The Tivington Nott, by Alex Miller

May 8, 2014

Copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

Copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

Alex Miller left his native England for Australia at age 17. As an author, his 11 novels (this is only my third but I intend to get to them all over time) have concentrated on telling Australian stories — but he never forgot his roots.

The last one reviewed here (Watching The Climbers On The Mountain) can certainly be read as an autobiographical story — set on a cattle station in Queensland, it features an 18-year-old stockboy, newly arrived from England.

The Tivington Nott, first published in 1989, is even more personal — and unlike the rest of Miller’s works, it is set in England. Here is an explanation from the author, included in the 2005 Allen & Unwin version that I read:

All the episodes [which take place in 1952], not just a few of them, may be traced back to actual events and experiences in my life, and in the lives of the people, and some of the animals, portrayed here. There was such a stag as the Tivington nott, a horse such as Kabara, a cocky Australian who owned him, a farmer for whom I laboured for two years and who had rightly earned the nickname, ‘Tiger’, a labourer by the name of Morris with whom I lived, a harbourer who would know himself in the figure of Grabbe, and a huntsman of the Devon and Somerset who broke his neck while chasing a hind one winter afternoon. I loved them all, and loved the landscape they inhabited. Briefly, they were my reality.

In some ways, I could stop this review right there since it is a perfect summary of the book (note in particular “I loved them all”) — perhaps the addition of a personal opinion that Miller tells this story exceptionally well would provide the best conclusion. And in offering that enthusiastic endorsement, let me say it shows that Miller overcame a number of well-ingrained, going-in prejudices.

Firstly, I’m not a fan of memoirs, fictional or otherwise. Too often, I find them to be self-indulgent, manipulated versions of history — I’d rather the author let his or her imagination run wild instead of offering a sanitized version of what happened. Miller disposed of this personal bias from the opening paragraph: The Tivington Nott may be based on real events that Miller lived through but the author applies himself conscientiously and completely to developing a fair portrait of what he experienced, including the people (and animals) that were involved.

Secondly, the elements of the story lie far from my interests. Until I picked up the book, I did not know what a “nott” is (a stag without antlers, if you share my ignorance). While I knew elements of rural English society hunted foxes to their death while mounted and chasing a pack of hunting dogs, I wasn’t aware that in parts of the country this also involved deer. I can say with certainty that if I lived in England, then or now, I would be firmly anti-hunt. Once the characters have been introduced, The Tivington Nott is the story of a hunt — to Miller’s credit, I was sympathetically engrossed in the narrative throughout.

Let me offer an extended excerpt where Miller introduces both himself and some of the characters noted above as in illustration of how the author both offers insight of those around him and places himself suitably in the picture:

Even though he is a real grinder I did not mind working for the Tiger. He is not just an uncomplicated farmer. His hard good sense about managing the farm deserts him when it comes to the matter of hunting the wild deer on Exmoor. He fears this passion as a disability and is forever guarding himself against it. Everything he does is complicated for him by this duality in his nature. He tried to get me to address him as ‘Master’ when I first came here from London two years ago. It is the tradition and Morris [the senior farm labourer] abides by it. I respect traditions and have one or two of my own. One of them is not calling people ‘Master’. I could see how much it meant to Tiger to have me conform, however, so I did have a go at it, just to be fair. But it was no good. I couldn’t look him in the eye and say it. I wasn’t being stubborn. There was more to it than that.

Tiger is just a tenant farmer and, as noted, a “grinder” who works his staff hard. But when it comes to the hunt, as that excerpt indicates, his self-image becomes more one of “nearly a squire”. His class is undoubtedly a cut or two below the other hunters, but in both dress and behavior, he tries to narrow the gap. The “grinder” becomes a bit of a sycophant.

What sets the drama off is the arrival in the neighborhood of the “cocky Australian”, Alsop, and his impressive hunting stud, Kabara. Like Tiger, Alsop has pretensions to become one of the upper, hunting classes — unlike Tiger, he has the money to follow through on them.

Alsop’s plan comes apart early in the book when he crashes his car into a rural stone wall and disables himself. He needs someone to look after Kabara and looks to Tiger, whose own hunting stock consists of two, not impressive, geldings. Sensing that Alsop will need to sell the stud (at almost any price) Tiger accepts — and turns the stud over to the narrator.

Miller proves to be an excellent hand at this, exclusively because he lets Kabara have his head and only offers gentle guidance — the stud is more than willing to go along with this bargain. The narrator is fully aware that Tiger, with his “dominate the horse” approach to riding and hunting, will face immediate disaster if he ever mounts the horse — the horse will definitely best the man.

All of which sets up the hunt that occupies most of the 167 pages of the novel. Tiger agrees to take Kabara along as his “second” horse, tended by the narrator. But he instructs Miller to hunt the horse hard, rather than just standing by — he wants the horse to return from the hunt exhausted in order to lower the price he will offer Alsop.

All of that suggests a narrative of simple lives in a closed society that has its own complicated set of hierarchy and rules, all of which the author develops with careful precision. The narrator is certainly an active participant but you can tell from the start that Miller, when he actually lived these events, was every bit as much an acute observer as he was a part of the action.

Miller’s prose is definitely one of the reasons this endeavour succeeded so well for me. For the most part, it is tight and almost journalistic — but when he decides to divert into extended description of nature or action, he does it perfectly.

His eye for characters, and the ability to bring them to life, is equally impressive. This novel, particularly when we get to the hunt, involves a number of individuals from very different classes in a community. Miller finds the ideal balance between sympathetic and critical portrayal to bring both the individuals and broader community to impressive life.

Discipline in writing, discipline in character and, perhaps most impressively, discipline in length — too many authors who can deliver on the first two often fail on that final one. The Tivington Nott is a longish novella/short novel (I read it in one extended sitting) that does not have a single extraneous word. On more than one occasion while reading the book, I thought of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, another gem of a book (with a somewhat similar story) whose author knew exactly what it would take to tell his story.

That makes Alex Miller three for three for me (Autumn Laing is the one I have not yet mentioned). While the three have some similarities, they are very different novels — although each one truly showcases a rare talent for prose. This Australian sure can write and I am delighted to know that I have eight more novels to go (and he is still publishing — yeah!). Stay tuned.

2014 kimbofo While I have an ongoing Alex Miller project, I saved this novel for this month as part of Kimbofo at Reading Matters May project encouraging the reading of Australian and New Zealand books. For full details on the project (and links to reviews from others who are participating), click here. I hope to get to at least two other Antipodean books before the month is out.

Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels

April 22, 2014

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

My reading of Us Conductors was very much influenced by the confluence of two streams of personal serendipity, so it seems only right that I acknowledge them before discussing the novel itself.

Strange as it may seem, stream one originates with the hugely entertaining UK television series, Midsomer Murders. Mrs. KfC and I are fans and have been entertaining ourselves in the last few months by revisiting our DVD collection. Along the way, we paused to watch the show’s tenth anniversary special and I was intrigued when the series music director talked about his decision to use the “theremin” in Midsomer Murders’ distinctive theme. While I enjoy many types of music (and almost always have something playing while I read), I’m no expert — and I’d never heard of the theremin. Some quick Internet research left me intrigued.

