Tag Archives: family carnage

Where Angels Fear to Tread

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been consuming a lot of popular fiction so far this year. For balance, I grabbed some literature before heading out on vacation. This E.M. Forster fellow spins a good yarn and it made for some great vacation reading.

Forster wrote Howard’s End, which I didn’t read, but I saw the movie. I liked it, but I can’t remember it that well. I know for sure that Howard’s End (the movie) was not as shocking as this book. There were two shocking twists and it was more of a page-turner than I expected from so-called lit.

WARNING: PLOT KILLERS FOLLOW

This story appears to be about a headstrong and foolish young mother, Lillia, who’s husband has died. Her in-laws tolerate her despite their view that she is not worthy of their social standing in early-1900s London society. The in-laws send her off to a vacation in Italy and she meets a local common man (Gino) and weds shortly thereafter. The in-laws try and stop the marriage from happening, but it’s too late. Well, it turns out that the marriage is a bust and Lillia and Gino really don’t love each other, but they decide to have a kid (a son) anyhow.

Then Lillia dies. That’s right, at the end of chapter two or three, she dies from complications at childbirth. Shocking, at least to me. What’s this book about, I asked myself?

Well, it gets more warped from there. Her in-laws try and hide the existence of this young son from the world (and from Lillia’s daughter) but the world finds out. This causes some serious complications. I’m talking serious complications. In fact, the whole cadre (Lillia’s brother-in-law, sister-in-law, and friend) go to Italy to try and convince Gino to allow them to take the child back to England so they can raise him there.

This goes very badly because Gino will not give up the child, so the idiot sister-in-law kidnaps the child. To make matters worse, as they are making their getaway with the kidnapped child, their carriage overturns and the child dies.

Damn, this is heavy stuff. It’s like watching a Merchant Ivory movie. You may wonder why I would read such heavy stuff on vacation. Hmmm, for some reason, I embrace the carnage. Not sure why.

I’m in an especially reflective mode lately. A passage in the about the author section really struck me:

His six novels explore subtle political questions, as what seems at first to be merely stories of conflicts among friends, lovers, and families come to illuminate underlying tensions between the wealthy and the poor, individuals and nations.

Things that we still need illuminated today. I sit here during the aftermath of the Virginia Tech tragedy wondering about the parallels. How much of Cho Seung-Hui’s deranged lunacy was made even worse by today’s class struggle between rich and poor. Back in 1900’s England, young people rebelled, sure. But they did it by running off and marrying someone outside of their social class. Now you buy a gun and kill people outside of your social class. It’s a messed up world.

American Pastoral

I remember the day I purchased this book. I told the clerk at Borders, “I don’t need a bag,” and I just let the receipt hang out of the top so the security guard at the North Avenue store didn’t suspect me of thievery. I mean, when you have the “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” badge on the front of a book you own, you want people to be able to see it. What’s the point of hiding it in a plastic bag that’s going to sit in a landfill for decades?

Well, it took about two years to actually get up the nerve to read it because I figured it was going to take energy, and I was correct. This is the story of Swede Levov. He was a superstar high school athlete in New Jersey and went on to successfully run the family business. He achieved tremendous wealth, had a beautiful wife, and was an upstanding citizen in the community. He appeared to have it all, but the dude had big problems.

In the retelling of this man’s fictional life, Roth explores issues of race, religion, class, gender, politics, aging, and infidelity…among others. He explores these issues by observing the Swede’s tragic life from various perspectives and through the conversations that the Swede and his friends and family have. The timeframe is roughly from the Swede’s high school graduation in 1945 to the 1990’s. I didn’t find much happiness or humor, but I was certainly moved.

The book revolves around a moment in 1968 when the Swede’s daughter blows up the local post office. The what and why this happened underpin much of the book, but the moment is not retold directly nor is it the climax. Roth employs many vehicles to flush things out and splits the book into three distinct parts. In Part I, titled “Paradise Remembered,” you see things from the first-person perspective of Nathan Zuckerman, a family friend and writer who grew up with the Levov’s. In Part II, titled “The Fall,” it leaves Zuckerman and switches to a third-person narrative with much reflection by the Swede. And finally, Roth brings things to a raging climax in Part III, titled “Paradise Lost.” It mostly centers on a marathon dinner party at the Levov’s that is reminiscent of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in its length, acidity, and pure domestic evil.

I wouldn’t really call it entertainment, and it was a little heavier than I wanted after a break from reading for about three months while my wife and I moved. But it makes you think and wonder and ruminate, and may change your perspective on some controversial subjects.

Washington Square

I’ve had this book sitting in a stack of stuff to read for years now. I think I purchased it about three years ago, probably after seeing one of those Merchant/Ivory movies or something. I’ve never read anything by Henry James but I always see his novels in the racks of classic lit at the bookstores. So this week, I figured I needed a little classic lit after soiling myself with that trash fiction a few weeks ago. Kinda keeps my world in balance, if you know what I mean.

So there’s this woman, Catherine Sloper, who is described by her father, the wealthy Dr. Sloper, as particularly ugly and stupid. He makes these proclamations about his daughter aloud, in the presence of others, and barely sugar coats it even if he is speaking with his daughter directly.

One evening, Catherine meets a young whipper-snapper named Morris Townsend and is immediately smitten. He too appears interested in furthering the relationship, despite Catherine’s plain looks and lack of cleverness. Could it be that one facet of her attractiveness is that she is in line to inherit a huge chunk of change because of her father’s riches? Yes, it very well could be. But you still hold out hope that Townsend is an honorable man.

Well, her dad is livid and will have nothing to do with this Morris fellow. He does everything in his power to discourage his daughter from wedding young Morris. However, there is an opposing force to her father’s negativity in the form of his sister, Mrs. Penniman. Mrs. Penniman is Catherine’s live-in, widowed aunt, who defies her brother and works the action from the other side by playing matchmaker between these two young lovers.

What follows is a sordid family matter that turns out to be a social commentary by one of our classic writers. I really enjoyed this short read but felt a little empty at the end. I developed a seething hatred for her aunt and her father, but they both seem to escape unscathed. It did appear that Catherine went on to lead a rich and fulfilling life in her spinster-hood, so maybe that was her victory.

Great stuff. I’ve tried to read a few Jane Austen novels and just can’t seem to get through them. James, however, really kept me interested. I was pulling for Catherine throughout.

Train

I saw the movie Short Cuts about a decade ago. It was the first time I recall seeing a movie in that style…the ensemble cast, the handful of stories that were either implicitly or explicitly connected, the mixture of humor and sadness, sorrow and joy. Because of Short Cuts, I rented Grand Canyon, which is much lighter, but similar. Crash and Me and You and Everyone We Know are more recent examples, both of which I enjoyed. I’ve always liked these movies but I have not read any books comparable to this style. Well, now I have.

It began last summer when my wife walked up to me in Borders, handed me Train, and said, “Do you think you would like this?” The first thing I do when I get an unfamiliar book is flip to the About the Author section. I do this because I have no literary background and I need some validation that the author is accomplished and respected. Many people would have recognized Pete Dexter, but I didn’t. I never start with the synopsis on the back cover because that’s all marketing hype. I’m sure the About the Author section also has plenty of marketing hype, but you can’t fake things like National Book Awards or New York Times Notable Books. Can you? Maybe, but besides getting recommendations from people you trust, I don’t know of a better way to help me assess a book for consumption. Do I sound like a literature snob? I hope not. But when something totally unfamiliar hits the screen, I start by qualifying the author, so to speak.

Train was written by Pete Dexter. He also wrote Paris Trout, which won the National Book Award. Paris Trout was made into a TV movie and I remember it being advertised a lot on HBO or Showtime. I also think it received some critical acclaim. Of course, these things drew me in. Couple those items with a plot that included golf, and I basically had no choice but to buy it.

The book is set in Los Angeles – year 1953. Amongst the ensemble, there are three primary characters. There’s Train, a black caddy with a special gift for golf. He has a big heart, but makes some questionable decisions. There’s Miller Packard, an enigma. He’s a cop, a part-time criminal, and a golf course hustler – at least, that’s the best I can tell. He’s nurturing and violent at the same time. And finally, there’s Norah Still. She’s a former human rights activist who finds her way to Southern California and gets embroiled with this lot.

I was immersed and interested throughout, but I can’t really say it was fun. The situations that the characters get themselves into are downright strange. I’m talking weird, gut-wrenching, horrible, humorous…you name it. It’s a dark, depressing story. There is a lot of violence and a lot of sex. And you don’t get a lot of clarity. The sensation of reading this book is totally different from reading something with a protagonist, an antagonist, a plot line, and the words THE END on the last page.

Dexter doesn’t ever let you feel like you have a grasp on what’s going on. He just throws these characters at you and starts telling a bunch of short stories. Problems don’t get resolved, apparent criminal actions don’t get investigated, and certain story lines don’t get concluded. Something big and important may happen, but you may not find out about it until afterwards, in the recollection of one of the characters. You sense connections, you get to know the characters, you get hints on what’s next, you look forward to simply getting some clarity. Sometimes things get clarified and sometimes they don’t. I was never bored because the anticipation of some sort of conclusion keeps you turning pages.

Like I said, this book is dark, but there is some hope. At times, amidst all the pain and suffering, the characters show themselves to be kind, giving, and understanding. I personally found a lot of hope in the golf aspect, but please don’t look at this as a golf book. Golf is always there, but rarely the center of attention. You can tell that Dexter has played some golf because he has a few keen insights into the game, which were entertaining for a fan of the game like me.

I will, at some time in my life, read more Pete Dexter. I’m not going to run out tomorrow and blow my Borders gift certificate on Paris Trout. However, it’s good to know that there is a National Book Award winner out there that I will probably be interested in reading.