I picked up Balkan Ghosts because I was interested in the subject matter, and I hadn’t read anything by Robert D. Kaplan before this. It’s interesting that this book was published in the “Vintage Departures” series because it might not have occurred to me that this book is a travelogue, even though Kaplan does spend much of the book on rickety trains and in decrepit hotels throughout the Balkans. So unmethodical are his travels that “travelogue” seems a misnomer. Nonetheless, Kaplan’s descriptions of the Balkans just months after the fall of Communism are illuminating. At every turn, he is digging up hidden details unseen by Western eyes during the decades of communism. Through the shattered republics of Yugoslavia he travels, then on to Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. Kaplan imbues the book with an impressive amount of historical context, going to great lengths to avoid the generalizations that are more typically employed to explain the seemingly perpetual strife of the Balkans. The book was published in 1995, the mid-point of a bloody decade in the Balkans, and it contains a good deal of forewarning of what was to come to pass in the region in the coming years. In this sense the book is impressive in a third way. Beyond a travelogue, beyond a regional history, Balkan Ghosts is the rare “current events” book that will not soon become obsolete.
James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is a story that always manages to surprise me because it just works. There is, of course, tremendous style and skill in the execution. But there is nothing ostentatious: no cheap jumps or surprises, no shifts in voice, no postmodern irruptions by the writer. “Sonny’s Blues” is simply an intense story with high stakes. Sonny will either manage to live in this world or, in his great desperation and pain, fall to heroin. This life or death conflict lies naked on the page, so that every word, spoken and narrated, must either point to it or pointedly talk around it, each word advancing the cause of one or the other outcome. Because there is no gimmick to it, because there is honesty and bluntness in the telling of the story, Baldwin is able to rest the world on Sonny’s shoulders. As the story goes on, Baldwin returns again and again to the pronoun “we” and to apocalyptic metaphor. A story about a man convincingly becomes a story about a nation, and a story about human beings. It is not only Sonny’s fate that remains undecided at the end of the story; the apocalyptic “cup of trembling” that sits at the top of Sonny’s piano in the final sentence is meant for all of us.
The stories in Danielle Evans’s short story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self are built on the model of “Sonny’s Blues”. There is no trick to these stories, only brute intensity. These are stories about people, particularly women, who have suffered terribly, who stand on the precipice, and who implicate us in what has happened to them and in what they intend to do. These are women whose desperation to be heard and to be loved drives them to feel with a terrifying, violent intensity. They remind me of Dorcas, from Toni Morrison’s Jazz, a “girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made [her lover] so sad and so happy that he shot her just to keep the feeling going.” They expect nothing and somehow get less; they know better than to get their hopes up about anything. Parents forget to pay the electric bill and the lights get cut. They abandon their children in the house, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll return: “Liddie and I sat in our pajamas, alone, staring at the tree that wouldn’t light up. When our parents returned hours later with pizza and Chinese food and flashlights and candles, we exhaled breath we didn’t even know we’d been holding and ate cold food in the dark silence.” When the protagonist of “Virgins” loses her virginity, her ambivalence speaks for every other character in the collection: “I did understand then that there was no such thing as safe, only safer; that this, if it didn’t happen now, would happen later but not better.”
Evans also shares Baldwin’s talent for dialogue: both writers know well what lies are hidden behind every word. A character in “Jellyfish,” upon receiving a self-serving offer from her father, slips up and says “That’s wonderful for you,” instead of “That’s wonderful of you.” Despite her best intentions, the mistaken preposition and the greeting-card formality of her response reveals exactly what she thinks about the matter. The same story features this expert piece of dialogue:
“You sound like me the week after you left me the first time,” said Cheese. “I thought every woman walking beneath the window was you.”
“Well,” said Eva. “Here I am.”
Eva responds, but doesn’t really respond; that might make her vulnerable. It is typical of most communication in the collection, sensitive negotiations conducted between two hostile parties rather than any sort of genuine exchange. Characters seize on key phrases, remember them exactly, and quote them ad nauseum, as if they were valuable bargaining chips: “Anyway, he told me once that love was not a real thing because it was comprised of too many subsidiary emotions.” Dialogue, for Evans’ characters, is war by other means.
Evans is smart enough to know that suffering only very rarely makes you a better person. These characters are capable of staggering cruelties. The protagonist of “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” meeting the fiance of her ex-boyfriend, Brian, for the first time, is responsible for this exchange:
“To death and divorce, then,” he says, “which are forever.”
“And marriage,” I say, clinking my drink to his and nodding at Brian, “Which is not.”
I let out a hushed oath when I read that passage for the first time, as if the characters were sitting right next to me in a crowded restaurant and I was afraid of being overheard. I honestly felt, to my own surprise, scandalized. You know these characters shouldn’t get a pass for their behavior, but you don’t quite blame them for it either. They know a certain pitiless brutality to be an immutable truth of life. Tara, of “Snakes,” puts it nicely: “I felt like somebody ought to stop me from walking out, like there was a rule that you couldn’t leave behind such palatable need.” But, as she well knows, there isn’t. So she does walk out.
Evans’ collection, however, is all about attending to that palatable need. Like Baldwin and Morrison, Evans belongs to the branch of black literary humanism that, simply by recognizing its characters as people, carries with it an implicit social mission. These stories are written with such detail and attention that it sometimes feels like a personal letter, written by one black woman for another, by one loving person for another. It feels necessary. Somebody should tell these women that they are not alone and that they matter.
What makes this collection great is that moral mission, the way that the collection serves as a testament to the value of the individuals whose stories it tells. Race is here, of course. Race cannot help but be here, in every tiny crack and crevice, tainting everything from sunscreen to school pranks. Race cuts and bruises and scars the characters of this collection. But beyond their intricate filigrees of defensiveness, beyond the ways that others insist on seeing them, the characters of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self are people. They want those awfully basic things that can be expressed in simple, declarative thrusts: I want to be loved, I want your love, I want a real family. These primary human dramas are what ultimately drive the stories in the collection, and the need in these stories is so obvious and strong that it levels the heart. Such an insistent demand for love should be heard; it is worthy of being chronicled in books. There isn’t a rule that you can’t leave behind such palatable need, of course. We know this. But the gap between what we know and what we think should be is the place from which great literature often emerges. There isn’t such a rule, but as Danielle Evans persuasively argues, there ought to be.
Football is the most popular sport in America. Baseball, basketball, hockey, and even sometimes that suspect endeavor known as soccer all have their adherents. But when it comes to true rallying power, no other athletic contest outside of the Olympics can reliably achieve critical mass like professional and college football.
This is a truth rarely acknowledged. Football knocked baseball, that lazy and pastoral game of grass diamonds and poetic sinkers, off the perch sometime after the Second World War. Baseball is still referred to as the national game. But a glance at how the country comes to a nacho-sated halt on Super Bowl Sunday but barely misses a beat during the World Series tells the true story. Maybe that’s because Americans know there is something intrinsically negative about the institution of football itself. Maybe we as a country would rather think of ourselves as fans of baseball than football. Spectators at the Roman Coliseum, after all, knew there was something untoward about watching one gladiator sever another’s limbs, no matter how lustily they egged him on. Ken Burns will never make an 11-part PBS documentary on football.
If popular sports constitute a feedback loop with society, each reflecting and influencing the other, it’s difficult to argue that football’s dominance is a positive thing. With the steady drip of grim news about crooked stadium deals, domestic violence, and the ever-mutating and worsening concussion scandals — and that’s without even getting into college players who read at a 5th-grade level and the various high school team mass-rape outrages — what’s a football lover supposed to do? How much should they care? What’s the ethical thing to do? Is it possible to simply watch and yet not be complicit? What, if any, are a fan’s responsibilities?
Steve Almond wrestles with a swarm of similar quandaries in his short, lacerating new bar-argument of a book, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. It isn’t an argument he was itching to have. Almond is a bone-deep fan of the game: “I am one of you.” This is a crucial bona fide for somebody churning up this kind of imbroglio. To describe with any authority what is truly awful about football, it helps to love it and to know it.
In the first place, for all its seeming simplicity of quadrilateral lines and battle formations, football is a wildly complicated game studded with arcane rules that take some time to appreciate. Secondly, since football discourse’s tenor trends toward tribal defensiveness and instantaneous fury, any negative opinion about the game from a non-fan is dismissed even quicker than if said by a true believer.
Like most of us, Almond thought he was immune from modern sports mania’s entanglements. We all know (and some of us resemble) the type, eyes scouring for the nearest screen showing SportsCenter, phones lit up by fantasy scores and trash-talk, ears always full of the angry drone of sports talk radio. No matter the mountains Almond would move to watch his Raiders lose time after catastrophic time, he thought he could stay above the fray.
In the preface, Almond describes a newspaper article he pasted to the wall of his office, which contains a quote from running back Kevin Faulk after he took a head-rattling hit. Faulk’s words were clearly those of a man who had suffered a significant blow to the brain. Almond writes, “I thought it was funny:”
I assumed, in other words, a posture of ironic distance, which is what we Americans do to avoid the corruption of our spiritual entanglements. Ironic distance allows us to separate ourselves from the big, complicated moral systems around us (political, religious, familial), to sit in judgment of others rather than ourselves. It’s the reason, as we zoom into the twilight years of our imperial reign, that Reality TV has become our designated guilty pleasure.
But here’s the thing. You can run from your own subtext for only so long. Those spray-tanned lunatics we happily revile are merely turned-out versions of our private selves. The whores we hide from public view.
Almond is disturbed by what he sees as a pernicious blend of unthinking brutality and fooling-ourselves mass consumption. There is the hypocrisy that leads thousands of fans in stadiums and TV rooms to first shout at their guy to take the other guy’s head off, then sit quietly once the poleaxed player is crumpled comatose on the turf, and then applaud in self-congratulatory fashion when he limps off the field.
Wisely, Almond doesn’t spend much time on proving the concussion crisis; which is less a new crisis than an inherent part of the game that is only now considered a crisis because it is being recognized. After years of long-form newspaper investigations to Frontline’s damning “League of Denial” excoriation from last year, there is little left to argue about, even as the National Football League’s minions fold, mutilate, and spin the truth like those Big Tobacco lawyers and lobbyists of old. The evidence gathered points to the average football player being, because they spend so much of their time slamming into large powerful men (who, thanks to specialized training and all those drugs the teams don’t know anything about, get larger and more powerful every year), more likely to die younger and have some kind of brain damage than the average citizen. Suicides, mental illness, depression, violence; it’s all the legacy of that slam-bang contest we fans cheer for.
This barbarousness is allowed to continue in a civilized society, Almond argues, because of how the NFL has stage-managed the sport. Having the help of a lamprey-like “bloated media cult” certainly helps. To Almond, the spectacle of modern football means watching “aggression granted a coherent, even heroic, context.” That line will ring true to anybody enthralled as a child by the exploits of those gigantic, larger-than-life combatants. We are not meant to see mere athletes out there, but warriors.
This sleight of hand is helped along by a few factors: the sport’s militaristic nature (coordinated units, tactics, maneuvers, lines of assault, blitzkriegs); those gorgeously snow-speckled and slow-motion Homeric epics churned out by the league’s “ministry of propaganda,” NFL Films; and actual military involvement. Fewer football games today are absent a visit from one branch of the armed services, not to mention the fluttering of flags on the giant display screens and even flyovers. Some games are so thick with patriotic militarism that it wouldn’t shock to see a procession of portable missile launchers being saluted, Soviet premier-like, by the good commissioner Roger Goodell.
For an illustrative example of what Almond terms our “imperial decadence,” witness the scene from the 2010 de Tocqueville-lite BBC series Stephen Fry in America. The British wit is happily taking in the Iron Bowl (Auburn University vs. University of Alabama), only to drop in fright at the sound of jets screaming overhead. Being British, Fry didn’t understand that an American college sporting event couldn’t be properly enjoyed without a display of military might.
Almond threads his critique of the Pentagon-NFL axis into a broader appraisal of how the American citizenry simultaneously valorizes and dehumanizes its heroes, whether on the football field or the field of battle:
The civilian and the fan participate in the same system. We off-load the moral burdens of combat, mostly to young men from the underclass, whom we send off to battle with hosannas and largely ignore when they return home disfigured in body and mind.
It is a paradoxical dynamic. After all, part of what it means to be a football fan is that we have a sophisticated appreciation for the game, and a deep respect for the players who compete at the highest level…But it turns out that our adulation…is highly conditional. As soon they no longer excel on the field, they become expendable.
