Wednesday, May 29, 2019

My Young Life
by Frederic Tuten

     One late snowy afternoon we got married in Brooklyn in a justice of the peace's no-frills office.  The wedding music cost five dollars extra.
     Simona said, "Thank you, but we will not need music."
     "I like you kids," the justice said.  "I'll throw it in free."
     We said our "I do's" to the accompaniment of Dvorak's New World Symphony.
     We had gone to Brooklyn by subway and returned to Manhattan the same unceremonious way.  We stayed happy for several years.

Fred Tuten is an acclaimed avant-garde novelist (and a former professor of mine), author of 5 novels, including Tintin in the New World and The Adventures of Mao on the Long March.  This is his deceptively sweet and romantic memoir, narrating the story (as the title tells us) of his youth.  He grew up in dire poverty in the Bronx, was abandoned by his irresponsible father to live with his depressive mother, barely made his way through high school and City College.  Along the way he falls in love with sex, romance, art and literature - though not necessarily in that order.

The book is constructed around short snippets of narrative, some that string together to tell a longer chapter of his life, some that tell of one, brief episode.  While he is serious about his poverty and portrays himself as a serious, almost frantic young man, the tone here is generally light.  Tuten is bracingly honest about his own youthful insecurity and fecklessness.  He is more than slightly pretentious.  For example, as a relatively young teenager he decides to become a painter and move to Paris.  His model is Van Gogh and he spends pages dreaming of his life as a struggling artist in Paris, a far more romantic situation than being a struggling non-artist in the Bronx, which is what he is.  He spends several years of his adolescence planning to become an artist, but almost no time painting.  He quickly drops out of the one art class he takes and while he curses himself for his procrastination and fear of failure, he does not change.

Until, after dropping out of high school and then returning, he decides to be a writer.  He spends several years imagining himself as a politically committed writer - a Hemingway or an Orwell, his destination now Mexico or the hills of Cuba, where Castro is waging revolution.  He does almost no writing during this period, but weaves an even more pretentious and frantic portrait of a young man in search of something to make his life meaningful.  He is just as feckless and just as frantic - he has simply changed the medium he is not practicing.

The portrait, and many of the incidents narrated, is sweetly humorous.  We root for young Fred, even if what we are rooting for is for him to get off his ass and do something.  Spoiler alert:  he doesn't.  The book ends with the marriage scene quoted above and Fred is 25, working in a bookstore and thinking about a job with the welfare department.  He has dropped out and then re-enrolled in high school, flunked out and then re-enrolled in City College, and failed out of graduate school.  He has published one play in a City College literary magazine (which is deemed obscene and almost gets him thrown out again).  He has had several dozen sexual experiences, most of them masterbatory.  His approach to women, repeated with virtually every women in the book, is to extoll their beauty, worship their sexual appeal and convince himself he is in love with them.

The romance and comedy are satisfying, but even more satisfying is the way Tuten undercuts this sweet innocence with little glimpses into the future.  These come in footnotes that are oddly placed - often several pages after the person they refer too.  In these he fast forwards to tell the latter details of relationships of his youth and virtually all of these carry dark undertones.  His estranged father dies, his estranged mother dies, he narrates how he cavalierly lost touch with close friends.  Along the way he slips in details of his novels, of time he spends in his beloved Paris and of more than one failed marriage.  So we don't get to see him lose his innocence, but we are constantly reminded that it is lost.

I have a tendency to romanticize other people's youthful New York experiences - my own apparently not having been romantic enough.  Tuten had me wishing I had lived in the Bronx of the late 1940's even while it was clear that he hated it.  He made me wish I had gone to CCNY in the 1950's (instead of the 1980s), believing that everything about both New York and youth was better than.  And the portrait that emerges in the footnotes, of a solitary, successful and slightly acerbic adult reinforces that belief.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Maybe-boyfriend then said 'Stop.  Stop, chef.  We can't do this .  We can't keep doing this."  Then, in support of his words, his hand came up and again pushed chef's hand away.   So he pushed, but he returned, then maybe-boyfriend pushed again, not strongly.  Then he halted.  There was no cursing, no "Fuck off, chef, What are you doin?  I'm not like that."No surprise either between them, the surprise and unexpectedness at what was happening in that kitchen between those men were turning out to be only so for me,  And now maybe-boyfrine, after pushing chef off, stopped and he took hold of this other man's arms and with his own eyes still closed, he held them.  He leaned into them, into chef's middle, with chef bending over till his face was in maybe-boyfriend's hair.  

As Christopher and Chloe have already discussed, much of the tension around this book centers on things we don't know - most prominently the names of the characters.  They are given names based on their activities (either to reveal activities like "chef" or "real Milkman" or to hide activities like "Milkman" who is not a milkman, but an IRA gunman) or on their relationships to each other ("middle sister," "wee sisters," "almost boyfriend").  Clearly, this is an excellent set-up for a bildungsroman and it is what people come to know that matters in the end.

Our narrator has tried hard not to know things, but is constantly having to admit that she does know.  She knows the distance between parts of the city and knows enough to measure that distance in both time walked and moral uncertainty.  She knows that her mother is unhappy and that it is her clinging to the community values of false piety that are making her unhappy.  And she knows there is no apparent way for her to avoid that piety.  The community and the church will ignore the violence and corruption of Milkman and his ilk, but condemn any woman who dares imagine something other than marriage and children.

In the end it is what she has not known that brings the book its most satisfying plot point - and it is full of satisfying plot points.  She goes to maybe-boyfriend to finally agree to get rid of the maybe and walks in on him with his strange friend, chef, to discover that their friendship is not strange at all, but loving.  By then she has helped her mother see her mother's long-repressed love for real Milkman - the only character in the book with the courage to stand up to Milkman and the paramilitaries.  This unites her with her mother (given their life-long argument, it can hardly be called a reunion) as she has also reconciled with her sisters and her brother-in-law.  It is not a coming-of-age story in which a child learns and leaves the family, it is a coming of age story in which a child learns how to live with her family.

Just a note on the style and its pleasures:  this is a voice driven novel and the voice is wonderful.  It is all digression and tangent, characters are not named, and neither is their dialogue accurately reported either:  when she is feeding the wee sisters dinner too slowly, they complain "Middle sister!  Please hurry.  Will you not hurry?  Modes amounts please.  But cannot you be more instanter than that?"  There are delights like that throughout - touching details and awkward moments of affection juxtaposed with macabre and frightening hints of violence.  We come to see the community so clearly because we see it through this one totally unique consciousness.

Monday, May 27, 2019

The Public Image by Muriel Spark

She responded then, and did it well, and was genuinely glad to cry; and then was driven home through intertwining dark-lit streets, under the high-flying white flags of washing that swayed from window to window of the old palaces.  The poisoner behind the black window-square, a man flattened against a wall with the daggers ready... she wondered how the film would end, and although she wanted to leave the cinema and go home, she wanted first to see the end.

Annabel Christopher is an up-and-coming actress.  She's more popular in Italy than in her native England, and her popularity depends on the careful cultivation of her public image.  In the Italian tabloids she's called "The Lady-Tiger," meaning someone who seems ladylike in public, but in private is passionate, demanding, strong-willed.  It isn't true, but it is funny: her public image has a public image of its own.

Her public image is also that of a married woman, part of a power couple in which she is the dominant figure.  Her husband Frederick, a not-very-talented screenwriter and small-time actor, seethes with jealousy at her popularity and acclaim.  He thinks that an "actor should be sincere in the part he play[s], and should emotionally experience whatever he was to portray, from the soul outward."  To him, Annabel is shallow and superficial, and people wouldn't think her acting was any good if they knew her like he did.  He's a hypocrite, of course, and his notions of public vs. private life are cartoonish.  Spark herself seems to agree with the director, Luigi Leopardi, who is "not at all concerned or cynical about the difference between her private life and her public image; he did not recognise that any discrepancy existed."

Spark relates the history of the Christophers' marriage from a birds-eye view, playing, perhaps, with the idea of superficiality itself.  That is, until Annabel learns that Frederick has thrown himself off a scaffolding at a church, killing himself inside a crypt of martyrs.  (The symbolism is as overwrought as Frederick himself, who sees himself as a martyr to Annabel's career, and who imagines that by this particular suicide he might penetrate into the reality of things, like falling into the crypt.)  His suicide is an elaborate attempt to undermine Annabel's public image: he has arranged for several guests to show up to a party at the time of his suicide, unbeknownst to Annabel, and has written several letters accusing her of throwing orgies.  His death is a bitter parody of Lise's death in The Driver's Seat, scrupulously planned and executed, an ironic attempt to control life through death.

The drama of The Public Image consists of Annabel's attempts to reassert control over her public image, and to fend off Frederick's jealous attack from the grave.  For the most part, it seems that she'll be successful: she collects the letters, denies that Frederick could ever have committed suicide, and tells the press that he was chased off the scaffolding by some number of lovesick fans.  Truth, of course, is never relevant, only the battle between two different narratives.  That's what's so hypocritical about Frederick's suicide: if he really wants people to see how Annabel really is, he fails utterly.

I found myself wishing the novel had unfolded in a more unexpected manner; after Frederick's suicide, The Public Image has few genuine surprises.  Annabel is able to control the narrative until the character who we always expected to betray her, does--another question of public versus private life.  Frederick's spectacular death stands at the center of the novel, comic and foolish, but making everything before and after it seem a little humdrum.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco

When we traded the results of our fantasies, it seemed to us--and rightly--that we had proceeded by unwarranted associations, by shortcuts so extraordinary that, if anyone had accused us of really believing them, we would have been ashamed.  We consoled ourselves with the realization--unspoke, now, respecting the etiquette of irony--that we were parodying the logic of our Diabolicals.  But during the long intervals in which each of us collected evidence to produce at the plenary meetings, and with the clear conscience of those who accumulate material for a medley of burlesques, our brains grew accustomed to connecting, connecting, connecting everything with everything else, until we did it automatically, out of habit.  I believe that you can reach the point where there is no longer any difference between developing the habit of pretending to believe and developing the habit of believing.

As a teacher, I get to hear about the Illuminati a lot.  Teenagers gravitate toward the idea of an all-powerful cabal of sinister folks, perhaps because they rarely find that they are able to exert control over their own lives, and it's easier to think that someone, somewhere is in charge.  But the truth is it's probably not a teenager thing; after all, you only have to spend a few minutes on Twitter to find folks who believe that an anonymous official called Q is leaving a trail of crumbs to a massive conspiracy to perpetuate child abuse at the highest levels of government, and the counter-conspiracy working to take it down.  That, too, is probably a response to a lack of agency, to the need to believe someone is really in charge.

Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum is about that mindset, which has survived for thousands of years.  Eco places its origins in conspiracy theories surrounding the Knights Templar, a group of medieval crusaders who were forced to disband by a French king, and who some believe only disappeared underground.  The novel's protagonist, Casaubon, is an academic studying the Templars.  Eco's choice of name is pointed; like the Middlemarch reverend, this Casaubon is going to devote his life to a massive tome that connects all knowledge into a master theory.  With his associates Belbo and Diotallevi, who work at a vanity press, he composes a "Plan" which explains the links between the Templars and their later analogues: Rosicrucians, the Illuminati, Satanist, cabalists, Assassins, Mormons, Hitler.  They use the newfound power of computing to help them find unseen connections.  It's all in fun, for them, a way of mocking the kind of people who engage in such beliefs, and for whom nothing can ever be disproven because contradictory information is just a testament to how dangerous and hidden the knowledge really is.

The Plan says, in a nutshell, that the Templars knew of a secret power source related to the earth's magnetic field that could give those who wield it control over the entire earth.  They hid the information until it could be researched and harnessed properly, arranging over the course of nearly a thousand years to pass the knowledge to secret groups in several countries.  Somewhere along the way, the "handoff" was botched, leading to centuries of agitation and rivalry between neo-Templar groups.  But the actual nature of the Plan doesn't matter.  What does matter is that, while creating the Plan for laughs, the trio find themselves blurring the line between belief and disbelief, committing to the fantasy in ways they did not anticipate.  And then, when Belbo disappears, it seems that the Plan itself has come to life, or at least, those who genuinely believe in Templarite conspiracies have found them out and are hellbent on finding out what they know, even to the point of death.

All that drama happens in the last fifty pages of a 500-page book.  Most of the novel, although interspersed with convincing scenes of character history and drama (at one point, Casaubon moves to Brazil?) is devoted to the creation of the Plan, and even that doesn't really get named and explained until several hundred pages in.  What's impressive about the novel is that Eco doesn't make anything up that Casaubon doesn't also; the scraps of conspiracy theory and historical writings he uses to concoct the plan are all taken from historical sources.  The plot is secondary to Eco's attempt to create the conspiracy theory of all conspiracy theories, one which bridges thousands of years and hundreds upon hundreds of sources.  And while it doesn't make for gripping reading, exactly, it's breathtaking, and it makes Dan Brown look like a child scribbling on a placemat maze.

Casaubon's search for the missing Belbo leads him to the Foucault Pendulum at a Paris museum, a giant pendulum which, by its rotations, proves the rotation of the earth.  The pendulum rotates because, unlike the moving earth, it is hung from a truly fixed point, as immovable and fundamental as the name of God searched for by cabalists.  But even this is a kind of cheat:

"You see, Casaubon, even the Pendulum is a false prophet.  You look at it, you think it's the only fixed point in the cosmos, but if you detach it from the ceiling of the Conservatoire and hang it in a brothel, it works just the same.  And there are other pendulums: there's one in New York, in the UN building, there's one in the science museum in San Francisco, and God knows how many others.  Wherever you put it, the Foucault's Pendulum swings from a motionless point while the earth rotates beneath it.  Every point of the universe is a fixed point: all you have to do is hang the Pendulum from it."

"It promises the infinite," they go onto say, "but where to put the infinite is left to me."  What matters to Eco in Foucault's Pendulum is not the fixed point, but the need to fix a point at all, and the psychology that goes into choosing where to put it.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Company They Keep: How Partisan Divisions Came to the Supreme Court by Neal Devins and Lawrence Baum

Our concern with social identity leads to a view about the relationship between Justices and the world outside the Court that diverges from the views incorporated in the major scholarly models of decision making. The attitudinal and strategic models each view potential external influences on the Justices as stemming from their interest in the substance of legal policy . . . . Rather, we think that Justices respond much more to the opinions of elite segments of society than they do to the public as a whole. The influence of elites on the Justices reflects the fact that elite segments of society are the most important to Justices' social identities, so that they are the primary focus of Justices' efforts to achieve the good regard of other people.

History is a weird thing. On the one hand, it can lend context to make us feel like the problems today are the same as those of yesteryear. On the other hand, context can also show that the problems of today are unique.

Today's problem is unique: the partisanship of the Supreme Court. It's not our imaginations. Starting in 2010, with Justice Kagan replacing Justice Stevens all the Republican-appointed Justices were to the right of the Democrat-appointed Justices. This partisanship has only gotten worse since. Professors Devin and Baum want to explain how we got here.

And the "new" approach the professors bring to the table is to apply the teachings of social psychology to the Justices. I'll let them explain what they mean by social psychology:
Unlike political science models that emphasize the single-minded pursuit of legal policy preferences, the social psychology model recognizes other goals that the Justices might pursue. Indeed, scholars have given attention to a wide array of goals that may be relevant to judges, including power, reputation, and harmonious relations with other Justices.
The professors go on to explain that Justices must care about the esteem in which they are held (our process more or less guarantees it), that before becoming Justices they were part of the elite class, and after becoming Justices they spend a great deal of time being surrounded by elites. All point in the direction that the elite opinion matters for Justices.

This is not new, the professors argue. Justices have always cared about elite opinion, and its always at least been a partial motivation for their decision-making. What is new, however, is the vetting process.

For most of the Republic, presidents did not engage in the ideological vetting that we currently see. Indeed, insofar as ideology mattered, there was not ideological divide among political elites: generally, elites supported laissez faire economics; thus, presidents worried less about ideology than political expediency.

But polarization among political elites caused Republicans to begin worrying about why their nominees were so often ideologically disappointing. By the 1980s, conservative elites were actively looking for a way to ensure that Republican-appointed Justices were, in fact, conservative. Against this backdrop, the Federalist Society was both born and invigorated. So important is the Federalist Society to Republican appointments that all the current Republican-appointed Justices have strong affiliations with the group.

For those wondering how this has played out with Democratic appointments, the professors explain that there has been less a focus on ideological vetting because Democratic presidents tend to focus on other factors that--perhaps not coincidentally--correlate with left-ideology. A consequence of this is that there is no "left" version of the Federalist Society with the same level of influence. (The American Constitution Society is doing its best, but they just don't have the same pull).

The authors note an extremely important point that curtails the impact of partisan division on the Court: the Justices care very deeply about the Court's institutional legacy, collegiality among peers, and narrowing decisions to have greater unanimity.

The book has left me chewing on many things, in many directions. I was originally motivated to read it with the idea that it would help me as an advocate: judges are my audience, so it would behoove me to know about their audience. After reading the book, I'm not sure how helpful it was for that purpose. The discussion is very on-point for the Supreme Court, but its applicability is complicated for other courts: the federal court of appeals, for example, is probably similarly affected, but its work is also less the object of media or public scrutiny. Going down to the state court level: I suspect in broad strokes the principle of legal elites applies, but defining who those elites are is much more complicated. The state context is even more complicated by the fact that in Nevada, for example, our judges are elected.

As I was reading the book, I began wondering about a different question: can an elite be created? The answer, of course, is "yes," as evidenced by the fact that it's exactly what the Federalist Society did. (In fairness to me, I hadn't gotten to that part of the book yet, so it wasn't obvious when I started wondering). A perpetual problem in criminal defense is how non-mainstream its principles are. Public debate about crime is rarely nuanced, and almost always concludes with legislation increasing punishment, removing procedural protections, and adding more law enforcement. Would it be possible to create an elite that appreciates these debates for what they actually are? And could a court be motivated to care about those elites?

This, I do not know. And, in fairness, we're now pretty far from the questions that Professors Devins and Baum were trying to answer.

To loop back: what are we to do with partisan division on the Court? "The changes that have occurred in the Court are not necessarily permanent. If the movement toward stronger polarization among political elites is reversed, that reversal can be expected to affect both the appointments of Supreme Court Justices and the partisan and ideological element of the Justices' social identities." LOL, right? They add, "Such a reversal seems quite unlikely in the near future." Double LOL.

Partisanship: You Might Not Like It, But There It Is.

The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro

Could a person make up something so detailed and diabolical?  The answer is yes.  A sick person's mind, a dying person's mind, could fill up with all kinds of trash and organize that trash in a most convincing way.  Enid's own mind, when she was asleep in this room, had filled up with the most disgusting inventions, with filth.  Lies of that nature could be waiting around in the corners of a person's mind, hanging like bats in the corners, waiting to take advantage of any kind of darkness.  You can never say, Nobody could make that up.  Look how elaborate dreams are, layer over layer in them, so that the part you can remember and put into words is just the bit you can scratch off the top.

The first and title story of Alice Munro's collection The Love of a Good Woman is one of her real masterpieces.  At eighty pages, it's much longer than her stories usually are, but it's really a three-part story, the kind of work you can imagine beginning as an idea for a novel (as Munro says her stories often begin).  In the first part, three boys come across a car at the bottom of a river, where the driver, a local optometrist, is drowned.  Munro painstakingly explores why each of the boys, with their unique and specific home lives, wait so long to tell anyone about what they've seen.  The second part is an account of a home nurse, Enid, who is taking care of a young and dying woman who intends on spreading her disgust and rage around as widely as possible at the end of her short life.  Close to her death, this hateful woman confesses to Enid that she knows the secret about what really happened to the optometrist, Dr. Willens, a confession that sparks the third part, in which Enid, saddled with this new knowledge, must decide what she should do with it.  Confront the newly revealed murderer?  Or let dogs, sleeping now for decades, lie?

The story of the three boys may seem, at the end of the story, like a strange distraction from the story that resolves.  We never see them again; they drop out of the narrative.  But Enid slowly comes to consider that her patient's confession might have been a lie, a last-minute burst of pure diabolical venom meant to spread chaos after death.  Munro, despite how some might perceive her, is no stranger to the deepest human darknesses; I think few other authors would have the courage to imagine a character whose deathbed provides so little in the way of reconciliation or resolution or redemption.  But the experience of the boys who discover Dr. Willens' car is the only firsthand experience that is available.  Because Enid can never be sure whether the story she receives is a lie or not, only the boys' story allows us to approach anything near to truth.  Enid must resign herself to dealing only in possibility, though each possibility is only a different kind of evil.

The Love of a Good Woman is deeply interested in sickness, age, medicine, the body.  There's the aging old Mr. Gorrie of "Cortes Island," who keeps his part-time babysitter at arm's length until he brings down an old scrapbook that implies he and his wife may have engineered a murderous arson years ago.  (The parallels between this and "The Love of a Good Woman," neither of which is interested in providing the "real story," are rather obvious, I think.)  In "My Mother's Dream," it's the death of an infant that unleashes the most horrible and hidden emotions in several women.  (This story has the funny wrinkle of being written from the point-of-view of the infant, who in fact, did not die as was believed, and now is all grown up.)  In "Before the Change," a story that feels sickeningly current, a woman realizes for the first time in her life that her father has been secretly providing abortions for decades.  She opens up to him the story of her own child, long a secret, a child she's given away, but she doesn't notice that during her confession he has a debilitating stroke.  Alice Munro is not interested in giving anyone closure.

And that's one of the most interesting things about her work, I think.  Her stories often stretch across decades; they have prologues and codas that might as well have THIRTY YEARS EARLIER or THIRTY YEARS LATER written in bold across them.  It's the kind of move you expect from authors who crave closure, who feel as if they must provide it, and yet, when Munro does it, it only complicates things.  Trauma is not something that can be solved, though it can be transformed, accommodated, even ignored.  In "The Children Stay," she gives a convincing portrait of a woman who chucks a comfortable life away to pursue an impulsive love affair, and who is tormented by the thought of leaving her kids, but not tormented enough not to do it:

This is acute pain.  It will become chronic.  Chronic means that it will be permanent but perhaps not constant.  It may also meant hat you won't die of it.  You won't get free of it, but you won't die of it.  You won't feel it every minute, but you won't spend many days without it.  And you'll learn some tricks to dull it or banish it, trying not to end up destroying everything you incurred this pain to get.

I don't think it's a coincidence, in this collection, that Munro returns to the language of disease--"chronic" and "acute" pain.  She continually blurs the lines between physical and emotional pain.  She brings this habit to an extreme in "Save the Reaper," in which a young girl, grieving the impending dissolution of a love triangle her mother has got caught up in, for reasons neither she nor Munro can fully articulate, dons her mother's wedding dress and then accidentally drags the train through a lit candle.  The physical effects are permanent, though not life-ending.  The symbolism is forever.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Angels by Denis Johnson

She looked up out of her voice and saw the angel.

He will have ears like a cartoon of organic growth.  He is yellow with light but covered with mobile shadows, animated tattoos.  His face kept changing.  His voice will come from far off, like a train's.  His body is steady and beautiful and hairless, the wings white, incinerating, and pure, but the head changes rapidly--the head of an eagle, a goat, an insect, a mouse, a sheep with spiraling horns that turn and lengthen almost imperceptibly--and the entire message had no words.  The entire message will be only the beat and direction of time.  Yes is Now.

The angel who says, "It's time."

"Is it time?" she asked.  "Does it hurt?"  He will have the most beautiful face she has ever seen.

"Oh, babe."  The angel starts to cry.  "You can't imagine," he says.

Angels begins on a cross-country Greyhound bus.  There, Jamie Mays is traveling with her two young children, away from her husband.  She is desperate, confused, and alone; she has thoughts like this one: "She wished she could smother the baby.  Nobody would know.  They were four days out of Oakland."  On the bus she meets Bill Houston, who has beer enough to share, and over the course of several days they are drawn together.  It's not exactly sweet--it's their willingness to ply their pain with chemicals that brings them together, at least in part--but the connection is genuine.  They part ways, but she goes seeking him in Chicago, only to be raped by a would-be Good Samaritan.  It's his reading about the paper that puts them back together, and cements their relationship to one another.  The rape itself is ghoulish and macabre, facilitated with drugs and written accordingly, but Johnson writes about its role in their relationship with cold-blooded clarity:

They started calling it The Rape, and it came to stand for everything: for coming together while falling apart; for loving each other and hating everybody else; for moving at a breakneck speed while getting nowhere; for freezing in the streets and melting in the rooms of love.  The Rape was major and useless, like a knife stuck in the middle of things.  They could hate it and arrange their picture of themselves around it.

Bill pulls Jamie back across the country, to Phoenix, where he grew up.  They connect with his brothers, James and Burris, each of them tied up with petty criminality and chemical abuse to different degrees, like Bill.  These characters are familiar from Tree of Smoke, where Bill and James are terrorized by their army service and Burris is just a kid developing the drug habit that will be his albatross in Angels.  Tree of Smoke is the later book, a prequel to this one in a way, it reads like a natural sequel.  Those who read the two novels in the other order probably read Tree of Smoke with additional foreboding, knowing where Bill Houston's tragic life is headed.  Back in Phoenix, the three brothers get involved in a scheme to rob a bank at gunpoint.

Things go wrong.  I'm going to mention exactly how they go wrong, so consider yourself appropriately warned.  A bank guard, shooting at James, is himself shot to death by Bill.  All three brothers are arrested, and Bill is tried and sentenced to execution.  At the same time, Jamie, perhaps pushed over the edge by Bill's predicament, is admitted to a mental hospital.  The pair, who were seemingly driven together by fate, are ripped apart for the book's final third by two very different forms of incarceration.  Johnson's account of Bill's trial and his time on Death Row is one of the most desperate and heartbreaking pieces of writing I can think of, rendered in a kind of hallucinatory realism that reliably describes how strange and unbelievable it must be:

He watched his trial from behind a wall of magic, considering with amazement how pulling the trigger had been hardly different--only a jot of strength, a quarter second's exertion--from not pulling the trigger.  And yet it had unharnessed all of this, these men in their beautiful suits, their gold watches smoldering on their tanned wrists, speaking with great seriousness sometimes, joking with one another sometimes, gently cradling their sheafs of paper covered with all the reasons for what was going on here.  And it had made a great space of nothing where Roger Crowell the bank guard had been expecting to have a life--a silence that took up most of Bill Houston's hearing.  It was a word that couldn't be spoken, because nobody knew what it might have said.

Johnson, better than maybe any writer, seems to understand people like Bill Houston: people who can't get ahead, whose poverty is endemic, who devote themselves to alcohol and opioids, who turn to petty crime, and even not-so-petty crime.  He doesn't gild them; they're not good people just trying to make it in this crazy world.  Most of them are fairly bad people.  But lots of people are bad people; they're just not so easy to get rid of--you can't ignore them or ship them off to the gas chamber.  They are invisible in this novel, the people whom Bill calls "the outraged owners of the establishment... [t]he bankers, the people with tie-pins and jeweled letter openers and profoundly lustrous desks of mahogany, the workers of all this machinery of law and circumstance."  He calls them "[t]he people he couldn't fight--the people who were never here."  Bill Houston, toward the end of the novel, gets to make a few gestures of selflessness, but they're no more than prayers.  When are "the people who were never here" to make their own contritions?

Angels is terrific.  It's a shame to think I probably won't be able to put it on my year-end list, because I try not to include more than one author, but it's close to the masterpiece that is Tree of Smoke. It begins shamblingly, with buses crossing the country and back again with no clear destination, and ends with the knife-edged inevitability of what seems like doom.  It left me with a feeling of profound, gut-rocking sadness.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Home by Toni Morrison

It was so bright, brighter than he remembered.  The sun, having sucked away the blue from the sky, loitered there in a white heaven, menacing Lotus, torturing its landscape. but failing, failing, constantly failing to silence it: children still laughed, ran, shouted their games; women sang in their backyards while pinning wet sheets on clotheslines; occasionally a soprano was joined by a neighboring alto or tenor just passing by.  "Take me to the water  Take me to the water.  Take me to the water.  To be baptized."  Frank had not been on this dirt road since 1949, nor had he stepped on the wooden planks covering the rain's washed-out places.  There were no sidewalks, but every front yard and backyard sported flowers protecting vegetables from disease and predators--marigolds, nasturtiums, dahlias.  Crimson, purple, pink, and China blue.  Had these trees always been this deep, deep green?

Out on the west coast, Korean War vet Frank Money gets a note saying that his sister Cee, still in their hometown of Lotus, Georgia, is in danger.  Frank swore that he would never go back to Lotus, but his love and concern for Cee draws him back, and he embarks on a cross-country train trip to save her from the ambiguous threat.  A dissociative outburst has placed him in a psych ward, and so he goes without money (or shoes), depending on the kindness of strangers and navigating the complexities of segregation.  Back in Lotus, Cee has taken a job with a eugenicist who is using her for grotesque uterine experiments.

Frank Money has a pretty Toni Morrisonesque name, and this is a pretty Toni Morrisonesque novel.  Like Milkman's journey to his ancestral Southern home in Song of Solomon, Frank's journey is a variation on The Odyssey, and the contours are clear from the jump: Frank will finally get home, but not without facing some real weirdness on the way, and his rescue of Cee will help him reintegrate into his home and perhaps heal himself where he's been scarred by the horrors of war.  But too often Home feels like the outline of a Toni Morrison that's never been fully developed.  Its 140 pages (with big font) are too tight to really give the impression that Frank's journey home is an undertaking, rather than a mere symbol, and Morrison's penchant for giving every minor character a turn in the narrative spotlight means the two protagonists get crowded quickly to the corners.  The classic elements of her other novels are all there, the weirdnesses--Frank's vision of the world draining of color, a mysterious apparation in a zoot suit--but they hang too heavily on the slight narrative.

The most interesting thing about Home are the interstitial chapters narrated by Frank himself.  Morrison loves to play around with point of view (The Bluest Eye, in particular, shifts between first and third person), but the sudden realization that Frank is writing to the author herself is a welcome and worthy surprise.  He admits to her that the story he's writing is not quite an accurate one, that the narrative she gives of his time in war--from where, or whom?--minimizes his own culpability in the atrocities there.  That's an inspired choice, and it makes me wish there had been a more effective novel shaped around it.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Land Breakers by John Ehle

It was not that the family was making a machine that they could use; the family was the machine.  The family and the clearing and the crops and the stock and the tools were part of the same thing.  The family and the place were part of the same thing and could not be separated one from the other.  One could not understand the family without knowing about the land and their work on it and plans for it, and one could not know the land with any real understanding without knowing this family of people.  They were dusty with the land; the grit of the land was in them.  Their work, which was done together, was the chief meaning of their family lives.

I had been saving John Ehle's The Land Breakers for our recent trip to the Great Smoky Mountains.  There are old villages, long since emptied--not abandoned, really, since their inhabitants didn't leave voluntarily--in the coves between mountains there.  They are places of great beauty but also great isolation, a few cabins scattered at the edge of a clearing, separated from civilization by difficult mountain passes.  They seem impossibly historical, but they are more recent than the mountain settlement described in The Land Breakers.  When the protagonist, Mooney Wright, buys a small parcel of land in the North Carolina mountains, the year is 1779, and he's the first white man to make his home there.

Mooney arrives with his wife Imy, both Irish immigrants sold into indentured servitude for whom the mountains offer independence and self-sufficiency.  Imy quickly succumbs to an illness, and Mooney finds himself bereft and aimless in a new world that seems indifferent to him, if not hostile.  But that changes quickly when a rich Virginian, Tinkler Harrison, arrives with his wife in tow.  (She's also his niece, so, gross, but I guess you can get away with that kind of thing miles and miles from the nearest town.)  Tinkler brings with him several slaves and his daughter Lorry, as well as her two boys.  Soon his son-in-law Ernest Plover follows with his beguiling young daughter Pearlamina.  Others are soon to follow.

Mooney is instantly attracted to Mina, but comes to realize that she doesn't share his vision for settling the land.  Imagining a mill, a springhouse, a town, in the valley below, he asks, "Can't you see it, Mina?"  And she responds: "I don't see nothing... There's nothing down there 'cept trees."  It's the older Lorry who promises to be a better wife, and soon he takes her into his house.  Their "wedding," such as it is, comprises Mooney telling Lorry's sons to pack their things and bring them up to his house.  There is no ceremony here, because there is no society; any other kind of wedding would be essentially meaningless.  Here in the mountains it doesn't matter that Lorry is technically already married, her husband having disappeared somewhere in Kentucky.  (Do you think, perhaps, the novel might be setting it up so that the absconded husband appears suddenly and throws the fragile ecosystem of the settlement into chaos?)

Much of The Land Breakers is devoted to a thorough and loving depiction of the practices of early Appalachian settlers.  If you would like to know how they made shoes out of hog leather, or what sort of herbs they gathered and for what purposes, this is the book for you.  The passion of Ehle, a western North Carolina native, for the history of the region makes these slice-of-life details engaging more often than not.  But danger is always threatening the stability of the settlement.  An enormous black bear, for example, is raiding the stock.  The bear himself is a violent threat, of course, but the depredation of the stock, when survival is so precarious, is as frightening as his jaws and teeth.  A long bear hunt serves for the novel's climax.  But there are other dangers: in one particularly terrifying section, a pair of settlers wake up to find the floor of their cabin covered in writhing venomous snakes searching for warmth.

Mooney imagines the whole mountain, with its wolves and bears and panthers and diseases, as a kind of singular beast that stalks him and his family.  But he also has a vision for taming it, a vision that the hardworking Lorry shares.  They are the kind of ideal Jeffersonian yeoman farmers, breaking the land of the new nation at the moment of its birth.  Ehle clearly idolizes them, and contrasts them with plutocratic jerks like Tinkler and lazy romantics like Ernest.  And yet their hard work and vision is no assurance that everything will be all right.  The novel ends with a failed attempt to drive the settlers' stock into town.  All the animals, confused and frightened by the storm, leap to their deaths.  (This reminded me of Far From the Madding Crowd.)  The settlers must return empty-handed, close to starvation, and yet their determination remains.  This was, after all, the way they started in this place, and they will do it again.