Belly is a book about a man named Belly. Belly aka William O’Leary is a grandfather now, just out of jail after four years in for illegal bookkeeping, but he used to be a real big shot in Saratoga Springs. He was also a drunk, cruelly dismissive of his family and torn up by the death of his third daughter. When he arrives back home he finds that his old stomping grounds have changed and that his three surviving daughters are wary of his presence. The book encompasses Belly’s first week of freedom and is more a character study of this difficult man than a plot-driven novel. Because Belly is so stubborn and belligerent, it is difficult to commiserate with his bitterness about the incursion of WalMart and fancy chain coffee shops. In fact, I found Belly, the man, to be so repugnant that I thought that Lisa Selin Davis was trying to point out that he was wrong, that those chain stores aren’t so bad, but based on this interview, I can see that that is not the case. Belly is an admirable debut, with a handful of well-crafted characters, especially Belly and his oldest daughter Nora, but I would have more enjoyed reading about these characters in a more dynamic plot.
Understanding how people live with disabilities has engaged me since my father had a stroke. I grew curious about the gap between me and my father, and my father and his old self. I began exploring this gap through writing essays for a disability rights newspaper about my father’s, and my family’s experiences. I had the chance to snuggle close to another physical change when my husband had a bad work accident and almost lost his hand. I wrote about that until I felt my words were too invasive, and asked my editor for other assignments. He suggested I interview people, and I’ve had the chance to profile a number of people with brain injuries, an English teacher with MS, and a blind man who climbed Kilimanjaro and kayaked the English Channel. This month my assignment is to write about a deaf drummer, Dame Evelyn Glennie.
Reading is another way I try to bridge the human canyon between my temporarily able-bodied self and this broadly defined other. I’m not well-versed in the growing field of disability literature, but I am growing familiar with pockets of writers who tackle the subject of their disabilities. Poet Peggy Shumaker wrote a captivating and lyrical memoir, Just Breathe Normally that touches on moments from a nearly fatal bicycle accident and the slow process of recovering her physical and mental functions, including the very act of writing.
I fell for Anne Finger’s flat, frank self-examination when I read Elegy for a Disease: A Personal and Cultural History of Polio. Her assessment of her life with a disease, and the life of that disease, written in a very immediate present tense, brought me right into her experiences.
This same quick personal style grabbed me at the beginning of Anne Finger’s collection of short stories, Call Me Ahab. Her fifth title and the winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in fiction, the book imagines disability in the lives of many real and literary figures. As readers we know of Helen Keller from her teacher’s perspective, of Captain Ahab’s monomania from Ishmael. Finger serves these stories, and those of other disability icons, from the eye of the beholder, confronting ideas we are spoon-fed as a culture, that Frida Kahlo is sexy, but Helen Keller is a tamed animal.
Finger is a talented storyteller, delivering voices and situations with smooth conviction. The scenes she creates jump time and place without jarring the reader. An imagined Vincent Van Gogh, the lead character in “Vincent” traipses between Van Gogh’s lifetime and a modern New York City, where the painter’s brother Theo leaves him to the whims of the social services system. “Goliath” recasts the biblical tale of David and Goliath in a post-apocalyptic manner, dotted with habits and phrases from our present; a renewed medievalism carries its own odd language and realm, peppered with remnants of our destroyed civilization, like announcements of the weather mixed with ancient habits of studying dead animals to understand a person’s disease.
Vincent’s mental illness and Goliath’s gigantism are central to these stories but also incidental; the disabilities sit in the stories as elements that render and support each fiction’s emotional truth. The author is intent on carefully inhabiting her characters. Thus we get to speculate what Goliath might physically feel, and wonder how an artistic genius might have weathered a society with a hostile approach to the package of his person, deficits and gifts.
Graceful sentences, often with awkward or shocking subjects, flow throughout the book, such as this thought the narrator places in Helen Keller’s mind in the first story, “Helen and Frida.”
