Showing posts with label Literature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Literature. Show all posts

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Rabbit at Rest -- Art as Life Itself



For years I’ve had a copy of Updike’s Rabbit at Rest sitting on the small bookshelf of our boat, where we have spent a part of the summer for each of the last eighteen years.  Each stay grows a little shorter as we age.  Perhaps that is because the boat seems to get smaller but the truth is it’s just more difficult. Boating demands strength and agility and a touch of fearlessness, all of which we had in abundance when we first started to boat on the Long Island Sound almost forty years ago, visiting most ports from Norwalk, CT to Nantucket, with yearly stopovers at Block Island.  Our stays now are mostly at the home port dock, but fortunately we are far out into the Norwalk River so it’s almost like being at a quiet mooring, with just more creature comforts when needed, like air conditioning. But occasionally we go out to the Norwalk Islands where we still have a mooring, especially on a fine day like this, leaving our home port…


I’m not sure why I kept this duplicate copy of what I consider to be Updike’s finest novel, Rabbit at Rest, on the boat, but now I know, having picked it up again.  I’m steeped in nostalgia. When I first read it I felt I was looking into my future.  Now I'm looking into my past. No one is a better social historian than Updike, the novelist. I miss him so much.

Simply put, Updike peers into the abyss of death in this novel.  It hangs heavily in some way on every page and having gone through some of the same experiences with angioplasties and more, I closely identify.  He’s now a snowbird in this novel, 6 months in Florida and 6 months in his familiar Pennsylvania environs. Rabbit (Harry Angstrom) has let himself go, however.  His little exercise is golfing but even that goes by the wayside.  On the other hand he is addicted to fast food, salt, you name the poison.   “Harry remorsefully feels the bulk, 230 pounds the kindest scales say, that has enwrapped him at the age of 55 like a set of blankets the decades have brought one by one. His doctor down here keeps telling him to cut out the beer and munchies and each night…he vows to but in the sunshine of the next day he’s hungry again, for anything salty and easy to chew.  What did his old basketball couch…tell him toward the end of his life, about how when you get old you eat and eat and it’s never the right food?  Sometimes Rabbit’s spirit feels as if it might faint from lugging all this body around.”

This last sentence really gets to the heart of the novel.  It makes me wonder whether Updike was unconsciously elaborating on the great Delmore Schwartz poem, The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me, especially the lines:

Breathing at my side, that heavy animal,  
That heavy bear who sleeps with me,  
Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,  
A sweetness intimate as the water’s clasp,  
Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope  
Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.  
—The strutting show-off is terrified,  
Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants,  
Trembles to think that his quivering meat  
Must finally wince to nothing at all.

With that as the essential theme, nothing escapes the granular examination of Updike the social historian, the sterility of Florida life, the inherent difficulty of the father – son relationship (poor Nelson becomes hooked on drugs, always having to live in the larger than life shadow of his father, and leads the family into financial crisis), the political back drop of the time – Ronald Reagan and George Bush, the cupidity of corporate America, driving real industry overseas and becoming a nation of financial engineering.  In fact, so much of the novel stands up to today’s world and one can see the foreshadowing of the Age of Trump.  There is even a swipe at Trump on the front page of Rabbit’s local Florida paper of the late 80s, a picture of Trump with the headline (Male call: the year’s hottest). One would have to wonder what Updiike would have written with the last few years as political fodder.

Rabbit maintains a little garden at his house in Pennsylvania, but he’s also planted the seeds of what his family has become, his wife Janice yearning for a life of her own as a real estate broker, his son Nelson running their car dealership into the ground with debts to finance his cocaine habit, his daughter in law, Pru, hanging onto a loveless marriage, his two grandchildren looking to their grandpa for love and guidance, and Rabbit like a deer caught in the headlights.  “Family life with children, is something out of his past, that he has not been sorry to leave behind; it was for him like a bush in some neglected corner of the back yard that gets overgrown, a lilac bush or privet some bindweed has invade from underneath with leaves so similar and tendrils so tightly entwining it gives the gardener a headache in the sun to try to separate bad growth from good.  Anyway he basically had but the one child, Nelson, one lousy child.”

But that is not the only thing that is entwined, being strangled; it’s his heart and the American soul. “As the candy settles in his stomach a sense of doom regrows its claws around his heart”  “With [his golf partners], he’s a big Swede, they call him Angstrom, a comical pet gentile, a big pale uncircumcised hunk of the American dream.”   And when he finally has a heart attack on a Gulf of Mexico beach, “he lay helpless and jellyfishlike under a sky of red, of being in the hands of others, of being the blind, pained, focal point of a world of concern and expertise, at some depth was a coming back home, after a life of ill-advised journeying.  Sinking, he perceived the world around him as gaseous and rising, the grave and affectionate faces of paramedics and doctors and nurses released by his emergency like a cloud of holiday balloons.”

He has an angioplasty when he should have had a bypass, but he doesn’t want anything done in Florida instead returning to his home soil of Pennsylvania.  “Harry always forgets, what is so hard to picture in flat Florida, the speckled busyness, the antic jammed architecture, the distant blue hilliness forcing in the foreground the gabled houses to climb and cling on the high sides of streets, the spiky retaining walls and sharp slopes….”  But home there are problems, family problems, money problems, leading to marital discord, and Rabbit on the run again, but to where, to Florida, bringing his compromised heart, and his focus more and more on death. “It has always…interested him, that sinister mulch of facts our little lives grow out of before joining the mulch themselves…”

And yet, on the lonely drive down I95, one that I’ve done scores of times myself, Updike’s penchant for social commentary and his ear for dialogue dominates.  Nearing the Florida border Rabbit turns to a man one empty stool away from the counter of a rest stop restaurant, asking:

“’About how many more hours is it to the Florida line?’  He lets his Pennsylvania accent drag a little extra, hoping to pass.

‘Four’ the man answers with a smile. ‘I just came from there. Where you headin’ for in Florida?’

‘Way the other end.  Deleon.  My wife and I have a condo there, I’m driving down alone, she’ll be following later.’

The man keeps smiling, smiling and chewing. ‘I know Deleon.  Nice old town.’

Rabbit has never noticed much that is old about it.  ‘From our balcony we used to have a look at the sea but they built it up.’

‘Lot of building on the Gulf side now, the Atlantic side pretty well full. Began my day in Sarasota.’

‘Really? That’s a long way to come.’

‘That’s why I’m makin’ such a pig of myself.  Hadn’t eaten more than a candy bar since five o’clock this morning.  After a while you got to stop, you begin to see things.’

‘What sort of things?’

‘The stretch I just came over, lot of patchy ground fog, it gets to you.  Just coffee gets to your stomach.’  This man has a truly nice way of smiling and chewing and talking all at once.  His mouth is wide but lipless, like a Muppet’s  He has set his truck driver’s cap, with a bill and a mesh panel in the back, beside his plate; his good head of gray hair, slightly wavy like a rich man’s is permanently dented by the edge of the cap.

‘You driving one of those big trucks? I don’t know how you guys do it. How far you goin’?’

All the salad on the plate has vanished and the smile has broadened, ‘Boston.’

‘Boston! All the way?’ Rabbit has never been to Boston,  to him it is the end of the world, tucked up in under Maine.  People living that far north are as fantastic to him as Eskimos.’
 
There is more to the dialogue than that but it exhibits Updike’s keen ear for ordinary talk.  I could have had the same conversation as that (although Boston is not fantastic to me in the same way).

Arriving in Florida, without his wife, who is really not following him, he is alone, with his failing heart and his dimming dreams, the heavy bear that goes with him, dragging him down, down.  Rabbit at Rest.  Brilliant, one of the best novels of the late 20th century along with Roth’s American Pastoral.

Not having Updike’s decade by decade commentary of the Rabbit series feels like the same galactic void from his sentence:  “The stark plummy stars press down and the depth of the galactic void for an instant makes you feel suspended upside down.” My world is upside down without him.

“We are each of us like our little blue planet, hung in black space, upheld by nothing but our mutual reassurances, our loving ties.” –

 


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

News of the World



Funny how what we sometimes read is based on serendipity rather than carefully thought out choices.  After all, reading time is precious, especially with multifaceted activities whirling around in the modern world, all calling for our attention or participation.  It’s one of the reasons I welcome the summer and returning to our boat in Connecticut for a long stay.  No pressing commitments, no piano, and although there is work to be done on the boat, incomparable to “running” the house.  Also, our dock is out of range of Wifi so even our Internet activity has to be cut back, television too as satellite is unreliable on a cloudy windy day.  I welcome the change.

So I’ve been happily arranging my reading, lining up all the novels I hope to finish.  Most are so-called “serious” ones, no sense listing them here.  In fact, I had already started one, when our good friend, Nina, sent us an email with the subject “beautiful writing,” starting out her message “.... It was March 5 and cold, his breath fumed and his old muffler was dank with the steam. Above and behind them the Dipper turned on its great handle as if to pour night itself out onto the dreaming continent and each of its seven stars gleamed from between the fitful passing clouds.....” This is a passage from the book I’m reading and loving): News of the World by Paulette Jiles.  It’s a story of a printer turned newsreader in the 1870's and what happens to him.

So I sagely replied, Yes, Beautiful.  Sounds like the kind of book one of us can knock off quickly.  But I have so many on my reading take-off pad that I can't promise to get to it immediately, and if it's a library book, or promised to someone else, I'd feel guilty taking it.  

It was a library book but my wife Ann agreed to read it, which she did in a few days, enthusiastically endorsing it as well and insisting I would love it too.  Meanwhile I was reading one of my “serious” novels and laboring.  I declared (to myself), even if it’s serious it should be a joy to read so I decided to put it down (very unlike me) and give myself over to a novel which had all the earmarks of a great story, News of the World, and as there were still a few days left before the library return date, felt confident that I could knock off the 200 some odd pages.

How happy I am that I made that decision.

Jiles’ novel reminded me a little of Philipp Meyer’s, The Son, (although his is a novel written on a much grander scale), in that one of the main characters was captured by Indians and raised by them, while their parents were killed, all of this taking place in the post civil war territory of Texas.  Each makes its points about man’s inhumanity to man and survival being a paramount issue.  However The Son is a sledgehammer of a novel while News of the World is delicate and uplifting.

Here’s another comparative observation to other novels I’ve read, and this might seem to be strange, yet there is an interesting connection.  Jiles dispenses with the use of quotation marks so the author’s narrative and the characters’ dialogue is not readily distinguishable.  This technique, while off putting at first, works very well as you get used to it and I find that it makes great story telling even more energizing.   

Two such novels, reviewed in this blog which also use that technique are Dave Eggers’ Hologram for a King and Louis Begley’s About Schmidt.  And as with Jiles’ novel, both are fast reads, hard to put down.  I find them almost reading like screenplays, easily adaptable to that medium.  The novels I mentioned were made into films.  News of the World would be a perfect film as well I thought.  Therefore I googled the title and “film” and found that Tom Hanks had just signed up for a movie version! 

Perfect casting as “The Captain” and ideally suited to Hanks’ sensibilities and temperament.  He’s a little young for the part, the main character being closer to my age (nearing mid-70s than Hanks at 60), but just perfect otherwise.  Ironically he starred in the movie version of Hologram for a King so maybe he has a penchant for story narratives and dialogue without quotation marks as well!

The Son also made its way to film, a recent 10 part TV miniseries.  Great stories about the West and the real back story of the unimaginable cruelties and hardships have power.

I found News of the World a metaphor for today’s developing dystopian world.  There was extreme political dissention in Texas during post Civil War years.  Edmund Davis, considered a radical, was elected governor against Andrew Jackson Hamilton, a Unionist Democrat.  Davis supported the rights of freed slaves and wanted Texas to be divided into a number of Republican-controlled states.  This leitmotif works in the background of the novel and the political polarity resembles today.  You were either pro Davis or anti-Davis.

It was also a time of great fear, Mexicans being hunted and murdered, Indian wars continuing, and marauding bands of outlaws, lawlessness and violence, not exactly an excellent time for a 70 plus year old man to take a newly freed Indian captive on a 400 mile journey south through Texas.

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is no ordinary man of the times, though.  He’s been through two wars, including the war of 1812 but that experience is secondary to his nature.  He’s a good man, trustworthy, honorable, and as an ex-printer he is interested in and makes his living from “the news of the world.”  These attributes put him in a situation where he is inveigled to return a captive of the Kiowa tribe, a 10 year old white girl, captured when she was six, to her aunt and uncle some four hundred grueling and dangerous miles from Wichita Falls northwest of Dallas to Castroville, southwest of San Antonio.

He’s also not ordinary as he embraces information (a modern man!), believing that “If people had true knowledge of the world perhaps they would not take up arms and so perhaps he could be an aggregator of information from distant places and the world would be a more peaceful place.”

So the story begins when Britt Johnson, a free black man, asks Captain Kidd to deliver the child, who was left to him by a government agent, back to her family.  After all she’s a white girl and if Johnson attempts the three plus week journey, there could be consequences.  “You take her and the fifty dollar gold piece I was given to deliver her.  Hard to find somebody to trust with this.” Thus the Captain was given the responsibility of delivering Johanna Leonberger under contract with a government agent (Johnson gives him papers to that effect) and as Kidd himself says:  “I am a man of my word.”

He was a runner during the war of 1812.  “He had good lungs and knew the country…covering ground at a long trot was meat and drink to him….Nothing pleased him more than to travel free and unencumbered, along, with a message in his hand, carrying information from one unit to another, unconcerned with its content, independent of what was written or ordered therein…A lifting, running joy.  He felt like a thin banner streaming, printed with some real insignia with messages of great import entrusted to his care…He always recalled those two years with a kind of wonder.  As when one is granted the life and the task for which one was meant.  No matter how odd, no matter how out of the ordinary.  When it came to an end he was not surprised.  It was too good, too perfect to last.”

And since the Civil War he has been an itinerant news provider, going from town to town reading news articles at assemblages of people in the town for 10 cents apiece.  But now he had to combine his living with the solemn oath of delivering the child safely,”in his mild and mindless way still roaming, still reading out the news of the world in the hope that it would do some good, but in the end he must carry a weapon in his belt and he had a child to protect and no printed story or tale would alter that.”

When he first sees Johanna he says “The child seems artificial as well as malign.”

She says (inaudible to them):  “My name is Cicada.  My father’s name is Turning Water.  My mother’s name is Three Spotted.  I want to go home.”  She doesn’t speak these words though as “the Kiowa words in all their tonal music lived in her head like bees.”

Thus, the journey begins and here in the best interest of spoiler alerts, I’m deserting plot and delving into some of Jiles’ sparse writing and some of the themes that emerge.

The Captain is not only a man of honor, but a person of great sensitivity.  In spite of the travails of trying to transport her, and the frustrations of trying to teach her some of the ways of the white world which she had entirely forgotten, his inherent humanity prevails:  “He was suddenly almost overwhelmed with pity for her.  Torn from her parents, adopted by a strange culture, given new parents, then sold for a few blankets and some old silverware, now sent to stranger after stranger, crushed into peculiar clothing, surrounded by people of an unknown language and unknown culture, only ten years old, and now she could not even eat her food without have to use outlandish instruments….Her sufferings were beyond description.”

“He worried all up and down every street and with every tack he drove in.  Worried about the very long journey ahead, about his ability to keep the girl from harm.  He thought, resentfully, I raised my girls, I already did that.  At the age he had attained with his life span short before him he had begun to look upon the human world with the indifference of a condemned man.”  Oh do I identify with the last sentence of this quote!

He is a man who lives in the real world and his flight with Johanna brings these thoughts to the surface, “more than ever knowing in his fragile bones that it was the duty of men who aspired to the condition of humanity to protect children and kill for them….Human aggression and depravity still managed to astonish him….Some people were born unsupplied with a human conscience and those people needed killing.”

Yet, as he turns 72 on the road, and is fending off threats to follow through on his promise and in the process gradually bonding with Johanna, he is “beyond belief “at his age, still traveling, alive, and thus “unaccountably happy.” 

“Maybe life is just carrying news.  Surviving to carry the news.  Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”


I’ve quoted liberally in this overview, but it’s one of the advantages I can bring to a blog vs.the usual “review.”  Such reviews can easily be found elsewhere.  But I like to focus on the writing, and this is a beautiful novel and I was glad to put down my other reading to enjoy News of the World.  I’ll look forward to Tom Hanks’ interpretation of it, an actor I admire.  He will make a great Captain Kidd.
 







Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Hunters



How many men start out as an F-86 pilot during the Korean War and then become a writer over the next 50 years?  James Salter wasn’t prolific, but great nonetheless.  I had already read what has been considered his best works, Light Years,  All That Is and A Sport and a Pastime

I’m generally not “into” war novels (although will never forget reading Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, tears streaming down my face reading the concentration camp chapters), so to this point I had avoided Salter’s first novel, The Hunters.  Perhaps this is also because I had seen the movie version on Turner Classic Movies, staring my favorite film noir actor, Robert Mitchum (also with Robert Wagner and May Britt).  The novel is very different from the film, hardly bearing any resemblance, other than a story of F-86 fighter pilots during the Korean War.  Salter’s novel is so superior, but of course it’s literature, not Hollywood.  Salter must have agonized over the changes that were made to his novel for the screen version.

Cleve Connell arrives at Kimpo air base at the height of the Korean War.  There, the F-86 pilots do a dance of death with their MIG-15 enemies.  Connell learns this dance means to hunt or be hunted, kill or be killed, a path to fame or ignominy.

The wonder of flying, only decades after flight itself was pioneered by the Wright Brothers, is encapsulated by Salter, an experienced F-86 pilot.  This novel could not have been written without that credential or by a person indifferent to the joys of flying.  Cleve is ready for one of his early missions, congregating with the other pilots while waiting to go out to his “ship” as they referred to their F-86’s:  He was not fully at ease. It was still like being a guest at a family reunion, with all the unfamiliar references. He felt relieved when finally they rode out to their ships. Then it was intoxicating. The smooth takeoff, and the free feeling of having the world drop away. Soon after leaving the ground, they were crossing patches of stratus that lay in the valleys as heavy and white as glaciers. North for the fifth time. It was still all adventure, as exciting as love, as frightening. Cleve rejoiced in it.

Cleve fantasizes about turning his flying skills into a sport, becoming an ace (5 kills).  He romanticizes to his wingman, while being aware that it’s not necessarily the best prepared pilots who become aces:  Odd. Everything about this ought to be perfect for you and me. Here we are, by sheer accident, in the most natural of worlds, and of course that means the most artificial, because we're very civilized. We're in a child's dream and a man's heaven, living a medieval life under sanitary conditions, flying the last shreds of something irreplaceable, I don't know what, in a sport too kingly even for kings. Nothing is missing, and yet it's the men who don't understand it at all that become its heroes.

By then, though, he is already transitioning into some self doubt, even after a brief burst of confidence after his first kill.  Soon he sinks into an even larger sinkhole of remorse, and finally finding an acceptance of his self worth in the end.  He is tormented, directly or indirectly by his arch rival, Pell, a man he learns would claim unsubstantiated kills or even put his wing-man in harm’s way to get a kill….he hated Pell. He hated him in a way that allowed no other emotion. It seemed he was born to, and that he had done it from the earliest days of his life, before he ever knew him, before he even existed. Of all the absolutes, Pell was the archetype, confronting him with the unreality and diabolical force of a medieval play, the deathlike, grinning angel risen to claim the very souls of men. When he dwelt upon that, Cleve felt the cool touch of fear. There was no way out. He knew that if Pell were to win, he himself could not survive.

But these opportunities for wins frequently were the consequence of just sheer luck.  The squadron flew three or four missions a day and pilots are not assigned to all.  Some came back their noses blackened, the fuel tanks dropped, indicating a dog fight while others do not see MIGs during the entire mission.  Cleve’s pick of the litter tended to be in the latter category while Pell’s were in the former, so no wonder.

The Hunters is a well developed novel, gathering momentum to the end, becoming so compelling one can’t put the book down the deeper you get into it.  Although a war novel, it is written by a then young writer whose prose, you can tell, would lead him to greatness, not in the air, but on the page.