Russell Banks is an American novelist who has been writing at the highest level for many years, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. For some reason, I’d read only one or two of his books over the years, so when I saw his latest at my local I took a flyer.
The many ways in which his new novel Foregone is an exceptional work are difficult to capture in a short review. There is the unusual and inventive set-up, and the stunning delivery of plot turns that time and again amaze. When I found myself a dozen pages from the end, I had to put it down to save and then savor those final pages.
Our protagonist is a celebrated Canadian filmmaker, Leonard Fife, who is dying. His long-time acolyte and then collaborator, Malcolm MacLeod, has a contract to make a documentary film about Fife before he passes. The filming takes place over the very few days Fife has left, with his live-in nurse wheeling him in and out of film sessions in the living room of the home he and his wife, Emma, have lived in for years. Malcolm plans to elicit pearls about filmmaking and the rest from the Great Man before he dies.
Fife has other ideas. He intends to tell the truth about his life—it’s not the simple story everyone’s heard of an American who dodged the draft to live his life in Canada, there’s a whole lot more to it. And he intends to have his beloved wife hear it all straight from his own mouth before he dies. This frustrates MacLeod, of course, but he owes his career to Fife, who will get his way if he stays alive long enough to tell his story. It also delivers to readers a novel-in-a-film we can watch right there on the page.
I won’t say much about Fife’s secret past, the first part of which involved a first marriage in the U.S. that presented the opportunity to live an easy and wealthy life it turned out he had no interest in living. They take a break from filming.
“He’s fighting off waves of nausea and thudding back pain. His body is a battlefield, as if his liver is at war with his kidneys and both have been mortally wounded. He’s woozy and suddenly confused about where he is exactly and who’s here with him. As long as he is talking into the mic and being filmed, he is able to forget his body, to wear it like loose clothing, and it doesn’t matter where he is located or who is there with him. But as soon as the camera shuts down and he goes silent, he becomes his body again, and he worries about where it is and who is near it.”
But he wants to keep going, and so does Malcolm. Emma not so much. And even Malcolm has come for a very different documentary—“This is supposed to be about your films,” he says at one point, “we’ve got questions about process, for example”—the documentary Emma, too, had been expecting and wouldn’t mind so much. But Fife has come to bear witness to all the lies he’s been living, and to leave Emma as he must, but only after coming clean to her. At one point he addresses the perplexed and impatient crew:
“It’ll sound like fiction to you, like I’m making most of it up, which is fine by me. I don’t care what you do with my story after I’ve finished telling it. I’ll be dead. You can cut and splice it any damned way you want . . . But no matter what you do with my story after I’ve told it, you’ll have seen and heard me tell my wife what kind of man she married and lived and worked with all these years.”
At one point, Banks has us—the readers—as perplexed as the crew by Fife’s running catalogue of his past crimes of the heart and head. This is all very intentional, of course--we feel like the crew feels, like even Emma feels, listening to all this. And Banks lets us know that he knows how we feel.
In the end, Fife delivers what he has come to say, and more. Indeed, far more than even he knew he had to say. He’s asked a question by Malcolm, and hidden somewhat among the pearls is:
“Back when they started sleeping together, he liked to tell her that she was the first woman he was attracted to who didn’t need him more than he needed her, and she said the same thing back to him, that he was the first man she was attracted to who didn’t need her more than she needed him, and they both took it as a compliment. . . .
Fife looks directly into [the] camera lens and says, You want to know if Emma, like all those others, is the real deal? For nearly forty years, she was, yes. Until this morning, when he woke and knew down to the bottom of his mind that he was dying and therefore he no longer had to be afraid of dying and realized that at last he truly loves her and desperately needs her to love him before he’s dead. It’s that simple. He needs to be loved by her more than she needs to be loved by him. Emma is still merely afraid of dying. For Fife, it’s too late now to be afraid of dying.”
Banks is not done swinging for the fences with those lines. But I’ll leave the rest to your reading.
Suffice it to say that here, again, is a Great American Novel that, like Richard Ford’s Canada, takes place north of the border. Here too, it seems, distance yields advantageous perspective.
Richard Yates has served as a beacon to writers like Richard Ford and Raymond Carver. His debut novel, Revolutionary Road, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Alas, while writers and critics loved his work—Richard Russo, Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams and Robert Stone all wrote blurbs of unabashed adoration—none of his books sold well in his lifetime. I cannot explain that--Revolutionary Road is a stunning work of literary realism that shines unflinching light on the untold realities of so much domestic life in the 1950’s. It has often been described as part of the inspiration for “Mad Men” but has none of the schmaltzy bling.
