“One of the Big Apple’s most celebrated sons,” the BBC once described Paul Auster. “A literary giant.” Auster, the screenwriter of four films (and director of three), hit a knockout with Smoke. The 1995 classic is a lovely, emotional look at Auggie Wren’s Brooklyn community smoke shop. The early icon of Brooklyn literary cool is a novelist and essayist, translator and poet, and much more.
Over the phone from his Park Slope home studio, Siri Hustvedt’s husband is a generous, avuncular interviewee, speaking musically in that distinctive voice chiselled by a lifetime of fine cigars. The author of five autobiographies brings the frankness his memoirs like The Invention of Solitude are known for. As in his best writing: Auster is cerebral and elegant, passionate and precise. Having inspired younger stars from Jonathan Lethem to Karl Ove Knausgård, he remains a varied, engaging storyteller. (The co-director of Blue in The Face — starring Lou Reed and Jim Jarmusch — has film in a number of his novels, like The Book of Illusions.)
4321, his first novel in seven years, runs 866 pages, peppered with traumatic 20th-century American history, from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to the Attica prison riots. It charts four alternative lives for protagonist Archie Ferguson, Newark-born in 1947.
Despite America’s grim political moment, Auster is persuasive about humanity’s capacity for imagination and transcendence, and the future of good books.
The Millions: Smoke begins with that beautiful, inviting shot of Brooklyn looking back to the twin towers.
Paul Auster: I know, I know [elegiacally].
TM: On 9/11 I was in St. Dizier, one of the worst dumps in France. Seeing you on TV, saying that you thought New York was going to be okay, was reassuring. Now, as your wife Siri Hustvedt put it in The Guardian: “When fascism comes to America, they will call it Americanism,” and “Reality didn’t matter.”
PA: Siri’s written some very powerful pieces during and after the campaign. We’re both galvanized, I must say, and we’re digging in our heels and we’re going to try to do as much as we can, and stay as vigilant as we can. Trump ran on division, hatefulness, and the desire to smash everything to bits, which is, I think, unprecedented in American history.
We think our institutions are very solid, but not necessarily, and you keep attacking them, then suddenly the foundations are going to collapse, and then we’re in for real trouble. I don’t want to go on and on about Trump and his cabinet appointments, but pretty much everyone he’s picked so far is someone who has made a career out of trying to dismantle the very agency he’s supposed to lead. So, we’re in for a very weird, weird time. The Environmental Protection Agency is there to protect the environment and if the person in charge of it doesn’t believe in it, then how can he be the head of it? This is the absurd impasse we’ve come to now, where somehow it seems legitimate to millions of people in the country to take apart everything we’ve tried to build up all these years. And for what?
TM: I like how 4321 is spiced with dramatic 20th-century American history: the Vietnam War, JFK’s assassination, the Attica prison riots, Rockefeller drug laws, ‘68 Columbia University protests. Referring to the Newark race riots in 1967, you said: “I did see that colonel from the Jersey State Police saying those terrible things about ‘wanting to kill every black bastard in the city’. It was horrifying.” Starting with grotesque Birtherism, Trump has unleashed this shocking old racism.
PA: It goes back to the very early days of America. The pity is that Obama’s election, I felt at the time, was maybe our finest hour as a country. What a man he is, Obama! Sadly his election created such a reaction among a big swamp of the white population in America: they demonized him from the instant he took office and opposed every single thing he tried to do, and insulted him, denigrated him and he stood up to all of that, for eight years, with remarkable dignity. I’m so impressed by it. The man is truly extraordinary. It’s not that I agree with all his policies, he’s much more moderate than I am, but the human qualities of this man are so admirable. I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone of this stature and moral integrity as this president, Obama. So, I’m going to miss him terribly, I must say.
TM: Trumpism, like the traumatic times in 4321, reminds me of an enduring line from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
PA: Our country is built on these two primal sins: the sin of slavery and the sin of genocide, and I think we can’t really become a fully functioning, mature country unless we own up to how we started.
TM: You have a history — partly in your leadership role through PEN as an advocate for free speech — of challenging Trumpish authoritarians, like the Turkish dictator Erdoğan. That must have been a real accolade for you in 2012 when he slammed you as an “ignorant man,” after you protested his jailing of writers?
PA: A couple of years later, I met one of the journalists who had been in prison at the time, and he had come to New York because he was getting an award from the excellent Committee to Protect Journalists. He told me when my statement was published in the Turkish paper, he and all the other prisoners in the prison where he was incarcerated started cheering. So, it does matter to speak up. It really makes a difference. As part of my response to Trump, I decided recently to take on the presidency of American PEN in a year. I’m going to do as much as I can do: Speak out about all these things.
TM: Under Trumpism, some leftists are rediscovering the importance of free speech. You and Salman Rushdie, unlike some writers, stood in support of the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists.
PA: Yes, that was an issue that divided American PEN in ways that I would never have predicted and lifelong friendships were shattered in this dispute. I still don’t understand, I can’t get my mind around the people who oppose giving Charlie Hebdo the award. Seems like such a simple matter: martyrs for free speech deserve to be recognised, but these people had another point of view, which I didn’t agree with. Free speech is a black-and-white issue. There is no grey. Once you start making exceptions, then there is no more free speech. The people arguing against the award said that Charlie Hebdo engaged in what we would call hate speech, but I don’t agree with this. They were just obnoxiously making fun of everybody, and they were never singling out any one group for attack. They were opposed to everything and there’s something healthy about that, I think.
TM: “You want to burn up and destroy all your previous work; you want to reinvent yourself with every project…You have to challenge yourself,” you once told Jonathan Lethem. Does that still speak to your creative instinct?
PA: I’m happy to hear these words read right back to me. They’re very forceful, true. I still subscribe to them wholeheartedly. You dry up if you keep repeating yourself. It’s useless.
TM: Jonathan Lethem, for his part, is sharp on sex: “I couldn’t agree more that the dirty secret of the [American] contemporary mass culture self-image is that we flatter ourselves on being extremely jaded and sophisticated, but we’re awfully prim and censorious and Victorian about so many different things.” For example, a politician involved in a consensual sex scandal, everyone’s so disgusted they need to know every last detail.
PA: Siri and I were highly amused when the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky thing broke, how the press seemed to act as if no one has ever had sex before. The disdain that people showed for him engaging in whatever it was he did, really was the height of hypocrisy. As if no member of the press has ever had an affair outside of his or her marriage. It becomes ridiculous and America is a country of tremendous hypocrisy in these matters. More so I think than any other country in the West. I mean Mitterrand, the president of France, had two families and everyone left him alone about that. They knew but they didn’t care. It’s his private business. As long as he’s not sleeping with a, I don’t know, a Russian agent, he can do whatever he wants.
TM: Speaking of Siri, in her essay “A Plea for Eros,” she wrote that “American feminism has always had a puritanical streak, an imposed blindness to erotic truth.”
PA: She’s right. Siri is someone unafraid to talk about these things in her work, and more power to her.
TM: There’s quite a lot of sex in 4321. Any comment you’d make on the nexus between sex and creativity?
PA: Ooh, what a big question that is. Sex is, of course, fundamental to all of us. It’s probably the most interesting subject in the world. I’ve noticed, over the years, my ability to write about it more fully. In my early novels, not so much. People were having erotic encounters, but I’d never described it at much length. In some books, more recently, I’ve been able to do that. I’ve been fascinated by it, to tell you the truth. Nothing I’ve written could be said to be just about eroticism. But there are erotic components to most of my books.
I suppose the most erotically charged thing I’ve ever written is in the novel Invisible, when there’s this affair described between a brother and a sister. But whether it really happens or not is not clear in the narrative. But I remember feeling that I had to go into another zone altogether in my mind and just knock down all fear of squeamishness or prudery and go there, because if I didn’t then the passages would have been useless. I mean it’s not that they’re obscene, these passages. I’m not talking about pornography, but I’m talking about an accurate description, I hope, of erotic experience.
4321, yes there are sex scenes in the book. But all of them are crucial to the story, and because the book’s so complex, because I have a protagonist who’s not just one person but four, there are four of my Archie Fergusons, each one living his own parallel life, having different experiences from the other three. One of them, as a young person, has a bisexual life and I never went into any of that material before and certainly it’s not autobiographical.
Writing about violence, too. Things I’ve never done myself, but it’s not hard to imagine how someone can lose control of himself and do awful things, violent things to another person.
TM: When The Tortilla Curtain came out, some people attacked T.C. Boyle for appropriation, despite his sympathy and skill evoking the undocumented Mexican experience.
PA: Nobody owns the imagination. If we didn’t have the power to project ourselves into the minds and bodies of other people, people unlike us, I don’t think there would be such a thing as society. We wouldn’t be able to communicate. The whole idea of being a person is the fact that once you reach a certain level of mental and emotional maturity, you’re able to look at yourself from the outside. You’re able to see yourself as one person among many. Millions, in fact. Which then you take that one step further and you realize then you have to have the ability to project yourself onto others in order to try to understand them. Either sympathize with them, empathize with them, however you want to define it, but without that quality we wouldn’t be human beings. So, every time I hear someone get up and say: “You can only write novels about people exactly like yourself,” they’re saying that there is no such thing as the imagination. Which means people are not people [Laughs].
