Literature / 13 posts found

Race, Drugs and Murder: A Brooklyn Tale

by Tom Watson
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The best book ever written about the scourge of drugs and the racial chasm in the deep interior of Brooklyn was Greg Donaldson’s gritty 1994 true life new journalism book, The Ville. It covered the lives of two men – one a Housing cop and the other a gang member – along with a vast cast of extras in a two-square mile area encompassing parts of the Brownsville and East New York. In The Ville, justice was elusive and escape from “the life” almost impossible. But it was the portrayal of race and an endless cycle of urban failure that […]

Dirty Streams and Broken Towns: Richard Russo’s Upstate Social Order

by Tom Watson
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Richard Russo

There is a moment in Alan Bennett’s wonderful novel in miniature, The Uncommon Reader, recommended here by Maud Newton, when the royal literary figure in question realizes the joy of discovering a favorite writer has been hiding in plain sight, awaiting only discovery and a hundred or so quiet evenings. A few years ago, I had that delicious immersion in the work of Richard Russo, a famous modern writer whose work I’d lazily ignored since his first novels of the 1980s.

Discovered, the Russo canon became a sprint through the lives of drifters and losers in a string of upstate New York towns, a pleasure-filled reading dash along the broken-down mainstreets of Mohawk and North Bath and Empire Falls. Russo used the economically-depressed real world of upstate to craft his entirely fictional alternate universe, where seemingly minor happenings become major events in the lives of his compelling characters. Some public building was always burning, some love affair was ending, some failed, hard-drinking son was fighting with his failed, alcoholic father. And the mill was always closing down.

Yet these small lives had meaning in Russo’s literary vocabulary; they amounted to nothing, barely a headline or two in the local weeklies and never registered to the fast set in the world capital down the Hudson. But Russo dressed those lives in detail, in connections, in the creation of small societies of men and women. So too do they still matter in Russo’s epic Bridge of Sighs, in many ways his most ambitious novel, which occasionally wanders to New York and Long Island and even Venice – but whose beating heart remains in Thomaston, New York, another failing town where the tannery has poisoned the water and boosted the rate of deadly cancers.

Late Summer Reading: Books About Terrible People

by Tom Watson
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Most of the characters in Claire Messud’s lush and vicious fourth novel, The Emporer’s Children, are funny, bright, entitled New Yorkers – and they’re all fairly horrible human beings. You recognize them, you walk along with them, but you don’t sympathize. And why would you? The “emporer” of the title is lordly literary genius Murray Thwaite, an overblown writer and man of both letters and talking head territory – a haughty waste of a man surviving on his reputation and cruel to boot. He seduces his 30-year-old daughter’s best friend, ignores his loyal wife, looks down his nose at his upstate relations, and enables his daughter’s failures.

Yet, the world of Messud’s tale revolves around Murray’s dwindling light – until the karmic bill comes due in September, 2001. I appreciated that Messud didn’t avoid stereotypes; she plumbed their depths and found some wellspring water instead. And she captured the climbing, selling, soul-numbing existence that’s necessary – absent evident and productive brilliance – in New York’s literary business.

In the end, these truly horrible people finally confront an emotional crisis and the idea that that an outside world can indeed puncture the ambition of their reading circles. The question at the end is simply “why?” Were these self-absorbed people worth plumbing – or was their shallow narcissism the very point. Messud’s book came out last year, but I read it last week and it seemed a good marker against some of my other summer reading, fictional side of the coverlet. It left me unsettled and unsatisfied; I admire the skill in crafting the relationships and the storyboard, but wondered about the flimsy underlying message – did I somehow miss it?

In terms of self-absorbed New Yorkers – and women who write and aspire – I much preferred Laura Jacobs’ 2003 novel, Women About Town, which I read earlier this summer. Why? I liked those characters, especially the loony lampshade designer with the blue-blooded pedigree. They were more of a gas to hang out with. (So call me shallow. Go ahead. I dare you.)

Jerusalem on the Jukebox: Chabon’s Yiddish Noir

by Tom Watson
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So lush is the detail in Michael Chabon’s brilliant The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, so developed the back-story, the alternative history, that it’s the rare short novel that feels long – like you want to live in its dark and distinct precincts a little longer.

YiddishChabon has described the book as an ode to Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald, and it continues his long fascination with detectives who descend from the lineage of Sherlock Holmes. A writer of short stories, essays and anthologies, Chabon has produced one other novel of massive creation – the wonderful The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, published in 2000. Like The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, it created a world of characters and places, and a code – or index – to what was happening: an incredibly deep encyclopedia of small chapters, clippings of the “past,” timelines, and people.

His latest work tops that achievement; it feels like Chabon wrote many thousands of pages of extra material and then synthesized it all to a tight crime drama featuring a small circle of dark and damaged characters – like he wrote big, boiled some water, and published the infusion.

The tea drinks well. Of course, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union revolves around an imagination-grabbing premise. A swath of Alaska has been set aside as the Jewish homeland, with its capital in the former frontier town of Sitka. The book is filled with Yiddish, and you’ll acquire more of a working knowledge of that evocative tongue by reading it. And at the center is a detective. A great failed, jaded, sad and sickly shadow of a Jewish dick.

What Camus Sees: The Plague Within

by Tom Watson
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CamusThere is a scene in The Plague, the relentessly grim post-war novel by existential icon Albert Camus, that still shocks: the hopeless, tortured death struggle of a beloved child – made worse by his father’s plea to the protagonist Dr. Rieux to “save my boy.” It’s a scene (and I say “scene” because I find Camus to be deliberately cinematic) that does not dissolve; it remains with anyone who reads it.

The wrestling match with mortality drew me back to Camus recently, perhaps by my own creeping middle age and perhaps by the events of recent years. The war is endless, yet soldiers perservere. They serve and die. Why? This question is at the center of The Plague, where the death count is not man-made at all, but just inherent to the imperfection of life. The standard view of Camus always comes back to this question: if we’re all fated to die anyway, what’s the purpose, what’s the reason?

But that’s too simple, really. It neglects all the flavors of experience in The Plague, which features a wide and interesting group of characters, all trapped in plague-ridden Oran for months. The North African city (as yet unblemished by the violent Arab revolt and French reprisals of a few years later) turns inward upon itself as the bacillus spreads and kills. Camus makes wonderful use of architecture and weather, using the layout of the city to create a vivid portrait of a closed port with armed guards on the city walls.

Further, The Plague is so clearly a post-war work – indeed, it is often at odds with purity of philosophy in Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus essay, which was published in 1942. The long war and its mass murder revelations made the “purely absurd” view of human existence seem frivolous; this is my view, Camus never said it. But there is no view of the trial of Oran’s disease-stricken citizens that suggests pure absuridity, pure existentialism. Indeed, human love is a strong motivator and some characters chart a noble path of sacrifice. Even religion is not entirely mocked; the pompous priest still achieves some respect.

On The Road With America

by Tom Watson
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The RoadIn honor of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer, here’s a repost of a piece I wrote back in October, when The Road seemed like a metaphor for our national trajectory. Not much has changed:

A portion of my evening reading has been keeping me up deep into the night, placing me in the uncomfortable territory between sleep and thought, between the world of dreams and productive consciousness. It’s not Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, a real reporter’s book by Thomas Ricks, which painstakingly lays out the claim for utter incompetence in Iraq. Nor is it Plan of Attack, by the former reporter Bob Woodward, an insider who flips on his Administration sources and gets them to turn viciously on each other. Both books are chilling – horrific tales of a failed Presidency and an immoral foreign policy. But with those, I can take a sip, switch off the light, and slip into what Bob Dylan calls "a temporary death."

Not so with The Road.

Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant portrait of humanity’s winter is a short read, but a very, very long digestion.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Greatest Generation

by Tom Watson
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Kurt VonnegutKurt Vonnegut proposed an alternative version of World War II glory, a writhing and brutal portrait of internal turmoil and loss and madness that manifested its horror in a seemingly charming and picaresque line: foot-soldier Billy Pilgrim had become “unstuck in time.”

Slaughterhouse-Five belongs to the rarified antiwar prose of the post-war writing generation that includes Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer, the brand of story-telling that went beyond the “war is hell – but damn, it’s a great story” method of pulp fiction and John Wayne. He wrote about inner damage in the guise of science fiction and fantasy; Vonnegut created a terrifying alternative universe created on the ruins of still-living souls who had witnessed first-hand the worst men can do to other men.

But damn, if it wasn’t accessible to a 14-year-old. The combination of humour, and sex, and sci-fi, and words put Slaughterhouse-Five on every adolescent reading list my generation; it didn’t have to be assigned – it was sought out.

When news Vonnegut’s death broke early this morning, I immediately remembered that period of discovery – of revelation – that reading Slaughterhouse-Five and the canon of Vonnegut novels brought on. Those precious, quiet moments alone with the words and the realization that freedom of thought was entirely real, and that some people explored that freedom to the fullest.

In Search of Harry Potter

by Tom Watson
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I’ve never read a Harry Potter. But JK Rowling is among my favorite living authors. I owe her a deep and simple debt – the love of reading, and literature, and story-telling that all of my children have embraced. Rowling didn’t do it all, of course; there was Seuss and Stevenson, Tolkien and Margaret Wise Brown. But she did cast an enduring spell – thousands of pages worth.

And now my youngest is on the second-to-last Potter, racing the clock till Rowling’s much-anticipated final volume is out. Like his brother and sister, he sometimes dons Harry’s glasses, slips into a Hogwarts robe, and waves a facsmilie wand. (And when he Googles Potter star Daniel Radcliffe, his mother and I know it’s time to install a search-filter). Such is the hold of Harry Potter on our book-filled household

So when I returned from the UK this weekend after a blogging/business trip to Oxford, the kids were waiting with their questions: “So Dad, was it just like Harry Potter?”

Green Beer and English: The Actors and Poets of St. Patrick

by Tom Watson
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LeprechaunThe recent news that the Irish and the English come from the same ancient genetic stock, by and large, should be no shock to anyone who contemplates the greatest contribution of the cultural Irish diaspora: the language of their sometime enemies across the narrow Irish Sea. Now that the mitochondrial mystery has been solved at Oxford, we may as well be honest about the great irony of the grand old land.

English and its artistic advancement is the great cultural achievement of the Irish.

It all makes sense that today we’ll swill German beer with a green food dye additive in franchise “Irish” pubs licensed to Italians and Greeks, while paying tribute to a Roman born in Britain. And we’ll grow teary-eyed at brief passages of Joyce and Yeats, while gobbling soda bread around the big flat screen as John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara cavort in John Ford’s mythic Ireland of our dreams. All in English, of course – wonderful English, blissfully enunciated, emotional, profane, onomatopoetic English. Yes, English, the great gift of the Irish.

`A beautiful, pure, sweet, mellow English tenor,’ said Aunt Kate in Joyce’s sublime The Dead, arguably the greatest short-form prose employment of modern English. Written, of course, by an exile who gave to the world his gift beautiful, pure, sweet, mellow English.

Jim Webb & Graham Greene: With a Vietnamese Baby on Your Mind

by Tom Watson
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Senator James Webb invoked Andrew Jackson in his response to President Bush on Tuesday, he used a classic bit of the novelist’s art put the weight of Ole Hickory’s plain political talk at the service of criticism of modern corporate greed. It fit, but the edges were knocked off. Such is also the case with the landscape of the New Vietnam that the soldier-author chronicles in his 2002 novel Lost Soldiers, parts of which became briefly controversial during Webb’s contest with George Allen in Virginia.

Webb and GreeneWebb’s modern Vietnam is seen through the eyes of an old soldier who remains besotted with the land of his conflict, and newly enamored of a young girl who happens to be the American-influenced daughter of a communist official. The American’s job is to work with the government to repatriate the bones of dead soldiers. Suffice to say, a political complication arises. But that made-for-Hollywood plot (which ends in a Bangkok shoot ’em up) is far less interesting than the relationship between the American and the Vietnamese whose lives still revolve around the outcome of the war.

When it’s good – and at times it’s very good indeed – Lost Soldiers forms a worthy bookend to Graham Greene’s classic tale of French colonialism and American intrigue, The Quiet American.