Ford resurrected him, determined that Henry Smart’s story would become the basis of his greatest film. The sad irony of Ford’s plan, though, was that A Star Called Henry had been the makings of a great film, but over the course of Oh Play That Thing—a book that would have made a disjointed film with a few great moments—Henry’s life had become much less film-worthy.

Henry’s tale and its teller seemed to have run out of gas; I’d spent years awaiting Oh Play That Thing, and months trying to track down an advance copy when I heard it was coming. But after I read it, I found myself fairly indifferent to the question of whether Doyle would ever round out the trilogy with a third book.

There’s no question that Doyle has kept busy in the meantime, and occupied himself well. Paula Spencer (2007) proved a gloomy but satisfying sequel to the magnificent Woman Who Walked Into Doors, and The Deportees (2008), a collection of short stories originally published in Metro Eireann, proved that Doyle had lost none of his wit, insight, or dextrous way with a tale. Best of all, both books (but especially The Deportees, which focused entirely on this theme) proved that Doyle was well at home writing about 21st Century Ireland—a country that had become, of all things, a land of immigrants entering rather than emigrants leaving—and representing faithfully (though usually comically) the hypocrisy and bigotry he saw manifested among the “native” Irish toward the Romanians, Nigerians, and others in the new immigrant underclass that Tiger/EU prosperity had drawn to the new ould sod.

The Dead Republic, the concluding book of the Henry Smart saga, due for publication in April, is about none of these things and all of them: What it means to call yourself Irish, and who gets to decide; the hypocrisy of a nation recently out from under the thumb of foreign rule retaliating with its own abuses and class stratification; the sanitization and oversimplification of the relatively recent Irish past by those who stand to profit from tidying it up; and the dislocation of a working-class hero and retired revolutionary in the complacent, middle-class, half-assed “republic” he unwittingly helped bring to life. In short, the relegation of early Irish revolutionary history to the Celtic mists with myth blithely supplanting fact, and what that means to an old revolutionary who's taken in by none of it.

This notion of mythology superseding history, of the abstract and vague and imagined replacing the concrete—and the perversion of Irish history, politics, and national identity that the myth engenders—is the prevailing theme that runs through all of The Dead Republic as it moves across two continents and sixty years of Henry Smart’s life. And Henry's insistence on the concrete over the abstract is arguably the theme that detours around much of Oh Play That Thing! and connects The Dead Republic directly to A Star Called Henry. One of the most memorable moments in A Star Called Henry came when Henry and his brother, as two illiterate gamins, went to school for their two days of formal education and the teacher—Henry’s future wife, Miss O’Shea—asked Henry for the sum of 2 + 2. He replied, “Two what?” “Two bottles,” she said. “What’s in the bottles?” “Porter.” “Four.”

In another instance, in one of the most mythologized moments of Irish history, the Easter Rising, as the looting begins, someone yells to Henry, “Don’t steal that! It’s Irish property!” Henry’s response: “It’ll still be Irish after it’s stolen!”

Henry applies the same no-shite logic years later in The Dead Republic when discussing Bobby Sands and the H-Block hunger strike protests of 1980-81: “I knew hunger all my life ... and it was never a fuckin' strike. Only the middle class could come up with starvation as a form of protest.” The fact is, Henry and Miss O'Shea weren't fighting for revolutionary ideals; they were fighting against poverty and starvation, and fighting to tear down a Dublin full of young men going to war for the king’s shilling in World War I because it was safer than staying home. In The Dead Republic, Henry himself questions whether he ever really hated the British or loved Ireland, or just hated where he came from and relished the opportunity to kill the people who put him there. This is a question that is never resolved in the book, but the ambivalence of Henry Smart—a man that mattered, subject of a rebel song sung by schoolchildren—says enough.

So to return at mid-century to a partitioned country where Republicanism had become a much more abstract and compromised notion—a country clearly in the making in 1923 when Henry fled under an execution order from the original architects of that compromise—was a shocking and sickening thing.

