The Year of the Hare.

I’ve got a new blog post up on ESPN.com about Aroldis Chapman and Matt Purke with some other AFL/instructional league notes.

Also, congratulations to all of my Cardinals-fan readers. It’s a little scary to think they pulled this off before any of their high-end pitching prospects reached the majors.

And finally, boardgame designer Reiner Knizia has a new solitaire puzzle/game app available called Lines of Goldicon for just $0.99. I’ve played it twice so far and find it surprisingly complex for a simple set of rules; you can play it quickly, but playing it well seems to take a lot of forethought and a little luck.

Arto Paasilinna’s The Year of the Hare is the most successful novel by Finnish author/poet, more a novella than a full-length novel, telling the story of a journalist who walks away from his life after his car hits and wounds a hare in the forest outside of Helsinki. He spends the next year wandering through the country, headed generally north, encountering eccentric locals and trying to reestablish the priorities in his life.

The protagonist, Charles Vatanen, is a disaffected if successful journalist with a shrewish wife and a boat he doesn’t need, so walking away from his life proves easier than it might for most men of his age. When the car in which he’s riding hits the hare and breaks its leg, he makes a splint for the hare and decides to carry it with him while nursing it back to health. His rejection of modern society and its rampant, empty consumerism leads him to take odd jobs in small towns in the Finnish countryside, including restoring a dilapidated cabin, where he ends up in an extended struggle with a bear who resents the human intrusion into his forest, a chase that goes on for an impossibly long period until Vatanen is arrested by friendly Soviet officials for illegally crossing the border. There’s also an alcohol-induced blackout, a peculiar lawyer, the illegal sale of sunken German munitions, and a wargame put on for the benefit of tourists that leads to a literal and figurative tug-of-war over the hare.

The problem with The Year of the Hare is that it’s more escapist fantasy than actual fable. A fable should have some point, whether it presents a metaphor for some aspect of life or mines humor from parody, but there’s no such cohesion in Paasilinna’s work here. We could interpret the scene in the church, where a priest sees the hare on the altar and ends up chasing it around the building with a pistol before inadvertently shooting himself, as a commentary on the decline of religion in Finland, but I couldn’t read that passage as more than slapstick, with a robed figure running through his own church shooting at a tiny rabbit and putting a bullet through his own foot as well as through the knee of the Christ figure in the apse. Vatanen isn’t running away from anything except the vapidity of modern urban life – something I think many readers can respect and understand regardless of wehre they live – but he’s not really running towards anything. It’s one thing to check out, but another to live as a vagrant without any kind of plan for survival once the cash runs out.

I can’t be certain of this but I believe the translation did Paasilinna no favors. Finnish is a Finno-Ugric language, like Hungarian (Magyar) and Estonian, completely unrelated to the Indo-European languages (including English) that dominate Europe, which might make the translation more difficult. Regardless, referring to a helicopter as a “warplane” or saying that, “The hare was rather nervous; the raven had evidently been molesting it while Vatanen was away working,” is like playing a piano that’s out of tune; either the translator doesn’t speak colloquial English, or Finnish is the weirdest language on earth.

Italo Calvino is probably the best fabulist I’ve come across, and while it’s not my favorite work of his, Marcovaldo: or the Seasons in the City is probably the best collection of fables I’ve found. The blurb for The Year of the Hare compares it to Life of Pi, but the latter book is far superior whether read as a fable or merely for entertainment, with plenty of room for differing interpretations of its meaning and its endnig. As for the comparison offered to Watership Down, putting a a bunny in your book does not make you Richard Adams.

Next up: George Gissing’s novel about struggling writers in late 1800s London, New Grub Street (also available free for the Kindle). Too bad Grub Street is long gone or else we might see an attempt to occupy it.

Vile Bodies.

Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies is probably the funniest of the seven novels of his that I’ve read, and certainly the most cynical. Vile Bodies is about upper-class twits in London who aren’t so much vile as venal, often witless, definitely oblivious, living up the good life in the 1920s without apparent purpose or direction other than to get drunk (preferably on someone else’s dime) and have fun.

If there’s a central character at all in this deliberately disjointed novel, it’s Adam Fenwick-Symes, who wants to marry Nina Blount but has no money and, when he does manage to get a hold of some, can’t seem to keep it for very long. Nina’s father has money but is dotty and never seems to recognize Adam from one visit to the next. Adam and Nina travel in a group of friends who encounter Lady Metroland (the madam Margot from Decline and Fall), a strange missionary (parodying Aimee Semple McPherson) and her “angels” who disappear from the novel without much explanation midway through, and a rural auto race of uncommon violence.

