Tag Archives: architecture

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.



Filed under Barthelme Frederick, Fiction

Female Ruins by Geoff Nicholson

Another entry in The Year (and a bit) of Geoff Nicholson. This time it’s Female Ruins–also known as the author’s “architecture novel.” I already knew, from Everything and More, that Nicholson had a fascination with buildings, and then there’s his blog of course. But in Female Ruins, Nicholson gets to the heart of the matter with “The Architecture of Impermanence.”

Kelly Howell leads a marginal life working as an under-employed cab driver in the small Suffolk town of Carsham. She receives a call, in the middle of the night, from an American tourist who claims he’s stranded at the train station and needs a taxi to get to his hotel. With expensive luggage and a fancy cane for a damaged leg, Jack Dexter says he’s off-the-beaten-track for a little tourism, and he hires Kelly to be his driver and guide for his two-week holiday. Reluctantly, Kelly agrees–although she’s not particularly comfortable with the arrangement which entails, for one thing, a relationship of sorts, and Kelly, who prefers drunken one-night-stands to soulful exchanges, would rather not have a relationship of any kind whatsoever. Hence the taxi cab job: she can work when she wants and there are no strings attached.

female ruinsWe could call Kelly anti-social–it’s a label that fits this young woman who’s never quite recovered from the life and death of her famous father, Christopher Howell, an enigma, a cult figure of sorts, the “greatest modern English architect never to have built a building” who wrote three books: Watch it Come Up, Buckminster Fuller’s Bedspread, and The Ruins of Pleasure. Kelly’s father died when she was 13, and she remembers that “he seemed desperate to create buildings, real buildings, not just flights of fancy,” but then just how well did she really know the man who was “up and gone” before Kelly’s birth?  Over the years, the stories about the “(disputed) genius” of  “speculative architecture,” and Christopher Howell have become more elaborate, and it’s impossible to pick apart the truth from the myth. His drawings were unique and varied and included “pyramid-shaped buildings, some on stilts, some resting on the ground, or on water, some just floating in space.”

The story was that her father never found a patron, indulgent or otherwise, and since he couldn’t make his ideas concrete, he’d decided to make them as abstract as possible. He became a sort of architectural philosopher, a propagator of ‘speculative architecture’, a genius figure to some, almost a guru to one or two.

Some of the people who appreciated her father’s work said that the impracticality of his ideas, the essential unbuildableness of his buildings, was the whole point. Their beauty, they said, lay in their impracticality, their lavishness, their irony. Some just said they were works of art, poetic inventions. Kelly was very happy with this view.

Other critics said that, even though he’d done his training at the Architectural Association, her father had never really intended or wanted to be an architect. They said his self-assigned role was to act as a sort of philosophical whetstone, someone against whom students and scholars, and even architects, could hone themselves and their ideas, thereby becoming sharper and more cutting edge.

Kelly is still firmly under her father’s shadow, and while she has no aspirations to continue in his footsteps, neither can she decide exactly who she is or what she should do with her life. In some ways, Kelly’s life seems suspended and with a “string of ruined boyfriends,” she’s unable to move forward. She is, in fact, a bit of a female ruin.

Female Ruins is initially structured around Kelly and Dexter’s day trips to various tourist spots. Naturally architecture is rooted in all their sightseeing trips, so they visit some lesser known sites including a church in Dunstan, The House in the Clouds at Thorpeness, ruins at Monkwich, and even a miniature golf course. The trips are interposed with excerpts from essays written by Christopher Howell, which include hints of an unknown life. In one essay, Christopher discusses the destructive urges of  Puritan William Dowsing, and Howell imagines unleashing this destruction on “every cosy English domestic interior.” Another essay discusses “ergotopoeic buildings,“–a style of structure that “reveals its meaning by its look.” One such example is Christopher’s assertion that nuclear power stations should be built “in the shape of giant mushroom clouds.” And here’s an quote from the essay Motel America in which, amongst other things, Christopher discusses Bates Motel & more importantly the philosophy behind the architecture of motels:

As far back as the 1940s, in a more or less deranged article that J. Edgar Hoover wrote for a magazine called the American Nation, he claimed that motels were places where criminals hung out, where illicit sex was freely available and where it was easy to buy drugs. The simple response to this is ‘only if you’re lucky’. But in motels you do have a tendency to get lucky.

I, needless to say, think it has something to do with the moral dimensions of architecture. The best motel architecture looks not merely playful but actually trivial, as though to say this place is unreal, what you get up to here in this fun house doesn’t really count, it’s outside your real life. You won’t be held responsible for what happens here. And so you’re free to have illicit sex, to take drugs, to consume beer and potato crisps in bed, to watch mind-numbing television. You are free to behave like a sleaze.

A couple of superb scenes capture Kelly’s relationship with her mother, a woman whose house is a monument to  “mundanity” which is in total contrast to the “grotty little bedsit” Christopher Howell lived in, in Kennington. The walls were white, and Kelly’s father said he saw them as a “blank canvas.”

He told her he’d started to doodle on the wall beside the bed, a doodle he’d immediately seen as a sort of road map showing a long broad thoroughfare with many junctions and side streets. But then the doodle began to have a life of its own. That first main street led to other roads, to roundabouts, dual carriageways, motorway flyovers and tunnels, and he’d drawn all these in. This had led to the creation of rivers, railways, canals. The map had spread from one wall to two, to three, to four, and it had risen up the ceiling where the separate wall maps had converged around the ceiling rose. From certain angles it resembled an elaborate spider’s web.

He hadn’t drawn every single building in detail but he’d sketched in symbols that might be looked at as strange ground plans: a cinema shaped like a movie camera, a school in the shape of a saxophone, a swimming pool shaped like a brain, a drive-in restaurant in the shape of a coffin. Her father’s tastes did not run to the whimsical and although he had created an imaginary kingdom, there was nothing fey or childlike about it. There was a suicide bridge, and an area of space called ‘Killing Fields.’

Then there were some dark jokes: nuclear reactors positioned next to hospitals, prison for sex offenders that overlooked girls’ schools. There were housing developments that encircled toxic waste sites.

Was Christopher a fraud or an untapped genius ahead of his time? This question gnaws at Kelly, but unfortunately she will never know the answer. Or will she? What if her father did build some incredible building? Would it fulfill Kelly’s expectations or would it be a disappointment?

Female Ruins has an implied underlying poignancy that is absent for Nicholson’s other novels. Yes, this is yet again a story of obsession–a story of the destruction of one man who pursued perfection beyond the practical, but it is also the story of a daughter’s obsession with her father.  Growing up with the myth and unable to shake it out of her head, unresolved daddy issues have left Kelly, a tough, independent character. Nonetheless, she’s a ‘female ruin’ damaged by her father’s absence, underemployed and unable to sustain a meaningful relationship. Will the truth, whatever that is, about her father, liberate Kelly from the chains of memory? Fathers occupy mythological status in the lives of daughters and the toppling of those monumental assumptions doesn’t necessarily solve anything.

Those interested in architecture will pick up more from the novel than I did. There are references to Frank Lloyd Wright and the novel also tips its hat to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Geoff Nicholson seems very comfortable with the subject matter, but then again, he’s a polymath who creates intensely intelligent novels disguised with humour.


Filed under Fiction, Nicholson, Geoff

Calling Mr King by Ronald De Feo

“I’ve unleashed an architectural mental case.”

Calling Mr King by Ronald De Feo is the story of a hit-man who discovers a life beyond his work, and for someone who’s been traveling the globe assassinating a fair number of people, this intellectual  ‘awakening’ begins to cause problems. De Feo’s clever character-driven plot follows the hit-man as he steps away from his unexamined life and begins to discover a world beyond his weapons. The result is an excellent, unusual and intense character study which combined with the book’s unexpected dark humour makes Calling Mr King one of my finds of the year.

The book’s title is actually the modus operandi with which the shadowy organisation called the Firm keeps in contact with their top hit-man. This American-born assassin who hails from New York state has one talent, and it’s a talent he marketed when he had nothing else to sell. He’s a superb shot, and this makes the hit-man a valuable commodity.  Hits are conducted for the Firm on a world-wide scale, and during the course of the tale, the hit-man travels to Paris, London, New York and Barcelona. When given a new job, he hops a plane to his destination, and then waits in a hotel room for the phone call. An anonymous caller will ring and ask to speak to Mr. King. That’s the signal for the hit-man to find the nearest public phone, call his contact and receive instructions for his next hit.

When the book begins, the hit-man is in Paris. The city is wasted on the assassin; he dislikes the French (but then he dislikes people in general), and at one point he tells a Parisian taxi driver to “go choke on a snail.” Paris may be a tourist destination, but to the hit-man, it’s just another hotel in another town, with another man to kill–the sooner the better:

All these people around us were of absolutely no importance. They didn’t really exist anymore. They were part of the scenery. They were nothing. Paris now contained only him and me.

He’s known for his efficiency in tracking his target and establishing a pattern of behaviour, even forming a strange sort of “bond” with the victim as he gets to know his routines and some aspects of his life. This time it’s different; the killer finds his Parisian target “exhausting.” The hit-man tracks his victim day after day as he “bounced around Paris”  for appointments, shopping, dates with friends, a meeting at an art gallery, and an evening at the opera. The hit-man realises that there’s no clear established pattern of behaviour this time–his victim who’s like a “damn kangaroo” is packing his day with appointments and activities:

I became absolutely convinced that he knew his days were numbered. And since he knew, he wanted to get a lot of living done before the end. What I was watching then, all of this peculiar energy, was simply a pathetic attempt at a last fling.

As the days multiply without a clear, safe opportunity for assassination, something begins to happen to the hit-man. He becomes extra cautious, and he begins to wonder if he’s losing his edge. While the Firm is impatient for the contract to be completed, the hit-man begins to wonder about his victim. Was it “last-minute curiosity? A kind of softening.”

When he returns to London, the hit-man, who’s given the name Peter Chilton, by the firm, is a little shaken by the events in Paris. The next hit takes place in Derbyshire, and once again, Chilton hesitates, and this hesitation–a sort of emotional involvement or interest in his victim–leads to some complications. As far as the Firm is concerned, Chilton screwed up big time:

You see, if you had fucked up this way in the city, I don’t think it would have caused such a stink. After all, city life has its hazards. You wanna live here, you gotta take your chances. Sometimes people get caught in the cross fire. Sometimes they’re hit by stray bullets. It doesn’t happen here like in New York, which is the fuckin’ Wild West, but it happens. And, of course, we have all those crazy mick bastards running loose blowing off heads, legs, dicks and time they feel like it. But it’s all part of living in good old London. You understand.  

Like I said, if this old man had been shot here, I don’t think it would’ve been noticed so much. Nobody would’ve been  happy, of course, and there would’ve been some bad press, but the fact is it wouldn’t have been unusual enough to make a really good story. He was an old bugger too, so it wasn’t as if he had years ahead of him. ‘Old Man Killed in Street Shoot-Out.’ That would have been it. But what happens instead? The old bugger gets his head blown off in some fuckin’ field in Derbyshire. You see the drama here? The oddness? When was the last time you heard of a pensioner being gunned down in a field in Derbyshire, or, for that matter, in any bloody country place? You get my drift? Nothing much ever happens in places like Derbyshire. Mostly what they get in the counties are serial lunatics. And that’s because of boredom more than anything else. You stay in the country long enough and either you grow brain dead or else you turn into a fuckin’ madman. You begin to hate your wife or girlfriend or maybe even your very own mum. And before you know it, you’re roaming the countryside chopping up women. Very sick, but there it is. And yet when you look at it, these lunatics are pretty rare. Maybe one turns up every two years, three years. Maybe that’s because most people get so brain-dead in the country they don’t even have the energy to go crazy.

As a result of his screw up, he’s sent on a ‘holiday’ back to New York by the Firm. This seems like punishment, or it just may be until things calm down, but deciding that his future with the firm is murky, Chilton plunges into his holiday with a great deal of enthusiasm, delving into his new-found interest in Georgian architecture. Soon Chilton begins resenting his work as it interferes with his reading, and when the Firm orders him to leave the city, he takes a trip back to his old home town–now withered and gutted by a lack of industry. In this bleak town, Chilton’s memories reveal a bleak childhoodwith zero chance for personal enrichment.

As Chilton moves across the globe, this man whose original identity has been eradicated, begins to form another self. Chilton tells himself that “except for my somewhat destructive occupation, I was a pretty decent sort,” and really treads into unreliable narrator territory.  There’s a definite splitting as Chilton, the killer, morphs or at least reinvents himself as Peter Chilton, English gentleman of leisure and taste and even  the genteel, urbane Sir Peter Chilton at one point:

I stopped in at the Rizzoli Bookstore, which was wood-paneled and had a kind of English feel to it. Chilton seemed to fit in here. Wealthy snobs roamed about with their wealthy little shopping bags–Tiffany, Gucci, Bergdorf, Goodman, Bally. Fashionable foreigners jabbered to one another. I noticed a couple of well-dressed wops jawing away over some wop fashion magazines–they always sounded so damn dramatic, like ham actors. Calm down, I felt like telling them. How in hell can you get so worked up over a few dumb magazines? Chilton suddenly stepped in here. They’re always amusing these Italians, he thought, remembering his various trips to Rome and Venice. Spirited. Fun-loving. Yes, good old jolly Italians. You can always count on them when you’re feeling a little down.

As Peter Chilton fabricates an imagined life–complete with country estate, a posh flat in London, and a third home in Nice, he continues to absorb architectural facts and begins to feel the birth of an interest in art. How will the hit-man–a man who’s disinterested in everything and everyone align his old self with his new interests? Can both sides of this man live within one skin?

Look at these poor excuses for town houses, he thought, I thought, we both thought.

Copy courtesy of the publisher, Other Press, via netgalley. Read on my kindle


Filed under De Feo Ronald, Fiction