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.

The Sympathizer.

The Sympathizer was the surprise winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the debut novel of Vietnamese-American author Viet Thanh Nguyen, and if nothing else is a truly fascinating work of fiction for its new take on the Vietnam War. Nguyen’s unnamed narrator is a communist sympathizer and sleeper agent in the south of Vietnam, and recalls the conflict and its aftermath from the perspective of a Vietnamese national, as opposed to the countless looks back at the war from western perspectives (The Things They Carried, Tree of Smoke). The narrator himself is a walking dichotomy, born to a Vietnamese mother and French father (a priest, no less), living in the south and then in the U.S. while professing loyalty to the communists, with very bourgeois sentiments that compromise his work as a spy and an unwilling assassin.

The closest parallel I can think of for The Sympathizer is Graham Greene’s novel of Vietnam, The Quiet American, written later in his career after he’d become disillusioned with his country and his faith, a bleak picture of the war that included more than just a cursory consideration of the conflict’s devastating effect on the people of Vietnam. Nguyen’s look at the war is similarly derisive, suffused with parody and gallows humor, but ultimately an indictment of everyone involved, not least the United States.

The narrator tells his story as a confession to an unseen commandant and “faceless” commissar, as he’s apparently in a postwar Vietnamese reeducation camp despite serving the People’s Liberation Front during the conflict as a mole and assassin both in South Vietnam and then in the United States, where he works with a disgraced General from the South’s army who seeks to stage a Bay of Pigs-style invasion force that goes roughly as well as that real-life attempt did. His story involves time as a student in California, where he writes his thesis on the works of Graham Greene (in case you missed that allusion), as well as his work as a “consultant” on a thinly-disguised version of Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, itself an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad novella into a Vietnamese setting. The director, known only as the Auteur, is a fatuous, racist pig who fancies himself an artist and tries to work from a script that doesn’t give a single line to a Vietnamese character. The narrator’s job is to try to undermine the pro-American tone in the film, but the entire story turns into an elaborate farce of the film, the movie industry, and subsequent American attempts to retell the story of the war in terms that the American public would buy.

The last quarter of the book takes a sharp turn toward the more serious territory of Darkness at Noon or 1984 as we switch to real time and the narrator’s ordeal in custody, where, we learn, he’s been telling and retelling his story to his jailers, but hasn’t given them the particular truth they demand of him. The climax is graphic and hard to read, worse than the two assassinations in which the narrator takes part, but works better as a metaphor for the damage the North Vietnamese inflicted on their own people and the psychic scars that endured long after the conflict.

Nguyen can be a bit heavy-handed with the allusions and metaphors. The narrator’s two best friends are Man (the blank canvas) and Bon (the good one of the three). He encounters a go-getter journalist named Sonny, and an ice-cold Japanese woman named Ms. Mori (think memento mori). The Auteur and the older lead actor in the film border on caricature, while the film is called The Hamlet presumably because the Auteur views his work as comparable to Shakespeare. And the prose can get a little purple, although I found myself flying through it anyway.

But Nguyen’s strength lies in the main character, both as the vehicle for retelling the war’s story in a new light, and for his own dichotomy. The narrator is not truly accepted by his fellow citizens because he’s half European; he’s not accepted at all in the United States, even though he speaks perfect English, because he looks “foreign.” He lives in the South and serves in their military, but his loyalties are with the North … only to find himself in a communist (which was the North) political prison after the war. These splits all parallel the way his self was broken by an incident he witnessed during the war but has buried in his subconscious, the nauseating passage I mentioned above; only by reliving and acknowledging it can he move on with his life.

Next up: I actually just read Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows for the first time; I read a few chapters with my daughter, but she found it boring, so I finished it myself. At least now I know the true story behind Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

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.

The Executioner’s Song.

Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1980, is the longest work to take home that award, a strange historical footnote in the prize’s history because it’s almost certainly not a work of fiction. Mailer, who had previously won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for Armies of the Night, had access to an unbelievable depth and breadth of source material on Gary Gilmore, the very real subject of The Executioner’s Song, and just about everyone else involved in his life, crimes, imprisonment, and eventual execution, producing a work that moves as quickly as any thousand-page book I’ve ever read*. It would have been more than enough for Mailer, using the recordings and notes compiled by his collaborator Lawrence Schiller, to produce a work of great academic scholarship by providing all of this detail on Gilmore’s life and ultimate desire to rush from sentencing to the firing squad. Instead, Mailer manages the nearly impossible task of humanizing Gilmore without making him the least bit sympathetic, while populating his world with countless well-described, three-dimensional characters, into whose private struggles we gain access thanks to their candor with Schiller and to Mailer’s ability to turn their thoughts into richly developed portraits.

* N of 6.

Gary Gilmore was a lifelong ne’er-do-well who had spent much of his childhood in reform school, then ended up in jail, and just a few months after he was paroled at age 36 after serving about four years of a term for armed robbery he committed while on conditional release, he killed two service workers in the course of two separate armed robberies, with both murders taking place after he’d already obtained the money. The Supreme Court had suspended the use of the death penalty across the United States in 1972 after a 5-4 ruling in Furman v. Georgia, which held, among other things, that sentences of death were applied inconsistently based on the races of the defendants – black defendants were much more likely to be sentenced to die than whites, which three of the five justices ruling for the plaintiff held to be a violation of the Eighth (cruel and unusual punishment) and Fourteenth (equal protection of the laws) Amendments to the Constitution.

(Two other justices held that the death penalty was per se unconstitutional, which I think should be blindingly obvious but, sadly, is not. The death penalty is not a deterrent to capital crime, and is not cost-effective, which means its use is merely a case of the government providing vengeance for the victims’ families.)

Shortly before Gilmore committed the two murders, the Supreme Court ended the suspension of capital punishment in Gregg v. Georgia, as long as the trial in question contained two separate phases for the determination of guilt and for sentencing. Gilmore’s case was egregious and his lawyers, recognizing that they had no defense (there was a witness in one of the cases who saw Gilmore leaving the scene with the gun in his hand), merely hoped to get him life imprisonment. However, Gilmore not only accepted the death penalty but attempted to waive all appeals, asking the court to carry out the sentence as quickly as possible – within 60 days, as required by the Utah statute at the time (which, by the way, did not include a mandatory appeal of any death sentence, because Utah). That stance turned Gilmore into a national celebrity, drew in the ACLU to give Gilmore a defense he didn’t want, and resulted in some darkly comic scenes of legal wrangling that went on right up until a few minutes before Gilmore was executed in January, 1977, the first person to be put to death for his crimes in the United States in nearly ten years.

Although Mailer’s name is on the book’s spine as the author, Schiller, a filmmaker and screenwriter, gathered all of the source material. Several journalists descended on Utah after Gilmore’s sentencing and pronouncement that he wished to die in search of a story; Schiller came out victorious, using various schemes and intermediaries to gain hours of recorded dialogue with Gilmore, Q&As that Gilmore filled out, and interviews with dozens of people relevant to the case, including the widows of the two victims and the girlfriend whose relationship with Gary was, he alleged, the reason he snapped and went out in search of someone to kill. (It’s a facile explanation not supported at all by everything Mailer and Schiller give us in the book.)

Gilmore himself was a complex character, which Schiller realized, driving him to keep attacking Gilmore with questions – asked by his intermediaries, Gilmore’s attorneys – designed to provoke more revealing responses about his childhood. Schiller was clearly looking for something, like a history of abuse or repressed sexual urges, that would explain the killer’s psychopathic behavior, including his controlling, manipulative hold on that girlfriend, 19-year-old Nicole Baker, herself a badly damaged child with a history of drug use and sexual victimhood. But Gilmore was in no way sympathetic, and Mailer doesn’t try to make him so; if you feel anything on Gilmore’s side of the battle over his sentence, it will be for his family members, including his invalid mother, and some of the people who poured their emotions into stopping a punishment that they believed to be morally wrong, only to lose thanks in part to a last-minute flight from Utah to Denver to overturn a judge’s stay. Indeed, the rush to kill Gary Gilmore does nothing to rehabilitate his image, but paints Utah in particular as a state so driven by bloodlust that it comes across as a sort of nightmare totalitarian society. (Mailer also seems to have little use for the domination of the state’s government, including its courts, by Mormons, other than Judge W.W. Ritter, who twice ordered stays to Gilmore’s execution; the book includes Gilmore’s accurate paraphrase of the speech given by Brigham Young where the preacher and openly racist Governor of the Utah Territory said that it would be right and just if he, finding one of his wives in the act of committing adultery with another man, ran them both through the breast with a knife, sending them to the afterlife where their sins would be cleansed. I don’t think you include that passage unless you want the reader to know just where you stand on the Mormon church.)