From the outset in The Dead Republic, everywhere but inside his own head, Henry Smart is more myth than man. When the book begins, Henry is the reluctant collaborator/scriptwriter on John Ford’s years-in-development “Irish” film, The Quiet Man. Even then we know what this film is going to turn out to be—Ireland as backdrop for a rosy-cheeked, red-haired romantic fantasy, sentimental shite with a well-choreographed fight—but Doyle compels us to watch the agonizing process of how the film failed to become the saga of revolutionary Henry Smart and his machine gun-toting wife, and the slow unraveling of that always-problematic idea. The Smart-Ford relationship is an ongoing, vitriolic, Socratic dialogue pitting Ireland’s real past against its mythic one, played out between two men who have little love for (or knowledge of) the Irish present.

The fact that Henry lets this relationship drag on for so many years signifies the essential problem with Henry Smart 3.0. I’m not sure it detracts from the verisimilitude or impact of the book; it simply prevents it from being the wild romp that A Star Called Henry was. In A Star Called Henry, Henry Smart was a badass for the ages, a boy-man whose relentless, piecemeal acts of raging defiance made him much more real and more heroic than any literary hero I can recall who was predisposed to grander acts and sweeter sentiments. For fuck sake—as Henry would say—my wife and I named our son after him (for the righteous, riotous, cheeky kid he was, not because he was a “star”).

Throughout The Dead Republic—except for a short, thrilling segment when he’s working as the caretaker of a boys’ school in suburban Dublin and concocting a plan to reclaim the real Republic a block at a time—Henry Smart is essentially a passive figure who endures what people do to him, more notable for his thoughts than his actions, and more for his resilience than his defiance. Henry applies most of his trademark wit and insight to recognizing when he’s being watched, used, manipulated, and deceived, whether by Ford, the Provos, the Guards, the Church, the Peace Process, or even in his muted relationship with a woman who may or may not be his long-lost Miss O’Shea (he believes it’s she, but grudgingly accepts her refusal to acknowledge it).

But recognizing what's being done to him rarely goes beyond knowing what they’re up to and giving them less than what they want from him. Part of this is his cynicism about what Ireland has become—the Dead Republic, as it were; at best a compromise, at worst an outright betrayal of the revolution he helped start but was prevented from finishing. Part of it is Henry’s doubt that he was ever a revolutionary at all—rather, simply a spat-on, shat-on hailstorm of rage from the slums of Dublin.

Whatever his small acts of resistance, the self-doubting, self-loathing Henry Smart of The Dead Republic is more than a little heartbreaking. This is a guy whose belief in his own invincibility and the inevitability of his own triumph made him a legend. Little did he know how little room the legend would leave for the man, and what the legend would become in the hands of others.

In a literary sense, the genius of A Star Called Henry was that it was a book-length interior monologue rendered entirely without other storytelling artifice or adornment, yet it was nonetheless a thrillingly plot-driven novel. The Dead Republic is much closer to a character study, a chronicle of the near-dissolution of Henry Smart amidst a post mortem for a republic gone wrong.

So, does The Dead Republic end The Last Roundup on a down note? Without question. Is it a satisfying ending anyway? I think so, because it’s true to the tell-it-like-it-is, “Day Two of the revolution and I was already bored” ethic of A Star Called Henry, even though the old man at the center of it all is devastatingly diminished. There’s a moment when Henry tries to straighten up to his full height and square off with John Ford, and remembers, for the first time in years, “that I was a big man.” This, from a guy who at one time could whack a Black and Tan with his father's wooden leg and have the leg re-holstered before the man hit the ground; a kid who knew that his eyes alone made him a ladykiller when he was ten years old, and for whom it was a short and direct journey from righteously indignant cocky kid to to swashbuckling, ragged, rebel hero.

