Wow. Sports Illustrated has just published an excerpt of Game of Shadows by SF Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams that lays out what can only be described as incontrovertible evidence that Barry Bonds has been a rampant steroid user for the last several years. This is going to rock the baseball world, and I hope it really does shake things up – I’d love to see the game get back to the way it was before wierdly beefy guys started launching home runs night after night. This is big book news too. I got a breathless “news alert” from a publicist pointing to the impact the SI excerpt is having on the book’s sales. As of this writing, yesterday’s Amazon rank for the book was 119,745 and now it’s up to 75, and climbing I’d assume. So here’s to a clean, non-chemically enhanced baseball season. Can we make it happen this year, please?
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.
The most startling fact of William Styron’s existence is that it ended naturally. Suicide is the subject of his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, a Faulknerian tragedy set in the aftermath of Hiroshima, which made him instantly famous at 26, and of Darkness Visible, his revealing and revered late-in-life memoir about the 1985 depression that found him on the cusp of pulling the trigger.
A second depressive episode would strike in 2000, and these two calamities constitute the sturdiest pillars of Reading My Father, Alexandra Styron’s memoir of the novelist she called “Daddy.” She notes that though the official cause of his death in 2006 was pneumonia, “Drowning would probably have been more appropriate,” given the anguish that engulfed him whenever he was not writing or drinking.
William Styron was from that virile mid-century caste of writer-warriors of which few remain; literature, meanwhile, has been relegated from the bar stool to the seminar table. George Plimpton, for whose Paris Review Styron was an early contributor, died in 2003; Norman Mailer, who once warned Styron that he would “stomp out of you a fat amount of yellow and treacherous shit” over some unflattering gossip, died in 2007.
Styron is more elusive, a Southerner who loved Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard and whose most memorable characters are entirely unlike him: a Catholic Holocaust survivor in Sophie’s Choice(his greatest novel) and a slave in the Confessions of Nat Turner (his most controversial).
As his daughter writes in Reading My Father, he was eternally occupied with the “dispossessed, disaffected, condemned to die, unable to die.” The confessional of Philip Roth was not for him: Only in his sixties did Styron turn to his own story, confronting demons (his mother’s fatal cancer foremost among them) that fiction and bourbon had muzzled.
Like many nurtured in the penumbra of genius, Alexandra Styron got a good story out of her privations. At twelve she totes Sophie’s Choice to school, only to be arrested by the novel’s lush sexuality. Arriving at “the bone-rigid stalk of my passion,” she slams it shut and, deciding that “Daddy didn’t actually do these things,” does not return until her late 30’s.
This episode was first recounted in a fine remembrance Styron (who has a novel, All the Finest Girls, to her name) wrote for the New Yorker in 2007. Reading My Father, an expansion of that article, attempts to combine self-searching memoir and literary biography, with only partial success.
For one, much of her father’s early life (Virginia, the Marines, Duke, New York) was recounted in a solid, authorized 1998 biography by James L. West III. The comparison to West would be unfair if it were not so obvious: Reading My Father recycles much of his material without improving on it.
But Styron’s child’s-eye-view is not without its triumphs, either, endearing the reader most when she is observing (and, often, pouring wine for) the resplendent characters who consort with her father and his poet-activist wife, Rose Burgunder: “Jimmy” Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller. To a teacher she announces, “Joan Baez was at my house last night.”
But despite her father’s prominence, Alexandra Styron says that he lived a “hunted and haunted” existence. He regularly focused his rage on the author, the youngest of his four children, berating her for being “a fucking princess” or suddenly emptying the house of junk food.
His later years were spent trying to replicate the success of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice with a war novel, The Way of the Warrior, that went through three drafts but remained unfinished. As Styron neared 60, frustration curdled into depression, culminating with him on the edge of suicide, only to be pulled back by “some last of sanity” (as he would later write in Darkness Visible) that brought him to the safety of Yale-New Haven Hospital.
A grown woman struggling to make her way in Los Angeles as an actress, Styron can now see her father with the fullness of vision missing from earlier chapters. Anyone familiar with mental illness will identify with her “almost surreal sensation of watching, up ahead of me, my once imposing father shuffle sadly down the sterile hallway, toward the locked door of the mental ward.”
There follow fifteen calmer years of Styron “squarely looking at himself,” writing finally about his own past in the story collection A Tidewater Morning. But while self-knowledge is restorative, it is hardly an armor. In 2000, depression again bowls him over. There are poignant scenes in Reading My Father of Styron panicking on an airplane, sinking into paranoid delusions (“I wonder if any of these hotels has a direct line to the Vatican”), berating his daughters as “sluts.” Finding her father “essentially ungovernable” until electroconvulsive therapy provides relief, Styron gives a refreshingly unvarnished account of how frustrating it is to play caretaker to madness.
But maybe Styron’s mind gave out only because it had been so completely engrossed in the creative process for so long. There is a lesson in Reading My Father for today’s writers, weaned as they are on the MFA’s anodyne comforts: “Writing is a matter…[of] dogging yourself to death,” he once said. They don’t teach that in workshop.
I have rarely trusted an author as implicitly as I trusted Edmund de Waal, after reading the preface to his book, The Hare With the Amber Eyes. The eponymous hare is carved out of ivory, and fits in the palm of your hand. It is one of a collection of 264 such figures, called netsuke in Japan, where they were carved, now owned by de Waal.
The netsuke collection was passed to de Waal from his great-uncle Iggy, who inherited it from his parents, who received it as a wedding gift from their cousin Charles Ephrussi, who collected them in Paris in the late 19th century, when japonisme was all the rage. The Hare With the Amber Eyes is therefore the story of the Ephrussi family, filthy rich bankers from Odessa who sent their sons and grandsons to Paris, Vienna, and London to establish a financial empire.
As de Waal says in the preface, “It could write itself, I think, this kind of story. A few stitched-together wistful anecdotes, more about the Orient Express, of course, a bit of wandering round Prague or somewhere equally photogenic, some clippings from Google on ballrooms in the Belle Epoque. It would come out as nostalgic. And thin.”
De Waal is a professional potter, and his impression of any environment – even a remembered or imagined one – is very tactile. When he enters a room, he notices its objects, their textures, who must have made them, and when. When he thinks of the netsuke’s previous owners, he wants to know where they kept the collection, how often they picked up the carvings and rolled them around in their fingers. He will have no nostalgic, sepia-toned portraits of Charles Ephrussi dandying around Paris. He looks into the past, at his great-grandfather’s cousin, and wonders: if this man bought these carvings a century ago, and I’m holding them in my hands, how are we connected?
Charles is a fine man to be connected to. Even as a Parisian transplant, living on Rue “New Money” Monceau, he worked his way to the center of fashionable society. He loved art. He collected it – Manet, Renoir, Degas – and wrote about it, as the editor of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. His rooms in the Ephrussi household were carefully curated, ever in flux and a la mode.
Charles was known to be one of two models for Proust’s Swann – “the lesser it was said, of the two” – and intimately connected to Proust himself. I have a soft spot for Proust – I think anyone who has read his novel feels proprietary towards the world of it. Finding him and a version of Charles Swann walking around in de Waal’s family history was like bumping into an old friend. Ephrussi and Proust were friends. Charles advised him on his translation of Ruskin, let him use the library at the Gazette, and invited him to the Rue Monceau to see his collection.
Descriptions of Charles’ paintings, and of his cameo in Renoir’s Boating Party (he’s the one in back in the top hat) make it into Proust’s work, but there’s no evidence in his writing or letters that he saw the netsuke, although a simple timeline would suggest he did. Among Charles’s impressive collection, the netsuke were an anomaly. Japonisme had been fashionable for a few seasons, but Charles seemed to retain a fondness for them. When his younger cousin Viktor Ephrussi was married in Vienna, he sent the entire collection, in its vitrine, as a gift.
Charles and Viktor were each the youngest boy in their family – the boys that weren’t groomed for finance. From among Charles’s noteworthy collection, sending Viktor a case of odd, whimsical figures – the ivory hare, the persimmons, the turtles, the peasant woman, a coiled rope – seems like a wink. “You might find these interesting,” I can hear him say. And indeed, as the mighty Ephrussi dynasty was scattered and depleted throughout the 20th century, the netsuke were kept close to the chest – hidden by a family servant while Nazis plundered the rest of the collection, given to Iggie, Viktor’s shy, sensitive son, and finally to de Waal.
We can never know the people who came before us, but we can own their dining tables, walk the streets they walked, put the Japanese knick-knacks they bought in our pockets, and infuse them with meaning. De Waal frequently carried the hare with him while he traveled to Paris, Vienna, London, and Tokyo researching the book. While hunting down the details of their lives, he had a constant reminder that it was a story leading to his own.
After having fallen in love with Charles Ephrussi while reading The Hare With the Amber Eyes, I learned that a painting he owned, Renoir’s Two Sisters, now hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago, across the street from my office. I stopped by after work one night to look at what Charles looked at. I got up close, examining the brush strokes, imagining him standing in his rooms in Paris showing it to Proust. Or perhaps the two of them in a different corner, discussing translation, while the two sisters watched silently. What does this mean, my brain struggled to conclude, what am I feeling? It was free night at the museum, which shares an ambiance with a mall food court, so the mystical me-Charles-Proust connection eluded me. But I was satisfied to know that the life of Renoir’s painting now included both Proust and myself. This may be why we love to keep things, and pass them on. As the netsuke do for the Ephrussi family, the objects that survive are what prove that we’re part of each other’s stories.
When it comes to baseball, the mind is unreliable and selective in what it remembers. Games and seasons blend into to one another and most second basemen or relief pitchers fade from view forever soon after they leave the diamond for good. Old teams and players live on only as lines of statistics in massive baseball encyclopedias or deep historical databases. Lost, too, are the millions of moments that make up every game. But Roger Angell has been quite good, over the years, at capturing those moments and preserving them as though in amber. And so, in reading his collection of baseball pieces that span more than forty years, one feels a bit like the lucky archeologist who has stumbled upon magnificent specimens so exquisitely preserved as to seem positively lifelike. Angell writes with almost scientific precision: “With the strange insect gaze of his shining eyeglasses, with his ominous Boche-like helmet pulled low… Reggie Jackson makes a frightening figure at bat.” Angell is not just an observer; he is also the ultimate fan, rooting for childhood favorites or for a team whose story has caught his fancy that particular year. Game Time is laid out like the baseball year, with pieces about the languor and anticipation of spring training in the beginning and closing with multi-faceted recollections of several past World Series. The many pieces taken together are like one long summer spanning forty years, a summer when you went to the ballpark frequently but listened to most of the games on the radio on the back porch at dusk.