Saturday, January 29, 2022

The Death of Jim Loney by James Welch

As he tried to strike another match to light a cigarette, he realized that his hands were trembling. He wanted to believe that they trembled because of the cold, but he knew without thinking it that they trembled because there was no real love in his life; that somehow, at some time, everything had gone dreadfully wrong, and although it had something to do with his family, it had everything to do with himself.

Jim Loney lives a quiet life at the edge of the Blackfoot reservation in Montana. Once a star high school basketball player, his life has shrunk down to almost nothingness. He feels detached from it, detached from himself; he feels, as the protagonist of Welch's Winter in the Blood does, "as distant from myself as a hawk from the moon." Materially, things are not so bad for him: he doesn't seem to be especially hard-up or poor, and is well-liked--his old teammate Myron Pretty Weasel is constantly trying to get him to go hunting--and he has a beautiful, intelligent girlfriend, a white Texan named Rhea. And yet these things seem unable to penetrate the solitude of his spirit.

In one sense, The Death of Jim Loney is a "half-breed" story like Solar Storms or Ceremony: about a half-white, half-Indian person trying to find their place in a divided world. Rhea believes that it must be sort of nice to have two sets of ancestors: "you can be Indian one day and white the next. Whichever suits you." But Loney feels just the opposite, unable to connect to either of his lineages, not the family of his alcoholic white father, nor his absent Indian mother and the "reservation families, all living under one roof, the old ones passing down the wisdom of their years, of their family's years, of their tribe's years, and the young ones soaking up their history, their places in history, with a wisdom that went beyond age." There is a parallel to this divided life in the way that Rhea and Loney's sister Kate, a successful bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., spend the middle of the book in a cold war over who will get to take Loney away from Montana. Rhea wants to move to Seattle, Kate to take him home to D.C.; and Loney is split between two coasts (two Washingtons) even.

But Loney is unmoved; he doesn't want to go to either place. He is already in the place he feels he needs to be to figure out the nature of his life and his self; he is home, and yet these things remain hidden to him. In a sense, The Death of Jim Loney is a rejection of the "half-breed" narrative, in which resolution and healing can be found in embracing one's indigenous side. In Winter in the Blood, the narrator returns to himself by returning home and helping to dig a horse out of the mud (think I'm remembering that right), but the people who need Loney are all headed elsewhere.  Being in Montana, that ancestral homeland, provides no answers:

He had been thinking of his life for a month. He had tried to think of all the little things that added up to a man sitting at a table drinking wine. But he couldn't connect the different parts of his life, or the various people who had entered it and left it. Sometimes he felt like an amnesiac searching for the one event, the one person or moment, that would bring everything back and he would see the order in his life. But without the amnesiac's clean slate, all the people and events were as hopelessly tangled as a bird's nest in his mind, and so for a month he had been sitting at his table, drinking wine, and saying to himself, "Okay, from the very moment I will start back--I will think of yesterday, last week, last year, until all my years are accounted for." But the days piled up faster than the years receded and he grew restless and despondent. But he would not concede that his life had added up to nothing more than the reality of a man sitting and drinking in a small house in the world.

I suspect there's something of a feint happening here, that The Death of Jim Loney suggests that these healing processes are not so easy. While both an earlier and a simpler book than Winter in the Blood, it seems almost like a response or refutation. We start to suspect that Loney has been sold, through cultural osmosis somewhere, a kind of lie, that knowledge of your past will make you whole. He searches for the name of the woman who took him in after his mother left and his father abandoned, but knowing it does nothing for him. He sees his father in the bar every day, but when they finally speak after decades, nothing is revealed. And in the process Loney passes up on not one but two opportunities to take control of his life and make it into something different. The result is not that Loney gets to know himself better but that he gets to know the world less, and the preordained "death" of the title--spoiler alert, a violent suicide-by-cop--is the result of a fundamental misunderstanding about his own deeds and their relationship to the law, to the world of others.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Neither superior technology nor an overwhelming number of settlers made up the mainspring of the birth of the United States or the spread of its power over the entire world. Rather, the chief cause was the colonial settler-state's willingness to eliminate whole civilizations of people to possess their land. This trend of extermination became common in the twentieth century as the United States seized military and economic control of the world, capping five hundred years of European colonialism and imperialism. The canny Prussian Otto von Bismarck, founder and first chancellor (1871-90) of the German empire, was prescient in observing, "The colonization of North America has been the decisive fact of the modern world." Jefferson was its architect. Andrew Jackson was the implementer of the final solution for the Indigenous peoples east of the Mississippi.

I remember learning about Indian boarding schools in high school--places where Native American children were sent to be stripped of their identity and assimilated into white society. I count myself lucky for that; as the graves of abused children continue to be discovered throughout the United States and Canada, I get to be slightly less shocked than most. I learned about the Trail of Tears, too, though I guess everybody does, and I was fortunate not to get the Saturday Evening Post version of the Thanksgiving story. But I wonder now about the things I never learned. I didn't learn--or don't recall learning--that the population of North America was about 80% that of Europe (though the majority of that were clustered in the Aztec Empire of central Mexico). I didn't learn that most of the continent the Europeans "discovered" was carefully cultivated and maintained. I didn't learn that the Pilgrims were only able to set up shop at Plymouth because a disease brought by white settlers had cleared the shore of Wampanoag for them. I didn't learn that the white-on-white fighting of the Civil War was a relative blip in a century-long campaign pitting the Army against Native nations. And though I knew about boarding schools I never learned about allotment, termination, or that anyone ever went back to Wounded Knee.

What does the history of America look like when you foreground the perspective of indigenous peoples? This is the project of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, which traces the experiences of the various Native nations who live in the land now called the United States from the advent of white settlers to the present day. In my schooling experience, Native Americans have tended to be bit players who waltzed onto the stage a few times--once at Jamestown, then Plymouth, and then the Trail of Tears, right before intermission--and disappeared into the wings. When the perspective shifts, a new story emerges, one of various nations at the edge of a white frontier that moves violently across the continent under the banner of "manifest destiny," a sanitizing belief in its own inevitability.

Dunbar-Ortiz's thesis, more or less, is that the extermination of Native peoples is not merely incidental the story of the United States, but integral to it. This claim may seem rather radical, and the prose is certainly incendiary (see the "final solution" language in the blurb above?), but it's hard to argue in the face of the narrative assembled here. Extermination, Dunbar-Ortiz notes, was the official policy of every president until 1890, and though the violence largely, arguably ended with Wounded Knee, the same ideology is behind the allotment and termination periods, which first attempt to turn Indians into capitalist homeowners, and then "regular Americans." And Dunbar-Ortiz shows how the past, as they say, is present, tracing the ways in which the myths that justified genocide are still part of the ideologies that bolster American identity today: the noble frontiersman, manifest destiny, the multicultural state. 

The United States of America, as Dunbar-Ortiz describes it, does not merely have its origins in a settler colonialist project, but remains one. The endemic and reinforced poverty of Native nations is a part of that. But America's global militarism, too, has its roots in the Indian wars: did you know, for example, that the Army uses the term "Indian Country" to mean "behind enemy lines?" This is not merely an anachronism. Dunbar-Ortiz seizes on Frederick Jackson Turner's "frontier" thesis--more or less, the idea that American identity and democracy are uniquely shaped by the frontier--to examine the ways in which the frontier's "closing" at the end of the 19th century provoked U.S. adventurism abroad. What would it mean, for example, to see the Vietnam war as a kind of colonial assault on indigenous people like the Black Hawk War or the Seminole War?

