Month: November 2012

Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”

One of the dust jacket blurbs on the Modern Library hardback version came from Norman Mailer who said he wouldn’t change two words of Capote’s novel.  Meaning, obviously, the story is near perfect in every sense. It was no exaggeration. The purity of the writing is like “The Great Gatsby,” a novel in which every word and every sentence rings true and exudes a smart sort of elegance. Old Norman also said “Breakfast” was destined to become a classic, and maybe it has, though the film version tends to come first to people’s minds. If the novel hasn’t been studied enough, it must be because the same sort of stuffy academic moralists who won’t give Holden Caulfield his due won’t give it to Holly Golightly either.

What are the characteristics of this book otherwise?  It’s fresh and feels contemporary. It’s a story of identity, ego, finding one’s niche, and the close relationship between noble aspirations and being a con. Character study par excellence. Both funny and sad in parts. Spot-on descriptions and engaging dialog, and an alluring voice from a sensible and credible narrator. Structurally, we are placed within the walls of Joe Bell’s bar and as readers we can stay right there and  have a martini and learn the whole scoop. The revelations will come to us fast and furious, packed into a brilliant series of packages, all smartly wrapped in thematic weight and expository brevity.

It’s still modern and still hip. I had forgotten what a stylish and resonant story it is. I think it’s an important part of 20th century American fiction. I don’t think the picture’s complete without having read it.

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Another Ultra-Brief Book Report: Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping”

A family of women and girls, widowed, abandoned, and otherwise living as outcasts, struggle to exist in a bleak town in the Northwest mountains. Death by water plays a part, as well as migrancy, trains, family ties, subsistence, darkness, clutter, conformity, freedom, and more.

If you meditate on the cover of this book, you’ll get a feel for one of the story’s central images.

This is another monumental piece, larger than its parts, with writing that is brilliant and sublime. It is a close cousin, I think, to McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Both novels create dark worlds, tragic storylines, and characters of biblical proportions. In depths that scholars can analyze for years. Both novels have astounding lyrical descriptions of landscape and sky. Both cut to the marrow of raw human existence. If there is a simple difference to point out here, it’s that Housekeeping is more accessible and not as savage; readers are more likely to stay with it.

I wondered if I would stay during some slow sections in book middle. I was tested by the family of girls and their insistence on creating their own obstacles. But in the last sections, the pace picks up again once Sylvie makes the supreme mistake of catching the law’s attention. Fighting against the odds, her “housekeeping” compensations don’t make amends, and all that’s left is for her and Ruth to abandon the house.

When they flee, a harrowing scene is described. One relating to the cover. It affected me as much as any Stephen King cellar scene. It’s just one example of the power of Marilynne Robinson’s writing. It may well send me to the store or library to check out her book Gilead.

Frederick Barthelme’s “Elroy Nights”

The narrative paints an immediate picture of over-the-hill Elroy in his sockless Cole-Haan shoes. Not sure if I’m buying the premise of the amicable come-and-go separation from his wife. She seems to take his gross indiscretions too lightly. Elroy is the proverbial horny college teacher who lusts after his female students, despite knowing where the boundaries are. He even tries to reverse time by twenty years and hang out like he is a student. We are glad that the author’s skill in describing the foolishness of this sort of typical professor situation raises it above the levels of normal vulgarity.

The Gulf coast descriptions around Biloxi make that bland area of the country quaint, but I’ m not getting a sense of its seedier and more bombed-out-by-poverty side. Elroy’s life seems most comfy, and his high life is insulated to a campus, his spiffy waterfront condo, and his ultra-tolerant wife’s back porch. And of course, women are at every turn.

The errors and obnoxiousness of Elroy’s unbalanced personal life are described with a sort of smug justification. The evoked distaste is hard to pin down, but it reminds me of the way Tony Soprano’s family is portrayed. Like somehow they’re really nice people. I don’t like Elroy or his family. I don’t feel sympathy toward Elroy or Winter or Victor or Edward Weeks or anyone. Nor do I like Freddie, the PYT Elroy has his rather unbelievable professorial fling with.

Barthelme’s writing is what is special in this book. Parts of it are like distilled Updike, nailing things perfectly but sparing us the flood of supporting minutiae. He writes some terrific passages. From the topical allusions to the balcony urge for a cigarette to the riff on internet usage as company (or solace or merely a way to pass time). The “young girl does old teacher” office blow job scene is pretty good too.

At least one conclusion: despite all the dust jacket praise for this one, I think his novel “Tracer” is a helluva lot better.