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.
When I was twelve, my mother, sister, and I took an overnight train to Kansas City, where my great-aunt met and drove us several hours south. Hovering near the border of Missouri and Arkansas, we were in the heart of the Ozarks. Here’s what I remember about them. My family’s private cemetery, near the one-room schoolhouse my grandfather attended and the cabin with a shotgun hole in the roof. The somewhat sad sights of Branson, and an evening trip to see the Osmond Brothers. Lush greenery. The wide expanse of the White River seen from my great-aunt’s home.
Judging from Daniel Woodrell’s fiction, there’s a lot I missed. It would seem, for example, that the Ozarks are no place for people of moderate appetites and emotions. In Woodrell’s superb new collection, The Outlaw Album, characters are fueled by desperation, anger, and (one suspects) a sense of humor either incomparably keen or completely nonexistent. How else could you explain the book’s first sentence, found in a story called “The Echo of Neighborly Bones”?: “Once Boshell finally killed his neighbor he couldn’t seem to quit killing him.” After burying his neighbor in a makeshift grave, this Boshell makes a habit of stopping by whenever he’s feeling blue. Nothing takes the edge off a rough day, or soothes the memory of his wife’s tears, as well as going at the rotting corpse with a heavy stone or a blunt hatchet.
When we eventually learn the reason for the murder — the neighbor killed Boshell’s dog — wit and pathos elide. We’ve anticipated an act of tremendous brutality, and what we find seems relatively petty. But small slights are deeply felt in Woodrell country. They carry life or death stakes. Why not shoot the neighbor? What could be crueler, really, than targeting a childless couple’s beloved pet? In another story, an outsider builds a house directly in the line of sight between a dying man’s window and his cherished river. His son restores the vista as quickly and effectively as he can—with fire—in his father’s final days. As in Woodrell’s earlier novel Winter’s Bone, The Outlaw Album’s hills are filled with methheads and gunfire, but unkindness proves no less explosive a presence.
That’s not to say darker works don’t abound. Woodrell’s characters are capable of terrible things. A driver accelerates at a hitchhiker and sends his car plummeting into a ditch. A Civil War veteran carves driftwood, avoiding both confrontation with and atonement for the murders he committed against civilians. These acts of unmerited violence are sometimes sudden, sometimes forgotten, always contained within a specific moment in time. When the deed is justified, though, it often haunts the perpetrator. When a man wakes up to a naked, growling figure towering over his bed, he reaches for a nearby knife. In the light, the intruder is revealed to be a troubled Iraq veteran, and his killer doubts his actions. He spends nights walking circuits around the house. He becomes a near-pariah in town. And he has one notably awkward, sad conversation with the dead man’s parents outside a diner.
Even amidst his characters’ wildest thoughts and most profound transgressions, however, Woodrell’s prose winks slyly at us. In one of the book’s finest stories, a girl attacks her rapist uncle with a pickaxe, leaving him in a vegetable state. She’s left to care for him while her mother works, and enjoys inflicting small cruelties on her former tormentor. But soon things begin to change. He follows people with his eyes. Once he swats a fly. It’s all too much. The girl sets out to finish the task she started, wheeling him up to a local bridge.
“I’d been making him well,” she thinks, “now I needed to make him right.” Ruefully, savagely, joyfully, she laments in the story’s final line, “My baby ain’t meant for this world.” The character is a triumph. She takes pleasure in administering justice, bringing wit to the unspeakable and a gritty pragmatism to morality. In a book full of memorable characters, this nameless narrator stands out as an unreservedly sharp and funny presence.
All this amounts to one of the best evocations of rural life that I’ve read in years. Woodrell’s characters have a hard time of it, and wealth and education don’t help much. There’s a whole world contained within his Ozarks — several veterans, rich summer-homers, a damaged girl with a mysterious past, an inner-city father whose son is in prison, a nostalgic divorcé from the city — and its dangers affect all of them indiscriminately. Slim and utterly delicious, The Outlaw Album is a quick read and will leave you asking why this is Woodrell’s first collection of stories. Few authors have such a sure and deft hand with reveals. Even fewer combine humor and desperation so effectively.
It becomes clear at a certain point, though, that he was not quite content to deliver a collection of genre pieces, however superlative. There are unexpected moments. “The body fell within a shout of a house that still stands,” begins a story called “The Horse in Our History.” “A house shown up rudely in morning brightness, a dull small box gone shabby along the roof edge, with tar shingles hanging frayed over a gutter that has parted from the eaves and rolled under like a slackened lip.” While Woodrell’s writing is often beautiful — sparse construction and sudden, lush images feature prominently — this passage falls in a different register. It immediately sounds like someone else. I couldn’t place it until I got to the next paragraph: “The body fell within a shout, and surely those in the house must have heard something.” The repetition, the narrative disguised as speculation: Woodrell’s doing Faulkner here and he’s doing it well. Even the somewhat vague but insistent impression of alienness left by the first few sentences testifies to the success of his imitation.
But why do it? It’s a virtuoso performance and a fine story, but Woodrell’s voice is confident and distinct through The Outlaw Album. There seems to be little impetus for Faulknerian digressions. But while The Outlaw Album could stand alone, I think perhaps Woodrell wants you to compare it to the work of the masters. His ventriloquism does more than show off his ability. It demonstrates the power of his own unique voice. It throws into relief the expansiveness and clarity of the place he’s imagined, as well-defined as Faulkner’s own Yoknapatawpha County. It’s the request to be admitted to the pantheon, and with The Outlaw Album as evidence, it’s none too soon.
While reading Alice Munro’s new book, Dear Life, I kept finding myself thinking of something that had nothing to do with books, or with Canada, or with any of the dozen other things you might expect. What I thought of was a professional basketball game I went to 15 or so years ago. The Bulls were visiting the lowly Wizards (who were then still called the Bullets), and my friends and I had lucked our way into decent seats. It was the first and only time I’d seen Michael Jordan in person, and it was the strangest thing. You could feel a collective awareness in the building, like the smoke lingering after a fireworks show: he will outlive every one of us. Jordan’s name would appear the next day beside Calbert Cheaney and Bill Wennington’s in the box score, but years from now, when their names evoked nothing, his would be unfaded. He inhabited the court like a time traveler, visiting from a future in which he continued to exist while the rest of us — chewing our $7 hot dogs, taking his picture every time he touched the ball — did not.
Which is to say: contemporary greatness is a strange thing. Alice Munro’s books are reviewed right there beside Ann Patchett and Richard Russo’s; they’re set on the New Releases table between the latest from Jane Smiley and Dave Eggers. But they’re of a different order, they’re made of different stuff. The Mona Simpson quote that appears on many of Munro’s paperbacks (“The living writer most likely to be read in a hundred years,”) seems truer than ever, and it gives an air of preemptive nostalgia to the act of reading her. Soon enough it will seem very strange, almost miraculous, that we could go to the store to buy a new book by Alice Munro.
But for now, anyway, we can; the daily highlight reels must still be assembled. And so how does this latest collection of stories, her 14th, stack up? It is, I’m pleased to report, wonderful — even surprisingly so. Since 2001’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, published when she was 70, she had seemed to me to be in the cruising phase of her career. The three collections since then were full of good, solid, Munro-grade stuff, but with a couple of exceptions, there were no stories that I imagined would make it into her best-of collections. Her writing had simplified considerably, and she seemed, with her plots, to be retracing old ground. When she announced her retirement in 2006, I confess to feeling a certain relief; she was too proud and too self-aware to leave us remembering her like Jordan on the Wizards.
Well, she didn’t retire, and it’s a good thing she didn’t. Her writing continues in its understated mode, but the simplicity seems now to reflect an increased urgency, rather than a diminished capacity. There’s a kind of cut-the-crap quality to this latest batch of stories — material that might have once have taken up 20 pages she now deals with in a couple of sentences, unsentimentally, almost in passing. In “Gravel,” the news that the narrator’s sister has drowned arrives by implication, like the passings of the seasons. In “Train,” a man walks away from his life with as little fanfare as if he were walking out of a movie theater.
Here is how, in one of the collection’s best stories, “Leaving Maverley,” Munro describes a man whose wife has died after years of insentient dwindling in the hospital:
He’d thought that it had happened long before with Isabel, but it hadn’t. Not until now.
She had existed and now she did not. Not at all, as if not ever. And people hurried around, as if this outrageous fact could be overcome by making sensible arrangements. He, too, obeyed the custom, signing where he was told to sign, arranging — as they said — for the remains.
“Not at all, as if not ever,” — these seven short, simple words give as clear an account of grief, of the infantilizing incomprehensibility of a loved one’s death, as anything I’ve ever read. The book is full of formulations like that — births and deaths, marriages and infidelities, rendered in unimprovable calligraphic strokes. Much of the material here will be familiar to anyone who has ever read her — the train trips and heartsick letters and unpaved roads — but the voice is newly sharpened, as if she were freshly aware of only having so many words remaining in her allotment.
And, in fact, such an awareness becomes explicit in places; growing old has, like a trip through a difficult country, endowed Munro with all manner of new information, and she has here begun to file her dispatches. “In Sight of the Lake,” about a woman’s increasingly baffled search for her doctor’s office, is as harrowing an account of old age as I’ve ever read. And “Dolly” makes the case, with worrisome authority, that jealousy and heartache are not occupations from which we may retire.
A surprise, then, is that the book ends with a sequence of stories that Munro could almost have written decades ago. “The final works in this book are not quite stories,” she writes in an author’s note (under the disconcerting heading “Finale”). “I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.” A certain prurient ear-pricking is natural, when an author promises to share the actual goods about herself, but what she has to say turns out to be not so different from what she’s said about her childhood in her earlier books. We get the failing fox farm, the humble father, the ambitious and ailing mother. We get the house set uneasily between town and country, the rickety bridges, the trees known by name. The difference, if there is one, is the frankness with which she sets aside the possibility of artifice. It’s as if, after decades of plot trickery and composite characters, she longs to remove all the filters from her light, to show us the bare bulb. Here, finally, is the intelligence itself, the compassionate but merciless awareness that she has shone through all her hundreds of stories.
At the end of one of those stories, a dozen or so books ago, there’s a sentence that may be the best single thing she ever wrote, and it offers something like a key to her entire career: “People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable — deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.” In Dear Life, Munro, equipped with a head-lamp the likes of which we may never see again, continues to explore.
Religion tends to bring out the crazy in people. From speaking in tongues and suicide bombers to silent retreats and complicated dietary laws, the daily acts performed in the name of God are hard for the atheist to understand. Since faith is by definition irrational, discussions about religion can quickly veer into extremism, with no room for rational exchange. What Alain de Botton aims to do, however, in his Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, is not necessarily to bring about world peace through some sort of fanatic-atheist summit (though that is a worthwhile cause should anyone want to attempt it), nor is it to attempt to prove whether or not any religion is true. Rather, de Botton, an avowed atheist, takes a strictly utilitarian approach to religion in the book: “it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting, and consoling — and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.” De Botton looks to why religions were invented — to foster a sense of belonging to a community and to deal with the harsh realities of life (illness, death, marriage, what have you) — and cherry picks rituals that can be adapted into secular life. The results are sometimes farfetched but nevertheless intriguing.
De Botton expects neither the religious nor the secular will be crazy about his proposals. Since one of de Botton’s own metaphors for this is that religions will protest about his approach that they “are not buffets from which choice elements can be selected on whim,” his idea for a kind of communal restaurant based partly on the original Christian mass (which used to be a meal, a la the Last Supper) and partly on the Jewish Sabbath meal is a ripe example of how de Botton sees the potential for borrowing from religion to make modern life less alienating. The contemporary restaurant, he notes, provides a perfect space in which strangers could share a meal and perhaps something more — some sense of community. Instead, the average restaurant merely reaffirms “tribal divisions:” “the focus is on the food and the decor, never on opportunities for extending and deepening affections.” He suggests this concept of an Agape (from the Greek meaning love) restaurant would bring strangers together to share a meal and then share their deepest thoughts and feelings by asking each other questions from a Book of Agape. Examples of such dialogue starters include, “‘Whom can you not forgive?’” and “‘What do you fear?’” De Botton argues that though this would surely seem a strange exercise at first, gradually patrons would come to appreciate the authentic communication and opportunity to get to know people of other backgrounds and creeds. His wishes are utterly utopian: “The poor would eat with the rich, the orthodox with the secular, the bipolar with the balanced, workers with managers, scientists with artists. The claustrophobic pressure to derive our satisfactions from our existing relationships would ease, as would our desire to gain status by accessing so-called elite circles.” Frankly, it is hard to imagine anyone volunteering to participate in such an activity, when it is difficult enough to maintain those relationships we are supposed to be deriving satisfactions from: our marriages-slash-romantic partnerships, our families, our friends are hard enough to spend time with without giving up precious free time to share our innermost thoughts with strangers. De Botton’s ideas might be good for the community, but are they actually reasonable to expect people to work into their lives?
A more tenable idea of de Botton’s is the substitution of culture or secular texts for religious ones — not that we should worship at the altar of great writers and artists, but that we can “draw on culture with the same spontaneity and rigor which the religious apply to their holy texts.” A main tenet of de Botton’s thinking is that we should allow ourselves (speaking as the atheistic we) to be transported by secular art and culture, to be moved by it as wholly as religious people are by the Bible or the Koran. Perhaps he goes too far in suggesting that “secular education will never succeed in reaching its potential until humanities lecturers are sent to be trained by African American Pentecostal preachers,” suggesting a call-and-response format in lectures about Keats and Adam Smith that seems like he’s maybe seen a few too many movies about the American Civil Rights Movement. Point taken, however — nothing wrong with a bit of enthusiasm about Romantic poetry or capitalist theory or whatever happens to move you. Amen.
De Botton has many other interesting ideas about borrowing from religion — making museums more like churches, thinking about vacations as pilgrimages, trying to find ways to share our woes and joys outside the structure of traditional rites and rituals. It’s worth mentioning that de Botton is heavily involved in the School of Life, a center in London that helps people find meaning through unconventional means like bibliotherapy, where a person listens to your woes and suggests a reading list to console you. He seems to be on a mission to improve people’s lives by unorthodox means. Religion for Atheists has a few decent ideas mixed in with some outlandish ones, but the reader never doubts de Botton’s intentions are anything but pure. De Botton is staking out new territory in suggesting atheists might find some value in religion, and if his suggestions are more provocative than practical it is because he believes in the significance of his mission. It is a wholly sincere and serious book (and despite that stodgy description it’s lively as well), and for maintaining such a balance de Botton deserves some praise. It is not easy to keep your wits about you where religion is concerned.