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.

Honeydew.

I was totally unfamiliar with the American short story writer Edith Pearlman until earlier this year, when I saw her name and her latest collection, Honeydew, on a list of likely candidates for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (eventually won by Thanh Viet Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer). Honeydew didn’t end up on the short list, but I’d already bought it and I’m stubborn like that. Most of the stories in the book run around 10-12 pages yet manage to create totally believable, well-rounded little worlds, usually with at least one three-dimensional character, yet with a very light touch that keeps the prose moving.

Pearlman’s stories focus on some little detail of ordinary life and exploring its effects on one or more of the characters, but all seem to tie around the idea of finding enough happiness to get by. Several stories are set in or around an antique shop in the fictional Massachusetts town of Godolphin, owned by the slightly eccentric Rennie, who lives by a very specific code in dealing with her clients, but seems less able to apply similar rules and limits on her own life. We experience her shock, when, for example, the wife half of a couple who frequently shop with her falls ill and requires hospice care, and the husband refers to Rennie as one of her closest friends. But is this the sadness of a woman who was simply without friends, or is the problem Rennie’s for failing to recognize the meaning she held in someone else’s life?

In “Hat Trick,” four teenage girls are mooning over boys when one girl’s mother, a bit drunk and bitter, concocts a game where the girls put the names of various boys on slips of paper and place them in a hat, to be drawn at random but never revealed; each girl then must pursue the boy whose name she drew. It is a realistically-drawn fable; the girls take the pledges seriously, or at least three of them do, and the results, while hardly what the reader might expect, feel real. Each girl pursues happiness and finds some – the “happy enough” bit I mentioned above comes directly from the mother in this story – even though her fate was determined by a sort of rigged random draw.

“Castle 4,” one of the longest stories in the book, has a bit of a Hollywood ending, but the core character, the introverted anesthesiologist who rejects copious advances from women (dude, what are you doing), is so alienated from other people that you can feel cold just reading about him. He drifts through the job and social functions like a shade, making only the barest minimum of contact with others, yet his story resolves when he falls for a patient whose back pain turns out to be terminal, stage 4 cancer. The conclusion is forced, but his attraction to a woman who has been forced into an isolated state by circumstance fits with the way Pearlman has defined his impalpable character.

The title story ends the collection but was one of my least favorites in the book, as it’s less realistic and uncharacteristically overwrought. The headmistress at a girls’ prep school in New England is concerned about an anorexic student, yet is having an affair with the girl’s father, and is six weeks’ pregnant with his child. None of the characters gets the full development of those in other stories, although Pearlman does write brilliantly about the eating disorder itself, and there’s the whiff of the hackneyed in the setting itself.

There’s a bit of dry wit in many of her stories as well, which helps keep the stories moving even when the themes could be depressing, none more so than in “Blessed Harry,” in which a Latin teacher at that same prep school gets an out-of-the-blue invitation to speak at a conference in England on “the meaning of life and death.” The teacher’s kids, sporting varying degrees of cynicism, all immediately suspect it’s a hoax, while he at first allows himself to soak in the feeling that he’s wanted, that he’s been more of a success in his working life than he actually has. It’s a bit more respectable than a 419 scam, but Pearlman milks it for humor before the teacher begins to realize where the success and meaning in his own life lie. These little moments of grace or insight in an existentialist context, coupled with her ability to quickly define and fill out her characters, carried me through Honeydew as if I were reading a single, gripping narrative.

Next up: Connie Willis’ Bellwether.

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.

My friend Samantha has been touting the work of Nathan Englander for a while now, and I finally cracked open his first collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, last week. Even though the subject matter couldn’t be more foreign to me – many of the stories revolve around Hasidim, adherents of an ultra-orthodox sect of Judaism – Englander’s prose and his insight into human emotions are uncanny, especially given his age when he wrote many of these stories. He deftly blends humor into stories that get at serious questions like spirituality, gender equality, and finding hope in the hopeless.

The nine stories within the collection all encompass Jewish themes or characters, but range from World War II to a modern Hasidic community in New York and the aftermath of a bombing in Tel Aviv. The first story, “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” evokes the Night of the Murdered Poets with a story of the roundup of 27 Jewish writers in the postwar Soviet Union, a number that should have been 26 but mistakenly includes a shut-in writer whose work has never seen the light of day. “The Tumblers” reads like a fable, telling of the Jewish residents of a European city’s ghetto who are deported to a concentration camp but manage, however briefly, to stave off their fates by pretending to be a traveling circus of acrobats, a tragicomic story because you know it can’t really end well, but the individual moments are light even in extreme darkness.

My personal favorite in the collection, “The Gilgul of Park Avenue,” takes the concept of the gilgul, a belief of Jewish mysticism of the transmigration of a Jewish soul from one body to another, and turns it into a story that is by turns a slapstick comedy and a serious look at what happens in a marriage when the two partners have divergent spiritual beliefs. A nonbelieving Christian experiences an epiphany while riding in the back of a taxi in Manhattan: He realizes, or perhaps it just hits him, that he’s Jewish. And it’s not just a lark, as he rather quickly becomes orthodox, keeping kosher, adopting various rituals, seeking the advice of a sort of iconoclast rabbi who also believes in this doctrine of transmigration. The wife, however, is not having it, and tries to get her husband’s psychiatrist to talk sense into him, culminating in a painful, awkward dinner with the four of them (eating kosher) where Englander refuses to give us a true resolution, because there isn’t one: when two people disagree on such a fundamental issue, one that in this case would pervade most of their mundane lives as well as their spiritual ones, there’s no easy answer.

“Reb Kringle” is just what you’d expect – a Jewish man who bears a strong resemblance to Santa Claus reluctantly plays the part every December, until he meets the child who causes his hidden self to rebel against the subterfuge … and yet his overreaction doesn’t negate the truth of the injustice the child faces. The closing story, “In This Way We Are Wise,” goes in the other direction, ditching the comedy of the earlier stories to look at how ordinary people can survive living in an environment where terror is banal, ten brief pages that walk one survivor through the immediate aftermath of yet another cafe bombing in Israel.

Englander’s great gift is the intense realism of his dialogue – the spoken words, and the interior thoughts – of each of these characters, who seem so very normal because Englander can paint them quickly with broad strokes that hit the canvas with precise edges. The mentally ill Jewish father of “Reunion” could be a clown, or a nut, but in fact is a very regular guy with some sort of mania that is destroying his family. The central character in “Gilgul” is also run-of-the-mill, but even when what he says – like announcing to the taxi driver, “Jewish, right here in your cab” – is absurd, the voice, the scene, the specific words make it plausible. Englander’s fiction reads like fact because he writes people as people are.

Next up: More short stories, this time Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew.

Tenth of December.

I wasn’t familiar with the work of American short story writer George Saunders until a friend of mine here in Delaware (the father of one of my daughter’s classmates) recommended Saunders’ collection Tenth of December, which won the 2013 Story Prize and the inaugural Folio Prize, while it was shortlisted for the National Book Award (along with Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland), losing to James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird. Saunders has a clear gift for speaking in tongues, using wildly different narrative voices from story to story, sometimes to the detriment of the story, while the vignettes themselves capture dark emotions through the eyes of ordinary (if a bit off-kilter) narrators.

The title story closes the book, and tells of a chance encounter between an adult man who intends to kill himself by allowing himself to freeze to death, and a teenaged boy who believes or is merely fantasizing that the girl on whom he has a crush has been abducted by the first man. When the boy falls into a frozen lake, the man is forced to abandon his plan if he wants to save the boy, while the reader hears his internal monologue explaining why he wants to take his own life. It takes a while to get going, which is true of most of the stories in the volume, but the pace accelerates once all of the critical elements are in place.

The real centerpiece of the book, both the most complex story and the one with the most irritating narration, is “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” written by a suburban father who’s struggling to provide a middle-class upbringing for his daughters. The story is told as a series of journal or diary entries from the father, who often dispenses with grammatical niceties like subjects, so the whole thing reads like it was written by a three-year-old (with a big vocabulary) or by Cookie Monster. The father has a Willy Loman-esque quality to his yearnings for more material trappings for his kids, especially his oldest daughter, who’s feeling the social impact of being one of the least affluent students in her school, while he and his wife (who don’t seem to be any too sharp with money) slowly rack up strangling consumer debt. An unexpected windfall allows him to splurge on a gift for his daughter, the Semplica Girls, whose plight – I won’t spoil it – should open his eyes to what real poverty and hopelessness are like, but don’t because he’s so caught up in his own internal rat race.

Saunders gets some comparisons to Vonnegut, although I think the latter was more wry and cynical where Saunders finds far more humanity in his characters and shows more empathy for them. “Escape from Spiderhead” describes the experiences of a convict in an experimental prison where the prisoners end up test subjects for a variety of drugs used to stimulate or repress feelings of love and lust. It’s a Vonnegut-esque view of the future, but where Vonnegut would have used the setting as a commentary on our increasing reliance on the pharmaceutical industry or the dangerous intersection of technology and the human condition, Saunders instead uses it as mere backdrop for the central character’s inner conflict when the warden/director administers a drug that delivers horrible mental and emotional pain to another patient while he’s forced to watch.

As in any collection, fiction or essays, one author or many, the quality within Tenth of December fluctuates. “Victory Lap,” the opener, takes a disturbingly distant, antiseptic view of one young boy, whose parents are strict to the point of abusive, facing an internal struggle whether to stop the potential rape of his young neighbor, a girl who appears to have thrown him overboard as a friend as she became more popular and his parents restricted him from any kind of socializing. “Home” may be a highly effective story of a young veteran returning from Iraq, struggling to deal with his own emotional trauma while he encounters an absolute mess in every aspect of his home life, but the story left me thinking I lacked the life experience (as in, I never served) to appreciate or evaluate what Saunders was trying to tell me. The ending of “Puppy” didn’t click with me at all, as it seemed like Marie would have made the opposite choice when confronted with the horrifying detail that turns her away.

Saunders’ facility with language, not so much his vocabulary but his ear for syntax, affect, the sound of words whether spoken or thought, was by far the strongest aspect of Tenth of December, making it easy for me to get lost in a story even if I didn’t find the plot itself terribly compelling. And the fact that he has empathy for most of his characters (aside, perhaps, from the two leads in “Victory Lap”) made it an emotional read as well, given his ability to get the reader into a character’s mind. When Saunders’ stories are more just stories and less with A Point, Tenth of December can match any anthology I’ve read.

If you’re intrigued and want to read a bit of his writing, Saunders’ nonfiction essay “Manifesto: A press release from People Reluctant to Kill for an Abstraction,” which appeared in Slate in 2004, is a marvelous read.

Next up: Andrew Lawler’s Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization, which uses the word “cock” more often than any book I’ve ever read.

The Imperfectionists.

I’m still slogging my way through David Foster Wallace’s leviathanic novel Infinite Jest, but before I cracked this one open (figuratively, as I acceded to the ease of tackling this three-pound tome on an e-reader), I read Tom Richman’s marvelous 2011 debut novel, The Imperfectionists. Reminiscent in form of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2011, Rachman’s book is exponentially better in every aspect, from execution to prose to characterization, and should have won the prize over Egan’s book in a rout.

The Imperfectionists revolves around the staff of an English-language newspaper published in Rome, a paper that is dying the slow death of print as the Internet erodes its business model underneath its presses. (This paper hasn’t even established a Web presence, so backwards are its operations.) The staff of Americans comprises the motley crew you’d expect to find in such an ensemble novel, as in Then We Came to the End, with Rachman giving each character his or her own short story within the novel, while connecting everyone across the stories, jumping around slightly in time or place, so that the result is a richly textured work that provides insight into everyone – and into people in general – by looking at each character through several lenses and at varying distances.

Rachman’s style won me over through its incisive internal monologues, often the most cliched writing in any book. His dialogue is spectacular as well, but when he moves the voice into a character’s head, he might make you uncomfortable with how accurate and honest the writing feels, rarely if ever lapsing into the kind of overwrought nonsense that might make you want to pull a Pat Solitano and put a book through a window. His characters are mostly compelling, all sympathetic to enough of an extent that you want to hear what happens, yet all flawed in believable ways, especially around fidelity, which is the book’s dominant (but not sole) theme. Rachman adds interstitial passages on the history of the newspaper, from its founding to its demise, and crafts a subtle parallel between that rise and fall and the cycles of human relationships.

The strongest of those parallels develops around the subject of betrayal, as Rachman depicts relationships that unravel due to affairs, that survive in spite of them, or that struggle to stay true. The sense of loyalty that held the newspaper together while its wealthy founder/patron and, later, his son, keep the publication afloat morphs into a sense of betrayal as ownership declines to further subsidize the mounting losses, leading to staff cutbacks and eventually the paper’s closure. He crafts other stories around the death of a staffer’s child (for me, by far the hardest to read) or the inner emotional turmoil of the least-liked member of the staff, the subject of derisive comments in previous stories who becomes simultaneously an object of sympathy and pity as you understand why she is who she is.

The one thing The Imperfectionists lacks is a real conclusion, at least in the traditional sense of the structure of the novel: Each story is self-contained, with some kind of climax and resolution, but the novel as a whole does not have a single, linear plot, with just a brief epilogue attached to provide some kind of closure for readers invested in specific characters. I thought the novel would have stood alone without that appendage, as Rachman’s skill in crafting characters made further revelations unnecessary – I completed each story feeling as if I had learned what there was to learn about the character at its heart. It’s a remarkable book that deserves your attention.

Next up … well, let’s just say that the book I’m reading how is giving me the howling fantods.

A Visit from the Goon Squad.

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday five, #2.

Five books, five links to my own stuff, and five links to others’ articles.

I’ve read eight books since my last post on any of them, so I’m going to take a shortcut and catch up by highlighting the five most interesting. Now that spring training is ending, I hope to get back to regular dishblogging soon.

* Charles Seife’s Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea is the one non-fiction book in this bunch, a history-of-math tome that incorporates a fair amount of philosophy, physics, and religion all in a book that’s under 200 pages and incredibly readable for anyone who’s at least taken high school math. The subject is the number zero, long scorned by philosophers, theologians, and even some mathematicians who resisted the idea of nothing or the void, yet which turned out to be critical in a long list of major scientific advances, including calculus and quantum mechanics. I generally prefer narrative non-fiction, but Zero moves as easily as a math-oriented book can get without that central thread.

* Dashiell Hammett’s Nightmare Town is one of three major Hammett short-story collections in print (along with The Continental Op and the uneven The Big Knockover), and my favorite for its range of subjects and characters without feeling as pulpy as some of his most commercial stories. The twenty stories are all detective stories of one sort or another starring several different Hammett detectives, including early iterations of Sam Spade and the character who eventually became the Thin Man, as well as a western crime story that might be my favorite short piece by Hammett, “The Man Who Killed Dan Odams.”

* Readers have recommended Tim O’Brien’s short story cycle The Things They Carried for several years, usually any time I mention reading another book that deals with the Vietnam War and/or its aftermath. The book, a set of interconnected stories that feels like an novel despite the lack of a central plot, is based heavily on O’Brien’s own experiences in that conflict, especially around death – of platoon mates, of Viet Cong soldiers, of Vietnamese civilians, and of a childhood crush of O’Brien’s who died at age 9 of a brain tumor. The writing is remarkable, more than the stories themselves, which seemed to cover familiar ground in the genre, as well as O’Brien’s ability to weave all of these disconnected stories into one tapestry around that central theme of death and the pointlessness of war. The final story, where he ties much of it together by revisiting one of the first deaths he discussed in the book, is incredibly affecting on two levels as a result of everything that’s come before.

* I’m a big Haruki Murakami fan – and no, I haven’t read 1Q84 yet and won’t until it’s in paperback – but Dance, Dance, Dance was mostly a disappointment despite some superficial entertainment value, enough to at least make it a quick read if not an especially deep one. A sequel of sorts to A Wild Sheep Chase, it attempts to be more expansive than that earlier novel but still feels like unformed Murakami, another look at him as he built up to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a top-ten novel for me that hit on every level. Dance is just too introspective, without enough of Murakami’s sort of magical realism (and little foundation for what magical realism it does contain) and no connection between the reader and the main character.

* I loved Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a funny, biting satire on upper-class life in the United States just after World War I, so I looked forward to House of Mirth, present on the Modern Library and Bloomsbury 100 lists, expecting more of that sharp wit but receiving, instead, a dry, depressing look at the limitations of life for women in those same social circles prior to the war. It’s a tragedy with an ironic title that follows Lily Bart through her fall from social grace, thanks mostly to the spiteful actions of other women in their closed New York society; it’s a protest novel, and one of the earliest feminist novels I’ve read (preceded, and perhaps inspired, by Kate Chopin’s The Awakening), but I found myself feeling more pity than empathy for Lily as a victim of circumstances, not of her own missteps.

Next up: I’m reading Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman (filmed as The American) and listening to Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works. The Booth book is on sale through that link for $5.60.

Five things I wrote or said this week:

On Jeff Samardzija’s revival.

This week’s chat.

One batch of spring training minor league notes, including the Angels, A’s, Rangers, and Royals.

Tuesday’s “top 10 players for 2017” column, which I emphasized was just for fun and still got people far too riled up. There’s no rational way to predict who the top ten players will be in five years and I won’t pretend I got them right. But it was fun to do.

I interviewed Top Chef winner and sports nut Richard Blais on the Tuesday Baseball Today podcast, in which he talked about what it was like to “choke” (his word) in the finals on his first season and then face the same situation in his second go-round. We also talked about why I should break my ten-year boycott of hot dogs.

And the links…

* The best patent rejection ever, featuring Borat’s, er, swimsuit.

* A spotlight on Massachusetts’ outdated liquor laws. For a state that likes to pretend it’s all progressive, Massachusetts is about thirty years behind the times when it comes to alcohol, to say nothing of how the state’s wholesalers control the trade as tightly as the state liquor board does in Pennsylvania. The bill this editorial discusses would be a small start in breaking apart their oligopoly, but perhaps enough to start to crumble that wall.

* I admit it, I’m linking to Bleacher Report, but Dan Levy’s commentary on how Twitter has affected what a “scoop” means, especially to those of us in the business, is a must read. And there’s no slidshow involved.

* The Glendale mayor who drove the city into a nine-figure debt hole by spending government money to build facilities for private businesses – including the soon-to-be-ex-Phoenix Coyotes – won’t run for a sixth term, yet she’s receiving more accolades than criticism on the way out. Put it this way: Given its schools, safety, and public finances, we never considered Glendale for a second when looking to move out here.

* The “pink slime” controversy has led the manufacturer to suspend production at three of its four plants. That makes for a good headline, but are job losses really relevant to what should be a discussion of whether this is something people, especially schoolchildren, should be consuming? And now the controversy is moving on to carmine dye, derived from an acid extracted from cochineal beetles and used in Starbucks frappuccinos. If nothing else, I applaud the new emphasis on knowing exactly what we’re eating.

The Big Knockover.

Dashiell Hammett is best known today for his signature detective Sam Spade (from The Maltese Falcon) and for the crime-solving duo Nick and Nora (from The Thin Man), but was also a prolific writer of short stories, many of which haven’t been published since their original appearances in pulp magazines like Black Mask. The Big Knockover is one of three major collections of Hammett’s stories currently in print, including nine short stories (two of which together form a sort of two-part novella) and the beginning of an unfinished novel.

That unfinished novel, Tulip, is the star piece in the collection is the least Hammett-like and the least readable. In its fifty-ish pages, making it roughly the length of most of the stories in this book, Hammett speaks to the reader through a character who writes for a living but is caught in a post-midlife introspection that has him questioning his choices in his career, including what I take as a fear of historical obsolescence after the wave of post-modern/realist works that were all the critical rage during Hammett’s own heyday:

“But couldn’t you just write things down the way they happen and let your reader get what he wants out of ’em?”
“Sure, thats’ one way of writing, and if you’re careful enough in not committing yourself you can persuade different readers to see all sorts of different meanings in what you’ve written, since in the end almost anything can be symbolic of anything else, and I’ve read a lot of stuff of that sort and liked it, but it’s not my way of writing and there’s no use pretending it is.”
“You whittle everything down to too sharp a point,” Tulip said.” I didn’t say you ought to let your reader run hog-wild on you like that, though I can’t see any objections to letting them do your work for you if they want to, bu –”
“Not enough want to make it profitable,” I said, “though you’re likely to get nice reviews.”

I’m not sure if Hammett ever could have finished Tulip, although he wrote the last few paragraphs; the story has no plot at all, instead just relying on an extended, meandering dialogue between the writer, Pop, and the character Tulip, who wants more than anything to give Pop the material for some new story or book, even though Tulip’s stories themselves may be mostly fiction. Dialogue tends to read quickly, of course, but the lack of any narrative greed made Tulip slow going overall, and would be of interest only to Hammett completists or those who, like me, wished for more of a window into the writer’s soul.

The remaining stories in The Big Knockover are pulp detective stories, and in general lacked the austerity and tension of his best novels or even of the stories starring the same detective found in the collection The Continental Op, which I recommend very highly if you’re into detective fiction at all. In The Big Knockover, the plotting is mostly Hammett with familiar patterns and the usual double-crossing, but the language is gussied up for what I presume was the mass market. The long series of nicknames for crooks appearing in the title story was the last straw for me, names like “The Shivering Kid” and “Paddy the Mex” … that much egg salad just distracted me from what was going on underneath the silly language. And one story, “Dead Yellow Women,” is so full of racist language and stereotypes aimed at Asians that I nearly gave up in disgust. The strongest one in the collection is the opener, “The Gutting of Couffignal,” about a major heist on a wealthy island enclave reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s West and East Egg, where Hammett uses weather and a wide cast of characters to build and sustain tension until the end of the story.

Next up: Jasper Fforde’s One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, book six in the Thursday Next series, which is living up to expectations through the first third.

Home and A Good Man Is Hard to Find.

My latest top 50 ranking for this year’s Rule 4 Draft is up. I’ll also be back on College Baseball Live this Thursday night at 7 pm EDT and on the postgame show as well.

The old man nodded. “Maybe I’m finding out I’m not such a good man as I thought I was. Now that I don’t have the strength – patience takes a lot out of you. Hope, too.”
Jack said, “I think hope is the worst thing in the world. I really do. It makes a fool of you while it lasts. And then when it’s gone, it’s like there’s nothing left of you at all. Except–” he shrugged and laughed “–what you can’t be rid of.”

She’s only written three books, but Marilynne Robinson has to be in any discussion of the best living American novelists, and there is no living writer whose prose I’d rather read. Saying a writer writes “from the heart” can be like saying a player “sees the ball well,” but Robinson produces some of the most moving, heartfelt scenes and passages I’ve ever seen and does so without the excess of sentiment or cloying language that could turn a book with a similar setup into mass-market chick lit.

Home, currently on sale for $10 through that amazon link, is the parallel novel to Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead. (It’s worth mentioning that Robinson’s three novels have each won a major award – Housekeeping won the PEN/Faulkner award for the best debut novel of its year and Home won the Orange Prize for the best English novel written by a female author.) Gilead was a series of notes or journal entries from an older priest named Ames who, nearing his death, wishes to leave a testament for his young son. That journal also showed scenes of his complex relationship with his friend and fellow preacher Robert Boughton and Boughton’s prodigal son Jack, named for Ames, who returns to Gilead after a twenty-year absence. That return is the subject of Home, as Jack, a lifelong alcoholic who didn’t even come back for his mother’s funeral, shows up carrying two decades’ worth of secrets and memories, with arguably four decades’ worth of loneliness and sorry as well. His timing is propitious, with his father’s health declining even more rapidly than Ames’, and Jack’s sister, Glory, living at home again after a disastrous courtship that has left her resigned to spinsterhood.

Despite the presence of just three characters for most of the book, with everyone else accounting for maybe 10% of the dialogue and whatever passes for action in a Robinson novel (she has never in three books resorted to plot twists or other tricks of the trade to spice up the story), Home is Robinson’s most complex work. The developing relationship between Jack and Glory, separated by enough years that they were never close as children, is one side of a highway where the other direction contains the gradual yet accelerating deterioration of the relationship between Jack and the dying father who has confused decades of worry over his wayward son with decades of love; it’s not clear that anyone was or is capable of helping Jack, who has what would today most likely be diagnosed as depression, but Boughton, already starting to lose control of his emotions in the earliest stages of dementia, faces the crushing disappointment of seeing the failure and tragedy of Jack’s life incarnate, in his kitchen or his living room. And yet Jack, first welcomed and then rebuked by his own father, draws closer to the old man and to his sister … but never so close that he can make the place he refers to as “home” his actual home, instead revisiting the childhood feeling that he wished he lived there in spirit rather than simply in body.

That dualism symbolizes one of Robinson’s central themes, the gulf between our spiritual selves (or souls) and our corporeal existence. Robinson writes honestly of religion, or more specifically of religiosity, as her many religious characters are neither caricatured nor placed on pedestals; religion is simply intrinsic to their lives, and Home is suffused with conflicts between religious tenets and human behavior, as well as the doubts that have plagued Jack for his entire life, further isolating him (although it was far from the main reason) from a family of believers.

And part of Robinson’s gift is that she can write about religion without creating an overtly religious novel. Home is very much about life on earth, about the weight of memories, about choices gone awry in the distant past with ramifications in the present day. Glory’s broken engagement has left her back at home, unemployed, and without romantic prospects; one of the most heart-rending scenes comes near the book’s end as she remembers her own daydreams about her own future family, about children that will probably never exist, a warmth and happiness that she feels is now permanently denied to her. (I don’t believe the characters’ ages are mentioned, but Glory is probably in her early 30s, and I suppose in a small Midwestern town in the 1950s this would make her marriage prospects fairly slim.) Jack, meanwhile, slowly exposes layers of his sorrow to Glory, but not to his father, a permanent barrier to the old man understanding his son; the woman who helped Jack get back on his feet and remain at least partially sober for the past ten years is now denied to him, a severance that seems to have driven him back to Gilead and, in his mind, has cut him off from salvation in this life or any other. Unfolding these relationships in a way that gets at the heart of family dynamics, of loneliness, of regret, and of the ultimate comfort of home without ever relying on unrealistic plot twists to force characters into false corners is more evidence of Robinson’s mastery of language and of character. She went 25 years between her first and second novels but just three years between Gilead and Home; I can only hope the gap before her next novel is as short as the last.

Flannery O’Conner’s first short story collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, is even more theologically-minded than Robinson’s work, combining stories about the meaning of faith, salvation, and what it might mean to be “good.” The stories are largely twisted, even macabre, as in the title story where an escaped convict wipes out an entire family so O’Conner can show us the difference between saying you’re a good person (or, more specifically, a good Christian) and actually being one. O’Conner dreams up killers and con artists, thieves and rascals, putting “good” people in bad situations to see how they might react.

Aside from the notable title story, the most interesting to me was the longest story in the book, “The Displaced Person,” about a rather high-minded Southern widow named Mrs. McIntyre who takes in, under some duress, a family of Jewish refugees from Poland who fled the Nazis. Her ignorance of conditions in Europe at the time is particularly stark to us now, given the passage of time and our deeper understanding of the extent of the genocide and the horrible conditions in and outside of the camps for Jews. But her lack of charity and her unusually defined ideas on race/origin stood out for her post hoc construction of ethnic identities; even as the Jewish husband works harder, without complaint, than anyone else she’s ever had on her farm, she is appalled to find him trying to bring over relatives trapped in German death camps and potentially marry them off to black workers on the farm. The priest who organized the placement of the refugees is no help, as he’s a single-minded, simpering man who sees Mrs. McIntyre only as a shell, as a person to be saved and as a settlement place for the refugee family but not as an individual, an oversight that leads to the story’s ultimate tragedy. That climax is one of the strongest depictions I’ve seen of the banality of evil, a phrase which, not coincidentally, was coined to describe the complicity of German citizens with the Nazi’s plans for extermination of Jews and other minorities.

Anyway, the title of this collection inspired me to create my second Tumblr post.

Next up: Haruki Murakami’s English-language debut novel, A Wild Sheep Chase.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s & Fludd.

My list of sleeper prospects for all 30 teams went up this morning for Insiders.

Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a novella-length character study of the iconic Holly Golightly, the chameleonic protagonist whose ability to reinvent herself and manipulate people to her own benefit charms the milquetoast narrator.

Holly is a very young, independent-minded woman who takes a flat in a Manhattan brownstone where the unnamed narrator, dubbed “Fred” by Holly, also lives. She fascinates him through her force of will, her expectation that people will jump to meet her every whim (they often do), and through how men just fall hopelessly for her like dominoes in a line. (Fred’s affection for Holly always seems to be of the arm’s-length variety, and I thought the character, like Capote, was gay.) Her anchorless life hits a snag when a piece of her old life shows up out of the blue to try to drag her out of her high-society ways to a backwoods existence she never wanted in the first place.

Capote was a prose master, with Norman Mailer issuing the oft-repeated statement that he “would not have changed two words in” this story, but the line that caught my eye was because it reminded me of a television program:

…I noticed a taxi stop across the street to let out a girl who ran up the steps of the Forty-second Street Public Library. She was through the doors before I recognized her, which was pardonable, for Holly and libraries were not an easy association to make. I let curiosity guide me between the lions…

I’ve tried to find out of the makers of the children’s show Between the Lions took their name from the book, but have had no success. Naming a show about literacy after a phrase from an American literary giant seems fitting, though.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is usually sold along with three Capote short stories: “House of Flowers,” “A Diamond Guitar,” and “A Christmas Memory.” The first two are ordinary, the first about a prostitute in Haiti who finds an escape to what might be a better life, the latter about two unlikely friends at a southern prison camp (one of whom is named Tico Feo, which means “ugly Costa Rican.”) The third story is a marvel, a peer to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s canon of short stories, a sweet but wholly unsentimental tale about the friendship between a young boy and an cousin in her 60s, and how the two would make and sell fruitcakes every Christmas season. We often praise players who recognize their skill sets and their limitations by saying that they “don’t try to do too much.” In “A Christmas Story,” Capote didn’t try to do too much. He lets the story do it for him.

Hilary Mantel’s Fludd is a strange piece of fiction, a short novel about a curate assigned to a small, backwards English town where Catholicism is practiced by means of superstition rather than faith and the priest has lost his own belief and probably his marbles as well. The curate, however, isn’t what he at first seems to be, and as the novel goes along one of the nuns emerges as the real central character despite being little more than a stock extra for the first half of the book. That character, Philomena, turns out to be the only character with any depth of anyone who populates these pages – even Fludd, the possibly-supernatural being named after a long-dead alchemist and mystic, is barely revealed, with nothing on his motives or actual thoughts – and her decision between life in the convent (which was chosen for her by her deranged mother) and the fearful world outside of it is the only major event in the entire book. There’s an anti-Catholic undertone to the book, which may bother some readers, and a subplot around idolatry and statues that went right over my head.

Next up: Hugh Laurie – yes, that one, House, Wooster, Jools, and so on – wrote a comic novel in 1996 called The Gun Seller. I have incredibly high expectations for this one.