I bought Brotherly Love, a discounted, yet signed, copy from the remaindered section of the bookstore where I used to work. At the time I was enamored by Pete Dexter, whose books Train and Paris Trout I had recently read. Both of those books are spare and menacing, at times brutally violent, but done in a masterful way. Brotherly Love is like those books, but to call the book spare is an understatement. Dexter takes his time – most of the book, really – fleshing out the main characters, cousins Peter and Michael Flood from a Philadelphia gangster family. As the plot slowly develops – or comes to a boil, one might say – it becomes clear that Peter wants out. But of course, Michael and his band of hoods keep dragging him back in. In Brotherly Love, Dexter doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths of his characters as he does so effectively in Paris Trout and Train, and the reader is left with a book that feels empty and characters that feel doomed from page one.
In Ian McEwan’s thirteenth novel, Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) is an assistant officer in MI5 who is part of a special project to fund writers who are critical of the communist utopia in 1970s — this is the soft cold war. The author she is running, T. H. Haley, who also becomes her lover, thinks that he is receiving the generous stipend from a private foundation, because he’s an up-and-coming writer with a lot of potential. In reality, it’s because he’s written some newspaper articles against communism. At one point, Serena reads one of Haley’s stories, which is “narrated by a talking ape prone to anxious reflections about his lover, a writer struggling with her second novel.” On the last page of the story, Serena learns that the narrator of the story is, in fact, the female writer in question. “The ape doesn’t exist, it’s a spectre, the creature of her fretful imagination.” Serena is revolted; she distrusts “this kind of fictional trick.”
Without this kind of trick, Sweet Tooth, the large novel in which T. H. Haley’s own fictions are nestled like mirrors reflecting back upon reality, would fall apart completely. The tension between truth and duplicity lies at the heart of Sweet Tooth, which turns out to be a carefully constructed trick, as spectral, perhaps, as the ape in Haley’s story.
Fabrication is a well-explored topic in McEwan’s fiction. Briony Tallis’s manipulation of real events into fiction lies at the heart of Atonement, while a very big lie forms the principal device in Solar’s elaborate climate change plot. Similarly, double duplicity is what drives Amsterdam to its tragicomic finale. In these novels, however, the fabrications become so elaborate that they begin to sound hollow. In order to raise the stakes and make the fiction more compelling, McEwan has been known to stretch his plots to the point of tearing. In Sweet Tooth, the stakes — a budding relationship, government money, one or two people’s jobs — are high enough to be interesting, but low enough for the novel to remain manipulative in a merely pleasant way.
For the trick to pay off at the end, McEwan does require a certain amount of patience from the reader. If, like me, you expect the lush, thickly internalized prose of Saturday, the sparkling dialogues and quirky characters of On Chesil Beach, or even the atmospheric sense of dread of McEwan’s other spy novel, The Innocent, you will be disappointed. The principal reason for this lack is that, for Sweet Tooth to work, it needs to be told in the first person. While Serena Frome — a beautiful, blonde, romantic young woman who obtains a third in math at Cambridge and uses her photographic memory to devour novels — makes for an interesting character, she does not have a particularly compelling narrative voice. Her landscape is a little flat, her story is strictly chronological, her tone is chatty but cold. More importantly, she — or, I began to wonder as the novel progressed, perhaps McEwan himself — is obsessed with realism. The novel’s backdrop is the social and political crises in England in the 1970s: the IRA, the coal miners’ strike, the return of the Labor government in 1974. For a better part of the book, the narrator reminds us what decade we’re in regularly, defending herself if she’s acting against the norm, and explaining how the 70s were different from today when she isn’t.
Being constantly hit on the head with historical facts can get a little frustrating; if you’ve read Atonement, you’ll know that McEwan can make history come to life without overstating it. Serena herself may offer an explanation for this narrative tic when she describes her own reading habits:
I craved a form of naive realism. I paid special attention, I craned my readerly neck whenever a London street I knew was mentioned, or a style of frock, a real public person, even a make of car. Then, I thought, I had a measure, I could gauge the quality of the writing by its accuracy, by the extent to which it aligned with my own impressions, or improved upon them.
This passage suggests that Serena’s obsession with historical accuracy as a narrator is a result of her own literary taste for hyperrealism, fiction that borders on fact. At least she practices what she preaches. Still, my resistance to this forced historicity raises an interesting caveat: how far should a writer stray away from what he does well, and what pleases the reader, in order to create a narrative voice that is consistent with the character? The answer, of course, depends entirely on the book.
When dealing with a writer as experienced as McEwan, however, one must be ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’m glad I did. A few months into Serena’s work at MI5, she receives a warning from a superior and one-time love interest (the word in the agency is that she’s more trouble than she’s worth):
In this work the line between what people imagine and what’s actually the case can get very blurred. In fact that line is a big grey space, big enough to get lost in. You imagine things — and you can make them come true. The ghosts become real.
Intelligence work sounds a little bit like writing novels, and McEwan proves that he’s sufficiently deft at the latter to navigate the grey space between fact and fiction without getting lost in it. In the end, Sweet Tooth is successful enough as a work of well constructed, brilliantly rendered fiction for Serena’s voice to work within the larger whole. The author remains so removed from his fiction that, once you understand what he’s up to, you have to strain to see him pulling the strings of the narrative.
Sweet Tooth purports by its content and its opening lines to be a spy novel, but it isn’t really. In a traditional spy/thriller/whodunit, the end reveal is never as interesting as the tension-filled pages of clues and red herrings that got you there. On the contrary, Sweet Tooth is a much finer novel in retrospect, once the final chapter and its revelations have been absorbed. Only then can the reader understand why the early elements in the book, characters shown for only a few pages and then quickly carried offstage, were there at all. These characters are carefully mentioned again throughout the book like touchstones for the plot’s unraveling, and are finally given their full purpose in the story. The novel’s ending, and its final question, turns the fiction back upon itself. Therein lies McEwan’s genius when he’s at the top of his form; he writes a novel like a jeweler cuts a diamond, by following the natural tensions in the raw material to create an object of admirable sharpness, perfection, and complexity. Like a diamond, the novel may not be to everyone’s taste, but its objective qualities are undeniable, nonetheless.
Anthony Bourdain is raw, silly, funny, delicate and unedited. And so is his latest book The Nasty Bits, a collection of three-to-five-page shorts – with a few longer exceptions. The collection does not come close to the revealing, unique and intriguing Kitchen Confidential (Emre’s review). It is still a good read that furthers the reader’s appetite for the unknown and reveals the idiosyncrasies of a celebrity chef, however.The Nasty Bits is a good, short escape if you are trapped in a fast-paced environment. Last fall I lacked time to enjoy a long novel that would require a certain level of attention. Bourdain’s writing proved to be loyal friend that left my taste buds wondering and my mind revisiting restaurants in New York. The Nasty Bits also provided for some hearty laughter.Bourdain’s style does not waver much. He sticks to a familiar, day-to-day usage of language, which makes the stories engaging monologues. The Nasty Bits provides some useful insight, as did Kitchen Confidential, into the restaurant industry. One practice I can claim prior to reading the collection is being nice to your waiter/waitress.The stories are more about Bourdain’s new found leisure activities and privileges as a celebrity chef. While it may not be as interesting as the misadventures of a drug addict and alcoholic in the New York restaurant world, Bourdain’s honest admission to reaping the benefits of his status and bashing of the new industry that enables him to take a break from breaking his back at Les Halles in New York are still interesting.The author’s misadventures in The Nasty Bits take the reader to some of the world’s best restaurants (Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, Ferran Adria’s El Bulli and many more), a love boat trip much resisted by Mrs. Bourdain (who I assume to be Buddha-like when it comes to putting up with Bourdain’s antics) and on the road with his TV show “No Reservations” (Vietnam, Las Vegas, Italy, etc.).Bourdain also fires salvos at U.S. food industry (for limiting people to McDonald’s and making them obese), Woody Harrelson (for maintaining a diet of “raw fruits and vegetables”) and dress codes (advocating a no-shoes policy). There is also his familiar theory for providing green cards to everyone south of the border to save the restaurant industry (I concur). Lastly, the author provides book suggestions to cooks, an unasked for commencement address to culinary school grads, and opinions on how chefs handle celebrity.The Nasty Bits is Bourdain, through and through. It is honest, entertaining and quick. The collection might not be as fascinating as Kitchen Confidential, but it is still worth your consideration – especially on your bedside table, coffee table or in your bathroom (that is, if you do not have qualms about reading about food while in the toilet).
I usually avoid talking about how much I love small presses. Partly because my feeling is that I’m so completely, obviously biased (both my novels are published by a smallish independent press, and I’m very happy with this state of affairs) that my opinion on the matter doesn’t carry much weight, and partly because the topic can quickly degenerate, among certain of my more committedly small-press-published novelist friends, into an “and I wouldn’t want to be published by a major press anyway, because they sometimes publish garbage” kind of a conversation, which I’m not really down with: it’s not that I have any desire to be published by anyone other than Unbridled Books, it’s just that I’m baffled by the idea that I’m expected to seriously condemn the houses that brought us Await Your Reply, Brooklyn, and Let The Great World Spin.
