Archive for March, 2014

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.


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