Waugh’s most obvious targets are the idle, amoral young rich of the book’s era, but he reserves some of his ire for others, including the idle, amoral old rich, the British government, and the tabloids. Three separate characters fill a role as gossip columnist (“Mr. Chatterbox”) for one of the Fleet Street papers, and all three discharge their duties by fabricating rumors and, in Adam’s case when he’s Mr. Chatterbox, fabricating characters entirely while trying to set off new trends in London fashion. (One is reminded of our current battles over “the narrative” in the highly random world of professional sports.) Every satirical depiction and passage lies on Waugh’s own disdain for the venal nature of his targets: Everyone lies, everyone can be bought, everyone is only out for himself. Even Adam, apparently motivated by love, can’t pass up an opportunity to make more money even if it puts his engagement to Nina at risk. Nina, meanwhile, drops Adam for a man she doesn’t love who has money. Another character, who also disappears midstream, is married off by her rich parents because it’s a “suitable” match over her objections that she can’t stand the man.

Institutions are just as venal as individuals in Vile Bodies. This is spoken by Miles Malpractice, the third character in the book to serve as gossip columnist, visiting Agatha Runcible in a convalescent home after she got drunk and smashed up a racecar she shouldn’t have been driving even when sober:

”Agatha, Adam, my dears. The time I’ve had trying to get in. I can’t tell you how bogus they were downstairs. First I said I was Lord Chasm, and that wasn’t any good; and I said I was one of the doctors; and that wasn’t any good; and I said I was your young man, and that wasn’t any good; and I said I was a gossip writer, and they let me up at once and said I wasn’t to excite you, but would I put a piece in my paper about their nursing home.”

Hey, as long as we get something out of it, feel free to put the patient’s life at risk.

Waugh’s novel proved prescient in some ways, such as the clouds of war putting an end to the gay times of the book, and the tendency of economic boom times to spawn legions of wealthy twits doing twitty things. (Think of all of the famous-for-being-famous “celebrities” of the last dozen years.) And prose this biting – “The truth is that like so many people of their age and class, Adam and Nina were suffering from being sophisticated about sex before they were at all widely experienced” – is my favorite kind of literary humor. But timely satire such as this relies on knowledge of the real-life targets for maximum effect, something few readers today, especially outside of England, are likely to bring to the book. The aspects of Vile Bodies that worked for me were the timeless ones, direct hits to the baser parts of human nature; the silly names and the sendups of politicians, media moguls, and the aforementioned evangelist have lost their power to shock or amuse over time.

The film was later made into a film by Stephen Fry called Bright Young Things, which was Waugh’s original title for the book; the film, available through that link for $4.35 on DVD, had an outstanding cast but garnered mixed reviews from critics who had already read the book.

Next up: Poodle Springs, a novel begun by Raymond Chandler, who had written just four chapters at his death, and completed by Robert Parker, author of the Spenser novels.

The Good Soldier Švejk.

Jaroslav Hašek’s unfinished comic novel The Good Soldier Švejk: and His Fortunes in the World War, ranked #96 on Daniel Burt’s Novel 100 and part of the Bloomsbury 100, is a funny, sprawling, slow-reading, and deeply angry look at the pointlessness of war through the eyes of an anarchist soldier who’d be at home in Project Mayhem yet manages to put on a good face enough to keep himself out of harm’s way.

The novel follows the exploits – although given how little he manages to accomplish, we might better call them inploits, or unploits – of the soldier named Švejk (pronounced something like “schwayk”), who finds himself drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army at the dawn of World War I and acts with a single goal in mind, that of his own survival. Along the way, he’s passed from one half-wit superior officer to another, from power-mad lieutenants to drunken chaplains, gets lost (most likely on purpose) in Bohemia in a section ironically referred to as “Švejk’s anabasis,” gets arrested and nearly hung, and always responds to inquiries by telling the absolute truth, embellished with a ridiculous anecdote of someone Švejk knew in his hometown.

The grand secret of Švejk – the character and the novel – is that absurdity is the only viable strategy in the face of the absurdity of a higher authority. Faced with a war that makes survival unlikely, fought over a cause in which none of the fighters has a personal stake, Švejk chooses to “pretend to be an idiot,” playing the part of a perfect innocent who relives what is, in essence, the same episode over and over and always escaping by disarming and/or exasperating those who wish to send him to certain death on the front lines.

