Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction for that year and has since been adapted into a widely-panned film by Ang Lee, although part of the critical response is because Lee used a super-high frame rate that apparently is quite distracting. That’s a real shame given how strong the story and dialogue are in Fountain’s novel, which all takes place on one day and deftly blends elements of satire, indignation, and hope.

Billy Lynn is part of an Iraqi platoon, Bravo company, involved in a firefight that was caught on video and has turned the group into American heroes, feted across the country, attached to a Hollywood agent trying to strike them a lucrative movie deal, and, on this day, an appearance at the halftime show on Thanksgiving at a Dallas Cowboys game. There are flashbacks to events from before the day on which the book takes place, but the bulk of it follows the boys around the stadium, into luxury suites, meetings with the team’s owner (not Jerry Jones … but okay, that’s pretty much Jerry Jones), a fortuitous meeting with the cheerleaders, odd encounters with fans, and a tussle or two with overzealous security guards. There really isn’t any football to speak of in the book – the Cowboys get destroyed, and fans get drunk – and the halftime show is just one scene in the entire story, which is far more about the kind of reception Bravo gets, especially in the heart of rah-rah ‘Merica, compared to the nature of their experiences and the signs of PTSD throughout the unit.

Fountain accomplishes a ton in this relatively short, quick-moving book. He crafts a number of interesting, clearly distinct characters among the soldiers, most of whom appear to be damaged to some degree from the ordeal – one dead, one severely injured, with numerous insurgents killed – and coping or not coping in different ways. Billy Lynn, just 19 and forced to grow up in a big hurry after joining the army to avoid jail after he destroyed his sister’s ex-boyfriend’s car, gets the most thorough treatment, since we get to spend time in his head and face his confusion over various moral questions, not least among them whether to finish his tour of duty or desert and become a symbol for the war’s opposition. But despite the relative lack of page time for most of Billy’s platoon-mates, Fountain manages to infuse each of them with enough unique attributes to make them distinct and memorable on their own, notably Sergeant Dime, Bravo Company’s leader.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk also creates a stark contrast between the reality of warfare and the perception of it back home – especially when the war is half a world away, against not a nation-state but groups of terrorists who don’t look, sound, or worship like us. Bravo Company’s actions are celebrated, and Fountain makes most of the Texans the soldiers meet come off as jingoistic and wholly naive about the state of the soldiers. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a toll even beyond the deaths and physical injuries; multiple government agencies have said at least 20% of Iraqi war veterans have come back with post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of Bravo Company are worse off than others, reflected in their actions and levels of substance abuse, but Billy Lynn in particular finds a real disconnect between their mental states and the way the locals, right up to the Cowboys’ (possibly sociopathic) owner, treat them as conquering heroes who did what they did because they just love their country so damned much.

If there’s a weak spot here, it’s the cheerleader subplot, although I suspect Fountain included it to provide a single thread of light in what is ultimately a dark comedy – funny, yes, but a very unflattering look at how we wage war today and treat returning veterans. Fountain brings up masturbation way too often, and then works it into Billy’s lust-at-first-sight dalliance with a cheerleader named Faison, a relationship that starts crude but ends up feeling like a desperate teenage love story. The contrast helps lighten the book, but there’s also a sentimental aspect to this thread that doesn’t fit the novel’s overall tone … but it did allow Fountain to introduce the only female character of any substance at all in the book, which probably didn’t hurt when it came to selling the film rights either.

The movie version was filmed at 120 frames per second, five times the normal frame rate for a movie, which even positive reviews have criticized for distracting from the plot and dialogue; that’s enough reason for me to skip it, as I’d say 90% of the time I see a book and associated film, I prefer the book anyway. In this case, I wonder if a film version could really capture the characterization Fountain has created in the novel, given how movies tend to eliminate or merge characters, and filmed versions of dialogue-heavy novels have to cut substantial amounts of the chatter to fit everything into two hours. But I can’t imagine choosing to make a movie about an important idea – that contrast between the reality of war for those in it, and the way those of us over here tend to sanitize or glamorize it – in an experimental way that detracts from the story’s core message. And none of the reviewers I trust has given me any reason to go see it.

Next up: I’ve been reading at a torrid pace since Christmas, finishing four books in the last seven days, including John Banville’s chilling novel (and Booker Prize finalist) The Book of Evidence, written as the confession of a sociopathic murderer, and Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner’s Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. I’ve just started Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, the sixth Lord Peter Wimsey mystery and the fourth I’ve read.

The Sellout.

My updated ranking of the top five farm systems right now is up for Insiders.

I first heard about Paul Beatty’s farcical novel The Sellout when looking at predictions of nominees for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which also led me to Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew … neither of which ended up a finalist for the prize, won by Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. It did win the National Book Critics Circle award for Fiction, and ended up on several top ten lists for 2015. I’d already picked up Beatty’s book at Changing Hands during one of my trips to Arizona, however, and am glad I found it, because it is absolutely hilarious – offensive by design, taking Zadie Smith’s brand of hysterical realism and distilling it through a filter of American racism to produce a unique work of indignant comedy.

The narrator of Beatty’s book, known only as “Me” in one of many examples of absurdist wordplay in the novel, grows up in the Los Angeles-area town of Dickens, so poor that cartographers prefer to ignore its existence. It’s a segregated, neighborhood originally filled with farms, but the only farm remaining is the one the narrator runs, having inherited it from his militant black atheist sociologist father, who had some rather interesting ideas on child-rearing. (The novel’s satirical strain runs deep; the narrator is raised by a single father, and has no idea who his mother is, eventually finding the woman his father claims gave birth to him only to learn she had no idea what he was talking about.)

After his father is killed by a white policeman – prescient, or merely evergreen? – the narrator embarks on a bizarre quest to reestablish Dickens on the map and improve its lot by reinstating segregation, first on the local bus route and then in the local schools. He even takes a man as a “slave,” although the slave sort of volunteers for the role, doesn’t work, and loves to rant about the lost Little Rascals films in which he appeared. He erects new road signs and paints a literal border on the ground around Dickens, all of which has intended and unintended consequences. Of course, he can only get so far in this effort without running afoul of white authorities, and he ends up facing the Supreme Court – getting high on one of his hilariously named strains of marijuana while waiting in the corridor.

The novel’s best character, however, is Foy Cheshire, the would-be intellectual whose ambition outstrips his abilities, and whose brand of liberation theology involves quixotic endeavors like rewriting classics to improve or star African-American characters, such as The Great Blacksby, Uncle Tom’s CondoThe Point Guard in the Rye. By turns fatuous and pathetic, Foy is part con man, part demagogue, representative of a brand of empty black intellectualism for which Beatty appears to have no use whatsoever.

Beatty doesn’t spare anyone or anything in The Sellout, and that includes many jokes at every race’s expense that, if we’re all being honest here, wouldn’t see the light of day if they came from a white writer. I have no problem with this; if anything, the parody is far more effective coming from a writer of color, lampooning many of the people and institutions that purport to help black and Latino Americans but are primarily there just to help themselves. Charles Dickens was known for social commentary in his work, some of it veering into satire; Beatty draws on that tradition of criticism, marrying it with realism run amok – what critic James Wood termed “hysterical realism” in an essay on Zadie Smith’s White Teeth – for a sendup that scorches the very earth Me uses to grow his prize satsumas, watermelons, and weed.

I’m sure there are allusions and subtexts in The Sellout that I missed or simply couldn’t appreciate as a white man who grew up in a very white town and knew racism because I read about it once, but I still found the book by turns funny and thought-provoking. It’s one of the most laugh-out-loud books I’ve read in the last few years, and pushes the boundaries of what modern realism in literature can include. There may simply be more here that I didn’t catch.

Next up: Amir Alexander’s Infinitesimal, on how the Jesuits did everything they could to stamp out the mathematical concept that gave rise to the calculus.

The Stories of John Cheever.

John Cheever won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for the compendium The Stories of John Cheever, which contains his complete output other than a few pieces of juvenilia. I’d only read Cheever in novel form, the outstanding Falconer (on the TIME 100) and the middling The Wapshot Chronicle (on the Modern Library 100), but his short stories nearly all cover the same old ground: Failing marriages and alienation in suburban America, with the settings and times changing but the themes and the drinks remaining the same.

Cheever himself was bisexual, alcoholic, and depressed, and these factors inform nearly all of his stories. His characters all drink; spouses rage and cheat; children suffer emotionally; marriages falter, but in many stories they hold together for the sake of appearances. He makes frequent half-joking references to sumptuary laws and his women (and many men) gossip excessively. Whereas Richard Russo’s output shows that author’s clear affection for his wounded suburbanites and their dying towns, Cheever seems to disdain everything about modern suburban life, which is especially evident in the stories he wrote after World War II, in the first stages of urban flight. His husbands become, if anything more faithless, and more drunk, while his wives increasingly show the desire for independence or at least some greater standing in their own homes.

The sixty-one stories in the collection include some variation, with Cheever even showing a charitable take on human decency (as in “Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor”), and even delving into the occasional bit of what we might now think of as magical realism. A few of my favorites from the collection:

* An Enormous Radio: When a couple in a New York apartment building replaces their radio with a large, expensive new model, it allows them to tune in to the conversations of all of their neighbors. At first, of course, it’s salaciously amusing, but eventually the wife starts to hear things from other apartments she wishes she hadn’t.

* The Angel of the Bridge: A story about what we’d now call panic attacks, although at the time I doubt the disorder even had such a name. The narrator can’t drive over a bridge without suffering from one, until an “angel” appears to distract him as he’s struggling to complete such a trip.

* Reunion: The narrator is meeting his father during a 90-minute stopover in New York, a lunch that turns increasingly disastrous as the father, an alcoholic with a haughty, condescending air, gets them thrown out of four restaurants as he abuses staff and becomes more drunk and belligerent with each stop. I wondered if this was Cheever’s swipe at his own father, who was also an alcoholic and a financial failure.

* An Educated American Woman: Jill and George are a married couple with one child, Bibber, living in suburbia, of course, but Cheever flips the script by making Jill the intellectual half of the couple (George is just a Yalie) and the ambitious half as well, where George seems to resent her drive and perspicacity, while she feels unappreciated by her husband and stifled by suburban mom life.

* The Geometry of Love: An engineer decides to apply mathematical principles to some decidedly unmathematical problems in his life, including problems in his own marriage. Hilarity and tragedy ensue.

* The Swimmer: Cheever’s most famous story – one turned into a somewhat obscure movie starring Burt Lancaster that had to play like a horror film – involves a suburban husband and father, drunk at a party where everyone else has also had too much to drink, who then decides to swim his way home across the various pools and lawns of his tony neighborhood. Partway through, however, his memory starts to fail him, and it appears that time is passing at an abnormal rate, enough that when he arrives at his house he doesn’t find what he expects to.

Where Cheever lost me was in the stories he set in Italy, which frequently touched on dated themes like the declining aristocracy or life as an American expat. As much as I adore Italy and Italian culture, the country he depicts doesn’t resemble the bits of Italy I’ve seen or what I know of the country from my cousins there. While his paintings of American suburban life after World War II or even marriage and infidelity between the wars don’t apply directly to any of my experiences, in those stories he managed to capture more universal themes that make those stories the timeless entries in this collection.

For more on Cheever’s mastery of the short story, the Telegraph ran a great profile of him and his works last October, doing a better job with this collection than I could.

Next up: I’ve already finished Paul Beatty’s madcap farce The Sellout and begun Amir Alexander’s Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World.

Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest.

I read Rabbit, Run in 2009, shortly after the death of author John Updike, because it appeared on the TIME list of the greatest 100 English-language novels from 1923 (the year the magazine started publishing) through the year the list was published, 2005. I truly disliked the book because I disliked the main character, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a wildly immature young adult who peaked as a high school basketball player and can’t adjust to adult life and responsibilities.

Updike wrote three more Rabbit novels, the last two of which, Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I read both books this month, skipping the second book in the series (Rabbit Redux), as part of my effort to read all the Pulitzer winners, and now, after reading over 1000 pages of Updike’s writing about Rabbit, I can say with great confidence that Harry Angstrom is an asshole.

I suppose someone better equipped to diagnose a fictional character’s psychological issues could have a field day with Rabbit, who can’t stop cheating on his wife, resents her and her mother for the way they’ve made him financially comfortable, can’t connect with or even fully trust his own son, and has a puerile, almost perverted obsession with sex that would be appropriate for a teenager but hardly for a 56-year-old man, as he is in the final volume. Even when faced with his own mortality after a mild heart attack at the end of the first section of Rabbit at Rest, Rabbit can’t even be bothered to grow up enough to follow his doctor’s rather obvious advice – eat right and exercise – try to prevent a recurrence, instead continuing his old-man leering while facing the unwelcome stress of a crisis with his wayward son.

