New Hope For the Dead: Charles Willeford (1985)

Charles Willeford’s New Hope For the Dead, the second Hoke Moseley novel, finds the Miami homicide detective called to a suburban home with a dead body inside. The body is, was, Jerry, a young junkie whose tracks on his scrotum supports the presenting evidence that he died of an overdose. But there’s something about the case that doesn’t quite add up for Hoke. Sanchez, Hoke’s Cuban partner likes Jerry’s stepmother, Lorrie Hickey, as a possible murder suspect, but Hoke, who picks up on Lorrie’s sexually ravenous nature, in spite of her grief stricken state, doesn’t think she’s guilty. After all Lorrie is a businesswoman, the owner of a florist shop, but Jerry’s father is a lawyer whose business focuses on drug dealers.

Miami Blues is an introduction to Hoke’s spartan lifestyle. As he has to hand over half his paycheck to the X, he subsists on the remainder. He lives in a 3rd rate motel exchanging rent for ‘private security’ services, services which includes arranging for the dead bodies of the mostly elderly tenants to leave during the night. Also in Miami Blues, Hoke’s long-term homicide partner, Bill Henderson moved on, and Hoke now works with Sanchez. He doesn’t ‘get’ Sanchez at all. She’s smart, has a great figure, but has no sex appeal for Hoke.

A lot of the novel’s humour comes from Hoke who’s slowly moving out of the Dark Ages and waking up to the fact that he can’t send his female partner for coffee all the time. Hoke, (in his 40s?) comes from a different time, and that is underscored by the novel’s focus on Miami gentrification and the shifting dynamic of the Miami population. Hoke seems very much a man of the 60s. In this novel, Sanchez has a personal crisis which she keeps to herself, but Hoke notices her “quiescent moodiness” which he initially chalks up to Sanchez’s period.

Having a female partner in the car wasn’t the same. Maybe he should let Sanchez drive the car once in a while but that didn’t seem right either. The man always drove not the woman, although when he and Bill had been together, Bill had driven most of the time because he was a better driver than Hoke and they both knew it.

As in any series novel, we have the crime at hand (what appears to be an overdose of a junkie) and also the main character’s personal life. In Miami Blues, Hoke was given warning that he had to move into his precinct and that means moving out of the motel, but given his lack of funds, finding a place to live is proving to be a challenge. At one point, he tries to get a house-sitting gig, and the first place he looks at comes with an amorous Airedale. In this second book in the series, Hoke, a divorced man, with no regular girlfriend (the woman he left his wife for tossed him out), a father who never sees his kids, ends up living with three females. You have to read the book to find out how that happens. Also in this book, Hoke and Sanchez are given a special assignment to solve cold cases at record speed in order for the boss, Major Brownley, to have a shot at a promotion.

Hoke is a dogged homicide detective. He’s not corrupt. Exactly. But he waves that badge a lot. In this book, he pulls a trick that is unethical and even Hoke questions himself about his actions. Somehow I think his actions will come back to haunt him. While a lot of the humour comes from Hoke’s archaic attitude (and the author is aware it’s archaic), some of the humour comes from Hoke’s version of being a father; that includes a rapid sex ed. conversation and his plans that his daughters get jobs:

“First, though, what did your mother tell you about sex?”

“She already told us everything, Daddy,” Sue Ellen said looking at her fingernails.

“She tell you about the clap, syphilis, AIDS, herpes, shit chancres?”

Also, black humour simmers in the off-the-wall reactions of the characters. These are characters who have seen it all, and nothing seems to have shock value. A great example of this is the real estate agent who isn’t so much worried about the Airedale’s sexual needs, as how long it takes.

Hoke is a unique creation. He’s definitely a man of his times and he’s a good, although unorthodox detective. Standard morality is a not a suit Hoke wears. In fact he can’t give up those leisure suits!

Here’s Hoke, called into his boss’s office for a meeting.

“Hoke, you must be the last man in Miami wearing a leusire suit. Where’d you find it anyway?”

There’s a close-out in the fashion district. I got this blue poplin and a yellow one just like it for only 50 bucks on 2-for-1 sale. I like the extra pockets, with a leisure suit you don’t have to wear a tie.”

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A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray: Dominique Barbéris

On Sunday–don’t you think?–certain things come back to you more than on other days.”

Dominique Barbéris’s slim, disturbing novel A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray explores the fragility of domestic contentment, the lurking dangers of extramarital romance, and just how little we know those closest to us.

The story is narrated by a young married woman, a high school teacher, who drives from Paris to the sleepy suburb of Ville-d’Avray to visit her elder sister, Marie-Claire. The narrator suspects that her husband, Luc, may be having an affair, and while he claims to be attending a seminar, it seems possible he’s meeting the ‘other woman.’ So the narrator is mulling over these worries on the way to see Marie-Claire, and this all-too-rare visit is an acknowledgement of Luc’s dislike for his wife’s family. He describes Marie-Claire as “boring,” and he also dislikes Ville-d’Avray, a place he finds “depressing.” Ville-d’Avray is a place, but it’s also, as we see as the book continues, a state of mind.

I’m sure that Ville-d’Avray, with its peaceful, secluded streets, its houses set back in their gardens given over to the passage of the seasons as if defenseless against time, has further increased the gap between her and reality. She has formed all sorts of outdated habits

Marie-Claire is married to Christian, a doctor, they have one child together, and share a beautiful home. The two sisters visit, and as the hours pass, the narrator recalls moments from her childhood and the way in which both girls became caught up in the romance of Jane Eyre and the mysterious Mr. Rochester. Whereas the narrator’s focus moved on to other male figures, Marie-Claire “stayed under the spell of that literary love affair for a long time.” During the visit, Marie-Claire confides that she had an “encounter” with the mysterious Marc Hermann, a patient she met at her husband’s practice. Then about a month later, Marc, ‘coincidentally’ happens to drive by Marie-Claire and offers to give her a lift home. The story is a little odd, and perhaps even odder since Marie-Claire asks her sister “what would you have done in my place?” A sure sign that Marie-Claire isn’t telling the whole story and yet wants approval for her decision to get into Marc’s car. The lift home turns into a drive to a cafe, wine, conversation, and a leisurely evening stroll. Marc claims to be a Hungarian businessman in the Import-Export trade. He gives Marie-Claire a business card and asks her to call him. It’s all very vague. A little while later, Marie-Claire thinks she may be being followed. Of course, eventually Marie-Claire calls Marc, and a relationship begins. ….

While the narrator is stunned to hear her sister’s story, and what’s more that it happened some years ago, she begins to slot pieces into the puzzle. She recalls how Marie-Claire once asked “Are there times when you dream of something else?” And while the question is dismissed at the time, the narrator admits that it needles her and awakens vague feelings of discontent.

Her question had stirred up something buried in a secret corner of my mind (or my heart), the old, vague passionate dream, the never-forgotten images of an overblown, schmaltzy romanticism: the pasteboard reproduction of the manor houses, the flames of the fire, the drama, the banks of artificial fog, and looming up from them, “Orson Welles,” the dashing cavalier, the ideal man, the tormented “master!”

This impressive lean story explores the reality of domestic boredom and the dangerous temptation that illuminates one’s discontent. Ville-d’Avray is a real place, a safe suburb, a place many of us would appreciate living in, but here it represents the choices that Marie-Claire has made. The plot is infused with regret which is amplified by quiet, dream-like Sunday afternoons. What is it about Sundays?

On Sundays, you think about life.

Translated by John Cullen.

Review copy.

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If This Was Happiness: Barbara Leaming

“Men go to bed with Gilda but wake up with me.”

Rita Hayworth’s life is a study in contrasts: she was an incredible beauty, a phenomenal dancer, and a glittering screen presence. As the Sex Goddess, she was the chosen pin-up for American servicemen. Married and divorced 5 times, at her peak she was a highly paid actress, and yet there were periods during her life when she had no money for food. One husband threatened to throw acid in her face, another walloped her in public. Men chased her, wooed her, wed her and promptly cheated on her. How could someone so beautiful so lithe, so exquisite, be so mistreated by the men who wanted to possess her?

Barbara Leaming’s biography of Rita Hayworth, If This Was Happiness begins with background information about Rita’s father and aunt, Eduardo and Elisa Caniso. They came from a family of Spanish dancers, and arrived in America in 1913. “Although silent films were already beginning to encroach on its appeal, vaudeville clearly dominated American entertainment, and the Cansinos ” were a celebrated and highly paid vaudeville dance team.” By 1915, they earned 1500 a week. Eduardo and Elisa and his sister had a tight relationship which was not infiltrated or diminished by Eduardo’s marriage to 19-year-old dancer, Volga Hayworth.

As I read about Eduardo and Elisa, I heard these alarms bells in my head and wondered exactly what the relationship was between brother and sister. I decided I must have a dirty mind, but then later as I read how Eduardo molested Rita, I wondered again just how far back that behaviour went.

Eduardo and Volga’s first child was Margarita (later Rita), and they also had 2 sons. Eduardo tried to break in Hollywood, but his strong accent hampered his success. The family lost all their savings due to “bad investments” during the depression, and by the age of 12, Rita became her father’s dancing partner. She never graduated from high school and only completed the 9th grade. By age 13, with her parents lying about her age, she was travelling down to Tijuana, the sexual relationship between Rita and her father (she was not allowed to call him ‘father,’ in public) was established, but her “sexually provocative” performances on stage did not mirror the reality of the “shy, withdrawn” child. This dichotomy defined Rita for the rest of her life.

There began a curious phenomenon that would be observed repeatedly throughout her career: While silently and obediently taking orders, doing exactly as she was told, Rita would seem somehow to blank out, to withdraw deeply into herself.

It was quickly understood that Rita was the family’s money maker. At 16, she landed a contract with Fox, and headed for stardom, she was courted by 39-year-old Eddie Judson, a man who claimed to be Hollywood savvy and who made “the rounds of fashionable nightspots.” Rita and Eddie eloped and when Rita married Judson, she traded one domineering man, her father, for another. It was Judson who took control of Rita’s metamorphosis; he arranged painful electrolysis treatments to alter her hairline and her hair was dyed auburn. One person quoted notes that Judson tried “to push her to have affairs with people” (including Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, who was so obsessed with Rita he had her spied on) to further her career. Orson Welles didn’t shy away from calling Judson “a pimp. Literally a pimp.” The marriage didn’t last long, but Judson flagrantly cheated on Rita and left her penniless. To quote Rita: “I married him for love, but he married me for an investment.”

There was an affair with Victor Mature, but then Orson Welles entered the picture after seeing a photo of Rita and seeking her out. In some ways, it seems as though Rita’s marriage to Orson was the high point of her life, perhaps both of their lives, but then Orson was cheating. Divorce number 2. Rita’s third marriage was to Prince Aly Khan, another man who lavishly courted Rita–a woman whose value always sunk the minute that ring was on her finger. Prince Aly Khan’s playboy lifestyle did not end with his marriage so there was divorce number 3. Orson Welles noted that:

After Aly, Rita was on a downward path, a steep toboggan ride.

Rita returned to America to revive her film career and she was quickly wooed by Dick Haymes, a singer with a long string of debts and a fading career. It’s hard to say which marriage was the worst but if I had to pick, I would say this was it. The marriage brought public humiliation when Dick Haymes, who should have known he owed Rita a great deal, walloped her across the face in a nightclub. Rita had already damaged her career by her European marriage to Aly Khan, but public scandal, contract issues, along with child neglect charges landed on her head when she took Dick’s advice continually. Whoever named this man did so aptly.