If this sounds a lot like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, then you’ve got the idea. Švejk is not a direct antecedent to Yossarian; the latter’s subversion is explicit, while the former works through simpler and more ostensibly innocent means, like taking a direct order a little too literally. Working as batman to the lieutenant he haunts for much of the book, Švejk fulfills his master’s order for a dog by kidnapping one off the street, only to find that the dog’s owner is the lieutenant’s commanding officer, the insane Colonel Kraus, who peppers his harangues by asking his charges if they know what obvious words like “window” or “hoe” mean. Yossarian engages in more active efforts of sabotage – and has plenty of help from his fellow soldiers – whereas Švejk is a solitary operative attempting not to end a futile war but only to get himself to the next sunrise without getting shot.

(I’ve struggled to find a definitive answer on whether Švejk was a direct influence on Catch-22; Wikipedia – which is never wrong – states that it was, probably based on the claim by Czech writer Arnošt Lustig that Heller told him he couldn’t have written his masterpiece if he hadn’t first read Švejk. That seems to be the only source for this assertion; this 2004 New York Times review of a Švejk play states that Heller “ told various interviewers that Céline and Kafka were his most powerful influences and that Švejk was ”just a funny book,’” while a Vanity Fair article from August gives a non-Švejk origin story for Catch-22. I could see a truth in between the two extremes, where Heller, having read the book, was influenced by it on a subconscious level, drawing inspiration from its hero’s response to the war’s absurdity but never returning to the earlier novel in his writing process or alluding to it directly in the text.)

The Good Soldier Švejk is tough to read, even with its humor, for two reasons. One is the translation by Cecil Parrott that has earned criticism for excessively literal, “unimaginative” translations of words and phrases, leaving speech sounded stilted and losing the humor of the original Czech text (that’s the critic’s opinion, not mine). Slavic texts are often tough to read because the sentence structure in those languages differs from ours and because the literary style, especially in the 19th century and early 20th, tended toward long, ponderous passages. The other drawback is that the book is, by design, repetitive. War is stupid, monotonous, and produces entirely foreseeable results. I can’t blame Hašek for making that point through the circular plot, but the feeling that we’re not really going anywhere – combined with the knowledge that the novel is unfinished, so we can’t even get where we might have been going – made my forward progress slow.

Unrelated to any of the above, Hašek talks a lot about food, including jitrnice (a type of Czech liverwurst), goulash, and kolache (a fruit-filled pastry found in parts of Texas where Czech immigrants settled). I was most struck by Hašek’s description of how the insatiable soldier Baloun describes a dish he remembers from back home:

‘You know, at home in Kašperské Hory we make a sort of small dumplings out of raw potatoes. We boil them, dip them in egg and roll them well in breadcrumbs. After that we fry them with bacon.’ He pronounced the last word in a mysteriously solemn tone.

Shouldn’t we always pronounce “bacon” in a mysteriously solemn tone?

Next up: Evelyn Waugh’s biting comic novel Vile Bodies.

Pulp.

I waited until that night, drove over, parked outside. Nice neighborhood. Definition of a nice neighborhood: a place you couldn’t afford to live in.

Charles Bukowski wrote his final novel, Pulp, as he was dying of leukemia, and passed away before the book was published. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise then that the overarching theme of the book is death – facing it, fleeing from it, and wondering what there is to life other than speeding towards it.

The protagonist of Pulp, Nick Belane, is a private detective who is simultaneously lucky (his cases have a habit of solving themselves) and down on his luck (he’s somewhat broke and usually heading to the bottom of a bottle) when he receives a visit from a new client, who calls herself Lady Death, and most likely is the Grim Reaper in more attractive form than we’re using to seeing. She wants Belane (which I presume rhymes with “Spillane”) to track down a man she believes to be the French author Celine, who should be dead by about thirty years but is apparently running around Los Angeles. Nick picks up a few more clients, including a man who believes his controlling new girlfriend is a space alien, another man who believes his wife is cheating on him, and a friend who hires him to find the elusive Red Sparrow but doesn’t actually know what it is. (The Red Sparrow is most likely a reference to Black Sparrow Press, a small publisher whose financial support allowed Bukowski to become a full-time writer at age 45.)

On its surface, Pulp is a hard-boiled detective novel reminiscent of the clipped tones of Hammett and tight yet rich prose of Chandler, although Belane’s toughness is more superficial than that of the Continental Op or Philip Marlowe. Belane bemoans his inability to catch a break in between catching breaks, dropping into deep depressions that last until the next barstool, where he typically orders a few drinks, starts a fight, and leaves more or less victorious. Clients find him, as do clues, yet he still manages to encounter no end of trouble, much of it because of his own bad decisions.

In between drinks and fights, Belane muses on the nature of life and often doesn’t like what he sees, looking at the indignities of this mortal coil from bodily functions to the need for money to questioning his own sanity. One of the book’s most memorable scenes puts Belane in the waiting room for a psychiatrist he wants to question; the waiting room is full of apparently crazy people, but when Belane’s name is called and he’s ushered in, the apparent psychiatrist claims he’s just a lawyer and Belane is yet another crazy person who’s entered the wrong office. Is Belane crazy? Did he black out? Did reality change on him, as it has a habit of doing to him throughout the book?

As much as Belane looks at life and cringes at what he sees, he’s not running headlong into death, even though Lady Death tells him a few times that he’ll be seeing her again soon. But it’s his inner monologue that really makes Pulp memorable and often very funny in a wry sort of way; it’s an accumulation of decades of wisdom, much of it not all that useful, wrapped up in a fast-paced detective story where the ultimate case is solving the mystery of life. I won’t spoil the ending, although you can probably figure out where the book is heading, and even so the plot is hardly the thing there. Bukowski managed to pay homage to my favorite genre through a black-comic look at the end of life. It’s quite an achievement.

Next up: Richard Stark’s heist novel The Score, available as a free eBook for the Kindle (or Kindle iPad app) through that link. Stark was one of Donald Westlake’s pen names, and I reviewed the first novel in this series two years ago.

Behold, Here’s Poison.

Author Georgette Heyer is best known – or so I’m told by Wikipedia, which is never wrong – as the creator of the literary subgenre known as the “Regency romance,” historical novels set among the English upper class in the early 19th century (that is, the time of Jane Austen’s books) but written in the 20th century. I had no idea who Heyer was when my wife gave me one of her non-romance novels, the mystery Behold, Here’s Poison, for Christmas last year. I can see the connection to those Regency romances, which Wikipedia describes as featuring “intelligent, fast-paced dialog between the protagonists,” as this book was fast and witty, but I’d be hard-pressed to call it a detective novel and it fell a little short as a mystery. It’s more of a fun thriller built around a country-house murder.

Gregory Matthews is the head of household at the Poplars and holds all the keys, literal and metaphorical, to the lives of the family members around him. When he’s found poisoned (by nicotine) in his bed one morning, everyone in the house is revealed to have a motive – his sister, sisters-in-law, niece, two nephews, the family doctor, and so on – while no one has a clear alibi except the one man, the intelligent, sardonic Randall Matthews, who had the most to gain directly from Matthews’ death: nearly his entire liquid fortune. Superintendent Hannasyde and Inspector Hemingway, who appear together in three other Heyer novels, arrive on the scene to piece together the mystery of Matthews’ death, a story complicated by the eventual death of one of the many other suspects.

Randall is by far the most interesting character in the book, as he’s a few levels above everyone else in brainpower and isn’t afraid to show it, tweaking his relations (especially his nosy aunts) for his own enjoyment. His arrival after the elder Matthews’ murder leaves no doubt about his role in the rest of the book – he’s there for dry wit, as when he first appears, entering a room filled with his relations after they’ve all learned of Gregory’s death:

“And which of you,” he inquired, looking amiably round, “is responsible for dear uncle’s death? Or don’t you know?”
This airy question produced a feeling of tension, which was possibly Randall’s object. Mrs. Lupton said: “that is not amusing nor is this a time for jokes in bad taste.”
Randall opened his eyes at her. “Dear aunt, did you think I was joking?”

Just about every family member has some humorous aspect to his or her character, and putting them all in a room brings the worst out in them, making the family scenes – and there are many – the real highlight of the novel.

While I enjoyed the book for the dry humor and quick prose, I can’t call it a proper detective story – more of an old-fashioned thriller. A true detective story stars the detective; he can be any sort of detective, a police inspector or a PI, a sharp investigator or a drunken hack, but his personality drives the story and he becomes the hero (or antihero, as the case may be) through which the reader experiences the investigation and solution of the crime. Hannasyde’s character is bland – I wouldn’t even call him “vanilla,” which is rather an unfortunate synonym for “bland” since real vanilla flavor is anything but – with no distinguishing characteristics other than the natural suspicion you’d expect to see in any detective character, and the conversations between Hannasyde and Hemingway are merely explanations of where they stand in the investigation. Hannasyde’s best role is as a foil for Randall, who admires the detective’s intelligence but also plays him for his own benefit.

I’m also reluctant to categorize Behold, Here’s Poison as a true mystery because of how few clues there were to the killer’s identity. I rarely figure out who the killer is in better mysteries, but can always see how I should have figured it out once I reach the conclusion. In this case, however, Heyer’s explanation fit the story to date but was based on awfully scant evidence, some of which wasn’t even clear to me as I read it because Hannasyde didn’t discover it – in fact, he only solves the crime when another character fills in the missing blanks in the final chapter.

Those two complaints do undersell the book a little; it’s a good read because it’s full of witty dialogue and most of the Matthews clan are humorously drawn caricatures – a group of slightly batty would-be members of the gentry whose dialogue will elicit more smirks than laughs, but still plenty to run you through the book towards the conclusion of the murder. I would just urge you not to look at this as a detective story or as a mystery, but more along the lines of what might happen if P.G. Wodehouse decided to try to satirize those genres.

Next up: Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, a cute mystery that made Bradley a first-time novelist at age 70.

One of Our Thursdays is Missing.

I’ve made no secret of my affinity for the novels of Jasper Fforde, whose primary series starring the literary detective Thursday Next taps Fforde’s boundless knowledge of classic literature and his talent for both high- and lowbrow humor. That series, which wrapped up a long story arc at the end of book four and started fresh in book five, reached its sixth book in a planned eight this spring with the release of One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, a slight departure from the first five books in the series in content and perspective.

Fforde steps a little out of the box in One of Our Thursdays is Missing by switching protagonists on us from the real Thursday Next to the written Thursday Next – that is, the fictional character of Thursday who appears in the Thursday Next novels that exist within the Thursday Next novels. If you’ve read anything in the series, you probably know what that means. If not: Within the Fforde universe, there is the physical plane and there is BookWorld, the plane of existence populated by the characters (and settings) of books, where Edward Rochester and Miss Havisham and Harry Potter are real (if not quite physical) characters who are merely playing the parts written for them by authors in our plane. It’s much less confusing if you read the Thursday Next series in sequence, though.

The change in protagonists necessitates something of a change in style from Fforde, with a plot that loosely parodies mysteries (including a fairly obvious sendup of Agatha Christie and her imitators towards the end) and conspiracy thrillers as the written Thursday traverses Fiction Island to try to figure out where the real Thursday is – and whether Racy Novel and its leader, Speedy Muffler, are trying to thwart the peace talks with Comedy and Women’s Fiction. This structure, essentially a meta-novel without the regular novel as a wrapper, gives Fforde copious opportunities to mock the cliches of various genres and even delve into matters literary, such as the way authors must warp reality to make it compact and readable, or philosophical, such as the BookWorld’s questions about its own creation and the reasons for its existence. He’s also relying more heavily than ever on puns, many provided by Mrs. Malaprop herself, and extends his satirical weaponry to cover more and more current fiction, with Potter and “Urban Vampires” getting their due alongside the classics of the western canon. (Example: the island of “Books Only Students Read,” which is where Pamela and Tristram Shandy reside.)

Fforde is one of a short list of authors who craft settings that are real enough to let me get lost in their books (something that quite literally happens to Thursday in book two, Lost in a Good Book), which is the main reason why I can’t seem to put his books down. They are funny and the plots are always interesting, but the main appeal I find in his books is how effortlessly he creates setting after setting, first devising BookWorld and then building it out from book to book. In One of Our Thursdays is Missing, he’s forced by his own story to build it out more than ever, discussing transportation (including a dubious taxi service) and even going more into BookWorld’s social structure. The disconnect from the real world is the book’s one drawback, although the written Thursday does get a quick sojourn into reality, with the book seeming less substantial because we are, in the end, dealing with characters who’ve been flattened twice by writing. But Fforde’s wit and imagination are still on full display from start to finish, including a brilliant play on the twist ending.

If you’re intrigued by my description of the series but have never read Fforde, I’ll offer two suggestions. You can start the Thursday Next series with book one, The Eyre Affair, but before delving into that you should at least familiarize yourself with the plot of Jane Eyre (you can watch the movie or just read a summary of the story), or else the key event in Fforde’s book won’t make much sense. Or, if you just want a taste of his writing style, check out The Big Over Easy the first of his two Nursery Crimes books, set in another part of BookWorld populated by characters from children’s books and, of course, nursery rhymes, where detectives Jack Spratt and Mary Mary attempt to answer the question of whether Humpty Dumpty fell … or was pushed.

Next up: John Le Carré’s The Russia House.

The Loved One, Winesburg, Ohio, and The Wapshot Chronicle.

Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One was at least the most fun to read of the three books, even if it doesn’t quite have the others’ literary standing. This was Waugh’s first novel published after what is today considered his masterwork, Brideshead Revisited, but is more of a return to the satirical comic novels that fill most of his bibliography.

In The Loved One, Dennis Barlow, a young English “poet” who seems incapable of writing two lines of quality verse is working at a pet crematorium in Los Angeles when his benefactor, the screenwriter Sir Francis Hinley, is sacked by the studio that employs him and promptly hangs himself. While arranging for Sir Francis’ interment, Dennis meets Aimée Thanatogenos, the cosmetologist who applies makeup to the corpses before their viewings. He pursues her as she is also pursued by Mr. Joyboy, the prissy embalmer who still lives with his imperious (and somewhat batty) old mother.

The Loved One clocks in at a scant 164 pages, but within that length Waugh packs in enough mockery for a book of twice its length. Waugh had spent time in Southern California working on the adaptation of Brideshead and the bulk of the satire in the earlier part of this book is aimed at Hollywood, both its industry and the area’s way of life. Once Hinley is summarily dispatched, which leads to a hilariously morbid conversation on the proper procedure for fixing up and displaying the corpse of such a suicide, Waugh turns his firepower toward the American death industry, with a tour of the “Whispering Glades” cemetery that is so fatuous it would seem absurd if it didn’t tie so closely to reality.

If there’s a flaw in The Loved One it’s a question of what Dennis sees in Aimée, who is rather a dim bulb and doesn’t bring anything to the table other than looks. En route to blasting the American film and mortuary industries and the superficiality he saw in American culture at the time, he stinted a little on character development, and when one-third of the love triangle dies, there’s no emotion involved – although, of course, it does generate a few more twisted laughs. It’s not as funny as Scoop or Decline and Fall, but if you enjoy a vicious satire it’s still one of the funnier books I’ve read this year.

Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio appears incongruously at #24 on the Modern Library list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, since it’s not actually a novel but a short story cycle revolving around the residents of the rural town of the book’s title. (That’s not the list’s only error; the book at #8, Darkness at Noon, was originally published in German. And it doesn’t include Beloved. But I digress.) Anderson’s work was a landmark in American realism with frank treatment of sex, religion, drink, and depression, but like many books that break barriers it reads as dated today because the stories underneath this realistic treatment are so often thin.

Anderson begins the book by explaining that each story that follows is about a character he calls a “grotesque,” someone feeling the loneliness and isolation of life in a small town, each for his own unusual reasons. These are merely slices of life, a glimpse at a character and a back story, but often very little in the present; the only story that moves beyond that is the four-part mini-cycle called “Godliness” that traces one family through several generations and the disappointment of the patriarch in the lack of a male heir to his nonexistent throne. One character, the young reporter George Willard, who gravitates toward an escape to wider horizons as the book goes on, perhaps because he alone sees the whole town for its limits and the unavoidable ennui of a place with such narrow horizons. He never gives the reader insight into the town’s social structure, and while the town itself is the one aspect tying all the stories together, even its physical layout is only evident from the map provided before the first page. I didn’t love Winesburg, Ohio, and I didn’t hate it, but I think I’ll have a hard time remembering it because of how little actually occurs, and how the loneliness of the characters never fully came through for me.

John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle (#63 on that Modern Library list) is a tragicomic novel about the family of that name struggling with life in their Massachusetts fishing village as their circumstances change, the world changes, and their two sons strike off to make their way outside of the confines of the small town where they grew up. The book’s most central character is Leander, the family’s father, who decides at this late stage of his life to try his hand at writing and begins keeping a journal filled with sentence fragments and a mildly comic mix of the mundane and the sad, particularly where his own emasculation (a comment on the rise of feminism in our society?) becomes evident, foreshadowing the book’s final passages.

One chapter stood out for the wrong reasons, in which one of the Wapshot sons, Coverly, struggles with feelings of bisexuality. Itt felt completely tacked on – the subject is never broached before or after that one chapter, and it begins with a warning that readers might wish to skip to the next one. It felt to me like some editor told Cheever he couldn’t include gay content unless it was cordoned off with flares and pylons for the conservative reader of the 1960s, and that organization makes the subject easy to dismiss. He was much more successful in dealing with the same themes in Falconer.

Waugh and Cheever both mined humor from despair in their books, but where Waugh is biting and acerbic, Cheever is simply sad, watching the decline of Leander as he sees his own potency dissolved by his independent wife and his wealthy and slightly deranged sister while his sons are both held back by the crazy women they chase and marry. Wapshot is undeniably funny and poignant if you can work through the slow passages, but he clearly had better work ahead of him after this debut novel.

The Ginger Man.

