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.
While writing about the abiding appeal of one-word book titles here recently, I revisited an avatar of the breed, David Gates’ Jernigan. This debut novel, which I’d discovered shortly after it was published in 1991, was even better the second time around – darker, sharper, funnier. The story is narrated by Peter Jernigan, a feckless, alcoholic New Yorker who takes his wife and their doomed marriage across the George Washington Bridge to the beckoning suburbs of northern New Jersey. There, surrounded by barbered lawns and the good life, they sink into a purgatory of booze and acrimony as their marriage and their lives unravel.
While re-reading the book I stumbled on a 1995 New York Times article that argued, persuasively, that Jernigan spawned a new strain of American literature that once would have been a bad joke. This type of novel had been appearing sporadically for many years. but suddenly, after the appearance of Jernigan, it began to gather the force of a sizable wave. Since then the wave has become a tsunami.
We’ll call it The New Jersey Novel.
Though it is one of the most densely populated and lavishly polluted states in the nation, New Jersey is not home to a single place that deserves to be called a city. Camden, anyone? Or how about Trenton, Newark, Elizabeth, Hoboken, Paterson or Piscataway? Or that chancre sore by the sea, Atlantic City? New Jersey also lacks the regional peculiarities that have nourished novelists in other parts of America – the urban thrum of the Eastern seaboard and the industrial Midwest, the magnolia murk and tortured history of the South, the soul-exposing vastness of the big-sky West, the sun-dazed sprawl of southern California. Instead, New Jersey has suburbs like the one Peter Jernigan retreated to, it has shopping malls, office parks, a seashore, some serious slums, and a thruway that slices through the world’s juiciest petrochemical badlands. And, yes, the Garden State also has a few lovely bucolic pockets.
But as David Gates and other novelists began realizing about two decades ago, these shortcomings are, paradoxically, the source of rich fictional possibilities. New Jersey’s lack of defining character traits – its facelessness, its rootlessness, its lukewarmness – make it an ideal portal to get inside the soul of a nation that becomes more faceless, rootless and generic – more soulless – by the day, a nation where regional signifiers have been sanded smooth by interstate highways, franchise restaurants, big box stores, shopping malls, subdivisions, all the strangling, interchangeable links of the corporate chains. In contemporary America, anomie is a moveable feast, and its template was exported from New Jersey.
So what, beyond a New Jersey setting, makes a novel a New Jersey Novel?
“The Jersey novel is all about a fruitless attempt at finding community,” Michael Aaron Rockland told the Times. Rockland was identified as chairman of the American Studies department at Rutgers University and teacher of a class in something called “Jerseyana.” “My whole notion of New Jersey is that we live in a never-never land, where we pretend we’re living on a farm. The real centers of New Jersey are these office parks in the middle of nowhere. Life is not bad in New Jersey, not bad at all, but what every writer writes about is our trying to find a center in our lives.”
For the novelist Mark Leyner, who grew up in Maplewood, “New Jerseyness is a kind of vagueness. It’s peculiarly indeterminate.”
For David Gates, New Jersey and New York City will be forever joined at the hip. From his home in upstate New York, Gates said by telephone, “The reason I set the novel in New Jersey is because I wanted Peter Jernigan to be in the place that’s his worst snob’s nightmare. Many New Yorkers sneer at the bridge-and-tunnel crowd. As part of his scheme for undoing himself, New Jersey would be the place with the least cachet.”
Aside from its lack of cachet, was there something else about New Jersey that spoke to Gates?
“It’s a state where I easily get lost,” he said. “It’s directionless. There’s a kind of vagueness about it. And I was trying to stay away from Cheever’s turf (in New York’s Westchester County).”
Which brings us to the question: Who wrote The Great New Jersey Novel? Here is my list of nominees – personal, random, and no doubt far from exhaustive:
Peter Jernigan lives with his wife and their teenage son in a tract house with an aboveground pool on a quarter-acre of lawn in an unnamed New Jersey suburb. The place’s lack of a name is, in itself, significant. They couldn’t afford anything in Cheever country or farther upstate in New York, and the place they had to settle for is no palace. As Jernigan puts it: “This shitbox house of ours didn’t have any back door – just a blank wall with a couple of small, high windows – so you had to walk all the way around the fucking garage to get into the kitchen through the breezeway. I couldn’t imagine how the people who lived here before could have gone to the expense of putting in a pool – I hope you don’t think we’d put it in – and then not bothered to put a lousy screen door on the back side of the breezeway so you could get out to it. Then again, we’d been here, what, ten years and hadn’t bothered either.”
Like so many of his fellow Garden Staters, Jernigan must make the deadening train commute to a deadening job in New York every morning, then repeat the drill every evening. Here’s Jernigan surveying his fellow home-bound commuters: “All the men looked like me. Human basset hounds in wrinkled suits. Except they were drunk, lucky bastards, from their after-work stop-off at Charley O’s or something. Ties loosened, breathing through their mouths.”
In Jernigan’s New Jersey the indignities can be as big as a split-level shitbox or as small as a trip to buy a gallon of gas for the lawnmower. Here’s Jernigan watching the attendant do his job at a full-service gas station: “Here in the Garden State they actually don’t allow you to be a man and pump your own; some union bullshit…”
This atmosphere of vague disaffection sharpens when Jernigan’s wife dies in a drunken car accident and his son starts dating a disturbed girl. A lot of the kids in Jernigan are disturbed; some are so disturbed they shoot themselves with needles or guns. When Jernigan starts sleeping with the disturbed girl’s mother, a survivalist who breeds rabbits in her basement (for food), his descent hits full throttle. It bottoms out, at least for me, when he goes down to the bunny death chamber, presses the barrel of a pistol to the webbing between his left thumb and index finger, and squeezes the trigger. Why does Jernigan shoot himself? “To see what it would be like.”
What makes the novel great is that it’s rooted in the vivid particulars of its place – the split-level, the pool, the commuter train, the rabbits, the gas station – and then it bursts out of its skin to say something universal about the harsh dignity of surviving, even if the survivor winds up, like Jernigan, in rehab, minus a thumb. Our peculiarly American hero, battered but unbowed, utters the novel’s closing lines during a 12-step group therapy session: “But when it comes around to you, you have to give them something, if only name and spiritual disease. That’s the rule here. So what I’ve figured out is this. I stand up and say: Jernigan.”
Jane Shapiro’s debut novel, After Moondog, appeared a year after Jernigan. But beyond their age and settings, the two novels have little in common. Shapiro’s narrator, Joanne, meets her future husband William on a New York street corner commandeered by a motor-mouthed homeless person in a silver Viking helmet named Moondog. Joanne and William marry, move to the New Jersey suburbs, and raise two children. The reason they did all this, according to Joanne, was to “deepen our sense of stability and own a small green lawn.” Instead they get those durable staples of suburban life: extra-marital affairs and a divorce. We’re a long way from Jernigan’s split-level shitbox and his girlfriend with rabbits and a gun in the basement, but we’re still very much in New Jersey.
Paterson, the inspiration for William Carlos Williams’ masterpiece and the birthplace of Allen Ginsberg, will never be confused with the lush New Jersey suburbs. For this reason, among many others, it makes a fertile backdrop for Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the Dominican diaspora, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which spins around the trials and strivings of a young Dominican nerd who reads Tom Swift and is drunk on comic books and science fiction. Díaz tells the story of his title character (a bastardization of Oscar Wilde) in a breezy, muscular vernacular. It’s a story about the absorption of immigrants into the American middle class, and it’s enriched by a vivid portrait of the monstrous dictator Rafael Trujillo these immigrants left behind in their homeland. It was wise of Díaz not to set his novel in New York City’s better-known Dominican enclaves of Washington Heights or the Lower East Side. What could possibly be a grittier or more generic gateway to the American middle class than Paterson, New Jersey?
Richard Ford’s New Jersey Novel is actually a trilogy – The Sportswriter, Independence Day (the first novel to win both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize), and The Lay of the Land. All three revolve around what goes on inside the head of a New Jersey citizen named Frank Bascombe, a failed novelist who turns to sportswriting and eventually becomes a real-estate agent while weathering the storms of a young son’s death, divorce, cancer, and the quiet dwindling of expectations. Frank Bascombe, like his home state, is a poster boy for the uncelebrated. “Better to come to earth in New Jersey than not to come at all,” Franks says, in what has to be the most left-handed compliment any state ever received. Here’s another of New Jersey’s virtues: “Illusion will never be your adversary here.”
Ford, to paraphrase Emerson, seems to believe that literature consists of what a man is thinking about all day. The life that gets lived inside Frank Bascombe’s head is, in the words of one reviewer, “unassuming, ordinary, sometimes dull.” Perfect for New Jersey.
There has been no shortage of artists mining New Jersey’s marvels, heartaches, and horrors, from William Carlos Williams to Bruce Springsteen, the Feelies, the filmmakers Louis Malle (Atlantic City) and Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness), and the writer John McPhee, who in 1968 published a non-fiction classic about the state’s sandy midriff called The Pine Barrens. And let’s not forget Tony Soprano or that adorable posse from Jersey Shore. But if the state has a home-grown laureate, it is surely Philip Roth. No writer has returned more frequently or fruitfully to his New Jersey roots, particularly to working-class Jewish Newark in the years before, during and after the Second World War.
While it would be possible to argue that a handful of Roth’s works qualify as The Great New Jersey Novel, I’m going to single out American Pastoral, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. Roth’s canvas is vast, ranging from Newark as a thriving industrial city to Newark as a wreck gutted by racism, greed, and fear. We see the bloody fruit of the disillusionment spawned by the Vietnam War, and we come to know the fictional hamlet of Old Rimrock, nestled in one of New Jersey’s lovely bucolic pockets that looks much as it looked before the Revolutionary War, the implausibly pretty place where the novel’s hero, Swede Levov, is robbed of his perfect life.
Rick Moody’s first novel, Garden State, won a Pushcart Prize for its depiction of teenagers coming of age in the 1980s in a northern New Jersey hole called Haledon. They try to form a band, they do drugs, they light themselves on fire, they fall off roofs. It’s all so New Jersey.
The Feelies had a lot to do with the making of this dark novel. As Moody said in an interview (collected in The Pleasure of Influence): “I’ve always revered the Feelies and when I started writing Garden State I listened almost incessantly to this one record called The Good Earth. What I liked about it was it seemed like its ambition was to tell the truth about what it was like for someone in their twenties, sort of rattling around in the suburbs without particular ambitions to get any further than that. So it seemed to be true to me, sort of a true document. And that was what I aspired to do, in a way – add a sort of fictional analog to the record with Garden State.”
So the novel was written under the influence of the Feelies. That explains a lot.
Clockers, set in and around a thinly disguised Jersey City housing project, may be the most anthropological novel ever to come out of New Jersey. Its adversaries are Strike, the black leader of a crew of low-level cocaine dealers, and Rocco Klein, a burnt-out homicide cop looking for a little late-career redemption. Through them – through Price’s dogged reporting – we learn an encyclopedia’s worth of information about the warring tribes of street dealers and cops, their dress, language, working methods, scams, fears, hatreds, and occasional capacity for grace. Strike is a remarkable creation, a teenager who swills Yoo-Hoo to soothe an ulcer as he endures humiliations from every quarter – from his boss, his girlfriend, the cops, and the thing they’re paid to serve and protect: white society. As one reviewer put it, “So much information is disseminated that by the end of the novel the reader feels more or less ready to investigate a homicide or start up a drug operation, or both.” One thing the reader will not be ready to do is move into a Jersey City housing project.
A New Jersey native, the prolific and under-appreciated novelist P.F. Kluge spent the summer of 1962 working as a newspaper reporter in Vineland. The time and place became the backdrop for his atmospheric novel about a band of early Jersey rockers, Eddie and the Cruisers, a paean to the glory days before the British Invasion, before Springsteen and Southside Johnny. The novel was made into a movie starring Tom Berenger and Ellen Barkin.
In his first novel, The Wishbones, Tom Perrotta worked a minor miracle. His 31-year-old protagonist Dave Raymond is fitfully employed as a courier, still living at home with his parents in the New Jersey suburbs, still dating his high-school sweetheart, and moonlighting nights and weekends in a wedding band that gives the book its title. They cover hits from the ’70s and ’80s, including, yes, “Stairway to Heaven.” Dave and his bandmates call each other “Buzzmaster” and “Daverino,” and their lives are suffused with “the unmistakable odor of mediocrity.” And yet – here’s the miracle – Perrotta never condescends to these characters, or their New Jersey milieu, or their stubborn refusal to join the adult world. It’s a remarkable achievement, drawing tenderness out of mediocrity. Few writers have the courage, the compassion or the skill to pull it off.
