John Feinstein is one of the big names in sports journalism. He’s written books on a number of headline-getting sports stories and consequently can be heard often on sports radio as an expert guest. Feinstein’s background is as a newspaper guy, writing for the Washington Post among others. The Last Amateurs is about college basketball in the Patriot League, a (mostly) non-scholarship league that struggles to survive in the world of big time college ball. To Feinstein, this is one of the last bastions of unadulterated amateur basketball in the United States. These kids play for little more than the love of the game and the glory of winning the league’s one berth to the NCAA Tournament. He follows the seven teams from schools like Holy Cross, Lehigh, and Navy through a whole season, focusing on the personalities, on the struggles peculiar to this one of a kind league, and on the great basketball games that never came close to showing up on a Sportscenter highlight reel. Feinstein’s newsy writing and copious background anecdotes keep the book moving at a fast pace. It isn’t, however, the transcendent sports writing of a Roger Angell. Instead, the book reads like a dozen Sports Illustrated articles strung end to end. As such, this is a fantastic book for fans of college basketball, as it really captures what is best about that game.
In meme parlance: life comes at you fast. Perhaps that sentiment is so retweeted and relatable because it always feels true. Time is elastic, defiant of the order we pretend to impose, the past simultaneously whispering in our ear and calling long-distance, a continent away. Joan Didion wrote that we are “well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” I have ghosts that visit every time I taste tequila or enter a room with faux-wood paneling, whose reappearances often coincide with tales of bad sex or bad choices or a sort of drunken, desperate ambition I often see in women between 18 and 25 with artistic temperaments.
It’s uncanny to slip as thoroughly into a character as I did with Jaracaranda Leven in Eve Babitz’s Sex and Rage, published in 1979 and reissued this summer by Counterpoint Press. The novel follows a young Angeleno, progeny of the Hollywood relatively-elite, as she fumbles with varying degrees of elegance through relationships and self-discovery, art-making and rent-paying. It is the story, really, of one’s 20s, or at least the kind I’ve had, wherein the clashes of reality and desire can lead to spectacular and terrifying confrontations with the chasm that divides them.
It would be foolish to ignore the differences—her West Coast upbringing vs. my North Carolina one, where I was more prone to encounter a screened porch than a screenwriter; her inherent ease with boys and men, which I feigned (poorly) until I could hide in my room with a notebook to exorcise my insecurities. We share more superficial things in common, though: an interest in books, a dicey relationship with alcohol, a scramble throughout our 20s to find meaning and fulfillment in unconventional, often fruitless ways. By the time I finished the online synopsis, I was already sniffing out the novel like a bloodhound, eager to meet a character that felt so particular but could be a stand-in for many young and reckless women like me, members of the Church of Reformed Libertines.
I picked up the novel just when I’d reached an odd détente with the city of San Francisco, about 390 miles north of Jacaranda’s native bars and surf breaks. I’d resigned myself to spending 46 percent of my take-home pay to live in an apartment two hours by train and bus from work in academic publishing. I’d effortfully carved out a niche of people who didn’t ask to meet for $15 cocktails, who read Clarice Lispector, and occasionally fed me at our Dungeons & Dragons games. I had the perilous sense that I had built a life for myself, but that it could shift with the next mass exodus of good friends, the price of the incumbent repairs on the car with the failing brakes. Unwilling to work in tech, tired of being hamstrung by the intermittent medical bill, I applied for a few gigs in a place I’d rejected for its West Coast opposite: New York.
Sex & Rage’s Jacaranda, reckoning with her alcoholism, exudes a similar reticence when faced with a voyage east. Recently launched from “the barge,” a cluster of high-rolling partiers who slept with, shit-talked, and enabled one another, she writes, “There seemed no place to go, after fourteen [gin, lemon, and egg-white] White Ladies, but into a spin that fell out of the sky, a smashed victim of impending gravity.” I thought of a particular summer, a night with cocaine and a blood ritual and the bruises I accrued by morning, outward tattoos that weren’t so different from the smashed way I felt inside, writing down my sins in the wood-paneled room. “She was lucky,” Babitz writes. “…because most of the girls they used for local color died before they were thirty.” A fateful encounter with an East Coast literary agent named Janet Wilton accelerates Jacaranda’s writing career from piecemeal freelance work to a book deal, and she’s faced with potential that’s almost as terrifying as its wanton, boozy opposite.
Babitz structures the novel such that its bulk occurs on Jacaranda’s sun-drenched home turf, in which she’s imagining the numerous ways her departure could end in tragedy. Live in coastal California long enough (about three years, personally) and it imprints on you—its languor and the subtlety of its seasons, the tendency towards liberality and the fringes. Even if Jacaranda and I spent most of our nights in bed with wine and cats, often both, I feel I know her enough to say that she, like me, felt she belonged on that furthest edge. What would a “Goodbye to All That” look like in reverse? Probably a long toke in Dolores or Griffith Park, and then a “meh” when someone asked what you thought of all that hustle & bustle, the concrete and steel. Maybe something more stringent. “She began feeling an even finer-tuned rage against material East Coast diamondy objects,” Babitz writes, and as soon as I read it, I thought about the visceral nausea I felt on a visit to Times Square.
This is a façade, though, especially in a place that contains multitudes. There are wide swaths of the western-most state that would rather ship out the homeless than care for them; rent is cheaper in Brooklyn than it is in San Francisco, and I have the anecdotal evidence to prove it. Who are we not to allow ourselves success, even if there is a part of us that bucks the conventional way, the one that would bring us less grief? “Up until this point,” Babitz writes, “it didn’t seem as though she was debauched at all, but the truth was that while she believed in being a washed-up piece of driftwood on the shore, she also believed in bold adventuresses, cigarettes, and suffered from one too many of anything.”
The novel’s most interesting section takes place when Jacaranda boards the plane, when she goes from spinning her wheels in a rut to launching herself forward, full speed. Babitz’s prose mirrors her new sobriety, both clear-eyed and frenzied. When she runs into Max, a beloved member of the barge with whom her romantic involvement was both vague and intense, Jacaranda has a revelation. “And once again [she] felt the aching waves roll over her from wanting what she couldn’t have. She couldn’t afford Max,” Babitz writes. “That much truth cost too much.” She doesn’t fall for the city like she fell for Max—she admires its glitter and lets herself feel simultaneously exhausted and enamored. She acknowledges its faults and sees its winsomeness, her affair with Manhattan an ember in contrast to roman candles like Max, like Colman or Gilbert or Etienne or Shelby before him.
Jacaranda and I were and are privileged white women with the bailouts and resources to fuck up many times between the achievements that buoyed us from year to year. Self-destruction can seem sexy until you’ve sobered up and seen how much easier it is to lay low—pay your rent on time, spend less on ibuprofen, allow yourself the simple pleasure of being good and thorough at your work. I think Jacaranda learned that, by the end of Sex and Rage, when she boards the plane back to L.A., having proven to herself that she could take a leap of faith, bet on her own will. I’m sitting in the July heat in Crown Heights, a black cat who’s the analogue of Jacaranda’s beloved Emilio splayed on the wood floor, with no return ticket to the place I thought suited me best. Finding your fictional parallel can be uncanny, but it can also be a reflection that brings your blemishes and beauty into a different relief. The future isn’t clear, it stands on shaky, sober legs, but here is the money I did not spend on rent. I’m placing my bets.
I.What is style… and how does one achieve it? Our English teachers admonish us to enliven our verb choices, to reach for colorful synonyms… and we imbibe the idea that style means not sounding like anyone else, that styles are as distinctive as handwriting. As, indeed, some are. When we encounter “aurochs and angels and the durable pigments of art,” we know we’re in the presence of Nabokov; “There was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun” announces Hemingway like a calling card.But how many legions of writers, in search of style, have settled for Lolita-lite, or cadences half-in-Ernest? Or conversely, aiming for originality, have ended up mired in pretension? It’s too easy, pursuing individuation en masse, to sacrifice one’s native freedoms to someone else’s idea of what style should be.So what, really, can we say about style? That some writers have more of it than others. (These we call “stylists.”) That it’s possible to be a fine writer and to sport a neutral style. (I’m not sure I could say of a sentence, “Only Ian McEwan could have written this.”) And that a very few writers, in the course of a lifetime, manage to elevate more than one style to a state of perfection. Such is the case of Leonard Michaels, whose late novel, Sylvia, achieves a pellucidity as uniquely his as the ferocious defamiliarization of his early short stories. So, what is style? For the time being let’s leave it at this: it’s the thing Leonard Michaels has in spades.II.On the stage of late-Twentieth-Century American fiction, Leonard Michaels cuts, to my mind, a somewhat tragic figure. The tragedy being that I wouldn’t hear of him until the summer of 2007, when I read Wyatt Mason’s essay “The Irresponsibility of Feelings” in Harper’s. My subsequent reading would confirm Mason’s intuition that Michaels is one of the major literary artists of our time. But before FSG’s recent resuscitation of the Michaels catalogue, most of his fiction had fallen out of print.The reasons for this are manifold, but we can point to a couple of obvious ones. The first is that Michaels, like his beloved Byron, seems to have been born under a bad sign. Raised on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Michaels came of age in that no-man’s-land between the Beat Generation and the Summer of Love. In New York’s bohemian precincts, the alienation of the former persisted, but without the political agitation that focused it. Drugs were rampant, but had not yet become a Utopian “culture.” Psychotherapy was taken seriously enough to drain most of the fun from sexual liberation, but not seriously enough to save troubled young people like Michaels’ first wife, Sylvia Bloch, who would, in 1963, commit suicideMichaels evokes this milieu beautifully in his second book of stories, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (now reissued as part of The Collected Stories of Leonard Michaels). His fictional stand-in, Phillip Leibowitz, is, like Michaels, a working-class kid, a basketball player, a son of immigrants. Watching Leibowitz struggle with dingy walkup apartments, harrowing relationships, unsavory sexual encounters, druggy intellectuals, and poverty, we sense Michaels’ own alienation. For Michaels was, however ambiguously, an autobiographical writer.Which brings us to the second reason for his lack of renown: Michaels’ writerly practices were completely at odds with the emerging structures of the publishing world. Where editors prize prolific authors, Michaels was an obsessive rewriter of his own work. (Sylvia: a novel was first “Sylvia” the story-length memoir.) Where publicists seek ways to pitch books to readers, Michaels transgressed serially against every manner of classification. How to market a book like 1990’s Shuffle, which combines new short-stories with previously published fiction, essays, and fictionalized (or not) journal entries? This isn’t to knock the publishing industry; in my own urge for linearity, I don’t know which version of The Men’s Club to read. It is, however, to salute Michaels for his fortitude. He was an artist, and he persisted in his quiddities. And every ten years or so, they would produce a substantial, integral work of literature. Going Places. I Would Have Saved Them… The Nachman Stories. And Sylvia.III.To read a Michaels story from the 1970s is to feel oneself in the presence of a visionary, a furious expressionist. Here, from “The Captain,” is a bit of description of a sadomasochistic (and possibly imaginary) sexual encounter:”On a shelf about chest high lay three hundred sausages, coiled in convoluted complications, a monster brain. A long gray iron chain. The prospect of such appetite suffused me with feelings of poverty, no education, and moral shock, but in one clean movement of self-disgust I laid on hands like he who knows. The chain chuckled as my fingers pierced its holes.”Michaels’ first language was Yiddish, and here we see him toying with the varied registers of English as though discovering them for the first time: the Biblical, the clinical, the philosophical, and the visceral. All of Michaels’ stories do this, in one way or another. Typically, his sentences are savagely compressed, forcing the reader to reconstitute their full meaning. Language is gloriously obtrusive.By the 1990s, however, Michaels’ prose had become a clear-running stream. Here is how he begins Sylvia:”In 1960, after two years of graduate school at Berkeley, I returned to New York without a Ph.D. or any idea what I’d do, only a desire to write stories. I’d also been at the University of Michigan, from 1953 to 1956. All in all, five years of classes in literature. I don’t know how else I might have spent those five years, but I didn’t want to hear more lectures, study for more exams, or see myself growing old in the library.”Shorn of its figurative tangles, relaxed, decompressed, this is a style that insists, “this is this, and that is that, and this is the way things stand.” It is a style that doesn’t shy from statements of truth. Which makes it the perfect vehicle for a reassessment of Michaels’ first marriage and Sylvia Bloch’s death.IV.Sylvia is a slippery title in two ways. First, it tempts us to conflate Michaels’ first wife with her fictional namesake. The Sylvia we meet in the book is a woman dancing on the edge of the abyss: volatile, secretive, obsessive. But she is also a less than round character, and in shaping his narrative, Michaels largely elides Sylvia’s past and the parts of her present not contiguous with her husband’s life. From a certain feminist perspective, this might be a source of critique, but really, all it means is that this is a novel. It retains the intimacy of its origins as a memoir, but can behave more freely with its characters.Which brings us to the second tricky thing about the title: really, Sylvia isn’t about Sylvia at all. It is about the man who marries her, and the wonder of Michaels’ account is its lacerating honesty. The narrator doesn’t suffer through Sylvia’s psychic disintegration as the cost of loving her; in some way her instability is the catalyst for his love. When he meets her, he finds himself “hypnotized by Sylvia’s exotic flashing effect.” The unsettlingly speedy commencement of their sexual relationship only deepens the attraction.Sealed inside an increasingly hermetic folie a deux, the narrator cannot bring himself to see Sylvia’s violent outbursts and compulsions and depressions as symptoms, and in this way contributes to her disintegration. Then, awakening to Sylvia’s illness, he finds himself pulling away from her, abandoning her to her fate. Years later, what unifies his two perspectives – the one from inside and the one from outside – is a steady sense of guilt.”My body lusted. That was my secret infidelity, never confessed to my journals. Despite the daily misery of marriage, I wrote that I loved Sylvia. I wrote it repeatedly into my journals, and I wiped sincerely pathetic tears from my eyes. ‘I love Sylvia.'”These journal entries are interspersed throughout the narrative, and only deepen the sense of ferocious candor. And what we see beneath the surface is pathetic, in the Greek sense: two suffering souls who can live neither with nor without each other. The narrator resists any attempt to exculpate himself for Sylvia’s death or, conversely, to overstate his fault. What he does do is document (and offer an antidote to) the solipsism of youth. And we are forced to wonder: Given better friends, better family, better conversation, and a better marriage, might Sylvia have survived?”In the conversational style of the day,” Michaels writes, “everything was always about something; or, to put it differently, everything was always really about something other than what it seemed to be about… The plays and sonnets of Shakespeare and the songs of Dylan were all equally about something. The murder of President Kennedy was, too. Nothing was fully resident in itself. Nothing was plain.”In making plain the suffering of two people, Sylvia reveals that style in the truest sense is not merely a set of aesthetic choices; it is the outward display of an author’s ethics. In writing this book, Leonard Michaels honored Sylvia’s death by trying to see his own connection to it clearly. He tried to let their life together be fully, fictionally, resident in itself. And beneath the layers of resentment, short-sightedness, and reproach, Sylvia became a final act of love, a testament of “desperate happiness.”He would have saved her if he could.
“Arson! Now that, they all agreed, was the way to protest something.” Such is one consensus reached in Brock Clarke’s entertaining new novel The Happiest People in the World, which at every turn ironically undercuts the supposed contentment of its characters. Under discussion is the firebombing of a Danish newspaper that printed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, but fans of Clarke will hear an echo of his wonderful The Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. That novel, which despite its wry humor was a rather melancholy affair, followed the surreal trials of a man who accidentally torched Emily Dickinson’s Amherst home as a teenager. With The Happiest People in the World, Clarke returns to arson, this time as farce — a wistful farce stuffed with lonely, unhappy people, but a farce nonetheless.
I should pause here to note the awful timeliness of The Happiest People in the World, featuring as it does a cartoonist in hiding from those who supposedly wish to kill him. But Clarke’s novel is also resolutely untimely, neither a fanged satire on Muslim fundamentalism and thoughtless Western provocation, nor an in-depth examination of cultural differences. (Indeed, it is hard to say whether the cartoonist or the terrorist is less invested in his respective task.) Rather, the novel is a comic fable about that most timeless of human attributes: cluelessness. And that cluelessness is understandable given that Clarke’s comic world — like most comic worlds — is plagued with a systemic confusion over everything from people’s identities to the definition of an inanimate object like a hunting rifle: “…It was one of those hunting rifles that you could swear was really an assault rifle, but if you swore that, then the hunter who carried the assault rifle would swear that is was really a hunting rifle because he hunted with it.”
The confusion begins with the novel’s ingenious opening, as haunting a scene as one narrated from the point-of-view of a stuffed moose head can be. The moose head in question is mounted in the Lumber Lodge, a watering hole in upstate New York, and its left eye is outfitted with a security camera looking down upon several writhing bodies. Are these people squirming in drunken hilarity or agony? Unable to judge, think or “worry,” the moose’s default observational mode is optimism — an unreliable narrator if there ever was one. And thus when a man crawls over to a woman and a boy lying on the floor:
The moose head watched the man hug them for a long time, watched his shoulders shaking harder even than the boy’s shoulders had, obviously laughing, just laughing and laughing as though he were the happiest person in the world, as though he knew that nothing bad would ever happen to him, or to any of them.
It won’t be giving too much away to state that the man is sobbing rather than laughing.
The cervine surveillance is a witty statement about the aforementioned human cluelessness. The moose’s glare, disinterested though it may be, is as prone to misinterpreting events as the people who shot it in the first place. But the opening also reveals the unsettling connection between comedy and tragedy: squint and it becomes very hard to tell the two masks apart. Maintaining, as the novel’s risibly Panglossian protagonist Jens does, that everything is going to be fine in this best of all possible worlds is the most efficient way of rushing headlong into disaster, especially for one whose “whole life…was a series of mistakes that anyone else in the world but him would have recognized in advance and therefore not have made them.”
Those series of mistakes constitute the plot of this farce, the summary of which tends to make the summarizer sound slightly farcical himself, first because the genre adheres more strictly to logic (albeit an absurd logic) than does realist fare, and second because it depends on increasingly intricate connections between those caught in its shenanigans.
Jens Baedrup is a bumbling cartoonist from Skagen, an idyllic Danish town between the Baltic and North Seas whose residents are said to be even happier than the Danes as a whole, “who are said to be the happiest people in the world.” Asked to draw up something about the 2005 controversy over the series of Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed — “Who better to draw a cartoon like this than someone who doesn’t have a strong opinion” his editor tells him — he reluctantly complies with a drawing showing how unhappy the whole affair makes the Danes. After Soren, a not-particularly-devout Danish Muslim, firebombs Jens’s house to scare him for having drawn a profane cartoon, the cartoonist goes into hiding as the high school guidance counselor in the remote town of Broomeville, NY. Broomeville also happens to be the center of CIA ring composed of a short order cook/coroner, a barmaid, and a mysterious leader named Capo who recruits future charges from the local school system. Jens’s jaded handler, Lorraine, or Locs, has brought him here because she hopes to be reunited with her former lover, a married principal — and proud Cornell alumnus — named Matty, who himself is as hapless as Jens and whose wife begins an affair with the disguised cartoonist. It is only a matter of time before Soren, who believed Jens to be dead, finds his way to the States as well.
So does a stakes-less, small-town version of “The Great Game” commence in which, according to the withering assessment of Lorraine, all the distinctly unhappy participants are “too stupid to live.” Which isn’t to say Clarke is hostile to his disaster-bound characters, or to America for that matter. He is particularly adept at pausing his manic narrative to burrow into the meaning of a single look or seemingly innocent comment, and these extended, well-observed riffs do just enough to humanize the crowded cast. And while Jens unwittingly inspires murderous rage in multiple people, it is hard not to be fond of the luckless hero, who orders his eggs sunny-side-up because it “seemed like the optimistic and least violent of the three choices.”
Clarke’s breezy pacing and comic resilience can only keep the violence at bay for so long. Guns multiply — this is America after all — as the novel’s space contracts and the characters find themselves with “absolutely nowhere else” to go. The first law of farce is that bodies in motion will eventually collide, and Clarke orchestrates the inevitable collision by beckoning each character from across the world and assembling them at the Lumber Lodge under the watchful eye of the moose.
In classical comedy, a final-act wedding puts an end to the misunderstandings and conflicts that propel the plot; here, Clarke dangles the possibility of a concluding ceremony even as it become increasingly clear that a more violent resolution is inevitable. And yet, as the poignant ending demonstrates, comedy’s inherent optimism, even if mercilessly ironized, survives just barely.