I’ve crossed another classic off of my “to read” list, and boy am I happy I read this one. This was pure satisfaction from start to finish. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is an amazing book that embodies the intersection of literary weightiness and readability. There are plenty of epics out there that span generations: Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds or Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, for example. Those books are a joy to read and you can luxuriate in the authors’ virtuosity as characters are added to weaving storylines, but East of Eden seemed to have more weight to it. Unlike many epics, which seem to thrive on love, unrequited or forbidden, Steinbeck’s book focuses on the struggles of brothers seeking their father’s admirmation. From the title alone, it is obvious that this notion is Biblical, and the book’s Biblical quality becomes its center. For the first time in a very long time, I did not rush through the book’s last chapters, eager to get to my next conquest. I felt that pang that you sometimes get when you finish a truly magnificent book, the pang that is part sadness at the experience of reading the book being over and part a feeling of that book permanently lodging itself in your memory to be drawn from and remembered with reverence. There are, I think, very few books that can produce this sublime reading experience, but East of Eden is on that short list.
Barry Slawter is a writer based in Philadelphia.Paul Theroux is often best known for his travel writing, so it can be surprising to learn that a recent collection of three novellas, The Elephanta Suite, is the American author’s 30th published work of fiction. All three stories are set in India, and I found it interesting to consider Theroux’s rendering of the Indian subcontinent in light of the success of Slumdog Millionaire, this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture. That film set off protests in the streets of Mumbai in early February for what was perceived as a Western portrayal of life in its slums, and in Indian call centers.Slumdog was directed by Danny Boyle and adapted from a novel by Indian writer Vikas Swarup. Following the protests, Swarup told the Associated Press that his story is a “slice of Indian life” and that he “does not see India’s slums as a place of despair.”Regardless of whether you believe that the film’s Indian critics have a valid point, it is interesting to consider how the country is being portrayed by other, non-Indian writers based in the west. In the hands of a writer like Theroux, the “slums question” becomes one easy and obvious jumping off point for a more intricate discussion about India’s growing pains.As one might expect from a veteran travel writer, Theroux knows how to attack stereotypes, and the novellas in The Elephanta Suite address American views of India in particular. Whether it’s the recent Ivy League grads backpacking to an ashram in “The Elephant God”, or a rich American couple dangerously misreading political winds from the comfort of their luxury spa in “Monkey Hill”, each novella comes with a general sense of foreboding.In “The Gateway of India”, arguably the most forceful of the novellas, a business traveler with obvious “Ugly American” qualities goes from a distanced loathing of Mumbai to discovering personal freedom in the squalor of the slums. Regardless of believability, it’s a crazy ride that starts slow and builds to an echoing crescendo, speaking to both personal transformation and the state of globalization.Most importantly perhaps, these multidimensional stories capture the nuances of modern culture clash, even while often suggesting a grim upshot. Theroux depicts Americans newly encountering the modern, globalizing India in a way that ultimately is artful and literary, not just fictionalized – albeit skillful – travel writing. Theroux wants to affirm that the world of Kipling is long dead and buried – an anachronistic museum piece, now paved over to make way for the steel and glass of Bangalore’s call centers.Theroux has fun with it all, too, finding the inevitable humor in a vision of India as a crowded jumble of contradictions. “The Elephant God”‘s Alice talks about expecting to find “the world of Merchant Ivory films” but ends up teaching American dialect to call center reps, who need to learning phases like “let’s ramp up a solution.” Theroux ruminates about India being a land of “usable antiques,” a place where words like “utterance,” “thrice,” or “audacious” might easily get dropped into casual conversation.These were the words the East India Company had brought from England hundreds of years before, and they were still spoken and written, no matter how musty they seemed. Perhaps Indians used these words to give themselves dignity, power, or presence, but the effect was comic.Theroux, a master of language himself, sounds like he has that part just about nailed – both the linguistic observations and the sense of the chasm between cultures, addressing big themes like “modern versus traditional” and “East meets West.”It all made the Slumdog protests just a little more comprehensible, too. One of the protesters in a February Reuters report declared, “They have made a mockery of us, they have hurt our sentiments.” Thanks to Theroux, reading this quote left me pondering vocabulary, wondering whether the protester had been to call-center dialect class. A small shift in perspective that was one of this book’s many gifts.
In his 2004 bestseller What’s The Matter with Kansas?, liberal pundit Thomas Frank puzzled over the conundrum of Kansas politics in which social conservatives vote against their own economic interests by supporting Republicans who pursue a pro-business agenda while promising action that never seems to arrive on hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage. For Frank, the success of the Republican’s bait-and-switch approach to the Kansas electorate was doubly perplexing because in the late-19th century Kansas was a hotbed of the Populist Movement, a left-wing coalition of farmers united against the northeastern business elite that controlled the banks and railroads.
