Wolf Hall (Novel) by Hilary Mantel, 2009
You don’t need me to suggest that Hilary Mantel’s two novels about Thomas Cromwell might be worth looking into.
The enormous success that she’s had with them – both commercially and critically – is practically unprecedented
for this kind of thing. So I’ll focus here on what I find most interesting in them, starting with Wolf Hall.
One of the most fascinating things about the book is Ms Mantel’s style. I’ve never read a historical novel
that feels so immediate, so urgent. That effect may be due, in part, to the fact that it’s written mostly in the present
tense. But there’s something else about the way she handles the material. She seems to jump right in. There’s
no sense of her ladling out the research bit by bit. She seldom explains anything; you have to catch up with her. Only twice,
that I counted, does she back off a bit and explain something in an authorial voice.
The tale is told in a roughly chronological order, but Ms Mantel serves up things as they come to her; this gives the material
a sort of compulsive feel; it’s not all laid out according to some architectural plan. The narrative momentum makes
for compelling reading, but not without problems when it comes to understanding. No doubt a person more steeped in English
history wouldn’t be quite as disoriented as I. (A couple of embarrassing admissions: I didn’t know – or
remember – that Calais belonged to the English at this time; also, the bloody uprising of the Cornish people was news
And there can be some confusion about characters. I felt reasonably familiar with about twenty of them by the end; about
another twenty were just names to me. (Maybe a more perspicacious reader would have discovered the list of characters in the
front of the book sooner than I did.) Sometimes I felt like a kid standing outside the door, listening to the adults in the
next room discussing important matters; I had a general idea of what was going on, a sense that there was trouble brewing,
but not a complete grasp of all the details.
As a consequence of Ms Mantel’s deep immersion in her subject matter, you get paragraphs packed with narrative. For
Most of his household have gone to see the bonfires, and they will be out till midnight, dancing. They have permission
to do this; who should celebrate the new queen, if they do not? John Page comes out: something want doing, sir? William Brabazon,
pen in hand, one of Wolsey’s old crew: the king’s business never stops. Thomas Avery, fresh from his accounts:
there’s always money flowing in, money flowing out. When Wolsey fell, his household deserted him, but Thomas Cromwell’s
servants stayed to see him through.
At times, given that we’re getting what Cromwell is seeing and thinking, the effect is almost like stream-of-consciousness:
The Pope chooses this month, while he [i.e. Cromwell] is rolling his great bills through Parliament, to give his judgment
at last on Queen Katherine’s marriage – a judgment so long delayed that he thought Clement meant to die in his
indecision. The original dispensations, Clement finds, are sound; therefore the marriage is sound. The supporters of the Emperor
let off fireworks in the streets of Rome. Henry is contemptuous, sardonic. He expressed these feelings by dancing. Anne can
dance still, though her belly shows; she must take the summer quietly. He remembers the king’s hand on Lizzie Seymour’s
waist. Nothing came of that, the young woman is no fool. Now it is little Mary Shelton he is whirling around, lifting her
off her feet and tickling her and squeezing her and making her breathless with compliments. These things mean nothing; he
sees Anne lift up her chin and avert her gaze and lean back in her chair....
This kind of writing can be an irritant to people who have strict standards when it comes to paragraph unity – i.e.
no more than one topic per paragraph – but it strikes me as appropriate to the compulsive character of Ms Mantel’s
narration. I also like the way she’ll sometimes give you the first line of a person’s speech in quotation marks.
But then she’ll rush on and tell you the rest of what the person said, without quotation marks. Another idiosyncratic
trait of the author’s is that she’ll sometimes give you a thought of Cromwell’s in a short, succinct manner,
before the quote of what he actually says, usually something quite different from what he’s thinking. When one of the
attendants to Princess Mary (Katherine’s daughter) says that Cromwell can’t stop her from serving the child, we
Try me. "I am only the minister of the king’s wishes, and you, I suppose, are as anxious as I am to carry them out."
In spite of the somewhat helter-skelter style of the book, there’s plenty in it to satisfy fans of "fine writing."
In this example, Cromwell has gone up to bed: "Upstairs he closes the shutter, where the moon gapes in hollow-eyed, like a
drunk lost in the street." One of the most stunning instances of literary finesse is the description of King Henry’s
response to the news that Anne has given birth to a girl, rather than the much longed-for boy:
He takes a breath and stands up and shakes out his sleeves. He smiles: and one can catch in flight, as if it were a bird
with a strong-beating heart, the act of will that transforms a desolate wretch into the beacon of his nation.
Although the flavour of the times comes through vividly in various expressions, a couple of things strike me as anachronistic.
For instance, a reference to a "pot luck" dinner. Also, someone’s saying,"You owe me," meaning: I’ve done you
a favour so now you have to do one for me. But the locker room talk among the men is very convincing, amazingly so, given
that it’s coming from a female 21st century writer. When Cardinal Wolsey’s fool is contemplating his
likely demise, following the cardinal’s downfall, he says: "What’s one fool? England is full of them." That rings
so true; it has the bite of a true court jester; worthy of Shakespeare.
And various references to the mores help to make us feel the ambiance of the times. Much is made, for instance, of Cromwell’s
low birth. Every time you think he has an ace up his sleeve, somebody throws this breeding flaw at him (although it never
deflects him from his purpose). You also become aware that this was a time when superstition flourished; people, both high
and low, took seriously the mouthings of prophetesses; witches were beings generally to be feared.
As for the issue at the heart of the book, Ms Mantel does full justice to the complexity and confusion of the times. Contrary
to the simplistic version of events that we learned in school, Ms Mantel helps you to see that it was really a vexing question
for people: did it necessarily follow that the Pope’s law was synonymous with God’s law? Wouldn’t it be
reasonable to assume that the people of a nation might owe their first loyalty to their king rather than to an authority in
some foreign country?
But never mind the confident grasp of history, the touches of fine writing. What makes the book great is the characters
that people it.
Take Cromwell – a guy as fully fleshed-out and complex as any of us. He’s an astute businessman, but
frequently, in the midst of important transactions, there will be a sort of aside in which he notices something like the quality
of a certain fabric; he’ll speculate on its origins. This sort of detail, seemingly inconsequential to the matters at
hand – what you might call his ability to be distracted by human quirks – helps to make him very real. When he’s
contemplating Wolsey’s scarlet robes which have been confiscated, following his downfall, Cromwell thinks about the
fact that a patch of this crimson stuff might someday appear in a prostitute’s petticoat. His love for his family comes
through not in vehement declarations but in his sentimental reverie about a closet where the family’s Christmas decorations
are stored. He has no illusions about himself; he tells a bishop: "I cannot help it if God has given me a sinner’s aspect.
He must mean something by it." Occasionally, we get flashes of his wry humour, as in the following:
If he were to give himself a piece of advice for Christmas, he’d say, leave the cardinal now or you’ll be out
on the streets again with the three-card trick. But he only gives advice to those who are likely to take it.
When we eavesdrop on these musings about Thomas More’s hairshirt, we get a good sense of the range of Cromwell’s
imagination (and Ms Mantel’s):
What lodges in his mind, Thomas Cromwell’s, is that somebody makes these instruments of daily torture. Someone combs
the horsehair into coarse tufts, knots them and chops the blunt ends, knowing that their purpose is to snap off under the
skin and irritate it into weeping sores. Is it monks who make them, knotting and snipping in a fury of righteousness, chuckling
at the thought of the pain they will cause to persons unknown? Are simple villagers paid – how, by the dozen? –
for making flails with waxed knots? Does it keep farm workers busy during the slow winter months?
One of the secrets to Cromwell’s power is secrecy or, more favourably put, discretion. Here, he has been thinking
about rectifying a potted version of his history that’s been bandied about:
But it is no use to justify yourself. It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past
even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and
the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people; the gap you open, into which they
pour their fears, fantasies, desires.
Although that might make it sound as though Cromwell is somewhat inclined to fanciful ways of thinking, he is hard-headed
in certain contexts. When arguing with Harry Percy, who thinks inherited rights and titles are what matter, Ms Manel has him
thinking this way:
How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall.
The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails
of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle
but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the
page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and the shot.
For all his pragmatism and his seeming lack of feeling in carrying out the king’s orders, Cromwell is conciliatory
and even-handed towards people who have fallen out of favour. In his meeting with Queen Katherine, for example, Cromwell is
unfailingly polite and respectful. He especially tries to be helpful to her daughter, Princess Mary, when the child is being
forced to assume a subservient position in the household of her half-sister, Elizabeth. Whether or not this humane kindness
is true to the real Cromwell, I can’t say, not having access to anything like the resources that Ms Mantel has drawn
on, but her portrait of Cromwell certainly makes for an intriguing man.
The one aspect of Cromwell’s many talents that I don’t get is the emphasis on a memory system he has devised.
It apparently has something to do with a method, like one taught in our own time, of linking facts you want to remember to
details in a room you have in your mind. The phenomenal power of recall resulting from this system is is presumably one of
the sources of Cromwell’s great power over people and affairs of state. But the import of it somehow doesn’t quite
register; Ms Mantel seems to be making too big a deal of it. Is the point that Cromwell can’t fall back, like most of
us, on Google or Wikipedia to reinforce his memory?
I keep thinking how an actor would love to sink his teeth into the role of Henry. Not that it’s more complex
than the role of Cromwell, in terms of subtext and nuance, but it would certainly be more fun to play. The persona of the
king is carefully prepared for us before he actually comes onstage. Then his appearances are doled out with judicious pacing.
Cromwell’s first encounter with the king is awe-inspiring, but in a casual, off-hand manner. The king has summoned Cromwell
to discuss the charges against Wolsey, ostensibly, but actually Henry wants to raise the matter of Cromwell’s stated
public opinion that he, Henry, cannot afford to go to war. And yet, the discussion of these tricky matters is sprinkled with
comments about the weather and inquiries about such seemingly trite subjects as to whether or not Cromwell approves of the
An encounter soon after that has almost the opposite feel. The king is sitting on a stool by his bed, bewildered and dazed;
he’s had a bad dream in which his dead brother appeared to him and he wants Cromwell to help interpret it for him. As
Cromwell gets to know the king through these meetings characterized by such diverse moods, he thinks:
You could watch Henry every day for a decade and not see the same thing....Sometimes he seems hapless, sometimes feckless,
sometimes a child, sometimes master of his trade. Sometimes he seems an artist, in the way his eye ranges over his work; sometimes
his hand moves and he doesn’t seem to see it move.
Eventually, of course, we get the famous rages, the hunting, the manly swagger, the roving eye when any pretty young women
are nearby; the graceful dancing, the stubbornnness, the egotism. One of the most telling moments of all, the one that shows
you best how a king can be, is when King Henry comes to visit Cromwell who is sick in bed. Not having a perfect handle on
all the members of Cromwell’s vast household, King Henry makes the mistake of thinking Cromwell’s sister-in-law
is Cromwell’s sister. On realizing his mistake, the monarch says: "No, forgive me. I remember now that you lost your
sister Bet at the same time my own lovely sister died." And then, this from Ms Mantel:
It is such a simple, human sentence, coming from a king; at the mention of their most recent loss, tears well into the
eyes of the two women, and Henry, turning to one, then the other, with a careful forefinger dots them from their cheeks, and
makes them smile.
Maybe that little incident isn’t enough to make you forgive the atrocities – all those heads that rolled –
but it does remind you that the man had his fine moments.
A much less flattering treatment is given to Thomas More. Ms Mantel appears to have made it one of her major goals
to knock the man off the saintly pedestal where most of us put him, following the lead of Robert Bolt’s version of him
in A Man for All Seasons. Nobody who has seen the movie version has forgotten Paul Scofield’s noble, dignified,
heroic, self-sacrificing More. What Ms Mantel wants us to know about the guy is that he took great glee in torturing and killing
heretics and, it would appear, anybody he suspected of being one. He felt that heretics had no rights; you could lie to them,
if necessary, to get them convicted. His attitude to his wife is presented as being ignoble at best; it seems he looked on
her as a necessary outlet for his unfortunate (as he saw it) concupiscence; other than that, he appears not to have had much
respect or use for her. It was his daughter Meg, the scholar, who got all his love and attention.
Altogether, More appears here as quite the priggish, dry stick. And yet, in the end, Ms Mantel gives him his due. When
he’s facing his dire ending, he does come across as a man of strong principle and great courage. So much so, in fact,
that Cromwell can admire him and do his best to exculpate the man right up to the end. The final confrontations between the
two men are some of the book’s best scenes.
The women in the book, perhaps for historical reasons that can’t be avoided, don’t figure as largely as the
men. But the key female players get careful handling. As in the case of King Henry, we’re given lots of buildup until
we finally meet Anne Boleyn. When she does appear, she’s elegant and appropriately dignified. It’s not
long, though, before the catty, competitive, frustrated woman emerges from behind the royal mask. One of the most telling
comments about the unravelling of her personality is someone’s observation that Anne had been hoping that everyday as
queen would be like her coronation day. Her arch opponent, the deposed Queen Katherine, doesn’t have many scenes.
Her speeches sound a bit stilted to me, but they crackle with the spite of offended majesty.
As absorbing as Ms Mantel’s writing is, it isn’t entirely problem-free. First, there’s the matter of
not explaining things. The occasional landmark or milestone to help readers get their bearings might have been in order. Just
a reminder, now and then, of who somebody is. But the bigger problem is Ms Mantel’s way of using the pronoun "he" (and
all its other grammatical forms). Her disregard for the conventional rules regarding precedents of pronouns makes for lots
of confusion. It’s normally taken that the antecedent for a personal pronoun is – except in cases where it obviously
isn’t – the person who was previously named in closest proximity to the pronoun.
Throughout Wolf Hall, however, it would appear that Ms Mantel usually intends the third person masculine pronoun
to apply to Cromwell. Time and again, she’s talking about some other man but, in the middle of the passage, she’ll
throw in a "he" and we’re supposed to know that it refers to Cromwell, not to the other man.
For instance, consider this passage about Wolsey:
He is, he has always been, more imperious than the king. For that, if it is a crime, he is guilty.
So now they swagger into York Place, the Duke of Suffolk, the Duke of Norfolk; the two great peers of the realm. Suffolk,
his blond beard bristling, looks like a pig among truffles; a florid man, he remembers, turns my lord cardinal sick.
Would you know that "he" in the last line is Cromwell?
Another example of this problem: "The evening before Fisher is to die, he visits More. He takes a strong guard with him..."
You’re picturing that Fisher is in the Tower, condemned to die, and he goes visiting with a strong guard traipsing after
him....Seems odd, but what do you know about Tower etiquette? But no, the "he" is, of course, Cromwell.
Many more examples of this problem could be cited. I don’t want to belabour it to the point of seeming school-marmish.
Let’s just say that it seems not very kind, on the part of a writer, to make so much trouble for a reader of a book
that is, in every other respect, so rewarding.
Bring Up the Bodies (Novel) by Hilary Mantel, 2012
Maybe it’s inevitable that the second book in a series like this would seem a little less amazing than the first
one. After all, there’s something especially fascinating about a person’s rise to power from lowly origins. When
a person has reached a plateau of prominence and prestige, the story becomes all about how that person maintains his or her
position. That’s bound to be a little less exciting than the ascent to it.
All of which is to say that Bring Up the Bodies, while it has nearly all of the virtues of Wolf Hall –
the narrative drive, the colourful feel of the times, the wonderful characters – doesn’t have quite the same enthralling
effect. Still, it’s a very good and very nuanced study of Thomas Cromwell’s difficult attempt, as Lord Chancellor,
to please an unpredictable and irascible king without taking a misstep that would cost him his own head. Here’s Cromwell,
with another counsellor, exiting the king’s chamber: "They are like two men crossing thin ice; leaning into each other,
taking tiny, timid steps. As if that will do any good, when it begins to crack on every side."
Again, we see many of Cromwell’s most notable qualities. We get his wry self-knowledge and his dour acceptance of
other people’s reactions to him: "He has noticed this: that men who have not met him dislike him, but when they have
met him, only some of them do." Also, his skepticism about human nature, as in this comment on the public response to some
important mishap: "You know what it’s like when a cart overturns in the street? Everybody you meet witnessed it."
The main burden of the book is to try to imagine the state of mind of someone like Cromwell who was caught in such a dreadful
business. The point is not to exonerate him with regard to all the bad stuff that went down but to show how very complicated
it all was, from his point of view. At one point he tells someone: "I only point out what some would see as the way forward."
And later: "We’re only making it up as we go." For those of us who think the issues of those times should be seen in
black and white terms, there’s this:
What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour,
confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales. Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth
is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.
As for his mandate of finding Anne Boleyn guilty of adultery, we get hints that Cromwell’s conscience is not entirely
at ease: "He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged." The important thing
is that Cromwell doesn’t show any of his doubts about the process. He had a moment of weakness after one interrogation,
when Anne laid her hand on his arm and asked him what he really thought. Reflecting on the moment, he thinks: "I did falter
but no one knows it, reports have not gone abroad."
In the end, Cromwell has this to say for himself:
When your acquaintances tell you, as they will, that it is I who have condemned these men, tell them that it is the king,
and a court of law, and that all proper formalities have been observed, and no one has been hurt bodily in pursuit of the
truth, whatever the word is in the city. And you will not believe it, please, if ill-informed persons tell you these men are
dying because I have a grudge against them. It is beyond grudge. And I could not save them if I tried.
One of the things that surprised me about the story – we’re dealing here with my historical ignorance –
is that Cromwell and King Henry had tried to pass a law in favour of the poor. The two men wanted the rich to show some responsibility
to the unemployed, to those turned off their lands. But Parliament said it wasn’t the state’s job to create work;
it was in God’s hands; poverty and dereliction were part of his eternal order. The fact that these two men could have
made such a radical thrust in the direction of social justice doesn’t quite turn them into saints, in my books, but
it does, perhaps, consign them to a slightly less ignominous rating in the annals of the damned.
The Next Right Thing (Mystery) by Dan Barden, 2012
Somebody should do a study of the ways that Alcoholics Anonymous has appeared in detective fiction. One of the first instances
that I encountered was in the books of Lawrence Block, whose detective, Matt Scudder, was a committed A.A. believer. As I
recall it, one of his best quips, addresssed to his A.A. friends, was: "I came here to save my ass, but you guys convinced
me that it’s connected to my soul." A more recent appearance of A.A. in my reading was in Louise Penny’s A
Trick of the Light (reviewed on DD page dated March 22/12). I didn’t love the book but one good aspect of
it was the treatment of the A.A. philosophy and the psychology that flows from that.
I suppose it’s inevitable, in way, that A.A. would show up in crime fiction. After all, hard-boiled detective fiction,
as originated by American writers at any rate, has always involved a lot of drinking. A logical outcome of that, given the
inception of A.A. in the 1930s, would be the description of one of the major ways in which the various participants in these
escapades try to curb their drinking.
In The Next Right Thing, A.A. enters the picture right off the top. The mystery in question is about the death of
Terry, the A.A. sponsor of our detective hero, Randy Chalmers. Terry was something of an A.A. star, having been sober for
fifteen years. Randy depended very much on Terry’s guidance. It’s almost impossible, then, for Randy to accept
that Terry died, as he is reported to have done, of a heroin overdose in a sleazy motel. Randy spends the book racing around
southern California, making connections and uncovering dirt as a way of trying to find out what really happened to Terry.
Randy is a former cop who left the force dishonourably because – as far as I can figure out – he beat up somebody
unjustifiably. At times, it sounds like he’s learned some of his tough-guy talk from Jack Reacher, the hero of Lee Child’s
books. Here’s Randy threatening a guy who’s been spying on him:
"I don’t care why you’ve been jerking off in front of my house. I’m here to beat the shit out of you.
When you wake up from your coma, we’ll talk. While you’re sleeping, I’m going to kill everyone you know."
When Randy does start dishing out violence – gratuitously – he almost loses me, but his humour helps win me
back, even if it, too, sounds a bit like Jack Reacher. At the climax of the book, Randy decides against making a heroic dash
across a stretch of beach with an arsenal of police guns trained on him: "Too long out in the open when I wasn’t dressed
for sun and fun." But the cliché of the divorced, alcoholic detective is – sorry
to say this, Mr. Barden – vastly over-used these days. Also, I’m really tired of the hero who’s hated
by all the women in his life (his ex, his supposed girlfriend, his sister), except for his teenage daughter, with whom he
has a sweet, if tricky to manage, relationship. Do the writers of these books love to picture themselves as the lonely, misunderstood
alpha male who can never get it right with women? In this case, it’s not even clear why the girlfriend, also a member
of A.A., moves out on him.
Still, the central mystery is intriguing. You feel the tug of Randy’s need to find out the true story of Terry’s
death. But, in the way of a lot of contemporary mysteries, there’s too much complication and back story. Sleazy characters
and losers keep turning up. When they re-appear, it’s hard to remember the connections among them and the reasons for
their nefarious dealings with each other. Randy, as narrator, makes a big deal of the different vibes of the various locales
he visits but that doesn’t mean much to a reader who isn’t very familiar with the geography of Southern California.
And it’s not a sign of the best mystery writing when too many crises are solved by somebody’s parachuting in,
like a deus ex machina, to save the day.
But the playing out of the dynamics among the A.A. members is fascinating. This is surely the one detective book that gives
A.A. its most complete airing. In fact, you could say that the A.A. way of life is the main point of the book, in that the
directions that Randy’s quest takes him always have something to do with his application of A.A. principles. The book’s
title, in fact, refers to one of A.A.’s basic principles: when you’re stumbling around in your recovery and it
all seems overwhelming, just do "the next right thing." Randy says that one of his opponents failed to understand that "there
was no me outside of the me that A.A. had made." In a moment of wry, A.A. wisdom, he comments: "The truth will set you free,
but first it will really piss you off." The Fifth Step scenes – where one A.A. member confides the inventory of
all his or her failings to another member – are great. So is a scene where an A.A. member makes "amends", as the saying
goes, to someone he has hurt.
Mind you, the branch of A.A. that Randy belongs to, and that Terry personified, is one of the tough-talking ones. The love
that they dish out to each other is usually administered with a swift kick in the rear. Here’s Randy’s response
to a guy who has asked Randy to be his A.A. sponsor:
"How insane it is that you’re even talking to me. Because I’m going to tell you that I don’t like you,
Troy. I don’t like your attitude. Also, I don’t like your face. I don’t like your fake beefed-up body, and
when you’re around me, I feel a little bit nauseated the entire time. Not like I’m going to puke exactly, but
like I’ll never be able to eat food again. I also can’t promise that I won’t beat the shit out of you. You
upset me so much, in fact, that it’s probable."
At times, I felt the tough talk was just a little forced. In one flashback, for example, Randy and Terry are in a standoff
over Terry’s advice to Randy. They’re both threatening to whale on the other; neither will back down. "Then one
of us will be in the hospital tonight," Terry says. But I suppose exchanges can go to such an extent when people are bearing
down so intently on a way of life that they’re all convinced is the right one. Mr. Barden conveys the thinking and feeling
of these people so well that it began to seem to me that this would have been a very good book, albeit of a different kind,
if it had concentrated on those interactions and left out some of the cop-show-type scurrying back and forth to follow up
clues. It’s a mark of the quality of the writing that Randy’s search doesn’t come to the triumphant conclusion
we’re hoping for, but he arrives at some truths that are enlightening and sobering.
Pinboy (Memoir) by George Bowering, 2012
George Bowering may not be a household name in Canada, but he’s very well known in literary circles. He’s won
the Governor General’s Award twice, once for poetry (1969) and once for fiction (1980). In 2002, he was named Canada’s
first Parliamentary Poet Laureate. He’s an officer of the Order of Canada, has been involved in the formation and direction
of various literary journals and he’s Professor Emeritus of English at Simon Fraser University. His memoir, then, demands
your attention if you claim to be interested in Canadian literature.
Not that this memoir tells much about Mr. Bowering’s stellar career. It’s mostly about his teen years, the
early 1950s, in the small town of Oliver, B.C. The books opens with him working as a pinboy at the local bowling alley, then
takes him through other jobs, like picking cherries and peaches. Meanwhile, he’s schlepping along in high school, earning
mediocre grades, yet knowing that he’s one of the smartest of his bunch. He’s into clothes a lot; he likes to
affect the latest cool styles, in so far as he can on his limited finances. He reads voraciously, fancying himself as something
like the famous sports reporters he admires. Because he’s being paid for contributing sports reports to the local
newspaper, he considers himself a professional journalist; he’s therefore unwilling to stoop to contributing to the
high school rag. But he and a pal write and perform skits over the school’s p.a. system at noon hour.
Those are the general outlines of the book. But the heart of it, or the central theme, if you will, is the account of a
heterosexual teenage male’s handling of his hormonal urges: lots of masturbation, spying on women, attempts to get glimpses
of brassieres, panties, breasts, bums. I gather that all this is supposed to be hilarious. To think that such an icon
of our literary scene could admit to such carry-on! I find it tiresome.There are writers who can make the male sexual
urge sex very interesting (Philip Roth, John Updike) but most of the detail here falls into the category of too-much-information.
Maybe this is the kind of thing that you can love if you’re very familiar with the writer’s work and you consider
him a wonderful character; you catch the flavour of his personality in every line. For me, as a newcomer to the work of Mr.
Bowering, the authorial voice never clicks in. He says, at one point, that he always finds it difficult to find the right
words in social situations. That doesn’t surprise me. There isn’t a naturally engaging voice in the writing, at
least, not as it hits me. At times I had to wonder whether the writer really wanted to tell me all this stuff. There’s
no sense of urgency or enthusiasm to the narrative.
Instead, the writer seems to be striving for a rambling, conversational tone, as though you’re supposed to imagine
yourself sitting by the fireside with him. He often addresses folksy asides to the reader, comments on his writing process:
- I think I have told those two stories. Maybe not.
- I realize that such flash-forwards tend to stick out like a sore thumb or other body part in a memoir such as this, but
just this once I want to tell this story....
- I really like putting down all this dialogue, because for some reason I can remember it more exactly than I can the stuff
that requires description – people’s clothes, the weather, and so on.
- I hope you will understand that I am saying that word with a touch of sarcasm.
- To fold back again, just for a bit, I’ll say that I don’t right now remember whether I told you about that
frozen guy and the fingers, but I think I did.
For fans of Mr. Bowering's writing, maybe those touches are endearing. They strike me as examples of lazy writing.
I keep asking: why can’t this man martial his thoughts and get on with his story more efficiently?
At times, the author admits that his memory on certain points may not be entirely reliable. We accept, then, that some
scenarios may involve a certain amount of invention. But why does the relationship with a sexy English teacher come off like
a total cliché? Is this exactly the way it happened or is the author to be blamed for
making this seem like a script for a typical porno movie? (The woman is always luring the horny teenager into her apartment
by asking him to carry her groceries or fix her blinds.) Granted, life does sometimes imitate art – even crappy art
– but shouldn’t the writer, even if he’s recounting facts, be able to render them as other than hokey and
You wonder if maybe the problem is that this writer doesn’t have a special gift for character. That could be why
the situation with the temptress never feels quite real: the teacher doesn’t seem like a believable person. She never
says or does a single thing that gives her any identity as anything other than a stereotype. The author says that he doesn’t
go in for psychoanalysis of people. Fair enough. We don’t expect an author to put his characters on the couch and submit
them to that arcane process. But does his dismissal of psychoanalysis hint at a reluctance to really get into character? The
author’s father, a teacher in the author’s high school, is virtually a non-entity in the book. Young George’s
siblings are ignored to such an extent that it comes as a surprise, every now and then, to be reminded that he has any. His
mother, though, does have a certain taciturn, grudging presence that sounds very real.
Perhaps you simply have to accept that the book isn’t about family, even though I’d have thought that family
context would be important in the story of any young person’s development. But this one is more about George’s
inner world. One place where the loneliness and the confusion of the boy come through very clearly is in this description
of his state after a certain disappointment:
That night I took the long mirror off the bathroom door and put it on the floor, and stood over it looking down. I could
not tell whether what I was looking at was scary because it was so low or because it was so high. I could not decide what
I was doing with a mirror on the floor.
The few characters, other than George, who are fleshed out somewhat are other high schoolers. The author tramps about in
the hills with a pal named Will. The banter between them, as they try to impress each other, is quite believable. Then there’s
Wendy, George’s official girlfriend, a slightly snooty type from one of the town’s British families, who exchanges
some barbed repartee with her young swain. An evocative scene featuring the two of them alone in his family’s tumble-down
cabin by the lake makes a lasting impression, not least because it doesn’t turn out the way you think it will.
But the most interesting involvement – you couldn’t call it a relationship – is George’s acquaintance
with an intelligent girl who comes from an impoverished family and who may be physically abused. George can’t restrain
his curiosity about her. He tries to walk home with her, a project that always subjects him to her withering putdowns. He
leaves money in places where she might find it, in the hopes that it will help her.
What could I do? Just dropping all pose and telling her straight-out that I liked her for some reason, and wanted to see
whether I could help her in some way was out of the question. That’s not the way kids talked to each other. I wanted
to hold her hand or put my arm around her shoulder.
He never does get to know this girl very well or to understand her situation, but the fact that he was so interested
in her and that he can convey his feelings about her with a certain delicacy gives me some clue as to why George Bowering
became a writer of such stature.
Jarhead, 2003; Hotels, Hospitals and Jails, 2012 (Memoirs) by Anthony Swofford
Anthony Swofford’s second memoir, Hotels, Hospitals and Jails, published last year, tells what happened as
a result of the success of his first memoir, Jarhead, published in 2003. It seemed to me, then, that it would
be a good idea to read it first.
Jarhead tells about Mr. Swofford’s experience, in his early twenties, as a US marine in the First Gulf War, aka
"Desert Storm." Mr. Swofford and his cohorts were stationed in Saudi Arabia, close to the border of Kuwait. The book was the
basis for the popular movie with the same name. A quick glance at my review of that movie (on DD page dated Dec 12/05)
leaves little doubt about my low opinion of it. But the book was a New York Times bestseller and I’m guessing
that the movie rights made a substantial contribution to Mr. Swofford’s financial windfall.
As in the movie, one of the main points of Jarhead, the book, appears to be to show what bad asses the marines are,
or want to see themselves as being. The swearing, the crude sexual talk, the mean pranks, make it clear that these are not
guys you want to bring home to Mother. You can’t help wondering, though, whether Mr. Swofford is showing you the worst
of it for sensational effect. There’s the drill instructor, for instance, who smashed Mr. Swofford’s head through
a chalkboard, then disciplined him for damaging the chalkboard. It comes as a welcome break when one of the guys lets fly
with a comic explosion of pretend rage that raises profanity, obscenity and insult to new levels. Of course, we also get demonstrations
of loyalty and cohesiveness among the guys. The night before an expected battle, an impromptu round of hugging appears to
express something like genuine affection, maybe even love of a kind. Mr. Swofford says the ritual "helped to make us human
But the book gives you something that the movie can’t – and that’s Mr. Swofford’s intelligence
and his skill as a writer. Those qualities of the narrator hit me first in the description of that psychopathic drill instructor:
"His eyes looked dead, as though he’d lost them for a few years and found them washed up on the beach." It’s not
just literary touches like that that show you that Mr. Swofford is not the typical lout. Often, when other guys are horsing
around in barracks or bars, Mr. Swofford is in a corner reading Camus or Homer. When he and his fellow marines encounter a
group of Bedouins in the desert, the other guys are abusive and contemptuous of these people but he argues that the Bedouins,
not being responsible for the conflict, should be allowed to go their way in peace. Outbursts of psychosis among the guys
remind him of a sister who was often hospitalized for psychiatric treatment, leading to our discovery that Mr. Swofford has
compassion for people with mental instability.
Which is not to say that Mr. Swofford is any saint. One of the most shocking incidents in the book is the one where
he tortures a fellow marine because the guy had screwed up in a way that got Mr. Swofford in trouble. In retaliation, Mr.
Swofford held the sweating, crying culprit kneeling at his feet for several minutes while he held a gun to the guy’s
head and described how the execution he was about to carry out would easily be passed off as an accidental discharge of a
weapon. How it was that Mr. Swofford eventually relented I can’t remember – and it hardly matters – but
you wonder how two guys who’ve been through an experience like that can continue to work together (which they did).
Even more puzzling: how could a man like Mr. Swofford, who seems relatively intelligent and sensitive, have done such a cruel
thing? Maybe the only explanation is that he was so young.
His father had been a military man and Anthony got the message early on that you proved your manhood by combat. He tells
us that, in 1984, as a fourteen-year old paper boy reading about the bombing in Lebanon that killed 241 U.S. servicemen: "...the
carnage crept into my brain, and also the sense that my country had been harmed and that I was responsible for some of the
healing, the revenge." Watching the tv coverage of the soldiers carrying bodies from the rubble, he says, "I was a boy falling
in love with manhood. I understood that manhood had to do with war, and war with manhood..." When he did join up and was sent
to Saudi Arabia: "I wanted a thankless mission; wanted poor odds and a likely death." He says he liked the fact that, his
having qualified as a sniper in the Surveillance and Target Acquisition platoon "would increase the danger of my missions."
Mr. Swofford writes with great narrative verve. He plays out a scene very well – the encounter with the Bedouins,
for example. The book’s structure is effective. Interspersed among the chapters about the war, we get flashbacks to
childhood and enlisting, as well as some flash-fowards to catch up on what happened to some of the guys after the war. In
the war sections, it can be a little hard to figure out what’s going on, especially if you’re not familiar with
military procedures and terms, both official and slang (people referred to as a grunt? a boot?). I learned a lot about
what it means to be a sniper (although some of the stuff on the history of weapons sounds like it’s been cribbed from
It’s not hard to see how the book made such a sensation, given that Mr. Swofford actually came under fire –
friendly fire as it turned out. Rockets were landing around him and his cohort as they were making a nighttime sortie across
the desert. He tells a lot of hard truths that you don’t usually get in war memoirs. Instead of the glorious celebration
of victory, there are cynicism and agnosticism about the whole thing. On receiving a kindly letter from the pastor of his
home parish, he reflects on the incompatibility of religion and the military ethos. About the rapturous reception from women
waving American flags after the war, he realizes: "These Kuwaiti women with their children aren’t the ones we fought
for: we fought for the oil-landed families living in the palaces deep with gold, shaded by tall and courtly palm trees."
Here’s what he has to say about the culture of war as it spreads through our society.
Unfortunately, many of the men who live through the war don’t understand why they were spared....These men spread
what they call good news, the good news about war and warriors. Some of the men who spread good news have never fought –
so what could they have to say about the purity of war and warriors? These men are liars and cheats and they gamble with your
freedom and your life and the lives of your sons and daughters and the reputation of your country.
There were times, he admits, when he felt the urge to kill that all his training had prepared him for. But now he’s
reflecting on the time when a captain intervened and prevented him from taking down a couple of easy targets he had within
....at the time I was angry that the pompous captain took the handset from me and stole my kills, I have lately been thankful
that he insisted on calling the fire mission, and sometimes when I am feeling hopeful or even religious, I think that by taking
my two kills the pompous captain handed me life, some extra moments of living for myself or that I can offer others, though
I have no idea how to use or disburse these extra moments, or if I’ve wasted them already.
The next book shows just how much he was going to waste them.
Hotels, Hospitals and Jails makes no secret of the fact that Mr. Swofford acted like a jerk, thanks to the huge success
of Jarhead. Very quickly, he burned through a lot of money – he doesn’t say how much – on women,
booze and recreational drugs. It seems he had women scattered all over the world who were willing to have sex with him at
any time. He managed his conflicting affairs by constant and elaborate lying to all of the women. At one point, he was having
sex with two girlfriends (not simultaneously!) who were staying in separate rooms in the same hotel.
As I recall, the reviewer for The New York Times turned up her nose at such shenanigans. But The New Yorker,
in a short notice about the book, was enthusiastic. I’m with The New Yorker on this one. The point is not whether
you like or don’t like the author and what he did. The point is whether or not he’s a good writer. And Mr. Swofford
shows again that he certainly is.
When his older brother is dying of cancer, Anthony is working at a grocery warehouse. This is what he says about drinking
after work with his co-workers:
....they all knew my brother was dying in Georgia, but here in West Sacramento, behind the Texaco, no one mentioned it,
and this not mentioning it showed they cared....none of the men I drank beers with talked about my dying brother. This is
the brute civility and humility of the working-class man, the man from Springsteen songs and Carver short stories. For many
months this brute emotion held me up when otherwise I might simply have crashed to the pavement under the weight of my grief
and the weight of the deadly flesh rotting in my brother’s body.
This, after an encounter with a patient’s mom at Bethesda Naval Hospital:
The greatest burden of a war always falls on the mothers. The men on both sides kill; the men have their mortal fun, they
blow each other up and post the deeds on YouTube, and the mothers carry the casualties to the Rasa River, wash and dress the
wounds, count casualties. The mothers bathed the wounded at Hiroshima. They have done so on the Seine, the Thames, the Missouri,
the Danube, the Oostanaula. Name a river. It has received our wounded from the backs of mothers.
And this, on the presence of many politicians at a dinner for wounded service people:
And how many times can you ask the kid with a metal plate in his head, the kid with no legs, the bomb-blinded kid, where
he grew up and where in Iraq or Afghanistan did this horrible unfortunate awful thing happen and how he was progressing and
if he missed the men in his unit; how many times could you ask these questions without the guilt and horror blinding you?
To my mind, this book is better than Jarhead, because it goes deeper; it doesn’t depend so much on violence
and action-packed scenarios. In a more reflective mode than that of Jarhead, it deals with three main themes. The dissolute
lifestyle is always there as a kind of background music (and perhaps it should be said that Mr. Swofford, although candid
about his behaviour, doesn’t get into anything like pornographic detail). Another major topic is the loss of Mr. Swofford’s
older brother, Jeff, as a result of a raging cancer. A married man and a father of two, Jeff Swofford faced his rapid demise
with frankness and courage. He tried to bring his younger brother around to a version of evangelical Christianity that he,
the older brother, had discovered in his final years of life. (The siblings had been raised Catholic, both of their parents
having converted to that faith as adults.) The conversion attempt was unsuccessful, but the communication between the two
brothers, as reported by the younger one, is profoundly moving.
But the relationship at the heart of the book is the one between the author and his father, John Howard Swofford. The younger
Mr. Swofford has a real problem with the old man. You could almost say that filial resentment is the fuel that charges the
book. As the son sees it, the senior Swofford wasn’t a good father. He was emotionally and sometimes physically abusive
to his kids; what seemed to the son like a military standard of discipline was exercised in the home. Meanwhile, the dad was
quite a philanderer; his commitment to his wife and family didn’t have anything to do with sexual fidelity.
In terms of more specific grudges, there was the time when the son missed a bit of dog dirt that he was supposed to clean
up in the back yard. The dad took him by the scruff of the neck and pushed him towards the stinking mound. The big question
seems to be just how far the push went. And, with regard to more recent beefs, there’s bill that the dad presented for
use of his car after he’d loaned it to the son for a few months. Even more troubling was the dad’s failure to
show up at his son Jeff’s funeral.
Anthony’s complaints about all this are hashed out in three cross-country road trips that the two men take in the
dad’s RV. Throughout the journeys, the dad is struggling to breathe, because of emphysema. Oddly enough, the senior
Mr. Swofford doesn’t come off looking all that bad. Not to deny any of the father’s faults, but he seems to be
doing everything he can to help the son come to terms with their conflicted past. He keeps saying things like, "I just want
to help you get the venom out, son." As for his philandering, he seems to say that’s a family trait. The son, in a kind
of conspiratorial aside to the reader, does admit that there’s something gratifying about knowing that your dad is such
a studly guy, but the son does make the important point that his own sexual free-for-all was occurring when he wasn’t
On the point about failing to show up for Jeff’s funeral, I find this apologia of the dad’s (presumably re-constructed
from the author’s memory of the conversation) eloquent and moving:
I do not expect you to ever know what I felt when Jeff died. I hope you never experience anything like it. To lose my firstborn
son was the most heart-wrenching thing that could ever happen to me. There is no other pain in the world that could ever compare.
And I can’t promise you that if you die tomorrow I will have the strength to make it to your funeral. I have no idea
how I would react. No one ever does. Please do not hold that against me until the day I myself die.
I’m somewhat uncertain about whether to include a spoiler alert here or to simply avoid any reference to how
the book ends. But it seems to me that it wouldn’t be fair to the author to leave readers of this review with an impression
of Mr. Swofford as a dissolute wastrel. Along the way, there are indications of another side to him: the time, for instance,
when he gave a generous dinner to a drug-dealer pimp and his two addicted hookers; and the time at that Washington DC party
when he bribed a bartender for extra beers for injured service personnel who were only allowed one each. You eventually see
those better instincts come to full fruition in Mr. Swofford’s life. The fact is that Hotels, Hospitals and Jails
could almost be considered a conversion story, except that religion plays no part in the process. Mr. Swofford comes to a
concept of manhood that’s very different from his youthful one. I’ll say no more than to cite this turning point
for the author one day in Manhattan:
I think about the various good lives I have lived, how long these periods usually last, and I wonder why, now, in the richest
city in the world, in the loveliest city in the world with the most beautiful women in the world and the best food and some
of the best architecture and the best art and the best parks, and the most money that I have ever had in my bank account and
a piece of real estate in this rich city and five hundred bottles of wine in my cellar, why, of all the cities on Earth, I
am here now fucked up on drugs and deeply depressed in this great shining city on the island?
Call Me By Your Name (Novel) by André Aciman, 2007
Why haven’t I heard of this novel before this? You’d think that its 2007 publication would have made a big
enough splash that a few droplets would have reached my windows. What eventually did draw my attention to it was a favourable
reference to it in a New York Times review of André Aciman’s most recent
To speak "favourably" of this earlier novel, however, is putting things very mildly, indeed. In short, it’s one of
the great love stories of all time. The passsionate intensity of it reminds me of something like Elizabeth Smart’s By
Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.
The affair in Call Me By Your Name seems to have taken place about twenty years ago. Our narrator, an Italian named
Elio, is looking back to when he was seventeen. That summer, he fell in love with a twenty-four year old American man who
was spending the summer at the seaside villa of Elio’s family in Italy. The American, Oliver, was a professor at Columbia
who’d come to Italy to work on the Italian version of his latest book. It was the custom of Elio’s father to open
the family home every summer to an academic from abroad who, in return for helping the pater familias organize his papers,
would be free to treat the villa as a sort of writer’s retreat. Other academics, journalists and neighbours were always
dropping by. The setting immerses us in the ambiance of the hot, languid Mediterranean summer: the scents of rosemary and
citronella, the sound of cicadas, the swaying of palm trees in the breezes, the lounging by the pool, bike rides into town,
refreshing plunges into the sea from the rocky coastline.
The American visitor is blondly handsome, charismatic and charming. Everybody loves him. Elio’s mother affectionately
refers to Oliver as "il cauboi" (i.e. "cowboy") and "la star" (for movie star). Elio, on the other hand, is an introverted
music student, quiet, not very gregarious, something of a mystery to his family. Given factors like those differences in character
between the two men, along with the age discrepancy and the romantic setting, it seems like the setup for a typical and predictable
gay fantasy. What makes the book something much more significant is the fact that the author takes us deeper and deeper into
the mysterious phenomenon whereby one person’s being can be totally bound up in, and obsessed by, another person’s
being. Hence the title of the book: when their love is at its most intense, each man calls the other by his own name. The
inter-mingling of personae is so emphatic that, at times, I was reminded of Wuthering Heights. Sure enough, not long
befor the end of the book, we get an explicit reference to Emily Brontë and a quote from
her masterpiece: "he’s more myself than I am."
In some ways, the novel follows the well-trod lineaments of the eternal love story: gain-and-loss, or, advance-and-retreat.
And yet, the author creates much more suspense than you’d expect in the usual love story; this one is virtually
a page-turner. One thing that contributes to the tension is the fact that both men appear to be bisexual. (Lots of sex with
women is taking place, mostly off-stage.) Still, it’s not a book where things happen quickly. Some readers might find
themselves wishing that the author would dispense with some of the analysis and keep things moving forward.
But I found André Aciman’s extremely fine and detailed examination of feelings
and situations well worth the slowing-down that they require. Here’s Elio pondering his attraction to Oliver:
Did I want to be like him? Did I want to be him? Or did I just want to have him? Or are "being" and "having" thoroughly
inaccurate verbs in the twisted skein of desire, where having someone’s body to touch and being that someone we’re
longing to touch are one and the same, just opposite banks on a river that passes from us to them, back to us and over to
them again in this perpetual circuit where the chamber of the heart, like the trapdoors of desire, and the wormholes of time,
and the false-bottomed drawer we call identy share a beguiling logic according to which the shortest distance between real
life and the life unlived, between who we are and what we want, is a twisted staircase designed with the impish cruelty of
M. C. Escher. When had they separated us, you and me, Oliver? And why did I know it, and why didn’t you?
One evening, when Elio’s expecting that something momentous might happen that very night, he has these thoughts:
On my way up the staircase, I tried to imagine myself coming down this very same staircase tomorrow morning. By then I
might be someone else. Did I even like this someone else whom I didn’t yet know and who might not want to say good morning
then or have anything to do with me for having brought him to this pass? Or would I remain the exact same person walking up
this staircase, with nothing about me changed, and not one of my doubts resolved?
But Mr. Aciman’s acuity doesn’t apply only to the question of love. He can be very perceptive about many other
things. Here’s Oliver’s response to his host’s admiration for a certain guest:
Well, I’m not sure I agree at all. I find him arrogant, dull, flat-footed, and coarse. He uses humor and a lot of
voice...and broad gestures to nudge his audience because he is totally incapable of arguing a case. The voice thing is so
over the top...People laugh at his humor not because he is funny but because he telegraphs his desire to be funny. His humor
is nothing more than a way of winning over people he can’t persaude.
And, as you would expect of any very good writer, Mr. Aciman can serve up marvellous imagery:
A few hours later, the clouds totally cleared, and the weather, as though to make up for its little prank, seemed to erase
every hint of fall from our lives and gave us one of the most temperate days of the season. But I had heeded the warning,
and as is said of juries who have heard inadmissible evidence before it is stricken from the record, I suddenly realized that
we were on borrowed time, that time is always borrowed, and that the lending agency exacts its premium precisely when we are
least prepared to pay and need to borrow more.
The book culminates with a trip to Rome that includes a long night of partying as the two lovers wander from restaurant
to bar to coffee shop. Their ramble entails all sorts of quixotic encounters with drunken strangers, some of whom want to
sing or dance with the lovers. At one point on this binge, a poet goes on for a few pages about his sojourn in Thailand; you
find yourself wondering what this has to do with the story. But that’s the only point in the whole novel where the momentum slackens.
The focus soon returns to the two lovers on their nighttime prowl. The author weaves such an enchanting spell around that
night that you find yourself grasping at the merest fragments of memories of some such long-forgotten escapades in your own
One especially effective artistic strategy is that the author doesn’t always deal with things in a strictly chronological
way. Sometimes he’ll make a passing reference to a certain incident – Elio’s having been approached by a
certain guy on a motor bike, for instance – that seems to have some resonance for him, but it won’t be until much
later in the story that we come to see what the incident meant. This, I think, helps to make the writing seem very like the
life of our minds: we often note scraps of memory but don’t pay full attention to them until later. This technique of
what might be called "delayed specifics" is what helps to make the sex scenes acceptable. The writer doesn’t always
give you the graphic details as they’re happening, as if in a script for a porno movie. They come to us later, in recollection,
and this takes away most of the shock effect that they might otherwise have had.
Another thing that I like very much is that, when the two men do begin to speak about their feelings for each other, the
exchange is inchoate and tentative. They both know what they’re talking about but the words don’t come out very
clearly or precisely. I think this is probably much truer to life than some high-flown, declarative dialogue. Another place
where the author’s delicacy with conversation works to great advantage is a speech in which Elio’s father talks
to him in a very loving and compassionate way about what he’s been observing. Sometimes, this kind of speech from a
very "liberal" and "tolerant" parent to a gay son or daughter can make you cringe because it’s too in-your-face. This
speech, by contrast, is beautiful because the father is guarded and careful in his choice of words, even though the gist of
his message is perfectly clear.
The fact that the narrator is looking back on these events from a distance of twenty years, and is bringing us up to date
on what’s happened since, adds tremendous poignancy. Sometimes that sort of coda or epilogue to a book can feel self-indulgent;
you may wish the writing had stopped sooner. In this case, though, you can’t get the full meaning of everything that
happened without knowing what the narrator thinks of it all now. And that amounts to some of the deepest insights
about what our lives and their complicated loves mean.
The Patrick Melrose Novels (Fiction) by Edward St. Aubyn, 2012 (collection)
When Edward St. Aubyn published At Last in 2011, the final instalment in his series of five novels about Patrick
Melrose, the attendant hoopla in the literary media – including the full treatment by James Wood in The New Yorker
– made you think that you were some sort of chump if you didn’t know anything about the books. It was as if you’d
been claiming to be interested in literature in the 1960s but didn’t know anything about Graham Greene.
Well, it’s never too late to remedy one’s ignorance; hence, the arrival of the volume containing the first
four of the series on my pile of reading material. That doesn’t make for as daunting a reading assignment as it might
seem. The novels are fairly short, the four of them combined coming to a total of no more than 680 pages.
It’s generally acknowledged that there’s a strong autobiographical element in the novels, at least in so far
as Mr. St. Aubyn did come from a family much like Patrick Melrose’s family and Mr. St. Aubyn was, like his central charactor,
a heroin addict at one time. In the first novel, Never Mind, Patrick Melrose is five or six years old, moping
about his family’s summer home in the South of France while his alcoholic mother and his cold, arrogant father pay not
much attention to him. To all appearances, they’re well-to-do, upper class Brits but the money comes from the mother’s
American family. The father was, at one time, an up-and-coming concert pianist but some ailment curtailed his career. He has
become a sort of pampered n’er-do-well. You get a sense of the familial atmosphere in the father’s Wildean wit.
‘The dead are dead,’ he went on, ‘and the truth is that one forgets about people when they stop coming
to dinner. There are exceptions, of course – namely, the people one forgets during dinner.’
An American visitor reacts to these people this way: "She felt she had been subtly perverted by slick and lazy English
manners, the craving for the prophylactic of irony, the terrible fear of being ‘a bore’, and the boredom of the
ways they relentlessly and narrowly evaded this fate."
Here’s how another visitor describes the social dynamics among that lot:
‘But that’s what charm is: being malicious about everybody except the person you are with, who then glows with
the privilege of exemption.’
For a piece about a kid who’s left to fend for himself most of the time, the title has obvious ramifications. No
wonder the kid’s wandering around thinking: "One day he would play football with the heads of his enemies." But the
title takes on a much darker irony when we witness an unspeakable crime that the father perpetrates on the little boy. The
novel ends with the father’s complacent hope that the boy will forget about the heinous wrong done to him. And yet the
father cannot help "smiling at his own audacity."
The second instalment, Bad News, tells of Patrick’s trip to New York to retrieve his father’s
ashes. Patrick’s in his early twenties now and he’s a heroine addict, big time. While in New York, he’s
constantly plotting and scheming to get another hit. You may learn a lot more than you ever want to know about the mechanics
and the business arrangements of heroine addiction. But the upside of it all is that, in case, you ever wondered about the
point of heroin, Mr. St. Aubyn obliges expertly:
....heroin was the only thing that really worked, the only thing that stopped him scampering around in a hamster’s
wheel of unanswerable questions. Heroin was the cavalry. Heroin was the missing chair leg, made with such precision that it
matched every splinter of the break. Heroin landed purring at the base of his skull, and wrapped itself darkly around his
nervous system, like a black cat curling up on its favourite cushion. It was as soft and rich as the throat of a wood pigeon,
or the splash of sealing wax onto a page, or a handful of gems slipping from palm to palm.
Patrick notes that when he’s high, he’s perfectly confident that he can and will get off heroin; but
as soon as he comes down off his high, he’s desperate to get his next fix. You don’t need to be a heroin addict
to recognize the similar mental processes in your own addictions (booze, sugar, porn). Patrick’s in a taxi on the way
to his favourite dealer’s, having previously decided that he would definitely not go there. He has told himself that
now he just wants to find out whether or not his dealer is home:
Patrick sank back, excited and sick and guilty, but masking the feeling, as usual, with a show of languid indifference.
So what if he had changed his mind? Flexibility was an admirable quality. And nobody was more flexible when it came to
giving up drugs, nobody more open to the possibility of taking them after all. He hadn’t done anything yet. He could
still reverse his decision, or rather reverse his revision. He could still go back.
A nightmarish hallucination – it lasts all one night in a hotel room when Patrick goes on a drug binge – reminds
one of the goofy, tormenting illogic of the dream sequence in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Although Patrick’s
quest drags us through grunge and sleaze, there are little grace notes, as when his favourite dealer and fellow junkie takes
the high moral road with Patrick, chastising him for his recklessness in his ways of pursuing his habit. Mr. St. Aubyn also
slips in some wicked parody of a certain type of American in the person of a back-slapping entrepreneur who befriends Patrick
on the Concord flight to America.
Some Hope, the third novel, finds Patrick in his thirties, recovering from his drug addiction. The author seems
to have ambivalent feelings about the 12-step programs that some addicts swear by, given Patrick’s sardonic remarks
about the jargon, the pop psychology tossed around in the meetings. But Patrick’s good friend, Johnny, has a somewhat
kinder response after hearing a man named Dave speak at a meeting:
Johnny, somewhat to his surprise, found himself caring about what happened to Dave. In fact, he really hoped that these
people, people like him who had been hopelessly dependent on drugs, obsessed with them, and unable to think about anything
else for years, would get their lives together. If they had to use this obscure slang in order to do so, then that was a pity
but not a reason to hope that they would fail.
And one twelve-stepper, a toff from the society Patrick frequents, says: "I’ve found more genuine love and kindness
in those meetings than I’ve seen in all the fashionable drawing rooms of London."
The novel revolves around a big party that’s drawing some very important people. We’re given vignettes of so
many of them, as they prepare for the big event, that it’s impossible to get to know all the characters and to identify
them when they re-appear later. Maybe that doesn’t matter; maybe the point is just to show the various kinds of people
who are involved in this kind of affair and the differing attitudes they bring to it. The most notable guest is none other
than Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret. Mr. St. Aubyn shows HRH as alternating at will from charming to haughty to bitchy,
with the emphasis on the latter two qualities. I always wonder whether it’s fair to real people to use them in such
a way, particularly when they’re no longer on hand to refute an author’s portrait of them. But the impression
of the princess given here seems to agree with pretty much everything else one has heard about her.
The saving grace of this third novel in the series is that, as a result of having finally told a close friend about what
happened in childhood, Patrick achieves a kind of peace regarding the monstrous memory of his father. "Perhaps he would have
to settle for the idea that it must have been even worse being his father than being someone his father had attempted to destroy,"
Mr. St. Aubyn tells us.
And for himself, Patrick says:
...I still think it’s detachment rather than appeasement that will set me free, but if I could imagine a mercy that
was purely human, and not one that rested on the Greatest Story Ever Told, I might extend it to my father for being so unhappy.
I just can’t do it out of piety.....There may be something to this idea that you have to be broken in order to be renewed,
but renewal doesn’t have to consists of a lot of phoney reconciliations!....What impresses me more than the repulsive
superstition that I should turn the other cheek, is the intense unhappiness my father lived with.
The fourth volume, Mother’s Milk, finds Patrick back at the family home in the South of France. He’s
now a married man and the father of two small boys. While each of the three previous novels in the series took place over
a matter of a day or so, this one takes place over several summers. At first, it’s a little difficult to get into, given
that it starts from the point of view of one of Patrick’s children while still in the womb. Gradually, though, we become
fascinated with the child’s take on things; eventually we start getting the point of view of others.
Patrick’s mother, who is virtually incommunicado as a result of a stroke, is in the process of handing over the family
home to a New Age organization run by a fatuous Irishman. A visit with another British family holidaying nearby gives Mr.
St. Aubyn a chance to unleash a scathing critique (implied, never stated outright) of consumerist, materialist parents and
the calculating duplicity of the nannies they employ. Through it all, Patrick’s wrestling with his conflicted feelings
about being the son of a woman who could not show love to her son and who can only achieve some feeling of self-worth by disinheriting
him in favour of anonymous individuals whom she sees as benefitting from her charitable intentions. In spite of the anger
and resentment battering him constantly, he’s moved to moments of compassion and tenderness towards this pathetic old
Let’s say it outright here, in case it hasn’t become evident already: the writing in these novels is of a very
high quality, both on the level of ideas conveyed and the manner of conveying them.
As for the ideas, Patrick gets caught up in some deep, fascinating discussions. One of the themes running through the novel,
via these colloquies, is the question of the connection between memory and identity. A philosopher offers this reflection:
"Perhaps that’s all identity is: seeing the logic of your own experience and being true to it." Among other intriguing
thoughts about such matters, there’s Patrick’s observation that "his soul, which he could only characterize as
the part of his mind that was not dominated by the need to talk, [was] surging and writhing like a kite longing to be let
go." Here are Patrick’s thoughts (in Mother’s Milk) on what he sees as the disintegration of his being:
He loathed the fungus which seemed to have invaded his bloodstream, blurring everything. The impression of sharpness which
he still sometimes gave was a simulation. His speech was like a jigsaw puzzle he had done a hundred times, he was just remembering
what he had done before. He didn’t make fresh connections any more. All that was over.
And yet, a seaside scene with his family provides an effective counterpoint to that lament: "There was no better antidote
to his enormous sense of futility than the enormous sense of purpose which his children brought to the most obviously futile
tasks, such as pouring buckets of sea water into holes in the sand."
Some of the bracing ideas in the novels would include this jibe at conventional wisdom: "The Unconscious, which we can
only discuss when it ceases to be unconscious, is another medieval instrument of enquiry which enables the analyst
to treat denial as evidence of its opposite. Under these rules we hang a man who denies that he is a murderer, and congratulate
him if he says he is one."
And, since we’re talking about ideas that knock you back a few paces, how about this riff from Patrick in one of
his most contrarian moods:
I don’t suppose that forgiveness was uppermost in the minds of people who were being nailed to a cross until Jesus,
if not the first man with a Christ complex still the most successful, wafted onto the scene. Presumably those who enjoyed
inflicting cruelty could hardly believe their luck and set about popularizing the superstition that their victims could only
achieve peace of mind by forgiving them.
To mention just a few more examples of superb writing:
- a Provençal neighbour "...had the sullen air of a man who looks forward to strangling
- at the termination of Patrick’s meeting with his drug dealer, "Jefferson and Patrick parted with the genuine warmth
of people who had exploited each other successfully."
- a British visitor’s sense of America: "So much road and so few places, so much friendliness and so little intimacy,
so much flavour and so little taste."
- regarding Patrick’s struggle over what to do about his mother: "He stubbornly refused to get involved with his emotions,
letting panic and elation and solemnity lean on the doorbell while he only glanced at them from behind closed curtains, pretending
not to be at home."
A few things bother me about the writing, though. (Maybe that’s no surprise to regular readers of Dilettante’s
First, one small quibble regarding chronology. Often, people’s ages don’t seem quite right. In the second novel,
where Patrick’s prowling Manhattan for a fix, he seems older than the early twenties he’s supposed to be in. The
beaten-down, ruined sense of him seems too much for somebody that young, even a drug addict. Part of the problem may be that
Patrick seems to have all the money he needs without ever having to do anything to earn it. Maybe, then, he has arrived a
kind of world-weary maturity that would be denied the average twenty-year-old who had to earn a living.
The age discrepancy looms largest, though, in the fourth novel, regarding Patrick’s little boys. They sound much
more articulate and sophisticated than their given ages of (roughly) ten and three. I’m willing to admit that well-educated
kids in some British families may be more linguistically advanced than similarly privileged kids in North American culture,
but I still find these kids a bit hard to believe. Maybe they’re perfectly real in Mr. St. Aubyn’s world; maybe
this is simply a case where certain specifics of an author’s experience don’t translate into plausible details
for a reader from quite another culture.
A more irritating issue is the fact that Mr. St. Aubyn frequently switches point of view suddenly, even in the middle of
a paragraph. This isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw; maybe it’s just something one isn’t accustomed to. But
the fact that I am so unaccustomed to it does make it very jarring. It’s not such a big problem in chapters where we
get lots of different points of view, but it does seem very odd in a chapter which is almost entirely from Patrick’s
point of view, except for a couple of sudden interruptions.
The other problem that I have with the writing has to do with what might be called extremism. Occasionally, Mr. St. Aubyn
presents a character or a situation that seems too far-fetched to be believable. In Mother’s Milk, for example,
Patrick takes his young family on a visit to the US where they spot families lolling peacefully in a playground while, just
on the other side of a fence, two beefy policemen are training a German Shepherd to attack viciously. Mr. St. Aubyn seems
to think this sight says something significant about America. But I don’t think it does. It’s too rare, too odd.
I have no doubt that Mr. St. Aubyn may have seen such a vivid juxtaposition of the idyllic and the hellish somewhere in America
but it’s too particular to have any resonance, any meaning, beyond the simple record of something somebody saw.
Sometimes this exceptionalism applies to Mr. St. Aubyn’s character portrayals. Early on in Never Mind, we
get this description:
Had Vijay’s character been more attractive his appearance might have elicited pity or even indifference, but spending
just a few days with him convinced Anne that each hideous feature had been moulded by internal malevolence. His wide, grinning
mouth was at once crude and cruel. When he tried to smile, his purplish lips could only curl and twist like a rotting leaf
thrown onto a fire. Obsequious and giggly with older and more powerful people, he turned savage at the smell of weakness,
and would attack only easy prey.
Granted, the author may have met someone who was so repulsive to him, but that strong personal reaction doesn’t carry
over into a believable character sketch. Not when the author seems almost to be foaming at the mouth. The loathing for the
subject causes the writing, for this brief interval, to veer dangerously close to being amateurish, ham-fisted. And then,
there’s Seamus, the Irishman whose organization is going to inherit the house from Patrick’s mother. Seamus is
egregiously smarmy and hypocritical; I don’t find it credible that anybody could be so patently horrible, so lacking
in subtlety and nuance. I’m wondering if this has anything to do with the fact that the material is essentially autobiographical.
I think it is possible for a writer to have encountered someone about whom he has such bad feelings. But to transpose those
feelings directly to a piece of fiction is to fail to achieve a certain objectivity, a sort of arms-length distance from the
subject, that can make it believable to other people.
After all that, I’m happy to say that At Last brings the Patrick Melrose novels to a splendid conclusion.
It deals with the few days following the death of Patrick’s mother, Eleanor. Mostly we get: the wake, the funeral and
Given the narrator’s conflicted relationship with his mother throughout his tortured life, you might think that the
title of this one indicates a certain note of relief, if not triumph, about her passing. But no, there is no sense of exultation
or vindication. Rather, a sort of weary, fatalistic resignation. The over-riding feeling, if anything, is one of surrender
to the complexity of life. This sense of suspended judgement would apply most notably to Patrick’s take on his mother.
After listening to someone extolling the humanitarian benevolence of this woman who seemed so unkind to her own child, Patrick
says he has realized that "....I’m not in charge of the meaning of my mother’s life, and that I’m deluded
to think that I can come to some magisterial conclusion about it."
Even in the presence of death, we can rely on Mr. St. Aubyn to provide the wry observations and the realistic touches that
prevent things from becoming too solemn. On Patrick’s first visit to the funeral home, for instance, we get this: "Gothic
script seemed to warp every letter that passed through the door of the funeral parlour, as if death were a German village."
When Patrick is shown into a sombre chamber for a private viewing of his mother’s body, he can’t resist peeking
behind a curtain to discover the bric-a-brac hidden in an alcove.
At the funeral and at the reception, we follow the thoughts of various characters, including the philosopher who, yet again,
finds himself reflecting on the impermanence of what we take for identity. Another character is noting, with regret, that
this funeral is nowhere near as much fun as a proper funeral should be. The presence of a member of the New Age sect that
benefited from Eleanor’s largesse gives Mr. St. Aubyn an opportunity for more satire on that philosophy.
There’s high comedy here in the person of a mentally unbalanced mourner who has, because she is feeling so well,
decided to go off her medications. As a result, she prowls the reception, button-holeing people who, in her expert eye, clearly
have mental problems. The members of Eleanor’s family steer their way politely and with gentility through this awkward
situation – but not without out the occasional sly jab. The batty woman has noticed a man standing on a balcony and
she wonders if he’s going to jump. Patrick says: "I don’t think he was planning to but I’m sure you could
If there is any slight interference in the pleasure of reading this volume, it would be the fact that, if your reading
of the previous volumes took place some time ago (as mine did), it’s hard to remember who some of these people are.
And the book goes on a bit too long, at one point, about the deceased woman’s ancestors; the rumination on the past
does nothing to move the novel forward. For the most part, though, the writing is of the finest kind: clear, simple, exqusitely
crafted (a lot like some of Muriel Spark’s little gems). Wonderfully articulate people spout brilliant speeches. It’s
one of those rare novels that not only entertains, amuses and fascinates but provides some bracing and thought-provoking insights.
Suicide wore the mask of self-rejection; but in reality nobody took their personality more seriously than the person who
was planning to kill himself on its instructions. Nobody was more determined to stay in charge at any cost, to force the most
mysterious aspect of life into their own imperious schedule.
On the possibility of life after death:
The idea that an afterlife had been invented to reassure people who couldn’t face the finality of death was no more
plausible than the idea that the finality of death had been invented to reassure people who couldn’t face the nightmare
of endless experience.
And these thoughts of woman at the funeral who has been asked to read the famous passage on love from St. Paul’s
letter to the Corinthians:
When she had read it yet again this morning, it had struck her as the zenith of false modesty: love boasting about not
boasting, love unbelievably pleased with itself for not being puffed up. Until then, it had seemed to be an expression of
the highest ideals, but now she was so tired and nervous she couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that it was one of
the most pompous things ever written.
Even Patrick himself, who has been through so much craziness, has come to a surprising clarity about his character. At
the reception, for instance, he’s wondering about his reasons for turning away from a waitress he was flirting with.
Was he faking a virtuous stance?
No, it was the seduction that would have been faking it, the Casanova complex that would have forced him to disguise his
infantile yearnings with the appearance of adult behaviour: courtesy, conversation, copulation, commentary – elaborate
devices for distancing him from the impotent baby whose screams he could not bear to hear.
Patrick is divorced now, living alone in a bedsit. Looking back at his life, there’s more sadness and regret than
anything. But I hope it’s not giving away too much to say that the book ends with a cathartic and redemptive moment
for him. There’s sweetness and sentimentality in it but they’re well earned. The sense is that life, even if it
sucks majorly, does permit some healing.
Fiction Ruined My Family (Memoir) by Jeanne Darst, 2011
That’s quite a claim.
The reason for it appears to be that, because the author's father was so obsessed with his futile attempt to
write good fiction, he failed to take care of his family adequately. That theme, however, isn’t sustained throughout
the book in the way that the title would lead you to expect. At times the father fades from the narrative and it doesn’t
look as though he can be blamed for all the family’s problems.
But there are ways in which other meanings of the word fiction might be at the root of the trouble. There was the mother’s
alcoholism, which caused her to live in a cloud-cuckoo land much of the time. And there was Ms Darst’s own state of
being out of touch with reality, her sense of herself as some sort of talented artiste who was going to achieve great
things while frittering her life away in her own alcoholic escapades. It’s fair to say, then, that Ms Darst’s
take on the world for most of the first decades of her life was shot through with fiction, if by that we mean dreamy self-deception.
Ms Darst is the youngest daughter in a family of four girls; the family lived first in St. Louis, then moved to New York.
Her father had actually had articles published in prestigious magazines like Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly and
The New York Times Magazine. But, rather than carry on in ways which might have supported the family, he insisted on
devoting himself to writing novels. After completing two that weren’t accepted for publication, he seemed to drift for
a long time, always talking about the great projects he was working on and glorying in his associations with literary luminaries.
By the end of Ms Darst’s memoir, he has become obsessed about another project that looks like it’s not going to
come to anything: a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald that will, supposedly, set the record straight about many things.
Ms Darst’s mother, being a tiny beauty (about five feet) from a well-to-do family, spent most of her motherhood
drinking and lamenting her fall from the more glamorous life she had known. Eventually, she and Ms Darst’s father divorced
but they were such a feckless pair that they kept falling back on each other, presumably for lack of viable alternatives.
At one point, Ms Darst found herself "...trying once more to convey the basic concept of divorce to these two, who seemed
not to understand that a significant part of divorce entailed not seeing each other." How clueless were these people? Consider
their gifts for newborn grandchildren. In one case, the grandmother (i.e. Ms Darst’s mother) brought for the new baby
a copy of Hannibal, the story about the man who killed and ate his victims. The grandfather (Ms Darst’s dad)
showed up with a hunk of Stilton cheese for a newborn baby.
Both parents, in their kooky ways, were loving to their four daughters but it’s hard to imagine a more unstable,
unsettling upbringing within the bounds of what seemed -- if you didn't look too closely -- like a normal family.
Not surprisingly, Ms Darst’s life turned out to be something of a mess. As a young adult in Manhattan, she was boozing
it up, hanging around on the fringes of various theatrical groups, scraping by on menial jobs, regularly getting fired for
screw-ups, constantly de-camping from one fleabag to another. She bounced from one short-term relationship to another, until
she landed for a few years with a swell guy who was rich and who wanted nothing more than for her to be his loving wife. But
something was driving her away from the comfort and security he represented. As the relationship was beginning to unravel,
he had started to make remarks to the effect that, when she was drinking, she became a different person. Her response: that
had always seemed to her to be one of the benefits of drinking.
One day, though, she realized that she was headed for a dead end. She says that when she admitted that she was an alcoholic,
"I felt like it was the first honest thing I had said in my life." She left Manhattan for a few months to get sober. On returning
to New York, she managed, with considerable self control, to stay off booze. Ms Darst doesn’t say anything about getting
help from twelve step groups or any such organization in the process of sobering up. Apparently, she’s one of those
rare people who could do it totally on strong will.
The most remarkable thing about her account of the process is this comment: "Despite what all the triumphant recovery movies
and books might have you believe, it’s possible to get sober and have nobody really give a shit." Still, her recovery
did have significant repercussions within her own life. She discovered, to her amazement, that it was possible to be both
creative and sober. Gradually, she began to have some success with theatrical pieces that she wrote and performed in people’s
homes. At the end of the book, she has received a major grant to work on a play.
Ms Darst tells all this in a brisk, lively voice with generous dollops of humour. The memoir unfolds almost like a picaresque
novel in which the author’s trying to find herself through a series of misadventures. There’s also an underlying
theme about artistic ambition versus real life. What is a person supposed to do when he’s consumed with artistic dreams
the way Ms Darst’s father was? At what point should a person sacrifice those hopes and settle down to make a living
in a reasonable way? Did the man have any right to think that his artistic aspirations were valid or was he simply demented?
Ms Darst doesn’t deal with those questions explicitly but they inevitably come to a reader’s mind when you’ve
finished the book. As for the material that Ms Darst does deal with more directly, it’s easy to believe that she’s
had some success as a playwright: she constructs scenes very well and her dialogue crackles. The scene where she goes back
to her rich boyfriend to see if they might get back together now that she’s sober plays like a marvellous vignette.
Her parents’ characters come through vividly in the mother’s theatrical lamentations and the dad’s airy
musings. I laughed a lot over an anecdote about a crude phone prank that Ms Darst played on a friend who was working as executive
assistant to the editor of a hotsy-totsy magazine.
But that note of crudity hints at a problem. One of the most important things about a memoir – perhaps the
most important one, apart from having something worthwhile to say – is tone of voice. By that means, the author has
to establish a persona that makes you want to spend time in her or his company. And that’s the point on which Ms Darst’s
writing is a bit problematic for me. There are times when the way she presents herself makes you shudder. She’s not
exactly the kind of girl you’d want to take home to Mother. Some of that’s a matter of language. She uses an awful
lot of what my mother would call gutter talk. I kept wondering: is it normal for an intelligent, articulate young woman to
express herself this way today? To me, it’s off-putting. But maybe many of her contemporaries would recognize this as
the natural self-expression of one of their peers.
Maybe they would also welcome her disclosure of a lot of unsavoury details. Perhaps they would champion her for her honesty,
for having the guts to reveal things that most people would keep private. But I found myself cringing from a lot of them.
For instance, I could have done without the graphic details about trying to get rid of a bad case of crabs. And then there’s
the time when she says that an exciting weekend with a potential lover fizzled when she discovered that his penis was small.
I found it strange that a woman would admit to such a reaction. Maybe I’m old fashioned. Or am I just taking sides
with the under-endowed male? In any case, the reference didn’t help me to like the writer.
No question, though, that you have to admire what she’s managed to accomplish in her life, given her very compromised
beginnings. And perhaps you have to give her special credit for the note of honesty on which the book ends. She seems to be
struggling still to decide how she feels about her parents. Any feeling of love for her mother – now deceased –
seems to come only with difficulty and only as grasped from tiny fragments of memory and association. Love for her father
seems to come more easily but, given that he’s still alive, there is the worry about how he will respond to this portrait
of him as such an ineffectual person. There’s ambivalence, if not confusion, in these final musings. In that, I supppose,
Ms Darst’s book comes closer to the truth of life as we know it than to the satisfying clarities of fiction.
The Great Leader (Novel) by Jim Harrison, 2011
I’ve been hearing good things about Jim Harrison for years, but this is the first book of his that I’ve read,
as far as I can remember. My sense of him, from what I’ve heard, is that he’s something unusual in the way of
male writers: an outdoorsy, woodsy, man’s-man kind of guy. This book certainly confirms that impression. Not that it’s
an autobiography or a memoir but you can’t help feeling that the central character, Sunderson, is a lot like the book’s
author. Sunderson’s great passion in life is fishing for brook trout and his lefty, anti-Republican leanings sound pretty
close to the author’s heart.
Sunderson (if he has a first name, I can’t find it now) has just retired from the police force in a town on the Upper
Peninsula of Michigan. He’s been divorced for about three years. Finding himself at a loss as to how to fill the hours
of his solitary life, he decides to keep tracking a potential criminal who had come to his attention in the line of duty.
The suspect is a cult guru, i.e. "The Great Leader," who has probably been sexually abusing under-age females whom he has
lured into his commune.
Following the group’s wanderings from Michigan to Arizona and Nebraska, Sunderson does his best to recruit spies
among its members. Sundeson’s tracking of the cult leader is desultory, at best. There isn’t much urgency or intrigue
to the proceedings. As a matter of fact, the reports on the leader’s doings become rather tiresome after a while. But
this quest is just a structure – and a very loose one – on which Mr. Harrison can hang the meat of his novel:
Sunderson’s thoughts, his maunderings about his past life, his screw-ups, previous cases and the meaning of things.
It surprised me to find that the work of such a distinguished writer could be so sloppy and rambling. Sometimes you get
paragraphs with all sorts of bric-a-brac thrown in, without much sense of paragraph unity. Some paragraphs consist of a lot
of "telling" about this and that and the other thing, without any effort to re-create events so that we can experience them
with a sense of immediacy. One chapter – an expedition with some new acquaintances to look at petroglyphs – doesn’t
seem to have anything to do with the main story.
Also, there are glitches that should have been caught by an editor. At one point, Sunderson gets out of bed to answer the
door of his hotel room and, at the bottom of the next page, we’re told that he jumps out of bed. But we were never told
that he’d gone back to bed. When you read "They watched Teddy continue working on the dam while chewing a chicken leg"
you have to wonder who’s doing the chewing, Teddy or the watchers? If it’s Teddy, he must be some sort of acrobat.
Sometimes the syntax of sentences is impenetrable. Occasionally, that could be the result of a typo. If this is one of
those instances, it’s impossible to figure out what the writer might have intended:
His thoughts were idle little slips such as trees stay in one place and that even the smallest creeks or trickles follow
declining altitude. [sic]
Here he was unable to name the hundreds of varied plants and birds he was seeing that had the solace of taking him away
from the miserable world of men, his life in fact.
The following isn’t incorrect but it’s very clumsy writing:
He had the firm idea that the loop he had been thrown for by Diane leaving him had been waiting for him a long time and
he had been too densely wrapped up in his habits to see it coming.
Is this an example of what happens when a writer sits back and dictates into a recorder? What’s especially irritating
is Mr. Harrison’s almost complete abandonment of the handy little device known as the comma. Many of his sentences would
be much easier to read, i.e. without stumbling, if more commas had been provided for the benefit of the benighted reader.
A modest revelation occurred on the drive to Au Train when Marion told him that as the school principal he knew that the
eighth-grade daughter of a cult member was pregnant...
Marion had insisted that religion tends to merge from the landscape and given the austere nature of Anishinabe beliefs
this appeared as a sound concept.
And yet, I enjoyed the book. One of the benefits of it is that it gives you some insight into cultural aspects of Michigan’s
Upper Peninsula. We’re told that people there customarily speak of frying up a "mess of fish." Mr. Harrison gives it
as an example of typical Upper Peninsula thinking when a woman tells Sunderson that he should get married so that somebody
can enjoy his pension benefits when he dies.
But the main pleasure of the book lies in the exploration of Sunderson’s character. Not that he’s the most
admirable of heroes. He drinks and eats too much. Just reading about his meals makes your arteries cringe. He has a strange
relationship with a sixteen-year-old girl who lives next door. He has taken to spying on her as she’s sprawling on her
bed in provocative positions and doing Yoga naked. None of that is terribly surprising. What’s hard to get my mind around
is that the girl knows he’s watching and she teases him about it. And yet, she seems like a nice person. She often cooks
for him and she helps him with computer research that he, being technologically challenged, can’t handle. Maybe this
is one of those relationships that an author has known in real life but that hasn’t made a convincing transition to
Still, I found Sunderson’s thoughts about sundry matters – if you’ll forgive the pun – very engaging.
I like the way he makes journal notes to himself, lists of things he wants to remember or things he wants to think about.
One of the themes that he keeps mulling over, largely because of his concern about the cult leader, is the connection between
sex, money and religion. Some of his best aperçus have to do with his own character and
his stage of life. Jumbled though the expression of them may be, as in the case of the following one, they are striking:
He finally slept because luckily for once he was old and with aging you gave up trying to account for everything that might
happen, the hopeless attempt to balance the hundreds of variables with your brain’s billion-roomed house between which
there are not nearly enough doors. Once again he realized that life had too many moving parts.
His feeling for nature, conveyed in an under-stated way, makes you like the guy, no matter how glaring his flaws:
He also thought his love for the area rose from the indefatigable creature life, his beloved trout and the thousands of
bear, deer, otter, wolves, beaver, and other creatures, even loving the ugly and slow porcupine, the millions of birds and
wildflowers. It was so good to live in a place largely ignored by the rest of the world.
A Wanted Man (Thriller) by Lee Child, 2012
You have to stop yourself from serving up the I-told-you-so reaction. You have to resist the impulse to say that
it had to happen, that it’s inevitable, that nobody could sustain such a high level with a mystery series for so long.
Instead of saying all that, you have to simply note, with regret, that the author of seventeen Jack Reacher novels has produced
one that doesn’t please you as much as you hoped it would.
It starts well, though. A grisly killing has occurred in some forsaken spot in Nebraska. An eye witness has seen two men
in blood-spattered suits emerge from a concrete bunker where a victim lay in a pool of his own blood. Meanwhile, Reacher has
been hitch-hiking. He’s trying to get to West Virginia to connect with a woman friend. After a long wait at the side
of the road, he catches a ride in a car with two men in the front seat and a woman in the back seat. They claim to have been
attending a business conference. But Reacher notices that they’re all wearing identical cheap shirts. Hmm....
The perfect Reacher situation. We get some of the trademark Reacher smarts. His catching these people in their lies, for
instance. They say they haven’t stopped for hours but they offer him a bottle of water that’s refrigerator cold.
And how could the gas tank be nearly full if they’ve been driving so long without stopping? Later, we get some
of Reacher’s inimitably caustic wit, when he tells a couple of guys who are bothering a woman at a fast food place:
"Option one, get back in your truck and get breakfast fifty miles down the road. Option two, get in an ambulance and get breakfast
through a tube." In a phone call, Reacher impersonates another character, showing that he can do a bit of voice acting when
the situation calls for it. That’s one talent that I didn’t know he had but it’s not implausible.
One of the book’s best pieces of writing describes the slow shutting-down of a man’s awareness and of his sensibilities
as he’s having a fatal heart attack. But this book makes me notice, in a way I hadn’t previously, that the author
doesn’t have a gift for creating characters. A local sherriff and an FBI agent sound roughly identical when they’re
talking. The only way to distinguish between them is that one’s male and the other’s female. Several other investigators
who take part in the proceedings are nothing but shirts and suits with different names. The two guys in the front seat of
the car that picked Reacher up at the opening of the book don’t stand out as separate characters until fate divides
Even Reacher’s character seems paler than usual. I don’t see a much humour in him. He doesn’t seem quite
as human, a bit more of an automaton. These days, it seems a courageous tactic on the part of an author not to provide any
sex in a thriller but I wonder if the lack of it could have anything to do with Reacher’s seeming less warm-blooded.
There isn’t even any feeling about his interest in the woman in West Virginia. I presume we’re supposed to remember
her from a previous novel.
Part of the reason that the building suspense of the novel didn’t really grab me could be that there’s a lot
of palaver about conflicting inter-actions of the FBI, the CIA and the State Department. Maybe American readers would be more
caught up in all that than I. But even they might begin to be aware that an awful lot of the text is taken up with detailed
directions about driving, endless descriptions of routes taken, of left turns, right turns, northward turns, southward turns.
(One way to fill a book if you’re running short on ideas.)
It could be because such stuff isn’t so very gripping that you begin to notice some slack writing, as in a sentence
informing us that something was accomplished "without further incident." And a sentence regarding a road previously travelled
by night: "It looked different by day." Then there are the clichés.We’re told that
a sherriff knew his territory "like the back of his hand," that two people may be "safe as houses," and that silence is "golden."
Jack Reacher novels don’t usually include these sorts of lapses. Or, if they do, the pace is so relentless that you
don’t notice them.
The climax of the novel – the inevitable chase that’s supposed to get your pulse racing – involves a
lot of intricate calculations about the complex architecture of a certain building. A lot of math goes into the timing of
various manoeuvres involving doors, tunnels and echoing chambers. It’s somewhat impressive in the world-is-in-danger
mode that’s so popular in thrillers now. I like Reacher better when he’s dealing with more ordinary villains in
more homey situations.