Thursday, September 30, 2010

Repentance and Redemption of a Not-So-Reliable Wife

The triangle has been a standard plot device since Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, but Robert Goolick twists those three straight lines into a convoluted spiral circling in on itself in his second book, A Reliable Wife.

This is a lush read, a Catherine/Heathcliff read, a Dickensian trek into turn of the century Americana. The language is elegiac, a sorrow that turns on hope but expects despair. Goolick takes the reader into the hearts of his protagonists and opens the secrets they keep from one another. Ralph Truitt wants a wife, but has no hope of love. Catherine Land wants love and money and answers his advertisement, but has dark plans of her own and a lover in the shadows. The lover has his own secrets and drives the plot toward tragedy.

There are muted undertones of classic literature as the plot unfolds. Ralph Truitt is a Jean Valjean, Victor Hugo's saint nee sinner in Les Miserables. There are hints of Fantine, the prostitute who gave everything for her daughter, in Catherine; however, whereas Fantine lost her beauty and her health and ended impoverished while her Cosette prospered, it is the opposite for Catherine who lives in wealth with Truitt but loses her sister to prostitution and vice.

The theme of the "bad woman" healed by simple country life, living things, and a steady man mirrors The Harvester by Gene Stratton Porter, and has much of the tone of that book, but Goolick's writing is much more intense, erotically sensual, but restrained. The sexual energy and tension of the story pulls the reader from chapter to chapter and builds a sense of dread as the pent emotions move toward release. This is not a short book, but I read it in one night because there was no stopping place.

This is a prodigal story of a father who is the sinner and the boy who returns home to forgive or avenge, and in the homecoming two characters find redemption, but it is the inevitability of evil that creates the tension as the story reaches its end. We as readers know all and know that the ending cannot be good for these flawed people, but we have come to hope, just as Truitt hopes, for ultimate forgiveness and grace.

As Goolick warns in repeated incantation: These things happen.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Book of Eli--NOT

Every now and then, I don't get what I think I'll get. The Book of Eli by Sam Moffie is one of those mistakes. I thought I was getting the book version of the movie that has just come out (yes, we ordered the movie), but it turns out to be entirely different. A reviewer on Amazon suggests that Moffie hurried this book to press to take advantage of the movie release. I don't know about that, but I'm definitely feeling snookered.

The book is a knock-off of The Shack. Were I as crude as Mr. Moffie's protagonist, I would call it a knock-up of that inspirational tale. Eli, the hero, is a good man, almost perfect except for one flaw that proves to be fatal--literally. There are many clinical terms for Eli's sin: copulation, intercourse, sexual union, but Eli is a plain-spoken man. He loves to screw.

This bit of slang is carried throughout the book, nothing unusual in 2010 novels, but somewhat startling in a book that pretends to inspiration. Eli reaches new pinnacles of sensation in a liaison with his favorite adulterous partner and cries out ecstatically, "God! God!!" And he gets God. He dies, goes to heaven and his tutelage begins.

Groucho Marx is his guiding spirit as he visits Sigmund Freud with questions about sexuality, Jesus, Mohamed, Buddha, Madelyn Murray O'Hare, Ayn Rand, and his own mother. Groucho is the excuse for several one-liners and provides the secondary theme of the novel. Sex first, jokes next. There are some truly lame Jewish jokes. After a time, Eli's fixation on sex becomes a joke, a vaudevillian schtick that even Eli eventually finds tiresome.

What is interesting about the book is that, for all its irreverence, its explicit language, its extreme secular tone, it seems authentic. Eli is no saint. He's a regular guy, a sinner like most of us, with an obsession with sex that is very honest, but not only does he have an innate god-sense, he is also accepted by a patient creator. It isn't what he is, but what he will become that is the interest of heaven. God creates, after all. Moffie's thesis seems to be that the "good guys" didn't succeed, and now it's time for a regular guy to try.

It's a quick read. I read it in one sitting and found it better than I had anticipated. This is a book that many readers will find offensive, but the reader looking for a secular slant on spiritual living will find this book more palatable than more traditional inspirational writing. The message is neither Christian nor Jewish nor representative of any other faith tradition, but it is found in most faith traditions. We are here to look after one another. We can't do that if we are cheating or exploiting those around us. This is what Eli must learn and what, in a racy, unconventional way, Moffie tries to teach us.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

An Interminable Year with John Irving

John Irving takes longer to get to the point of his stories than any author I know. He is not a lazy writer. Brilliant. Infuriating. Frustrating. But not lazy.

I reread A Widow for One Year after trying to tell a friend and patron what it was about the book that had captured me. After slogging through it on a second read, now I'm not sure. Maybe what made this title stand out was the out-of-humor author. There is a tremendously funny scene early on when Ted Cole, the father of the heroine, is chased down by one of his many amours gone wrong, but this is the first book where I noticed that Irving himself seemed out of sorts. His quirky humor is missing.

It is a writers' book, the saga of Ruth Cole, novelist, from her childhood though a marriage, widowhood, and remarriage. Her father is a writer and illustrator of children's books. Marion, Ruth's mother, who leaves them, is a writer. Her mother's young lover, Eddie, who never stops loving this much older woman, is a writer. Her quirky best friend, Hannah, is a journalist. By the time we get to Harry, the Amsterdam policeman who tries to find Ruth after she witnesses the murder of a prostitute, we are as happy to see a reader as Ruth is attracted to him.

It is classic Irving. He takes us back before the beginning to tell the story of the mother who can never stop grieving for her dead sons, the lazy writer father who lures mothers in as models for his children's books then draws pornography, and the child Ruth, born to replace the two lost boys. The despondant Marion is planning to leave her husband and child, fearing that she will love the little girl and lose her, and spends her last summer in a sexual liason with Eddie, a teenage boy. This event frames the story. Both Eddie and Ruth live in anticipation of the return of Marion.

Fast forward. Ruth is a successful novelist with a history of bad boyfriends and a best friend, Hannah, with a history as the bad girlfriend. Eddie reenters Ruth's life and his undying love for her lost mother, provides a bond of friendship for the two which continues through the book. Ruth is considering marriage with her editor but is unsure and puts off any decision until after a book tour in Europe that will eventually lead her to Amsterdam, the pivotal destination of this long, convoluted story.

The part of the book that I remembered and reread to discover why it affected me so, takes place in the room of a prostitute in Amsterdam--a room all in red. The imagery is more vivid than usual in this section and, even after several years and forgetting most of the plot, the room remains in my memory. Irving does his usual roundabout tease, dropping hints about it, taking us elsewhere, coming back to let us see the outside, taking us away, returning to enter, taking us out again, and finally placing us in the closet with Ruth where she witnesses the murder. In writing about what she has experienced, Ruth leaves the crumb that will draw the hawk to her.

In part, this book is a fictional treatise on experiential writing. Irving takes us into the heads of his characters as they plot their books and we see how their experiences move through their writing, even as Ruth, at least, argues that it is all imagination. It is imagination, but it is imagination that feeds on the friends and family in the author's life. In weaving the tales these writers create, Irving lets us watch the creative process unfold from initial idea to final creation.

But I'm left with questions as I work my way through this tortuous review that seems to mirror the length of its subject. He is a formula writer. Why does he begin so far back in the lives of his protagonists? Why do we have to know about the mothers and fathers and grandparents of the hero or heroine? Why do we have to walk through several lives to get to the pivotal moment, the climax, of the story? Is he trying to show us that every event is the sum of the multiplicity of decisions that have gone before? Or does he just like to spin all the multi-colored strands into one final plot, tightly knotted? Or is he playing games with us?

He uses sexual metaphor freely in all his work--is his methodology an extension of that? The long, slow tease that leaves us begging for the denouement, and the deep satisfaction when it comes.

Even when I toss one of his books into a corner, vowing I'll not read another, I know. I'll come back for more. He is a master of the craft. I can't resist.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

On the Road with Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy's book, The Road, is number one on the AbeBooks' customers' list of the Top Ten Most Depressing Reads. We added it to the collection in April of 2007, and by the time I had time to read it, I was not in the frame of mind to survive it. Last weekend, my sis and I took our fall sister trip and the waves of laughter that rolled us home left a vast store of endorphines on the beach. I spent some of that euphoria the last two nights reading The Road.

Let no one tell you it is depressing. It is the most hopeful of books, one in which there is nothing material upon which to base hope, no future, no brighter tomorrow, yet the light refuses to go out.

In the apocalyptic future, in a dead world of ash and burnt-out cities, in a world where only a tiny spark of life survives with nothing but itself to feed upon, a father and son travel the road from the cold north of what was America toward the southern coast, and warmth. The mother, understanding that there is no life left to be lived, has embraced death and left her two males to walk the bleak path alone.

The boy asks two questions of his father, again and again, whether for his own reassurance or for the father's remembrance. Are we the good guys? Do we carry the fire?

The bad guys are capturing and holding people to breed and eat. That 's all there is left of living sustenance. Those who refuse to cannibalize humanity forage for what remnant of canned goods others have overlooked, and it is obvious that as time continues to pass, the only hope of survival will finally lie in destroying one another. Ultimately, Death will not be cheated.

Yet, in this burnt-out world where man-directed flames have destroyed all that can sustain life, the fire the good guys carry takes on a poignant meaning. The boy carries the fire and the father carries the boy, though the father does not have the light. Once we, the readers, understand this painful truth, the author spins out the ending for us, honest and sad and correct. We are ready to accept it when it comes. It is both reassurance and warning.

I am in awe of this writer. He actually accomplishes what Hemingway and Joyce attempted. His writing is spare, stark in its simplicity, but like a poem that does not reveal that it is poetry. Fragmented. With only essential punctuation. He draws us in with the cadence of modern speech and opens our world to us using form as function.

And yet, he is kind. There is no point at which the reader finds himself on the brink of collapse or screaming for relief. McCarthy gives us vignettes of simplicity just a beat before we realize we need them. He tends us well. There are three moments in the book where the travelers are allowed the comfort of shelter and food--moments essential to the father who carries the corruption of the old culture, the need for the comforts of the corrupted culture that has been destroyed. The boy does not need them. He transcends the material. But we, the readers who are living in the culture that gives rise to this devastating end, we must have these moments to sustain our ability to follow the path to the end.

McCarthy tells us the truth. Like most of us, he carries the fire, but the fire is not in him.

He knows.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Say It Isn't So, Joe!

Oh no! Not a sequel! Please, say it isn't so!

It took me a while to get used to the writing style of Dr. Joe D. Dillsaver in These Bones Shall Rise, a mystery/adventure set in eastern Oklahoma, but I liked his hero, Doctor SK Ross, and followed the story to its non-conclusion. With all the loose ends left dangling, I thought--Well, he's a first time author; maybe he couldn't figure out how to rescue his characters from the danger he had put them in. Then the horrible thought came--A Sequel! Oh No! Another Series Writer! ...and this is a home town boy. Well, a home state fellow, anyway. That pretty much insures that I'll have to buy the next book--and the economic downturn has left us really short on cash. Sigh.

I enjoyed the book. The short, simple sentences insure grammatical correctness--near-abouts, anyway--but also give the book just the right flavor. It reads like a book written by a criminal justice professor (CJP), and it feels like a gentle excursion into a CJP's fantasy. It's formula all the way, from the bad guys holed up in the backwoods eastern Oklahoma cave cloning drones to take over the world to the desperate run for cover when the cave explodes. There's ancient Christian relics, a worldwide search for clues, the Cherokee elder, truly evil (but disconcertingly likeable) right-wing conspirators, and the amateur sleuth--all the elements of an adventure story aka movie set-up.

What makes the book work is Dr. Dillsaver himself as he draws his hero, SK, in his own image. As I read, it's like reading something one of my former students might have written--very personal, very intimate, very confessional. As the story spins out to its non-conclusion, I find myself enjoying the evening visit with the author. In this case, the story is nothing, and the characters exist just to provide words for the author, and the author is a pleasant companion for the cool Oklahoma evenings we are beginning to enjoy.

And, yes, I will purchase the sequel.