Tag Archives: american fiction

The Locals: Jonathan Dee

“There was no earthly specimen more out of touch with reality than a New Yorker. People who lived on an island and paid a million dollars for a bedroom.”

The Locals from Jonathan Dee is a remarkable novel which captures American life in the decade following 9-11: the shock, the aftermath, economic stagnation, the real estate boom and subsequent bust. All of this is seen through a handful of characters who live in Howland, a town in the Southern Berkshires of Massachusetts.  Regular readers know that I groan at appearances of 9-11 in novels, but here, in The Locals, Jonathan Dee hits just the right note.

The novel begins on 9-11 with a rather nasty narrator, a lab worker, who subsequently drops out of the novel. He’s on his way to see a lawyer to seek recompense from an investor who fleeced him of over 200K. Also in New York that day is contractor Mark Firth, who has traveled from Howland to see the same lawyer, for the same reason.  This early section sets the scene for the stratification, the money and class divides–of American society–a theme that lies at the heart of the novel.

the locals

Mark Firth returns home to Howland, only to find that he’s welcomed like a surviving hero. And this is one of the things I loved about this novel-the way Dee captures the 9-11 feeling in the country. For a brief moment, everyone in the country seemed to come together in collective grief.

Everybody was all frightened, but really that was just a way of trying to make the whole thing more about themselves, which it wasn’t. Either you were actually there when it happened or it was something you watched on TV, period. But whenever something major happens it’s like everybody wants their little piece of the suffering. People had no idea what was coming next. That’s true I guess–when something as fucked up as that happens, something you weren’t even imagining, it wakes up your imagination pretty good–but still, they were just overdoing it, I’m sorry. Get over yourselves. You weren’t there, it didn’t happen to you . 

Mark returns home to face a bleak future. Contracting work has dried up, and as for getting his stolen money back, there’s not much hope of that. Mark’s wife Karen, who hasn’t forgiven him for losing all their savings to a con man, temporarily puts her grievances on hold in light of 9-11, and, as she sees it, her husband’s close call with terrorism.

When billionaire Philip Hadi decides to make his summer Howland home his permanent residence, things begin to improve for Mark. Hadi, who has left New York following 9-11, is obsessed with making his house ‘safe.’ He hires Mark for various security jobs, and then settles into the town taking up local politics. After a comment from Hadi, Mark decides to stop building and improving houses, and instead begins picking up houses at auction and then flipping them for profit. He’s joined in this venture by his brother Gerry.

Most of the novel is concerned with Mark’s family and that includes his aging parents who haven’t saved enough for retirement, Mark’s single sister, vice principal Candace, and Mark’s brother, Gerry, whose work at a real estate company comes to an abrupt end following a corrosive affair with a married coworker.

Hadi’s presence in town begins to sharply divide residents. Hadi, who takes up political office, begins to suck up the town’s deficit , but that comes at a cost, and Gerry in particular, who has extreme libertarian views, sees Hadi’s generosity as what it is–a benevolent dictatorship. Using the anonymity of his blog, Gerry tries to flail citizens into action, but most people are far too happy taking Hadi’s handouts to complain or question Hadi’s decisions.

As the plot continues, Mark’s daughter, Haley, who serves as the battleground for her parents’ toxic marriage, grows up in a new America–an America in which the one-percent live in their own stratosphere while city budgets face shortfalls, small businesses fold, libraries close and homes across America fall into foreclosure at unprecedented rates. Howland has its year-round residents, the locals, who, in many cases, depend on income from the wealthy second home residents. Some of the businesses that spring up for the wealthy are totally inaccessible to the average local: the phenomenally expensive yoga retreat centre that’s booked up for almost a year in advance:

Rich people who led lives full of manufactured stress. Women who worked harder than they needed to, or women who didn’t work at all. Their hyper-refined problems expanded to fill the shape of expensive solutions.

Or the pretentious destination restaurant that serves 16 or 17 course meals, so expensive that the locals who can scrape up the money can come for a “special occasion.” Diners are given a booklet and a “small pencil, in case they want to record, for memory’s sake any details or impressions.”

Mark Firth tries to rise in American society in the shadow of Hadi, and we see Hadi, a man who has no emotional investment in the community, try to transform Howland into a personal fiefdom. In spite of the fact that Hadi is a prominent figure in the plot, his motives remain cloudy. The wealth he drops into Howland improves life, but there’s a cost that some of the locals are unwilling to pay. Hadi states that “democracy doesn’t really work anymore,” and then consciously or unconsciously proves he’s right.  The novel takes the town of Howland as its crucible and asks some important moral questions about the sustainability and future of American society. This is a story that begins in collective grief, purpose and cooperation and ends in divisiveness and an unsettling, uncertain future

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Hoodoo Harry: Joe R. Lansdale

Joe Lansdale’s novella Hoodoo Harry is one in the entry of Bibliomysteries (“a series of short tales about deadly books by top mystery authors”). Hoodoo Harry features Lansdale’s much-loved fictional duo Hap and Leonard, and since it’s a short trip with these two, I’d recommend it for fans rather than newbies.

For those unfamiliar with Hap and Leonard, they live in East Texas, outside of mainstream culture by scraping a living at menial jobs as field hands or day laborers. Later in the series, they work at a detective agency run by Hap’s girlfriend, Brett. Hap and Leonard’s close friendship substitutes for other familial relationships, and while these two men are the best of friends, especially during humorous bantering sessions, they seem like an old married couple. Hap Collins is white, Leonard Pine is gay, black, a Vietnam vet. Digging back in Hap and Leonard history, Hap, who was a member of the counter-culture, refused to go to Vietnam, and served time. The two men operate as a team, with Hap as our narrator, so the novels clearly lean towards the Hap side of things. Hap is often troubled about acts of violence that take place while Leonard isn’t troubled by moral questions.

Hoodoo Harry

In Hoodoo Harry, Hap and Leonard are on a fishing trip when a bookmobile barrels towards them:

As we came over the hill. the trees crowding in on us from both sides, we saw there was a blue bus coming down the road, straddling the middle line. Leonard made with an evasive maneuver, but by this point the trees on the right side were gone, and there was a shallow creek visible, one that fed into the private lake where we had been fishing. There was no other place to go. 

Hap and Leonard survive the accident, but the driver of the bookmobile van doesn’t. Turns out the driver, am orphaned boy named James, had been “couch surfing,” and picking up odd jobs in Nesbit–a town with an ugly history. Hap and Leonard are troubled by James’s death, and although his death was caused by a horrendous accident, they feel responsible. The fact that James was covered with cigarette burns and had clearly been tortured before his death indicates that he was running, terrified from some awful fate. And then there’s a question about the bookmobile. It disappeared 15 years ago along with its driver, Harriet Hoodalay, otherwise known as Hoodoo Harry. This was a cold case until the perfectly preserved missing bookmobile plows into Hap and Leonard.

Where has the bookmobile been for the last 15 years? Where is Hoodoo Harry and why was a runaway child at the wheel of a vehicle he couldn’t handle?

Anyone familiar with Hap and Leonard, who typically take on the cases of the disenfranchised, can guess that these unlikely best friends will investigate the case and find the answers. Race issues, as always, float to the top of the tale. Hap and Leonard operate in East Texas and Nesbit is one of those out-of-the-way unpleasant little towns where everyone appears to know everything about all the mostly unsavory residents.

The tale also includes Lansdale’s signature style and that is occasionally crude. It goes with the territory:

When I came to, I was lying on the ground on my side by the edge of the creek. I was dizzy and felt like I’d been swallowed by a snake and shit down a hole. My throat was raw, and I knew I had most likely puked a batch of creek water. 

For Lansdale fans, this tale is a short, fun trip, but it’s probably not the best place to start if you’re new to the Hap/Leonard team

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The Blinds: Adam Sternbergh

“Everything that happened to you before you got here has either been forgotten or is better off forgotten.”

Adam Sternbergh’s book The Blinds is set in a remote bleached-out, dusty town called Caesura– a fenced area in Kettle County, Texas, “the third least populous county” in America. Caesura, a secret facility created by the Justice Department and maintained by the murky Fell Corporation, does not exist on any map or census, but its existence is the subject of internet speculation–“chatter of secret government camps and black helicopters, mind experiments and covert crackdowns.” The town is set inside a perimeter fence. There’s no hospital, no school, but then only one child lives there. There’s a rundown-trailer for the sheriff, a structure that serves as a bar, and a small library for those who can muster the energy to read. The town is run on a cash-less basis, but there’s a commissary, which has groceries delivered once a week, and a laundromat. There’s no internet, no phones, and only two cars–the sheriff’s pickup and another in case of emergencies.  The residents can leave if they want, but they do so at their own peril. It’s well known that a woman left with her son some years ago, and it didn’t end well.

The Blinds

So who lives in this sunbleached hellhole? Who are the residents of Caesura or the Blinds as it is otherwise known?

She looks over the surrounding blocks of homes with their identical cinderblock bungalows, each with the same slightly elevated wooden porch, the same scrubby patch of modest yard. Some people here maintain the pretense of giving a shit, planting flowers, mowing grass, keeping their porches swept clean, while others let it all grow wild and just wait for whatever’s coming next. 

The residents are a blend of career criminals, the worst sort of scum–hired killers, serial killers, epic child molesters and even a few ‘innocents’ as they are called who were offered a way out for certain testimony. Instead of going into the Witness Protection programme, they disappeared, with new names, into Caesura, but only after having their memories wiped by The Fell Corporation. Over the years, and Caesura’s been in existence for eight years now, the memory wipe has been perfected.

He remembers something vaguely, as a kid, with his dad, in a dusty basement, with small windows, and the sound of tools clattering, but that’s where his memory gets ragged. Orson’s case, the doctors told him before he entered the town, was a deep dive; the relevant memories required something like a root canal for his brain. Plus he was one of the early ones, the original eight, back before they’d perfected the precision of the technique. Some of the newer people, they remember almost everything–childhoods, first crushes, wives, kids–except for the part of their lives they chose to forget.  With Orson, they scoured most of his memories, just to be sure.

So here you have a town full of vicious killers whose memories of their past mis-deeds have been wiped away. What can possibly go wrong?

That’s what happens when you wipe out a big chunk of a person’s memories: Fear breeds in the empty space that’s left behind.

Caesura, with its community of memory wiped villains has run smoothly for the past eight years, but cracks begin to appear. One resident commits suicide, and while the act itself isn’t a shocker, it’s the fact that a gun was used that is unsettling since “theoretically at least,” Sheriff Cooper is the only one who is supposed to have a gun. Then Cooper’s long-term deputy left in a hurry after the suicide, and he’s been replaced by Dawes, a woman who begins digging into loose ends. ….

Sheriff Cooper, the story’s anti-hero, is laid back and laconic, a style which causes him to project a lazy mind, but in reality he has the perfect temperament to run this hellhole. His temperament also matches the plot which unfolds layer upon layer.

Now he stands at a remove from the body in question, studying the scene with the weary air of a man who’s returned from  particularly tedious errand to find that his car’s been keyed.

To say more about the plot would ruin this book for others. I’ll add that Sternbergh’s style meshes perfectly with this dark tale that is creative and yet also oddly possible at the same time. The Blinds has to be one of the most unusual, interesting and creative books I’ve read this year. There are a couple of loose ends at the end of the story, but that’s relatively minor. It’s not often I come across a book and find myself thinking ‘this is really different,’ but Sternbergh created something new and plausible here.

Someone…. please… option this book for a television series

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Mrs Fletcher: Tom Perrotta

When I saw the title of Tom Perrotta’s novel, Mrs Fletcher, I thought immediately of The Graduate’s Mrs Robinson, and as it turns out, the connection wasn’t that far off. The titular Mrs Fletcher, or Eve, turns out to be a middle-aged woman who’s lusted after by a man young enough to be her son. This is a novel about growing up, growing older, and moving on in a brand new world where sexual confusion meets PC expectations. Perrotta’s light humour makes this story of human flaws and human failings a delight to read.

Mrs Fletcher

The novel opens with 46-year-old Eve packing up the U-haul and getting ready to send her only son, high school jock, Brandon, off to college. Brandon, who should be helping his mother is busy getting a farewell blow-job from his h.s. girlfriend, lithe cheerleader, Becca. Brandon actually broke up with Becca, via text, a few weeks earlier but nonetheless she arrives and breezily pushes her way into Brandon’s bedroom.

Eve, annoyed that Becca has spoiled her last day with Brandon, goes to his bedroom door and is shocked when she overhears a detail of her son’s sex life.

Mrs Fletcher follows two trajectories: Eve, divorced, suffering from empty-nest syndrome, and whose entire social life revolves around Facebook, vows to get out and ‘mingle.’ By day she’s the executive director of a senior center, but she enrolls in a night class: Gender and Society taught by a transgendered professor at the local community college. The small class is made up of a wide range of students, but a classmate, bar owner Barry, a “what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of guy” latches onto Eve.

“I’ve never met a transgendered person before,” she said. “At least I don’t think so.”

“Not that I’m attracted to her,” Barry added in case she’d misunderstood his earlier comment. “I mean, to each his own, right? But that’s a bridge too far for me. I wonder is she tells the guys she dates beforehand.”

“How do you know she dates guys?”

“Just the general vibe I’m getting. You think she got the surgery? I’m not really sure how that works.”

That conversation which is vividly real, is indicative of the book’s tone and main focus. The world has changed. Yes we have male and female but we also have “LGBTQIA voices,” and terms such as “cisgender” and “heteronormative” (I had to look up the definitions). Perrotta’s characters must negotiate this new world with its new terms, new rules. Eve for example, defends the professor’s right to be transgendered, and yet in her secret moments, questions the choice:

In a minivan outside a sports bar, however, the professor’s gender identity seemed a little more precarious, as much wish as reality. It was partly the timbre of her voice in the darkness, and partly just the size of her body in the passenger seat, the way she filled the available space. 

I can see who you were, Eve thought, One self on top of the other. 

As soon as this uncharitable image occurred to her, she did her best to erase it from her mind. She wasn’t the gender police. 

Eve’s life begins to expand into new territory, yet still there’s an emptiness. One night she receives an anonymous text: “U r my MILF,” bored and lonely, she surfs the internet and discovers milfateria.com, a site devoted to “Amateur MILF Porn.” Before long she’s addicted and “infected.”

The second story line follows Brandon who is out-of-his-depths at college, a place he chose specifically for its reputation of being “a party school and he liked to party.” A popular jack in high school, here, he’s an anachronism. He can hang out with other jocks, or he can pursue a girl he’s very attracted to: Amber whose politically active college life includes Autism Awareness.

Perrotta paints a lively picture of college life, and how the sensitivity of gender and gender issues create a minefield in modern society. On the two college campuses seen here, patriarchy is under attack, rape culture is vilified, and yet beyond the campus grounds we see the other side of sex–the stuff minus the philosophical discourse: casual hookups through tinder.com and the sex on porn sites–sex that seems to have escaped the rules of society.

In the porn world, no one seemed to have heard of sexual harassment. Doctors went down on their patients. Personal trainers fondled their clients. Underperforming employees found creative ways to save their jobs.

Given the subject matter, it would have been easy to dip into smutty territory, but this is not Perrotta’s aim. There’s a feeling of melancholy throughout the novel as we follow our troubled, confused characters. He shows us two people, mother and son, at important crossroads in their lives. Both Eve and Brandon face ‘the next stage’ and they both blunder through it. In this ever-shifting world, with the temptations of Craigslist, Tinder, and the internet, it’s hardly surprising that people may make mistakes about sex.

Mrs Fletcher has been optioned by HBO

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The Confusion of Languages: Siobhan Fallon

“You become friends with someone you wouldn’t be able to stand if you actually had options.”

Siobhan Fallon’s richly textured novel The Confusion of Languages is set during 2011 in the American ex-pat community of the US embassy in Jordan. The story centres on the relationship between two of the wives, Cassandra Hugo and Margaret Brickshaw, both married to career military men, and both, due to their roles in a foreign country, shoved into an ill-fitting friendship. The novel examines conflicts between vastly contrasting cultures, the treacherous friendships between women, and the chasms between husbands and wives.

When the novel opens, Margaret Brickshaw has left her toddler, Mather, in the care of Cassandra Hugo in order to attend to the aftermath of a traffic accident. But as the hours tick away, and there’s no word from Margaret, Cassandra, bored and annoyed that she’s stranded with the baby, turns to Margaret’s journal, and there she learns some unpleasant truths about herself and possible clues to Margaret’s extended absence.

The confusion of languages

Cassandra and her husband, Dan, have already been in Jordan for a couple of years when Dan signs up to sponsor newcomers Margaret and Crick Brickshaw. Margaret, mother of a young baby, is new to military life. She doesn’t ‘get’ the rules of contact with locals, and her desire to see the ‘real’ Jordan and to be friendly infuriates Cassandra, but then again, Cassandra is annoyed with Margaret before she sets eyes on her. Margaret’s apartment is much better, but that’s not all, Margaret “blond and Brahmin thin” has “the sort of body that denotes an entire class system in America, its own regal title regardless of bank account or upbringing, Mayflower ancestors or cabbage soup diet. As long as the thinness comes with a decent set of teeth, the bearer of such luck has it made.” Plus Margaret has a sexually-charged husband and the child that Cassandra is unable to conceive. To Cassandra, Margaret “had it all,”

All this because biology favored the Brickshaws with a child. As if that’s fair. As if lucking out and being able to conceive isn’t enough, then the US government gives you extra bedrooms to pat your propagation of the species on the back 

Cassandra is a tricky character. She does things that no one can actually point to as meanness or sabotage, but her actions have that result nonetheless. Cassandra had another friend before, Rebecca Eisenberg, and while Cassandra says she was just being “helpful” setting up Google alerts to be sent to Rebecca about violence in the region, what was she really playing at? We first see Margaret through Cassandra’s eyes, and Margaret seems possibly, subtly bitchy, and yet when we read Margaret’s words through her journal, we see a very troubled naive young woman who feels guilt about her mother and is unsure of her husband’s love. Beyond that, we also see the country through Margaret’s eyes: Children “trying to sell eggs, eggs! arranged in a little pyramid on a handkerchief.”

We passed a park and I saw two girls swinging, hijabs fluttering over their heads, sneakered feet kicking at the the sky.

Crick and especially Dan remain mostly in the background here, but there are scenes that take place between husbands and wives that illustrate the sex divide. In one scene for example, Crick carelessly knocks papers off the bed without a thought that his wife will be the one who picks them up, and while Margaret acknowledges that “men rule the world,” (at least they do in the world of women married to career military men) she chafes against that. Of course, there’s a time when the men deploy. …

While a sense of impending tragedy gathers like a storm cloud on the horizon, the plot concentrates on the relationship between Cassandra and Margaret and their relationship to the local population. Cassandra follows the embassy guidelines to a fault, but she also holds any of the local help at arm’s length, occasionally dipping into abuse if she feels that they are slacking or becoming too familiar. Meanwhile Margaret “a force of minor collisions, setting off small earthquakes, never thinking about what her tremors might rearrange or crack,” stops at all the street vendors buying “things she doesn’t need.” When “fallen women and widows” pass from car window to car window begging, Margaret throws money:

Margaret in her breathable, no -wrinkle cotton-blouses, her three-hundred-dollar car seat in the back. Can’t she feel how much they hate her?

Margaret doesn’t recognize that the line between us and them is real. She’s infected with our great American hubris of assuming that deep down every single person wants the same thing: autonomy, freedom, democracy, independence. I try to tell Margaret things here are different, that our American tolerance, even veneration, of the rule-breaker is not shared in a place where the literal translation of the name of the faith, Islam, means ‘submission.’ 

Margaret is open to friendships with Jordanians, but is this appropriate? Does her attitude, openness and naivete make her a better human being or a foolish one?

Years ago, I worked with someone who firmly believed that while most of us are too ‘small’ and insignificant to make a difference in the world, we can bring about change in our little corner of the planet. That question of making a difference in the world stayed with me throughout the book as I read about Margaret. Cassandra knows that no good can come from Margaret’s attempts to battle the culture–an idea Edith Wharton also explored in The Age of Innocence. Here’s an example: Margaret feeds the stray cats in her neighbourhood, but ultimately does she help the cats? To twist that question even further, what would ignoring the cats say about what kind of human being Margaret is? Ultimately does Margaret make her ‘corner’ a better place? We know we should adjust our behaviour depending on where we live, should we also adjust our morality according to location? Those questions stay with me after turning the last page.

Unusual, insightful and thoughtful, The Confusion of Languages will make my best-of year list.
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Small Hours: Jennifer Kitses

Small Hours from Jennifer Kitses examines 24 hours difficult hours in the life of a family of four. The novel argues that with both parents working, juggling job demands, conflicting schedules, no support network and the high cost of child care, it’s inevitable that internal tensions and external pressures make daily life an obstacle course to be overcome, repeatedly,

Helen and Tom were New Yorkers who decided to move to Devon, a small town that seemed to promise the sort of life they wanted. Devon, “an exurb,” is “in the Hudson Valley, but farther out than most commuters were willing to manage–ninety five minutes to Grand Central.” Add that up, and it’s more than a three hour commute daily for this pair.

Helen was the one who iniatated the idea to move to Devon, and at first the town seemed idyllic and affordable:

On their first trip out here, he’d browsed in the used bookstore; Helen wandered along the little street of art galleries. There was a dive bar, a nice bar, and a vegetarian restaurant. Even the stores that sold bespoke denim and artisanal fennel products had seemed like a good sign.

The reality is far different. Now two years later, in the economic downturn, many businesses in town have closed, and both Helen and Tom’s NY jobs were impacted. Helen who was a full-time graphic designer is now working “on contract and off-site, for a lot less money.” Tom lost his job, and after being unemployed for a few months he now works for a newswire service.

Small hours

Tom and Helen managed to hang onto their home. Barely. Their home is still underwater, and Tom realizes that they’re a pay check away from this house of cards tumbling. Meanwhile Helen, who’s been putting the preschool fees for their three-year old twins onto a series of credit cards, is desperately avoiding the school administration as she can no longer pay the fees. Of course, this cannot continue; something is going to happen, and over the course of 24 hours, Tom and Helen each face a crisis.

We follow both characters over the course of a day: Tom, whose job isn’t exactly secure, begs off some time to take care of some personal business. I won’t say what that is, but I will say that Tom made a horrible mistake some time before and now he has to either ‘put up or shut up’ as the saying goes. Tom’s crisis is very concrete: a horrible moral dilemma and a situation which is going to cause a lot of unhappiness before it’s resolved.

Helen’s crisis, on the other hand, is much more existential. She doesn’t have questions about her marriage, but she does have questions about her entire life. While she loves her children, she’s not exactly enamored with the role of motherhood. She works from home, and this conflicts with the needs of her children. At one point, she plops the twins in front of the television in order to work and carries on. Helen as a character is the more problematic of the two. She seems to be more of a neurotic mess than anything else, although I can accept that the family’s situation may partially have driven her to that point. She is very unhappy: she hates the town she insisted that they move to, she hates most of the neighbours…. There’s no easy fix here.

Helen and Tom, as created, are two individuals who happen to share the same house. After reading the book, I wondered why these two were married to each other as they haven’t so much grown apart as become emotionally distant roomies. Tom and Helen are in their 40s, and their lives are depicted as joyless drudgery. If this is a fair depiction (and I suspect it may be) then Small Hours is a commentary on the sad empty lives of America’s middle class young families who struggle from day-to-day like frantic hamsters on activity wheels that go nowhere.

Small Hours is being compared to the works of Richard Russo and Tom Perrotta and while I understand such comparisons are helpful when trying to attract an audience to a debut novel, such comparisons can also backfire and not be much a favour to a new author who should be appreciated on their own terms.

For animal lovers: I immediately disliked Helen for firing a water gun at squirrels for entertainment, and later a lost dog in the neighbourhood meets a sad fate. Yes a spoiler, but some readers, including me, want to know about situations involving animals. The neglect, actual and possibly symbolic, of the dog was just another contributing factor which made me ask: what the hell is wrong with these people???

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Grief Cottage: Gail Godwin

In Grief Cottage author Gail Godwin describes a place: an abandoned decaying cottage on the edge of an island, but Grief Cottage also has a non-literal presence in the minds of more than one emotionally troubled character. This is the coming of age story of eleven-year-old Marcus, who following the accidental death of his mother, bounces briefly into the foster system before being sent to live with his Aunt Charlotte on a small South Carolina island. Aunt Charlotte is an artist, used to a solitary life, and Marcus, concerned about being underfoot, quickly becomes fixated on the story of a boy about his age who drowned along with his family, tourists staying at Grief Cottage, in a hurricane fifty years earlier.

Grief Cottage

Marcus never knew his father, and his identity, if it’s known, is shrouded in mystery. Gradually Marcus’s history unfolds; it’s a life spent in poverty with Marcus and his mother eking out a living, and Marcus, unable to understand his mother’s sacrifices and concerns, instead feels ashamed of her and their living conditions. Once Marcus’s anguish erupted in rage, and the incident that led to a rapid move, but now the rage is buried and wrapped with guilt and grief.

Aunt Charlotte battles her own demons, and while she makes a good living with painting, she also struggles with her past. It’s not too long before it’s obvious that Aunt Charlotte is an alcoholic, but of course, Marcus doesn’t understand this, and after Aunt Charlotte suffers a fall during a binge, he’s proud to be able to open several wine bottles at once.

Since this is a coming of age story, most of the plot concerns Marcus. Left to his own devices, he’s both fascinated and repelled by Grief Cottage, a picturesque but ramshackle dwelling near the shore. Here, Marcus feels the presence of a ghost, the boy who went missing in the hurricane:

I don’t know how long I sat with my back to the door before I felt a change in the air that caused me to tense up. The tension was close to fear, but not the usual kind of fear. This was a brand-new sensation. The longer I sat there straining to stay alert, the stronger the sensation became, until it felt like something was coming closer. Then something made me stand up, as though I was being challenged to show more of myself.

As Marcus punctures the membrane between the living and the dead, this becomes a story of how we deal with death, dying and grief. This is a languorous melancholy tale, beautifully told with an emphasis on the damage we endure and the fragility of life (underscored by the survival struggles of the loggerhead turtles). Over the course of one summer, Marcus explores the island, connecting with various locals, occasionally constructing relationships in his hunger for a father. Marcus is an interesting child: solitary and thoughtful–although occasionally this thoughtfulness strains credulity even given that this is a tale told in retrospect.

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Anything is Possible: Elizabeth Strout

“Life had simply not been what she thought it would be.”

I recently watched Olive Kitteridge, and I liked the sour, yet sturdy character of Olive Kitteridge so much, I decided it was about time I tried some of the author’s work. That brings me to Anything is Possible which isn’t a novel as much as a series of interconnected stories, mostly set in Amgash, Illinois. While there’s no one single theme to these nine stories/chapters, family secrets, life’s disappointments, certainties and doubts are highlighted as we flow into, and out of, these characters’ lives.

The first story, The Sign, is told by Tommy Guptill, a former dairy farmer turned school janitor, who in his 80s, reminisces about the child Lucy Barton. Lucy is now a famous author living in New York, and her memoir is on sale in town. The memory of Lucy, who Tommy suspected was abused, causes him to drive out to the isolated Barton homestead and visit her damaged brother. This visit in turn leads Tommy to question an event that uprooted his life.

anything is possible

Other stories concern an overweight, widowed high school guidance councilor who has a meeting with Lucy Barton’s niece, and the councilor’s sister, who’s so afraid of ending up living in a trailer, alone, that she buries her head in the sand concerning her husband. In another story, a married man frequently meets with a prostitute, and fittingly, in “Sister,” Lucy returns home to visit and reconnects with her siblings.  Of the collection, “Dottie’s Bed and Breakfast” stood out for its portrayal of the marriage of Dr and Mrs Small, so miserable and pathological that Dottie feels “comforted about her divorce.

What Dottie had not understood until the Smalls came to stay was that there were different experiences she attended to in this business that made her feel either connected to or used by people. 

I disliked the first story, The Sign as for its cliches, and while I warmed to some of the characters, (Patty, Dottie) for the most part these are a miserable lot. A thread of deep melancholy runs through these stories, and while we all have to live with our mistakes, these lives of quiet desperation made me wonder about the suicide rate among these characters, but no, then again, they seem to carry on, shouldering the burden of disappointment, mistakes, and secrets.

I haven’t read Lucy Barton, and although other reviews state that it’s not necessary to read Lucy Barton before reading Anything is Possible,  it might have helped to be given some background to these characters. I seem to be in the minority opinion here and glowing reviews dominate, but in spite of my disappointment, I still intend to read Olive Kitteridge. 

Review copy

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The Barrowfields: Phillip Lewis

“Yet at last, he was only a man, who, like so many of us, had dreams that exceeded him.”

There are some places that imprint themselves so deeply in the people who live there, that either you never leave or you always come back. That’s the thought that occurred to me when I read The Barrowfields from Phillip Lewis. As the title suggests, the plot and its characters are tied to a particular geographical area: in this case, Old Buckram, North Carolina, “an achromatic town high in the Appalachian Mountains.” The Barrowfields of the title is an area which probably should be named the Barren Fields but somebody made a mistake along the way.  It’s a place “where by some mystery nothing of natural origin will grow except a creeping gray moss.”

Growing up in extreme poverty, Henry Aster is a cuckoo in the nest of this large, impoverished and nearly illiterate household. As a child, Henry grabs onto the power of books and never lets go, even at one point stealing library books and hoarding them under his bed for future reads. Eventually, Henry leaves home and goes to college and law school only to return when his mother (she’s constantly smoking–her one vice) becomes ill. Coming home is a mistake for Henry. …

The Barrowfields

Henry, with ambitions to become “a beloved American writer,”  and his horse-loving wife Eleonore, buy an abandoned mansion, built by an dying architect with a penchant for the occult. Its gothic, vlad-the-impaler design makes the house a unique, intriguing, yet daunting prospect. The house, “a monstrous gothic skeleton,” has a tragic history, but the Asters ignore it–even though of course they simply become another twist in the house’s past.

On a high shoulder of the mountain, half hidden by a row of wraithlike trees as old as time itself, sat an immense house of black iron and glass. During the day, it was an odd architectural curiosity. Due to a subtle trick of the mountain’s folding ridges, it seemed always to be in shadow, even when the sun blazed in a cloudless sky above it. From morning to night, it was cloaked in a slowly swirling mist as thick as smoke from a fire. At night, it brooded in darkness like an ember-eyed bird of prey on the edge of the mountain. Never before had a house been built like it, and never would another be built.

While Henry practices “a brief legal career with one of the two law offices in town,” by night he drinks himself into oblivion and tries to write. His wife has her horses, and the house, with its magnificent library is a fabulous labyrinth of childhood fantasies for Henry and Eleonore’s son, also called Henry.

This is a sweeping novel about a man who’s deeply rooted to a region he can’t wait to escape from, and Henry’s ultimate abandonment of his wife and children is the central mystery/emotional dilemma of the plot. I loved the first half of The Barrowfields, with its fine Southern tradition, but the second half with Henry junior’s life becoming the focus, just couldn’t match up to the first half. There’s so much going on here–so much so I wondered how this would read in serial form. The whole build up of the house with its tragic past never really goes anywhere, but hangs like a faded banner over the new residents, and the whole baby sister episode just seemed another layer of melodrama/tragedy that existed for its own sake.

Sprawling, ambitious and flawed this is a novel about fathers and sons. It’s described as a coming-of-age novel, but for me it was more about identity. There are some very fine parts indeed here which are evidence of perhaps future books we might expect from this author, for example, when son Henry, describes how his father has developed a persona to converse with the locals:

He knew how to talk like them, though. He knew how to cock his head just right, and hold his mouth open, and say, “You don’t say” and “Damn,” when he heard a remarkable story, and “Yep” and “Naw” and always “Come with us,” at the end of any conversation with an acquaintance met in an unexpected place. He’d run into someone at the grocery store and listen intently as the man talked. He’d listen with a deep focus, looking dead into the man’s eyes, almost unblinking and without saying much of anything, hunched slightly to be more or less on the same level with the man, without anything much beyond an anthropological interest in the story and the man telling it, and at the end of it he’d offer amusement and say something like, “Well, all right, Junior, I hope you have a good night. I reckon I better get on home.

Review copy.

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Repent in Haste: John P. Marquand (1945)

“You can’t help what life makes you, can you?”

Although John Marquand (1893-1960) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938 for The Late George Apley, he seems to be out-of-fashion and little read these days. I came across his name when watching a film version of one of his books: H.M Pulham esq. I’ve picked up a few dusty copies of his books over the years and decided to start with Repent in Haste, mainly because I couldn’t find much information about the book online. This is possibly because it’s one of the few books he wrote that wasn’t turned into a film.

Repent in Haste is set in WWII after Pearl Harbor. It’s a short book, a very focused story running at just over 150 pages. This is the tale of an unlikely relationship formed between Briggs, an older journalist and a young Lieutenant, Boyden nicknamed Boysie. Boysie was in a torpedo carrier plane that was shot down, and he along with two other crew members survived in the ocean for two days on a rubber raft. Boysie and Briggs meet at a press conference in Hawaii, and at first Briggs isn’t impressed by Boysie, a “typical American boy, and the same sort of dull normality,” but they meet again months later when Boysie is assigned to the support carrier, Rogue River. The war has changed and this time Briggs gets to know Boysie better. This time Boyden leaves a different impression:

The only trouble, Briggs was thinking, was that if you knew too much about anyone, even someone like Lieutenant Boyden, there began to be lights and shadows.

Briggs is returning stateside and Boysie asks him to go and talk to his family and his wife, Daisy in New York. Boysie met Daisy in Pensacola and after one of those whirlwind wartime courtships they married. There’s a bond between the two men; Boysie calls Briggs ‘Pops,’ and Briggs, underestimating the younger man, assumes a protective fatherly role. Boysie, who at first appears to be naive, a rather dull hero, has survival reserves. At times, it’s fair to say that the war, and the things he’s seen, have not appeared to alter Boysie, but that’s not true. Briggs meets Boysie three times over the course of the novel, and by its conclusion, he’s finding it not so easy to bounce back–in spite of his philosophy to not let anything ‘bother him’ and not to get too attached to fellow soldiers.

“There are a lot of new kids here,” Boyden said. “It makes me kind of tired looking at all these new kids–all full of the old wham-wham. It’s a very funny thing. I keep thinking I’m back on the Rogue. It seems more real than here. It’s taking longer to snap back.”

As Boyden tried inexpertly to express himself, his words had a clumsy eloquence. He talked of the Rogue River as he ate. There had been a swell crowd of kids aboard and Boyden had been “in.” He knew he had been in, as soon as that blast had landed him on the deck. When he got up and found he was all right, he knew he did not have to bother about himself. It was the other kids that bothered him.

“Seeing them shot down,” he said, “is different from seeing a whole lot of kids catch it on the deck; and kids shut in up forward, burning up-oh boy.”

You had your mind on other things when the ready ammunition magazines began exploding, but cleaning up afterwards-oh boy! Boyden put his hands on the table and pushed his chair back. Boyden put his hands on the table and pushed his chair back. “Let’s get squared away,” he said, “and get back and polish off that Scotch.”

There’s something about this book that I liked a great deal. It feels very real, very plausible and quite poignant in its portrayal of how people behave during war, the personal choices they make, and whether or not they will be indelibly altered by their experiences.  It’s a deceptively simple book, and by that I mean, there are no scenes of war and fighting–all the action takes place off the page, so we see soldiers trying to relax and wind down after combat missions. Marquand shows us a humble hero, a young man who lacks the eloquence and wisdom to articulate his survival philosophies.  In spite of all that has happened to Boyden, he’s still essentially who he was before combat, although after each battle, he finds it harder to snap back to normalcy and with his natural optimism, he’s destined to make the same mistakes.

And here’s a marvellous quote I’m adding since there’s so little about this book online:

The black sand of the beach lay just in front, with wrecks of landing craft washed against it and with new ships pushing in. He could see the colored markers, and the tanks and jeeps crawling inland. He could see the bursts of mortar shells dropping near a supply dump, and the greenish figures of a reserve Marine battalion moving through the dust. Further inland there was a line of tanks, and he could see the flash from their guns and the sudden spurt of flame thrower. He had thought it was a great show once and now it was commonplace–only another part of the Pacific war and so much a part of ordinary living that it became puzzling to think of home. You could accept an environment of violence and sudden death but, once you faced it, it was hard to understand the attitude of those who had not.

The novel was published in 1945 and at the moment of writing this post, it’s listed as a crime novel on Wikipedia. Given the date of its publication, there are some wince worthy moments: “slant-eyed Joes,” and the capturing of Japanese trophies. Some of the language is archaic. My old copy is a rejected library book and from the looks of the stamps inside the cover, this book was checked out A LOT in 1946 and 47 and then … nothing…

Boyden was right-war was nothing but a repetition, a series of the same anecdotes that grew monotonous with the telling. 

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