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.
The first thing I broke was the cream-colored ceramic sugar bowl. Smashed to bits. I’d been at my friend’s flat in London for less than a day, and left to my own devices, I innocently placed a cup in the dish rack, and like a collapsing house of cards, the contents of the rack began to shift, and through an unnoticed gap in the front of the rack, the sugar bowl escaped and smashed onto the floor. My first-day settling-in disaster.
But I wasn’t done. My destruction cut a path from the kitchen to the bathroom where I didn’t fully comprehend that the shower fixture didn’t want to turn the way I wanted it to turn, and with superhuman strength, I bent it, rendering it unusable. It took hours, and a toolbox, for me to fix it.
Then it was on to the den – my bedroom for the visit – where I thought I’d broken the TV. I’d switched it off with the remote, and no amount of maniacal and increasingly haphazard button-pressing would turn it on again. (It took my friend all of two seconds to locate the on/off button on the side of the set – a button that I swear wasn’t there earlier – and bring the BBC back into our world.)
Then back to the kitchen a few days later where I desperately tried to open the clothes-dryer door after the cycle had ended, unaware that the door would not, could not, open until a full minute had passed. A minute filled with thoughts of wrenches and hammers and whatever I may require to force open the door and rescue my clothes.
That’s me, staying with a friend for two weeks in London, a city I’m somewhat familiar with, in a country whose language I share.
So Philip Graham and his family can be excused for their “first-day settling-in disasters” at the start of their year in Portugal, alone in a Lisbon apartment struggling with the flat’s lighting system. Dispatches, detailing their disasters – and triumphs – previously appeared in McSweeney’s online, and now the wonderful collected memoir of the Graham family’s year in Portugal The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon is available in print.
In 2006, author and teacher Philip Graham uprooted his family – his anthropologist wife Alma and their 12-year-old daughter Hannah – and transplanted them to Lisbon. Reading the dispatches, I felt as if I were with this family every step of the way, through every day-to-day adventure and every settling-in disaster, as they walked that fine line between fitting in and remaining on the outside.
“I do and I don’t feel at home here,” Graham writes. “I oscillate between comfort and unease.”
Language of course is a big barrier and while the whole family does its best to learn and communicate in Portuguese, it proves to be a challenge.
“There’s so much to remember in building a Portuguese sentence,” Graham writes, leading in to an account of a morning reading of a Portuguese newspaper, and how a single word – andar (to walk) – can be used in so many different ways. “One lousy verb, so many subgestures.”
A recurring theme in Graham’s book is “Saudade,” a complex emotion “that combines sorrow, longing and regret, laced perhaps with a little mournful pleasure.” Saudade colors all aspects of Portuguese life – from its fado music to its soccer matches to its underdog sensibility.
This being a family memoir, food and drink naturally have a strong presence and the wines and fish and other delicacies linger on the tip of the reader’s tongue. When I finished reading The Moon, Come to Earth, I asked my parents – who had spent a few days in Lisbon some years ago – what image lingered the most. Without missing a beat, my mother replied “the grilled sardines.”
Here is the opening phrase of the opening line of the opening dispatch in Philip Graham’s book: “The grilled sardines, lying in my plate…”
The Moon, Come to Earth lifted me up from my humdrum life and transplanted me into the Graham family’s Lisbon adventure. It was a day-to-day adventure, full of the familiar, full of new routines and small struggles. It was a bit sad to leave it all, a bit of saudade creeping into my own life.
A week or so after reading it, I was in London, wreaking havoc in the flat, and trying to make the unfamiliar familiar. Fighting the good fight. And delighting in the small triumphs.
