Some ostensibly very different works of fiction are discussed here, Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, John Updike’s The Maples, and The Portable Library of Jack Kerouac. But they are tied together in some ways, particularly as I read them somewhat concurrently over the last month or two -- mostly during our trips to Alaska and Seattle -- and each in its own way has struck a chord in me.
After reading McEwan’s Saturday which I thoroughly enjoyed, everything taking place in one day (Saturday, naturally), I read his Solar -- a good story but not in the same league as Saturday. I had never read Atonement, his highly praised and ultimately filmed novel, something I must get to doing. I was looking for something a little lighter from McEwan for our recent trip to Alaska and Seattle, and I stumbled upon his Sweet Tooth, a mystery and a love story, and written from a woman’s first person point of view. Much in the novel is about writing itself, a novel within a novel with detailed outlines for some short stories as well, all fitting together like a literary jig saw puzzle.
It takes place during the paranoid cold war 1970s when a young Cambridge graduate, a mathematician by training but a compulsive inveterate reader by avocation, Serena Frome, joins the M15, the British intelligence agency. Ultimately she moves up the ranks and is given a “soft” assignment, nothing too dangerous, of following young British writers, ones that M15 might think would benefit by clandestine financial support, in the hope that their writings might have some use in the macro setting of the cold war. So, the beautiful Frome is assigned to bestow a grant to a young writer, Tom Haley. How was she to know that they would fall in love, his never realizing her association with M15 (thinking she represents a nonprofit group that bestows literary endowments)? Where there is such a secret there are the underpinnings for tension throughout the novel and McEwan capitalizes on every twist and turn. To say any more is to give away an ingenious ending to the novel, where everything finally coalesces.
But how real life enters and is transformed by fiction is at the heart of the novel. As an example, Serena and Tom discuss probability theory (as a reminder, Serena is a trained mathematician). Tom doesn’t get it. But ultimately it enters one of the short stories he is writing He gives it to Serena to read. She fails to see how it coalesced in the creative process until she tries to go asleep and in that state finally realizes how Tom did get it: As I lay in the dark, waiting for sleep, I thought I was beginning to grasp something about invention. As a reader, a speed-reader, I took it for granted, it was a process I never troubled myself with. You pulled a book from the shelf and there was an invented, peopled world, as obvious as the one you lived in…. I thought I had the measure of the artifice, or I almost had it. Almost like cooking, I thought sleepily. Instead of heat transforming the ingredients, there's pure invention, the spark, the hidden element. What resulted was more than the sum of the parts…. At one level it was obvious enough how many separate parts were tipped in and deployed. The mystery was in how they were blended into something cohesive and plausible, how the ingredients were cooked into something so delicious. As my thought scattered and I drifted toward the borders of oblivion, I thought I almost understood how it was done. Just a wonderful description of the creative process, how life is reflected and filtered by a writer’s story.
This is a page turner, somewhat of a classic spy story, besides being a primer on writing itself. Ian McEwan is becoming one of the more interesting writers of the 21st century.
But I return, now, to a different kind of 20th century story (actually stories), having had the pleasure of concurrently reading Updike’s The Maples Stories. Although these were published during his lifetime, they have been posthumously issued as an “Everyman's Library Pocket Classic” in hardcover, a volume to treasure. I had read most of these before, but to read the eighteen stories that span from 1956’s “Snowing in Greenwich Village,” to “Grandparenting” published in his favorite venue The New Yorker in 1994 is to view the life of the great literary man himself. It took Adam Begley’s brilliant literary biography, Updike, to see that “the Maples” were in fact Updike and his first wife Mary. The closest Updike had delved into autobiography was his work Self-Consciousness: Memoirs, published in 1989 but that is greatly about his growing up in Shillington, PA.
The Maples chronicles the jealousies, infidelities, the love and the hurt, and the intimacies and the breakdown of his marriage. Consider the aching beauty of his writing, so finely crafted in this description of when Richard Maple picks up his wife Joan in his car to finally go to court for their no fault divorce: She got into the car, bringing with her shoes and the moist smell of dawn. She had always been an early riser, and he a late one. 'Thanks for doing this,' she said, of the ride, adding, 'I guess.' ‘My pleasure,' Richard said. As they drove to court, discussing their cars and their children, he marveled at how light Joan had become; she sat on the side of his vision as light as a feather, her voice tickling his ear, her familiar intonations and emphases thoroughly musical and half unheard, like the patterns of a concerto that sets us to daydreaming. He no longer blamed her: that was the reason for the lightness. All those years, he had blamed her for everything - for the traffic jam in Central Square, for the blasts of noise on the mail boat, for the difference in the levels of their beds. No longer: he had set her adrift from omnipotence. He had set her free, free from fault. She was to him as Gretel to Hansel, a kindred creature moving beside him down a path while birds behind them ate the bread crumbs.
“Grandparenting” which takes place well after the Maples divorce is an act of atonement for Updike as it brings together the now divorced Maples one last time to participate in the birth of their first grandchild It ends with the plaintive “Nobody belongs to us, except in memory,” Indeed, Updike is for the ages.
|a "beat" copy|
And what could be more different from Updike than Jack Kerouac’s Portable Library which I managed to fit in here and there, making it mostly bedtime reading. I read On the Road ages ago so that and his other writings in the Portable Library edition seemed new to me. Oh, man, this is the beat generation, a step before mine, but I remember it well as it played out in the late 50s and 60s. Kerouac writes with a pulsating persistence, almost stream of consciousness, as if he just cannot fit enough life on a physical page. It throbs with energy as he tries to absorb the “real” underbelly of America in every place imaginable, with the help of drugs, alcohol, sex, and, man, cool beat music. It’s almost as if he did not live in the same world as an Updike who crafted his sentences like a sculpture. No, Kerouac was more like a Jackson Pollack, frenzied by getting the colors of life just right (to him), writing in riffs like Charlie Parker (both mentioned by him in his writings).
Here is just one breathless paragraph from his Jazz of the Beat Generation (1949) after hearing a rendition of “Close Your Eyes:” Up steps Freddy on the bandstand and asks for a slow beat and looks sadly out the open door over people's heads and begins singing "Close Your Eyes." Things quiet down for a minute. Freddy's wearing a tattered suede jacket, a purple shirt with white buttons, cracked shoes and zoot pants without press; he didn't care. He looked like a pimp in Mecca, where there are no pimps; a barren woman's child, which is a dream; he looked like he was beat to his socks; he was down, and bent, and he played us some blues with his vocals. His big brown eyes were concerned with sadness, and the singing of songs slowly and with long thoughtful pauses. But in the second chorus he got excited and embraced the mike and jumped down from the bandstand and bent to it and to sing a note he had to touch his shoe tops and pull it all up to blow, and he blew so much he staggered from the effect, he only recovered himself in time for the next long slow note. "Mu-u-u-u-sic pla-a-a-a-a-a-a-ay!" He leaned back with his face to the ceiling, mike held at his fly. He shook his shoulders, he gave the hip sneer, he swayed. Then he leaned in almost falling with his pained face against the mike. "Ma-a-a-ke it dream-y for dan-cing"-and he looked at the street out-side, Folsom, with his lips curled in scorn-"while we go ro-rnan-n-n-cing"-he staggered sideways-"Lo-o-o-ove's holi-da-a-a-ay"-he shook his head with disgust and weariness at the whole world-"Will make it seem"-what would it make it seem?-everybody waited, he mourned-"O-kay." The piano hit a chord. "So baby come on and just clo-o-o-o-se your pretty little ey-y-y-es" -his mouth quivered, offered; he looked at us, Dean and me, with an expression that seemed to say "Hey now, what's this thing we're all putting down in this sad brown world" -and then he came to the end of his song and for this there had to be elaborate preparations during which time you could send all the messages to Garcia around the world twelve times and what difference did it make to anybody because here we were dealing with the pit and prune juice of poor beat life itself and the pathos of people in the Godawful streets, so he said and sang it, "Close-your-" and blew it way up to the ceiling with a big voice that came not from training but feeling and that much better, and blew it through to the stars and on up-"Ey-y-y-y-y-y-es" and in arpeggios of applause staggered off the platform ruefully, broodingly, nonsatisfied, artistic, arrogant. He sat in the corner with a bunch of boys and paid no attention to them. They gave him beers. He looked down and wept. He was the greatest.
|Old home, still essentially the same|
It was only after reading The Portable Jack Kerouac that I realized I have some ‘six degrees of separation’ with him. Over a period of 12 years he lived within two miles of where I lived as a kid (92-18 107th Street, Queens, NY), first at his parent’s house at 133-01 Cross Bay Blvd, Queens, NY and then for five years at 94-21 134th Street, his frequently hanging out at Smokey Oval Park on Atlantic Avenue, where I used to practice with the Richmond Hill HS baseball team. This park was later renamed the Phil Rizutto Park as Rizutto played at Richmond Hill High School, and was a classmate of my father’s.
Then, another association from my past: a close friend early in my high school years, Paul Ortloff, apparently began a relationship with Kerouac’s daughter, Jan, when he was attending Cooper Union for art. For the first nine years of Jan’s life Kerouac had denied being her father but after a blood test he acknowledged the fact. She only met her father two or three times. As one might imagine, Jan, was psychologically damaged by this rejection which haunted her for her entire short life (died in her mid 40s) but as a teenager she fell head over heels in love with Paul. I can understand why. He was charismatic, bright, and as Jack Kerouac was to the Beat generation I suppose Paul was to psychedelic and tattoo art. I wrote about him when I first started this blog, trying to capture some of my personal history (reading the entry today somewhat distresses me, because of the lost opportunities and its candor): He was a rebel with a James Dean aura. In later life Paul became a psychedelic artist. His road to that distinction was paved when he first learned to carve simple tattoos into himself using India Ink, graduating to having professional tattoos injected all over his body. He and I would go off to a Coney Island tattoo parlor on the subway for those. For some reason, I hesitated doing the same (probably because I was very allergic to pain!). When I read John Irving's haunting and enigmatic “Until I Find You” I couldn’t help but think of Paul.
|Paul on right; Me second from the left|
Paul and I lost contact well before we graduated from high school, his going his way into psychedelic art, ultimately moving to Woodstock, NY, my going the so called straight and narrow. Reading about him in James T. Jones’ Use My Name:Jack Kerouac's Forgotten Families brought up a lot of memories, but his relationship with Kerouac’s daughter was unknown to me at the time. Of course I cannot verify any of this other than Jones’ account.
Interesting where reading takes you. All three of these books brought me inward, a self examination at this stage of my life. So in spite of their differences, to me there is commonality other than the fact I read them sort of concurrently and mostly during our trip to Alaska and Seattle. Simply put, they spoke to me very personally, one about writing, one about the marriage and craft of the short story by a writer I deeply admire (and miss), and the other about a parallel universe, one of which I was aware, but only lived through tangentially.