The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

February 4, 2013

This National Book Award finalist and PEN/Faulkner Award Winner deserves the accolades it has gotten, particularly because there is so much depth in such a slim volume. Julie Otsuka found the perfect voice and narrative method to convey both the scope and the intimacy of the Japanese-American experience leading up to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The United States Supreme Court decision Korematsu v. United States, which upheld the discriminatory treatment of Japanese-Americans by the U.S. government, ranks with the Dred Scott decision and Plessy v. Ferguson as one of the worst stains on that great institution. Otsuka’s elegant prose and deft use of first person plural narration drives home the human cost of the racially discriminatory military order that led to the rounding up of thousands of Japanese-Americans for no crime other than having Japanese ancestry.

These legal tangents are my own. I am an attorney and hold the Korematsu decision in low regard, as most lawyers do. The book, however, is concerned, first, with the immigrant experience and, only later, the personal toll taken by the suspicions and paranoia directed at United States citizens of Japanese descent during a time of war. The actual Korematsu decision plays no role in the book, but the connections resonated with me, putting flesh and face on those who suffered under the unjust policy and the failure of the Supreme Court, that “weakest branch”, to attempt even to moderate the tide of paranoia sweeping a nation at war.

Enough about Korematsu.

This exceptional novel begins on a boat which is carrying young Japanese women who are coming to America ostensibly to meet husbands, current or anticipated. The narration is not from any particular individual’s point of view, but is told using “we” and “us”. Through Otsuka’s deft writing, however, individuals are not lost but, somehow, magnified using this method.

Several of us on the boat had secrets, which we swore we would keep from our husbands for the rest of our lives. Perhaps the real reason we were sailing to America was to track down a long-lost father who had left the family years before.  He went to Wyoming to work in the coal mines and we never heard from him again.  Or perhaps we were leaving behind a young daughter who had been born to a man whose face we could now barely recall – a traveling storyteller who had spent a week in the village, or a wandering Buddhist priest who had stopped by the house late one night on his way to Mt. Fuji. And even though we know our parents would care for her well –  If you stay here in the village, they had warned us, you will never marry at all – we still felt guilty for having chosen our own life over hers, and on the boat we wept for her every night for many nights in a row and then one morning we woke up and dried our eyes and said, “That’s enough,” and began to think of other things. Which kimono to wear when we landed. How to fix our hair. What to say when we first saw him. Because we were on the boat now, the past was behind us, and there was no going back.

On the boat we had no idea we would dream of our daughter every night until the day that we died, and that in our dreams she would always be three and as she was when we last saw her: a tiny figure in a dark red kimono squatting at the edge of a puddle, utterly entranced by the sight of a dead floating bee.

That last line not only stops this litany of secrets from blurring the varied experiences and individuals into a pitiable but somewhat The Buddha in the Atticamorphous lump, it ties the reader to the heartbreak of a single character with the crushingly evocative image of a young girl “utterly entranced”, as are we, by that lonely corpse.

There is more than sufficient hardship and heartbreak in the book and yet it never becomes maudlin. The characters are mostly optimistic, they have successes and failures. The fragility of life, so poignantly evoked by that dead, floating bee, comes through elsewhere as well and not only with regard to children, but also to matters of romance. These women were, after all, coming to America to join or find husbands:

One of us made the mistake of falling in love with him and still thinks of him night and day. One of us confessed everything to her husband, who beat her with a broomstick and then lay down and wept. One of us confessed everything to her husband, who divorced her and sent her back to her parents in Japan, where she now works in a silk-reeling mill in Nagano for ten hours a day. One of us confessed everything to her husband, who forgave her and then confessed to a few sins of his own. I have a second family up in Colusa. One of us said nothing to anyone and slowly lost her mind. One of us wrote home for advice to her mother, who always knew what to do, but never received a reply.

These little vignettes I’ve excepted show some of the power of Otsuka’s collective narration, but know also that there are longer portions dedicated primarily to individuals. There are recurring characters, all are not as anonymous as you may begin to think from the quotes I have chosen.

Otsuka has managed to do what great fiction does, she shows us the world in a new light, in a way that engages both mind and emotion. The themes manage to be both universal – death, loss, and man’s refusal to succumb willingly to the crushing weight of life — and to be intimately specific – a mother’s last memory of her child: a three year-old by a puddle contemplating death as her mother leaves forever.

The Buddha in the Attic is both an impactful narrative and an exquisite glimpse inside the lives of an entire community under extreme pressures, both internal and external. Otsuka has achieved brilliance. She has also won a fan.


Open City by Teju Cole

May 10, 2012

Perhaps the most enticing thing I can say about this Book Critics Circle Award finalist and PEN/Hemingway Award-winner is that it pairs very nicely with The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. In my opinion, these were, by a wide margin, the two strongest novels of the 2012 Tournament of Books, though only Open City made it to the Finals.

The pairing works because both engage in issues relating to the construction of personal identity, guilt/culpability, and history. In blogging serendipity, both Whispering Gums and Pechorin’s Journal posted reviews of The Sense of an Ending on the same (April 25) day and both have sparked considerable discussion. If you have read A Sense of an Ending, or even if you haven’t, I recommend both reviews and the following discussions.

Open City warrants equal attention. Julius, the narrator, is a psychiatrist in the final year of his psychiatry fellowship. He has taken to walking around New York City aimlessly. Much of this novel is filled with his ruminations while walking, such as about bird migrations and whether his interest in bird migrations is connected to his new habit of wandering the streets. He considers what New York looks like from the perspective of geese and, importantly, when he sees no migrating geese from his apartment window:

I doubted in some part of myself whether these birds, with their dark wings and throats, their pale bodies and tireless little hearts, really did exist. So amazed was I by them that I couldn’t trust my memory when they weren’t there.

There is, of course, more than birds. The passage is important because memory haunts this book and this is one of the first hints of its importance and malleability. The climax of this book is a revelation about the past that alters the reader’s understanding of everything that has gone before.

Along the way, Cole weaves his story with strands of fascinating minutia, from those birds to Herman Melville to classical music to Nabokov to the slave trade to terrorism and all manner of other things, literary and otherwise. The references are not just random bits thrown on the canvas, though, each is carefully selected for how it will impact the whole. Julius, telling this story in the first person, is not as aimless as his wanderings suggest. While he is “conducting a clinical study of affective disorders in the elderly”, he shows very little emotion throughout the novel. He gains some trust with his detachment, a reservedness that suggests open and objective reporting.

Julius is a wonderfully astute observer, which also strengthens his credibility. He highlights little details of city life in thoughtful, sometime humbling ways. A man walking home alone after finishing the marathon is, at first, pitied for having no friends or family to share in his accomplishment, but, as the marathoner and Julius walk beside each other, Julius considers the strength of will it takes to finish a marathon. He moves from the burst of energy at the end of the marathon to the pain of the “the nineteenth, the twentieth, the twenty-first mile[s].” Completing a marathon is, he says, “still remarkable no matter how many people do it now.” After having really considered marathoning, Julius realizes that the marathoner walking gingerly home was not a sad figure, but a triumphant one.

It was I, no less solitary than he but having made the lesser use of the morning, who was to be pitied.

These little illuminations of the beauty of the routine make this novel sparkle. They also each build towards that radical late shift. The story of the marathoner provides a miniature of the bigger story: An initial scene creates a particular impression, in the case of the marathon it is the pitiful man trudging home anonymously, but reflection and revelation shift the meaning and, hence, the final impression that is left.

Whispering Gums (link above) makes an interesting connection between The Sense of an Ending and The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Open City is not really anything like that. Julius is, unlike Tony, not a bystander to life. He is sufficiently ambitious to make it from his native Nigeria to America through medical school and what appears to be a very solid, if not spectacular, career. Julius had to assert himself to make these things happen and he is much younger than Tony. Tony’s “melancholic tone” based on opportunities missed is absent here, but oddly mirrored in Julius’s clinical detachment from his own life.

The books are not exactly the same, however much the focus can turn to “what really happened?” Neither The Sense of an Ending (see Pechorin’s Journal link above) nor Open City are primarily concerned with presenting a mystery to be solved. The actual facts are, in at least some sense, irrelevant.

In Barnes’s work, this is because a major focus of the book is on how memory, all memory, is faulty. Constructing an “actual” past is a fool’s errand, in some ways, because, to borrow from Heisenberg’s insights into quantum physics, the mere recollection (observation) of one’s own memories alters them. It is impossible to perfectly reconstruct the essential variables of events in one’s past.

Cole has a slightly different focus. While I do not think this Copenhagen interpretation of memory is irrelevant to the story Julius tells, because there is some uncertainty there, it is more sideshow than main feature. Cole is more concerned with how personal narratives are constructed, particularly including value judgments, than with the unreliability of memory (or narrative). This is one of the more interesting parts of Barnes’s work too. After all, what really is interesting is how the recognition of the incompleteness of Tony’s memories reorders the value judgments placed on prior (undisputed) actions and inactions. Villians may be heros, or not. Cole confronts the reader with a similar principle of moral uncertainty. There are depths to be spelunked.

And amid all this, those delightful observations of small things:

The creak-creak of the swings was a signal, I thought, there to remind the children that they were having fun; if there were no creak, they would be confused.

I will leave with one last, sort of spoilerish conjecture. I am not sure of the meaning of those last 175 dead wrens. That so many birds died despite the fact that “the night just past hadn’t been particularly windy or dark” suggests something sinister about the flame, about the statue of liberty itself. Freedom comes up several times in the book. Julius finds freedom in his wanderings, there is the story of the shoeshiner who purchases the freedom of his sister, his wife, and himself, and the Brussels discussion of freedom, including the comparisons of freedom in Europe with that in America. American freedom “form[s] and sharpen[s]” people in unique ways, Julius suggests. For some, of course, the contact with American freedom is radicalizing.

I have not formed a clear idea of how this sinister side of American freedom fits in with the story-altering revelation. Julius is very careful to construct this portrait of a respectable, if disconcertingly aloof, man who cares about the arts, philosophy, history, and his fellow man. He is always polite, if not very warm, and he has come from difficult circumstances in Nigeria to success in America. That final detail brings new meaning to his demeanor, making it seem frosty rather than reserved.

My first impulse had been to equate the disorienting light of the Statute of Liberty to our own impulse to believe in our goodness. Like the promises of America, our own freedom of memory can disorient and destroy. The flame can guide some to safety and opportunity, others it destroys.

The error I have made, I think, is in trying too hard to boil Cole’s excellently crafted ending into a nicely summarized philosophical point. The birds simply are dead and the emotions there are quite similar to the emotions upon learning that final fact about Julius (and his own reaction to it). There is an inchoate sadness; the tragedy feels unfinished, an explanation is needed. But all we have are wrens, dead for reasons unknown.


Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

May 1, 2012

I have already griped about some of the slips of detail in Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning novel. Errors of detail shake the trust an author must have from her readers. I was shaken by some of Ward’s specifics, but stirred by others.

The beautiful evocations of late childhood in Salvage the Bones offset the mistakes of tractors that drive like cars and oddly formal playground basketball. Ward deftly sculpts mental images of those things she knows best.

A fifteen year-old* girl named Esch narrates this novel of a struggling black family in rural Mississippi. The family consists of four children (Randall, Skeetah, Esch, and Junior; three boys and a girl) and two largely absent parents. Esch’s mother died giving birth to the baby, Junior, and her father is usually unavailable in any productive sense due to perpetual drunkenness. With the tragedy of their mother’s death behind them by several years, we watch this kids as Hurricane Katrina, twelve days away at the start of the novel, looms ever larger over their lives.

The older siblings are all preoccupied with something outside the family: Randall is trying to obtain a basketball scholarship, Skeetah’s pet pit bull (China) is pregnant, Esch is in love with and pregnant by a handsome boy named Manny. Junior tags along with whoever will let him.

Ward captures sibling dynamics and the harshness of life for Esch and her brothers while capturing the bigness of teenage life, as it is experienced by teens, at least. When the older kids and some friends go camping, Skeetah shoots a squirrel for dinner. At the campsite, Skeetah butchers the small animal. He starts by cutting off the head, then:

He pitches the head into the underbrush like a ball…

On an adventure to a nearby farm, the reader feels like he too is crouching on the edge of the pasture watching Skeetah making his way past cows to a barn. Memories of playing in sheets hung on a clothesline feel almost like the reader’s own:

Mama washed all the sheets for both houses at once, and there was so much bedding that Daddy had to hand extra lines…The sheets were so thin we could almost see through them. They made cloudy rooms, and we played hide-and-seek in them. In the winter, they made our faces wet and achingly cold, but in the summer, it was so hot the sheets didn’t stay wet long, but we smashed our faces into them anyway, trying to find the hidden cool….[W]e let our hands hover over them, shoved our noses into them to see if we could see the other person running down the next billowing hallway.

There is much to love about this book. The characters are very strong. Esch and her siblings are excellently round characters. Skeetah, particularly, strolls out of the book as a fully formed person. Ward has great talent.

Despite my praise, I do feel the need to point out that there were aspects I found distracting (small details amiss), the sort of thing that tips off inhabitants of The Matrix to the artificiality of their world. Not everyone notices, of course. The strengths of characterization and story, which are considerable, override the minor failings for many. Shoehorning the story into twelve days did not work so well for me and gave too much focus to the hurricane. This is not a “Hurricane Katrina” book. I think the book would be stronger if it placed less focus on the storm.

It is not a perfect book. I liked it, though. I loved it best when it was about kids making their way in a teenage world or remembering a few short years ago when they were playing in “billowing hallways”. This is not the “Great American Novel”, but, if you read it, the characters are so real that you will genuinely hurt along with them.

*The promotional materials say “she’s fourteen”, but the math does not seem to work. Junior “is seven, and he is curious” while Esch was “eight [and] of no help” when her mother dies giving birth to Junior. Esch cannot be fourteen because she must turn fifteen on or before Junior’s seventh birthday (on his first birthday, she had to be nine, etc.). (This is also the summer after her tenth-grade year which, ordinarly, means an American student is fifteen or sixteen.) Bloomsbury how can you not know the age of the protagonist of the novel you publish?


The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

April 24, 2012

I will be brief, because this novel has received widely laudatory coverage and I do not have much to say about it. Magical realism tends to have too much magic and too little realism for my taste. The mix here, though, was not bad. I also did not find, as others have, that the novel felt like two short stories (“The Deathless Man” and “The Tiger’s Wife”) duct-taped together to form a novel. Perhaps the most I can say is that I was not particularly moved.

Obreht has some beautiful imagery and intriguing ideas on offer. For the imagery, try this:

[H]e was the kind of boy who caught bumblebees in jars and then harnessed them carefully with films from cassette tapes so that it was not uncommon to see him walking down the main road with dozens of them rising around him like tiny, insane balloons while the film flashed wildly in the sun.

I also enjoyed the “sour little shudders” of a boy’s heart and the need, in cold and snow, “to wipe the sting out of his eyes”. Obreht paints exquisite details into her novel.

As for ideas, one of her most important characters is “the deathless man” who has been cursed with the inability to die. This idea has been often used before, though Simone de Beauvoir explored it with the most philosophical rigor in All Men Are Mortal. De Beauvoir uses Raimon Fosca, an immortal character, to examine what mortality means for our ethical systems and how it shapes human experience. In her rendering, immortality presents problems of its own, demonstrating that frustrations with limited time are, in some ways, based on false assumptions. The darkness and the light at the heart of existentialism is further explored through Fosca’s inability to create any lasting progress or improvements in the world. Whether man dies or not, meaning is ephemeral.

Obreht takes a light approach in bending the venerable myth of a man cursed with immortality to her purposes. Partly, this is by giving the deathles man a supporting, rather than leading, role. Natalia, Obreht’s narrator, learns from her grandfather’s interactions with the deathless man the lesson of hope in death. The deathless man proves that death need not be feared because there is something afterwards, something even to be longed for by one who knows best what to expect. Death, in other words, is not really death.

The primary problem with death, in Obreht’s telling, is that people are always worried they missed something that would have prolonged their life.

”But the greatest fear is that of uncertainty,” Gavran Gaile is saying. “They are uncertain about meeting my uncle, of course. But they are uncertain, above all, of their own inaction: have they done enough, discovered their illness soon enough, consulted the worthiest physicians, consumed the best medicines, uttered the correct prayers?”

I am not sure this could be written or believed by anyone over the age of forty. By that age, denial of mortality is generally no longer really possible. The greatest fears tend, then, to be those with which de Beauvoir and her character Fosca engage. The question is not so much “have I done enough to avoid death”, but “have I done enough with my life?” The brilliance of All Men Are Mortal is that Fosca’s life demonstrates that the thing we tend to mean when we ask that question is not really all that important. There is no monument a person can erect to herself that will insulate her from annihilation. All accomplishment is, in the longest of runs, illusory. Ozymandias may have been the king of all kings, but boasts of eternal greatness are always mocked by time. Impermanent beings must satisfy themselves with evanescent significance.

Obreht, meanwhile, demonstrates admirable skill, but never delivers the sort of depth her premise suggests. The deathless man serves as a kindly guide across the Styx. One needn’t fear death, because a friendly man awaits. He will start you on the path to find your previously departed loved ones. You will meet them again. Death is not death, but a mere transition. Obreht’s is too facile a solution to the unpleasantness of finitude.

The Tiger’s Wife is a promise to us that Obreht is an author worth reading now for the greatness she will give us in the future. This book provides pleasant diversion, but no real weight.


State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

March 6, 2012

Having just finished State of Wonder, I was extremely surprised when Jeff O’Neal pegged Patchett’s solidly conventional bestseller as the odds-on favorite to take home the Rooster. The unexpected endorsement from O’Neal has me looking for reasons why my assessment is wrong.

In its favor, State of Wonder has good sales (having made the New York Times Bestseller list and being one of six TOB contenders highly ranked on Amazon’s sales list) and demonstrates good, if not particularly artistic, craftsmanship. As a commenter at Book Riot noted, the novel is meticulously plotted. If it is possible to be too carefully plotted, though, State of Wonder is. For, despite the title, everything that occurs in the novel is carefully foreshadowed to prevent anything truly startling from occuring. There are twists and turns to the narrative thread, but there are warning signs well in advance of every sharp corner in the road. On the one hand, this prevents the reader from feeling unfairly manipulated; on the other, this reader felt he was being led too carefully through a zoo rather than let loose in a jungle.

The story involves the search for a wonder-drug being developed deep in the Amazon forest by a seemingly rogue researcher, Dr. Annick Swenson. When the novel opens, Anders Eckman, having gone to look for Dr. Swenson, is dead. He and the protagonist, Dr. Marina Singh, had been working together, stateside, at the same pharmaceutical company which sponsors Dr. Swenson’s research. The head of the company, Mr. Fox, had pulled Eckman out of the lab and sent him into the Amazon to find out what sort of progress Dr. Swenson was making and, hopefully, to talk her out of the jungle.

While working together, Dr. Singh and Eckman had developed a close personal, as well as professional, relationship, so Singh is hit doubly hard by the news of his death. Eckman’s wife, of course, takes an even bigger psychological blow, not least because she is left to raise her and Eckman’s boys by herself. It proves too much for her. Karen Eckman refuses, on the basis of a two paragraph letter from the secretive Dr. Swenson to believe her husband is actually dead. Dr. Singh tries to console her and move her towards acceptance.

”He’s dead, Karen.”

“Why? Because we got a letter from some crazy woman in Brazil who nobody’s allowed to talk to? I need more than that. This is the worst thing that’s ever going to happen to me. It’s the worst thing that’s going to happen to my boys ever in their entire lives, and I’m supposed to take a stranger’s word on it?”

There had to be an equation for probability and proof. At some point probability becomes so great it eclipses the need for proof, although maybe not if it was your husband. “Mr. Fox is going to send someone down there. They’re going to find out what happened.”

“But say he’s not dead….”

Karen all but begs Dr. Singh to go to Brazil to find out what happened to her husband. In a neat turn of coincidence, Mr. Fox also wants to send Dr. Singh to find Dr. Swenson, because Dr. Singh has a past connection with Dr. Swenson and, so Mr. Fox imagines, may succeed where Eckman failed. Dr. Singh is not sure because their connection is well in the past and involves a mistake Dr. Singh made during her medical residency as an obstetrician. Unfortunately for Dr. Singh, the incredibly talented and stern Dr. Swenson, her immediate superior at the time, was nowhere to be found during an emergency and Dr. Singh, handling it on her own, made an error. Dr. Singh was so shaken by her mistake that she abandoned the practice of medicine.

The tension builds very slowly but, from the short summary of the set-up, it is easy to see where certain things are going. Dr. Singh and Dr. Swenson will become re-aquainted in the Amazon, the incident during Dr. Singh’s residency will be important, Karen is correct to be suspicious of Dr. Swenson’s short report, though maybe not for the right reasons, and so forth.

Did I mention that Dr. Fox and Dr. Singh are slow-brewing a romance, that Dr. Singh and Eckman were not doing the same though Karen half-suspects they were, and that everything in the novel is bent in service of the plot?

Dr. Singh did not strike me as a particularly compelling character. While she is “a good person” and a competent researcher, she mostly seems to me a vessel into which readers can pour themselves. That, and a slave to plot. She likes puppies, dislikes mean people, is sure of herself when she needs to be, but mostly is not. She definitely is not sure of herself if she needs not to be. She is open minded about alternative (native) remedies, but just skeptical enough to avoid commitment one way or the other.

For instance, when she comes down with a fever, she accepts a potion from Dr. Swenson’s Manaus-based guardians, the Bovenders. Her fever passes and she credits the drink until Dr. Swenson passes judgment on the natives’ medicinal efforts.

”For these people there is no concept of a dosage, no set length for treatments. When something works it seems to me to be nothing short of a miracle.”

Marina remembered that cup of sludge Barbara Bovender had brought her from the shaman’s stand and wondered if she was no more than a Westerner given to the charms of boiled tinctures. It was a cure she would never admit to now.

This conflict between modernity and ancient wisdom dovetails nicely with Patchett’s moral concerns. What, for instance, is a US-trained physician to do when faced with a native’s medical emergency? Let them struggle, or treat them? The corrupting influences of the profit motive, the hubris of Westerners generally, and how those factors together can strip seemingly decent people of their morality are all raised. To Patchett’s credit, she does not lecture her readers on the correct answers to any particular conundrum but, then, she avoids that by avoiding, in my view, delving into these issues. They are like engaging billboards beside a highway. They pass the time, but they are not the point of the drive. The gravitational pull of the plot curves the path of each noticed idea back to plot.

The story-centric nature of State of Wonder leaves it feeling too-light, despite the emotional and physical rigors through which it puts its characters, to seriously contend for the TOB title. At the end, you have had a good story well-told but not much else. I simply do not believe this sort of novel can win this sort of contest. Many of its competitors are flawed, but ambition counts in the Tournament. State of Wonder‘s primary ambition is to keep the reader engaged in the story. It does that well and with a practiced literary hand.

The best books, though, use their plots to make strong arguments. Patchett reversed her priorities, it seems to me, leaving any arguments put forward as weak as Dr. Singh’s waffle on the effectiveness of local “medicine”. The biggest ethical decision Dr. Singh is forced to make ends up being made for her. The lack of a coherent argument (not message, a simple message book is much worse than this) renders State of Wonder defenseless against its more aesthetically and ethically ambitious competitors.

[Edited after posting: At some point, I started typing “Eckerman” rather than “Eckman”. I have fixed those errors.]


The Devil All The Time by Donald Ray Pollock

February 21, 2012

The Devil All the Time does its best to live up to its title. The novel chronicles the fantastically violent lives of the residents of the hills and hollers along the border of Ohio and West Virginia. In the prologue, Willard Russell takes his nine-year-old son, Arvin Eugene Russell, out to a “prayer log” to which Willard, when he is sober, goes to pray. Willard, you see, believes it is wrong to talk to god while drunk. While kneeling and praying in this somewhat remote and wooded area, the father and son are mocked by passing hunters. Willard is not a gentle man, but he lets the men walk away while he and Arvin continue to silently pray.

While fanatically religious, Willard is not a “turn the other cheek” sort of man. The taunting has put him in a bad mood which Charlotte, his wife, notices. A few hours after Willard and Arvin return home, Willard concocts an errand for which he needs to go to town. He takes Arvin along.

While riding through town, Willard spots the men.

With the truck still rolling to a stop, Willard pushed the door open and leaped out. One of the hunters stood up and threw a bottle that glanced off the truck’s windshield and landed with a clatter in the road. Then the man turned and started running, his filthy coat flapping behind him and his bloodshot eyes looking around wildly as the big man chased him. Willard caught up and shoved him down into the greasy slop pooled in front of the outhouse door. Rolling him over, he pinned the man’s skinny shoulders with his knees and began pounding his bearded face with his fists.

The other hunter grabs his gun and runs, leaving his buddy to get pummeled. When Willard returns to the truck, he imparts a lesson to Arvin.

”You remember what I told you the other day?” he asked Arvin.

“About them boys on the bus?”

“Well, that’s what I meant,” Willard said, nodding over at the hunter. He tossed the rag out the window. “You just got to pick the right time.”

“Yes, sir,” Arvin said.

“They’s a lot of no-good sonofabitches out there.”

“More than a hundred?”

Willard laguhed a little and put the truck in gear. “Yeah, at least that many.”

Arvin remembers the day as one of the best that he ever spent with his father.

The novel proper starts before the prologue. Willard is a World War II veteran who has seen the worst of war and is heading home. At a diner not far from his hometown, he sees a beautiful young woman, Charlotte Willoughby, and decides he will marry her. He does. They have a child, Arvin.

A decade later, Arvin is ten years old and Charlotte has been recently diagnosed with cancer. Willard begins sacrificing animals in an effort to appease god and cure his wife. He forces Arvin to join him at the prayer log which will soon be surrounded by animal corpses. As Charlotte declines, Willard becomes more and more desperate. Picking up every animal he can find and making Arvin pray his voice hoarse. The slow decline of Charlotte, his mother, and his father Willard’s response to it marks Arvin for the remainder of his life. Soon after Charlotte dies, Arvin is sent to live with his grandmother Emma in Coal Creek, West Virginia.

Most of the characters who play a central role in the book are from Coal Creek, Willard’s original hometown and the town in which Arvin grows up. Among them, there are two guest preachers, Roy Laferty and Theodore Daniels. Roy, between the two, the charismatic one and impresses church-goers by dumping a jar full of spiders over his head during his and Theodore’s antics-laden performances at church. His faith, he tells the parishioners, helped him overcome his fear of spiders and faith can work similar wonders for them. Theodore is wheelchair bound due to his efforts to prove his devotion to Jesus by drinking poison. Roy is an uncomfortable mixture of shyster and true believer. His actions and belief are never reconciled sufficiently to make either convincing. Theodore’s cynicism, in contrast, feels genuine. Eventually, the two must flee Coal Creek.

Carl Henderson is a photographer who considers himself the equal of Michaelangelo and Leonardo what’s-his-name. Like Roy, he finds temporary happiness in the arms of an underage girl. He marries Sandy, the sister of the local sheriff, Lee Bodecker. Lee is crooked and Carl is shiftless. Both men are pleased by the arrangement. Lee is relieved of responsibility for Sandy and Carl has a wife who keeps him housed and fed by waitressing and hooking. In the summers, Sandy and Carl take vacations during which they, In Cold Blood-style, pick up hitchhikers and kill them for funds and pleasure. Carl, the artiste, documents the killings.

These and other side stories are told by Pollock in a roving third-person that is not always smooth. Sometimes the author drifts awkwardly between the perspectives of multiple characters in a single paragraph. In Pollock’s hands, the omniscience provides too much information. The foreshadowing is heavy-handed both with respect to plot details and tippping off the reader very early that every narrative strand will, at some point, crash (or Crash) into the others. Readers typically have a sense that everything in a novel somehow belongs, but The Devil All the Time and its characters’ actions often felt contrived.

Aside from the fact that Pollock uses the trope of serial killers, only employs male characters who (by the end of the book, almost to a man) have killed, and (except for Grandma Emma and saintly Charlotte) only employs female charactes whose greatest pleasure is dropping their panties for fat slobs, the book is reasonably well-written.

One of my pet peeves in fiction is the neon sign some authors hang around a character’s neck that says “Good Guy” with, in case it is not clear, an arrow pointing to that character. Consider Arvin:

”In this house, you better know how to handle a gun unless you want to starve to death,” the old man had told [Arvin upon giving him his deceased father’s gun.]

“But I don’t want to shoot anything,” Arvin said that day, when Earskell stopped and pointed out two gray squirrels jumping back and forth on some branches high in a hickory tree.

Earskill, Arvin’s great-uncle, bags the squirrels on that outing, but convinces Arvin that hunting for meat is no worse than “eatin’ a pork chop.” Quickly understanding how the world works, Arvin becomes a gifted marksman, usually bringing home squirrels with a neat bullet hole in the head to avoid spoiling any meat. (Adept with fists and guns, he is also the most physically attractive male in the book and has a soft but stern heart. If this is not enough, the inside front flap assures us that he “grows up to be a good but also violent man in his own right”.)

Another reason Pollock does not get higher marks for his writing is his carelessness with words.

A man needed to be sincere with the Master at all times in case he was ever really in need. Even Willard’s father, Tom Russell, a moonshiner who’d been hounded by bad luck and trouble right up to the day he died of a diseased liver in a Parkersburg jail, ascribed to that belief.

Ascribed? Actually, Willard subscribed to that belief.

This is, apparently, Pollock’s debut novel, but second book. His first book was a collection of short stories titled Knockemstiff, the name of the holler where Willard and Arvin pray to an unhearing god. Both the back cover of The Devil All the Time and the book description at Amazon.com invoke Flannery O’Connor. Any debt to O’Connor, though, would be for perverting her literary seriousness for use in violent male fantasies. He has taken the idea of outlandish southern characters obsessed with religion and used it as the window dressing for a display of human depravity.

That does not get Pollock to the seriousness his blurbers so crave for him, however. O’Connor’s theme was religion. She wove it skillfully into her stories to explore theological and/or philosphical ideas. Pollock, on the other hand, seems most concerned with the amount of blood and sex that he can fit into his page-turner. His nod to transformation at the conclusion is little more than that and not at all convincing. As you can probably tell, I found the book primarily offensive.

My point is not that books featuring serial killers are offensive. In Cold Blood has violence and a point. Nor is it that wanton and depraved sex as a central element of a narrative destroys the integrity of a novel. The Story of the Eye contains sex scenes as disturbing and more graphic than anything in The Devil All the Time, but, as an example of transgressive fiction, Bataille’s work has a philosophical point. Neither Capote’s nor Bataille’s works were merely pornographic, Pollock’s is.

The Devil All the Time has no elevating features. Its characters are not misfits struggling against societal constraints or religion. These are characters, overtly “good” or “bad”, who serve primarily as vehicles for scenes involving either sex or violence, and often sex and violence together. The book does not work as a commentary on religion, because only the trappings of religion are ever conveyed. At best, religion is sneered at. Neither is the novel much of a commentary on violence. The ending suggests Pollock had a moral in mind, but the burying of the gun makes little sense in the context of the story. It rings doubly false. As a plot point, it is nonsensical; as metaphorical moralizing, it either undercuts or is undercut by all the blood and semen that has gone before. Far from redeeming the novel, the ending only demonstrates how shallow and debased the novel actually is.

As for its prospects in the Tournament of Books 2012, it has none. Feel free to ink-in now The Sense of an Ending as the winner in the Barnes vs. Pollock first-round matchup. Fittingly, The Devil All the Time will be sacrificed early and in a grisly manner.


The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

February 16, 2012

I should probably send already-confirmed fans of Roland Barthes directly to a review by The Marriage Plot‘s ideal reader, the inimitable Sasha.

For those of you left, the equally unique Tony of Tony’s Book World may speak to you and about “enormously self-entitled, perhaps typical 1980s college graduates.”

They both have good points to make, so go, go to them.

Now that I am talking mostly to myself, I will share a secret.

The title of the book is something of a giveaway. The characters, like Eugenides, lament the loss of “the marriage plot” in the English novel. Things haven’t been the same since Mr. Darcy was captured, er…convinced. In the 21st Century, marriage is less defining and tends toward the temporary, and, thus, loses its power as the most important decision of a character’s life. Do-overs, after all, are the antithesis of good sport.

While social changes have dramatically lowered the stakes of pre-marital maneuvering, I do not believe that those social changes have ruined the novel. Though I am not the ideal Jane Austen reader, I have very much enjoyed those novels of hers I have read. The marriage plot is good; Austen handled it superbly. The marriage plot is crucial to other of my favorites like Anna Karenina and Age of Innocence. But it is irrelevant in the vast majority of more recent greats, and this is a good thing. The novel may work well when the choice of spouse is both central and the most important factor in making or breaking a life, but creating that importance has always been artificial. However romantic the ideal of a single mate for life, humans are not swans. Artificially limiting life that way (rather, attempting to, as very few are the swans among us) also artificially limits the novel. In other words, I do not share Eugenides’ complaint.

More importantly, Eugenides demonstrates that the marriage plot is not really dead. Who one marries, or doesn’t, still matters. That fact shows up in works from Urquhart’s The Underpainter* to Franzen’s Freedom. In fact, it is a little silly to mourn the passing of the marriage plot when Freedom, one of the most anticipated books (along with this one) of the past decade, turned in crucial ways on “the marriage plot”. Granted, Franzen focused much more attention on the aftermath rather than the choosing, but that is all to the good. The meat of life is often still served after the choice of spouse, no matter how easily revocable, is made.

The Marriage Plot involves three principal characters. You probably know from the title, what I have said, and other reviews that there are two men, one woman, and a choice to be made. Sort of. Madeleine is the woman. Like the others, she is a student at Brown University, Eugenides’ alma mater. Mitchell is a bright, sensitive, not-too-sexy guy who at least thinks he is in love with Madeleine. Leonard is David Foster Wallace in a parallel universe who, likewise, thinks he is in love with Madeleine.

That last point is disputed by Eugenides, but I think he is wrong and the “rumor” mongers are right. Let’s examine.

Similarities between Leonard and DFW pointed out by others:

1. “Leonard Bankhead is a philosophy double major who chews tobacco, wears a bandanna, disdains ironic detachment, and has a history of mental illness that has led to multiple hospitalizations — just like David Foster Wallace.” (Willa Paskin in Vulture)

2. “[L]ike Infinite Jest’s Hal Incandenza, [Leonard] Bankhead self-medicates through out high school with marijuana.” (Willa Paskin in Vulture)

3. “Leonard is also interested in subjects that interested Foster Wallace. One example: how the mind processes and understands time.” (Willa Paskin in Vulture)

4. Leonard circa 2011 channels DFW circa 1996: “Do you have my saliva? Because I can’t find mine right now.” vs. “Do you have my saliva? Somebody took my saliva, because I don’t have it.” (McNally Jackson Book Mongers)

5. Leonard and DFW are tall.

6. Leonard and DFW store their tobacco in their footwear: “Leonard putting the tobacco tin in his boot; Wallace used to put his tobacco tin in his sock.” (Eugenides in an interview with The Economist)

Eugenides disputes the “rumor”:

1. “Now people [(chiefly Eugenides, it seems to me)] are saying there are so many differences between [Leonard and David Foster Wallace], the basic one being that Wallace didn’t even have manic depression.” Eugenides in a Slate interview)

2. “Leonard’s parents are divorced, Wallace’s were not; Leonard is from Portland, Wallace was not; Leonard grew up very poor, Wallace did not; Leonard is a biologist, Wallace was not; Leonard gets married at 22, Wallace did not; Wallace was a writer with depression, a very different disease to manic depression. I could go on and on. If you look at the two of them, they are not very alike.” (Eugenides in an interview with The Economist)

I think when one of your top six points in differentiating your character from the purported model is that they do not share a home town, you lose. I will grant that Leonard Bankhead is not David Foster Wallace simply dropped into a Eugenides novel. He is, however, an alternative-universe version of David Foster Wallace. Which is one way of saying they are not at all the same person, but another way of saying they are.

As for the narrative, Leonard is much more engaging as a character than either Madeleine or Mitchell. Madeleine, while a realistic portrait of an attractive English major in the 1980s, does not have the distinctiveness of Leonard. She seems more like an everywoman whereas Leonard is much more unique (you know, just like DFW). As does Madeleine, Mitchell fades into an archetype more easily than his bigger, smarter, more attractive novel-mate.

I cannot say I liked Leonard much, though. Eugenides, wisely, does not do for manic-depression what Malcolm Lowry did for alcoholism, but there are long glimpses of the tedium both mania and depression visit on sufferers and those close to them. Leonard is a character at whom you want to throw medication while screaming: “Getter better, already!” That is part of the point. Manic-depressives do not yet just “get better”, they endure. Readers exposed to too much of their unfortunate disease can only do the same. Eugenides avoided that pain. His project, after all, is “the marriage plot” not “the bipolar plot”.

I haven’t said much about the plot because, despite Eugenides’ stance, the most interesting parts of the novel were Roland Barthes and the ways Leonard was like DFW. The less like DFW Leonard was, the less interesting the novel became. That undoubtedly says something about both me and the novel, not least that I was not its ideal reader (that is Sasha) nor its least ideal reader (maybe Tony?).

The other aspect I found particularly intriguing and which you probably will not was the cover. On first glance, it is pretty boring. The title and author’s name are in script (a new fad?) and they appear to be connected by a wedding band. Look closely though. That’s no wedding band, that’s a Mobius strip. Boom goes the dynamite.

Before going further, I should provide some sort of warning. At page 39 in the US hardcover edition,

Madeleine arrived back at college for her senior year…intent on being studious, career-oriented, and aggressively celibate. Casting a wide net, Madeleine sent away for applications to Yale grad school…, an organization for teaching English in China, and an advertisting internship…She studied for the GRE using a sample booklet. The verbal section was easy. The math required brushing up on her high school algebra. The logic problems, however, were a defeat to the spirit. ‘At the annual dancers’ ball a number of dancers performed their favorite dance with their favorite partners. Alan danced the tango, while Becky watched the waltz. James and Charlotte were fantastic together….[etc.].”

The warning: Alan tangoed with Jess, Keith and Laura danced the foxtrot, James and Charlotte waltzed, and Simon and Becky performed the rumba. (To be a little clearer, I am the sort of person who feels a compulsion to solve a logic problem presented to me or to a fictional character on a fictional GRE.)

Mobius strips are strange things. They are a surface with only one side. If you cut them down the middle (of the surface), the Mobius strip morphs into a loop twice as long (and half as wide) with two twists. The wedding band-like example on the cover of Eugenides’ novel would, it appears, have a roughly square cross-section. This made me wonder, did it matter which side you treated as the surface and which the edge? I thought it might and that splitting the “edge” might produce two linked Mobius strips rather than a longer loop. I couldn’t manipulate the thing in my mind to any degree of satisfaction, but realized that I could model it by making a Mobius strip the thickness of two strips of paper (by cutting two identical strips, placing them on top of one another, making the half twist and taping the “top” and the “bottom” separately). After making this two-sheets thick Mobius strip, I would be able to separate the two pieces of paper and see what happens. I did. You end up with a single loop, twice as long with two twists.

It seems to me the topological properties of a Mobius strip are the same whether you treat the surface as the flat “side” or the “edge”. I could be completely wrong.

Athough I found this interesting, it seems to have nothing to do with the book. Any further attempts at drawing parallels ended in futility. My cursory attempt to find a linkage to Escher (with his staircases and ant-traveled Mobius strips) produced similar results. The cover seems a curiosity, nothing more. The most reasonable link is that this is the traditional marriage plot (a wedding band) with a twist. That’s a let-down. The only other link I could find is that Mobius strips are strange and DFW’s literary relationship with Eugenides and Franzen is strange.

The interior is more than mere curiosity, but not sufficiently more that I have any inclination to press it into the hands of passersby. Given my preference for A Visit From the Goon Squad over Freedom, it seems I do not agree with Franzen and Eugenides on the proper “cure” for the demise of the novel. I do not want an updated Austen. They are two superb writers, but I prefer J.M. Coetzee and Junot Diaz and Toni Morrison, each of whom has breathed something fresh into the novel in ways Eugenides’ and Franzen’s latest efforts do not.

I expect The Marriage Plot to manage reasonably well in the early rounds of the TOB, but I cannot see this as the winner. It is vulnerable to Swamplandia!, The Art of Fielding, and Cat’s Table just in its own bracket. A Final Four appearance would be an achievement.

*Yes, I am mentioning The Underpainter again in the hopes that one more person will read it; make me happy.

[ed. 3/16/2012: Links fixed.]


Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

January 17, 2012

Brooks is an author of obvious talent, but something about this project did not satisfy me. Caleb’s Crossing is the fictionalized tale of the first (and possibly only) Native American to graduate from the Indian College, which was part of Harvard College in the 1600s. In an afterword, Brooks describes the actual events as they are known and understood by her. The “real” story was primarily inspiration for Brooks’s imagination, but only partly because the historical knowledge of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck’s life is so sketchy. Brooks maintains the primary skeletal features of the history in her narrator Bethia Mayfield’s telling, but deviates from various of the few known details.

I am sure there is rhyme and reason for all of her choices. For instance, I suspect that Matthew Mayhew (the historical name of the model for one of her characters) clanged in her literary ear. “Makepeace Mayfield” maintains alliteration but allows her to inject some Native American influence onto the colonists. The name change also separates the fictional Makepeace, something of a villain in the book, from the historical figure of Matthew Mayhew who she likely did not want to disparage. But something about the choice is discomfiting to me.

Whispering Gums has an excellent review of the book and compares it to a Kim Scott book that attempts a similar thing with respect to contact between early European settlers and Aboriginal Australians. I share Whispering’s tolerance for “loosely based” historical fiction. I loved Wolf Hall, for instance. Yet, I did not love this book.

One difference, I think, is that Mantel did not go around changing principal players’ names even if so many Catherines or Thomases can get confusing. Mantel’s project is entirely different, of course. Much is known about that time and many people know the players. Changing their names would be confusing to those who know something of the time.

Another difference is that I believe Mantel had something to say about Cromwell. She made Cromwell into a character who says something both about us and about the time. Brooks does not manage that. She manages an engaging, sometimes exciting, historical story. She does not challenge us the way Mantel does. Cromwell is not all likeability (though Mantel gives him a soft spot for small children and dogs), whereas Caleb and the narrator (Bethia Mayfield) are likeable in the extreme. They are two of the most attractive characters in the book, two of the most intelligent, two of the kindest, and two of the strongest-willed. I am suspicious of “perfect” characters. The sins of which Bethia is ashamed (e.g. questioning her Christian beliefs, not “knowing her place” as a female) are things that will endear her to most readers as an inquisitive and open-minded person.

Basically, Brooks makes it easy for the reader to know for whom they should cheer. The good people are almost always right. Bad people are almost always wrong. Still, I liked the book. Brooks has excellent pacing, does wonders with early American English (maintaining the flavor, but still generating smooth prose), and entertains. She does not do more than that. As an example of the prose, read this sample relating how Bethia learned, with her twin brother Zuriel, bits of the Wampanaontoaonk language while Joel Iacoomis taught it to her father:

For a time, when we were still very small, Zuriel and I made a covert game of learning it, and spoke it privily, as a kind of secret tongue between the two of us. But as Zuriel grew bigger he was less about the hearth, tearing hither and yon as boychildren are permitted to do. So as he lost the words and I continued to gain them, the game withered. I have often wondered if what happened later had its roots in this: that the Indian tongue was bound up in my heart with these earliest memories of my brother, so that, on meeting with another of his same age who spoke it, these tender and dormant affections awoke within me.

As Whispering points out, Brooks’s foreshadowing can be “rather heavy-handed” and the sexual tensions between Bethia and Caleb definitely needed “some resolution.” I would also add that the conceit of Bethia looking back does not completely work. She remembers details in the retelling, but then, a few pages later, seems to have difficulty recalling them. The book is not only Brooks’s work of imagination, Bethia is actively shaping the past too. These glimpses of Bethia’s reshaping of history, whether to fill gaps or for another person, are never developed beyond that. One might even think they are authorial mistakes. Brooks could have gotten more out of the device than she did. Without using her narrator’s occasional slips, she only manages to pull the alert (pedantic?) reader out of the story.

A particularly interesting aspect of Whispering’s review involves the question of whether writers should or should not “put[] modern attitudes into the mouths of historical people”. I am one of those people who is wary of that sort of thing.

Bethia goes out of her way to lament the suffering of a beached whale carved to death by the colonists. My concern is that this sort of thing could be added to endear Bethia to us. Modern readers will generally, if not unanimously, laud a character’s sentimentality towards animals, particularly those as intelligent as whales. Brooks vividly evokes the great creature’s mournful eye as the colonists begin butchering it while it lives. And Bethia’s concern for the whale is consistent with her character. Her empathy for “the other” is why she becomes a unique friend to Caleb, for instance, rather than condescending to him or regarding him with suspicion as an outsider.

This is all true, as is Whispering’s observation that “modern” attitudes do not just spring into existence from nothing. Sixteenth century colonists remain, though, products of their time and their communities. However special Bethia is, it is stretching credulity to place her well ahead of her time with respect to feminism, animal rights, racial equality, and the “many paths” approach to religion. Bethia was raised in the community by a minister father and she never left the community. Not that there then existed any communities which would have embraced any, much less all, of her relatively radical sentiments. Given the narrator’s many other admirable qualities, making her right about questions which were hardly even questions at the time, seemed to me to go too far.

Some people will really enjoy the book for the authenticity of its language, the beauty of its descriptions, the adventurousness of the story, and the likeability of most of the characters. This is a good book about mostly good people doing interesting things. There is little challenge though. Those few times where Bethia is uncertain of the right answer, the reader knows. All this makes me think Brooks was aiming at the bestseller audience rather than the literary crowd. I hope she gets her sales, because those looking for popular storytelling can do much worse than Brooks and Caleb’s Crossing.


The Other Side by E. Thomas Finan

October 27, 2011

This collection was sent to me as a review copy.

E. Thomas Finan tends to look inward and does so in affecting ways. His protagonists have uneasy relationships with the world and, therefore, the stories are unsettling for everyone. He writes achingly realistic fiction that speaks eloquently through the clipped or choked dialogue of its suffering characters. Broken relationships feature prominently, but not exclusively. The broken relationships are often deep in the rearview, though closer to the heart than they initially appear.

Among the stories, there is one that appears almost like a writing exercise. Finan made the courageous (foolhardy?) choice to re-write Hemingway’s most famous short story and include it in this collection. Finan’s is titled: “Dunes Like White Elephants.

Nearly as enigmatic as Hemingway’s, the story approaches its subject obliquely. As in its famous predecessor, the intersection of a pregnancy and a relationship create the understated, but intense, drama. Where Hemingway showed a man pushing a woman to abort her pregnancy, in Finan’s take, the man is pressing for marriage. I actually think Finan pulled this off without creating a disaster which, frankly, is what I expected despite the talent displayed in the earlier stories.

Review copy.

Finan’s female lead is as reluctant as Hemingway’s and Finan’s potential father has the same binary view of the world as did his forebearer: the couple must either abort the pregnancy or marry and raise the child. The relationship in Finan’s work is a new one and, at least partly for that reason, the woman is very uncertain about turning this unplanned pregnancy into a shotgun wedding. The man believes the conclusion is foregone, despite his questioning tone. So many elements are mirrored, this was quite a risky story to publish.

I like what Finan has done to twist Hemingway’s stereotyped roles in interesting ways. He did not simply re-write the story into the modern age or reverse the poles. Rather, he bent and twisted the classic into something new and provacative. Finan certainly does not surpass Hemingway, but he gets points for shocking this reader into a closer analysis of the original. Kudos to Finan for his gutsy decisions.

My favorite story in the collection is “Motley Black.” The narrator, “Jay”, is taking a bus ride across country to escape the geography of his most recent relationship. A wiseass (“My friends call me Foley.”…..“So what should I call you?”) and introvert, Jay tries to avoid a seatmate only to end up with the talkative and otherwise annoying Foley at his side. While Foley snores, Jay broods:

One can always find the loneliness within life. It is always there. Conviviality, conversational relish, the glibness of society – all are signs of the struggle to ignore that loneliness, always lingering at your shoulder like an unwelcome stranger, one that we know too well. Perhaps, for many people, the only thing worse than a stranger is someone we know inside and out; despite all that knowledge, that patina of familiarity, there remains the hollow core of ignorance. What was a friend? Someone to unburden your heart to? Well, what would telling do? I did not need any more of projected narcissism, which constitutes the heart and soul of common friendship.

This dark moodiness is typical of the stories in the collection, though humor peeks* through in places. In “Motley Black”, for instance, Jay’s wit leavens things until the main action hits. The story bends towards absurdity, I thought it had snapped at one point, but finds its way to a satisfying conclusion. You can find an extended excerpt here.

Finan writes with impressive confidence (as his cribbing from a Hemingway story suggests he would). He usually delivers. Even if every story is not seasoned to my taste, Finan achieves what it is he sets out to do. Impressive.

[**Edited 11-4-2011: Not mountain “peaks”, of course.]


The Spot: Stories by David Means

April 12, 2011

David Means is an accomplished, if not particularly well-known, short story writer. I chose to give his most recent collection a try based on its inclusion on the Tournament of Books longlist for 2011. I was disappointed in that the collection was not chosen for the ToB, but was pleased, if not overwhelmed, by the stories it contained.

I was immediately won over by “The Knocking” and its humor.

Upstairs he stops for a moment, just to let the tension build, and then he begins again, softer at first, going east to west and then east again, heading toward the Fifth Avenue side of the building, pausing to get his bearings, to look out at the view, I imagine, before heading west, pausing overhead to taunt me before going back into motion for a few minutes, setting the pace with a pendulous movement, following the delineation of the apartment walls – his the same as mine, his exactly the same – and then there is another pause….

The description of the knocking goes on for a bit longer, but you get the idea, both of the knocking and of the narrator who is describing it. At this early point, there are still the questions of whether the knocker is intent on taunting and of whether the knocking would be annoying to anyone. The questions linger while we learn something of the knocker:

He was the kind of knocker who would learn a fresh technique, a way of landing his heel on the floor, of lifting his toes and letting them rattle a board, and work with a calisthenic efficiency – all bones and sinew – to transmit the sound via the uncarpeted prewar floorboards, woody, resonant oak solid enough to withstand the harder strikes. Above all, he not only took knocking seriously but went beyond that to a realm of pure belief in the idea that by being persistent over the long term and knocking only for the sake of knocking – in other words, blanking me at least temporarily out of his consciousness, and in doing so forgetting the impulse (our brief meeting last year) for starting in the first place – he could take a leap of faith and increase his level of conentration – pure rapture – and, in turn, his ability to sustain the knocking over the long run.

The delusion of a Nabokovian narrator, so exquisite because, possibly, the narrator is not delusional. Means holds the cards close throughout, releasing them expertly for maximum effect. I truly loved this story. The downside of that is that the rest of the collection could not hope to equal this one.

Do not get me wrong, there are other very good stories. “The Blade” is the second and, perhaps, my second favorite in the collection. It begins with a group of homeless men hanging out around a fire, passing a bottle, and telling stories. The stories become stories about knives and Ronnie has one, perhaps the best one. He holds onto it, waiting through silences when the others expect him to tell it.

Another blade-to-the-throat story stood at the ready, the men sensed. They caught a vibe in the static holding pattern the banter had taken, in the way that Ronnie held off on his turn to speak. They were sure he had a blade story!

While dribbling out details, including hints of Ronnie’s relationship with an old man called Hambone, Means fills in back story that Ronnie does not want to share to the other men. What is particularly engaging is how Means tells a story about telling a story in a way that both explains how a good story is told and demonstrates how a good story is told. The importance of including specific details to create credulity. By the end, the reader is as hungry for the story as those down-and-out men around the fire.

The collection freely shares characters from one story to another, intertwining lives and slowly revealing a large mosaic. This is not true of all the stories, but many of them. Sometimes, there is just a glimpse of how the stories connect, but, in that instant, the world Means has created gains a skosh of authenticity. Means works almost exclusively in the short form and his expertise in his craft shows.

For a third sample from this collection, you can try “A River in Egypt” which is about a father whose son may have cystic fibrosis. The father is inept and sometimes ugly, but this enhances his humanity and the emotion of the piece. These three stories to which I have linked provide a fair cross-section of the range and tone of the collection. While The Spot: Stories did not bowl me over with originality, it did impress me with its author’s storytelling ability. I am a little disappointed this work did not make the jump from the ToB longlist to the shortlist. I would have enjoyed reading a judge’s reaction to it.