Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ann Leary looks deeply into a New England past


The Good House

In her latest novel, The Good House (304 pages, Picador, $15), Ann Leary tells the story of Hildy Good, a middle-aged realtor in a coastal town north of Boston.  Hildy takes pride that her family can trace its origins back to the early witch trials in Massachusetts Colony, and as she tells her story, she seems more and more like some kind of witch herself.

Maybe that’s not entirely fair.  We have the story from her perspective, and we learn a lot of her secrets along the way.  One secret is that she keeps a case of wine in the trunk of an MG in the garage.  She stashed it out there because she’s been in rehab—after a family intervention—and she doesn’t want anyone, but especially her daughters or her now-gay ex-husband, to find out that she’s drinking again.  Of course, she feels that there is no harm to having a glass or two of wine, but that’s utterly self-deceptive as we quickly realize.  The more Hildy drinks, the less likely she is to remember anything she has done.

Her position as realtor in the small town is threatened by the expansion of one of the national chains, and she is struggling to stay afloat.  She can’t let anyone know that either, and in her buttoned up New England way, she tries to do what she can to get whatever clients seem likely to come her way.

And otherwise she watches her friends and acquaintances in the town careen into wild misbehaviors that she both chuckles over and condemns.  At times, in fact, in her inebriated states, she sometimes could be said to cause the crises herself.

All along she is being courted by the local garbage man, whom she has known all her life.  She finds the man attractive in his way, but she can approach him only when she is drunk and able to silence the voices in her head that tell her he’s beneath her.

All this makes wonderful reading.  Leary is great at making the town so vivid that it is almost another character itself, with its embarrassing past and brooding secrets in the present.

Many of the events of the plot are merely of soap opera quality, but the way Hildy takes them in and the manner in which they unfold here make them far more than that.  This is a great novel about a small town, and about the people that manage to be larger than the town seems to be shaping them to be.

Ann Leary

The Good House is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Mohsin Hamid tells a parable about richness and poverty in Asia


How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

Mohsin Hamid’s recent novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (240 pages, Riverhead, $25.95), is something of a tour de force.  At a time when life stories from Asia are overwhelming in their length and breadth, Hamid tells a very simple tale about how a poor Asian, in an unnamed country, with a little bit of talent and know-how, can profit in a system that is corrupt and make the most out of the ignorance of his countrymen.

The narrator talks to the hero, who is never named, in the second person, which adds an intimacy, and he often uses the language of self-help books to suggest the path form obscure poverty to corporate power.  The chapters move quickly and each takes us through an important stage of development of our hero.

What goes up must also come down, and it is not ruining the story to say that the greed and self-satisfaction that brings about ascendency can also undermine it in the end.

What marks the growth and development of the hero, as much as the schemes he develops or the money he saves, is the love he feels for a girl, who is known throughout as “the pretty girl.”  At first it seems that she is out of his league, but he is handsome and powerful in his way, and it seems that she is attracted to him as well.

They are both on the make, however, and she can’t stop with a young nobody: she has too much to achieve.  And with her good looks and her moxie, she more than succeeds to fulfill her dreams.  As the hero grows in power, every so often he runs into her again, and their brief encounters serve to punctuate the degree to which they have fulfilled their dreams and how much that can mean to them.

As short as the novel is, it is very powerful. I called it a parable above, and I think it does work that way.  The hero is an Asian everyman, and this is the progress he is meant to pursue.  The implications of the story are deeply moving, and even as we see the hero making bad choices, there is little we can imagine as an alternative to the choices he makes.

I have not read Hamid’s novels before this—this one is his third—but I will certainly watch for any new ones.  His talent is considerable.

Muhsin Hamid

How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.