TM: “So then only men could write about men, only women could write about women. Only dogs could write about dogs. It becomes a kind of fascism in itself,” T.C. Boyle responds.
PA: That’s right. It’s truly absurd. Getting back to Tolstoy, then he wouldn’t have been allowed to write Anna Karenina. I mean these are absurd arguments and yet people actually do make these arguments, and I’ve always been appalled to hear them.
TM: What do you hope 4321 might accomplish?
PA: I wrote the book, now it doesn’t belong to me anymore. I mean, needless to say, every writer hopes that every human being on the face of the Earth will read his book, but that doesn’t happen.
TM: It’s heartening that good books and independent book stores seem to be doing well.
PA: Yes, absolutely. The novel has been pronounced dead, I guess, maybe 50 million times in the last 100 years, but it’s still thriving. The novel is one of the only places in the world where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy. We need storytelling in order to understand our own lives and I don’t think that this impulse to create fiction– and to read it — is ever going to go away. Paper books are better technology. It’s more pleasant to read a book and turn the pages than to push buttons on a screen. The novelty of this has died out now and sales of e-books have leveled off now for several years. Paper books are very much alive and will continue to be alive.
TM: Do you hope to write till your last day, like Wayne Barrett and George Orwell did?
PA: I hope so. Of course, George Orwell didn’t live very long. He died at 46, when I think I’m about to turn 70. It’s quite a difference. Yes, I want to keep going. I don’t see how artists can retire, really.
When I was a student at the University of Delaware in the late 1990s, there were a handful of options for buying books in town. One was a midsized shop called Rainbow Books and Records, located amid the downtown’s Main Street bustle. I have few memories of actually buying anything there (though I did steal, for no good reason, a used Cypress Hill CD from the store; hopefully the crime’s statute of limitations has run out). There was a mediocre campus bookstore from which I bought a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland that I read eight or nine pages of. The best, by a wide margin, was the airy, endless Bookateria, where I spent afternoons searching for titles by Edward Abbey, Tom Robbins, Robert Pirsig, and whatever else might bolster my developing self-image as a chin-stroking bongside intellectual. Twenty years on, The Bookateria is still there — or so says the internet — and just thinking of it puts me there, my Birkenstocks (I was looking for Tom Robbins, remember) soft on its creaking hardwood floors.
There was also a fourth option, and I have no idea what it was called. In a wide alley off of Main Street, a miniscule bookstore existed for an equally miniscule length of time. Its lifespan, as I recall, was just a few months, but it might have been less than that. It was heavily curated, blue of carpet, and run by a prim white-haired woman with a courteous smile. Its metal shelves were home to midcentury cookbooks and color-plate nature guides, their prices written, almost apologetically, in the corners of their inside covers. The shop, so small and quiet — save for the waft of classical music — lent it the feeling of the quarters of a bibliophilic monk. Entering the store always reminded me that I was wearing dirty track pants and an old Phillies cap.
On one of my few trips there — I could feel the owner’s eyes, as if my CD-lifting reputation had preceded me — I came across a row of hardbacked, dark-blue novels. Their jackets were gone, and they stood together, naked, as if huddling against danger. Each spine bore the stamped name of the books’ author — Kurt Vonnegut– and, in smaller type, the title. I’d heard of Vonnegut, and vaguely knew that I should read him. I picked up Breakfast of Champions, read a few lines (“I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.” “I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can’t live without a culture anymore.”), and felt a surge in my chest. I paid the owner the lightly-penciled price of five dollars plus tax, waited for her pointlessly elaborate receipt, said thanks, and tore the fuck out of there. I had to read this book.
Breakfast of Champions felt, like a handful of other works — The Catcher in the Rye, of course, and later T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain and the stories of George Saunders — wholly new to me, modes of communication that kicked through my mind’s thin walls. I’d never — and still have never — read anything like it. I suppose that any Vonnegut book would have had this effect, so distinctive is his style — that of a brilliant depressive, the vitality of his talent battling his downbeat vision — but Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut’s loosest book, full of drawings and nonsense lines (“Dwayne Hoover had oodles of charm. I can have oodles of charm when I want to. A lot of people have oodles of charm.”) that gain menace as they mount. It seemed somehow right for this to be my first, the best route into his world.
Breakfast of Champions isn’t my favorite Vonnegut novel, but it smacked me in the head with more force than any of his others — and possibly more than any other book I’ve read. I haven’t read it since that day in 1998, and I have only a dim memory of what it was about — something about a used-car salesman; something about cows. But that initial excitement has stuck; when I picked it up before writing this piece, something tightened in my throat. It was an artifact that had shoved me towards the person I would become.
And it seems somehow insane to me that I could have gotten it — this rousing, angry work that shook me by my spine — at that cramped and nameless store, overseen by a woman who, I’m guessing, had gone into business to occupy her time. Maybe her husband had recently died, and the quiet of her home had become unbearable — so she opened a shop that was just as quiet as the place she had escaped. Maybe she’d wanted to bring a touch of politesse to downtown Newark, Delaware, where music blasted from low riders and fistfights proliferated when the bars let out. Maybe she was engaging in a quiet fight of her own, selling pleasant books to the few students who might appreciate the gesture. Obviously — judging by its swift closure — there weren’t enough of us.
That I could have found a book that so enflamed me in such a serene, well-meaning place now seems to me a rude and minor marvel, like a tabernacle choir breaking into “Fuck tha Police.” The store has been gone for nearly 20 years, and its owner, I assume, has passed on as well. But they slipped me something important in the time we had together — and for that, I can only offer thanks.
When I found Jim Thompson’s The Transgressors at a recent used book sale, I became cartoonishly excited. Thompson is one of my favorite pulp novelists, and there was nothing to dislike about my find: its cover depicted an old coupe stuck in rutted mud, with someone rushing, I guessed, to check a captive in its trunk. The back-cover copy described a reliably sadistic tale; an old New Republic blurb promised “a tour of hell.” It was called The Transgressors, for Christ’s sake. I couldn’t have asked for more.
My excitement stemmed from The Nothing Man, a 1954 Thompson novel that I discovered a decade ago, having never before heard of the book or the author. It told the story of a sexually disfigured veteran who goes on a killing spree to cover up his secret — as if being a serial killer was the lesser shame. It was a bizarre, unsettling book, angry with energy, that seemed to have been written yesterday, not during the Dwight D. Eisenhower years.
Unfortunately, it’s been downhill from there. In the years since, I’ve returned to Thompson again and again, and I’ve never recaptured the feeling that jumped from The Nothing Man. The Getaway — made famous by Steve McQueen, and later, Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger — came close, but was derailed by an outré epilogue that seemed imported from a different book. The Killer Inside Me, The Golden Gizmo, Pop. 1280 — all were fine, but none supplied the blast of that first discovery. The Transgressors turned out to be readable, but was the worst Thompson I’ve read — and it led me to ask myself a question common to fading relationships: Is it him or is it me?
I’ve experienced this pattern — manic love, followed by a futile attempt to regain said manic love — with others: I fell for T.C. Boyle after my brother slipped me The Tortilla Curtain, and despite Drop City, When the Killing’s Done, The Harder they Come, and others, it remains my favorite Boyle. Portnoy’s Complaint, The Sun Also Rises, and Billy Bathgate are my favorite Philip Roth, Ernest Hemingway, and E.L. Doctorow novels — and were the first of each I read. These are legendary figures, responsible for a raft of classics. Is it possible that out of all of their works, those three are the best? Did I just happen to choose each one’s greatest effort right out of the gate?
I would say that I didn’t. My experience with Thompson, and to a lesser degree with Boyle, has led me to believe that the discovery of a new style — Thompson’s turbo-charged dissolution; Boyle’s burbling streams of words — eclipses the storytelling that the style supports. Reading the stylistically unfamiliar — be it Evie Wyld or Lauren Groff or Patrick deWitt — can be so pleasingly disorienting that it leaves the reader giddy: This is incredible, we think as we flip on through. This is a totally new experience. As a reader, it’s the moment you seek — but that euphoria can also distort your inner Michiko Kakutani and set future expectations impossibly high.
Breakfast of Champions might not have been Kurt Vonnegut’s hands-down masterpiece, but I read it before any of his others — and for that, it’s elevated in my mind. With its drawings of sphincters and cows and general jokiness, it’s no Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five — but it doesn’t need to be, because the Vonnegut basics were there. And most importantly, for me, it came first. When you see a beautiful stranger across a crowded room, it doesn’t matter that he or she might not be having the most attractive day of his or her life. The spark fires either way, and you won’t forget the moment.
This isn’t to say that quality doesn’t matter. The first Danielle Steel novel you read will be as crummy as your last, and no matter when you read Tough Guys Don’t Dance, it won’t top The Naked and the Dead. But when a work is discovered can, at the very least, insert a welcome uncertainty to an overbearing consensus. In everything I’ve read about Jim Thompson, I haven’t seen much mention of The Nothing Man. This isn’t all that surprising, since he wrote more than 30 books. But critics consistently cite The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 as two of his best. Maybe they are. But maybe those critics would think differently if they’d read The Nothing Man first. As for me, I’ll keep trying: there are still a few unread Thompson novels sitting on my shelf.
Image Credit: Flickr/Steven Guzzardi
T.C. Boyle is in a groove. He’s that rare combination of a bold writer who is consistently fun and seemingly, he’s becoming more prolific. His last novel, the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired bestseller The Women, was released in 2009 and now, quick on its heels comes his 13th novel, When the Killing’s Done, a colorful, quick-witted and entirely plausible account of environmental activism and bureaucratic bumbling in and around California’s Channel Islands. Topically it might remind you of the cerulean warbler section of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, but whereas Franzen’s foray into wildlife issues felt so tangential and agonized into being that there was a temptation to skim through that meandering West Virginia bird sanctuary section, When the Killing’s Done is thoroughly engaging and cohesive. There isn’t a dull moment in it.
It’s always been Boyle’s great gift to take the reader somewhere (Alaska, the Hudson River Valley 300 years ago, Kinsey’s inner circle, a pot farm in Northern California) and completely convince you of the accuracy of the surroundings he gives you. Not just geographically, but politically, socially and culturally. Bits of Boyle stick with me; In the early 90s, new to California, I read his hilariously picaresque Budding Prospects, the pot farm novel, in which a character describes a San Francisco burrito as the shape and size of a skein of yarn (with considerably more heft). I have thought with pleasure of this description virtually every time I have lifted a burrito since. Which is to say, roughly a thousand times.
I became even fonder of Boyle after reading his 1995 novel The Tortilla Curtain, which I interpreted, rather desperately, as a small validation of my newspaper career. In the early 90s, I worked for the Ventura County edition of the Los Angeles Times. Resume-wise, you’d have called this a stepping stone, but I recall it more as rowing in the newspaper equivalent of a slave ship. The paper was making a “push” into the county, a dreary no-man’s land between the busy San Fernando Valley, where porn was made, and the relative paradise of Santa Barbara, where there were art-house movies, good bookstores and a taqueria Julia Child was known to frequent. Our local readership was perilously small, but we published two zoned editions of this local section. No story was too small to cover. Any idle musing that struck an editor during his or her commute could and would be turned into a story by we eager minions. That was how I once came to write a profile of Highway 101. I am referring to an inert stretch of tar.
This was all educational, but miserable, and the concern that barely anyone was reading what we were writing loomed large. Then along came The Tortilla Curtain, a witty, fast moving study in contrasts between the entitled residents of gated communities on the edges of the Santa Monica Mountains and the poor Latino immigrants who have the temerity to make them nervous. Boyle, who lives in Montecito – for most of the last two decades, in a Frank Lloyd Wright home, lucky man – knew so much about the politics of pettiness and fear that ran rampant through what we often called “suburban enclaves” that I was certain he was reading our zoned edition of the Los Angeles Times. Someone was paying attention. And unlike us, he had a true sense of the big picture.
Many years later and many miles away from Ventura County, my realization that Boyle had written a novel about the Channel Islands nearly made my heart skip a beat. This is precisely the book I always wanted to read. From Ventura, the Channel Islands loom like magical temptations out there on the Western horizon, mostly just the long low ridge of Anacapa (technically, three small islands) and the green hills of Santa Cruz Island. Santa Rosa is hidden behind the hulk of Santa Cruz, and San Miguel is farther north, off Santa Barbara, but reportedly, nothing happened there. I visited Anacapa and Santa Cruz, a good boat ride’s distance away, whenever there was the thinnest journalistic excuse to do so. There were bureaucratic control issues — the Nature Conservancy owned most of Santa Cruz but the National Park Service had a say in what happened on part of that vast island (four times the size of Manhattan, Boyle tells us), as well as all of Anacapa and even in the 1990s there were the same ecological issues that Boyle focuses on. The islands are beautiful, mysterious and though largely deserted, rich with history (once they had belonged to people, actual people, mostly ranchers, who got to live there). They exist as time capsules of what California might have looked like 200 years ago. On these blissful days reporting out on the islands, you could count on a day of freedom from yet another editorial whipping. Even more alluring, you could imagine all the histories that might have been.
Boyle has done just that, but put it on the page, interweaving true facts and scenarios with a group of fictional modern day characters with warring interests in the ecological future of the islands. National Park Service biologist Alma Boyd Takesue is leading the fight against the invasive species overrunning the native populations of the islands, in the case of Anacapa, black rats who landed there via shipwreck in 1853 (true story) and on Santa Cruz, feral pigs descended from the pigs left there by ranchers. Alma’s grandmother survived a 1946 shipwreck (fiction) that killed her grandfather and spent three weeks shooing away black rats in a fisherman’s shack before being rescued. Now Alma wants to eradicate those rats. And when they’re gone, she plans to move onto Santa Cruz’s pigs, which are destroying the habit of the native island fox (a smaller breed than is found on the mainland).
Her main opponent is the Santa Barbara-based leader of a group called For the Protection of Animals (FPA), Dave LaJoy, a wealthy, vitriolic middle-aged vegetarian whose favorite recreational activity is to pilot his big motor boat out to the Channel Islands and enjoy nature while swilling beer and eating hummus sandwiches. LaJoy is an animal lover – he believes even a black rat has as much right on Anacapa as some native bird – and a people hater, with the possible exception of his girlfriend Anise, a beautiful folksinger. Anise had the unusual pleasure of having spent most of her childhood in the 1970s on Santa Cruz; her mother Rita worked as a cook for a sheep rancher who leased a sizeable chunk of the land (the section of the book involving Rita’s days on Santa Cruz is wonderfully evocative). In a neat twist, the pigs brought there by earlier ranchers lead to the ruin of that exhausting but rewarding ranch life, and yet still, Anise wants to save them.
The book flies by – LaJoy, with his “rusty dreadlocks” and fits of rage, is horrible yet hilariously entertaining, a man driven by arrogance and conviction in equal parts – but it’s not just a good yarn; Boyle has a real point to make, about population control of all beasts (and mankind). Alma is the protagonist certainly, but that doesn’t make her right in all circumstances. What for instance, would ground zero truly be for the Channel Islands, in terms of ecology? To truly erase all signs of man’s past interference with the natural habitat requires fresh interference by man. If the pigs are removed, what will become prey for the eagles that were drawn to the island by the ready food source the pigs presented? The island fox, as it turns out. So the raptors now have to be caught and removed. The minute Alma gets rid of one invasive species, it seems she has another to deal with. Who, or what, is meant to have ownership of and residency on these islands? The question isn’t really answerable, and Boyle plays with that ambiguity to great effect. The basic facts of what he’s telling, through told through fictional characters, really happened. And I finally have actual proof that Boyle reads the paper, having found this on his website: “…I still preserve a yellowing newspaper headline from six or seven years ago (it’s pinned beneath a magnet on the refrigerator door), which reads: EAGLES ARRIVE AS PIGS ARE KILLED, a reference to the reintroduction of the bald eagle and the eradication of the feral pig.”
Boyle has a joyful willingness to go over the top, trips he almost always negotiates with uncanny expertise. There’s a wildly harrowing scene involving LaJoy dragging a group of idealistic college kids up into the canyons of Santa Cruz Island during a powerful rain storm. He makes you see them slogging through the mud, soaked and shivering but propelled forward by this bombastic, charismatic jerk and we see how LaJoy clings to his sense of rightness even when it has become terribly apparent he’s made a huge mistake. In terms of the narrative, this would have satisfied as LaJoy’s comeuppance, but Boyle has another, less successful and surprisingly harsh final set piece in mind for the founding members of FPA.
But because of all he gets right, because of his fine sense of the big picture and his ability to convey it using characters that always come alive, I can forgive him it. I can even forgive him the character Toni Walsh, an utterly unappealing, rather dim seeming reporter from the local paper. She’s disdained and distrusted by both Alma and LaJoy. Although she’s covering environmental issues, Toni Walsh appears to have no interest in nature. She spends most of her expeditions to the islands fishing in her purse for cigarettes and never wears suitable clothing. Here Toni is in a torrential downpour on Santa Cruz. LaJoy has brought her there looking for pig corpses to photograph, images he hopes will outrage the community. Her lone concession to the weather is an Easter egg pink slicker, a concession cancelled out by her unwise decision to wear matching sandals. LaJoy wants to know whether she can keep hiking. “Hunched, pale, a streak of yellowish mud painted across her cheek like a tribal cicatrice, she just shrugs. ‘I don’t know,’ she says after a moment, and here’s that stab of a smile again – a good sign, a very good sign – ‘I’m afraid I’m more of a city girl. But anything for a story, right?'” I swear I never would have worn pink sandals to Santa Cruz. But this joyful skewering suggests that Boyle has met a few of my brethren.
A new issue of Scott’s excellent “Quarterly Conversation” is out. It contains a list of the “Books Since 1990,” and I can vouch for Scott when he writes that he conceived the idea for the list well before the New York Times put out its similar list. In the introduction, Scott writes that he is making no claims that these books are the “best,” which is so often the silly, attention-grabbing hook of such lists. Scott polled several literary types, and when he asked me to participate, he asked for the “best” books, but I think the point Scott is making is that throwing together a bunch of individuals’ “best books” lists isn’t how one determines which books are “The Best.” Instead we learn which books are part of the shared consciousness of a group of readers, which I think is interesting as well. It’s a tough line to toe, but I appreciate Scott’s effort not to announce that the books in his list are “The Best.”Which isn’t to say that I agree entirely with the books named on his list, which I think in some cases skews obscure or difficult for the sake of obscurity and difficulty. At the same time, I do appreciate knowing which books people think it is important to highlight, and am glad of the opportunity to be newly introduced to such books.As one of the contributors, I thought I might present my selections for the list in case anyone is curious. A few initial caveats in addition to the points below. I fully admit that my picks are mainstream, but I tend to believe – with very rare and notable exceptions – that quality work tends to be recognized and rewarded in the marketplace and thus becomes by some measure “popular,” and second I have not read all the books I nominated (though I’d like to), but drew from conversations with fellow readers and from my perception of which books are most important to the serious readers I know. Third, it’s very, very likely that as I read more from the contemporary era, this list will change (and it is important when looking at such lists to remember that they are fluid). And finally, I readily recognize that my selections exhibit a woeful lack of diversity; however, this is not to say that I only read books by white men, it’s just to say that white men happened to write eight of the ten books that I selected for this exercise. On to my selections along with the number of votes each book got:2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones (I’m shocked that I’m the only person who nominated this book. Of all the books that I’ve read from this era, I think this one is hands down the best and will go on to be a classic.) (1)2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (I believe the hype. I think this book is an important chronicle of contemporary American life.) (2)1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo (5)2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2)2002, Atonement by Ian McEwan (One of my favorite books ever.) (4)1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1)2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson (2)2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (Proof that an entertaining read can and should be quality fiction.) (1)1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth (3)1995, The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle (Of the three books by Boyle that stand out from the rest, Tortilla Curtain is the only one written after 1990. The other two books are World’s End and Water Music.) (1)
This was the year I played catch-up. My failing as a reader has always been my near-total ignorance of contemporary authors (say, those that emerged in my own lifetime). That all changed this year thanks to some wonderful recommendations from my Millions cohorts. In no time at all I was transfixed by Alvaro Mutis (The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll) and captivated by Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex). I delved further into Ryszard Kapuscinski (Imperium), feasted on a trio of novels from the wonderful William Boyd (Brazzaville Beach, Blue Afternoon, Armadillo), and finally read Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), Edward P. Jones (The Known World), and T.C. Boyle (The Tortilla Curtain). Most if not all of these have been written about by either Max or Emre so I’ll just echo them and say READ THESE.To this list I’d like to add one of my own. I was blown away, earlier this year, by the young Thai-American writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap and his short story collection Sightseeing. Set in Thailand, the seven stories present a vivid and engaging depiction of families and friends and day-to-day life. The locale is exotic, the sounds and smells permeate the pages, but the relationships are familiar, universal. It was a treat to read. [See also: Andrew’s review of Sightseeing]
Edan writes in with this question:In preparation for this novel I’d like to write, I am restricting (most) of my reading to novels/stories about Los Angeles. So far, I’ve read the very entertaining and very haunting The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy, and am just now starting Southland by Nina Revoyr. Can you recommend some good LA fiction? Many people have already suggested Nathanael West and John Fante, and of course [Raymond] Chandler, but I’m more interested in contemporary stuff, a la Joan Didion (but not her, since I’ve already read her). And, I don’t want Hollywood crap either… So, yes, character and landscape driven. Any ideas?The two books that I’ve read that immediately come to mind are The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle and Jamesland by Michelle Huneven. I know you’ve read Jamesland [ed. We led a book club about it way back when], and I’m guessing you’d like books that treat Los Angeles in a similar way. In Jamesland, the “Hollywood” aspect is present but peripheral, which I think is true to the experience of many who live in Los Angeles. The book relies more on the main characters and on the setting, in this case the quiet neighborhoods on the east side of LA. The Tortilla Curtain is similarly character driven, and only a few of the characters have ties to Hollywood. (I remember one character is the guy who does the booming voiceovers for movie previews: “In a world, etc. etc.”). The book follows two couples, well-off suburbanites and illegal aliens whose lives intersect in the hills and canyons just up the coast from Santa Monica, which are peppered with mansions and gated communities.Anybody else got recommendations? Press the comment button.
Some of you may know that I’m currently up to my ears in grad school applications. Luckily, posting on The Millions has a salutary effect on me, and also, I just finished a book, so I need to write about it. Jamesland opens with Alice, great-granddaughter of philosopher William James, having an odd waking dream of a deer in her house. Alice fixates on the deer as a portent of a coming change in her life, and the very next day her life begins to change slowly and inexorably. The book does not dwell on the supernatural, though it does have a bemused dialogue with the otherworldly throughout. Mostly it is about three forty-somethings whose social and professional lives are deteriorating and reconfiguring. I’d call it a mid-life crisis, but these characters have that quality, peculiar to Californians, of being youthful, unserious adults. The book is mostly set on the East Side of Los Angeles in neighborhoods that I know well. It was great to read a book that addresses a somewhat larger Los Angeles than usual. Movie stars are around, and Hollywood is nearby, but they are just parts of the great stew of the city, things that are noticed but after a while not accorded any greater importance than things like Griffith Park or the LA River. The only other book that I have read that successfully turns LA’s flashy side into just another bit of peripheral scenery is T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Huneven is well-known in Los Angeles as the food critic for the LA Weekly, and the way she writes about food in this book is magnificent. Pete (who along with Helen, a modern sort of minister, are the other two wayward adults) is a former near-celebrity chef who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, suicide attempt combo. His character is both abrasive and charming, the type of person who makes you nervous the moment he steps into the room. As he coaxes himself back into the functioning world, he takes up cooking again, and this is the venue for Huneven’s descriptions of foods. It was nice to see that Huneven did not place this book firmly in the world of food and restaurants in the way that many writers tend to crib from their day jobs. Instead, Huneven manages to weave her knowledge skillfully into the larger narrative. The book itself is a rather satisfying meal, best taken over a few languorous days on a sunny balcony or sitting on a park bench.
Last night myself and my friend Edan were the facilitators for the first installment of a new book club at the book store where I work. It was the first time either of us had ever been in a book club, and I think we both had a good time. Last night we discussed The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. After a few minutes of polite discussion, it came out that half the people in attendance strongly disliked the book, which made for some excellent debate. As best as I could tell, the dislike for the book is a part of the backlash against the “virtuoso perfomances” of young writers of late, who, according to certain readers, are over-writing in order to produce a novel that is “big” and masterful. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen are two examples of this trend that came up during our discussion. I, on the other hand, am relatively lenient in my feelings about this book at least in part because I have always rather enjoyed the over-written modern novel, John Irving (see The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany) and T. C. Boyle (see The Tortilla Curtain, World’s End, and Water Music) being among my favorite practitioners. The question now is: what do we read for next month?
So, they announced the nominees for the National Book Award yesterday. Interesting choices. Here they are with some comments:Drop City by T. C. Boyle: I read this one about a year ago. The book is definitely better than some of the, in my opinion, duds he has produced of late, but it does not come close to surpassing his three best books: The Tortilla Curtain, World’s End, and one of my all-time favorites, Water Music.The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard: I haven’t read this one, but I have a copy. If you would like to read it and write a little review for this website, I will send the book to you at my expense. Any takers?The Known World by Edward P. Jones: I have not read this one but I hear it’s quite good. It was extremely well-reviewed.A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer: This one came out a while back and was also well reviewed, although I only ever seemed to hear Scott Spencer fans talking about it.Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins: this one slipped under my radar because this is the first I’ve heard of it. I know, not very helpful.My pick to win: The Known World by Edward P. JonesAnd the nominees for non-fiction are…. (drum roll):Gulag by Anne Applebaum: I read this book and was completely floored by it. Applebaum was able to get to the heart of a multi-generational tragedy that affected literally tens of millions of people yet is curiously underrepresented in history books. Bravo to her for braving the horrors and writing an unflinching book.The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt: this one was very well reviewed, and, though the subject matter is rather quaint and sentimental, it is pretty clever to follow the history of a house across many generations. Apparently, Colt does a good job of it.Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin by John D’Emilio: This one pretty much slipped under my radar as well. Rustin is the man responsible for organizing the historical Civil Rights March on Washington.Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire: This one came out a while ago to not a whole lot of fanfare. It is pretty highly regarded, and is a must read for folks who are interested in Cuba.The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson: This one was a huge seller. The book provides a healthy dose of historical true crime excitement as it traces the steps of a serial killer who terrorized the Chicago Worlds Fair at the turn of the century. Would love to read this one.My pick: I hope Applebaum wins, but I think the award will go to Colt.For all the details and author bios as well as the nominees in the childrens and poetry categories go to the National Book Award website.