J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man was originally published by a small publisher of pornographic novels, Olympia Press, which shortly thereafter published the decidedly literary work Lolita. But Donleavy and Olympia ended up in court twenty years later, and the lawsuit and Olympia’s subsequent bankruptcy filingended with Donleavy owning the company. The book, which ranked #99 on the Modern Library 100, is a bawdy, undisciplined novel about an American wastrel trying desperately to avoid growing up while pretending to study at Dublin’s Trinity college. Its subject matter and meandering narrative form a cross between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Unfortunately, I didn’t really care for either of those books, and you’ll be shocked to hear I also didn’t care for The Ginger Man.

The titular antihero of Donleavy’s book is Sebastian Dangerfield, who begins the novel as a married man with a young baby girl, a drinking problem, an income problem (he has none), a responsibility problem, and a maturity problem. He wants to drink and chase women; his wife wants him to be a provider and a loving husband. He has no interest in studying – I’m not actually sure if the subject of his studies is even mentioned in the book – and even less in anything resembling work. He takes “loans” from friends, steals his landlords’ things and pawns them, and concocts various schemes to defraud his various creditors.

The Ginger Man is intended to be a comic novel, a modern picaresque set around a rascal whose exploits are fodder for laughs but also for our inner youths to admire. But Sebastian is no rascal – he’s an ass. He hits his wife, repeatedly, and abuses her verbally as well. He tries to suffocate his child when she makes too much noise. He destroys property – never his own, since he has none – and even tries to take revenge on his wife by hammering nails into the pipe leading out of their second-floor toilet. Debauchery can be funny, but this isn’t standard-issue drinking and whoring – this is sociopathy, a man who feels absolutely no guilt or remorse when he causes physical, emotional, or financial harm to anyone else. Once Sebastian tried to kill his daughter, there was no redemption for him or for the book in my eyes. Perhaps domestic abuse was funny in the 1960s. It’s not funny today.

The signature “humor” scene is lowbrow, but also rather unfunny, as Sebastian gets on the subway and, while mentally seething at an old man he thinks has lecherous intentions toward the girl sitting next to him, is himself taking the whole “rock out with your cock out” thing a little too literally. I suppose going out in public with the mouse of the house could be funny in some contexts, but this scene plays more along the lines of the prepubescent child giggling nervously over public nudity.

The book is, however, widely praised by critics and its placement on the Modern Library list is far from an unusual opinion, with the New York Times and the New Yorker running glowing reviews (the latter by Dorothy Parker) when it was first published here. Its prose is very much of the Joyce school of the internal monologue, with the narration shifting constantly between third- and first-person, usually with no demarcation between the two – a distracting technique, and one that gets no points from me for cleverness because it was used so many times before. The subject matter was groundbreaking at the time, with the book originally banned for obscenity (almost a badge of honor for postmodern novels of the early to mid-twentieth century), but today is ho-hum, and its sexual content is simply graphic but not erotic; it is what Mrs. Shinn would rightfully call “a smutty book.” And that would be fine, if it was funny, or if the prose was brilliant, or if the lead character was a charming lothario rather than a wife-beating, child-snuffing lunatic.

Next up: I just finished John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle. That was better.

Money: A Suicide Note.

Here’s another piece about that chick who’s dying in her teens because, according to the Line, she’s allergic to the twentieth century. Poor kid … Well I have my problems too, sister, but I don’t have yours. I’m not allergic to the twentieth century. I am addicted to the twentieth century.

Martin Amis’ Money: A Suicide Note, which appeared on the TIME 100 and at #90 on the Guardian 100, is a hilarious modern picaresque novel that marries crude, over-the-top humor with serious themes of materialism and modern identity as well as a healthy dose of metafiction that called to mind Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds.

The protagonist of Money, John Self, is an English director of TV adverts who is tabbed by Fielding Goodney to write the treatment for a new feature film titled Good Money, except when it’s instead titled Bad Money, although the film within the film is largely a Macguffin, with a plot that sounds comically awful but allows Amis to work in several caricatures of Hollywood actors and actresses. Self does very little actual work, spending most of his time drinking, whoring, masturbating, and spending gobs of money that Fielding provides, promising that there’s always more to be had. Along the way we meet Self’s live-in, transparently gold-digging girlfriend; his even more transparently dodgy father; and a number of friends and business acquaintances who may only tolerate Self because he serves as their connection to money.

Money is the true central character in Money even if it never has a line of dialogue. Characters are treated differently based on how much money they have; the more Self has at his disposal, the more doors open for him in the boardroom and the bedroom. When the money runs out, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say that it does at one point, Self undergoes an existential crisis but still can’t let go of the dream of more money around the corner. And that question of identity – who are we without our things, or without our ability to do or buy more things, in an age of rampant materialism – fit the times in which the book was written (the 1980s, with the action in the book happening in the leadup to the last big royal wedding) but seem just as applicable today. Self himself comes to take the money for granted; there’s certainly no accounting going on, and he just assumes its supply is infinite and that he’s entitled to it, even though he’s doing little to no actual work within the book.

