Late Summer Reading: Books About Terrible People
Also, money matters in Women About Town - just as it actually does about town. Precisely, the lack of money matters. And for artistic types - designers and dance critics - it's never easy to come by, never easy to maintain a smallish life of some worthy style in Manhattan. There's a wonderful episode in Jacobs' novel (her first) describing Iris Biddle, who married into the Mayflower family, and her attachment to both her ex-husband and the huge piece of antique cabinetry she associates with their marriage and a happier time in her life. Anyone who's found some wildly inappropriate object, brought it home, and stubbornly made it fit will appreciate the authenticity: it feels real.
The book pretends to be about ambition, but I found it squarely at odds with that particular emotional drive. Ambition is not at all a benevolent force for the two main characters - who aren't so terrible as the people around them - and I suspect Jacobs feels ambivalent about its nerve-gas like effect on New Yorkers in general. [Note: Jacobs is married to James Wolcott, a friend of this blog and blogger.] The other force at work, of course, is guilt.
That's not an emotion to be found in Engleby, the portrayal of a British university student by Sebastian Faulks. It's an internal story told heavily in flashbacks, rife with class distinction and public school torture and hazing. Mike Engleby is the strange, empty vessel at the center - obsessed with fellow student Jennifer Arkland and unemotional as he records the details of his life.
The novel is due out next week, and it's the kind of book you can easily see as a film - dark and chilling and empty of redemption. I loved the portrayal of England, stark and class-conscious and yet obsessed with the daily details of human life, the routine. Rupert Thomson's Death of a Murderer is less chilling, but he too gets this right. (I read this one on the recommendation of the always-reliable Maud Newton and didn't regret it).
Billy Tyler is an emotionally dead, unambitious policeman in Manchester, and is assigned to guard the body of an infamous mass murderer in the morgue of the hospital where she died. The book's really about Tyler's own life - his failing marriage, his love for his Down's Syndrome child, and his spiral toward middle-aged decline. Tyler has settled and regrets it - his "conversation" with the murderer shows him just how darkness that empty space inside him really is. It's a cold, short read and well worth the cool journey.
A warmer American journey through the badlands of Depressions-era carnival sideshows and second-rate hotels is the setting for Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician, Daniel Wallace's new novel, which I polished off last week. It's a tough narrative to follow - purposely obtuse - and it introduces a marching band of characters: a brilliant and wrecked magician, a couple of shady managers, a half-dead assistant, a gang of Bible-thumping Klan members bent on murder, an alcoholic father, and the usual assortment of sideshow freaks.
Henry Walker is the world's greatest magician, but is twisted by war and the business of selling entertainment, peddling illusion. Race is at the center of this book, but it makes no real judgement about racism. Henry's color - without revealing too much - simply changes to fit the plot, and many of the characters also seem to have doubles - or else the protagonist is deluded. It's not clear. But the portrait of life in small theaters and smaller midway tents is compelling, as is the novel's sense of time and place. Like the others, it introduces terrible people - but lets the reader know that bad behavior is as human as breathing.