Stream two has a much stronger literary connection. Since 1996, Random House of Canada has been running its New Face of Fiction program. Every year the publisher features at least one (and often more) debut Canadian novel and they have an enviable record of success in spotting superb new writers. Ann-Marie MacDonald, Yann Martel, Timothy Taylor, Drew Hayden Taylor and Alexi Zentner are just a few of the exceptional authors who first appeared under the New Face of Fiction banner (you can see the full list here — I’ve read many and heartily recommend almost every title).

Us Conductors is this year’s only title. I was looking forward to it and (here comes the confluence) became even more intrigued when the book arrived — it’s based on the life story of Lev Termen, the Russian scientist and inventor who in the early decades of the twentieth century gave the world the theremin. Three weeks before I had never even heard of the instrument and here’s a whole novel about its inventor!

A theremin

A theremin

What’s a theremin? It’s an electronic box, much like the one by your tv set, with two antennas emerging from it — one sticking straight up, the other a loop. The world’s first electronic musical instrument (pre-Moog synthesizer, although Moog markets the modern version), the straight antenna controls pitch, the looped one volume. The musician “plays” the instrument with movements much like an orchestra conductor (the cover of the novel is a fair representation), the right hand controlling pitch, the left volume. The sound is very distinctive but talented players can produce quite recognizable versions of classic pieces (more on this later in the review).

That’s enough background on KfC’s going-in attitude — let’s get to the book itself. Part One of Us Conductors consists of a journal that Lev Termen is writing from a below-decks locked cabin on a ship, the Stary Bolshevik. He is on his way back to Russia (obviously as at least a semi-prisoner) after some decades in the United States. He is addressing his journal to Clara Rockmore: “My one true love, finest theremin player the world will ever know”. Here’s the way the novel opens:

I was Leon Termen before I was Dr Theremin and before I was Leon, I was Lev Sergeyvich. The instrument that is now known as a theremin could as easily have been called a leon, a lyova, a sergeyvich. It could have been called a clara, after its greatest player. Pash liked “termenvox.” He likes its connotations of science and authority. But this name always made me laugh. Termenvox — the voice of Termen. As if this device replicated my own voice. As if the theremin’s trembling soprano were the song of this scientist from Leningrad.

I laughed at this notion, and yet in a way I think I also believed it. Not that the theremin emulated my voice, but that with it I gave voice to something. To the invisible. To the ether. I, Lev Sergeyvich Termin, mouthpiece of the universe.

As Lev chronicles his story, we learn that his first invention, while still at Petrograd University, was “the radio watchman”:

I was still a student, scarcely out of adolescence, and I invented a magical box. The radio watchman emits an invisible electro-magnetic field and then waits for a disruption. If a human body passes inside this field, the circuit closes and an alarm goes off.

Imagine a vigilant wireless set, keeping guard.

The principles of the radio watchman eventually evolve into the idea of the theremin — Lev begins developing it while employed at the Physico-Technical Institute in 1921. He demonstrates his first model to the engineers and physicists there and they are impressed. Indeed, so impressed that he soon demonstrates it to Lenin himself. And the new Russian rulers, eager to show people that their regime equals exciting new science send him on a tour to give concerts around the country.

It is not long before global politics takes over. Lev’s discovery (and it is only one of many that spring from his brain) is viewed as a national asset that needs to be exploited. With Pash as his minder (Lev is hopeless at normal things like administration and business), he is sent to America — not as a normal type of “spy” but rather an early version of global corporate espionage. Lev’s inventions get the pair into companies like RCA Victor (which actually contracted to build the first commercial theremins — the Crash of 1929 coincided with their launch and sales were few); once inside the organizations, Pash goes to work on finding information that is of use to the mother country.

While things are going well in the initial pre-Crash years, Lev does all this from a posh suite at the Plaza Hotel. When those bills mount up, the wealthy husband of one of his theremin students offers him the use of a four-storey midtown brownstone that becomes rehearsal hall, laboratory and living quarters. It is the jazz age and Lev is living the good life — he meets Clara (who switches from the violin to theremin), falls in love with her despite her being much younger and enjoys considerable early success.

Throughout Part One of the novel, I found myself comparing it favorably to Jean Echenoz’s Lightning, an excellent novella based on the American adventures of Nikolai Tesla, another Russian scientific genius (also with no everyday life skills), who a century before Lev Termen had followed the same route. Both books not only make invention and science an interesting story, they offer insightful pictures of the New York of the day.

Clara Rockmore playing her theremin

Clara Rockmore playing her theremin

Part One of Us Conductors exceeded all my considerable expectations — I even spent $10 to buy Clara Rockmore’s “Lost Theremin” album from iTunes to play along as I read it. (If you are interested but not up to the investment, a You Tube of her playing Saint-Saens’ The Swan can be found here — she’s accompanied on the piano by her sister, who also features in the novel).

Alas, Us Conductors has a Part Two and that locked cabin on the Stary Bolshevik is ample foreboding. Part Two is also a journal directed to Clara — this one written in 1947, eight years after Lev’s return to Russia. Stalin was firmly in control when he arrived, his American experience was viewed as treason not a service to the state and he was soon off to the Gulag. He has “escaped” that fate by the time he is writing the journal — his inventing abilities are now being exploited in Moscow where he is resident in one of the state’s “scientific prisons”.

While Part One was an entertaining and illuminating fantasy, despite its basis in real life, Part Two fell flat with me — I have trouble reading fiction about Stalinist prison life when it is written by Russians who experienced it and balk completely at versions produced by Western writers. To Michaels’ credit, he does conclude with a plot twist that restored my interest.

I’d like to quote Michaels’ “Author’s Note and Acknowledgements” as an indication of the spirit of the novel. While it is based on known facts about Termen’s life, “it is full of distortions, elisions, omission, and lies”. In the real life, the author saw the elements of a good story — and at least in the first half, he certainly delivered on it.

Perhaps, in the interests of being honest myself, I should follow Michaels’ approach. My Midsomer Murders and previous New Face of Fiction experience left me inclined to like this novel — and I very much did, until another stream of serendipity (aversion to Gulag fiction) provided a stronger, negative current. Other readers may well not experience the disappointment in the second part of the book that I did. And even with that caveat, I would call this another success for the New Face of Fiction project.

Embers, by Sándor Márai

April 14, 2014

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Translated by Carol Brown Janeway

While it was hardly a deliberate decision on my part, Embers is the third “dinner-based” translated novel that I have read in the last year:

Herman Koch’s The Dinner involves two contemporary Dutch couples. The first third of this one is an hilarious put-down of those restaurants where the waiter spends more time explaining what is on the plate he just put in front of you than it takes you to eat it. Then the book takes a turn to the dark side and the four become increasingly selfish and dislikable as the novel proceeds — by the time you finish it, you can’t stand any one of them.

Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast opens with a mother and two children preparing the meal of the title while they await the arrival of father. Again, about a third of the way through the book it turns noir as the child narrator begins revealing more and more about her father’s abusive nature. The feast is anything but joyous.

Embers, first published in Hungary in 1942, predates both those works by decades but a quick Google scan shows that it has been a reader favorite ever since. The dinner in this one involves neither a pretentious restaurant nor a waiting family — rather it is a meal involving two military men who have not seen each other for decades.

It does involve appropriate formality: in the opening pages, the host (“the General”) instructs his gamekeeper to harness the Landau, don full-dress livery and head to the White Eagle in the nearby town and tell them that the carriage awaits the Captain who is staying there. And author Marai wastes little time in letting the reader know that this dinner will involve a return to an ominous shared history:

There was a calendar hanging on the wall. Its fist-sized numbers showed August 14. The General looked up at the ceiling and counted: August 14. July 2. He was calculating how much time had elapsed between that long ago and today. “Forty-one years,” he said finally, half aloud. Recently he had been talking to himself even when he was alone in the room. “Forty years”, he then said, confused, and blushed like a schoolboy who’s stumbled in the middle of a lesson, tilted his head back and closed his watering eyes. His neck reddened and bulged over the maize-yellow collar of his jacket. “July 2, 1899, was the day of the hunt,” he murmured, then fell silent. Propping his elbows on the desk like a student at his studies, he want back to staring at the letter [which announced the Captain's impending arrival] with its brief handwritten message. “Forty-one,” he said again, hoarsely. “And forty-three days. Yes, exactly.”

The General has been living in a single room of his castle since that day:

For decades now, since he had moved into this wing of the building, and torn down the dividing wall, this large, shadowy chamber had replaced the two rooms. Seventeen paces from the door to the bed. Eighteen paces from the wall on the garden side to the balcony. Both distances counted off exactly.

He lived here as an invalid lives within the space he has learned to inhabit. As if the room had been tailored to his body. Years passed without him setting foot in the other wing of the castle, in which salon after salon opened one into the next, first green, then blue, then red, all hung with gold chandeliers.

It is worth noting the details in those excerpts, because that approach will continue throughout the 213-page volume. As you can probably tell from the foreboding in those brief excerpts, the General has been nursing vengeance throughout those 41 years — when he instructs his “nurse” (he’s 75, she’s 91, but the clock has effectively been stopped for some time for the two of them) to open the dining room in the castle and set the table for two, we know that the dinner will serve as his excuse to exercise it.

Just a bit of back story, to help set the stage. The General and the Captain first met as pre-teenage youths at a military academy and became inseparable friends. While both came from military families, the General has both breeding and money — the Captain came from a military tradition but his Polish parents have fallen on tough economic times and are sacrificing everything to enable him to attend the academy. And to add a bit of spice to the story, he’s a distant relative of Chopin and is musical himself — even as a child, the General could not understand this “emotional”, non-rational interest/talent of his friend.

Once that back story is in place, the dinner can begin. While it is ostensibly a conversation between the two, Embers, like The Mussel Feast, is effectively a monologue — the General has been preparing for this occasion since that fateful hunt 41 years ago and he gives his guest precious few openings to take part in the conversation.

Part of what is so impressive about Embers is the careful, precise way that the General proceeds with his story over dinner and I don’t want to spoil that by revealing details. He is a deliberate, non-emotional, calculating soul — like any accomplished military man, he has prepared his “assault” with careful precision. For the reader, part of the strength of the book is the chilling way that he moves in on his target and what happened on that day of the hunt — and the lonely pain that has dominated his life ever since.

The result of all of this is an engrossing, compelling read. If anything, the General’s total lack of emotion makes the story even more fearsome as it unfolds. To Marai’s credit, it felt like I was sitting at the dinner table myself, between the two combatants, watching with horror as his attack gathered force. Embers is a quick read (I finished it in two sessions) and it is a good thing — I think the author would have been over-reaching if he tried to sustain it for another 100 pages. Having said that, I would be hard pressed to name a more powerful novel that I have read in the last couple of years.

One final observation: All three of the “dinner” books that I have cited invite an allegorical interpretation. Vanderbeke has said that The Mussel Feast is intended as an allegory of life in Soviet-dominated East Germany. Koch’s novel can certainly be read as an allegory for contemporary Europe. And Embers is set in 1940 Hungary during the Nazi era — Marai never references it directly but the Empire that the General and Captain were trained to defend has been replaced by an even more frightful one.

I don’t like to offer my interpretations of allegories in reviews here. It seems to me they are best developed between the author, his story and the individual reader — and putting my version forward here is worse than a bad spoiler. Suffice to say that you will probably find one if you choose to pick up the book — and it is probably every bit as valid today as it was in the war era when this fine novel was written.

Kicking The Sky, by Anthony De Sa

April 6, 2014

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Anthony De Sa is an author who arrived with some impact for me in 2008 with his debut story collection, Barnacle Love. Shortlisted for that year’s Giller Prize (I liked it every bit as much as the winner, Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce), the collection was actually two distinct sets of linked stories.

The first told the story of Manuel, a Portuguese fisherman, and his arrival as an immigrant in Newfoundland. The second set followed Manuel and his family to Toronto, changed the narrative perspective to his young son Antonio and ended up portraying ethnic life in inner-city Toronto (which happens to be one of the city’s distinctive charms). Both worked for me: Barnacle Love was like two novellas that captured very different aspects of the immigrant experience.

In a sense, De Sa returns to that same world with this debut novel — Antonio is again the central character and the key dramatic incident in this book was the subject of one of the stories in Barnacle Love. That event, based in real life, was the abduction and murder in 1977 of Emanuel Jaques, a shoeshine boy lured to his death by a group of pedophiles with the promise of easy money. The crime became one of those symbols that captures a moment in the development of a city — in this case, the fact that Toronto’s “main street”, Yonge, had descended into the squalor and vice that seems to be part of becoming a metropolis.

Like Antonio’s family, Emanuel was from the Azores and the Portuguese neighborhood where Antonio lives is both preoccupied and outraged by the crime:

It was the summer that no one slept. During the last sticky week in July, the air abandoned us, failing to stir and stream through our streets and between our crooked alleys. The grass in our lanes stood tall and still, barely rooted to an urban soil of gravel and discarded candy wrappers. The narrow brick row houses that lined Palmerston Avenue and Markham Street — painted electric blue or yellow or lime green — became buffers to the city noise. A persistent hum was all we heard.

I can pinpoint the very moment it all started to change, when the calm broke: when news that twelve-year-old Emanuel Jaques had disappeared spread through our neighborhood in the whispered prayers of women returning from Mass. They gathered along their fences and on their verandas speaking in hushed tones that went silent whenever children drew near. We ignored their anxious looks and their occasional shouts to get home and lock the doors.

Eleven-year-old Antonio and his friends, Manny and Ricky, hang out in the back alleys and garages of Toronto’s Little Portugal and they make a pact to go in search of Emanuel’s killer — a pact that goes nowhere when the shoeshine boy’s body is found four days after his disappearance. But just as the crime became a symbol for the larger city, it develops as an even bigger symbol for this young threesome and their lives.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

The early part of Kicking The Sky features many of the elements (indeed, repeating incidents) from Barnacle Love that attracted me to that collection. De Sa’s portrayal of the ethnic neighborhood is both realistic and evocative. Its isolation from the city around it is offset by a collection of preserved customs: Antonio’s front yard features a crèche where a carefully-painted statue of Christ is ensconced behind plexiglass in an old bathtub stood on end, the men and women of the neighborhood annually butcher a pig in one of the back lane garages (a coming-of-age event for Antonio when he is allowed to participate).

In this novel, however, De Sa soon moves to a much darker side. The threesome of youngsters is one example: Antonio’s family is dysfunctional, Manny steals and sells bikes to get along, Ricky (whose drunken father beats him regularly) earns his money by masturbating adult men who stick their penises through a hole in the wall at the local pool hall.

The story acquires an even more foreboding turn with the arrival of James, a stranger who takes up residence in one of the area garages and befriends the young threesome, turning the garage into a clubhouse. De Sa presages bad news around James — while the author takes some time before revealing he is a rent boy (which creates some disturbing elements given Emanuel’s death), when he does it hardly comes as a surprise.

In another development that tested my patience, Antonio finds an image of Christ in a limpet shell — and the owner of the local corner store decides that the boy has acquired divine powers and has “cured” her of a chronic affliction. Antonio’s father, whose basement excavating business is struggling, turns him into a Lourdes-like attraction. Crowds line up outside the family garage (where Manuel has constructed a stage for the boy) to spend a few seconds in front of him so he can perform healing miracles and they can leave their thanks in a handy tin.

By the halfway point of the novel, De Sa has abandoned his sympathetic portrayal of the neighborhood and its inhabitants and focuses instead on laying on one unlikely dark development after another. I’ve spoiled enough with a couple of examples — rest assured, there are many more.

The end result, for this reader at least, was a very disappointing book. There were enough reminders early on of De Sa’s ability to capture a neighborhood and develop ethnic characters that it brought back fond memories of Barnacle Love — alas, as the author moved into the book they became mere echoes of the previous experience and were replaced by far more disturbing (and less convincing) material.

In summation, if you come across a copy of Barnacle Love, pick it up; the two sets of interlinked stories are both substantial achievements and it is a very good collection. This novel, on the other hand, you can easily give a miss.

The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner

March 26, 2014

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Rachel Kushner introduces us to Reno as the young woman is heading across Nevada on her new Moto Valera motorcycle. She is on her way to the Salt Flats of Utah where she is about to a) set a new world speed record for a woman driving a motorcycle and b) as a proponent of Land Art, turn that experience into a work of “art” with her camera.

Let’s address that “art” concept first. Here’s the way author Kushner presents its genesis to the reader:

When I was little, skiing in the Sierras, I felt that I was drawing on the mountain’s face, making big sweeping graceful lines. That was how I had started to draw, I’d told Sandro, as a little girl, five, six years old, on skis. Later, when drawing became a habit, a way of being, of marking time, I always thought of skiing. When I began ski racing, slalom and giant slalom, it was as if I were tracing lines that were already drawn, and the technical challenge that shadowed the primary one, to finish with a competitive time, was to stay perfectly in the lines, to stay early through the gates, to leave no trace, because the harder you set your skis’ metal edge, the bigger wedge of evidence you left, the more you slowed down. You wanted no snow spraying out behind you. You wanted to be traceless. To ride a flat ski as much as possible. The ruts that cut around and under the bamboo gates, deep trenches if the snow was soft, were to be avoided by going high, by picking a high and graceful line, with no sudden swerves or shuddering edges, as I rode the rails to the finish.

Reno will set that record on the salt flats, but the artistic side of the project gets literally blown off course — a gust of wind means she crashes her cycle shortly after crossing the speed measuring line. Even that accident has a side benefit, however. Team Valera is also aiming for the world car speed record. And when their driver has set that, to keep a competing American squad off the flats, they put a bandaged-up Reno in the car — and she proceeds to set the woman’s world record in that class as well.

While Reno was born and schooled in Nevada, she has moved to New York to pursue her art interests and is now part of the 1970s art community in SoHo. She has been taken up as a student and lover by an established installation artist, Sandro — we don’t know yet that he is Sandro Valera, son of the Italian family that makes the motorcycles and cars, but we will soon. He is the one who arranged for her to get that competitive motor cycle although the excuse for the gift was the artistic side of the project.

He pretended I was placed in his life to torture him, when it was really the other way around. He acted smitten but I was the smitten one. Sandro held all the power. He was older by fourteen years and a successful artist, tall and good-looking in his work clothes and steel-toed boots — the same kinds of clothes that Bobby and Scott and Andy [Reno's Nevadan uncle and cousins who had a trucking business] wore, but on Sandro they added up to something else: a guy with a family inheritance who could use a nail gun, a drill press, a person not made effete by money, who dressed like a worker or sometimes a bum but was elegant in those clothes, and never hampered by the question of whether he belonged in a given situation (the question itself was evidence of not belonging).

Anyone who has read Kushner’s debut novel Telex From Cuba (I have and I was quite impressed) will be aware that she has a political side to her (one of its themes is the collapse of American economic imperialism in Cuba) and that theme shows up here as well. It is introduced with a brief prologue from 1917 featuring a Valera who is part of the Italian cycle battalion in that war. In chapters dropped into the main narrative, we follow the Valera family into their support of Mussolini during WWII and their imperialist development of exploitative rubber plantations in Brazil during and after the war. Fast cars and motorcycles may be the Valera firm’s branding — they make most of their considerable fortune off of selling perfectly ordinary tires. Needless to say, Sandro the New York artist rejects the family business, although he is quite content to live off its proceeds.

With those threads in place, author Kushner allows Reno to roam. Much of the book is spent with the contemporary art community in New York — we meet dealers, patrons and most importantly unconventional “artists” pursuing the oddball projects that characterized the era (I won’t even offer an example but they did produce more than the occasional chuckle).

The book also spends some time with the Valera family in Italy. Reno’s world-record status means that she has been invited to take part in a Valera promotional tour, but Sandro insists they must first spend a week with his mother at the family villa on the slopes above Lake Como. It is 1975 and Italy is in political turmoil with Red Brigade demonstrations and kidnappings — needless to say the industrial empire of the Valeras and the family itself are targets.

An unconventional notion of “art”, a troubled love-life and the global politics of inequality — even in summary outline, that suggests a cluttered agenda for the novel and for this reader that was the biggest problem with The Flamethrowers. Each of the story lines held interest, but as the book bounces from one to the other it became a distraction. Each time one thread got interesting, the author moved to another one and the threads never really come together. Kushner is both an accomplished stylist and clever storyteller but the novel never became the sum of its parts.

It is only fair to note that my somewhat grumpy assessment is not shared by an assortment of prize juries, where The Flamethrowers has been a regular feature in recent months — a New York Times 2013 Top Ten book, a finalist for the National Book Award in the U.S., shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize in the U.K. and now shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize). While it has not emerged as a winner, that is still an impressive list.

I should also note that while reading the book I found myself frequently comparing it to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, another well-reviewed novel about which I was ambivalent. Tartt’s novel also has a strong “art” element, spends a lot of time in Nevada and New York and sends its central character off to Europe as part of the drama of the plot. If you liked one, I suspect you would like the other — I am quite aware that many readers and critics don’t share my assessment that both books have too much clutter to them.

There is definitely much talent on display in The Flamethrowers — I can’t help but conclude, however, that Kushner has a better book waiting in her future.

The Thing About December, by Donal Ryan

March 19, 2014

Purchase at the Book Depository

Purchase at the Book Depository

Irish author Donal Ryan made a fair splash last summer with his debut novel, The Spinning Heart. It made the Booker longlist and would have been my personal second choice, after Jim Crace’s Harvest.

I read at the time that Ryan had been working on another novel simultaneously with the writing of The Spinning Heart and was looking forward to it — a debut is one thing, and two-book contracts are common, but a double debut is almost unheard of. The Thing About December was published in Ireland last year at virtually the same time as The Spinning Heart — it was released in the UK earlier this year. Now that I have read The Thing About December I am even more impressed with Ryan’s achievement.

I apologize for referencing both the books here, but I am afraid that is an inevitable product of my reading experience. They feature no common characters and certainly stand independently — but for this reader, the collective experience of the two really is greater than the sum of the very worthy individual parts.

The Spinning Heart features a unique structure — in a slim 156 pages, the reader hears from 21 different individuals in a rural Irish community following the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, each of whom gets his or her own short chapter. The community is home to one of Ireland’s “ghost estates” and the common thread of the 21 stories is how that collapse has affected (and torn apart) the community and its residents.

The Thing About December also features an unconventional structure, although not quite as uncommon as Ryan’s first book. The 12 chapters in this shortish novel (205 pages) tell the story of a year in the life of Johnsey Cunliffe, broken month-by-month from January to December. If The Spinning Heart presents a contemporary Irish community from 21 perspectives, this novel approaches the same challenge from a single one.

And part of the conceit is that it is a seriously incomplete one. Johnsey is not quite all there, a “gom”, an “eejit”, a “retard” (yes, that politically incorrect label actually appears). Here’s how Ryan sets that up for the reader in the opening pages of the book:

He heard Daddy one time saying he was a grand quiet boy to Mother when he thought Johnsey couldn’t hear them talking. Mother must have been giving out about him being a gom and Daddy was defending him. He heard the fondness in Daddy’s voice. But you’d have fondness for an auld eejit of a crossbred pup that should have been drowned at birth. He’d be no use for anything only eating and shiteing and he’d be an awful nuisance, but still and all you’d give him the odd rub and a treat, and you’d nearly always be kind to him because it wasn’t his fault he was a drooling fool of a yoke. You wouldn’t be going around showing him off to people, that’s for sure.

Using a central narrator who is a few bricks shy of a load is a risky device and it has to be said that Ryan demands some licence from the reader: in accepting Johnsey’s incompleteness in some areas, we also have to accept the author’s need to have him be a very complete individual in other aspects. I had no trouble doing this — indeed, I came to like Johnsey more and more as the novel proceeded.

Just as The Spinning Heart slowly put together a community from 21 viewpoints, this novel is as much about the people in the village where Johnsey lives as it is the narrator’s life. By way of example, here is Packie Collins, the owner of the co-op where Johnsey works. Daddy has died a few months before the novel opens and Johnsey’s job is the centre of his limited life: “[Packie] told Johnsey every day that he was only allowing him work in the co-op out of respect for his father, Lord have mercy on him. He was a liability“:

Packie was forever going on about the wages he was forced to pay Johnsey and the terrible injustice that was being perpetrated on the small business with this minimum wage malarkey. Well if it came in he could sing for it, Packie said. There was a thing in there in that law that said lads without their full faculties weren’t entitled to it, anyway.

Johnsey wasn’t exactly sure what faculties were but he knew there were no bits missing off of him on the outside, so it must be something inside him that Packie thinks is not right and stops him from getting the minimum wage. Johnsey knew what minimum meant: a point, below which you could not go. There weren’t as many flies on Johnsey as Packie made out. He knew all about the new law coming in. But what about it, Packie knew no law only his own, and points below which you may not go would not apply to Johnsey.

Those observations about Packie feature both an incompleteness and depth of perception in Johnsey’s narration that occur frequently in the novel; it sometimes grates, but works more often than not. And Ryan uses the device to introduce many other members of the community. To cite just a few examples: the Unthinks who are long-time friends of Johnsey’s family and feed him lunch daily at their bakery; the caddish Dermot McDermot, who leases land from the Cunliffes (Daddy’s economic lot was declining long before his death); and Eugene Penrose and the dole boys who taunt Johnsey every day on his way home from work.

The author finds ways to give us sketches of that cast in the first three “months” of the book; the story picks up steam when Mother dies in March and Johnsey is left alone.

That’s when the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger comes into play. This novel is set pre-collapse — indeed, the local village has the chance to become home to one of those developments that feature in The Spinning Heart. Trouble is, the development cannot proceed without the land that Johnsey now owns outright. And his completeness/incompleteness comes fully into play in this part of the story — instead of being the village oddity, he is central to its future, even if he himself does not realize it.

The best Irish fiction involves characters who are prisoners of external circumstance and, in both these debut novels, Ryan provides a contemporary version of that narrative. They certainly worked for me although I can see where other readers might find that the author is pushing just too hard to make his point. They represent two quite different ways of portraying a community of ordinary people — as different as the narrative structures are, it is that sense of community that makes both novels a success. They are not perfect books (and the characters in them are anything but perfect), but they are rewarding ones.

And, as I said earlier, the impact of the two is greater than merely the sum of the parts. Donal Ryan’s writing career is off to a very good start.

Minister Without Portfolio, by Michael Winter

March 6, 2014

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Let’s start this review with a (somewhat stretched) premise: Newfoundland is to Canada as Ireland is to the British Isles. Both are craggy islands, located off the mother ship (okay, Canada has no version of Northern Ireland). Both are known internationally for natural food resource stocks that come to grief: Newfoundland’s cod, Ireland’s potatoes. Both have economies that produce diasporas — Ireland’s is global, but Alberta’s booming Fort McMurray has always had more than its share of Newfies.

I won’t push the comparison any further except on my most important point: whatever the cultural and economic drivers may be, both Ireland and Newfoundland serve as crucibles that produce more than their fair share of excellent fiction writers. And Michael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio is an excellent example that supports that argument.

The central character in this novel, Henry Hayward, could serve as a prototype for the contemporary “Newfie” story. The island has provided no employment opportunities but an entrepreneurial schoolmate, Rick Tobin, has developed more than a couple. Tobin runs a booming service business in Alberta’s oil sands, staffed by Newfoundlanders who fly in and out on two-week shifts. And with Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan he has developed another arm of his empire, supplying contract workers who service the Canadian armed forces base.

It is that latter business venture that starts Henry’s story in Minister Without Portfolio. His best buddy, John Hynes, has worked for Tobin in Alberta for some time, but the Afghan enterprise has provided a more lucrative opportunity for them both. In their work there, the two will come under the protection of Tender Morris, who has chosen the army reserves as his escape from Newfoundland’s poverty. Here’s the way that Winter sets that backstory:

Rick Tobin was three years older than John and Henry and Tender Morris but they knew him growing up in the west end of St. John’s. Little Rick was a bantam cock in his blue overalls, all hundred and forty pounds of him bounding into things. Rick had energy that bewildered Henry and he was not the first to realize Rick could channel this force into ambition and drive and learn how to connect labour with materials and funnel them into the delivery of small services to small towns along the shore. It floored him, how successful Rick was. He had married Colleen Grandy and moved into her town which was down the road from where John and Silvia had a summer house. Renews. Tender Morris had been left a house there too by a great-aunt, a house Tender Morris was going to fix up some day if he ever got out of the military. Henry asked Rick if he worried about leaving the city for such a small place.

I’m never home, Rick said. If Colleen is happy then I’m happy.

I’d like to think that excerpt illustrates my Irish/Newfoundland comparison. The protagonists may by involved in global events, but the forces that put them there are very much based at home — and that’s where their primary interests lie. We might have to make our money somewhere else, but we will be bringing it back home.

In Afghanistan, Henry’s “contract” work increasingly involves becoming embedded with the activities of Canada’s armed forces there. He and John start wearing combat fatigues and reservist Tender becomes their driver and official protector, as explained by the minister of defence on a July 1 visit there:

The minister had served wild turkey burgers and hotdogs from a train of barbecues with red maple leaf flags on toothpicks punched into the buns. He was celebrating the draw-down in troop allocations as if this was something to be positive about. It was one of those ceremonial dinners where the minister makes sure the national papers have photographed him wearing a festive apron while doling out maple-custard ice cream.

The minister explained to Rick that their contract was being adapted to meet the desire of operational deployment. We have to achieve mission success while operating within an imposed troop ceiling, the minister said. Certain hybrid situations for support trades were being considered. Would they ride with the military? Dressed and armed for robust situations?

That “hybrid situation” develops into a quasi-legal operation, where Henry, John and Tender act as a unit — and it is while trying to define some form for this unit that the title of the novel comes into focus:

Let’s not be Americans, Tender said. Let’s be outlaws. Except for Henry — he’s our minister without portfolio.

What the hell is that.

You’re not committed to anything but you got a hand in everywhere.

Henry accepted this. He didn’t know what it meant but he accepted the position, the honour, the judgement. He didn’t have a wife or a house and he was an employee. He was enjoying, at the moment, the presence of a Canadian female soldier but they were not allowed to kiss or even hold hands and this limitation suited him. He was quietly growing back his pinfeathers for love. They were drinking rum.

The arrangement comes to a tragic end in an incident where Henry and John leave their armored vehicle to search for an IED — it turns out to be a deliberate distraction and Tender meets his death when the vehicle comes under explosive fire. Henry and John return to Newfoundland with Tender’s body, the harsh lessons of their own global experience and a desire to fit back into local life.

I have only supplied the set up to Winter’s novel: the bulk of this book is about what is involved in coming back “from away” and trying to fit those experiences back into life at home. Again, we have an Irish/Newfoundland comparison. While the men are off fighting, the women keep life going at home. When the fighting ends, there are inevitable tensions involved in creating a new reality.

In that sense, Henry really is a minister without portfolio: “not committed to anything…but you got a hand in everywhere”. The novel is about how he tries to make order of his new circumstances once he has returned to Newfoundland.

Much of that story is mundane — rebuilding a falling-down house, picking up old relationships, learning to live life small after experiencing life big — but, again, the threads will be familiar to readers of Irish fiction. Winter is superb at giving that universal story a particular Newfoundland flavor. And I will be the first to say that the way I have chosen to frame this review means it gives short shrift to one of Minister Without Portfolio’s strongest themes — this book features a number of very strong female characters who kept life going while the men are “away” and face their own challenges when those men return.

It was that theme — “the pain of getting back to normal” I’ll call it — that ended up landing most strongly with me, even if I have left it underdeveloped here. Minister Without Portfolio attracted some attention after its release last fall (it was longlisted for the Giller Prize) — I am sure that readers of international fiction would agree with me that it deserves more. Winter has taken a set of global circumstances and made them very local, wherever you happen to live.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

March 1, 2014

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

The event that will supply the continuing themes of The Goldfinch takes place in an extended opening scene of almost 60 pages. Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker and his mother (whom he adores) are on the way to his New York school for a meeting with the principal — he has been suspended for the kind of infraction that is common to teenage boys.

They are early for the appointment and, after exiting a very smelly cab in nauseous disgust (“Hawaiian Tropic and baby poo?”), find themselves caught in a rainstorm outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met is featuring a massive exhibition of Dutch Art (Portraiture and Nature Morte) and Theo’s mother, trained in art history, decides they should pop in for a quick visit (“we can’t see it all on this visit, but there are a few things”). They do a quick tour, during which Theo pays more attention to a striking red-headed girl of his own age than he does to the paintings.

They separate when Theo’s Mom heads to the gift shop — and there is a massive explosion. When Theo regains consciousness, he finds himself in a gallery with the broken body of the white-haired man (grandfather?) who was accompanying the red-headed girl. After some confused non-conversation (the older man seems to be remembering disasters from his past), the moment that will propel the novel occurs:

He was, I saw, pointing over at a dusty rectangle of board, virtually invisible in the broken beams and rubbish, smaller than my laptop computer at home.

“That?” I said, looking closer. It was blobbed with drips of wax, and pasted with an irregular patchwork of crumbling labels. “That’s what you want?”

“I beg of you.” Eyes squeezed tight. He was upset, coughing so hard he could barely speak.

I reached out and picked the board up by the edges. It felt surprisingly heavy, for something so small. A long splinter of broken frame clung to one corner.

Drawing my sleeve across the dusty surface. Tiny yellow bird, faint beneath a veil of white dust. The Anatomy Lesson was in the same book actually but it scared the pants off me. [That's an observation Theo's mother had made about the painting before the explosion.]

The painting is Fabritius’ 1654 masterpiece, The Goldfinch, which supplies the novel’s title. Theo will pick it up and, when the emergency crews evacuate the Met in fear of another explosion, walk away with it unchallenged — an act that will define the rest of his life, as he protects and treasures the masterpiece he has “stolen”.

The incident also introduces two other themes that will continue throughout the 771-page novel. The first is that girl — Pippa — who will float in and out of Theo’s future life, his ardour for her never failing. And that older man, after convincing him to take the painting, also gives him a ring before he dies: “Hobart and Blackwell,” he said, in a voice like he was drowning from the inside out. “Ring the green bell.” It is when Theo returns the ring that he meets Hobie, who will prove to be the only positive adult force in his life.

Those three themes of painting, Pippa and Hobie may extend through the novel, but it follows anything but a steady, straight-forward course. The Goldfinch plot unfolds in a series of lengthy, widely-different episodes:

  • The first section of the book features the adolescent Theo and his post-explosion life in New York. His mother was killed in the incident and he has “alternative” futures — grandparents in Maryland who don’t want him, a no-good father who deserted his mother years earlier, perhaps a foster home. While he awaits an outcome, he lives with the upper-class Barbours, family of a school chum, in a tony Park Avenue apartment. And he meets Hobie.
  • Part two takes place in a “ghost” Las Vegas suburb, abandoned after the 2008 housing crash. It is home to Theo’s father, a gambler, substance-abuser and loan shark victim, and his girl friend and features only one other occupied house amid a slew of semi-complete dwellings. Life with father is where Theo ended up and this section features his high school years and his semi-destructive friendship with Boris, a streetwise young Russian who becomes another constant in the book.
  • When Theo escapes Las Vegas, he heads back to New York (with the carefully-wrapped masterpiece as part of his baggage) and hooks up again with the Barbours and Hobie. Hobie is an antique-dealer and furniture restorer and Theo learns the trade. He also exhibits part of his father’s character and gets involved in some dodgy trading. But he seems to be landing on his feet when he gets engaged to Kitsey Barbour.
  • That conventional life falls apart when Boris reappears with word that the Goldfinch (which Boris has taken, unknown to Theo) may be in Amsterdam, collateral in a drug-based, money-laundering scheme. The two head off on a recovery mission which features a fair bit of violence, a lot of drugs and even more introspection on Theo’s part.
  • And finally there is an extended coda, where all these various storylines are pulled together.
  • I have focused so far on plot, because for this reader that was the strongest aspect of The Goldfinch. Much of the narrative, however, consists of Theo’s internal musings — while I found them far less interesting, it is only fair to offer an example. Here is the way the novel opens:

    While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years. I’d been shut up in my hotel for more than a week, afraid to telephone anybody or go out; and my heart scrambled and floundered at even the most innocent noises: elevator bell, rattle of the minibar cart, even church clocks tolling the hour, de Westertoren, Krijtberg, a dark edge to the clangor, an inwrought fairy-tale sense of doom. By day I sat on the foot of the bed straining to puzzle out the Dutch-language news on television (which was hopeless, since I knew not a word of Dutch) and when I gave up, I sat by the window staring out at the canal with my camel’s-hair coat thrown over my clothes — for I’d left New York in a hurry and the things I’d brought weren’t warm enough, even indoors.

    The Goldfinch is only Tartt’s third novel and I admit that I was looking forward to it. The Secret History, her debut, remains a favorite — a complex and improbable plot is delivered successfully and along the way she supplies concrete substance to a wide cast of characters. The Little Friend was far less successful, although still an enjoyable read.

    Alas, for this reader, The Goldfinch is much more like The Little Friend than The Secret History. Like the debut novel, the plot here is complex and improbable — Tartt does not deal with it nearly as a well.

    A bigger problem was the cast of characters. Plot alone cannot sustain a novel of this length — the characters need to be fully-developed and interesting and that is where The Goldfinch came up short. For my tastes, Theo was just too shallow to engage me; when the narrative headed off into his inner thoughts, I found myself reluctantly following along, waiting for the action to pick up again. And the secondary cast was equally frustrating — Boris never really landed with me, the Barbours were caricatures and only Hobie sparked substantial interest.

    I have read a number of reviews (both in the professional press and from bloggers) of The Goldfinch that were far more positive than this one, so take my lack of enthusiasm with a grain of salt. Theo (and Boris) are far more impressive to these readers than they were for me — perhaps my memory of The Secret History led to too high expectations. There is no doubt that Tartt is an impressive writer; I just think that her 1992 debut showcases those talents much better than this novel does.

    The Mussel Feast, by Birgit Vanderbeke

    February 24, 2014

    Translated by Jamie Bulloch

    Purchased at The Book Depository

    Purchased at The Book Depository

    The Mussel Feast is an interior monologue, the thoughts of a young girl looking back at the evening that supplies the title. I’ll admit that monologues are not my favorite form, generally featuring too much introspection and not enough observation of the broader world for my tastes. But this 1990 novella from Germany not only works, it works exceptionally well — and I would like to focus this review on why it put paid to my ingrained prejudices.

    The process started, in fact, from the very opening:

    It was neither a sign nor a coincidence that we were going to have mussels that evening. Yes, it was slightly unusual, and afterwards we spoke of the mussels as a sign, but they definitely weren’t; we also said they were a bad omen — that’s nonsense too. Nor were the mussels a coincidence. This evening of all evenings, we’d say, we decided to eat mussels. But it really wasn’t like that; you couldn’t call it a coincidence. After the event, of course, we tried to interpret our decision as a sign of coincidence, because what came in the wake of our abortive feast was so monumental that none of us have got over it yet.

    (A note on the quotes in this review: The Mussel Feast is only 105 pages but, true to monologue form, the paragraphs in the narrative extend for several pages. Vanderbeke’s prose and its pace are vital to the book’s success, so I want to quote her — but I warn that what is excerpted here are mere snatches from far longer passages.)

    Those opening sentences did two things for me. First, for a monologue to work, the reader needs not just to be hearing the narrator’s story but to be a participant in it. The author immediately does that: note that there is no “I” but a lot of “we’s” in those six sentences. The narrator may be looking back on what happened — the reader is encouraged to become part of the “we” who were there as well.

    Secondly, there is the combined sense of foreboding (“a bad omen”, “our abortive feast”) and desire for denial (“that’s nonsense, too”, “interpret our decision”). We know from the start that the evening did not turn out well. We also know that the narrator doesn’t want to acknowledge what happened or why but the mere fact that she is engaging in the monologue indicates that she is eventually going to have to do that — the reader is encouraged to become a fellow traveler on that journey.

    The feast of the title is in honor of the father’s return from a presentation: “…that day, which we knew in advance was a special, even historic day for our family, for this business trip was to be the last step on my father’s path to promotion”. Mussels were father’s favorite food: “My brother liked mussels too, whereas my mother and I never cared for them too much”.

    While mother is painstakingly cleaning the mussels (“because my father hated nothing more than grains of sand crunching between his teeth”), the narrator and her brother are preparing the chips that will accompany them:

    But we were allowed to cut the chips; you always have chips with mussels, I don’t care for them much, either, even though Mum cooks the best chips I have ever tasted. My brother, on the other hand, goes crazy for them, they’re unrivalled, he always said; once he even invited all his friends who doubted and teased him about the chips to our house, and my mother made chips for them all, and my brother was terribly proud of her. Since then we’d sometimes help prepare the chips; that evening we peeled the potatoes and cut them into thin batons, increasingly feeling twitchy. Afterwards we said that this was when we started to become anxious, when we suspected something was up; of course it was only afterwards that we knew what would happen. So maybe we were simply twitchy because we were waiting; we always felt twitchy when we waited for my father, there was always a certain tension.

    There again is that foreboding, uncertainty and implications of denial and it has been ratcheted up a fair bit. The monologue diverts a bit to slip in some backstory: the mussels are to be cooked in “a massive pot” that the mother had brought from the East on one of her preliminary trips that set up their escape to West Berlin. These thoughts come to mind as the narrator contemplates the mussels cooking. “It’s mass murder, I said” — which prompts a response from her mother to stop thinking fanciful thoughts:

    …although Mum harbored plenty of fanciful ideas herself; when my father was on business trips the three of us told each other the most fanciful stories, without ever being appalled. Before my father came home, however, all those fanciful ideas vanished, especially my mother’s. My father regarded flights of fancy as childish, my father stood for sober objectivity and reason, and of course my mother showed consideration for his objectivity and reason, conforming and switching to wifey mode when he came home. And when my mother said, what are you talking about, I knew at once that she had switched to wifey mode, and the rage of disgust which I felt toward the mussels was now directed at my mother. Aren’t we allowed to think any more, I said, but my mother said, is that what you call thinking, can’t you think something useful rather than those sinister thoughts. In our family sinister thoughts and fantasies were regarded as squandered thoughts, especially when my father was at home, and although he wasn’t there yet he might arrive at any moment.

    That last quote comes from page 17 of the novella and by that point I was completely engaged in the narrator’s return to the mussel feast, particularly since a putative villain has now been identified. She had introduced enough detail and innocently raised enough disturbing questions about an event that we know turned out badly that I was more than willing to enrol in the memory. Suffice to say the slender volume supplies answers to all the questions that have been raised.

    I realize I am copping out by not telling you more, but I figured this review would be of more value as an “enticement” than a complete overview. If you would like a more conventional (and thorough) review of the book, I would point you to the one that brought me to purchase it, Kimbofo’s at Reading Matters. In that review, she describes reading the book as like peeling an onion — I’ve peeled off the first couple layers, but I’ll leave finding the heart of the story to yourself. It is well worth the effort.

    Plainsong, by Kent Haruf

    January 30, 2014

    Purchased at Indigo.ca

    Purchased at Indigo.ca

    Holt, Colorado is a fictional small town on the High Plains east of Denver. Like most towns of the kind in both the U.S. and Canada, it is bisected by a railway line with grain elevators and stock-loading facilities on the side. The tracks are paralleled by Railroad Street, itself crossed by Main Street. Here is the first description that Kent Haruf provides of the town — Ike and Bobby Guthrie (aged nine and ten) are on the way to the train station in the early morning to pick up their bundle of the Denver News for delivery to residents:

    They rode along the gravel road and passed the old vacated light plant, its high windows boarded over, and turned onto the pavement at Main Street and then bounced over the railroad tracks onto the cobblestone platform at the depot. It was a single-story redbrick building with a green tile roof. Inside was a dim waiting room smelling of dust and being closed up, and three or four highbacked pewlike wood benches set in rows facing the train tracks and a ticket office with a single window set behind black grillwork. An old green milk wagon on iron wheels stood outside on the cobblestones beside the wall. The wagon was never used anymore. But Ralph Black, the depot agent, admired the way it looked on the platform and he left it there. The passenger trains only stopped in Holt for five minutes, coming and going, long enough to allow the two or three passengers to board or get off and for the man in the baggage car to drop the Denver News onto the platform beside the tracks.

    Plainsong, published in 1999, is the first Haruf novel that I have read, but I was aware before picking it up (thanks to Kimbofo at Reading Matters and David who is a welcome regular commenter here) that Holt, Colorado is the author’s created, chosen venue for his fiction. This novel introduces what may or may not be a trilogy (Eventide and Benediction are the other two, their titles suggesting at least some connection) and my understanding is that Haruf has located his other novels there as well.

    In making that choice, Haruf uses a device that is also employed by a number of KfC favorites. Canada’s W.O. Mitchell locates both Who Has Seen The Wind and Jake and the Kid in a Canadian version of the prairie town (sorry, both read well before the blog began but I promise to reread them eventually). Sherwood Anderson set his outstanding story collection, Winesburg, Ohio, in another version, albeit one located well east of Colorado. And three of Larry Watson’s novels reviewed here (Montana 1948, Justice, and White Crosses) take place in his fictional town of Bentrock, Montana.

    These villages have much in common. While there is certainly a bigger world outside them (a brief part of Plainsong actually takes place in Denver), life in the town is pretty much self-contained. Nothing earth-shattering, in the conventional sense of the word, happens in these communities — but they all have their own versions of crises that are every bit as troublesome to the locals. And it is the opportunity to explore the impact of these apparently minor events in detail that leads these talented authors to create their villages.

    Ike and Bobby’s father, Tom Guthrie, is the first adult character we meet in the novel. He is a teacher at the local high school, a proud and devoted father, and his immediate crisis is the withdrawal of his wife from day-to-day life. Haruf introduces this in the early pages — I apologize for the length of this excerpt but it is an excellent illustration of both the tone and detail that the author uses to bring life to the community and individuals who feature in this work:

    He went upstairs once more. In the bedroom he removed a sweater from the chest of drawers and put it on and went down the hall and stopped in front of a closed door. He stood listening but there was no sound from inside. When he stepped into the room it was almost dark, with a feeling of being hushed and forbidding as in the sanctuary of an empty church after the funeral of a woman who had died too soon, a sudden impression of static air and unnatural quiet. The shades on the two windows were drawn down completely to the sill. He stood looking at her. Ella. Who lay in the bed with her eyes closed. He could just make out her face in the halflight, her face as pale as schoolhouse chalk and her fair hair massed and untended, fallen over her cheeks and thin neck, hiding that much of her. Looking at her, he couldn’t say if she was asleep or not, but he believed she was not. He believed she was only waiting to hear what he had come in for, and then for him to leave.

    The Guthrie family’s life is one of three storylines in the novel, so allow me to share Haruf’s introduction of the other two — they will overlap eventually, as all small town lives do. One is the story of the challenges faced by highschooler Victoria Roubideaux:

    Even before she was awake she felt it rising in her chest and throat. Then she rose rapidly from bed in the white underpants and outsized tee-shirt she wore at night and rushed into the bathroom where she crouched on the tile floor, holding her streaming hair away from her face and mouth with one hand and gripping the rim of the bowl with the other while she retched and gagged. Her body was wracked by spasms. Afterward a spit-string swung from her lip, stretched, elongated, then broke off. She felt weak and empty. Her throat burned, her chest hurt. Her brown face was unnaturally pale now, sallow and hollow beneath her cheekbones. Her dark eyes looked larger and darker than ordinary, and on her forehead was a fine film of clammy sweat. She stayed kneeling, waiting for the gagging and paroxysms to pass.

    Okay, the tale of a pregnant teenager in a small town runs the risk of being a cliché — trust me when I say that Haruf makes Victoria a fully-developed, interesting character as the novel progresses.

    And finally, we have the McPherons, two cattle ranchers on a spread just outside of Holt (whom the author doesn’t introduce until almost a quarter of the way through the novel, but you will find there’s a reason for that):

    They had the cattle in the corral already, the mother cows and the two-year-old heifers waiting in the bright cold late-fall afternoon. The cows were moiling and bawling and the dust rose in the cold air and hung above the corrals and chutes like brown clouds of gnats swimming in schools above the cold ground. The two old McPheron brothers stood at the far end of the corral surveying the cattle. They wore jeans and boots and canvas chore jackets and caps with flannel earflaps. At the tip of Harold’s nose a watery drip quivered, then dropped off, while Raymond’s eyes were bleary and red from the cow dust and the cold. They were almost ready now. They were waiting only for Tom Guthrie to come and help, so they could finish this work for the fall. They stood in the corral and looked past the cattle and examined the sky.

    “This work” in that scene is determining which of the heifers are carrying a calf, vaccinating and dehorning them. You don’t have to be a rancher to know that it is an annual, routine task.

    Novels like Plainsong (and those of Mitchell, Anderson and Watson) succeed only if the author can make the normal and routine — and most importantly the people who live that normal routine — involved and interesting, so that the reader can understand how disruptive the “crises” that occur really are to these individuals.

    Haruf does that superbly, for this reader at least. The cast of characters and the community developed a rhythm and completeness of story that had me fully enrolled. While I have never visited a rural Colorado town, I have spent a fair bit of time in Alberta ones — by the close of Plainsong, I felt that Holt was a place I had been to more than once.

    A final note on the ambiguity of the title. From my sketch of the story, you can see that it strives to be a song of life on the plains, routine as that might be. The epigraph to the book cites the dictionary definition: “the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air”.

    A “simple and unadorned melody or air” — that’s as powerful an assessment of the novel as I could imagine. I have both Eventide and Benediction on hand and look forward with much anticipation to my next visit to Haruf’s Holt — like Watson’s Bentrock, I already know that it is quite a special place.


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