In Rabbit, Run, we meet Angstrom, who still can’t quite get over the fact that his basketball career – and, we later learn, his life – reached its apex in high school, after which he experiences a long if nonlinear decline across four books and almost four decades. (Updike revisited his character every ten years, and we are fortunate he stopped writing when he did, or he would have won the 2001 Pulitzer for The Five Rabbits You Meet in Heaven.) The first novel is unpleasant, but has a clear direction and point. Rabbit’s refusal to grow up is rooted in recognition that it’s only going to go downhill from here, and with the ennui of a lower middle-class existence, tied to a wife and child he didn’t plan to have so soon, staring him in the face, he runs. By the third book, however, he’s at least come into money via his marriage, and is now running a Toyota dealership in the late 1970s as fuel economy entered the lexicon – Updike seems to be at great pains in each of the last two books to remind us of the mood of the time, as well as lots of brand names and details that seem like quaint product placement in hindsight (although I doubt Sealtest cared for Updike’s flavor suggestion). That shifts Angstrom’s angst (built right into his name!) to his desultory marriage, his ne’er-do-well son, and a simmering conflict with his wife over their son’s role in the family business.

The marital antibliss culminates in a couples’ weekend in the Caribbean where the eight participants agree to a one-night swap of partners – if ever there was a 1970s anachronism, there you have it – which puts Rabbit not with the woman he lusts for, the youngest wife of the four, but with Thelma, who has been in love with him for years. Rather than giving the scene any kind of emotional depth, or exploring what it might mean for Rabbit to see a woman truly (if rather perplexingly) in love with him, Updike has the entire book climax (sorry) in a scene where the two engage in anal sex, a moment he has Rabbit revisit in his mind in utterly bizarre fashion for the remainder of that book and in book four. I’d credit Updike with a clever metaphor if it weren’t so distasteful.

The escalation in Rabbit at Rest makes the book read like a Very Special Episode, where Harry’s son, Nelson, ends up a cocaine addict, destroying the family business and possibly contributing to Rabbit’s heart problems. After an angioplasty that’s designed to tide him over for a few months, after which the doctors recommend he have coronary bypass surgery, Rabbit goes to recuperate in his son’s house the first night, only to have his daughter-in-law, Pru (a nickname given to her because she was prudish as a teenager), seduce him while Nelson is away at rehab. I mean, this is what you do with a man twice your age who’s fresh off heart surgery, right?

Despite his frequent dalliances with women other than his wife, and desire for even more, Rabbit is one of the most outright misogynistic characters in modern literature, increasingly out of step with the times in which he lives. He frequently characterizes women as his enemy, referring to them by the most vulgar term you can use (and thus reducing them to a single body part), yet harbors a long-running obsession that he has a daughter by one of his former lovers. His relationship with Janice worsens in Rabbit at Rest when she begins to assert her independence, pursuing a career for herself after years of Rabbit telling her she was stupid. It’s hard not to root for her and quietly enjoy Rabbit’s accelerating decline, although Nelson’s mistakes and initial refusal to take any responsibility for his actions (just like dear ol’ dad) are infuriating in their own right. What could have been a thoughtful meditation on a man facing his own mortality at an age when most Americans are still working and looking forward to a long retirement is instead a pathetic coda to 1500 pages written about a terrible husband and father who is unworthy of any of our sympathy.

Next up: Steven Weinberg’s To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science.

Americanah.

My annual list of the top 25 big leaguers under 25 is up for Insiders, as is a draft blog post on Dansby Swanson and Carson Fulmer, both of Vanderbilt.

Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie is one of my favorite living novelists, and I say that having read only two-thirds of her total output (she’s written three). Her ability to craft realistic characters, especially black female characters, and to have all of her characters engage in thoughtful, intelligent, unpandering dramas built around race and ethnic identities is second to none right now; she’s even passed Toni Morrison, whose recent output hasn’t matched her Beloved/Song of Solomon peak. Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, which won the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) in 2007, made my last top 100 novels update at #92.

Her most recent novel, 2013’s Americanah, once again begins and ends in Nigeria, but this time follows two people as they emigrate to the west, one legally and one illegally, to escape a limited economic future in their native country, one that deprives them of hope. Ifemelu and Odinze are high school sweethearts, bonded by their intelligence and refusal to submit to a grey future, but the expectation that they’ll marry is lost when Ifemelu is allowed to enter the United States legally but Odinze, a single foreign male from Africa, is rejected due (we assume) to U.S. immigration crackdowns post-9/11. While Ifemelu encounters financial difficulties and humiliations as a student in the U.S. who lacks money or worldliness, even finding that her brand of English isn’t much use in understanding the American idiom, Odinze enters England without papers and aims for a sham marriage with a citizen to allow himself to stay and work. Ifemelu, ashamed by her situation and depressed by her isolation, ceases contact with Odinze and only resumes it when she returns to Nigeria over a decade later, finding the love of her life now married with a daughter.

“Americanah” is a derogatory term in Nigerian slang referring to someone who has moved to America and come back a changed person, especially one affecting an American accent or an excessive affection for American customs and culture. Ifemelu tries to assimilate early in her time in the U.S. because she’s told repeatedly that she won’t receive job offers if she’s too “ethnic,” but eventually sheds her American façade in favor of her own accent, her own hair, and her identity as an African woman. She adapts rather than assimilating, eventually advancing in her education and career thanks to a blog she writes under a pen name, called Raceteenth Or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes), that documents her thoughts on the racial divide in the United States from the perspective of someone who was not conscious of race before she arrived in this country. (Adichie has since brought Ifemelu’s second blog, written after the character’s return to Nigeria, to life online as The Small Redemptions of Lagos.) Odinze’s story is shorter, as was his stint abroad, working dicey jobs under someone else’s National Insurance number, before he’s discovered and shipped back to Lagos.

Ifemelu is the star of the book, as Odinze, while a well-defined character, is rarely in the spotlight, while his story in England seems like a plot contrivance to contrast with Ifemelu’s experiences as a legal emigrant from Nigeria. Her story has global aspirations which largely succeed, coming through her series of jobs (including nanny to a definite White Privilege family) and relationships, including one with Progressive White Guy and one with Earnest Black Intellectual. We get some pretentious dialogue along the way, especially when Ifemelu starts to travel in increasingly academic circles, but Adichie avoids turning the book into a sermon by keeping Ifemelu’s emotions at the center of the book rather than driving us toward some Big Conclusion via plot tricks. The book describes the emigrant/immigrant experience, the desire to return home for its own sake (rather than to change the world), the emotional pull of a romance that one can’t fully separate from its environment, instead of trying to tell us one country or culture or path is better. This is Ifemelu’s story, just one tale that has its metaphorical implications but doesn’t feel in any way like Adichie is trying to tell every immigrant’s story at once.

Adichie’s strengths in characterization and avoiding predictable plot lines cover some of her weaknesses in portions of the dialogue and nearly all of the sample blog posts included in the book. The posts she includes are far too short and superficial to garner the kind of audience Ifemelu is supposed to have collected through her writing, not enough in a real world that has Ta-Nehisi Coates and Tanzina Vega and Jamil Smith and too many others to name who produce statement pieces that bring examples and evidence to the table. Ifemelu’s blog posts from the book wouldn’t find an audience because they’re not saying much of anything we haven’t heard hundreds of times before. Adichie says more about race when she’s not talking directly about it, putting characters into situations that force them to confront questions of racism and identity, than she does when she tries to blog through Ifemelu’s lens.

Told through frequent moves back and forth in time and across an ocean, Americanah marks another hugely compelling and intelligent novel from Adichie and her biggest seller to date, even though it lacks the gravity of Half of a Yellow Sun, which was set in Nigeria during the Biafra conflict and resulting genocide. Her eye for detail is sharper in the sections of Americanah where her characters are still in Lagos, growing up among ambitious economic strivers, religious zealots, and co-opted concubines whose fortunes are only secure as long as the current regime stays in power. When she transitions to America and England, Adichie’s writing becomes less nuanced and the stakes are largely lower (especially since we know from the first chapter that Odinze gets back to Nigeria safely). The strongest scenes of Ifemelu’s time in America come in an African hair salon she visits, somewhat resentfully, in Trenton, because she can’t find a place that knows how to braid hair properly in Princeton. The reactions she receives there from women who might share some of her background but clearly want very different things from life – and are largely appalled that she would return to Africa of her own volition – drive not just Ifemelu’s own memories but the overall narrative of the book, as well as its strongest symbol (hair) of race and identity.

Next up: I knocked off The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage’s brief history of the telegraph, over the weekend, and have since started Anthony Marra’s novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

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.

A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (and the incumbent title-holder, since the Board decided that every book published in 2012 sucked and declined to give the award to anyone), is a hybrid novel/short story collection, weaving long vignettes involving a small group of interconnected characters together across time to track, backwards and forwards, their rises, falls, and sometimes rises again. The results are often funny and occasionally tragic, but the writing and characterization are so compelling that when Egan punts the entire thing in the final two sections it is an enormous disappointment.

The book doesn’t have a single protagonist, but we do see several of the core characters in multiple stories, including Sasha, the charismatic, troubled young woman with an unexplained penchant for stealing, one that doesn’t even fully abate when she’s confronted with the consequences of one of her thefts. She works for the unctuous Benny Salazar, a record executive whose fortunes ebb and flow with popular tastes, and whose own history includes a stint in a punk band where many of the novel’s central relationships began. He’s a bit of a wacko magnet, like the former bandmate of his who shows up at Benny’s office one day bearing a freshly-caught fish, or the snobby neighbors in the suburb where he moves with his young, self-conscious wife, looking down on the nouveau-riche Hispanic guy in the neighborhood – who might be a terrorist, because, well, you know. The spectre of 9/11 hangs over many of the stories set in the few years after its aftermath, with the majority of the novel happening in spitting distance of New York City.

The novel’s unconventional structure, with a nonlinear narrative and changing perspectives, gives Egan some room to stretch out and show off her writing skills, which she does well for most of the book. One section comprises a magazine feature, presumably unpublished, written by the brother of one of the major characters, an account of a celebrity puff piece gone so wrong that he ends up in jail (with cause) and the celebrity’s career ends up so derailed that she eventually finds herself paid to be the consort of a murderous third-world dictator, one of the funniest sections of the book, even more timely with the Arab Spring occurring after the novel’s publciation. Sasha runs away from home as a teenager, and one section has her feckless uncle trying to find her in Naples to coax her to come home. The changing styles shift our views of characters, peeling back layers while also turning the onion to show us as much as possible in such a short space.

The last two sections destroyed the book for me, unfortunately. The first of the two is a ninety-page slideshow – excuse me, slidshow – written the daughter of one of those recurring characters, describing their family dynamic and the slightly depressing future in which they live. It’s gimmicky and superficial, losing the depth and most of the wit of the previous sections. The final story is set in a dystopian future a few decades from now, with Egan embarrassing herself trying to craft her own texting vernacular, and where interpersonal skills have broken down the point that people standing next to each other communicate via their devices. It wasn’t funny enough to be a parody and it was a lousy way to send off some great characters.

Next up: I’m past the one-quarter mark in William Gaddis’ mammoth novel The Recognitions. I’m hoping to finish before Thanksgiving week.

A Thousand Acres.

I’ve got a new post up today on the Young-Bell-Pennington trade.

Jane Smiley won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel with A Thousand Acres, her adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, hewing fairly close to the original storyline aside from the typical Shakespeare tragic ending where everyone dies, often in a single pile on a battlefield or in a great hall. A Thousand Acres takes us to an Iowa farm near the end of the boom in land values in the 1970s, where a domineering, impetuous farmer named Larry Cook decides to divide his thousand-acre farm among his three daughters, a process that also begins to divide the family and presages his mental breakdown, much as Lear himself went mad after dividing his kingdom among his daughters.

Following Big Willie’s original plot, Smiley has Cook’s youngest daughter, Caroline (Cordelia in King Lear) lose her inheritance, here for the most innocuous of comments, spurring a severe estrangement between her and her father as well as between her and her two sisters, the narrator Ginny (Goneril) and the more devious middle child Rose (Regan). Ginny points to the tiff between Larry and Caroline as the beginning of the end of their family, perhaps ignoring larger environmental factors like the impending bust in land values and changes in American agriculture, as well as the lack of any male heirs to Larry’s estate who would run and work the farm. Those factors along with Larry’s decline into madness – at first merely bouts of anger and irrational behavior, but later near-complete dementia – increase the strain on Ginny, her husband Ty, Rose, and her wayward husband Pete, with Rose and Pete’s two daughters mostly inured from the family strife until Pete’s demons resurface closer to the story’s end.

Smiley’s characterizations are by far the greatest strength of the novel, since the plot is not original nor was she likely to improve on our language’s greatest storyteller. Ginny and Rose are richly described and presented with great complexity, enough that the mid-story revelation that both were sexually abused by their father doesn’t add as much to their characters as such a background detail might ordinarily contribute. Jess Clark, paralleling Edmund, is recast as the sensitve, brooding stranger whose sexual magnetism draws in both women (and, one presumes, others unseen) despite his clear emotional unavailability. Caroline even earns her share of depth despite spending so much of the novel off-screen; Smiley even hints that she might be Rose’s daughter by Larry, a fascinating (if replusive) plot detail that could explain some of Caroline’s and Rose’s actions towards their father. Only Larry comes up short in Smiley’s character development; he’s an ass from the start, a cranky, misogynistic old fool who is later revealed to be depraved, manipulative, and evil, and from whom none of his daughters can completely break free, even after his death.

Smiley’s adherence to Shakespeare’s plot led her severely astray, however, when she mimicked Goneril’s attempt to poison her sister Regan; Goneril was successul, but Ginny, as she is presented to us, seems totally incapable of such a bold act of violence or jealousy. She is broken, emotionally, and bears some anger toward her sister, but her ultimate target is her father, by that point unreachable by vengeance. An attempt to kill her father, even as a means of closure for herself without the element of revenge, would have fit her character more completely. The idea that she hates Rose enough to kill her for stealing Jess is not adequately supported by her thoughts or actions, and the very sudden shift in her character to someone capable of premeditated murder is not dramatic, but sloppy.

That selective paralleling of King Lear pushes Smiley into a corner where the book, readable and compelling for about two-thirds of its length, starts to come apart, because she’s rewriting someone else’s story with her own characters and has to force them (when she wants) to act in ways not entirely in keeping with their given natures. By the time Ginny wants to kill her sister, she has been presented to us as someone incapable of such an act. When we learn that Larry raped his daughters (an original element not in Shakespeare), he becomes so odious that we are unable to muster sympathy for him in later scenes where his broken mental and physical conditions might otherwise make him sympathetic, or even pathetic, instead of vile and sickening. The lack of balance pushes the reader to Ginny’s side (and Rose’s, to a lesser degree), only to have Ginny revealed as a sociopath who’d murder her own sister. Had the binding come apart in my hands, the book wouldn’t have fallen apart any more completely than it did in its content.

Next up: I read Allison Hoover Bartlett’s quirky non-fiction story The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession (on sale for $6 through that link) and have begin Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2011.

The Known World.

Edward Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Known World combines techniques or themes from some seriously great novels of the last fifty years, including Beloved, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and a faux-historical writing style I’ve seen before but whose origin I can’t place. Unfortunately, it ended up less satisfying than the great novels it emulates, so while a solid novel in its own right, it suffers from the inevitable comparisons the reader will make while moving through the book.

The center of the book is the estate of the slaveowner Henry Townsend, a black man who became free around age 20 but who chose to purchase slaves for himself and build his fortune on the backs of members of his own race. Townsend dies at the beginning of the novel, although we see large chunks of his life through flashbacks, and the bulk of the plot revolves around the gradual decaying of the tight order of things – the business operations and the formal and informal hierarchies – of the tiny empire he’s built on that estate. The wide cast of characters includes slaves, freed blacks, and whites whose lives intersected with the Townsends, often with disastrous results.

While whites are largely depicted as forces of evil in the book, whether directly bringing evil on the black characters or simply by opening the door for ill fortunate, Jones targets black slaveowners and even highlights black slaves who exercised formal or informal authority over others for their moral culpability in the suffering of slaves. Using a black slaveowner and his family at the story’s center allows him to remove the facile white-bad-black-good dichotomy that could obscure the greater themes of morality he’s trying to explore, and the resulting moral ambiguity suffuses the novel, such as the question of whether a “fair” slaveowner is any better than a cruel one, or what the value of a law is when men charged with enforcing it fail to do so or even openly flout it. Jones mentions other outrages of the time like anti-miscegenation laws, but brushes past them because they’re not worth his time – his interest, beyond just telling a story, seems to lie in exploring situations that lack right or obvious answers, and thus he ignores those where modern sensibilities will lead all readers to the same horror or repulsion.

Where The Known World fell a little short for me was in narrative greed – it’s obvious from the start that the plantation will crumble without Henry Townsend, and it was evident to me early in the book that Caldonia, his widow, wasn’t up to the task of managing it, which presaged, at a high level, what was going to happen with the slaves and the estate. The interest of the plot, for me, was largely in finding out the fates of the various central characters, particularly the slaves, although Henry’s parents do figure into the last major plot strand, one that I thought had a strong symbolic significance and was the only area where Jones took square aim at whites, even non-slaveowners, for their role in the great cultural tragedy of slavery. And Jones remains true to life – some characters find positive, if not actually happy, endings, while others meet tragic ends and some just end up in the great grey middle.

The faux-historical trick I mentioned in the intro merits a mention. Jones intersperses fake historical facts, written in the dry manner of a history text or even a census register, throughout the book, whether to tell us the fate of a minor character or to give shape or color to a place or a county or a period of time. I found it very effective, and it gave the book the feel of a longer one because of its level of detail, without requiring the time an 800-page book demands.

Next up: Since finishing this, I read Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder, the last published Christie novel, a solid but unspectacular Miss Marple novel that, as always, had me second-guessing my instincts (which turned out to be right, although I can hardly take credit after doubting myself so heavily) after I thought I’d picked out the culprit. After finishing that this morning, I’ve started Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the year before Jones won with The Known World.

Gilead.

Marilynne Robinson’s debut novel, Housekeeping, came out in 1980, won several major awards (including the PEN/Hemingway Award for the best debut novel of the year), eventually landed on TIME‘s list of the 100 best novels from 1923 to 2005, and represented Robinson’s only published work of fiction for 25 years until she finally brought out her second novel, Gilead. And all that that novel ever did was win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is as if the literary world was saying:

Dear Ms. Robinson:

It is the opinion of our community that you should write more books.

Sincerely,

All of us

Robinson’s strength, at least based on these two novels, isn’t so much her storycraft as her prose, which is just remarkable, unlike any contemporary author I’ve ever read, word-perfect and genuine and lyrical and any other florid term used to describe brilliant writing. She nails every task laid before the writer of a novel of emotions, as both of her books are, from descriptive passages to the idiom of language and even internal monologues, like this one, where the narrator, Reverend John Ames, stops to reflect on the way he’s writing this book, which is a letter to his young son in the form of a memoir:

In writing this, I notice the care it costs me not to use certain words more than I ought to. I am thinking about the word “just.” I almost wish I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just poured out of it and the girl just laughed – when it’s used that way it does indicate a stress on the word that follows it, and also a particular pitch of the voice. … There is something real signified by that word “just” that proper language won’t acknowledge. It’s a little like the German ge-. I regret that I must deprive myself of it. It takes half the point out of telling the story.

Reverend Ames is 76 years old at the book’s outset and is dying, slowly, of a heart condition, but at the same time is the father of a seven-year-old boy thanks to a second chance at love and marriage that found him marrying a woman many years his junior who happened to wander into his church one day, an event that turned out to be love at first sight. He knows that he’s dying and wants to leave a long letter to that son so that when the child is older he has something more to remember his father by than vague memories from childhood of a feeble old man who struggled to go up the stairs to his study. Reverend Ames walks back through the stories of his father and grandfather, both preachers but of wildly different sorts and temperaments, only to have to shift gears slightly when the son of his best friend, John Ames Boughton, drifts back into town after a long absence. The younger John Ames, named for the Reverend, has been a lifelong disappointment to his own father, another preacher, and to Reverend Ames, and to many others in the small (fictional) town of Gilead, Iowa. (Gilead is, itself, a place mentioned in Genesis, and the name apparently translates to “hill of testimony,” so I presume Robinson chose it as this novel is entirely the Reverend Ames’ testimony, not just of his faith but of his life.) Boughton’s purpose in the town isn’t clear, and he makes repeated attempts to talk to Reverend Ames – generally antagonizing him – before his purpose becomes clear shortly before the end of the book. Along the way, Reverend Ames presents his thoughts on all sorts of matters theological and mundane, interspersed with personal recollections from his own life and heartfelt passages about his wife and son:

I’d never have believed I’d see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine. It still amazes me every time I think of it. I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.

I tell my daughter every day, multiple times a day, how much I love her, how much it has meant to me to have her in my life, how she is the center of my universe. Anything I have ever said to her in that vein has seemed wholly inadequate. I know exactly how Reverend Ames felt when he said those words.

Robinson didn’t wait 25 years for a follow-up, publishing Home, the story of John Ames Boughton, in 2008.

Next up: I must be out of my mind, but I’m going to try to tackle James Joyce’s Ulysses. I just can’t stand seeing it on five of my “greatest” booklists without a check mark next to it, or at least the knowledge that I gave it a legitimate effort.