Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Louise Erdrich, Anne Enright, James McBride, Deb Olin Unferth, our own Nick Ripatrazone, and more—that are publishing this week.
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Night Watchman: “Erdrich (Love Medicine) returns to North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Reservation for this stirring tale of a young Chippewa woman and her uncle’s effort to halt the Termination Act of 1953. Pixie Paranteau takes a leave of absence from her job at the Jewel Bearing Plant to search for her sister, Vera, who was last seen in Minneapolis. Though she fails to find Vera, sparks fly between Pixie and a promising young boxer named Wood Mountain. Pixie then travels with her uncle Thomas, chairman of the Turtle Mountain Advisory Committee, to Washington, D.C., where he testifies at a congressional hearing on a bill abrogating treaties with Indians and abolishing Indian tribes. Also accompanying them are graduate student Millie Cloud and the ghost of Thomas’s boyhood friend Roderick. Erdrich captures the Chippewa community’s durable network of families, friends, and neighbors, alive or dead, including Pixie’s alcoholic father and wise mother, who live in poverty. The heartbreaking conclusion to Vera’s story resonates with the pervasive crisis of missing Native American women, while Thomas, Wood Mountain, and his trainer rally to put together a match to raise funds for Thomas’s efforts to keep their land. Erdrich’s inspired portrait of her own tribe’s resilient heritage masterfully encompasses an array of characters and historical events. Erdrich remains an essential voice.”
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Deacon King Kong: “McBride (The Good Lord Bird) delivers a sharply compassionate shaggy dog tale of a heavy drinking Baptist deacon who shoots a drug dealer and becomes a ‘walking dead man.’ In the autumn of 1969, handyman and occasional baseball coach Deacon Cuffy Lambkin, known to his friends as ‘Sportcoat’ because of his colorful wardrobe or as ‘Deacon King Kong’ on account of his equal affection for a moonshine with that name, inexplicably shoots off the ear of Deems Clemens, Sportcoat’s former baseball protégé. This sets in motion a hunt for Sportcoat by Deems’s employers that draws in Tommy ‘Elephant’ Elefante, a sweetly melancholy Italian mover of ‘hot goods’ whose grip on the neighborhood is slipping, and scrupulous police officer ‘Potts’ Mullen, who is on the brink of retirement. As Deems’s crew ineffectually try to murder Sportcoat, Elephant follows clues left by his dead father to find a hidden treasure, and Potts tries to keep the neighborhood safe while falling for the wife of a preacher, McBride unravels the mystery of Sportcoat’s inexplicable ire against Deems. With a Dickensian wealth of quirky characters, a sardonic but humane sense of humor reminiscent of Mark Twain, and cartoonish action scenes straight out of Pynchon, McBride creates a lived-in world where everybody knows everybody’s business. This generous, achingly funny novel will delight and move readers.”
Longing for an Absent God by Nick Ripatrazone
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Longing for an Absent God: “Ripatrazone (Ember Days), culture editor at Image Journal, argues in this piquant analysis that the interplay between lapsed and practicing Catholic authors sustains ‘a unique and significant literary culture.’ For Ripatrazone, both groups engage in similar forms of storytelling—’corporal, messy, strange, and steeped in the sins of real people’—though he argues they do so to different ends. While the book’s analysis of well-known 20th-century authors who were Catholic, such as Flannery O’Connor and Andre Dubus, feels thin, chapters on Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich are strong, exploring the ways that black and Chippewa cultures and ways of storytelling have differed or responded to Catholic writing. Though Ripatrazone builds his analysis around the differences and shared tensions between lapsed and practicing Catholics—where practicing Catholics used their faith to ground their fiction, lapsed Catholics approached religion through themes of identity and redemption—he leaves uninterrogated another tension that pervades the book: that between Catholics from birth and converts, whose ideas of storytelling were shaped outside of the Catholic tradition. His uneven analysis leaves this and many other tantalizing angles unexplored, but its articulation of a Catholic literature inclusive of—and more importantly defined by—practicing and lapsed Catholics is a valuable one. Scholars of modern American Catholicism will find much food for thought here.”
Fiebre Tropical by Juliana Delgado Lopera
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Fiebre Tropical: “Lopera’s moving and hilarious debut novel (after the essay collection Quiéreme) switches seamlessly between Spanish and English as it follows a 15-year-old Colombian girl who moves to Miami and becomes swept up in a church and with the pastor’s beautiful daughter. Francisca, whose mother brought them to the U.S. for economic opportunity, is skeptical of religion and would rather be back in Bogotá, smoking cigarettes and reading Sylvia Plath, than join the youth group at church or indulge her mother’s obsession with baptizing her dead infant brother, gone before Francisca was even born. As Francisca’s mother becomes more involved with the local Christian congregation, Carmen, the pastor’s daughter, decides to take on Francisca as her personal salvation project, bringing her along to hand out fliers and evangelize in neighboring communities. The more time the girls spend together, the more Francisca realizes that her feelings for Carmen are not strictly platonic. Along with understanding her burgeoning sexuality, Francisca must also deal with her mother’s increasingly tenuous grip on reality and the process of assimilating into her new home and culture. Lopera convincingly renders Francisca’s adolescent insecurities and awkward obsessions, and the spirited bilingual prose (‘Immigrant criolla here reporting desade Los Mayamis from our ant-infested townhouse’) will engage readers. This feisty coming-of-age tale introduces a funny, fresh, and indelible new voice.”
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Sharks in the Time of Saviors: “Washburn’s standout debut provides a vivid portrait of Hawaiian identity, mythology, and diaspora. This family chronicle opens in 1995 Honok’a as the seven-year-old Nainoa Flores falls from a ship, only to be rescued and returned to his parents by sharks. This seminal event in the lives of the Filipino-Hawaiian Flores family marks Nainoa for life as the ‘miracle boy,’ even as his parents struggle to turn a profit on their sugarcane plantation. As things become more desperate, Nainoa and his violent older brother, Dean, and adventuresome younger sister, Kaui, leave the island to seek their fortunes on the mainland. Dean embarks on a promising career as a basketball player in Spokane only to wind up in trouble with the law, while Kaui discovers her sexuality in San Diego, and Nainoa becomes an EMT in Portland, Ore. Poised halfway between their cultural upbringing and hopes for the future, the family is riven by a horrific tragedy that will test them to the breaking point. Though perhaps overlong, Washburn’s debut is a unique and spirited depiction of the 50th state and its children.”
Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Barn 8: “Unferth’s fresh heist caper (after her collection Wait Till You See Me Dance) features a most unusual quarry: 900,000 hens. After a disappointing search for her absent father maroons rebellious teenager Janey in rural Iowa, she takes a job as an auditor for the United Egg Producers and finds a kindred spirit in the disillusioned head auditor, Cleveland Smith, who can no longer consent to the grim conditions in which chickens are bred and slaughtered. Conceiving a madcap brand of ecoterrorism, the two women embark on a mission to liberate the birds. They recruit a wide array of conspirators, including the embittered animal inspector, Dill; a vengeful farmer’s daughter, Annabelle; lovelorn egg salesman Jonathan Jarman Jr.; and Cleveland’s faithful pet hen, Bwwaauk. After weeks of preparation, the gang are on the verge of realizing their fowl-focused emancipation when a botched effort causes more damage to the farm than they’d bargained for. In this outrageous piece of rural noir and pitch-perfect characterization, Unferth recalls Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang with a dose of vegan-minded quirk. This entertaining, satisfying genre turn shows off Unferth’s range, and readers will be delighted by the characters’ earnest crusade.”
We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about We Ride Upon Sticks: “Quan (She Weeps Every Time You’re Born) takes a playful, nostalgic run through 1980s suburbia in this tale of witches and field hockey. In 1989, the Danvers Falcons, a high school field hockey team, are on a losing streak. After a depressing defeat, and thinking of the women who were tried for witchcraft three centuries earlier in nearby Salem, Mass., the members pledge allegiance to the devil in exchange for victory. They write their names in a notebook bearing the likeness of Emilio Estevez and wear a raggedy blue tube sock around their arms to mark their pact to an ‘alternative god’ (as termed by team member Heather Houston), which also includes an agreement to follow ‘any urges you might get all the way to the end no matter what.’ As the season proceeds, with the team racking up wins at every game, the 10 girls and one boy begin to act on their desires, leading to several losses of virginity, a book burning, bouts of naked dancing in the woods, delusions of grandeur inspired by Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and Heather’s crisis of conscience. Barry handles a large cast of characters nimbly and affectionately, allowing each to take a turn or two in the spotlight. Readers with fond, or even not so fond, memories of the 1980s are bound to be entertained.”