The humor, meanwhile, is decidedly lowbrow, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Self gets drunk, falls down, embarrasses himself, starts fights, deals with a stalker, cheats on the women he’s using to cheat on his girlfriend, says awful things, and blacks out on a regular basis. Amis is clearly a fan of creating silly character names in the P.G. Wodehouse tradition, and inserts himself into the book as a novelist who annoys Self and ends up working on the script to Good Money, while portraying the language of the slovenly, sodden Self (as narrator) as you might expect from the son of a great author who enjoyed a good tipple.

There was one line that struck me as familiar in a coincidental way – when Self says (of his time in a pub on one of his many benders, “I play the spacegames and the fruit-machines,” the song “Faded Glamour” by Animals That Swim came to mind with its line about “You tell me about cheap tequila/Place names and food machines.” I have no idea whether they’re connected, although I always thought the back half of that line might have been lost in translation.

Next up: I’ve already finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans and just started Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic.

The Gun Seller.

I’m off duty this week, since we close on our house today, but hope to post here a few times. As it turns out, today’s my wife’s birthday, so I tried to convince her that the house was her birthday gift from me, but so far it’s not working.

There are plenty of reasons to be jealous of Hugh Laurie. He plays the title character in one of the best television shows I’ve ever seen, and playing it well. Before that he played one of the leading characters in the definitive adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories (the full series is now $25.75, almost 60% off, on amazon, less than half what I paid for it years ago). And he started with a classic sketch comedy series with the inimitable Stephen Fry, many clips of which can be found online, such as this man on the street bit about wine.

Judging by his one published novel, the madcap spy novel The Gun Seller, he’s a damn good writer, too.

The Gun Seller almost reads like Wodehouse doing John Le Carré, although there’s a more modern feel to the prose than you’ll find in Wodehouse’s cheerfully patrician writing. But the wry observations, absurd analogies, and quick shifts of focus are present, as in the title character’s statement (after he’s been shot under his arm) that “I ordered a tonic water for myself and a large vodka for the pain in my armpit.” The plot is over-the-top, borderline farcical, but holds together surprisingly well and has plenty of tension and narrative greed to keep you turning pages.

The narrator and main character is Thomas Lang, a mercenary with an aversion to doing actual violence, who is approached by a man with a request to kill someone, only to find himself (at the book’s open) nearly killed by the target’s bodyguard, and then by his daughter. That one inquiry opens the door to a giant covert operation involving a next-generation attack helicopter and a disgustingly underhanded scheme to sell them to governments around the world, a scheme in which Lang plays a central role.

The book has two parts, the first of which leans more toward humor, the last (the book’s final third) works on resolving the intricate plot Laurie has assembled. That first part includes plenty of dry English wit to savor, much of it laugh-out-loud funny, some more smirk-inducing:

To follow somebody, without them knowing that you’re doing it, is not the doddle they makei t seem in films. I’ve had some experience of professional following, and a lot more experience of professional going back to the office and saying ‘we lost him.’ Unless your quarry is deaf, tunnel-sighted and lame, you need at least a dozen people and fifteen thousand quids-worth of short-wave radio to make a decent go of it.

The action picks up substantially in the second half as Lang finds himself inserted into a terrorist sleeper cell with plans that unfortunately foreshadowed later events in Lima, Nairobi, and Dar es Salaam. There’s a bit less time for the humor of the first half, but Laurie manages to keep the tone light even when bodies are dropping.

When he got there, he sat down very slowly. Either because he was haemorrhoidal, or because there was a chance that I might do something dangerous. I smiled, to show him that he was haemorrhoidal.

Laurie also manages to strike just the right note of cynicism in the book, avoiding the out-and-out misanthropy that can infect any book that looks into the dark recesses of the human soul and finds a cash register there. There is a point, one that resonates more strongly today than it might have when the book was published in 1996, that seemingly “democratic” governments fall under the sway of money, particularly corporate money, and will do things that we would consider abominable if we knew they were up to them in the first place. Rather than beating you over the head with rhetoric, however, Laurie just incorporates it into the book and channels Lang’s anger into action rather than tedious monologues on the nature of republican government or the need for transparency or whatnot. Those would sink a book that, at heart, was written to be fun to read. And fun to read it is, a spy novel for people who like to laugh, or a comic novel for people who like a spot of bother in their books.

Next up: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.