I found A Special Providence, Yates’s second novel, while loitering in one of our local used books store. I began reading with the expectation that it would be a minor piece compared to Revolutionary Road, but was delighted to find out how wrong I’d been. This, too, is a Great American Novel.
The exquisite Prologue: 1944 sets up the characters who will drive the story, in twenty pages that could stand alone as their own short story.
Part One is the story of young Robert Prentice’s induction into the army in World War II, making his way in a rifle platoon that is eventually headed overseas, preparing to fight a war that won’t end soon enough to save him from that. Robert is a hopeful young man, and makes friends with soldiers named Quint and Logan, one of whom he idolizes until combat brings out the worst in him. Prentice has become ill, and Logan can’t see or doesn’t care about it.
Part Two gives us Robert’s youthful backstory, and the tale of the principal second character, his divorced mother. Alice Prentice is an artist and sculptor with unrealistic hopes and dreams that always have her too far out over her skis. Expectations that could never pan out fuel her ambitions. With a backstory of tragedy far greater than her recent divorce, she is unhinged and untethered to reality, and Bobby is carried along into one unstable living situation after another. Denied opportunities to form stable and lasting friendships, he grows into the soldier we’ve seen in Part One, eager to be one of the guys. The plot turn that closes Part Two is one we don’t see coming, though we’ve worried for Alice all along; and it sets up an echo later in the novel that helps Robert make it through a dark time on the battlefield.
In Part Three we learn that Robert, who joined the fighting just after the Battle of the Bulge, was coming down with pneumonia when last we saw him in Part One. He has spent five weeks in hospital, which “became an exquisitely peaceful time for Prentice, a time of warm sponge baths and clean sheets, of low, courteous voices and regular meals.” On discharge, checking through a depot to get back to the 57th Division, he’s happy to have a uniform that’s dirty enough to make him at least look authentic even though his time in combat has so far been limited. And his only real buddy, Quint, is gone. We are given Robert’s first experiences in combat, where he fights his own insecurities and struggles to feel he measures up to the soldiers around him.
The Epilogue:1946 brings us back to Alice, whose lofty goals and expectations have her waiting for something few artists achieve. The last page is a shocker, so entirely unexpected, so simple and yet so true, it cannot be given away in a review.
Real people, thoroughly rendered inside and out, jump off every page. The war years are drawn as perhaps only one who was there can manage; and yet, like Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, it’s less the battles than the interpersonal dynamics of those fighting it that drive the story.
I’ll leave you with this, from Richard Russo’s Introduction to the 2001 Collected Stories of Richard Yates:
“Yates has been described as a writer’s writer by people who consider that a high compliment, but I suspect Yates himself would have understood that the phrase trails an unintended insult by suggesting that only other writers are sophisticated enough to appreciate his many gifts. The truth is that Richard Yates is not a sophisticated writer. He doesn’t need to be; he’s far too talented to have much use for either smoke or mirrors.”
The long-awaited new novel by Colm Toíbín, The Magician—based on the life and times of Thomas Mann—was released today. Anyone who knows this great writer’s work will detect analogies to Toíbín’s The Master, a novel based on the life of Henry James. But there’s really no telling what to expect except, based on all his previous work—the lovely Brooklyn, the riveting The Testament of Mary, the wonderfully Irish The Blackwater Lightship and Nora Webster, to name just a few—one can count on literary fiction of the highest order. Watch this space for my review, or better yet, stop by your local for one of their first few copies.
So, another dabbler who thinks he’s a writer, I was thinking, with chops from acting--Dead Poets Society and so many other films. But the first few pages, and a peek here and there from the middle, and I’m hooked. I carry it next door to the café. If it’s no good it’ll be ok; I haven’t graced these pages with a negative review in a while.
William Harding, the fellow at the center of Ethan Hawke’s fourth novel, is crazy as a loon. A film actor about to play Hotspur in King Henry the Fourth, Parts One and Two on Broadway, with a celebrated director and cast, he inhabits swank quarters nearby with a wife who’s a pop singer and casts a shadow much longer than his own, their young children the only thing keeping them together. He says things—in first-person narration of his tale, or in dialogue with others—that clearly lack credibility . . . until something happens a step or two later that makes it all very credible indeed. At a party, he’s shoveling coke up his nose while talking to a young starlet, laying out two lines through each of several rounds, when he realizes he’s been snorting both lines himself each round. Then he does it again. He’s out of control in so many ways, to say it’s hard to like him is to understate things by half.
