Motherless Brooklyn.

My annual “guys I got wrong” piece is up for Insiders.

I loved Jonathan Lethem’s bizarro paranoid detective novel Gun, with Occasional Music, which felt like a mashup of Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick with a dose of Jasper Fforde added like the bitters that completes a cocktail. At least one of you recommended one of his other detective novels, the equally strange but more straightforward Motherless Brooklyn, in which the lead detective isn’t really a detective, but a flunky working for a half-assed detective agency. The boss is killed on a mission gone wrong, and the protagonist and narrator, Lionel Essrog, begins to investigate the murder – in part because he’s involved, but even more so because he has to, as he suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome and OCD.

Essrog’s tics are minor, and his coworkers at the L&L Car Service, a front for the detective agency run by Frank Minna, all treat them as a fact of life, mostly ignoring them or bestowing unkind nicknames on him (like “Freakshow”). The four underlings, including Essrog, were all at the same orphanage together, from which Minna plucked them first to work as day laborers on suspect jobs like moving what appeared to be stolen goods, then later on to be his team of lookouts and stooges while he played detective. When Frank dies on what at first looks like a normal job gone wrong, with Lionel and dim-witted colleague Gilbert serving as his backup, Lionel starts an independent investigation of sorts, one without a lot of direction at first but that he can’t stop once he gets enmeshed in it – just like he has to complete his series of taps or work out vocal tics that come out of his mouth like random attempts at anagrams and wordplay. (Lethem credits the work of several neurologists in his acknowledgements, including Oliver Sacks.) But Lionel isn’t any more a freak than anyone else – his eccentricities are just more visible.

The case itself is more convoluted than that of your standard hard-boiled detective novel, and the resolution is less clean and partially happens off-screen, but Lethem nods to the conventions of the form, perhaps a little too much so, with Lionel getting knocked out and waking up somewhere else, and sleeping with one of the only female characters in one of the book’s most improbable but funnier scenes. Making Lionel the narrator allows Lethem to draw humor from his condition without ever seeming to mock him for it, and in some ways the obsessiveness that often accompanies Tourette’s is an asset for a would-be sleuth. Some of his conversations with suspects would come off as unrealistic if he didn’t have the condition; Lionel’s tics and utterances punctuate the interrogations in such a way that his blunt questions don’t come off as starkly, which makes the suspects’ candor easier to believe.

I could have done without the stereotyped Italian wiseguys, particularly the older mobsters who are straight out of central casting and would have to inhale just to be two-dimensional, even though they probably had to be Italian to fill those roles in a book set in Brooklyn. They’re secondary, at least, playing limited on-screen roles, as Lionel himself is truly the star – and will apparently be played by Ed Norton in the upcoming film version. If you read this as an amazing character study first and a detective story second, you’ll find the book much more enjoyable than you will if you’re just looking for a good crime novel.

I picked up another detective novel, Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ’s Nairobi Heat, because the author’s father, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, wrote one of my top 100 novels, A Grain of Wheat, a seminal work of Kenyan colonialism and the struggle for independence. Nairobi Heat is a detective novel that takes its protagonist, Ishmael, from Madison, Wisconsin, to Kenya to investigate the murder of a white girl whose body was found on the doorstep of a hero of the Rwandan genocide. The book itself is a mess of detective-novel cliches – including the knock on the head, waking up bound to a chair, sleeping with the unbelievably good-looking woman who plays an important role in the investigation, and lots of needless violence – but the resolution evoked a powerful reminiscence of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, my favorite hard-boiled detective novel by any author. And perhaps that fits: the violence and lawlessness of Hammett’s book certainly seems to apply to modern Kenya, at least in wa Ngũgĩ’s rendering. He could use a lot of help with his characterizations and needs to craft a fresher plot, but at least his influences seem to be the right ones.

Butcher’s Crossing.

My post naming Cubs 3b Kris Bryant the 2014 Prospect of the Year is up for Insiders.

John Williams’ western Butcher’s Crossing was one of three novels the National Book Award-winner published, just republished earlier this year by the New York Review of Books after the unexpected success of a reissue of his novel Stoner last year. Butcher’s Crossing takes the American western and turns it inside out, reimagining it as Shakespearean tragedy and morality tale rather than hewing to the standard formula of adventure and inevitable conquest.

Will Andrews arrives in the rural trading post town of Butcher’s Crossing direct from Boston, where he’s left Harvard (of course he has … it’s always Harvard, never Dartmouth or Williams or SUNY-Oswego) after three years in search of something different, a less comfortable life than the upper-class upbringing he’s had among salons and scions. The town is little more than a street, a half-dozen buildings, and a regular flow of hunters and trappers, mostly trading in buffalo hides. Andrews hooks up with the grizzled Miller, who knows of an enormous, untapped herd of buffalo that promises a tenfold return on Andrews’ money, with some risk involved due to the distance to get to the herd, which Miller hasn’t actually seen in a decade. The two set off with a driver and a skinner, and they do eventually locate Miller’s quarry, but when Miller becomes so focused on killing off the entire herd, the quartet stay too long and become trapped all winter by a blizzard, forcing them to fend for their lives against hunger, cold, and the madness of isolation.

Williams makes it clear from the start that this is a novel of failure, of the protagonists’ refusal to heed sound advice and clear warnings in search of high and likely unattainable goals. The inability to contemplate that failure, like the invincibility that powers the teenaged mind, dooms Andrews and Miller from the start. Miller is the driver who won’t ask for directions, and leads the team even though Andrews, as the bankroll, should have a say in major decisions. Once he begins the killing, Miller is unable to stop, whether due to bloodlust or greed – or a blend of both where neither can be distinguished – is unclear. Picking the entire herd clean leaves them out in the hinterlands of the Colorado Territory too late in the season, and the blizzard comes quickly, trapping them for six months while taking away much of their stash of hides. They lose some of the remainder on the way back, only to return to Butcher’s Crossing to find that the buffalo-hide bubble has burst, leaving a ghost town behind and the prodigal sons left with nothing to show for their sufferings.

The typical western imagines the old American West as a tableau of vast plains that lead to opportunity, adventure, and the inevitability of manifest destiny – his land and its fruits are ours for the taking, consequences be damned (or fracked). Miller, who has been trying to recruit a money man for this mission for several years, can only see hides as dollars, and appears unconcerned with the consequences for man or beast. Andrews arrives out west with a romantic ideal of the pioneer country in his mind, only to discover after one day on a horse that the physical reality bears no resemblance to the vague pictures he had in his mind. He’s running away from something, but running to something he hardly knows. Charley Hoge, the driver, has already lost one hand to frostbite on a previous hunt gone awry, and now clings equally to his drink and his religion to see him through any crisis. The hired skinner Schneider is the pragmatist, always looking to turn back when the odds seem too long, taking his salary instead of a share of the profits, but even his wiser outlook can’t earn him a better end than those of his mates.

Butcher’s Crossing can be an arduous read because the entire book operates under a shadow. You know none of this is going to end well, not just because the blurb on the back of the book tells you so, but because Williams slathers his brush with a heavy dose of foreshadowing and paints it all over the first part of the book. He takes mercy on the reader by avoiding too much detail of the caravan’s temporary shortage of water and later their miserable time when trapped in the mountains by snow, but this book remains the doom-metal equivalent in the western genre – lugubrious yet menacing, a book designed to trigger your anxiety more than your sense of adventure. There’s a brief passage where the group encounters a small gathering of Native Americans, but rather than giving us the hackneyed kind of interaction – usually outright conflict or a temporary partnership built on mutual distrust – Williams has our heroes pass the group by, with no bullets or arrows fired or words exchanged. The natives appear to have no interest in contact with these white men; perhaps they figured the men were foolish enough to head to their own deaths without any assistance.

Next up: Nairobi Heat, a modern detective novel by Mũkoma Wa Ngũgĩ, the son of the world-renowned Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, whose novel A Grain of Wheat is among my top 100 novels of all time.

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break.

This week’s Klawchat transcript is up, as is my newest boardgame review for Paste, on the deckbuilding game Valley of the Kings.

Alton Brown mentioned Steven Sherrill’s novel The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break twice on podcasts I listened to this spring/summer, once on his own and once on the Nerdist podcast, saying it was his all-time favorite novel, one he re-reads regularly. That was good enough for me to check it out – especially once I saw it wasn’t some thousand-page monolith – and it is indeed a fabulous book, clever, compelling, and incredibly warm-hearted, which is funny since the main character is quite literally a monster.

That would the capital-M Minotaur, spawn of Pasiphaë, devourer of virgins, bane of Minos, half-man and half-bull, now five thousand years old and working as a line cook in North Carolina. That’s Sherrill’s one nod to unreality, as everything that comes after that fact of the Minotaur’s existence, the peculiarity of which generates no remark from the non-monster characters in the book. (He does encounter a couple of other immortals – Daphne the Naiad appears briefly toward the end of the book, and we see Medusa in most unfortunate circumstances as well.) With that one given, Sherrill treats the Minotaur as a very human character, at least emotionally, since the guy does have the head of a bull, but other than that and some difficulty speaking, the Minotaur is a protagonist with whom most readers will easily empathize.

Working in the kitchen for a traditional American restaurant, the Minotaur is a diligent and precise worker, getting along with most of his co-workers, mostly because he has the patience of a creature who’s lived five thousand years and seen all manner of unkindness from the humans with whom he’s interacted. He lives in a trailer park, apparently the latest in an endless string of short-term residences, and is an expert at diagnosing and repairing problems with car engines, a skill he trades to his landlord in place of rent. He has a crush on one co-worker, Kelly, but flirts with Cecie, is one of the few who respects the gay expediter David, and tolerates (to a point) the juvenile behavior of Mike and Shane. But he has a pervasive sense of unease that a change for the worse is coming, and eventually his habit of going along to get along lands him in a situation where he has to choose between being proactive and letting history continue to drag him along for the ride.

Sherrill builds his story around largely mundane events. He has great feel for the rhythm of a restaurant kitchen and the repetitive tasks that go into preparing hundreds of identical meals over the course of a few hours, a tedium that the Minotaur actually enjoys. He goes into similar levels of detail on the workings of combustion engines, which I’ll assume is all accurate because I know little more than that you turn the key to start the motor. The twin emphases on specific aspects of these endeavors and on telling the story of the Minotaur’s quotidian life without requiring any Big Events to move the plot will make you forget that the main character is a mythical beast. And he infuses the Minotaur with profound understanding of human behavior and emotions – not supernaturally so, just enough that he becomes the ideal lens through which to watch the actions of the people around him, many of them screwed up in one way or another, the remainder busy screwing themselves up as fast as they can.

The Minotaur barely speaks, finding it difficult to articulate clearly given his bull’s tongue and a clear bout of self-consciousness because of this, so much of his dialogue comes out as grunts that his coworkers all understand – which also puts them in the position of doing most of the talking. That puts the Minotaur roughly into the everyman/observer archetype, sort of a bull-headed Nick Jenkins, someone who watches the action for us but isn’t completely neutral or uninvolved. (The bull-headed bit is a dash of irony on Sherrill’s part, as the Minotaur is neither stubborn nor decisive, but is quite thoughtful and even aware of his habit of sometimes making bad decisions.) He’s the title character, and ultimately it’s his decision and his choices that shape the conclusion of the novel, but the real interest here is the diverse side characters, who are eccentric and flawed and whose real natures are reflected in their interactions with the hero. He’s deeply empathetic toward them, the result of his complex origins and five thousand years of watching humans be human, and most of them are similarly empathetic towards him.

Grub, the amusingly-named owner of the restaurant where the Minotaur – called “M.” by all his friends and colleagues – works, hires a new waitress named Kelly, who is revealed to be an epileptic when she has a grand mal seizure during a shift. The Minotaur’s affection for her seems to go beyond a mere physical attraction; he sees in her some kind of kindred spirit, another lonely soul wandering through life without a clear destination and with too much awareness of her own differences. The story ends with an unexpected sequence of events that force M. to finally be proactive and make a real choice to shape his own destiny, but he needs a little help from an unexpected deus ex machina and a lot of understanding to get to the point, where Sherrill leaves the reader in ambiguity, but with the possibility of hope, which seems to be all the Minotaur is asking the world to give him.

Next up: John Williams’ western Butcher’s Crossing.

Redshirts.

I’ve been busy on the baseball side too, with Insider posts on All-Star snubs, the Samardzija-Hammel trade, and the Brandon McCarthy trade.

John Scalzi’s Hugo Award-winning novel Redshirts takes Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (#52 on the Klaw 100) and transplants it into a science-fiction setting, where the characters in question appear on a Star Trek knockoff TV series rather than in a book. Metafiction where the characters interact with or rebel against their author is nothing new, and Jasper Fforde (who gets name-checked in one of the book’s three codas) pioneered the destruction of the wall between fiction and metafiction in his Thursday Next series, leaving Scalzi with a narrow space in which to craft something new, without settling for some light satire of the “redshirts” phenomenon. By focusing on the redshirt characters and allowing them to muse on their metafictional status, he has created a witty yet intelligent philosophical novel that covers themes from the writer’s responsibilities to whether man has free will.

The term “redshirt” refers to the disposable characters found in the original Star Trek series who would join three regular/named characters on away missions and never make it back, typically dying before the show’s halfway mark. They’d appear to represent the danger of a situation without the need to sacrifice a series regular. In Scalzi’s universe, a few techs and ensigns on the starship Intrepid have started to pick up on the trend that such crew members typically die horrific deaths on away missions, often as a result of rash or irrational actions. When Andrew Dahl, a new crew member who realizes that the ship and its inhabitants are all behaving in weird ways, decides to investigate, he realizes what they are and what’s causing all of these calamities, cooking up with a crazy plan to try to save all of their lives by using the Narrative’s illogicality in their favor.

The setup here is truly brilliant as Scalzi sends up Star Trek and its many derivatives in so many ways, targeting the obvious and the subtle equally well, while even hitting problems that plague non-sci-fi series like the various crime-solving shows that make use of bullshit scientific explanations and impossible coincidences to get the perpetrators caught (or killed) and everyone home by the end of 44 minutes of screen time. Most of the jokes will make sense even to folks who’ve only seen a few episodes of any sci-fi series, and some, like the Box, are just funny in their own right – only funnier if you realize Scalzi is mocking every hack writer in Hollywood who decides to hand-wave away days or weeks of science because that won’t fit in the show’s timeline.

Around the midpoint, when Scalzi has his characters come to the realization one-by-one that their will may not be their own, he sends the core quintet back in time to our present to confront their Creators, relying on one significant coincidence to push the plot forward but otherwise driving it by the consequences of their appearance in the wrong timeline – and in the wrong universe. (There’s some many-worlds-theory quantum thinking behind this, but Scalzi wisely stays out of that sort of digression.) After that, the novel doesn’t lose much wit, but it’s more dialogue-driven than satirical humor, as Scalzi shifts course, mixing in more philosophical musing on free will and the nature of existence. If the show is cancelled, do the characters disappear? Does their whole universe end? How can they believe in free will if the Narrative turns out to be real?

The novel itself only runs about 225 pages, after which Scalzi gives us three codas, all worth reading. The first one delves further into a question first broached in the novel proper: Does the writer have a responsibility to treat his characters more seriously? Ignoring the novel’s conceit that characters put on paper or screen become real, there’s a legitimate argument here about using death or injury as a cheap plot trick. I’ve read and still do read many classic novels, and few use a character’s death as a mere convenience to move the story along; the main exceptions revolve around wills and inheritances. Characters’ deaths may be exploited for the responses of others, but they don’t usually come cheap. (Mr. Krook notwithstanding, and besides, that’s the best example of a character killed for humor’s sake in literary history.)

I enjoyed Redshirts as a brilliant satire that turns into a compelling adventure story with surprising dashes of heart, but there’s also an exhortation here for other purveyors of fiction to just write better. I can see why it earned the Hugo Award and why FX is trying to turn it into a limited-run series. It’s an outstanding mix of humor and action layered on a thought-provoking concept. Even if you’re not a Trekkie – I’m far from one myself – it’s a must-read.

Next up: I’m about halfway through Paolo Giordano’s Premio Strega-winning debut novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers.

The Locusts Have No King.

I didn’t realize Paste posted my review of the largely terrible Downton Abbey boardgame, a game for which I had low expectations that it still couldn’t meet.

“Man of integrity, Mrs. Caswell,” Strafford nodded toward Frederick with a deep sigh. “That’s what I admire – integrity. But it does make people hard to get along with.”

I’ve praised Dawn Powell a few times around here, praising her masterwork A Time to Be Born (#21 on the Klaw 100) and just generally arguing that she’s an under-read American author. I seem to have failed to take my own advice, however, having read five of her novels in a twelve-month span from December 2009 to December 2010, then nothing since. She wrote fifteen novels in total, thirteen of which are currently in print thanks to Steerforth Press, mostly satires of the in-crowd in Manhattan in the periods just before and after World War II.

The Locusts Have No King finds Powell aiming her derisive lens at the literary set, both writers and the simpering publishers who see them in terms of dollar signs, during the tumultuous period right after the end of the war. Drawing its title from Proverbs 30 (“Four things on earth are small, but they are exceedingly wise … the locusts have no king, yet all of them march in rank”), Locusts is loosely centered around the affair between Frederick Olliver, a struggling writer who refuses to compromise his principles to write something more commercial, and his married lover Lyle Gaynor. Lyle’s successful career as a playwright suddenly hits the skids right as Frederick finds his didactic works picked up by a benefactor who sees commercial potential in them, a shift in fortunes that drives the two of them apart.

Ah, but the burst of energy that upsets the momentarily stable particles at the heart of the book is the perfectly-named Dodo, a sexually rapacious young woman who uses her physical charms to try to sleep her way into higher and higher circles of literary society. She latches on to Frederick, who is guileless enough to fall into her clutches, while his roommate Murray, of uncertain vocation, seems to have more lovers than he can handle and desires to handle none of them save his controlling ex-wife Gerda. Dodo becomes the willing pawn of several of these women as they too seek to entrap more powerful men, mostly for reasons of career advancement rather than sheer gold-digging (Powell had no problems satirizing women, but never puts them down as a class in that stereotyped way), while she herself tries to ingratiate herself into the circle of the Beckleys, the folks with the money to fund or prop up the writers’ various projects.

While Powell’s incisive wit may have been more precise than ever in Locusts, given her three decades (by that point) in the publishing and dramatic fields, the novel also feels more insular than her other works because the archetypes she lampoons are not easily recognized by those of us on the outside. There is certainly humor in her dialogues, including nearly every time Dodo opens her mouth but also the fatuous ramblings of the publishers who push Olliver’s work without understanding it in the least, but characters who satirize unfamiliar targets can feel flimsy rather than funny. Other than the Beckleys – and I wondered if the name’s similarity to the word “feckless,” which described them well, was a coincidence – none of the characters clicked for me as parodies of people or types I knew. Even the witless publisher Tyson Bricker seems a bit harmless as satires go; if he’s funding Olliver for the wrong reasons, at least he’s funding something worthwhile, right?

Frederick and Lyle return to center stage as the novel starts to wind toward its conclusion, after first Lyle keeps Frederick at arm’s length and then realizes by doing so she’s left him vulnerable to the likes of Dodo. Yet Powell ensures that their slow dance back toward each other’s arms is unsatisfying to the reader, capturing both the fragility of the success Frederick is suddenly enjoying and the rise in anxiety over the nuclear age. The novel ends at the time of the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests, an event she incorporates into a closing scene that provides the ambiguous closing note a novel of this tenor deserves.

Next up: I’m about three books behind in reviews, but right now I’ve just started Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove.

Swamplandia!

Karen Russell’s debut novel, Swamplandia!, was one of three finalists for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the year that the board decided not to give the honor to any title – in essence saying that there was no novel published that year that met their threshold for the award. It was an embarrassing decision, one that may have hurt independent booksellers, a dereliction of duty reminiscent of the BBWAA puking all over itself in the 2012 Hall of Fame balloting – there had to be a “best” book, even if the overall quality of the titles in that year was lower than previous classes. Swamplandia! fits that description well – it’s a very good book, not a home run like Empire Falls or The Orphan Master’s Son, but more than good enough to win the award and a whole lot better than the 2011 winner, A Visit from the Goon Squad.

In the novel, Swamplandia! is an alligator theme park run by the Bigtree family on one of the Ten Thousand Islands off the coast of southwest Florida, most of which are uninhabited and which are connected to the mainland (in the book) only by a daily ferry service. (In reality, the largest island, Chokoloskee, is connected by a causeway, but that appears to be the only one with such a link.) When Hilola Bigtree, a mother of three and fierce alligator wrestler, dies of cancer, the business and the famiy begin to come apart at the seams. Her husband, the Chief, seems to get lost in a delusion of expansion amidst rising debt and new competition from a mainland park, the World of Darkness; Kiwi, their oldest child, defects to the mainland to work for that very competitor; Osceola, the middle child, falls in love with the spectre of a long-dead shipworker; and Ava, the youngest child and primary character, finds herself alone at the family homestead, faced with the daunting task of trying to save something out of everything collapsing around her.

Swamplandia! itself is a profound tale of death, loss, and disillusionment, as Ava, wise for her years but still fundamentally a child, feels her mother’s absence most acutely, with all three children setting out on different searches for something to fill the void left after Hilola’s death and their father’s abdication as a parent. While incorporating elements of magical realism, Russell never lets the story devolve into pure dreamscape or fantasy, and the two primary plotlines – Ava’s search for Osceola in the “underworld” and Kiwi’s sputtering coming-of-age at the hell-themed World of Darkness – resolve in ambiguous ways, especially Ava’s, as the denouement of her story left me very conflicted on whether that particular device was necessary to wrap up her story.

