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.
“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.’”
“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.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Romney and Ryan and a Hope and a Prayer

Although I had promised myself that I would not write much about the upcoming presidential election (or at least as much as I did some four years ago), I have to say something about Mitt Romney’s VP choice of Paul Ryan. When Sarah Palin was picked by McCain to be his running mate, I thought it was one of the most unconscionable, politically motivated choices he could have made.   Palin simply did not have the knowledge or experience to be a heart beat from the presidency.  

Now, another GOP choice four years later seems to be as politically motivated to appeal to the conservative base.  While Ryan is no Palin, his economic “plan” is the typical hope and a prayer of supply-siders:  lower taxes for the “job creators” and that will inexorably lead to spectacular economic growth.  Didn’t we try that last when Bush’s tax cuts went into effect after budget surpluses under Clinton? What was the outcome of that along with the deregulation of the banking system? I guess Romney thought his own lack of specifics would be easily clarified by adopting Ryan’s plan, at least in spirit.  

Ironic, isn’t it, the GOP accuses Obama of engaging in social engineering, but the essence of Ryan’s plan is social engineering in reverse?  The Obama camp has called it a form of social Darwinism. Indeed, the survival of the fittest, all others be damned!  (“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge, ... it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time." / "Are there no prisons?" / "Plenty of prisons..." / "And the Union workhouses…..Are they still in operation?" /  "Both very busy, sir..." / "Those who are badly off must go there." / "Many can't go there; and many would rather die." / "If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.")

The personal irony is I would be better off with Romney and Ryan’s economic plan.  Imagine, not having to pay any taxes on dividends, interest income, and capital gains!  Bring it on, but how many jobs is this retired ex-publisher going to create? And, then, the double irony of the hard-working middle class getting conned by all the staged patriotic hoopla the handsome R&R team projects, and then voting against their own best interests!   

I’m as much against a big government welfare state as I am a government based on Atlas Shrugged, but I’m afraid that is how this presidential campaign is going to be framed.   The PACs will have a field day with hyperbole.   Blather into matter.  

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Fred and Michael

This entry is an easy one to write, as most of the content already existed in some form, and it makes more sense for me to merely connect things and add some comments.

To provide an overview, a week ago last Saturday we attended a special affair in Hampton Bays, a celebration of the union of two very old, dear friends, Fred Rappaport and Michael Parkin.  We’ve known them for about 47 years of the 54 they have been together.  As I noted in a previous entry Ann and I met because Fred hired both of us and they attended our own wedding 42 years ago:

My first job out of college in 1964 was at a division of Academic Press, Johnson Reprint Corporation. I was hired by the Vice President at the time, Fred, who was living with his partner, Michael. I remember when he hired me, thinking he's so old, 35. Ha. About six months later he also hired a "sassy dame," and she showed up at a New Year's Eve party that Fred and Michael threw, I think it was Jan. 1966. She was wearing a backless dress right down to the tip of her derrière and believe me, even though I was there with my 1st wife, I took note as she moved to the music. Later she became wife #2 (Ann). So that little intersection of time and space changed my life and hers, thanks to Fred's astute hiring practices.

Well, Fred and Michael have stayed together all that time and, as Fred put it, they "finally tied the knot after 54 years," a civil union performed at New York City hall at the close of 2011! What better way to start the New Year!
But that civil union was not held with all their friends and family present, and that is what Saturday, August 4th was all about, at their home in Hampton Bays.  They had bought property there about fifty years ago, which included a small, rustic cottage.  I actually stayed there 47 years ago for one summer weekend, with my ex-wife and our, then, four month old baby, Chris.  All I can remember was partying most of the night.

Since then, they built a beautiful, modern home, higher on the property, overlooking Peconic Bay, but the cottage still stands and the ceremony took place adjacent to the cottage, so appropriate for the occasion.

It was a special day in every way, the trip there, the memories, participating in the renewal of their vows before all.  Bill O'Brien wrote and conducted a ceremonial service that included laughs and love.  There was one special section that I quote below as it is unique to all the wedding ceremonies that we’ve ever attended. It brought each of us into the service, completing a circle of life, why we were there. There was such special meaning to Ann and me as our lives were so profoundly impacted by that seemingly random act of Fred hiring us both at the time that he did.  Here is what Bill said as Fred and Michael were asked to turn to the assemblage before reiterating their vows:

While there is much that you have achieved, perhaps your greatest accomplishment is assembled behind you. I ask that you now turn and face the congregation. These are your fellow travelers.  Please take a moment to look into their loving faces. Feel the warmth of their love upon you. These are the men, women, and children who have accompanied you on your journey, who have brought you to this day.  This is your harvest. And these men, women, and children are your wheat.

Looking across the audience, there was hardly a dry eye.  Indeed, Fred and Michael, you have touched us all.

Although it was my intention to write up a full description of our day, my best friend ---my wife Ann -- beat me to it in an email to her friend Estella, a woman she hired after being hired by Fred. Estella now lives in Spain and is one of the world’s leading authorities on the art of Flamenco (that is a long story onto itself, to be told here one of these days).  I do not write with Ann’s spontaneous, natural voice, one that is so fitting for this entry, so here is Ann’s email describing the day: 

On Saturday morning, Bob and I got up very early, and left the boat to catch the Port Jeff Ferry out of Bridgeport, CT that takes about an hour and a quarter to cross LI Sound.  We were on our way out to Hampton Bays, another hour and a quarter drive once we drove off the Ferry in our car with the A/C cranked up to max.  It was another scorcher of a day, but we hardly knew just how bad it was going to be.  We were on our way to Fred’s summer house that he built with his partner, Michael, about 20 years ago.  They were officially married this past winter in NYC by a Justice of the Peace at City Hall where it is now legal for same sex couples to wed. This was an afternoon party to celebrate their union, after 54 years together, and Michael's 80th birthday.  Fred is 83, if you can believe that. 

When we arrived, it was a scene out of a movie, International banners and flags crisscrossed their steep drive, and tents were set up with tables, a bar and an area with gorgeous Hors d'Oeuvres and Canapes and passed hot yummy food.  And this was just the Cocktail hour!  At 2:00 PM, we were all invited to walk down the drive to a clearing where chairs and a dais were set up; Fred and Michael were having a real wedding ceremony with all their friends and family present.  It was astonishing, I laughed and cried, the officiator was hilarious, a flutist played, at least four different people sang, some to us and a very pregnant lady just to them holding their hands, more music, guitar and flute, and more kissing.  It was without doubt one of the most wonderful, touching and beautiful wedding ceremonies I have ever attended.  The only one thing I would have changed was the weather.   Everyone and I mean everyone, woman, man, child, were in a pool of sweat.  It was 95 degrees and 100% humidity.  I have never schvitzed so much in my life. At the end, a woman I just happened to meet and found interesting, Arlene, presented them with Indian garlands made out of marigolds which are typically exchanged by newlyweds at the conclusion of Hindu ceremonies. It was the perfect touch as Fred and Michael are world travelers and in fact were in India year or so ago.

Afterwards, we returned to actually eat more food, this time a magnificent alfresco luncheon was set up with all of my favorite foods.  Who could eat?  I was drenched in perspiration, full from all the prior food, slightly high from the 3 or 4 (or maybe more) glasses of iced white wine I kept drinking and having such a good time talking to all the interesting people there.  Some flew in from London, some from Hawaii. I had a fascinating discussion with a gay couple from Seattle (one of whom is a travel guide and has been all over the world, India of course, included.) Naturally I told him that I was going there with a friend from Jerez, Spain in October and he was impressed that I was so well read on India and knew so much about the culture, religion, history and social conditions.  He said it is amazing how ignorant most people are when they travel, knowing nothing about the country they are seeing. I recommended Roberts’ book, “Shantaram” for him to read, extolling it as one of the finest fictional memoirs of India I’ve ever read.

Finally after having something to eat and more schmoozing, we slipped away to our car for the long haul back to Ct, deciding to drive this time over the Throgs Neck Bridge rather than be on the Ferry schedule.  Let me tell you, there is nothing as delicious as a really good air conditioning system in your car!  For the first time that day, we were finally cooling off.  But not even the heat could put a dent in all the good feelings we took home with us, having witnessed such a blessed day of love and affection between dear friends and the people gathered there, all realizing that something very special occurred to each and every one of us.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Summer Reading (Continued)

While living on the boat, we are able to catch up on our reading.  As I haven’t made the transition to the Kindle yet, we ship up a box of books for the summer and they sit on our little bookshelf on the boat, awaiting their turn.  Part of the fun is looking through them, deciding upon the next read.  I selected a number of novels, some recommended by our son, Jonathan.

It took a younger generation, Jonathan to be precise, to introduce me to some fresh, intelligent and extremely moving literature, not only Eric Puchner's Model Home which I thought was a fabulous first novel, and now his second recommendation, another first novel, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall which was published in 2001 (Puchner’s novel is more recent, 2010). 

These are extraordinary first novels, major literary talent.  Udall has published his follow up, widely praised as well, The Lonely Polygamist which I have yet to read.  Interestingly, both the Puchner and Udall novels are set in the west and southwest (when I think of that area, I think of the photograph below I took somewhere in the southwest years ago), perhaps the new home of the American dream or the American nightmare.  However, the two novels differ greatly in their perspectives and voice, Puchner reminding me somewhat of Updike, Cheever, and Yates, while Udall’s The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint is a little Huck Finn, Oliver Twist, Rule of the Bone and The Book of Mormon  oh, and throw in the Paul Newman film, Hombre, about a half breed Apache.

Udall writes a genuine Bildungsroman, our lovable but struggling protagonist Edgar Mint living out an upside down life (“In many ways, it occurs to me now, I have lived my life in reverse.  In the first half of my life I had to make all the hard choices and ride out the consequences, while in the second half I have lived the sheltered and uncluttered life of a child.”)  He is an orphan but like Oliver Twist has to go through a horrific childhood before emerging into the sunshine of a loving caretaker.

Along the way we meet his friends and his Fagins, the story gathering force and momentum as it unfolds, beginning with his self-assessment: “If my life could be contained in a word it would be this one: accident.”  From there it is one finely written calamity to the next culminating in a complete circle, Edgar achieving peace and a kind of maturity that only hardship can teach.

He is a half breed, part white (a “cowboy” father from Connecticut of all places!) and an Apache mother who becomes an alcoholic and deserts Edgar, who ends up in an orphanage from hell, not unlike those in Dickens’ novels. (“For the seven years my mother and I were together, I was nothing but an inconvenience to her, a burden, a source of pain, and her pregnancy with me was no exception.”)

Like the last book I read, Richard Ford’s Canadaits first paragraph is spellbinding: “If I could tell you only one thing about my life it would be this:  when I was seven years old the mailman ran over my head.  As formative events go, nothing else comes close; my careening, zigzag existence, my wounded brain and faith in God, my collisions with joy and affliction, all of it has come, in one way or another, out of that moment on a summer morning when the left rear tire of a United States postal jeep ground my tiny head into the hot gravel of the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation.”

He actually dies but a young doctor, Barry Pinkley (even the names give homage to Dickens) brings him back to life and Pinkley becomes obsessed with Edgar’s well being afterwards (“Everyone agreed that my survival was either an absolute miracle or a freak happenstance…but there was also general agreement that simple survival was as far as the miracle would go: there was no chance on earth I was going to be anything but a mental and physical equivalent of a turnip.”)  But Edgar befriends an older man in the hospital, Art, and when Edgar is diagnosed with “Dysgraphia,” the “inability to write,” Art insists that they get Edgar a typewriter.  Even though Edgar confesses: “I have to say it was not love at first sight,” when he was given a Hermes Jubilee 2000 typewriter. It becomes his salvation and he carries the albatross of his enormous output in a trunk wherever he moves: great comic fiction with lots of dark humor driving the story.

Out of the hospital he is sent to the William Tecumseh Sherman School (“My first day of school at Willie Sherman and I was about to realize that I was no longer Saint Edgar the miracle-boy, hospital sweetheart, beloved by all, but a walking target, a chicken among the foxes.  Not only was I the new kid…[and] not only was I a crossbreed.”)

But our hero survives and he is finally placed with a foster family in Utah, a Mormon family, the Madsens, as dysfunctional as any other American family, but at least a warm bed for Edgar, who thinks that this is the answer to his salvation, even receiving Baptismal and endeavoring to learn the Mormon religion.  That too is not the answer for him, but he thinks he has developed a calling in life and that is to find the mailman and to forgive him (Edgar knows that the mailman thinks he had killed him).

While Barry Pinkley and his foster mother Lara Madsen figure prominently near the novel’s conclusion, it is ultimately from this “calling” that the novel culminates into one of the finest written last chapters that I’ve read in years, gripping in its emotional power and a testimony to Udall’s writing gifts by constructing the perfect coda. 

As I am merely about ten years late in discovering this novel, there are plenty of other sources for more information, but both Udall and Puncher are on my radar screen for fine writing in the future.

Before posting this I also finished Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem, another recommendation made by my son.  I do not mean to diminish its importance by not covering this novel with its own entry, but mysteries are not my usual reading fare and I feel a little off base reviewing the book.  But while a mystery, this novel is a brilliant piece of writing, with the very clever conceit of the main character, Lionel Essrog, having Tourette's syndrome which gives Lethem a platform for demonstrating his writing skills.  I’m also partial to Motherless Brooklyn as it is set not far from where I lived for almost ten years and through Lethem I could almost feel the macadam of the setting, Court Street, Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill. 

It shares some of the themes of Udall’s novel as well, a novel about an orphan, Dickensian characters, a coming of age story but in the form of a detective novel, our erstwhile hero endeavoring to find the murderer of his mentor, an underworld character, Frank Minna, who has rounded up Lionel and other orphans from the “St. Vincent Home for Boys” to serve his nefarious ends, not unlike, again, Oliver Twist’s upbringing.

The “language” of  Tourette's is like a coiled spring throughout Lethem’s tour de force: “I’m tightly wound. I’m a loose cannon.  Both – I’m tightly wound loose cannon a tight loose.  My whole life exists in the space between those words, tight, loose, and there isn’t any space there – they should be one word, tightloose.  I’m an air bag in a dashboard, packed up layer upon layer in readiness for that moment when I get to explode, expand all over you, fill every available space.  Unlike an airbag, though, I’m repacked the moment I’ve exploded, am tensed and ready again to explode – like some safety-film footage cut into a loop, all I do is compress and release, over and over, never saving or satisfying anyone, least myself.  Yet the tape plays on pointlessly, obsessive air bag exploding again and again while life itself goes on elsewhere, outside the range of these antic expenditures.”

 There is one surprise after another in these pages, a labyrinth that the reader is compelled to negotiate to a fitting ending.  Simply put: I loved reading Motherless Brooklyn. One is always rooting for Lionel, his eccentricities giving him a special place in literature and, no doubt, the mystery genre.