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

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

‘Quichotte’ by Salman Rushdie - Making sense of Y2K’s Second Decade

While we were at the Malaprop's Bookstore/CafĂ© in Asheville I spied a signed edition of Salman Rushdie’s recently published novel, Quichotte (pronounced “key-shot”).  I vaguely remembered reviews that recommended the work.  I looked it over and the jacket copy hooked me:  “Just as Cervantes wrote Don Quixote to satirize the culture of his time, Rushdie takes the reader on a wild ride through a country on the verge of moral and spiritual collapse.”  Having never read Rushdie, I snapped up that next to last copy, although reading a signed edition has its downsides:  no marginal note taking allowed, no turned down corners of pages to mark important passages.  Plus, I knew I wouldn’t get to it for a while.

“A while” stretched well into the fall and, finally, I began it, clearly a modern day take off on Don Quixote (from which our main character derives his name), but the character Quichotte is a creation of another character, a crime fiction writer, “Brother” with a pen name of Sam Duchamp.  If you are looking for a logically organized, cohesive novel, this is not the one, but if you value a writer’s ability to capture the soul of society in a “moment” in time, then you simply must admire Rushdie’s work.

There are so many characters contributing to the overall sense of a world gone terrifyingly out of control, a sprawling novel in its allusions and conceits, a brilliant work of postmodern fiction, with metafictitious elements so you are constantly caught off guard.  There are stories within stories oftentimes with the identity of the author unclear.  There are pastiches of popular culture the sum of which point the way to the vapid disintegration of values and truth, making it a hallmark work of dystopian literature.

Perhaps it is Rushdie’s age.  He, as with Quichotte (and Brother), as well as myself, are only too aware that time is running out.  Is there enough left to put our personal lives in “order” while the societies we inhabit (in this novel, America, England, and India) are teetering on the precipice of chaos?  There are constant veiled allusions to absurdists such as Ionesco and Beckett.  The elderly Quichotte has by pure will conjured up a son, “Sancho” to accompany him on his “quest” to find his true love, Salma R., a reality TV star (magical realism and phantasmagoria abound throughout the entire novel).  “Father and son” had been sleeping under the stars but they’ve had a quarrel.  Quichotte has gone back to sleep, but Sancho, half ghost at this point, half real person, has climbed to the roof of their Chevy, listening to the crickets and looking up at the humbling wheel of the galaxy.  There was a sign if you wanted one, he thought, a gigantic starlight finger flipping the bird at the Earth, pointing out that all human aspiration was meaningless and all human achievement absurd when measured against the everything of everything.  Up there was the immensity of the immensity, the endless distance of the distance, the impossible scale, the thunderous silence of all that light, the million million million blazing suns out there where nobody could hear you scream.  And down here the human race, dirty ants crawling across a small rock circling a minor star in the outlying provinces of a lesser galaxy in the inconsequential boondocks of the universe, narcissistic ants mad with egotism, insisting in the fact of the fiery night-sky evidence to the contrary that their puny anthills stood at the heart of it all.  (Do I hear the echo of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days? )

As a picaresque novel it savagely satires the entire America of now, a society gone wild with the self indulgent consumption of popular culture, conspiracy theories, xenophobia, opioid addition, and political polarization.  Rushdie skillfully moves his characters from one story to another, sometimes intersecting, part of his metafictional technique, with such alacrity that the novel is best read not in little sips before bedtime as I did, but in a few large gulps.  Still, you’ll wonder about it all.  It is not easy to follow, but it is compelling to follow.  I found that I had to read the prior few pages before I picked it up again.

In addition to Quichotte, who used to be a pharmaceutical salesman for his relative, “Dr. Smile,” there is the good doctor’s wife, “Happy” who pushes her husband to become successful which leads to Smile’s highly addictive sub-lingual Fentanyl spray called “InSmile.”  This ultimately connects Quichotte to Salma R., the reality TV star (and InSmile addict) whose mother and grandmother were also TV stars in her place of birth, India, which not coincidently is where Quichotte was born (and, of course, Rushdie as well).

Quichotte has problems with his sister, as does “Brother” in a parallel story and as the novel progresses; these tend to run less side by side but converge.  As I said, it’s an unreal novel, hard to follow, but necessary to read.  Why necessary?

Well, for me, it so eloquently suggests answers to some questions I raised in Waiting for Someone to Explain It; The Rise of Contempt and Decline of Sense. 

When I complied that book from my political musings in this blog, its tongue in cheek title expressed the increasing questions that seem to rise as I age and with these times seemingly spinning apart.  I think Rushdie is similarly expressing a feeling of hopelessness for the human race, and in particular, our nation. I realize that this belief is nihilistic and cynical, but in fiction he presents abounding evidence. 

Dues ex machina!  In the end Quichotte and Salma R. take an “impossible journey” across an America that has devolved into a dystopian landscape to get to California to find one of Salma R’s TV guests, the Elon Muskian (mad? evil?) scientist “Evel Sent”, who claims he has invented a portal to an alternative Earth.  Seriously, he’s sent a dog though there and brought him back, although, as the dog can’t speak, we really can’t quite be sure (yes, the novel is also very funny at times).  If only Quichotte and Salma R can get to the portal, and they do!  But what happens then?  Not wanting to float a spoiler, I’ll end this paragraph here.

This will probably be my last novel for this year, this decade, but it was such an appropriate one as it will be the last entry as well in a chapter in the book I am now slowly compiling which is the antipole of Waiting for Someone to Explain It.  Our writers and playwrights, although their works are considered “fiction” now tilt the fiction / non-fiction scale the other way.  In this era of “fake” news, what is really fake?  Nowadays, I rely on real news from some of our airway’s best comics, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, and John Oliver in particular.  Interviews with elected officials can’t seem to measure up to the bar of truth that our comics transcend.

Quichotte in answering a question posed by his “son” Sancho, sums up the importance of what our novelists contribute to the enigma of our times: “I think it’s legitimate for a work of art made in the present time to say, we are being crippled by the culture we have made, by its most popular elements above all…and by stupidity and ignorance and bigotry.”

And then there is the ultimate absurdist question, does it matter at all?  This is where the process of aging and the very nature of existence converge: What vanishes when everything vanishes: not only everything, but the memory of everything. Not only can everything no longer remember itself, no longer remember how it was when it still was everything, before it became nothing, but there is nobody else to remember either, and so everything not only ceases to exist but becomes a thing that never was; it is as if everything that was, was not, and moreover there is nobody left to tell the story, not the whole grand story of everything, not even the last sad story of how everything became nothing, because there is no storyteller, no hand to write or eye to read, so that the book of how everything became nothing cannot be written, just as we cannot write the stories of our own deaths, which is our tragedy, to be stories whose endings can never be known, not even to ourselves, because we are no longer there to know them.

And, so, the second decade of the 21st century draws to its end.

Friday, August 9, 2019

A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley is an American 20th Century Classic

My good friend, a fellow boater and a terrific actor, James Andreassi, turned me on to this book, A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley.  Jim knows my love of American literature and as we are both NY Yankee fans, we also naturally share an interest in the NY Giant football team.  Back in my college days I used to go to Yankee Stadium to see YA Tittle and Frank Gifford star in the NFL in the early 1960s.

I think Jim was surprised that I wasn’t familiar with this book but now I understand why: you won’t find it on those lists of important American novels of the 20th century.  It ought to be.  It’s an under-the-radar American classic.  I felt the same way when I read Stoner by John Williams and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters.

Not that Exley’s work shares a similar writing style but its importance to the canon of American literature cannot be underestimated.  It certainly does not deserve its general anonymity. Its acclaim now depends on keepers of the flame (of which I am now one).

Exley describes his work as a “fictional memoir” and I sometimes wonder whether, when it comes down to it, other great pieces of writing should be similarly described.  But Exley puts it right out there with self-deprecation and hilarity equally balancing the forces of life that tear away at him.  No doubt he had ridden life hard and in turn was ridden, roaming between cities, women, bars and mental institutions.  These experiences permeate the novel, making it almost a documentary of the beat 50s and the turbulent 60s, and an astute commentary on the chimerical American dream.

Because of his bouts with alcoholism and mental illness, the novel similarly drifts in and out of consciousness, but even at its less lucid moments captures one’s attention.  His writing process is best described by himself in the novel.  He goes back and forth to “Avalon Valley” a mental institution where he finally begins to put pen to paper: “… what I was doing at Avalon Valley has begun to haunt me, and taking a deep breath, I started fearfully into the past in search of answers. In many ways that book was this book, which I wasn’t then ready to write. Without a thought of organization I wrote vignettes and 30 page paragraphs about anything and everything I could remember. There are times now when, in nostalgia, I tell myself I’ll never again put down the things I did then, but I know I’m only confusing quantity with quality. If nothing else, I wrote a great deal during those months, writing rapidly, furiously, exultantly, heart-sinkingly, and a manuscript of whatever merit began, page upon page, filling up the suitcase at the foot of my iron cot.”

Indeed, there are resemblances between that “book” and this one, particularly the observation about vignettes, as he goes from one subject, a bar, a person, a city, to another.  His character descriptions in particular are superlative, alive in every way.  Sometimes in tone, I think of Frederick as a mature Holden Caulfield gone berserk.  In fact there are several references to Caulfield in the book and the two characters certainly share a cynical view of the world.  There are hints of Amory Blaine from Fitzgerald’s first novel The Far Side of Paradise (in Exley’s more lyrical, optimistic moments) but also a reminder of the admonition from Fitzgerald’s Crack Up: "Of course all life is a process of breaking down ...."

One would think by the title that this is a sports book and it is as far as it serves as a metaphor.  In this regard it reminds me of the English novelist David Storey’s early 1960 novel, This Sporting Life, made into a movie starring Richard Harris, his first major screen role.  I reviewed that for my college newspaper at the time, saying “The challenge of the rugby game is juxtaposed to the challenge of life. Frank accepts both and deals with them in the only manner he knows how: using brute force. Although a vigorous, powerful, and relentless symbol of strength throughout the film, he is unable to dominate life entirely.”

That juxtaposition of sport to life is evident here as well, but unlike the main character of This Sporting Life, Fred’s sporting life is that of a fan, in particular, of Frank Gifford of the New York Giants.  He first comes across Frank when he’s in college at USC and naturally, Frank is playing for his college team and he is the Big Man on Campus, and is spoken of in reverential tones.  Unknown to Fred, it is Frank’s girl he spots on campus, his knees buckling at her beauty, never to be his though as he is “not in the game.”  It is just the beginning of his realizing that his life, no matter how far he stretches for the golden ring, will never attain the heights enjoyed by our sports heroes such as Frank Gifford.  Exley’s description of Frank’s girl when he first sees her on campus as well as his first roommate at college is testimony to Exley’s descriptive powers:

“I saw her first on one stunning spring day when the smog had momentarily lifted, and all the world seemed hard bright blue and green. She came across the campus straight at me, and though I had her in the range of my vision for perhaps a hundred feet, I was only able, for the fury of my heart, to give her five or six frantic glances. She had the kind of comeliness -- soft, shoulder-length chestnut hair; a sharp beauty mark right at her sensual mouth; and a figure that was like a swift, unexpected blow to the diaphragm-that to linger on makes the beholder feel obscene. I wanted to look. I couldn't look. I had to look. I could give her only the most gaspingly quick glances. Then she was by me. Waiting as long as I dared, I turned and she was gone.

“From that day forward I moved about the campus in a kind of vertigo, with my right eye watching the sidewalk come up to meet my anxious feet, and my left eye clacking in a wild orbit, all over and around its socket, trying to take in the entire campus in frantic split seconds, terrified that I might miss her. On the same day that I found out who she was I saw her again. I was standing in front of Founders' Hall talking with T., a gleaming-toothed, hand-pumping fraternity man with whom I had, my first semester out there, shared a room. We had since gone our separate ways; but whenever we met we always passed the time, being bound together by the contempt with which we viewed each other's world and by the sorrow we felt at really rather liking each other, a condition T. found more difficult to forgive in himself than I did.”

Fred’s father, Earl, was a football star in school and between his expectations and those fostered on him by society he seemed condemned to live a life of failure, especially trying to attain vestiges of the American Dream such as finding the girl next door.  He thinks he’s found her, when he meets Bunny Sue, who “had honey-blonde, bobbed hair and candid, near-insolent green eyes. She had a snub, delightful nose, a cool, regal, and tapering neck, a fine intelligent mouth, that covered teeth so startling they might have been cleansed by sun gods....she was so very American. She was the Big Ten coed whose completeness is such that a bead of perspiration at the temple is enough to break the heart.”

She is so, so perfect, though; he is totally impotent trying to make love to her.  She lives a placid life in the suburbs where her father boasts the tallest TV antenna in the area to bring in far away stations.  Is this to be his life too?  No, he was to be condemned again, and again, becoming a vicious alcoholic, coming home to his mother and step father when he could no longer function, and then, ultimately being sent back to Avalon for treatment.  He was a “repeater,” the underbelly of the American dream:

“These repeaters were the ugly, the broken, the carrion. They had crossed eyes and bug eyes and cavernous eyes. They had club feet or twisted limbs — sometimes no limbs. These people were grotesques. On noticing this, I thought I understood: there was in mid century America no place for them. America was drunk on physical comeliness. America was on a diet. America did its exercises. America, indeed brought a spirituality to its dedication to pink-cheeked straight-legged, clear-eyed health-exuding attractiveness -- a fierce strident dedication....To what, I asked myself, was America coming? To no more it seemed to me, than the carmine-hued, ever-sober ‘young marrieds’ in the Schlitz beer sign.”

The process of his returning to a modicum of sanity brings the novel back to the sports metaphor.  Constantly in bar rooms or street fights, he emerges from one such fight with bruises as well as an epiphany, one perhaps delayed too long in the novel, and in his life, but climatic nonetheless:

“In a moment I would fall asleep. But before I did, all the dread and the dismay and the foreboding I had been experiencing disappeared, were abruptly gone, and I feel quiet. They disappeared because, as I say, I understood the last and most important reason why I fought. The knowledge causes me to weep very quietly calmly, numbly, caused me to weep because in my heart I knew I had always understood this last and most distressing reason, which rendered the grief I had caused myself and others all for naught. I fought because I understood, and I could not bear to understand, that it was my destiny – unlike that of my father, whose fate it was to hear the roar of the crowd — to sit in the stands with most men and acclaim others. It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan.”

He becomes an Englsih teacher and is able to express empathy: “…having attempted merely to dazzle the kids with the Bard’s poetry, with ever so much scholarly caution and hemming and hawing, I was one day starting back through the text elaborating this theory when a point eluded me, I looked up and off into the class, and my eyes came to rest on a girl who was smiling and weeping simultaneously. A stunningly salubrious and tall maiden with glittering teeth, brilliant blue eyes, and a wondrous complexion, the smile was with her a perennial characteristic – though it was not in the least insinuative or licentious. If a teacher is in the least a man, he soon comes to imagine that his female trusts spend half their nocturnal hours masturbating to his summarily called up and glamorized image; her smile had never seem to have that kind. An abstract of guileless amiability, as though her heart were large and airy and glad, hers, rather, had always seem the smile of an innocent as yet unprepared to determine what should  penetrate that heart. A poor student, her countenance exuded remarkable intelligence; both her modish dress and fine carriage intimated ‘background’; when she finally surmised what I demanded by way of examination answers, I had thought her grades would improve. Above the smile on this day, above the lovely Grecian nose and vigorous colored cheeks were two great lipid pools of astonishingly blue tears. My first impression was that it was her time of the month, my first impulse to hurry her discreetly to the girls’ room. With an alarming suddenness, though, and accompanied immediately by an almost feverish remorse, the blood rushed to my face, I turned away from her, and my eyes fled back to the text: she was frightened to death of me.”

Yes, Exley was hung up on masculinity and is even misogynistic at times, with clearly suicidal tendencies in his compulsion to drink.  Yes, he will never measure up to his father or Frank Gifford in sports. But merely recognizing that his student “was frightened to death of me,” is a far cry from where he began.   Every step of the way, his writing, although sometimes disjointed, is lyrical, even magical at times, clearly a novel to be included in the canon of important literature of a unique American era.  And ironically, over time, this one work will endure while his father’s sports accomplishments have been forgotten and Gifford’s will merely be impressive statistics one can Google.  Sadly, Exley produced very little after this titanic novel but it is enough for one to take serious note of A Fan’s Notes. 
Two fans at a minor league baseball game, Bob and Jim

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.