Thomas Frank, meet Andrew Malan Milward, fellow Kansan and historical obsessive. Milward’s story collection I Was a Revolutionary bobs and weaves through Kansas history from the Civil War to the Age of Obama, mixing historical events with fictional characters in an effort to answer the question Frank posed in nonfiction form. The collection’s opening story, “The Burning of Lawrence,” tells the heart-pumping story of the 1863 raid on the anti-slavery stronghold of Lawrence, Kan., by pro-Confederate guerrillas led by William Quantrill, which left at least 150 people dead. Other stories focus on the Populists that so beguiled Thomas Frank, while still others seek to resurrect more obscure figures of Kansas history, like John Romulus Brinkley, a.k.a. the Goat Gland Doctor, a quack physician who skillfully used early radio to nearly get himself elected governor in the 1930s.
Milward’s stories don’t always hit the mark. A couple of them, most notably “A Defense of History,” read like extended Wikipedia entries on the quirks of the state’s political history with a little human interest back story tossed in to keep the reader from bailing. Others, like the narratively inert “What Is To Be Done?,” seem to exist merely to allow Milward to offer up thumbnail sketches of long-forgotten Kansas eccentrics and political visionaries.
But in perhaps half of the collection’s eight stories, the wonkery gives way to riveting fiction in which Milward’s fascination with his home state’s history serves the plot and characters rather than the other way around. By far the best of these is “Good Men a Long Time Gone,” which, perhaps not coincidentally, is the story in the collection least focused on the politics and history of Kansas.
Set in a dive bar near a meatpacking plant in Dodge City, Kan., “Good Men” unfolds over a single drunken night as a crew from the slaughterhouse parties away their monthly paycheck. Milward makes much of Dodge City’s fame as the home to Wild West lawmen Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp and the story’s central relationship between crew boss Ray and his protected underling Sal rests on their shared sense of persecution as native people — Ray as a Kiowa Native American from Kansas, Sal as a Pipil, an indigenous people from war-torn El Salvador. But as smart and interesting as this historical frosting is, what grabs the reader is Milward’s masterful rendering of the petty rivalries, crude humor, and largely unspoken affection of a crew of people thrown together by hard, dangerous work.
In one scene, Milward describes the apprehension Ray felt when he transferred Sal from an entry-level job shackling animals destined for slaughter to the higher-skilled but far more gruesome task of slitting the animal’s throats to drain them of blood. “Thinking Sal might hesitate, Ray watched [Sal] calmly take the knife from his hand and cleanly sever the throat of a cow shackled hindquarters up. He did it three more times in quick succession without pause. Exhilarated, proud even, Ray cried: ‘I knew it! You’re like one of those farts no one can hear but it kills the entire room.’”
In “Good Men,” unlike in some of Milward’s more doggedly scholarly stories, history is one of those silent deadly farts that fills the room with menace and bad air that seems to come from nowhere. All the members of the slaughterhouse crew, male and female, white man and Native American, are prisoners of history, stuck in jobs that are slowly crippling them, playing out prescripted roles that diminish them — but that’s not what they see and feel. Like all of us, they smell the fouled air and assume the shit pile they have landed on is merely ordinary life.
Milward works a similar magic in the title story, about an aging 1960s anti-war radical named Paul who has washed up as an untenured instructor at the University of Kansas teaching — what else? — Kansas history. With his marriage in ruins and his career threatened by a right-wing exposé on former radicals in American colleges, Paul struggles to understand how he turned from a would-be revolutionary to an academic milquetoast. “When we were young,” Paul explains, “we’d believed in Karl Marx and permanent revolution but in middle age had come to find our faith in Martha Stewart and the permanent renovation of our home.”
In story after story, Milward asks what drives those at the political extremes into conflict with the majority and what happens to those extremists once they’ve exhausted the violence of their political passions. If the individual stories too often misfire, Milward’s book as a whole can be more potent than the sum of its parts. It is fascinating to contemplate, for instance, that Massachusetts Avenue in Lawrence, Kan., which was Ground Zero of Quantrill’s bloodthirsty 1863 raid, was a century later home to Afro House, where the Lawrence chapter of the Black Panthers stockpiled weapons for its effort to “Fight Pig Amerika.” Here, in the interstices of Milward’s historical investigations, the same revenge-fueled violence that plays out so suspensefully in the Dodge City bar of “Good Men a Long Time Gone” plays out, albeit in a subtler, more muted register, over the course of a century.
This is compelling stuff, and Milward is a daring writer, unafraid to cross not only lines of class and education, but also the potentially more treacherous lines of race and sexual orientation. Again, these border crossings are not always successful. A long story, “O Death,” largely told from the perspective of Southern former slaves migrating north to a promised African-American haven in Nicodemus, Kan., is a stilted, tin-eared slog. But it’s also a gutsy move, one few non-Southern white writers would attempt.
Milward is a native of Lawrence, Kan., where many of the stories in this, his second collection, take place, but unlike many young writers, his gaze isn’t directed at his own navel, but outward at the rough, strange history of the state that formed him. The man can write, too. One of these days, he will meld his historical compulsions with his gift for telling a taut, character-driven tale like “Good Men a Long Time Gone,” and the rest of us will be falling all over each other to say we read him when.