Ava herself is a fascinating character, a Flavia de Luce transplanted into a darker setup, where the father isn’t just absent emotionally but physically, and her precocity isn’t always such an asset. She’s intelligent and independent, retaining some of the emotional immaturity of a typical 13-year-old, responding with an admixture of fear and determination to the impossible situation in which her father and siblings place her. She and Kiwi are the only fully-formed characters in the book, with Kiwi providing more comic relief as the fish-out-of-water on the mainland, a home-schooled (self-taught, really) teenager with the diction of a character from 19th-century literature but almost no self-awareness or ability to function in the social environment of modern teenaged life. The symbolism of some of the rides at World of Darkness is bombastically silly, but these interludes also provide a needed break from the darker sections involving Ava’s journey into the swamps.

Russell has, as far as I can see, never spoken about the theme of disillusionment, but Ava’s storyline with Osceola functions as a strong metaphor for a break with religion, or at least the “old-time” religion of Biblical literalists. Osceola finds a book on spiritualism and follows it, blindly, into the book’s underworld – a place of uncertain location or even existence. Ava connects with a prophet of sorts, the “Bird Man,” and follows him, also blindly, in search of Osceola, and perhaps her mother, deeper into the swamps of the Ten Thousand Islands in search of the entrance to the underworld, a trek that leads to what I’ll only identify as a stark disillusionment for Ava and near-madness for Osceola, as well as a sacrifice that parallels the red heifer of the Hebrew Bible (notably Numbers:19). It might be a stretch to say that the book is itself anti-religious, as Russell hasn’t publicly voiced any such views, but it struck me as at least a strong allegory in opposition to blind acceptance of religious dogma and scripture.

Next up: I’m behind on my reviews, but I’m just about finished with Tom Acitelli’s The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution, which even has a whole section devoted to Delaware’s own Dogfish Head brewery.

State of Wonder.

Thursday’s Klawchat had a lot of Hall of Fame talk plus some prospect content. The Top 100 prospects package will run the week of January 27th.

Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel State of Wonder marks a return to form for the author of one of my all-time favorite novels, Bel Canto, where she pays homage to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain while drawing on the real-life hostage crisis at the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru. In between those two books, Patchett wrote just one novel, the embarrassing Run, a not-even-thinly-veiled love letter to then Senator Barack Obama, whom Patchett clearly hoped would run for President and win. That novel lost all of what made Patchett special, even in the quality of her prose, but State of Wonder brings everything back together.

Marina Singh is a pharmacologist working for a major drug researcher that has been funding a long-running development project deep in the Amazon basin, where the women in a tribe of natives, the Lakashi, maintain fertility well into their 70s. The eccentric researcher running the project, Dr. Annick Swenson, has cut off nearly all contact with her benefactors, and another researcher sent to locate her and report back on her progress, Marina’s colleague Anders Eckmann, died of fever while still in Brazil. Marina, who studied under Dr. Swenson over a decade earlier before an incident pushed her out of obstetrics into pharmacology, draws the short straw and has to go track down her former mentor, but finds that her mission is more complicated in both a practical and philosophical sense than anyone realized.

The lead characters in State of Wonder, Marina and Dr. Swenson, stand alongside Patchett’s best characters from Bel Canto and The Magician’s Assistant as smart, three-dimensional personas. Their thinking is complex and real without becoming unrealistic; Dr. Swenson is a genius, and a different sort of person, but her character is logical and thinks and behaves in logical ways. Marina’s back story is more involved, and her character, while very intelligent, is less mature, and she’s still grappling with the fallout from that incident that caused her to switch her specialty during her residency. (The novel would also pass the Bechdel test if it were made into a film.)

Marina spends a few weeks in the (real) Brazilian city of Manaus before finding Dr. Swenson and heading into the remote jungle location of the research labs, encountering some oddball, entertaining side characters that make up for some of their two-dimensionality with their injection of humor. But Patchett’s renderings of the settings, both Manaus and the Lakashi region, are beautifully detailed, and she represents the natives, by any Western definition a “primitive” people, without resorting to condescension over their way of life, even though it would likely be warranted.

Patchett has commented in interviews that her book was inspired by several films, notably Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (TL;DW), but there’s also a clear evocation of Evelyn Waugh’s demented A Handful of Dust, where one of the protagonists, Tony Last, meets perhaps the worst non-death fate of any major character in literature, all in the remote jungles of the Amazon basin. (Patchett slips in some Dickens references which make the allusion to Waugh obvious.) State of Wonder also steps back from the overwrought political leanings of Run, instead presenting soft arguments, pro and con, on environmental subjects and treatment of isolated peoples like the Lakashi, without detracting from the central story, one of delayed emotional development for Marina. Her professional success hasn’t been mirrored by happiness, and Patchett matures her without giving her a forced Hollywood ending. Marina ends up having to make a choice with huge moral implications before leaving the Amazon, the kind of decision that ages you emotionally when you face it but that was necessary to conclude the story without turning it into a saccharine mess.

Next up: Still slogging through Robert Tressell’s socialism-pamphlet-cum-novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Little Women.

I’ve been busy this weekend, with Insider posts reacting to the Jhonny Peralta signing with St. Louis and the Brian McCann signing with the Yankees. I’ll continue posting reaction pieces as needed this week. I’ll also post an updated “gift guide for cooks” piece here on Monday.

I actually read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women when I was in third grade or so, as it was one of a series of abridged, illustrated classics I’d been tearing through as fast as my parents could buy them. I remembered the basics of most of the plots, including Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Terror (“The Telltale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Junebug,” and, surprisingly for a book aimed at kids, “The Cask of Amontillado”), as well as bits and pieces of Alcott’s book – enough to understand that episode of Friends when it aired.

I didn’t think that version of Little Women counted for the purposes of reading the entire Bloomsbury 100, so I tackled the adult version last week. (The book also appears on the Guardian top 100 list.) I knew the book would be sentimental and more geared toward female readers, but I was surprised by many elements of it. There’s a latent feminist streak in it, one that at least treats its female characters as independent-minded individuals, equal to the men in spirit if not in the eyes of society, although in the end the women do settle in one way or another for marriage and motherhood. That feminist bent was quickly overshadowed by the rising tide of feminist novels where gender inequality led to tragedy, like The Awakening, Madame Bovary, and Effi Briest, so Alcott’s feminism feels very dated today.

However, the novel also represents a different twist on the utopian novels of the time period; rather than describing a future, technical utopia, Alcott instead presents a version of her contemporary world only tangentially affected by the ills of the age. The four little women of the title are the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, and their father is serving as a chaplain in the Union Army during the Civil War, leaving them in tight circumstances but not poverty, which is something they see but don’t experience. Their father is wounded, but returns home and survives, another example of tragedy coming close but not hitting home. Across the two parts of the book – it was published in two volumes, the second coming after the first had proven a resounding commercial success – only one significant tragedy visits the March household, that in the second book and with enough advance warning to the reader that by the time it happens it’s almost cathartic. Rather than depict life as it should or might be, the type of fantastic scenario you’d find in News from Nowhere or Looking Backward, Alcott gives us life as we’d like it to be: Full of love and happiness, without serious setbacks or disasters, where most of our worries end up for nothing at all.

There’s also a coming-of-age element to Little Women that I don’t recall seeing in any earlier novel, at least not in English or American literature, where the subject was female. Boys in literature came of age; girls got married to those boys as needed. Alcott gives her girls life, with distinct personalities and differing aims. Each has some rite of passage in the first book, all of which influences their fates in the second. The one character who stuck with me most when I read the book as a child still stood out today, as Jo was Alcott’s stand-in for herself, a wilful, clever girl, forebear to Dorothea of Middlemarch (who had Jo’s intellectual bent but ruined herself in a bad marriage), and by the end of Little Women its most essential character. I wondered as a kid if the presence of a character named Jo on the series The Facts of Life, which (after Jo’s arrival) focused on four teenaged girls living together at a boarding school, was an homage to Alcott’s book, especially as both girls shared tomboyish looks and attitudes and had the same dislike of societal rules and authority.

Next up: I knocked off H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds last week, having heard the Orson Welles broadcast but never read the book, and am now a third of the way through another Bloomsbury 100 title, Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund.

The Portrait of a Lady.

New Insider content from Monday – reactions to the Carlos Ruiz re-signing and the Tim Hudson contract.

My only previous experience with the American writer Henry James was a failed attempt to read The Ambassadors back in 2005, and successful reads of two of his short stories, “Daisy Miller” and “Turn of the Screw,” back in high school. While he earns near-universal praise for the emotional depth of his writing and the quality of his prose, I always thought his prose was too prolix, and avoided him for years as a result.

The Portrait of a Lady appears on the Bloomsbury 100, which meant I either had to end my boycott or give up on my goal of reading all 100 titles, and since this also appears on the Novel 100 (at #29) I figured I’d stop being a stubborn ass about it and give it a read. James’ prose is, still, too prolix, and the novel moves about as quickly as a Yankees-Red Sox game on national television, but I could see that it’s also the work of a brilliant writer, and his central character is among the most memorable I’ve encountered.

