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?
American War, the debut novel from Omar El Akkad, presents a highly plausible dystopia in the not so distant American future. The Second American Civil War erupts over a dispute about the nation’s energy future, with the North embracing green technology and renewables and the South clinging steadfastly to fossil fuels. El Akkad deftly places climate change as a primary force of national disintegration; the geography of this future post-coastal America has been permanently altered by climate change and geographic sectarianism, leaving the battle for American identity to be fought between the Midwest and the South. The new Northern (Blue) capital is Columbus, Ohio, and the capital of the Free Southern (Red) State is Atlanta. The landscape is dramatically different, but the tenor of the politics in the novel is eerily familiar. The newly dominant Bouazizi Empire of Middle Eastern and North African states united from the “Fifth Spring” Arab democratic revolutions is now seeking to manipulate a civil war in the once “soaring, roaring, and oblivious” America. Here, El Akkad not so subtly suggests the corruptibility of democratic states to imperial pursuits. He creates the theatre of conflict in which the novel’s protagonist stakes her claim.
Sarat Chestnut is a fascinating study of the border between justice and ruthlessness. Sarat grows up in a small river town in Louisiana just outside the Free Southern State until her father is killed in a “homicide bombing.” Early on, she doesn’t display inclinations that portend political consciousness, but, instead, an inwardness leading her to a crucial choice: resistance as an existential imperative or capitulation to the meaninglessness of war, death, and the transience of life.
Sarat spends her early childhood examining her surroundings, once pressing “her finger to the needles of a yucca plant,” and finding them “brown and rigid, immune to sun and storm.” It seems to her that nature is the constant, and it is meaningless. Consequently, she views sexuality as an ulterior concern, noticing the “dramatic concern for things that seemed inane and devoid of adventure: the color and style of skirts, the arrival of facial hair, the mysterious topology of flesh.” It’s an unusually extreme kind of seriousness for a kid her age; then again, this is an unusually extreme historical moment in which she finds herself. When her mother, Martina, moves the family to a refugee camp, the stage is set for Sarat’s radicalization.
At the ominously named Camp Patience, Sarat and her family subsist, waiting for the inevitable Northern incursion where they will be slaughtered. There, she is radicalized by a savvy ideologue named Albert Gaines. He hones her igneous intensity into a fixed bayonet of insurgent rage. Here, her naiveté is on full display. Betraying her provincial roots, she’s just not suspicious enough of the overly smooth Gaines. And the clues are not few. At one point even, Gaines, wearing an unwrinkled suit, jumps the shark by offering her caviar. Still, it is clear she is more taken by the persona of Gaines than by his ideas, which are little more than a melange of nativist and anti-imperialist tropes. She sees in him a cultured man, a man in the fray and above it, and it would be hard for any sensitive young person not to find that alluring. But the real radicalizing moment for Sarat is when Northern Blues storm Camp Patience and murder scores of helpless refugees.
El Akkad is excellent here in judiciously refraining from making clear whether it is Gaines’s ideology or the wanton carnage that radicalizes Sarat. When the Northern militias storm Camp Patience, she fights for her life, even relentlessly stabbing a foe until she can’t slash him anymore. Is this the inspiration Gaines imparted to her, or her desire to wreak vengeance on the marauding hordes from the North? After she draws her first blood, she cuts herself as a form of anesthetic as “the heat of life left the man, but she did not feel it.” She achieves the paradox of the revolutionary, of the insurgent, which is ruthlessness in the service of justice.
One weakness of the novel is the lack of development of Sarat’s close childhood friend, Marcus Exum, who departs early for the safety of the North, where he eventually becomes a Union Blue officer. Later on, the two are reunited and Sarat feels genuine warmth toward him, even though he has chosen a life antithetical to everything she stands for. Nowhere does she show this same level of mercy or understanding for anyone else, and thus it falls flat. We all know the mere fact of being friends with someone in childhood is no guarantee of sentimental feeling later, especially in the context of the novel here, where Sarat’s entire identity if predicated on a fiercely sectarian orientation to the world.
And that fierce devotion to radical insurgency should be her most noble trait, but, as the novel progresses, it proves to be the most damning. After she’s given up and betrayed by Gaines to the Northern forces, she is tortured in the “Non-Compliance Area” of the dubiously named prison, “Sugarloaf,” clearly a futuristic version of Guantanamo Bay. She is waterboarded and confesses to all crimes she’s charged with: “complicity in all manner of insurrectionist violence, things she’d never heard of before.” El Akkad here deploys a subtle critique of torture as not only immoral, but ineffective, as captives will say literally anything to make the pain stop — a direct critique of the Bush administration’s embrace of torture and Donald Trump’s lurid flirtation with it.
Roughly the final quarter the novel is narrated by Sarat’s nephew, Benjamin Chestnut. It’s the end of the war, and Benjamin is the voice of a postwar generation sorting through its cultural inheritance. He’s intrigued and ultimately disillusioned by his famous, war-grizzled aunt, living again with her brother (his father), Simon, and his wife, Karina, on the family property in Lincolnton, Ga., not far from Atlanta. Over time, he gets to know her. He feels affection for her, but, frustratingly, he never can get to the core of who she is. She remains inscrutable to him. Ultimately, in adulthood, Benjamin concludes that Sarat’s will to fight was an act of mourning, a profound unhappiness born of helplessness and protracted, pointless struggle.
He recalls one day from his childhood when he and Sarat went swimming in the river near their home. As they get out to dry themselves, he marvels at her body, that intricately austere record of the ravages of war, with its “strange rivulets of scarred skin that lined her upper arms and shoulders, dead-looking and paler than the rest of her.” When she was waterboarded, the sense of drowning overwhelmed her, and she couldn’t resist anymore. No one could. Drowning is universal. There are limits to resistance, even if there are no limits to one’s capacity to resist. Whether it be the metaphorical drowning of American cultural disintegration or the rising seas of a warming, carbon-clogged planet, Sarat’s lust for vengeance is a fight against rising waters sure to submerge us all.
The epigraph of Michelle Huneven’s fourth novel, Off Course, reads like a warning:
If a woman in her late twenties hasn’t found an absorbing occupation, and if, restless or adventurous, she begins to drift, she flirts with peril; for this is a vulnerable age, when demons present, singly and in droves, often taking the forms of men.
When I read this, I immediately though of HBO’s Girls, and how it could easily serve as an epigraph for that show, as well. But as I made way through Off Course, my thinking changed. The most important part of the epigraph, I realized, was the very first phrase: “a woman in her late twenties”. The girls in Girls aren’t old enough to truly “flirt with peril”; they might get into trouble, but it’s unlikely that anything they do will throw their lives off course.
The stakes are higher for a woman like Cressida Hartley, the heroine of Off Course. At 28, she’s a post-doc right on the precipice of adult life — or at least, a life out of school. All she has to do is write her dissertation. Her parents offer her the use of their summer cabin in the Sierras, a place she hated as a child. She accepts, thinking the isolation will be good for productivity. But she finds ways to procrastinate.
During her very first week, she hooks up with the local lothario and ends up dating him for months. It’s part of Cress’s charm, as well as her vulnerability, that she doesn’t care about his reputation. When their fling ends amicably, Cress gets down to work and, more importantly, you, the reader, begin to root for her. By then you understand what she’s up against: it’s not only that she has no interest in her dissertation (although this is a problem); it’s not only that she’s lonely (this is a bigger problem); it’s not only that she’s living in a house that is the embodiment of her childhood (an even bigger problem); it’s that the mountain itself exerts a pull on her. Her family’s cabin is a kind of Narnia for her, a place out of time visited by strange characters and surrounded by incredible natural beauty. On her very first night, Cress opens her window to feel the breeze, “bearing the scent of pine and mineral dust.” Above, “the moon cast a blue glow.” Already, we’re in the land of fairy tales (where demons might lurk) but Huneven caps off the passage with this ominous foreshadowing:
And so it was on familiar roads, in her family’s other home, with the blessings of those closest to her, that she veered off course, into the woods.
