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.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Paul Harding digs into New England culture in this stunning debut

I picked this novel up in an airport bookstore. It sounded fascinating, and I was pleased to see that it had won a Pulitzer Prize. The prize was much-deserved!


Tinkers (191 pages, Bellevue Literary Press, $14,95) is Paul Harding’s first novel. It’s poetic presentation of the hard life of a couple of generations of New England men who make a living in an unforgiving land. Eighty-four year old George lies dying among his family and friends. George, slipping in and out of consciousness, fantasizes about what the people around him are thinking, and he thinks back upon a life of tinkering. Gainfully employed for years as a teacher and manager, it is only after his retirement that he found an occupation that he loved: repairing clocks. There is something about the complex inner working of an assortment of timepieces that fascinates George. When there are not a dozen clocks ticking around him, he finds the silence maddening.

Harding takes us into George’s imagination, and before long we are reading about how watches and clocks are put together. Harding’s vivid accounts of the inner workings of a clock, truly wonderful to read, are complemented by an equally intimate account of the landscape of Maine. When I say intimate, I mean that he looks beyond the rocks and trees, into the woods, and even to the piles of leaves on the woodland floor and the mud that creates ruts in the roads and coats everything that it touches.

I have read three novels set in Maine this summer, but this is the one that gets most deeply into the landscape, even as it tells a story about George and his father Howard. Howard drove a mule cart around New England, selling soaps and other household materials to women dotted across the land in isolated farmhouses.

The narrative takes us in and out of George’s story and Howard’s, but before long we realize that this is happening because what George has as his deepest consciousness are these memories of his father. Given to seizures, his father left home as soon as he realized that his wife was ready to put him into a home. He has lived away and had a second family, and only when George is fully grown does his father return to account for the intervening years.

Harding’s feeling for these lives scarped from the land itself is extraordinarily rich, and the language in which he describes this setting is amazingly supple and vivid. The novel is often praised for its style, but the style does not insist on itself or show off with pyrotechnics; instead, Harding writes simply and beautifully about things that are hard, brittle, and even off-putting. In doing so, he makes them irresistible.

Harding tells a very moving story, and I would not want to change a single word.

Paul Harding

Paul Harding's Tinkers available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Martin Walker digs up forgotten memories in a French village.

I spent some time this past summer in the central French countryside, and this series caught my eye when I saw where it was set. Now that I have read the first of the three Bruno novels, I know I will move on through the series.

Bruno, Chief of Police

Martin Walker, a foreign affairs journalist, is well-published as a non-fiction writer. His first foray into novel-writing is quite impressive, and Bruno, Chief of Police (288 pages, Vintage, $14.95) is a well-written and engaging novel that more than bodes well for the series.

Bruno Courréges, a local policeman in St. Dénis, in the Périgord (Dordogne) region of Southern France, enjoys life thoroughly. Tucked away in his sunny corner of France, he feels devoted to the village, its people, and its struggle to stay true to its ease and openness.

Recent events when the novel opens, especially the ritualistic murder of an elderly Arab-French patriot, exacerbates tensions already high over questions of immigration and the supposed difficulty of accommodating an increasing population of Arabs from North Africa. Bruno prides himself and his village on its even-handedness in these matters—the Arab members of the community are fully accepted—but he worries that the brutal murder—a Nazi swastika was carved into the man’s chest—will end in violence and hatreds.

He does his best to keep a lid on things, even when superiors from Paris come in to run the murder investigation. All the will in the world cannot keep these matters out of the public eye, and television reports fan the flame of racial tension. When two teenagers from the Front National are taken in for questioning, both from prominent local families, the hostilities break through the surface and Bruno has quite a challenge on his hands.

Nevertheless, he takes things coolly, and goes about his business with aplomb. Always ready to take a glass with his friends—like the mayor and colleagues in the police and fire brigade. He also meets some women. There are two fascinating and eccentric English women, who live in the town and run a local guesthouse. They enjoy his company, wine and dine him, and they also aid him with some important research that helps him solve the case. Another woman, Isabelle, one of the representatives of the National Police in charge of the case, turns out to be a good fighter—she saves Bruno when he is about the become the victim of mob violence—and a seductive lover—she makes some of the tensions of the case less harrowing for our hero.

As it turns out, the motivation of the murder is not at all what it had seemed, and the young kids turn out to have nothing to do with it. Instead, the crime takes Bruno and his colleagues back into the dark years of the Second World War. Some of the things that happened to the French resistance during the occupation turn out to have immediate impact on the case in question.

This is an elegant novel, with a surprising twist in the ending. Bruno is a likable character and his friends all have memorable personalities. I look forward to reading about their further exploits.

Martin Walker

Get a copy of Bruno, Chief of Police at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.