Friday, July 18, 2008

Review: Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos

Atlantic Monthly Press; January 1, 2009

In the title track of his 9/11-inspired album, The Rising, Bruce Springsteen summons the image of "a catfish dancing on the end of my line" to evoke a fireman's state of mind as he finds himself suspended between life and death. The "rising" of the song's title refers not so much to the rising flames in the collapsing Twin Towers as to the notion of resurrection, as Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen describes in his definitive Paste magazine review. But as other tracks on the album make clear, Springsteen is concerned less with the resurrection of the dead than of the living—the spiritual rebirth of those whose lives have been stunted by the deaths of their loved ones.

All of these notions—the mystifying space between life and death, the strange and lasting toll death takes on the living, and what it means for the living to sing to the dead—stand at the heart of Stephanie Kallos' brilliant forthcoming novel, Sing Them Home. Originally titled Hope's Wheelchair, Sing Them Home draws on a real event from the author's southeast Nebraska childhood in which a wheelchair-bound woman named Hope, afllicted by multiple sclerosis, was badly hurt when a tornado destroyed her farmhouse.

But unlike the Hope of Kallos' hometown, the Hope of Sing Them Home "went up" and never came down. The novel focuses on the lives of Hope's three children (now in their thirties) and how her death's failure to supply "the gift of bones" shaped the adults they became—and the adults they didn't become. "The gift of bones is a profound comfort to the living—little else satisfies—and these children have done without it," Kallos writes.

Given its premise, it's refreshing to discover that Sing Me Home isn't in the least maudlin. A quarter-century later, Hope's incorporeal death has left her offspring not so much grief-stricken as unsettled and odd.

But death is central to the novel. Sing Them Home is set in a Nebraska town called Emlyn Springs where Welsh tradition runs deep, and nowhere is that tradition more manifest than in the town's all-consuming observance of the funereal rite of Gymanfa Ganu. The Gymanfa seems like a dramatically intensified Celtic cousin to the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva, the main difference being that Gymanfa Ganu requires that the home of the deceased (or some other appointed location) be occupied for seven days by the entire town, as opposed to a ten-man minyan, and that instead of praying twice a day, mourners observing Gymanfa Ganu are expected to sing Welsh hymns 'round the clock—to sing the dead home, as it were.

Two Gymanfa Ganus play noteworthy roles in Sing Them Home: that of Hope's widower, Llwellyn, which creates the circumstances of reunion and homecoming that kick off the book; and that of Llwellyn's grandmother. The grandmother's Gymanfa is described in a 1960 entry in Hope's diary. Though this early entry, relating Hope's first visit to Emlyn Springs as Llwellyn's fiancee, captures a young woman full of, well, hope, and a burning desire to lose her virginity, later entries track the early signs of MS and the toll it takes on her as the disease advances (both before and after she finds out what's happening to her). Hope's diary creates a recurrent and increasingly heartbreaking secondary narrative in the novel—a beyond-the-grave voice unknowingly relating the story of how her life slipped away from her.

As in Kallos' stunning debut novel, Broken for You (2004), the power and determination of the dead to communicate with the living is an important issue in Sing Them Home. It's also a source of frustration for the dead in this novel, who know when the living need them, but are also aware that the living aren't especially good at hearing what the dead need to tell them, or understanding the responsibilities that the dead have in their world.

Of Hope's three children, the youngest, Bonnie, seems most attuned to the presence of the dead in the world of the living; known to one and all in Emlyn Springs as "The Flying Girl" because she and her bicycle went up in the twister with Hope and inexplicably landed safely on top of an upended tree, Bonnie devotes her life to the collection of seemingly random junk and scraps of paper—anything that may even vaguely point her toward her mother's continued presence in the world or connect her pre-Flying Girl life to the one that followed.

Bonnie's older brother, Gaelan, is among the last of his kind in the world of local network affiliate news: the non-meteorologist weatherman, a good-looking, affable on-screen presence with no scientific qualifications for predicting the unpredictable (a job that seems especially absurd in Nebraska). A maniacal bodybuilder with a healthy Springsteen fixation, Gaelan devotes his late afternoons to a particularly detached brand of serial polygamy.

Hope's eldest, Larken, gets a number of the greatest set-piece scenes in the book. The first thing we learn about Larken, an art history professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is that she can dress down a belligerent student in her office without ever letting on that she has a Reese's peanut butter cup lodged in each cheek. The glimpses we get of her adolescent journey from Little Miss Emlyn Springs to overweight town tramp in a two-year span are tautly presented without a hint of unseemly sentimentality.

The scenes involving Larken and her upstairs neighbor's child are also a thing of beauty. Despite its built-in limitations, this relationship also points toward a more engaged and satisfying possible new life for Larken, and during the course of the book we see Larken and her brother and sister move awkwardly, and not always promisingly, toward resurrections of their own. Much like the dead who see all and wish they could do more about it, as readers we begin to see where their lives ought to go, but it's not always clear if or how they're going to get there.

Much like Broken for You, Sing Them Home is a richly textured, deeply satisfying, and enduring read—a whirlwind of aching sadness, secret histories, sex that's by turns empty and angry and sloppy and transformative, moments of great sweetness and joy that are never saccharine, and ultimately, resolution and redemption that are well-earned and in no way false or forced. Before Sing Them Home, Kallos was already, arguably, the best first-novelist of the Aughts; now it's abundantly clear that she's becoming quite a bit more than that.

Click here to pre-order Sing Them Home from Powell's Books.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Review: The Bible Salesman by Clyde Edgerton

Little Brown; August 2008

Clyde Edgerton’s 2003 novel, Lunch at the Picadilly, wasn’t his best book—his 1988 masterpiece, The Floatplane Notebooks, still holds that honor—but in many ways it was the quintessential Clyde Edgerton novel. Not only did it have a high quotient of songs folded into its pages—Edgerton and fellow musician Mike Craver even developed a musical around the book—it also had a near-endless supply of hilarious and pitch-perfect dialogue of old Southern ladies. I’m a fan of all of Edgerton’s books and can attest that there are many things he does well, but channeling Southern women of advanced age and transcribing their conversations is quite simply what he does best, and does better than any other writer I can think of, male or female, Southern or otherwise.

Edgerton comes by his ear for this sort of dialogue naturally. He grew up in the 1940s and ’50s in a tiny North Carolina community called Bethesda near what is now Raleigh-Durham International Airport, surrounded by many aunts and cousins whose language and cadence seem to flow through his pen at will.

Clyde Edgerton’s new novel, The Bible Salesman, is not a typical Edgerton novel in the Lunch At the Picadilly sense, but it’s his most risk-taking work of fiction since his 1995 western, Redeye. Set in rural North Carolina in the 1940s (and several years earlier in flashbacks), The Bible Salesman charts the course of two men—one of them a dashing and accomplished thief, the other an enthusiastic, but unwitting accomplice—on a grand-theft-auto crime spree. The titular Bible salesman is a credulous young man named Henry Dampier who gets talked into joining a car theft ring by Preston Clearwater, a career criminal who convinces Dampier that he’s an FBI agent who’s infiltrated the ring to bust the perpetrators. By assisting in the car-transfers, he tells Dampier, he’ll be working for the FBI on a critical, top-secret mission.

The book deals in violence and seediness like no Edgerton novel since Redeye, and culminates in the most suspenseful scene Edgerton has ever written, in which Dampier and Clearwater attempt to rob a small-town doctor (a scene introduced in a killer short story, “The Great Speckled Bird,” published in The Southern Review last year). But aside from the showdown with the doctor, the most memorable scenes in the book concern Dampier’s courtship of a girl named Marleen Green whom he meets in his travels selling Bibles.

What’s remarkable about the scenes of Henry and Marleen is, of course, the dialogue. While their conversation mostly serves as a prelude to a physical relationship, it’s also the tentatively philosophical banter of two people whose ability to think abstractly and articulate those thoughts are largely undeveloped. In a movie, we’d most likely gloss over this sort of awkwardness with a music montage that would reduce the development of their relationship to looks and gestures, but Edgerton plays it all out as only he can, creating perfectly realized verbal exchanges between essentially non-verbal people. This strikes me as a very difficult thing to do, especially without even a hint of condescension on the writer's part.

Reading these scenes, you ache at the awkwardness of Henry and Marleen and laugh at their clumsy attempts to impress each other (and Henry's transparent scheming to shed his virginity), but Edgerton never makes his characters look stupid or casts them as objects of ridicule. For example, after a brief debate on whether aspirin actually stops pain or simply covers it up, Henry waxes philosophical to Marleen about “how you couldn’t for sure talk about some object in some ways unless you knew which particular one it was so you could say that one.” Marleen counters by pointing out that “you couldn’t make any real sense about certain kinds of tree things if you talked about trees in general.” She concludes, leading Henry and Marleen to their tentative first kiss: “Sometimes generalizing doesn’t work.”