Isabel Archer, the lady of the title, starts the novel as a young American woman who travels to visit her aunt and wealthy English uncle at their estate outside of London, where her aunt rarely spends time but her uncle and her cousin Ralph are often in residence, as both suffer from health issues. Isabel’s high-spirited, independent nature faces an unexpected test when she inherits a fortune and no longer has to even consider marrying for money, which leads her into a mésalliance that wrecks her innocence and threatens to destroy her individuality.

James invests nearly all of his time, including some multi-page paragraphs, in building and exploring the character of Isabel; rather than allowing her words and actions to define her, he crafts her with costive prose that I found difficult and unengaging. It is one thing to tell us that Isabel couldn’t feel shame for her mistakes for long because “she had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself;” it is another to talk about this for over two pages without a paragraph break. James’ fustian dialogue still illuminates her character and those of her suitors, the American expatriate Madame Merle, and her friend from Albany Henrietta, so why bury them in mountains of Dickensian descriptions?

Portrait‘s climax was by far its best and most clever part, as James gives us an ambiguous ending where we can easily imagine Isabel choosing either of the two paths ahead of her. By that point, she’s made her bad marriage and realized she’s effectively trapped in it, until an escape route appears before her – but one that would require her to sacrifice image and propriety in the eyes of the aristocratic world in which she travels. Her tie to her stepdaughter, who is growing up under the oppressive thumb of Isabel’s husband, may be a stronger disincentive to flee than her vows to her husband. Has her independence atrophied so far that she would choose a lifetime of unhappiness to save face? I’d like to imagine James writing both endings and opting to forgo one entirely because neither option satisfied him. Or maybe he just got lazy.

Next up: I’m about 2/3 of the way through Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which is also on the Bloomsbury list. Beth’s not doing so well right now, though, so I put the iPad in the freezer.

The Wounded and the Slain.

American author David Goodis’ work has largely been out of print since his death at age 49 in 1967, but the author of pulp novels and short stories in the noir and crime-fiction genres has seen a modest resurgence in popularity in the last decade as a few of his works have been republished. The Library of America has printed five of his novels in a single collection, including Dark Passage, which may have been the inspiration for the TV series “The Fugitive.” (A lawsuit was settled out of court after Goodis’ death.) Hard Case Crime brought The Wounded and the Slain back in 2007, part of their ongoing effort to revive those once-scorned pulp novels by introducing them to a modern audience – and I, as a fan of noir in general but a reader unfamiliar with Goodis’ work, can add my recommendation to theirs.

Wounded isn’t really a crime novel, earning its noir designation from its themes and setting rather than from its plot, even though there is a crime within the story. James Bevan is the drunk at the novel’s center, on a disastrous vacation with his wife, Cora, as their marriage threatens to dissolve in a highball glass of gin. James can’t stand to be sober, yet his self-destructive tendencies increase exponentially when he’s under the influence, which leads him to wander the slums of Kingston at night, eventually putting him in a bar where a riot breaks out and he’s drawn into the melee even though he’s too drunk to comprehend what’s happening around him. Cora shows vast patience with James, blaming herself for much of his licentiousness, but ultimately drifts into a flirtation with another guest at the posh resort where they’re staying. The novel concentrates more on James’ death spiral – and his reluctance to resist it – until Cora is forced to decide between fighting for her husband or pursuing her own happiness elsewhere.

Goodis paints one grim picture after another, both in scenery and in mood. The Kingston of this novel is filthy, poverty-stricken, drug-riddled, a den of thieves waiting to pick any errant tourist clean of all but his skin should he leave the safety of his hotel. The handful of sailors on shore leave we encounter don’t come off a whole lot better. James wanders into this world in an alcoholic stupor, trapped in a mind full of catastrophic thoughts, grappling with questions of suicide until he finds himself about to die – twice – and has to choose to live, only to see that the life he’s returning to isn’t worth that much. That these experiences prove disillusive for James underscores the stark existential nature of Goodis’ writing here, a prime example of noir without a hard-boiled detective.

Where Wounded lost me a little was the denouement, where Cora’s and James’s stories intersect in somewhat unlikely fashion, although Goodis saved himself with an ambiguous resolution that avoids tying anything up too neatly, which would have de-noired the book. I didn’t like how James ended up in that specific situation, as it seemed too far-fetched for a novel that often danced at the edge of the mundane in its realism. In James, Goodis has even created a compelling character who is miserable and whose mimesis is limited to the less palatable aspects of the human character, whose treatment of his wife should repulse us yet whose Appointment in Samarra-esque hurtle towards destruction will not let us turn away.

Many of the details about Goodis come from his entry in Wikipedia, and we know Wikipedia is never wrong.