Rita’s last marriage to film producer James Hill seemed a repeat of all the mistakes of the past. By the time she was in her 50s it was evident that there was something wrong with Rita and alcohol was blamed before the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was finally reached.

The book is a sad read. IMO the author was too kind to Orson Welles, “We’re such a cruel race of people,” groaned Welles, with reference to those who told Rita about” his extra marital affairs. (An interesting way of objectifying one’s own behaviour.) I would have liked to have known whether or not Rita had any female friends. There are a couple of names mentioned but its not clear whether these were deep friendships or just light social acquaintances.

Men flocked to Rita like bees to honey but then treated her like shit. This is a woman, damaged in childhood, who outwardly had the world on a plate, but whose relationships were all destructive in one way or another:

“I think if you take ego and vanity out of sex,” Welles would explain, “you would find that the actual amount of sexual activity would be reduced drastically. I’m thinking of men in, particular more than women. A man is to a great extent operating on other juices than the sexual ones when he’s chasing around.”

Here she is driving Glenn Ford crazy

Gilda clip

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Take Me Apart: Sara Sligar

In Sara Sligar’s novel Take Me Apart, former journalist Kate Aiken is under some unspecified cloud when she relocates from New York to California. At the town of Callinas, California, Kate has a new job as archivist for famed, controversial deceased painter, Miranda Brand. Miranda’s house, located dramatically on an isolated coastal cliff top is now owned by her son, Theo, a troubled man who has issues, some of which involve his famous mother. But who wouldn’t have issues growing up with Miranda?

As Kate wades through the chaotic stack (think rooms) of Miranda’s papers, Kate’s task to separate that which is important from the trivial, seems overwhelming, but since she’s there to work and forget about whatever happened in New York (events which are vaguely hinted about), she’s happy to dig in and work.

It looked like a dump truck had backed in through the bay window and unloaded an entire town’s worth of recycling.

But there’s an atmosphere in the house. Touchy Theo wants Kate to work but only within certain confines. Plus then there’s the question of Miranda’s death. Was is a suicide or was it murder? Through Miranda’s journals, a portrait of a troubled woman emerges. Since Miranda had a history of mental illness (including some rather bizarre feeling about her new born son) it’s fairly easy to accept that Miranda topped herself. But then there are rumours…..Her “art dealer had killed her in order to limit supply and raise her value,” that her husband Jake or Theo killed her, or that she was the victim of a serial killer. But then Miranda’s work shows self-inflicted violence:

The next sections were on Inside Me, Miranda’s mutilation series. She had slashed different parts of her body and photographed them up close. A hand, sliced open. The inside of a knee, blood pooling from a horizontal slit. An ear with blood pouring out of the canal, over a diamond earring. The gristle and fat and bone of her, torn open into elegant flicks and syrupy drips.

Take Me Apart has a very slow build up. I wanted to know what the hell happened in New York and found the breadcrumb hints rather scanty and frustrating. Plus then there’s Miranda herself who comes across as a horrible human being…

It was late at night and I had looked at the baby and thought about running a blade through his tiny heart and I knew I could not do this anymore.

The sections regarding the archivist job are interesting, and soon, Kate, who sniffs something is rotten at the heart of Miranda’s death, begins asking questions. This is a tight community in which residents gossip and form opinions. Opinions that they are happy to share. Since Kate is on the run from her own issues, she’s intrigued by Miranda and the journals draw her into Miranda’s world.

The premise of the novel was intriguing but for this reader, the gothic overtones combined with the emphasis on Miranda’s journals were too much. Being inside Miranda’s head made me want to head for the exit. Many reviews bring up the term ‘noir’ but I didn’t get the noir vibe at all. I’ll stick with gothic–with an archivist instead of a governess and with a romance (blech) at the end.

Review copy

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The Warden: Anthony Trollope (1855)

Anthony Trollope’s The Warden is the kick-off novel for the 6-book series, The Chronicles of Barsetshire, so it’s an introduction to the social environment of the region with an emphasis on the clergy and gentry. The plot of The Warden is simple: mild, unassuming Reverend Septimus Harding is the warden of Hiram’s Hospital and preceptor of Barchester cathedral. He’s a widower and has two daughters: Mrs Susan Grantly who is married to the indefatigable Archdeacon Grantly (son of the Bishop of Barchester) and unmarried Eleanor who lives with her father in a very pleasant home on the grounds of Hiram’s Hospital. Hiram’s Hospital, an almshouse established in the 15th century for elderly wool-carders, houses 12 men. Recently, the warden stepped in and gave each man an extra tuppence a day which is added to the meagre amount of one shilling and fourpence each resident receives from the almshouse. Septimus Harding, who has been warden for ten years, receives 800 pounds a year, and in addition has 80 pounds a year as preceptor of Barchester.

All the trouble starts when John Bold, a local doctor whose practice has not exactly taken off, launches a campaign of legal action and social awareness regarding Harding’s pay. Bold contends that it was never the intention of the hospital founder that the lion’s share of the money should go to a warden while the residents receive a relatively meagre amount. The whole Hiram Hospital set-up is somewhat wobbly for the manner in which its mission has strayed from the founder’s original intent. Wool-carders in Barchester no longer exist, and now the residents are handpicked “so the bishop, dean and warden, who took it in turn to put in the old men, generally appointed some hangers-on of their own: worn-out gardeners, decrepit grave-diggers, or octogenarian sextons, who thankfully received a comfortable lodging and one shilling fourpence a day.” The fact that Harding was appointed by his old friend the Bishop and that Harding’s elder daughter is married to the Bishop’s son smacks of nepotism, and those facts add to the argument that Harding is wildly overpaid. Harding is a humble, sweet man, and he’s horrified to find himself the subject of public censure. He investigates the veracity of Bold’s legal argument, and all this is complicated by the fact that Bold is courting Harding’s daughter Eleanor.

While the plot is simple, The Warden is a study in human nature: the lambs vs, the wolves. Pride, power, stubbornness, the power of the press, the misguided machinations of the reformer, and the absolute authority of the church all come under scrutiny. The peaceful, well-established structure of Barsetshire is disrupted when Bold, a “strong reformer,” turns his energy towards Hiram’s Hospital:

His passion is the reform of all abuses; state abuses, church abuses, corporation abuses (he had got himself elected a town councillor of Barchester, and has so worried three consecutive mayors, that it became somewhat difficult to find a fourth), abuses in medical practice, and general abuses in the world at large. Bold is thoroughly sincere in his patriotic endeavours to mend mankind, and there is something to be admired in the energy with which he devotes himself to remedying evil and stopping injustice.

Bold’s directed attack on Harding’s pay–although acutely personal, is undertaken with a blind zeal which ignores the likely consequence. After all, Bold loves Eleanor, and yet it’s pride that blinds him to the consequences of his actions. But then reformers are so often about tearing down without consideration of the human consequences. Then there’s Harding, a doddery man who is happy to take this generous living until it’s pointed out that the pay he receives for is basically given for doing ‘nothing.’ And that’s an argument which festers on both sides of divide–the Archdeacon thinks his father in law is mad to give up this cushy job that requires so little of him, and yet it’s the very same argument, great pay, no labour, that the reformers and the press use. Most of the humor here comes from the insufferable Archdeacon Grantly who tries to bully his father-in-law, Harding into keeping the job. His very argument that Harding gets 800 pounds for basically nothing is exactly the argument to make Harding cringe and run. The Warden examines the layered structures of society: Law, Church, Clergy–those who prop up those structures, those who pontificate and tear them down, and the finally the humans who are supposed to be helped by both established structure and reformers but who are far more likely to be victims:

Did you ever know a poor man yet better for Law or for a lawyer?

The warden

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The Paper Lovers: Gerard Woodward


“What she wanted to say was-no one is entitled to that much privacy, in a marriage. You can have your separate space, your study, your notebooks, but you can’t have places from which I’m totally banned. I don’t care if you are a writer, I have a right to know what you’re doing in here. I have a right to see the evidence. What other type of man would claim such privilege? Not even the obsessive railway modellers or woodworkers would shut their wives out completely. But this claim to artistic privacy put Arnold-it came to Polly in a sudden flash of unwanted inspiration-in the same category as the husbands who mined new cellarage beneath their houses and lived secret lives there.”

Gerard Woodward’s The Paper Lovers takes a different approach to the subject of infidelity and its fallout in the lives of two married couples, through the lens of religion. Examined here: the necessity of shared values in marriage and possibly the most difficult area of negotiation–the geography of the couple vs. the individual. Arnold Proctor, poet and professor is happily married to Polly. They have one child together and lead an ordered life of shared values. Polly, a one-time publishing house employee now runs a shop called Papyrus and here she makes and sells paper. Occasionally Polly and her husband select poetry to be published by Papyrus, and for each project, Polly makes a special run of paper that complements the poetry in some fashion.

Since Polly has an artistic bent, it’s not too surprising when she hauls out a previously unused sewing machine one day. This leads to an organised sewing evening attended by many other women. Arnold’s presence isn’t exactly welcomed, but it’s during one of these evenings that he notices the alluring scent of one of the women–it’s Vera, a woman he’s overlooked in the past. Married Vera also has an only daughter, Irina, and Irina and Evelyn attend the same school and are the best of friends. Arnold becomes fascinated with Vera, and he’s particularly curious that she’s religious. Evelyn’s relationship with Irina allows Arnold to circle around Vera, observe her, and he imagines that her religious beliefs somehow protect him from going any further.

After a few minor social interactions with Arnold exchanging just a few words with Vera, the day arrives when Arnold plans to pick up Evelyn at Vera’s house. There’s some unspoken understanding between him and Vera. With the children watching the conclusion of a DVD for the next 10 minutes, Vera leads Arnold to bed. Then Vera surprises Arnold by rather abruptly arranging sexual assignations. These are conducted at Vera’s home, squashed in between her domestic duties and her runs to pick up her children.

She explained that she was only free during a narrow window in the early afternoon or morning, depending on when her youngest child was at nursery. The hours were 8:30 till 11:45 on Tuesdays, 1:15 till 2:45 on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

She pencils Arnold in with the proficient efficiency of a Madam, and it’s just sex. Vera’s not interested in talking or getting to know Arnold. She wants no nonsense sex with no strings.

The few times Arnold did try to talk, she hushed him quiet, smilingly laying a finger on his lips, as if urging him not to break the precious spell. At first he found this conversational absence a relief. Their relationship was freed from the pleasure of language. But as the weeks went on, he began to worry that their affair existed only for the slaking of Vera’s sexual thirst.

Really, this should be ideal for Arnold who still professes to be happily married, but Vera’s approach bothers him. He can’t align her actions with her religious beliefs. What is he missing here? Shouldn’t she be feeling guilty?

Shared values are imperative in marriage and equivalent relationships, but not so significant when it comes to affairs. Indeed, many an affair is conducted with wildly unsuitable partners and there’s a long list of explanations for that. The idea of shared values appears subtly throughout the novel; at one point, for example Polly visits her parents who berate her for her ‘silly’ profession, asking her how she on earth could “she hope to compete with the likes of WH Smith.” During a visit home, Polly realises the underlying thread in her parents’ lives is the supreme importance of money:

It was all to do with money. Nothing that came into their lives or came out of it did so on anything other than a river of cash.