And yet: every now and again I’ll come across a book published by a small press that somehow seems, for all its dazzling excellence, like it might not have made it past the front door at a major publishing house. I’m not sure where I first heard about Hesh Kestin’s The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats, published last November by Dzanc Books; I think perhaps it was from one of the guys at ThreeGuysOneBook. Shoeshine Cats doesn’t seem to have been very widely reviewed, which strikes me as a minor tragedy—this is one of the best and most wholly original books I’ve come across in a while.
The title character is Shushan Cats, a Jewish gangster famous throughout the five boroughs of Kestin’s version of 1963 New York, but the story is narrated by Russell Newhouse—twenty years old, an orphan, coasting effortlessly through his course work at Brooklyn College, mostly preoccupied with trying to sleep with the largest possible percentage of Brooklyn’s young female population.
Russell has recently been recruited to take the minutes for the Bhotke Young Men’s Society, a sleepy organization of immigrants in Brooklyn. He’s the only member of the Society who might reasonably be considered young, and he’s there only because his late father was a member. His cohorts are older Jewish men, foreign-born; their children are entirely assimilated, but for these men, Kestin writes, “American was not a noun but a verb: you had to work at it.” The Bhotke Young Men’s Society’s anxiously under-Americanized members have voted to change the official language from Yiddish to English, and Russell’s English is impeccable.
Midway through Russell’s first meeting as official minute-taker the doors fly open, and Russell meets the notorious Shushan Cats for the first time. Kestin is a master of character description: “The figure who stood there—it seemed for minutes—was one of those small men native to Brooklyn who appeared to have been boiled down from someone twice the size, the kind who when a doctor tries to give him an injection the needle bends.”
Shushan Cats would like to join the Society. Membership in the Bhotke Young Men’s Society comes with a cemetary plot in Queens, and Cats’ mother has just died. Within minutes Russell has been recruited to plan the gangster’s mother’s funeral. Within days Shushan Cats has disappeared and Russell has been installed as his protégé and unlikely successor. He finds himself at the helm of a criminal enterprise, forced to navigate a New York City underworld wherein the suits are well-tailored, the language sharp, and control of the Fulton Fish Market hangs in the balance.
The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats is a fast, fearless, darkly comic book, the sort of thing that other writers read and wish they’d written. This is a feverish world, a refracted angle on 1963 New York that feels more vivid than reality. I find it admirable in part for its tinge of the improbable, its impossible suavité and secret rooms. Kestin catches us up in a gritty enchantment.
Where the book falters slightly is when Kestin breaks the spell: every so often we’re snapped out of the narrative with a brief digression meant to place this world in a historical context. We’re told that a purse purchased by Shushan Cats’ sister for $150 would be worth more than $1500 today, for instance, and of the Fulton Fish Market, Kestin notes that it “would later be relocated to the Bronx, thus freeing up valuable real estate for the stock brokers and bankers who would be buying condos on this site…” But it isn’t immediately apparent that the 2005 relocation of the Market is relevant to a story set in 1963, or that a note on inflation between early ‘60s and the present adds to the story; interruptions like these, in my entirely subjective opinion, serve only to distract us.
But the faltering is slight. I loved this book. I think that in some ways The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats represents the best of what small presses have to offer: freshness and originality, a unique voice, a boldness too frequently absent from our literature.
Bonus Link: A Year in Reading: Hesh Kestin
Halfway through Howards End, E.M. Forster describes a certain elm tree as a living symbol of that elusive quality called Englishness. “It was neither warrior, nor lover, nor god,” Forster writes:In none of these roles do the English excel. It was a comrade, bending over the house, strength and adventure in its roots, but in its utmost fingers tenderness. To compare either house or tree to man, to woman, always dwarfed the vision. Yet they kept within limits of the human. Their message was not of eternity, but of hope on this side of the grave.The British novelist Philip Hensher’s expansive new book, The Northern Clemency, seems at first to be steering by a quite different set of literary lights. Its coal-country setting (Sheffield: “the city that had made fire out of water”) recalls D.H. Lawrence, while a whiff of moorish bleakness harkens back to Hardy. Beneath these provincial trappings, however, Hensher has undertaken project as sophisticated – and, in its essential conservatism, as stealthily radical – as Forster’s. Tracing the lives of two families through a quarter century of recent history, The Northern Clemency aims for nothing less than an old-fashioned anatomy of regional and national character.Hensher’s formidable technical gifts are on full display in the novel’s opening section. The plot alternates between the Glovers, who are hosting a party for their Yorkshire neighbors, and the Sellerses, late of London and soon to take up residence in the house opposite. Meanwhile, at the level of point-of-view, Hensher works a more rapid set of changes. As the party lurches toward its inglorious end, and as the Sellerses drive north, his “free indirect” third person narration flits gracefully among a host of family members and assorted hangers-on.This canny layering of exterior and interior achieves the effect of an architectural cutaway, illuminating both solid surfaces and buried complexities. On one hand, both the Glovers and the Sellerses are typical, even representative, of their time and place. The party is “a good party, like other parties,” where the men talk “about their jobs, their cars, about the election even; the women about their children’s schools, about the cost of living, and about each other.” On the other hand, Katharine Glover and her three children, like both of the young Sellerses, hide secretive inner worlds. Timothy Glover, for example, will spend the entire party concealed behind the couch. And his sister Jane knew all about Mrs. Arbuthnot. Under no circumstances would she tell any of these people that she, Jane, was writing a novel. Already she hated the girl, over the road, fourteen. Hensher’s deep feeling for workaday Northern diction and syntax (“over the road”) subtly underscores the subjectivity of these private moments:”He’ll break some hearts,” someone was saying, in another part of the room. It was Daniel Glover they were talking about. He was sixteen, lounging over the edge of the sofa, his long legs spread… He was thinking about sex, and he counted the women. Then he eliminated the unattractive ones, the ones over thirty-five, his mother and sister, no, he brought his sister back in just for the hell of it. Leitmotifs of flowers and snakes underscore the implication: sex is at the center of our private worlds, and will soon cost these characters their gardens. Or, as a nosy neighbor puts it on the book’s first page, “There’ll be trouble with both of those boys.”The problem with The Northern Clemency is that the promised trouble fails, by and large, to materialize. To be sure, the climax of this first section, and Katharine Glover’s fall from grace in the second, are rich with potential. But the novel is too well-tempered to let its plot complications ramify. Instead, it solves them, and in so doing, clears away the tensions that have sustained the characters’ vivid inner lives.By the time the children reach maturity, the characters, outwardly ordinary, have become inwardly ordinary, too. Only the Glover parents and their son Daniel, the aging Don Juan, retain a spark of life, perhaps because only they properly develop. By contrast, Sonia and Francis Sellers and Jane Glover are so alike in their solitude that the connection between their individual fates and the secret injuries of their childhoods come to seem arbitrary. (Why not Jane in Australia and Sonia in London? one wonders. Why not Francis in advertising and Jane with cats?) Perhaps this arbitrariness is meant to read as philosophical fatalism, but as novelistic practice, it’s merely fatal.As The Northern Clemency enters the Thatcher era, Hensher attempts to rally his fading characters by enlivening the novel’s social dimension. In various ways, the Glover men and the Sellers parents become entangled – or perhaps the more neutral “involved” is the right word – in the labor strikes that will lead to the privatization of the British coal industry.But the novelist’s negative capability should extend to history, and Hensher can’t sustain his. The supporting characters who hover at the periphery of the picket-lines are virtuous or vicious in precise proportion to their support for the unions. Thus Daniel’s girlfriend’s father, a collier who doesn’t hold much truck with organized labor, is salt-of-the-earth, a secret sweetheart, while Daniel’s brother Tim, who has become a teenage activist, collapses into a shrill caricature of the pimply leftist. (His convictions arise from perceived personal slights and inadequacies. Naturally, he will grow up to become an academic.) And at this point, Hensher’s willingness to throw his characters under the ideological bus calls attention to, and starts to undermine, the classicism of his aesthetics. As a clinic on realist technique, The Northern Clemency is impressive – impressive enough, apparently, to earn a spot on the Booker shortlist and a designation as Amazon.com’s best book of 2008 – but is there anything of much urgency here?One may wish to object, in defense of The Northern Clemency, that urgency is not the point. Like Forster, from whom he takes his epigraph, Philip Hensher understands the Englishman not as a warrior or god, but as a creature of moderation, and of limitation. To write a 600-page novel of such a comradely temperament, never straying from “the limits of the human,” is undeniably an accomplishment. Forster did temperate well, too. Still, Howards End never lost sight of its own epigraph – “Only connect…” – and beneath its every meticulous surface a deep ardor still burns. The Northern Clemency, too clement by half, rarely permits such ardor. At the risk of sounding glib, it offers too much prose, and not enough passion.