At the first preview, his “dresser” gets a soliloquy of sorts: While trying to get William out of his locked private restroom and into his elaborate costume, he lights into him with remarks that put everything in perspective:
“You’re sad because you are getting a divorce, but what you don’t know is that you were never married. Do you hear me? I don’t lie in bed at night and wonder if my husband loves me. I know he does! You seem to have this intellectual view that maybe all married people are like you, either living ‘unexplored’ lives or are secretly unhappy. But that’s not true. I love my husband and he loves me. . . . When I was on tour last year with Bye Bye Birdie, he took care of everything—laundry, school forms, bath time for our son . . . .”
Through it all, the novel’s leading man is “crying so hard there was no way I was going to stop.” And William doesn’t get pearls only from his dresser, who succeeds in getting him onstage. A few pages later he and the entire company get this from their world-famous director, “JC”—who’s working with a world-famous leading man as King Henry—at the tail end of a very long tongue-lashing of the whole company following the first preview after six weeks of rehearsals:
“None of that ‘acting’ shit, OK? Don’t do that to Virgil or to me; don’t do that to yourself. Remember: It’s not how far you throw your voice. It’s how far you throw your soul.”
William gets pearls like this from his mother, too. In the middle of a long scene in which she tells him the marriage he’s just lost wasn’t all that worth keeping, this committed humanitarian who spends most her time in Haiti running an operation that makes a difference in the lives of so many poor people, tells him:
“If you weren’t so handsome, you’d have less than half the friends you have now. It’s true, you’re not that interesting.”
He is, indeed, a very uninteresting bloke, which can be a challenging thing in a protagonist.
Halfway through the novel, the actor playing the King walks with William backstage to await their turn at the opening night curtain call. “Fame is a black death,” he whispers to William.
“We like to watch people die. So we put them on magazines and fan the flames of their egos until they actually catch fire and explode. The zeitgeist is trying to do it to you right now.”
Then, standing there in the wings, the King delivers what may be his best line of the night:
“I mean this in the kindest way possible . . . I believe in you. I think you are doing an excellent job with a very difficult role and that if you were to quit smoking and apply yourself fully to the art of acting, you could have a great life in the theater and make serious art. But there are traps all around you; it doesn’t take a psychic to see them. It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to see that, most likely, you will die of the Black Death. . . . Do not underestimate the disease. I’ve watched it eat better than you.”
They make their way to their places behind the curtains, and the King leans closer to our unlikely hero.
“‘I have only one real applicable piece of advice for you,’ he said, his perfect diction piercing through the noise of the crowd. ‘Have a boring life and make your art thrilling.’”
We will leave it there, except to say the closing pages of the novel give us a William who is as credible and strong as the opening pages’ version was irritating.
I will note that in several places the book could have used a better copy editor—double-words, dropped articles and other oddities abound. But this actor can write, and I’ll be keeping an eye out in the used bookstores for one of his first three.
This new release, by a celebrated author who’s lived his life splitting time between Boston and Guatemala, and whose work I’ve never read, is a sterling example of what’s come to be known as autobiographical fiction, or just autofiction. Which is to say, perhaps, fiction taken from one’s own life: not just as nearly all fiction is, but as in the characters and plot turns and all the rest being based on the real people and places and occupations at the center of the author’s own life.
Frankie Goldberg is the first-person narrator. He’s burdened with a frizzy and unruly mop of hair, big protruding ears and a thick brow, and he’d been dubbed “Monkey Boy” by a schoolyard bully early on. His father, Bert, is a Jewish American who is violent with his only son. He’s also the inventor, as it happens, of methodologies for making false teeth that surpass anything on the market. Alas, Bert doesn’t own the business he works for, and mostly it’s the owners who get rich from it all. About this Bert does what he does about everything in life—he gets angry about it. He mistreats everyone around him, insulting not just Frankie but Frankie’s mother, Yoli, and his sister Lexi, whom Frankie tells us was younger, taller, faster and could hit a ball farther when they were young. When Frankie ends up in an emergency room, the “doctor, with a sharp look, tersely asked how I’d become injured, and when my father answered that I’d hurt myself playing football, his mouth tightened and his somber eyes settled on my face for a moment and looked away.” To make matters worse, the Catholic priest, at the church where his mother takes them, preaches that “Jews are born in sin and die in sin. No Jews can go to heaven. Better a bad Catholic than even the best Jew.” What’s a Frankie Goldberg supposed to do with that?
