Monday, April 26, 2010

Peter Bognanni’s debut novel links coming of age with architectural history in a fascinating tale.

I know a little about the famous architect Buckminster Fuller, the originator of the concept of the geodesic dome. Well this novel is told from the perspective of a young boy who grows up in such a dome. To say it has shaped his perspective on the world would be a ridiculous understatement.

The House of Tomorrow

The House of Tomorrow (368 pages, Amy Einhorn Books, $24.95), Peter Bognanni’s debut novel, tells the story of sixteen-year-old Sebastian Prendergast, who has grown up with his grandmother in one of the only geodesics domes in central Iowa. His parents, it turns out, were killed in a plane crash when he was young, and his grandmother, a student and devotee of Buckminster Fuller, has brought him up in the dome she built under the influence of the master. She has also decided that he will take his place as the Fullerian visionary who will save the world.

Before saving the world, however, he has to help her run the dome from day to day. This means keeping it clean—he has devised a system of suction cups that help him to crawl all over the surface for the purposes of cleaning all the triangular panes of glass—and working in the gift shop when people stop by for tours, which they do almost daily.

On one fateful day early in the novel, Janice Whitcomb, a divorced mother of two, brings her younger son, Jared—a gothed out punk who has undergone serious heart surgery by the age of sixteen—to see the dome. As they begin their tour, and Sebastian is eyeing young Jared and trying to figure out his foul-mouthed and nasty attitude to the world, Sebastian’s grandmother collapses with a stroke, and they all end up in the hospital waiting room together.

While Janice tries to find out about Nana’s condition, Sebastian and Jared make the first steps toward friendship. Sebastian is fascinated with Jared’s look and his anger, and Jared can’t resist making fun of the way the home-schooled Sebastian forms his sentences and expresses his feelings. Before long, they forge a tentative friendship, and Sebastian is sneaking onto the computer to communicate with Jared and find out what is this punk music he is always talking about.

Through a series of accidents and misunderstandings—Sebastian and his grandmother have a falling out after she comes back from the hospital—Sebastian ends up living with the Whitcombs for several weeks. He and Jared become really close through their attempts to start a band—Jared can play guitar and sing expressively, and he takes it upon himself to teach Sebastian bass guitar and back up. This is a painful process, to be sure, but Sebastian takes to it like a duck to water. He is not terribly good—it takes him ages to find how he can make a decent sound on the bass—but he is enthralled with the process, the music, Jared, and even Jared’s sister, Meredith.

The novel is peppered with the insights of Buckminster Fuller, and while Sebastian is off with the Whitcombs—whose family seems set in meltdown mode—Nana is busy trying to cover her geodesic dome with a map of the world: she wants to complete a model that Fuller had proposed. Sebastian turns to Fuller to help him explain the confusions in which he finds himself. He is struggling with lustful feelings for Meredith, real hopes for his friendship with Jared, and guilt and unhappiness about his grandmother. Can theories of the dome make any sense of all these problems?

In a sense, it does. Or at least, it brings everything together under a living, pulsing, visionary cover. This is a deeply felt and wildly imaginative novel. I recommend this exciting new voice in fiction.

Peter Bognanni

Pick it up at Vroman's, Powell's or Amazon.

H. M. Navqi tells the harrowing story of a Palestinian immigrant living in New York at the time of 9/11.

There have been an awful lot of novels about 9/11, but this one sounded like it offered a fresh perspective.

Home Boy

H. M. Naqvi’s Home Boy (288 pages, Shaye Areheart Books, $23) tells the story of Chuck, a Pakistani student of literature, who had come to New York as a student but at the time of 9/11 was caught between financial jobs and working as a cabbie. He and his circle of four or five Pakistani’s—some immigrants like himself and some who have been living in the States with their families—are a feckless bunch, as only directionless twenty-two year-olds can be, and they are having a reasonably good time putting off any major decisions about their lives and just trying to have fun in what they see as a truly wonderful city.

After 9/11 this all changes. The mood of the city shifts, none too subtly, and they find themselves being stared at or worse. Racist epithets lead them into barroom fights, and the clear panic that their presence invokes, in the subway or on street corners, make them feel like they have shifted from a group of young playboys to a social pariah.

This feeling of unease is brought to a virulent head when they are arrested as terrorists after spending a night visiting a friend in a Connecticut suburb. Their treatment at the hands of the police is shocking enough—Naqvi shifts into brutal cop mode almost seamlessly—but even worse is the sense of vertigo they feel after the city they had come to love has seemed to disappear for them. Naqvi is talented at creating this slightly queasy feeling, and as Chuck wanders the streets and feels close even to ending his own life, Naqvi does a wonderful job of making his rootlessness come alive.

Naqvi also does a wonderful job of creating the mood of anger and frustration in the community of Pakistanis living in New York. Of course most of them are anti-violence, and some of their own number were lost in the destruction of the twin towers, but still they find themselves in a defensive position, suddenly aware that if they meet in groups they may be considered a “terrorist cell” or if they call home too many times they might be suspected of aiding and abetting the enemy and so on.

Onto this story of the world turned upside down, we have the painful coming of age tale of a young boy who isn’t really sure whether he belongs in New York at all. Chuck has an auntie in New York and the various friends I have mentioned; he has had a good job and he has the prospect of another opening up; but still he finds that he misses the life he knew in Karachi, misses his mother, misses that sense of clarity about who he was.

Even as he becomes closer to the families of his New York friends, and even as he begins to fall in love with the sister of one his pals, he still finds that the call of South Asia is hard to resist.

Navqi has written a great novel about New York in 2001 from an immigrant’s perspective. I recommend it.

H. M. Naqvi

Available at Powell's, Vroman's, and Amazon.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Colum McCann returns us to 2004 as a way of thinking about the events of 2001

Colum McCann’s reflections on the tragic events at the World Trade Center in 2001 take him back to a different moment—1974—when we all turned our attention to the WTC because someone was walking a tightrope between the two towers. That feat is the basis of this wonderful novel.

Let the Great World Spin

In Let the Great World Spin (375 pages, Random House, $15), Colum McCann begins a reverie around Philippe Petit’s death-defying attempt to walk a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Petit had spent six years planning his feat, and McCann gives a brief account of that planning, and indeed he pays little direct attention to the walk itself.

Instead, he gives accounts of several lives that are taking place at the very moment at which the walk was happening. Some people gawk at the tightrope walker; others notice him in passing; and others try studiously to ignore him; but almost all the characters in the novel are indirectly affected by this stunning achievement. Of course, all of us living in a post 9/11 world think of that later World Trade Center disaster in which so many lost their lives. McCann surely wants us to make those connections, even if he does not mention them himself until the “Reader’s Guide” that follows the novel itself.

Key among the characters he deals with—and no one creates a more vivid sense of character than McCann does in these few portraits I mention—are the Corrigan brothers, who have emigrated from Ireland and are finding their way in a difficult city. John, the younger brother who is known simply as Corrigan, has had a religious vocation, but the only sense he can make of it is to work among the poorest and most destitute in New York. For him, these are the heroine-addicted prostitutes, mostly black, who wander the streets of the Bronx late at night. He offers them something of a shelter—nothing more really than a place to pee—and for that they are grateful to him, if not to say devoted. His older brother Ciaran has come to New York looking for him, but when he finds him he does not know whether he can ever extricate his brother from the life he has created for himself there.
We come to know both brothers intimately, and we also come to know several of the prostitutes and the other characters who populate the Bronx neighborhoods. One woman especially, Adelita, who works in a home for the disabled, stands out as a tower of strength. She and Corrigan have begun a relationship, and when tragedy strikes them, we learn more about her and how she has been able to cope with this rugged life of the city.

At the other end of the spectrum are Claire Soderberg and her husband Solomon, a judge, who live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, on Park Avenue to be precise. The Soderberg’s have lost their son in the Vietnam war, and Claire belongs to a group of mothers who have also lost their children in the war. This group is meeting at Clair’s house on the main day during which the action transpires, and the women arrive with the tales of the tightrope walker. It seems like a miracle to them, and in their heads, where they have been hoping for miracles since hearing about their sons’ deaths, they somehow conflate the tightrope walker and their children. This makes for dazzling writing, to be sure.

The circle comes full circle when Solomon Soderberg is the judge that has to conduct Philippe Petit’s arraignment, for he was arrested after he completed crossing between the towers. The judge is pleased with himself for coming up with such an imaginative sentencing—Petit has to pay a penny for every floor of the Trade Center—but he also seems like a bit of a fool, especially when it comes to dealing with his wife, her friends, and the depth of her feeling of loss.

There is a lot more to say about this wonderful novel. There is a kind of generosity of spirit in the way these characters are presented, and their fortunes overlap in ways that are nearly unbelievable. I can hardly imagine a more searing portrait of New York in the seventies or a more vivid evocation of urban experience. At the same time, this is a timeless novel about human nature and the triumph of the human spirit. I can hardly recommend it strongly enough.

Colum McCann

Available at Powell's, Amazon, and Vroman's.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

James Hynes confronts terrorism head-on

I read a review of James Hynes’ most recent novel and thought it sounded intriguing. It is intriguing, maddening, moving, and more.


James Hynes’ Next (320 pages, Reagan Arthur Books, $23.99) is a study in contradictions. The hero, Kevin Quinn, is a paranoid obsessive. He panics as his plane takes off from Detroit in the morning—he looks for trails of missile smoke as the plane gains altitude—and he virtually undresses (mentally, I mean) every woman he meets in this odd and oddly apocalyptic day.

Kevin is sneaking away from his quasi-academic job—he works as an in-house editor for the Asian Studies Department at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor—in order to meet with a private firm of off-site editors in Austin, Texas, who have a good job available in his field. Needless to say, he is nervous about moving from the non-profit to the for-profit sector, and he is not even sure whether he wants to move at all. He has a girlfriend in Ann Arbor, called Stella; and even though he is not sure whether he loves Stella, who is much younger than the fifty-year old Kevin, he is sure that he is flattered by her attention and he has to admit to himself that he really does enjoy spending time with her.

That does not stop him from chatting up an elegant young Asian woman on the plane and even fantasizing about what might be possible either sexually or in terms of a relationship with her. Once we know Kevin better, we realize that he does this with almost every woman he sees. He does it with dozens in the course of the move, but there are three that take his attention for a considerable length of time. One is the girl from the plane, who is called Kitty, and whom he ends up trailing around a corner of Austin. This ends badly, as one might imagine it might, but along comes a Latina doctor, who helps him out of a tough situation and takes him to lunch. She is an intriguing character, and Kevin is deeply attracted to her muscular frame—she’s in amazing shape—but he also likes her and wishes he could spend longer with her than just these few hours.

While these meetings are going on—Kevin had arrived much earlier for his interview than he needed to—Kevin also runs mentally through the various relationships he has had. There is Beth, with whom he was partnered for eight years, until her desire for a child led her to leave him in frustration and anger. He loved Beth deeply, and he has never quite gotten over her leaving, but he also knows that he could not have been the husband she really wanted. There are one or two other key loves, brought up in semi-erotic ways as he makes his way around steamy Austin. And he also thinks at length about Stella. All his doubt about her, his love for her, his confusion about whether or not he wants a child—he has found a pregnancy test in the trash—and his sense of her smile, her personality, her energy propel him through his day in Austin, which is, oddly enough, premised on the assumption that he might leave her to move to Texas.

And then there is one more woman, whom he meets at Starbuck’s while figuring out what to do in his time before the interview, and he meets her again near the end of the novel. In some ways, she comes to mean more to him than anyone.
Hynes' leads Kevin to an apocalyptic closing, but it is a suitable close to this wildly obsessive tale. It makes such compelling reading, in part because Kevin is such a one-note walking erection. But it is compelling too because out of this obsession comes something deeply vulnerable and terribly moving.

There is beautiful writing here, and we might have the feeling that no one has taken us quite where Hynes takes us at the end of this novel. “Yet another 9/11 tale,” we might think when we start this novel, but I guarantee you it is unlike any other novel that has confronted the issue of terrorism.

James Hynes

Pick it up at Powell's, Amazon, or Vroman's.