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.
Up in Minnesota this past weekend at my uncle-in-law’s cabin, I picked up a copy of A Walk in the Woods, which for sometime now, my sister has been urging everyone in our family to read.That the book is very funny is the first thing anyone will tell you about it, and it’s true, I laughed out loud a lot during the first fifty or so pages. One part in particular, a punchline about Snickers candy bars, comes after a long build-up, and I struggled for two minutes to read it aloud to my wife, I was laughing so hard. The strength of the first fifty pages alone is undoubtedly responsible for a good deal of the book’s commercial success. People get just that far, call a friend and say “You’ve got to read this book.” If recommendations were given only at the end of the book there would certainly be fewer of them.Which is not to say that where A Walk in the Woods is not funny, it’’ bad. It’s just ordinary. There is, to begin with, the fact that while the book blurb reads, “Bill Bryson decided to reacquaint himself with his native county by walking the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail,” he in fact did no such thing. After six weeks of walking, Bryson rents a car and drives from Tennessee to Virginia. Then he takes most of the rest of the summer off, commuting to the trail for day hikes only, and returns for an aborted final trek through the last part of the AT, the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine. So, an adventure story, the book is not.John Updike wrote about book reviewing, “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” Ergo, I will not blame Bill Bryson for not actually walking all that much of the Appalachian Trail. I will, however, blame him for the insipidness of many of the cultural observations he makes along the way. One chapter opens, “Now here’s a thought to consider. Every twenty minutes on the Appalachian Trail, Katz and I walked farther than the average American walks in a week.” Brilliant observation, Mr. Bryson, and surely the kind of insight that can be gained only after dabbling in the Appalachian Trail for a few weeks.Other Bryson reckonings are similarly astute. America is overly commercialized, loaded with parking lots and strip malls, and populated with overweight, incurious louts like one park ranger he meets who, in spite of having worked at the base of the AT for twelve years, has never actually set foot on the trail. Bryson lived in England for the twenty years before moving back to America and writing this book, so perhaps he can be forgiven for not realizing that there is little novelty in these cloying observations. Still, the book feels entirely like a set-up. The hike is pretense, a frame for shallow commentary and brochure-deep discussion of the natural phenomena Bryson encounters along the way.My wife would no doubt tell me to lighten up, and maybe so. Hunkered down in a Minnesota cabin, I was happy to find A Walk in the Woods in among the bookshelf miscellany, if only for the early laughs. At the end of the book, Bryson takes stock of what he’s accomplished. All told, he walked 870 miles, a little less than 40 percent of the Appalachian Trail. I would recommend adopting the same approach with A Walk in the Woods. Read the first fifty pages, and then call it quits.
My father used to tell the story of the summer he spent touring Europe with his Uncle John. For five memorable weeks, he was allowed (or forced, depending on his mood) to ride shotgun in a decrepit VW bus, barnstorming the battlefields of World War II, listening to John – an uncle by marriage, practically a stranger – spin tales as tall as the day was long… never once stopping to pee. Last week, as I raced through Robert Stone’s new memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, I found myself recalling the tone with which my dad described that Continental adventure, a kind of affectionate exasperation, or exasperated affection. Revisiting mid-century America in Robert Stone’s company, it turns out, is a lot like traveling with a garrulous uncle. One is not always certain one’s getting the straight dope, nor is the telling without its longeurs. But one would hate not to have made the trip.Stone himself returns repeatedly to questions of veracity, and declares himself to be after bigger fish than “just the facts”:So much can be said about the intersections of life and language, the degree to which language can be made to serve the truth. By the truth I mean unresisted insight, which is what gets us by, which makes one person’s life and sufferings comprehensible to another. We take an experience, or a character, an event, and so to speak we write a poem about it.The deepest insights in Prime Green harmonize the sensory impressions of how the world felt then to young Bob Stone, with the hard-won skepticism of a writer many years his senior. In chapters on Ken Kesey and Vietnam and helter-skelter Los Angeles, Stone probes the self-delusions and selfishness that underwrote the Sixties counterculture, while doing honor to its outsized personalities and nobler aspirations.The story starts not in the Sixties proper, but in 1958, aboard a naval transport ship traversing the globe. We see Robert Stone, fresh out of high school, exploring the shore and dreaming away the days at sea. The beauty of the ocean