Wednesday, March 31, 1999

Gravity's Rainbow

by Thomas Pynchon

I started this last year, got to page 400 or so, and quit.  Then started it again.  Slogged through to the end.  Dammit, if I was going to spend that much time on this 760-page, quarter-million word monster, I would see it through.  My best friend's favorite book, for what that’s worth.  Hmmm.  Let’s see.  It concerns one Tyrone Slothrop, an American stationed in London during WWII, who gets erections where German rockets fall.  His friend is killed, and he deserts to search for... something.  And one Tchitcherine, a Russian, searching for his Herero half-brother, Enzian.  And some other people.

It contains multitudes.  Poems and songs from witty to doggerel; foul descriptions of pornographic acts; some truly low scatological humor; extensive tinkering with language, German and English; puns; arcane references to physics, chemistry, the Tarot, Dillinger, Them, Masons; lost loves and refugees; several long, truly hilarious scenes (Slothrop eating some foul candy; Roger Mexico meeting Pointsman with his foot in a toilet); and clever, seemingly unrelated vignettes (Byron the immortal lightbulb).  This book cries out for an index.  There exists an Annotated Guide, which I may investigate one day.  But simply because the book is abstruse does not mean Pynchon’s a genius.  No more than it means he’s pulling our collective leg with complex nonsense.  My initial reaction is: like a mountain filled with veins of rich ore; mostly useless rock, but hiding some real gems of brilliance.

three stars

Thursday, March 18, 1999

E Is for Evidence

by Sue Grafton

The private detective, Kinsey Millhone, is framed for corruption while investigating a potential arson case.  But as she meets the family that owns the company, Wood/Warren, she finds that the crime goes deeper than that: a personal vendetta is being aimed at Lance Wood, and the bodies start to pile up.  It’s a brisk-paced thriller, and Millhone’s wry commentary from the cynical loner’s point of view propels it along.  Fun to read, taut, full of twists and turns, fleshed-out characters, a twist ending, and some good action sequences. 

three stars

Monday, March 15, 1999

Uncle Tom's Cabin

by Harriet Beecher Stowe

With an Afterword by John William Ward.  A once wealthy man is forced to sell his beloved slave, Uncle Tom, to get out of debt.  And a female slave escapes with her small child, joining her impetuous, proud husband George in flight.  And from there the two plot points continue and diverge in an episodic fashion, and we meet a whole host of characters, including the benevolent, effeminate St. Clare and the brutish Simon Legree.

There are some very stunning passages in the book, some powerful, impassioned arguments.  The characters are varied and interesting (cruel whites, cruel blacks, noble whites, noble blacks, capable women, cruel women, incapable women), except perhaps the appallingly mawkish little Eva, a Christ figure (Tom is also a Christ figure, but his behavior seems more likely).  But there is also a lot of tiresome preaching, which I suppose is to be expected, as is the dated race theories and chuckleheaded antics of some of the black characters.  I also think the story probably got a bit out of Stowe’s hands at 465 pages (!).  All in all, though the story is more often than not compelling, it’s a bit too preachy and awkward.  One detail --- odd that “Uncle Tom” should have come to mean a servile black man, when Tom is a strong-willed, noble man who simply refuses to do evil, even if it means he’s to be tortured to death.  He’s servile because he accepts his lot, but he certainly makes his own decisions in life.  The Afterword argues that the book should be read nowadays because its central argument is that people cannot be moral in an immoral world; all societies corrupt, and the only noble souls are those removed from society, like Quakers, Christian slaves, and children.

three stars

Tuesday, March 9, 1999

White People

by Allan Gurganus

Some top-notch, moving, finely introspective American fiction in this collection:

“Minor Heroism: Something About My Father."  Told from the point of view of the son as a child discussing his father the war hero; then the father as he looks with disgust and incomprehension on his grown son, a gay writer; then the child again, drawing a picture of his abusive father.  Moving and funny and sad, crafted thoughtfully with a fine attention to detail and the human touch.  Excellent.

"Condolences To Every One Of Us."  An elderly woman writes to the daughter of a couple killed during an African tour which stumbles into a riot, explaining what happened.  A brilliant story, more light-hearted than it sounds, rife with black humor and digs at the callousness of the human spirit.  What is the world coming to?  Ruin, probably.  Excellent stuff.

"Art History."  An art history teacher is dismissed for “misconduct” with his pupils, and later is arrested.  The point of view shuttles from the teacher, his daughter, and the arresting officer.  Another wonderful story by Gurganus.  It makes the reader feel sympathy for this pederast by presenting him as an affable man, somewhat confused by events that seem to have swept him up through no fault of his own.  He has been taught to see beauty in everything (his own teacher gave a final exam in which the class had to describe part of a toilet), and unfortunately for him the world isn’t as beautiful as he’d like.

"Nativity, Caucasian." The narrator describes his unexpected birth at a ladies’ bridge game, and how the women reacted: some sturdy and proper, some fainting with horror.  A testament to the strength of the Southern woman, stepped in gentility; but more importantly a truly funny scene.

"Breathing Room: Something About My Brother." The characters from “Minor Heroism” return.  Bryan recollects his childhood with his brother Bradley, watching in puzzlement as his younger brother turns from a sickly baby, capable of being killed by a single bee sting, whom he must protect and care for, into a rough, callous, athletic boy, while he remains bookish and sensitive.  In retaliation for being shown up by an ungrateful Bradley one day, Bryan burns the models Bradley works so painstakingly on.  A painfully real story, with human characters and voices, masterfully done. 

"America Competes."  A series of letters in a national competitions for ideas to decorate a mural in Washington; the letters are from the contestants and from the increasingly beleaguered, mild-mannered judge to the contest organizers.  A very cynical story, implying that the masses are on the whole talentless, rude, illiterate, and/or as crazy as nutcakes.  The judge breaks down under the combined weight of anti-government atheist militiamen, hillbillies who want their dead pappy’s sketches back, and a loony old lady who writes bad children’s stories.  Fun to read, but rather grim.

“Adult Art." A married father and Superintendent of Schools has a homosexual encounter with a young man he picks up in his office building.  The young man tells him a rather ugly story of a voyeuristic sexual awakening, and the older man fantasizes about what it might be like to learn to know, to care long term for this stranger, rather than having to fear “being really belted, blackmailed, worse” each time he craves his kind of intimacy.  “They could arrest me for everything I like about myself,” he says; but the urge to connect remains stronger than his fear.  It’s a beautiful, intelligent story.

"It Had Wings." An old woman who lives alone helps an angel who crashes in her yard, and her faith in herself is renewed.  “I’m right here, ready.  Ready for more,” she says defiantly, standing by herself in the kitchen.  Great descriptions, the woman’s life brilliantly sketched in a few knowing lines.  Then just enough to show the majesty and mystery of the angel, but not enough to make it a Hollywood computer-generated superhero.  “Silvery.  Raw.  Gleaming like a sunny monument, a clock.”  The angel tells her to notice things in this life, because in the next they all look alike, “just another army.”  An inventive, inspired vignette.

"A Hog Loves Its Life: Something About My Grandfather," fifty "pages.  Bryan, now a man of thirty-nine, reminisces about the tales his grandfather told him when he was young (the hilarious story of Lancaster’s mule, makes up the first part of the whole), the spectacle of his grandmother’s death and the slow sad decay of his grandfather into senility.  This is a wholly accurate description of a tight family: all the guilt and shame and love and regret are there, expressed as well as they can be. 

"Reassurance." A story composed of two letters – one genuine letter from Walt Whitman to the mother of a soldier who died of his wounds; and another imagined letter from the dead soldier to his mother, exhorting her to “forget me by remembering me” and get on with her life.  He tells her that something very holy stands before her: a brand new day.  It’s a moving story, and succeeds as drama, but it lacks that immediate power of Gurganus’ stories about modern Southern manners.

"Blessed Assurance," a novella.  An elderly man narrates how, as a teenager in the ‘forties, he sold funeral insurance to the poor blacks in “Baby Africa.”  Very poor himself, he works three jobs, takes care of his sick parents and goes to night school.  So when, out of sympathy, he begins carrying some of his clients in arrears, he finds himself in a bind.  One noble old lady in particular touches him, and he realizes that sooner or later despite himself he must cut her off.  The language is perfect; Gurganus switches from the young man’s abashed inner turmoil to the darkly cynical boss to the elderly black women’s patois seamlessly.  It’s a confessional tale: the now successful narrator weighed down with an atheist’s uncertain guilt and wonder over how small sums and minor events can change our world, or maybe even our fate in the next life?  But Gurganus also manages to be whip-smart funny as well.  A brilliant novella.

four stars

Monday, March 8, 1999

Decline And Fall

by Evelyn Waugh

The hapless Paul Pennyfeather is sent down from Oxford through no fault of his own, loses his fortune, becomes a school teacher, falls in love with a wealthy widow, is framed for heading a prostitution ring, and so forth.  A wildly funny rollercoaster ride of a story; its satire of English manners both upper and lower class is deadly.  It’s compulsively readable and laugh-out-loud funny on just about every page.  Pennyfeather is a ninny, but he’s wholly sympathetic, as are all the other characters, blackguards or fools though they may be.  A highly enjoyable novel.

four stars

Friday, March 5, 1999

Ending Up

by Kingsley Amis

Five elderly people – a brigadier sent down for homosexuality; his one-time lover and now drunken quasi-servant; his ugly sister who has never been loved; her insincere friend who is approaching senility; and a paralyzed professor emeritus, once the brigadier’s brother-in-law – live in boredom and decrepitude, detesting one another, in a crumbling cottage. Humor doesn’t come any darker than this slim volume that drips with venom. Bernard, the brigadier, told he is dying, decides to liven up his last months with petty acts of disruption, but his efforts are largely ineffectual. Marigold, afraid of her oncoming senility, stays in the cottage taking his abuse because only these four people can remember her husband for her.  The book drew me in effortlessly; it’s readable and meticulously constructed.  I remain disturbed by the simply harrowing ending. Especially for George, the long-suffering, patient, jolly professor who keeps writing even though no one is interested.  A dreadful end for him.

three stars

Thursday, March 4, 1999

The Horse's Mouth

by Joyce Cary

The third part of a trilogy I remain ignorant of.  It’s the story of Gulley Jimson, an artist whose first drawings – of his wife at her bath – are valuable masterworks, but who now at sixty-seven lives in poverty creating vast, fantastic Biblical visions on walls.  He narrates the story, and his prose is steeped in realistically evoked artistic vision as he catches sight of ideas in nature and throws himself almost involuntarily into his work.  The conversation is realistic: staccato and slang-packed.  There are some rich moments of dark comedy here, but on the whole, as a slice of life novel it grows rather boring over 370 pages: Jimson paints with an obsessive vigor.  Jimson avoids creditors.  Jimson steals money.  Jimson interacts with and ruminates endlessly about the women in his life.  Although skillfully written, this would have made a much better, slicker short novel.

three stars