This is classic Edgerton, as are the too-few and too-far-between moments shared by Henry and his two elderly Bible customers, Miss Sarah and Mrs. Finley, which let us spend at least a few pages in Lunch at the Picadilly country. The scenes of Dampier’s childhood, and his efforts to make sense of the rigid religion he was raised on, echo earlier books like Where Trouble Sleeps and Raney as well. Some of The Bible Salesman's finest and funniest moments happen when Dampier, reading and thinking independently on the Bible for the first time as an adult and thrashing out its apparent contradictions in his head, tries to engage Clearwater on biblical topics, and of course the hardened car thief wants no part of it. What pushes the book into Redeye territory (and beyond, since we care about Henry and Marleen, as well as Henry's sister, more than I recall caring about the characters in Redeye) is the violence at the core of Preston Clearwater, which engenders a sense of dread in the reader that pervades the entire experience of reading the book.

One peculiar aspect of The Bible Salesman is an Author’s Note that appears at the start of the book. In it Edgerton defends the “[a]pparent usage irregularities of some characters’ speech… Since langage is not spoken in a vacuum, but rather in situations among people,” Edgerton writes, “it is clear and reasonable that the use of language be judged by custom and appropriateness rather than by the principles of correctness drawn from mathlike assumptions.”

I have no doubt Edgerton believes this—I couldn’t agree with it more myself—but I just wonder under what sort of duress he felt compelled to write it, and to include it as the preface to this novel, which by my count is his ninth. Edgerton’s characters have been speaking their own language and earning their author comparisons to Mark Twain for his ability to capture dialect since his first book, Raney, appeared in 1983. Why he’d feel the need to defend the authenticity of his characters' speech, and their right to speak in the authentic dialect of their region at this stage of the game is a mystery to me; maybe it has something to do with the fact that Edgerton has a new publisher, the Boston-based Little Brown, after 25 years with the Chapel Hill-based Algonquin Books. But you’d think Little Brown would understand this without the explanation, and trust their readers to get it too.

One thing I’ve always appreciated about Edgerton’s characters and his portrayal of rural North Carolinians in particular is that they talk how they talk and they are who they are, and there’s no tortured, divided-soul personal agenda behind the way he writes them. He’s not Eugene O’Neill protesting that “stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people,” nor is he James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus vowing to “forge the unconstructed conscience of my race in the smithy of my soul.” Edgerton is a storyteller, not given to such self-dramatizing proclamations, and the truths his stories reveal flow quite naturally—and usually quite quietly—from the stories themselves and the characters and situations within them, rather than from the author’s wrestling with some troubled relationship to them.

When Edgerton strikes the first note of racial prejudice in Raney, it’s not presented as a sweeping indictment of the character who speaks it; it simply emerges as another facet of the cultural chasm separating Old South Raney and her New South husband, Charles, and what they both need to learn if they hope to understand each other. In a later book, In Memory of Junior, there’s much casual discussion among veterans of their experiences in Vietnam. Most of these take place on gravedigging jobs, but the exchange that’s stuck in my mind for years involves Jimmy and Faison on a fishing trip, when Jimmy says of the war, "It alters a man’s life. At’s a fact… I saw stuff over there I’ll never see again... While we was over there we was different, and I sure as hell don’t think anybody ought to get the blame... You get sent somewhere to do a job, you do the job. I’ll tell you one thing. I by and large loved it. Most of it."

In another writer’s hands, this would be a soapbox moment, the character serving as a mouthpiece for the writer and articulating his deepest convictions (or exposing their antithesis) on the most controversial national episode of the author’s lifetime. But in Edgerton’s hands it's something different. It's reasonable to assume this is part of what Edgerton believes about Vietnam, and a partial reflection of his experience as an Air Force pilot in Southeast Asia during the war. But Edgerton isn't talking here—Jimmy is. And that’s what allows the character to speak, quite credibly, a truth that doesn’t happen to be the whole story, but is true nonetheless, I suspect, for many small-town Southern boys for whom Vietnam meant a chance to see other parts of the world, possibly fly planes, and certainly experience things that they never would have if they hadn’t left home to serve: “I by and large loved it.”

Edgerton expands on this experience quite powerfully in his memoir Solo—his most recent book before The Bible Salesman—and reveals a response to the war experience that’s more complex than Jimmy's, and much more regretful. But Jimmy's take is in there: "They say war is hell," Edgerton writes in Solo, "but it wasn't hell for me." I’ll confess to having learned as much about what Vietnam meant to some of the young men who fought the war from those six words of Jimmy’s as I learned from Solo. As strong a memoir as Solo is, Edgerton is at his best as a novelist. With the arrival of The Bible Salesman—a book that’s as funny and true as his earlier novels and also the scariest thing he’s written yet—it’s good to have Edgerton the novelist back, and with a hell of a tale to tell.

Click here to pre-order The Bible Salesman from Powell's Books.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Review: Man in the Dark by Paul Auster

Henry Holt; August 19, 2008

Like most novelists whose work will outlive them, Paul Auster rarely deals in the sort of topicality that traps books in time. He didn’t take time in ’80s novels such as City of Glass or Moon Palace to ruminate on Reaganomics, Iran-Contra, or Glasnost; nor did he waste words in taut ’90s outings such as Leviathan or Timbuktu mewling about Gen-X malaise or presidential sex scandals. This is not to say Auster’s novels have been out of step with the times, inherently escapist, or blithely insensate to the realities of the eras in which they’ve been written. But perhaps more consistently than any other literary writer of his generation, Auster has fashioned worlds so engrossing in their invention that to connect them too concretely to the familiar mundanities of our own dimension would somehow diminish them.

If a novelist needs a reason to keep separate the world in which he writes and the worlds of which he writes, Auster has an especially good one: Most of his books have layers of reality—written and lived—already etched into their pages. His last fully realized novel, The Brooklyn Follies (2005), incorporates just such a layering effect through “The Book of Human Folly,” an accumulation of random musings that protagonist Nathan Glass writes as a dying old man “trying to keep himself entertained.” The Brooklyn Follies incorporates most of the narrative elements familiar to Auster readers—dispatches from the existential void, intricate plotting, stories within stories, lives within lives—even though Auster himself seems more interested in entertaining readers than in unsettling them, at least compared to more challenging earlier works like Leviathan and Oracle Night.

But The Brooklyn Follies diverges most sharply from previous Auster novels in the final pages, when the world of his readers and the world of his characters collide as never before. Nathan Glass awakens to a lovely Brooklyn morning with his story resolved and all more or less right in his world, but the dramatic irony is thicker than he can possibly imagine, given that the morning in question just happens to be September 11, 2001. I’m making this sound more trite and conveniently coincidental than it actually is; the ending works quite well. Though Auster would be first to question the idea that there's anything "natural" about the nature of novels, and the traditional relationship of reader and writer and story (The New York Trilogy was about nothing if not blurring those distinctions), perhaps allowing 9/11 to intrude on his story at that point was just a natural conclusion for a writer so rooted in New York City (and deeply affected by the events of that day), bound to the inescapable truth of the city's 21st-Century existence.

Or maybe choosing to have Nathan Glass’s world intersect with our own was simply another provocative Austerian device. After all, his books have always operated at simultaneous cross-purposes: carrying us away in the thrilling machinations of his characterization and plotting, while repeatedly shaking loose the story’s grip by exposing or deconstructing the machinery of writing or the voyeurism of reading. The fact that he’s consistently managed to accomplish these two opposed tasks through generally straightforward, lucid, and conventional narrative structure and style—eschewing the post-structuralist banalities of most metafiction—underscores his signature gift.

Three years and two novels later, with the forthcoming publication of Auster’s latest work of fiction, Man in the Dark, it’s possible to see the end of The Brooklyn Follies in an entirely new light. From the outset, Man in the Dark both acknowledges 9/11 and poses the question: Is it possible to tell a contemporary story of a world where 9/11—and the senseless war that's been its ongoing aftermath—never happened?

Man in the Dark quickly arrives in such a world—or, more accurately, in such a story. A man finds himself trapped in a hole with no means of escape, and no idea where he is or how he got there. Relatively quickly, he gets a few clues: He’s Owen Brick, a soldier in a war in an “American wilderness” he doesn’t recognize, on a mission to kill the man responsible for the conflict. First we learn a bit more about the war that surrounds him: It’s a civil war that began in late 2000, following the contested presidential election, when several states, including New York, elected to secede (with the support of most of Europe) from the U.S. We're in sci-fi/alternate-history country here; the rest of what Brick knows about 21st-Century America--9/11, the war in Iraq--has never come to pass. An auspicious beginning, to be sure. We also know from the get-go that these events are taking place within a story that a bed-ridden, insomniac old man (the titular man in the dark) named August Brill is telling himself to keep his mind off the bitter recriminations of his own memories.

All of this lands us in familiar Auster territory: not just the story-within-a-story conceit, but also extremely similar terrain to Travels in the Scriptorium, the intriguing but skeletal novella the famously deliberate novelist cranked out between The Brooklyn Follies and Man in the Dark. The opening section of Man in the Dark is part rehash, part inversion of Travels. In Travels, an unnamed man sits imprisoned in a place he doesn’t know how he got to, punished for crimes he can’t recall. Mr. Blank, as he’s called (a name that gets a tossed-off shout-out in Man in the Dark), has spent his life sending people on dangerous and often deadly missions, for no apparent reason other than his own amusement. Most of his minions turn out to be characters from Auster’s earlier books.

Many critics dismissed The Brooklyn Follies as “Auster lite” because so many familiar Auster devices seemed to be played for laughs; Travels strikes me as “Auster heavy” since it lacks the leavening effect of an ingenious and diverting plot—something Auster has always delivered (with the exception of the grinding sci-fi dystopia In the Country of Last Things)—rendering it more intellectual exercise than novel. Man in the Dark, which unceremoniously ditches the Owen Brick story when the old man either tires of telling it to himself or realizes he doesn’t know how to resolve it, is ultimately more dissatisfying than Travels because Man in the Dark does, at first, seem to be going somewhere.

Auster’s storyteller-characters have written themselves into corners before—it happens (literally) with Sidney Orr’s blue notebook story in Oracle Night, but in the whirlwind of that novel it works, and seems purposeful, just as noteworthy in its truncation as it might have been had Orr continued to write it. In Man in the Dark, the interior tale just seems dropped, the weird world rolling on (in the words of the novel’s closing bon mot), in a way that smacks of disengagement on the author’s part. At some point I begin to wonder if to be in the mind of Auster is to give all his acts of deconstruction equal weight and credence, or if I should just give in to my suspicion that there’s as little here as meets the eye, and that Man in the Dark seems half-baked because it is.

I suspect as well that as we see more reviews of this book, most reviewers will attempt to cast Man in the Dark as a reckoning for our wretched times, a sweeping indictment of our modern-day masters of war and a blast of reality for a world deluded by its own carefully crafted illusions. I wish Man in the Dark were that book, but it’s not. There’s no doubting Auster’s anger and frustration, the power of the dark vision in the abandoned sub-narrative (a raging war at home as the necessary alternative to the war taken on the road), and there’s no question he’s created some compelling and searing images and moments in this book. But he also seems more and more like an old man telling himself a story that he can take or leave at any time. This is not the sort of conviction that makes a book “the only world that exists for the person who reads it” (to paraphrase Leviathan), and it’s a sad state of affairs for an author who once said that writing, for him, was “a matter of survival.”

That said, there’s more to this book than a ditched sub-narrative, although not nearly as much as one would hope. Brill isn’t alone in the dark; sharing that darkness with him are his daughter and granddaughter, who have taken the widower into their house to assist his convalescence, and huddled together to heal from loss and tragedy in their own lives. While the daughter is, oddly, a near-non entity in the book, the granddaughter enjoys some lively conversations with Brill that take up most of the pages after Brick’s story falls by the wayside, although their talks about the history of Brill's marriage turn out to be some of the least satisfying writing Auster has ever done. The granddaughter's own story ultimately ties the book tragically—if too sensationalistically—to the brutality and horror of the war in Iraq.

Man in the Dark is not without its moments, even if the climactic revelation of how the war has come home to Brill and his family isn’t one of them. Auster’s newfound broadside stance does resonate at times. The author’s overarching take on post-9/11 America and the war in Iraq certainly rings true, and Man in the Dark is undoubtedly a book for our time—it’s just not a very good one, at least by Auster standards.

Perhaps what makes Man in the Dark of our time most of all is not so much its subject matter as the way I’ve found to appreciate it. More than just a novel of war, Man in the Dark is also a book for the scattershot attention spans of the YouTube and iTunes era, when the best parts are so easily extracted and enjoyed apart from the whole. Like a new album that’s mostly filler, but can be celebrated for one or two strong tracks without even having to purchase the rest, Man in the Dark is best appreciated for a few great licks that pop up throughout the book, and are genuinely memorable, riveting, and thought-provoking in the best Auster fashion. Perhaps best of all is his riff on the vital role of inanimate objects in art film (in a conversation between Brill and his granddaughter)—a wonderful echo of the marvelous filmic excavations of The Book of Illusions. Does anyone render the language of film in written language better than Paul Auster?

If nothing else, this lovely digression serves as a reminder that the 61-year-old Auster (hardly an old man at all) retains the gifts that have made him nearly peerless among American writers of the last quarter century. But the question remains of how he sees himself these days: as the fearless, visionary novelist who taught himself how to die at a young age and lived to produce the titanic Leviathan and The Book of Illusions, or as an old man telling himself stories that will literally kill him (as turns out to be the case in Man in the Dark) if he brings them to their natural and full resolution?

Here’s hoping Auster’s next book doesn’t so much address that question as render it moot.

Click here to pre-order Man in the Dark from Powell's Books.