Lady Bird.

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, has been in the news this week as it set a record on Rotten Tomatoes for the most positive (“fresh”) reviews received without a single negative (“rotten”) one, 184 such reviews and counting. It’s a coming-of-age story, incredibly well-acted throughout, with a number of truly hilarious moments in it, enough that I’d join the chorus (if my review counted) of positive reviews … but the movie has its flaws too, particularly in the way the adult characters are written, as if Gerwig, who also wrote the script, put her primary efforts in the teenagers at the heart of the film.

Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) is Christine McPherson, who has chosen “Lady Bird” as her nickname and repeatedly crosses out or corrects Christine whenever it’s used to refer to her, a high school senior in Sacramento who comes from “the wrong side of the tracks,” a family of four living in a somewhat run-down house and dealing with the economic insecurity of many Americans in the lower and lower middle classes. Her father’s company keeps laying people off; her mother is working double shifts as a psychiatric nurse; her brother and his wife live in the house as well, both working grocery store jobs despite their college degrees. Lady Bird yearns to break free of the social and financial constraints of her life, to go to college in the Northeast, to experience more than her small* town can give her, so she embarks on a number of small misadventures while also secretly applying to prestigious east coast schools. (*Small is her perception; the Sacramento MSA has 2.5 million people, and the scene near the end where a college student from the east coast has never heard of it is rather ridiculous.)

Ronan is marvelous in the title role, and I would be shocked if she weren’t nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars and just about every other awards ceremony for this year. The script gives her the best material by a wide margin, including the quick emotional shifts of adolescence, and Ronan manages to inhabit this volatile world completely. Lady Bird chafes under any restraints, whether it’s her Catholic high school, the social boundaries of teenaged life, or her domineering mother. Ronan manages to inform her character with the optimism that is part of Lady Bird’s nature and allows her to succeed in spite of all of these obstacles without turning the part into a saccharine caricature.

Her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf, is really problematic – and not because the character isn’t realistic. She’s controlling, narcissistic, overly critical, manipulative, even vindictive. She also reveals in a line that appears to be a throwaway that her own mother was “an abusive alcoholic.” She herself is clearly a victim of trauma, and tries to control her environment – including her daughter – as an ineffective coping mechanism. She obsesses over clothes being put away, over Lady Bird using a second towel after her shower, over her grammar or spelling in a handwritten note, over anything that threatens the precise calibration of her life. The writing and the performance are strong and consistent enough that it’s then hard to accept moments near the very end of the film where she tries to show her love for her daughter; they seem to come from a totally different character. Metcalf delivers the best performance of all of the actors playing adults in the film, but I found Tracy Letts, playing Lady Bird’s father, more compelling because his character doesn’t have the improbable personality split of the mother.

The adults, though, are the film’s biggest problem. Lady Bird has the Dawson’s Creek habit of reversing the kids and the grown-ups: The teenagers are the ones who have it all figured out and the adults are the ones still screwing things up or just generally not understanding. It’s truer of the side characters, but it doesn’t do the central character any favors to have her appear more insightful than every adult she encounters. The kids receive the best dialogue and the more accurate worldview – other than Kyle, one of the boys Lady Bird dates, who is busy fighting the battle of who could care less – and in many cases, like Lady Bird, her best friend Juliet, or Danny, another boy she dates, they’re truly three-dimensional and believable, to the point where you could build new stories around any of them (although Juliet does fall into the Fat Best Friend cliché).

The movie soars on the performance and writing of its lead, enough to overcome some of the more hackneyed elements of her environment, and I think that’s why it managed to set that Rotten Tomatoes record – even if you identify the flaws in the script, the core of the movie is so good that it more than mitigates the negatives. Watching this precocious but naïve character navigate her last year of high school and deal with an emotionally abusive mother while stretching for an unlikely escape across the country is more than enough to make Lady Bird worth recommending. I may just be outside the consensus that this is among the year’s very best films.

Mildred Pierce.