But three books and a full century later he’s no ghost, and he’s no myth—in spite of all those who want to turn him into both. He’s Henry Smart. And he’s still too real for fiction.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Review: Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

Random House, 2009
Compared to his contemporary and fellow novelist Paul Auster (reviewed here last week), John Irving is, for the most part, an open book. Auster’s books are intellectual puzzles; perhaps more than any other widely read literary author, Irving, by contrast, steadfastly maintains that writing fiction is an exercise of craft rather than intellect. Other than the fact that the two authors are roughly the same age and hail from the same northeastern quadrant of the United States, and that they both have magnificent new novels debuting the same day (October 27), there’s little reason to compare them, except for a shared affinity for traditional narrative structure and stylistic transparency—in spite of dense and often-intricate plotting—that distinguishes their work from their more obfuscation-prone peers.
Perhaps the most obvious narrative similarity between the two authors is the one that best underscores their differences: their shared inclination to write about writers and writing, and to populate their books with nested secondary narratives. But their motives are different. Auster, by and large, incorporates these stories-within-the-story to deconstruct some aspect of the storytelling process, to show how one story can usurp or supersede another in a character’s life, or to unsettle the reader through calculated misdirection.
Misdirection is rarely a part of John Irving’s books, even though it figured prominently in Until I Find You. Although his work is fabulously engaging and often surprising (witness Until I Find You’s magical and electrifying climactic scene), Irving doesn’t throw a lot of curve balls. I don’t entirely agree with a friend of mine and fellow Irving fan who says that Irving has essentially spent his career “pouring out his life” in his books, but he has made the most of environments, situations, and pursuits he knows to support the stories he imagines. Without pouring out his life, I do believe his books pour out what he believes. Irving's sense of literary mission is every bit as driven and earnest as that of his hero, Charles Dickens, while his work can also be as inventive and riotously funny as that of his other role model, the titanic Canadian man of letters Robertson Davies.
Until I Find You (with the exception of that last chapter) may have been a book that only Irving fans could love—in fact, I found it so thrilling, I have a hard time imagining Irving fans not loving it. But judging from the reactions of the Irving ingenues on whom I foisted it, the unconverted can only stomach so many semi-colons, and so many italicized instances of the word “penis.” Last Night in Twisted River, another brick-thick, plot-driven novel that really picks up steam after the opening section, seems less concerned with the stuff that tends to annoy some people in Irving’s work, and is the first book he's written in this decade that is likely to bring more new readers into the fold. But it prickles a bit defensively with what seems like a curmudgeonly challenge to those who have habitually misinterpreted his work, daring them to accuse him (yet again) of writing his life and calling it fiction. It’s fascinating, and also a little confounding.
Let’s dispense with the basics now: Last Night in Twisted River is the story of Dominic and Daniel Bociagalupo, a logging camp cook and his son, who leave the northern New Hampshire settlement of Twisted River abruptly one night under horrific and violent circumstances that effectively put them on the lam through most of the book, though more from the threat of backwoods justice than criminal prosecution. With new names and identities, the Bociagalupos go on to become a respected chef (Dominic) and a bestselling literary novelist (Daniel). What follows the Bociagalupos’ last night in Twisted River is a book with much of the emotional resonance, mesmerizing force, and epic sweep of A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules. And as in The World According to Garp, Irving attempts something that usually turns out badly—writing a novel about a novelist that’s meant to appeal to people who are not novelists—and once again he achieves the improbable.
Most of us know the recurring motifs in Irving’s books, which go (roughly) like this: bears, Maine, New Hampshire, single parents, wrestling, deadly car accidents, incest, prep schools, pedophilia, nonpracticing homosexuals, mannish and aggressive big girls, novelists, prostitutes, Vienna, Amsterdam, Toronto. There’s even a table on a wikipedia page that charts the appearance of some of these themes in his books (although it’s not as complete as it might be). What’s somewhat confounding about Last Night in Twisted River is that Irving seems determined to revisit as many of them as possible, as if he’s on a farewell tour or something, which I certainly hope he’s not. What’s more, he re-creates moments from his previous books with squirm-inducing specificity; there’s even a scene where an attacking dog gets his ear bitten off, just like in Garp.
In Twisted River, Irving also seems determined to visit places that we know figure significantly in his own autobiography but have never appeared quite so explicitly in his books, such as the Iowa Writers Workshop in Iowa City and the logging industry in New England (which is not so much part of his life, but part of his ancestors’, and was touched on so intriguingly in The Cider House Rules that you almost felt certain he would get back to it eventually). Exeter even shows up by name for the first time, which may be the first time you suspect that this novel is going to take—dare I say it—an unmistakably (and to me, uncharacteristically) autobiographical turn.
The main character in the book, the novelist Danny Angel, follows almost precisely the arc of Irving’s own writing career (3 novels that critics liked and readers ignored followed by a breakthrough bestseller; a 5th novel dismissed as a retread of the 4th; a 6th novel about an abortionist, called “didactic” by critics, that took 11 years to make into a movie and won Angel a screenwriting Oscar). Angel even defends his work and his life against the same questions Irving has been answering for years (about connections between his work and his life, his apparent stance on Vietnam, his expatriateism, his over-reliance on semicolons and italics), with almost the same answers (verbatim) that Irving has been giving in recent interviews, even those that don’t particularly concern the subject matter of this book.
Most of those interviews, and a great part of his recent work, have been devoted to disquisitions on what writers do and how they do it; it's not insignificant that two of his last four books have been about novelists. Now that we have three John Irving books that are explicitly about novelists—The World According to Garp, A Widow for One Year, and Last Night in Twisted River—it’s more interesting than ever to compare them to his books that, I’d argue, are metaphorically about novelists: The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, A Son of the Circus, and Until I Find You. Oddly enough, for a man who has insisted for so long that a writer’s work is more about what he imagines than what he has experienced, Garp, Widow, and Twisted River are all preoccupied with how writing is or is not derived from life (and Widow, most poignantly, about the careful and instructive crafting of a true-life story that is never written but often told).
The other 3 books concern themselves with non-writers who find other ways to rewrite life to make it better than it would be otherwise: Larch as an abortionist; Owen Meany in directing his own life to put him in position to save the Vietnamese children he’s seen in his vision; Daruwalla scripting the plan to catch the killer; and Jack Burns’s parents spinning, separately, their contradictory versions of his life. Last Night at Twisted River, though largely a book about a novelist, has a bit of both, in the way Danny Angel’s father, Dominic, rewrites their lives with a few careful deceptions, a late-night getaway, and new names and identities in an attempt to give his son a future—although it feels almost inevitable that the story he has written them out of will eventually pull them back in.
What’s so interesting and peculiar about Danny Angel’s life falling into step with John Irving’s (roughly, at the time Danny goes to Exeter, then UNH, then Iowa City...) is that Daniel Baciagalupo, frightened son of a logging camp cook, is almost the last Irving character that I would have expected to grow up to do so many of the things that the guy who invented him has done, although the narrator, Danny’s father, and his favorite non-uncle uncle—the lifelong logging man Ketchum, who’s one of Irving’s all-time raunchiest and most delightful characters—often reflect on the times that may have foreshadowed Danny’s future as a writer.
Naturally, Irving anticipated all this dots-connecting. As for the predisposition of critics to write, and interviewers to ask, about the parallels between a novelist’s work and a novelist’s life—inferences that he says do nothing but trivialize the work—Irving writes:
Danny Angel’s fiction had been ransacked for every conceivable autobiographical scrap; his novels had been dissected and overanalyzed for whatever could be construed as the virtual memoirs hidden inside them. But what did Danny expect?
In the media, real life was more important than fiction; those elements of a novel that were, at least, based on personal experience were of more interest to the general public than those pieces of the novel-writing process that were “merely” made up. In any work of fiction, weren’t those things that had really happened to the writer—or, perhaps, to someone the writer had intimately known—more authentic, more verifiably true, than anything that anyone could imagine? (This was a common belief, even though a fiction writer’s job was imagining, truly, a whole story—as Danny had subversively said, whenever he was given the opportunity to defend the fiction in fiction writing—because real-life stories were never whole, never complete in the ways that real novels could be.)
The notion of imagined stories, in the hands of people who know how to imagine them, as being more whole or true than real-life stories may be the central concept of Irving’s entire career. In a way, it’s a notion that gives credence to those who would call John Irving a throwback to a time when writers either didn’t acknowledge, or chose not to reflect in their work the fragmentary nature of human consciousness, experience, and interaction, insisting on tying up the loose ends of life in a world where business is never finished, only abandoned. Irving would probably take that assertion as pejorative, but the notion of the novelist or his or her analogue in other walks of life as someone with the power to resolve stories and make them whole in ways they would never be otherwise is almost ubiquitous in his work. A doctor who sees only terminal cases, indeed.
For years, I’ve thought of the things I’d like to write about John Irving’s work (some of which are here) that would somehow compel my writing idol to take notice of them and find me in one of those grand coincidences that make Irving’s books either magical or ridiculous, depending on your point of view. And here I am, essentially, writing all the stuff that seems to piss him off the most. But as mentioned earlier, this book almost comes across as a dare to Irving’s critics, both in its content, and in the imagined arguments Danny Angel has with his critics—which, one suspects, aren’t entirely imagined.
When you break it down, it’s actually pretty fascinating: a bestselling literary novelist, forty years into a career often dogged by critics who've reduced his work to regurgitations of his experience, writing about a novelist who fights the same accusations, in a novel that’s largely about the events in a writer’s life that happen to coincide with the central events in his novels (or, at least, the events that appear to be central to his novels in the glimpses of those novels that we get in this novel). Irving even offers up the idea of autobiographical writing for inspection in the sections of Twisted River that concern the classes Danny teaches at Iowa.
What’s more, there are a number of insights offered about the craft of novel-writing (such as writing the last sentence first) that are, of course, attributed to the writer (and character) Danny Angel, but have often, especially recently, been referenced by John Irving in interviews as elements of the way he writes. There’s even a part in which Danny Angel, the writer, is sitting in his father’s restaurant writing in a notebook as he works on a new novel. After writing a particularly choice line of dialogue, he circles it, and adds a note to himself: “Not now ... Tell the part about the pig roast first.”
Then the chapter ends, and the next chapter begins several years earlier with the “pig roast” incident in Danny Angel’s own life that he’s telling himself to fictionalize next in his novel. This is probably the moment in a Paul Auster book where Auster might toss us headlong into a parallel narrative, in which we’re no longer reading about a writer writing a notebook; we’re reading the contents of the notebook itself. In this case, Irving’s approach is more, well, twisted: We’re never really removed from the captivating arc of the story, but by casually presenting Danny Angel’s ritual efforts to synthesize and transmute his own experiences into fiction, Irving is simultaneously baiting and answering his own critics, daring them to miss the point and accusing them of already having missed it. That point, I suspect, is that there’s a hell of a story unfolding here, and it'll blow right by you if you spend all your time looking for the writer’s own story in it.
Has Irving created a perfect “You’re So Vain” moment, daring his critics not only to look for echoes of the writer's life in this book, but also to find their own reductions of his work repeated, retorted, and perversely validated? Are we guilty as charged, and does the author simply have our number? I suspect this is not so much a case of the Carly Simons as of the Robert Oppenheimers: We’re all bastards now.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Review: Invisible by Paul Auster

Henry Holt, 2009

Invisible, Paul Auster’s new coming-of-age novel—which is thrillingly unlike anything you would expect a coming-of-age novel to be—brings to mind Henry Roth’s Mercy of a Rude Stream, the tortured quartet of autobiographical novels that the almost-famous author of Call It Sleep, decades removed from the publishing world, completed in a grand-scale bloodletting at the very end of his life. Though also monumentally talented, Roth, unlike Paul Auster, was a novelist who could write of nothing but himself, his experiences, and the Yiddish New York of his youth. The one time he tried anything else—a disastrous mid-’30s effort to fictionalize the life of a prominent union leader to please his lefty comrades who had disparaged the apolitical Call It Sleep—it sent him careening into decades of depression and writer’s block.

But it wasn’t just the inability to write about matters other than his own life that ruined Henry Roth. It was also knowing that to write honestly about his life after the age of 12 (that is, a few years older than David Schearl in Call It Sleep) would mean facing the horrors of his adolescence in general and, in particular, the horrors of his adolescent self.

So, in Roth’s case, we’re left with the autobiographical novel-as-deathbed confession, which is very much what we find in the story at the core of Paul Auster’s Invisible, in which a dying man named Adam Walker struggles to recount, forty years later, three seasons of a year that’s cast a dark shadow over his life ever since. As in most of Auster’s novels, Walker's tale isn’t the only narrative in the book. The story is told in multiple narrative voices, and comes wrapped in another story that leads us to a stunning, Heart of Darkness-like parallel concluding narrative. Each of the book's four interlocking sements, in its own way, throws into sharp relief the peculiar projects that autobiographical novels—particularly the end-of-life variety—tend to be.