Of course, Arnold’s tidily conducted affair gets messy, but with religion involved, the plot takes off in ways I didn’t predict. The first half of the book focuses on Arnold, and while his ‘dilemma’ remains at the fore, the novel shifts focus to Polly and her growing consternation at Arnold’s behaviour. Yes, there are many ways to betray your partner as Polly finds out.

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The Beggar’s Pawn: John L’Heureux

They first met Reginald Parker ages ago–in the innocent part of the year 2001– before disaster struck at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at a time when it was still possible to think ours was a virtuous country, and everyone liked us and terrorists were just a plot complication in the movies. We had no idea then what forms terrorism could take, at home and away, in that innocent time ages ago.

John L’ Heureux’s novel The Beggar’s Pawn gives a whole new meaning to the expression: home invasion. This is the story of a happily married, affluent couple in their 60s whose lives are slowly invaded by a casual acquaintance. While the plot is deceptively simple, various tangled moral dilemmas complicate our characters’ lives: the vagaries of helping those less fortunate, just how involved should we become with the problems of others, transparency in marriage vs keeping the peace, what do parents ‘owe’ to children, what do children ‘owe’ to parents, when does helping one’s children start ruining their characters, at what age (if any) do people stop blaming their parents and start taking responsibility for their own actions? All these dilemmas are faced by the two main characters, and the result is a splendid book–at once very funny and terrifying. The sort of thing that happens in these pages could easily happen to many of us. I loved this book for its approach to one of my pet theories: Don’t tolerate the intolerable.

The book opens in 2001, with 65-year-old Stanford professor David Holliss and his wife Maggie who are empty nesters living in “professorville,” in a large, beautiful home in Palo Alto. The house was bought a long time ago with Maggie’s trust fund money (always a sore spot with David) and they raised three ungrateful, awful, privileged children in that house: Sedge, Will and Claire.

Serial monogamist handsome Sedge “would marry an unsuspecting girl, buy a house, he could always depend on the parents in a pinch, and settle down forever with his new bride. Within the next year or two, Sedge and his wife would decide it had all been a well-intentioned, glittering mistake, though of course they would remain good friends. Divorce, division of the spoils, alimony for a specified time. Never any children so there was no need for child support.

Will, the supposedly perfect son, tends to take the moral high ground with his family. Like his father, he’s a professor, but he lives in England with his British house and his growing family. Since Will lives in England, his parents don’t see him or the grandkids much. Finally there’s arguably the most trouble, and troubled, of the bunch: Claire. Claire and her abrasive “fierce integrity” (rude) drifts from one extreme to another. Unable to find a job, she joined a commune, and had a child she abandoned. (This child eventually attended Princeton paid for, of course by the Hollisses.) After the commune, Claire has a lesbian relationship with a theatre director but moved on to “The Little Sisters of the Poor in Oklahoma. She made a retreat at their convent and after the 8 days were over, she asked to be admitted as a novice. The Mother Superior was an old hand at delayed vocation.” The fact that she wasn’t a Catholic seemed to be of no importance to Claire who answered the Mother Superior’s questions with her typical aggressive hostility. So much for the convent.

Thank god the kids are gone, and now the Hollisses share their home with a puppy, Dickens, a dog that they were supposed to just take care of while their son Sedge went through his 4th divorce. All the trouble starts in David and Maggie’s tranquil enviable life when they have a chance meeting with Reginald Parker while walking the dog. It’s a Spot-The-Looney situation. Maggie thinks Reginald is “nice,” but David has some intuitive feeling that the man is “trouble,” although all he can pinpoint is that Reginald’s hair is too long and he’s “intrusive.” As a long-time married couple, both Maggie and David have well-established roles. She’s friendly and more tolerant and David is the curmudgeon.

The few casual meetings between Reginald and David and Maggie are limited, but it doesn’t take much to realise that the man is a liar, hostile and on drugs. He patently and nastily rubs in what he can and can’t afford. (He rubs it in that he can’t afford a dog which may be what happens when you siphon your wife’s meagre income towards cocaine.) He always leaves the Hollisses with a definite uncomfortable feeling. His words are moored with conventional politeness, and weighted down by guilt over their material situation, the Hollisses tolerate Reginald, who latches on like a blood-sucking parasite when really they should tell him to fuck off. But one day in 2009, Reginald, after scoping out the Hollisses’ home, saves Dickens from being run over. This incident acts as a lever for Parker to insinuate himself into the lives of the Hollisses. Soon he hits Maggie up for a loan, and then invites them to a horrible dinner with his downtrodden wife Helen, who’s employed part-time at Walmart and their poor neglected daughter, Iris. From this point, Reginald Parker becomes obsessed with the Hollisses, and the situation isn’t helped by Claire who has a sexual relationship with Reginald. Claire loves cruelly ridiculing her parents while blaming them for her messed-up self. So Reginald moves to start writing a book based on the Hollisses.

The novel paces Reginald’s persistent encroaching aggression against the way the Hollisses roll over rather than confront. I’m reminded of Mon Oncle D’Amerique and dominance/avoidance in human behaviour. There were times I laughed out loud at this book, thanks mostly to the appalling Holliss children, all with chips on their shoulders springing from imagined hardship childhoods. They refuse to grow up and take responsibility for their actions, demanding, and taking for granted, endless handouts even as they bitch at (and about) their parents. Claire, for example, claims that she suffered “familial torture while she was a child. She had been obliged to attend concerts, the opera, and on one terrible occasion, the ballet.” The sections with the children are funny–even though the children are appalling in their presumptive privilege for which they ALL blame their parents. Reginald hates the Hollisses for what they represent, and he begins blaming them for his choices. As his obsession with the Hollisses grows along with the idea that everything in HIS life is THEIR fault, it’s almost as though he becomes the fourth child. He demands they become his saviours and just like the Holliss children, any help given to Reginald is not enough–rather the opposite. His belligerence, bitterness and aggression grow. … The book was so funny at times, that its dark turn is shocking. There are many moral lessons to carry away from this entertaining, engrossing book.

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The Price of Salt: Patricia Highsmith (1952)

Working as a temp during the Christmas season at a bustling upscale New York department store, 19-year-old Therese is an aspiring set designer. She has a small apartment and a devoted, boyfriend, Richard, and yet while her whole life and career are ahead of her, she feels that something is missing. Working as a temp “intensified things that always bothered her […] the pointless actions, the meaningless chores that seemed to keep her from doing what she wanted to do, might have done.” Since Therese wants to break into theater set design, her feelings of ennui, being locked in the doldrums, are perfectly natural. But is there something else simmering in Therese? Abandoned as a child and brought up in a Catholic orphanage, it’s possible that Therese’s sense of disconnection is rooted in her early lack of attachments. Perhaps that explains her lukewarm feelings towards Richard.

Then one day, a woman comes into the store looking for a gift:

Their eyes met at the same instant, Therese glancing up from a box she was opening, and the woman just turning her head so she looked directly at Therese. She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist. Her eyes were gray, colorless, yet dominant as light or fire, and, caught by them, Therese could not look away.

Therese waits on this customer and later sends her a card. The woman, married with a child, is Carol, and she returns to the store. Soon a relationship strikes up between the two women. Just what this relationship is, isn’t clear to Therese at all (or this reader) and at one point, it seems possible that Therese is attracted to the older woman. But then again, Therese has no family. Is she seeking friendship? Is she looking for a mother figure? An older sister? Soon Therese, neglecting an increasingly sulky Richard, is spending time at the woman’s large country home, and it becomes evident that Carol, in the midst of a grubby divorce, has a lot of problems.

The plot moves forward with Carol and Therese’s growing relationship, Therese’s burgeoning career, Carol’s divorce, and the small circle of society in which both women move. While it’s not clear exactly what is brewing between Carol and Therese, equally subdued characters, suddenly Therese is avoiding Richard. Curiously Carol, in the midst of ending her own unhappy marriage, encourages Therese to keep trying with Richard. When Carol’s friend, Abby enters the scene, jealousy rears its head.

Weaved with an incredible sense of loneliness and individual isolation, The Price of Salt is a love story, but since its creator is Highsmith, while there’s tenderness and sensitivity, there’s also the threat of violence. When the two women ditch New York and head west, Carol’s unpleasant husband, Harge, bent on winning the custody suit, has the two women followed by a grubby PI. While Carol is somewhat discreet, Therese, who has no idea what she’s up against, makes clumsy mistakes. There are touches of Thelma and Louise, and there were so many ways this novel could have taken. Instead, we see two women drawn to each other and then separated by a society that censors love between two women, and the love between these two women is contrasted to the male-female relationships in these pages which include conformity and possession. Particularly powerful is the idea that it’s so much easier to conform to society’s expectations of heterosexuality. Therese loves Richard’s family, and clearly wants to belong on some level, but then Carol is proof that marriage and a child is a poisonous road to travel.

I’ve never done anything to embarrass him socially, and that’s all he cares about really. There’s a certain woman at the club I wish he’d married. Her life is entirely filled with giving exquisite little dinner parties and being carried out of the best bars feet first–she’s made her husband’s advertising business a great success, so he smiles on her little faults. Harge wouldn’t smile, but he’d have some definite reason for complaint. I think he picked me out like a rug for his living room, and he made a bad mistake. I doubt if he’s capable of loving anyone, really. What he has is a kind of acquisitiveness, which isn’t much separate from his ambition. It’s getting to be a disease, isn’t it, not being able to love?

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The Night Always Comes: Willy Vlautin

One thing in my line of work that you find out is that most people act like they have more than they really do, that they’re better off than they really are. It’s always the same kind of people too. I’ve been doing this for over 25 years and it never changes. Rednecks and gangsters want to be rich but most of them aren’t rich. Rednecks with their trucks and gangsters with their SUVs and Cadillacs. And on the other side are the full-of-shit people trying to act white collar rich by driving BMWs and Mercedes and Audis.”

“I made a lot of mistakes and got greedy” so says 30-year-old Lynette. Lynette’s conclusion about her behaviour comes after a series of bad decisions taken over the course of two days. This dark bleak tale weaves together a complex tapestry of social and personal ills: poverty, gentrification, prostitution, burglary, assault, drug sales, bitter recriminations and the betrayal of friends and family. Willy Vlautin’s The Night Always Comes is a crime novel, but it’s also an examination of American life: those who work, living paycheck-to-paycheck–those who work multiple jobs to hobble together enough to survive; those who tread water but who will sink with just one financial hurdle that could send them out onto the street.

Lynette driving an old banger, holds two jobs (bakery, bar) and in the few hours left in the day, she’s also a prostitute. She lives in a rented house in Portland with her bitter chain-smoking, heavy-drinking mother and her developmentally disabled brother, Kenny–a child in a man’s body. Lynette’s father left years ago and has a brand new family. When the novel opens, Lynette has saved about 80,000 as a downpayment for the house her mother currently rents. The owner, who hasn’t fixed a thing in years, is giving them a ‘deal,’ and with massive gentrification changing the face of Portland, Lynette sees buying the house as an opportunity for stabilization. If they don’t buy, they will have to move which inevitably means a huge rent increase. Lynette’s credit sucks and so the plan is that her mother will get the loan.

As the sale moves closer, Lynette’s mother brings home a brand new car, bought on credit of course, and it’s this purchase that effectively sabotages the plan to buy the house. Unwilling to give up her plan to buy the house, and desperate to get more money, Lynette heads out into the night to collect an old debt from a fellow escort. From here, it’s all downhill as Lynette spirals from one bad decision to another, reconnecting with her past to solve her present problems. At first, author Willy Vlautin only reveals Lynette’s ambitions and she appears to be the hard-working voice of reason, the one person willing to anchor herself to her mother and brother and pull them out of poverty. Gradually, however, Lynette’s troubled past and her irrevocably damaged relationship with her mother is revealed. There’s a dark side to Lynette, and when she hits up her Johns for cash, it’s interesting that she treats the one who actually gives her money the worst. As Lynette sallies on into the night trying to gather together as much money as she can, she sinks into male-dominated, violent, predatory Lord of the Flies territory.

When the novel began with its descriptions of Lynette’s car starting after multiple tries, and Kenny being left in Lynette’s car while she works, all the misery felt a little overdone. But Lynette’s past (and present) float to the surface and her tired, damaged victimhood recedes, to reveal a powerful novel of greed, getting ahead and the twisted reality of the American Dream. There’s an underlying theme about money–how we fight to get it, but how we don’t understand its power, and as a result, how money runs people, not the other way around. “Why does it matter to feel bad about anything? Isn’t that the American Dream? Fuck over whoever is in your way and get what you want.” And this is the mantra for nearly all the characters in the book. Take or be taken. All relationships carry debt: debts to be repaid

It’s all fancy buildings and skinny people who look like they’re in magazines. I don’t know where they all come from, but they sure are coming, and then all you do is cross another street and there’s homeless people camping everywhere. They’re coming too. You can’t drive around Portland without seeing a hundred tents. People living in tents. Are they all on drugs? Are there that many people who are crazy and on drugs. I always used to ask myself, ‘why would a man in his twenties want to live on the street when he could work?’ I mean, my god, what’s happening? For a long time I didn’t understand it. Why? Why would they live that way? It seems so awful, so miserable, but you know now I think I’m starting to understand. The answer is .. why not? Why should they bust their asses all day when they know no matter what they do, they’ll never get ahead. And why should they pay 300,000 for a falling down shack when they don’t have to. And when it starts raining and getting cold and they get sick, well they’ll be the first ones to march up to any hospital and get taken in. Me? I have to pay for my shitty health insurance and all the goddamn copays and I have to pay out the nose for anything that’s not covered. And there’s a lot of things not covered. And then some homeless creep who lives in a tent just goes to the hospital and gets everything for free. Politicians get healthcare for free and bums do too. But of course not us. How does that make sense? How does that make you want to get out of bed in the morning and go to work?

At the bar where she works, Lynette hands out free drinks, her co-workers hand out free drinks and it never occurs to them to wonder who is paying for all that free booze. Its currency (favours, freebies for friends) is all taken for granted. But then again, there’s so much resentment towards employers, that it’s justified. But other things are currency in the novel too–sex, relationships, power and violence. These are all currencies used to get ahead–to get what various characters want. In one part of the novel, my favourite part, Lynette goes to visit a man who repossesses cars, and he delivers an amazing soliloquy on the stupidity of people who, refusing to be content with what they have, seek credit, larger mortgages, bigger homes, as they try to move up in American society only to lose everything. Rodney has seen it all and knows that just because you drive around in a fancy car or live in fancy house doesn’t mean that you have two nickels to rub together. From his viewpoint, you can’t judge a person’s financial health from the trappings of wealth. Then there’s Lynette’s mother, a woman who’s simply worn out by life and the emotional cost of taking care of a developmentally disabled child: she sees that the struggle to keep afloat or get ahead is pointless: “No one wants to hire a worn-out, middle-aged fatso.”

Thing is Lynette, I’m getting mean. Not angry like you, but just mean and bitter. And on the TV all these rich sons of bitches they just talk bullshit and take whatever they want. They take and take and then when they get themselves in a pickle, we bail them out, so why would they care about anything but themselves. The politicians don’t give a shit times a thousand, all they want to do is stay elected and when they get reelected, they still don’t get anything done. They don’t seem to want to help anybody and they have no backbone. They just argue and blame and take money and get great healthcare while they do it. Those cocksuckers get free healthcare and we don’t. They don’t even care about our health. That says a lot doesn’t it. So why vote? I’m serious, why? Because they don’t do anything. They don’t help and if they don’t help then what’s the point of any of them? She looked at Lynette and took another drink.

Audio review copy. (punctuation of speeches may not be perfect)

 

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Nothing to See Here: Kevin Wilson

“I felt like the only sane person, and I was in my underwear, holding a ruined muumuu that I’d stolen from a sleeping old lady.”

Kevin Wilson’s quirky, entertaining novel Nothing to See Here is the story of two very different women who collided as teens and now reconnect in adulthood under bizarre circumstances. I have not read The Family Fang, but after watching the film version, Nothing to See Here caught my eye. Through a small set of quirky characters, this engaging, funny novel explores the themes of the families we are stuck with and the families we choose for ourselves.

Twenty-eight year-old Lillian, whose life is a train wreck, gets a letter from Madison Billings. They’ve kept in touch over the years in a desultory way after they met at a “fancy” girls’ school. Lillian was a scholarship pupil who roomed with Madison Billings, the cosseted daughter of a wealthy man who owns a chain of department stores. Lillian is the daughter of a single mother, a woman with a lot of miles:

I lived with my mom and a rotating cast of her boyfriends, my father either dead or just checked out. My mother was vague about him, not a single picture. It seemed like maybe some Greek god has assumed the form of a stallion and impregnated her before returning to his home atop Mount Olympus. More likely it was just a pervert in one of the fancy homes that my mom cleaned.

That quote is a good example of the strong narrator voice of this novel, a voice strong enough and tart enough to carry the plot in spite of its flaws. The plot centres on two emotionally damaged children who spontaneously combust. Yes that’s right. You read it correctly. Spontaneous combustion. The plot description put me off to be honest but a sample convinced me that I liked the narrator voice.

But back to Madison and Lillian, two girls who met beyond the social divide. It was an improbable friendship that shouldn’t have happened. As a child, Lillian realised that education was the ticket out of the confining, poverty-stricken life she had with her mother:

I wasn’t destined for greatness; I knew this. But I was figuring out how to steal it from someone stupid enough to relax their grip on it.

So Lillian makes it to the fancy boarding school and her mother, who tells Lilian that she doesn’t belong with this crowd, goes along with it, but then she goes along with whatever life throws her way. Madison takes Lillian under her wing, but when Madison is caught with drugs, her father pays Lillian’s mother a bribe; Lillian takes the fall, and from that point on, Lillian’s life is all downhill. But since she loves and admires Madison, Lillian never blames her friend. Fast forward 15 years: Lillian is “working two cashier jobs at competing grocery stores, and smoking weed in the attic,” while Madison is married to an extremely wealthy older Senator, Jasper Roberts. They live in a mansion in Tennessee with their son, Timothy, but that may change soon as Jasper is slated to be the next Secretary of State. Imagine Lillian’s surprise when Madison sends $50 for a bus ticket and tells her that she has a “job opportunity” for her old friend. Of course, something is rotten in the state of Tennessee, but Lillian, who has a curious innocence, or perhaps she just believes in Madison (even if we don’t) doesn’t see the troubles coming her way.

Lillian is awed by Madison’s gorgeous home and seemingly perfect life, but in spite of its glossy perfection, something is definitely off. Timothy, who dabs his mouth with a napkin after eating, seems to be the perfect little gentleman, and Madison, as attractive as ever, is edgy. Then to complete the picture there’s Jasper Roberts–a politician with a grubby past, but he’s shining up nicely under Madison’s iron tutelage and ambition.

He looked a little weary, like being important was a Herculean task. If any aspect of his appearance had been off by even a few degrees, he would have seemed evil.

Jasper has two children, 10 -year-old twins, Bessie and Roland, with his first wife (now dead), and the kids are according to Madison “sweet kids.” Madison asks Lillian to be a governess of sorts for the twins; they are currently living with maternal grandparents but will be relocated to the newly renovated guesthouse on Jasper’s estate. The pay is generous, but Lillian isn’t exactly the world’s most responsible person. It’s doubtful that she could take care of a goldfish, so why is she being given this job? What’s the catch? …. The children spontaneously combust when they are upset. And they get upset a lot.

Lillian’s first reaction is to reject the job, but then with no other prospects on the horizon and her (misplaced) devotion to Madison, Lillian accepts. Visions of Maria von Trapp and Mary Poppins float in her head, with the thought that she’d “just stand next to them for the whole summer and gently direct them toward good decisions. I thought I’d just sit in a beanbag chair and they’d read magazines.” All those fantasies disappear when Lillian meets the children for the first time. Accompanied by Jasper’s fixer, Carl, Lillian picks up the children from their grandparents:

We walked into the cabin, which was dark, not a single light on, but we could see activity in the backyard. The sofa, some flowery abomination with plastic covering it, was burned black on one side, the ceiling above it dusted with soot. Carl slid open the glass door, and we saw Mr. Cunningham in a tiny swimsuit and some flip flops, cooking a steak on a rickety old charcoal grill. His wife was dead asleep in a lawn chair. “Carl!” Mr. Cunningham said. He was in his seventies, but he had curly gray hair like a wig. He looked like he was in the process of melting, his skin sunburned and sagging everywhere, hanging in folds.

So Lillian takes over the care of the children. With Carl wanting to drug the kids with Mickey-Finn’ed Kool-Aid, slimy Jasper only concerned about his political career, and Madison eager to keep up appearances (but ready to ship the kids out as the nuclear option), Lillian, unexpectedly bonds with the children. The children have been rejected and have lived through horrible, emotionally damaging situations. They’ve received no support, no love, and they continue to be rejected. The proximity to the main house, the way Jasper and Madison avoid the twins, and Timothy “looking at us through his own little pair of opera glasses, like he was in a grand theater house in London” underscore the ostracism, the human zoo, of the three outcasts. Lillian tends to self-destruct or smash something when she loses it, and so she finds that she admires the power that pours from the twins when they burst into flames. They can’t control the process, but the ability to spontaneous combust certainly dictates that the children have to be handled with care. The twins need Lillian and she needs them:

I’m not joking when I say that I never liked people, because people scared me. Because anytime I said what was inside me, they had no idea what I was talking about. They made me want to smash a window just to have a reason to walk away from them. Because I kept fucking up, because it seemed so hard not to fuck up, I lived a life where I had less than what I desired. So instead of wanting more, sometimes I just made myself want even less. Sometimes I made myself believe that I wanted nothing, not even food or air, and if I wanted nothing, I’d just turn into a ghost. And that would be the end of it.

Madison remains a murky figure and Lillian’s devotion to her isn’t credible–especially given Lillian’s anti-social tendencies, and if I mentally deducted the swearing (swearing in a novel is a plus imo) the novel, sadly, loses a lot of its transgressive feel. So scrape away the swearing and there’s a lot of sentimentality. Think a decent, but not wonderful film, with an incredible acting performance that makes the film seem superior, and that’s how I felt about this book. I liked the humour and the narrative voice which appears to push those transgressive buttons, but ultimately, a few swear words don’t add up to a transgressive novel or character. It’s just custard on the pudding. On the up side, Lillian’s sense of humour and observations are well worth catching. Spinning into Madison’s orbit once more creates a sense of resolution for Lillian. She realizes that wealth “could normalize just about anything.” And being around the children gives Lillian perspective about her own mother:

And this was what I finally realized, that even as we sank deeper and deeper into our lives, we were always separate.

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