Or this: At Bert’s funeral many years later—the novel skips around in time, which I found difficult but doable—a neighbor, Teddy Feinstein, whose father worked all the time, tells how Bert always had time for him as a boy; he let him help with the rosebushes and the vegetable garden, took him to a nearby pond and taught him to skip rocks. When this eulogist begins to cry and eventually sits down, our narrator—Francisco—adds:
“Bert never took me to the pond to skip stones. Your father likes everyone else’s children more than his own, I remember my mother saying. I remember lying awake in bed that night after the funeral, asking myself what I could have done as a boy to make my father like me as much as he did Teddy.”
This isn’t just believable because it’s autofiction. It would be true whether or not made up by the novelist, because it’s a path some—perhaps many—boys and girls have endured. But it’s not one I’ve known or even thought about for more than a moment. My father and mother stood by me whatever bonehead moves I’d made, and I made plenty. These are the kinds of truths—about interior lives others endure but you have not—that come from reading the best literature, whether it be fiction, nonfiction, autofiction, biography or whatever.
Near the end of the book, Goldman tells us of a time when he was writing a book on the murder in South America of a Catholic cleric, and talked to a man he calls here simply “The Witness” because he testified against a guilty gang at great peril to himself. If it hadn’t been for the Witness, he tells us:
“I wouldn’t have published my book on the case. I would never have fled Mexico City to come back to New York. . . . Take the Witness out of my life, and who am I? It’s like the Witness is my spirit guide, my soul’s humble but heroic companion. But is my life fully my own if its course could be so altered by the Witness?”
You bet it is. We all have them, I think, these people who, often unwittingly, say something or do something, or even just ask a question of you in cocktail chatter when you haven’t seen each other in years; and the simple question you’ve been asked changes you, even if that change takes many more years for you to accomplish. I know—this happened to me when I was twenty-five, talking to an old friend during half-time at a Super Bowl party—and it changed my life, not right away, but eventually and forever.
So thanks again to that old friend, and to Francisco Goldman for a terrific novel that is mechanically very different and more difficult than what I usually read, but yields all the gifts great literature can bring.
In this nonfiction release from last year, a gifted writer—her H is for Hawk was a National Critics Circle Finalist—collects short pieces previously published in The New York Times Magazine and New Statesman and others. A thrice-published poet and a lyrical nature writer and enthusiast, Macdonald invites us to tag along as she considers avian migrations from the top of the Empire State Building; the life and times of the insect, or wild boar from the United Kingdom to the United States and beyond. Over a few dozen short pieces, most ranging from five to ten pages, she covers her wide-ranging subjects in startlingly vivid prose that doesn’t show off.
In “High Rise” we are taken along with the author and an ornithologist, to rub shoulders with the tourists who take the elevators into the sky to look out on Manhattan. But our guides are looking up, not down:
“Though you can see migrating raptors soaring at altitudes well over eight hundred feet above the city during the day, most species of diurnal birds migrate after nightfall. It’s safer. Temperatures are cooler, and there are fewer predators around. Fewer, not none. Just before I arrived, Farnsworth saw a peregrine falcon drifting ominously around the building. Peregrines frequently hunt at night here. From high-rise lookout perches, they launch flights into the darkness to grab birds and bats. In more natural habitats, falcons cache the bodies of birds they’ve killed among crevices in cliffs. The ones here tuck their kills into ledges on high-rises, including the Empire State. For a falcon, a skyscraper is simply a cliff: it brings the same prospects, the same high winds, the same opportunities to stash a takeout meal.”
In “Sex, Death, Mushrooms” Macdonald tags along with an old friend who’s an emeritus professor of the history of science and an amateur mycologist. They’ve been keeping up with each other over the years with walks like these in autumn, to hunt for mushrooms. Chantrelles, we learn, are not easy for even experienced hunters to spot.
“It doesn’t work well if you walk around and try to spot them directly. They have an uncanny ability to hide from the searching eye. Instead, you have to alter the way you regard the ground around you, concern yourself with the strange phenomenology of leaf litter and try to give equal attention to all the colours, shapes and angles on the messy forest floor.”
Along the way we learn various secrets of mycologists, from why one species is called Phallus impudicus, and why when Darwin’s daughter collected “stinkhorns”, she felt compelled to hide the smell of them from the maids: even “some modern field guides describe the distinctive odour of mushrooms like Inocybes as ‘unmentionable’ or ‘disgusting’ rather than the more accurate ‘spermatic’.” We learn, too, how picking mushrooms doesn’t kill the fungus: “in a sense, you’re merely plucking a flower from a hidden, thready tangle which may be vast and extraordinarily ancient: one honey fungus in Oregon covers almost four square miles and is thought to be nearly two and a half thousand years old.”
Finally, I’ll note a piece that demonstrates the range of the author’s interest and talent. “The Student’s Tale” is the story of a refugee and asylum seeker, told to Macdonald and then published in The Irish Times. The inspired choice she made here was to tell the story in second person, which serves to set the subject off as the target he’s become.
“This is a borrowed house that we’re talking in. It’s not my home.
We sit at the table and I don’t know where to begin.
I don’t know anything about you.
It is hard to ask questions.
You want me to ask questions, because you say it is easier to answer questions than tell your story.
* * *
When the intelligence services came looking for you at your grandmother’s home she called you and told you that these men were your friends even though they spoke the wrong language for the region and they were wearing distinctive clothes that made it obvious, really, who they were, and why they were there, but she was old and you couldn’t blame her for expecting friendship when what was offered was its scorched obverse. Your uncle knew better. He told you to flee. Your life is in danger, he said. Truth. So you fled. You left everything.”
So many subjects catch Macdonald’s eye, and she treats them intelligently and beautifully. For a tidy volume of short pieces of nonfiction—to read on the beach, or dip into before turning out the light each night—this volume is highly recommended.
The year is 1960, and the scene is Great Falls, Montana. A real town which, like Richard Russo’s fictional Empire Falls, Maine, seems chosen for the irony in the name given the story to be told. The protagonist and narrator here is Dell Parsons, a fifteen-year-old boy who is earnest but rootless, with a father in the military whose rank isn’t what it once was, a twin sister who’s light years ahead of him developmentally but lacks his passion for school or chess, and a mother and part-time schoolteacher who is hostage to her lowly and itinerant circumstances. “We were a family who didn’t travel,” Dell tells us, “unless we were moving to a new town.”
The general contours of the disaster to come, we learn on page one:
“First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.”
This is confident, even audacious storytelling—not because it’s showy, but because it refuses to show off at all. In the early going, Ford leaps forward on occasion, teasing out what’s coming, sometimes narrating from the perspective of an earnest fifteen-year-old, other times with the benefit of adult hindsight. Some of this is hardly even noticeable, and all of it works.
To some extent the suspense lies in how these crimes will come to be committed. But far more than this, the story is driven by how these events come to shape a young man trying to find his way in a young life; how he sees what is happening to his family and himself; and what he makes of life under extreme circumstances, after he’s driven by his aunt north across the border to avoid becoming a ward of the state. There he lives with shady characters in a sparsely populated backwater that has a lodge where Americans come to hunt ducks and Dell works for his keep. Dell makes of it what he can.
“It would never be a place with big oak trees and a football field and boys my age to accept me—the way I’d almost had it in Great Falls. This would never be what I wanted. It was Canada.”
Dell’s father, Bev Parsons, is a man burdened by limitless imagination, endless optimism and an astonishing lack of judgment, who finds a silver lining in any omen. When the bank he cased for a heist at nine o’clock one morning turns out to be far busier than he’d seen before on the day in question, he convinces himself all this will serve as some grand diversion. Needless to say, it doesn’t.
The first of two or three beautiful endings—at the close of Part One, two hundred pages in—has Dell’s twin sister leaving the house after their parents are jailed and nobody’s yet come to take them away.
“To concentrate on Berner leaving would make all this seem to be about loss—which isn’t how I think about it to this very day. I think of it as being about progress, and the future, which aren’t always easy to see when you’re so close to both of them.”
Part Two begins shortly thereafter and just in time, with a friend of their mother coming to take Dell before the child welfare services people descend. She drives him north for hours, crossing the border and dropping him into his new life. He grows up in a hurry, and meets some indelible characters in a once-grand duck-hunting lodge, though the parts Dell lives in are spartan to say the least. The grand character at the center of it, one Arthur Remlinger, owns the lodge and his own mysterious background, which has him living so far from anything that feels like civilization or normal life. Dell will finish growing up here, and one wonders what will become of him.
