Thursday, December 30, 2010

Damon Galgut writes about the frustrations of desire.

I was intrigued when I read accounts of this beautifully written memoir novel. It is provocative and engaging in equal measure.

In a Strange Room

South African Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room (224 pages, Europa Editions, $15) tells a fascinating story about a lonely gay man who finds himself in three different situations which both frustrate and depress him. All are told from the first-person point of view, and all seem to talk about someone like the author, and it seems that the novel also doubles as a memoir. As both novel and memoir, it is deeply engaging and profoundly true.

In the first tale, Damon finds himself engaging with a provocative stranger in Greece. This handsome German, called Reiner, engages the South African and proposes to visit him in Cape Town. When the stranger arrives, Damon finds that he is as much repulsed as he is attracted to the powerfully masculine figure of this friend, and he is not really sure he trusts him. But Reiner proposes some time hiking together in a land distant from the civilized urban world they know. This excites the narrator and before long the two men are hiking in Lesotho, carrying all their supplies and camping wherever they can. Galgut makes vivid the loneliness of such travel, especially when so much is unspoken between the two men. They walk in silence, each alone in his own thoughts, and when they do engage, it is usually in competitive terms. As the situation becomes hellish for Damon, he has no alternative but to burst out against his companion’s arrogance and self-absorption. This causes a break, and it proves to the narrator what an insufficient basis for friendship has been the vague attraction he felt for Reiner. This hike has in fact been an antidote to friendship; and if Damon is any wiser at the end of the talk, it is the wisdom of loneliness.

The second narrative is, if anything, even more devastating. Again the narrator is traveling in Africa and he meets up with an interesting group of Europeans. He is particularly fascinated with a trio: an older French man and a younger Swiss pair, a brother and sister. The younger man, Jerome, speaks no English, but seems attracted to the narrator. The feeling seems to be mutual, but there is no chance to act on the attraction. These people always travel in a group, and even when Jerome and Damon are on their own, there is little they can say to each other. It is clear Jerome wants Damon to stay with the group, and even when he has to separate from the group because of some visa issues, Jerome makes a plea that Damon come to visit him in Switzerland. Oddly enough, Damon persuades himself that he should make that visit; when he gets there, however, the family welcomes him but there are no direct overtures from Jerome. After staying sometime, Damon leaves in frustration and worries that maybe he should have handled the whole thing differently.

In the third section, Damon goes to India with a female friend who has been ill with a serious depression for some time. He hopes to be her companion as she comes out of treatment and finds herself again, but instead he finds that he is her antagonist; and it gradually becomes clear that he is the only person standing between his friend and her self-destruction. Here the frustration and anger are even more palpable than they were in the earlier sections, and again Damon fails to save his friend.

The soul-searching that accompanies each of these sections is riveting, and the central character makes it clear that all these failures leave him alone but somehow stronger for it all. This seems to be the moral of the tale: Damon fails to save his friends or even to establish a truly meaningful relationship, but still he finds himself and makes peace with that. That is surely something.

Damon Galgut

In a Strange Room is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Lauren Weisberger takes on the world of rock music

Lauren Weisberger follows up The Devil Wears Prada with a story about a nutritionist who is married to a rock star. That creates some interesting tensions.

Last Night at Chateau Marmont

Lauren Weisberger’s Last Night at Chateau Marmont (384 pages, Altria, $25.99) follows the marriage of Brooke and Julian Alter. Brooke works two jobs as a nutritionist in order to help Julian get his music career off the ground. He is a soulful singer-songwriter who first caught Brooke’s eye when he was singing his heart out. Brooke believes in him, even if her friends and (especially) his parents do not. His parents, a wealthy pair of doctors who live on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, think their son is wasting his time. They also make it clear that they have no use for Brooke, which only makes her try to please them more.

Imagine everyone’s surprise, then, when Julian’s music is actually taken seriously by Sony and when, after some trial runs and controlled performances, his career really starts to take off. Brooke is at first so thrilled that she hardly knows what to do; but it quickly becomes apparent that Julian's needs and demands as a performer will conflict with her own career plans.

At first she is rigid about her two jobs and her commitment to them. She really does love her work, it seems, and she wants to prove that she can do it all. It becomes increasingly apparent to the reader that she cannot, and eventually she loses both jobs, one on account of her increasingly frequent absences, and the other, on account of the notoriety that her position as wife of a rock star brings along with it; the private school where she works as a nutritionist has no alternative but to let her go.

This would be bad enough, but her relations with Julian are strained at the same time. His schedule is grueling, and he finds himself accepting tours and interviews even when she cannot be with him. Added to this professional loneliness is the incessant probing of the press and paparazzi. It gets so bad that they have to install blackout shades in their midtown Manhattan apartment. Even worse, the press seems to play this marriage as an odd choice for the handsome crooner who could have his choice of women. A slightly overweight, if not dumpy, red head is hardly what the cognoscenti would choose for him.

When it turns out that Julian may have been unfaithful, Brooke’s whole world falls apart, and until they are able to work out some way of trusting one another, the marriage seems doomed.

I can’t say that I found much sympathy for Brooke, whose demands seemed unreasonable. I was happy, I suppose, when the marriage was saved, but I also wondered why the woman had to be so dull and otherwise inappropriate as a rock star’s wife. I imagine that is best known to the author and this kind of tension is really what she wanted to emphasize. Maybe it will make a decent movie.

Lauren Weisberger

Last Night at Chateau Marmont is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Aly Monroe takes her spy to post-WWII Washington with great results.

I enjoyed the first novel in Aly Monroe’s Peter Cotton series, and I assumed I would like this one too. I was not mistaken.

Washington Shadow

In this novel, Aly Monroe places her hero, Peter Cotton, in a contingent of British diplomats and MI6 agents who immediately after the end of the Second World War have come to Washington under the auspices of the great economist Maynard Keynes in order to ask for some aid in dealing with their own post-war austerities. Washington Shadow (325 pages, John Murray, $12.95) examines the post-war desperation of the English, the increasingly chilly relations between the Americans and the Soviets, the break-up of the OSS, and the gradual slide into the cold war, all from a refreshingly oblique British angle.

Of course from the British point of view, this moment, probably more than any other, except the Suez Crisis of ten years later, marked the end of British global domination. Peter Cotton has gone to Washington with a group that is there to salvage some respectability along with a sizable loan. The farsighted among the diplomats realize that the best they can probably hope for is a position as intelligence aid and senior advisor to the greener and less experienced Americans. The British felt, justifiably so, that their years as civil servants and empire builders have given them a perspective on the present crisis.

Keynes, of course, is also trying to remind the Americans how much they owe to their former colonial rulers. As the key figures negotiate a long-term post war loan, Peter Cotton and his group are trying to create something like a more complex and partly secretive diplomatic mission on the new world scene. Washington is remarkably backwater in the year of this novel’s action, and a lot of the awkwardness of the American shift from the war against Germany and Japan to the cold war with the Soviet Union is apparent in the posturing and shuffling that is taking place at even the highest levels of diplomacy.

Aly Monroe is alive to these shifts—the novel is wonderfully researched—and she puts her hero in a place that allows him to experience, for better and for worse, the results of these growing pains. Peter meets a number of other British diplomats, some like him who have emerged from the armed forces, and he experiences their pain at trying to find a niche for themselves in the American scene. He also meets fascinating international figures, primarily a Russian and an African, who through their diplomatic friendliness show him the broad hints of horrors that are to come.

In the midst of this complex historical matrix, Cotton also makes close, even intimate friends. A British friend, his driver and assistant, is jumping ship as it were and trying to find a new home in America. This is complicated enough, especially when other friends are losing their jobs because of the American liaisons. Meanwhile, his own involvement with an impressive American female in diplomatic service begins to give Peter Cotton himself the feeling that he might be willing to relocate his career and settle in the States. Through this friend, Katherine, Peter experiences all the world of wealthy and cultured Americans has to offer. Katherine is of course a kind of renegade from her family—they would prefer her not to have anything like a real career—but Peter can also see how fulfilled she is by what she does. He tries to support her as they draw closer and talk about the future.

The tensions of the moment, however, both personal and political, prove to be too much for Peter and Katherine, as well as for many of their friends. The novel comes to a sober end, but then when one thinks about it, how could it not? This moment in history can hardly justify too many happy endings.

The ending is satisfying, nonetheless; and with it, Aly Monroe has deepened her claim as a talented and rewarding writer of historical suspense.

Aly Monroe

Washington Shadow
is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Steve Martin writes a novel about the New York art scene in the later 20th Century

I was happy to see that Steve Martin had written another novel, and the premise of this one, which deals with the art world in the last decade of the 20th century, sounded more than engaging enough to recommend it.

An Object of Beauty

Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty (295 pages, Grand Central Publishing, $26.99) is itself an object of beauty. There are several color illustrations in these pages, and often, as Martin discusses a particular work of art, he shows it. These color illustrations do a lot to bring the story alive. That is especially true because the story about the art of the age is even more compelling than the story about the girl, Lacey, who tries to make her living by dealing in art.

The story about Lacey is in fact a little strange. I suppose Martin means her as an everywoman of sorts. She is a beautiful and tough transplanted southerner who is making her way in New York. To do this, she walks all over the people she meets and seems constitutionally unable to maintain a relationship with a man. This makes sense because her deepest interest in life is her own advancement in the art world; and if she can be said to have an undying love, it is a love of art. Or at least it is a love of what art may be able to provide for her.

Her character is vaguely amoral—she is willing, for instance, to steal art right out of her grandmother’s sickroom—but it is hard to care enough about her to worry what she does or doesn’t do. She is an excuse for telling the story, it seems, and very little more.

The other odd effect in this novel is the narrator. An art critic, and someone who knows Lacey quite well, the narrator insinuates himself into various scenes and even has some ludicrously nefarious dealings with Lacey. But again it is hard to care; and in this case it is hard to imagine that the narrator cares much about representing himself or his own needs.

What is represented, though, is the art scene of the 1990’s and the first years of the twenty-first century. Martin does a wonderful job of presenting the art world: the artists, the galleries, and the collectors of that heady era when the value of art seemed to do nothing but soar.

Lacey is caught up in the contemporary scene, and by following her as she tricks her way into the fast lane and then establishes a reputation and eventually a gallery, we keep our fingers on the pulse of the art scene. Martin represents a range of practitioners, and he manages to set a world wide stage with deftness and clarity. I, for one, felt that I learned a lot reading this novel.

I think this bodes well for Martin as a novelist. If he can create characters that matter, then he will be a long way toward writing the great novel of which I think he is more than capable.

Steve Martin

Get a copy of An Object of Beauty at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Cynthia Ozick writes a novel inspired by Henry James’s The Ambassadors

I was interested by the James connection here, and although Cynthia Ozick is not one of my favorite novelists, I thought this project sounded interesting.

Foreign Bodies

Cynthia Ozick makes explicit her reference in Foreign Bodies (255 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26) to Henry James's novel about Americans abroad, The Ambassadors. Ozick takes her epigraph from James’s novel, in which he speaks about the possibilities of refinement and brutalization that face Americans in Europe, and she tells a tale that is similar enough to The Ambassadors in broad outline to make the vivid distinctions from the earlier novel truly telling.

Bea, the middle-aged heroine of the novel has lived alone in New York since her husband left her many years before the narrative opens in the early 1950s. She has in fact been asked to go to Europe to find her nephew, who seems to have defied his self-important Californian father by staying abroad longer than he was meant to. After a half-hearted attempt at finding him during her first trip abroad, Bea is roundly upbraided by her brother, who urges her to return to Europe to find his son. He cannot go himself, he tells her, because he has too many concerns at home. His work is demanding, and his wife is in a home for the mentally unstable, primarily, it seems, because she cannot accommodate the absence of her son.

When Bea is equivocating as to whether she can go or not, her niece, Iris, comes to New York purportedly to persuade her; but Iris goes to Paris herself, both admitting that she has been in communication with her brother, Julian, and promising that she can bring him back if anyone can. Bea enters unwillingly into a kind of league with this girl—she keeps her trip from the girl’s father—but still she worries that she should let her brother know what’s going on.

Rather than do that, she takes herself to Europe to discover what has happened to both these younger people. There she confronts a situation that is more complicated than she can handle. Julian seems to be involved with an older woman, a Romanian, and Iris has been aiding and abetting this pair rather than doing anything to extricate Julian from his European entanglements. Bea almost immediately realizes that she can do nothing for the youngsters either, and she again returns to New York with nothing to show for her trip.

This time, though, she slips out to Los Angeles, and she sees both her hospitalized sister-in-law, who makes intermittent sense to Bea, and her ex-husband, who turns out to live nearby. This trip opens Bea’s life to quite a lot, and afterwards she could be said to be more on the side of the young people than she was before.
The novel winds itself around the complexities of this situation, and although Bea ends up marginally better than she was at the opening of the novel, she has no more sense of her nephew or her niece and even less contact with her hideous brother.

It is hard to read a novel when so many of the characters are unlikeable. Ozick seems to have tolerance for this rum group, and even the feckless Julian seems to warrant some understanding. I found myself impatient with the whole procedure. But that doesn’t mean that Ozick does not write very well—she does—and that the novel doesn’t repay close reading. I think you have to be in an acerbic mood to appreciate it. But if you are, I bet you will like it a lot.

Cynthia Ozick

A copy of Foreign Bodies available at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Daisy Hay writes a compelling literary biography of a generation of poets and writers.

I got the feeling that Daisy Hay’s study of the second generation of Romantic poets might read like a novel, and it surely does. It is richly informative, to be sure; but it is also simply a good read!

Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry’s Greatest Generation

In Young Romantics (384 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27.50), Daisy Hay gathers material from various sources, some well-known and some relatively new, to tell a familiar story from an inspired perspective, and the results are successful. Hay describes her inspiration: on her honeymoon she visited the English cemetery in Rome, where she encountered the graves of Keats and Shelley. When she noticed that both graves have what seem like companion graves in which friends are buried (Joseph Severn in the case of Keats and Edward John Trelawny in the case of Shelley), Hay became fascinated with the notion of friendships among the Romantics, and this book is the result of her research.

The book does many things that make it worth reading. For one thing, it brings out vividly the central place of Leigh Hunt in any discussion of these poets in context. Hunt was the sometime friend to Byron, Shelley, and Keats, and he encouraged all three men in their attempts to write poetry and find voices of their own. He also set a political agenda that for a time each of these poets subscribed to. Unlike the earlier generation of Wordsworth and Coleridge, who were influenced by the French revolution, Hay argues, this generation was influenced by Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and the resulting restrictions placed on individual liberties throughout Europe and in England especially. Hunt protested (and was prosecuted for doing do) in his periodical, The Examiner, and he drew literary friends of all kinds into a circle of committed and politically aware young men and women.

Hay tells this story compellingly, and she also tells how Hunt therefore became the avatar of what became known in conservative literary circles as the Cockney School of poetry. Poets like Shelley and Keats were grateful for Hunt’s support, but they also worried when it became a liability. Some of this tension animates the tale that Hay has to tell.

Another much-discussed feature of this group that Hay approaches directly is that of their sexual irregularity. Hay talks about the role of “free love” as part of the political agenda of this group, most famously articulated by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his poetry and other writing. Hay looks at the women who became involved with these men: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin ran off with Shelley while he was still married to his first wife; Claire Clairmont accompanied this couple because of her own devotion to Shelley, only later to become involved with (and discarded by) Byron; Marianne and her sister Bess seemed to share the affection (if not the bed) of Marianne’s husband Leigh Hunt, and this threesome was the cause of public gossip as well as private consternation. Hay tells all these stories with careful attention to the actual feelings of these women. Without mocking the notion of free love, she also shows what kinds of pain it caused.

The great accomplishment of this book is its creation of the sense of a community of poets and writers. As careers go in different directions and several members of the group die at tragically young ages, tensions develop that eventually manage to pull things apart. But Hay creates a vivid sense of what these writers shared and how they derived strength from one another as much as from the ideal of poetic isolation. Hay uses a line of Keats as an epigraph. He described Hunt’s circle like this: “The web of our Life is of tangled yarn.” Hay does a lot to untangle these complicated lives and explain to us something about the true singularity of that poetic moment.

This is a book for students and scholars of the Romantic period, but it is also for anyone else who likes a great story about a great generation.

Daisy Hay

Get a copy of Young Romantics at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Armisted Maupin takes us to Barbary Lane once more.

This novel is another late edition to Maupin’s Tales of the City. I read it a bit for old times’ sake and a bit because I really liked his last novel, Michael Tolliver Lives. I thought this one might be fun too.

Mary Ann in Autumn

Armisted Maupin’s latest novel, Mary Ann in Autumn (304 pages, Harper, $25.99), tells the story of an older Mary Ann, now separated from her wealthy husband, who returns to San Francisco to be with her old friends as she faces a serious operation for ovarian cancer. Maupin hauls out all the old characters from Tales of the City. Michael Tolliver, Anna Madrigal, Shawna and others are back, and, as we discovered in Michael Tolliver Lives, they have a lot of life in them yet.

This volume includes a bit more of the lurid side of Tales of the City. The pedophile Norman is back, with a vengeance, and Mary Ann has to confront some of the gloomier hosts of her past. For me this feature of the novel creaked just a bit—it seemed almost quaint that Maupin would try to resurrect all that ghoulishness. But then he always had quite a light touch with it, and he does here too.

What’s new is a deeper interest in transsexuality. That was always there, of course, with Anna Madrigal as an early example of M to F transition. Well, she is now serving as mentor and house-mother to a young F to M trans character named Jake. Jake’s struggle to realize his new male identity, and his confusion when he is actually taken as a man, a gay man, by a visiting Mormon crusader, makes an engaging side plot. And of course Jake’s desire for a hysterectomy can be played against Mary Ann’s dread of one, and Maupin does play them against each other with good effect.

I looked on to see what readers are saying, and they seemed to be thrilled at this resurrection of the characters and the prospect of even more novels in the series. I can’t say that I share this enthusiasm. I’d like to see Maupin devote his considerable talents to writing novels that take us beyond this narrow and circumscribed world of Michael Tolliver and his friends. I am as happy as the next reader to see Michael as a slightly overweight and happily married sixty-year-old. But the petty difficulties that beset Michael’s relationship with the much younger, and very charming, Ben are only mildly interesting.

There is a terribly strong valedictory feeling about this novel, and a sense that nothing is really new but only reworking of things that have already happened. The San Francisco, moreover, that Maupin’s characters seem bent on rediscovering is not really the city as it exists in the twenty-first century. I think Maupin could do more to make the contemporary city come alive.

Suddenly I feel like I am sounding cranky about this novel, and I don’t mean to be. I quite liked it, and I know I would read another in the series should it be published. I also feel that we have had more than enough of these characters, and I would encourage this wonderful writer to try something else as he reaches the peak of his career.

Armisted Maupin

Mary Ann in Autumn is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Emma Donoghue has written a spectacular novel about a child’s view of pain and deprivation.

Emma Donoghue has written some wonderful novels, but this one is her best yet. It is no wonder that it was short-listed for the Booker Prize in England. I think it is one of the best novels I have read in a long time.

The Room

Emma Donoghue’s The Room (321 pages, Little, Brown and Company, $24.99) is a little confusing at first. A young woman and her five-year-old son are celebrating the boy’s birthday. The reader starts to notice how much is absent and how vividly the pair is improvising. Jack, the boy, is telling the story from his own perspective. This child’s voice and child’s perspective is one of the great achievements of the novel. Like one of the great novelists of the nineteenth century, Emma Donoghue creates a child-narrator that captures the reader’s attention and makes the entire story irresistible.

At first Jack is explaining how he and Ma pass their time in “The Room,” where they seem to be living. As Jack explains their games and the delightful ways they find to spend their days, it gradually dawns on the reader that these two characters are somehow trapped in a single room. Later it becomes clear that they are imprisoned in a sound-proof garden shed by a psychopath who has abducted the girl some years earlier.

Jack has been born in The Room, even he seems to understand, and until midway through the novel, that is the only world he knows. He has created a wonderland out of Bed and Stove and Skylight and Wardrobe, but the limits of his experience are truly harrowing.

Old Nick, their jailer, visits occasionally, sometimes bringing presents and always asking for sexual favors from Ma. She does what she can to placate the maniac because she fears for the little boy, and whenever Old Nick visits, Jack hides in the wardrobe and tries to keep silent.

The woman has been imprisoned for nearly seven years, it turns out, and finally she and Jack between them figure out a means of escape. It is a crazy plan, but somehow it works; and suddenly Ma and Jack are in a clinic that is trying to help them reacquaint, or in Jack’s case acquaint, themselves with the world.

The second half of the novel, which takes place outside The Room, is almost as ghoulish as the time spent within. Everything is new and monstrous to Jack. The air is too fresh, the sun it too strong, and life itself is a challenge for him. Ma, too, seems overwhelmed by the experience facing them.

Ma’s family does not help. Her mother, so guiltily solicitous, and her brother trying to help but putting his foot in it every time, are nearly maddening. Everyone, except the folks at the clinic, think Jack just needs to get out a bit. But when he does, the experience of the world nearly overwhelms him.

Ma has her own problems too, when her story becomes known and the media descends in an attempt to make her into a celebrity. For a while it seems as if neither of them will survive the ordeal of their liberation.

But remember that this entire story is told from the perspective of a five-year-old. He is a precocious boy in a lot of ways, but still! Jack’s perspective on everything that happens is more than unusual. It is magical in the ways that only the very best children's narratives have been. I am thinking of novels like Alice in Wonderland , David Copperfield,or Peter Pan. I would put this novel in a class with those masterpieces.

That is to say: Emma Donghue has written a masterpiece with The Room. I urge everyone who reads this blog to get it somewhere and read it right away. I have a copy I will share with anyone nearby.

Emma Donoghue

The Room available at Vroman's and Amazon.

Tristan Garcia writes about the effect of AIDS on Paris intellectuals in the 80s and 90s.

I read a review of this novel, which has been celebrated in France, and could not wait to read it. I am teaching a course on AIDS Literature this term, and I wish I had known about this book before I set the syllabus.

Hate: A Romance

Hate (283 pages, Faber and Faber, $24) is translated by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein. It is Tristan Garcia’s first novel, which in French is called The Best of Men. The story, told by Liz (Elizabeth Lavallois), a child of the eighties, concerns three men. Two are Parisian intellectuals who trace their roots back to the heady days of 1968, while the third younger man, is handsome and far more elemental than the others.

Will, or Willie, Miller, the younger man, from Amiens, trades on his good looks and disrupts the world of Dominique Rossi, an openly gay writer and thinker, originally from Corsica. Dominique has confronted the horrors of AIDS and begun a “safe sex” program that is supported by the largest and most powerful gay organizations in France.

Jean-Michel Liebowitz, the second intellectual, is a deeply committed Jewish leftist who, in the course of the novel, comes to seem more like a neo-con, both in his politics and in his personal style.

Liz is close to all these men. Indeed she is having an affair with the married Jean-Michel for most of the novel. She is friendly with Dominique, or Doum, and Will, when they are lovers, and she carries a torch for the handsome Will, as so many other characters in the novel do.

The novel is brilliant in its presentation of the vagaries of Parisian intellectual life. At times almost heady with Marxist and post-structuralist ideas, Garcia, who is himself trained in philosophy, seems happiest when he is diagnosing the in-breeding of French thought in the late twentieth-century. But he also tells a riveting tale of sexual transgression, personal confrontation, and generational catastrophe.

Will finds himself at odds with Dominique, first within their relationship, which we see only briefly, but vividly; and then, after they split, everywhere else. Will's obsession with the man, with whom he was clearly in love, leads him to go after him publicly where he is most vulnerable. Because Doum’s most visible public cause is his “safe sex” program, Will becomes the avatar of unsafe sex. Attacking Doum and his cronies as the old men who want to destroy sex for the young, Will starts a barebacking campaign that has great success with the young.

“Prevention=Repression,” his t-shirts and bill-boards say, and without anyone quite knowing how, Willie Miller becomes the man of the moment. He writes a diatribe against Doum and the older gay leaders, and he becomes the man of the hour.

Garcia is spectacular at depicting the heady world of those who are defying AIDS, claiming that it is a grand conspiracy and even, a "Jewish conspiracy." Willie angers all the old guard, on the left, on the right, and in between.

One sleeping giant this activity angers is Jean-Michel Liebowitz, who comes out swinging; and in fighting the younger terror, he and Dominique meet up and try to call in all their cards in order to deal Will the final blow. They want to crush the young man, and they know exactly how to do that. They publish an interview about the "history of AIDS," as a way of reclaiming their position in it.

It seems, however, that Will’s physical breakdown will do even more than they can do with their timely publications. Garcia is great at depicting the gradual and then sudden breakdown that is typical of AIDS, and it is painfully ironic that we see the defiant young firebrand and many of his friends nearly wasting away.

Liz, the narrator, brings us in and out of these characters lives, and she offers her own assessments along the way. What Garcia is doing, though, besides giving us these three portraits—or four, really including Liz—is to give us a breathtakingly clear portrait of an entire age. These figures may not represent specific historical individuals, but they remind one of everything that was happening, politically and culturally, around the issue of AIDS in the later twentieth century.

I think this is one of the great novels to have emerged from this hideous history. I know it will be on my syllabus the next time I teach this course.

Tristan Garcia

Get a copy of Hate: A Romance at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Howard Jabobson’s latest novel treats the topic of British anti-Semitism.

I read about this novel when it was shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, the English equivalent to the Pulitzer. By the time I finished reading it, it had been awarded the prize. I can certainly understand why.

The Finkler Question

Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question (307 pages, Bloomsbury,$15) tells the story of two men, a Jew and an non-Jew, who are friends from school and who stay friendly as they pursue their professional lives in London. They also stay close to an older man who was their favorite teacher, now a retired widower, who lives near Regent’s Park in London.

Julian Treslove has never been married. Women seem to drift in and out his life, but he hardly notices their coming and going. He has had two sons, though, now both grown, but he feels as remote from them as he does from their long-forgotten mothers.

Sam Finkler, his close friend, had been married to a wonderful woman called Tyler. Finkler loves Tyler deeply, and since her death some time before the opening of the novel, he is mourning her loss. A rather big and fairly demonstrative Jewish man, Finkler can hardly contain the grief he feels. He misses his wife Tyler terribly, and he also feels bad that he cheated on her—but surely this was the Jewish husband’s right, he thinks—as much as he did.

Tyler appears in the novel during various flashback scenes, and she is a wonderful character. More than a match for Finkler, when we see him in her company, we realize how deeply she could humanize him. In losing her, it is true that he lost a remarkable woman.

The older friend and former teacher to these guys, Libor Sevcik, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia, has also recently lost a loving wife. An almost sardonic counterpoint to the younger men, Libor tries to create a place where they can seem at home, but their evenings together have a deeply funerary feel. They also spend their time—or at least Finkler and Sevick do—arguing about Zionism and the presence of the Jews in Palestinian territories. Sevcik’s life experiences and his deeply ingrained political views cause him to support Israel and defend Israeli choices, political and social. Finkler takes a far different position. He finds, as a leftist and thinker—he is a professional philosopher, as it turns out—that he is ashamed at what has been perpetrated under the name of Zionism. Once these conversations start, needless to say, they are intense and long-lasting.

Julian merely watches when these two go at it. Not Jewish himself, he recognizes the pain that these two men express, but he cannot really feel it. This is a great cause of chagrin to him, for he almost feels as if he has missed the boat somehow.
As Sam finds himself founding and going public with a group he calls the ASHamed Jews, Julian stumbles his way into the arms of a wonderful Jewish mother figure, who offers to take care of him. What he really wants from her is an experience of Jewishness, and before long she learns that his wanting to be close to things Jewish has become something of an obsession.

It would be hard to capture the rich and wonderful humor of the novel. But Jacobson is truly humorous, even at the level of style. The novel is a pleasure to read, and it is sometimes so funny that I found myself laughing out loud.

The novel is also deeply upsetting. What it exposes about British anti-Semitism is breathtaking in some ways. But Jacobson tells this story so lovingly, so humanely, that it is possible to feel consolation, even as these characters do ridiculous things.

The bond that these three men share, and even more elementally the bond between Julian and Sam, as complex and sometimes ruthless as it is, is one of the great friendships of literature. These men—Sam, a larger than life public personality, and Julian, a nowhere man if there ever was one—share a bond that sometimes almost makes them the same person. They are rivals, to be sure, but deep down they are also unmistakably in love.

Howard Jacobson

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Friday, October 29, 2010

Michael Cunningham writes another beautiful novel.

I rushed to get Michael Cunningham’s latest novel when it appeared. This writer just gets better and better.

By Nightfall

Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall (238 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25) tells the story of middle-aged angst and how it nearly destroys a loving couple. Peter and Rebecca Harris are in their early forties. They are both involved in the New York art scene. He runs a very good gallery, but of course he worries that it might be better. She edits an art magazine with a certain reputation, and in the short space of the action of the novel, it is almost bought out by a billionaire in Montana.

Peter and Rebecca are busy, and Cunningham does a great job of suggesting how their days are spent and what they do while they are at work. He spends more time with Peter, and it is Peter’s mind that we see from the inside; and for this, Cunningham has mastered the rhetoric of the art world and the anxieties that might beset an idealist gallery owner when he finds himself selling art that he is not even sure he likes.

Peter is unsure about a lot of things. He worries about what he will ever accomplish. It seems that although his gallery has had some successes, it is not of the first rank; and he is getting tired of waiting for the genius to come along to make him feel that this has all been worth it. Instead, he works with artists whom be admires but who also leave him wondering what he is doing.

Luckily, Peter has a German assistant Uta, who is fond of him--they almost had an affair some years before--and who does not tire of reminding him that it is not wrong to make money at this venture. When money-making schemes do come along--like an artist whom he might take on because a friend is giving up her business--Uta has to talk Peter out of the guilt he might feel.

Into this complicated world comes young Ethan, who is twenty years younger than his sister Rebecca, herself the youngest of three sisters. Ethan, known in the family as Mizzy, for “mistake,” is a rather feckless young man, in and out of school because of his involvement with drugs. Since college he has been hopping around the world hoping to find the meaning of life. When he turns up in New York to stay with Peter and Rebecca, Peter takes an interest in him, seemingly for the first time. He is constantly confronted with the naked, or semi-naked, young man, who seems nothing if not unselfconscious; but still Peter can’t get him out of his head.

Peter’s interest in the boy seems to take the shape of wanting to save him. After all, he is a beautiful and potentially talented young man, but the drugs are taking so much of his concentration that he could be said to be throwing his life away. Peter feels that he loves the boy because he is in so much trouble and also because he is so very beautiful and open and young.

Needless to say, an affair between Peter and Ethan is something that none of the characters, not even the principals, really want. The novel brings us to the brink of release, disaster, some kind of major change, but I won’t say what really happens. Anything could happen, and the greatness of this novel its ability to make us wonder.

Michael Cunningham

Get a copy of By Nightfall at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Stephen McCauley writes a charming tale about playing with the truth.

After reading McCauley’s latest, I decided to go back and read a few from the last twenty-some years during which this novelist has been producing.

True Enough

True Enough (314 pages, Washington Square Press, $14) appeared in 2001. In it, McCauley tells the story of two frustrated middle-aged characters. Jane Cody is a producer in the fraught world of Boston Public Television. She produces a show that is called “The Conversation,” which mimics a dinner party in which guests discuss issues of pressing public importance. The show is a success, but still she has to scramble to get the right group together for each taping. She has an able—perhaps too able—assistant Chloe, who is always ready with suggestions and who seems vaguely prepared to disapprove of Jane’s last minute, frantic rush to pull things together.

Jane has a maddening young son, whom she loves, but who torments her with his long-suffering angst about experiencing the world. He already seems world-weary at six-years-old, and she is always looking for things to entertain him. Her loving second husband, whom she can barely tolerate, reminds her that their son is only six, but that isn’t the way she sees it. Jane is also emotionally, and at times even physically, involved with her ex-husband, but she is also in denial about how much that man means to her. She attends weekly therapy sessions, but she finds she can’t bring herself to tell the therapist what really is going on.

Meanwhile, Desmond Sullivan, a forty-ish gay man living in New York with a handsome and amusing lover, is having something like a mid-life crisis. He has written one successful biography of a mediocre celebrity, and he is halfway through another, on a singer known as Pauline Anderton. His trouble with this biography, along with some frustration in the relationship, which he hardly acknowledges, leads him to take a temporary teaching job in Boston.

Once in Boston, these two confused and misdirected characters meet, and each sees the other as the answer to the current dilemma. Jane thinks Desmond’s mediocre biography subjects might make a great TV series, and Desmond feels that TV might be the answer to all his feelings of being stuck. Of course, neither of these things is exactly true, but the two still help one another enormously.

Each gives the other the perspective needed to begin to cope. For Jane that means facing up to her unhappiness and recognizing how much her husband really loves her. For Desmond, self-acceptance means finding a way back to the partner he came close to abandoning in New York. It is not easy for either of these characters to get to this place, and McCauley tells a great tale of false starts and misdirections.
But in the end, everything works out very touchingly. These characters both recognize how much love they have in their lives, and that somehow gives them the energy to make sense of everything else.

Stephen McCauley

Get a copy of True Enough at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Lan Samantha Chang contemplates the lives of poets.

I am certain that it was the subject matter of this novel—following a group of poets in a Creative Writing class—that caught my attention. A fascinating work, to be sure, even if it is not exactly what I had expected.


All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost

Lan Samantha Chang’s new novel, All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost (208 pages, Norton, $23.95), tells the story of a group of aspiring poets who meet in the class of a woman who is herself a distinguished poet. Teaching at a campus in the Midwest, Miranda Sturgis is a mystery to her students. In the poetry seminar, the students are ruthless with one another’s work, but Miranda sits above it all, only dispensing her reactions—at times not even specifically related to the poem in question—when she thinks the students have gone too far.

Among the students are two young men whom we come to know fairly well. Roman, a handsome twenty-eight year old who has come to the Creative Writing Program after recognizing that he could not fulfill his poetic destiny working in a bank, is aloof and defensive, and he craves praise from the other members of the writing seminar, even as he holds them in contempt. Bernard, a younger bespectacled fellow-student, whom Roman imagines is a serious poet, befriends Roman and shares with him an almost overwhelming awe of their accomplished teacher. There are several women in the class too: Marleen, Lucy, Phoebe, and others. We hear about their poetry, and we hear what they say about the poetry of the others in the class. We also see them at parties and other social events, especially during the first (of three) sections of the novel, the section concerning the years while these students are pursuing the graduate degree in Creative Writing.

The seminar itself is truly miserable. The students snipe at each other, and they are all jockeying for Miranda’s attention. When Bernard’s poem—an account of the early French explorers in Wisconsin—is read to the class, he fairly quakes with nerves as his lines are criticized. Roman holds out until the last week of the seminar to allow his poems to be discussed, and when the women in the class attack the poems as overly aggressive, even sexually violent, he tries to remain unaffected. He feels that he gets a little recognition from Miranda, and that is enough for him.

Shortly after this seminar experience, Roman and Miranda begin having an affair. This teacher-student affair, never really a good idea, in this context makes Roman even more vulnerable. He is desperate for praise from the older woman, but she wants him to challenge himself even more in his poetry. There is a kind of intensity to the relationship, but there is also, depressingly, an almost total absence of love. When Roman moves on, because he receives scholarships to study in California, he doesn’t think twice about leaving Miranda behind, and later, when he receives a distinguished prize for younger poets, he is suspicious and angry when Miranda turns out to the judge who determined the prize. Because of his early relationship with Miranda, he feels more unsure of himself than he otherwise might. But he is so fixated on his own worth as a poet, and the value of the work he is doing, that he loses sight of what other people might think of as a private life.

The second section of the novel takes place a decade or so later, when Roman is married to one of his fellow students and Bernard is struggling to finish his poem in a tiny New York apartment. Roman is less likable as a husband and a father, and his self-obsession in this section of the novel is almost grotesque. Bernard is even more pathetic than he was as a student, but Roman knows that he has written a really great poem. Roman's own poetry, even though it goes on to win great awards like the Pulitzer disappoints him in some way.

In the last section of the novel, Roman is alone once again, and as his friends and mentors are dying, he tries to figure out what it all has meant. He still does not have enough love, or even enough fellow-feeling, to see what those around him are going through, and I suppose this is his tragedy after all.

Lan Samantha Chang is the director of the well-respected Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and it is almost depressing to think that this is her vision of Creative Writing. No one can teach writing, Bernard opines at a key point in the narrative, and anyone reading this novel would have to imagine that the novelist agrees. What does that mean for all the hopeful students in classes like the ones represented here?

Lan Samantha Chang

Get your copy of All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours is a beautifully crafted meditation on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

I was about to read Michael Cunningham’s new novel, but I decided I would like to reread his earlier novel, The Hours, first. Rereading that novel has been a pleasure.

The Hours

Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Hours (240 pages, Picador $14), builds on Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway in a number of ways. The novel follows three different strands. In the first, the earliest historically, Cunningham imagines Virginia Woolf in her study in Richmond, a suburb of London, as she works on her famous novel. As she imagines details of what will happen or not happen to her heroine, Clarissa Dalloway, she also deals with her husband, Leonard Woolf, their servants, and the young assistants Leonard has to help him with work on the press that they run. Cunningham does an astonishingly effective job of creating this world and giving it persuasive depth and texture. Anyone who has read Virginia Woolf with pleasure or has read either her letters or her diaries can be forgiven for feeling that she or he knows this extraordinary writer intimately. But only someone like Michael Cunningham can take us into Woolf’s interior thoughts and do so persuasively. This section of the novel is truly remarkable.

Equally remarkable is the world of Pasadena, California, in the late 1940s that Cunningham creates for a young mother and her darling young son. Mrs. Brown, as she is known, is a nervous mother who is not at all sure that she is up to the demands of mothering and being a wife to her loving but clueless husband. In a fit of almost reckless bravado, she leaves her son, the young Richard, with a neighbor, and takes off to downtown Los Angeles for a few hours of solitude and the peace to read. It happens that she is reading Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, marveling at the creation of the character and wondering about her own abilities. When she returns home, in plenty of time for her husband’s return from the office, she finds that her little boy was desperate for her return. This is a simple tale very beautifully told.

The third narrative is set in the late twentieth century. It concerns a woman called Clarissa Vaughn, who is trying to organize a party for her dear friend Richard, a writer and poet who is terribly sick with AIDS. Richard is about to receive a prestigious literary award, and Clarissa wants to celebrate his success. He has been her best friend for years, and being the witty gay man that he is, he has long ago christened her Clarissa Dalloway, which she bears only because she loves him as much as she does. As she pulls her own party together, with more than a little resonances of Woolf’s heroine, she finds herself caught up in the details of the street life of Greenwich Village.

The three narratives intertwine in various ways, and in the last few pages many loose stands are pulled together. Each narrative on its own would make a great story, but together they are simply breathtaking in their power.

Cunningham writes beautifully, as everyone says, but he also creates characters who are so deftly drawn as to be deeply moving just for being themselves. That is what happens here: we can hardly bear coming to the end of this amazing work.

Michael Cunningham

Pick up a copy of The Hours at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Stephen McCauley’s novel from the eighties still has great resonance.

I have said that I decided to read some of McCauley’s earlier novels. This one was published in 1987.

The Object of My Affection

Stephen McCauley’s The Object of My Affection (320 pages, Washington Square Press, $14) tells the story of George, a feckless kindergarten teacher living in Brooklyn. George is good looking but badly, or idiosyncratically, dressed, and he has more or less lost faith in the possibility of a satisfying gay relationship. His one failed relationship, which we partly witness in the novel, is with a Columbia professor who was also his mentor. The relationship happens after George has left grad school, so there is nothing nefarious in its inception; but there is a problem in the personality of Jolie, the man with whom he is involved, and his inability to commit or even to pay particular attention to the person he lives with.

In flight from Jolie, George rooms with his old friend Nina, who is trying to complete a Ph.D. in psychology. Nina and George have a great relationship, taking dance lessons and sharing meals on the packing crates that stand in for a dining table in their apartment. But when Nina announces that she is pregnant—Nina’s on-again, off-again boyfriend is the father—George faces a whole new kind of crisis. Nina would like George to participate in her pregnancy and the birth of her child, and it even seems that she would like him to help her raise the child. She doesn’t want anything to do with Howard, but he finds out about the pregnancy, and he tries to become the active father. But Nina has other ideas, and she uses George to help her keep Howard at bay.

In the meantime, George meets in Vermont, where he has gone on an ill-advised weekend with his former lover, a wonderful young man, who is himself raising a young child from Central America. George almost falls for this guy, but he puts up defenses sturdy enough to make the guy think he isn’t interested. George returns to New York with the intention of following through with his commitment to Nina, but when he realize that cannot work, he returns to his Vermont fantasy, and the novel leaves him somewhere caught between the two. He’s living in Vermont, but he cannot stay away from Nina and the new life she has created for herself after the baby is born.

What I find fascinating about this novel is that it was written in 1987, at the absolute height of the AIDS epidemic, and although there are a few mentions of disease and even once or twice AIDS is mentioned, you would never believe that there is any greater crisis for George than whether he should live with a gay man or a straight woman. It strikes me that this may have been McCauley’s way of dealing with the crisis. The question in the novel seems to be: can George accept himself as a gay man. The seeming impossibility of gay relationships may be one thing that is scaring him away from them. Another, unspoken fear, though, might be the fear of AIDS. George would not have been the first person to “go straight” as the result of the fear of AIDS.

