Showing posts with label Anne Tyler. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Anne Tyler. Show all posts

Friday, October 12, 2018

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler Marks our Time(s)


Time, time, time see what's become of me (Paul Simon, “A Hazy Shade of Winter”).  That pretty much describes the action of most of Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance.  I have the distinction of having read nearly all her novels (maybe all) and this one, as well, is set in what I’ve come to call “Tylerville.”  It’s a mythical place where everyday people live, made memorable by Tyler’s gift for characterization.  Tylerville is a place in Baltimore, if you want to put it in a real world context.

We follow the main character in the novel, Willa Drake, kaleidoscopically, chapters devoted to 1967, 1977, 1997, 2017 from the vicinity of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Coronado, California, to Tucson, Arizona, and finally and fittingly, Baltimore.  In her last novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, it was the protagonist’s son who ends up searching for his own sense of belonging and place.  In this novel, it is Willa.

In her “Tyleresque,” prose we learn of the deaths of her parents, her two sons, Ian (now living in Colorado, and mostly out of cell phone range) and Sean (in Baltimore, explaining Willa’s connection there in part), the death of her first husband, her estrangement from her sister, Elaine, and her wifely obligations to her second husband, Peter, a semi retired lawyer who calls her, affectionately (but personality appropriate) “little one.”  As years wear on, she also becomes somewhat estranged from her two sons and finds herself living without purpose.  Until the call from Baltimore, and to tell more about the nature of that call is a spoiler.

In Baltimore we are introduced to a number of quirky characters, so typical in Tyler’s works.  She has the ability to make memorable people, all the pieces needed for a character driven novel.  Be prepared to share Willa’s journey with her collection of friends in Tylerville, Denise and her daughter Cheryl, Mrs. Minton, Callie, Ben Gold, Erland, Sir Joe, Hal, Richard, Barry, and let’s not forget Robert, the cat and Airplane, the dog.  All have their lives changed or touched in some way by Willa and in turn so is Willa’s.

At first I found the novel slow, even maudlin.  Did I care about Willa or just feel sorry for her?  Just at the point of fish or cut bait, I’m hooked by Tyler as the plot gathers momentum and Willa makes the transition from an after-thought in a male dominated world to something she desperately needs: to be needed.   At 61 she laments not having a grandchild, not having a daughter and through a slow osmotic process SHE adopts not only a family, but a place to live that finally feels like home.

Time and aging hang heavily on every page.  Willa’s father explains how he finally dealt with his days alone after the death of her mother (after Willa lost her first husband): “I broke my days into separate moments,” he said. “See, it’s true I didn’t have any more to look forward to.  But, on the other hand, there were these individual moments that I could still appreciate.  Like drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning.  Working on something fine in my workshop.  Watching a baseball game on TV.” She thought that over. “But…”she said.  He waited. “But…is that ENOUGH?” she asked him. “Well, yes it turns out that it is,”he said.

Three pre-teen girls play a game, each standing behind the other, their arms extended, all six moving in stiff, stop-and-start arcs in time to the clicking sounds that Willa could hear now punctuating the music.  “It’s a clock dance!” Cheryl shouted, briefly peeking out from the tail end. “Can’t you tell?”  Of course: those clicks were tick-tocks.  Those arms were clock hands, jerking in time to the tick-tocks like the hands of those stutter clocks on the walls of grade-school classrooms.

But when Willa thinks of her own version of a clock dance many pages later, it is a powerful reminder of our mortality: If Willa were to invent a clock dance, it wouldn’t look like the one the three little girls had shown her.  No, hers would feature a woman racing across the stage from left to right, all the while madly whirling so that the audience saw only a spinning blur of color before she vanished into the wings, POOF!  Just like that.  Gone.

The theme of the novel and the last chances presented to Willa couldn’t be any clearer than that.  Change or poof, gone.

In my review of her last novel,  A Spool of Blue Thread I said Tyler was showing her age.  Even more so here, now three years later.  Although Willa is “only” a 61 year old, I look to another character, Mrs. Minton as the future one Anne Tyler fears, a widow (like Tyler who lost her husband in 1997, the same year Willa loses her husband) who now uses a walker (“just for balance”), and when Willa first sees her “out of her housecoat” notes: Her skirt was unbecomingly short, barely knee-length, so that her blue-white mottle shins showed, and her sleeveless blouse exposed her stringy arms.  Aging is not a pretty process in Tyler’s eyes, but what is the alternative?  BTW, I am just slightly younger than Tyler and maybe that’s why I relate so much to her world-view.

Her detailed descriptions, noting all things relating to her characters, make her our very own Jane Austen, although sweeping love affairs are not her province.  Tyler is one of our finest living novelists, still going strong.  I only buy her books in hardcover, to enjoy them as permanent additions to our bookshelves, and as evidence that we still know how to make a real book.  As I concluded in my last review, “Tyler may be showing her age, but clearly with no diminution of her writing skills.”

Sunset Oct. 6 2018

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Tyler Shows Her Age in A Spool of Blue Thread



Anne Tyler has joined my growing group of septuagenarians and her latest novel A Spool of Blue Thread seems to profoundly reflect her initiation.  We now deal with the travails of aging in its broadest sense, the decline of our own physicality, our illnesses, deaths of friends and loved ones, and anxiety about the passage of time as we near the end of the hour glass.  For many of us, there are our adult children, and our grandchildren (not in my case) to worry about, in a changing world that bears no resemblance to the one we grew up in.   Essentially, this is what Anne Tyler speaks to in A Spool of Blue Thread, a metaphor that ties together four generations of the Whitshank family, which Tyler describes as being such a recent family that they were short on family history. They didn’t have that many stories to choose from.  They had to make the most of what they could get.

I loved this novel, for personal reasons as well as admiring the Tyler’s writing skills.  She is one of America’s best living writers. In my praise that follows I’ve tried to avoid “spoilers” but as one friend pointed out when I shared this before posting (she had read the novel as well), I reveal “critical piece[s] of the evolution of the family’s story and relationships” – ones that she would prefer to discover when reading the novel.  I could argue this point, but I’m issuing a “spoiler alert” just in case any reader of this entry doesn’t want to know too much about the book before reading it.

This is a family history told in typical “Tyleresque,” and set mostly in the “Tylertown” of Baltimore.  The women are mostly stalwartly idiosyncratic homebodies.  The men are mostly craftsmen, homebuilders. At the top of the Whitshank family tree there is the grandfather, Junior, and his wife, Linnie Mae.  We learn that she had basically forced herself upon him, first as a 13 year old and five years later, after Junior moved to a boarding house in Baltimore (and completely forgot Linnie Mae, his own family, the feeling mutual, hence being short on family history) Linnie Mae just turned up, suitcase in hand, to move in with him, although they had no contact during those five years:  She was the bane of his existence.  She was a millstone around his neck.  That night back in ’31 when he went to collect her from the train station and found her waiting out front – her unevenly hemmed gray coat too skimpy for the Baltimore winters, her floppy wide-brimmed felt hat so outdated that even Junior could tell – he’d had the incongruous thought that she was like mold on lumber.  You think you’ve scrubbed it off but one day you see it’s crept back again.  So, indeed, she did creep back into his life but he finally acknowledges that his ultimate success in the building business was in part due to her people skills.  (Junior is a craftsman, a perfectionist, but not very good with the customers.)  He builds a home for a Mr. and Mrs. Brill, but: This was the house of his life, after all (the way a different type of man would have a love of his life), and against any sort of logic he clung to the conviction that he would someday be living here.

And indeed in due course they did, bringing up their two children, daughter Merrick and son Redcliffe, in that home.  “Red” follows in his father’s footsteps with the business, marrying Abby (the main character in the novel) and they have four children, Amanda (who had a bossy streak), Jeannie (tomboyish when young), Denny (whose story becomes the beginning and end of the novel) and Stem (who was adopted when Denny was four).  Stem is called “Douglas” by his wife, Nora, later on in the novel.  Both Amanda and Jeannie ultimately marry men with the same name, Hugh, so…their husbands were referred to as ‘Amanda’s Hugh’ and ‘Jeannie’s Hugh’, just another “family quirk.”  Naturally, Red and Abby ultimately move into the house Junior built, the bedrock for the Whitshank chronicles.

The opening chapter reads almost like a self-contained short story – about the black sheep of the family, Denny.  Personality is established at an early age, and this incident takes place when he was 9 or 10: One time in the grocery store, when Denny was in a funk for some reason, "Good Vibrations" started playing over the loud- speaker. It was Abby's theme song, the one she always said she wanted for her funeral procession, and she began dancing to it. She dipped and sashayed and dum-da-da-dummed around Denny as if he were a maypole, but he just stalked on down the soup aisle with his eyes fixed straight ahead and his fists jammed into his jacket pockets. Made her look like a fool, she told Red when she got home. (She was trying to laugh it off.) He never even glanced at her! She might have been some crazy lady! And this was when he was nine or ten, nowhere near that age yet when boys find their mothers embarrassing. But he had found Abby embarrassing from earliest childhood, evidently. He acted as if he'd been assigned the wrong mother, she said, and she just didn't measure up.

As a young adult, Denny comes and goes, disappears for large amounts of time and then suddenly shows up.  And whenever he did come home, he was a stranger. Naturally, parents try to “figure out” their troubled offspring:
‘It’s because I didn’t shield him properly.’ Abby guessed.
‘Shield him from what?’ Red asked.
‘Oh…never mind.’
‘Not from me,’ Red told her.
‘If you say so.’
‘I’m not taking the rap for this, Abby.’
‘Fine.’
At such moments, they hated each other.

Doesn’t that have the ring of truth, universally applied to many families?  I’ve heard that conversation time and time again between my own parents.

Denny is shipped off to a small private college, but that didn’t change his nature. He was still the Whitshank’s mystery child.  He bounced around from here to there, occasionally keeping in touch by phone, Tyler describing it with her typical humorous slant: He had this way of talking on the phone that was so intense and animated; his parents could start to believe that he felt some urgent need for connection. For weeks at a time he might call every Sunday until they grew to expect it, almost depend on it, but then he'd fall silent for months and they had no means of reaching him. It seemed perverse that someone so mobile did not own a mobile phone. By now Abby had signed them up for caller ID, but what use was that? Denny was OUT OF AREA. He was UNKNOWN CALLER. There should have been a special display for him: CATCH ME IF YOU CAN.

Denny suddenly marries.  The Whitshank family is invited to the wedding in NYC.  The preacher was a bike messenger with a license from the Universal Life Church.  Denny and his wife Carla have a baby, Susan, with whom at one stretch Denny regularly takes (without Carla) to visit his parents.  Suddenly, no word again, and it goes on for three years and after 9/11 Abby can take it no longer, afraid for her son and their granddaughter and they finally trace him.  After several failed attempts to contact him, they ask his older sister Amanda to call.  Abby and Red stand by the phone as the call is placed.  Denny answers.  Although the Whitshank’s couldn’t hear what Denny said after Amanda identified herself, they could imagine by what Amanda continued to say: Someday you’re going to be a middle-aged man thinking back on your life, and you'll start wondering what your family's been up to. So you'll hop on a train and come down, and when you get to Baltimore it will be this peaceful summer afternoon and these dusty rays of sunshine will be slanting through the skylight in Penn Station. You'll walk on through and out to the street, where nobody is waiting for you, but that's okay; they didn't know you were coming. Still, it feels kind of odd standing there all alone, with the other passengers hugging people and climbing into cars and driving away. You go to the taxi lane and you give the address to a cabbie. You ride through the city looking at all the familiar sights-the row houses, the Bradford pear trees, the women sitting out on their stoops watching their children play. Then the taxi turns onto Bouton Road and right away you get a strange feeling. There are little signs of neglect at our house that Dad would never put up with: blistered paint and gap-toothed shutters. Mismatched mortar patching the walk, rubber treads nailed to the porch steps-all these Harry Homeowner fixes Dad has always railed against. You take hold of the front-door handle and you give it that special pull toward you that it needs before you can push down the thumb latch, but it's locked. You ring the doorbell, but it's broken. You call, 'Mom? Dad?' No one answers. You call, 'Hello?' No one comes running; no one flings open the door and says, 'It's you! It's so good to see you! Why didn't you let us know? We'd have met you at the station! Are you tired? Are you hungry? Come in!' You stand there a while, but you can't think what to do next. You turn and look back toward the street, and you wonder about the rest of the family. 'Maybe Jeannie,' you say. 'Or Amanda.' But you know something, Denny? Don't count on me to take you in, because I'm angry. I'm angry at you for leading us on such a song and dance all these years, not just these last few years but all the years, skipping all those holidays and staying away from the beach trips and missing Mom and Dad's thirtieth anniversary and their thirty-fifth and Jeannie's baby and not attending my wedding that time or even sending a card or calling to wish me well.  But most of all, Denny, most of all: I will never forgive you for consuming every last drop of our parents’ attention and leaving nothing for the rest of us.

This is a poignant piece of writing, a cautionary note about the passage of time and the dangers of ignoring family and the ordinary details of our lives.  Abby wonders how they settled for so little when it came to their prodigal son. She says, ‘would you have believed it? Sometimes whole days go by when I don’t give him a thought.’  This is not natural! Red said, ‘It’s perfectly natural. Like a mother cat when her kittens are grown.  You’re showing very good sense.’ And this is just the first chapter, and it sets the stage for everything that follows. 

Tyler though does not construct the novel chronologically, instead moving back and forth in time. Regarding the grandfather, Junior, in her usual good humor Tyler explains -- If it seems odd to call a patriarch ‘Junior,’ there was a logical explanation.  Junior’s true name was Jurvis Roy, shortened at some point to J.R. and then re-expanded, accordion-like, to Junior.  As noted, Junior builds the house of his dreams for Mr. Brill, knowing full well in his heart that eventually he would be able to buy it, which he did.  He fidgets with it for the rest of his life as a builder, head of Whitshank Construction, then carried on by his son Red who moves his family into the house.  The house stands as a bulwark in juxtaposition to the fragility of the family.

Then another time leap to Abby who comes from another section of Baltimore and marries Red.  Might Tyler’s description of Abby match up in some ways to her own? As a girl, she'd been a fey sprite of a thing. She'd worn black turtlenecks in winter and peasant blouses in summer; her hair had hung long and straight down her back while most girls clamped their pageboys into rollers every night. She wasn't just poetic but artistic, too, and a modern dancer, and an activist for any worthy cause that came along. You could count on her to organize her school's Canned Goods for the Poor drive and the Mitten Tree. Her school was Merrick's school, private and girls-only and posh, and though Abby was only a scholarship student, she was the star there, the leader. In college, she plaited her hair into cornrows and picketed for civil rights. She graduated near the top of her class and became a social worker, what a surprise, venturing into Baltimore neighborhoods that none of her old schoolmates knew existed. Even after she married Red (whom she had known for so long that neither of them could remember their first meeting), did she turn ordinary? Not a chance. She insisted on natural childbirth, breast-fed her babies in public, served her family wheat germ and home-brewed yogurt, marched against the Vietnam War with her youngest astride her hip, sent her children to public schools. Her house was filled with her handicrafts-macrame plant hangers and colorful woven serapes. She took in strangers off the streets, and some/of them stayed for weeks. There was no telling who would show up at her dinner table.

Skipping to the very present, we learn that Abby has a form of dementia.   This begins a progression of events and the eventual rallying of the family, even Denny.   On one lovely day, with the family on the porch Denny was recollecting to Stem (who is now running the business for aged Red) about his earliest recollection of his grandfather ripping out the walkway and resetting the stones, Abby comments ‘Oh, you men, stop talking shop!....Weather like this always takes me back to the day I fell in love with Red’…The others smiled.  They knew the story well….’It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon’ Abby began. Which was the way she always began, exactly the same words, every single time. On the porch, everybody relaxed. Their faces grew smooth, and their hands loosened in their laps. It was so restful to be sitting here with family, with the birds talking in the trees and the crosscut-sawing of the crickets and the dog snoring at their feet and the children calling, ‘Safe! I'm safe!’

That’s as good as it gets for any writer, to be able to conjure up such images.  I read and reread the passage again and again.  Even in my own twisted childhood there were times I felt “I’m safe.”

For some time the adult children, along with spouses and Abby and Red’s grandchildren come and go to help their aging parents.  There we learn much about the internal sibling rivalry, the hurts, the jealousies, and how these emotions relate to their upbringing.  In particular, Stem (Douglas) and Denny come to blows, literally. 

Abby, even in her condition, comes upon certain truths about life such as, you wake in the morning, you’re feeling fine, but all at once you think, ‘Something’s not right.  Something’s off somewhere; what is it?’  And then you remember that it’s your child – whichever one is unhappy.

She is seeing a doctor about her condition but she wants to discuss philosophical issues: ‘And time,’ she would tell Dr. Wiss. ‘Well, you know about time. How slow it is when you're little and how it speeds up faster and faster once you're grown. Well, now it's just a blur. I can't keep track of it anymore! But it's like time is sort of ... balanced. We're young for such a small fraction of our lives, and yet our youth seems to stretch on forever. Then we're old for years and years, but time flies by fastest then. So it all comes out equal in the end, don't you see.’  I’m sure even Einstein would agree.  It’s all relative!

To go on with more about Abby’s fate is to reveal too much.  The house of the Brills, then Junior’s, and then Red’s stands steadfast front and center, almost like another character in the novel, but even that eventually devolves.  Everything changes over the course of time, but the spool of blue thread runs from generation to generation to generation.  Tyler captures this in perhaps her most ambitious novel ever, showing her abiding sympathy for her characters, and there are many in this novel.

It fittingly ends as it begins, focused on peripatetic Denny, who is searching for his own sense of belonging and place, as he boards a train for New Jersey on the eve of hurricane Sandy, an interesting image to leave the reader with towards the conclusion of this wonderful, evocative, but essentially melancholy, novel.  Tyler may be showing her age, but clearly with no diminution of her writing skills. 
My grandfather's Richmond Hill family home circa 1930's

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

We’re All Beginners


Raymond Carver’s short story “The Beginners” was later published as his best known classic, the Gordon Lish edited version, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”  As Mel says in the story, “It seems to me we’re just beginners at love.” Carver’s point, we’re all “beginners.”  Anne Tyler takes this concept and also applies it to loving and then losing (and everything else in between) in her new novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye.

I read the book soon after I finished Anita Shreve’s Light on Snow. Anne Tyler and Anita Shreve are two of my favorite contemporary American female writers.  They are different in so many ways, and their writing is so clearly unique to each.    I make the gender distinction only because there is a feminine touch to their writing, making observations about matters normally invisible to their male counterparts. 

Tyler has a special place in my heart as our very own Jane Austin, recording the foibles of society in that part of Baltimore I think of as Tylerville, where quirky dysfunctional men are portrayed along with their strange wives, mothers, and friends.    Although these people live in Baltimore, as does the author, it is a Baltimore of Tyler’s creation, more like a little city you’d find along a Lionel train board. 

The Beginner’s Goodbye particularly appeals to me as it is about a publisher, Aaron Woolcott, the narrator and protagonist. He works for a vanity publishing company that he and his sister, Nandina, inherited from their father (Nandina is more the grounded sibling and thus more in charge).  It is a vanity publisher in the old tradition, not the on-demand world of today (although Woolcott Publishing is a contemporary firm in the novel). But they also publish little guidebooks, slices of life they call “The Beginner’s” series.  Just fill in the rest of the title. Hence, The Beginner’s Goodbye is fittingly about loss and reclamation. 

Aaron, like many other Tyler leading men, is damaged goods.  Last time in Noah’s Compass it was Liam Pennywell.  In this case, Aaron is in his late 30’s, has a paralyzed arm, a stutter, and walks with a cane.  His mother and his sister have basically taken care of him and one would think bachelorhood would be his future, until he meets Dorothy, a plain speaking, but not very compassionate doctor, some eight years Aaron’s senior.  The two most unlikely people (for marriage) are married soon after they meet.  Here is Tyler’s description of their courtship as expressed by Aaron: It makes me sad now to think back on the early days of our courtship.  We didn’t know anything at all.  Dorothy didn’t even know it was a courtship, at the beginning, and I was kind of like an overgrown puppy, at least as I picture myself from this distance.  I was romping around her all eager and panting, dying to impress her, while for some time she remained stolidly oblivious.

Unfortunately, Dorothy is the victim of a tragic (almost comical) accident, and Aaron is now a widower. Here Tyler resorts to the contrivance of Dorothy “coming back,” Aaron catching glimpses of her and having imaginary conversations….until he can learn to say “goodbye.”

Tyler’s description of Dorothy is consummately written, viewed by a woman of a woman, although the narrative is Aaron’s: She was short and plump and serious-looking.  She had a broad, olive-skinned face, appealingly flat-planed, and calm black eyes that were noticeably level, with that perfect symmetry that makes the viewer feel rested.  Her hair, which she cut herself in a heedless, blunt, square style, was deeply absolutely black, and all of a piece.  (Her family had come from Mexico two generations before.) And yet I don’t think other people recognized how attractive she was, because she hid it.  Or, no, not even that; she was too unaware of it to hide it.  She wore owlish, round-lensed glasses that mocked the shape of her face.  Her clothes made her figure seem squat – wide, straight trousers and man-tailored shirts, chunky crepe-soled shoes of a type that waitresses favored in diners.  Only I noticed the creases as fine as silk threads that encircled her writs and her neck.  Only I knew her dear, pudgy feet, with the nails like tiny seashells.  (Maybe a description to some degree of the author?)

As for the publishing concept, the “Beginners” books: These were something on the order of the Dummies books, but without the cheerleader tone of voice – more dignified.  And far more classily designed, with deckle-edged pages [just like the book I’m holding] and uniform hard-backed bindings wrapped in expensive, glossy covers.  Also, we were more focused – sometimes absurdly so, if you asked me. (Witness The Beginner’s Spice Cabinet.)  Anything is manageable if it’s divided into small enough increments, was the theory; even life’s most complicated lessons.  Indeed, maybe even saying “goodbye.”

Fate and chance figure heavily in Tyler’s work as does humor.  A tree falls on their house, and a TV crushes Dorothy’s chest: Sony Trinitrons are known for their unusual weight.…If we had had a flat-screen TV, would Dorothy still be alive? Or if her patient hadn’t canceled.  Then she wouldn’t even have been home yet when the tree fell.  Or if she had stayed in the kitchen instead of heading for the sunporch.

Tyler describes most of her characters to a tee by defining the opposite, a “normal” character in Aaron’s publishing company, Charles. Generally we deferred to Charles in matters of public taste.  He was the only one of us who led what I thought as a normal life – married to the same woman since forever, with triplet teenage daughters.  He liked to tell little domestic-comedy, Brady Bunch –style anecdotes about the daughters, and the rest of us would hang around looking like a bunch of anthropologists studying foreign customs.

Aaron moves in with his sister after he loses Dorothy and his house is partially destroyed.  In fact, he painstakingly avoids going back to the house although it is being renovated.  The contractor visits him at his sister’s.  Meanwhile, Dorothy begins to make unexpected appearances to Aaron, even having conversations (in his mind).  Everyone, in particular his secretary, Peggy, tries to cater to him, bringing him food, trying to comfort him.  But Aaron avoids the attention.  This comes to a boil one day.  Tyler’s dialogue shines:

‘”That is so, so like you,” Peggy said.
 “What?”
“Only you would think of resenting someone’s doing you a kindness.”
“I just meant –“
Normal people say, ‘Why, thank you, dear. This makes me feel much better, dear.  It makes me feel loved and valued.’”
“Okay…”
“But you: oh, no.  You act so sensitive, so prickly; we all just walk on eggshells around you in case we might say the wrong thing.”
I said, “How did we end up with me all of a sudden?”
“It’s not fair, Aaron.  You expect too much of us.  We’re not mind-readers. We’re all just doing our best here; we don’t know; we’re just trying to get through life as best we can, like everybody else!”

Getting through life is what Tyler’s characters seem to be struggling to do and in the process, finding some happiness along the way.  Even straight-laced Nandina finds it and finally Aaron does in a perhaps contrived happy ending, that comically coincides with a new vanity title the firm publishes, one that goes on to be one of their best seller’s, Why I Have Decided to Go On Living.

I’ve made this observation before concerning some of my favorite writers as they age. Tyler is one year older than I am, and thinking some of the same thoughts.  Aaron is trying to piece together a photo album that was destroyed in the accident, frustrated that the photos were not labeled, having difficulty identifying subjects and years the photos were taken. This business of not labeling photos reminded me of those antique cemeteries where the names have worn off the gravestones and you can’t tell who is buried there.  You see a little gray tablet with a melted-looking lamb on top, and you know it must have been somebody’s child who died, but now you can’t even make out her name or the words her parents chose to say how much they missed her.  It’s just so many random dents in the stone, and the parents are long gone themselves, and everything’s been forgotten. 

Losing a child.  Indeed, the worst.  And in the annals of time, “random dents in stone.”  But from the tragic-comic we move to deadly serious, written on an entirely different plane, although it is also in the first person, and as in other Shreve novels, written in the present tense (narrated by a 30 year old as seen through the eyes of her 12 year old self).  Losing a child (and then saving another one) is central to this novel, Light on Snow.  Consider some of Shreve’s opening sentences that set the stage, both for the story and her style of writing:

“The stillness of the forest is always a surprise, as if an audience had quieted for a performance.  Beneath the hush I can hear the rustle of dead leaves, the snap of a twig, a brook running under a skin of ice.”

“I am twelve on the mid-December afternoon (though I am thirty now), and I don’t know yet that puberty is just around the corner or that the relentless narcissism of a teenage girl will make walking in the woods with my father just about the last think I’ll want to do on any given day after school.  Taking a hike together is a habit my father and I have grown into. My father spends too many hours bent to his work, and I know he needs to get outside.”

“A branch snaps and scratches my cheek.  The sun sets.  We have maybe twenty minutes left of decent light.”

“My father has lost the weight of a once sedentary man.  His jeans are threadbare in the thighs and tinged with the rusty fur of sawdust.  At best he shaves only every other day.  His parka is beige, stained with spots of oil and grease and pine pitch.  He cuts his hair himself, and his blue eyes are always a surprise.”

The father in the story is Robert Dillon, former successful architect, who two years before lost his wife and their baby in an automobile accident and out of great despondency quits his job and takes his then ten year old daughter, Nicky, and simply drives north, settling in a remote town in New Hampshire where he (and she) become virtual hermits, he taking up furniture making, Nicky more or less being left to herself to go to a school where she knows no one.

Until, in the woods and in the snow, they come across a new born baby that had been abandoned only minutes before and from there the action begins, ultimately leading to their getting involved with the police, the town, and finally, the mother of the child. Chance and fate play roles in Shreve’s novel as in Tylers’.

It is Shreve’s spare prose and character development that gives the simple plot suspense and the feeling of loss and redemption.  It is also a coming of age story for Nicky who is desperately seeking both a replacement for her lost mother and her lost sister.  Perhaps the mother of the baby, Charlotte, can be both?

Robert, Nicky, and Charlotte are all changed by the time the tale is told, masterly by Shreve.



Thursday, June 21, 2012

"Even if the Dream Isn't Real, the Dreamers Are"


20th century American literature is awash in a particular version of the American Dream, the green light that always seems to be in grasp through the accumulation of wealth.  But as Balzac purportedly opined, "behind every great fortune there is a great crime", be it to society or one's family or both. It plays out in our literature and one only has to read a newspaper to see it in life.  Gatsby or Madoff, living the dream, for love or money or both, at least for a while.  

In the last thirty years we have had two real estate busts, people pinning their hopes of wealth by buying and selling, flipping,the greater fool theory at work in its purist form, like a game of musical chairs, until the music stopped.  And so it is for the protagonist in Eric Puchner's first novel, Model Home, as well as it was for the author's father.  While the novel is in some ways autobiographical, in subtle or more transparent ways, so are most novels.

For some time I've been "worrying" about who will carry on the tradition established by our great American novelists and short story writers, the most recent ones (in my opinion) being John Updike, Philip Roth, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver and perhaps to that list I might add some of my other favorites, ones who could join the ranks of the big four, Richard Russo, Anne Tyler, John Irving, Russell Banks, E.L. Doctorow, Richard Ford, and Jonathan Franzen (merely on the merits of two novels).  Unfortunately, of the first four, only Roth is still alive, but anything he writes, and the others I mentioned, I will buy and read.  That goes for Pat Conroy, Anita Shreve, and Ethan Canin as well.

So it was a thunderclap when I read Eric Puchner's novel (hat tip to my son, Jonathan).  Here is a serious contemporary writer who knows how to tell a tale, paint a picture of American life through his characters, make us feel moved, walking the line through the comic-tragic, drawing us into something important about family relationships.  It remains to be seen whether his first novel will be his best, a literary catharsis of his own life experiences, or whether this is setting him up for a truly great literary career.  Puchner also has published a collection of short stories, Music Through the Floor, and although I have not yet read them (but will do so), I understand there are elements of Carver and Cheever in those stories.  I can't think of a higher praise than that.

The story itself, although set in the 1980s, is as relevant for today's economic times.  It is about a family, the Zillers, who have moved to California for the "good life" -- a family which was close when they lived with more modest expectations in the Midwest -- but now find themselves being pulled apart.  The father, Warren Ziller, hides his deteriorating economic circumstances from his family, which makes his wife, Camille, suspect him of having an affair.  No such luck -- that would have been an easier road to travel.

In an ironic twist, the real estate development that Warren had been hawking, in the middle of the desert, but portrayed by him as an upcoming idyllic community (with the promise of a major shopping center which is actually being constructed as a waste treatment plant that stinks up the neighborhood literally, and their lives figuratively), ultimately becomes their own home, the only such residents, when Warren's secret comes out and his older son, Dustin, suffers disfigurement from the explosion and fire of their former home before it was repossessed.  Meanwhile, his younger sister, Lyle, has had an affair with the security guard from their former community, Hector, who later becomes Dustin's caretaker (for reasons best explained by reading the novel). The younger child, Jonas, is neglected by his family, left to wander the desert outskirts. 

This is a family that has been incinerated by the American Dream, and after a metaphorical  climax, they are hurled in different directions.  Puchner draws heavily on his own family history to portray the heartbreak of this devolution. Some of the author's feelings about his own childhood are endowed in Jonas.

Most great writers have a strong sense of place.  Cheever had his NYC suburbs, Updike had New England and PA, Roth harkens back to Newark and its environs, Richard Ford's New Jersey, and Anne Tyler and Baltimore are peas in a pod.   Puchner has staked out California to explain his version of the American dream.  Ah, California, when as a publisher, I used to visit the American Film Institute and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, monuments to the documentation of the American dream itself.  I felt LA, or at least that part of it, was unreal.

Puchner's particular focus is not California's glamorous Hollywood, it is the underbelly of the American dream as played out in the California desert.  Remember Dreiser's lobster and squid in mortal combat, a scene from his The Financier?  As a child, Frank Cowperwood, the young financier, watches this battle in a fish tank, Dreiser writing: "It answered in a rough way that riddle which had been annoying him so much in the past: How is life organized? Things lived on each other – that was it…Sure, men lived on men.”

I couldn't help but think of that quote reading Puchner's description of Jonas' sojourns in the California desert: "Most days he spent roaming the desert. It was a relief to be free of school, that gloomy place where the teachers wore shorts and his locker was so hot he had to open it with a sock over his hand, where no one spoke to him except the garbled voice in his head and he'd somehow completed his transformation into a ghost. In the desert, at least, there were extraordinary things. There were scorpions eating each other. There were rats hopping around like kangaroos. There were wasps dragging tarantulas around by the leg. There were snake skins dried into paper, bird nests as small as contact lenses, lizard skeletons dangling from creosote bushes, delicate as ice. Once, not far from the house, he saw a roadrunner go after a rattlesnake, its right wing extended like a matador's cape, When the snake lunged, the roadrunner snapped up its tail and then cracked it like a whip, slamming its head against the ground - over and over - to bash its skull."

And when one pursues dreams of riches, or in its more sanitized version, the better life, there are winners and losers.  Even the material winners may find their dreams to be vapid.  Warren's fall from grace is even harder, a once happy family, now grappling with his mismanagement and unfortunate economic circumstances.  Like Madoff, Warren's life became one of lies and self deceit, convincing himself that even though they were rapidly running out of funds, the big payoff will come when he makes a success of his land development scheme (Auburn Fields, an ironic name for a place in the middle of the desert), all will be well: "He did not want to lie to her, but every time he considered telling her the truth-that he'd lost their retirement funds, the kids' college funds, and every fund in between-his tongue dried up like paper and he couldn't speak. When he managed to get Auburn Fields off the ground, he reminded himself, he'd be able to put the money back in." 

And dreams are not only Warren's.  His wife, Camille, pursues approbation from her family and colleagues as a producer of educational films, without much success.  Ultimately she has to leave him:  "She could forgive him for moving them out to California, perhaps, for bankrupting them in pursuit of some fantasy of wealth, for falling victim to a malady of shame he could never pay off -- she could forgive Warren these things, but this was different from getting over them.  In the end it was her disappointment in him that had proved toxic.  He'd squandered the life they might have had together....Now that she'd left, she could see him more clearly: a broken man, well-meaning but not as brave as life required, who'd become something he'd never imagined."

Dustin, the older son, sees a fabulous career for himself as a rock musician but becomes a withdrawn malcontent after being disfigured in the explosion. Jonas who is mistakenly blamed (by himself as well) for Dustin's accident becomes the invisible child.  Lyle, the daughter, has dreams of attending Columbia, but is convinced that hope is remote: "Driving to work, Lyle tried not to let the monotonous brown vistas lull her into a coma. She distracted herself by touching the Columbia bumper sticker on the dashboard. She made an effort whenever she could, so that its Ivy League juju would enter her fingers and climb upward to her brain, transforming her into a perfect applicant. She liked to fantasize that she was the only one to get a sticker in the mail: so eager was Columbia to have her as a student, they'd slipped it into her application materials like Willy Wonka's golden ticket. Lyle had stuck it on the dashboard  to remind herself -while she was driving through the barren, dream-sucking desert - that she wouldn't be living out here forever."

Each family member feels like he/she is on the outside, looking in, dazed by the events that profoundly change their individual lives and drive them apart.  Puncher writes from Camille's perspective: "What had happened?  How had they unraveled again, worse than before?  The mystery of life was not how it started, Camille thought.  It was how people with every excuse to be close could grow distant as satellites."  Then, there is Warren's take on it: "What an odd thing a family was, Warren thought.  The permutations, like the patterns of a chess game, seemed endless."

In fact, the forty-nine chapters of the novel constantly switch back and forth between the main characters, almost like a series of tightly woven short stories with the commonality of the Ziller family experience.  And Puchner's writing can be quite moving and beautiful, such as when towards the end of the novel, Warren is trying to make a living and salvage some self respect working as a cutlery salesman, and while selling to a woman who has a son and a daughter, younger than his, Warren "pretends" that his own family is watching him in action: "He was making a pitch to them as well, the family he'd lost.  It was not the words themselves that mattered but the fact that he was making them.  He was doing something for a change.  In the end, if it was a good-enough pitch, his family might even buy what he had to offer.  They would say, It's not too late, you've actually learned something, your life hasn't been entirely hapless and for naught."  Knowing Warren's huge fall from grace, these words are heart-rendering.

A "must read" companion piece is GQ's March 2011 nonfiction piece by the author, Schemes of My Father; Like most California dreamers, my East Coast dadtried to relocate—and reinvent—himself in the land of red-hot cars and eternalsuntans. Too bad we all got burned   It explains much about the novel's autobiographical elements and passion, particularly the author's love for the "real California" which is not the beach life that we've all associated with the state.  As Puchner puts it: "It's this real California—and not the one my father invented for us—that I still call home, one that's closer to my heart than any place on earth. There's something about my father's love for the state, no matter how misdirected it was, that seems to have seeped into my blood. Or perhaps it's the love itself that I love. Which is to say: Even if the dream isn't real, the dreamers are. There's something about the struggling actors and screenwriters and immigrants who live here, the pioneer spirit that despite everything still brings people to the edge of America in search of success, that makes me feel at home."  Puchner writes with uncommon honesty.

The novel made me think of the "model homes" of my own life.  We bought our first home in Westport, CT in 1971, staying there for only three years.  Although a cottage, it was situated on two beautiful acres of pine forest.  We moved to Weston, CT where we lived for twenty two years, the home where we raised our family.  It too was secluded in the woods.  We constantly worked on the house, expanding it until it was truly a rambling ranch.  I wept the day we left that house, not only because of what we put into it, but for the symbolism of leaving it with our sons now grown.  Ironically, it was ripped down a few years after we moved to build one of those "McMansions," all that work, all those years, poof! --  vanished!  This was followed by four years in a home on the Norwalk River, perhaps the home that had the most spectacular views, as Oyster Boats went out each day or barges would move up the river.  Then finally our home of the last twelve years in Florida, again on the water, where one can always find that special sunset.  So, two homes in the woods and two homes on the water and none in the desert.  We've been lucky. 

I eagerly await Puchner's next work.