Bonus Links from Our Archive:
— What It Is to Be Alone: The Millions Interviews Anne Enright
— Robert Birnbaum in Conversation with Anne Enright
— A Year in Reading: Nick Ripatrazone
— The Post-Apocalyptic Present: On Quan Barry’s ‘She Weeps Each Time You’re Born’
— Unhappy Trails: Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution
— A Year in Reading: Deb Olin Unferth
— Black and Proud: James McBride on James Brown
— The Stories of James McBride
Night Moves, the latest movie from Kelly Reichardt, joins a chorus of films and books that have spent the past several decades posing an intriguing question. To paraphrase the great English pop artist Richard Hamilton, the question is this: Just what is it that makes today’s eco-terrorists so different, so appealing?
The operative word here is appealing because Reichardt and company are drawn to something in the character of people who are willing to break the law in order to perform a service they see as vital to mankind and the planet. This moral ambiguity – the willingness to do wrong in order to do right – is a large part of the eco-terrorist’s appeal. Yet this is also where things get complicated. In Night Moves, the lofty ideals of the eco-terrorists become as compromised and distorted as those of the villains they are trying to fight. Try as they might to see the world as a simple black-and-white Manichaean snapshot, Reichardt’s characters keep getting sucked into pools of gray, those murky zones of moral ambiguity that have a way of perverting even the noblest of intentions.
Night Moves, co-written by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond, is the story of three people who share vague misgivings about ecological degradation – and a fierce determination to do something about it. At the center of the group is Josh, played brilliantly by Jesse Eisenberg. A young man so uncomfortable in his skin he’ll make you itch, Josh wears a constant scowl and says as few words as possible, preferring to let his slouchy, shuffling body language do the talking. Along for the ride is Dena (Dakota Fanning), a young woman who works at a spa and smolders with quiet rage. The closest the movie comes to exploring these characters’ motivation is when Dena vilifies the hundreds of dams on rivers throughout the West: “They’re killing all the salmon so you can run your fucking iPod every minute of your life.” That’s it for philosophy. And in Reichardt’s skilled hands, it’s exactly enough.
With the help of an ex-Marine named Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), Josh and Dena set out to make the bomb that will blow up a hydroelectric dam on an Oregon river. Reichardt has made a counter-intuitive decision that pays off: rather than dwelling on her characters’ motivations, the why of their mission, she focuses on the how, the mundane process of buying a boat, buying a large quantity of fertilizer, packing the explosives, loading them into the boat, getting the boat to the target, detonating the charge. You begin to realize you’re watching something ingeniously twisted: the banality of evil masquerading as virtue.
The climactic explosion is downplayed – it’s just a distant burst of orange light and a muted boom – because Reichardt’s true concern is the aftermath of the act, how it will change her characters. The founder of the organic farm where Josh works dismisses the bombing as a spit in the ocean, a feckless piece of “theater” by some misguided do-gooders – because there are dozens more dams on that river alone. Then the screws tighten. The three eco-terrorists are stung to learn that a man camping downriver drowned in the torrent released by their bomb.
It soon becomes apparent that the sting comes not from guilt, but from fear and paranoia – they’re now wanted for murder as well as sabotage, and no one in the troika is sure who can be trusted. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will say that the high moral ground proves to be a slippery, treacherous and, finally, lethal place. Lofty motives turn out to mean very little when idealists are trying to save their own hides. Having the courage to lay bare this unpretty truth is what turns Night Moves into a fine dark work of art.
In his 2011 documentary film, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, Marshall Curry looked at eco-terrorists through a very different lens. A nuanced portrait of the loose band of saboteurs who wreaked havoc in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the century, the movie is immaculately free of platitudes, stereotypes or hysteria.
The film focuses on Daniel McGowan, the son of a Brooklyn cop who experiences a “sense of mourning” once he becomes aware of mankind’s many environmental sins. He participates in multiple acts of arson as ELF cells launch a freelance sabotage campaign against lumber mills, logging equipment, horse corrals, meat-packing plants, genetics labs, tree farms, even ski resorts. Hovering over the film is a question: Are these activists terrorists, as the government would have us believe, or are they avenging angels performing a vital service, as they themselves believe? Curry, to his credit, refuses to offer a tidy answer.
Instead he gives us one cop who grudgingly admits, “They were really good at what they did.” And a prosecutor who says, “Once you start looking at their motivations and childhoods, instead of seeing a mug shot you start to understand them and how it came to pass that they started doing this.” A lumber company owner points out that his workers plant six trees for every one they cut down, as required by Oregon law – hardly the work of black-hatted villains. In retrospect, McGowan realizes he should have questioned the effectiveness of setting a fire at a lumber mill. “Did this action push them in a better direction?” he asks. “That’s a good question. But at the time I wasn’t asking it.”
McGowan’s major crisis comes when it’s revealed that an ELF arson attack on a tree farm was based on bad intelligence: the farm was not involved in genetic engineering, as the saboteurs had believed. Though no one was hurt, this botched operation eventually leads McGowan to drift away from the movement and melt back into normal society.
Years later, while he’s working in an office in New York City, federal agents swarm in to arrest him on charges of arson and conspiracy. It turns out that an old ELF foot soldier named Jake Ferguson had decided to cooperate with the authorities to avoid prosecution. Ferguson spent a year visiting and telephoning friends, including McGowan, while wearing a wire. Again we see just how little lofty ideals mean when idealists are trying to save their own hides.
As McGowan’s case moves through the courts, his lawyer notes that not a single human being was harmed in any of the more than 1,000 acts of sabotage ELF conducted. (Compare this with the track record of the trio in Night Moves.) She adds that a fair definition of terrorism would be a politically motivated act that results in the end of innocent human life – such as flying commercial airplanes into skyscrapers, or shooting them down with missiles.
As he prepares to start serving a 7-year prison sentence at the end of the movie, McGowan makes the claim that eco-terrorism, like so many things, boils down to semantics. “People need to question this new buzzword, terrorism,” he says. “It’s the new communism, the new bogeyman.” Indeed, The Intercept, an online magazine, has just revealed that the U.S. government has 20,800 citizens and permanent residents on a database of people suspected of having links to “terrorism.”
To underscore his point, McGowan wears a t-shirt with a picture of George W. Bush above the words International Terrorist. The movie, which was nominated for an Academy Award, ends with a bitter coda: Ferguson, the snitch, did not do any time in prison.
Like many good movies, Night Moves and If a Tree Falls led me back to books. In 1973, when the environmental movement was in its infancy, Jim Harrison published a novella called A Good Day to Die. It’s narrated by a booziferous fisherman who meets an unhinged Vietnam vet named Tim in a Key West bar. On a lark they decide to drive out West and blow up a dam. En route they stop in Valdosta, Georgia, to pick up the vet’s girlfriend, a leggy knockout named Sylvia who instantly infects the narrator with a rabid case of puppy love. And so, fueled by uppers, booze, weed, and lust, this lopsided love triangle hits the road.
Like the characters in Night Moves, this trio is motivated by fuzzy misgivings. Here’s how the narrator expresses those misgivings to a group of stoned people at a party: “My voice became tight and humorless as I began a tirade against realtors, land developers and lumber companies. In a few years there wouldn’t be much worth looking at and if anyone in the room planned on having a son there wouldn’t be any rivers or forests left and our sons wouldn’t have any fishing and hunting. What was needed was some sort of Irgun like the Israelis had when they drove out the British. Some men brave enough to blow up dams and machinery.”
What makes this mission fascinating is its mix of loopiness and dead seriousness. It was spawned by a stray remark – the narrator making the bogus claim that the government was building a dam on the Colorado River that would turn the Grand Canyon into a giant lake. As the narrator admits, “I had a rather yellow sense in my belly that the whole project was ten degrees off in the direction of wacky.” He even admits that he’s a less than passionate idealist: “If we blew up some dam it would have a sort of final interest to it like a fishing record that couldn’t be taken away from you.”
But as the mission proceeds to a new target in Idaho, there’s nothing bogus about the fertilizer, kerosene and dynamite the group acquires. In the end, these half-assed eco-terrorists are undone not by their loopiness, but by their erratic compassion for the natural world. Tim doesn’t hesitate to kill a troublesome watchdog, but when cows shuffle onto the targeted dam after he has lit the fuse, he frantically tries to shoo them away. A fatal mistake – but hardly surprising, given the air of doom that pervaded this ill-conceived and colossally bungled mission.
After the fatal explosion, the narrator echoes Josh from Night Moves: “I was frankly interested in saving my own skin.” Part of what makes today’s eco-terrorists so appealing, it turns out, is that their feet are sometimes made of clay.
Two years after A Good Day to Die was published, Edward Abbey came out with The Monkey Wrench Gang, a novel that owed a clear debt to Harrison’s book and went on to become a cult classic and the unofficial Bible of the radical environmental group Earth First!, a precursor to the Earth Liberation Front.
Round up the usual suspects. Abbey’s cast consists of an unhinged Vietnam vet with training in explosives (again!), a cantankerous river guide, a Tucson surgeon and his hottie girlfriend (again!). They set out on a campaign of equal-opportunity sabotage, toppling billboards and power lines, pulling up survey stakes, cutting barbed-wire fences, destroying road-building machinery, trashing helicopters, blowing up bridges. Their ultimate goal is to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam, a bête noir of radical environmentalists. All the while they’re guided by an iron credo that Earth First! and ELF would eventually adopt: “No harm to human beings.” (A lopsided love triangle also develops, not unlike the one in A Good Day to Die. All that proximity to explosives and death seems make eco-terrorists spectacularly horny.)
It’s worth noting that Abbey’s master’s thesis at the University of New Mexico in 1956 was titled “Anarchy and the Morality of Violence,” and he spent years pulling up survey stakes and knocking down billboards before he started writing his masterpiece. He also drove a vintage red Cadillac convertible, and his characters blithely toss their empty beer cans out of car windows – hardly the acts of card-carrying eco-purists.
But let’s not quibble. Abbey’s book is a satire, a broad one at that. Unlike Reichardt and Harrison, he gets positively expansive when it comes to delineating his characters’ motivation for their eco-terror campaign. At one point the surgeon, Doc Sarvis, is thinking:
All this fantastic effort – giant machines, road networks, strip mines, conveyor belts, pipelines, slurry lines, loading towers, railway and electric train, hundred-million-dollar coal-burning plant; ten thousand miles of high-tension towers and high-voltage lines; the devastation of the landscape, the destruction of Indian homes…all that ball-breaking labor and all that backbreaking expense and all that heartbreaking insult to land and sky and human heart, for what? Why, to light the lamps of Phoenix suburbs not yet built, to run the air-conditioners of San Diego and Los Angeles…Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Tucson, Salt Lake City, the amalgamated metropoli of southern California, to keep alive that phosphorescent putrefying glory (all the glory there is left) called Down Town, Night Time, Wonderville, U.S.A.
Nobody every accused Abbey of being subtle, and that’s a large part of his appeal – his willingness to go over the top at all times. After all, the stakes are huge, nothing less than his beloved adopted southwest desert (he was born in Pennsylvania), nothing less than planet Earth herself.
Part of the appeal of Abbey’s characters is that they, too, have trouble living up to their credo. Hayduke, the former Green Beret, is no stranger to violence, and he regularly has to be talked out of shooting cops and rangers. And at a critical juncture in the story, the posse of eco-saboteurs nearly makes a tragic mistake much like the one in Night Moves. They’re getting ready to blow up a bridge as a train loaded with coal crosses it. They believe the train is automated, but at the last moment they look down, in horror, to see an engineer in the cab of the locomotive, waving at them. Abbey lets his characters off the hook when the charges explode and the engineer jumps to safety as the train slides into the river.
Writing in the New York Times, Harrison let Abbey off the hook too: “Abbey trips a bit over the question of violence to people but an ideological gaffe is easily forgivable contrasted to the heroics, the sense the reader has of wanting them to ‘get away with it.’”
An ideological gaffe? Every character in each of these books and movies is torn by warring ideologies – the urge to do good versus the need to set limits on how much harm they’re willing to do in order to do good. This struggle to live within those limits is what makes eco-terrorists so appealing. And when they fail, as they do in Night Moves and A Good Day to Die, they shade from appealing all the way to appalling. And it’s a fascinating thing to see.