Reviewed here: Julius Winsome (Novel); The
Legend of Colton H. Bryant (Biography); Nothing to Lose (Thriller); Cheaper by the Dozen
(Memoir); One Good Turn (Mystery); Closing Time (Memoir); Lucking Out
(Memoir); Anatomy of a Disappearance (Novel); Night Over Water (Thriller); Escape
from Camp 14 (Biography); Giving Up the Ghost (Memoir); The Drop (Mystery)
For lots more, go to Fall Reading 2012
Julius Winsome (Novel) by Gerard Donovan, 2006
This one may not be right off the press, but it jumped off the shelf at me, given the subject matter. I love books about
guys who live alone in the woods or the mountains. (Must be some appeal to my inner misanthropist.) Here we have Julius Winsome,
our first-person narrator, a fifty-ish loner who lives in a cabin in upper Maine, just across the river from New Brunswick.
His dad, now deceased, raised him in the cabin after Julius’ mother died in giving birth to him.
Julius isn’t a total hermit, though. He went to school in the nearby town. He earns a bit of money by doing some
landscaping for rich people in the summer. He also does occasional mechanical work for a garage; there isn’t a piece
of equipment that Julius can’t love and understand. The cabin is lined with the dad’s library of over 3,000 books.
The only problem with the description of this abode, from my point of view, is that the physical circumstances aren’t
fully explained. Julius’ place is three miles from the nearest habitation but, somehow or other, he has electricity,
running water and a toilet. I don’t know how that works. There’s no mention of a generator chugging away in the
background. On the contrary, silence prevails most of the time.
Julius is a rugged, self-sufficient guy and a crack shot with a rifle. We pick up a lot of manly lore about firearms and
such in his memories of his father and grandfather, each of whom fought in the great world war of his generation. But there’s
quite another side to Julius. He cultivates a flower garden in the summer. For reading, he often turns to Shakespeare, particularly
savouring the lists of obsolete words that his dad made him memorize when he was a kid. For listening pleasure via an old
record player, he favours things like "Greensleeves" and the songs of John Dowland. Given that he’s always brewing another
pot of tea (Earl Grey, if you please!), it’s beyond me how the guy ever sleeps. Maybe he has nerves of steel.
All this considered, it might seem that we’re dealing with the archetypical Harlequin lover. In fact, we get
a brief flashback to a love affair with a woman who just happened to stumble across his cabin one fine day. She started turning
up regularly, then she stopped, for no reason that Julius could see at the time. It’s from her that Julius learns that
he’s very handsome (blonde, blue-eyed) and six-foot-three. That latter fact had never occurred to him. His account of
the affair takes only six pages; yet author Gerard Donovan, an Irish poet and novelist now living in England, conveys the
fullness of a deep love within such a short space.
When Julius subsequently meets the woman in town, their terse exchanges have the enigmatic, idiosyncratic quality of an
encounter between two of Alice Munro’s small town characters. That note of authenticity is what stops Julius from being
an idealized romantic hero. There’s great candour and originality in the sound of his voice and his musings. For instance,
this comment on his father’s taciturnity: "My father was so sparing in his words that you had to add water to them before
they swelled into a sentence you could understand." Julius says that his father’s quiet, resigned death from lung cancer
was "measured like cups he took into himself of a substance designed to end him, accepted with grace and without complaint."
While you could never accuse Julius of self-pity, here’s a glimpse of something like an inner desolation:
The evening had come, and the dark crept along the walls holding its own weapons, chief among them loneliness and silence,
and aimed them at me from every corner at once.
The poet in him comes out when he’s outside at night, looks up and sees that: "....there, sharp and icy in the
night, now above the trees and out of the ringing cloud, the white rock spun its stringed music, unheard, above the white
lamp of ground and into the black rooms of the air."
Some of his deepest thoughts have to do with his dog, now deceased. Here’s his meditaiton on a rope the dog used
to play with:
A small broad-chested terrier is not at his happiest until tugging at the other end of a rope, a growl clamped around his
teeth with tail wagging that says, I’m playing. If I had the presence of mind I would have buried the rope with him,
though I felt now that there would be no waking for him in another life, no toy to pick up again, it was this world or none
for him. What he loved in life now conjured him instantly to me, a dog made of thought, captured and held by thought, and
once in the hands of memory, never let go.
The chapters are very short. Often, they’ll end with a cliff-hanger situation and the next chapter will start in
a gentle vein of reminiscence or philosophical musings. The prose is spare and concise. If there’s any flaw in the writing
– or what might be called a characteristic that just happens to irritate me – it would be the constant reference
to the cold winds sweeping down from Canada. Hardly a page goes by without some mention of some such atmospheric conditions.
But I guess you have to accept that, when a guy lives alone in the wild, the weather’s one of the things that gets a
lot of his attention.
All this might make you think that the spirit of Henry David Thoreau permeates the story. It does, but you also have
to know that Julius' tale has a brutal side. Violence comes on suddenly and unexpectedly. It starts with the vicious
killing of Julius’s dog by a hunter. In fact, the hunter's shot opens the novel. What follows is horrifying, in a cold
and calculating way. Police become involved and the tension mounts as the story turns in tighter and tighter circles. The
book could almost be called an under-stated thriller, if there could be such a thing. Near the end, an encounter between Julius
and another person lasts for twenty-four tense pages. Very little is said by either of them on any given page, but the suspense
is nearly unbearable.
There are times when you begin to wonder if Julius has become unhinged by grief over the loss of his dog. Is this, then,
a case of an unreliable narrator? He speaks of terrible things in a calm, detached way, almost as if he could be a psychopath.
Yet he presents himself as very reasonable. But don’t crazy people usually think they’re reasonable? He admits
that, at times, he can’t be sure whether he’s talking aloud to himself or to someone else. He makes a passing
reference to people with unbalanced minds.
In the end, though, I decided that we’re not to see him as beyond the pale but to take him as he presents himself.
If everything that’s gone down seems a bit much, he tells us, it was all about his dog:
I had no logic, no excuse, no dreams that drove me to act or conjured a different man in me: every part of the last few
days, everything I had done and not done, was my doing and mine alone. He was my friend, and I loved him. That is all of it.
The Legend of Colton H. Bryant (Biography) by Alexandra Fuller, 2008
If it weren’t for this book, most of us would probably never have heard of Colton Bryant. A native of Wyoming, he
was killed by an accident on an oil rig in 2006, at the age of twenty-six; he would probably have passed into history as a
mere statistic, as far as most of us were concerned. But author Alexandra Fuller found out about him and decided that the
story of his life was worth telling. Through interviews with Colton’s friends and family, which enabled her to re-create
dialogue and to flesh out situations, Ms. Fuller has accomplished a fine thing: the recreation of Colton’s life in what
amounts, almost, to a non-fiction novel.
You might almost say the guy was a character waiting to be written up. There’s no question that he was something
of a goofball, but an endearing one. As a kid in Evanston, Wyoming, he appears to have been a likely candidate for a diagnosis
of ADHD, had any such diagnosis been available then. He once told his mom that the trouble with reading was that books don’t
do anything: "I sit down and the book is all open and everything and then I look at the words and I can read them alright,
but what’s the point?" He said that an encounter with a book makes him start thinking about "the other one hundred and
one thousand other things I’d rather be doing than sitting down staring at a bunch of words and I just about hop clear
outta my skin it makes me so crazy. I want to be up and doing and outside."
He did eventually get a high school diploma by signing up with a private school for drop-outs. But even, then, he finished
the course only because a buddy kept forcing him to complete his homework before the two of them would take off on some adventure.
One of Colton’s most memorable escapades was the time he and some pals took off in a truck to do some rabbit hunting
on the plains in dead winter. Stuck in deep snow, unable to make their truck move forward or backward, they faced a night
of bone-chilling cold that might or might not have left them alive in the morning. Colton, ignoring all their warnings to
the contrary, struck out in the night, determined to find a railroad track. Not only did he do that, he even flagged down
a freight train and persuaded the engineer to give him and his friends a ride back to town.
It’s hard to tell, at times, to what extent Colton was or wasn’t intellectually challenged. Kids often called
him "Retard" when he was little. Even as a young adult, he once asked a friend a question that seemed to indicate that Colton
had little sense of how modern technology worked. Since he could get his friend by hitting a certain number for speed dial
on his phone, Colton wanted to know, would President George Bush, if he hit the same number on his phone, also get Colton’s
After high school, Colton travelled with a friend who was riding bronco at small town rodeos. Acting as his friend’s
coach and moral support, Colton was also bankrolling their travels. When his money ran out, Colton started writing bad cheques.
That may sound despicable, but not when you hear Ms. Fuller’s explanation of Colton’s attitude: "The way Colton
saw it, checks were just some kind of citified promise that if he had had the money, or maybe when he got the money
someday, he’d be good for the whole amount – bad checks written with good intentions, in other words."
Ok, Colton may not have been the personification of all the best civic virtues. But there was a certain courage and strength
of character under his cavalier behaviour. He became famous for his unique interpretation of the saying "Mind over matter."
When confronted with a setback, a disappointment or even physical pain, Colton would often say: "I don’t mind, so it
Coming from a family of devout Mormons, Colton never drank alcohol. Endless cans of Mountain Dew seemed to take care of
all his hydration requirements. There was a lot of affection among the family of four siblings and their parents; the
dad was renowned as one of those icons of the silent, strong Western type; seems all the guys in town wanted to be like him.
The closest Colton and his buddies ever got to bad language was "Sonofa!" or "Holy Crap!" At a strip joint with a bunch of
co-workers from the oil fields, Colton was shy, apparently not knowing where to look.
In a chance meeting with a young unmarried woman who had a child, Colton fell instantly in love. Shortly after, he married
her at a private civil ceremony. They had their troubles as a couple, but he appears to have tried his best to be a good husband.
One of the most touching moments in the book is when Colton tells his sister that his wife is pregnant now with his child.
Colton breaks down in tears, afraid that maybe the child will turn out to be a slow learner: "What if he gets teased and he
has to struggle like I did?"
Throughout the book, it appears that Ms. Fuller is building up an indictment against the oil companies for the kind of
laxity in safety measures that contributed to Colton’s death. The point is made, more than once, that the companies
appeared to be less concerned about safety than about making as much money as quickly as possible. When it comes to the fatal
incident, though, she pulls her punches. Yes, she says, the company had failed to install a railing that might have prevented
Colton’s fall to his death from a platform; but she also notes that he wasn’t wearing the harness he should have
been wearing. It isn’t until an "Author’s Note", at the end of the book, that we get a more detailed layout of
the appalling statistics regarding company profits and accidents in the oil fields.
Ms. Fuller, born in England, lived in southern Africa as a child on a farm with her family. From the stately, evocative
quality of her prose, it’s clear that she has fallen in love with, and captured the spirit of, her adopted home
state of Wyoming. Nothing captures the atmosphere of the place – albeit in a melancholy vein – as well as this
And you wouldn’t believe the cemeteries in Wyoming. How quickly snatched life is out here, like the sky was always
too big for the earth in these high, square borders and so it inhales the breath of the living. Like the sky stopped
being able to tell the difference between the wind on a gentle day and a person’s exhalation.
This, from a section on rodeos, is a gem of small town Americana:
Then a little girl in a white cowboy hat galloped into the arena with a Stars and Stripes bigger than the body of her horse
and belted out the national anthem in a high, brave voice and Colton and Cody and everyone else with a heart covered it with
a cowboy hat. A horse tied to the trailers called out for its herd and the little girl’s horse stretched out his neck
and cried back and just like at all rodeos from one end of the country to the other, America was born again in all its sentimental,
As for the kinds of challenges facing a guy like Colton, nothing could express it better than this:
Colton is a native son, so the weather and mountains, horses and guns, pickup trucks and oil rigs are what he must use
to measure himself against manhood. And year by year he’s growing up by this time-tested, rough-hewn method because
there’s truly no easy rite of passage in Wyoming. It’s all bucking broncos and four-wheelers in the middle of
nowhere and subzero and sheer ice and too fast everything and high, voracious winds. Sure, if you’re lucky or have choices
and time, there are more careful ways to measure yourself against the land than this flat-out, balls-to-the-big-sky method,
but Colton doesn’t see the benefit in pacing himself.
As beautiful as Ms. Fuller’s prose can be, I feel the book is slightly marred by over-writing. For instance, this
comment, about the moment when Colton first encounters his future wife, strikes me as striving too much for effect: "So then
there was a moment the size of all the sky, Colton staring at her and feeling as if someone had released an entire season’s
worth of geese below his ribs...." Of some windmills, Ms. Fuller has this to say: "...their slow-swinging arms like donosaurs
engaged in some thoughtful farewell dance." That’s not bad, particularly, but a bit over-done, especially "thoughtful."
We also get sentences like: "It was weather with a violence, like hell had been ordered in, everything on the edge of its
frozen limit." [underlining mine] What, exactly, is the meaning of the underlined passage? Beats me. Regarding some children’s
graves, Ms. Fuller says they were: "...pressed into the earth at the turn of the first quarter of the last century...." Why
not just "at the turn of the last century" or "in the first quarter of the last century"? The only excuse for the more elaborate
wording is that it has a more solemn (but fake) feeling.
And then there are some anomalous word usages. Regarding the children’s graves, we’re told: "There is no sign
that there were owners of these children." Owners? I thought they were called parents. Unless, of course, we’re
talking about slave children; but I don’t think we are. In her "Acknowledgments", Ms. Fuller thanks people for reading
her manuscript "in all its carnations." Is she thinking of it as a floral offering? Or as canned milk? That would require
a capital ‘C’, I believe.
Perhaps the most unfortunate result of this attempt at a high-flown tone is that it doesn’t serve Colton’s
memory well. Here’s what Ms. Fuller says about his fatal fall: "...at that moment, the great plains become a dark sea
and everything that Colton was, is swallowed up in its waves." To me, that’s a little too imaginative, too fanciful.
Rather than simply respecting his death for what it was, the author’s creativity is getting in the way. Come to that,
why does she use the word "Legend" in the title? There’s nothing legendary about Colton or his story. He was a real
man and we know the truth of his story. To dress it up as a legend is to strive for something more romantic, more evocative.
That doesn’t do justice to the man who was well worth our attention in the truth of his own life, without any literary flourishes.
Nothing to Lose (Thriller) by Lee Child, 2008
Nothing like the pleasure of discovering a Jack Reacher adventure that you haven’t read.
This time out, our hero is shuttling back and forth between Hope and Despair, two small Colorado towns about twenty miles
apart, not far from the border with Kansas. The town of Hope seems like a nice enough place but there’s definitely something
rotten about Despair. The townspeople are determined to keep Reacher out. That means, of course, that he’s determined
to find out what’s going on.
Which leads to one of my favourite statements of Reacher’s modus vivendi: "...I’m a man with a rule. People
leave me alone, I leave them alone. If they don’t, I don’t." This book includes a couple of his other best lines,
but I’ve seen them before. There’s the one where he says something like, "You’re confusing me with somebody
who gives a shit about what you want," and the one where he says that he wouldn’t piss on somebody who was on fire.
A quick check shows that those lines were also used in The Affair (reviewed on DD page dated May 4/12). Given
that it was published in 2011, my noticing the quips in the earlier book amounts to a criticism of their re-use in the later
But never mind, many of Reacher’s beloved traits are served up here, often with a new flourish. A couple of things
that make his heroics believable, just barely, are the fact that he has so much diverse knowledge about how things work and
that he can mentally calculate effects split seconds before they happen. He amazes us with such simple observations as the
number of minutes it typically takes a man or a woman to answer a knock on the door at a certain time in the evening. Near
the end of the book, he gives a fascinating account of the very complicated connections that are required before a call on
a cell phone can go through. If a mob of angry townspeople is on its way to confront him in the dark of night, he can quickly
figure out how many people there will likely be, how they will be equipped and how far apart they will be standing, coming
to the conclusion: "All in all, worst case, they could assemble a human chain eighteen thousand feet long, which was six thousand
yards, which was the circumference of a circle a fraction more than a mile in diameter." Then he estimates how much of the
town that circle can enclose, where the cover will be thick, where it’ll be thin, where trucks will be involved.
There’s also Reacher’s trademark insouciance, as in this comment after checking his appearance in a mirror.
"He had no real opinion about his appearance. It was what it was. He couldn’t change it. Some people liked it, and some
people didn’t." Then there’s what might be called his astonishing chutzpah. He has barged into an elderly judge’s
home one evening uninvited, and when he’s asked what he wants, he says: "I want you to invite me into your living room.
I want you to ask me to sit down and whether I take cream and sugar in my coffee, which I don’t, by the way." And, speaking
of coffee, I love it that such a macho he-man can stop in the midst of his exploits to reflect on the qualities of a proper
coffee mug: it should be tall, with thick walls, and not too wide – so that the coffee won’t cool too quickly.
One of the things that’s unusual about this book is that the guy who’s apparently the arch villain doesn’t
seem to be as malevolent as you expect him to be. Every time Reacher confronts the guy, you think Reacher’s going to
get wiped out by the guy’s henchmen. But the guy nearly always backs off and gives a fairly reasonable, if somewhat
exasperated, response to Reacher’s demands. And this is one of the few Reacher novels, as far as I can remember, where
he doesn’t find himself locked up in an impossible situation, requiring Houdini-like skills to escape.
The solution to the mystery about Despair takes Reacher into an area of geopolitics and religion, wherein Reacher’s
opinions (and presumably those of author Lee Child) could make some readers uncomfortable. But not me. What did make a very
strong impression on me was the scene depicting a suffering person’s tragic and unfair treatment. It was as though Lee
Child, the thriller writer, suddenly stepped aside and we got a chapter packed with the intense compassion of a first rate
novelist. Reacher’s vigorous response to the situation showed him to be burning with righteous indignation and a craving
for justice on behalf of a helpless person who is not treated with the dignity that person deserves. The incident was just
a minor theme in the context of the whole story but it made me admire Reacher for qualities I never knew he had.
Cheaper by the Dozen (Memoir) by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, 1948
Yet another dusty tome from the cottage shelves. It seemed to me that it might be a good idea to see if this one retained
any of the entertainment value it had back in the 1950s. As I remember it, the book was a source of tremendous enjoyment,
not just to me, but in our culture at large when it appeared. Those were the days when the topic of having a large family
could be looked on as a likely fund of lots of good humour. Nobody – at least nobody in the North American world familiar
to me – was raising skeptical eyebrows about producing so many more human beings as a drain on the planet’s resources.
And just how popular was the book? Well, it was copyrighted in 1948 and my copy, dated 1950, was from the twenty-third
printing. As you probably know, it’s the autobiographical account of the famous Gilbreth family’s life in New
Jersey in the early decades of the 20th century. There were twelve kids and their parents were the internationally-recognized
efficiency experts Frank Gilbreth and Lillian Moller Gilbreth. Written by siblings Frank Jr, and Ernestine, the book regales
readers with the hilarious adventures of this über family, under the direction of its
martinet-like paternal presence.
On the plus side, the chapters are short and snappy. The anecdotes move briskly. The dialogue crackles. It was of personal
interest to me to note that two of the incidents stand pretty well as I remember them from my reading so long ago. There’s
the time that the birth control campaigner called at the Gilbreth home in the hopes of enlisting Mrs. Gilbreth in the cause.
Her husband, however, sounded a whistle that brought all family members to the front door within seconds. The campaigner nearly
fainted. The other episode was the time when Gilbreth père climbed into the tub to demonstrate
for his sons the most efficient way of bathing. Maybe my household was more prudish than the Gilbreths’, but it struck
me that that was a very unlikely thing for a father to do. (As the text would have it, the man demonstrated the bathing process
for the daughters on the living room floor, fully clothed.)
The only other episode that came back to my memory – this in the re-reading – was the one when a psychologist
was testing the kids for intelligence. They, having found a sample of the test in their mother’s papers, memorized all
the best answers, thus making it appear that their intelligence rating was off the charts. As a kid myself, I remember admiring
the daring and ingenuity of those kids.
The rest of the book was virtually new material to me. As such, I found it too glib to be believed. We’re all much
more skeptical now when it comes to reading autobiographical material, thanks to the public humiliation of writers like James
Frey who have been found to have fabricated much of their so-called memoirs. The anecdotes in Cheaper by the Dozen
are all too perfectly tailored, too neatly dramatized to have taken place as described. Granted, some fiascoes like the
ones reported here undoubtedly did happen. In such a large family, especially one with such a kook at its helm, there’d
inevitably be lots of incidents that would be ripe with comic possibilities. But the events would not all be rounded off so
neatly, nobody would speak so concisely and vividly, every scene would not end with the perfect curtain line. The authors,
for heaven’s sake, are often reporting dialogue that they could not possibly have heard, such as some of their parents’
So we can see that there’s a lot of invention involved in the writing. Not that that would necessarily ruin
one’s enjoyment of the book. What makes it problematic for me now is the character of the father. How are we supposed
to be amused by the tyrannical, domineering, egocentric grandiosity of this guy? He makes Rogers’ and Hammerstein’s
Baron von Trapp look like a pussycat. Granted, no one had heard anything about children’s rights back in the day. But
the control that the Gilbert father exercised over his family seems abusive by any standard. And what’s with his constantly
drilling into the kids’ heads the importance of efficiency in all matters? Is it a good idea to raise kids with the
notion that the most important thing in life is that every action should be conducted in the absolute minimum of time? When
you think of the few possible values a parent might possibly instill in a kid, that one doesn’t rate a high priority
in my books.
And yet, towards the end of Cheaper by the Dozen, my feelings about the guy softened a little. You began to see
that he could laugh at himself. More importantly, the kids were developing healthy ways of getting around him. Take for instance,
his insistence on accompanying his daughters to their high school dances. He’d sit at a table with his papers at the
back of the dance hall, pretending to be terribly busy. But the girls’ friends made such a fuss about welcoming him
that he eventually gave up. And, with respect to his vigilance over his daughters, the books gives us some valuable sociological
insight into changing mores. We see that the years of the Gilbreth girls’ growing up were the time when, in North America,
at least, fathers were being forced to give up the sense of complete ownership of, and control over, their daughters.
I’d forgotten that the book ends with the death of the father. He died young, in his fifties, of heart failure. But
he had known for a long time that his life was going to be cut short because of his condition. He kept the knowledge to himself
because he didn’t want it to worry anyone. Meanwhile, he tried to arrange things so that his wife and children would
be able to carry on as well as possible without him. That says a lot for a guy, no matter how many reservations you may have
about his style of parenting.
And I have to give him credit for one aspect of his humour – his use of that phrase "Cheaper by the Dozen." Those
words have become so familiar with regard to that particular family, so unforgettably associated with them, that you tend
not to appreciate what a witty turn it was on the father’s part to apply such a term to his family situation. Anybody
who can make a joke that lasts in the culture for over fifty years gets a tip of the hat from me.
One Good Turn (Mystery) by Kate Atkinson, 2006
We start in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival. An incident of road rage occurs in a crowded street outside one of the
theatre venues. Some of the characters we follow for the rest of the book are bystanders and witnesses. They include: Gloria,
the sixtyish wife of a prosperous builder; Martin, a writer of whodunnits, who stopped the attack by throwing his laptop at
the aggressor; Hamish and Archie, a couple of teen trouble-makers; and Jackson Brodie, the retired detective whom we got to
know in Ms. Atkinson’s first mystery, Case Histories (reviewed on DD page titled Fall Reading 2010).
That book apparently had huge success, launching Ms. Atkinson, already an established novelist, on a more stellar phase
of her career. This new book, however, doesn’t look to me like it will do so well. There are so many different strands
to the story that it’s hard to keep track of things. There isn’t much suspense or urgency to the proceedings,
just a mild curiosity about how everything might eventually fit together. It takes until page ninety-nine to get a corpse.
When the plot does get rolling, far too many coincidences occur. In one hokey touch, the lights in a house fail just
as a mysterious caller appears at the top of the basement stairs. Characters keep bumping into each other as if Edinburgh
were a tiny village. At one point, a certain thug finds that all the people he wants to wipe out happen to have assembled,
from their different corners of the city, in one drawing room. A police woman who arrives on this scene seems to echo our
thoughts: "Oh, this was too weird. Weird piled on weird." It’s as if Ms. Atkinson is hoping to let herself off the hook
with that admission.
But she does well at creating characters. Several pages of very good reading detail the inner life of Gloria, who’s
utterly fed up with her philandering husband. At times, Gloria’s vengeful streak seems a trifle too right-wing –
she’s a great believer in a brutal application of the policy that the punishment should fit the crime – but there
does turn out to be a nice turn to this inclination of hers. Possibly the most interesting character is Martin Canning, the
mystery writer. He produces inoffensive, cheery crime novels that sound like British versions of Nancy Drew. He’s mild-mannered
and retiring. Everybody thinks he’s gay but he isn’t. It’s just that he isn’t very "manly" in the
conventional ways. The contrast between the way people see him and the way he thinks of himself makes for some engaging reading.
Some beautiful passages describe his fantasies of his life with a wife, should he have had one. Admittedly, it’s a Hallmark
card vision of postwar domestic bliss: sitting down to the Sunday leg of lamb with mint from their own garden, then strolling
through the village to admire the flowers. But you can’t help sympathizing with Martin’s longing for some such
Unfortunately, however, Jackson Brodie doesn’t strike such an authentic note. He was the mainstay of Case Histories
but it seems to me that Ms. Atkinson has lost the sense of the guy here. He happens to be at the Fringe, not because he has
any interest in theatre, but because he has bankrolled a production that his ditzy girlfriend is appearing in. Granted, he
has retired from police work, but he behaves in ways that seem quite out of character for any former professional, ways that
make things very difficult for the investigation of the crimes. He also endures far too much bad luck for any one man. In
one day, he almost drowns while trying to retrieve a drowned person’s body and then he undergoes a severe beating by
a thug, finds himself charged as the aggressor in the encounter and spends a night in jail; next day, he almost gets charged
as the culprit when the same thug beats up somebody else. Ms. Atkinson tries to stir up some existential angst for him by
way of his brooding over his fear that he’s something less than a real man because he’s living off the inheritance
that a rich little old lady left him in Case Histories. Ms. Atkinson never convinced me that this was a real problem
for the guy.
Still, you do encounter some reminders that Ms. Atkinson can be a fine writer. Here’s her comment about a wife’s
bestowing a kiss on her dying husband’s forehead: "A benediction or a curse, or both, because everything could be encompassed
in the synthesis that was reality." And there’s droll humour in some of the surprises that turn up at the end of the
The thing that troubles me most about this book, however, is something that may pass unnoticed by most readers. It’s
a trait that, I think, has something to do with the sense of class that some British writers can never seem to shake. Almost
all the characters in Ms. Atkinson’s book, except for the handful whom she wants us to like, are written off as people
somehow beneath our respect or fair consideration. It’s as if all these people are "them", not "us." They include: Brodie’s
girlfriend Julia; the actors Julia associates with; Gloria’s husband; Gloria’s friend Pam and Pam’s husband,
Murdo; a couple of elderly mothers; the writers’ publicist, other writers he meets at a conference, his fans and the
members of a writing class he once attended; a butch female cop; and a comedian who’s staying with the writer. The implied
sense is that they’re all slightly ridiculous. Sometimes a certain touch of this kind of thing can be taken as social
satire: yes, literary groupies do tend to ask inane questions, don’t they! But when there’s so much of
it, it tends to give the impression that a writer’s looking down her nose at most of the mass of humanity.
I’ve noticed this kind of thing in some of Ruth Rendell’s books – an inability to write about certain
kinds of people without appearing to snub them. A related tendency is the scorn for certain settings, an unnecessary emphasis
on how"infra dig" certain circumstances are. For instance, Ms. Atkinson is talking about an Edinburgh hotel where
Martin, the writer, is forced to spend some time. Because the city’s full of visitors, the only hotel he can find isn’t
a very classy one. But do we have to keep being reminded of the fact? We’re informed that there’s a "cheap digital
clock-radio on the bedside table" and that there’s a "cheap veneer" on the reception counter. In a flashback to a visit
to Russia, we learn that a woman Martin met carried a "cheap purse." (How many men would notice, or care?) Again,
we get "cheap veneer" on the furniture in a Russian hotel room. In another instance, Martin is loitering in a bookstore and
he realizes he could linger there all day, in which case he could partake of a "sickly latte and an even more sickly blueberry
muffin." Why would the bookstore’s offerings necessarily be sickly? For the same reason, I guess, that an in-flight
meal is a "sorry concoction of congealed pasta." The writer is apparently trying to impress on us that most of the world out
there fails to live up to her very high standards.
By contrast, you can get descriptions of insalubrious settings in the work of Lee Child, whose Nothing to Lose is
also reviewed on this page, without any of the implied sense of superiority. You don’t get the feeling that the
author is scoffing at anybody or anything. He’s just describing things as they are. The author is being fair to
all aspects of life in this world; nothing is beneath him. I find it somewhat reassuring that, although his novels are set
in the US, he too is a British writer.
Closing Time (Memoir) by Joe Queenan, 2009; Lucking Out (Memoir) James Wolcott, 2011
These two memoirs came to my attention recently. Both of these US writers were born in the early 1950s and both are well-known,
although new to me.
In the case of Joe Queenan, what first made a good impression on me was his review, in The Globe and Mail, of Wayne
Koestenbaum’s wacky meditation on comedy: Harpo, Marx and Wagner. The review was not only remarkably clear and
well-written; it was also brimming with vitality and wit. Since the biographical note about the reviewer mentioned this memoir,
it went on my reading list.
I’d probably heard of James Wolcott and read some of his writings some time ago, but what made me pay special notice
to him recently was his interview with Jian Ghomeshi, on CBC Radio One, about a column of Mr. Wolcott’s in Vanity
Fair. The subject of the column was the recent splurge of frontal male nudity in US movies. (Think Shame and Forgetting
Sarah Marshall.) To paraphrase Mr. Wolcott’s thesis (from my memory), he figured that, since the image of the
US as a superpower on the world stage has taken quite a beating lately, maybe American actors are more honest and candid about
revealing the male organ for the pathetic, fleshy tube that it is. It seemed to me that it might be worth reading the memoir
of anybody who could make a cultural observation like that.
The main theme of Mr. Queenan’s memoir is his difficult childhood growing up in a poor family in Philadelphia. Because
his father couldn’t keep a job (the man once had 13 jobs in one year), the family (three daughters, one son) bounced
from house to house, spending about four years in a subsidized housing development, sometimes surviving on welfare. Mr. Queenan
has some very perceptive things to say about poverty from an insider’s point of view, a view that may be disconcerting
to some social optimists. Poverty is by no means ennobling, as he sees it. Rather, poverty is a finishing school that teaches
people to be stupid. Here’s an example of his sardonic humour as applied to the subject:
Libertarians, self-made men, and sage pundits believe that money can make any problem disappear, that if one merely put
enough cash into the hands of the poor, they would draw on the prodigious reserves of wisdom and enterprise they’d been
clandestinely stockpiling for so many years and make all the right choices needed to turn their lives around. School vouchers
are the most obvious example of such thinking; who, after all, is better positioned to make Solomonic decisions about her
child’s education than a sixteen-year-old mother of three?
But poverty wasn’t the worst thing about Mr. Queenan’s childhood. His dad’s alcoholism was. In the man’s
drunken rages, he’d frequently beat Joe with a belt, sometimes even letting the buckle injure the child’s genitals.
No wonder the kid grew up with a hatred for his father. It was the one ambition of all his siblings, Mr. Queenan says, to
reach adulthood so they could get away from the old man. Meanwhile, their mother sat by impassively. Ineffectual in the extreme,
she seemed stunned by the fact that her marriage to a man she never loved – a circumstance she admitted openly –
had saddled her with four kids she was ill-equipped to care for.
Surprisingly, though, Mr. Queenan gives his father credit for instilling in him a love of literature. Queenan Sr. wasn’t
an unintelligent person; he had good books around, he knew a lot of history. Also, he was handsome and charming. People who
didn’t have to live with him greatly enjoyed him. As his son sees it, the father was the kind of man who never learned
what it is for a father to love a son because he too had been raised by a father who drank too much and beat him. After a
long and difficult process of separating himself from the man, the author finds himself forced to experience a sort of rapprochement
when the father is dying. The father’s wife had thrown him out long since, but he had joined Alcoholics Anonymous and
sobered up. He had found himself a clean, Spartan apartment and was holding down a respectable job as a doorman. Cancer, however,
was beating him.
You can see that the man made certain ineffectual attempts to befriend his son even if the efforts never sparked any warmth
or affection in return. The best that the younger Mr. Queenan could say was that he saw his responsibility for overseeing
his dad’s hospitalization in his final days as a kind of civic duty. The son had given up any belief in Christianity
by now but he still retained some sense of the Christian ethic. The closest he ever came to what might have been called a
sense of reconciliation – if not forgiveness – was that he ultimately could have some pity for the dad, some compassion
for another human being who had wrecked his life so thoroughly.
But Mr. Queenan has no patience with the AA view of alcoholism as an addiction or a disease. That’s just an excuse
for poor character and lack of will, says Mr. Queenan. With respect to his own history, perhaps, he has some reason for saying
so: he stopped drinking abruptly when his son was born, recognizing that booze had been playing too big a role in his life.
He seems to have nothing but contempt for the AA concept of the fifth step, whereby a recovering alcoholic attempts to make
amends to anyone who has been hurt by the alcoholic. The little ceremony wherein Mr. Queenan Sr. offered amends to his son
made the latter feel creepy, almost to the point of gagging. Fair enough, in terms of personal experience. But you wonder
if perhaps Mr. Queenan Jr. might look around and see that the AA program, regardless of his personal opinion of its validity,
has done a great deal of good for many people.
It would be going too far to say that Mr. Queenan blames ethnic influences for all his father’s faults but it’s
pretty clear that the writer doesn’t take a lot of pride in his Irish ancestry. For Irish Catholics, he says: "Fathers
were problems sons had to solve before one of them died." He speaks of the Irish as "a congenitally spiteful ethnic group."
The topic of his winning a scholarship to spend a year in France, a stroke of good luck that his parents didn’t seem
to appreciate, gives Mr. Queenan the opportunity to remark that they were "charter members of an ethnic group that lacked
the capacity to enjoy anyone else’s good fortune."
Mr. Queenan deals with other subjects than his father. There are chapters about college life and girlfriends. But that
material feels a bit flat and dull by comparison to the primal family issues. Even in the very engaging chapters where Mr.
Queenan is talking about the substitute fathers he found in uncles and employers, you can see that it’s the father-son
struggle that provides the narrative engine of the book.
Apart from the father-son theme, one of the most interesting aspects of the book, for me, is the role of Catholicism. Most
Catholic memoirs these days include unflattering treatment of the nuns who taught the author in grade school. This can be
conveyed in the spirit of hilarious ridicule or furious indictment. But Mr. Queenan expresses unqualified gratitude to the
nuns who gave him an excellent education as a foundation for living. He’s grateful to them for spotting the Queenan
kids as smart and trying to give them a boost. Also in a positive spirit towards the religion, he notes that a huge church
building worked as a source of pride and solace for struggling, impoverished immigrant communities.
However, I need to sound a note of caution about some aspects of Mr. Queenan’s take on Catholicism. And in this I’m
trying not to nit-pick or vent a personal beef. But, as one who has, we might say, a certain expertise in Catholicism, I’d
have to say that some of what Mr. Queenan says about the subject seems iffy to me. For instance, he refers more than once
to a priest who "serves" mass. That verb is never used by Catholics to refer to the priest’s role at mass. Rather, it’s
a question of a priest’s "saying" or "celebrating" mass (unless he’s "serving" as an altar boy to another priest,
but that’s not what Mr. Queenan means).
And Mr. Queenan makes much of the fact that, in his youth, he seriously intended to be a priest and that he spent some
time in a seminary. But the establishment he attended is what would be called a "junior seminary" i.e. one for high schoolers.
I don’t think such institutions exist any longer in North America. Educators and religious authorities have since decided
that it’s ridiculous to think that kids could have any clear idea of a vocation so early in life. Mr. Queenan certainly
didn’t. He only attended this seminary for his first year of high school and he realized, after the first few months,
that he had no intention of becoming a priest. In fact, his inclinations towards the priesthood seem so superficial and thoughtless
that you wonder what his faith consisted of. It seems that his Catholicism didn’t go very deep. (Granting, as noted
earlier, that he did retain a strong sense of Christian values later in life.)
I mention all this not to find fault with Mr. Queenan, not to take a holier-than-thou line; his experience was what it
was and I don’t mean to belittle it. But readers should know that his opinions on Catholicism – as opposed to
his personal experiences – should be received with some scepticism. As when, for instance, he sounds off on the big
mistake the Church made, in his opinion, in dropping Latin for the vernacular in the mass. As Mr. Queenan sees it, this was
what led to massive defections and the decline in the Church’s worldwide power and prestige. Doesn’t he see that
the changes that have taken place in the Roman Catholic church in the past half century have a lot to do with world-wide societal
issues and could hardly be attributed to one decision on language?
But he made me laugh out loud with a description of a doddering old priest who had begun wasting away "midway through Roosevelt’s
second term and kept wheezing toward the finish line straight through the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy administrations,"
and yet, for some reason, "was incapable of finishing the job." Another moment of high comedy comes in the scene where Mr.
Queenan’s pietistic dad insists on the family’s joining in a maudlin recitation of the rosary, complete with lugubrious
interjections from the dad, who keels over in a drunken stupor before the ritual ends.
Admittedly, my problem with Mr. Queenan’s opinions on the religion of his upbringing don’t amount to a
dismissal of his book, given that the subject doesn’t constitute a very important part of the book. A problem that
bothered more throughout the book is the writing style. Sometimes there’s too much emphasis on clever wording. He says,
for example, that Philadelphia’s public schools had plunged into "a maelstrom of mayhem." He says that a man who was
almost bald had decided "to divest himself of all but the most minimal cranial finery." His mother’s approach to cooking, Mr.
Queenan says, was "uncompromisingly castigatory". How on earth, I'm wondering, could the business of castigating be somehow
introduced into the process of cooking?
Some passages become almost unreadable as a result of the wordiness:
By dint of his resplendent manliness, his massive chest, his amazing hair, his flashy sweaters, his cutting-edge Hush Puppies
(later viewed with contempt by coy fashionistas but at that time universally deemed the apotheosis of casual chic), the Marine
Corps regalia hanging on the walls, and the aura of liberation from all financial worry that he exuded, Len was usually able
to convince even the most obstinate customer that he would be a fool not to snap up the goods that were being proffered so
altruistically at such a massive discount to their true value.
Local opinion was divided on whether her skintight white slacks had been spray-painted directly onto her cheeks by person
or persons unknown, or whether she gained posterioral purchase via an oversized, ingeniously crafted shoehorn and the adroit
use of hard-to-obtain Sumatran unguents that helped ease her stupendous glutes into the flimsy trousers that always seemed
nine sizes too small to handle the thankless assignment they had been handed by the pitiless gods of the netherworld.
Why "person or persons unkown"? Why "pitiless gods of the netherworld"? What does the netherworld have to do with it? These
strike me as sheer attempts to look good with words. One begins to think that the spare, clean quality of the prose in Mr.
Queen’s Globe review may have had something to do with editorial intervention.
The problem of a prolix writing style loomed even larger in my reading of James Wolcott’s Lucking Out.
Given that the book’s subtitle is "My life getting down and semi-dirty in seventies New York," I was hoping for
a lively, stimulating account of an exciting time. Well, there’s lots of interesting material on offer but you have
to plough through a hell of a lot of words to get to it. Like Mr. Queenan, Mr. Wolcott seems to feel that a major
part of what a writer has to offer readers is a display of skill in laying on the words with a trowel, often with
a view to building a sentence to some very impressive and possibly humorous conclusion. There must be a readership for this
kind of writing but I find it very annoying. Time and again, I had to re-read a sentence to try to find the main thought or
the main predicate or the subject, buried as they might be under an avalanche of verbiage. I’m not sure that Tom Wolfe
is the originator of this kind of writing but he’s certainly one of the journalists who made a big splash with it. (Think
of his Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.)
Here are some of Mr. Wolcott’s assays in the genre:
Although Greil Marcus would come to command more intellectual throw weight with Mystery Train and similar expeditions
into the mythic depths and marshy fringes of the American Gothic, Lester Bangs would survive in legend as the Neal Cassady
of Romilar and epic rhapsodies at the typewriter, and Jon Landau and Dave Marsh would eventually earn joint custody of Bruce
Springsteen, it was Bob who was the self-proclaimed, scepter-wielding Dean of American Rock Critics, an honorific that sounds
as esoteric today as some ecclesiastical title.
Even Blondie – who would score a commercial success denied the Ramones and Television with a disco-inflected album
whose diamond-etched production delineated the pop tunefulness of songs the band had muddled through for years onstage, like
the cast of Gilligan’s Island trying to build a boat – didn’t unhinged their fans’ hips and
get them dancing, no surprise given that Blondie’s phosphorescent chanteuse, Debbie Harry, teetering on high heels and
flickering in and out of phase like a TV screen on the blink, couldn’t get a groove going long enough for the other
Mouseketeers to follow.
The style is applied to film as well as music:
Melodramatic as that might sound, Kael’s review of Lenny proved to be such a devastator that Fosse, carrying
a grudge until he stooped, immortalized its aftershocks in All that Jazz, where his pill-popping stud-choreographer
alter ego – Roy Scheider in a Vandyke beard in a portrait of the artist as prodigious genius-phallus, the self-possessed
bastard that everybody can’t help but love – has a heart attack after his Lenny Bruce opus is coolly panned
by a local news critic.
In the context of all this showy writing, I began to become especially conscious of certain of Mr. Wolcott’s literary
quirks or tics. One of them is the addition of what I call a "gerund tail" to a sentence.
From The Exorcist to Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs to Looking for Mr. Goodbar, the rudely awakened
body was a war zone, the locus of sexual-social-political strife, the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in
1973 legalizing abortion setting a decades-long conflict between personal autonomy and government control.
Failed artists consider critics failed artists like themselves, but worse, because unlike them they took the easy way out
by not even trying to succeed, critics not having the guts to climb into that Teddy Roosevelt arena that everyone
likes to invole as the crucible of character, or risk the snows of Kilimanjaro.
[Underlining of gerunds by me]
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this sentence structure; my memory of high school Latin is dim now, but
I think the usage can be justified by some of the precepts of that classical language. But it’s far-removed from what
passes for ordinary speech today. I’m not saying that writing should appear absolutely artless and natural. All writing
is contrived to some extent; probably the writing that looks simplest and least artificial is the writing that’s the
most difficult to achieve. But I recoil from writing where the author’s intention to show off his or her literary virtuosity
gets in the way of the material. If you have something worthwhile to say, I’m thinking, then just say it; don’t
try to dazzle us with all the word juggling. When you do that, it tempts me to think you’re afraid that your material
isn’t good enough to stand on its own without all the dressing up.
Which is a pity, because there’s a lot of very good stuff in Mr. Wolcott’s memoir, both in terms of personal
recollections and of sociological observations. In the personal mode, one of the best sections is a long chapter (over fifty
pages) on his friendship with Pauline Kael, the New Yorker’s film critic of legend. The friendship started with
her calling him out of the blue because she liked an article of his in the Village Voice. He soon became one of the
young men who frequently accompanied her to movies and other cultural events. (In a New Yorker essay about her, David
Denby called these groupies, of whom he was one, the "Paulettes".)
Mr. Wolcott makes the delicious observation that Ms. Kael’s cubbyhole at the magazine’s headquarters was "one
of the few writers’ offices that welcomed visitors and hosted conversations conducted at normal human volume instead
of the rice-papery whispers that kept everybody’s tongues on tiptoe." As a frequent inhabitant of that office, he gives
us Ms. Kael’s response to a letter from readers who took issue with her pan of Seven Beauties and urged her to
see it again -- through their eyes: "My eyes are the only ones I have," she told Mr. Wolcott. "And they’re allowed to
get tired." One especially touching vignette has Mr. Wolcott and Ms. Kael attending a showing of playlets by the as yet unsuccessful
Wallace Shawn. During the performance, people were heading for the exits but Ms. Kael insisted that she and Mr. Wolcott remain
in their places because she knew the young playwright was sitting at the back, suffering through the debacle, and she didn’t
want to make it any harder for him.
What had brought Mr. Wolcott, a Baltimore native, to New York in the first place was a stroke of extraordinary luck, a
dynamic that, as the book's title would indicate, carries through the memoir. For his college newspaper, he’d written
an article about Norman Mailer’s appearance on an episode of Dick Cavett’s talk show. On a whim, Mr. Wolcott sent
the article to an address that he’d found for Norman Mailer. To his great surprise, the young Mr. Wolcott got a response
expressing such admiration of the article that the great man offered to write a letter of introduction for Mr. Wolcott to
Dan Wolf, the editor of the Village Voice. That was enough to prompt Mr. Wolcott to quit school and head for Manhattan
in the fall of 1972. Although the promised letter did get him a meeting with Mr. Wolfe, it didn’t lead to any work right
away. On the day Mr. Wolcott was about to leave New York in desperation, he phoned Mr. Wolf to say that he was packing it
in, whereupon the editor found a spot for him answering complaints in the paper’s subscription department. That led
to his submitting the occasional review, then articles for other publications, and thus a career developed.
In a way, though, the link to Norman Mailer would dog him through the early part of that career. In a meeting with
Mr. Wolcott as a fledgling journalist, Gore Vidal made a reference to Norman Mailer, whom he called: "...our Greatest
Living Writer, as you so often remind us in the pages of the Village Voice." But Mr. Wolcott wasn’t as put off
by the dig as you might think:
Here was I, low person on the totem pole, being put in my place as a Mailer fanboy by Gore Vidal in his inimitable epigrammatic
manner, his irony at my expense proof that he had been reading me at the Voice and was aware of my existence as a writer,
however irksome. Vidal knew who I was! That he found me egregious was secondary. I had, in some small, meaningless, minuscule
Much of the first part of the book details Mr. Wolcott’s impressions of the many writers and editors he encountered
in those crazy days. But the material isn’t particularly interesting to anybody who isn’t familiar with the scene
or the characters who peopled it. Same could be said for Mr. Wolcott’s long account of his involvement in the punk rock
scene, primarily as a critic. There’s a lot about a club named CBGB and the singer Patti Smith, but neither of them
mean anything to me, although they’re both very important, apparently, in the history of Punk music in the US. About
the only part of this section that caught my attention was a cameo appearance by Bob Dylan.
Beyond the music scene, there are good sociological aperçus on offer. For instance,
this comment on having to install multiple locks on his tiny apartment after it had been burgled: "....that was part of the
package deal of living in the East Village, the trade off for being at the nexus of everything it had to heave at you before
it eventually turned into a simulation of itself, a watering hole for hipster doofuses on safari." A section on how porn was
developing in Manhattan in the 1970s has great value in terms of cultural commentary. Mr. Wolcott’s response to the
one live sex show he attended: "Forget Sartre and No Exit, this is what hell must really be like: an endless reenactment
performed by dummies for dummies, and you’re one of the dummies." And while we’re on the subject, let’s
not fail to acknowledge Mr. Wolcott’s piquant account of his personal initiation into the sexual side of life
on this planet.
Mr. Wolcott does finally get around to summing up his views on what it means to be a critic, offering some insightful comments
on the literary scene. For me, one of the most interesting subjects in this final part of the book is his blossoming as a
ballet fan. Having attended his first ballet more or less as a fluke, he quickly became an afficionado. What was the essence
of the art’s appeal for him? He says that he realized that what had been lacking in his life was Beauty. He capitalizes
the word to show that he means, not just a pretty face or a nice scene, but something transcendent, the kind of aesthetic
pleasure that only great art can bring. He also notes that it helps to bring any conversation to a halt when he mentions that
ballet brings out the feminine side of him. On a more sombre note, he makes me realize, in a way no other writer has to date,
the devastation that the AIDS epidemic wrecked on the arts community by depriving it of nearly a whole generation of creators,
connoisseurs and discerning audience members.
In the book’s last scene, Mr. Wolcott and Pauline Kael are riding home in a taxi after seeing The Competition.
The movie, starring Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving as rival concert pianists who are caught in an inconvenient romance,
was disappointing. It’s a cold December night. Ms. Kael is still smarting from a vicious attack by Renata Adler
in the New York Review of Books a few months earlier. The essay had set out to destroy Ms. Kael’s credibility
as a critic. There had been much sniggering about it among the New York literati, even, some said, in the hallowed halls of
the New Yorker. Mr. Wolcott and Ms. Kael are quiet in the taxi. Then the news comes on the taxi’s radio that
John Lennon has been shot and killed.
That, for Mr. Wolcott, was the end of the seventies.
Anatomy of a Disappearance (Novel) by Hisham Matar, 2011
His name may not yet be a household word, but, ever since his novel In the Country of Men was shortlisted for the
2006 Man Booker and other prizes, you have to pay attention to Hisham Matar. Born in America of Libyan parents, he was taken
back to Libya for some years of his childhood, but the family was forced to flee to Egypt when the father was suspected of
being hostile to the Gaddafi regime. In the Country of Men had a strong autobiographical slant, in that it’s
about a child’s impressions of the haunted life led by his father, a dissident in Libya.
This book also tells a story much like the one Mr. Matar, the author, experienced in real life. The first person narrator,
a boy raised in Egypt, is sitting at a café in Geneva with his father’s second wife.
They’re waiting for the father to join them for a holiday but a lurid newspaper article informs them that he has been
abducted, presumably because he was known to be a leader in Egypt’s pro-democracy movement. Then the narrator goes back
to tell you about his early years in his family home, his mother’s death and his father’s growing interest in
the much younger woman whom he eventually married.
But most of the book deals with the son and the stepmother’s attempts to find out what happened to the abducted man.
Back and forth they trudge, from police detectives, to lawyers, to government officials. One of the major complications for
the lad is that, his stepmother being just fourteen years older than himself, he develops a romantic and erotic fascination
with her. Years pass as they strive for explanations of the father’s whereabouts. That quest is futile but, as the narrator
reaches manhood, he begins to discover disconcerting facts about his father and his family.
All of which might suggest a steamy read. But the story is narrated in a terse, succinct way; there’s not a lot of
emotion on display. It’s almost as if the narrator is experiencing what psychiatrists call "flat affect." He’s
very secretive; he never communicates fully with anybody. He can’t even tell his best friend at boarding school in England
about his father’s disappearance. What might be seen as a detriment in the department of sociability carries over into
adulthood. As a young man, he never follows through on what he promises to do, never makes promised phone calls. He doesn’t
do the things he has decided to do; the things he does do happen on impulse, almost without any reason. Evasion is his typical
response. He’s not, however, unaware of these character flaws. At one point, he imagines another possibility of himself:
"one who was more proactive, more courageous, more capable, one whose interrogations were less desperate and incomprehensible
Throughout it all, though, he remains stubbornly his enigmatic self; the guy is the most non-suggestible character you’ll
ever meet. He comes close to being the personification of the alienated, existential anti-hero. I kept thinking of somebody
wandering aimlessly through life, plagued by an unnamed dread, like some character in the writings of Albert Camus. Here’s
our man, huddled with some strangers under a canopy outside a shop on a rainy day in London:
Every so often a wind would slant the lines of rain. None of us said a word. We made sure our eyes did not meet. If they
did we would quickly turn away without a smile or a nod. Looking at us, you might have thought we were avoiding the lives
that awaited us at home.
Another writer that came to mind was Georges Simenon, whose short, concise books describe Inspector Maigret’s systematically
working his way through mysteries. There’s a similarly plodding, one-step-after-the-other quality to this book. (Even
in length and format it resembles the work of M. Simenon, amounting to just 246 small pages.) At first, though, the steady
stream of declarative sentences in Mr. Matar’s book, the piling up of short scenes, the glimpses of events not fully
understood, struck me as too arty and contrived. Also, some word usages are puzzling. Although the author is apparently fully
fluent in English, his appears to be a somewhat idiosyncratic version. He speaks of a street with "cobbled stones," rather
than cobblestones. The verb "to pale" is used as a transitive verb in a way that’s not usual in English: "The light
paled their faces." The narrator says that his stepmother opened a can of tuna and heated a couple of "loaves" of frozen bread
for lunch for him and her. If by "loaves" he means what most of us mean, that would be one heck of a big lunch. In a memory
of his mother, he speaks of her handing him some berries from a globe "dyed into the front of her jumper." Surely, that’s
a double typo. Wouldn’t "tied onto the front of her jumper" be what’s meant? But, given some of the other
oddities of the diction, one can’t be sure.
However, the narrator’s dogged brooding grew on me and pulled me into his world. Sticking with him helped me to appreciate
how a childhood trauma like his would shape a personality and affect one’s relationship to the rest of the world. A
bonus of Mr. Matar’s writing is that he gives a very good sense of what it was like to grow up in a privileged home
in Cairo, with perks such as a devoted servant, a chauffeur and a dedicated doorman. Another Egyptian writer whose work has
told Westerners about life in Cairo is Alaa Al Aswany whose The Yacoubian Building was reviewed the DD page
dated Feb 26/12. That book has a much broader canvas than this one and it deals with many more characters. But there’s
a cartoon-ish quality to the writing that borders on ludicrous at times. If I were looking for a more reliable guide to life
in Cairo, I’d take Mr. Matar.
Night Over Water (Thriller) by Ken Follett, 1991
You might not have expected a Ken Follett thriller to appear on my reading list. Neither would I. But you never know what
musty tomes the cottage shelf is going to produce when you’re desperate for some escape reading.
This one is about the flight of one of those Pan American Clipper Ships, the boat planes that had a brief time of glory
just before the Second World War. The great advantage of them was that they could land and take off on water, thereby eliminating
the need for expensive runways. Come the war, though, lots of costly runways had to be built for fighter planes, so the point
of the Clipper Ships was lost and they soon disappeared from service. Massive, bulky things, they attempted to create something
like a swanky living room atmosphere for passengers on their transatlantic journeys. It’s hard to see how they could
have been economical, given that they only carried about 30 passengers, but maybe the one-way ticket price of some $600 US
was steep enough in those days to offer some prospect of profitability.
We get to know several of the people on the passenger list for this (fictional) flight from England to America. Some of
the most interesting are the members of the family of a British aristocrat who’s a Nazi sympathizer. He’s fleeing
England for fear of being thrown into jail as a traitor, but he’s confident that when Hitler conquers England, he, the
aristocrat, will be called back in triumph to oversee a fascist government. One of his daughters is so sympathetic to the
Nazi cause that she wants to skip this flight to America and, instead, to head straight to Germany to offer her support to
Hitler’s cause. The other daughter has the opposite attitude. She’d like to avoid the flight to America because
she wants to stay in England to help in the fight against Hitler. The fifteen-year-old son in the family is something of a
smartalec with an intense curiosity, a thirst for adventure and a talent for tricking people. The mother of the
family mostly cries about everything.
Other passengers include a distinguished German physicist who’s trying to escape Hitler’s clutches. A US business
woman is hurrying back to stop her brother from selling their jointly-owned company out from under her. A low-ranking mobster
is being brought back to the US because of his connections with a major crime ring. There’s his FBI chaperone. And:
an ageing movie star; a British housewife who’s escaping with her American lover; her husband who decides to chase after
her; the physicist’s mysterious companion
Of the plane’s crew, we get to know the two over-worked stewards (who both appear to be gay) but, most importantly,
the chief engineer, who has a young pregnant wife back in the US. And that’s the situation that provides the mainspring
of the novel’s tension. Before the flight, he receives a phone call from her saying that she’s been kidnapped
and her captors are threatening to harm her unless he arranges to have the plane make a forced landing on the US East coast
before it reaches New York, its final destination. We don’t know why the baddies want the forced landing but we’re
given some good guesses. Thus we get, to put it mildly, a fraught transatlantic flight, including a terrible storm, during
which the engineer is trying to decide whether he should destroy his trustworthy reputation by fiddling with the operations
of the flight in such a way as to comply with the villains’ demands.
I was surprised to find the technical details of trans-atlantic flights in the pre-jet days so interesting: navigating
by the stars, gauging fuel versus wind speed and so on. All of which is to say that, as you can expect in a Ken Follett novel,
the story is gripping. Of course, it’s the human dramas that count most and there are plenty of them. The characters
may not be profound, but they are interesting, even if a lot of the dialogue has a corny clang. I did, however, find the vacillations
of the flighty housewife – will she or won’t she go back to her husband? – tiresome. The graphic sex scenes
have a de rigeur, automatic feeling to them, as if to say: a book like this needs some of this, so here it is.
Which brings us to the quality of the writing overall. I’m not here to knock ultra-successful novelists who churn
out books with steady predictability. But you sometimes wonder whether these authors take the time to review their texts closely.
On page 40, we get this about a sheltered young woman’s attitude to prostitution: "She herself had known about it only
in the vaguest possible way, indeed she had not really believed it went on, until tonight." But on page 278 we’re told
that the same young woman "had always been fascinated by people who lived outside the ordered social world: criminals, bohemians,
anarchists, prostitutes and tramps." On page 336, a passenger curled up in her bunk in the plane turns off the little light;
then there’s a romantic encounter will a guy who visits her in her bunk and, on page 338, she turns off the light again.
But she hadn’t turned it on at any point between the first and second times she turned it off. You get an impression
that maybe life’s so cushy at the top of best-sellerdom that a writer might not be bothered to check his or her work
carefully (or to pay someone to do it).
Then there are the stylistic touches that make a reader wince. We’ll overlook the plethora of autonomic responses
– shivers of anxiety, electric shocks (the emotional kind), touches of cold fear, hearts turning over – in that
so few thriller writers are paying attention to our advice on that matter. But we do balk at infelicitous word choices, as
in the statement that someone looked around "frenziedly." It’s not illogical or ungrammatical, but doesn’t it
occur to an author how awful it sounds? Further in the ly-adverb department, someone slips into a new shirt "deliciously."
How on earth do you do that? On one page, a man speaks "malevolently" and on the next page he has a "malevolent" face. Nothing
wrong with a character’s being consistent, I guess, but usually editors discourage writers from using such a strong
word twice within a few pages. I think it has something to do with the psychological dynamics of reading, whereby a reader
wants to feel that he or she is learning something new, not a repetition of what’s already been established.
But it’s the story that counts and on that measure the book scores well. There are some good surprises along the
way and the frenzied climax involves some complicated staging that brings the various characters together with amazing flair.
Escape from Camp 14 (Biography) by Blaine Harden, 2012
Twenty-six people have escaped from North Korea’s prison camps, but Shin Dong-hyuk is the only escapee who was actually
born to slave labour in one of the camps.
And how, you may ask, does one come to be born to slave labour in our time? Quite simply: your parents are prisoners who
have been allowed to marry and procreate. In North Korea's prison camps, marriage is offered as a kind of reward to inmates
who work hard. It means that the designated man and woman get to sleep together four or five times a year. In the case
of Shin’s parents, a male child was born eight years before him and Shin was born in 1982.
But the foursome was hardly a cohesive family unit. Shin barely knew his brother, who had been sent to live in a dormitory
shortly after Shin’s birth. Given the father’s infrequent visits, there was hardly any chance for Shin to get
to know him. In Shin’s toddler years, he slept on a concrete floor with his mother in a room that had access
to cooking facilities shared with three other families. Even the mother-son relationship wasn’t anything like what
most of us know. To Shin, his mother was mainly a competitor for the scarce food available. When she headed out to work in
the fields, he’d gobble whatever she’d set aside for both their lunches.
Shin soon learned that the main purpose of life in the camps was to work hard to expiate the guilt of his relatives.
The founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, had decreed that any guilt incurred by a family member contaminated that family unto
the third generation. Shin never did find out what familial shame had landed his mother in the prison camp but he eventually
learned the problem with his father’s family: one of his father’s brothers had escaped to South Korea after the
In school, the message was constantly drilled into Shin and his classmates that they had to display perfect obedience to
prison rules and to the whims of the guards in the hopes of wiping out family sins. Anybody caught disobeying orders would
be shot immediately. Sometimes, though, you might get off with a beating. A little girl in Shin’s class was found to
have a few stolen kernels of corn in her pocket. She was beaten so badly by the teacher that she died that night.
One of the most important precepts drilled into all prisoners was that they must snitch on anybody who was breaking rules.
If you didn’t report on a miscreant, you yourself would receive the ultimate punishment. This concept led to the most
tragic aspect of Shin’s story, an incident so harrowing that he couldn’t tell the truth about it until years after
he’d escaped. When he was about thirteen, Shin heard his mother and brother talking about escaping. Shin did what any
kid with an instinct for self-preservation would have done: he told a guard. The mother and brother, not surprisingly, were
executed and Shin was forced to watch. But he was locked in an underground prison cell and tortured in an attempt to make
him confess what he knew about the planned escape. It turned out that the guard he’d spoken to had claimed for himself
the credit of discovering the escape plan, giving no credit to Shin.
He suffered terrible wounds from the torture and his health was nearly broken by the ordeal in the underground prison where
he spent two years without seeing the sun. But he had the good luck to be put in a cell with a kindly older man who tended
Shin’s wounds and spoke to him, as if telling fairy tales, about what life outside the camp might be like. That was
the first Shin had ever heard of any such possibility. Later, when he was released from the underground dungeon and assigned
to work in the prison’s factory that made military uniforms, Shin was partnered with a man who had lived in China. This
was the man who planned an escape with Shin across the border to China in 2005, when Shin was twenty-three years old. Sadly,
though, his companion died in the attempted escape.
In China, Chin scrounged a living by begging and working for slave wages on farms and in restaurants. By chance, he met
a South Korean journalist who took him to refuge in the South Korean embassy in Shanghai. After some time there, Shin was
flown to South Korea, whence he eventually made his way to California, where he began to work for human rights organizations
raising awareness of conditions in North Korea.
Having heard about Shin, author Blaine Harden first met him in Seoul in 2005 for the purpose of writing an article about
him for the Washington Post. Their subsequent work on this book included many lengthy interviews in the space of three
years. Mr. Harden, a seasoned contributor to several major news outlets, does about as good a job with the material as anybody
could, given that he has to rely mainly on Shin’s memories. Understandably, details are sparse. The text, at times,
seems almost as bleak as life in the camps must have been. But the narrative pace picks up considerably when it comes
to Shin’s plans for escape with his friend. Because that’s the best part of the book, I haven’t revealed
any details from that section here.
Mr. Harden rounds out the story with helpful information from other escapees from North Korea and its prison camps.
He also provides considerable backup data provided by human rights organizations with extensive knowledge of the country.
All of them confirm that Shin’s account rings true with what is known of conditions in the camps.
In terms of an overview of North Korea, several points surprised me. I didn’t know, for instance, that, until 2008,
South Korea had sent massive food aid to North Korea in an attempt to ameliorate relations between the two countries. Nor
did I know that Kim Il Sung, on the founding of North Korea in 1957, divided the population according to a caste system. Top
level: the elite who got all the choice jobs; a neutral or "wavering" class that got jobs as technicians, soldiers and teachers;
and a hostile class suspected of opposing government, eligible only for jobs in mines and factories, and barred from universities.
It was news as well to me that North Korea had, for many years apparently, operated an insurance scam whereby Western insurance
companies were bilked for fake disasters in North Korea that no outside observers were allowed to verify.
Mr. Harden’s book also enlightened me as to some aspects of the geopolitics of the region. I learned, for instance,
that South Koreans, an extremely ambitious and highly-motivated people in terms of material success, are mostly indifferent
to the fate of North Korea. Having noticed the enormous costs incumbent on West Germany when it was united with East Germany,
the South Koreans aren’t much interested in unification with the North.
What the description of life in North Korea and in the camps did for me was, oddly enough, perhaps the opposite of what
you might expect. Instead of coming away from the book with a main impression of the horror if it all – and this is
not to deny that it isn’t horrible – what struck me was that the system seemed to make perfect sense. If you make
it your primary goal to instruct your people that their "Dear Leader" has their best interests at heart, if you blame all
your people’s sufferings and hardships on the interference of foreign nations, and if you prevent your people, as much
as possible, from knowing anything about what life is like outside your nation or having any objective viewpoint on life within
your nation, then people will inevitably flock to your cause, cheer you as their saviour, and agree with you that anybody
who challenges you or the marvellous system you have established should be cast into outer darkness. In a way, it’s
a scary reminder that all of us, probably to a greater extent than we imagine, have mindsets that are products of the brainwashing
procedures of our own cultures (although most of them, admittedly, aren’t as pernicious as the one examined here).
As for brainwashing, however, Shin didn’t have a whole lot to unlearn. His education in the camp school had amounted
to only the most basic arithmetic and literacy, along with the camp commandments that had to be memorized and spouted on demand.
He didn’t know much about North Korea’s official ideology or its sense of its place in the world. He adapted fairly
quickly, then, to life in a democracy – at least, in practical terms. But serious psychological problems soon began
to surface. He had trouble with concepts of truth and trust. That made communication between him and Mr. Harden difficult
at times. As Shin came to appreciate some of the teachings of Christianity, he welcomed the idea of a loving God who had been
watching over him, but he had trouble reconciling that with the thought of what had happened to his mother and brother. In
particular, the nightmare of his own role in their fate plagued him.
The result is that Shin’s story, where we find him as of the publication of this book, has a bittersweet quality.
His co-workers in the human rights cause have found him sweet and beguiling at times, at other times moody and prima-donna-ish.
He can be stubborn, even block-headed. In other words, his life now doesn’t look like a glorious triumph so much as
one that has improved vastly but still includes the kinds of complications and vacillations that most of our lives are subject
to. Something he said in a speech to a Korean Pentecostal church in Seattle gives a good idea of what the struggle’s
like for him. He told the people that he had escaped physically, but not psychologically:
"I did not know about sympathy or sadness," he said. "They educated us from birth so that we were not capable of normal
human emotions. Now that I am out, I am learning to be emotional. I have learned to cry. I feel like I am becoming human."
Giving Up the Ghost (Memoir) by Hilary Mantel, 2003
In all the fuss lately about Hilary Mantel’s two hugely successful novels about Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall
and Bring Up the Bodies), it came to my attention that she’d published this memoir nearly ten years ago. It
seemed a good idea to catch up on her personal story before plunging into the celebrated novels.
The memoir’s title refers, in the first instance, to the moment, not long before the publication of the book, when
Ms. Mantel is moving out of her house and she happens to see the ghost of her deceased stepfather on the stairs. Well, "see",
perhaps isn’t quite the word. There is a flickering of the air. It is more an experience of the man’s presence,
or a "knowing" that he’s there. Ms. Mantel takes it in stride; she’s not unaccustomed to such experiences.
One of the most dramatic of these episodes in her life had occurred when she was seven years old and she had a vivid experience
of what might be seen as the presence of Satan, although she doesn’t explicitly call it that. She was standing in the
garden and it was a sort of ripple of the air, rather than an actual sighting of anything. But it was an awareness of the
presence of evil so real that it brought on horror and nausea. It altered her sense of the world profoundly.
That child-like tendency to soak up vivid impressions and respond to them in a very sensitive way runs through the book.
In fact, most of the book – the best of it, I’d say – deals with the author’s childhood, although
there’s some discussion of teen years and experiences as a university student and a young wife. The structure is only
vaguely chronological, in that, for the most part, the childhood material comes first and the more mature years come later.
But Ms. Mantel is constantly hopping back and forth in time, wherever her memories take her. This is especially effective
in terms of conveying the somewhat inchoate, blurry child’s point of view. She elaborates on how that point of
view is formed:
Much of what happened to you, in your early life, was constructed inside your head. You were a passive observer, you were
the done-to, you were the not-explained-to; you had to listen at doors for information, or sometimes it was what you overheard;
but just as often it was disinformation, or half a tale, and much of the time you probably put the wrong construction on what
you picked up.
In one early memory, she is sitting on the stairs, convinced that she is going to die because she has swallowed a fly.
She feels sorrow and loneliness at the thought of parting from her family but she decides it will be kinder not to tell
them that she’s dying. So she sits there, wondering how long it is going to take. As we know, it didn’t, and she
went on to experience prepubescent years of lively activity and intense curiosity. She was much taken with stories of knights
errant and she was quite convinced that she would eventually become a boy. I particularly liked this capture of one aspect
of a child’s take on things:
One of my difficulties was that I had not understood school was compulsory. I thought that you could just give it a try
and that if you didn’t like it you were free to revert to your former habits. To me, it was getting in the way of the
vital assistance I gave my granddad, and wasting hours of my time every day.
You get some further sense of her opinion of the schooling business in this comment regarding her first teacher, whom she
thought was insane: "I don’t know if there is a case on record of a child of seven murdering a schoolteacher, but I
think there ought to be, and in a way I would respect myself much more if I had done the deed..."
Over and above the fact that she was extremely sensitive and often plagued with mysterious ailments – one Doctor
called her "Miss Neverwell" – there were circumstances about her home that might have tended to make any child into
the worried and introverted sort of person who might eventually turn out astonishing novels about the foibles of human beings.
A man named Jack, in effect her mother’s lover, came to live with the family while the child's father was
still in residence. The father and the child shared a bedroom for a while, given that Jack slept in the marital bed. I’m
not sure whether Ms. Mantel says so explicitly, but it seemed that the dad couldn’t afford to find another place to
live; and the mother made it clear to the child that Jack’s wages were putting the food on the table. Eventually, the
child moved with her mother and Jack to another town and never saw her father again.
In her young adult years, Ms. Mantel went through agonies with unexplained illnesses and pains. It seems the medical establishment
jerked her around quite a bit, with various operations, treatments and psychotherapies, until it was found that endometriosis
was at the base of her problems. She, perhaps not unjustly, rails at the medics who failed to find the right diagnosis, at
the culture that tried to convince her that it was a female’s lot to put up with major pain. But I felt a twinge of
sympathy for the medicos. She makes the claim that she was not "neurotic" (assuming that that label still has any meaning)
but, let’s face it, she was what might be called, to use another old-fashioned term, very "high-strung." You can hardly
blame the doctors for thinking there might have been a highly psychosomatic element to her illnesses.
On another matter, Ms. Mantel makes some angry remarks that make a particularly pertinent point for me. She’s talking
about how condescending professors were to her as a female law student.
Some people have forgotten, or never known, why we needed the feminist movement so badly. This was why: so that some talentless
prat in a nylon shirt couldn’t patronize you, while around you the spotty boys smirked and giggled, trying to worm into
his favor. The birth control revolution of the late sixties had passed our elders by – educators and employers both.
It was assumed that marriage was the beginning of a woman’s affective life, and the end of her mental life. It was assumed
that she neither could nor would exercise choice over whether to breed; poor silly creature, no sooner would her degree certificate
be in her hand before she’d cast all that book learning to the winds, and start swelling and simpering and knitting
Not that Ms. Mantel could have done so, even if she’d been so inclined. As a result of surgery at age twenty-seven,
she was unable to have children. She’s justifiably enraged about that. Without wanting to withhold sympathy on that
point, though, I can’t help feeling that, like a lot of childless writers, Ms. Mantel gives what seem to me rather spurious
reasons why people have children.
They see them as their second chances, "a chance top get it right this time," as if they were able to give birth to themselves.
They have children to compensate themselves for the things they didn’t do or didn’t get in their own early life.
They conceive because they feel impelled to make up, to a nonexistent person, for a loss they themselves have suffered.
If this is the way Ms. Mantel’s friends think about having children, I’d have to say she consorts with some not
very well-balanced people. My sense of the more likely reason for having children: it’s just a question of looking
around you and seeing, on the evidence of other families, that having children is a good thing. Maybe you could say that it
makes you feel plugged into the cycle of life more fully. It’s what nature wants of you. That’s all.
Another feminist issue that Ms. Mantel touches on has to do with appearance. Because of medication, she became very
fat. One of her interesting observations on the differences between being fat and thin is that people tend to project
divergent kinds of personalities on you, according to your status in terms of weight. When thin, she seldom got a kind
word; when fat, people ascribed a placid, serene, maternal personality to her.
One point of fact needs to be taken up with Ms. Mantel. She talks about kids collecting money in school and at church for
babies in Africa and India. She says that a kid who did well with the fundraising would be allowed to "own" a baby. Is this
a case of an author’s failure to understand a situation clearly? Or is it perhaps a faithful rendering of a child’s
misperception of things? On the latter basis, the term "owning" might be excusable. But surely any moderately well-informed
Catholic would know that the fundraising wasn’t about "owning" any such baby. The money collected was for the purpose
of getting a missionary to baptize the baby; the kid who was given the honoured connection to the baby was simply its godparent,
not its "owner."
Much as I enjoy and admire the quality of Ms. Mantel’s writing, I have one quibble: she doesn’t seem to know
about the correct uses of the pronouns "who" (subjective) and "whom" (objective). It’s not that I’m pointing this
out just for the sake of being persnickety. In one case, the incorrect form of the pronoun made it difficult to understand
the first part of a sentence: "Men who war had broken were all around him...." The passage would have read so much better
as: "Men whom war had broken were all around him...." That distinction between "who" and "whom" is such a neat guide to clarity
that I’d hate to think that one of our most celebrated writers of English today was abandoning it.
The Drop (Mystery) by Michael Connelly, 2011
This may not be the best of Michael Connelly’s books – that would be The Lincoln Lawyer (reviewed on
DD page dated Nov 11/09) – but it’s good enough as these things go. It clips along and the mysteries are
intriguing, even if there’s nothing amazingly new or startling about it all.
In this outing, Harry Bosch of the Los Angeles Police Department, is working two cases. One is the unsolved murder of a
young woman decades ago. The other is the death of a lobbyist who is the son of an important city councillor in Los Angeles.
It looks like the son killed himself by jumping from a hotel balcony but the father wants Bosch to prove it wasn’t a
suicide. Oddly, though, this pooh-bah on the city council used to be an arch enemy of Bosch’s, one of those politicos
who’s always trying to cut the police down to size. And the reason the cold case of the murdered woman has come up again
is that DNA testing has found a match for a blood smear on the neck of the corpse. Only problem is, the match is for a male
who would have been eight years old at the time of the murder
You might consider it a slight imperfection of the book that the two stories have no connection, except for Bosch. What,
you mean, Mr. Connelly doesn’t have enough material to make a book with one mystery so he has to toss in another one?
But that didn’t bother me. You could take it as a novel about a time in the life of Bosch: these two cases happen to
be the ones on his plate at the time, so they’re both constituent parts of the story about how his life is developing
during this period.
And Mr. Connelly can be credited with writing at a level that includes some elements worthy of a novel. For instance, Bosch’s
relationship with his fifteen-year-old daughter. Her mother died some years ago; Bosch has custody of her now. Their interaction
is convincing and she sounds like an especially believable contemporary teen. As for the inevitable love interest, the character
of the woman – a psychotherapist in a halfway house for sex offenders – doesn’t emerge very clearly, but
she and Bosch do have some interesting discussions, particularly a rather contentious one about the sources and causes of
evil: are some people bad or is it just that they do bad things?
In so far as you allow a novelist to convey some of his or her opinions about social matters, though, there’s an
aspect to The Drop that makes me uneasy. It would appear, more by implication than direct statement, that Mr. Connelly
approves of the death penalty. At least, that seems to be Bosch’s position on the matter and, since it seems that we’re
meant to be fully sympathetic to Bosch throughout the novel, one could assume that we’re expected to agree with him
on this issue. However, that doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the story. It’s not supposed to
be a book about ideas.
One thing this book did for me as a novel reflecting contemporary life was that it showed me what the lives are like of
people whose cell phones are extensions of their bodies. The story, as told, would be impossible without the almost constant
access to cell phones for instant and spontaneous communication and gathering of information. Call display also comes into
play a lot of the time: Bosch’s deciding what calls he’ll take and what ones he won’t. Not to mention texting,
which is one of the main ways that Bosch and his daughter communicate. To me this is all a revelation. I see people out there
on cell phones a lot but I’ve never appreciated how integral the little gizmos are to their lives. (Maybe you get that
from watching cop shows on tv, but I don’t see them.) Except that I have to wonder if most of the texting that I see
going on is as meaningful or as important as what’s happening between a girl and her dad who’s solving murder
The quality of the writing began to look a bit iffy, though, when the character of the pooh-bah on City Council was shaping
up to be pretty much of a stereotype, not just in terms of his behaviour and speech but also his situation. Haven’t
we had far too many of these instances, in cop stories, where the city bureaucrats are putting too much pressure on the detectives
for political reasons? In this case, though, Mr. Connelly offers, near the end of the book, a surprising twist on the situation
that saves it from cliché status. Instead, we get almost the opposite of what we’re
accustomed to. And there are some good surprises in the case of the murdered young woman too.
Still, we do get some of the tried and true tropes of the genre. For instance, the newspaper reporter who is threatening
to release info that would compromise the detective’s work. And then there’s the business of the detective’s
worrying about whether or not he can trust his colleagues. Who’s betraying whom? And yet, Mr. Connelly does serve up
some surprises in that department. I'm glad to report, as well, that he has curtailed the autonomic responses that
I complain about regarding so many mysteries. (Could he have been reading Dilettante’s Diary?) We only get a
few instances where we’re told that Bosch feels things like stirrings in his gut. And there’s only one of those
scenarios where our detective’s pouring over pages of evidence but knows he’s "missing something." That overly-familiar
shtick isn’t too annoying here, because Mr. Connelly doesn’t make too much of it; just two paragraphs on, Bosch
sees what he was missing.
But I did notice another odd mannerism of Mr. Connelly’s writing style. He frequently tells us that someone makes
an arm or hand gesture that conveys such-and-such a message. For an author to use that device once or twice can be effective;
when you see it used as often as it is here, you begin to wonder what it is about the author that makes him rely so much on
this form of semaphore.
An even more peculiar thing about Mr. Connelly’s writing here has to do with point of view. The entire novel is told
from Bosch’s point of view, except that at one point, about half way through, we get the point of view of somebody Bosch
is interviewing. The changed viewpoint only lasts for one paragraph, then we’re back to Bosch’s point of view.
Not that this is a fatal flaw, by any means, but it has the feeling of a slip-up in craft. You wonder whether Mr. Connelly
actually realized it was happening.
Further on the de-merit side, I think this book could have used tighter editing. Occasionally you get sentences that include
unnecessary words. For instance, we’re told that somebody "picked up his phone and made a call, cupping his hand over
the mouthpiece when he spoke to someone on the other end." Do we need "to someone on the other end"? In another instance,
Bosch and Chu, his partner, are leaning over a computer. We’re told that: "Chu hit the space bar to rouse the computer
from sleep. The screen lit, and....." Wouldn’t the text have read more cleanly without the words "to rouse the computer
from sleep"? We know why Chu hit the space bar. To spell it out makes the narrator sound slack. When Bosch is talking to the
reporter who’s threatening to release info prematurely, we get: "‘Who is your source?’ he asked, just to
gain a little time to consider ways of handling this." I don’t think we need "to consider ways of handling this."
The excess verbiage slows things down. It gives the impression of a writer who may not be at the top of his game, who
may not be watching his work closely enough. It’s certainly not the kind of thing you find in Lee Child’s taut
thrillers that move with such breath-taking speed.