Her ardent young circle of socialists wants to do away with the sordid marketplace of prostitution – bourgeois marriage – where women barter their hymens and throw in their souls to sweeten the deal.
Later in the same story the narrator states, “When I was a kid I thought being a grown up would be like living in the movies…” The placement of such a universal line in the mouth of someone who deconstructs representations of people who use wheelchairs or are blind takes this story about identity politics and puts the question of identity, which is very much on the tip of the narrator’s tongue, into the reader’s lap.
While elements of some of the stories feel slightly obvious and forced, like the member of a Boston Brahmin family dying of AIDS, and Ahab waxing homosexual in his thoughts, these flaws do not reduce the weight and charm of the collection. Writers manufacture stories, and some parts of even the most deftly written stories will feel manufactured. On the balance, Finger has strength in her storytelling, and hopefully that strength will reach a wide audience.
It is an innocent train ride, full of the banal chatter we save for our post-work hours, until my coworker Marthine pulls out her phone and shows me a video of her laughing son. At what she calls the “sweet spot,” those tender months between squalling and teething, Arun (whose name refers to the dawn in Sanskrit) glimpses himself in the mirror and chortles, drool pooling between his lips and chin. He is as smitten with himself as the world is with him. He observes himself; he loves what he sees. We observe him; we love what we see.
There is a portion at the end of Belle Boggs’s The Art of Waiting in which, as she’s holding her infant at home, a mason says, “Imagine if there was only one baby in the whole world…Wherever that baby was, we’d put down our things and go see it.” “You’re right,” she says. “I’d go.” At 26, newly struck with baby fever, I would be there in line, craning my neck to behold.
I can’t point to the moment that it started, and yet it accrues every day, the inverse of my bank account. The way I accuse men of thinking with their penises, I’ve begun thinking with my ovaries — sidelined by tiny outfits, ogling at babies on Instagram, indulging vague daydreams about pregnancy clothes worn with wide-brimmed straw hats. I am an unfit mother: a smoker, a shopper, a too-frequent cheese eater, and bill forgetter. I inhabit (with my husband) a tiny one-bedroom in the most expensive city in the country, where we can barely afford our square footage. I’ve over-drafted my bank account buying cat food. I’ve celebrated the arrival of my period in college with cake and champagne, bought anxiety-inducing pregnancy tests at the pharmacy with nail polish and cheap beer. And yet; and yet.
“It’s spring when I realize I may never have children,” Boggs opens the first chapter, this forthrightness setting a precedent for the rest of the memoir. The Art of Waiting delves directly into the process of assisted reproductive technology (ART) in all its pre- and mis-conceptions, its prose like a sledgehammer cracking through drywall. She probes beyond the clinical terminology and atmosphere of the doctor’s office and takes as her subjects cicadas and gorillas, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, and Raising Arizona. She sees motherhood everywhere, like I do: it’s inescapable, especially because we do not have it.
In a book that could easily become insular, instead the reader finds Boggs’s considered, holistic approach, wherein she covers families of numerous formations and facets — different races, socioeconomic categories, and world views pepper this intelligent and insightful treatise on fertility, medicine, and motherhood, which spans years of Boggs’s life and years of research on childbearing, its successes, and its failures. Science meets narrative; the global meets the personal; the reader meets the author, or at least feels that way, a knowing closeness that builds with every revelation and dispersal of personal, painful fact. The world of reproduction is hardly beautiful, with its sanitized wands, needles, and oocytes, and yet we’re privy to it, as if standing next to the stirrups.
We’re privy, too, to stories that vary dramatically from Boggs’s. There are her mentors, professors, and friends who choose to forgo children in favor of careers and lives of artistry. There is Virginia Woolf, who writes, feeling euphoric after completing The Waves, “Children are nothing to this.” There are gay couples facing rampant discrimination. There are her friends who adopt from overseas, and face the harrowing knowledge that their black child will live an entirely different life in their mountain community because of the color of his skin, the story of his origins.
Perhaps the most important lesson that The Art of Waiting imparted was its insistence on the long game; that the things worth wanting are worth waiting for, and that impatience is a tax we pay for arriving at our fateful conclusions. There’s a decided sense of fatedness about the entire book, a necessary corollary for a treatise on building a family. Who are we meant to be, and in relation to whom? Is a struggle with infertility a sign that we’re meant to walk a different path? Is resisting the body’s futility an act of bullheadedness, foolhardy? Boggs, who describes herself as non-religious, persists, questioning every phase of intrauterine insemination (IUI), the consideration of adoption, and eventually of in-vitro fertilization (IVF). The result is ultimately a baby — Beatrice — but the question lingers, essential to the book: if we’re always in the process of becoming, what are we meant to become? What if that end isn’t the one we had in mind?
Boggs aptly describes the arduousness of ART without writing an arduous narrative — she spares no detail, be it negotiating insurance coverage with a cut-rate pharmacy or injecting herself with one of many medicines each cycle. These details never become drudgery. They’re an inherent and interesting part of the narrative of modern pregnancy. It’s easy to forget, amidst the deftness of Boggs’s prose, that this book depicts a clinical process.
The experience of child-rearing, of adoption, of infertility, impacts more than just the person at their center, despite the feelings of isolation they bring about. Mr. Cheek, the aforementioned mason, embodies this knowledge. “He knew something bigger, more profound,” Boggs writes. “Each baby is born not just to her parents, but to the world surrounding her. To neighbors, friends, teachers, enclosure mates. To ex-cons and allomothers and cousins and grandmothers, who will each want a peek and will each have some impact.” The same could be said of unintended childlessness; in the void created by such powerful wanting, whole communities are implicated.
I pass babies in their carriages on my street and sometimes we lock eyes, as if my desire is transparent. Round-headed and wide-eyed, taking in the new world, they take me in, and I take them in right back, pining for something I’m too sacrilegious or jaded to call a miracle. Meanwhile, I care for my cats. I love my husband. I yearn, and I scheme, and I imagine what fate will deal me next year, or the year after that. In the present, I am only a collection of wants, imagining what it’s like to shape the destiny of a tiny, malleable being.
“Keep trying. Be content. How do you reconcile those two messages?” Boggs writes in her epilogue. She has no exact answers; this is not a textbook. Rather, it’s a primer on waiting and wanting, something we’re arguably always doing, whether it’s for the end of the workday or whatever missing piece we feel might complete us, for whatever unknowable reasons. We’re waiting for the world to adapt, to accept all forms of family; for our bumbling bodies to perform as we wish; for fate to unfurl like a carpet, its threads and fibers as intricately, tightly woven as our own desires.
It takes close to 1,300 pages of Richard Ford’s critically acclaimed Frank Bascombe novels to reach the stories’ philosophical rub. Halfway through Let Me Be Frank With You, the latest and fourth installment in the series, Frank is visiting his ex-wife Ann in hospital. “Being an essentialist, Ann believes we all have selves,” he thinks, mulling over why he still fails to connect with her. “Character to me, is one more lie of history and the dramatic arts. In my view, we have only what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we might still do.”
For fans of these painstakingly crafted books – beginning with The Sportswriter (1986), and moving through its sequels Independence Day (1995), and The Lay of the Land (2006) – the revelation that Frank is existentially adrift might not be news, but it’s rare to see both Ford’s literary approach and Frank’s disconnection laid out with such brevity. Since we first met him 28 years ago – “My name is Frank Bascombe. I am a sportswriter,” reads the tetralogy’s opening line – Frank has defined himself by roles he’s played, whether it’s jobs (journalist, realtor) or periods of his life (the Default Period, the Existence Period). However it’s always been implicit that there is an associated void, an attraction to “mystery” ahead of facts, a detachment exacerbated by the uncontrollable nature of life and partly explained by it. To see this relinquishment to contingency spelled out so clearly goes to the heart of why Let Me Be Frank With You succeeds. Such clarity also complements the novel’s unconventional structure – the book is molded as four separate stories instead of the complete written through novel we have seen previously.
To recount the details of Frank’s life, as is usual in a review, seems somehow a betrayal of his character, since classifiers and summaries of his relationships and homes don’t quite define him the way his actions do. For the sake of context, though: Bascombe lives in New Jersey; he has variously been a short story writer, a failed novelist, a teacher, before turning to real estate; his first marriage to Ann hit the rocks when Frank indulged in serial affairs, prompted by the death of their young son, Ralph; he has two other children, the wayward Paul, who goes into the gift cards business, and the stentorian Clarissa, a vet. Frank survives prostrate cancer and is now, at the age of 68, back with his once estranged second wife, Sally.
These events, and Frank’s submission to them, have always loosely been built around set-pieces. The Sportswriter features a meal Frank has with the family of a young nurse he’s dating, Vicki, and an interview he conducts with Herb, a wheelchair-bound former footballer. Independence Day’s climax occurs after Frank spends a disastrous trip away with Paul during the titular holiday, and The Lay of the Land has him preparing for Thanksgiving. However all of them also see Frank adrift on a sea of characters, places and events that meander away from solid structural ground: Independence Day’s father-son bonding session kicks off over halfway through its 400 pages and The Lay of the Land’s ruminative digressions saw Michiko Kakutani criticize it for its “pages and pages of self-indulgent self-analysis.”
Now, in Let Me Be Frank, Ford writes just four loosely connected set-piece stories to get to the heart of what Frank is — four different events, all of them out of his control (hurricane, stranger appearing, wife’s illness, friend’s death) doing what he’s doing yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and dealing with them as best he can (there’s also a certain irony here, as Frank himself abandoned novels early in his career because he had, he says, “no talent” for the “longer form”). If there is anything essential to Frank’s character, it’s that he’s simply responding to what life throws his way. Ford heightens this by throwing in anecdotes not seen in the previous novels. There is also incredibly little about Frank’s childhood ever highlighted, something unthinkable, say, in Updike’s Rabbit books, where we feel like we have been living with Rabbit for several decades by the end of the saga. Frank, however, stays continually slippery, even if he becomes more comfortable in his discomfort.
The length of the book also gives Ford’s prose welcome precision. We still have the hallmark descriptive passages, mimetic dialogue and quotidian obsessions, but not so much in bulk. The beginning of the book’s first story, “I’m Here,” ventures into Updikean alliterative fury with its account of “fresh-cut lumber, clean white PVC, the lye-sniff of Sakrete, stinging sealants, sweet tar paper, and denatured spirits” but is mostly a detached take on the aftermath of a hurricane, a neat device for the sloughing off of previous identities. As he approaches death, Frank says he’s also “stripping back words,” which in his view “should no longer be usable”, as an aid to clearer thinking. He’s equally, he says, getting rid of old friends. “Since time invested determines the quality of a friendship, having more than five genuine friends is pretty much impossible.” Links to the past come through Proustian involuntary memory, when a Peter, Paul and Mary song heard over the phone leads to a musical potted history. “My mind fled back to the face of ultra-sensual Mary — cruel-mouthed, earthy, blond hair slashing…”
We have a persistence of the paradoxes that defined Ford’s earlier writing (“Sometimes things can seem worse just by not being better,” Frank tells Walter in The Sportswriter) as the character trudges into guilt-ridden fatalism. “I’m ready to cease and desist,” he says. “Yet somehow I feel implicated by everything’s dilapidation.” History comes to haunt him in the book’s second story, “Everything Could be Worse,” which recalls Joyce Carol Oates’s 1992 short story “Where Is Here?” when a former resident of Frank’s house in Haddam, who left in bloody circumstances, pays him a visit. This is the most formulaic narrative here, ending as it does with a momentary epiphany for Frank, and showcases the character’s obsession with phatic communication, the difference between what we say and what we really mean.