Roth, likewise, presents the Mercy of a Rude Stream series in two voices: the first-person narrator telling the story of Roth’s fictional alter ego, the adolescent Ira Stigman; and the bracketed interjections of Ira as an old man, complaining to his computer, whom he calls Ecclesias, about his exhaustion, his arthritis, and how deeply conflicted he feels about the work he's undertaken. This narrative device is little more than annoying in the first volume, although it does have the Austerian virtue of metafictional contextualization in an eminently readable narrative: It reminds you that there’s a story being told, with its mechanics exposed, and acknowledges that the man telling it may not be up to the challenge (which is another problem with the first volume of Mercy of a Rude Stream). It also serves notice that the tale of the teller is part of the story too.

In the second installment of the Mercy series, Roth returns, fully in command of his old writing powers (minus the Joycean interior monologue of Call It Sleep, which he'd grown to detest), and with a much more understandable reason to hate himself for what he’s doing. About 100 pages into the book, a younger sister suddenly appears in (young) Ira’s story, telling Ira to check the door of their parents’ bedroom to make sure it’s locked. All of a sudden we have a new family tree, updating the one presented at the beginning of the first two books, with a sister’s name added next to Ira’s. We also get an earful of self-loathing unleashed from old Ira onto Ecclesias. It’s in the next several pages that we're introduced to the ugly truth of Ira’s youth: several years spent sexually abusing his younger sister, and later, a younger cousin.

Just as Paul Auster would have it—not in the sense of exposing or exploiting the private lives of authors, but in terms of complete and compelling stories being the product of intertwined and nested narratives—to know the story of Ira Stigman in Mercy of a Rude Stream, and the story of Henry Roth’s bizarre late-in-life “comeback,” is inevitably to know that the story of Ira and his sister is part of Roth’s own story, and that it absolutely devastated Roth’s sister to see it published. An angry and anguished correspondence bears witness to the rift the books created between the elderly siblings. Roth’s defense—that he wrote the books to validate and preserve the vanished Yiddish world, rather than to purge his own conscience—is unforgivable at worst, and half-true at best. (Roth’s sister replied, in essence, that no one could possibly read a book about a Yiddish-speaking brother and sister having sex with each other and come away with a positive impression of diaspora Jews in early 20th-century New York. There’s much, much more to Mercy of a Rude Stream than incest—and much magnificent storytelling to justify Roth's apologia—but it's hard to imagine a writer choosing a more indefensible road to redemption.)

Auster's Invisible takes on all of this: the deathbed autobiographical novel, the struggle to find the voice to tell the story, the good and bad reasons for writing it, the complex reactions of people that the author knew it would shock and/or hurt, the question of what’s true and what isn’t, and the weird road the book travels to find its way into the world. Roth’s story (like the story within his story) is messier than the stories that drive Invisible. But what’s so amazing about Invisible—and what makes it a triumph of the first order for Auster—is that it so compellingly manages to be a novel about the way guilt, rage, regret, narcissism, unsettled scores, wishful thinking, failed ambitions, flawed best guesses, not knowing when to shut up, and simply running out of time can shape the stories we tell at the end of our lives. And, of course, it also concerns the complex ways in which these stories sometimes become books. Keeping in mind that this is Paul Auster we’re talking about, it should come as no surprise that the "book" in Invisible turns out not to be the book we initially imagine it is—nor the book we imagine it to be the next time we think we know.

Lest I give the impression that Invisible is 90% intellectual exercise and 10% fiction—like Auster’s allegorical Travels in the Scriptorium (2007)—I assure you that it’s anything but. The first section, told in the first person, is a scorcher: tense, weird, sprinkled with sexual intrigue, and culminating in violence that sets up the rest of the book. This violent incident also serves notice for the first time that this probably is not a crypto-autobiographical story about Paul Auster the introverted, awkward, arrogant aspiring poet and French translator at Columbia in 1967, even though young Adam Walker's vital stats seem to jibe with what we know about the author at that age. But in subsequent pages we not only get the sense that Walker isn’t Auster; we also realize that (spoiler alert) the first-person narrative we’ve just read is just the first section of a book in progress that Walker has sent to an old friend who’s in the publishing business. Essentially, it’s a nested storyline in the hands of a guy trying to figure out what to do with it—a task that becomes more and more perplexing to him as the book goes on. And this is precisely the ride Auster wants to take us on.

Maybe this is just the Auster fanboy in me speaking, but my favorite moments in his books often come when he reminds me of his unique ability to upset the apple cart of narrative unity without ever compromising narrative flow. And I doubt I’ve seen a novelist define, so well, exactly what makes him so damn good, as when Jim Freeman, Adam Walker’s old friend in publishing, decides how he’s going to handle (and then presents) the last unfinished manuscript Walker sends him:

Telegraphic. No complete sentences. From beginning to end, written like this. Goes to the store. Falls asleep. Lights a cigarette. In the third person this time. Third person, present tense, and therefore I decide to follow his lead and render his account in exactly that way—third person, present tense. As for the enclosed pages, do with them what you will. He had given me his permission, and I don’t feel that turning his encrypted, Morse-code jottings into full sentences constitutes a betrayal of any kind. Despite my editorial involvement with the text, in the deepest, truest sense of what it means to tell a story, every word of Fall was written by Walker himself.

As it turns out, there’s another delicious layer of narrative recasting to come that requires you to refocus your vision on the story you’re actually reading, and in the best sense of novel-reading revelry, it makes you wish Auster would pile on another and another layer to keep you improbably suspended on the high-wire of his invention. If that's not "the deepest, truest sense of what it means to tell a story," I suppose I'll just have to wait for Paul Auster's next novel to find out what is.

Order Invisible from Powell's Books.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Review: Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

Doubleday, April 2009

If I’d read Colson Whitehead’s forthcoming coming-of-age novel, Sag Harbor, when I was coming of age myself, it would have been absolutely revelatory on two counts: First, that the dozen or so upper-middle-class black kids who accounted for roughly 4% of the students in my private high school also moved in a different world, with different identities, when they were away from school and their white classmates; and second, that the vacations my classmates took to places like Hilton Head and Kiawah Island, where parents left the kids to their own unchaperoned devices for days at a time, were actually much more lame than they sounded.

But already knowing these things didn’t stop me from enjoying Sag Harbor immensely. Though this “autobiographical fourth novel” is quite different from Whitehead’s first three books—most of all, from his first novel and gothic masterpiece, the extended double-consciousness metaphor The Intuitionist—it’s still an absolute delight to read, and just as insightful about racial identity in America as his earlier books.

Whitehead’s last two novels, John Henry Days and Apex Hides the Hurt, are very funny books, both wry, angry, telling takes on racial myopia and 21st century occupational absurdity (a journalist living junket to junket, a celebrated nomenclature consultant hired to mediate the renaming of a town, respectively). But neither of those books is laugh-your-ass-off funny in the way Sag Harbor is. Sag Harbor is the story of an African-American boy named Benji who spends nine months of every year at a predominantly white prep school in Manhattan (“I was used to being the only black kid in the room”) and passes his summers in Sag Harbor, a small enclave of upper-middle class blacks in the Hamptons, the elite east end of Long Island. Sag Harbor begins in June 1985, when Benji is 15. With their sister off to college and their quarreling parents rarely driving out to join them, Benji and his brother Reggie have their family’s house almost entirely to themselves.

Though it’s perhaps a bit early to start canonizing this book, it’s not too far-fetched to say that Sag Harbor may soon take its place alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Walter Mosley’s Man in My Basement in the trinity of great Hamptons novels. And Sag Harbor would unquestionably qualify as the most humorous of the three. Maybe Whitehead himself could have had a career in the naming business; one of the funniest parts of Sag Harbor comes early in the book when Benji introduces his friend NP and explains how he got his nickname:

We called him NP, for Nigger Please, because no matter what came out of his mouth, that was usually the most appropriate response. He was our best liar, a raconteur of baroque teenage shenanigans … We thought we were being smart [by abbreviating] his nickname until one day we were over at NP’s house and his mom started getting on his case for some chore or other he had neglected. He began some elaborate explanation—meteorites had squashed his bike and he couldn’t make it home—when she lost her patience and cut him off with a shrill, “Nigger, please!” Mrs. Nichols’s hand shot to her mouth, but it was too late. His nickname had approval at the highest levels. For all we knew, she’d coined it in the first place.

Let me be the first to say that the very short shortlist of indelible nicknames in American fiction—Pudd’nhead Wilson, Studs Lonigan, Scout Finch—just got one name longer.

In the droll author's note that accompanies the advance proof of this book, Whitehead talks about how he’s doing things out of traditional order, presenting his autobiographical novel as his fourth book rather than his first. You can almost feel all the places where this book might have gone awry in a less mature novelist’s hands. There are chapters that start out like essays, riffs, or comedy bits he’s been working up for years, such as "The Summer of 'Dag'" (about evanescent teen lingo) and the era-defining New Coke fiasco, a riotous set piece that you'd think would go nowhere, but ends up fitting perfectly into Benji’s fish-out-of-water prep school experience. The riff that starts off seeming the most pointless—a discourse on mid-’80s easy listening radio—turns out to reveal the lovely emotional core of the book. Likewise, there are other scenes—involving the seething, gin-guzzling, barbecuing dad who’s already taught Benji “no one can hurt you more than me”; and the “he’s not my cousin, I thought he was your cousin” ante-raising pyromaniac at the end-of-summer bonfire—you fully expect to send the book hurtling toward a cataclysmic, turning-point-of-my-life ending.

But Sag Harbor is the rare breed of autobiographical novel that avoids such pitfalls. It's a book of adolescent frustrations, missed opportunities, and false starts; big changes beginning in small ways; minor revelations writ large; major revelations only partly understood; and hilarious and resonant moments of teenage buffoonery.

One of the problems with autobiographical first novels is it’s often difficult to place them in the context of a writer’s entire career. After the veiled memoir is out of the way, it’s easy to see how a writer got from Novel B to Novel C, but the first novel often seems anomalous. There are exceptions; take Tobias Wolff, another prep school misfit, who’s essentially written a succession of memoirs covering various stages of his early life, sometimes casting them as novels, as in the case of Old School. Though This Boy’s Life is surely the best of the bunch, it’s still of a piece with the others. Looking at Southern novelist Lee Smith’s autobiographical first novel, The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed, is more puzzling. It’s a fine book, but also a very conventional coming-of-age book; it’s hard to imagine how she got from Dogbushes to Fancy Strut, which isn’t her best book, but the one in which she emerges fully formed as a novelist of unique and perceptive gifts for creating vast casts of hilarious and real characters from the inside out. Only recently did I discover that she didn’t make the leap from Dogbushes to Strut leap in a single book; in between she wrote the long-out-of-print Something In the Wind, a late-’60s novel set in a North Carolina college. It’s not a great book—in some ways it’s a step backwards from Dogbushes, which is probably why it has dropped off the map—but you can see the progression in terms of humor and empathy and insight, and see its author actually becoming Lee Smith, rather than simply going to sleep one night as a Decent First Novelist and waking up, one novel later, as an Iconic Southern Author.

The difference in Colson Whitehead’s case is that he shot out of the gate with The Intuitionist, a book that makes you go Dag! in every way a great novel should. Three books later, as his writing takes an autobiographical turn, the good news is that he’s already Colson Whitehead, Literary Badass, and at no time in his trip down memory lane does he forget it. This bit of fictional autobiography may come at a perfect time in Whitehead’s career: not at the beginning, where the story would be left in the shaky hands of a first-time novelist telling the only story he thinks he really knows; or at the end, told by an old man gone weepy with nostalgia and asking us to indulge his book-length footnote to a career on the wane.

There’s nostalgia in Sag Harbor, but it’s 15-year-old Benji pining (quite movingly) for his early childhood rather than Whitehead getting misty-eyed over the teenage geek he once was. Instead of wallowing or reveling in the past—or ruing his own adolescent failures—Whitehead mines the rich material of a modestly misspent youth, and plays it to perfect and beguiling effect.

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