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.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .