I’m a big fan of narrative-style history books, and it’s always fun to see a heavily researched piece of history that floats along like a novel. The problem with Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City is that it fails, at times, to feel like a strong account of historical events. The book follows two and a half storylines that intertwine, if only geographically, but never intersect. The backdrop is the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893, a now forgotten event that transfixed the world at the time. Daniel Burnham is the renowned architect of the Fair, beset by meddlers and bureaucrats; H. H. Holmes, whose torturous schemes are at times hard to fathom in their cruelty, is a serial killer who haunts Chicago during the Fair; and Patrick Prendergast, to whom the book only gives over two dozen or so pages, is an increasingly delusional man whose obsession with Chicago’s showy political scene leads to tragedy. The plotlines in the book are fascinating, both because Larson lends them a cinematic flair and because there is a continual sense of wonder that history has managed to forget such vibrant characters. Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read, especially on my daily rides on Chicago’s elevated trains which still snake through the city as they did when the World’s Fair was held here in 1893.
I’m not particularly drawn to biographies, and certainly not music biographies, but I make exceptions for Elvis. I was also swayed because I have heard Peter Guralnick’s books praised many times. Most satisfying about Last Train to Memphis, volume one of Guralnick’s two volume biography of Elvis Presley, was Guralnick’s ability to humanize his subject. The persona of Elvis, years after his death, is such a caricature, even a joke, that it can be hard to remember that there was a real, living, breathing person named Elvis Presley. The book contained what were, for me, some fantastic revelations. For one, Elvis was nearly done in when he was a youngster, not by the difficulties of his quest for fame, but by the swiftness with which it arrived. In a year’s time, he went from being a nobody to being one of the most recognizable faces in the country, a man whose presence literally caused riots whenever he appeared in public. For Elvis, it was a major struggle simply to adjust to this new life. Television documentaries and magazine articles often mention in passing that Elvis’ music and persona caused quite a stir, moral outrage even, when he appeared on the scene in the 1950s. Such stories sound quaint and exaggerated in this day and age, but with the context provided by Guralnick, I was able to see how groundbreaking Elvis really was, both musically and socially. Finally, I was enthralled by Guralnick’s portraits of Elvis’ supporting cast, quirky characters like Elvis’ mother Gladys, his manager Colonel Tom Parker, and the guy who gave him his first big break, Sam Phillips. The book rekindled my love, as it surely will rekindle yours, for the early days of rock and roll, and it left me with a serious hankering to read volume two of the biography, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley sometime real soon.
It’s a balancing act. How do you express yourself within a rich tradition without resorting to cliche? The deeper you go into the tradition, into the familiar, the more blindingly original your own expression really needs to be.Take, for example, the songs of Will Oldham. A staggeringly good songwriter, his understated records resonate long after the songs end, leaving a kind of haunting humility in their wake. This is music at its freshest. And even when tapping into long-established styles of music, never do you feel that you’re listening to a musical cliche.I’ve been listening to a lot of Will Oldham lately, wishing that the same sense of freshness and subtlety had been adopted by the otherwise gifted author Wade Rubenstein in his novel Gullboy. I kept wishing that this comic novel simply had more confidence in its own inventiveness, and in its strong central story, often marred by shopworn supporting characters and cameo players straight out of central casting.At the heart of this story is a bit of magic realism. The conceit is this: Into the Coney Island lives of a good-hearted chef and his not-so-good-hearted stripper wife comes a baby on the doorstep, a child half human and half seagull. And you go along with this flight of fancy in part because the chain-of-events that led to this birth is quite cleverly set-up. Plus, this is a Coney Island it-takes-all-sorts/anything-can-happen carnival ride of a tale.And for much of the novel it works quite well, largely because the central relationship, the father/son bond, is warm and engaging. A them-against-the-world story.Well, the “them” part of this was fine. My big problem was with “the world”.The odd premise and its comical effects and possibilities should have been enough for Rubenstein who indeed writes with enormous energy. It’s a vibrantly told tale, full of bounce. All the more frustrating, then, to encounter supporting characters at virtually every turn who are caricatures. A blinded-by-money doctor, a blinded-by-power cop, shysters and hucksters everywhere you look, and drawn exactly the way they’ve been drawn in countless comic stories and on TV.Broadly drawn outrageous characters, themselves, aren’t even the problem. One of my all-time favorite comic novels is A Confederacy of Dunces, in which the central character is big, loud and outrageous, but he’s so off-the-charts original that he propels the story, rather than grinding it to a halt. It’s the difference, I suppose, between a comical character and a cartoon character.A couple of years ago, I read DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little. And while I enjoyed this comic novel tremendously, I found the depicted media circus a bit old. Not that media doesn’t deserve to be the subject of parody, but the joke, along with the one about the egotistical doctor and the parasitic lawyer have been told the same way so many times that, for me, they’ve completely lost their edge.So, then, is Gullboy good? Well, parts of it are great, and you certainly won’t get bored reading it. But you might become frustrated. Every time I felt that I’d settled into the inventive tale, the genuine comic invention would begin to be weighed down by some heavy-handed parody. Whether you think the author manages to walk the comedy tightrope depends, I suppose, on how much parody you can bear.For me, this high-concept, over-stuffed comic novel ultimately collapsed beneath the weight of its own brand of humor.