Almond stalks through his arguments against the modern state of football at a pace that is both clipped and highly personal. There is a lot of shame here, a discomfort with being complicit in that “system” lying at the root of his angry screed. Like many a blue-state fan, his liberal nature is offended by being complicit in the advertorial-spewing, money-mad agglomeration of celebrity and cruelty that is the NFL and its media courtiers.
Some of Almond’s arguments tip toward a to-hell-with-all-that disgust. That sense is heightened in his vitriol against the league’s anti-labor practices and corporate welfare-piggery, which makes it all the more difficult to ever enjoy sitting in a stadium mostly built by public funds but the profits of which mostly go to whichever billionaire owns the local franchise. He doesn’t quite take it to the level of Noam Chomsky arguing in Manufacturing Consent that professional sports being just another way of “building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority and group cohesion…it’s training in irrational jingoism.” But he’s not far off.
The book’s tenor becomes so heated, in fact, that when Almond executes a deft spin into a “what do we do with football?” epilogue that tries to address what fans can do to humanize the corporate monster of football, the whiplash is severe.
There is something rushed in this book, as though it were powered out in a few heated marathon sessions. It leaves some of the book feeling thin. But this is a manifesto. It’s a broadsheet in book form meant to be powered by heat and what Almond refers to as his “obnoxious opinions.” As such, Against Football doesn’t have a strong and satisfying conclusion. No such piece written by a true fan likely could. Short of calling for abolition, there’s no easy way to resolve the issues raised here. Football is wired too deep into the national identity for it to be yanked out or wholly reworked without some pain.
In 1947, E.B. White published a playfully predictive New Yorker two-pager called “The Decline of Sport.” He imagined a future in which “sport gripped the nation in an ever-tightening grip” and the workweek was reduced to three days, “to give everyone a better chance to memorize the scores.” The mania builds and builds until, at a game with 954,000 spectators, a deranged man shoots one of his team’s receivers dead after the player dropped a scoring pass. The bubble bursts:
From that day on, sport waned. Through long, noncompetitive Saturday afternoons, the stadia slumbered…the parkways fell into disuse as motorists rediscovered the charms of old, twisty roads that led through main streets and past barnyards, with their mild congestions and pleasant smells.
Against Football is a book that kicks and prods and fights with itself and ourselves. Almond is asking himself and us to drop the ironic distance, open our eyes, and truly look at the dangerous, vile, beautiful, fun, highly corrupted, and horrifically corrupting corporate behemoth we spend so much of our money and leisure time enraptured by, and know what it is that we are doing, and what we are supporting. Part of that process might be just taking a couple steps back, shaking off the spell.
Maybe a few more drives down old, twisty roads would do us all some good.
A critic once wrote of John Updike’s “seeming inability to write badly.” True enough: even when Updike’s prose is at its most trivial, its most self-satisfied, its most pornographic — and his critics will point out that it is often all of these things — it is always, from a technical standpoint, immaculate.
Given how difficult writing is, and given how much Updike produced in a legendarily prolific career that spanned more than half a century, it’s worth pausing to consider the remarkable fact of Updike’s talent. In terms of constructing beautiful sentences, Updike had few peers. Not just in the years after World War II, or in the 20th century, but in literary history. At a time when writing is spoken of with tedious frequency as a “craft,” Updike, in his metronomic virtuosity, is uniquely deserving of the term.
And yet, almost five years after his death, Updike’s critics often seem to outweigh his admirers, and their main complaint is that same virtuosity. Of course, Updike was subject to charges of favoring style over substance from the moment he was considered a major writer, but it’s the late-Boomer and early Gen-Xer audience that Updike really annoys. In a footnote to his new translation of Karl Kraus’s essays, Jonathan Franzen — the closest contemporary literature comes to a figure of Updikean stature — writes:
Updike was exquisitely preoccupied with his own literary digestive process, and his virtuosity in clocking and rendering the minutiae of daily life was undeniably unparalleled, but his lack of interest in the bigger postwar, postmodern, socio-technological picture marked him, in my mind, as a classic self-absorbed sixties-style narcissist.
Similarly, in a 1998 essay the late David Foster Wallace declared himself “one of the very few actual subforty Updike fans,” and then proceeded to savage Updike, concluding the essay by calling him an “asshole.” And the critic James Wood contended that Updike’s prose “confronts one with the question of whether beauty is enough.”
The Library of America has just released its two-volume edition of Updike’s Collected Stories (nicely edited by Christopher Carduff), and while I doubt it will do much to improve the author’s sagging stock, at nearly 2,000 pages, comprising 186 stories published between 1953 and 2009, it offers ample opportunity for pondering Wood’s question, and the larger problem of John Updike: he was incapable of writing badly, but was he capable of writing, for lack of a better word, importantly?
Having read nearly 200 of Updike’s stories in rapid succession, I’m more sympathetic to the critics’ point of view than I had been. While not willing to go as far as Franzen, who argues that Updike was “wasting” his “tremendous, Nabokov-level talent,” I was surprised by how many of Updike’s stories impressed me while I read them, and how few left an impression. One can open the Collected Stories to almost any page and find a surprising metaphor, a lovely description, or a wry morsel of irony without remembering much of anything about story that contains it. The stories that I’d already read and admired, the ones widely regarded as Updike’s best — “Pigeon Feathers,” “A Sense of Shelter,” “In Football Season,” “The Persistence of Desire,” “The Happiest I’ve Been,” and, of course, “A&P,” for decades a stalwart of high school curricula — now strike me as a largely comprehensive list, in little need of emendation in light of Updike’s larger corpus.
The curious paradox of Updike is that he made art into a craft, but only rarely did he transcend craft to achieve art. In a sense, then, the answer to Wood’s question is that beauty is not enough, at least not the beauty of finely tuned prose and vivid images that was Updike’s specialty. Art requires the wedding of aesthetics and morals, and the case might be made that the morals are more important; few people would call Dostoyevsky a beautiful writer, but even fewer would contest that he was a great artist.
Still, Updike was capable of art, and if it is disheartening to see how much of that art is concentrated in the early years of his career, when his fiction focused on the still-vital memories of his Pennsylvania childhood — the caricature Updike, the one whose writing is full of explicit sex and overwrought descriptions of the female form, doesn’t show up until the early 1970s, and he is indeed trying — those earliest stories still possess a bracing sublimity. (Not that he never produced strong works later in his career; the stories tracing the collapse of the marriage of Richard and Joan Maple — in my opinion, Updike’s greatest work, stronger even than the Rabbit novels — continued well into his later years, but unfortunately, only the first of them appears in the Collected Stories. According to a textual note, the Library of America plans to publish the Maples stories, and the ones about Henry Bech, in a separate collection, an understandable decision that nevertheless weakens the volumes under consideration.)
To my mind, “The Happiest I’ve Been” is the finest of them all. The narrator, John Nordholm, (previously seen in “Friends From Philadelphia”) plans to drive with his high school friend Neil Hovey to Chicago, where he will propose to the girl he loves before returning to school in the east for spring semester. After saying goodbye to John’s parents, Neil reveals that he’d like to go to a New Year’s party in Olinger (the milieu of Updike’s early Pennsylvania stories) before they get underway. They go to the party, and from there to another girl’s house, where they pass the late hours. The night is evocatively drawn, but the crux of the story comes when John and Neil finally leave for Chicago at dawn. On the way to the interstate, they pass John’s house, which they left hours earlier, and Updike captures the oddity of this moment perfectly: “With a .22 I could have had a pane of my parents’ bedroom window, and they were dreaming I was in Indiana.”
They drive on towards Pittsburgh, and here, I’ll defer to Updike:
There were many reasons for my feeling so happy. We were on our way. I had seen a dawn…Ahead, a girl waited who, if I asked, would marry me, but first there was a vast trip: many hours and towns interceded between me and that encounter. There was the quality of the ten a.m. sunlight as it existed in the air ahead of the windshield, filtered by the thin overcast, blessing irresponsibility — you felt you could slice forever through such a cool pure element — and springing, by implying how high these hills had become, a widespreading pride: Pennsylvania, your state — as if you had made your life.
For anyone who has been young in America — for anyone who has been young — this passage needs no explication. It is beautiful, and it is certainly enough.
I first heard about Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd about twenty years ago, when I was in seventh or eighth grade. My classmates and I were all reading Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz, and our English teacher attempted to guide our reading choices to higher-brow material.”I think it’s great that you’re all reading so much,” she said. “But when you’re choosing books to read, try to read classics.” She mentioned, for example, that she had recently read Far From the Madding Crowd while recovering from surgery.I had no intention of abandoning King or Koontz, but I did check out a copy of Hardy’s novel from the public library. I tried to read it but didn’t get far. The first two paragraphs had enough unfamiliar vocabulary and tonal foreignness to repel me as a thirteen-year-old:When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.His Christian name was Gabriel, and on working days he was a young man of sound judgment, easy motions, proper dress, and general good character. On Sundays he was a man of misty views, rather given to postponing, and hampered by his best clothes and umbrella: upon the whole, one who felt himself to occupy morally that vast middle space of Laodicean neutrality which lay between the Communion people and the drunken section.It took me ten years to try another Hardy novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I read and loved after my first year as an English teacher myself. The pleasures afforded by Hardy’s fiction, I realized, require patience, a more mature appreciation of language, wider knowledge of the adult world, and a sense of the past. (Google is helpful, too, in deciphering Hardy’s obscure mythological and Biblical references.)This summer, as I picked up Far From the Madding Crowd for another go, I was better equipped to appreciate Hardy’s wryly delicate humor in passages like the following: “It may have been observed that there is no regular path for getting out of love as there is for getting in. Some people look upon marriage as a short cut that way, but it has been known to fail.”Funny – and, indeed, as in Tess and The Return of the Native, in this novel Hardy concerns himself with love’s entanglements. Bathsheba Everdene, a young and imperious beauty, named for the woman who occasioned King David’s sinful plotting, finds herself involved not in a romantic triangle, but a romantic quadrilateral, as three men vie for her affections. Their names, like hers, are evocative of their identities: Oak, the solid shepherd; Boldwood, the increasingly audacious farmer; and the Troy, the scoundrel as fallen as the citadel that is his namesake.There’s a reason that the romantic triangle is such a commonly-used fictional device: it has a geometric elegance, a pointedness that keeps a story moving. The romantic quadrilateral is harder to make work. Hardy does it well enough that 135 years later people are still reading the book. Compared to later works like Tess and Native, though, this one – the earliest of Hardy’s best – known novels – is a bit of a disappointment.For one thing, it lacks a narrative center. This romantic quadrilateral is nothing so neat as a square or a rectangle. It’s more ungainly – an irregular trapezoid, perhaps. It’s difficult work to set up three suitors in a reasonably rounded way, and while Hardy’s developing one, the other two tend to fade to the background. In the end, the male characters come perilously close to being as wooden as their names or, in Troy’s case, a bit too starkly villainous.At times the plot’s contrivances seem arbitrary, meant to force the narrative (originally published serially in a magazine) in its intended direction without especial regard for plausibility: Oak lies down in an apparently abandoned wagon, whose owners return and just so happen to be heading to Bathsheba’s farm; Troy nearly drowns and, believed dead, runs off to America to join the circus for a convenient span of time, returning just when his presence will cause the most upheaval.Bathsheba herself, vain, proud, described by one of the men who marries her as “this haughty goddess, dashing piece of womanhood, Juno-wife of mine,” seems to be a rough draft for Eustacia Vye, the more famous heroine of Hardy’s Return of the Native. Eustacia (a favorite of Holden Caulfield’s, you may recall) is, in Hardy’s description, “the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well,” he writes, for “she had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman.” In comparison to Eustacia, Bathsheba is too kind, too mortal, and less vivid.In other ways, too, Madding seems a rough draft of Native, which arranges its characters not in a triangle or quadrilateral, but in overlapping Venn diagrams of desire. In both novels, some characters come to tragic ends, some are seared by their experiences but survive, chastened but wiser. Return of the Native was published in 1878, four years after Far From the Madding Crowd, and in most ways it’s a better book. It has a sharper sense of place; a more forceful narrative arc; more emotionally weighty and realistic plot turns; and, despite a rather tedious beginning in which backstory is provided by the gossip of eccentric country folk, less of such stock characters, whose humorousness has not aged well.I guess you could say that my eighth grade teacher gave me a bad recommendation. After all these years, finally reading this novel was a bit anticlimactic. But in the larger sense, she was right: King and Koontz may have been fine for my adolescence, but ultimately they were bridges to more ambitious reading projects. My teacher’s offhanded remark about Hardy stuck with me, giving me a sense of the rewarding places to which those bridges might lead. Though I might have skipped this particular novel without much of a loss, Hardy’s best work is definitely worth the journey.