booknotes

Proust’s “Within a Budding Grove”

The second novel in the series of seven has plenty of slog areas – tedious sections of rumination and digression. In automotive terms, the dwell angle – the delay between firing points – is immense at times. We pause and deliberate, feeling the delay and the opposing expectation of our own reader habit to keep moving on with the story. I felt a sense of repetition, of being caught in a day-after-day loop. Meanwhile Marcel dishes on the aristocrats and has muted experiences at a beachside hotel in Balbec. The effect, likely intentional, is almost as if I too were staying there, alienated and unhappy over the duration of my visit.

I am not sure we can say this lengthy book is all about seeking young girls in flower or budding romance. It’s more about Marcel’s previous big romantic flop in Paris with his first love Gilberte and his subsequent train & beach trip with grandmama to the Normandy coast. There’s a lot of description about isolation, discomfort, and other complaints. As is the tendency with Proust, we are given golden gifts of insight and wisdom amidst the unhappiness, as if that is the prime circumstance for producing such reflections.

Best early section is the actual train trip to Balbec. Best late section is the last block of a hundred pages that include Marcel’s encounters with Albertine and the “gang.”  The last fifty pages are thematically strong (pastries, memory, love, hawthorn leaves). The writing is genius.

At the seaside hotel (which takes up the middle book) the narrative is largely about society – see and be seen. The In-Crowd is often on display at dress-up time in the dining room, a room the narrator depicts as a giant fish tank. Inside they act out their privileged games while everyday folk pass by outside, pause and look in blank wonder through the glass.

Things are not always so stuffy. In the peak of summer, the hotel opens its windows and the guests step in and out on way to the terrace or beach. Marcel does not do the beach. His grandma places him on an upper floor VIP suite lined with glass bookcases that reflect the sunny sea. Marcel dislikes it. He is sickly and cautious.

Eventually some friends (Bloch, Robert, and Charlus) stir him loose. Marcel’s instinctive yearning for romance and sex gets him on the prowl. The object of his affection turns out to be Albertine, who he spots on the boardwalk. We only see her in the last hundred pages or so.

Proust ups the tempo. Things get interesting when our narrator befriends painter Elistir and finally hooks up with the girl he’s been obsessed with, the one from the cadre of girls cruising the beach boulevard. Albertine proves to be outspoken, charming and frank. Her middle-class dialog is a long-awaited breath of fresh air to an otherwise stultifying cast of aristocrats. We get a detailed examination of the games young lovers play, and the turn of Marcel from naive admirer (in the past with Gilberte) to male predator (of Albertine), still holding to childish love fantasies but acting (often not so subtly) with cunning and manipulation. As it develops, she is not that different, just more honest.

proustbook1I switched midbook from the newer Penguin translation to the older 1982 Vintage Press volume (the silver and black set by Moncrief and Kilmartin). Larry McMurtry’s use of this older set led me to it. It reads more majestically and to me sounds better tonally. It is not plagued by 21st century colloquials and clipped phrases. The print and typesetting is far easier on the eyes.

The McMurtry formula for reading Proust: ten pages a day for a year equals over 3500 pages, the approximate total length of all seven novels. I read at a slower pace.

Number three is next: the Guermantes novel.  Meanwhile, I got a copy of the movie “Time Regained,” which is summary-like and weird, but a nice visual accompaniment. It’s based on the book of the same name, the last novel in the series. Not all parts are understandable at this point. There is a powerful scene of Marcel recalling his memories of Swann’s wife Odette when a certain piano concerto is performed.

*My modest report on the first novel “Swann’s Way” is here.

McMurtry’s “Rhino Ranch”

rhinoReading the last installment of our hero’s late-life adventures, I began to wonder if Duane should have been named Randy. Even in his sixties, the guy seems overrun with carnal needs and therefore has instant relations with horny nymphs and errant lesbians and other fantasy girls.

He’s some sort of graying chick magnet who manages to connect with women even randier than himself. They all talk a good game then tend to become servile to him and romantically turn him lose in all directions. If one leaves, another pops up. He’s bewildered.

Duane’s last hurrah is a deceptive porn star who somehow works in the oil business. She will do anything and everything in explicit detail but no penetration with Duane until he has a vasectomy. Guess what our randy hero does.

Along comes a modest, handy-with-dinner Thai girl who (like Annie in the last book) gets to Duane’s heart through his stomach. And then there is leggy K.K. the ball-busting organizer behind the “save the rhinos” organization. And toward book’s end it’s another pretty young thing in cutoffs who wants to serve him, too. Surprisingly, by this time Duane begins to turn them down. He’s cooked. Put a fork in him.

“Rhino’s” last few pages speed through a series of untimely deaths, depleting the cast. What has seemed like a screenplay is over. We will no longer see Duane. To do so would mean to go back and re-read “Texasville,” the four-inch one I started but skipped past.

With Duane gone, the family future is left to grandson Willy, the only one who has made it in the world of successful and intellectual people, who are oft-alluded to by Honor and K.K. as players in a sort of privileged and venal playground that exists outside the simple limitations of the one blinking traffic light in Thalia, Texas.

McMurtry’s “When the Light Goes”

lmcDirectly following the chronology in “Duane’s Depressed,” this short novel is the Thalia series’ statement book on intimacy. Events are centered on protagonist Duane Moore and extend to all the other characters. By book’s end we know how most of them get along with their mates. The dusty town of Thalia, a place where bed-hopping has long been an accepted sport, is facing obsolescence, as are the sex lives of the aging cast.

The story is slow to launch, like Duane’s middle leg. By the late chapters he is taking the magic blue V pills.The reader wonders why he didn’t think about them earlier.

No matter the storyline, it’s McMurtry on display once again, and he delivers with seamless narrative and superb characterization. We are welcomed and drawn in. Some readers may be repelled by the explicit sex and language.  I think McMurtry’s blue prose is under control: vivid and sensory but not sensational or fantasy-driven in a cheapened way.

Sixty-ish oilman and amateur Thoreau Duane Moore is still in love with his psychiatrist. Dr. Honor Carmichael is a fiftyish lesbian who despite her frosty front seems to be more than clinically interested in him. The book is engaging enough (and short with a building sharp pace, as in novella length) to push the reader ahead quickly, providing a few unexpected twists in how that situation between doc and patient works out. That’s the by far best part of the novel.

Unfortunately the story loses this interesting dynamic when Honor vanishes again and McMurtry brings young oil surveyor Anne into the action. Annie is a precocious and improbable Texas brat who is, as they say, all hat and no cattle – she’s sexually hung-up and can’t back up her flirty ways.  Nevertheless our hero gets entangled with her, and (even if the author wishes us to feel otherwise) their encounters are insipid and sad. Anne is no Karla and definitely no Honor. They don’t seem to go together. We are left with a dumbed-down Duane & Annie romance that seems to exist by default.

The town of Thalia is fading fast and has no purpose, giving way to a cluster of WalMarts and Targets. Its local fixture convenience store and Dairy Queen are now run by Sri Lankans. Duane sells his house, abandons his cabin, and relocates to Arizona with Annie. Their relationship continues apparently on the mythical premise of “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”

Which leads to his long-postponed coronary bypass surgery. Duane sits on the veranda and looks out on the desert landscape to ponder what may be next in his life. We’ll find out in the next book, “Rhino Ranch.”

Larry McMurtry’s Thalia series: “Duane’s Depresssed”

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In the original Thalia trilogy sequence, this is novel 3, released after “Texasville” and “The Last Picture Show.”

This is the story of Duane Moore at 60-something and how he steps away from his traditional life, en route to self-discovery and potentially a nervous breakdown as well.  It’s a quest and at the same time an abandonment. It’s a rarity in popular fiction books these days: a thorough examination of how an aging male tends to think, change, shed, yearn. The novel has aspects similar to Updike’s later-years “Rabbit,” but the angst and manners are Southern.

Despite occasional scenes of tedium and redundancy, the narrative is enjoyable and well presented. McMurtry’s perceptions and humor are always cooking underneath. In novel series mode, there are a lot of accumulative characterizations and brief summaries of history.  It’s all concise and good  – we are kept in the loop with longtime Thalia cast members Bobby Lee, Jacy, Sonny, Ruth, and Lester.

When McMurtry brings what is pertinent  to the foreground, it is all the more amplified by the generous existence in his narrative of what is not pertinent. This is a key element in his writing style.

Duane looks for some way to see the world other than from the cab of a pickup truck and becomes a dedicated walker and bicyclist. In between he experiences the difficulties of  busting loose, the joys and challenges of solitude, new ways to regard the world, and so on. By book’s end he has lost his wife, given away his dog, built a garden, and fallen in love with a lesbian psychologist. Eventually he is broken down emotionally and collapses. He hastily regroups and in his last act of escape, he hurriedly enlists a travel agent and flies away to exotic places abroad.

McMurtry is never better. Actions are emblematic and open to interpretation. In the novel’s final chapters, he weaves in elements of his own experience with reading Proust (the author read the volumes during recovery from heart surgery). Duane’s psychologist, a sophisticated woman named Honor, asks him by way of a prescription to read the Vintage three- volume set (about 3,000 pages)  of “In Search of Lost Times.” Duane, who is a simple yet smarter-than-most Texas dude, works his way through it over a year’s time. Honor invites him to a book discussion, and McMurtry creates an electrifying chapter where surprises abound. In his subsequent next-day session at Honor’s office, the book’s climax takes place.

 

Joy Williams: “The Visiting Privilege”

joyIt’s a big collection of her stories, old and new, as described glowingly in a recent New Yorker article. It prompted a visit to the library checkout counter.

How did I miss out on her all this time?  Who do I read that does short stories any better?

The first story in the newer stories section (“Brass”) begins with a portrayal of a family’s wayward son. It is exemplary of technique, and Williams has quite an arsenal of skill. In “Brass,” factoids are mixed into the narrative, a contrast of reality as opposed to the misguided opinions stated by the boy. The author’s punchlines are sharp, dark, and funny.  The ending of is a surprise with a shock effect. We find out who the boy character is supposed to be. Bam, a figure from recent national news. And we wonder how close to reality the author was in her depiction. Not that it matters. Crazy dangerous is crazy dangerous.

Williams can place characters inside a crucible in a story without us even noticing. Every story reveals her mastery of the form, and each has its own set of themes, mysteries, and nuance. Unlike many of today’s hailed and awarded stories that are too often mere cleverly phrased throwaways, Joy Williams’ collected stories are solid and meant to be re-visited and enjoyed over time.

Her writing is a reflection of our privilege to be cogent, alive visitors on Earth. Her book allows us the privilege to share in her observations, many of which are poetic and visionary. Let’s hope her work lands permanently in the study books for classes of American Literature: Modern Short Story.

Barthelme’s “There Must Be Some Mistake”

books54We see some familiar touches here: the divorced aging male, his loyal friends and still-attached relatives, his exotic lovers, and an exurbian condo setting replete with nearby secret forts, i.e., the Velodrome and its tiny Airstream trailer section, reminiscent of the getaway airplane cabin wreckage in the woods in his novel Tracer.

It’s a cozy read, never strident and true to the world we live in. Well, maybe the plot and its neighbors falling like flies is a stretch, but that doesn’t matter. At the core, it’s a novel about community and one man’s place smack dab in the middle of one. That sounding board being Wallace Webster, who works for an ad firm and prefers the simple life where one draws wider focus from a narrower view. Wallace seems a level-headed dude with lots of sexual prowess. The other guys in the neighborhood are flawed and bumbling men, several of whom die. Ok, so Wallace is the community’s fiftyish years-old chick magnet.

We get interesting characters. A girlfriend (Jilly) who cracks lines like a female Morey Amsterdam;  a couple of spooky female survivor types from Jerry Springer land (Chantal and her daughter); some nosy HOA type people, a fluffy-brained police investigator with a cozy name (as in “Detective Darling”), and so on. There is an air of female veneration.

Included are lots of everyday trifling details that draw our interest, like the guilty pleasure of late-night Saltines and butter. Barthelme does not shy away from today’s world of iPads and Facebook (in a direct hit on modern American behavior, Wallace says when a question comes up, “I can Google it. Right now.”). He includes tech culture and its niggling devices and sites, alluding to their complications and influences in our life but not to the point of admitting dominance. It’s good to see, and as many writers know, not that easy to do (it’s easier for many writers to move back the clock).

The dialog features a boundless supply of erudite cleverness coming from the mouths of all the major players, despite their unpretentious existence (with meals at Wendy’s and the Olive Garden). The community described is out in the bleak coastal plain community of Kemah, sort of rural east Houston (if I recall, there was a beer joint in that area back in the 80s called Maribelle’s which Velodrome somehow dredged from my memory). It must be exhausting for Wallace and his lady friends to constantly address every little aspect of life in such cute terms. The go-for-a-quick-ha-ha aspect of some of the dialog can ring false sometimes.

Then there are those longer discussions, the All About Me background ones, in which a character talks about himself in interview fashion while the avid listener adds prompts and queries and then responds like a chorus with affirmations and touchés. Barthelme has also drawn some from his personal and family past in portraying Wallace as son of an architect and as someone who was involved in painting. In one section I had the sensation of reading the author’s memoir notes.

Webster has a tendency to tell people everything. He’s about involvement and even confession rather than detachment and reticence.  That’s good for making fiction.

 

Luke Mogelson’s Stories

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This is my update from February.

“Total Solar” appeared in the New Yorker earlier this year, inspiring me to mark the calendar for the release of the first published collection of Luke Mogelson’s stories.

I ordered it but didn’t read right away. This summer I’ve stubbornly stuck to short fiction’s best of breed, the tried and true Hemingway’s Finca Vigia Collection. Then I took a break and stepped back briefly into modern writers’ time. I’m glad, for it’s quality stuff.

I figured I would fly through Mogelson’s book but his stories have a richness and layering of intent that makes a reader slow down, even go back and re-read, which in my view is a sign of a  well-done short story: one that asks to be re-examined.

Mogelson is not hesitant to deliver narrative in strings of expository sentences rather than scene. He can do both, and he can cut the fat and expose the iceberg with the best of them.

Were they all war stories? No, not completely. Two vivid accounts from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are “Kids” and “Total Solar.” The latter is exemplary in construction. Other stories involve veterans struggling to find their way with physical disabilities or mental disorders. I got the impression that perhaps the author was at times channeling Hemingway’s “A Soldier Home” which doesn’t describe war at all but instead focuses on its personal aftermath. These are not cheerful stories.

“The Port is Near” was gloomy too but had some humor, and we half-expected to see a happier ending to this one. The protagonist’s only direct allusion to service is a 9-11 reference describing when he lived in San Francisco “before they attacked us and I volunteered.” The rest is about his post-tour job aboard a net-fishing boat with a psycho captain (jobs for vets are hard to come by, that implies). Mogelson delivers an engrossing sea adventure scaled to short story size. Being on the fishing boat is in itself  a battle of sorts and one that also ends with madness and loss.

“Some Clouds” by Paco Taibo II

clouds

The symbolic clouds are puffy white and filled with promise as the story opens in a tropical paradise where independent detective Hector, now with a limp and minus an eye, is recharging after his wounds suffered in “No Easy Thing.” His retreat is cut short, and he re-enters a crime world far beyond his ability. By the end of this book, the clouds are dark and foreboding over the evil in Mexico City — Hector will describe them as “clouds of shit.”

In a masterful and imaginative mood, Taibo writes himself into this book as a writer. The character is named Paco Ignacio. The chapter in which Hector and Paco meet is like an interview between the author and his protagonist. Ignacio later plays a surprisingly important role in the story and becomes a deux ex machina figure.

Hector’s sister Elisa reappears from the previous book and talks Hector into looking into a friend’s murder case. She later regrets that she led her brother into such danger. We get the feeling at the end (it is only about 130 pages, perfect for a Hector novel) that our hero is not out of the woods. He won’t flee the country and hide however. He will remain in Mexico and face even more trouble in the next novel, “No Happy Ending.”

Each of Taibo’s Hector Belascoaran novels can stand on its own. Yet without reading them collectively and in sequence, the reader may be unaware of Hector’s past, and thereby miss some nuances. They’re also likely to miss how the next book picks up a thread or mood and continues it.

Eggers’ “A Hologram for the King”

(originally posted August 10, 2012 and updated April 29, 2016) – The movie version is out, a sleek ninety-minutes featuring Tom Hanks and some stunning photography from the fictional and troubled megaplex being built by the Red Sea, and from a homogenized Jeddah hotel (where the concierge repeatedly recites “Welcome to the Hyatt”in an Arab accent). There is a scene with some great footage shot in Mecca, where Alan Clay (Hanks) nervously hides in the car as a non-Moslem.

It’s an important movie, a tale of love and redemption that informs us about international relations, specifically with the Arab world. In these times perhaps some will find it increases understanding and peels away blind hate.

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 11.02.01 PMIt’s also a take on how it can be sometimes to work in IT. You get sent on a boondoggle, the conditions suck, the network is down, you’re hungry, and no one pays attention to you unless you complain enough or do something outside the rules (like Alan sneaking upstairs without a badge).

In the novel, Eggers’ writing style is clean and direct, similar to the clipped style he used in “Zeitoun.” The book’s print job has illogical spacing. In some instances a gap is put between sentences obviously belonging to the same paragraph. Without the random spacing, and with some merciful reduction of a few scenes here and there, this thing could be close to novella land.

The story moves well, conventionally, and slows down in the middle. It is loaded with humor: the character Yousef is an instant hit, Westernized and corrupted by two cultures. The novel gives a rare look inside the unknown world of the UAE.  It’s a dual world, orderly on the surface, yet disordered on the underside. The work ethic is amorphous. Imports do much of it (“We don’t have unions. We have Fillpinos”). The orgiastic scene at the Danish embassy pretty well sums up the conflicting “moral guidelines” of compound residents vs. citizens.

The protagonist (Alan Clay) suffers a frustrating impasse inside the King’s new business complex, as he and his IT team wait for a chance to make their big pitch to sell the Arabs a holographic teleconferencing product. Meanwhile they’re stuck in a tent, largely ignored, without food and without wi-fi.  During this seemingly endless delay, Alan begins to fall apart. We are privy to flashback after flashback of guilt, shame, and failure.

He’s not a happy guy. And neither are we, suffering along with him. Along the way, we are reminded of the disembowelment of our economy by handing over all our work to cheap labor outside the country. There is a strong section about PPG Glass losing the new Freedom Tower contract to China, who manages to get the work Alan and his crew were after, too. Eggers manages to fit this into the story without making it shout editorial interruption.

Alan’s history of failure with the dying American bike company, Schwinn, is put in contrast to his new dreams as an IT salesman who helps wire the New Arabia. So we have mechanical vs. electronic, the tangible vs. ethereal.

Alan can’t seem to do much right. Two seductive ladies fall for him (we don’t know why), and he can’t handle that either. Can’t perform. One of them is a doctor who surgically excavates the cyst on his spine. Little goes right for them. As she eventually says, “it’s all very sad.”

At the end where we are dropped off, it appears as if finagling a job with the King’s “start-up” business will be his last chance saloon. His last chance to build something to save himself. He’s a man without a country. With a hole in his back.

The movie, however, has things end on a happier note.

“Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen”, a McMurtry Memoir

larryMcM-Dairy QLarry McMurtry presents a mixed bag of topics here, essays and personal accounts related to his love of books and writing. He uses a cowboy metaphor, stating his life-work is to corral and tame words and drive them forward to a conclusion. Books are his wide open range where he has spent a lifetime roaming.

He is certainly qualified to talk cowboy, having been one in his youth when he grew up on a ranch in the northern plains of Texas, in Archer City. It’s a real place and also a fictionalized place where movies were shot based on his novels, like “The Last Picture Show” and “Texasville.”

Of more academic substance, McMurtry gives a compelling history of the Texas plains where his family settled and ranched in pioneer days and beyond. It’s also a world he wanted to escape from, going off to urban centers where the supply of books is as abundant as thinking and diversity. So he forsook his father in following a life as rancher and chose to be a bookworm and a novelist. Eventually he came back and and settled.

McMurtry validates his subtitle “reflections at sixty and beyond.” He at times is crotchety and nostalgic over times and customs long since lost. It’s a good read, more complex than it first appears. Some patience is required when he wanders off on side roads. One of the better side roads is his account of heart surgery – how surgery and deep anesthesia can change a person. I know several people, including myself, who will vouch for this….something is lost in that suspended time, and its recovery is doubtful. Larry McMurtry fought back to regain his abilities after surgery when he was unable to read. His eventual long dive into the works of Proust and Woolfe reinvigorated the writer in him, a thankful turn for him and all of us who love his writing.

“Lonesome Dove” Revisited

(The book is entertaining. You can read it like Tolstoy – in parts. A brief update to previous post)

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McMurtry’s writing in this one is often like rodeo-talk mixed with the campy voice of “Dodge Ram tough.” Events can sometimes be trifling and sometimes sublime. When the author shifts to events of more substance the writing comes forward with an accomplished ease.

The book’s ending soars above the rest. The Montana chapters and Woodrow Call’s return-to-Texas chapters have their own tone and relentless pace. The writing is clear and unobtrusive and therefore perfect for the action.

McMurtry’s general readership may not know his creative writing credentials. He took his  degree in Texas then joined a highly talented class of writers at Stanford University back in the Sixties, including Robert Stone and Ken Kesey. Frank O’Connor was one of his teachers.

McMurtry gives us honest prose using the omniscient voice of a skilled novelist. There is no short-changing, plenty of patience. In such a lengthy book, enormous writing energy is required to create scene after scene, weaving the motives and desires of characters, making them vivid, and placing them in an action-packed milieu that we can see and experience. Larry McMurty is a treasure in American fiction.

“Why Did I Ever” by Mary Robison

wdieAs if a traditional narrative novel had been mined, and material of value retained and all non-essentials ejected. The remaining ore was enhanced, polished and modularized, then shuffled into a sequence. Each part of the 500+parts has its own impact, its own exhibit or event or revelation.

It makes for disarming reading at first, then one gets into the mood of the narrator, a wry-humored woman teetering on the edge. Our narrator/heroine negotiates a family crisis, drugs, promiscuity, and ADD, and more than a fair share of lousy men in her life (who she relentlessly disses). Much of the comedy derives from her shakey job writing an insipid screenplay, working for an impossible boss in a movie industry for “stupid people.”

I admire and enjoy Mary Robison’s writing (cf. my review of Subtraction). She’s cut her own path in prose. She has the rare combination I like: a poet’s command of words and a cynic’s keen eye directed on America. A Univ. Southern Mississippi and U of H product (and among other places JHU as well) she has been writing and teaching since the early 80s. I wonder if I may have met her in my Houston days, maybe at Rice when Donald Barthelme did a visit-lecture there, and many of us back then hung out in Chaucer’s basement bar inside the old Plaza Hotel.

There’s a good interview with Mary Robison in The Bomb.

Last of the Hector Series – Paco Taibo

rtscThe translator Laura Dail must know her verb conjugations well. That’s extra important in a book written with a Spanish ojalá premise: if only detective Hector Shayne Belascoaran hadn’t died in the previous book. And you may believe the story that’s about to unfold, even to the climax when mariachi bands are employed as frontline troops.

Taibo brings Hector back to Mexico City for one more show, teasing with us about his right to create character immortality. We readers move up another notch in the suspension of disbelief scale, and we do so gladly because we are aficionados.

In many parts of the book the story is related in a variant of subjunctive mode with what if’s, and it would be nice that’s, and it could have happened like this’s. Owing to a good translation job and the brilliance of Taibo as a writer, the narrative is well-presented with a mix of voices from the humorous author and beleaguered heroic Hector. We buy in and feel assured of entertainment with plenty of human truths added.

During the series we sense that Paco and his character are one and the same soul.

This is likely it for one-eyed Hector and his pony-tail girlfriend. That’s okay, we can go back and re-read and enjoy the five other ones (plus there’s the untranslated “Días de Combate” to delve into).

A.E. Hotchner’s “Hemingway in Love”

9781250077486By way of contrast Hotchner’s 1970s biography “Papa” is a great read, as close a look as we can get to Hemingway the man. It’s a good book for two reasons: one, Hotchner is a terrific writer, concise and communicative without being fancy; and two, he and Papa were truly good friends. The candor and respect shown between author and subject creates an eager reader interest and provides veracity to the accounts. Unlike other bio’s I’ve read, I never felt I was getting any bogus or skewed information in “Papa.”

This new one (dated October 20, 2015) was also produced by Hotchner, who’s now in his 90s.  Most all of the Paris players and the last wife are gone. Hotch admits in his intro that he waited in order to not step on any toes, or risk hurting Mary Hemingway’s feelings.  We see Hemingway as a changed person, closer to mortality after his two near-death Africa airplane crashes. Often he is drinking wine in a series of hotel room meetings with his pal Hotch. These were occasions when Papa was either in ostensibly high spirits or he was blue, expressing regret and spilling over with irony and self-effacement.

As good as Hotchner’s writing remains – and despite an unflagging interest and admiration of Hemingway and his circle – I don’t have the same sense of complete trust with this little book. It’s not a matter of doubt about the authenticity of the information, most of which is already known, or the personal portrayals of Hemingway.

Instead it’s a matter of how Hemingway’s dialog is captured in the text. There’s a license to fudge in a memoir, but long sections of Papa’s conversations sound too pat, too prosaic and laden with facts. The author has Papa describe events or people he knew and books they wrote with Wikipedian detail. Not so sure I buy the Midgetape recordings claim.

Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies”

grofEnter knowing the entire universe is about Lotto and Mathilde.

The novel is an overwrought love story presented to us in a most literate and poetic way. It rolls out [twice] the truths and deceptions of a complex relationship between two exceptionally strong personalities. The his and her views are revealed under the watchful microscopic eye of the knowing author, the voyeuristic reader, and some snoopy secondary characters as well (e.g. Antoinette, Chollie, Rachel, and old ESP Bette).

Among the appositional statements the author throws into the mix, one of the most interesting appears when Shakespeare’s Volumnia is used as a point of comparison. Volumnia is the bad-ass mother figure in Coriolanus, who controls her son and rants obsessively, guarding him like a lover (her likeness is Antoinette). Coriolanus is maybe the most down and dirty play the Bard ever produced.

I think it’s safe to say Groff’s novel has more than its share of down and dirty: including cruel mothers, pandering perverts, drunk abusers, sleaze bags, con artists, dangerous neurotics, and lots of porn. Plus deceit, extortion, suicide, self-sterilization, betrayal, and vengeance.

Groff writes in language that is powerful and orchestrated with her content. Her imagery is raw and fresh, often hypnotic. Too often the aesthetic is dumbed down with a sudden sex act. The carnal imagery can go too far (or linger in a frat room somewhere) with lingo like, “and he shucked her right there.” When that happens, the narrative trance is interrupted.

Groff can do the atmospheric magic. She offers a fine portayal of caring artists and creativity in the colony-retreat section. The trap is set. Against idyllic venues on the beach and in the countryside or in the Big City and even Paris, she sets down a chilling collection of conniving, cold-hearted types fucking and vomiting and bickering their way through the pedestrian world. The characters wheel about. Back and forth we go: gifts and denials, triumphs and disappointments, comedy and tragedy.

Smelling the worst is the aroma of extortion.

In the long run, beauty and light edges out sordid darkness. The ending is sad and not as tidy as it could be. It meanders too much in time. It tries to offer redemption that seems too late. The dog named God is lost and then found. Conclusions are delivered before we can arrive at them.

As Orwell reminds us, a literary novel brings with it a wave of anarchy, and Groff is not afraid to shake things up, reach for the moon and take chances.

Paco Taibo’s “No Happy Ending”

nheThe title itself is the spoiler alert. Our hero is in deep trouble with the brutal paramilitary gang, the Halcones in Mexico City.

Taibo uses a tidy 12-chapter mystery format in this one. Other than a single chapter dedicated to the backstories of each of Hector’s office mates (for entertainment purposes, we suppose, not storyline), hardly a single word is wasted. Mexico City is laid out before us in gritty detail. It’s shown as a city beyond order and hope, held together by the remaining good-natured fabric of most of its natives. It’s a land of sugary soda pops, dangerous streets, venal policemen, gangsters, whores, and sometimes humorous and endearing characters, like the office crew and Hector’s elusive love interest, the girl with the pony tail.

Since authors can do such things, Taibo brings his hero back by popular demand in a subsequent novel “Return to the Same City,” subject of a future book report.

“An Easy Thing” by Paco Taibo II

paco2It’s the first chronologically in the English-translated series of Hector Belascoaran Shayne detective novels. The Mexican detective is introduced and developed.

The other – the real first book, is “Días de Combate” which Taibo published for Spanish-speaking readers only. I bought a copy and will give it my best shot translating/reading and reporting on it this winter.

As any review out there will tell you about “Easy Thing” (there is no article una in the Spanish title), the book’s made up of three cases that Hector has taken on at once. As he madly juggles the various events, we learn the most about him in the interim scenes when he’s with family, lovers, or his eclectic office mates (a sewer engineer, an upholsterer and a plumber). As in many American hardboiled crime stories, we are more entertained by the hero himself and his interplay and commentary on the world around him than by the actual plotlines.

Similar to his later novel “Frontera Dreams” (review), Taibo gives us realistic observations about the condition of Mexico, its inherent corruption, and the people’s low-key angst. “An Easy Thing” is longer than most Taibo novels and doesn’t exhibit the same kind of streamlined potency that “Frontera Dreams” has. But the gems within the story are well worth slogging through the most tedious of the three cases, the one about factory union murders. The other two cases, one about a porn star and her daughter involved in extortion, and the other a search to see if Mexican hero Emiliano Zapata is still alive, are less political and more entertaining.

Kerouac’s “On the Road” – the Mexico Trip

*an earlier post described the recent movie adaptation road1

Like any great novel, On the Road has classic sections that read fresh and even more powerful when seen again years later. The most re-readable section of On the Road includes Parts 4 and 5, essentially the novel’s last hundred pages. This is by and large the Mexico trip, which can stand alone on its own raw energy.

Here you find Kerouac on a high wire writing super prose, tightly packaged in a limited timeframe. The episode exceeds phantasmagoria and becomes mythic. Characters loom larger than life within the land of ancient Toltecs. Dean Moriarty on the mountain takes on godlike characteristics. The Mexico account delivers the conclusive impressions of all the gang’s journeys. Their experiences have now peaked and they have pushed the envelope as far as they can. They then test their mortality and move close to the edge, near implosion, blindly expecting things to be resolved on their own accord. And, followed by some angels, they are. Mexico City, which they see as a sort of a Bohemian nirvana, quietly becomes the last stop. It’s the last Sal and Dean journey.

The romantic innocence that marked their earlier trips has gone, and they are in dire straits. They part ways, each suffering their own variety of illness (Dean’s is delusional, Sal’s is mortal). Restless Dean leaves, and Sal feels abandoned. Even back in NYC their bond never mends.

Within this last section, Kerouac artfully makes the symphonic tie-in’s with vital themes and major percussions heard throughout the preceding pages of his story. There is a completeness achieved, beginning with the moment the travelers become one with the Mexico earth and its dirt and insects. Then again when Sal hallucinates the end-game’s apocalyptic white horse. Dean the omni-visionary and perpetrator of convenient truths says he saw it too. Kerouac makes us see it as well.

James Lee Burke: “Tin Roof Blowdown”

burkeThere’s hard realism in these pages about the social devastation caused by hurricane Katrina. Maybe it’s as frank and true and graphic as you’ll find anywhere. You’ll read much about the disaster early in the book. Street-level. Then as pages go by, the more particular story tends to float and slog along with the murky waters of the flood. There is only so much one can say about hell and its parallels on earth before melodrama takes hold. Around the chaos of Katrina’s aftermath, Burke weaves a bad-guys-are-really,really-bad adventure. The pair of good guys Dave Robicheaux and his pal Clete Purcell strive to make things right. The storyline has its share of sudden shocks, twists and pitfalls, but I was wishing for the less-gloomy violence and pathos found in his other novels.

The narrative voice jumps from first person Dave to omniscient and back. It’s something crime writers often do, and they usually pull it off (to some extent) without any of their readers noticing. In this case, it may be overdone. I was prone to lose the narrative connection, that familiarity I had on page one when Dave talked about his time in Vietnam and its horrors. Burke’s POV “author” is conveniently all over the place. When we return to our man Dave, all the god-like narration in-between seems odd.

The New Orleans storm account (like the event and the nation’s reactions) is heavily laden with underlying questions of racism. Burke’s writing rides the razor’s edge between sympathy (for the flood victims) and loathing (for those who capitalized on the scene via criminal acts). There are some interesting factoids (and euphemistic epithets) thrown forth. For example: in the moments of urban rioting, there are two businesses that are always spared and not burned or looted (by the “Snoop Dog fans”)- funeral homes and the offices of bail bondsmen. Burke does not intellectualize nor direct this into a statement novel. There is a hint, but no mention of the “disaster capitalism” that Naomi Klein suggested as an intentioned by-product of Katrina. One thing for sure… lots of guns are everywhere, and that seems okay with everyone. In that sense I found the story angle a bit Republican in flavor, and it made me want to put the book down or at best hurry through to the end.

The Robicheaux books are written to be simple and very personal (with the hero’s touching family scenes, etc.). The texts have a salty Gulf Coast flavor, not unlike David Lindsey’s Houston detective books. Difference is, the hero of Lindsey’s series, detective Stuart Haydon, drives a Jaguar and has refined West University sensibilities. Dave R is simple and down-home. Whether in New Orleans or New Iberia, he’s an enlightened blue-collar Cajun type. The story is what it is – a fiction writer’s vision. But the account — the factual witnessing of the atrocious and tragic events during and after Katrina, that’s really what sells the book.

I give Burke a lot of credit for telling us about it without being unfair or sensationally biased (as most of the reporting networks were). Whatever made-up story Burke put around it was to me immaterial. Far as I’m concerned, Dave Eggers successfully cornered that aspect of things in his Katrina novel, “Zeitoun.”

Salinger’s Boxed Set

salingerRumor columns say the Salinger estate will release additional works, some of which supposedly pick up characters of yore and take them forward in time. True? Who knows for sure other than a few lawyers?

Meanwhile, I’ve stashed the old and supposedly rare 1969 moldy, pot-smoked, yellow-page boxed set and am replacing it with clean copies. It was time.

If there are new JDS releases. I’ll be ready.  This summer, I’m revisiting the Glass family and Holden and DeDaumier-Smith and Teddy and all the others.   (to be continued)

((())) seymour bouquet of parentheses

JAMES SALTER’S “A SPORT AND A PASTIME”

SALTER It’s bad practice to post a brief book report after reading a few reviews on Amazon, at least in my own writer guidelines. But this time, I did just that. The uneasy sense of confusion I had while reading this Salter book was too much. I rapidly went in search of confirmation. I found that others had similar reactions. One reviewer said it best, that Slater gives us an engaging intelligent narrator in a lovely setting in France and then tosses a monkey wrench into the telling.

In a klunky way, Salter puts his narrator in the role of describing some other guy’s romance.  We sense an odd attraction between the two men. Why, we aren’t sure. This is far from Nick and Gatsby, or that type of clearly executed observer voice. This is an odd hybrid of first POV and third POV. Much of it is unknowable by the first person voice, yet documented in vivid scenes. Since he’s not present, it is impossible for him to document the episodic sex scenes between his friend Dean and this Ann chick. So the narrator says, well, I’m sort of imagining it.  Huh?

There’s plenty of flesh. The book was written in the Sixties (1967) when womens’ rights awareness wasn’t yet raised to the height of the 70s. Still, there is a lot of room for feminist complaint about the objectification of a woman, i.e., Ann being a mindless sperm receptacle, etc. Fact is, Dean is pretty shallow too. Maybe in that sense he is a harbinger of men characters in future women’s novels. The ones in which women’s characters are duly given full development but at the cost (intentional or not) of shallow portrayal of the male characters. In a sort of role reversal the male characters end up as sex objects themselves, like mindless and faceless hard-ons.

This book has been touted as a “writers’ kind of writing” novel, a sort of paragon of styles and language. The writing itself is very good.  Slater has a refined style and immense talent with words. Stretches of it were so well written I went into a reader’s trance. But overall I didn’t like the story and characters and found the novel difficult to digest.

Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons, by Herbert Warren Wind

hoganWhat’s a golf book doing among the rest of these literary books? Because it has stylized, lofty, quirky writing. It’s the most interesting and entertaining book about how to swing a golf club that I ever read.

Herbert Warren Wind was a sportswriter, of golf primarily. He wrote for Sports Illustrated a while and for The New Yorker for several decades. He lived to nearly 90 and died in 2005. The Hogan book came out in 1957.

It is the most famous golf instruction book ever produced. Many golf books after it are repackaged derivatives. The language is formal and wordy and over-wrought. Half Eisenhower didactic and half Victorian ornate. The info is still there.

Hogan said he actually meant to understate his golf tips and allow the readers to study and learn by implication. The aha! moments would make them better golfers.  The dense eloquence of Wind’s stern and repetitive instructions makes this difficult. But the advice is there, ready to be mined and refined. There are subtleties if one looks for them. The expert drawings by Tony Ravielli help make the book succeed.

Some examples of Wind’s eccentric writing style (based on Hogan’s SME input, of course):

“It may seem that we have gone into unwarranted detail about the elements of the correct grip. This is anything but the case. Too often golfers mistake the generality for the detail.”

“While it is dynamically important for a golfer not to depart from his plane at any time during the second part of his swing, being consciously attentive to it does not help him the way a consciousness of his backswing plane promotes a fine, functional backswing.”

“Interestingly enough, drinking some ginger ale, because of its effect on the kidneys, seems to prevent the hands from feeling too fat and puffy.”

“Consciously trying to control the face of the club at impact is folly. You cannot time such a delicate and devillish thing.”

“Don’t groove your waggles.”

 

 

Raymond Chandler – Selected Anthology

raymond-chandler-later-novels-other-writings-lady-in-hardcover-cover-artVenerable black-cover anthology from Library of America. I’m not much on detective stories and mysteries and have a low threshold. I always return to it because Chandler was such a terrific writer.

I keep going back to read “Red Wind.” Not for the story as much as Chandler’s writing style, especially in the opening scene.  As with most of Chandler’s stuff, there are clever, memorable lines and a succinct presentation of California ambience surrounding the characters.

Some of Chandler’s narrative tone can sound dated now, co-opted and twisted by years of TV detective shows and b-grade movies. Chandler is much better than that sort of tough-guy stuff. He was an artist, not merely someone who produced pot boilers. The guy could crank out great sentences and imagery. His narrative talent is legend among California’s struggling writer types, so a West Coast correspondent informed me. Chandler is someone to emulate on the path to a movie script.

Of the shorter pieces in the collection, I think the best is “Spanish Blood.” It has all the right ingredients of a short story and is more straight-ahead and satisfying.  It’s not so puzzling and convoluted like the majority of mystery stories tend to be.

Ben Lerner’s “Leaving the Atocha Station”

lernerIt’s a druggy and brooding account of a young man’s experiences abroad. Our narrator in Madrid is an insecure poetry scholar away from home with an at&t calling card and an unease about his conversational Spanish abilities. He’s also a pothead, as evidenced in his vivid and introspective descriptions of getting high in strange places and vice versa. A trick in parts of the storytelling is the narrator’s concern about language, which enables him to zig-zag and restate phrases as if trying to interpret the Spanish and present the possibilities of what he hears in English. So there is wiggle room in stating things with precision, a circumstance that suits our intelligent but often stoned-out and shy narrator. As the novel progresses we see he is much better at communicating than he himself believes.

Lerner’s prose can sparkle.  For example he has a nice description of the nights typical to many tourists and Madrileños: sidewalks where there is the endless racket of plates and silverware on metal cafe tables, a constant thrumming of traffic, and couples meeting as the city comes alive late at night. The revelers go from bar to bar then to disco then to make-out sessions. At night’s end they share an iced chocolate before going home. The narrator describes the smell of Madrid as “wet stone.”

I’m prejudiced as far as finding keen interest this book. I was a student in Spain long ago myself. Doing drugs at that time (before the country was Westernized and still under Franco’s Guardia Civil grip) was not as prevalent and also very risky business. One of Lermer’s scenes presents a woman who makes gin and tonics “as a Spaniard would,” with a glass of ice filled with gin and a mere splash of mixer. That sounds more like the Spain I visited.

His prose can also nail the elusive aspects and feelings of a relationship, especially when one party (our lead character and narrator) is less than truthful. In fact he makes up some whoppers: dead mom, fascist dad, he’s rich, etc. As the story gets deeper, he has to contend with his own lies. In a terrific stretch of writing he compensates by acting out another lie. Unable to afford it, he takes a girl to an exclusive restaurant and buys everything in sight, then beds with her in a pricey room at the Ritz Hotel. All of the damage is run up on his parents’ credit card. Meanwhile, terrorists have blown apart a train at the Atocha station, and as a result protests are occurring throughout Madrid.  While his friends and love interest are participating activists, he is on the sidelines, a self-absorbed lump. He fails romantically with two extraordinarily patient and adorable Spanish women. You want to shake him. His poems are his only grace.