I loved James Cain’s noir thriller The Postman Always Rings Twice, and the film adaptation of his novel Double Indemnity is one of my favorite movies of all time, so when I saw his novel Mildred Pierce on sale at Changing Hands in October I picked it up knowing nothing about it other than that HBO had adapted it into a miniseries. It’s a complete departure from those other Cain novels, in theme and in prose style, and in this case the villain isn’t a protagonist but the main character’s narcissist daughter, who contrives to get whatever she wants even if she has to ruin her own mother to get it.

The novel opens with Mildred and her husband, Bert, separating as she kicks him out because of his refusal to stop seeing his mistress, who lives in the same development of Pierce Homes. Bert had been flying high financially until the 1929 crash, losing almost everything because of his decision to invest all of his cash in AT&T stock, but since he was ruined he’s refused to get any sort of job, exacerbating Mildred’s dissatisfaction with him. After he leaves, she tries to support herself and their two daughters, Veda and Ray, by baking and selling pies, but eventually has to get a waitressing job that she considers a little beneath her and has to hide from Veda, her older daughter, a budding sociopath who loathes her mother and the working-class life she’s been handed.

Mildred eventually rises to the point where she opens her own restaurant, then turns it into a small chain of restaurants around greater Los Angeles, but still can’t satisfy Veda and ends up in a couple of disastrous dalliances of her own. Mildred is a strong central character, a feminist in her time who doesn’t need a man to support her and who’s willing to use men to suit her own purposes, but who’s attracted to feckless men who drag her down. She has initiative and a strong work ethic, but lacks the kind of high breeding that Veda, for reasons never explained, believes she herself possesses. Ultimately, Mildred’s choices in men and her subversion of her own priorities to please Veda are her undoing, and the successful post-marriage life she’s created for herself collapses of her own bad decisions.

I found Mildred Pierce a tougher read even than contemporary novels that involve a murder, because there’s such a clear sense that Mildred is heading for catastrophe, one in large part of her own making. Her need for Veda to love her is itself pathological, and she lacks any capacity to see that her own daughter cares nothing at all for her, only for herself. Mildred builds a small business empire, and loses it in a futile effort to make Veda love her. Cain seems to have some empathy for his main character for the first two-thirds of the book, but when she launches her last scheme to gain her daughter’s love and respect, the tone shifts and the admiring language around Mildred’s business savvy (and good fortune) disappears. If Pierce has a real flaw, however, it’s that she’s not quite smart enough for what she wants to achieve, and I can’t see looking down on a character for a lack of intelligence the way we might for a character who’s greedy or heartless, like Veda.

Cain’s prose in Postman is descriptive but stark, and it works for a dark novel about murder and betrayal. Here, his descriptive prose still serves him well – I give the man credit, he knew something about food – but the sparse, almost emotionless writing doesn’t match what’s happening on the page. This isn’t a noir novel, but the writing has too much noir in it for the subject matter, and the lack of a second strongly-developed character besides Mildred (Veda is true to life but very one-note) made the book a slower read than it should have been. If you’re interested in Cain’s writing, go with The Postman Always Rings Twice instead.

Next up: Rachel Joyce’s 2012 novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a recommendation from my friend Adnan Virk.

Double Star.

My latest Insider post covers Mike Leake’s contract with St. Louis. I don’t think I’ll be able to chat this week, but will get the word out if that changes.

I picked up Robert Heinlein’s short 1956 novel Double Star just before Thanksgiving when the e-book was on sale for $1.99, but it was already on my to-do list since it won Heinlein the first of his four Hugo Awards for Best Novel. While it wasn’t among his first novels, Double Star was only his third novel geared toward the adult audience rather than the juvenile readers of most of his early work, and presaged his turn around 1959’s Starship Troopers toward this sort of more serious literature.

Double Star is the fictional memoir of the actor Lawrence Smith, a.k.a. Lorenzo Smythe, who is coerced or tricked into a job – or perhaps he just took it because he was desperate, and concocted the reasons later – that involves serving as a stand-in for a major opposition politician in the solar system-wide government, a constitutional monarchy similar to that of the United Kingdom. The politician is indisposed for at least a few days, and Smythe needs to stand in for him at a major function on Mars, after which he’s to be paid and sent back to wherever he wants, but as you can easily predict, the job lasts longer than Smythe expects.

