Andrea Levy’s Small Island is a post-colonial novel told from four points of view. Queenie and Bernard, separated by war, are a British couple with a tepid relationship and Hortense and Gilbert are Jamaican, married out of convenience and lured to England by opportunity. The book explores British racism in the 1950s. It’s less overtly ugly than its American cousin, but it nonetheless dictates the borders of the lives of Gilbert, Hortense and their fellow immigrants. Britain, long the colonizer, renowned for her Empire, in Small Island has reached a point where it would like to forget about the past and start from scratch. This time all these people of different colors can stay in their own lands. But, of course, this is not an option. Instructed by centuries of colonialism to believe they are British subjects and stirred up by the global tumult of World War II, immigrants from all over the world resettle in their “Mother Country.” Nearly all of the white folks in the book are like Bernard, dismissive and even affronted by the arrival of darker people on their shores. They stare, heckle, slam doors and on occasion take a swing at these people. It matters not that thousands of Jamaicans fought along side the British during the war. It is telling that most of the British folks Gilbert interacts with think that Jamaica is in Africa. Queenie, however, is the anomaly and perhaps even a cliche since so often these novels of race relations have at their center an enlightened white person. But luckily Levy gives her sufficient depth to carry a large chunk of the novel. What sets this book apart, and what probably helped Levy win awards for it – the Orange prize in 2004 and then this year’s Orange “Best of the Best” – was her ability to imbue each of the four narrators with his or her own voice. Gilbert and Hortense speak with the native rhythm of their home island, Bernard’s voice is pinched and fidgety, and Queenie is the voice of hope and happiness. Though the chapter headings indicate who will narrate each chapter, the voices are so distinctive that this touch is unnecessary.
If you do a Google image search for “Walter Kirn” you will get a banner of options that you can use to further winnow your results: “Maggie McGuane,” “Clark Rockefeller,” “Amanda Fortini,” “Princeton.” Click on one, you get Walter Kirn the boyfriend. Click another, the ex-husband and father. There is his Ivy League iteration, his sucker iteration. This last one (sucker) could also be the writer iteration, or even, as Kirn himself suggests, the betrayer iteration. I rarely do such a thing — Google image search someone for a better understanding of them. But by the time I’d finished Kirn’s new book, Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade, I was left wondering less about Kirn’s subject, a homicidal shape shifter named Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter known in the book as Clark Rockefeller, than about Kirn himself. So I resorted to a last-ditch effort at trying to get a read on him — I looked for a photo. Predictably, instead of defining Kirn any better, the photos I found only sliced him up into different versions, all of which in the end looked blurry.
Kirn is most well known for his novels, two of which (Up In the Air and Thumbsucker) were made into feature films. Blood Will Out, as its title suggests, is not a novel. It is a “true story,” at least in a sense. Kirn admits his motivation in undertaking the favor that lead him to Clark early on, and it is not an altruistic one. He is a writer in search of material and Clark sounds promising. So he drives a severely disabled dog from his home in Livingston, Montana to a stranger (Clark) in Manhattan, all for the promise of a story. And the story-gods deliver. Clark is brimming with material. He is a wealthy, effete owner of rare modern art, an intense dog-lover convinced he can cure Shelby — the dog Kirn has delivered — of her crushed spine through homeopathic remedies and acupuncture. He is pathologically self-involved, giving lengthy monologues without ever stopping to thank, inquire about, or pay the man who has just delivered an incontinent high-maintenance creature to his doorstep. Nevertheless, and perhaps because of Kirn’s persistent desire for material, the two become friends of a sort. Clark’s end of the relationship is mostly composed of soliciting favors. Kirn is more generous, even if he does have an ulterior motive. He listens to Clark when he has family troubles, even visits him, skeptically intrigued by Clark’s offers to introduce him to J.D. Salinger (who, of course, never materializes). They fall in and out of touch until Clark abducts his own daughter in 2008 and after a brief pursuit is arrested. Once he’s in custody, it’s discovered that Clark Rockefeller is also Christopher Chichester, who is wanted for questioning in the murder of a man named John Sohus. Clark, it turns out, is a classic American shape shifter. “The villain with a thousand faces,” Kirn calls his type, “a kind of charming, dark-side cowboy, perennially slipping off into the sunset and reappearing at dawn in a new outfit.”
By the time Kirn wrote Blood, Gerhartsreiter had already been tried and convicted of murder. There had been other books written about him, and a TV movie made. As subject matter, he’d been strip-mined, picked apart in court and media alike. Even if you’ve never heard of Gerhartsreiter or any of his aliases, reading the book’s jacket copy or even just the title will clue you in to the fact that he’s a fraud. Thus the “mystery” of the book’s title isn’t really a forensic one. In part it’s centered on Kirn himself, who beats himself upside the head with the same questions throughout the book: how could he have been so duped, how dare someone so lavishly swindle him, and — perhaps the central question — is he, ultimately, victor or victim? While we know Kirn initially befriends Clark for material, it seems to be pride that drives him to continue to meet with Gerhartsreiter post-conviction. Even then, Gerhartsreiter never provides any answers, only a warped reflection of Kirn. When Kirn asks him, over prison phone, what the key to manipulating people is, Gerhartsreiter says, “I think you know.” Only when Kirn concedes this does Gerhartsreiter give him an answer: “Vanity, vanity, vanity.”
In Genesis, when Rebekah is pregnant with twins, one of whom will steal the birthright and identity of the other, the Lord says to her: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”
I thought of this story — that of Jacob and Esau — while reading Blood Will Out. I thought of how perhaps both twins exist in each person, dueling and grabbing each other by the heels, vying for the birthright, stealing identity, deceiving. Jacob the original identity thief, Clark another incarnation. Kirn is in there, too, elbowing his way to the front.
According to Kirn’s blog, he’s been regularly reading and thinking about the Bible. He boils the story of Jacob and Esau, and indeed the whole Old Testament, down to property law. Blood carries this tradition: whose property is Gerhartsreiter’s story? In sections of the book, Kirn refers to Gerhartsreiter as an eater-of-souls, someone who, lacking innate creativity, believes he can, by murdering someone, subsume their talents. “Sorry, Clark,” Kirn writes halfway through the book, “You asked for it, old sport. You knew who I was, and deep down I knew who you were, even if I played dumb there for a time — so dumb that I didn’t realize I was playing, which, looking back, was a fairly cunning strategy. You were material. Surprise, surprise. Look in your wallet; it’s empty. Now look in mine.” Kirn’s won, he’s telling us, and his victory is tangible — we’re holding it in our hands. But I’m not sure it’s as Kirn presents it, not sure he was ever employing any strategy save that of general gatherer. It seems telling himself (and us) that he was in control the whole time is what he must do in order to survive. The alternative — that he was thoroughly and utterly manipulated and played, that it might just as easily have been him dismembered and buried in his own backyard — is too inconceivable.
Kirn writes about the Bible that, “once it unfolds some, it starts reading you.” I heard something similar once from an eccentric priest: as you get deeper into the Bible, you begin to recognize yourself in it. The exoduses and betrayals, the sacrifices and selfishness. This seems to be a kind of litmus test of good literature: can you locate yourself in it? Kirn seems to have located himself in Gerhartsreiter, who, if nothing else, occupies the role of mirror. In recounting his experience, he shows us not only how little we might know another person, but how little we might know ourselves.
Among the many soothing stories we craft around death, most of us harbor a core belief that it will, at the very least, be peaceful. Even those with no residual belief in an afterlife can find some solace in the idea of an eternal quiet nothingness. No pain, no suffering, no obnoxious neighbors or megalomaniacal bank clerks.
But what if it’s all a lie? What if, instead of peace or rest, what awaits us after death is a continuation of exactly the same petty dramas and sordid resentments? What if, after we’re lowered into our graves, we discover that all the other corpses in the cemetery are still chattering away in some kind of eternal bitchfest?
These are the questions at the heart of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s modernist classic Cré na Cille. Originally published in Irish (sometimes called Gaelic) in 1949, it’s now available in English for the first time, translated by Alan Titley under the title The Dirty Dust. Often mentioned in the same breath as works of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, Ó Cadhain’s novel is, in some ways, even more radically experimental. For starters, all the characters are dead and speaking from inside their coffins, which are interred in a graveyard in Connemara, on Ireland’s west coast. The novel has no physical action or plot, but rather some 300 pages of cascading dialogue without narration, description, stage direction, or any indication of who’s speaking when.
We begin with Catriona Paudeen, a bitter, foul-mouthed, recently deceased local woman, frantically wondering whether her family has provided her with an appropriate funeral and buried her in the well-to-do section of the cemetery. Within a few pages, she’s absorbed into a chorus of competing voices as she realizes she’s surrounded by her old neighbors, some friends but mostly enemies, “all rabbiting on exactly the same way as they did above the ground!” The conversation mostly circles around everyday grievances — unpaid debts, unfaithful wives, contentious football games — although political disputes occasionally crop up, mostly related to the Irish Civil War and the Second World War (certain corpses are so nationalistic that they eagerly ask new arrivals whether Adolf Hitler has successfully destroyed England yet). As Titley writes in his thoughtful introduction, the novel is “a listening-in to gossip and to backbiting and rumours and bitching and carping and moaning and obsessing about the most important, but more often the most trivial matters of life, which are often the same thing.”
There are similarities between The Dirty Dust and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos, in which three sinners are condemned to spend eternity in a small room together, acting as one another’s torturers (“hell is other people”). However, while Sartre’s play is full of heavy-handed moral and religious overtones, The Dirty Dust is remarkable for its lack of philosophy or theology. The idea of retaining consciousness while the body decomposes seems dark to the point of hellishness, but the text itself is so mundane, irreverent, and raucously funny that the grisly context slides into insignificance. One might surmise that the characters are in purgatory, but since they’re too busy arguing to reflect on their existential state, the theory lacks a foothold.
Essentially, this novel is all talk, and the historical and literary significance of the original lies in the richness of the spoken language, the warts-and-all reproduction of a dialect that, just 70 years later, has all but disappeared. Unfortunately, while Titley’s translation is sensitive and vibrant, it occasionally and inevitably feels stilted or overwrought. The narrow, uninspiring register of English curse words, for example, simply cannot capture the diversity of Irish language insults. Although Titley valiantly conjures terms like “sailor’s bicycle,” “shitehawk,” and “slut of the small spuds,” he also over-relies on shag, shit, bugger, bitch, and other less quotable English perennials. This danger — that the effusive, flowing text of the author may, at times, be reduced to generic translates — is fundamental to the translator’s work. However, as Gayatri Spivak argues in her essay “The Politics of Translation,” “to defer action until the production of the utopian translator, is impractical.” For decades, Irish language purists (we might also call them snobs) have rejected even the possibility of translating Cré na Cille, condemning it to irrelevance outside the walls of university libraries. Titley’s effort to translate the untranslatable, with full knowledge of its inevitable imperfections, is courageous and timely.
For hundreds of years, Irish has been battling the hegemonic language next door and, despite a partial revival in the last century, it continues to decline. Connemara, the setting for The Dirty Dust, is a designated “Gaeltacht” region, where Irish remained the primary spoken language long after it fell out of everyday usage elsewhere. Despite government subsidies intended to protect their linguistic identity, a recent report suggests that within 10 years Irish will no longer be the primary language even in these small enclaves.
Sad though this decline is, The Dirty Dust dispels any misplaced nostalgia for Connemara’s over-idealized past. The humor is very dark indeed, reflecting the reality that that Irish survived in these communities partly as a result of deprivation, isolation, and lack of opportunity. Accusations of theft, fraud, alcoholism, and violence rise above the chatter, before being quickly, desperately denied; ubiquitous nationalism, racism, and misogyny almost blend into the cacophony; and when the voices reflect on what they would have done with a little more time above ground, the overwhelming focus is on settling petty scores, chasing trifling debts, and suing neighbours over imaginary infractions. By the final pages, it’s clear that long before their deaths, the characters lived in a dark, narrow, airless world, where grinding poverty and religious conservatism gave rise to bitter hatreds between secretive, jealous, spiritually stale people.
It’s no surprise, then, that the cemetery’s new arrivals report the departure of waves of young people for England and America. Since the 1840s, mass migration from the Gaeltacht areas has been central to the decline of the language. And who could blame those who left in search of opportunity and relative freedom? While we may regret the loss of the language — and resent its suppression through force and economic coercion — native speakers can’t be expected to make vast personal sacrifices for the sake of a vague notion of cultural heritage. What’s more, Ireland’s current austerity government shows no willingness to make the kind of investment that might draw younger populations back.
All of this emphasises the significance of the translated edition. By exhuming Ó Cadhain’s zany chorus of cadavers, Titley has opened this masterpiece to the wider audience it so richly deserves.
May it not rest in peace.
I was at Whole Foods having a tantrum about vanilla paste, simultaneously aware of the cultural type I was embodying with obnoxious ease, and genuinely annoyed about the paste scenario. “You could always call ahead,” said the employee who had informed me of their lack of vanilla paste, who I’m also sure is a perfectly nice man who rises in the morning hoping to make the best of his day. “I did call ahead,” I said in a tone of voice I modeled after Gregory Peck, “I was told you had it.”
Using passive voice to withering effect on a grocery store employee is not what I had expected from my Friday night, but it’s where I ended up when I decided to learn how to make great pie in a weekend.
I have very few absolute goals in life — as far as where I want to be in five years, how much money I want to have, or places to see before I die — but I really want to be good at making pies. Its attractions are threefold. First, a good pie is universally welcome. Second, mediocre pies — from grocery store bakeries or home cooks who use Crisco — are far too common. Third, only a portion of good pie-making can be taught, the rest is learned by experience. It’s not just cooking, it’s craft.
Most of the great pie I’ve had in my life has been at Hoosier Mama Pie Company, my favorite place in Chicago. Owner Paula Haney left a pastry chef job at a more upscale restaurant to focus on perfecting America’s dessert in her own shop in 2009, and the results are divine. A bite of Hoosier Mama pie is like everything good about the world, in your mouth. (A friend of mine once went into the shop and asked if they would let him volunteer. “I’ll chop fruit or wash dishes, anything you want,” he said, “I just want to be involved.” His offer was politely declined.) When Haney published The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie earlier this summer, it felt like a personal gift, like she was rooting for me.
I decided to put myself through pie boot camp, making four pies in one day — Strawberry Rhubarb, Maple Pecan, Hoosier Sugar Cream, and Lemon Chess — and inviting 10 friends over to eat them. My main goal was the crust, the deceptively simple foundation of a good pie. When you’re making pie crust, every detail is important: the temperature of the ingredients, how long you spend on each step, how long you wait in between each step, how much water you add, how long you knead the dough, and whether you’re chronically forgetful about flouring the roller (that’s me).
Haney spent a summer perfecting her crust recipe, and provides 20 pictures of what the dough should look like at various steps. There are instructions, yes, but you’re making all the decisions about whether the dough feels crumbly, soft, cool, or relaxed enough to move on to the next step. The stinger is, a mistake at any point in the process can ruin the crust, like the bad bulb in a string of Christmas lights. No matter how many crusts you’ve made, you still have to pay attention to each one and be able to adjust. I can say that the fourth crust I made that day was better than the first, but that only made me realize how much better I can get. It’s no mistake that on the cover, the word “wisdom” in the book’s subtitle — “Recipes, Techniques, and Wisdom from the Hoosier Mama Pie Co.” — is printed about three times larger than all the other words.
The book wants you to understand pie. The recipes have origin stories, there’s a section titled “In Defense of Canned Pumpkin,” a sidebar on the history of Crisco (spoiler: it’s cautionary), and a Pie Dough Troubleshooting Guide, but the real message is that you need to practice. You may also need to traverse the city in search of vanilla paste.
At one a.m. the night before my party, as I was putting the last dough round into the fridge to rest overnight, pie crust took on greater meaning for me. A great pie is a product of both skill and wisdom; as, I believe, is a great life. You make a long string of intuitive decisions and hope they alchemize into something beautiful. That’s why each good pie that comes out of the oven felt like a win to me; it feels like a small reassurance that you’re good at life. Plus, delicious.
Photo Credit: Tyler Core
A dozen years ago Colum McCann told an interviewer that novelists who write about real historical figures are, in his opinion, guilty of a failure of imagination. A week ago McCann told an interviewer that what interests him, increasingly, is the “real that’s imagined and the imagined that’s real.”
In the dozen years since the first of those two interviews, McCann has published four novels that testify to this evolution of his novelistic enterprise. The novels all used real historical figures, to varying degrees and with widely varying degrees of success. First came Dancer, in 2003, built around the ballet sensation Rudolf Nureyev — his youth in Russia, his defection to the West, and his flowering in the hot house of 1970s New York City. It was followed three years later by Zoli, set largely in Slovakia, the fictionalized telling of the life of a renowned Gypsy writer of poems and songs. Then came McCann’s break-out novel, Let the Great World Spin, which won the National Book Award in 2009. And now he is out with TransAtlantic, a novel built around three very different voyages across the ocean, from the New World to Ireland, that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In this new novel, as in everything he has written, McCann brings deep historical research to his story. This is very different from saying he writes “historical novels,” a term he claims to detest. On the other hand, he has also admitted to the truism that all novels are, in some sense, historical.
McCann’s use of historical figures in his fiction has produced what I have come to think of as an inverse barometer of his work’s quality: the more heavily he relies on historical figures, as distinct from history, the weaker his writing is; the more sparingly he uses historical figures, the stronger the writing is. And when he places imagined characters in historical settings, his writing shades toward the sublime.
For these reasons, I think his 1998 novel, This Side of Brightness, stands as his strongest book. It tells the story of the immigrants, the sandhogs, who dug the train and subway tunnels beneath the streets of New York City, then it telescopes to tell the story of a homeless man living in those tunnels years later, trying to live down a lifetime of dark regrets. These fictional characters come to vivid, bruising life precisely because of McCann’s meticulous research, which serves as the springboard for his fertile imagination and wickedly beautiful prose style.
Dancer, on other hand, is a work of portraiture that feels handcuffed by its historical backdrop, rich and grim and florid as it sometimes is. We meet Andy Warhol, Margot Fonteyn, President and Jackie Kennedy, among others. But the story never takes flight, despite some plush writing, such as this sketch of a popular gay cruising spot in Central Park in the 1970s:
oh the Rambles! all the scraddlelegged boys strung out in silhouette! all the tramping of weeds! all the faces shoved into brambles! all the bandanas in back pockets! all the drugs fermenting in all the bodies! all the horsewhips and cockrings and lubricants and chewable delights! all the winding paths! the soil indented with the patterns of knees! the moon out behind a dozen different trees! Johnnie Ramon with his shadow long on the grass and oh so tautly bowed! yes! Victor and the Rambles know each other well, and not just for nature walks, once or twice he has even accompanied Rudi there, because Rudi sometimes likes the tough boys, the raucous ones, the hot tamales who come down from the Bronx and Harlem.
Even such firecracker prose cannot ignite the novel. Zoli is just as closely based on historical figures, and it feels just as tightly handcuffed and inert. Perhaps sensing that he needed to change direction without changing horses, McCann opened Let the Great World Spin with Phillippe Petit’s breathtaking hire-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 (at about the time Rudi Nureyev was cruising the Rambles for rough trade). After that bravura opening, McCann pulls back to examine the lives of a handful of fictional New Yorkers who witnessed Petit’s historic walk, and the result is some of his best writing since This Side of Brightness, writing that brings all layers of the city to life, high and low and middling, then peoples it with a diverse gallery of characters and takes us not just into their minds but into their marrow. It’s a blissful marriage of the imagined and the real.
Coming in the wake of that performance, TransAtlantic feels like a relapse to many of the flaws that bedeviled Zoli and, to a lesser extent, Dancer. The first half of the new novel — what I have come to think of as the male half — unspools the story of three trans-Atlantic journeys that end in Ireland: the first non-stop airplane flight, in 1919, by two English veterans of the Great War, Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown; the former slave Frederick Douglass’s trip by boat in 1845 to lecture and write and raise money for the cause of abolition; and the years of repeated crossings by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell that resulted in the Good Friday Accords in 1998, bringing an end to the Troubles that had tortured Northern Ireland for more than a generation.
These historical figures do not come to life on the page. They are little more than ideas and the roles they must play to advance McCann’s novelistic scheme. We never enter their marrow because they are little more than dots awaiting connection. Fortunately, McCann returns to form in the second half of the novel — the female half — telling the stories of several generations of women, some of whom were introduced as minor characters in the first half. Now we’re inside a Civil War hospital, we’re learning how ice was harvested in the 19th century and what the streets of St. Louis looked and sounded like. Our guides through these worlds are the remarkable women who descended from Lily Duggan, a maid in the house where Douglass stayed during his Irish sojourn, a woman who made her own trans-Atlantic crossing to America in 1846 to escape the coming famine.
McCann employs a style here that seems like a willful repudiation of his ability to write gorgeous prose. I can only guess that he was striving for an incantatory tone. To my ear, the effect is merely jarring, as in this description of George Mitchell musing in his Belfast office:
He cracks the window further. A sea-wind. All those ships out there. All those generations that left. Seven hundred years of history. We prefigure our futures by imagining our pasts. To go back and forth. Across the waters. The past, the present, the elusive future. A nation. Everything constantly shifted by the present. That taut elastic of time. Even violence breaks. Even that.Sometimes violently. You don’t know what this means, Senator.
Fortunately, there are also flashes of the kind of writing that made This Side of Brightness and Let the Great World Spin so unforgettable. Here’s the scene aboard a ship setting sail from America in 1929: “A bell rang and a cheer went up. The boat was far enough to water. An opera of anti-Prohibition toasts unfolded. The air itself seemed to have already drunk several glasses of gin.” Here’s how Emily, a journalist, confronts the terror of sitting down to write: “Stories began, for her, as a lump in the throat. She sometimes found it hard to speak. A true understanding lay just beneath the surface. She felt a sort of homesickness whenever she sat down at a sheet of paper.” And here’s Emily interviewing Teddy Brown at his home for a 10th-anniversary article about his historic flight aboard the Vickers Vimy: “This was his performance now, she sensed, he brought a breezy irony to his fame. She laughed, drew back a little from him. His days now were an ovation to the past. She knew he had probably talked the Vickers Vimy out of himself, hundreds of interviews over the years. She would have to turn away from the obvious, bank her way back into it.”
I could have used much more fine writing like this. Here’s hoping that next time out Colum McCann sticks with the history he does so well, writes the kind of prose only he can write, and steers clear of his Alcocks and Browns, his Douglasses and Mitchells. Real historical figures are a crutch this wildly gifted writer doesn’t need. His imagined characters are so much more vivid, alive and real.