Friday, December 30, 2011

The Adventures Of Augie March

by Saul Below

The saga of a fatherless boy, brought up by his timid mother and overbearing grandmother, as he grows to a man, trying to make his way in Depression-era Chicago (and later, in other countries).  Augie believes that “a man’s character is his fate,” and thus that “this fate, or what he settles for, is also his character.”  Therefore, always searching for “a fate good enough” – somehow “fitting into other people’s schemes” but never coming up with any of his own – he feels buffeted by the vicissitudes of fate.  He holds menial or exciting but temporary jobs, beds and falls in love with a series of women, tries his hand at thievery and academics, and ruminates on man’s nature. Over its 585 pages, Augie seems to be a series of events which do not necessarily overlap or build upon each other to a particular climax.  While his stern-minded older brother Simon adapts himself to the world, marrying more or less for money and making swift, practical decisions about the family, Augie remains uncertain about his place, apparently ready “to dissolve in a bewilderment of choices.”

I found this quintessentially American existential epic a pleasure to read, despite its length, roller-coaster pace and crowd of characters.  At times it flags, especially near the last 100 or so pages, and there is no real resolution; this is a (very generous) slice of life novel.  But I loved it from start to finish anyway.  In addition to its subject – man’s often futile quest to find his place in a largely uncaring and deceptive world – being quite near and dear to my heart, I was captivated by Bellow’s rich prose.  Erudite, evocative and earthy, Bellow’s prose is the mark of a craftsman who has mastered the language, and it helps keep Augie’s story compelling even when otherwise nothing particularly noteworthy is happening.  A brilliant book, and candidate for Great American Novel.

five stars

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Drop Of the Hard Stuff

by Lawrence Block

Late one night, Scudder tells his old friend Mick Ballou a story.  About a year after he’d joined AA and was taking up with Jan, Scudder runs into Jack, a childhood pal who has become a minor crook, but who is now reformed and trying to make amends, AA-style.  Someone doesn’t like the way Jack is bringing up the past, and he is killed.  Jack’s sponsor hires Matt to look into who might want Jack silenced and why, and he falls uneasily into the late-night world of drinkers, druggies, and seedy contacts, as the threat gets closer to him personally.

This is an outstanding thriller, absolutely pitch-perfect.  The book is utterly steeped in noir mood; rough, witty dialogue crackles throughout, as in a fast-paced Sam Spade film.  But since this a Scudder tale, alcohol is a cast member, an ever-present character; Scudder is reminded of the smells of bourbon, of his old hangouts, with every step he takes in his investigation.  Scudder is here, as in some of the earlier books, somewhat of a fatalistic witness to his life rather than a prime mover.  With five people dead, the resolution he hits upon is hardly satisfactory, but, well, it’s simply the best he can do at that point in his life.  The final coda, where Mick and Matt discuss absent friends and their current loves, is beautiful, nearly worth the price of the book alone.

five stars

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory

by Peter Hessler

The author, a journalist and old China hand, describes life on the road in a rural China that is rapidly developing, with new roads and factories being built every year.  At 420 pages, the book’s scope is much wider than the simple comedy of renting a car in a heavily bureaucratic society that nevertheless has a vibrant under-the-table economy, or the perils of driving in a country where most people behind the wheel have had very little training and eschew wipers and lights.  Hessler rents a house in a village, and describes one family's gradual rise to political and financial success.  He follows the Great Wall, visits an artist community in Lishui, and follows the creation, rise, and struggles of a bra-ring factory, and the workers who live in it.

So the title is only partially descriptive of the book, but so what? Hessler’s breadth of knowledge, empathy, sense for the human side of the story, and clear, witty writing make all his subjects interesting.  He unfolds the drama of an ill village boy, and the disjunct between his own Western eyes and China’s traditional medicine coupled with xenophobic doctors.  He shows the great cultural divide between East and West (citing “group impulse” twice to explain some Chinese behavior), but also zeroes in on the emotions and frustrations that all humanity share.  He keeps encountering a sort of superficiality in Chinese economic life, where appearance is more important than content, and where bribes and lies are a part of life, but explores the deeper currents that motivate the players.  Hessler is a gifted reporter of cultures, and this is a thoroughly fascinating look at a modern but still changing China.  

four stars