In Part Three we meet the adult Dell has become, a middle-aged secondary school teacher in Canada. We learn what he’s made of all that went on before, and what’s become of his twin sister, who has lived a lowly life and taken their father’s name, Bev, as hers some years back. In the closing portions of the novel, the aging narrator who opened the story reflects back on all this from whatever perspective our lives give us. Wry, dry pearls follow. Like the first five pages, which feature some of the most keenly observed descriptions of a protagonist’s parents in the American canon, these last five pages are worth the price of admission all on their own.
In between lies the great American novel of our times.
The full title of this recent book of nonfiction is My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, a memoir by Jenn Shapland. The author, now living here in Santa Fe, spent time living and working on this project in the McCullers House in Columbia, Georgia, which is open to serious scholars working on the subject. Within its walls, Shapland reviews material from the writer’s extensive archives – correspondence, diary entries, even notes of her therapy sessions with a woman who became the second true love of her life, neither of which were her husband, who had his own issues Shapland doesn’t ignore. Here she details the inadequacies and outright errors in the several biographies of McCullers, most especially the assumptions and arguments that she was heterosexual against all the signs to the contrary, some of which are based on evidence not as available to earlier writers as it was to Shapland, thanks to the passage of decades and the opening of the archives.
There and in the years that follow, Shapland pens a biography of McCullers that is equally an autobiography of herself, hence the subtitle. Her work on McCullers sends Shapland back through her own coming of age and maturing through her twenties, then to the frank realizations, informed acceptances and eventual celebrations of being both lesbian and lucky in love. As a person, like many, who has friends and close family members in every direction who are gay or lesbian or somewhere between there and straight, this aspect of the book was welcome and eye-opening. I’m not saying I knew nothing about all this, of course—I arrived in San Francisco in the 1980’s when the bathhouses were being closed because of an unidentifiable scourge eventually called AIDS, and lived there full time until recently. But here we are served true accounts, not of dealing with that scourge, but of growing up after the awakening it wrought and finding a place in the world, a process that is both enabled and informed by the relative openness of the social dialogue about sexuality these days. All of that is reason to celebrate, not the scourge, but the 21st Century atmosphere that allows people to be who they are now.
McCullers’s own story is worth the price of admission. Wickedly intelligent and very successful as an author, she had close friendships with Tennessee Williams and W.H. Auden; lived in “February House” in Brooklyn Heights with the likes of Anais Nin, Leonard Bernstein and Richard Wright; even met and helped Truman Capote get started. But Shapland largely steers clear of all this, to focus on the personal traumas, tribulations and triumphs of McCullers’s personal life—a life filled with talent but hampered by illness, sorting through her feelings and urges to find out who she was, burdened by the complications of dealing with all this in a society that kept homosexuality in the closet. Her two true loves, Annemarie in her youth, and her therapist Mary Carson later in life, figure prominently in the narrative.
Shapland doesn’t ignore McCullers’s husband, Reeves, whom she married twice but never really loved, and who was himself bisexual at a time when nobody talked about that. In drawing conclusions about Carson, Shapland is not afraid to disagree with the several biographies of the subject. Writing nonfiction of this sort often requires disputing what other writers have made of the record they’ve seen, and either concluding otherwise based on new evidence or drawing opposite conclusions from evidence that was there all along. Much of this feels like the product of both her hard work, and the relative freedom one has to tell the truth about these things these days.
This book surprised me and delighted me, right to the end. We learn so much about the mysterious and tortured writer McCullers; the utter failure of that society to accept alternative sexualities to the supposed “norm”; how devastating alcohol was to so many people in the mid-century creative community, and how much talent was burdened by all of this.
It’s a book I would normally shelve to read again, and I doubt I will let go of it unless someone I lend it to loses it. But one thing is certain: I’m going to find a copy of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter somewhere, and work my way through that and the rest of the McCullers catalogue in the months and years to come. And I look forward to Shapland’s next offering.
Kevin Barry is one of the few contemporary fiction writers equally adept at both the long and short form. City of Bohane and the more recent Night Boat to Tangier are superb novels, imaginative and engrossing. The former takes place in a completely fictional world that has never existed, the latter concerns two drug runners and a love interest, plying their trade in utterly familiar parts. (Click on Kevin Barry down the right hand column of the blog for my review of Night Boat to Tangier).