One of the strengths of An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States is how deftly it extends the context of this history forward and backward, as well as outward. It's helpful to think, for instance, of how colonialism as a project has its roots in the Crusades, as well as the English Acts of Enclosure, and its immediate antecedent in the English conquest of Ireland. Did you know that the Scots-Irish are the descendants of Scottish planters granted Irish land by the English crown? I have heard this term literally all my life and did not realize that's what it referred to. It's these Scots-Irish who become, according to Dunbar-Ortiz, the "foot soldiers" of settler colonialism in the U.S., doing the dirty work of "opening up" the frontier as they are displaced by larger plantations. It's no coincidence, she points out, that many of the 19th century's most notorious Indian-killers, are the descendants of these Scots-Irish, like Andrew Jackson, or legendary frontiersmen like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. I always thought it was a funny coincidence that so many Tennesseans ended up in Texas that they call Tennessee the "Volunteer State," but seeing the frontier as an anti-indigenous movement makes it all make sense--when the frontier moved, so did the frontiersmen, though the indigenous people they had to move out of their way may have changed.

I found this book vital and sobering, especially at the beginning and the end, when it covered much of the historical territory that I know less about. My only criticism--and perhaps I don't read enough popular history to compare--is that it seems awfully short to cover so much ground. It was disarming, in a way, to see the bits I know better passed over in a few sentences. (Someone should show the three-sentence summary of the Nez Perce War to William T. Vollmann; it would have saved him a lot of time.) But in the end, it does what it sets out to do: inform and unsettle. I felt visceral disgust, and quite a bit of helplessness, reflecting on how central genocide is to the story of our country. But, as Dunbar-Ortiz notes in the book's final pages, the future is not written, and there is still hope that with a tremendous effort, this place can be "radically reconfigured, physically and psychologically."

Saturday, January 22, 2022

My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

At some point this final girl has to realize that this is all about her, don't you think? That her friends and family and pets would all still be alive if this slasher had only STARTED with her instead of cutting his way closer and closer to her. So she feels guilty like maybe she's sort of the killer herself, like this bodycount is maybe HER bodycount.

What I'm saying here, sir, is that she's been groomed to become her secret and best self.

Jade Daniels is the biggest horror movie fan in all of Proofrock, Idaho. She's seen them all, from classics to modern takes to the obscure stuff you find in the bargain bin at the mall. She talks about nothing else, and that might be one of the reasons she doesn't have any friends. When unexplained killings begin to occur in Proofrock--first, a bunch of elk, and then a pair of Dutch tourists in the local lake--she decides that a "slasher" has begun, and it's her knowledge of the genre that makes her the only one who can see it.

At first, it seems like My Heart is a Chainsaw is about a traumatized girl who relies on a worldview derived from movies to keep the world sensible. There is a kind of poignancy to that idea: These movies have narratives of vengeance, of moral cause and effect, which promise that abusers--like Jade's neglectful father, perhaps--receive a taste of their own medicine tenfold. And they offer easily categorized labels of identity: the "Crazy Ralph" whom no one believes, the "final girl" who survives and defeats the slasher because she is the purest of heart. But in the end--spoiler alert--Jade's intuition proves to be correct; there is an evil force at work in Proofrock, and it's soon racking up a tremendous bodycount.

But Jade is mistaken about her role in the slasher to come. She latches onto a beautiful new student, Letha Mondragon, whose father is a tech mogul remaking the other side of the lake into a resort for millionaires. Letha's beauty and compassion convince Jade that she is the "final girl," and she devises a plan to train her for the coming onslaught by educating her in the patterns of horror movies. (That Letha is black, and horror movies are notoriously stingy about keeping black characters alive, seems to be a pattern that doesn't interest Jade or the novel in any serious way.) But when the climax of the movie/novel comes, it's of course Jade--not pure, not virginal, not popular or well-loved--who must "become her secret and best self."

I read Stephen Graham Jones' Ledfeather a couple years ago, a novel that I felt had a lot of quality writing and great ideas, but which was a little muddied and imbalanced. I had been looking forward to reading another of his books, hoping that the qualities that I admired so much would remain, and not the flaws, but I think the reverse is true: I actually feel bad about how much I disliked this book. For one, I didn't really like the slangy movie-teen voice, which works in the small doses of the interstitial "extra credit" papers Jade writes for her beloved history teacher about her slasher theories, but which is incredibly grating over 400 pages of third-person narrative. (One quick example: watching someone slide down a roof, she describes them as "Jesse Pinkmaning" down it. Blech.)

But mostly, the whole thing was just incredibly convoluted. From the beginning, we're told that Proofrock has three or four different creepy legends, including a "Lake Witch," a town that was drowned when the lake was dammed, and an old-time preacher who, I don't know, haunts them or something? Add to that several instances of remote trauma, like the murder of the sheriff's daughter before Jade was born. I couldn't keep any of it straight. There are maybe three dozen characters, most of them questionably necessary. The final 100 pages, in which Jade's premonition that Proofrock's July 4th celebration will be the slasher's bloody climax, are so intricately plotted I could not begin to summarize them.

If My Heart is a Chainsaw were a movie, it might have worked. We would have had visual cues that led us across the scene, from Jade's perspective in the water, to her father in a boat, to her love interest selflessly saving some children, to the suspected slasher creeping up with a machete, to Letha in a swan boat, to the ignorant townspeople about to get their jaws ripped off. But a book is not a movie. And that really explains much of why this book falls flat: it badly wants to be the kind of movie that Jade loves. But the jump scares don't jump or scare; the rush of escape leaves the reader behind; and Jade's constant interpolation, by which she filters everything that happens through her compendious slasher knowledge, totally deflects the kinds of emotions a real movie might inspire, like shock or fear. It doesn't work; it's just a mess. If you want to watch a slasher movie that's meta about its own structures, just go watch Scream instead.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Solar Storms by Linda Hogan

People say that in the beginning was the word. But they have forgotten the loneliness of God, the yearning for something that shaped itself into the words, Let there be. Out of that loneliness, light was conceived, water opened across a new world, and people rose up from clay, there were dreamers of plants and deer. It was this same desire in me, this same longing for creation, and Bush's spare words were creation in itself. I had been empty space, and now I was finding a language, a story, to shape myself by. I had been alone and now there were others. I was suspended there on the island of snails and mosses, snow and windstorms, and I was quiet for days on end, but like Bush's wolverine bones, I was partaking of sacred meal and being put back together.

My Indijanuary continues with Linda Hogan's Solar Storms, a book about a young woman who moves in with her indigenous family on the Boundary Waters between Minnesota and Canada. Angel arrives with half her face scarred for reasons unknown, knowing only that it was her tempestuous mother who somehow afflicted her with them many years ago. Her mother is away in far northern Canada, but when she arrives at the Boundary Waters, she finds a whole family waiting for her: Bush, the former wife of her grandfather and adoptive mother, Agnes, her great-grandmother, and--get this--Dora-Rouge, her ancient and wheelchair-bound great-great-grandmother. Over and over, Angel describes the experience of returning to this place "moving toward herself," and in the company of these women she's able to recapture an identity rooted in her family, and the lands and waters that surround them.

There is a particular story I see again and again in these books by indigenous authors: an indigenous person, often of mixed heritage, must resolve a battered psyche by returning home and reconnecting with their family and homeland. It happens in Ceremony; it happens in A House Made of Dawn; it happens in Winter in the Blood; it happens to some extent in Joy Harjo's poetry collection An American Sunrise. What these stories know is that the psyche is not an independent actor, but one constrained by context; it cannot be healed except by being integrated into community and a relationship with the world. Furthermore, they know that individual traumas are the tail-end results of capitalism and commodification. The healing process always has a geographic character, one that goes in reverse, undoing diaspora, and maybe even reversing Indian removal. (Other books do this, too, like Song of Solomon, except that a return to a teleological homeland--Africa--can only be gestured toward at the end of that book.)

In Solar Storms, this movement-in-reverse carries Angel in several stages: first to the Boundary Waters, and then farther out onto the remote spit of land where Bush lives called Adam's Rib. There, Bush engages in a kind of literal healing, piecing together models of animal skeletons to be sold to museums. But soon the process carries her, along with Bush, Agnes, and Dora-Rouge, in a canoe up through the rivers of what seems to be Ontario, back toward the "Fat-Eaters" who are Dora-Rouge's--and thus Angel's--original community. (Hogan is careful to make the characters seem indigenous-ish, but never gives them a specific tribal identity. They're not Cree, not Ojibwe; as best I can tell the "Fat-Eaters" are totally made up. This gives the novel a sort of blurred spiritual nature I decline to evaluate.) Their goal is to take Dora-Rouge here so that she can die where she was born. It also happens to be where Angel's mother lives.

There's a too-easy version of this story, one I was dreading when I saw Barbara Kingsolver's blurb on the back of the book. But the return north is not easy or simple. Instead of heading toward healing, the trip leads the women into crisis. The rivers of the north are being dammed and diverted, one by one, threatening to obliterate towns by flooding, or drain the lakes that people have relied on for time immemorial. The damming threatens not only the tiny towns of the north, but Bush's house at Adam's Rib, which will be destroyed even though it's a two-week canoe ride away. (Appropriately, I was reading this part at the same time I came across this article describing Canada as a front for destructive resource extractors.) Angel and her forbears become embroiled in a desperate protest against the dams, and the personal becomes political. How can Angel be healed by a return to her ancestral community when the community itself is so existentially threatened? It's this question, perhaps, that makes the book so rich and so fraught, and distinguishes it from similar ones.

Angel's mother, too, is something of a bust, too spiteful and toxic to provide any kind of closure, though her daughter has traveled so far to find her. Her mother, Hannah, becomes a kind of twin to the forces of destruction that dam the rivers, a senseless and devouring force that no one has been able to contain. (We discover that Angel's scars are bite marks.) Strangely, Hannah's malice seems to come from a deeper, darker place than the evil of the river-dammers. It's a mystical, even supernatural evil, without rhyme or reason. Can Hannah heal by returning? Of course not--she's been there all along. Is her kind of evil worse, or scarier somehow, than the river-dammers'? Or is she a force of nature, an expression of its balance, that is equally endangered, like the legendary whirlpool at Adam's Rib that swallows drunks and skidoos?

Anyway, this book was a pleasant surprise. I set my expectations low because of the "healing company of women" stuff; that one's probably on me. But I was surprised by its complexity and its rejection of simple narratives. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life.

Calling The House on Mango Street a novel feels a little strange. It does have central protagonist, the narrator Esperanza, and location, the titular Mango Street. But there's no strong through-line and not a lot of continuity between the vignettes--calling them stories sets expectations they don't often fulfill, of a beginning, a middle, and an endings. Most of them--none are longer than 5 pages--are sketches of a resident of Mango Street that Esperanza doesn't really know. Like a child does, she talks about them based on their most visible characteristic--their car, their absent husband, the time they broke both of their arms, their lack of a last name.

There are around 30 of these vignettes and while most don't progress the previous ones, there is a loose through-line of Esperanza and her friends growing up, coming of age and, it must be said, being harassed and assaulted by various men in the neighborhood. The specters of racism and class hover in the subtext, except for when they become text, as when Esperanza talks about visitors to the neighborhood who huddle together, scared of the same characters she lovingly describes elsewhere.

Sanda Cisneros was a poet before she was a novelist and those skills shine through both in the loose, less-concrete metaphors that appear throughout, and also the rhythm of the prose which sometimes even has little internal rhymes. It's nice to read, but the structure of the book prevented me from ever really sinking into the world of Mango Street, as much as I liked the individual pieces. There are two times, however, when the book breaks this pattern and those stories are the strongest, and most harrowing. First, as alluded to earlier, there's the ongoing story of Esperanza's coming of age and her sexual awakening, always communicated obliquely and tastefully but nevertheless maturing and culminating in a sad, scary recounting of a trip to the fair that ends in ambiguous (but not really) tragedy.

The other character that gets multiple stories (besides Esperanza's sister and her two friends) is Sally, a girl "with Egypt in her eyes" and shiny black hair who adheres to a very traditional religion. Though Cisernos never spells it out, Sally seemed Muslim-coded, and her progression--beautiful girl with from an abusive patriarchal home to easy girl about town to her marriage and miserable hermetic existence with a very jealous marshmallow salesman(?) is a real downer and uncomfortable in ways I'm not altogether sure I like.

In closing stories, Esparanza learns from a trio of fortune telling sisters that she's got a gift for writing, and she's told to come back to the street, to speak for the ones who can't leave. So in the end this is a collection of stories by a writer who made it out, but maybe not really, who will always be a part of the life she worked to leave. It felt a little tidy, ending such a  fragmented collection by retroactively adding a wraparound story, but maybe the tidiness is the point, a happy ending for all the residents who will never get a happily ever after of their own.

A fun aside is, I keep calling this book Last House on Mango Street, which evokes a much different book.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Too Loud a Solitude by Borumil Hrabal

Meanwhile, the wall kept advancing and retreating, according to whether I pushed green or red, and in between I learned from the Theory of the Heavens how in the silence, the absolute silence of the night, when the senses lie dormant, an immortal spirit speaks in a nameless tongue of things that can be grasped but not described. And these lines so shocked me that I ran out to the air shaft and gazed up at my starry patch of firmament, but then I went back to forking foul paper and mouse families into my drum, and although anyone who compacts wastepaper for a living is no more humane than the heavens, somebody’s got to do it, that slaying of the newborn as depicted by Pieter Brueghel, with which I happened to have wrapped all my bales last week.

It's hard to think of an occupation much less sympathetic to a modern reader than a book burner. Although we now have more books than anyone could ever hope to read in a lifetime, many of them worthless and unlikely to ever be read again, the idea of tossing a single Harliquin or Twilight into the garbage--let alone burning them--is one that turns stomachs and attracts rude looks, even among those who don't actually read much. And this is for good reason, as both history and our literature have hammered ideas into our heads--books are dangerous, books are powerful, books can change the world, books are an unmitigated good. There's truth to all these and yet it's hard not to look around and wonder just how, in a world saturated with print, half of the country denies climate change, systemic racism, pandemics, and misogyny even exist.

Hanta is a destroyer of books, a horseman of the apocalypse trapped in a basement with a press that destroys books banned by the governemnt. He's not proud of the work he does, because he loves books, but he does take pride in the work itself, both by opening books to meaningful passsages and placing them at the center of the bales before compressing them, and by absconding with volumes of interest, especially those of philosophy, poetry, and art, and reading pages between cycles of loading and compacting bales. His house is a deathtrap, piled high with his ill-gotten library, and he falls asleep at night listening to the creaking and rustling of the stacks precariously balanced over his head, waiting for the day when they'll collapse and bury him.

The metaphor is dense and perhaps a bit obvious but Hrabal makes it light while also increasing the philsophical complexity as the book goes on. The book's treatment of Hanta is complex and surprising, using him both to articulate the power of art and literature while simultaneously using him as an object lesson to puncture the myths around them. The only other reader in the book is a professor who receives banned books from Hanta. He speaks eloquently of them but can't tell that Hanta's "boss", to whom he pays a weekly stipend, is only Hanta in a fake moustache. And Hanta himself, well, he's learned and speaks beautifully about the contents of his purloined books, but he's an empty, lonely man, envying the community of the mice that live in his stacks and futilly devoted to his ex-lover, an accident-prone woman  named Manča. In spite of the wisdom of the page, he's far less happy than the socialist youths who cheerfully demolish books at 1000x his speed and never once concern themselves with the contents, or the Romani girls who visit him and offer him the pleasures of the flesh (he declines).

As the book winds down, Hanta finds himself dispossesed, fired from his job and divested of his press. Depleted, he makes one more attempt to find Manča. He succeeds, finding her in the courtyard of a sculptor who's immortalizing her in stone. He has an epiphanic moment:

I could see with my own eyes that Manča, who had always hated books, who had never in her life read a book through except to lull herself to sleep, was ending her earthly days as a saint... Manča had unwittingly become what she never dreamed of becoming, she had gone farther than anyone I’d ever known. I, who had constantly read books in search of a sign, never received a word from the heavens, while she, who had always hated books, became what she was meant to be,

The moment does in fact awaken him to the emptiness of his life, but there's a sense in which the reader, if moved by this moment--I was--is particpating in the cognitive dissonance at the heart of the story. If books and art are meaningless, why do they move us at all? For that matter, in what sense has Manča arrived, if she is being immortalized as a statue? Hrabal is communicating something slippery and unsentimental about art here, something almost inarticulable, and Hanta's final act, the only one that seems reasonable, is to make himself a work of art, the only art he has ever had a hand in creating, by climbing inside his machine and pushing the green button, opening himself at the center of the wasteheap we call art.

