Showing posts with label Philipp Meyer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Philipp Meyer. Show all posts

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, April 5, 2016

The Son – There IS Blood

When I wrote about a similarly entitled novel & Sons by David Gilbert, I asked the rhetorical question of who might replace our great contemporary writers, such as John Updike, John Cheever, and Philip Roth among others.  I had suggested we might look at the work of Jonathan Franzan, Jonathan Tropper, Brady Udall, Eric Puchner, Jonathan Lethem, Chad Harbach, Dave King, Jess Walker, as well as David Gilbert, all mentioned in this blog. 

Based on his second novel, The Son, here is another name for this list, Philipp Meyer.  I recently read his first novel, American Rust, to see whether I wanted to invest the time in the nearly 600 page The Son.  It was a sound investment!

As in the case of American Rust, it is a story told by different characters, but unlike American Rust, this is a multigenerational novel, skipping back and forth in time, and on a much, much larger scale.  If American Rust is a microcosm of the contemporary economy, this is a macrocosm of the dark side of the American soul, with overtones of Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos and Herman Melville.  It is also historical fiction, well researched, particularly in the ways of the Comanche. 

Expansive in scale, it takes place mostly in Texas over more than a century.  I kept thinking of the movie Giant which I remember seeing as a kid, a sprawling film about a Texas family and oil, James Dean’s last film.  At some point in the novel the movie is actually mentioned so Meyer too was acutely aware of the same in envisioning location.  One could also think of the recent movie There Will Be Blood, based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil.

At the heart of The Son are violence and racism, man’s plundering nature, and the Darwinian reality of the weak being devoured by the strong and them, in turn, becoming victims themselves, if not with their very lives, their souls.

The “story” is begun by the patriarch of the McCullough family, Eli, who as a thirteen year old is abducted by the Comanche, having to witness the brutal murder of his mother and sister.  This is only the beginning of scores of brutalities in the novel; one needs a thick skin to wade into the evil of man portrayed in these pages. Be prepared to metaphorically drink turtle and buffalo blood.  

Eli tells his story in chapters spread throughout the novel, in the first person, sometimes in retrospect, sometimes in real time.  He and his brother are taken by the Comanche as slaves and Eli is given the name “Tiehteti” which he explains “meant pathetic little white man.”  This is the one thing he vows not to be as he grows up in the tribe, finally rising through his own barbarism to a position of respect, at which point he is “traded” back to white society as there was a premium paid for the return for white captives.  Eli becomes a mercenary with the Texas Rangers and ultimately sets out on his own to build an empire, first in cattle and horses and finally in oil.  Along the way, the skills and savagery learned as a Comanche serve “Colonel McCullough” (as he is known from his Texas Ranger days) well as an empire builder.

The conscience in the novel is his son, Peter, who is overwhelmed by the Texans’ treatment of the Mexican natives of Texas, Mexicans who predated the whites before the Civil War. Once the Civil War ended, there was a steady influx of whites and finally when oil was discovered there, their arrival was as fast as they could dispatch Indians and Mexicans to their graves.  Peter is horrified and seeks redemption by falling in love with the sole survivor of a Mexican family destroyed by his father and his henchmen.  Peter’s story is detailed from the pages of his diary which has survived due to a development that only a spoiler could explain, so enough said.

The other main character is Jeanne Anne, grandchild of Peter and great-grandchild of Eli, into whose veins all this bloodletting and empire building ultimately flows.  She must make her way in the world of men, ruthless ones at times.  J. A. McCullough’s chapters are also intermingled, out of chronological order, Meyer writing her tale in the third person.

She grows into this world of men who perhaps thought that she was a slut or a dyke or a whore. A man trapped in a woman's body; look up her skirt and you'll see a cock. A liar, a schemer, a cold heart with a cunt to match, ridden hard and put up wet. Though she shouldn't take it personally. No one meant anything by it. To be a man meant not living by any rules at all. You could say one thing in church and another at the bar and somehow both were true. You could be a good husband and father and Christian and bed every secretary, waitress, and prostitute that caught your eye. They all had their winks and nods, code for “I fucked that cheerleader or nanny or Pan Am stewardess, that maid or riding instructor.” Meanwhile, the slightest hint she was anything but a virgin (excepting [her] three children), would get her banned for life, a scarlet letter.

She’s the one who has to manage the empire during the time of burgeoning oil prices and shady land grabs.  Behind every great wealth is a great sin and behind it all is the sense of a Godless universe of natural selection.

Peter watches his father burn down the hacienda of his long-time Mexican neighbors, an old established family, the Garcia’s: …he is not of our time; he is like some fossil come out of a stream bank or a trench in the ocean, from a point in history when you took what you wanted and did not see any reason to justify.  I realize he is not any worse than our neighbors: they are simply more modern in their thinking. They require some racial explanation to justify their theft and murder. My brother Phineas is truly the most advanced among them, has nothing against the Mexican or any other race, he sees it simply as a matter of economics. Science rather than emotion. The strong must be encouraged, the weak allowed to perish. Though what none of them see, or want to see, is that we have a choice.

Jeanne has her own view on the topic: Even if God existed, to say he loved the human race was preposterous. It was just as likely the opposite; it was just as likely he was systematically deceiving us. To think that an all-powerful being would make a world for anyone but himself, that he might spend all his time looking out for the interests of lesser creatures, it went against all common sense. The strong took from the weak, only the weak believed otherwise, and if God was out there, he was just as the Greeks and Romans had suspected; a trickster, an older brother who spent all his time inventing ways to punish you.

The overarching philosophical view of Meyer is expressed by Jeanne as well (helpful to be doing Google lookups to get the full scope of Meyer’s research): As for JFK, it had not surprised her. The year he died, there were still living Texans who had seen their parents scalped by Indians. The land was thirsty. Something primitive still in it. On the ranch they had found points from both the Clovis and the Folsom, and while Jesus was walking to Calvary the Mogollon people were bashing each other with stone axes. When the Spanish came there were the Suma, Jumano, Manso, La Junta, Concho and Chisos and Toboso, Ocana and Cacaxtle, the Coahuiltecans, Comecrudos ... but whether they had wiped out the Mogollons or were descended from them, no one knew. They were all wiped out by the Apaches. Who were in turn wiped out, in Texas anyway, by the Comanches. Who were finally wiped out by the Americans.

A man, a life - it was barely worth mentioning. The Visigoths had destroyed the Romans, and had themselves been destroyed by the Muslims. Who were destroyed by the Spanish and Portuguese. You did not need Hitler to see that it was not a pleasant story. And yet here she was. Breathing, having these thoughts. The blood that ran through history would fill every river and ocean, but despite all the butchery, here you were.

The writing is prodigiously powerful, the research exhaustive.  One could say this is a Western novel, but it is so much more: it is the promise of great things to come from Philipp Meyer. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

American Rust to American Politics and Art for the One Percent

When I heard the praise heaped upon Philipp Meyer’s The Son which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, I was curious about his first published novel, American Rust.  It is a work of merit and promise, and a good read, close to a dystopian piece of fiction, the inverse of the American Dream, depicting the demise of the middle class and the seismic changes to the American landscape.  It is also a Bildungsroman, the protagonist, Isaac English, having to embark on an odyssey to escape the “American rust” of the Pittsburgh valley and its failed steel industry and his father as well, having to endure beatings, starvation and exhaustion during his journey, but ultimately returning home to save his friend Poe, and to find salvation.

This is a well-crafted character driven novel with each carrying a piece of the story, frequently that piece unknown to the others, at least in its entirety, and leaving the reader the omniscient observer.  Meyer skillfully maintains the suspense, making the book a page turner, to me one of the marks of a good writer.

The other characters are intertwined with the 19 year old Isaac English who was expected to go to any top college of his choice as he excelled in high school, as did his older sister, Lee, who went on to Yale on scholarship, and married wealthy right out of school.  Isaac stayed behind in the prison of his environment, to care for his father Henry who is in a wheelchair and also to be with his only friend, Billy Poe, two years older than Isaac, a star football player in high school who was expected to get an athletic scholarship to college, but ended up hanging around the dilapidated mill town mainly out of loyalty to his mother who is divorced, and living in a trailer.  There is the chief of police, Bud Harris, who loves Billy’s mother and has moved mountains to keep Billy on the straight and narrow.  And to further add complexity to the plot, there is the residual love affair between Billy and Isaac’s sister, the now married Lee, who returns to check on her father and finds her brother leaving.

I’ll not go into more details of the plot which brings all of this together but there are acts of sacrifice and love that ultimately set Isaac and Billy free.  Lurking in the background at all times though, are the remnants of the steel towns, the low-paying jobs left behind for those who have stayed and can find them, a future without a real future and violence.  The same feelings were invoked when I read about the empty mill towns of Richard Russo and the trailer parks of Russell Banks.  But Meyer’s writing is his own, and clever as he builds his novel chapter by chapter, from those different viewpoints, converging at the end. There is a little bit of modern day Kerouac here and even Salinger (such as the way Isaac in stream of consciousness refers to himself in the third person as “the kid”).

What came to mind over and over again is this election year.  Here we have two revolutionary yet entirely polarized players, the “democratic-socialist,” Bernie Sanders, and the “alpha male, say-anything-you-want” Donald Trump.  Each in their own way has forged a strong connection with the disenfranchised white middle class, or the young. What used to be a mainstream American Dream now exists mostly for the deliriously wealthy.  The phenomena of today’s Republican and Democratic primaries is the “do-you-hear-the-people-sing” voice of those who have been left holding the bag as we’ve morphed from a manufacturing economy to a techno-service based one. 

In this regard, Philipp Meyer’s American Rust speaks like John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy, or John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  The topography of the problem is laid down in similar social commentary. Lee is driving her father for a medical appointment and Meyer observes: Farther along she couldn’t help noticing the old coal chute stretching the length of the hillside, passing high over the road on its steel supports, the sky visible through its rusted floor; the iron suspension bridge crossing the river. It was sealed at both ends, its entire structure similarly penetrated and pocked by rust. Then it seemed there was a rash of abandoned structures, an enormous steel-sided factory painted powder blue, its smokestacks stained with the ubiquitous red-brown streaks, its gate chained shut for how many years, it had never been open in her lifetime. In the end it was rust. That was what defined this place..

Isaac in his travels on foot is approaching a western PA town: From a distance it looked peaceful. Up close it looked abandoned-most of the buildings in complete disrepair, vandalism and neglect. He passed through the downtown, there were a few cars parked, but mostly it was empty buildings, old signs on old storefronts, ancient For Lease signs in most of the windows. The only hints of life came from the coke plant by the river, long corrugated buildings, a tall ventstack burning off wastegas, occasional billows of steam from the coke quenching. A scooploader big enough to pick up a semitrailer was taking coal from a barge and dumping it onto a conveyor toward the main plant. The train tracks were jammed with open railcars full of dusty black coke but other than Isaac, there was not another actual person in sight.

The consequences are destroyed lives. Harris describes it as “The Great Migration” as Steinbeck might have defined it himself: Passing through the town, past the old police station and the new one, he'd seen the Fall, the shuttering of the mills, and the Great Migration that followed. Migration to nowhere-thousands of people moved to Texas, tens of thousands, probably, hoping for jobs on oil rigs, but there weren't many of those jobs to be had. So those people had ended up worse off than they started, broke and jobless in a place they didn't know anyone. The rest had just disappeared. And you would never know it. He'd watched guys go from making thirty dollars an hour to four-fifteen, a big steelworker bagging his groceries, stone-faced, there was no easy way for anyone to deal with it.