The short stories—this is his third collection—take place mostly in the small towns and country places of old that still remain. Barry’s facility for rendering the denizens of these parts is remarkable—this is no writer from Dublin, but from Sligo. The language he uses is richly humble and utterly evocative. Take one example:
“Living alone in his dead uncle’s cottage, and with the burden lately of wandering thoughts in the night, Seamus Ferris had fallen hard for a Polish girl who worked at a café down in Carrick.”
These are the opening lines of “The Coast of Leitrim”, the superb story which leads off this collection. Take a moment to observe how subtly Barry works: Imagine the same sentence, without “the burden lately of wandering thoughts in the night,” or with some poorer substitute for Seamus’ condition. What a charming and simple way to say someone’s horny.
As here, Barry writes mostly of modern Ireland but the old country places, many transformed by the Celtic Tiger economy. This story concerns, of course, the dance between Seamus and the Polish girl, Katherine. Seamus has never felt as he does here; never thought anything like this woman and this romance could happen to him. She moves in with him. And eventually, he can’t take the thought of losing her, and can’t believe she won’t. A sort of craziness comes over him, suspicion haunts him and destroys his happiness. She leaves, goes back to her place on the other side of town. He avoids her, not just in the café, but shopping for groceries when she won’t be. Eventually he encounters one of her co-workers.
“‘Did you hear at all?’ she said, twisting the knife. ‘Did you hear Katherine went back?’”
I’ll leave it there, for this is not the end, and the rest is a jewel. Much of Barry’s work plies humorous waters, but here, he’s playing for keeps. The closing line, so short and simple and true, is worth the price of the collection. “The Coast of Leitrim” was shortlisted for the prestigious Sunday Times Short Story Award of 2019. Like two other stories in this collection, it was first published in The New Yorker. (And don’t miss the surprise link at the bottom of this review.)
Another story, “Who’s-Dead McCarthy” ran last year in The Irish Times. It’s about an old codger in Limerick, Con McCarthy, who goes around town week after week and year after year asking everyone he passes if they’ve heard who’s just died. He’s that guy some towns have, who’ll talk to anybody about anything, but always has the same starter ready.
“Did you not hear?”
“Did you not hear who’s dead?”
“Who, Con? Who?”
“The way it happened,” . . .
Our reporter—the narrator of this tale—eventually takes to walking late at night himself, and spots Con hunkering over a cup of tea.
“That cup of tea was the saddest thing I ever saw. I sat in a few tables from him and watched carefully. As he sat alone his lips again moved and I have no doubt that it was a litany of names he was reciting, the names of the dead, but just barely, just a whisper enough to hoist those names that they might float above the lamps of the city.”
And when Con died,
“Almost laughing, almost glad, I went along O’Connell Street in the rain with it; I leant in, I whispered; and softly like funeral doves I let my suffering eyes ascend . . .
‘Did you hear at all?’ I said. ‘Did you not hear who’s dead?’”
The title story of the collection, “That Old Country Music,” never before published, tells the story of a young woman, Hannah, who’s four months pregnant and waiting alone in her boyfriend’s van, hidden behind some foliage at a bend in the road in the Curlew Mountains. He’s gone down the hill on a motorcycle with a crowbar to rob the country market, in a caper designed to set them up, through an unlikely chain of relations, in the city of Wakefield in Yorkshire of all places. She’s half his age, round numbers, and he’s the former steady of Hannah’s mother, who found out about their nightly trysts only by waking up from her nightly heat-on at an inopportune time.
The boyfriend is late. Eventually Hannah gets out, looks around, and spots the crowbar in the back of the van. Something’s not right . . . and the sorrowful ending emerges.
And now, courtesy of The New Yorker, have a listen to Kevin Barry himself reading “The Coast of Leitrim”:
Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is a paean to the contradictions in American life, and to the friction between the noble idea of America and the latent defects and darker truths about it: patriotism and greedy self-interest; innocence and guilt; enduring hope masking inevitable despair.
Roth’s ironic take on iconic Americana includes a good man at its center, Seymour “Swede” Levov, a gifted athlete who’s become a committed and extraordinarily successful businessman, who wants what he’s supposed to want and generally gets it; a wife and former-Miss New Jersey of 1949, who becomes a talented and dedicated rancher raising award-winning heifers; and a daughter who grows up close to her father while stunted by a bad stutter. All these people generally mean well but make some big mistakes. Roth sets them up before the mirrors we parade past from time to time, here in the days of the Vietnam war and its associated protests and social upheaval. If you’re like me and don’t miss those days, this book will remind you why.
The story is told by at least three different narrators, with little if any signaling of each shift, and in several different timelines that recur again and again. This can be annoying to be sure, but the overall result is nothing short of a tour de force. The truths that lie hidden in the characters and the country spring upon us like wildcats; we get a good taste of this at the end of Part II, but nothing can prepare us fully for the cascading cataclysms that wash over us wave after wave at the end of the novel. The result of all this, it seems to me, is that many readers will give up before they get there, and I can’t say I’d blame them: I’m a reader who often takes that path when tested by confusing timelines, shifting points of view, and various other forms of writerly high-wire high-jinks. The reader has to work much harder at Philip Roth than Richard Ford, and they are two of our very best American writers. But make no mistake, this novel deserves all the plaudits it received, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1998.
Roth swings only for the fences here. He surely knows foul tips are the cost of this approach, but there’s no other way. And nothing is left to the spaces between the words—a good thing, I suppose, because the overlong paragraphs leave no space on the page to work with. Near the end of a paragraph that runs well over a page and recounts the decision they made long ago to move to Old Rimrock, is:
“If she could marry a Jew, she could surely be a friendly neighbor to a Protestant—sure as hell could if her husband could. The Protestants are just another denomination. Maybe they were rare where she grew up—they were rare where he grew up too—but they happen not to be rare in America. Let’s face it, they are America. But if you do not assert the superiority of the Catholic way the way your mother does, and I do not assert the superiority of the Jewish way the way my father does, I’m sure we’ll find plenty of people out here who won’t assert the superiority of the Protestant way the way their fathers and mothers did. Nobody dominates anybody anymore. That’s what the war was about.”
Note that Swede is not exactly being quoted here (the marks signal only my quoting the text of the novel), but we’re clearly being given his perspective, and it seems extraordinarily naïve from the perspective of 1997, and possibly the time of the fictional discussion in the 1950’s.
He uses the different points of view, especially near the end, not just to create a picture of the Swede from every angle, but to show Swede’s own significant shortcomings:
“How to penetrate to the interior of people was some skill or capacity he did not possess. He just did not have the combination to that lock. Everyone who flashed the signs of goodness he took to be good. Everyone who flashed the signs of intelligence he took to be intelligent. And so he had failed to see into his daughter, failed to see into his wife, failed to see into his one and only mistress—probably had never even begun to see into himself.”
The story is primarily that of the Swede, but the portraits of his wife and daughter are striking, and told from the point of view of several different characters both in the novel, and outside it. Here’s the Swede himself, two parts of a long discussion with one Rita Cohen, who’s reporting on his daughter Merry, now a fugitive from justice:
“Merry shoveled cowshit from the time she was six. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Merry was in the 4-H Club. Merry rode tractors. Merry—”
“Fake. All fake. The daughter of the beauty queen and the captain of the football team—what kind of nightmare is that for a girl with a soul?”
* * *
“Merry’s mother works a farm all day. She works with animals all day, she works with farm machinery all day, she works from six a.m. to—"
“Fake. Fake. Fake. She works a farm like a fucking upper-class—”
“You don’t know anything about any of this. Where is my daughter? Where is she? The conversation is pointless. Where is Merry?”
“We’re talking about the humiliation of a daughter by her beauty-queen mother. We’re talking about . . .”
What Merry’s done not only destroys the Swede, of course. The shock of it has overturned everything his wife has become—had even turned her against him, for wooing her away from her dreams, not of being a beauty queen but someone of substance, with a college education and a teaching position. He visits her for long hours in a psychiatric hospital, until the staff has to ask him to leave late into the night.
“The next night she’d be angry all over again. He had swayed her from her real ambitions. He and the Miss America Pageant had put her off her program. On she went and he couldn’t stop her. Didn’t try. What did any of what she said have to do with why she was suffering?”
* * *
"And then the change occurred. Something made her decide to want to be free of the unexpected, improbably thing. She was not going to be deprived of her life.
"The heroic renewal began with the face-lift at the Geneva clinic she’d read about in Vogue. . . ."
"Needless to say, the remedy suggested in Vogue in no way addressed anything that mattered; so remote was it from the disaster that had befallen them he saw no reason to argue with her, thinking she knew the truth better than anyone, however much she might prefer to imagine herself another prematurely aging reader of Vogue rather than the mother of the Rimrock Bomber.”
The face-lift can be seen as the first domino to fall, and I wouldn’t undertake to catalogue all the changes it wrought in all the lives concerned. American Pastoral is worth the read.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .