Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category

freedom, at last

I took the occasion of my recent cross-country move, by truck, to listen to the audibles version of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I’m slow, but I usually get there.

And I admit, I’ve come to enjoy the time-passing qualities of audiobooks, though I require long spans to enjoy them. It’s not reading, I know, but I can’t read and drive at the same time, and I hardly ever seem to have the kind of sustained cross-country-style downtime to read at that length anymore anyhow. I rate listening to audibles better than reading on a phone and worse than reading a book, with compensatory allowances for particularly good reader/actors.

Ian Frazier, for instance, should not read his own stuff. Ian Frazier should pay someone to read it for him. Also, if you’re doing audible, suck it up and wait out the highest-quality download time. The shorter ones echo, and nobody can listen to 18 hours of echoey Ian Frazier, no matter how good Travels in Siberia is.

As for Freedom, I’m starting to wish that Jonathan Feanzen would stop trying so hard to cram the entirety of the contemporary American experience up one family’s butt. Plus, I’m trying to get into birding, and Walter Berglund’s example isn’t helping.

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My new review of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King is just out in the Texas Observer‘s June 27 Books Issue.

It’s as if David Foster Wallace, a generation’s leading literary light, has reinvented himself in a parallel world. Not the feckless wastoid fiddling with fiction, but an anonymous David Wallace knuckled down to the genuinely heroic work of number-crunching. As one character tells another in one of The Pale King’s many veiled summations, “Sometimes what’s important is dull. Sometimes it’s work. Sometimes the important things aren’t works of art for your entertainment…” Preparing taxes, on the other hand, matters, “one of the places where a man’s civic sense gets revealed in the starkest sorts of terms …” America’s civic sense is “… adolescent—that is, ambivalent in its twin desire for both authoritarian structure and the end of parental hegemony.” We want all the entitlements of citizenship, but we don’t want to pay our taxes.


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Man, it is snowing like a mofo here, a perfectly horizontal march of particulate white blowing past outside the window on gusts that sound like they’re taking the roof off. A fine day to blog. And since my review of Thomas McGuane’s new novel Driving on the Rim just came out in the Missoula Independent (bless them for keeping me in occasional bylines during this terminal book-writing endeavor), figured I’d plaster that up here.

Here’s a sample:

It may be hard to remember now, but Tom McGuane used to be a literary rock star. His prose “pyrotechnics” (the word appears in almost every review) in early works—The Sporting Club (1969), The Bushwacked Piano (1971) and Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973)—put him in critical company with the likes of Thomas Pynchon (whose Gravity’s Rainbow topped Ninety-Two for the 1974 National Book Award). He courted actresses, wrote coke-fueled screenplays and crashed a Porsche in Texas on his way to earning the doubtless now embarrassing nickname Captain Berserko.

Since those early salad days, it’s become reviewer’s sport, especially in The New York Times, to chide McGuane for not living up to early expectations, wrist-slapping his over-reliance on “quirky” scenarios, quoting easy-to-find examples of McGuane’s acknowledged sentence-level mastery and sending him off with a condescending pat on the rump and instructions to try harder next time.

Part of this is surely because McGuane planted himself in Montana in the late 1960s and started training horses and setting his books in flyover country. But a larger part is that McGuane is a writer of not easily reconciled impulses. His two exceptional modes are almost-slapstick absurdity and lush depiction of landscape. He’s a comic novelist with a penchant for corseted Victorian diction and a jones for rural vistas and the creatures of field and stream. It’s not a combo critics look West for, and it can be jarring even to readers without geographical bias.

You can read the whole thing here.

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Today the Missoula Independent published my review of Ivan Doig’s new Butte-based novel Work Song. You can READ THAT HERE, or not, but the most interesting things about Work Song was that it took me back to that other novel based in Butte: Dashiell Hammett’s first book, 1929’s Red Harvest. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

Butte’s literature is usually cast as nonfiction. From newspaperman Richard K. O’Malley’s memoir Mile High Mile Deep to C.B. Glasscock’s The War of the Copper Kings, Butte’s singular history as the motherlode of American copper production has placed it center stage for the true dramas of immigration, speculation, industrialization and labor relations, with all the real-life poetry that a multiethnic parade of hard-drinking, riches-seeking, hardrock miners and battling billionaires would suggest.

Butte novels have been rarer. Probably the most famous is Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, published in 1929, little more than a decade after Hammett had worked as a Pinkerton Agency detective in Butte (where, Hammett claimed, the Anaconda Mining Company offered him $5,000 to kill labor leader Frank Little, who soon after became the victim of an unsolved lynching). Work Song is the latest. The two make an instructive pairing.

Red Harvest is set in “Personville” (nicknamed “Poisonville,” and unmistakably modeled on Butte) circa 1920, a time of economic domination by the (here unnamed) Anaconda Company and labor unrest complicated by periodic intrusions of the radical Industrial Workers of the World. Work Song, set in an undisguised Butte of 1919, shows no compunction about vilifying the Anaconda Company by name, and its main character is suspected—wrongly, at first—of being an outside agitator.

That’s where the similarities end. Where Hammett used Butte for its atmosphere of grit and violence, Doig makes the city a character, and reduces its threat to shadows. Red Harvest is a mystery; Work Song is essentially a romance. Hammett’s story and prose are prototypically hard-boiled. You might call Doig’s poached, an early dinner at the Cracker Barrel to Red Harvest’s red-eyed breakfast at the M&M.

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I just now — 2 minutes ago — finished reading War and Peace. All 1455 thin paperback pages of it. Sigh.

As I’ve mentioned, I started this little undertaking in September 2009, and have been progressing in dribs and drabs, mostly at bedtime, ever since. I’ve carried this doorstop with me to Argentina and Brazil and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Moscow, Russia, poking along. In October, just after I started, Philip Roth said, in an interview with The Daily Beast, “If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really,” so put an asterisk by the accomplishment — I’ll take it any way I can get it.

The last 50 pages or so was a king-hell slog. Tolstoy completely abandons the plot of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia (the French had been beat back already, so…), leaving Pierre and the various Rostovs to their semi-restored estates, then embarks on a long and dense essayistic consideration of  free will, power, and the nature of history. Sample chapter-opening sentence:

History examines the manifestations of man’s free will in connection with the external world in time and in dependence on cause, that is, defines that free will by the laws of reason, and therefore history is a science only insofar as this free will is defined by these laws.”

I don’t want to spoil it for you, but suffice it to say that he disagrees with Neil Peart.

In keeping with this blog’s frequently obscured raison d’être, a certain personal peversity, and the aforementioned homestretch slog, I seriously considered not finishing it, just setting it aside at, say, page 1449, and in fact I saved the last chapters for days, savoring the unreached end of it, trying to decide which, ultimately, would be more interesting: to be able to say yes, I’ve read War and Peace, or to say, at some imaginary dinner party in my head, yeah, I read the first 1449 pages, but then I got bored and quit. I’m pretty sure the second would have been more interesting, but ultimately I just couldn’t help myself. And so now it’s over. And I can turn my attention back to the most dissimilar literary experience I can imagine: reading Game Change on my iPhone.

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A few sentences I never thought I’d hear myself say, and yet have:

1) “I’m almost finished with War and Peace.” 2) “I just got back from Moscow.” And 3) [my favorite] “Excuse me, do you have this one in fox?”

Some explanation may be in order. I’ve been reading War and Peace since early September, a few chapters a night. It was part of a plan — part 1 — to read one especially long or difficult book I’ve always wanted to read per month during the eight months of my fellowship year here in Ann Arbor. Well my fellowship year turned out to be much busier than I expected — no complaints — and an 8-fat-books ambition stands now on the verge of a 1-fat-book achievement. I am at this moment on page 1328 of 1455 in the brick-like Signet Classic edition above, which is now nicely spine-cracked and starting to look like the horse I rode in on.

I’d hoped to finish it on a recent trip to Moscow (the fellowship again), but no such luck. Too busy. Too tired. Too otherwise occupied. And either I’ve gotten to where I don’t like reading on planes, or the 10-hour flight from New York to Moscow (and back) required more Zen than I could square with imbibing all that tiny type. I’ll be done in a few days. Or a week. Or so.

I’m loving it, by the way. Even the military stuff, which so far never seems to go on too long. Tolstoy (and presumably his translator here, Ann Dunnigan) possesses the useful trick of being being able to convey a tone of absolute moral authority, which I admire, and I’m hardly the first to notice, but the brevity and kick of his insights totally knocks my socks off.

Petya had been in a constant state of elation at being grown-up, and ecstatically eager not to miss any opportunity to do something really heroic. He was exceedingly delighted with what he saw and experienced in the army, but at the same time it always seemed to him that the most genuinely heroic exploits were being performed just where he did not happen to be. And he was in a hurry to get where he was not.”

I used to feel that way about parties.

So I was in Moscow, which has pretty incredible light (see Moscva River scene above) with a group of about 30 journalists and their spouses for eight days, during which we toured a flea market, met with wildly unpopular former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, chatted with retired chess champion and current leader of Russia’s political opposition Gary Kasparov, enjoyed an audience with billionaire oligarch, former KGB agent, and quasi-philanthropic press baron Alexander Lebedev (who announced his purchased of Britain’s Independent the day we were there), dined with Moscow-posted foreign correspondents, visited with archivists of Stalin-era terror, ate grilled meats whilst watching terribly distracting Azerbaijani dancers, ate something called Herring in a Fur Coat whilst trying not to gag, ate a Big Mac in the shadow of Red Square, and spent several hours every day riding Moscow’s gorgeous metro, two stations of which were blown up by female suicide bombers a day and a half after we boarded possibly the world’s shittiest plane home.

It was an adventure. I’m awfully glad to be back.

Oh, the fox thing. Russians are big on fur. Or at least they think tourists are. I was shopping for a fur hat. I ended up not buying one. My friend Raviv didn’t buy one either, but he did try on this fetching little bear number at right:

I took a lot of damn pictures. You can CHECK THEM OUT HERE.

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imagesThis one’s WORTH A CROSS-LINK, methinks.

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Bud Shrake is a Texas writer I didn’t know much about until just about a year ago. That’s when the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State and University of Texas Press put out Land of the Permanent Wave: a Bud Shrake Reader. My friend Stayton Bonner reviewed it for the Texas Observer (READ THAT HERE) and I read his review and we both later drove out to San Marcos to see Shrake speak at the publication party.

2That’s when he signed my copy, above. To my eye, it adds a certain professional/sentimental value to a book whose cover is so godawful ugly I can’t believe the Chinese consented to print it. I’m certainly not going to offend your eye or mine with anything more than a thumbnail here. I’d never want anyone to get fired over such a thing, but somebody sure ought to be ashamed of this.

0For instructive contrast, see this much cooler original cover of Strange Peaches, maybe Shrake’s best-remembered novel, and the one so far that I think I like best. Almost all of Shrake’s novels are “historical” in one or another sense, but the historical period of Strange Peaches is the period immediately preceding the Kennedy assassination, which seems contemporary and comprehensible and interesting to me. Most of Shrake’s other historical fiction—as opposed to Permanent Wave‘s quasi-gonzo journalism—includes people riding horses, which doesn’t. My loss I’m sure.

Shrake died last month, which was occasion for us to write about him again, which I did.

Here’s an excerpt:

Strange Peaches is my favorite, for its mean, coolly deliberate and murderous (as Norman Mailer once praised the prose of Shrake’s fellow Texan, Terry Southern) explication of Dallas’ moneyed milieu in the days prior to the Kennedy assassination. In the book, a Texas native quits a successful TV show on which he plays a gin-yew-wine six-shooting cowboy and returns home, long-haired and strung out on Dexedrine, to make a documentary about the true state of Texas. The plot and dialog (“‘God dawg, pussy has ruint his brain,’ Billy Bob Teagarden said …”) are artifacts of their time, but it was an important time, and nobody knew its contours as well as Shrake. Larry McMurtry considered the writer of Strange Peaches “far superior to his drinking buddies,” and Shrake himself considered his best novels underrated. In the last substantive interview of his life, Shrake told Observer contributor Brant Bingamon, “Peaches and [Blessed] McGill are definitely overlooked, and yet I seem to find myself being asked about them constantly by discerning people.” They may not escape the Texas wing of the canon, but both books are firmly ensconced there.


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img029Just by virtue of logistical logjams, I think about re-reading books a lot more often than I ever get around to actually re-reading them. 

That said, all this infuriating news about bonus-wielding AIG execs holding American taxpayers hostage to the supposedly necessary retention of dubious corporate “talent” puts me in mind of the next great depression, which puts me in mind of the last one, which leads me around again to The Grapes of Wrath.

I was a little surprised to discover that neither of my omnibus Steinbeck collections collected it (too fat, I guess), so I did what Americans do when they decide they just have to have something they don’t already have: I went online and bought it.

img0301It arrived today wrapped in this gorgeous Van Gogh-meets-Soviet-realism cover courtesy Vintage’s old Compass Books division, the beauty of which I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog.

I don’t know what they’re teaching in high school these days, but I do know that what’s perceived as Steinbeck’s common-man sentimentality has made for a shaky perch in the canon that’s hard to square with the contemporary blurbage. No less savage an ironist than Dorothy Parker appraised The Grapes of Wrath as follows:

…I think, and with earnest and honest consideration, … that The Grapes of Wrath is the greatest American novel that I have ever read.”

img031The Swedish Academy, announcing Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize in 1962, wrote:

“His sympathies always go out to the oppressed, the misfits and the distressed; he likes to contrast the simple joy of life with the brutal and cynical craving for money.”

Seems like something along those lines might be worth a second look, no? With this financial plague of locusts winging dust in everyone’s eyes?

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purdy flowers

img028Novelist/short-storyist/playwright James Purdy died Friday, begging the question (I think I’m using the phrase properly, or spitting distance from properly): Who knew James Purdy was still alive? He was 94.

From The Nephew:

‘Had a word with Mrs. Barrington as I was coming up the walk,’ Boyd went on, forgetful again that his sister was still reading.

‘Yes, I heard her voice.’

‘The old girl is a spry one at her age. Just think of it — she’s nearly 90.’

‘She’s all of that.’ Alma looked up as if she, after all, was the authority on age.

‘But gad, what a backyard of hers. You have to hand it to her. Those flowering-trees — right at this time of year. No wonder it’s a showplace for this part of the country.’

‘Well it’s all she’s ever done — nearly,’ Alma parenthesized from a critical re-reading of one paragraph of the nephew’s letter. ‘She’s had more than two lifetimes to beautify her property.’

Domestic weirdness and prim propriety in the service of muffled revelations — that’s how I remember Purdy’s stuff, though I don’t even remember how I stumbled across him in the first place. Purdy wrote that scene in 1960, and the first Noonday Press edition — no. 315, of which I have the above brittle-paged and beautiful paperback — came out with a case-making forward by R.W.B. Lewis in 1967, the year I was born. 

The Nephew should have extended the reputation established by Malcolm, [Purdy’s high watermark comic masterpiece] but somehow it did not,” Lewis wrote. “Several reviewers were put off by a seeming awkwardness of narrative movement, and a seeming vagueness, even forgetfulness, about time and place in the novel.”

img027Fair enough, but some of us liked Purdy’s hallucinatorily shifting ground on its own disorienting merits. Houston theater genius Edward Albee adapted Malcolm to the stage, and I had a quite a phase with Purdy myself, and probably own more Purdy titles, at six, than anybody in my collection but Larry McMurtry — a phase I haven’t quite entirely entered yet. It’s good to be ready, though.

And it’s good to look at these covers again. New Directions did Children is All — stories, (one of which was originally published in something called The Texas Quarterly!) and two plays, at right — in 1971. 

It looks like DeCapo Books reissued a lot of his stuff most recently. It’s hard to imagine it selling, but even worse to think of the greater likelihood: that it just fade into obscurity entirely.

James Purdy revival, anyone? I dare ya. Brooklyn should make The House of the Solitary Maggot its Borough Book Club Selection of the Month.

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