Perrotta optioned his second novel to the movies before he could sell it to a publisher. Election, which became an Oscar-nominated movie starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon, is set in suburban Winwood, New Jersey in 1992 and revolves around the election of a high school president. The election brings out the best in the people of Winwood: raw ambition, back-stabbing, lesbian sex, sex between students and teachers, and, of course, vote stealing. If more people had read the book or seen the movie, that stolen U.S. presidential election in 2000 might not have been quite so shocking.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Princeton University doesn’t belong in New Jersey any more than Richard Nixon did, but there it sits, midway between Philadelphia and New York, an eternal beacon to the sons of daughters of privilege. Nearly a century ago, a Princeton undergraduate set out to make his literary name and woo back a southern belle who had jilted him because he didn’t have enough money. The result was This Side of Paradise (1920), the debut novel that made F. Scott Fitzgerald into an overnight literary star and helped win back Zelda Sayre. Not everyone appreciated Fitzgerald’s knowing portrayal of Princeton’s booze-marinated clubbiness. University president John Grier Hibben sniffed, “I cannot bear to think that our young men are merely living four years in a country club and spending their lives wholly in a spirit of calculation and snobbishness.”
Another novel to come out of Princeton was Geoffrey Wolff’s The Final Club, which has been called “Fitzgerald on fast-forward” because it updates the clubbiness of Paradise to the 1950s. The clubs in question are the university’s so-called eating clubs, otherwise known as fraternities. Wolff’s novel dissects the degrading rituals surrounding admission, while adding a bitter dash of anti-Semitism.
The envelope, please
And the winner is…David Gates. Those bunnies in the basement and the thumb lost to a self-inflicted gunshot wound – they tipped the scales for me.
Of course you’re free to disagree and choose someone else from the list. Or someone who’s not on the list. Or someone most of us don’t know about, but should.
Image courtesy of Triborough/Flickr
Looking back through old posts at The Millions, one of my favorites is my post going through every New Yorker story in 2005. It was a somewhat grueling post to compile, but in the spirit of recent New Year’s resolutions, also very rewarding. I spend a lot of time each year reading the New Yorker and so it seems fitting that I might reflect on that time spent and revisit some of what I read. As perhaps the most high-profile venue for short fiction in the world, taking stock of the New Yorker’s year in fiction is a worthwhile exercise for writers and readers alike.As with my effort a few years ago, what you’ll find below is more an exercise in listing and linking than any real attempt at summary, but hopefully some folks will enjoy having links to all of this year’s stories on one page. I’ve also included some links to people who talked about New Yorker stories during the year. I’ll include Perpetual Folly here rather than with the stories below since it reflected on every story in the New Yorker over the course of 2008.In revisiting all of the stories, one major over-arching theme emerged for me, the conflict between stories that center on what I call “suburban malaise” (born out of “The Swimmer” and “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” among many others) and those that don’t. The former are what I think of as the base condition for New Yorker (and indeed all of contemporary American and UK short fiction) and the latter are the departures from that. The departure can be one of character, theme, setting, or style. The distinction is, of course, imprecise, and there are many riveting, impeccable examples of the “suburban malaise” story on offer from the New Yorker. The departures, meanwhile, can serve as a breath of fresh air and when done well, expand the boundaries of short fiction for the reader.January 7, “Outage” by John Updike – The New Yorker kicked off the year with old standby John Updike offering a story that begins somewhat quaintly with protagonist Brad being thrust into a reverie by a storm-caused power outage. The story continues on quaintly as Brad wanders through his darkened town, but changes tone when he encounters a similarly dazed neighbor Lynne and the plot shifts to one of more typical New Yorker-esque suburban malaise and infidelity. Updike’s The Widows of Eastwick was published in October. Links: Jacob Russell, Richard LarsonJanuary 14, “Wakefield” by E.L. Doctorow – Speaking of suburban malaise, Doctorow takes it to the next level in this long story of a disaffected husband and father who hides out in his garage attic, letting his family believe he’s gone missing. Like a stowaway on his own property, Howard Wakefield scavenges for food and spies on his wife as she steers the family ship. The central drama of the story hinges on how long Howard will keep up his ruse and the story’s end is tantalizing. This one, interestingly, is a retelling of a Nathaniel Hawthorne story of the same name. Docotorow has a new, as yet untitled novel coming out late this year. Links: One Real StoryJanuary 21, “Ash Monday” by T. Coraghessan Boyle – Like many Boyle classics, this one is set in California where the fear of natural disaster is always present in the background. On the surface, this story is one of neighbors doing what neighbors sometimes do: hate each other. Though it is the New Yorker’s third story in a row about the suburbs to lead off 2008, this one, with its west coast focus, is far from typical for the magazine. Boyle, who knows how to end a story, closes this one out in a blaze of glory. Boyle’s new book The Women comes out soon.January 28, “The Reptile Garden” by Louise Erdrich – Goodbye suburbs. Erdrich’s story is about dreamy Evelina in North Dakota who is not adjusting to college life very well. She obsesses over Anais Nin and eventually ends up taking a job at a mental hospital where she meets Nonette, who, like Nin, is French. The type of friendship that could only bloom inside the confines of a mental hospital ensues. Eventually, Evelina makes the transition from staff to patient. The story is excerpted from Erdrich’s novel Plague of Doves.February 4, “Friendly Fire” by Tessa Hadley – Hadley, like the four preceding writers, is a favorite of New Yorker fiction editors. Her stories seem to exude the grayness of lower middle-class English towns. This one is about a pair of women who do cleaning jobs. Pam owns the little business and Shelly helps out. Shelly’s son Anthony is in Afghanistan and this fact lends some definition to her otherwise mundane life. This is a story of dialog and exposition, not plot. It’s funny in parts and looks in on a life. Hadley’s The Master Bedroom was published last year.February 11 & 18, “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro – Munro is a favorite of mine, though I’ve preferred several of her stories from over the years to this one. Still, it’s quite good and even gripping in parts. Even just now, skimming through it, I’m getting sucked back in. It’s about recently widowed Nita. Munro sets the stage with a lengthy introduction to Nita, her life proscribed and seemingly shrinking following the death of her husband. With a knock at the door and an unexpected visitor, however, the story takes an abrupt and darker turn. Munro’s most recent collection is 2006’s The View from Castle Rock. Links: Armenian Odar, Lemon HoundFebruary 25, “Shelter of the World” by Salman Rushdie – Channeling the “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” Rushdie introduces Akbar the Great who has “an imaginary wife,” Jodha. Akbar being who he was, “no man dared gainsay him.” Akbar’s people build him a city, he employs an “Imperial Flatterer First Class,” and he speaks in the royal “we.” Akbar’s inability to say “I” is a symptom of the great solitude that results from his great power and feeling experimental he tries referring to himself as “I” with his imaginary wife. As you can imagine, the story has the qualities of a parable. It’s also quite funny in parts. “Shelter of the World” is an excerpt from Rushdie’s novel The Enchantress of Florence. Links: Jacob Russell, N+1March 3, “Leaving for Kenosha” by Richard Ford – Fresh off finishing up his Bascombe trilogy, Ford offers up a story about another divorced father, this one in New Orleans. “It was the anniversary of the disaster.” and Walter Hobbes is spending the day with his teenage daughter Louise who wants to say goodbye to a classmate who is leaving the city for good, part of the ongoing, post-Katrina exodus. While Louise is at the dentist, it’s up to Walter to find a card for the occasion, “There was simply nothing he could do that was right here, he realized. The task was beyond his abilities.” The story offers up ample amounts of patented Richard Ford suburban malaise and the meeting at the story’s end – Walter and Louise and the departing family – manages to capture a certain feeling about what has happened in New Orleans. Ford’s most recent book is 2006’s The Lay of the Land. Links: Jacob RussellMarch 10, “Raj, Bohemian” by Hari Kunzru – A very quirky story. The narrator travels in rarefied social circles, attending high concept dinner parties in spectacular, rent-free lofts, that sort of thing. The circle is infiltrated by Raj, who photographs one such party and uses the pictures in an ad. The narrator gets ticked off, the party’s host says, “That’s so Raj.” Another says, “Get over yourself, man. You’re acting so old-fashioned, like some kind of Communist.” The narrator begins to suspect that all of his friends are trying to sell him something, that their “coolness” has become a marketable commodity. An interesting paranoia sets in, but Kunzru doesn’t take the concept as far as he might have. Kunzru’s most recent book is last year’s My RevolutionsMarch 17, “The Bell Ringer” by John Burnside – In Scotland, Eva’s father dies, “still, the fact was that in the aftermath of the funeral, when it had seemed as if the whole world had fallen silent, what had troubled Eva most was her marriage, not her father’s absence.” Her husband is the distant Matt. To escape her solitude, Eva signs up for a bell-ringing club, out of which a love triangle of sorts emerges. The story fits into the modern British and Irish short story tradition of William Trevor, Roddy Doyle, and Tessa Hadley and is a decent example of the style. Burnside has a new novel, The Glister, coming out in March.March 24, “The Region of Unlikeness” by Rivka Galchen – The narrator insinuates herself into the odd friendship of Jacob and Ilan. The two men are talkers, name-dropping intellectuals who delight in both low and high culture. The narrator is mesmerized by them and they see her as a sort of “mascot.” Then she gets caught between the two men. They seem to be quarreling initially, but a mystery emerges, something involving time travel and all sorts of odd meta-physics. This one is an excerpt from Galchen’s debut, Atmospheric Disturbances.March 31, “Great Experiment” by Jeffrey Eugenides – This is a memorable story, one that seems even more timely now than when it was published. Kendall is a poet with a day job working for eighty-two-year-old Jimmy Dimon’s boutique publishing house, helping Dimon publish whatever strikes Dimon’s fancy, an abridged edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in this case. Kendall is bitter, underpaid, and unsupported by his equally bitter wife making him easy prey for Dimon’s crooked accountant, Piasecki, who ropes Kendall into an embezzlement scheme. Eugenides strikes a nice balance in this one. The reader feels sympathy for Kendall’s predicament but also a loathing for his tendency to blame all his ills on others. Eugenides hasn’t had any new books out in a while, but he recently edited the anthology My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead. Links: Good ReadingsApril 7, “The House Behind a Weeping Cherry” by Ha Jin – Awkward, innocent Wanren is living in a rooming house for prostitutes in Flushing, Queens. Short on rent, Wanren is pushed into service as a driver by the landlady (and madame) Mrs. Chen. Wanren becomes like a brother to the three girls he lives with, but falls for one of them, Huong and hatches a plan to start a new life with her. Jin offers up an engaging peek into a hidden subculture of illegal immigrants, sweatshops, and sex workers. Another memorable story from the magazine this year. Jin’s most recent book is last year’s A Free Life.April 14, “The Lie” by T. Coraghessan Boyle – Boyle was the New Yorker’s first repeat visitor to the fiction department last year, and by mid-April no less. This story offers a somewhat more generic vision of suburban malaise than is typical of Boyle (again in California), but it also goes for the gusto. Like Wakefield of Doctorow’s story in January, Boyle’s Lonnie plays a sort of disappearing act, not with himself, but with his baby instead. Unable to stop himself, Lonnie dismantles his life almost in slow motion and it’s hard to look away, though you want to. No natural disasters here, though.April 21, “The Repatriates” by Sana Krasikov – Grisha and Lera spent a decade in America finding opportunity but Grisha, though he finds plenty of success and remuneration, becomes disillusioned and has visions of greater things back in Russia. As the title indicates, this is a story of repatriation, rather than the expatriation that has been an inspiration for so many expats writing in America. That unique element, plus the exotic locale of Russia (I’m a sucker for exotic locales), made this one a winner for me. This story appeared in Krasikov’s debut, One More Year. Krasikov also appeared in our Year in Reading and penned a guest post for us.April 28, “Bullfighting” by Roddy Doyle – British suburban malaise takes wing to Iberia. In this very memorable story, Donal and his middle-aged buddies plan a guys’ trip to Spain, where Doyle serves up a compelling mix. The guys all have fun, getting away from the families and all that, but Doyle also makes clear how circumscribed their lives really are and how finding real joy and escape is a near impossibility. Doyle’s latest is a collection of stories, The Deportees.May 5, “Them Old Cowboy Songs” by Annie Proulx (registration required) – This was a very affecting story that stayed with me a long time and that I still remember vividly eight months after first reading it. Proulx captures the frontier, Western spirit as well as any writer ever has, but she certainly doesn’t romanticize it. The hardships and loneliness faced by homesteaders Archie and Rose McLaverty are unfathomable to us today. A must read. This story appears in Proulx’s most recent collection, Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3.May 12, “A Man Like Him” by Yiyun Li – This is a strange story with a surreal quality that seems common in contemporary Asian fiction. At its heart though, the story is about an older generation being bewildered and wounded by the younger. In China, where the story takes place, modernization has come quickly, and one imagines that the older folks must look upon the younger ones like aliens. In Li’s story, an allegedly unfaithful father has been publicly pilloried on his daughter’s popular blog and become something of a national scapegoat. Teacher Fei is sympathetic and tracks down the man, as much to commiserate with him as to try to understand. Li’s debut novel The Vagrants comes out in February.May 19, “East Wind” by Julian Barnes – Another entry in the British suburban malaise column (though technically the malaise is felt by the seaside). Vernon lives in a small beach town. “He’d moved here to have no weather in his life.” He isn’t looking for love but unexpectedly finds it (or something like it) with Andrea, an immigrant waitress with East German roots. She’s got a skeleton in the closet, one that was particular appropriate for an Olympic year. Barnes’ latest is his memoir Nothing to be Frightened of.May 26, “The Full Glass” by John Updike – Updike makes his second appearance of 2008, and he’s feeling old in this one, kicking off with the senior citizen narrator’s pharmaceutical regimen. It’s not long before he’s reminiscing about growing up during the Great Depression and then alighting from one reminiscence to another with the notion of his various habits tying the memories together. A solid story that has a very different narrative arc from most of what appears in the magazine. Links: Ward SixJune 2, “A Night at the Opera” by Janet Frame – This brief story was a previously unpublished piece by the late writer from New Zealand. It is essentially a reverie – a distant memory – that bubbles up in the mind of an institutionalized woman as she watches a Marx Brothers film. Another more “experimental” piece than is typically seen in the magazine. Frame wrote Faces in the Water and several other novels.June 9 & 16, The Summer Fiction issue: “Natasha” by Vladimir Nabokov – A lovely line: “With a pout, Natasha counted the drops, and her eyelashes kept time.” Last year, Verses and Versions, a collection of poetry translated by Nabokov was published. “Tits Up in a Ditch” by Annie Proulx (registration required) – Proulx paints tough life for Dakotah, born to a teen-aged mom, raised by her cruel grandparents. She gets married, has a baby, the marriage falls apart, and she joins the Army. The tragedies are laid on thick from there, but it’s a vibrant, gripping read. “Don’t Cry” by Mary Gaitskill (registration required) – This has a very “issues of the day” feel to it. Janice goes with her friend Katya to Ethiopia where Katya is looking to adopt a child. There are roadblocks both bureaucratic and emotional and all in all it’s a solid story. The rendering of Ethiopia is nicely done. This is the title story in Gaitskill’s forthcoming collection.June 23, “The Headstrong Historian” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – A sweeping story about a woman named Nwamgba, almost epic in its scope, and in following her life, we are witness to the many changes over the decades that overtake her land and people. Nwamgba bears a son Anikwenwa after many miscarriages but then is widowed. She sends Anikwenwa to school where he learns English. Adichie explores the distance that grows up between Nwamgba and Anikwenwa, she knowing only the old ways, he becoming steadily assimilated by the new. By the time Grace, Nwamgba’s grand-daughter is born and comes of age, the generations are separated by a gulf, and the story itself becomes an intriguing parable of the changes that came to Africa in the 1900s, what many things were altered and what few things nonetheless endured. Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun won much praise when it was published.June 30, “Deep-Holes” by Alice Munro – Munro makes her second appearance of 2008. This story, like the prior week’s story, covers decades. In this one, a family disintegrates and then two of its members come back into contact. It’s not quite as good as “Free Radicals,” but, being an Alice Munro story, it’s still quite good.July 7 & 14, “Thirteen Hundred Rats” by T. Coraghessan Boyle – With the year only half over, Boyle logs his third appearance in the magazine. There are few “literary” writers that can base a story around the outlandish and pull it off. Were Boyle’s stories to actually take place in real life, the climactic moments would be fodder for those “strange but true” stories that get forwarded to everyone’s email inboxes. It’s a quality that not all readers appreciate. This story, as the title suggests, involves quite a few rats. In my opinion Boyle pulls it off. But then, I’m a Boyle fan. Links: Too Shy to Stop.July 21, “Yurt” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum – A very fun read. This story takes us into an elementary school, among harried, altruistic teachers and their petty gossip. I loved how Bynum adopts the proscribed vocabulary of the elementary school, referring to all her characters as Ms. or Mr. The big news in the teachers’ lounge is that the flighty Ms. Duffy has returned pregnant from a long trip overseas. There’s much to love here. It doesn’t have the ponderousness of emotion that so many New Yorker stories bear. The story is an excerpt from the novel Ms. Hempel Chronicles.July 28, “The Teacher” by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala – A rather strange story and fairly memorable, though we’re getting into the last half of 2008 here, so I suppose I didn’t read this all that long ago. This one could have been tightened up a bit, but I loved the off-kilter characters: the narrator, two spinsters, and some sort of latter day mystic. I have no real-life analogs for them, yet they leaped off the page for me. The plot was less intriguing to me, however. A little tighter, and this story would have been a favorite. Jhabvala won the Booker Prize in 1983 for Heat and Dust. Links: EmdashesAugust 4, “Clara” by Roberto Bolaño – 2008 was the year of Bolaño, and the New Yorker took part in the surge of interest surrounding the late author. This brief story seems almost in a dream. The narrator is in love with Clara. They write letters to each other and talk on the phone from afar. The distance between them seems more than just physical. It’s as if the universe has willed it. Bolaño’s 2666 was published in translation to much acclaim last year.August 11 & 18, “The Dinner Party” by Joshua Ferris – More suburban malaise. This time of the variety that takes place in Brooklyn. But it’s not about a dinner party so much as waiting for a dinner party to occur. The dinner party is one of the mundanities of life – the couple hosting the party clearly thinks so – but much as we rebel against these mundanities it doesn’t take much to make you realize that bitching and moaning isn’t rebelling. This story has suspense and a very nice narrative arc that I won’t ruin by divulging its details. Ferris’ debut Then We Came to the End was a National Book Award finalist. Ferris appeared in our Year in Reading in 2007. Links: Too Shy to Stop, I Read A Short Story TodayAugust 25, “Awake” by Tobias Wolff – This tiny story is a well rendered little sketch. Wolff takes us into the head of Richard, lying awake in bed, musing on various things and wanting to put the moves Ana, his girlfriend, lying next to him. The story captures well the competing influences in the mind of the young man: sex and all the complications that come with the pursuit of it. Wolff’s Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories came out last year. Links: Under the Midnight Sun, One Real Story, Too Shy to StopSeptember 1, “Gorse is Not People” by Janet Frame – This is the second story by the late Frame in the magazine in 2008 and this one is pretty mind blowing. Written in 1954, it’s about a dwarf named Naida, who, living very much in her own head, believes that she will be released on her 21st birthday from the institution that houses her. She also believes that she will get married and live some kind of glamorous life. It’s clear that Naida is mentally disturbed and that she would likely not fare well on the “outside,” but she is also incredibly sympathetic. Frame captures Naida’s odd mindset that fuses child-like thoughts with adult desires. It’s a powerful, affecting story that is a major departure from what is typically found in the magazine.September 8, “Face” by Alice Munro – Munro lands in the magazine for a third time in 2008. Like “Deep-Holes” from earlier in 2008, “Face” covers almost a whole lifetime in a short story. The narrator has a troubling childhood featuring a cruel father and a large birthmark on his face. The narrator grows up and becomes a successful radio actor and announcer (“He has a face for radio” was the juvenile thought that crept into my head) and in his old age is reminiscing about a childhood event that haunts him, when his birthmark came into focus for him and when his life was seemingly set on the course that has taken him through the decades. Munro makes one think that many novels might be better served as short stories, particularly in the hands of a master like her. Links: I Read A Short Story TodaySeptember 15, “A Spoiled Man” by Daniyal Mueenuddin – I found this story to be irresistibly charming because its protagonist was so irrepressible. Rezak insinuates himself into a job among the large staff on the estate of a man and his American wife. He lives in a home of his own construction that might be best described as a crate and breaks it down and moves it with him wherever he goes. Much time is spent describing Rezak’s ingenious modifications to the crate. Rezak is, it seems, a man who would be happy almost no matter what. He even finds himself a wife. But the realities of Rezak’s circumstances eventually close in on him. Mueenuddin’s debut collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders will be published in February. Links: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was one of Manil Suri’s Year in Reading picks.September 22, “The Noble Truths of Suffering” by Aleksandar Hemon – I’m generally a big fan of Hemon’s work though I’ll acknowledge that it seems like he goes back to the same well for all of his fiction, plumbing his own experience of leaving Bosnia before the war and trying to assimilate into American life (and particularly American academic and literary life). In this story Hamon’s narrator is back in Bosnia, returned from the U.S., but he is still at prey to the awkwardness of his double life, illuminated when through a confluence of events, a famous American author visiting the country ends up joining him at his parents’ house for dinner. There is a neat story within a story element to this one as well (another hallmark that crops up in Hemon’s work). Hemon’s latest is 2008 National Book Award finalist The Lazarus Project. Links: Under the Midnight Sun.September 29 “Three” by Andrea Lee – Three vignettes about three people who died. This story didn’t do much for me. Even though I read it just three months ago, I had trouble remembering it. Did I inadvertantly skip this one? Could be. Lee’s latest is Lost Hearts in ItalyOctober 6, “The Idiot President” by Daniel Alarcon – Alarcon appears in the New Yorker fairly frequently. This story, like his others, takes place in Latin America. In this one, the narrator expects to be leaving for America soon, but in the meantime he has joined an acting troupe, traveling around. They put on a memorable performance in a mining town for the workers there. There’s not much drama here. It’s mostly a tale of the narrator’s stasis. Alarcon’s most recent novel is Lost City Radio. Links: Under the Midnight Sun.October 13, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” by Yiyun Lee – The second story by Li in 2008 and this one is also very good. It is about a middle-aged, unmarried man, Hanfeng, and woman, Siyu. Hanfang’s mother, Professor Dai, was Siyu’s teacher. Dai is the formidable sort and would like to see the two married, less out of compassion that out of a desire to see the two of them squared away. Siyu and Hanfeng pursue the relationship in order to please Professor Dai, but the pleasure in the story is the way Yi explores the relationships and teases the back story out of the various interactions.October 20, “Sleep” by Roddy Doyle – This is Doyle’s second story of 2008, and it’s a snack of a story filled with musing and reminiscing. In some ways the story is about being with someone and what you think about while they sleep – when you are alone, but not really because that person is right next to you – but the story is about a lot more too.October 27, “The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea” by J.M.G. Le Clezio (registration required) – Le Clezio raised his profile quite a bit in the U.S. this year with his surprise Nobel Prize win, but I regret to say that this story was a major dud for me. There’s just nothing to hang your hat on in this one. Daniel is the boy of the title, and though he has never seen the sea, he is obsessed with it. So he leaves his boarding school and heads to the water. I didn’t enjoy the thoroughly dreamy language in this one, nor the lack of specifics. It was told like a myth or parable but for no reason that I could discern. It was as if Le Clezio was using the dreamy style to excuse himself from the constraint of constructing a believable narrative. Links: After Le Clezio won the big prize, we heard from one of his American publishers.November 3, “The Fat Man’s Race” by Louise Erdrich – The New Yorker continues to go back through its roster of writers as Erdrich makes a second appearance on the year. This one is the magazine’s most bite-sized of the year, an amuse bouche as all eyes turn to the election. It’s about a woman who is sleeping with devil, which maybe makes it fitting for election week. This story may or may not be in Erdrich’s new collection The Red Convertible.November 10, “Leopard” by Wells Tower – A very inventive story from Tower whose fiction and non-fiction I’d love to see more of in the New Yorker. This one is told in the second person about (by?) an unpopular eleven-year-old boy. Tower gets into the boy’s head incredibly well – the perpetually wounded pride, the outlandish fantasies that punish those who have wronged him. This story appears in Tower’s excellent forthcoming collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Links: Sana Krasikov picked Tower’s collection for her Year in Reading and Tower appeared in our Year in Reading as well.November 17, “Lostronaut” by Jonathan Lethem – This story was pretty awesome. It was the only speculative fiction to land in the New Yorker this year, not quite making up for the absence of Murakami and Saunders from the magazine’s pages. This story is told in the form of letters from Janice, a “Lostronaut” aboard some sort of space station, to her “Dearest Chase.” She and her fellow astronauts are trapped in orbit by Chinese space mines and that’s not even the worst of it for poor Janice. While the premise and epistolary style are intriguing, Janice’s unique, irrepressible voice really carries the story. Lethem has an as yet untitled novel slated for September. Links: DiscoverNovember 24, “Ghosts” by Edwidge Danticat – This story takes us way out of the New Yorker comfort zone to the rundown neighborhoods of Haiti. It looks at Pascal, a young man who occupies two worlds. His parents run a fairly upstanding restaurant but Pascal has been befriended by the gang members who patronize the place. Pascal gets in a bit too deep with them and the result is quite gripping. Danticat’s most recent book is her memoir Brother, I’m Dying.December 1, “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” by Daniyal Mueenuddin – It took me a while to get into this very long story but in the end I liked it quite a bit. It basically chronicles the relationship between an old Pakistani patriarch Harouni and his young mistress Husna. Husna is not of the same social standing as Harouni but her proximity to him allows her to experience an extravagant life. She seems to understand the trade-off, but not enough to maintain her position once Harouni’s daughters appear on the scene. This story, along with Mueenuddin’s earlier in 2008, shows off an expansive, almost lyrical style. This is the title story in Mueenuddin’s forthcoming debut collection.December 8, “Waiting” by Amos Oz – This was an engaging story about a daily routine interrupted. There is a bit of mystery behind it. Instead of meeting small-town Israeli bureaucrat Benny Avni for lunch as she always does, Avni’s wife has sent him a cryptic note. Avni is very rigid in his ways and so we follow him through all of his perfectly sensible rationalizations for Luda’s sudden change in behavior. The enjoyment (if that is the right word) comes in watching a sense of concern creep into the actions of this otherwise aloof man. Oz has a new book Rhyming Life and Death coming out in April.December 15, “The Woman of the House” by William Trevor – Trevor, perhaps the most frequent fiction contributor to the New Yorker over the last decade, makes his first appearance of 2008. I’m not a huge fan of Trevor’s gray, damp landscapes and characters but he is no doubt a masterful storyteller and a genius with the British version of suburban malaise. This one is unique in that it places a pair of itinerant, immigrant painters at the center of the action. Told partly through their eyes, the story of the woman living as caretaker for her crippled cousin is seen from an outsider’s perspective. The prolific Trevor’s most recent collection is Cheating at Canasta.December 22 & 29 – The year closes out with the annual winter fiction issue (slimmer than usual this time). There were four stories in this one. Here they are in order from my most favorite to least: “Another Manhattan” by Donald Antrim, “Some Women” by Alice Munro (a fourth New Yorker appearance in 2008!) (registration required), “The Gangsters” by Colson Whitehead (registration required), and “Meeting with Enrique Lihn” by Roberto Bolaño.And to wrap up this already overlong exercise, my favorite New Yorker stories of 2008 were “Wakefield” by E.L. Doctorow, “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro, “The Lie” by T. Coraghessan Boyle, “Them Old Cowboy Songs” by Annie Proulx, “Yurt” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, “The Dinner Party” by Joshua Ferris, “Gorse is Not People” by Janet Frame, “Leopard” by Wells Tower, “Lostronaut” by Jonathan Lethem, and “Another Manhattan” by Donald Antrim.Bonus Link: The 2008 Year in Reading series
The early years of this century have inspired an uncommon amount of speculation about America’s advancing age. The Olympic Opening Ceremony in Beijing, and the ensuing changing-of-the-guard buzz it inspired, was only the latest, and most pointed, example of the creeping feeling that America, while hardly a senior citizen, might be past its prime.The change, if it happened, was sudden. I took an international relations class in 2002, my junior year of college, and all of books we read focused on the collapse of the Soviet Union and the new age of American unipolar dominance. Such thinking seems wistful, if not naive today, squeezed and suddenly vulnerable as we are to the unpredictability of terrorism, the rise of petrostates, and the momentum of China. The changing complexion of the world has inspired a raft of books on American descent, some of which look outward in their analysis, like Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, and others, like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that look inward at our unsustainable national habits.This shift in the national mood was brought home to me when, this summer, I reread Rabbit, Run, which I had first picked up in high school, and at the time appreciated largely for the basketball on the cover and the scenes between the sheets. The novel opens with Rabbit trapped at home, with a pregnant, alcoholic wife in a dingy apartment. The coat closet door bangs against the television set when he opens it partway to hang up his suit coat, a precise and simple illustration of the confined place the former high school basketball star has come to in his mid-twenties. Sent by his wife Janice to retrieve their young son Nelson, Rabbit instead steals into the family car and points his way out of town. Rabbit does not get far though. He’s disoriented soon after crossing from Pennsylvania into West Virginia, and by daybreak the next morning he is back in the bowl of Brewer, ensconced mere miles from the his wife and kid, first with his old high school basketball coach and then for a longer stay with a wounded amateur prostitute named Ruth.I read Rabbit, Run several months after finishing two novels from our time featuring troubled male protagonists. Frank Bascombe in Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land and Hans van den Broek in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland are constructed similarly to Rabbit, in that they are distinctively strong and confident in one part of their lives, but fundamentally weak and uncertain in the emotional dimensions that matter most. Though he’s some years out of high school, Rabbit still maintains the cocksureness and presence of a talented athlete. Frank and Hans are confident and assured as well-off, successful professionals, yet like Rabbit, they are emotionally feeble and crippled in their marriages.The characters are similar in design, yet reading Rabbit, Run, I was struck by just how differently Updike depicts Rabbit’s dislocation, compared with the renderings Ford and O’Neill give their characters fifty years later. The last line of The Lay of the Land describes Frank’s descent into a Minneapolis airport, bound for the Mayo Clinic with his second wife tight by his side. “A bump, a roar,” Ford writes, “a heavy thrust forward into life again, and we resume our human scale upon the land.” The idea of returning to the ground, and to life, marks a break with the feeling of suspension that permeates the three books of the Bascombe trilogy. Battered by the tragedies that have accumulated in his life, Frank floats down the many miles of the Jersey turnpike, and drifts just out of reach of his emotions and the other people in his life. A similar sense of distance accents Netherland. Hans surveys New York from an upper floor of the Chelsea hotel and appears to have the same vantage on the events of his own life, dazed, almost, as if drugged, a surveyor hanging by the foot from a hot air balloon.Rewind fifty years, however, and Updike offers a different view of the situation. To hear Rabbit tell it, he is anything but adrift from the circumstances of his life. He is more besieged, and the language throughout Rabbit, Run is abrasive and aggressive. Rabbit is “irritated” by Ruth’s friends. The strap of his golf bag “gnaws at his shoulder.” The chair in his living room “attacks” his knees and his son’s strewn toys “derange” his head. He is beset at every turn, gripped as if trying to escape the clawing branches of a phantasmagoric forest. Though Frank and Hans are just as up against it as Rabbit, Updike’s language, describing such direct conflict, seems of a simpler time, when the antagonists in the world could still be so clearly named. A bag strap, a chair, some children’s toys.The stresses Rabbit faces are the stresses of youth, crucible pressures which bore in on him. It’s not pressure, though, that afflicts Hans and Frank. They face instead the dissolution of narrative, the escape of once familiar boundaries and reliable sources of meaning. Frank has confronted the loss of his son, the end of his marriage, and cancer, unknowable episodes from Rabbit’s vantage. Frank’s losses have not left him with the oppression of a place he knows too well, the way Brewer confronts Rabbit, but instead with the void of a place he knows not at all. That the world becomes less intelligible, not more, as we grow older, is the wisdom Frank has to offer Rabbit, an allowance to ease the struggle, and perhaps a message for our time.
Actor Robert Englund is best known for his portrayal of Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series. He currently resides in Laguna Beach, California with his wife Nancy and his dog Lola.Robert Englund’s Best Books of 2007 (in no particular order):The Maytrees by Annie DillardActs of Faith by Phillip CaputoThe Lay of the Land by Richard FordFalling Man by Don DeLilloOn Chesil Beach by Ian McEwanAnd… my favorite discovery of the year: Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America: StoriesMore from A Year in Reading 2007
I borrowed my roommate’s issue of New York Magazine to occupy myself with some light reading on the subway this week. Also residing in my bag, my copy of David McCullough’s 1776, which I discussed briefly here last time. There is a big difference between a Pulitzer-winning non-fiction book and a somewhat glossy bi-weekly periodical, but I managed to draw a series of connections between things I read in both. As I moved through the tunnels, my thoughts turned to the place I call home, Brooklyn, whose land lies mostly buried beneath generations of concrete and brownstone. In The Lay of The Land, the first book that I ever reviewed here, Richard Ford’s narrator, Frank Bascombe, is uniquely attuned to the connection between his physical environment and his own personal history. He recognizes that the land around him is constantly being reshaped by the forces of progress, and struggles with the question of what within himself can be reshaped, and what within himself is essential, permanent. He is a real estate agent. Is there anything that New Yorkers enjoy discussing more than real estate? The Mets and Yankees perhaps (and there’s a real estate connection there as well: New York’s baseball teams will both move into new stadiums in ’09). But we’ll get to baseball in a bit. The big question these days in NYC, and the cover story of the latest New York Magazine, is “Are the boom times ready to go bust in the city?” We know what has happened all over the country with the collapse of the sub-prime loan industry, but New York’s real estate market remains robust. After consulting a panel of experts, writer Michael Idov concludes that things could get a little dicey in the next few years, but that New York land will remain a sound investment. Over in Brooklyn, the boom is practically audible. Walk the streets of Park Slope, Carrol Gardens, Fort Greene, Bed Stuy, Bushwick, or Williamsburg and you will scarcely find a single block free of some form of construction or renovation. But there was a time when the resonant boom in Brooklyn was not that of construction work, but actual cannon fire. Then, as now, Brooklyn was very valuable, though mostly uninhabited. Its value was strategic: Brooklyn was the setting for the first major battle of the Revolutionary War, August 27, 1776. It was a bloody day, carried decisively by the British. But the Battle of Brooklyn showed that the young Americans were up to the challenge. McCullough describes how a small force of Maryland militia men held off an entire British regiment on the Gowanus road near a stone farmhouse as their comrades beat a frantic retreat through the marsh. The Old Stone House, as it is called, still stands there at the corner of 5th Avenue and 3rd Street in Park Slope. The Marsh is now the hopelessly polluted Gowanus canal. Ahh, progress… So there’s history in Brooklyn – tell us something we don’t know. Okay then; back to baseball. New York Magazine writer Sam Anderson to Brooklyn Dodgers fans: drop dead. Ouch. This is the message of his article entitled Burying the Brooklyn Dodgers. His thesis? The Dodgers skipped town, abandoning the beloved Ebbets Field 50 years ago, because you people were too busy letting your borough be trashed by an influx of racial strife and an outflow of industry – and conscientious baseball fans – and should thus pipe down about your erstwhile baseball team, which beat a retreat to the comfortable ethnic paradise of Los Angeles. Mr. Anderson admits that he is a Brooklyn neophyte. For him, the departure of the Dodgers typified Brooklyn’s “slow decline into irrelevance,” and “the death of mythic old Brooklyn itself,” because it corresponded to the borough falling on economic hard times. Mythic Old Brooklyn is here disturbingly related to a concept of mythic white Brooklyn, as though the story of immigrants moving to Brooklyn was a respectable one at the turn of the 20th century, but not in the 1960s. And certainly not now, when the Brooklyn Boom signifies, for Mr. Anderson, nothing more than a “Manhattan-ization” of the borough. He manages to both condemn Brooklyn’s 70s and 80s “nosedive” into “gang violence, heroin, race riots, arson, homelessness, crack” (heroin and crack!), and at the same time sniff at Brooklyn’s “renewed cultural relevance, unprecedented diversity, [and] Leave It To Beaver murder rate” of today. I suppose by this last he means to imply that Brooklyn has gone soft. One thing is certain, he would be a plain fool to imply the same about the price of its average property. Jackie Robinson? Nevah Hoidov’im. The capper to Anderson’s article is his pilgrimage to the site of old Ebbets Field, where the Dodgers used to play ball. It’s now a high-rise housing project down the road from Grand Army Plaza and adjacent to Prospect Park. Mr. Anderson is disappointed to report that, on his visit there, which he describes in terms of a Catholic missionary traveling far inland of the Congo river, there were “no long conversations with locals about baseball and race relations and 21st century demography and life in the Caribbean.” We have no word on why no one there at the corner of Franklin Ave. and Empire Boulevard wanted to rap with Mr. Anderson about Ebbets Field. But one thing is clear: Mr. Anderson does not understand progress, nor does he respect the power of memory, nor history itself. Mr. Anderson would have us believe that the fact that Ebbets Field is now an ugly public housing building (as is the Polo Grounds, where the NY Baseball Giants used to play, at the northern knife-handle of Manhattan), is the equivalent of a Civil War battlefield becoming the site of a strip mall. So I’m left to suppose that to Mr. Anderson, the Battle of Brooklyn means less and less. After all, it was fought on what is now bagel joints, tire shops, faux thrift stores, and homes. Maybe if he had a bit more Frank Bascombe in him he would understand that time marches on and it is up to those that were there – and those that care to know about who was there – to remember and celebrate the things that happened, what they meant at the time and what they mean now. Soul is as real as body, and memory is as permanent as stone.