Not until we're totally crushed do we show what we are made of.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Sacred Smokes by Theodore C. Van Alst Jr.

Choochi says, C'mon, Teddy. Let's get these fuckers.

We head down Clark Street, our street, Farwell and Clark Street, F/C, site of lots of young gangbanger triumphs (and whoa, wait, we should clear that up pretty quick like--"gangbanger" here means "gang member," containing zero hints of any nefarious connotations implied by that rhymey and angular term that can mean so much sexually and violently and so little socially all at once) and also a library. A Chicago Public Library. Site of so much theft and pillaging, much pilfering, of knowledge, of words, and of Conan books. Definitely those. Oh. And a Beowulf. That's right. 'Cause fuck those Geats.

Sacred Smokes is a collection of loosely-related stories about an adolescence among the street gangs of 1970's Chicago. The narrator is Teddy, a bright Native American kid from the North Side. (One might expect that "Teddy" is a fictionalized version of the author, Indigenous Studies professor Theo C. Van Alst, Jr., but the book is billed, to the best of my knowledge, as fiction and not memoir.) Teddy has an ambivalent relationship the violence he both witnesses and employs in the city's turf wars. One story opens:

I had a friend named Idiot. One day I strangled him. Well, not to death, but close enough. That fucking guy. He was a relentless torment. Twice my size, wicked, and ceaseless. I just couldn't do it anymore, couldn't take his shit.

But elsewhere he begins to worry about how to extricate himself from the life he's grown up into:

And then one day after walking away from a nasty shit-talking fight with some of boys, which I won, of course. I sort of came to and looked around. I was alone, and felt it deeply, but I envisioned myself envisioning this moment, older and tired somewhere, maybe in a shitty suburb, or worse, maybe around the corner from right fucking here, and wishing I had come to that moment differently, and I knew the only way to make a difference was to re-envision myself. I didn't know then what I needed to do, but I knew this, all this, was fucked, wasn't for me, would kill me dead if I let it, and I wasn't ready to die just then. Not at that age. Not what that buzz, not with that smile on my face, not with that clear forehead, that long hair, that tanned brown skin, that girlfriend, that ice-cold quart of Old Style, that boombox, that song, that moment of sublime warmth, no sƃuıʞ, no cops, no crap, no fear. No way.

Eventually, Teddy gets his opportunity; caught in a bind by a couple of idiot cops he calls "Lenny and Squiggy," he accepts their offer: jail or the Navy. The cops seem to think of Teddy as a thorn in their side, not because he's merely a "gangbanger," but because he's clearly smarter than they are. Teddy's intelligence and powers of sharp observation are part of what make the book so fascinating, and his creative capacity. At one point, a "gangbanger" friend demands, "Tell us a story, Teddy," and he unfurls an improvised and highly-detailed vignette of a soldier at war. When he writes a vivid and jagged story about pursuing a rival gang member for an English class, he receives an A, along with a year of suspicious looks from his teacher. These qualities are influenced by Teddy's voracious reading habits; over the stories he reads Louise Erdrich novels, Cormac McCarthy ones, old Conan paperbacks, Vine Deloria, Karl Marx, Beowulf ("fuck them Geats"). Teddy devours these books and absorbs them, crafting a slangy-but-educated voice that gives the stories the bulk of their power and humor.

Structurally, the stories are very slippery. Teddy has a habit of slipping from one topic to the next in a way that might catch a lacksadaiscal reader (like me) off guard. In the space of a single paragraph he might remark that the gang member he's talking about resembles someone else he knew in the Navy, and that this someone reminds him of another story than the one he was telling. The stories often come full circle, but not always, and even by the end of each one it can become difficult to determine what it was the story was about, really, a quality that extends in some respect to the book as a whole. Sometimes this method works beautifully, as in the opener "Old Gold Couch," which--nominally, at least--is about his father's resolution to purchase a new couch with the coupons saved from thousands of cigarette packs. Other times, as in "Push It"--a story that ends with Teddy stumbling into a Salt-N-Pepa concert--it seems as aimless as the limousine ride that provides the story its loose structure.

I read Sacred Smokes as part of "Indijanuary," in which I read books by Native American authors until January is over, or I run out, whichever comes first. The role of indigeneity in Sacred Smokes is somewhat oblique. It certainly has no grand statements to make about urban life as a Native American, a la There There, and is probably better, realer, for it. Instead it reveals itself in small and surprising ways: "You dress like a Puerto Rican," his father tells him, to which Teddy replies, "Look at you, man. We live in the middle of the city. You wear western shirts and cowboy boots every day." Teddy's father is a drunk and a jerk, but one wonders if there isn't something to his aloofness from the city, the way he stands apart from it, while Teddy frets about the way he is swept up in it. And there is a kind of nostalgia for a lost possibility when he describes his Cherokee mother's birthplace in Tennessee, a place "where the houses are gone, along with our genealogy, which got stole by some Yankee fuck tourist out of one of the houses that the Feds turned into some kind of living museum or human zoo exhibit in the national park that sits where our land used to be, but the flowers remain, rectangular plots of flowers that still grow around the perimeters of long-ago houses that have burned into ashy pages of lost history." But I wouldn't want to push the thought too far; Sacred Smokes is too circuitous, and more interested in getting out and moving on than looking back.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

The God Who Sees by Karen Gonzales

It’s uncomfortable, and maybe even frightening, for many of us to consider having porous borders, especially in a time when terrorism abounds around the globe. Yet Christians are not called to value the false sense of security created by closed borders and walls. We are called to trust in God and to love our neighbors, particularly our neighbors in need. Closed borders in North America are not directed toward an existing threat of invasion by a foreign army but toward poor economic immigrants seeking opportunities and toward refugees fleeing for their very lives. Hardened borders are designed to prevent the movement of the world’s poor—a people whom God says Christians should care for and not harm.

I grew up in a small town in Indiana that was approximately half Mexican by the time I was a teenager. Many, maybe most, of the immigrants were undocumented, and talking to my friends in that group, it was always surprising, almost unbelievable, how much difference their nationality (and legal status) made in day to day life. Everything from attending school, to getting a job, to getting a driver's license was a minefield, full of mistakes waiting to explode lives if they were made.

One night, an officer followed a friend of mine, brought into the US covertly when he was only six, as he drove home from work, finally pulling him over for going too slowly. When the officer discovered he was undocumented, it set into motion a sequence of events that led to an awful choice: either go to jail, or agree to deportation with no possibility of re-entry for at least 8 years. He chose the latter, leaving behind his family, his friends, and the country he'd spent most of his life in. He was 21.

The God Who Sees is full of stories like this, both explicitly narrated and present in the statistics about deportation, immigration, racism, numbers that represent lives that all too often jerked around like marionettes because they lack a green card, or have a parent who crossed the border illegally. And, because this is a work of Christian theology and memoir, Jesus-followers, the vast majority in the US, loom large behind the facts and figures--who's making these laws, wrecking these lives, ignoring these people in favor of nationalism and fear?

I loved the structure, which alternates between theological ruminations on the stories of immigrants and outsiders in the biblical narratives--Hagar, Abraham, Ruth, Joseph-and memoir, structured around the sacraments of the Catholic church--baptism, communion, confirmation, anointing, and reconciliation. Though not Catholic herself, the sacramental structure serves a dual purpose, illustrating both the integration of the sacred into her life and providing signposts as her story of immigration--hers and her family's--unfolds. Personal growth is entwined with the complexity mutating relationships with her mother, her abuela, and God. Gonzales refuses to give easy answers or to separate the systemic oppression her family experiences from her own spiritual journey, and the result is a story of faith and change that moves holistically from numbers to names and back again. I love the title--the God who sees is the name given by Hagar, the first person in the Torah to name God--and I finished the book thinking of all the people we fail to see every day, the people we leave behind, who are not left by God.