and its creatures would seem to bespeak the essential benevolence of nature, but racism in South Africa and a bombing campaign in Egypt trumpet the human capacity for ugliness. (Both the Rousseauvian and the Hobbesian notes will crescendo in the decade to come.) Back home in New York, Stone gets married and tries to write. After a stint in New Orleans, he moves to California as a Stegner fellow at Stanford, falls in with a band of proto-hippies led by Ken Kesey, and thus launches headlong into the turbulent waters of the Sixties.Writing about Kesey, Stone is at his best. The half of Prime Green that deals with Kesey could have been expanded and published on its own, under a separate title – Remembering the Chief. As it is, Stone’s account provides a compassionate complement to Tom Wolfe’s depiction of the Merry Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Stone’s love for Kesey is evident, yet a kind of fraternal competitiveness allows him to see the man behind the persona more fully than did Wolfe. We feel the powerful allure of Kesey’s charisma, without which the Sixties of pop-cultural memory might not have come into being – the “psychedelic movement,” the Grateful Dead, the road to Woodstock. But we also see glimmers of fascism and paranoia around the edges of Kesey’s ubermensch antinomianism… the beginning of the road to Altamont. More importantly, we come to understand the long silence that followed Kesey’s early burst of literary brilliance.Stone himself suffered no such silence – after winning the National Book Award for his first novel, AHall of Mirrors, he published six others, as well as a book of short stories. (Larry McMurtry was also part of the prodigious group of Stegner fellows from the early 60s). In his seventh decade, Stone can still hammer out sentences of marvelous felicity and a kind of raffish charm. Moreover, focusing on his late friend and colleague Kesey frees Stone from the burden of writing about himself, which tends to nudge the aforementioned felicity toward glibness. The deceits and adulterous episodes that have marked his remarkable forty-five year marriage, for example, are mentioned almost in passing, tossed off as jokes. And the dark side of the author’s hard drug use, like that of free love, is everywhere alluded to but nowhere dramatized. “We had gone to a party in La Honda in 1963 that followed us out the door and into the street and filled the world with funny colors. But the prank was on us.” End chapter. (More please! one thinks.)Apart from the long middle section that lingers on Kesey, Stone is most affecting when exploring his own failures of nerve and/or judgment. In early passages on South Africa and Jim-Crow New Orleans, he laments his own inability to take a public stand against apartheid, and thus illuminates the degree to which institutional racism depends on the silence and complicity of forward-thinking people. A queasy interlude in L.A. finds parents and their small children sharing balloons of nitrous oxide.When, would you believe, this one little tyke made this snarky face right at me and said ha ha or hee hee or some shit, ‘These aren’t balloons! They’re condoms!’ […] We’d been getting loaded watching small innocent children sucking gas from condoms.An uproarious chapter recounts Stone’s stint writing for a tabloid called “the National Thunder. It was an imitation of the National Enquirer, lacking the delicacy and taste of the original.” And a late section on Vietnam, in which Stone excoriates himself for being a tourist in other people’s combat zone, hammers home the horrific senselessness of that war. (I regret to say that I’ve never read anything else by Robert Stone, but I plan to start with Dog Soldiers this summer.)While providing a showcase for these bravura episodes, Prime Green remains somewhat ramshackle as a memoir. This may befit the anarchic, unfocused nature of the Sixties themselves, but it also speaks to an unsettling trend in the burgeoning confessional market: the memoir-as-article-collection. As with Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone, substantial chunks of Prime Green were first serialized in magazine form; to make them cohere into a sustained narrative requires a degree of readerly imagination, a filling in of holes.Read Prime Green as a kind of compilation album, however – a sampler of Robert Stone’s range – and a quite different and more satisfying book emerges. In the course of 230 quick pages, we meet Ram Dass and Alger Hiss, undertake adventures in sex, drugs, war, and parenting, and encounter “unresisted insight” and wry humor in almost every paragraph. It’s like riding shotgun with Uncle John, except the trip moves faster, and touches down on five continents, and we can climb off this bus whenever we like. Buses, come to think of it, play a special role here. In Robert Stone’s nimble hands, Kesey’s “Furthur” becomes a metaphor for the Sixties themselves. Whether one was on the bus or off the bus back then, whether or not one had yet been born, one now lives, for better or for worse, in the landscape the counterculture transformed. It was, as Stone puts it, “…a journey of such holiness that being there – mere vulgar location – was instantly beside the point. From the moment the first demented teenager waved a naked farewell as Neal Cassady threw the clutch, everything entered the numinous.”
