Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

This is the story of what can happen to the teenage offspring of flower children who never gave up being hippies. When the parents are free spirits, making a living from the drug trade, getting high, and practicing free love, how in the world can a teenager rebel? One option, the one these characters choose, is to become straight edge--swearing off alcohol, tobacco, drugs, sex, and sometimes even meat--and embracing the hardcore punk scene, with its mosh pits and barely contained violence.

Actually, the only straight edge punk I ever personally knew came from just such a background, so I know it can happen, as unlikely as it seems.

The time is the late '80s and most of the events take place in the seedier parts of New York City. Three teenagers become bound together by the death through a drug overdose of a 16-year-old boy. The dead boy's best friend, the boy's half brother, and the girl pregnant with the boy's baby through a one-time encounter come together to form a household of sorts, to protect the unborn child and perhaps assuage their guilt, as each one feels some responsibility for the boy's death. With little guidance from the adults in their lives, they attempt to "do the right thing," all the while trying to understand their own feelings and their emerging sexuality. But they are just kids, and they are all confused.

This novel was rated by the New York Times Book Review as one of the ten best of 2011, so I was very disappointed to find that it left me cold. The premise had so much potential, and the plot, while a bit contrived, was interesting. But the presentation seemed like only the reporting of events and what people said and did--this happened, and then this happened, and then she said, and then he said, and so forth. At no time did I feel that I really knew the characters. So I did not really care about what happened to them all that much.

And the whole straight edge world, which is treated almost as a fourth major character, is strangely flat. We are told about mosh pits, where young men are often injured and where fights frequently begin, but we are never put in the middle of one. We are told that the music is fast and something about the message of the lyrics, but we are never put inside the music to understand why it is loved and what emotions it engenders. The author has obviously done a great deal of research and drops many names about the hardcore music scene in New York City, but I did not for a minute believe that she had lived it.

This is Eleanor Henderson's first novel, and she shows a great deal of promise, in my opinion, particularly a talent for original descriptive bits. I just hope she will learn to get inside her characters and her setting.

"Oh, yea," you are saying to yourself, "Raye knows more than the New York Times. How arrogant." You may be right.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

One quote from this novel (about the character who is a writer) perfectly describes how I feel about Ian McEwan himself: "From the very first paragraph you are in his hands, you know he knows what he is doing, and you can trust him."

I have read all McEwan's novels, and I have never considered any of them less than first-rate. He has written several different kinds of novels, and some I have liked better than others because I enjoy that style, but all are written to perfection and convey exactly what he intended. All the plots seem somewhat predictable in the beginning, but turn out to be anything but what you would have expected. And this is the highest praise that I, personally, can give a writer: When I read McEwan I forget that I am reading a made-up story. The actions and characters become real to me, true accounts of actual happenings.

This one features a young female protagonist, who is hired in the 1970s by the British secret service (M15) following her graduation from Cambridge. Even though she studied maths in university, she is an avid, non-discriminatory reader of novels, consuming three and four a week. (I felt some kinship, here.) With the Cold War and the struggle for hearts and minds still going on, she is sent as an undercover operative to get to know a young writer who might turn out to be helpful to the government. She falls in love with his writings, and then she falls in love with him. Obviously, she has a conflict of interests.

Despite the basic plot description, this is not a typical spy novel by any means. The danger here is not of being physically harmed, but of being revealed to a loved one as duplicitous and to the world at large as being a fool.

This is also a consideration of the difference between real life and fiction and of creating a reality through writing. And it is funny in the smooth, understated British way. (Not in the wacky British way; they appear to have two, distinct styles of humor over there.) But, most of all, it is a great story. For me, as for the female protagonist of this novel, the story's the thing.

Sometimes when I was reading this, I thought to myself, "McEwan missed it there. I'm disappointed in him." I should have trusted him. The ending causes it all to make perfect sense and makes me want to immediately re-read the book to see how he accomplished what he did--a total surprise, yet with all the clues there.

Here's one of the more obviously humorous bits that I must mention: The first novel the fictional writer comes up with, which wins a prestigious prize, sounds very much like The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Also, McEwan often seems to be making fun of himself (in a most kind way, naturally), as plot summaries of the fictional writer's early short stories sound very much like McEwan's early writings.

I loved this novel. I know that it will not be counted as McEwan's most important writing, but I liked it best.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre

Consider the improbability of this: A man, born in Australia of English parents, grows up as a privileged rich kid in Mexico City, with a mansion, servants, luxury cars, exclusive private schools, and all that. As an adult, he enjoys a drug-fogged life as a jet-setter, living in the West Indies, Australia, and Ireland, among other places. Having cleaned up his act, he writes this, his first novel, at age 38. He chooses to write something of a rip-off of Catcher in the Rye, with a first person narration by a 15-year-old small-town boy from Central Texas, although he has no clue how such a boy really sounds. He includes all the derogatory stereotypes anyone ever had about Texans, and fills the novel to bursting with "the seven words they can't say on TV," to give it authenticity, I guess. And then the novel wins England's Booker Prize in 2003. Go figure!

I can only presume the judges that year were a bit miffed at Americans in general, and Texans in particularly, so that they relished the caricatures of Texas residents as bumbling, ignorant, racist, barbecue-obsessed, reality show-addicted, sex-crazed, inbred yokels. (Remember what was going on in 2003 and who the President was?)

Our protagonist is the only survivor when a bullied boy shoots and kills everyone in his classroom, including himself. Even though the narrator swears he had been sent on an errand by the teacher and was not even there at the time of the shooting, he is immediately arrested by the gung-ho police as being a partner in the massacre. With the "eyes of the nation" on their small town, residents rush to get their five minutes of fame by denouncing the boy for the television cameras, and he becomes convinced he will be convicted, so he high-tails it for Mexico.

From here on the plot gets even more surreal. Among other adsurdities, Texas death row becomes a television reality show, with viewers voting as to which inmate will be the next one to be executed.

Even if I weren't offended by this portrayal of Texas, I would recognize that the author's narrative voice is not at all authentic. His hero alternates between sounding uneducated and ignorant (using "ain't" and other substandard grammar, talking about not wanting to be a "skate goat"), and using words no American teenager would use, outside of exclusive private schools, perhaps. For example, he goes to a barber shop "behind the abattoir." What teenage boy in Texas has even heard this word. Heck, how many Americans of any age use this word? And here's a quote: "Infinite distance rolls by outside; spongy, darkened distance, like rug-lint balls on wet graham cracker." Do you know a 15-year-old who would say this? Heck, what does it even mean?

I keep being tempted to use some of those seven no-no words in talking about this novel, but I will resist.

To be fair, sometimes the author comes up with some really funny bits; I laughed out loud several times.

I have read many Booker Prize winners, and they are typically serious and contemplative. I don't feel that satiric and comedic books are necessarily inferior; I think Catch 22 is one of the greatest books ever, and I think it is quite possibly harder to write satirically than to write seriously. But I do think the author should really know his subject matter, and portray it convincingly, even if exaggeratedly. And I do find it offensive when an outsider makes fun. I can gently (or not) ridicule my own family, but you should beware if you do it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Iron Heel by Jack London

All those good capitalists (Republicans) out there today who worship at the shrine of Ayn Rand should, in the interest of intellectual fairness, read this dystopian novel about the evils of capitalism and the need for socialist revolution. Way back in 1908, famed adventure novelist Jack London produced a book which rather eerily predicts a good bit of the political climate in America today. Strangely enough, both this book and Rand's Atlas Shrugged suggest that a general strike is the most effective weapon; in Rand's book the plutocrats strike and in London's book the proletariat strike. Both books seem to suggest that compromise is unacceptable. (We don't seem to be seeing much willingness to compromise today, do we?)

Among other predictions made by London which seem to have come about are these:
*a war between the United States and Germany, which he predicted for 1913, occurred in 1914;
*a national secret police force (A few months after the publication of this book, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was created);
*the creation of attractive suburbs for a favored strata of the working class, with the central cities being turned into ghettos for the menial laborers, thereby converting privileged working class citizens, for the short term, to the side of the plutocracy (oligarchy, in London's book);
*adequate food, health care, and housing priced above the reach of more and more people;
*"witch hunts" seeking to destroy all who oppose the oligarchy (remember Eugene McCarthy, and, later, anti-war protesters);
*public education for proletariat children neglected, while the children of the oligarchy attend private schools;
*giant corporations economically forcing out private small businesses and family farmers, destroying the middle class;
*secret agencies of the government conspiring in political assassinations (The cover of the current edition of The Iron Heel is a drawing of a boot stomping on a "Viva Allende" poster. Allende, the socialist leader of Chile, was assassinated with the help of the CIA.);
*the frustrated downtrodden of the inner cities rioting (sound familiar?).
* and so its goes.

All this is very convincing, particularly in the light of today's political climate. And yet, we all know that communism, the extension of socialism, did not work. The oppressed became the oppressors. And many Americans today are seeing that the capitalism of the oligarchy is not so far from fascism. And into all this mix of fiscal philosophy, today we have thrown in questions of morality and religion versus personal freedom. What a mess!

The plot of this novel is the account written by the wife of one of the leaders of the socialist movement toward revolution. As in Rand's Atlas Shrugged, the plot is subservient to the message, and large portions are given over to speeches made by the characters. I will have to admit that Rand's plot is more interesting, even though it is totally unrealistic and enacted by Nietzsche-like super-people.

I would recommend this novel to everyone, not as a great story or an example of great literary talent, but as one that will make you think about your beliefs. Thinking is good.

P.S. Did you know that Ronald Reagan was the last president elected who was not a graduate of either Harvard or Yale? Elitism? Oligarchy?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Dirty Work by Larry Brown

This is a hell of a book, in both the figurative and the literal sense of the word. In the figurative sense, it is a novel of tremendous power and impact, one apt to stay in my mind for a long time. In the literal sense, it is a story of the living hell of two Viet Nam vets twenty-something years after the conflict, one a poor white boy/man from Mississippi who has a disfigured face and is subject to periodic blackouts as a result of a head injury, the other a poor black boy/man from Mississippi who is paraplegic and has lain helpless in a hospital bed for 22 years.

Brown tells their stories through their conversations in a VA hospital, mainly through one long night of drinking beer and smoking joints. The ending is predictable to the reader (and inevitable) almost from the first page, due to references to the novels Johnny Got His Gun and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Anyone who has read those books now knows the ending, but that little matters in the effect the conclusion exerts over susceptible emotions.

Brown's narrative voice of the two characters is perfect, showing their sameness rather than their difference, despite being black and white. One of the sadnesses of Viet Nam was that the war was fought mainly by the very young and the very poor, boys who had no choice, but who did their best.

This is a novel which can be read in one sitting, and should be, if possible. It is, obviously, an anti-war novel. For that reason, some would not like it, and some would like it even more. Nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged as a literary accomplishment.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

If I could switch identities with a writer, I would like to be Michael Chabon. He has total command of the English language; creates colorful, yet believable, characters; displays a wonderful sense of the comic and the absurd in daily life; is compassionate about the faults and frailties of human beings; believes in the ability of people to mature and change for the better; and just seems to be having so much fun being a teller of tales. I can't put his books down and I always feel more cheerful when I have finished one. He is my FAVORITE LIVING AMERICAN WRITER.

This novel is the story of two families living and working in a region of California on the borderland between yuppie Berkeley and down-and-out Oakland. The men, one white and Jewish and one black, run a "church of the vinyl," a used record store specializing in jazz and early rhythm and blues and hip-hop, a business being threatened by the proposed opening of a mega-store which will have its own used vinyl department. Their two wives are partners as well--nurse midwives--and their livelihood is being threatened by a looming lawsuit about a birthing gone wrong. On top of all this, the black couple, who are expecting their first baby, are suddenly surprised by the appearance of the man's teenage son from a long-ago romance, and the white couple's teenage son has fallen completely in love with the boy.

The large cast of memorable supporting characters includes a wheeling-and-dealing city councilman and funeral home director, an elderly organ-playing musical legend, a former blaxploitation kung-fu movie actor and his long-legged former costar and current girlfriend, the "fifth-richest black man in America," an incredibly old female Chinese martial arts teacher, an overweight lawyer who defends whales and calls himself Moby, and an extremely verbal and talented parrot.

All these are written about in prose that is dense, lush, and full of metaphors and $2 words. Another writer using so many words when just a few could tell the same story would surely come off as pretentious. But somehow Chabon does not. His writing is so joyful and exuberant, and he is so obviously and unashamedly showing off that it works as part of his charm. When he includes a 12-page chapter which is all one sentence, he seems like nothing so much as a young teen boy saying, "Hey, look at me. I can ride my bike with no hands."

This novel bears so many similarities to The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Latham: Both have a mixing of black and white characters, both include homo-erotic sub-plots, both have much specific mention of '70s and earlier music, primarily black performed. And I disliked that novel, but I loved this one. Why? It's all in the author's attitude, I think. Latham's characters all ended up thoroughly dislikable, and Chabon's characters are essentially lovable and capable of growth and change. I can't exactly pinpoint why I felt offended when Lathem talked about older, esoteric music that I had never heard of, and why I found Chabon's like comments inoffensive. I just know that Latham didn't work for me, and Chabon most definitely did.

Few writers in my reading experience have had the power to carry me along just with the words, regardless of plot. Mervyn Peake can with his gothic grandeur; Sabastian Barry can with his lyric Gaelic rhythms; and Michael Chabon can with his enthusiasm and hopefulness.

Needless to say, I highly recommend this novel.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

These three short novels first present themselves as typical mysteries, perhaps in the tradition of Raymond Chandler, but it soon becomes apparent that they are not in any way traditional, and that, in fact, the mystery is not what is contained in the plot but what in the world the author is intending to impart to the confounded reader.

The novels, essentially, all tell the same story, just with different protagonists and different scenarios: An investigator becomes so immersed in another person's life that he loses himself, becoming the other person in his mind. In this regard, Auster includes discussion of Don Quixote, which recounts how an immersion in stories of knights and deeds of chivalry can lead a reader to retreating into another life.

The first novel, City of Glass, tells the story of an author, a writer of mysteries under a pseudonym, who receives a mis-directed phone call to a detective (named Paul Auster) and then pretends to be that detective. He is hired to shadow a father just released from prison, convicted of imprisoning his son for years without human contact to allow him to develop his own language.

The second novel, Ghosts, is more obviously metaphoric, with the detective Mr. Blue being hired by Mr. White to watch Mr. Black, for an undisclosed reason.

In the third novel, The Locked Room, a failed fiction writer is drawn into the world of his childhood friend, who has disappeared. Receiving a note from the disappeared man, the protagonist becomes obsessed with finding him.

These "detective" novels all become absurdist novels, with the protagonists performing inexplicable obsessive actions. All involve writing, often in a red notebook. All involve a loss of selfhood. All involve, I think, a quest for meaning in life. The good news is that the last novel seems to indicate the love and family can provide that meaning. (Who knows? The meaning is elusive. I could be mis-interpreting according my preconceived values.)

I will have to admit that this kind of book is not my favorite. I generally like a good immersive story with a minimum of pretentious flourishes and open-ended conclusions. This was interesting, but I will never read it again.