The last 30 or so pages are something I've never seen before, a series of short vignettes enumerating ways people, Christian and not, can be involved in ending unjust treatment of immigrants, ranging from scripts for calling your reps to how-tos for getting involved with volunteering and visiting imprisoned refugees. It's a practical step I'd like to see become more commonplace in books intended to provoke a response.

The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich

A woman's body is the gate to this life. A man's body is the gate to the next life. She is crying for the stranger to stand before her once again, to open herself. She knows who he is, now, the windigo. He is the original Shawano from way back in time, the windigo man whom the Shawano brothers took into their family in the old days, long ago. Here's how she heard it. They were hunting together way up north, those brothers and their families. Visited by this ice spirit of awful hunger, they let him in the door. They should not have. He was all frost inside, all ravenous snow. Still, she wants him to come to her again. This time she will enter. Cleave to the glossy ice. Pull his cold sky-colored skin around her like a grave.

"Family stories," Louise Erdrich writes in The Antelope Wife, "repeat themselves in patterns and waves generation to generation, across bloods and time. Once the pattern is set we go on replicating it." This is perhaps as good a key to the fictions of Louise Erdrich as any, with their genealogical charts in the flyleaf as complex as a high fantasy novel, or perhaps a biography of a Renaissance monarch. In The Antelope Wife, the family is the Shawano-Roy family, stretching from the middle of the 19th century to the end of the 20th. It begins with a white soldier adopting a young indigenous girl he finds being carried on the back of a dog, until the girl's mother, desperate and raving, comes to find her. In another way, this girl--Matilda--is a dead end, genealogically speaking: the two branches of the family that become the novel's modern characters descend from her sisters by her birth mother and the natural son of her adoptive father, yet Matilda's position between worlds becomes an avatar for all the book's characters. In some way, she is their spiritual mother.

Erdrich finds a motif to express the interconnectedness of these family lines--see how they loop back on themselves in vaguely incestuous ways--in beads. "Who is beading us?" she asks. What are the forces that bind us together, and transmit patterns of life from generation to generation? These patterns show up as generational echoes, like the presence of twins. Young Cally Roy mourns the death of her twin Deanna; her twin grandmothers refuse to tell her mother Rozin which of them is really her mother. (Did I mention the mysterious twin grandmothers are themselves children of mysterious twin grandmothers?) This doubling can be traced back to Matilda's mother, Blue Prairie Woman, whose desperation for her child split her psyche in two and forced her to take on a new name. She recovers her daughter, but the split cannot be repaired; two spirits now live in the world. The doubling resonates with other kinds of transformations and slippages, identities that are fluid. Matilda's adoptive father, struggling to keep her alive in the wilderness, begins to lactate.

There's a certain recognizable Erdrich M.O. here; the interconnectedness of family lines is what makes people call a book like Love Medicine a novel rather than a collection of stories. But The Antelope Wife manages to bind its many threads into a whole piece in a way that Love Medicine never does. It might be the most successful of all of Erdrich's novels in this regard; it leaps time and place and point of view so haphazardly it seems a miracle that the whole thing hangs together at all. Its frenetic energy bolsters its humor, which is often of the lovesick foolishness variety: Klaus Shawano's unbridled horniness for his untameable wife Sweetheart Calico, or Rozin Roy's ex-husband Richard's destructive desperation to spoil her marriage to another man. Erdrich is an expert at weaving humor and tragedy together, as when Richard's abortive suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning ends up killing his daughter Deanna instead.

One character cuts through the tightly woven beads of family history, the title "Antelope Wife." In the modern era, she's Sweetheart Calico, Klaus' wife, who does not talk. She's an avatar of a figure that appears throughout generations, a woman who is--who is, ah--you know, Erdrich's brand of magical realism doesn't make these things easy to explain--also, I guess, an antelope, and who represents wildness, freedom, the fluid and the feminine. Klaus manages to coerce her into marriage by essentially kidnapping her, separating from her daughters, and in Minneapolis she is something like an animal pacing around a cage. Her relationship to the family is frail, oblique; when she is at last "freed" like a character in a fairy tale released from a spell, she returns to the wilderness, the place past understanding, where the bead makers are perhaps, making the story before the story.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Prudence by David Treuer

What could he say to any of them when nothing anyone could say could make time flow in the other direction: back from England to Florida to Texas; back east to Montgomery, and then straight north, following the Mississippi, a fat brown worm in Louisiana, as it shrank, shed tributaries, spit earth and trees back up on the banks, shed cities like a snake shaking of fleas, till the river ran clear and cool, weeds waving in the current, shallow enough for herons to wade along its edges in search of minnows; and Frankie touched down at the Pines. And then the shot would move back up the barrel of the shotgun and the gun would fall to his side, useless, ridiculous, silly, really, some silly toy his father bought to have in the house. And then Billy's hand would reach out to take it from him.

On a summer day at a northern Minnesota resort called the Pines, everyone is anxiously awaiting the arrival of Frankie, the owner's son, from Princeton: his mother Emma, the Ojibwe caretaker Felix, and especially Billy, the Ojibwe boy with whom Frankie has had an extended and clandestine summer affair. When Frankie arrives, he has several of his louchest Princeton buddies in tow, much to Billy's chagrin. Instead of falling into each other's arms, Billy and Frankie are whisked upon a mission of machismo, hoping to hunt down a German prisoner who has recently escaped from the prison camp across the river from the Pines. When Frankie shoots at a noise in the brush, he ends up killing not the German but a young girl running with her older sister from their Indian School in North Dakota to the Canadian border. This act of sudden violence forces the young lovers apart and splinters the lives of everyone involved: Frankie, Billy, Felix, and especially Prudence, the sister left alive.

This is the first fiction book I've read by Treuer, who wrote Native American Fiction: A User's Manual and The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. As one might expect, Treuer's evocation of Ojibwe life is particularly rich and complex; his depiction of Felix, Billy, and others shows how enmeshed the lives of whites and indigenous people in northern Minnesota are. Themes of indigeneity are there, and powerful--the school that Prudence and her sister Grace escape, for one, and the comparative poverty of Felix's status compared to the resort where he is caretaker--but they feel naturalistic and unforced. One gets to understand the way race and settler colonialism can exist on a plane just beneath the dynamics of the moment: Billy and Frankie's hidden love, or the mounting hysteria of World War II.

Now, I'm a sucker for the story that goes "A sudden act of surprising violence changes everything." But the two thirds of Prudence that follow the killing felt misshaping and disappointing, to me. Billy takes credit for the shot to save Frankie--not that anyone much notices or cares, with the war going on, that an indigenous girl has been killed--and the two are sundered. Frankie goes off to train as a bombardier (these sections are so meticulously rendered they made me wonder if they are drawn from experience!), desperate for the war to distract him from his guilt and longing for Billy. Prudence sticks around, growing up to be a depressed drunk who turns to sex to assuage her grief. Believing Billy to be her sister's killer, she treasures the idea that Frankie will come back to marry her--a promise made, obviously, from guilt. Prudence's ironic and mistaken attachment to Frankie is one of the novel's most interesting elements, but the novel struggles to develop it, as it does Prudence herself. Another plotline, in which a European Jew arrives in Minnesota to hunt down a Nazi from the camp seems like it will connect, but never does, not in a meaningful way.

All of that's to say that Prudence has some terrific, arresting parts. But as a whole, it seems to lack a center: is this a story about Frankie, or Billy, or Prudence? The novel's heart, actually, seems to be--or perhaps ought to have been--Felix, the kind and studious caretaker whose grief from the previous world war provides the tragic backdrop to the modern story. In a novel about the way that grief and guilt destroy, a man who turns his grief into a quiet but steady living really stands out.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Laura had not listened to the stock-dove; she had not seen the haze thickening overhead. She walked up and down in despair and rebellion. She walked slowly, for she felt the weight of her chains. Once more they had been fastened upon her. She had worn them for many years, acquiescently, scarcely feeling their weight. Now she felt it. And, with their weight, she felt their familiarity, and the familiarity was worst of all: Titus had seen her starting out. He had cried: “Where are you off to, Aunt Lolly? Wait a minute, and I’ll come too.” She had feigned not to hear him and had walked on. She had not turned her head until she was out of the village, she expected at every moment to hear him come bounding up behind her. Had he done so, she thought she would have turned round and snarled at him. For she wanted, oh! how much she wanted, to be left alone for once.

The story of Laura Willowes begins, as most stories do, with a bunch of men. In fact, much more time is spent in the early going talking about family history, her brothers' marriages, her father's illness and death, and her subsequent shuttling off to live with her brother Henry, than about Laura herself. Aside from her love of her father and her love of nature, Laura does very little: she is passively acted upon and her feelings about the things that are happening are opaque to us. The biggest development in the first half of the book is right there in the title: Laura becomes Aunt Lolly.

Her role is circumscribed by the expectations placed on a single woman with no family around the turn of the century. She assists her sister-in-law around the house, takes care of the newborns, most notably a boy named Titus, and is occupied from dawn to dusk with responsibilities that are pushed upon her, though she hardly seems to realize it.

But the structure is such that the reader is barely aware of what is going on; Warner strings us along in such a traditional realist narrative that none of this seems out of the ordinary--after all, that's how most of these stories go, regardless of mode--Agnes Grey, Emma, etc. And then, at almost exactly the midpoint, Lolly decides to move to Great Mop and start her own life. Her brother, Henry, greatly objects, first because she's, well, a single woman, and secondly because he's gambled away her trust in what I can only assume is the Dogecoin of 1926. He sister-in-law passive aggressively wonders how she'll carry on without Lolly. Only Titus, now in his late teens, supports her schemes, although once he realizes she's serious his ardour cools as well--but the next section picks up in Great Mop, with Lolly alone, at least for a while.

Lolly starts coming into her own, forming some loose community with the inhabitants of Great Mop, and even feints at the idea of a romance, but this is not that sort of book, and just as Lolly is asserting herself, who should show up but Titus. At first happy to see him, Lolly soon finds herself being fed back into the same sorts of rut she left to escape--she's mending clothes, making food, handling social events and worst of all, she's once again never alone. So one day, while out walking, Lolly makes a deal with Satan--he can have her soul, and he'll give her back her agency.

So, this happens about 50pp from the end of the book, and after Titus is attacked by bees, rapidly engaged, and leaves within 48 hours, Lolly is all in--but it's not as if she goes all in with cauldrons and newt's eggs. She's content only to have her solitude back. The final setpiece in the book is a conversation with Satan, which is where most of what I've spelled out thematically comes together--indepenedence is so desirable, so necessary, for women that they make easy prey for Satan. But Satan doesn't appear to prey on them, per se. It's about the thrill of the chase--once they're caught he has no interest, contra the patriarchal God of Henry, in a relationship. He's a deistic sort, gentlemanly, cagey about the whole "eternal hell" thing, and he leaves Lolly, on the last page, feeling unsettled and simultaneously at peace. Better to recline in Hell than serve in Heaven.

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

The dreams had been terror at loss, at something lost forever; but nothing was lost, all was retained between the sky and the earth, and within himself. He had lost nothing. The snow-covered mountain remained, without regard to titles of ownership or the white ranchers who thought they possessed it. They logged the trees, they killed the deer, bear, and mountain lions, they built their fences high; but the mountain was far greater than any or all of these things. The mountain outdistanced their destruction, just as love had outdistanced death. The mountain could not be lost to them, because it was in their bones; Josiah and Rocky were not far away. They were close; they had always been close.

I re-read Ceremony because, for the first time ever, I'm going to teach it in class this year. I'm looking forward to that but also I have a little trepidation; much of the time I spent re-reading it I spent trying to figure out what about the novel seems so difficult and enigmatic. The language is measured and plain, but the structure can be a little deceiving: it's the story of Tayo, a Laguna Pueblo man who has returned from World War II and the Baatan Death March with extreme PTSD, and who returns to mental and spiritual health by the aid of a ceremony rooted in Laguna and Navajo storytelling. The beginning is fractured, as is fitting for the narrative of Tayo's inability to move on from the horrors of war and death, but the process of healing, too, is strange, jumping from time to place and from person to person elliptically. Of course, perhaps it is a mistake to think that healing is a process that take something crooked and makes it straight.

I appreciated more, this time, the fine distinctions that Silko makes in her description of "witchery," an enigmatic evil force that is responsible for the creation of white people and European cultures. I can imagine this would be quite an unsafe book to teach in one of those states where anti-"CRT" bills have passed: ALABAMA TEACHER ASSIGNS BOOK THAT CALLS WHITE PEOPLE EVIL DEMONS, that sort of thing. But Silko is always quite clear that "witchery" victimizes indigenous and white people alike, and perhaps even that white people are in the most danger because they refuse to wake up and see it for what it is. "Witchery" is a destructive force; it loves death--it has something to do with capital in the Marxist sense, and the "love of money" in the Biblical sense, but Silko's formulation places it even further back, a black impulse in the human heart that is the root cause of these things. And a reactionary response might fail to see that it is actually invented by indigenous people, according to Silko's rendition of legend; in fact, this is the novel's central and strangest irony.

Once you see this, the outlines of the novel's racial and cultural outlook get both clearer and more complex: you see, for instance, how important to the novel it is that Tayo is of mixed race. Is his Aunt's resentment and neglect, so different than the love she heaped on his "purer" and now-dead cousin Rocky, a kind of witchery? Witchery's avatar in Ceremony is not a white person but an indigenous one: Emo, a sinister drunk who resents Tayo's white heritage as strongly as he yearns for the things that white people have. Silko shows sharply how tribalism and oppression are two sides of the same coin. You notice, too, what it means that Tayo's guide in his ceremony is a Navajo, and not a Pueblo man, despite suspicion on both sides; Ceremony manages to articulate the importance of returning to one's geographic and cultural roots while also showing the power of synthesis and syncretism. It's a subtle message and an unfamiliar one, but one I hope my students will welcome.

Ceremony is the first novel in what I'm calling "Indijanuary," despite it being nearly unpronounceable. I did this last year, too, reading eight books by indigenous North American authors in a row, and I'm excited to try it again.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Joy in the Morning by P. G. Wodehouse

“It was one of those cases where you approve the broad, general principle of an idea but can't help being in a bit of a twitter at the prospect of putting it into practical effect. I explained this to Jeeves, and he said much the same thing had bothered Hamlet.”

In the past 3 years, I have read aloud what I believe to be every Wodehouse story, novella, and novel about Bertram Wooster and his butler, Jeeves. When I read Right Ho, Jeeves back in 2010, I didn't expect to read another; but while sitting in the car waiting for something, there was a Jeeves book in the glove-box. I read a couple pages, decided to read Liz a funny part, had to start on page one for context and here we are.

The corpus consists of 11 novels and 35 short stories, though there is some contention about whether some of the early stories, starring a guy named Reggie instead of Wooster, should be counted in that number as most of those stories were rewritten later for Bertram. But I digress.

For the completely unfamiliar, the stories follow Bertram Wooster, an upper class twit, good-hearted but "oofy", and his wise beyond all reason valet, Jeeves. All but one, Ring for Jeeves, are narrated by Wooster, and all involve a series of misunderstandings, usually brought about or at least exacerbated by societal expectations. All eventually seems lost, until we learn in the end that Jeeves has been working behind the scenes and that all is well.

When Chris, on my recommendation, read Code of the Woosters, he had this to say:
I liked The Code of the Woosters. I didn't exactly develop a lifelong addiction, like some people do; in fact, I probably won't read another one of these. I expect, rightly or wrongly, that they mostly all go the same way.
And he is, more or less, correct. Indeed, some of the plot points recur in almost every book--Bertie accidentally becomes engaged to a woman he doesn't want to marry, often on a rebound from one of his many friends; Bertie is coerced into carrying out some unpleasant social business for his aunt; Jeeves reads Spinoza, a philosopher well-suited for a man who seems to run the world as an extension of himself; Bertie has an article of clothing/piece of art Jeeves hates (and will eventually dispose of). There are even two separate books that revolve around Bertie's theft of the same cow-shaped creamer ladle!

And yet, the books are compulsively readable and often very funny, largely due to Wodehouse's absolute mastery of Bertie's voice, with which he never produces an anodyne sentence. Reading one for the first time, one is struck by the preponderance of lingo, most of which seems to have never really existed outside of Wodehouse's novels.  For example:

You know, the way love can change a fellow is really frightful to contemplate. This chappie before me, who spoke in that absolutely careless way of macaroons and limado, was the man I had seen in happier days telling the head-waiter at Claridge’s exactly how he wanted the chef to prepare the sole frite au gourmet aux champignons, and saying he would jolly well sling it back if it wasn’t just right. Ghastly! Ghastly!

Further, there is, if not exactly character development--Bertie never, thankfully, outgrows his dependence on Jeeves--growth. Early on, Bertie feels cowed asking Jeeves for help, and often goes his own way, returning only when the straits are dire; later on, Jeeves is always stop number one. Bertie is forever searching for words, which Jeeves provides, and attempting to quote poetry, which ditto, and as the novels progress, Bertie incorporates these words and lines into his narration. Little things, satisfying nods to the continuity of the Jeeves/Wooster relationship.

The books are fundamentally about relationships, to each other and to society. Upper-class British society and its often confounding mores are the machine that drives the plot, and Wooster's stable of friends both male--Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright, Gussie Fink-Nottle, Stilton Cheeseright--and female--Rosie M. Banks, Madeline Bassett, Stiffy Byng--provide the old oil. In spite of being the best known in popular culture, Jeeves himself is largely a foil for Wooster, disappearing for large chunks of the narrative to allow the plot to thicken, springing into reader-visible action only in the last act. There's rarely any explicit criticism of the class differences inherent in the Wooster-Jeeves relationship, though one can certainly intuit from the large cast of incompetent trust-fund adults that the serving class, of whom Jeeves is representative, is what really keeps society from collapsing.

And here we are at the end and I've said nothing about Joy in the Morning specifically, and there's a reason for that. The plot is more-or-less what I've outlined above, though it's one of the better books (Code of the Woosters may be the best), and I probably won't review the rest of the Jeeves books indiviudually. I like these books and find them comforting, fun, and funny. And I guess that's it.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

J R by William Gaddis

--No this other little boy I meant, J R he's so, he always looks as though he lives in a home without, I don't know. Without grownups I suppose, like he simply lives in those clothes of his.

--Probably does, have you ever seen him when he wasn't scratching himself somewhere?

--Oh I know yes, I have felt he doesn't bathe often but, no there's something, something else, when you talk to him he doesn't look at you but it's not as though, not like he's hiding something. He looks like he's trying to fit what you're saying into something utterly different, some world you don't know anything about he's such an eager little boy but, there's something quite desolate, like a hunger...

J R Vansant is an eleven-year old from Massapequa, on New York's Long Island. He has an obsession with sending away for things, the free periodicals you get from people who are trying to sell you something. His sixth-grade class buys, as a collective project, a single share of a company called Diamond Cable during a field trip to Wall Street. It's this single share, in J R's possession, that will become, over the course of 800 pages, an upstart corporation that controls shipping companies, toilet paper companies, companies that make matchbooks and wallpaper, factories, a brewery, a film studio, and acres of land that belong to a First Nations tribe in Alberta, among dozens of others.

How does he do it? I could barely tell you. J R has a reputation as a "difficult" novel, but that's as descriptive as saying it's a novel made out of words: what makes J R difficult is that it boasts some thirty-odd principal characters and 99% of it is in pure, unattributed dialogue. "French scenes" blend seamlessly from one to the next, leaping over days and miles, and there are no chapter or scene breaks of any kind. Much of that dialogue is a dizzying kind of businessese that Gaddis learned from his day job, either in J R's voice or the many plutocrats and apparatchiks that get sucked into the orbit of the J R Family of Companies--none of whom know their boss or business rival is in the sixth grade. I'd honestly love to hear someone knowledgeable unpack the actual business moves that J R uses to build his empire. It starts with a shareholder suit J R pursues with his class' single share of Diamond Cable, I know that much, but when that's spun off into a tangle of debentures, mining rights, leasebacks, and liens, I could barely make heads or tails of it. And yet the novel has no interest in being understood, not in that way; what it's interested in is the sheer music of an indefatigable American idiom. What's most amazing about the novel, maybe, is that it manages to make the dreariest American jargon, Wall Street jargon, something of a thrilling circus ride.

J R is not a genius. He's a fairly ordinary eleven-year old; his dirty clothes and torn sneakers suggest that he is thoroughly neglected by absent parents. He thinks that the Inuit models in the American Museum of Natural History are stuffed, and when he instructs the company lawyer to incorporate in Jamaica, he believes it's the one in Queens. But neither is he purely lucky, like the Horatio Alger heroes the story cribs from. His superpower is a relentless philistinism, a child's inability to see past an obsession--in this case, an obsession that the country works tirelessly to inculcate in him. Twice during the novel, adults implore J R to look away from taxes, bonds, and securities and pay attention to something intangible. His class teacher, Amy Joubert, begs him to look at the moon: "Is there a millionaire for that?" she asks. Another teacher, the composer Edward Bast, who becomes J R's unwilling sidekick in the venture and is actually much closer to what one might call a "main character," tries to get him to listen to a tape of Bach. (J R thinks the German opera singer is singing "up yours.") But J R, a good American in training, simply cannot understand that there is such a thing as an "intangible asset."

I might give the impression that J R is a constant presence in the novel, but actually, the title character--though the engine that drives the events of the book--disappears for hundreds of pages at a time. Other characters fill in the space: teachers, businessmen, generals, senators, writers, painters. The heart of the novel might actually be a trio of failed artists--Bast and two writers, Gibbs and Eigen--who rent a small apartment on East 96th St. to work in. It's this apartment that becomes the headquarters of the J R Family of Companies, and which quickly fills up with unstoppable shipments and stacks of mail. J R's business has a way of sucking people in; in this apartment, it literally crowds them out. J R's "big idea" might be put very simply: money is the death of art. Bast, who dreams of being a great composer like his father (J R tells a magazine profiler he was a "famous conductor on the Long Island Rail Road) dreams of writing an opera, and over stages his dream shrinks: an opera, then a cantata, and finally, at the novel's end, a "piece for unaccompanied cello."

What do Bast and the others receive for the death of their artistic dreams? Nearly nothing; Bast spends half a time trying to chase down a salary from J R, who ties his employee's compensation up in unsellable stock options. But there's nothing to gain, because the J R Family of Companies is a paper tiger, collection of acquisitions that are spun into acquisitions, mostly in the hopes of being written off for tax purposes. The scheme never seems to generate any income for anyone, but it leaves a lot of destruction in its wake, squashing pension funds, defrauding indigenous nations, and even igniting sectarian war in a small African nation. No other novel captures so perfectly, or humorously, the great gaping hole at the center of American capitalism. I found myself wondering as I read what Gaddis would say about cryptocurrency or NFTs, those newfangled instruments that seem so transparently empty to everyone except those whose mania drives their "value" up. Some people may get rich, but mostly the people who are already rich; the rest of us, like J R and his associates, will get caught up in a flurry of empty noise and false promises.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Randy's Top Books, 2020 & 2021!

 Well, don't I feel like an asshole. For the better part of ten years, I've been "doing" the Fifty Books Project, and for most of that time I (and, ostensibly Christopher) have lived with the quiet shame of posting few, if any, book reviews, but squeaking by with a consistent year-end review. December of 2020 rolled around,  I thought about my list, but I just didn't quite get pen to paper.

Then January 2021, I put if off, thinking, well, early February, will be okay.

And so on.

Anyway, with 2022 poking its head around the corner, and my stubborn refusal to ignore my 2020 books, I've decided to combine'em into one list. I'm going to think of this as my "pandemic" list, with all the naive optimism implied in hoping that my 2022 list will be disassociated from COVID.

Though it was weird to revisit my reading list going back to January 2020, which was both pre-pandemic, pre-parenthood, pre-2020 protests, and pre-an-eventful-for-my-family-Winter-2021. The person who read some of these books feels like a stranger to me now. Still, even that stranger is someone I might want to invite over for drinks in the future, so list his books I shall.

So, without more throat-clearing.

(10) 51 Imperfect Solutions by Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton
Judge Sutton presents an argument that we focus too much on the federal constitution and federal constitutional claims; instead, we should place more emphasis on state constitutions and state constitutional claims. For my line of work, and I think generally for rights/litigation generally, I think Judge Sutton is correct. State constitutions are the future. (even renowned Constitutional Scholar Erwin Chemerinsky agrees). Judge Sutton was my introduction to state constitutionalism, and I've spent a fair amount of time doing my own reading, trying to get up to speed. I have a dream/aspiration of writing a law review article about the Nevada Constitution, and if I ever do, it'll be because I read this book. (I have a lot of aspirations that I never seem to meet (ahem, like my 2020 book list...), though, so this'll probably just be something I spend an insufferable amount of time talking about and not following through with).

(9) Quichotte by Salman Rushdie
One of the curiosities of my life is that The Satanic Verses is one of my all-time favorite books and I somehow (a) don't have a copy of it and (b) for almost a decade it was the only Rushdie I'd read. when I heard about Quichotte, a novel-length engagement with Don Quixote--another of my all-time favorites--I knew I had to pick it up. And it did not disappoint. It's a good novel on its own, but it's also a very clever commentary on Don Quixote. I need to read more Rushdie. Maybe I'll finally get around to Midnight's Children so the 8,000 people who recommended it can feel vindicated when I tell them they were right to effusively demand I drop everything to start reading it.

(8) Piranesi by Susanna Clark
I am hesitant to say anything about this book because everyone should experience it knowing as little as possible about it. But I can't resist one comment: I love mazes. Literary mazes, literal mazes, metaphorical mazes. Mazes just really do it for me. You could say I'm amazed by mazes.

(7) On the Courthouse Lawn by Sherrilyn Ifill
With how much she accomplished at LDF, it's very easy to overlook that Sherrilyn Ifill was an accomplished academic first. This book engages with "official" complicity in lynching. The title is a reference to how lynchings would often take place on the courthouse lawn, erecting an intentional symbolic connection between extrajudicial killing and the legal system. Though I find many arguments against the death penalty compelling, this book is a good source for the argument that we should abolish the death penalty solely on the basis of its deep historical connection to enforcing racial hierarchy.

(6) Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gesson
I generally dislike books that merely collect columns into a single volume. Regular columns, pressing with relevance and urgency when published, often age poorly after even a couple of months. However, I missed nearly all of Gesson's columns as they were being published (I harbor an unfair prejudice against The New Yorker that I can't be bothered to try to explain); Gesson's columns aged very well; indeed, they probably became more relevant in the closing days of the Trump Administration, January 6, and the aftermath of both. I read a number of books to help me think about our current political situation. Gesson's was the best and most informative (for me, anyway). I'm sure both would dislike and probably dispute the comparison, but Gesson's work reminds me of Arendt, and I tend to think of Gesson as the closest we've got to a contemporary Arendt.

(5) Master of the Senate by Robert Caro
I don't know what to say about this book except that Caro is an extraordinary writer. I started reading his Lyndon Johnson biographies because of a Paris Review interview where he said that he wasn't so much interested in Lyndon Johnson as he was about how power worked. The biographies are true to that, and I find them interesting because they engage with the very human question of how we choose leaders/are led/lead. 

(4) Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, edited by Toni Morrison
The only book that motivated me to make time to write a review in the last two years. This is a collection of essays written all engaging with Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. If someone were to ask for a single book to read about the Thomas Confirmation, I'd suggest this book, even over the more documentary books like Strange Justice (though Strange Justice is actually very good and worth reading too). This was my introduction to Toni Morrison's nonfiction writing, to Kimberle Crenshaw, and critical race theory (formally, anyway). (I know by typing those words, I risk being "canceled," but, like, what can you do, amirite?). A window into the debates surrounding the confirmation hearings, but also an extremely helpful primer on intersectionality, race, and sexual harassment.

(3) Thinking without a Banister by Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt's influence on me is so outsized at this point, I almost forgot to include this book on the list because I had so deeply internalized it that it felt like it went without saying. But, F it, right? It's 2022, maybe this is the year to say things that feel like they go without saying? I don't think I'd recommend this book to anyone unless they already have a pretty deep interest in Arendt's thinking, but for people with an interest, it's a spectacular collection that is a good way of being introduced to her thinking in a big-picture way (as opposed, say, to her other books which tend to be more focused on their specific topics). I finished this in the first weeks of the little one's life, and I kind of love that my memory of this book will always be intertwined with that experience.

(2) America on Fire by Elizabeth Hinton
I really struggled with whether this was my top book, or the #2 spot. Ultimately, I'm putting it here: America on Fire is objectively the more important book, the better book, and the only book from the last two years that I'd actually tell anyone--regardless of interests or background--they should read. I cannot emphasize enough how important this book is, or how instrumental it is for how I understand the racial justice protests of 2020. Hinton identifies a long history of protest--what she terms "rebellion"--and a longstanding pattern related to those rebellions, what she calls "The Cycle." This cycle of police violence-->rebellion-->commissions-->more resources to law enforcement-->more police violence, it's a cycle we're seemingly stuck in on endless repeat. But, the book also offers some hope, by looking to some positive developments over the last couple of decades. If I were going to suggest one book from my list for other people to read, it would be this one. Also, if you read it, you can then go watch me do a zoom hang with Dr. Hinton for our local NLG Chapter.

(1) The Cycles of Constitutional Time by Jack Balkin and Presidential Leadership in Political Time by Stephen Skowronek
What a cop out, right?! Two books in the number one spot?! Who does this A-hole think he is?! Humor me, please. Presidential Leadership puts forth a theory of political time that is, effectively: voting coalitions rise and fall, and certain kinds of presidents rise and fall with those coalitions. There is a patter to this: a candidate will recognize that a certain kind of voting coalition can be created, and will "revolutionize" the politics of his time by catering to that coalition, and then giving the coalition what it wants. This regime will then, more or less, run things; even if the other party wins elections, the opposing party's identity is basically defined in opposition to the regime's. But as time moves forward, it gets harder and harder for the regime to keep the coalition together. The individual components of the coalition get harder and harder to satisfy: the regime's success, ironically, makes it harder to maintain. Presidents fall into certain archetypes based on where in the "political time" of the regime they fall. Skowronek's point is that you can't judge a president in the early part of the regime the same way you'd judge one at the end of a regime because the presidents are confronting different kinds of political challenges (putting together a regime v. maintaining one). Balkin's book builds off this theory by thinking about its implications for constitutional law, and how federal judges and theories of constitutional interpretation play into "political time" To distinguish his discussion from Skowronek's, he refers to this as "constitutional time." These books combined made for my top read of the last two years because, as my wife will tell, I won't shut up about them; I also can't stop thinking about them. Though many books have been helpful in thinking about our current moment, these two books for me have defined the major issues I've thought about over the last 2 years. They have been the most helpful in thinking about this current moment within the context of the long-term challenges of our constitutional republic. And, for me, thinking about how those long-term challenges are playing out in the current moment, has been helpful in my thinking trying to understand WTF is happening in this world. (So, even though I'd give Hinton credit for writing a better and more important book, for me, subjectively, it's these two that have dominated my thoughts). Because the two books really are companions of each other, I felt justified having them share my top spot.

Anyway, assuming Christopher doesn't give me the boot after another recalcitrant year of inactivity, I'm looking forward to following the blog into 2022, and maybe even writing a review or two now and again. If you made it this far, I'm sorry for my clumsy narrative voice and obnoxious taste in books. See you 'round, 50bookers!