The first half of the book proceeds like a disaster unfolding in slow motion; we begin with Gilmore’s parole, and get an almost daily look into his struggle to assimilate himself into normal life outside of prison, especially in relations with women. When he meets Nicole Baker, who comes across as a space cadet throughout the book and is always described as stunningly beautiful (you can judge this for yourself, but I don’t see it), he finally gets the reliable outlet for his sexual desires – including disturbing threesomes with an underage friend of Nicole’s – but enters into a relationship toxic in both directions. Nicole, pressured by family members concerned about Gilmore’s manipulative tendencies and violent temper, breaks it off with Gilmore, after which he commits the two murders that ultimately send him to jail.

The second half diverages from your standard true-crime, non-fiction novel, however, by making the chase for Gilmore’s story the actual story. Schiller enters the pages and never lets go of them, while we also get a cast of lawyers with conflicting interests, other journalists, Hollywood producers seeking film rights, and enough clowns to fill a clown Escalade. The media takes a special beating in the book, largely well-deserved. Geraldo Rivera was apparently a soulless hack at the time, trying to do a live TV interview with Gilmore’s cousin Brenda right after the execution while she was still in the hospital recovering from major surgery. (He actually asked to do the interview in the hospital room itself.) Newsweek cited a couple of verses of poetry that Gilmore wrote, failing to recognize that the verses were from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Sensitive Plant.” Reporters and photographers throw all ethics out the window to get images of Gilmore or Nicole, or a quote from anyone in the case, even barging into people’s houses without permission. While I’m sure such things still happen today, the frequency of such events in this book – with no apparent repercussions – is nauseating.

Mailer and Schiller even manage to humanize the many lawyers involved in the case, those seeking to uphold the death sentence and those trying to at least delay it and push through what we would, today, consider a standard process of appeals. Gilmore became a peculiar folk hero and a target for letters from women and girls across the country (gah) because of what was perceived as his stoic acceptance of a just penalty, but as the first execution after nearly a decade-long gap, the last four years under a Supreme Court moratorium, Gilmore’s trial and execution had ramifications for many capital cases to follow. He may have been okay with the sentence handed out to him – and his lack of emotional response to it would seem to support Schiller’s belief that Gilmore had some sort of mental infirmity, like dissociation – but groups like the ACLU needed to fight for his rights to try to establish rights for future defendants.

I don’t see how anyone could read this book and avoid at least feeling a tug toward the side of the debate that opposes capital punishment. It is a brutal sentence, and an expensive, wasteful process to adjudicate it and carry it out. It is also increasingly seen in the developed world as barbarous. Only one other country in the entire Western Hemisphere actively uses the death penalty, and that one, St. Kitts and Nevis, has executed one person in the last 17 years. The only country in Europe that has the death penalty at all is Belarus, ruled by a repressive dictator and serial human-rights violator. Japan still has the death penalty and executed one person in 2015. The United States has more in common with countries like Iran, China, or Saudi Arabia than with any western democracies when it comes to capital punishment. So while the death penalty is decreasing in usage in other nations to which we might compare ourselves, it has little or no deterrent effect on violent crime, and it’s damn expensive to put into practice, Mailer, without appearing to take a side, shows the real human cost of a death sentence by focusing on all of the people besides Gilmore who were hurt by his execution. And while Gilmore destroyed many lives – the two men he murdered, their wives, the three infants left without fathers – killing Gilmore did not restore what he took away. (Both widows cooperated with Mailer and Schiller in providing their stories with their late husbands, acts of significant grace given the amount of shock and grief they must have been suffering.)

Apropos of nothing else, I caught two quotes in the book with some connection to baseball. Gilmore’s first comment or question to a reporter after he was first sentenced to death was, “Who the hell won the World Series?” (That was the Reds, four games to none.) And both Gilmore and his cellmate after his final conviction, the enigmatic Gibbs, had “used the same drug, Ritalin, a rare type of speed not in common use” as their first experience with illicit substances. Yes, Ritalin and Adderall have valid pharmaceutical uses in the treatment of ADHD, but there are far more MLB players with exemptions to take these drugs – Adderall is a combination of two amphetamine salts; Ritalin is not technically “speed” but is also a CNS stimulant and dopamine reuptake inhibitor like amphetamines – than you’d expect from a random sample of men in that age range. And the evidence that these stimulants are performance enhancers, while still anecdotal, is strong.

I read the book via the Kindle app on my iPad – it’s also available via Apple’s iBooks – since, at nearly 1100 pages, it seemed like it would be a bit much to tote around. It was also on sale for $2 on Christmas Day on amazon, along with the book I’m reading now, Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny.

The Keepers of the House.

My thoughts on the Jeff Samardzija contract are up for Insiders. I’m still waiting for details on Hisashi Iwakuma’s reported contract before writing that one up.

Shirley Ann Grau’s novel The Keepers of the House, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1965, is an outstanding work of seething rage that manages to address themes of race and racial injustice by telling the story of a white family, of all things, in rural Alabama, from the late 19th century through the period just before the book’s publication. It is obvious to me why it won the award, and baffling to me that it has all but disappeared from reading lists, with no film adaptation or anything else to keep it alive.

The book nominally details seven generations of the Howland family, but the focus is primarily on two of them: the fifth William Howland and his granddaughter Abigail, who returns with her mother to live with her grandfather after her father abandons the family to fight in World War II, and ends up raised by her grandfather after her mother dies shortly after. William brought a young black woman named Margaret in to be the housekeeper after his own wife died in childbirth, and Margaret eventually became his mistress, bearing him three children, each of whom was sent away to schools in the north where their mixed heritage would not be held against them. While the relationship was commonly known in the area, the locals – depicted by and large as the sort of upstanding racists you might associate with the South of the 1950s – overlooked it as a quirk of those crazy Howlands.

After William dies, Margaret moves back to the black section of town with her family, and Abigail and her ambitious politician husband John Tolliver move into the Howland estate. When John runs for Governor of Alabama, a post he’s favored to win in a landslide, one unknown detail emerges about William and Margaret that derails his campaign and marriage while bringing the wrath of the town upon Abigail, thereby unlocking within her generations of outrage at the hypocrisy all around her, from the local whites who would tolerate such miscegenation up to a point to William and Margaret’s children who try to reject their black heritage.

The first three-fourths of Grau’s novel feel like many other novels in the subgenre of southern literature, telling a vast story of a family that once ruled a vast estate or accumulated great wealth but watched it fritter away via complacent or dissolute descendants. But Grau plants many seeds (no pun intended) in the early going to set up a dynamite climax (same) that gives Abigail two shots at revenge on her family’s tormentors, taking advantage of the unspoken dependence of the townfolk to enact a vicious vengeance. Abigail serves her revenge piping hot, and because of its genesis, it’s an extraordinarily satisfying conclusion for the reader.

It’s even more potent for Grau’s decision to tell the story with Abigail as the narrator. Imposing that fog over the family history – it’s passed down orally, so bits of it seem embellished, perhaps impossible – meant that images become clearer as the story approaches the material Abigail herself would have seen, and allows us to trace the development of her identity as a Howland, especially from the time when she goes to live on the family estate. In the time when Grau wrote Keepers, it was unthinkable to have a black character enact the sort of revenge Abigail gets – as it was, Grau ended up with a cross burned on her lawn after the book was published – so giving us a white woman who was raised in a house where black children were treated as cousins was probably the closest Grau could get. And in so doing, she never spared the white racists who smiled and said the right things but harbored the same centuries-old bigotry in their hearts.

Next up: I just finished Rex Stout’s Too Many Cooks, a Nero Wolfe mystery, and have begun Stephanie Kallos’s highly lauded 2015 novel Language Arts.

The Way West.

My latest post for Insiders covers the Jordan Zimmermann and J.A. Happ signings.

A.B. Guthrie’s The Way West won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was the second in what would become a series of six novels covering the settlement of what is now the northwestern United States from Montana over to the Pacific, with this novel specifically detailing one wagon train heading out on the Oregon Trail. Although Guthrie’s work all seems to deal with that same topic, The Way West comes across much more as a “buddy movie” sort of book, covering the nascent friendship between the two most significant characters as they assume the leadership of the wagon train and deal with various hazards between Missouri and Oregon.


It’s a real page-turner.

Lije (I assume it’s short for Elijah) Evans is the most central of the various characters in the book, the man who eventually becomes the captain of the caravan by virtue of the respect the other men in the group have for his character and his calmness. Yet it’s Dick Summers, who appeared in the preceding book The Big Sky, who makes the journey possible; he’s an experienced hunter and traveler with nearly supernatural capabilities, able to speak with many different Native American tribes, to hunt all manner of game and fish, and even to forecast the weather, a man without whom the group would likely have faltered somewhere east of Wyoming. The mutual admiration society that develops between these two stoic men is the emotional heart of the book, the one constant through the vicissitudes of the group’s months-long trek across dangerous and hostile terrain.

Guthrie infuses The Way West with plenty of subplots, although they lack the intensity or narrative greed of the two connected strands of the bromance between Evans and Summers and the overarching plot of the trip itself. Evans’ teenaged son Brownie becomes infatuated with the one teenaged girl in the caravan, Mercy McBee, the sexually precocious daughter of two rather worthless parents, who herself has gotten into trouble with the married Curtis Mack. (Mercy and Mack’s wife Amanda both show signs of past sexual abuse or trauma, although it’s never mentioned explicitly in the text.) Guthrie gives the Native Americans a little more humanity and intelligence than I’d expect of a writer of his era, especially as they’re seen through Summers’ eyes; while they’re still a bit of the ‘noble savage’ and are frequently depicted as thieves, Guthrie couldn’t be clearer about his disdain for white settlers who viewed them as less than human or took their lives without cause.

It’s definitely a male-centric novel, as the female characters are mostly props, even Lije’s wife Rebecca, who has some strength to her character but gets relatively little screen time, which adds to the book’s dated feel – we’re already going back over 150 years here, and while it’s historically accurate to have the white guys making all of the decisions and doing the hunting and shooting and fighting, the women on such caravans still had to do a tremendous amount of work. Giving a couple of the women more prominent roles than getting pregnant and cooking dinner would have made the novel a much more enduring read.

I also found it a bit light on action – there are hard times, including conflicts with natives and difficult terrain crossings, but they happen quickly, as if Guthrie very clearly did not want to confuse the people-centric narrative with the tension of a shootout with the Sioux or of a wagon collapsing as the group attempts to ford a rough river. Such scenes give way to longer passages of dialogue or describing the as-yet unspoiled country between the western edge of white civilization and the Pacific coast, which I imagine was part of the Pulitzer committee’s logic in choosing The Way West to win the award. The resulting book, however, is one that’s well-written but dry, lacking so many of the dimensions that make more recent winners (like The Orphan Master’s Son) more colorful, gripping experiences.

Next up: I knocked off Dawn Powell’s Come Back to Sorrento over the weekend and have since begun yet another Pulitzer winner, Shirley Ann Grau’s The Keepers of the House.

The Killer Angels.

Michael Shaara only wrote four novels during his life, one of which, the baseball book For the Love of the Game, was published posthumously and turned into a critically panned movie, but his magnum opus was the Civil War novel The Killer Angels, for which he won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That book, which takes its title from one general’s father’s reaction to a line in Hamlet, served as the basis for the four-hour epic film Gettysburg, and Joss Whedon has said it inspired him to create the series Firefly.

The book retells the Battle of Gettysburg in substantial detail, using memoirs and letters from the generals involved where possible, narrating from the perspective of five of those generals and showing the discord on the Confederate side on how to attack the Union’s positions. General James Longstreet wrote an extensive memoir after the Civil War and we get much of his view on the South’s ill-fated decision to hold Gettysburg rather than retreating to more favorable ground; instead, Robert E. Lee, who is depicted here as in failing health and of a distracted, stubborn mind, chose to attack Union positions on two hills south of the town that provided the blue troops with a decided defensive advantage. (Longstreet was roundly criticized for decades afterwards for these failures and his request to delay the assault until an additional brigade arrived for support.) The main voice for the Union, Joshua Lawrence Chamberain (called Lawrence by his brother, Tom, throughout the book), led the defense of one of those hills, Little Round Top, and became one of the war’s primary heroes after the battle, commanding the Union troops at the surrender ceremony at Appamattox and later serving four years as Governor of Maine.

The Killer Angels is a war novel through and through, which means there’s very little else in it – including no female characters at all, but also little dialogue or even thoughts beyond the exigencies of the next battle. If you’re interested in military tactics, there’s likely quite a bit in here for you to enjoy and digest, especially with Longstreet’s recollections of the battle informing so much of the text. If you like character development or any plot threads at all beyond the war itself, this isn’t the book for you – or me, as it turned out, because despite strong prose and a quick pace through the action, The Killer Angels struck me as rather dry and, no pun intended, an antiseptic look at a pivotal moment in U.S. history. They came, they fought, some of them died, and those losses – nearly 8000 soldiers from both sides were killed, with around 50,000 total casualties – seem horribly pointless through the narrow lens of the book, which gives no broader context to the battle. (Not that the broader context makes the deaths any less lamentable.) The generals in Washington who were directing the overall war effort are only present on these pages as the idiots the leaders on the ground criticize for their dimwitted direction, while families are off-page distractions mentioned only in passing. There’s none of the substance I’d expect to see in a work of literature, because Shaara chose to make the novel all about the battle itself. That may suffice for many readers, and it does qualify the work for the Pulitzer criterion that the winner “preferably (deal) with American life,” but it’s not my personal preference for higher-end reading.

Next up: Another Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner, A.B. Guthrie’s The Way West, which won in 1950.

The Late George Apley.

I’m on a little run of past Pulitzer Prize for Fiction/the Novel winners right now, and just finished John Marquand’s extremely subtle satire The Late George Apley, which won the prize in 1938 when it was still only awarded to novels. The book is clearly a satire of the isolated, self-important life of the patrician class of the early 20th century, especially the so-called Boston Brahmins, but Marquand plays it so straight that I found myself vacillating through half the novel on just what parts he might have wanted readers to take seriously.

The book is a sort of fake biography/epistolary novel, where a longtime friend and former classmate of the title character has been asked by Apley’s family to write a private story of the man’s life, leaning heavily on his correspondence. The author (the fictional one, that is) traces Apley’s story back several generations, explaining the grand history of his family line within the United States, the first of many times when he tries to impress upon the reader the importance of the name. He gives us Apley’s birth and upbringing in a life of privilege and strict expectations, his attendance at the prestigious Groton School in Massachusetts (then all boys, now coed, which would have made for an amusing postscript to the book) and at some liberal arts college in Cambridge, and so forth, with every step already laid out for him by his imperious father and the constraints of polite society of the time. He falls in love with an Irish Catholic girl, is forced to end it when he’s shipped off for a Grand Tour, comes home, marries a woman of proper breeding, bangs out a couple of kids, and so on.

It’s a dull story in its own right, which is part of the point, and how dull becomes apparent in the latter half of the book when Apley’s son and daughter take advantage of the lax attitudes of the 1920s to live a little. Apley’s letters to and about his children seem increasingly ridiculous as the world changes around him – he’s still worried about the shrubbery around the family estate when the stock market is crashing – and only when he realizes he has a terminal heart condition does it dawn on him that life has passed him by. His final letters are reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day was, full of regret without hope. Unlike the butler of Ishiguro’s novel, however, Apley’s heartbreak is darkly comic: He admits, not quite explicitly, that he should have sowed his wild oats when he was younger, gotten wasted more, gotten laid more, and told his parents to stuff it and married the girl he loved (she makes a brief cameo again at the end of the book).

I can understand why this would have won the Pulitzer in 1938, when I presume the board considering the candidates was all white males and this sort of American aristocracy was more prevalent in the culture. It didn’t resonate so much with me today, however; even though I went to that liberal arts school, the population was quite diverse ethnically and by gender, and they’ve since done quite a bit to improve the diversity of economic backgrounds too, making Apley’s experiences there seem as anachronistic as the semi-arranged marriage and emphasis on decorum and appearances. It’s an entertaining read, but it feels very dated today.

Next up: Michael Shaara’s 1974 Pulitzer winner The Killer Angels ($6 in paperback!), a novel of the Battle of Gettysburg that was adapted into the four-hour movie Gettysburg in 199.
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A Summons to Memphis.

My NL ROY ballot will go up tonight for Insiders, once the winner is announced; my last post over on that other site is on the Craig Kimbrel trade. My favorite comments so far have been tweets telling me I’m wrong, from people (at least three) who haven’t actually read the article. Yay Internet.

While working my way through the list of winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (until 1948 the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel), I’ve been somewhat surprised at how few winners have remained actively read books over the years. Some of the winners were duds, and only a handful made my own top 100 list, but the majority have at least been good books – above-average novels, at least, which should be enough to keep them around; perhaps it’s just the flood of new titles that pushes them off of the mainstream reader’s radar. Peter Taylor’s 1987 novel A Summons to Memphis is one of these – a good novel, amusing and serious, distinctly American in theme and outlook, enough that I’d recommend it but wouldn’t put it on my own rankings.

The narrator, Phillip Carver, gets the titular summons from his two spinster sisters because their widowed father, now 81, plans to marry again, to a somewhat younger woman, which of course raises questions of inheritance as well as of public perceptions. The sisters are comic entities in themselves – virginal in fact and in behavior, as if their emotional development stopped at age 15 while their bodies continued to swell to near-obesity in their fifties – while Phillip, more put together, has also never married, bearing the same scars as his sisters do from the traumatic move of their childhood. When their father was caught up in a scandal in Nashville, he had to move the family to Memphis and restart his career, uprooting them all, including their mother and another brother who later died in World War II, from the comfortable life they knew in the genteel city that sounds like Margaret Mitchell would have approved of it. Memphis is depicted as rougher, déclassé, foreign to the family, with each of the three children having to give up a potential marriage somewhere along the way due to their father’s disapproval or outright meddling. Although the novel opens with the summons, Phillip doesn’t make the actual trip to Memphis – the first of several, as it turns out – until about two-thirds of the way through the novel, after he’s told the reader of his childhood and the lost loves of the three siblings via a series of flashbacks.

There’s an element of King Lear in this book, although it’s not as explicit as the allusion made in a later Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the torpid A Thousand Acres. King Lear had three daughters, two of whom earn his favor through false flattery with an eye toward increasing their inheritance at their sisters’ expenses, but Lear descends into madness in his old age and the infighting between the siblings leads to … well, it’s a tragedy by Shakespeare, so you know they all die. A Summons to Memphis relies instead on emotional violence: the father wrecked the lives of his children, especially the sisters, so they have now come around to wreck what remains of his by blocking his attempt to marry again. Phillip, the one child who moved away from Tennessee and thus has escaped somewhat unscathed (a slight parallel to Cordelia, especially as both characters are reserved when discussing their emotions), ends up the one with some semblance of a thawing of his relationship with their father, even as the girls continue to plot their revenge to the bitter end.

The move a few hundred miles west, without even crossing state lines, seems to underscore the extent of the betrayal by the father’s business partner, who engineered the kind of financial scam that will never go out of style; while the elder Mr. Carver was cleared of any wrongdoing, it seems that he was unable to escape the shame in his own mind of his involvement, and, more importantly, of the fact that a man he considered his best friend was capable of such treason. This one event fractured their life as a family twice – once when he relocated the whole unit, including their servants, to Memphis; then again, when he exerts his authority over each family member to bend them to his will. So many individual moments and elements of the book are humorous, but the overall effect is one of deep emotional scarring.

I looked to see if any critics inferred the Lear comparison, and one of the greatest living American novelists, Marilynne Robinson, did just that in her 1986 review of the novel for the NY Times. Robinson, author of Housekeeping and the three related books that began with her own Pulitzer winner, Gilead, is a master of words and of characterization, so if she agrees with me on something, I view that as an enormous validation.

Next up: Another forgotten winner of the Pulizter, John P. Marquard’s 1938 satire The Late George Apley.

A Fable.

My ranking of the top 50 free agents for this winter, with scouting/stat notes on each player, is now up for Insiders.

…thinking how war and drink are the two things man is never too poor to buy.

William Faulkner is, I think, a pretty divisive figure in American literature; his lengthy sentences and often obscure descriptive style can make you insane, but he tells vast, emotionally complex stories that capture huge swaths of American history (especially of the South) through the lens of just a handful of characters. The connected novels Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury are both on my top 100, as is The Reivers, one of two novels for which Faulkner won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (posthumously, in this case). The other, A Fable, is largely overlooked today even within Faulkner’s oeuvre, despite its grand scale and rich subtexts, which seem ripe for literary analysis, but it may suffer from Faulkner’s obtuse prose and adumbration of character descriptions and plot details. (And his vocabulary; “adumbration” appears at least twice in the text, and Faulkner engages in his own wordsmithing at times, such as “cachinnant,” a Latin word that means something like “laughing immoderately.”)

A Fable is a highly allegorical work that takes the Christ-like Corporal Stephan, referred to for most of the book merely as “the corporal,” and puts him in the trenches in World War I, where he leads a group of 12 other commissioned officers in a mutiny of peace. The novel opens just after the corporal and his disciples have convinced an entire regiment of three thousand French soldiers to refuse to fight, after which their German enemies similarly lay down their arms, causing a spontaneous outbreak of peace in the midst of a war. The book itself covers the various reactions to the corporal’s move, where the French army wants to execute him while also covering up the incident so that the war can continue. Woven into this is a second, loosely related story of an injured American racehorse whose rider and trainer rescue him from either death or work as a captive stud, traveling to small towns where the horse still wins various races even though he’s running on three legs, with the rider becomes a sentry in the war and the trainer adopts a new identity and travels to Europe to find his partner.

The corporal’s Christ allusions are blatant, perhaps too much so for modern analysis. He’s 33 at the time of the mutiny and eventual execution. He’s tempted by his father (“the general”) before the order for his execution, and the night prior to his death he has a last supper with his disciples, including the one who betrays him and the one named Piotr who denies knowing Stephan three times. His mother was Marya, and his fiancée was a prostitute from Marseilles. After his death, his corpse disappears (thanks to a German air-raid). Even his name alludes to Christianity – Saint Stephan, who is mentioned in the New Testamant, is considered the first martyr in the history of the Christian Church.

The novel is virulently anti-war, as you might expect with a Christ figure at its center, but there are elements of the picaresque in the book as well, such as the ragtag group of soldier’s at the book’s conclusion who need to find a corpse to bury in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris. I don’t know if Joseph Heller read A Fable, but there’s a similar vein of lack of respect for military authority and an awareness of the absurdity of war as a solution for most international problems and of the war machine’s desire to keep the combat going as a way to feed itself. Faulkner thought of this novel as his masterpiece, which leads me to believe that he viewed it as a strong pacifist statement that would incorporate satire and religious/moral arguments as a statement against war, with World War II ending around the time he began the novel and the Korean War occurring while he was still writing it.

I found the reading itself to be difficult, in part because his prose is too prolix, perhaps Proustian, but even more because he refuses to use his characters’ names, sometimes failing to name them at all. Keeping the corporal, the runner, the sentry, the general, and so on straight is hard enough without using their names, and it’s worse when there’s another general (Gragnon, who oversaw the mutinous regiment and realizes his career is over when they stop fighting) and a handful of corporals running around the book. There’s one point where Faulkner connects the horse’s groom (Mr. Harry) with the sentry, but I kept forgetting the two were the same character because he never uses the name with the term “the sentry,” who’s also a bit of a loan shark in his new regiment. A surfeit of descriptive prose can be acceptable if it’s actually descriptive, but much of the first third of A Fable felt shrouded in fog to me, including the opening section with the mutiny and the scene where a German general flies through a faked firefight to reach a negotiation to resume combat. So while the plot itself is elegant and simple, with much to ponder and analyze, it’s a book that probably requires a second or third reading to fully grasp the specific details of the story. That’s the best reason I can conceive why it’s so little read or discussed today, even as less ambitious works like As I Lay Dying continue to receive copious praise.

Unrelated: So a smart, professional person of my acquaintance saw I was reading this book the other day and mentioned how she heard Faulkner speak at Montgomery College about “five to seven years ago.” Faulkner died in 1962. I didn’t know what to do with that so I just smiled and nodded.

Next up: James Essinger’s Ada’s Algorithm, a biography of Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron and the creator of the world’s first computer algorithm, about a century before we had the first true computer.