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.