Sunday, January 27, 2013

Michael Chabon creates a rich Oakland history.

I love Michael Chabon’s novels, and I got this latest as soon as it was out.

Telegraph Avenue

Michael Chabon’s latest novel, Telegraph Avenue (468 pages, Harper, $27.99), tells the story of the painful and inevitable demise of a used record emporium on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland.  The feckless owners and managers of the store, Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings, Jewish and Black respectively, have a long standing friendship and a very deep love of recherché vinyl recordings of musical greats of jazz and rock.  The store is located just over the border from Berkeley, and the ethos of the novel is richly imbued with an East Bay understanding of what matters in the world.

Like the barbershop of black neighborhoods, Brokeland Records, is a gathering place of a group of eccentrics that Chabon creates with love and respect.  In addition to the two owners, who are eccentric enough, there are various familiar-seeming types.  The local politico, the aging dandy who sports a parrot, other broken but fascinating men: all come alive.  But perhaps they seem so familiar because Chabon has invoked them so effortlessly.  Every conversation dances on the page.

Archy and Nat have wives Gwen and Aviva, and these women, both legendary midwives, are central characters as well.  In fact their scenes around birth and birth crises and in the local hospitals are some of the best in the book.  Gwen is pregnant with what she thinks will be Archy’s first child, but when a long lost son Titus arrives from somewhere back east, she is thrown for a loop, and so is Archy.  But Nat and Aviva’s son Julius who is just discovering that he is gay, finds Titus the very hero that he has needed.  The friendship between Titus and Julius is one of the most beautiful features of the novel.

All the wonderful friendships presented here—that between Nat and Archy, that between Gwen and Aviva, and that between the boys—are challenged in various ways, as indeed are all the marriages and the business relationships too.  The ways in which these characters cope with the difficulties of their lives is what makes this novel so fascinating.

When the novel opens, a local hero, a wealthy black ex-NFL-quarterback, returns to the area and plans to build a huge arts-music center that will of course swallow up Brokeland Records.  A great deal of energy goes into resisting this takeover, but as the resistance starts to fail, these characters become distracted in other ways.  Time passes and change is inevitable, but not all change is for the worse.

This is novel about faith in people and faith in their ability to do the right thing.  It is also a novel about how hard it is sometimes to see what the right thing is.  I hardly need to add that the novel is gorgeously written and breathtakingly plotted.  We are so used to great novels from Michael Chabon that we might even start to take them for granted.  But whatever our expectations might be, this is a really great novel by any measure.

Michael Chabon

Telegraph Avenue is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Peter Robinson writes about loss and guilt in a time of war.

An award winning novelist, Peter Robinson has this time hit on another winning combination.

Before the Poison

Peter Robinson’s latest novel, Before the Poison (368 pages, Willliam Morrow, $25), tells the story of Chris Lowndes, a Hollywood musician and composer, whose many successes with film music has led him to leave Hollywood after thirty years and return to Yorkshire in England, where he was from originally.  Now a rich man, he negotiates from afar to buy a splendid country house in an isolated corner of Yorkshire, near a village called Richmond, and there he hopes to come to terms with the death of his wife, perhaps write the piano sonata that has hounded him for several years, and of course do the odd film job that was sure to come his way.

Heather Barlow, his forty-something redhead estate agent (realtor) has sold him a house with quite a history, it turns out.  She tells him the first time they are flirting over drinks (she is unhappily married to a businessman), that in the early fifties a doctor died in the house during a snow storm, and after several days what had seemed to be a heart attack became a murder case.  Grace Fox, the doctor’s wife, was accused of his murder.  At the time, she was carrying on an affair with a young artist some twenty years her junior—she was herself just forty and her husband was some years older, and he had a bad heart.

The trial, which comes to us in bits and pieces throughout the narrative, was something of a travesty.  Almost all the evidence was circumstantial, and more was said about her morals (in seducing a younger man) than about her capacity to kill her husband.  A nurse during World War II, she explains her own attempts to save her husband’s life, but those attempts are all turned against her.  Who better prepared to kill her husband, the prosecutor argues, but a nurse who knew her way around her husband’s medical bag.  Grace Fox was hanged for the murder in April 1953.

Chris finds himself haunted by this history, and he becomes obsessed with finding out about Grace, whose sewing room he uses as his study, and perhaps proving her innocence.

What becomes his obsession with Grace has its source in the recent loss of his own wife of many years, who succumbed to cancer but a few month before.  Chris’s grief was intense, and he still finds himself slipping to serious, incapacitating depression over the loss of his wife.

As he follows up leads and does a great deal of detective work about Grace Fox, he finds himself falling in love with his friend Heather Barlow.  In this small town atmosphere, their budding relationship is commented on in various ways, and no one approves.  Chris is not sure he wants to conduct an affair with a married woman, but before long her husband leaves her and she is free to date if she chooses.  And it seems that she does.

Chris’s searches take us back into the fifties courtroom, and then further back to the life of a nurse during World War Two.  All this different writing—the trial record and Grace’s own journal—are written in a completely different style form the novel itself, and they are entirely engaging.

Even more compelling, though, is Chris’s own confrontation with himself and his own memories of his wife and their last moments together.  When the connections between this story and Graces history are made explicit, that goes a long way to explaining why Chris has become as caught up in this story as he is.

This is another masterful tale from a prize-winning story-teller.

Peter Robinson

Before the Poison is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Steve Earle uses his musical heritage to craft a powerful novel.

I can’t say I was a great fan of Steve Earle’s music, but when I read that he had based a novel on the life/death of Hank Williams, I thought I would download it to read while traveling.

I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive

Steve Earle’s first novel I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (256 pages, Houghton Mifflin, $26) deals with a fictional friend and enabler of the great country singer Hank Williams, who died of an overdose in 1953 at the age of 29.  This friend is known as “Doc,” nothing more or less, and in 1963 he is a doctor without a license who lives in the red light district of San Antonio and nurses his own heroine addiction by treating the odd gun-shot wound and knifing that happens in his neighborhood.  He is also the go-to guy for abortions, and some folks come from even far away to avail themselves of his secret services.

As he lies in bed imagining his next fix, he is regularly visited by the ghost of his late friend Hank Williams, who chides and chortles at Doc’s shortcomings and almost seems to take pleasure in his addiction.  As the story unfolds, it turns out that Doc was the person who treated Hank with increasingly powerful pain-killers, even as his alcoholism was already destroying him.  The novel has it that it was Doc’s large dose of painkillers, which he administered on the way to a concert, that killed the singer, and Hank haunts him as a result.

Into this world of druggies and prostitutes comes a young Mexican girl, Graciela, who is dropped off and left by her boyfriend, after he has arranged for Doc’s services.  Once he has operated on the girl, she seems to hang around, and before long she is his medical assistant and his almost daughter-like roommate.

Not only that, however: she also seems to have some kind of miraculous powers.  Her effect on the sick is immediate—they always improve markedly when she has touched them—and her influence on Doc and his friends is profound.  Doc begins cutting down and then abstains completely from heroine.  Prostitutes find God, and drug-dealers give up their trade.  Graciela also bears a mark—a wound on her wrist that will never heal—that some claim has magical powers and others see as a stigmata.

Graciela understands that all these powers come from her Mexican grandfather, to whom she has always been devoted and whose words come back to her now that she has moved away.

For a while, in this version of magical realism, Graciela and the ghost of Hank Williams seem to be struggling for the possession of Doc.  None of Doc’s friends see the regular ghostly visitor, but Graciela sees him and fights against his influence.

Later there are more powerful outside forces that they both unite in fighting against, and Doc has all he can do to keep up with them.

This is a wonderful first novel.  It is deeply moving and it uses its magical narrative to tell a story that will remain with you for a long time.

Steve Earl

I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

E. Duke Vincent tells what he did last summer—about 60 years ago.

Who can resist a good mafia novel?  I can’t.  This one is written as a fictional memoir, and in every sense it’s hard to put down.

Mafia Summer

E. Duke Vincent has written his first novel—after a career in the military and in writing for TV and film—in what must be his early 80’s, and it concerns the one summer in 1953, when he was in between high school and college.  Mafia Summer (400 pages, Bloomsbury, $4.50) is what he calls it, and a vivid and seemingly first hand—certainly first person, view of the mafia is what he offers.

Vinny Vesta, the narrator of the tale, is a handsome and articulate nearly-eighteen year old who lives in a tenement in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City.  Vinny’s father, Gino, who is a ranking member of one powerful mafia family, has a handsome spread in Connecticut, but he keeps it real, and keeps his enemies guessing, by living in a middle- (or lower-middle) class section of New York.

The narrator creates the world of stick ball and other street games with ethnic intensity, and he creates a vivid and characterful gang of “Icemen” to be part of Vinny’s junior mafia gang.  Vinny, with Boychick, Red, Benny, Louie, Stuff, and Bouncer, all of whom become wonderful characters in this novel, carries out minor capers, like the theft of stolen merchandize or the planning of various jobs for other gangs.  They are watched and more or less protected by Vinny’s Dad and his cronies, but they are just exercising their muscle as the novel opens.

Another important thing happens as the novel opens too: Vinny often takes escape from the summer heat on the fire escape of his building, and one night he sees his young Jewish neighbor reading by flashlight.  When they get into conversation, it turns out that Sidney, the neighbor, is reading The Odyssey.  Vinny has heard of the book, but he can’t imagine anyone reading it, much less reading it by flashlight in the middle of the night.  From this encounter the two strike up a friendship, and before long, Vinny is tagging along with Sidney to the New York Public Library, where together they discover the worlds to be uncovered in all the books there. Sidney takes on Vinny’s education, and in thanks, Vinny tries to protect him and teach him some street smarts.

It isn’t long, however, before these two worlds collide.  Nick Colucci is the head of a rival young mafia gang called The Rattlers. He and his crew mug Sidney one day and steal his yarmulke, just because they object to seeing Jewish kids in their neighborhood.  When Vinny challenges this thug, a simmering conflict comes out into the open.

For the rest of the novel Nick and his handlers are trying to get the best of Vinny, Sidney and their other friends.  Because we are talking about the mafia, the stakes are about as high as they could be before we get very far into the summer.

Even worse, various opposing mafia leaders are trying to bring Vinny’s dad Gino down, and as a result Vinny finds himself in harm’s way more than once.  But when Vinny and his friends, especially Sidney, are threatened and even harmed, Gino has to react.  Once he does, all the mafia seem deeply involved.

Vincent tells the story well, and I can say that it makes a powerful account of a summer.  The novelist bases enough of the story on factual events and a lot else by memory, and the result, as I say, is riveting.  I can’t imagine a better novel to put on your next summer reading list.

E. Duke Vincent

Mafia Summer is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.