All the Frank novels have this: what he wishes he’d said instead, what he could have offered which would have achieved the same objective, the statements he considers to be lies. “It’s not that difficult to counsel the grieving,” he says. “I could’ve said, ‘Roosevelt was a far better choice than Willkie back in ‘40.’ Which would be as grief neutralizing as ‘What a friend we have in Jesus.’”
The remaining two stories zero in on Frank’s long-term adversary Ann, his first wife, who is now suffering from Parkinson’s. Most intriguingly, he has at last realized what led to the breakdown of his marriage, “what is unquenchable and absent in her,” several decades too late. Their combativeness has reached a nihilistic stalemate, where Frank dutifully visits his ex in her medically serviced apartment and the pair rehearse the same old arguments, though without the attendant wistfulness on Frank’s part that once gave frisson to their meeting. “Deaths of Others“ relives the suicide of Walter in The Sportswriter with the failing health of Eddie Medley, another former member of the beleaguered, ever depleting Divorced Men’s Club. It ends with a shoehorned denouement, not unwelcome if a reduced shadow of the more nuanced treatment of Walter’s death.
To finish, it is worth dwelling where we are with Frank with respect to Rabbit Angstrom, since the former’s rise came just as the latter dwindled, and the similarities — the obsession with property, the Emersonian rhetoric, the philanderer destroyed by the trauma of a child’s death, Haddam’s copper beech replacing Brewer’s cherry blossom — should not detract from the major differences.
Updike claimed to want to structure the Rabbit novels around a Joycean Odyssey, whereas Frank is tossed on life’s tide, the significant physical events that define him transpiring as if to someone else. Partly, this is because of his estrangement from Ann, and his children, but he also lacks a spiritual anchor, any lasting moment of transcendence that elevates him above the mire. Ironically it is Updike, a lifelong agnostic towards Emerson, who channels the latter’s “transparent eyeball” much more through his fiction (though it is Frank who is always quoting Emerson). Frank views the world as if he’s in a cinema, staring at the screen, preoccupied by something else. He’s also a greatly cleverer character than Rabbit and is a lifelong Democrat, a champion of the downtrodden, and is considerably less lucky. Ann never forgives Frank in the way Janice seems to with Rabbit, though the latter is far less contrite for his misdeeds.
Both men are Emersonian in their ability to reinvent themselves, “like a cat falls on his feet” as Emerson would say, and united in their absences and angst, a void Rabbit partway fills with Updike’s spirituality. With Frank, there’s no such luck. He’s cast adrift with only that which he can carry, without the lies of history and character to shoehorn him into unreality, and all the more truthful for it. Ford has only paid passing heed to his own rules in his Frank series, and in doing so pays tribute to his character’s protean nature. Where Ford attempts to contrive epiphanies, neat metaphors and acts of God, he does Frank a disservice.
The enemy knew he could not defeat us on our own terms. The conventional battlefield was ours, the sky as well. So they made us bleed one body at a time — limb by limb — through the use of handmade bombs. If there is one tribe of the military that knows this tactic best, it is the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technicians charged with combatting it. Brian Castner spent eight years leading EOD teams, including two tours in Iraq. The harrowing aftermath of that period of his life was well-told in his memoir The Long Walk; his latest work of nonfiction, All the Ways We Kill and Die, continues the memoir’s narrative while displaying Castner’s considerable talent for both in-depth reportage and more imaginative forms.
Castner opens the book with a prologue that imagines the detonation of an IED in Afghanistan from the Taliban perspective — a detonation, we learn a few pages later, that takes the life of his friend and EOD comrade Matt Schwartz. Castner, five years out of uniform and now a writer and freelance journalist, asks the question the book seeks to answer: “Who killed Matt Schwartz?” From there, the narrative loops in ever-widening arcs through a structure that roughly mirrors an EOD team’s post-blast actions. Collect the dead. Tend the wounded. Gather evidence. Hunt. Remember.
If there is risk inherent to the structure of All the Ways We Kill and Die, it is that its polygamous marriage of imagination, memoir, and reportage runs the risk of throwing off a genre-monogamous reader. There’s as much for the armchair military history buff in Castner’s exploration of IED technology and tactics as there is for fans of literary nonfiction. The early chapters are fairly traditional narratives, Castner retracing the impacts of personal losses ranging from his dead friend to maimed comrades. But by Part III of the book, Castner must link disparate narratives from both Iraq and Afghanistan while keeping an eye on how he imagines a kind of IED archetype, this “Engineer” he suspects took Matt Schwartz’s life. The surreal rhythms of a drone pilot, a firefight documented through passages of military Internet relay chat — these are the disorienting signs of a disappearing center, as Part IV reveals how we hunt and kill.
The book is not a cut-and-dried war story; its conclusion is appropriately ambiguous considering the open-ended nature of the wars my generation has fought. Novels and memoirs by service members that address their time in Afghanistan or Iraq have not benefitted from the sense of closure granted veteran writers of World War Two, or even Vietnam. Where writers like Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Eugene Sledge (With the Old Breed), Tim O’Brien (Going After Cacciato) and Phil Caputo (A Rumour of War) could look back at the U.S.S. Missouri and the Fall of Saigon with respective clarity; novelists Matt Gallagher (Iraq, Youngblood) and Elliot Ackerman (Afghanistan, Green on Blue) need only peruse the Internet for unnecessary reminders that both wars drag on today. Memoirists have fared similarly. Both Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country and even Castner’s The Long Walk could only conclude by narrowing the lens to a hyper-personal focus. A former soldier lies in bed. A former EOD officer performs therapeutic yoga. There is no definitive ending when the events that shaped your story are still unfolding.
“Long and Messy and Gray” is the book’s narrative climax, and details the lifeline of an EOD troop turned lethal contractor whose name Castner redacts to “M_____.” Highly fragmented, but crafted so as not to bewilder, its nearest cousin is that brilliant piece of Vietnam writing, “Illumination Rounds” from Michael Herr’s Dispatches. And it is the perfect final lift to a bracing narrative. George Packer noted in his New Yorker essay “Home Fires” that “fragments are perhaps the most honest literary form available to writers who fought so recently.” I contest the efficacy of a word like “honest” in this context; had Packer applied the word “effective,” the statement would prove more meaningful. “Long and Messy and Gray” might watershed the most effective personal war narrative structure I’ve encountered; the denouement that comes in Part V is necessary, but it’s this chapter that is most compelling.
All investigations, war-related or not, begin with a simple question and best of intent. But as Serial showed us last year, building a complete picture is about sorting through the puzzle pieces and assembling the mosaic as the meaning of each fragment appears. If, like M____, one returns to war dozens of times, the narrative must necessarily shatter each time. Within this frame, Castner shares the same creative space as Serial’s producer, Sarah Koenig. Certain pieces belong together, neatly assembled for the reader to observe. Other pieces, however, belong in a pile, appearing as they are overturned. There’s an art to this type of transient work, a sense of structural mastery just beyond the page that is all the more inspiring when you consider that both Castner and Koenig began with just one question: “Who?” The best writers fully admit that the best stories reveal themselves along the way. The best stories, as it turns out, might end up answering a different question altogether.
“Who killed Matt Schwartz” is the least of the questions answered within the pages of All the Ways We Kill and Die. Castner captures the complex push and pull; the cost and reward; and a fully formed image of what it’s been like to be both in the middle, and on the periphery, of The Forever War. Despite this wide lens, however, Castner’s real task is to tell an intensely personal story. In the closing chapter, we find him walking the forest with his children, pointing out roots, ruts, and creeping vines that threaten their peaceful stroll. I imagine him pausing, pushing a knee into the rich brown earth and pointing ahead once more: danger there.