Although Heinlein’s milieu was science fiction, with Double Star taking place on Mars, the Moon, and various ships, the science aspects of the novel are almost irrelevant to the plot itself, and often serve as a distraction. The only meaningful addition from the sci-fi setting is the hostility between humans and Martians (described in the book as an intelligent if rather horrifying-looking species), which seems like a strong metaphor for ethnocentric policies in the racially and politically divided human world, such as the nascent civil rights movement in the United States at the time Heinlein was writing the book. Most of the other science fiction elements could go by the wayside without affecting the core story; some seem patently ridiculous now (Heinlein loved to depict settlement and/or native life on Venus) or incongruous (he was fine writing about travel as far as Pluto, but has characters doing tabulations by hand rather than on computers).

Instead, Double Star is a character study that happens to have a sci-fi backdrop. Smythe/Smith is a fatuous, egotistical actor of only modest success, down on his luck when he’s first approached about the job, yet playing the prima donna in all negotiations with his employers/captors. He’s the stereotypical method actor, inhabiting the part rather than just playing it, but also manages to grow somewhat even as he’s spending less and less time being himself. The fool we laugh at in the book’s first half becomes a modest hero in the second half, as he’s asked to do things that would stretch even the strongest personalities. With Heinlein often saying that readers shouldn’t look for metaphor or subtext in his work – I don’t buy that, but hey, it’s his writing – I do think his own argument for Double Star would have been built around the character first and the story second. Here’s a cleverly crafted individual, well-rounded, capable of growth, put in a situation that starts out as difficult and ends up nearly impossible.

It’s only about 140 pages, barely even novel-length, and since most of the sci-fi stuff feels tacked on or superfluous I’m not sure about this as Hugo-worthy, although I’d guess the competition at the time was mostly pulp anyway. I’m not terribly fit to judge the book in Heinlein’s canon, though, since I still have two more of his Hugo winners, the more widely acclaimed The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land, left to read.

Next up: Almost done with Dan Simmons’ Hyperion.

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.

Last Man in Tower and The Member of the Wedding.

Aravind Adiga’s first novel, The White Tiger, won the Man Booker Prize and was a late cut from my last book ranking, earning a very positive review from me when I read it during spring training in 2010. His second true novel, Last Man in Tower, replaces some of the bitterness and irony with a more open-ended approach to characterization, without losing the scathing social criticism of the new India that made The White Tiger so powerful.

The man of Last Man in Tower‘s title is the retired teacher known affectionately as “Masterji,” who lives in a dilapidated coop apartment building in the Santa Cruz neighborhood of Mumbai, near the city’s massive international airport. Redevelopment is advancing quickly into this district, and when their coop society receives enormous offers to sell out so a developer can tear the buildings down and put up luxury condos, one by one all of the society’s residents accept, until Masterji is the only holdout, insisting that he wants “nothing.” His refusal to sign is not about price or money, but, in his view, about principle, holding back the wave of corruption and gentrification that is destroying the old India and widening the gap between the country’s wealthy and poor.

Adiga strikes a better balance here between satire and storytelling than he did in White Tiger, but in the process lost much of the dark humor that made the first book so memorable. Masterji deserves a more thoughtful treatment than Balram Halwai, and he gets it, with explanations of how the deaths of his wife and daughter and his distant relationship with his son affect his view on the developer’s offer and the threat of massive change spawned by a forced move to another community. Masterji’s apparent obstinacy – his refusal to sign the offer means no one in the building can sell – has its justifications, and while in the end I found myself siding with his neighbors on the matter of the offer, Adiga creates enough ambiguity to prevent the reader from coming down wholly on either side of the matter.

Adiga’s other key decision was to try to personalize the developer as an independent character, rather than leaving him as an unseen, amoral force in the shadows; while he wasn’t entirely successful, it did help to round the book out more fully. Shah is not sympathetic, but he is also real, and is shown as motivated not just by greed, but by ambition, shame, and an unsatiable desire to overcome his humble beginnings. Yet any sympathy his history might engender is rather quickly wiped out by the horrible treatment he dishes out to his assistant and to his mistress, details that I assume indicate that Adiga’s distaste for hypercapitalism on to the page twon out over his desire to craft a fully developed antagonistic force to pull on the reader’s emotions.

Last Man in Tower‘s other characters are all very well-developed, giving Masterji a few friends and many foils just within the coop society, several of whom get their own backstories, often just enough to make you want more; for me, Mary, the building’s maid, who herself lives in a nearby shantytown with her son and whose livelihood is threatened by the potential redevelopment, deserved further screen time. I could see Adiga building up to a longer, even more complex novel from here, one with multiple interwoven storylines involving a multitude of well-developed characters, perhaps rewriting the wrongs done to India by E.M. Forster and Rudyard Kipling. I enjoyed White Tiger more, in part because I enjoy funny, incisive satire like that, but Last Man in Tower is just as strong a novel, less witty yet more ambitious, indicating Adiga’s maturation as a novelist.

I picked up Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding at Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe – I’m going to miss that store quite a bit – because it was on sale and because McCullers’ best-known novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is among my favorite novels ever written (#15 on my last ranking, in fact). McCullers’ signature work includes a cast of flawed, mostly sympathetic characters, inhabiting the same world despite narrow and wide gulfs between them, a sphere filled with grief, alienation, and sadness. Member of the Wedding doesn’t reach the same emotional depths, but does turn the conventions of the coming-of-age novel upside down with its story of a motherless girl who fills her life with fantasies to replace what she’s lost.

Frances “Frankie” Addams is a 12-year-old girl living with her mostly absent father, with help from a live-in African-American woman named Berenice, and the frequent presence of Frankie’s young cousin John Henry. Frankie’s brother Jarvis returns from a stint in the Army in Alaska with a fiancee and an announcement that they’ll be getting married in a few days in the nearby town of Winter Hill. Frankie decides that she’s going to run away with her brother and sister-in-law after the wedding, building up a vague, exotic fantasy about a life other than the one she has now.

The central conflict in the book lies between that fantasy, of escape or just change from a destiny that seems predetermined, and the reality of life in their small, slightly backwards town, where blacks and whites intermingle but exist on separate planes, and the army is one of the only ways to leave the track into which you’re born. (Death comes up on the story’s margins as one of the other ways, and probably the most commonly utilized.) Frankie’s narrative touches on themes of oppression, racism, and gender identity, but the one that kept coming back to me was that she’s a girl who needed her mother, and is trying to fill that void, as well as the one left by a father who’s barely present in her life, with anything she can find, real or imagined. That also leads to a disturbing interlude with a soldier on leave in the town, perpetually drunk or in search of it, who seems to mistake Frankie’s age by a hard-to-imagine distance.

The overriding sadness that permates The Member of the Wedding isn’t well balanced the way that a similar vapor in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is, where McCullers pairs the gloom with a deeper understanding of its origins and dimensions. Here, Frankie is a little more pathetic than sympathetic, especially when her vision of escape with her brother doesn’t quite come off as planned, leaving me with the sense of having read something superficial, not the immersive emotional experience imparted by McCullers’ masterpiece.

Next up: Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Keeper of Lost Causes, a Danish detective novel and first in the “Department Q” series.

A Very Private Gentleman.

The never-named narrator of A Very Private Gentleman – known to his neighbors as “Signor Farfalla” because they believe him to be a painter of butterflies – is in fact a high-end gunsmith, forging custom weapons for assassins whose targets have included world leaders and wealthy businessmen. He’s chatty, prone to long digressions on his craft, his philosophy of life, his politics, and why we shouldn’t view him as a mere accessory to murder, but when he realizes he’s been spotted and is being followed by a man with unknown intentions he’s forced to reconsider his plans to retire in this Italian village with his call girl/lover Clara.

That part of the book, covering the final quarter, is as gripping as any passage I’ve come across in fiction, very tightly written, but also accelerating the pace of the narrator’s revelations about his own character, constantly shifting the reader’s impressions of his morality and his motivations. He begins pursuing his pursuer, and employing many of the tricks of his trade he discussed earlier in the novel, and the way Booth has set up the big finish there’s no expectation of any specific outcome – any of the central characters could die, and it’s not even clear who’s pursuing the narrator or why until the very end of the book.

The suspenseful payoff made up for a pretty slow first half of the book, where the narrator is so busy trying to tell us about his philosophy – or, perhaps, to impress us with his intelligence while rationalizing his choice of professions – that we get little more than stage-setting. There’s no suspense other than the suspense you get from reading a novel that you know has some suspense in it but that you have yet to encounter within the book itself. It was slow enough that I wasn’t sure I wanted to finish the book, even though it pains me to put down a book I’ve already started; obviously now I’m glad I stuck it out, but I don’t remember another book with that much lead-up to the Big Finish.

You could, however, read the book as a character study, although that’s a genre I seem to prefer in films over books. The narrator is complex, and fully capable of deluding himself, which could make him, in turn, somewhat unreliable (although we never receive hard evidence that he is). His lengthy tangents on the nature of his job, specifically whether it’s immoral or amoral, expose all kinds of rationalizations designed, I imagine, to help him sleep at night. He’s a man without faith but strikes up a friendship with the priest in the Italian village where he’s working on his One Last Job before retiring, and that priest is the one person who learns something of the narrator’s personality and reasons for secrecy, leading to more probing questions about the narrator’s state of mind. I found the narrator’s thoughts on speaking about religion particularly interesting, since I have avoided discussing religion (and, for that matter, most political subjects) in any forum because it’s like licking the third rail:

I have respect for the religions of others; after all, I have worked for the cause of several – Islam, Christianity, Communism. I have no intention of insulting or demeaning the beliefs of my fellow man. Nothing can be gained thereby save controversy and the dubious satisfaction of insult.

I suppose the Internet would lose about half its volume if everyone followed that dictum.

The problem I had with the novel as a character study is that it’s plodding. You want something to move the story along, but looking backward from the end of the book it’s clear that nothing happened until the Big Finish; the most interesting passages were flashbacks to previous jobs, including two that went awry. But that finish was a heart-pounder, and once the hunt begins in earnest, it’s impossible to put down: Now you know something is about to happen, and therein lies the fear.

The novel was adapted for the big screen and titled The American, starring George Clooney as the narrator (whose nationality is never identified in the book), but with substantial changes to the plot. I understand the reviews were solid, but I have a strong aversion to films that drastically alter their source works without good reason (“the book sucked” being one such reason).

Next up: James Joyce’s Dubliners. Agenbite of inwit, indeed.

March.

One of you tweeps sent along this Financial Times article on board games, which gives a nice overview of the current state of the industry for those of you wondering why I make such a fuss over these games.

I’ll be on ESPN Radio tonight at 5:40 pm EDT and again on the Herd at some point on Thursday, followed by a Klawchat around 1 pm EDT.

Geraldine Brooks won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with March, a work of derivative historical fiction that tells the story of the father (Mr. March) from Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Little Women, although he’s absent for the first half of that book and more of a background character in the second half. Brooks chose to follow March during his tour as a chaplain for the Union Army in the south, with flashbacks to his life in Concord before the period covered by Alcott’s work.

I am generally not a fan of parallel novels or continuations because of the difficulties in maintaining consistency with a character of someone else’s creation and the change in prose styles, although the latter wasn’t likely to bother me in this case since my only experience with Little Women was in one of those abridged Moby Books versions, which I read close to thirty years ago (along with most of the titles in that series). But the lack of continuity in March’s character was apparent because of the way Brooks infused him with some distinctly modern ideas and sensibilities, and I found Brooks’ depictions of other characters to be thin, such as the southern plantation owner whose racist views and animalistic treatment of his slaves, while probably well rooted in history, came straight out of central casting, and made March’s reactions to him trite as well.

Perhaps more infuriating is Brooks’ fabrication of a weird, pseudo-love triangle subplot where March has romantic feelings for a slave he met – in an extremely unlikely coincidence – twice across a period of nearly two decades on two separate journeys to the American south. The improbable nature of the romance is bad enough, making it seem as artificial as it is. But when March ends up in a Union hospital in Washington and his wife travels from Concord to see him – all of which occurs in Little Women – Brooks uses a miscommunication device better suited to a Wodehouse novel, and not for comedy, but to create a lasting crack in the foundation of the Marches’ marriage – one that doesn’t (to the best of my recollection, or my wife’s, since she read the unabridged original work) exist in Alcott’s novel.

So … why did it win the Pulitzer? I’ve read about 40% of the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, including the ten winners prior to the most recent one (Tinkers, on my shelf now), and there seems to be a recent trend favoring books that dwell heavily on race or ethnic identity. You might argue that that subject is central to the American experience, so an award given to an American novel each year should rate those books highly. My personal view is that a book on race or racism can indeed be a compelling read, but not if the author crams the Big Obvious Idea (“Slavery … is bad!”) down the readers’ throats or wraps it up in stock characters who sit firmly on one side or the other of the question. Brooks’ characters lacked complexity in their moral worldviews, making the book seem inconsequential as a whole; the most believable character, in a strange way, was John Brown, one of a few historical figures to appear in the book (Thoreau and Emerson also have cameos), as Brown’s monomaniacal view on slavery and liberation was built on a nuanced rationalization of killing to save others from being killed. Brown only appears briefly – Brooks postulates that the Marches’ financial run came from supporting Brown’s endeavor – but his was, for me, the most interesting passage of the book.

Next up: Ann Patchett’s The Patron Saint of Liars. And yes, I’m several books – not to mention a game and a few songs – behind in my blogging.

The Edge of Sadness.

Edwin O’Connor’s The Edge of Sadness, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961, is a pensive, thoughtful character study, centered on a Catholic priest named Hugh Kennedy who, while recovered from a battle with alcoholism, still has a shade of emptiness in his professional and spiritual life, brought into focus by his reconnection with a family he has known since childhood, the Carmodys.

Charlie Carmody, the family patriarch, invites Father Kennedy to his 81st birthday party, making the priest a witness to his continued psychological tormenting of his children while also bringing him back into contact with Charlie’s son John, a priest in Kennedy’s old parish; and daughter Helen. O’Connor manages to flesh out those two characters – Charlie is basically a one-note curmudgeon, but responsible for a fair bit of black comedy – while using all of his secondary characters to help unfold Kennedy’s story and lead him to realize why he isn’t fulfilled in his current life.

It’s not an overtly theological or religious novel, although of necessity we get some internal monologues from Father Kennedy, including one on the difference between rote and thoughtful prayer:

The mechanical act of falling upon one’s knees and saying The Lord’s Prayer every day is one thing and a simple thing, but to say even the first half-dozen words of that prayer with the attention they deserve is quite another and not at all so simple. I think every prayer well said is a shot through a barricade…

Father Kennedy also breaks with the conventional fictional portrayals of priests as angry drunks, molesters, or insipid ciphers. He’s well-developed and reflective, with a sharp, almost sarcastic sense of humor:

“I mean, if you cut your hand off, it hurts; it doesn’t hurt any less simply because a thousand other people may have cut their hands off before you.”
“No, but if you remember all those other hands you may be prevented from hiring a hall and giving a short talk on ‘How I Cut My Hand Off.'”

Where the novel might fail to appeal is its almost complete lack of plot. There’s a long flashback to Father Kennedy’s battle with the bottle, including his time at a rehab facility in the Southwest (where he runs into one of those aforementioned stereotyped priests, perhaps O’Connor’s way of parodying other portrayals), and one major event at the end of the book (and if you don’t see it coming, you’re not paying attention), but the novel is introspective and dwells on its main character and narrator. I found him interesting because he was written realistically and because I found his soliloquies worth reading, but it can be slow and O’Connor’s writing did occasionally drift into wordiness.

Next up: A little light nonfiction – Kingsley Amis’s Everyday Drinking.