Whatever is true about McCauley’s underlying motivations here, this is a lively and entertaining novel. It bears McCauley’s stamp of humane humor that makes it a novel to treasure.

Stephen McCauley

Pick up a copy of The Object of My Affection at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

John M. Bowers creation takes us beyond the ending of Forster’s Maurice.

This novel is written by a Professor of English at UNLV, and that was reason enough for me to take it up. That and the rave reviews I saw made me eager to see what Bowers had made of Forster’s ending.

End of Story

John M. Bowers provocatively titled novel, End of Story (228 pages, Sunstone Press, $22.95), attempts to add several chapters—a century’s worth, more or less—to E. M. Forster’s posthumously published gay novel, Maurice (pronounced Morris), which appeared in 1971. If the novel had not been published—Forster refused to published it while its clearly happy ending remained illegal in England—it certainly had been discussed, and there were many who went on record not quite approving of the ending. Lytton Strachey, famously, gave the happy couple, the young Cambridge-educated businessman and a groundskeeper, about six weeks, and many readers are puzzled by the coupling; they wonder why Forster does not dramatize their sexual relationship more openly; and they voice concern that Forster left the couple just when he might have pursued their fate together.

Bowers takes on all these objections. Clearly devoted to Forster and the novel itself, Bowers first sets out to posit various futures for Maurice and Alec Scudder, the lovers. Considering that the novel was written in 1913, it is not unimaginable to plunge them into the misery of World War I. He posits other possible endings to the novel, but he can never overcome, or suggests that Forster could not overcome, the barrier of class that would have obtruded in almost any situation.

Then Bowers imagines an alternative couple. He calls them Martin and Alan, and he makes them the models for Forster’s couple. But they avoid World War I by staying on its margins until it gets too close to them, enjoying themselves as they are in southern Europe, and when it does get too close, they take off for America and end up in Santa Fe.

This is a wonderfully imaginative choice, and Bowers has a great time getting his characters settled there. The English class issue hardly matters in this setting, and there are things for both young men to do. Martin keeps up his stock-trading and so on by telegraph, and Alan starts working the land and taking photographs. They both flourish.

At the same time, Bowers presents another couple, Morgan and Eddy, from later in the twentieth century, who experience the gay world that emerged during the 1970s. They live in the fast lane for a while, but when they settle down together, they try to focus on creating a life for each other. Morgan happens to be the son of another Cambridge man, an American, who was a famous rower and who had his own love affair with another student, his rowing partner, when he was at Cambridge. His story connects the men to Cambridge only because of a charming scene, a garden party, in which Forster sees and admires the young American.

Morgan and Eddy travel to Santa Fe themselves and there they meet Alan, who has survived Morgan by some years, and some of the other characters of that older world. They are changed because of their experience there.

This novel is imaginative and some of the descriptions of two men in love are wonderful. Bowers is best, I think, when he imagines the older world and the earlier couples. His contemporary gay men seem a little flat, as if they are filling out a thesis rather than living as real characters. This is a shame because Bowers shows real talent as a novelist, and I hope, if he does more writing, he can find a way to give the contemporary world the depth and richness of the past he imagines.

Get a copy of End of Story at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sue Miller writes a powerful tale about 9/11.

Sue Miller’s most recent novel was recommended to me by a friend whom I trust. I wasn’t sure I was ready for another 9/11 novel, but this one was as good as I was promised.

The Lake Shore Limited

“The Lake Shore Limited,” the play from which this novel takes its name (The Lake Shore Limited [288 pages, Knopf, $25.95]), is written by the character Billy (Wilhelmina), who lost a boyfriend in one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It has taken her a long time and a lot of misdirected soul searching in order to write this play; but in it she confronts the very lack of feeling that she felt for Gus, the guy who was killed, and the false position she feels she has been placed in by his sister and others who loved him.

Gus was a bright and handsome guy, a teacher in a Boston area prep school. He and Billy met on a ferry from Boston to Provincetown, and they were really still in the process of getting to know each other when the tragedy struck. It would be unfair to say that Billy felt liberated by Gus’s demise, but she felt something more complicated than simple grief, and it took her a long time to be able to write about it, as she has learned to write about everything that happens to her, in the form of a play.

The play itself, or at least one remarkable performance of it, is at the center of the novel. In one of the last previews, several crucial things occur. In the first place there is Rafe, who is playing the main character Gregory, whose wife might have been lost in a terrorist attack on the Chicago area train called the Lake Shore Limited. As Gregory waits for news of his wife, he goes through a range of emotions, and just before the play ends, he commits himself to her—setting aside a woman with whom he has been having an affair—or her memory. At his most profound moment of self-realization, she walks through the door. At the performance in question, Rafe surprised himself and everyone by weeping as the play reached this climax.
This is a personal breakthrough for Rafe, whose own wife is struggling with the late stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease. He feels that he has cheated in some way, but he also knows that he has made the play a success.

Sitting in the audience and watching this preview, the playwright herself is moved almost to tears, and she quickly talks to the director about being sure that Rafe does this in the ensuing performances. She tells herself, and the director, that Rafe was probably so much better because she allowed herself to sleep with him, which she did, but she backpedals quickly when the director questions her.

Also present at this performance were Leslie, Gus’s older sister who was perhaps most destroyed by his senseless death, Leslie’s husband Pierce, and their friend Sam. Sam is a divorced middle-aged architect, with whom Leslie almost had an affair some years before. Now she has invited him to this performance of Billy’s play and arranged that they all meet the playwright afterward for drinks.

The play—especially the power of Rafe’s performance—affects them all profoundly. Leslie hardly knows what to say. Pierce is protective, and Sam is confused. Bringing her own confusion into this mess, Billy feels utterly awkward with her friends, and she becomes even more awkward and almost resentful when she realizes that Leslie is trying to set her up with Sam.

The novel is told from each character’s perspective in turn. In the end, all these complications are worked out satisfactorily, but Miller doesn’t make it easy. I think she does a wonderful job of suspending the resolution till the last possible moment.

Sue Miller

Get a copy of The Lake Shore Limited at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Stephen McCauley writes a gay novel about second chances.

I have read a couple of Stephen McCauley’s novels, and I have always admired them. I was pleased to see that this novel was up to his high standard. A friend recommended it to me, and I am really delighted to have read it.

Insignificant Others

Richard, the middle-aged gay man who is the hero of Stephen McCauley’s Insignificant Others (256 pages, Simon and Schuster, $25), thinks he is happy enough. He is himself in great shape, and his compulsive over-exercising makes certain that he had no middle-aged spread. In fact, he looks just a bit haggard, but he finds that makes him something of a success in the gay world. He has a handsome younger lover, with whom he has lived for some time; and he also has a “friend with benefits,” whom he meets occasionally for talk and sex, “with no strings attached." This is what he calls an "insignificant other." Furthermore, he has a job in a Cambridge high tech company that pays him quite a lot and demands of him very little.

There is trouble in paradise, though, when he discovers that his partner Conrad seems to be having an affair with someone in Cleveland. Richard is immediately offended, even though he is careful to keep his own affair a secret. Benjamin, or Ben, his “friend,” is himself married with two kids, and that suggests to Richard that he is safe from any uncomfortable clinging.

Still, all this starts something like a mid-life crisis for Richard. In the first place, he starts to fall out of love with Conrad. This happens in part by talking to Conrad’s female business partner, who is herself in love with the guy and actually offers Richard some perspective.

Even more helpful is Brandon, a talented young colleague whom Richard is trying to persuade to stay with the company. He is singularly unsuccessful at persuading Brandon to stay, until he realizes that it doesn’t matter. Once he starts congratulating Brandon on his decision to take a chance—Brandon is headed to Las Vegas to make a living golfing and gambling—Brandon starts to wonder whether he is really doing the right thing.

Richard learns a lot from Brandon, though, including how brutally limited his own life is. Suddenly he backs off the exercise a bit—he’s the kind of guy who felt crazy if he didn’t get to at least two gyms a day—and he starts to realize what’s missing from his life. Conrad slips into the background as Richard realizes that he really loves Ben. This is as complicated as it could possibly be. Ben is not anywhere near being able to tell his family or his friends about his secret life, and he has decided that his relationship with Richard is really too much of a threat.

Well, everything comes crashing down around him, and still Richard somehow manages to make the right choice when it does. This is an odd love story, because the hero spends so much time talking himself out of Ben. But as if we were reading a Jane Austen novel, we as readers really know more than the character knows, and when the resolution starts to be clear, we can congratulate ourselves that we saw it coming. I think McCauley wants us to.

This is a wonderfully generous novel, entertaining and engaging from beginning to end. I recommend it enthusiastically.

Stephen McCauley

Insignificant Others
available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Julia Glass writes a wonderful tale set in a Massachusetts child care center.

I love Julia Glass’s novels, and this one is as good as any. Set in a prosperous suburb of Boston, it tells about a widower who offers a barn on his property as a child care center. What happens after that is truly remarkable.

The Widower’s Tale

Julia Glass’ most recent novel, The Widower’s Tale (416 pages, Pantheon, $25.95)tells the story of Percy Darling, a 70-year-old retiree who still misses his wife who died tragically many years before. He lives alone, but he remains close to his two daughters, Clover and Trudy, and he is especially close to his grandson, Robert, who is Trudy’s only child. The daughters are very different. The older one, Clover, has a failed marriage and a number of failed attempts at a profession, but she has landed, happily it seems, in this day care center, and she has found friends and a wonderful support group there. Trudy is an accomplished medical doctor, an oncologist who specializes in breast cancer for women. This is an amazingly fraught public position to hold, but she holds it well; and she is a hero to the women with whom she works.

Sometime before the novel begins, Clover has come to Percy and asked him if the child care center, Elves and Fairies, which had to move from another location, could take over the barn on his property. After some hesitation, Percy has said yes, and a famous architect has come in to transform the aging structure into something quite wonderful. Even Percy is impressed.

In the course of his day to day life, Percy meets a middle-aged artist, Sarah, who also has a young son at the day care center. She is some twenty years younger than he, but she clearly finds him attractive, and he is delighted to spend time with her. Imagine his chagrin, then, when he notices a lump in her breast and tries to persuade her to seek medical attention. At first she refuses outright—insists that it is a fibrous growth—but when she finally gives in and goes for a mammogram, it turns out that she has quite advanced cancer, and must immediately begin a course of chemotherapy and radiation. The treatment will also involve a mastectomy. In the course of her treatment, she withdraws from Percy—in an odd but understandable way she blames him for her cancer—and it takes them almost the whole novel to find one another again.

While they are estranged, Percy finds the company of his nephew consoling. His nephew comes around the day care center to help Ira, one of the teachers, build a tree house for the kids. Ira and Robert become close, and they bond over the construction. Percy thinks of Ira as a kind of pixy, and he is indeed a sweet, young gay man who has found his métier in teaching these young kids. Ira has a boyfriend too. Anthony is a lawyer, and although he supports Ira in his career, he is not sure he wants to socialize with any of his day care friends.

Robert is a student a Harvard, and his roommate, Arturo, has begun to get him involved in some radical activities around issues of global warming and saving the environment. As Robert gets more deeply involved, these start to seem like eco-terrorist activities.

To Robert’s horror, many of the pranks—at first they seem little more than pranks—are executed in the rich suburbs, and it is not too long before he finds himself compromised by activities that hurt the very people he loves.

Glass is wonderful at creating all these different worlds, and each main character is richly rendered and lovingly developed. The novel becomes almost like a thriller at the end; but it is a Julia Glass thriller and therefore it is deeply humane and extraordinarily moving.

Julia Glass

The Widower's Tale available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Martin Walker’s French village had to confront the 21st century.

I enjoyed the first novel in this Bruno series, and I was pleased to see that Martin returned to the same location for the second.

The Dark Vineyard

The Dark Vineyard (320 pages, Knopf, $23.95) immediately challenges the bright hopefulness and country tranquility of Bruno, Chief of Police with the gloominess of eco-terrorism and the horrors of globalization. Globalization seems horrible to Bruno when a big California wine company seems ready to purchase vast tracks of the Périgord and introduce modern methods of wine production.

Bruno spends his time lamenting the loss of the old methods, represented by wine-making parties where everyone gets in the vat and crushes grapes with his or her feet. Walker presents these traditional events with deep affection; and when they are threatened, Bruno wonders if the life he loves can ever survive.

The wine conglomeration seems to threaten from without, but meanwhile some eco-terrorists are burning crops and threatening the peacefulness of the village in other ways. It seems that some fields, some vast tracts just outside the village, are given over to a government project exploring genetic modification of some crops. This has been a big secret, and even Bruno the Chief of Police did not know about the project. But when those fields are set ablaze, it becomes a reason for national investigators to descend on Bruno’s little town of San Denis.

One of the key suspects, a good looking young man called Max, is a friend of Bruno’s and someone he coached on the local rugby team. Bruno does not want to push the investigation in Max’s direction, but there seems to be little choice as the big guns from Paris are calling the shots.

Imagine Bruno’s chagrin, then, when the young French boy is found dead. His body is discovered, as it turns out, in a vat of fermenting grapes, and we are told that the high carbon dioxide content in such a location can indeed be fatal. But Max also has some gashes on his head that suggest something more is going on. Not only that: an older man, the friend of Max who was making the wine, lies dead at the bottom of a step ladder near the vat, all sorts of complications emerge.

As Bruno goes about his attempts to keep matters local and less lurid than the Parisian journalists would like, he also keeps up with his friends, celebrates local events, and dines on the choicest local fare. His friend from the earlier novel, the English horsewoman Pamela, looms larger here, as a friend and possibly more. And another woman, a Canadian, who seems to have some knowledge of wine herself, has come to town and has become an intriguing presence for everyone. Before his death, Max was dating her, and she also seems involved with the wine entrepreneur who has come to town to buy up vineyards.

All these strands come together in a nicely paced detective narrative. Walker makes it pleasant because of the rich descriptions of the local context and because of his feeling for the way of life that flourishes in this French heartland.

Martin Walker

The Dark Vineyard is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.