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MARCH 11, 2022
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Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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MOVIES
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Reviewed here: MAYFLIES (Novel); JACK (Novel)

Mayflies (Novel) by Andew O'Hagan, 2021

Andrew O'Hagan's Be Near Me was so good that you'd have to pluck out my eyes if you wanted to keep me from reading anything else that he wrote. That novel struck me as being just about perfect.

Alas, you can't expect an author to pull off the same magic every time, no matter how good a writer he or she is. Sometimes there's something so beautiful about an idea for a book idea, something so captivating and entrancing, that it virtually writes itself. No writer can hit on something like that every time. Acceptable books, good ones, even remarkable ones, may follow but not always with the same feel of masterpiece about them.

Which brings us to Mayflies.

The opening of the book introduces us to Jimmy Collins, a boy in his late teens, living in Glasgow in the summer of 1986. His parents -- neither of whom ever had much of an interest in parenting -- have fled, each in a different direction, leaving Jimmy to fend more or less for himself in council housing. He finds something of the family feeling that he's lacking in the home of a buddy, Tully Dawson, who is a couple of years old than he. A particularly affectionate relationship develops between Jimmy and Tully's mother. And a sympathetic English teacher who admires and encourages Jimmy gives us hope that something will work out well for Jimmy.

So far so good. It looks like Mr. O'Hagan is creating the kind of sensitive, interpersonal, quiet study of character that distinguishes his other writings.

But the first half of the book gradually becomes a celebration of the friendships that Jimmy and Tully have with pals of similar social standing. There's constant ribbing and razzing among them, dare-devil pranks, high spirits, hilarity and so on. The narrative thrust leads towards a rock concert that they're going to attend in Manchester. Once they get there, we're treated to a few days that pass in a blur of drink, drugs, and attempts to get laid.

Early on, this rollicking tale of youthful shenanigans reminded me that when a writer seems to want to recreate the joys of his youth, the attempt doesn't often come off well from the reader's point of view. Too often the account of the hijinks leaves the reader with one of those I-guess-you-had-to-be-there feelings. In this case, it's particularly difficult to identify with these guys because, apart from Jimmy and Tully, they're not very distinct as characters. And almost all of their banter is about movies and rock music and sports team that are completely unknown to many readers -- this one at least. Not to mention the Glasgow slang that's impenetrable to some of us.

Occasionally in this melee, there's a hint of something deeper, something more resonant in the exchanges between Jimmy and Tully -- as if you were standing on a frozen pond getting glimpses of the life under the water. There's tremendous charisma and vitality about Tully that suggest something special about him. At times, I could almost feel echoes of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby with its poetic allusions to elusive meanings and, indeed, one of the characters in Mayflies does eventually refer to that book.

And that premonition of deeper meanings does pay off in the second half of the book when things become much more serious. It's set in 2017 and Tully phones Jimmy with news that shakes up both their lives. Other reviewers might tell you what's at stake but the books' jacket copy respects the author's narrative intentions, so I will too. Let's just say that what we're faced with a situation that brings up questions about friendship and loyalty, about responsibilities to friends and family, about ethics, morality and mortality.

This is much more the kind of book we expect from Andrew O'Hagan. In just one respect, though, it may have a little less resonance than the author hoped for. When the other friends from the first half of the book reappear briefly, the fact that they didn't stand out very clearly as distinct personalities in the earlier part of the book means that their presence now doesn't have quite the effect that it was probably meant to have.

Which doesn't mean that a reader isn't totally enmeshed in the problem facing Jimmy and Tully. When Jimmy tells a friend that it's hard to think about what's happening, his friend says: "All the important things are hard to think about."



Jack (Novel) by Marilynne Robinson, 2020

When you see a new novel by Marilynne Robinson on the library's "Recommended" shelf, you don't pass it up if you've read any of her other books. For me, her Housekeeping is one of the great novels of all time. And, if there was any further incentive required to pick up this one, the title hinted that it was probably the source of some excellent short fiction that had appeared in The New Yorker.

As in the New Yorker's short excerpt, this is the story of a white man of dubious social standing who strikes up a relationship with a proper Black woman who is a school teacher. I'd found the New Yorker piece intriguing, full of the unusual insight and exceptional wisdom that you're accustomed to finding in Marilynne Robinson's work.

However, the novel did present some challenges. Nearly the first quarter of the book consists of a long night that Jack and Della spend in a cemetery where they happen to find themselves after the gates have been closed and locked. (If you want to know precisely where and when this is taking place, I assume you need to have read the previous three novels in Ms. Robinson's Gilead series, Jack being the fourth. My impression is that this is middle America in mid-20th century.) Given that the chronology of the narrative is not straight forward, it's difficult to tell when this cemetery meeting fits into Jack and Della's story. Did the restaurant date, as depicted in the New Yorker excerpt, take place before or after this night in the cemetery? Never mind, the point of the long night is that it explores feelings and ideas, shared interests, different attitudes, that don't depend much on chronology.

At times, though, I was wondering whether I was reading a story with some narrative purpose or whether I was reading a distinguished writer's demonstration of how cleverly she could spin out such a long, static situation where the little that happens doesn't amount to much. (The lack of chapter divisions exacerbates the feeling that you're getting nowhere fast.) Jack and Della move back and forth, taking shelter here and there throughout the cemetery, depending on the vagaries of the weather and the temperature. He's always insisting on being gallant, even courtly, you might to say, while reassuring her of his honourable intentions. She's polite, cordial, gradually becoming a little more trusting and friendly. But, oh dear, will this night never end? And how come neither of them ever has to go the bathroom?

Now and then, however, Ms. Robinson adds some thought-provoking content that's just enough to keep me reading. For example, Della offers this on religion: "I just think there has to be a Jesus, to say 'beautiful' about things no one else would ever see. The precious things should be looked to, whatever becomes of the rest of it." And you can't dismiss a guy like Jack, who, no matter how bleak his circumstanes, can say: "You know, I actually sort of enjoy my life. I know I shouldn't. It could stand a lot of improvement. But maybe it's the feeling you have that makes a life bad."

When they're liberated from the cemetery, come morning, the novel starts to move forward in ways that are entirely gripping. All the grit and grist of real life are here: the clothing, the food, the furniture. As Jack and Della move through their days and try to come to grips with happenings, nuggets of Ms. Robinson's trademark insight turn up on every page. Characters are constantly saying and thinking things that you've never heard before but that strike you with gut-piercing truth. Some of the most fascinating passages replay discussions between Jack and a church minister whom he's started consulting about his situation.

Mind you, Jack, although endlessly intriguing, isn't easy to pin down. There's definitely a disreputable air about him. (He's recently spent some time in prison.) Living in a miserable rooming house, he seems to be coping barely better than a street person. No secret about his being too fond of booze. One of the oddest things about him -- and something that's endearing in a strange way -- is that he simply wants to avoid causing harm to people and yet he feels he's fated to fail in that respect.

Unlikely as it may seem, he manages to get a job as a salesman in a failing shoe store. When that job expires, he's able to spiff himself up enough to be hired as a partner for women students at a dance studio. Turns out he's even fairly adept at a piano keyboard. Even though he has a surprising appreciation of poetry and Shakespeare, what Della sees in Jack can be a mystery to a reader. Maybe it's just his persistence, his dogged attention to her -- in spite of all the hindrances -- that earns her approval.

And those hindrances loom large. It's easy for a reader today to forget how fraught an inter-racial relationship could be back in mid-20th century America. Both Jack and Della know that, if their connection becomes public, it could ruin her career as a teacher. Even her family members see nothing but disaster in a future for Della with Jack. And yet, those family members are not presented as ogres or villains. They're created with the complexity and nuance that distinguish Ms. Robison's observations about all of humanity.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to her achievement in this novel is to say that it ends on a hopeful note that, given all the trouble, is muted, realistic and reasonable.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com