The Store.

Thomas Stribling’s The Store appears to be one of the most obscure winners on the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel/Fiction list; the only copy in the entire state of Delaware was at the University, and a friend in Boston reported that she could only find one copy in the area, with the other two books in this trilogy completely unavailable. You can buy it new, for $32 on Kindle or $40 in paperback, from the University of Alabama press, pricing that I interpret as an acknowledgment that if you’re looking for this book, you either really have to have it for school/work reasons, or you’re a completist trying to read the entire Pulitzer list. The cost may be the main reason the book is hard to find, but the text itself, while actually quite funny for its era and full of interesting, eccentric characters, is incredibly problematic in the pervasive racism and anti-Semitism, not just in the characters’ views but often in the descriptive prose itself. Language that may have been acceptable when Stribling wrote the book in 1931 or in the time of the book’s setting right after the Civil War is offensive today, even if you want to make a sort of park-adjustment for the context in which it was written. There are white characters in The Store who have what would have been seen as progressive views on race, but it’s hard to read it now without thinking of how backwards the rural south was for decades after the end of slavery.

The protagonist of the book is Colonel Miltiades Vaiden, who served in the Civil War but is left at odds and ends by the conclusion of the conflict, and eventually takes a job in a local general store in Florence, Alabama, with an eye towards eventually borrowing enough capital to open a store of his own. Vaiden runs afoul of his boss, who cheated Vaiden out of thousands of dollars about twenty years earlier, by refusing to short-change the black customers who come to the store, which is about as far as any white character gets in the book to an egalitarian view of the races. Eventually, the scrupulously honest Vaiden abandons his scruples when he finds a chance to get even with his former nemesis, stealing goods enough to cover his losses and then some, opening a store of his own and buying real estate, sparking a back-and-forth battle that claims at least one life and doesn’t end particularly well for anyone involved.

Along the way, Vaiden’s wife passes away – he’s really not that upset about this, as he’s constantly thinking about her as “his fat wife” – and he ends up trying to reunite with Drusilla, a woman who spurned him the night before their wedding many years before and whom he later courted and dumped for revenge. It’s not much of a romance, and when Vaiden does get married near the end of the book, it’s to Drusilla’s daughter, with this whole Electra-complex subtext that makes the result rather creepy to read.

The shame about the racism, the anti-Semitism, and the unromantic love story is that there’s a lot of dry humor and satire within the book; it’s a portrait of the postwar south, but not a nostalgic or favorable one. Stribling gives his black characters some actual depth, and the conversations they have with each other about how they don’t get the same treatment from the law that white suspects who commit the same or worse crimes do applies today just as it did a century-plus ago. Vaiden is by no means a hero; his principles shift according to his needs and circumstances, and it’s revealed over the course of the book that he committed a serious, violent crime of his own but escaped prosecution because he was white and the victim black. Economic injustice is everywhere in the story, including the fact that poor black farmers paid more for less when whites ran the only stores in town. (Vaiden seems to reflect the postwar, tacit racism, in contrast to the overt racism of many of his neighbors, as he treats his black and white tenants equally, and agrees to help one black farmer pay for artificial fertilizer to try to increase his yields.) The argument for Stribling here is that nothing about the story is unrealistic for its setting of 1870s; I’m sure the n-word was prevalent, and race relations were at least this bad in the backwoods of the south, but because the book was written in a time when blacks were still treated as inferior in every walk of life, the text is too soft on its subjects. It’s a quick read, but an uncomfortable one, to unclear benefit.

Next up: I’m most of the way through another Pulitzer winner, Margaret Ayer Barnes’ charming if dated Years of Grace.

Scarlet Sister Mary.

Julia Peterkin’s Scarlet Sister Mary won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1929, an award that apparently engendered some controversy, as the jury’s chairperson recommended a different book (John Rathbone Oliver’s Victim and Victor) and resigned in protest when Peterkin won. The historical record on this is spotty, and it’s unclear if Burton resigned because he disagreed with the choice, because he was embarrassed after he’d made public statements indicating Oliver’s book was going to win, or for other reasons. Of course, history has had its say on both titles, as Oliver’s book is long out of print and Peterkin’s is barely in it; neither has achieved any sort of lasting critical or popular acclaim. In the case of Peterkin’s novel, I think it’s easy to see why, because the book is so horribly out of date in its portrayal of Gullah people – African-Americans in the low country of South Carolina and Georgia, descended from slaves, with a creole unique to the region – as written by a white woman.

Scarlet Sister Mary profiles the title character, a Gullah woman who marries a ne’er-do-well in her community after he gets her pregnant – in and of itself a scandal in their church – and then abandons her. Rather than settle for a life of solitude, Mary chooses “pleasure” over fidelity to an absent husband, bearing many more children – even as her eldest son abandons her too – and constantly fighting the scorn and opprobrium of her peers and elders, two of whom serve as surrogate parents, within their church-centered village. Mary’s faith is largely secondary within the story to her desire to be a member in good standing of the church, and Peterkin doesn’t condemn her for her sexual liberation; the minister and his haughty wife are unsympathetic characters whose piety is merely a cloak for their sense of superiority over Mary and others outside of the flock.

Peterkin tries to replicate the creole of the Gullah in the dialogue in the book, but coming from the pen of a white author, the language is painful to read because it seems so much like caricature – even if, at the time, the author intended for it to be faithful rather than mocking. The ultimate effect of this rendition makes the characters seem like yokels, not just uneducated but primitive, which I doubt was Peterkin’s goal but is hard to avoid through the lenses of a reader nearly 90 years after the book’s publication.

That broaches the main question around Scarlet Sister Mary: How on earth did this trifling, unimpressive book manage to win a prestigious literary prize that, at the time, was almost exclusively given to novels by and about white people? Was the book seen at the time as a sympathetic portrait of poor African-Americans? Or as a feminist work because of its depiction of a woman who lives independently and ignores societal mores about women’s roles and sexuality? Or was it that the panel didn’t like Oliver’s book, which depicts a priest defrocked because of his drinking – similar to Oliver’s own experiences as a priest who left the clergy because he was gay – and thus chose Peterkin’s book because it was handy?

If you didn’t already get that I don’t recommend wasting your time on Scarlet Sister Mary, the only adaptation the book seems to have received was a stage show in 1930 starring Ethel Barrymore in blackface. History has consigned Peterkin’s book to the dustbin and I’m not surprised.

Next up: Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise.

Evicted.

I have two new Insider posts on the Verlander trade and the Justin Upton trade.

Princeton sociology professor and ethnographer Matthew Desmond won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, a stunning work of first-person research that examines a major socioeconomic problem from the ground level, rather than the top-down, data-driven approach I expected from a book in his genre. Desmond spent several months living among the inner-city underclass in several neighborhoods in Milwaukee in 2008 and 2009, shadowing tenants and landlords, witnessing evictions and forced moves, accompanying residents to rehab, AA meetings, even to court, recording what amounted to over 5000 pages of transcribed notes and conversations, to produce this devastating and utterly human portrait of people who simply do not exist to the house-secure classes.

Desmond’s aim here is clear: eviction is more than just a temporary loss of shelter, but a massive disruption to the economic and psychological well-being of entire families, a process that can lead to job loss, substance abuse, and crime, and a scarlet letter on a person’s record that can make it harder to obtain future housing and employment. The vulnerable class of the working or semi-working poor are victimized repeatedly by a system that takes the majority of their income, often over 75% of it, to cover rent for substandard housing, then punishes them if they fall behind and are evicted in a process that overwhelmingly favors the landlords. Tenants are often afraid to assert their rights, if they have any, or to report building code or maintenance violations for fear of retaliation. Once evicted, families may end up having to pay exorbitant fees to place their limited possessions in storage, with no access to their things, until the almost inevitable time when they can’t afford the monthly cost and lose what little they had.

Desmond accompanies several single residents and entire families on their journey through multiple evictions and the Lodge, a homeless shelter readers will know all too well before the book is complete. The access these people gave him is remarkable, as he captures their words at some of their most vulnerable and depressed moments, often witnessing their stuff being carted out to the curb in trash bags by Eagle Movers, who apparently maintain a truck (or two?) just for the purpose of serving landlords who are evicting residents. He also relates a firsthand account of housing discrimination – and explains in an afterword how the Fair Housing Authority did nothing with his formal complaint. (And that was under a Democratic administration; I doubt it’s any better today.) He also spends significant time with two slumlords – although he refuses to refer to either as such – to give their perspective, usually in their own words, even explaining how one, Sherrena, was “proud” of her landlord status and her collection of properties, even though Desmond makes it very clear that she is a nightmare landlord whose failure to maintain safe conditions in her buildings should probably have landed her in court.

By spending so much time with poor residents, Desmond also makes it clear what critical needs are not addressed when most of someone’s income – often income from disability payments – goes to cover the rent. Going without food, or without enough food, is an obvious outcome. But such tenants often have no heat or hot water, or sometimes can’t cover the gas or electric bills. Medical care is often entirely out of the question. Buying a new pair of shoes for a child, a mundane event for even middle-class families, is an enormous achievement. One of the few success stories in the book, Scott, a former nurse who lost everything when he became addicted to painkillers, has to borrow from his parents to cover the cost to get into a rehab program and begin taking methadone. Many other people Desmond follows don’t have even that bare safety net of a parent or relative to help cover a payment – or, in the case of one single mother, her safety net repeatedly refuses to help.

Desmond saves his prescriptions and recommendations for the epilogue, choosing instead to let the individual narratives tell the reader the overarching story of a system that traps these American untouchables in a cycle of poverty from which it is very difficult to escape. It’s easy to say, as so many politicians like to do, that the solution to poverty is to make poor adults go to work. That facile, elitist answer ignores the realities of work for the underclass: Available jobs barely pay enough to cover the rent, evictions and other related actions (police are often involved, with Milwaukee employing sheriffs specifically for this purpose) can count against someone on a job application, and missing time to try to find new living space can cost such a person his/her job. Affordable – or “affordable” – housing is often located far from work, with poor public transit options in many or most cities. We get repeated examples of people evicted because of the actions of someone else. One woman is evicted because the police were called to her apartment by a neighbor because her partner was beating her. Another loses what sounds like a perfect apartment because her young son got in a fight and her babysitter asked neighbors if they had any weed. And landlords get away with this because tenants don’t fight back, enforcement of what few rights they have is scarce, and there’s a line of people waiting to get into every apartment the evicted vacate.

In that epilogue, Desmond offers ideas and potential solutions, including universal housing vouchers that can be used anywhere, without discrimination, the way that recipients use food stamps. He speaks of reasonable housing as a fundamental human right, which is how western European governments and societies view it, arguing that “the pursuit of happiness” is impossible without adequate shelter. Desmond also pushes solutions that are, at best, antithetical to the capitalist underpinnings of our society, including broader rent control, without sufficient consideration of the economic consequences of such policies (rent control programs can stifle construction and push landlords to convert rental properties to non-rental ones). He seems to advocate for more public housing, but doesn’t discuss how we can expand the housing stock without repeating the problems of previous housing projects, many of which became unsafe and were razed within 20 years of their construction. His proposed solutions should spark discussion of how to solve the American housing crisis – or, at least, a discussion that there is a housing crisis at all – but seem like they will trade current problems for new ones rather than creating comprehensive solutions that at least consider how the market will react to major policy shifts. That’s a minor issue in a remarkable work that is dedicated more to exposing these problems to the wider audience, to bringing people in distress out of the shadows and into the public consciousness, because without that there won’t even be a conversation about how best to help them in an economy that still places a high value on the rights of private property owners.

I listened to the audio version of Evicted, which is narrated by actor Dion Graham, whose voice will be familiar to fans of The Wire. Graham does a masterful job of bringing the various characters to life with just subtle changes in tone – and treats these people, who are largely less educated and less articulate than, say, Graham himself is, with respect. It would be easy to caricature these underprivileged tenants, but Graham’s renditions infuse them with the quiet dignity they deserve, so that the listener may feel sorrow or pity for them, but not scorn.

Next up: Thomas Stribling’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Store. I’m about 60 pages in, and while the story is moving along, the casual racism in the writing – Stribling was from Alabama, set the novel in Florence, and has it taking place shortly after the Civil War – is appalling.

The Able McLaughlins.

Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel (now Fiction) in 1926, the sixth time the award was handed out, part of a surprising run where four winners in five years were women authors (along with Edith Wharton’s wonderful The Age of Innocence, Willa Cather’s sentimental One of Ours, and Edna Ferber’s forgettable So Big). Why it won is probably a mystery lost to the sands of time, as it’s a trifle of a work, a slim slice of quaint Americana that pays tribute to homesteaders and the strength of family, without memorable characters or a particularly solid plot.

(I’m going to spoil much of the story here, because you’re probably never going to read this book, and if I don’t get into plot details this post will be just six words long.)

The McLaughlins are a hard-working family of Scottish immigrants in Iowa with some indefinite number of children, one of whom, Wully, takes a fancy to the neighbors’ daughter Christie. He goes off to fight for a second time in the Civil War, but when he returns, Christie won’t so much as give him the time of day … because, he finally discovers, she’s pregnant, having been raped by another neighbor (and maybe cousin of Wully’s) named Peter Keith. Wully runs Peter out of town under threat of death, marries Christie, and claims the child – born too soon to have been conceived legitimately – as his own. Minor scandals and controversies ensue and fade away, until eventually Peter returns, having gone to see Christie, leading into a multi-chapter search around the area for him or his corpse, although only Wully and a few others know the reason for his departure.

That’s not a whole lot to go on, especially when reading with the morals of the modern reader who will see this all for what it is. Rape victims still feel shame today, but the idea that a woman is responsible for her rape is at least less pervasive in society today, so Christie acting as if she’d done something wrong, and then everyone working to hide the truth, is an anachronism that makes the entire story hard to accept today – even if you know this was a widespread attitude in the time of the book’s setting or publication. Instead of even questioning the established order, Wilson wrote a book about forgiveness and Christian morality; how Wully’s mother is so disappointed in him when she believes the baby is his, how relieved she is when she finds out it’s not and that he was doing the Right Thing by marrying Christie anyway, how Wully and Christie end up forgiving her assailant when he comes to a bad end.

It was really a tiresome read, bearing none of the good qualities of classic American literature, not prose, not memorable characters, and certainly not story. I’m not surprised the book is hard to find – Delaware’s statewide library system didn’t have a copy, so I had to request it from the University of Delaware via an inter-library loan. The copy I got appeared to be a first or very early edition, and it was falling apart as I read it, perhaps an apt metaphor for the irrelevance of this kind of story ninety years after it was written.

Next up: I finished Anna Smaill’s dystopian novel The Chimes and am almost done with John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

Advise and Consent.

“If you do that you won’t be liked,” a fatherly fellow Senator had advised him on some controversial matter soon after he arrived. “I don’t give a damn about being liked,” he had retorted impatiently, “but I sure as hell intend to be respected.”

Allen Drury’s dry political thriller Advise and Consent, winner of the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is set in an alternate universe where the Senate gives careful and thorough consideration to a candidate for a Cabinet post who is nominated by a bullying coward of a President. It’s a quaint novel, built on the extraordinary idea of a Senator standing on principle, even when opposing his own party, for the good of the country. It’s also too long by half and might be the most blatantly white male-centric Pulitzer winner I’ve read, without a single female character of any merit whatsoever in its 600-plus pages.

Drury never mentions political parties in the novel, instead simply casting them as the Majority and the Minority, with the President, also never named, in the Majority party. The novel revolves around the President’s nomination of Bob Leffingwell, a dove on relations with Russia, to be his new Secretary of State, casting aside the current occupant of the position as too hawkish. The book’s four main sections each focus on one participant in the deliberations over Leffingwell – the Majority Leader, Bob Munson; a longstanding Minority Senator, Seab Cooley; a young Majority Senator from Utah with a secret in his past, Brigham Anderson; and Orrin Knox of Illinois, the idealized Senator who is faced with a choice between the Right Thing and his own Presidential aspirations. Each character is richly drawn in two dimensions – we get a tremendous amount of detail, including biographies of each from childhood, so much of it unnecessary – but lacks the real complexity of actual people.

Over the course of the first half of the book, the accusation that Leffingwell was once a member of a communist discussion group comes to light, is disproven, then resurfaces, and the second time the news gets to Sen. Anderson, who had a brief affair with another man while serving in the Navy in World War II in Honolulu. Now married with a young daughter, from the conservative state of Utah, Anderson is an easy mark for blackmail, and when information on his dalliance comes to the hands of the President, he has no compunction about using it. (The entire episode is modeled after the true story of Sen. Lester Hunt, who killed himself in his Senate office after colleagues tried to blackmail him over the arrest of his son for soliciting sex with an undercover officer.) The consequences of this extortion attempt put Leffingwell’s merits on the back burner and put his opponents, including Sen. Knox, in direct conflict with the President, who refuses to withdraw his candidate even with the evidence of his previous flirtations with communism known to him.

The book is as slow as it sounds; Drury’s pace is leisurely and his sentences tediously long. It’s not a book of action, but it’s also not a book of much dialogue, either, which slows its pace further and left me wondering how Drury intended to push the plot forward. There are maybe a half-dozen memorable scenes in the book – the first hearing where Leffingwell confronts his accuser and the resolution of Brigham Anderson’s section come to mind – and far too much time showing the Senators spending time with their generic wives or chatting with the stereotyped ambassadors from India, Russia, France, and England. The backroom dealing that determines the fate of the candidate should be front and center, but Drury distracts the reader from the good stuff too often.

Anderson’s story could have been the center of a better, if less ambitious, novel, but would never have seen the light of day in 1960. As it is, Drury evinces some empathy for his character, but every discussion of his past transgression is in the light of what a terrible sin it was, even beyond what it might have meant for the character’s political career. It doesn’t make the book flawed – every work of art should be evaluated at least in part based on the time in which it was created – but it does make it seem very dated.

There’s also a lot of setup here for future books, ones Drury did eventually write, that brings nothing to the table in this one – notably the marriage between the children of two of the Senators in the story and the decision by that son to begin his own political career. It’s all prologue but for a book I have no interest in reading, and only served to make this book longer. And if you strip out all this extraneous content I’ve identified here, what are you left with? The story itself is quite thing beyond the Anderson scandal, and that’s the one area where Drury gave us too little verbiage. Add to that the fairy-tale idea of Senators who take their job to evaluate nominees seriously beyond mere partisan rubber-stamping and you get a book that seems to talk about an America that never existed in the first place.

I’m down to eight unread Pulitzer winners, the most recent of which is Mackinlay Kantor’s mammoth 1955 novel Andersonville.

Next up: I’ve got about 100 pages left in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-Up Girl.

Dragon’s Teeth.

Upton Sinclair is best remembered today for two of his early novels, the expose The Jungle and the novel Oil!, the latter of which was the basis for the movie There Will Be Blood. (Little-known fact: when Sinclair was on his deathbed, he had a clause put in his will that the movie version had to star Daniel Day-Lewis, who was just 11 years old at the time.) Sinclair later penned a series of eleven novels starring the charismatic socialist Lanny Budd, and the third one, Dragon’s Teeth, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1943. It was out of print for years before the entire Budd series reappeared last year in ebook form, which is how I picked up Dragon’s Teeth (on sale one day for $2).

The novel is very much a product of its time, a blend of wartime patriotism and unrealistic action, with Lanny almost too good to be real and yet surrounded by many flawed characters, including his shallow socialite wife. (There isn’t a female character worth a damn in the book.) The story is the real driver here, as Budd, who’s living abroad in Europe for most of the novel, becomes an early prophet of doom as Hitler begins his rise to power in the late 1920s, even as those around him continue to try to do business with the German government or claim that the worst won’t come to pass. The novel’s second half becomes more action-oriented, where Budd has to rescue two Jewish friends, first a father then the son, from imprisonment by the Nazis, where Sinclair also provides a window into what’s really happening in Nazi Germany – perhaps a bit late by the time it was published, but certainly a reaction to the belief by some Americans that stories of Nazi atrocities were exaggerated or false.

There’s a lot more story than I just gave you – in 600+ pages, there had better be – but much of it is window dressing, or weak criticism. Sinclair appeared to have little or no use for the idle rich, and his depictions of their total indifference to the suffering of the poor and of the Jews in Germany are hard to take – although I concede they may have been very real. (We’re certainly seeing lots of indifference to the poor in our country today.) Sinclair ratchets up the tempo by raising the stakes – there’s really no reason to believe either or both of the Jews Lanny is trying to rescue will be found alive, or come out of the camps intact. But he doesn’t give a ton of depth to most of his characters; it’s a serious novel, but breezes along in parts like a comedy of manners.

What did surprise me, however, was Sinclair’s treatment of the two Jews at the heart of the story. American authors prior to 1950 or so tended to depict Jewish characters using hackneyed stereotypes, if they depicted them at all. Sinclair has Lanny related to the family by marriage, which I imagine would have been scandalous in polite society of the time, and his desire to rescue his friends/relatives is both philosophical and personal. The father Johannas is a businessman, but the Germans are the ones obsessed with money here – the price of freedom in both cases is money, everything Johannas has in the first case, then another exorbitant sum to free his son.

Throughout the Lanny Budd series, Sinclair puts the protagonist into major world events, here having Lanny meet with Hermann Göring and Adolf Hitler multiple times, putting Lanny right in the middle of The Night of Long Knives, and sending Johannas’ son (and thus Lanny) to Dachau. Other real-world events appear via news reports so that Lanny can react to them (or expound his socialist views) and scold the Pollyannas who take Hitler at his word or try to continue to do business with Germany after the Nazis took over. In the moment, it probably felt like an important book that captured a time that was eight years in the past but also relevant to ongoing current events. Today, though, it seems heavy and dated, saved by brisk writing and plenty of action in the book’s second half, but not enough to make it stand up like Sinclair’s better-known works.

Next up: I’ve been reading Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear diptych, winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novel, and have about 350 pages to go in the second book.

The Underground Railroad.

Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad won the National Book Award for that year and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the first book to win both awards. The last three Carnegie Medal for Fiction winners have gone on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well, making Whitehead’s book the current favorite for that honor as well, and it would certainly fit both in the quality of the work itself and the kind of American themes the Pulitzer committee is charged with identifying.

Whitehead’s alternative history has an actual railroad operating underground, in secret, ferrying slaves to freedom in the north with the help of abolitionist whites, with southern plantation owners and slave-hunters trying to ferret out its locations and operators. This becomes the route for Cora, a slave on a brutal plantation in Georgia who has been abandoned by her mother (who fled the plantation without a word) and finds the farm’s ownership going from bad to worse, as she attempts to find freedom in the north despite impossible odds and the threat of torture and death if she’s caught and returned to her owner.

Cora herself is one of the great strengths of the novel, as Whitehead has created one of the most memorable and compelling female protagonists in American fiction. It’s easy for a writer to craft a fictional slave who captures the sympathy of readers; Whitehead’s success is in crafting one who captures our empathy. Cora is strength in futility, a tightly wound ball of fear, rage, and grief who makes her dash out of a desire for freedom and a quest for a connection to the family she’s lost. She’s neither broken by the dehumanizing experiences she had as a slave, nor unbroken as we might expect of a fictional heroine. There’s enough reason in Cora’s character to doubt that she’ll succeed in reaching her goal.

The other strength of The Underground Railroad is the setting, which goes beyond the mere reimagining of the titular escape route as a physical entity. Cora lands in South Carolina and then North Carolina, each of which has come up with its own “solution” to the slave question rather than continuing to employ slaves as in the true antebellum south – but, of course, South Carolina’s superficial paradise has a sinister plan beneath the surface, while North Carolina chose to end slavery in vile fashion that has some unfortunate parallels in our modern climate. She eventually ends up in Indiana, where a house of free blacks simply proves too successful to stand even in the face of whites who oppose slavery and would likely feign horror if anyone called them racists. None of these places after Georgia is based in historical reality; each is the product of an imagination that can take a metaphor and create a realistic setting that puts ideas into buildings, people, and actions. It’s fictional but not fanciful, and each location is a world unto itself that could easily have hosted an entire novel and would generate hours of discussion about the meanings beneath the details.

Cora is hunted throughout the book by the amoral, mercenary slave-hunter Ridgeway, who refers to any slave as “it” and travels with the most motley crew of associates imaginable. But Ridgeway himself is utterly two-dimensional, maybe one-dimensional, and instead seemed to me to be a clear attempt by Whitehead to make Cora’s fear of recapture and memories of oppression incarnate. She cannot escape her past until and unless she escapes Ridgeway for good. That doesn’t make him an interesting character, but in a book that seems to urge us to fight the national tendency to forget the sins of our fathers, it makes him an invaluable one.

The nature of the rest of the book makes the other characters, most of whom are white, less than two-dimensional as well, although again it seems that Whitehead is using these people as stand-ins for ideas. The well-meaning whites in South Carolina are particularly striking because they are so opaque, and because they tell themselves they’re doing the Right Things, even when what they’re doing is ultimately both wrong and springs from a sentiment that is itself thoroughly wrong. The couple who harbor Cora in North Carolina present different sides of the white person who knows slavery is wrong, but chooses to look the other way, to decline to get involved, or to just generally protect his/her own well-being rather than helping others in more desperate straits. Creating so many underdeveloped side characters is generally a major flaw in a novel, but the genius here is in creating characters from ideas without them becoming totally one-note.

I have no idea if The Underground Railroad should or will win the Pulitzer, since I haven’t read any other 2016 books yet aside from the one I’m reading now, Francine Prose’s Mister Monkey. I can say that few books of recent vintage have disturbed me the way Whitehead’s book has; the world he’s created manages to be abhorrent and magnetic at once, a world you’d never want to live in but that you can’t help but want to see. And it’s so full of ideas without ever devolving into sermon, imploring us to remember our past and accept that we will never fully escape it. The book’s final chapter is less conclusion than peroration, showing us the difficulty of becoming free of our history and depicting just one narrow path to get there.

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.