For me, one of the great feats is to find a book that is so good you can’t put it down. I mean literally – a book that engulfs every spare moment you’ve got, forcing everything else that isn’t necessary to the side. A book that, after reading just the first few chapters, you know is going to be one of the best you’ve ever read.A book this good doesn’t come around very often. To Kill a Mockingbird. East of Eden… Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Okay. I swear I’ll stop talking about Jonathan Safran Foer. I have to. I’ve read everything he’s written. And I’m glad I saved Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for the end. So you’ll have to forgive me this month – I guarantee I’ll stop from now on.My first encounter with a Foer was actually with his brother, Franklin, in How Soccer Explains the World. I ran across Jonathan Foer later on, thanks to the Penguin Pockets 70th anniversary set, and then finally read Everything is Illuminated last month. The Penguin Pockets book – The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning, was a Vilhauer Book of the Month. Everything is Illuminated would have made it last month, except I chose Other Electricities instead.The reason I chose Other Electricities is because I didn’t want to “over-Foer” my welcome. This month I can’t say the same.Our narrator is nine-year-old Oskar Schell. And his grandmother. And his grandfather. In true Foer style, there are three separate voices embarking on three separate missions – Oskar is looking for a lock. The lock needs to match the key he found on top of his father’s dresser. Oh, and just to add a little timeliness, his father died in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th, 2001. Meanwhile, his estranged grandmother and grandfather are writing letters that will never be read.First of all, EL&IC is not a novel about September 11th, 2001. It is, however, a book that feeds off of the misery and fears of that day. Because really, everything that happens has a shadow of the 11th looming above it, a constant reminder of the fact that someone so kind, so unassuming – in this case, Oskar’s father – has died. You can see it in everyone he meets – the sorrow and the sudden protective nature in their actions. No one wants to talk about it, yet here, in the middle of New York City, you’ve got a boy that’s trying to solve a riddle that is nearly directly tied to that fateful day.You can’t expect a young boy to understand fully what happened on September 11th, and Oskar is a great example. He’s a genius, a boy that considers himself a Francophile and gets his news from international news sites. He’s wise beyond his young age, but he’s still a scared boy. He’s picked on at school, and he at times takes on the role of “pretentious little twit,” the smartest guy in the room – a kid that knows too much and isn’t afraid to say it.It’s Foer’s ability to twist relationships – the stranded relationship of Oskar’s grandparents, the strained relationship between Oskar and his mother, the lost relationship of Oskar and his father, the one man that he truly respected and looked up to – that makes the book work. The themes are dreadful, if you think about them too long, but you’re not doing yourself any justice by ignoring them and moving along. All three narratives chronicle disappointment. Sadness. The threat of never being able to say goodbye.But most of all, you find the dead hope of an unanswered question, the “what ifs” that torture each character as they try to go on with their lives. Oskar tries so desperately to be strong in the face of every unanswered question, but he keeps remembering back to that day, to the things he missed and the things he didn’t. What if his father would have lived? To Oskar’s grandmother, it’s a “what if” about her husband, a man who has been gone for years. To Oskar’s grandfather, it’s a series of questions from the 40s that have never been touched.September 11th. The bomb at Hiroshima. The napalm storm of Dresden.A lack of communication. The lost years of childhood. The connections between father and son.How can you spell out the feelings invoked in EL&IC? Because that’s exactly what this book does. It invokes feelings. It brings all of your emotions to your throat. It’s that powerful.What if a book was so intense, so full of questions, so full of the exhilaration that comes from discovering a character’s secret that you couldn’t put it down, and when you finished, all you could do is close the book, stare at the ceiling and think?What if?Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr.