Michael Lewis launched his successful career as an author with his book Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street, which is both a youthful memoir and a journalistic look at the inner workings of Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street firm that grew fat trading bonds and then crashed and burned. The book takes place, roughly, between the years 1984 and 1987, and so I wasn’t surprised that the book reminded me of the movie Wall Street – just replace Gordon Gecko with Salomon’s head John Gutfreund. At the beginning of the book, Lewis has just been hired, quite unexpectedly, by Salomon, and he takes us through his trajectory at the company, from the cut-throat training process to his days as a bond trader in London. From this vantage point, Lewis was able to watch the company, emboldened by spectacular success in the 1980s, become a symbol of corporate gluttony. Along the way, Lewis profiles many of the company’s outsized personalities. He also delves into the intricacies of the bond market in such a way that the arcane becomes pretty readable. The book is also filled with anecdotes about the conspicuous consumption of those times and the raucous, inelegant trading floor, filled with foul-mouthed traders who threw phones and insults and reveled in their gluttony. Lewis’ revelation was that the company (and its competitors) made profits at the expense of its customers, and, while the period that Lewis chronicles is interesting in its own right, its impact is somewhat diminished by the many corporate scandals and Wall Street improprieties that have occurred since the book was first published. Against this backdrop, Liar’s Poker is no longer an exceptional story that defined an era, it is merely another moment in the cycle of Wall Street corruption and ensuing retribution that continues today.
In a recent Publisher’s Weekly interview Alan Heathcock, author of the debut story collection Volt, stated, “I thought long and hard about pursuing a career as a police officer, and separately as a minister. The police officer in me told me I was too blunt/curt to be an effective minister, and the minister in me told me I was too forgiving to be an effective police officer. I became a writer, in part, because it was the only significant profession that allowed both sides of my personality to exist and be expressed.”
This explains a lot, as much about this Chicago native’s stories get their initial thrust from violent acts, both accidental and murderous, and soon involve pastors and the police, the pastors helping victims to find peace, the law officers often instilling a sense of justice that goes far beyond “blunt.”
Volt, set primarily in the fictional Midwest town of Krafton and dipping into different decades of the 20th century, evokes Tim Gautreaux’s Same Place, Same Things, Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, Breece D’J Pancake’s Stories, and at times Eudora Welty and Annie Proulx. Raw, emotional, and provocative stories grounded in prose that is both clear and poetic, with plots that sweep toward the biblical.
Much has been made of the violence in Volt, and surely Alan Heathcock knows violence well. But what he knows better is that violence, even murder, is not the greatest wrong one can commit. The wrongs that follow the violence disturb and instruct in ways violence alone cannot. Heathcock also understands, as do his characters, that violence creates a rift that separates one’s past life from one’s future life; one’s previous self from a new self yet to be formed.
“The Staying Freight” sets the tone when Winslow, a farmer who is “thirty-eight and well respected”, accidentally kills his son with his plow. The simplicity and acuity with which the act is captured stops one cold. “Winslow simply didn’t see the boy running across the field. [He]… whirled to see what he’d plowed, and back there lay a boy like something fallen from the sky.” The reader’s shock is soon replaced by a gnawing longing to undo what cannot be undone.
It’s how Winslow responds that concerns Heathcock and grips the reader. Winslow later accidentally harms his wife then leaves the house for, as he writes in a note, “…a walk. Be back soon.” The “walk” turns into a flight from home as he cannot bear to return, thinking, “Now and forever I will be the man what killed his boy. A man what shoved his wife.” But those were accidents. The greater wrong is that he makes the choice to keep venturing farther from his wife with each new step, leaving her alone in her own grief. What befalls Winslow is a tale of near fable proportions, grounded in a realism that keeps you with Winslow, hoping he makes it home.
In one story an act of murder by tire iron pales beside the murderer’s subsequent action to involve his son in the grotesque cover up. In another story, the violence glimpsed at the end is not as villainous as the lengths a young soldier on furlough goes to manipulate a friend into exacting that violence and to trick a girl into witnessing it.
But if Volt is rife with violence and its aftermath, it is tempered with quiet reflective moments, and a pair of subtler stories where violence is in the background or rises to no greater offense than a quiet boy punching another boy for being called a queer. There is the backdrop of a gorgeous yet harsh natural world, where blue skies quickly turn cloudy and rains fall so hard that floods change the course of lives. The violence is also balanced against other characters lucky enough to have escaped violence; folks such as the pastors and shop owners and farmers who live within the law and long for order, understanding, faith, and community.
In “The Daughter”, a woman named Miriam loses her elderly mother to violence during the commission of another crime. Afterward, Miriam, who lives alone on a farm, has a maze created in her corn field and spends her time apart from the others in town as she has “an unsettled yearning to be apart from all things human.” When her college-age daughter returns home to care for her, the story takes as many strange twists as the maze itself and you wonder which of the two women the daughter of the title is. If we can glean anything from these stunning stories it is that each of us is a daughter or son, father or mother, brother or sister. None of us is apart from the other. When a pastor says to Miriam, “You’re not alone,” Miriam insists “Sometimes you are.” But the pastor gets the last word: “That’s not true. Not ever.” It is when we behave as though we are alone that the trouble starts. And once it starts, it is without end as it echoes in our bones the rest of our days.
Heathcock understands this. To understand is one thing, to write such unflinching and harrowing stories about it with such grace and empathy is another. These are truly singular, fully American stories; about violence, yes, but more so in the end about faith, forgiveness, and community. About life. Not death. Written whole by a gifted writer.
Book VI of The Aeneid is a tough one for non-classicists to love. The central theme of the book — about 900 lines of Latin dactylic hexameter, the epic verse — is the imperial destiny of Rome. At first glance, Vergil lets his poetic license run freely in defense of empire. The prophecy of the dead Anchises, when he meets his son Aeneas in the underworld, is often taken to be representative:
Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(hae tibi erunt artes), pacique imponere morem,
Parcere subiectis et debellare superbos
Translated here by Seamus Heaney:
…But you, Roman,
Remember: to you will fall the exercise of power
Over the nations, and these will be your gifts —
To impose peace and justify your sway,
Spare those you conquer, crush those who overbear.
This may be the first time Aeneas is called Romanus, indicating the city his descendants were to found. Vergil casts his eye all the way to praise Augustus, in whose circle he was living and whose favor, we must suppose, he wished to obtain. In our post-colonial age we cannot help but see a more complicated story, find a different reading experience in these lines than did the generations of Victorian school boys who were raised on visions of a civilizing empire. But more of that in a moment.
The sixth book of the 12-book Latin epic on the founding of Rome sits right on the cusp between its so-called “Trojan” and “Roman” halves, sometimes also called its “Odyssey” and “Iliad” halves. The first half features many of its most famous images: the Trojan horse, the flight of Aeneas and his family with other refugees from burning Troy, the doomed love story of Aeneas and Dido queen of Carthage. These books echo the wanderings of Odysseus as he makes his way back to his home of Ithaca, except here Aeneas, propelled by the gods, is seeking a new home for his defeated people.
After Book VI we see Aeneas and his wandering band of Trojans make land in Italy, setting the stage for war with the land of Latium, where he finds, Lavinia, the woman fated to become Aeneas’ wife (after he kills Turnus, his Italian rival). These books, again an echo of Vergil’s Homeric model in the Iliad, describe the events which Aeneas endured in order to fulfill his destiny.
This is not the first time Seamus Heaney, who died in 2013 after an illustrious career, including the Nobel Prize in 1995, has tackled this book. In 2010, in a poem sequence called “Route 110,” Heaney used the underworld journey as a counterpoint to autobiography. A bus journey becomes his underworld, and Heaney brings out the father-son story embedded in Book VI reflected in his own life.
The book proper is divided into roughly three pieces. First is the journey to the lair of the Sibyl at Cumae on the Italian coast, the prophet possessed by the god Apollo who will tell Aeneas’ fate; the second section deals with the burial rites for Aeneas’s comrade Misenus, who had challenged the gods to a musical contest and was drowned by Triton in anger (“Triton … inter saxa virum spumosa immerserat unda”/Triton was shaken with envy … and surged up/And drowned him in a sudden backwash of foam”). The final, longest section is the tour through the underworld where Sibyl acts as guide and where, at its climax, Aeneas meets his father, whose burial closed Book V.
In a short preface, Heaney writes that he treated book VI separately out of a somewhat Roman sense of obligation: ”The translation is more like “classics homework, the result of a lifelong desire to honour the memory of my Latin teacher at St. Columb’s College, father Michael McGlinchey.” This is not false modesty; even a workable translation of Vergil is no mean feat, but once Vergil’s style is grasped, some rough translation is not that difficult, which is one reason the text has long been used for students (cultural training for imperial administration was, of course, another). Heaney marked the draft that forms the basis for this text as “final;” as Catherine Heaney and Matthew Hollis, who brought the translation to publication, the text is as Heaney intended it, barring final revisions prior to publication.
Unlike his translation of Beowulf, Heaney tries no pyrotechnics with the Aeneid. There are few opportunities to do so in any event. The book has set pieces, but they are written as long evocations of Roman glory, and there is only so much poetic license to be taken. Heaney himself alludes to the effect reading it has for aspiring translators; aside from some notable passages early on, “[b]y the time the story reaches its climax of Anchises’ vision of a glorious Roman race who will issue from Aeneas’ marriage with Lavinia, the translator is likely to have moved from inspiration to grim determination: the roll call of generals and imperial heroes … make this part of the poem something of a test for reader and translator alike.”
The meeting with Dido may be an exception. Aeneas abandoned Dido in Africa back in Book IV, after which she commits suicide; her shade in some sense haunts the poem. They meet again in the underworld. Dido says nothing, but Aeneas exclaims:
…tibi causa fui? Per sidera iuro
Per superos, et si qua fides tellure sub ima est
Invitus, regina, tuo de litore cessi.
Was I, O was I to blame
For your death? I swear by the stars, by the powers
Above and by any truth that may be under earth,
I embarked from your shore, my queen, unwillingly.
Whether we believe Aeneas’ defense that he was driven from Carthage by the gods, or whether it was special pleading by a callous and ambitious man, says a lot of how we view the poem as a whole. Another recent translation covering the first six books tries a different tack with this scene:
by the starsby the gods
and whatever honor
I have, I never
Meant to hurt you
The gods want what they want.
Heaney’s is the more literal here, and the clearest. But this second version (translated by David Hadbawnik) has more contemporary punch.
Which brings us back to that imperial complication. Recent scholars have changed the view of the poem, and have argued Vergil may in fact be more ambivalent toward empire than traditionally supposed. There is Dido, first of all, whose story shows us that the advent of Rome causes personal and national grief. Anchises recounts Rome’s future by showing his son the shades of his descendants, including good men cut down in their youth and wars bringing ruin. And the Sibyl, too, even as she prophesies Rome’s success, gives witness to its dark side. Roma may indeed be Victrix, but “non et venisse volent. Bella, horrida bella … cerno” (“But the day is one you will rue. I see wars/Atrocious wars…”)
In retrospect, it is hard not to see the conflicted vision of imperial glory reflected in the poem. Perhaps, even if unwittingly, those Victorians were right to focus on the Aeneid after all.
Readers of this blog know that Kapuscinski is among my favorite writers. He was born in Poland in the 1930s and lived through World War II. He would go on to write for Poland’s national news service (their version of the AP) as a foreign correspondent. He covered the “little wars,” the insurgencies, revolutions, and coups that are barely reported in the western media. His point of view is fascinating: a man living behind the Iron Curtain serves his country by reporting on terrifying conflicts in the most inhospitable parts of the world. When you read Kapuscinski’s work you may at first feel like something is missing, and then you realize that what’s missing is a Western perspective and the presumption and detachment that comes with it. Kapuscinski, like no other writer I’ve read, is able to delve into the psyche of his subjects and produce remarkable insights about their nature and the nature of their oppression. Which isn’t to say that his writing is dry. More often than not, the episodes he relates are quite harrowing. Shah of Shahs is no exception. Quite unexpectedly, I found this book about the Shah and his overthrow by Ayatollah Khomenei to be very relevant to today’s conflicts, specifically, the difficulties inherent in replacing a brutal and oppressive regime without falling prey to extremism. His discussion of the horrors of the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK, is astonishing, and his insight into the vulnerability of the Iranians as they attempted to move on from decades of oppression is fascinating. In assessing the difficulties of undoing the damage of a regime like the Shah’s, the parallels to today’s struggles in Iraq are hard to ignore, and, as such, the book was especially interesting to read at this moment in history. I have one book by Kapuscinski left to read, and after that, I can only hope that some benevolent publisher decides to put out more of his work.Those interested in politics and media may want to read a new book by John Powers called Sore Winners. When I lived in Los Angeles, Powers’ column “On” in the LA Weekly was a must-read for me. Powers strikes a great balance between intelligence and humor, and he has the classic ability of Angelinos, living far from the nation’s capitol, to deliver an unfettered, outsider’s perspective.