Migration jobs like the ones offered to Billy Poe involve constant traveling to dispose of the flotsam of shutting down our manufacturing facilities and its environmental impact: There was an opening at a company that did the plastic seals for landfills. Traveling all over the country. At new landfills they would lay down the plastic liners in preparation for garbage to be dumped there, to prevent leakage into nearby streams and such. At the old landfills they would seal them up, it was like a giant ziplock, a heavy layer of plastic overtop the garbage and then they blew them up with air to test them, just before they dumped the soil on top you could run across the acres of plastic, bouncing, it was like running on the moon…it was fourteen dollars an hour to start. But it was not really running on the moon. It was working with other people's trash. Technicians, they called themselves, but it was not really that. It was laying plastic overtop of trash heaps, it was hanging around city dumps. Your country is supposed to do better….[And then there was] dismantling work, taking apart mills and old factories, they had taken down old steelmills all over the country, locally and nationally. But…there was so much traveling, it was living out of a suitcase the entire year….The work was all in the Midwest now, taking down the auto plants in Michigan and Indiana. And one day even that work would end, and there would be no record, nothing left standing, to show that any-thing had ever been built in America. It was going to cause big problems, he didn't know how but he felt it. You could not have a country, not this big, that didn't make things for itself. There would be ramifications eventually.

Lee’s teacher in high school had come to the town decades before when the steel mills were thriving.  He moved to the Valley to bring socialism to the mills, he'd been a steelworker for ten years, lost his job and become a teacher. Graduated from Cornell and became a steelworker. There were lots of us, he'd told her. Reds working right alongside the good old boys. But there had never been any revolution, not anything close, a hundred and fifty thousand people lost their jobs but they had all gone quietly. It was obvious there were people responsible, there were living breathing men who'd made those decisions to put the entire Valley out of work, they had vacation homes in Aspen, they sent their kids to Yale, their portfolios went up when the mills shut down. But, aside from a few ministers who'd famously snuck into a white-glove church and thrown skunk oil on the wealthy pastor, no one lifted a hand in protest. There was something particularly American about it-blaming yourself for bad luck-that resistance to seeing your life as affected by social forces, a tendency to attribute larger problems to individual behavior. The ugly reverse of the American Dream. In France, she thought, they would have shut down the country. They would have stopped the mills from closing. But of course you couldn't say that in public…

Which brings us to the present, the “ugly reverse of the American Dream…you weren't supposed to get laid off if you were good at your job” and the consequences, a barbell society, lots of people at the one extreme, a select few at the other, and the vanishing middle class in between.  Indeed, there are “ramifications” reflected in the contentious presidential debates, the right moving further to the right and the left moving further to the left, not exactly what our founding fathers envisioned.

And speaking of how the other half of the upper 1% live, this past week featured the annual Palm Beach Jewelry, Art & Antique Show which we like to visit but with a look-but-do-not-touch mind-set.  Actually, it’s with an “unable-to-touch” approach as some of the works of art there are priced at $250k plus although there are some nifty pieces for “only” $10k. It is like an eclectic museum and it appeals to my idiosyncratic taste in “art.”

We attended it on “President’s Day” weekend.  Here is yet another change in American Life. We used to celebrate Washington’s Birthday on February 22, but that fell on unpredictable days of the week and there was Lincoln’s February 12 birthday to consider, so it became a compromised holiday, conveniently on a Monday for the benefit of blockbuster “Presidential” mattress and automobile sales.  Sorry, General Washington.

Nonetheless, at the show I was drawn to Mark Daly’s Broad Street Commute, President’s Day, oil on linen, painted in the classic impressionist style, one I’m particularly fond of and of the subject as well.  Merely a cool $14.5K. 

I’m a sucker for sea scenes, especially of the old classic sailing ships and if I had “another” $168k would be snapping up Montague Dawson’s Blue Pacific, The Titania.

Given the solipsism of today’s world, I was intrigued by Susan P. Cochran sculpture Narcissistic Ant.  Not sure that I have an appropriate place in the house to display it though : - )

Finally, after walking the exhibit, I thought a good cup of coffee might be tasty, but I was told to keep my coffee beans to myself when approaching the polished American Duplex Fresh Ground Coffee Maker on display – unless I had $14k.

Indeed, an interesting display of objects of art, but not to be outdone by the sunset a few days ago taken from our own backyard.  American rust, American dreams, dysfunctional government, all can take a back seat to this….