It’s hard to discuss how and why Cress veers off course without giving away too many details, but it doesn’t spoil much to reveal that a man is involved. I won’t say more about him except that he’s married, and his marriage throws up all the usual obstacles. It also puts you in the position of reading a romance from the point of view of “the other woman.” Although almost everyone in Cress’s life is judgmental of her choice, it’s hard to feel anything but sympathy for Cress. Still, she is a peculiar heroine. Or maybe she’s just adrift, and hard to pin down: She’s competent yet lost, independent yet passive, intelligent yet guileless. I found myself admiring her on one page and worrying about her on the next. Cress worries, too, at one point observing that she has begun to live “an offhand life,” one that she can’t look at directly, “for fear it would dissolve.”
Part of this novel’s power is that it spans several years, but time passes in a way that mimics life experience. The novel’s early chapters are warm and expansive and descriptive as Cress settles into her new mountain home and becomes a part of the community. Time passes slowly as it does at the beginning of a vacation. But as the novel progresses, and the area and its people become familiar to both Cress and the reader, the pace picks up. At the beginning of the novel, several chapters are spent on one season. By the end of the book, two months passes with a line break.
This is a novel about obsessive love and at some point during my reading of it, I became obsessed with the story in a way that surprised me. You could say my experience mirrored Cress’s own love affair, which starts out simply and easily but then somehow turns into a life-altering event that keeps Cress captive in the mountains for years. Although I wouldn’t characterize Off Course as a life-altering novel, it did cast a very strong spell. The fairy tale theme is pervasive and like all good fairy tales, there is a sense of unease, of darkness unseen. Cress describes her love as “a sad old king,” the arrival of spring is “a clear flammable gas in the air,” and a pocketknife is found buried in the dirt, like a bad omen.
It’s only when Cress descends to a lower elevation to visit friends that she realizes how strange her life has become:
…it was if she’d awakened from a dream or, more accurately, been dumped out of a fairy tale like the peasant girls who’d fallen down wells and found themselves in dark forests where animals talked and princes wandered disguised as beggars and you performed test after test until you woke up in your old bed, a silver flask the only proof of your ordeal.
The question of why Cressida finds herself in limbo haunts Off Course. She has everything going for her: she’s a well-educated young woman, from a well-off family, with a strong network of friends and acquaintances. She makes new friends easily and doesn’t have trouble finding work or places to live. She’s smart, resourceful, confident, and adaptable. So how does she lose her bearings? Huneven offers a number of ideas, including a Freudian one that, like so many Freudian clues, was so obvious in retrospect that I couldn’t believe I’d missed it. But no single explanation is put forth as the primary reason for Cress’s missteps. The mystery of those squandered years — and “squandered” is Cress’s word, not mine — remains unresolved in a way that feels very true to life.
You meet the strangest people on a book tour. One of the strangest – in the good sense – that I’ve met so far on my current tour was standing in a crowded Detroit bar sporting a 1970s Detroit Tigers jersey, a pair of bushy muttonchops and a cumulus cloud of curly hair that made him look like the drummer in a heavy metal band. I recognized the guy instantly. Our pictures were side-by-side in the front window of Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, where we had just given readings from our new books on successive nights.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Are you Dan Epstein?”
“That’s me,” he said, smiling as he shook my hand. “And you’re Bill!”
I admitted I was, and a writerly friendship was born. We had come to this saloon, Nemo’s, on the thinnest of literary pretenses. The occasion was the annual “Bird Bash,” a loopy celebration of one of the loopiest players ever to wear a Detroit Tigers uniform, Mark “the Bird” Fidrych, whose star blazed brightly but briefly in the summer of 1976, when he was the American League’s starting pitcher in the All-Star game, won Rookie of the Year honors, and captured the hearts of baseball fans across the nation with antics that included talking to baseballs, getting down on his hands and knees to smooth the pitcher’s mound, and returning a ball to the umpire if he sensed “it had a hit in it.” He got his nickname because his gangly physique and mop of fizzy hair reminded people of Big Bird on “Sesame Street.”
Epstein and I were supposed to read from our books during the “Bird Bash” because both books have strong ties to Detroit and the Tigers. Epstein’s Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76, includes a loving portrait of Fidrych’s remarkable rookie season; and my novel, Motor City Burning, opens at Tiger Stadium on the Opening Day of the 1968 season and, with flashbacks to the previous summer’s riot, follows the team’s progress to their victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in the ’68 World Series. Beyond all that, Epstein and I attended our first big-league ballgames at Tiger Stadium (mine was at age 9 in 1961, his was at age 10 in 1976), and we both remain fans of the team to this day.
But the mob at Nemo’s wasn’t thinking about our books. After watching a videotape of Fidrych’s breakout victory over the Yankees on a “Monday Night Baseball” broadcast from 1976, the crowd trooped one block to the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, where Tiger Stadium stood until its demolition in 2009, and where volunteers called the Navin Field Grounds Crew still tend the hallowed ballfield. After watching a guy re-enact some of the Bird’s antics, we all went back to Nemo’s to drink more beer and listen to a DJ spin “The Bird Is the Word,” some Stevie Wonder, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, and Kiss’s “Detroit Rock City.”
As the beer and music kicked in, it became apparent to Epstein and me that reading from our books would be pointless, so we struck up a conversation that’s still going on weeks later by telephone. After reading both of his fine books – the first one is called Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ‘70s – I told Epstein his writing had helped bring about a seismic shift in my thinking. During the 1970s, when I was getting started as a professional writer, I tuned out all the cheesy pop culture of an era I regarded as a stylistic Sargasso – disco music, hideous cars, atrocious fashions and hairstyles and, yes, baseball played on AstroTurf by guys in gaudy polyester uniforms. In Epstein I discovered a smart writer who actually reveled in the cheesiness of the ‘70s. And he did it without the killing smirk of irony.
Baseball in the ‘70s, as he wrote in Big Hair, “exuded an edgy (and palpably exciting) anything-goes vibe, one that has long vanished from the game as we know it. In recent years, for example, the Atlanta Braves have held a ‘Faith Day’ promotion, featuring performances by Christian rock bands and testimonials from Braves players about how Jesus turned their lives around. This is the same team that, back in 1977, drew more than 27,000 fans for a ‘Wet T-Shirt Night’ competition. Give me the 1970s, any day.”
Epstein’s books also make the valid point that prior to the 1970s, baseball players and other professional athletes lived in their own cocoon, insulated from the concerns of the rest of American society. (It could be argued that they’ve returned to the cocoon.) But in 1970 the cocoon started unraveling. Jim Bouton published Ball Four, which dared to point out that baseball players were not the clean-cut, clean-living heroes of popular myth but, as often as not, a gaggle of skirt-chasing boozers and pill-popping reprobates. That same year, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter while zonked on LSD. The fun was just beginning.
And there’s fun on every page of Epstein’s two books. One pitcher’s anemic fastball “wouldn’t have cracked the bubble window of an AMC Pacer.” The perms worn by numerous players “made them look like high school math teachers who hoped to get lucky at the local disco during the upcoming weekend.” And Peter Frampton’s live album from 1976 “oozed ingratiatingly mellow vibes across its four sides, making it the aural equivalent of a Maui Wowie-enhanced cruise along the California coastline in a Camaro.” The man can write.
As Epstein puts it, “Drugs, fashion, pop music, political upheaval, Black Power, the sexual revolution, gay revolution – all of these things left their mark upon ‘70s baseball in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier, and might be just as unthinkable now.”
This is where our books overlap. Big Hair and Motor City Burning both use baseball as a mirror of current events. Epstein, who has written extensively about music, is a rigorous researcher. Here is his take on the 1967 riot that’s at the center of my novel, an event he uses to illustrate how pre-‘70s baseball players were out of touch with what was happening in the streets outside of major-league ballparks:
In his book, The Tigers of ’68, George Cantor acknowledges this complete disconnect, citing as an example the July 23, 1967 doubleheader between the Yankees and Tigers at Tiger Stadium, which the teams played to completion while the deadliest, most destructive riot of the 1960s raged in the surrounding streets. “It was as if the stadium was wrapped in a cocoon,” Cantor writes, “untouched by the catastrophe that was engulfing the city.” He goes on to note that the era’s “Vietnam protests and rallies, love-ins and acid trips were part of a parallel reality, one that did not intrude on baseball’s space.” In the 1970s, that cocoon would pop, and those two parallel realities would collide head-on, resulting in the most colorful era in baseball history.
Well, yes and no. One thing Epstein fails to mention about that July 23, 1967 doubleheader is that after the second game, the Tigers’ popular black slugger and Detroit native Willie Horton, still wearing his uniform, went out into the city’s chaotic streets and begged the rioters to go home. He was heckled and pelted with debris, and the city of Detroit continued to burn.
But Horton’s futile heroics were the exception that proved Cantor’s rule. And Epstein’s point about ‘70s baseball is valid – for better and for worse, it was the most colorful era in baseball history, with its Technicolor polyester uniforms, AstroTurf in ashtray stadiums, free agency, the designated hitter, night-time World Series games, women sportswriters in the locker room, long hair, and mustaches and muttonchops, goofy promotions and goofy players like the Bird, on-the-field brawls and off-the-field shenanigans.
As we stood there in Nemo’s, I remarked to Epstein that K.C. and the Sunshine Band sound a lot better to me today than they did 40 years ago. When the DJ played “Show Me the Way,” I added that Peter Frampton still sucks as bad as he sucked in 1976.
Epstein laughed. “Growing up in the ‘70s, I loved the pop music and the disco and the movies,” he said. “For a 10-year-old kid, Boston’s first album was a magic box. It just made me happy. And listen to a Chic record today – and realize they did it without synthesizers! Eventually I got into soul and funk and Blaxploitation flicks. The reason I wanted to write Big Hair was because it was the era when I fell in love with the game. Then, in the process of researching the era, I fell in love with the era too. But I also have the sense, from the drugs and the war protests and the political scandals, that those were fucked-up times.”
Which goes a long way toward explaining why they’re suddenly becoming so interesting to me.
With his six months of book promotions winding to a close, Epstein and his wife, Katie Howerton, were getting ready to return to their home in Los Angeles. I asked him the question every writer dreads: “So what are you working on next?”
“If I do another book about ‘70s baseball, I’ll be the ‘70s baseball guy forever,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but maybe I should expand. The logical thing would be to write about the ‘80s. But what’s there to write about other than Ronald Reagan, Madonna, crack cocaine and The Wave? I get the hives just thinking about it.”
Whatever he decides to write, I hope he gets busy. I’ll buy any book with Dan Epstein’s name on the cover.
Some of you may know that I’m currently up to my ears in grad school applications. Luckily, posting on The Millions has a salutary effect on me, and also, I just finished a book, so I need to write about it. Jamesland opens with Alice, great-granddaughter of philosopher William James, having an odd waking dream of a deer in her house. Alice fixates on the deer as a portent of a coming change in her life, and the very next day her life begins to change slowly and inexorably. The book does not dwell on the supernatural, though it does have a bemused dialogue with the otherworldly throughout. Mostly it is about three forty-somethings whose social and professional lives are deteriorating and reconfiguring. I’d call it a mid-life crisis, but these characters have that quality, peculiar to Californians, of being youthful, unserious adults. The book is mostly set on the East Side of Los Angeles in neighborhoods that I know well. It was great to read a book that addresses a somewhat larger Los Angeles than usual. Movie stars are around, and Hollywood is nearby, but they are just parts of the great stew of the city, things that are noticed but after a while not accorded any greater importance than things like Griffith Park or the LA River. The only other book that I have read that successfully turns LA’s flashy side into just another bit of peripheral scenery is T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Huneven is well-known in Los Angeles as the food critic for the LA Weekly, and the way she writes about food in this book is magnificent. Pete (who along with Helen, a modern sort of minister, are the other two wayward adults) is a former near-celebrity chef who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, suicide attempt combo. His character is both abrasive and charming, the type of person who makes you nervous the moment he steps into the room. As he coaxes himself back into the functioning world, he takes up cooking again, and this is the venue for Huneven’s descriptions of foods. It was nice to see that Huneven did not place this book firmly in the world of food and restaurants in the way that many writers tend to crib from their day jobs. Instead, Huneven manages to weave her knowledge skillfully into the larger narrative. The book itself is a rather satisfying meal, best taken over a few languorous days on a sunny balcony or sitting on a park bench.