“Dostoevsky was a sick man. He was spiteful, intolerant, and irritable. Turgenev once described him as the nastiest Christian he had ever met.” – Andrew R. MacAndrew, Translator of Notes from Underground.I’d like to think that, 200 years from now, I’ll be immortalized with a Penguin Classics edition of my life’s work – a 700-page tome spanning my early blogging career to my brilliance in advertising copy to my eventual Great American Whatever. I see it bound in something collectible – my skin, perhaps, or threads of wallpaper from the basement where all of the magic happened.It will have an introduction, of course. The introduction will be written by someone incredibly talented and well-thought-of. I imagine a design by Chris Ware (okay, he’ll be dead, so a design by Chris Ware’s great grandchildren or something. Humor me here.)Some things that might be included in my introduction:Corey Vilhauer started his career in the trenches of the Sioux Falls School District, working as an embattled troll in the substitute teaching pool.Vilhauer worked his way up, gaining employment as a writer through sheer will and ruthless determination (not to mention rugged good looks and undeniable charm.)Until mid-January, 2007, Vilhauer usually skipped the introductions to classic and modern novels, preferring to get right to the story.It’s true. I did. Until this month, I never took time to read introductions and appendixes. I just flipped to the point where the page numbers stopped looking so Roman and started looking more Arabic. I wanted to read the novel, not the author’s life story. Who has time for introductions?And then – Dostoevsky. Fyodor Dostoevsky. More specifically, Notes from Underground (and other stories) – this months Corey Vilhauer Book of the Month.I’m going to assume that most of you have dabbled in Dostoevsky’s mire. You’ve drudged your way through some of the most depressing and thought-provoking personal reflection ever written. Most of you probably even read the introduction. However, some of you probably didn’t. I’m here for you. I know what that’s like. I’ve been there.Notes from Underground, for those who have yet to read it, was written a few years after Dostoevsky was sentenced to death. To death! Why? Because he spoke out. Because he was a dissident in Mother Russia and needed to be stopped.He wasn’t killed. No – of course he wasn’t. He had three more monstrous, billion-page novels to write before he was ready to expire. But he was tortured, mentally, by the powers-that-be. From Andrew R. MacAndrew’s Afterword:On December 21, 1849, the prisoners were taken to a city square for public execution. The death sentence was read to them, they were given the cross to kiss, a sword was symbolically broken over their heads, and they were ordered to don special white shirts. They were to be shot three by three. The first three were bound to the execution posts. Dostoevsky was the sixth in line – that is, he was to be executed in the second batch.Suddenly the tsar’s messenger appeared on a foaming horse and announced that the tsar was graciously making them a present of their lives. There was a beating of drums. The retreat was sounded. The men already tied to the posts were untied and sent back to rejoin the others. Some prisoners fainted. Two went permanently insane. The effect on Dostoevsky, too, was shattering. The epileptic fits to which he had been subject since his childhood became incomparably worse.He was nearly killed. Then, the tsar came riding up, saying, “never mind, dude – imprisonment for eight years (four, with the tsar’s blessing, of course) will be fine.” The people around him went crazy. He was a changed man from then on.And, by reading the Introduction, and in finishing with the Afterword, I discovered the aforementioned history. I learned something about Dostoevsky that is far more interesting than anything I could have imagined.Notes from Underground follows the insecure wanderings of a man so depressed – so annoyed with life and dragged down by its horrible tentacles – that he can’t do anything but complain. He tags along with some “friends” to feel included, but ends up berating them for hours. He searches for them later (to duel, of course) and instead ends up berating a whore in much the same way.He hates himself and seeks relief, but whenever that relief shows up, he shuns it. He’s miserable – both in feeling and in action. He’s nothing. He talks symbolically of the mouse hole that he’s lived in for 20 years, and in reading, you figure it’s not just symbolic. It is necessary.Notes from Underground is written by someone who had been driven mad – maybe not certifiably, but at least minimally enough to devise a hateful character as the narrator. Dostoevsky ended up a grizzled, horrible person – hard to be around, yet amazingly talented. Some say he ended up too sentimental. Others say he was too hard. I found him to be brilliant, if not a little misunderstood. I also found him to be just as miserable as his protagonist.In writing a story like Notes from Underground, talent can only take you so far. Dostoevsky didn’t just create a character from scratch, taking pen and placing it on paper and writing from the creative depths of his mind. He was writing from his heart – shaping a character that was actively driving himself mad, just as those who he had been sentenced to death with were driven mad – little by little, through deception and mind control.Notes from Underground is quite a task – it’s short, but it drives one to annoyed rage. “Just be nice, for once!” you might yell. But in yelling that, you’re directing it as Dostoevsky himself. This is all internalized. No wonder he’s so hateful. After all, look at what he went through.And to think I used to skip those “life story” sections.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan.