Tag Archives: american fiction

Among the Ten Thousand Things: Julia Pierpoint

“He hummed to himself, to the night. Things would turn out okay. For him, somehow, they always had, and so they always would.”

Among the Ten Thousand Things, a debut novel from American author Julia Pierpoint, is the story of the disintegration of a family after infidelity is revealed. The ugly revelation sets the marriage and family into freefall, but in reality decay was already set in place–the big difference is that the acknowledgement of infidelity forces the lid off this fractured marriage.

Deb has been married to successful New York artist Jack Shanley for years. They have two children: Simon, 15 and Kay 11. Deb was once a ballet dancer, but now she teaches ballet. She finds that she can’t encourage her pupils to sacrifice all for a career in ballet as to do so “would feel like a lie.”

At twenty-two and twenty-three, at parties with regular people, nondancers–they’ll coo over you like a rare bird. Which you are, to them. You are sinewy grace and bone, everywhere tight, from your tied hair to your pointed toes. And you’ll feel yourself a liar there too, because in the corps you are one of so many. Your own mother needing binoculars to pick you out.

Jack arrived on the scene at the time when Deb, in her mid twenties, was finally accepting that she was stuck in the corps and didn’t have the presence to rise to stardom, unlike her friend, Isabel who is about to publish her memoirs. So marrying Jack and taking the route of marriage and family was a way of saving face rather than acknowledging that she was giving up.  Now Deb is 41, and Jack, who has just trashed his second marriage, is 55.

among the ten thousand thingsWhile it’s easy to like Deb, a woman who’s learned to compromise, it’s also easy to really dislike Jack. He’s had many affairs, and his fame in the art world yields the usual fans, wannabes and groupies. His latest affair is with a much younger unstable woman–someone who unpredictably decided to strike back against Jack by sending all their correspondence to his home:

 In some other context, he could have gotten hard, reading it all over. He thought if she had only sent the letters straight to him, he might even have fucked her again. But that wasn’t what the girl wanted, sex. Probably it wasn’t ever what she wanted. Women were always deceiving him about that. He was always lowballing their demands.

The novel follows the fallout of the affair, and author Julia Pierpoint creates an interesting structure within the novel when the couple part, possibly temporarily, by including a segment that gives a synopsis of the future, and then the novel segues back to the present before adding another segment in the future. This eloquently adds a poignant historical dimension to the destroyed family, and we see their home left empty in their absence, gathering dust and crumbling like some lost, ancient civilization–a sign of things to come:

For eighteen days the apartment sat empty. Fine dusts and pollen collected on the windowpanes, and the mirrors stood with no one in them. Nothing in or out of the closed-circuit space. Only the wireless went on invisibly complicating the air.

Deb and the children depart to a vacation home in Jamestown while a glum Jack dumps the family cat at his mother-in law’s and heads, in some sort of primeval move to his mother’s home in Houston where his step-father sniffs that there’s something wrong. The novel follows Jack in Houston and then Arizona while other sections follow Deb and her children in Jamestown.

This is a promising debut novel, an age-old story of adultery and break-up with some modern angles to the tale. Simon for example retreats into a problematic relationship of his own, and Deb, who has absorbed the emotional impact of the affair alone, feels that she has to ask her children’s opinions on the subject of where their father should be allowed to sleep.

As a reader, I’m not keen on tales of teens or children, so the parts of the novel which followed Simon and Kay was less interesting to me than the sections which focused on the adults: Deb’s tricky compromises, and Jack’s slippery, destructive morality. These are two individuals who live in the same home but have very distinctly separate worlds. Deb is a believable character–a disappointed woman who is trying ignore Jack’s behaviour and make the best of a fractured marriage, but self-focused Jack, whose career is in freefall, doesn’t make it easy:

Jack liked to hammer a lot of thoughts out on the train. The hardest part of a marriage–of living with anyone–was those first ten minutes after walking through the door. Questions about his work, his lunch, his trip home, which in his mind had barely ended, and answers to questions he’d not asked, so many words flooded him

Review copy

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Wylding Hall: Elizabeth Hand

“The house was a glorious wreck. Like some drunken grande dame who’s lost everything except the clothes and the jewels she’s wearing and refuses to leave the after-party. I’ve known a few of those girls.”

Point me in the direction of a novel about a rock band and chances are I’ll want to read it, so the blurb from Elizabeth Hand’s novel Wylding Hall caught my attention. This is the story of an “acid-folk” band (not quite sure what that is) who, after their first album and the firing and subsequent suicide of their former lead female singer, were persuaded by their manager to hole up in an ancient country mansion and record their next album. It’s the album (named Wylding Hall) that makes the band soar to fame, but during its creation, some unexplained events occur which result in the disappearance of the band’s 18-year-old enigmatic singer/songwriter/lead guitarist, Julian. The novel begins years later, and the narrative takes the form of one-sided interviews with band members, friends, lovers and the former manager as they each relate the events of that summer.

Sounds fascinating, and I couldn’t help remembering the mystery surrounding the death of Brian Jones. But of course, in the case of Wylding Hall, there’s no body floating in the pool.

Wylding HallWhen the band arrives at Wylding Hall, there’s already an aura of tragedy. The band’s singer, Arianna was replaced with an American, named Les Stansall, and Arianna didn’t take the news well. Her death lingers over the band members and petty rivalries threaten to splinter the group further. The new singer Les has hooked up with Julian, arguably the more intelligent member of the band. Les and Julian break up however when a new, strange woman comes on the scene.

That’s about as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss. The novel’s format–the transcripts of several one-sided interviews, sometimes just a few lines in length, is interesting and feels authentic. We don’t know the questions being asked, and all we get are the responses, so, for example, various interviewees give their opinions of Arianna:

He never talked about what happened with Arianna. The police report said she fell from a third floor window to the pavement. There were no bars across the window in Julian’s flat; I do know that. She was depressive–that’s what they’d say now–her and Julian both.

Suicide? How could it possible matter all these years later, whether I think she killed herself?

When the band arrive at Wylding Hall, their presence sets yet another tragedy in motion. Julian, already into “magick” and alchemy wants the album to be “a kind of spell.”  He seems to already be familiar with the house–or perhaps the house is familiar with him…

As for the plot, I’d say this book, with its emphasis on the occult, ancient rituals, and creepy villagers who know more than they’re saying, may appeal to fans of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service . While I enjoy a good ghost story or even a plunge into the supernatural (thinking of Frank Tallis’s The Sleep Room), Wylding Hall pushed credulity too far, and its emphasis on a period spent in an old house bypasses any deeper analysis. Perhaps if the band members had been a little wilder, more stoned, let’s say, the almost blasé acceptance of events at the time would have been more believable. There’s one point when one of the band member’s girlfriends, Nancy, comes to visit. She’s sensitive to atmosphere and at the point of the interviews, she’s become a psychic.

Wylding Hall was a bad scene. Or, no, scratch that. “Bad” isn’t the right word. We’re not talking good or evil, Christian morality, sort of thing. This went much deeper than that. There was a sense of wrongness of things being out of balance–again, not something you would necessarily be aware of if you were just to walk into the house.

For this reader, Wylding Hall with its lack of character development and a reliance on the supernatural seemed more for the Young Adult age group, so that counts me out. And if I’d known the band was called Windhollow Faire, I’d have passed, but in all fairness, there are plenty of glowing reviews on Amazon and Goodreads from people who enjoyed this story.

Review copy.

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The New Neighbor: Leah Stewart

“I can’t believe in heaven. Even now, as death grows ever harder to unimagine.”

In Leah Stewart’s novel, The New Neighbor, Margaret Riley, a ninety-year-old retired nurse whose only hobby is reading mystery novels lives in a remote area outside of a small town in Tennessee. She is fiercely independent, has no relatives nearby, no friends, and is not exactly the easiest person to get along with. One day, while out reading on her deck, she notices she has a new neighbor. Snooping through the mailboxes, Margaret discovers her new neighbour’s name and curious, she soon creates a way to invite this stranger into her life.

the new neighbourWhile Margaret’s antisocial personality certainly explains her choice of location, just what masseuse Jennifer Young and her 4 year old son are doing living in the middle of nowhere can’t really be explained. In Jennifer, Margaret “recognized a mystery” and encouraged by the reading of crime novels, she is driven to solve the puzzle. Yet “Jennifer is a cave that blocks the entrance,” to the solution. Margaret recognizes that she and Jennifer have much in common: the desire for isolation, the deliberate avoidance of society, and yet Margaret refuses to respect Jennifer’s privacy.

She is so careful, so guarded. There are locked doors in conversation  with her, and no way to tell when you’re approaching one.

The story is told in alternating chapters from Jennifer and Margaret (with a few chapters from a third character right at the end of the book). This format, as I noted in an earlier post, seems to be a popular trend these days. But whereas the format annoyed me in Disclaimer for the way in which the reader is thrown red herrings, here, author Leah Stewart uses the dual chapters to move the story forward but also allows Margaret and Jennifer to speculate about each other. Gradually we learn what Jennifer is running away from, and also through Margaret’s narrative, we see her horrendous WWII experiences.

Without a doubt, Margaret is the marvelous character who claims and dominates this novel. She recognizes that as a ninety-year-old woman, she has a certain invisibility and that she’s marginalized into a stereotype, so she can be grumpy and rude to people and in return they basically pat her on the head, treat her with false gaiety, and chuckle. No one ever calls her to account for her churlish behaviour and any kindness directed her way isn’t personal–it’s a generic act based on:  ‘be nice to the old lady who may croak any day.’ Margaret is drawn in such a way that we see a woman who was shaped by her WWII experiences, trapped inside her body, and yearning to tell someone her story. While Margaret intrudes into Jennifer’s life in order to discover her neighbour’s secrets, instead she finds herself discussing her own.

I picked up The New Neighbor expecting a crime novel, and while crimes take place, this is much more the story of two women at different stages of their lives whose paths cross and connect. Jennifer and Margaret have a great deal in common for they both have secrets, and that’s what Margaret recognizes in Jennifer.

There’s a lot going on in The New Neighbor and it’s a much more complex novel than it at first appears. While I have to tread carefully around the issue of secret pasts and plot spoilers, I will mention Jennifer’s complicated relationship with university lecturer, Megan and her husband Sebastian. Jennifer begins taking her son, Milo to preschool and Milo’s friendship with a boy named Ben places Jennifer in the position of having to befriend Ben’s parents. At first her relationship is with Megan and through her, Jennifer gains a rather negative impression of Sebastian, and yet later, in a very cleverly constructed fashion, Jennifer has reason to reevaluate her impression of Sebastian and Megan’s position in the marriage. It’s one of those moments when we see Jennifer’s maturity, fed by bitter experience, of just how one spouse always generates a surge of sympathy from society while the ‘killjoy’ does not.

The fact that Margaret is a very well drawn character both works for and against the book as Jennifer and her story pale in comparison, and here are a few tart, choice quotes that bring Margaret to life:

What a pleasure it would be to really piss somebody off, just to see my existence fully register on someone else’s face.

And:

You might imagine that being an old lady I like the cozy mysteries, but you’d be wrong. Spare me the cats and the knitting. It was Sue’s idea to start picking out books for me–perhaps she gets bored–and the first stack she presented me, two or three years ago, was full of such nonsense. I don’t need my murders made adorable. Death in a book is still only death in a book, but give me an author who doesn’t flinch. If a mystery doesn’t walk you up to the abyss before it rescues you, it’s a shallow form of comfort.

Here she’s referring to the Wordsworth poem:

The world I can more or less get away from, as I think I’ve proven, and there’s so much of nature around me I’d be hard pressed to long for more. Sometimes I wish the birds would shut the hell up. It’s not the world I can’t escape but my body. Not its demands so much at this stage, but its complaints and limitations. It’s resistance and pain.

The New Neighbor argues that, as outsiders, even living in the same house, we can never fully grasp the inner politics of a marriage, and we can never understand what it’s like to be another human being. In the Acknowledgements, the author notes that she wanted to write a novel based in the WWII experiences of her grandmother. And that’s the feeling I had when I read this novel–that the author had tapped some powerful real life experiences and that ultimately, this is Margaret’s story and not Jennifer’s. While this is not a perfect novel as its ending felt a little forced, I’ll check this author’s backlist.

I thought I had seen some things. I’d never seen anything like this. Our next patient required an amputation. The strangest part was not the cutting through but the moment when the limb actually came off. That first day I carried a whole arm away from the table. I held it by the elbow. The fingers on the hand were still flexed as though reaching for me, saying, Hold on a minute, wait, wait. The arm was surprisingly heavy. You don’t think about what an arm weighs when it’s still a part of the body. And then when it’s cut off, it’s waste. It gets burned with the rest of the waste.

Parts of your body can come off. Jennifer. You can have a hole in your back so big a man can out his fist inside it.

I hadn’t seen anything.

Later I’d see all of this, do all of this, many times, without sparing a thought to the oddity of it all. The time I’d moved into the extraordinary but hadn’t learned to live there. This wasn’t even a hospital as I’d ever known one, with hallways and wards and nurses in white, but a tent full of blood and guts and screaming. There should have been some other name for it, but we didn’t have one and so we applied the old one, and after a while when I thought “hospital” what I pictured was a tent or an abandoned schoolhouse, sawhorses for the stretchers and  patients boys.

review copy

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Hill Girl: Charles Williams (1951)

As a fan of the crime novels of Charles Williams, I’ve reviewed a few for this site, and here they are, so far, in order of preference for anyone interested:

River Girl (1951)

Hell Hath No Fury (The Hot Spot) (1953)

Big City Girl (1951)

River Girl is the story of a corrupt, married small-town deputy sheriff who gets in over his head with a woman he meets in a remote cabin. This is a tense, desperate noir novel that somehow managed to beat out Hell Hath No Fury as my favourite Williams novel so far. Hell Hath no Fury is the story a criminal who drifts into a small town, takes a job as a car salesman and cases out the local bank with plans to steal the cash and split. The main character here makes the mistake of getting mixed up with not one–but two women: Gloria Harper, the boss’s bookkeeper and Dolly, the boss’s trashy wife. Big City Girl is the story of a family of poor sharecroppers. One of the sons is in prison and Joy, his trashy wife who’s addicted to the attention of men decides to leave the city and join the family on the cotton farm. Bad idea…

With these three books, there’s a common theme: women are trouble–even if they don’t mean to be which is certainly true in the case of Doris, the woman hiding in the cabin discovered by deputy sheriff Marshall. Big City Girl and Hell Hath No Fury feature femme fatales who use men and sex to further their aims–although Hell Hath No Fury’s Dolly (played by a sultry, very naughty Virginia Madsen in the 1990 film version) wins hands down in the Evil department.  And that brings me back to Hill Girl (1951) the first novel Charles Williams published. Williams saw three of his novels published that year: Hill Girl, Big City Girl, and River Girl so I’m wondering if he had a backlog of manuscripts when he was finally picked up by Gold Medal.

Then take a look at these vintage covers which certainly reinforce the idea that women are evil seductresses, but Williams is a much more sophisticated thinker than that. In his world, women, some women, use their looks and sex to move ahead in society–men after all, have the power, the wealth, and the career choices, so women use other means to gain control.

Hill Girlvintage big city girlriver girlhell

The Hill Girl of the title is a bootlegger’s daughter named Angelina, and that name seems a little ironic the first few times we see Angelina with her long honey-coloured blonde hair, more or less dressed in rags that do little to cover her figure. She’s bad-tempered, unhappy and more importantly, as we see as the plot plays out, she’s jail-bait or even worse … shotgun bait. But let’s back up a little. Hill Girl is the story of sexual obsession, two very different brothers, Lee and Bob, and the woman who comes between them. Yes, you guessed it … Angelina.

Bob, the younger son, moves back to his family’s hometown to take over and run his deceased grandfather’s farm. You’d think, initially, at least, that Bob is the black sheep of the family since the eldest son, Lee, who’s married and lives in the family home, inherited everything from his father who was known somewhat dauntingly as The Major. As the story unfolds, the ‘good son’ and the ‘bad son’ designations shift around, and we see that Bob, the younger brother, although he fought with his father and was persona non gratis in his father’s home, is actually the ‘good’ son while Lee, who inherited his entire father’s estate worth around $30,000 (Bob was left $1) and married a wonderful, kind woman named Mary, is the bad seed. He’s just smooth enough to hide his rottenness.

The book opens with Bob’s return and his auspicious, as it turns out, meeting with bootlegger Sam Harley who lives along Black Creek bottom. Then failed pro-boxer Bob returns to the family home which is now owned by Lee. Brief homecoming over, Lee drags Bob out to get some moonshine from Sam, but his real reason for going to Sam’s is Angelina. Lee lusts after the bootlegger’s daughter and there is a very tense scene with Lee bound and determined to have Angelina in spite of the threat of Sam’s shotgun. The roles of the brothers are very quickly delineated. Lee is hellbent on pursing Angelina and Bob, the only brother with a conscience, is determined to save him from being shot….

Lee, of course eventually gets his way with Angelina, and in some rather crude descriptions reveals how little he values Angelina, and as it turns out, how little he understands her. While Williams creates some fascinating female characters in his books, Angelina is the weakest-drawn character here, first she’s bad, bad, bad, and then she turns into a completely different person. Angelina first appears to be a savage, surly, empty-headed teen nymphet who is Trouble, “a sex crime looking for somebody to happen to,”  but later Williams moves in on this character with generous sympathy, so we that we are now supposed to see Angelina as kind and naïve. Cooped up on the farm and kept as unpaid labour she longed for simple items such as shoes or a dress that fits, and her rebellious, self-destructive behaviour is aimed at her father and loathing of her life more than anything else. So Angelina as ‘bad,’ vanishes. While the character shift isn’t convincing, Williams shows how women are forced to operate in a world dominated by men, so there are some interesting observations on the subject of how men treat women as though they’re owned like any other possession. Here’s a scene in which Angelina wants to get her hair bobbed–something forbidden by her father:

You’ll like hell do what you please,” I started, and then caught myself and shut up. After all, it was her hair, and Sam Harley had been telling her she couldn’t cut it all these years and trying to browbeat her, and look where he had wound up in her eyes. You couldn’t get anywhere by trying to bully her. She didn’t bully worth a damn. You might get your way if you overpowered her, but it wouldn’t be worth what you lost in the process.

This is a remarkably sensual novel with descriptions of physicality–the nature of uncontrollable sexual desire but also the joy of working hard and enjoying nature.

The days are long in April, longer in May, and longer still in June, but they are never long enough. They begin with dew on the grass and the long-legged shadows of sunrise and end with whipoorwills calling in the darkening bottoms and swallows circling and diving at dusk. And all day long, through the hot sweaty  hours, the work goes on.

With Lee’s crude descriptions of Angelina’s sexual appetites, the book was no doubt ahead of its time, but now it seems dated. Stylistically, Hill Girl seems a lot less smooth than River Girl; it seems to be a much earlier novel even though they were both published in 1951. Back to that question of manuscript backlog. Definitely not the author’s best work, but fans will want to read this–although copies are not cheap.

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Jack of Spades: Joyce Carol Oates

Point me in the direction of a book written by an unreliable narrator, and chances are I’ll want to read it, and that brings me to Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates. First the disclaimer: I’m not a fan of this author’s novels–although I like some of her short stories, so I hesitated when I saw this.

Jack of Spades is narrated by best-selling author Andrew J. Rush who lives with his wife, Irina in a prestigious home in Harbourton, New Jersey. Almost immediately we can tell that there’s something a little off about Rush, for while he appears almost gushingly humble and self-deprecating, he never misses an opportunity to slip in self-flattery even as he tries to paint himself as a nice, normal man, a pillar of the community. He describes himself as “the most famous of local residents,” and with 28 books to his credit, this is no doubt true. He writes “best-selling mystery-suspense novels with a touch of the macabre. (Not an excessive touch, not nasty-mean, or disturbing. Never obscene, nor even sexist. Women are treated graciously in my mysteries, apart from a few obligatory noir performances.”

Jack of SpadesHere’s where the cracks begin to appear in Andrew’s self-portrait, for while he’s busy emphasizing that his books are in good taste, then he reveals that he writes an entirely different type of book under the pseudonym: Jack of Spades, “born out of my restlessness with the success of Andrew J. Rush.” These books have a cult-type popularity, are extremely violent, sexist, “cruder, more visceral, more frankly horrific.” The local library refuses to stock any titles by Jack of Spades, so Rush donates copies.

So right away, we have a paradox: Rush goes to great lengths to continually explain how his books don’t offend, don’t cross any lines, but then he also produces, secretly, this whole other line of books that are offensive and written in extremely bad taste.  We can only conclude that Rush is a very complicated man who needs to hide his more vicious, violent side beneath the surface of both his personal and professional life.

But is Rush a nice guy at home? As layers of the story drop away, we see Irina through Rush’s eyes. Once she was a promising writer, but now she teaches at a small school. Even though Rush frequently prefaces the word, ‘wife’ with the term “dear,” there’s violence, dominance and control behind his attitude, and that violence occasionally seeps through the surface when she questions her husband or suddenly appears in the areas of the house that are more or less forbidden to her.

Soon after we were married, Irina gave up writing. I had been her most enthusiastic reader and had continued to encourage her, going through drafts of stories and novels, but something hesitant and self-doubting had crept into her sense of herself as a writer. Gently I admonished her–“Darling, you care too much for precision and perfection. There’s no need to polish each damned sentence–just say what you want to say.”

But Irina grew ever more shy about her writing. I hope it wasn’t because I insisted upon reading everything she wrote, and offering my heartfelt, sincere, and sympathetic critiques.

It doesn’t take too long before you realize that the veneer of nice guy and good husband (and what about those estranged children?) is stretched thin and that Rush could explode at any minute. The name ‘Jack of Spades’ is a pseudonym, but it’s also a label for Andrew’s dangerously violent alter ego.

The pivotal incident occurs when Rush is served with a summons to appear at the local courthouse. With a very nice touch, the summons is misspelled, and Rush, for a moment, imagines that there’s some mistake–surely the summons is meant for ‘Andwer J. Rash,’ whoever he is, and not him. But no … as it turns out, he’s being accused by some local nut of plagiarism–and not just plagiarism; he’s also being accused of actually breaking into someone’s home and stealing her unpublished manuscripts.

This accusation sparks a violent turn of events in Rush’s life. So far, he’s barely managed to keep the more violent side of his personality under control. The civil suit tests that ‘nice guy’ veneer to the limit.

There are many. many five-star reviews of Jack of Spades out there. For this reader, in the minority, the book doesn’t have much appeal. Perhaps if I hadn’t read Henry Sutton’s brilliant: Get Me Out of Here or Phil Hogan’s wonderfully nasty  A Pleasure and a Calling, I’d feel differently, but both Hogan and Sutton take the intricacies of the unreliable narrator to new levels; Jack of Spades does not. The narrative exposition lacks subtlety.  Both Henry Sutton and Phil Hogan constructed windows in the lives of two very different, cunning, psychopathic narrators, and while we read about the actions of these men with fascinated horror, it’s to both Hogan and Sutton’s credit that we can acknowledge the nasty intelligence and craftiness of their protagonists as they create mayhem for other people. In the case of Andrew Rush, there’s nothing to admire–not even the bestsellers. Being in his mind is an unpleasant chore.

Jack of Spades is at its best in its references to Stephen King. Andrew Rush is constantly compared to King. This comparison to Stephen King obviously bugs the hell out of Rush who tries to get some recognition from King, and then later he plays a nasty trick involving King that seems both tongue-in-cheek and also references how King attracts the nuts for some reason. While Andrew Rush can’t help but be flattered by the comparisons to King, there’s a niggling annoyance there that Stephen King is richer and much more famous:

With my third bestseller in the 1990s it began to be said about me in the media–Andrew J. Rush is the gentleman’s Stephen King.

Of course, I was flattered. sales of my novels, though in the millions after a quarter-century of effort, are yet in the double-digit millions and not the triple-digit, like Stephen King’s. And though my novels have been translated into as many as thirty languages–(quite a surprise to me, who knows only one language)-I’m sure that Stephen King’s books have been translated into even more, and more profitably. And only three of my novels have been adapted into (quickly forgotten) films, and only two into (less-than-premium cable) TV dramas–unlike King, whose adaptations are too many to count.

But who’s counting, right?

Review copy

 

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The Children’s Crusade: Ann Packer

“I remembered my memory of the moment, because after so long that’s what memory is: the replaying of a filmstrip that’s slightly warped from having gone through the projector so many times. I’ll never know what actually happened and what distortions I added.”

You can’t approach Ann Packer’s novel, The Children’s Crusade without evoking images of the 13th century and the disastrous (and possibly exaggerated) historic event in which thousands of children participated in a crusade to convert Muslims to Christianity. In Ann Packer’s novel, the crusade in the title concerns the desire of four children to try to include their mother in their lives–something that’s far more complicated than it first appears, but I want to back up a bit before going further.

The Children’s Crusade begins in 1954 when Michigan native Dr. Bill Blair, freshly discharged from the navy, discovers the wonders of Portola Valley. He buys a 3.1 acre property, begins a second residency in pediatrics at UCSF, and marries a woman he meets, Penny, when taking in a watch to be repaired. Eventually Bill and Penny have 4 children together: Robert, Rebecca, Ryan and James, and the children are brought up in what should be an idyllic location in an enviable home. The children's crusadeThe novel goes back and forth in time, so in alternating chapters, we see the children as they grow up and what they have become in adulthood. Robert is a doctor specializing in Geriatrics–married with children, but now middle-aged, depressed and unhappy, he can’t really understand where his life went wrong. Rebecca is a psychiatrist who specializes in pediatrics. Ryan is a teacher happily married to a French-Canadian woman, and the youngest, James, is the black sheep of the family who returns home when things go south in Oregon.

The novel’s main dilemma, wrestled with in the chapters set in the present, is what to do with the family home now that Bill Blair is deceased. The house and the land, worth millions, is currently rented to a wealthy man who wants to buy the property, tear down the original house and build a mega-mansion. It’s tempting to sell it and divide the money, but that decision also involves demolishing the myth of a happy home life and will also involve some agreement between the children and their mother, Penny Blair.

This is a profoundly sad, yet moving novel, for while dysfunctional family stories pop up like weeds, the Blair family is functional–they get by and cope even though things, under the surface, are far from normal. Bill Blair is a wonderful father, but as one of the children’s friends note, he’s more like a mother. Where does the rot in the Blair family begin? Does it begin with Bill Blair’s choice of a wife? His own mother is an excellent housekeeper, but for Penny raising four children, producing meals and cleaning the house are beyond her interests and capabilities. But since this is the 50s, it takes some decades for Penny to break out of the mold. But then what about Bill Blair–a man who cares so much about his patients that there’s very little left over at the end of the day for his wife.

As we read the narrative from each child’s perspective, the Blair family history is gradually revealed with each child assuming some sort of important role in the family’s structure. Always anxious, Robert, for example, lives to make his father proud, but James, the youngest child, becomes the one person who openly acknowledges his mother’s choices, and because he speaks while everyone else is silent, he becomes the family scapegoat and the family mouthpiece who states the things that everyone else avoids. As an adult, James cannot settle down, “a seeker who was seeking the identity of his own grail,” and yet now he returns to the scene where everything went wrong. James’s return heralds a period of discomfort and realignment for the siblings as they each confront their own history.

It’s the female characters here who are the most interesting. First there’s Penny Blair–who hated being a ‘homemaker’ but endured that role, with questionable success for decades, and then there’s her daughter, psychiatrist Rebecca, who enjoys a surprisingly supportive marriage, and who thinks she can pinpoint the moment in her life when she chose her career. She was waiting, along with her mother and siblings, for their father when he stops at the hospital to check on a patient:

I told my mother I wanted to leave, and she said we couldn’t leave, but if I promised to be quiet I could go over to the window. On the other side of the glass window people were moving quickly: doctors in white coats, nurses in caps, regular people in regular clothes. They were alone or in pairs, talking or not. I didn’t know why or how, but I knew they were different from the people in the cafeteria. And to get closer to them all I had to do was be quiet. Was this the moment when the seeds of my vocation were planted? I’ve always thought so. I wanted to be on the other side of the window, away from the sick and the worried. And to get there, I should cease talking. I should listen.

It’s interesting that James, the child who has the most problems with his mother, and the one who is the most confrontational with her, should also be the one who fails to find his way in life. Robert, Rebecca and Ryan all seem to find their vocations, and yet James, the family’s last child, is totally lost.

The Children’s Crusade argues that our characters are shaped in childhood, but there’s a deeper, more troubling question here and that is Penny’s behaviour. At what point do the considerations and desires of the individual exceed the demands of the family that a parent has committed to raise? Is Penny’s behaviour selfish? How difficult is it to be married to a man who gives everything to his patients and has little, emotionally, left to give his wife?

One of the most interesting and arguably the most difficult aspects of marriage is establishing boundaries between the entity of the couple and the individual. Packer’s tale explores the invisible boundaries between the individual, the couple  and the parent. Given that these people live very privileged material lives (the estate to be divided between the four children is worth several million) this  has the strange result of making us conclude that if these people have problems then what chance do other, less materially advantaged people have, and that thought can at once be comforting and disconcerting.

Many people have far worse childhoods than the Blair children, and those readers may find the tale underwhelming. The main dilemma of whether or not to sell the family home and carve up over 3 million is a problem most of us wouldn’t mind dealing with, yet material privilege cannot trump all other deprivations. That brings me to the other issues at play here regarding the terrible burden of Bill Blair’s dream and how his dream didn’t mesh with his wife’s desires. And here’s a quote that defines Penny’s problematic role in her family’s life when she’s found by her husband and children in her private space:

“Bill saw that the children were defining the moment as a rescue operation rather than the act of capture it actually was.”

Review copy.

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Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Bored women join clubs and volunteer. Sad women have affairs”

At one point, early in the novel Hausfrau, protagonist, 37-year old Anna, an American living in Switzerland, asks her therapist, Doktor Messerli, “Is there a difference between shame and guilt?” This is an interesting question from a bored married woman who engages in a series of affairs right under her banker husband, Bruno’s nose, and it’s interesting because Anna feels neither shame nor guilty, just temporary relief as she hits one violent orgasm after another.

But why is Anna having these affairs? Is there some sort of central point to her behaviour or is she simply self-destructive? The novel begins with a simple sentence: “Anna was a good wife, mostly,” and it’s that qualifier that drew me into this tale, of a bored, displaced housewife, living in the town of Dietlikon, who turns away from her home life to seek sensation.

hausfrauAnna & Bruno have three children and a stagnant marriage. Anna has never really adjusted to life in Switzerland; she’s decided to try and learn German when the novel begins, but the classes seem more a segue and alibi for torrid affairs than anything else. As the plot unfolds we see Anna, the housewife, who’s  really anything but, disappearing day after day to meet a lover while her mother-in-law takes care of the children, fixes the meals and generally steps in to take up the considerable slack left in Anna’s highly noticeable, lengthy absences.

To say Anna isn’t easy to like would be putting it mildly. She’s self-focused, depressed, morbid, and emotionally disconnected from her life. Night after night, her husband retires to his home office, shutting out Anna, and rejected repeatedly, her response is to arrange assignations with her lover, almost as though she’s begging to be caught–an exposure which at the very least should bring her festering marriage problems to a head.

We ask ourselves where things went wrong? Is Anna simply a neglected wife who gets attention elsewhere? Or can part of her estrangement be blamed on the fact that she’s an ex-pat, confined by and not assimilated into Swiss culture after living in the country for nine years?

So her world was tightly circumscribed by the comings and goings of locomotives, by the willingness of Bruno, Anna’s husband, or Ursula, Bruno’s mother, to drive her places unreachable by bus, and by the engine if her own legs and what distance they could carry her which was rarely as far as she’d have liked to go.

With its graphic sexual details and an extremely unlikable self-focused main character, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau is certain to offend some readers. I’ve read some reviews which complain about the graphic sexual content and others which somehow equate Anna’s lack of self-knowledge with the author. Here’s my thoughts on those two complaints:

The graphic, repellent sexual details were ugly, and yet they created a jarring noise that directly contrasted with Anna’s subdued, emotionally disconnected life. These details also illustrate the affairs for exactly what they are: devoid of romance or lover’s talk, all that’s left are violent, profane, increasingly risky couplings.

Just because an author creates a selfish, unlikable character, this does not mean that the character’s lack of insight reflects back onto the author. While this is a third person narrative, we only see things through Anna’s perspective, so her husband is cold and withdrawn, her mother-in-law is disapproving. But by the time the novel ends, we readers have an understanding of Bruno and Ursula–even if Anna does not. This is a novel likely to generate a lot of debate if picked up by a book group. Some readers will be alienated by Anna’s behaviour, and some may take the simplistic view that there’s a moral message here (x happens when you commit adultery), and this is definitely not a book to be read by the already-depressed. Is Anna supposed to be a sympathetic character? Does the author intend us to feel sorry for Anna? Yes and No… I think Anna is supposed to be sympathetic in as far as someone is sympathetic when they labour under a major delusion and when they spiral out of control and desperately need help, but Anna is also selfish, self-focused and as far as her marriage goes, she refuses to take responsibility for something really major.  We see everyone through Anna’s eyes. She never examines her own behaviour or her treatment of other people. Also notable is Anna’s opinion of her mother-in-law, Ursula, a woman Anna dislikes and silently criticizes, but who seems to be raising Anna’s three children single-handedly while Anna disappears for her afternoon sexual encounters. Frustrating in her passivity, yes there are times you want to shake Anna silly and say: ‘you have a lot to be happy about. Get over yourself. Get a divorce if you’re that unhappy, but do something.’

Anna has a therapist, a Doktor Messerli, who becomes increasingly frustrated with Anna as the therapy fails to produce results. As the book continues, the possible cause of Anna’s depression is revealed, and then Anna’s husband, Bruno, instead of being an inattentive bore, becomes something else entirely. While Anna careens through her life, craving sensation after sensation, avoiding the deep cause of her self-destructive behaviour, the author has clearly created a character who’s supposed to be out of control, but at the same time, she cannot get beyond the suffocating membrane of depression. Anna appears to be extremely passive in a go-with-the-flow way, but she asserts herself sexually with men, and takes the initiative. She’s passive in her relationship with her husband, but with him, she’s throwing clues in his face, silently screaming for him to pay attention.

Occurring monthly, at least, were dozens of instances into which she commended a task into Bruno’s hands. It was he who dealt with local bureaucracy, he who paid the insurance, the taxes, the house note. It was he who filed the paperwork for Anna’s residency permit. And it was Bruno who handled the family’s finances, for he was employed as a mid-level management banker at Credit Suisse. Anna didn’t even have a bank account.

First impressions would indicate that Bruno is controlling. But has Anna simply abdicated her responsibilities? Are the affairs a type of rebellion? This is a novel certain to generate a lot of opinions–my opinion is that Anna, as an ex-pat, is initially forced to abdicate those responsibilities, and then it simply becomes a way of life. When people step into life in another country, they cannot grasp how their lives will change and the extent of the things they are sacrificing, so it’s notable that Anna’s first affair is with a fellow American.

Given that the book’s title is Hausfrau, it should come as no surprise that underlying Anna’s troubled marriage, there’s a plot thread concerning the lives of other secondary female characters. Anna’s acquaintance, Edith, for example, also takes a lover and claims it’s a move that improves her skin. There’s another character, Mary, a fellow student in Anna’s German class, who is intriguing. Mary is married, addicted to cheesy romance novels, has children, is on the plump side and appears to be a veritable Betty Crocker. She befriends Anna and Bruno, and says she is glad to have a female friend. But there are no  less than three occasions when Mary’s actions hint at some dark ulterior motive. In spite of the fact I disliked Anna and was frustrated by her repeatedly, I liked Hausfrau. I liked the chances the author took in creating an amazingly self-destructive character who reminds me of two great fictional characters whose names I won’t mention as to do so would be a plot spoiler.

Marina Sofia’s review, and thanks Marina for pointing me towards Hausfrau in the first place.

Review copy

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Nate in Venice by Richard Russo

In the novella Nate in Venice, former English professor Nate, now in his 60s, is persuaded to take a tour of Italy by his semi-estranged brother Julian. First stop Venice where he joins the Biennale tour group “most of whom, like Nate, hail from central Massachusetts.” We know, almost immediately, that something has gone wrong in Nate’s life when we learn that he worries “his social skills may have atrophied after so many months of self-imposed solitude.” If the tour is supposed to help with Nate’s depression, it’s not working. The tour group members are a sorry lot, and “a few appear fit enough, but others strike him as medical emergencies waiting to happen.” One couple is “extremely elderly” and very fragile while others have to stop and rest every few feet and appear to be “heart-attack candidates.” But things begin to look promising when Nate spies another member of the tour, Rene, an attractive older woman who has an air of fragility and anxiety. Interesting that Nate’s drawn to a woman who’s so obviously damaged while he overlooks the much more confident Evelyn:

The general impression she conveys is of a woman who once upon a time cared about how she presented herself to men but work up one morning, said fuck it, and was immediately happier.

Nate, a lifelong bachelor, isn’t smooth with women, so it’s not too surprising that Nate’s older brother, salesman Julian swoops in and takes over Rene. This move, probably inspired by deeply-rooted sibling rivalry, is a repeat of history as far as these two brothers are concerned. While Julian’s invitation to Nate seems both unusual and unexpected, the minute the two brothers meet at the airport, all their troubled history floats to the surface:

Amazing, Nate thought. Thirty seconds into their first face-to-face conversation in years, and he already wanted to strangle the man.

There are many clues about trouble in Nate’s recent past along with hints that there’s some disgrace connected to his retirement. Accompanying this is Nate’s fundamental fear and preoccupying thought that he took the wrong path in life and that he should never have been a professor in the first place.

Say this for Julian, a career salesman: he’s lived the life he meant to live. He’s sold cars, time shares, stocks, television advertising. Indeed, people are always impressed by the wide range of things Julian has sold, but as he always explains, selling is selling. It’s all about knowing people better than they know themselves. Figure out who they are and that they really want and they’re yours. Julian always makes a fist when he says this, as if inviting people to imagine themselves in his grasp. Knowledge is power, he maintains (though apparently not the kind of knowledge that leads one to a Ph.D. in English). Julian claims his head is full of the kind of algorithms Google would pay millions for. In Nate’s opinion, it isn’t just algorithms Julian’s full of. And he disagrees that his brother can sell anything. He’s known Julian a long time, and he’s only ever sold one thing: Julian.

Nate is a self-confessed “career bachelor,” but he’s happy to admit that “his true love has always been Jane Austen.” There’s a back story on both of those admissions, and that back story leaks out gradually over the course of the novella as the scandal concerning Nate’s career emerges.

This novella, one of those kindle singles, is a story of life’s disappointments, and it offers a Richard Russo short read in about 90 minutes. While it’s not as satisfying as his novels, Nate in Venice offers a sample of the author’s style. Some sharp observations of academic life emerge in these pages, but this is not Straight Man— one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Nate is a bit of a depressive hence the medication he takes, and while many of us would consider Nate’s life successful, he still isn’t convinced that he took the correct career path, and it’s as though his decision to stick with academia somehow left part of Nate behind. It’s of those the road-not-taken scenarios. Most of us don’t end up with the sort of life we imagined in our youth, but in Nate’s case, there’s an emptiness and a general lack of involvement as he failed to engage in his own choices.

As a main character, Nate is problematic: mired in depression, he’s not very appealing, and then there’s his almost complete disengagement from his own life–until the one moment he reached out…. The ending seemed a little too arranged–although at the same time, questions about Julian remain unresolved.

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See You in Paradise by J. Robert Lennon

 

See You in Paradise is a wonderful collection of short stories from American author J. Robert Lennon. His novel, Familiar, a story of a woman who trips into an alternate universe, made my best-of-year list in 2012. I loved this novel because its premise was unique, and I also really liked the way that the author concentrated on plot and didn’t try to explain what happened to his main character. Ultimately we are left not knowing whether or not the novel is about a woman who falls into a parallel universe or if she’s just so wracked with regret and guilt that she has a psychotic break.

In 2013, I read Lennon’s novel Happyland, a very funny take on what happens when a wealthy businesswoman begins buying up a small new England college town and turning it into a cheesy tourist destination for her tremendously successful doll company. And to give the full J. Robert Lennon background here, I’ll also add that my introduction to this author was in 2011 through Castle, a psychologically  intense story of a man who returns to upstate New York and buys a home which includes some acreage. After investigating the title to the property, he discovers that there’s a small section of land right in the middle that he doesn’t own, and that the owner’s name which should appear on the title has been blacked out. The key thing about this book, an exploration of memory, is exactly where fantasy and reality split…

see you in paradiseThe descriptions of those three novels (and there are more I’ve yet to read) should give an idea of this author’s scope. J. Robert Lennon has a reputation as a writer of speculative fiction, and that’s a very broad term. Not all the stories in See You in Paradise can be classified as speculative, but if there’s a recurring theme here, it’s the unexpected. Take Zombie Dan, for example, a (speculative) story that made me wince when I read the title, but which rapidly became one of my favorites.

They figured out how to bring people back to life–not everybody, just some people–and this is what happened to our friend Dan Larsen. He had died falling off a yacht, and six months later, there he was, driving around in his car, nodding, licking his pale, thin lips, wearing his artfully distressed sports jacket and brown leather shoes.

Dan’s indomitable mother enlists Dan’s friends to man shifts at his bedside during the crucial phases of the “revivification process,” and we get a little background on this.

The discovery of the revivification process had resulted, initially, in great controversy. Surely, the naysayers wailed, not everyone who died could be brought back to life. What would separate the haves from the have-nots? Science offered one answer. To be eligible for revivification, you had to die in a certain way. Drowning was best. Suffocation. Anything that resulted in a minimum of harm to the body, other than its being dead. Freezing wasn’t bad, and a gunshot wound, if tidy, could be worked around. Electrocution was pushing it, as was poisoning. Car crash, cancer, decapitation. old age? Right out.

But still, who then? Who among the drowned, the frozen, the asphyxiated, would get to come back?

The rich. Naturally.

The narrator explains that the news that revivification was an option for the wealthy dead under some circumstances was initially expected to have catastrophic results:

Riots had been predicted, the burning of hospitals and medical schools, the overthrow of the government. None of it materialized. The rich had been getting the goodies for millennia.

But there’s another reason for the lack of class resentment.  “Revivs” or zombies (both considered politically incorrect terms) as they are known are a “little bit off.”

So if you asked a random person from the street whether, if they choked to death on a Jolly Rancher, they would like to be revived, the answer was generally yes. But not an especially enthusiastic yes. “Sure,” accompanied by a shrug, was the common response. By and large revivification was thought to be something weird rich people did, something along the lines of hymenoplasty, or owning an island.

That’s quite a few quotes from a short story, but they convey the tone of the story and also how the author approaches speculative fiction. We aren’t given a date in the future or the nitty gritty details of the process itself–revivification is a given, and now both the reader and the author, having accepted the premise, must deal with the results which are both hilarious and terrifying.

The collection’s title story, See You in Paradise was also a great favourite. This is the story of  “nice guy” Brant Call who still works at the college he attended. He’s the managing editor of the business school’s alumni magazine, and one of his tasks is to solicit donations. It’s in this capacity that he meets Cynthia Peck, a horsey, libidinous heiress. Their relationship becomes quite serious and then he meets her ruthless father:

Peck took Brant’s hand, but took it limply, making Brant’s strong grip, intended to express a marriageable masculine confidence, instead seem like a withering critique of the old man’s waning virility. Peek actually winced, and Brant jerked his hand away. “Uh, I ought to thank you, sir, for the—“

“Please,” Peck said, secreting the hand back under the table, “there’s no need to grovel. Now Brant.”

“Yes sir.”

“You’re diddling my daughter.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re thinking of marrying her, right.”

“Uh, yes.”

“Get yourself a piece of the family fortune?”

The interview with Cynthia’s father doesn’t go as expected and Brant can never get control of the conversation. After calling Brant’s motives into question, Mr Peck gives Brant Hobson’s Choice: he can agree to a job in Bermuda or ….

“If you say no, you can get the hell out of my daughter’s graduation party, and if you ever again fondle so much as a tit I’ll have all your arms broken. And don’t think I can’t do it.”

Brant takes the job….

See You In Paradise is another very funny story, but the most fascinating aspect of this story is that you ever really know what game Cynthia and her father are playing. The ‘job’ in Bermuda initially seems to be a test of Brant’s devotion to Cynthia, but when the story concludes, we have reason to think otherwise.

Many of the stories explore the danger in everyday life. The story Portal, for example, tells of a gateway to time and space discovered in the back garden and used repeatedly with mixed results by a family. Do they travel to other worlds, back in time, or to hell? With each successive use of the portal, the trips become increasingly surreal and dangerous. In The Wraith, a woman appears to split in two, leaving her anger and depression at home in the form of a wraith. While the wife becomes absurdly cheerful, the wraith, embodying the negative, lurks in the home and shows an unhealthy interest in the husband. In Hibachi, a husband and wife exact revenge against their friends, while in No Life, two couples find themselves competing to adopt the same child. In this excellent, disquieting and unconventional collection, J Robert Lennon delivers the unexpected. These darkly imaginative tales hint at an undercurrent of unease through the limitless of possibilities–even in the most mundane situations. Finally just a word on the book’s title: See You in Paradise–a phrase that holds a threat and also the hint that paradise, perhaps, isn’t so great after all.

Review copy

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There Must Be Some Mistake by Frederick Barthelme

When is thinking carefully cowardice? When is avoidance cowardice? Is it cowardly to evade and dodge, to leave by the side door, to step out of the way? Is it fear that makes a person behave ‘properly’ and in accordance with one or another code of conduct?”

American author Frederick Barthelme whose work is described as Dirty Realism or K-Mart Realism has a reputation for setting books in the New South.  There Must Be Some Mistake (and I’ll admit that I was attracted by the book’s cover) is the story of Wallace Webster, a divorced, retired architect. Wallace lives in one of the “prestigious” Forgetful Bay condos in Kemah (“halfway between Houston and Galveston“), Texas and more or less leads the sort of life he wants. His first wife died of cancer, his second wife Diane inherited a sizeable stash from her father and now lives on Rhode Island, and his college age daughter Morgan drifts in and out of his life. Jilly, a former workmate also visits, and with Jilly the relationship is a bit murky. There’s an attraction there, but Jilly is still damaged from her marriage which was “like TV show nasty, true crime nasty” to the ubiquitous Cal, a “tough piece of business.” Neither Jilly nor Wallace seem willing to make a move on the attraction and are happy to keep their relationship as an easy friendship.

there must be some mistakeThe book begins by setting the pace of  Wallace’s life, and although this is a man who could harbor bitterness towards some of the events in his life (his first wife, a singer died of  cancer, he was elbowed out of his business by his partners) Wallace is a very well balanced individual, content to enjoy his life and his free time. We realize that Wallace has an enviable life in many ways–it’s peaceful, bucolic even, and he has the means to do what he chooses.

All this peace and quiet begins to shift when a series of mysterious events occur in the condo community. First Wallace’s neighbor crashes his car in a deadly accident which claims his life, and then another resident Chantal White is “found in her kitchen, her hands bound with picture-hanging wire from the back of her prize art print and blue paint smeared all over her.” These are the first two things that occur, and it’s just the beginning. While the residents of the HOA aren’t exactly dropping like flies, it does become a whose-next scenario. As various crimes are investigated, Wallace finds the police presence “oddly reassuring. Like your life imitating television–murders and drive-bys and robberies and whatever happening to people all around you.”

For a few weeks the police were all over the neighborhood like mice. They were asking questions, coming in twos to everyone’s door, inviting themselves in, sitting on the edges of sofas and wing chairs with their little tablets, little flip books where they took notes whether the interviewees knew a thing or not.

With the police now frequent visitors to the condo development, Wallace finds himself becoming involved with the mysterious Chantal White, a woman whose murky past isn’t quite as buried as she’d like it to be. Chantal is the owner of a architecturally unique restaurant called Velodrome, and Wallace is just as drawn to Chantal’s restaurant as he is to her. It’s through his relationship with Chantal that Wallace chews over a great deal of his past choices.

There Must Be Some Mistake initially carefully creates an atmosphere which reflects the security of Wallace’s life in the Forgetful Bay Estate. This is a community where the highest stakes seem to be who is going to run the HOA. Wallace’s neighbors, for the most part, appear to be a boring bunch of middle class, middle-aged Americans whose priorities are status, gossip and lawn care. Wallace’s divorce is amicable, his daughter presents no problems, and his life is predictably safe. His laid-back lifestyle emphasizes internet searches, facebook status, TCM, lazy daytrips, Target shopping  and visits to “finer eateries.” But underneath the surface of this easy-going life, strange things begin to happen on the Forgetful Bay Estate. …

Through his characters, author Frederick Barthelme asks  ‘how well do we know anybody? How well do we know ourselves?’ Lulled into a false sense of security, this reader was unprepared for the direction the novel began to take as Wallace finds himself involved with the “comfortably weathered” “hard as nails” Chantal White at her restaurant, Velodrome:

We got back late and the bar was lit up with floods high on the telephone poles in the lot and I got the midnight view–the building was like a giant rock, made out of that blow-it-on concrete that people make odd-shaped buildings with, except here the shape wasn’t geometric, it was like a boulder the size of a small hay barn, all chiseled planes, small cliffs. irregular flat spots, poorly framed square holes for the windows, and what looked to be a small Airstream trailer stuck up on top. Homemade architecture, what we once called ad hoc design.

Chantal exemplifies the novel’s theme that even your neighbor, a person you think you know, can hide the deepest secrets, and when Chantal’s performance artist daughter Tinker arrives on the scene, things only get stranger for Wallace.  All the mysteries of the novel are not solved by its conclusion, and while in the hands of another author, There Must be Some Mistake would become a dramatic murder mystery, instead Barthelme veers away from the predictable and gives us a marvelous novel that is a reflection of, and a meditation on, modern life: from Trayvon Martin, reality TV, google searches, celebrity and junk culture. Some people disliked the ending, but for this reader, the ending matched the novel’s optimistic tone while embracing the realities, the unexpected and the mysteries of life.

And here’s a final quote I loved from one of Wallace’s neighbor’s:

So I’m looking forward to social security, know what I’m saying, and I run into this woman in the hardware store. She’s buying a set of wrenches, good ones, too. So she asks me a couple questions, and I act like I know from wrenches, which I oughta, and maybe I even did at one time, back in the old days, but the thing is I’m thinking sixty-one is not much different from fifty-nine, even fifty-five, but it’s night and day to fifty. Fifty you’re still alive, still a functioning cog in the system. There are parts to play, deals to make, women to bed. you can still sell yourself to the ones that remind you what pretty women look like, what god skin in, and the rest. But it goes downhill after that. Some guys keep up the pretense, but I never could.

Review copy.

 

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