Empire Falls Russo

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In Empire Falls Russo once again writes about small town America. It is 2002, and the shirt factory has moved production to Mexico. There is unemployment and deprivation. It’s Trumpsville really.

The book centres round a small diner in Empire Falls. It focuses on the life of Miles, the manager. But Russo is an omniscient narrator. He steps into the shoes of other characters, and tells different parts of the story from their point of view.

At first it seemed like Russo had taken the characters from Nobody’s Fool and Everybody’s Fool  and transposed them into this novel. A shiftless working class labourer who refused to take responsibility for anything was the “hero” of the first two books. Here he is the hero’s father. There is a policeman and an estranged wife in those books too. But the way Russo develops these characters is new and different here.

Mrs Whiting, the wife of the deceased owner of the shirt factory is one of the few important characters whose thoughts are hidden from us. She owns most of the town. This allows her to exercise control in a variety of ways that might make her appear truly evil. So it is fitting that she stands apart.

Miles, the protagonist and hero is a working man who manages a cafe for her. His wife has left him for a gym instructor. His daughter is angry and won’t speak to her mother. A series of flashbacks reveal episodes from his own mother’s past which have consequences for him and all his family. (It would spoil the plot to explain more about these.)

The villains are ordinary people too, corrupt policemen and bullying teachers, pupils who flaunt authority and treat others cruelly.

For example the daughter’s art teacher is apathetic and ineffectual. She shows no interest in pupils’ learning, and has favourites. There is mileage here in the portrayal of the school, and we see real poverty and deprivation. There is bullying in class, and in the town itself domestic violence and abuse. Miles has to provide moral guidance to his daughter in this context. He is a catholic, painting the church steeple, and supporting the young priest, who is struggling to manage a wayward, senile older colleague.

I hope that gives you a sense of the variety of interesting characters in this book. Russo has a fantastic imagination. His characters are flawed. They are weak, selfish, impulsive and vengeful. But they are truly human. They make mistakes, they misunderstand things, they lay the blame for their problems at the feet of others. But whilst they see other inhabitants of Empire Falls as evil, Russo focuses only on their humanity.

I realised when I finished this novel how like me so many of the characters are. Like them I stumble through my life, making mistakes over and over again. But reflecting on the book early one morning I also realised that God is there too, patiently encouraging me. He never leaves. He is there when I fail, and there when my failings bring suffering to myself and to others. And when I mess up, that does not change his view of me. He lets me start again, to try again to be more fully what I can and should be.

Asides apart, Empire Falls is a complex story and Russo manages to bring the different elements together very well. It leads to a couple of dramatic and violent climaxes, enough to keep any reader interested. I wanted to keep reading to find out how it would turn out for the different characters, especially Miles and his daughter. Even though this is just a straightforward story of ordinary life, it is life enhancing.

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Sunnyside – Glen David Gold

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Sunnyside begins in 1916. There is a kind of mass hysteria as Charlie Chaplin’s name is paged simultaneously in hundreds of hotels across the USA. At the same time he is seen by witnesses on a light house, sinking into the ocean off the west coast, and huge crowds wait for him at railway stations across the country. At one station there are riots when he does not turn up. This really happened, according to Gold.

The book finishes in 1919, in Russia, when a US expeditionary force is sent to combat the Bolsheviks. Now I knew nothing about this expedition, or about American history during WW1. But Gold fills this book with fascinating historical details like these, embellishing them with realistic and mythic significance.

We see Charlie Chaplin, lover, son and husband. He’s not that good at any of these things though, and is in the middle of a creative crisis. He’s jealous of the success of Mary Pickford, worried that he will be criticised for not volunteering to enlist, and reconciles himself to his conscience by becoming involved in raising loans to pay for the war.

We meet Leland, illegitimate son of Wild Bill Cody. We witness Cody’s last wild west show, performed in front of Kaiser Bill and his family. But Leland does not even know who his father is. He sets out to be a star, but it is not to be, and he ends up in the European theatre of war.

Finally there is Hugo, in Archangel, north of the Arctic circle, inhabiting a world of cold frosts and dark woods. Gold likens these to the mythical forests of European fairy tales, adding a dimension of mystery and intrigue to the whole endeavour.

These three stories are almost completely separate, as if they are novels in themselves. There are not many connections. Leland does want to be in films, and is present at a Liberty Loan Tour starring Chaplin and Pickford. There he is tricked by Rebecca and her father, who later apply their dishonest practices to being agents for Chaplin’s stars. Oh, and during the war Leland trains Rin Tin Tin!! Hugo happens to be present at one of the Chaplin riots in 1916. But these are the only connections. The characters never meet. They are like ships that pass in the night.

In a similar way Sunnyside is the name of a Charlie Chaplin film produced in 1919, and the name of the boat on which Rin Tin Tin arrived in the USA (Sonnenseit in the original German). It’s also the name of Washington Irving’s summer house, an idyllic and dreamlike spot which one Hollywood character visited.

But these facts are just coincidences.  In each case the name is irrelevant to the plot, it’s a minor adjunct. It’s not central to the story or theme. The name of Chaplin’s film is glossed over in the text, and gets barely a nod. The name of the boat gets a sentence, in passing. The character spends one idyllic day at the summer house, and that incident is described in just a couple of pages.

When names are used in a significant way in books, it is usually much more explicit than that, and much more important. George Orwell chose Manor Farm as the name of a place, and Napoleon as the name of a character, because of the relevance of those names to the themes of Animal Farm. In a similar way, in Cold Comfort Farm Stella Gibbons chooses names that are significant to the theme – Ada Doom obviously.

So there is a disconnect. Gold gives the name importance by making it the title of the novel, but in plot terms it’s an aside. You would not even notice it at all, if it were not the title.

This approach epitomises the whole book. Gold just throws everything at the reader and lets them worry about how it all connects and what it all means – if anything. And that’s the fun of it.

I guess the point is to show the seismic cultural change that took place in the early C20 due to the industrialisation of film production in Hollywood. The distributors exploit the war in Europe to become the dominant international force in moving pictures. This changes the world, of course.

Chaplin and Pickford form United Artists to defy the consortium of distributors. Rin Tin Tin arrives with a future in film. And capitalist America sets out to defeat the workers’ revolution in Russia.

It’s the story of Hollywood, it’s a myth about money and about America. It’s about fame and celebrity.

I loved Sunnyside as a series of cameos and incidents. Gold is amusing, and full of wise insights into people. He takes you to places that you could never visit, and brings them to more than life, imbuing them with fantasy and significance.

And it means – well whatever you want – or nothing. Brilliant! Though Sunnyside – it’s definitely ironical.

 

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

UnknownI chose The Underground Railroad as a Christmas present for my wife. It had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (2017), and the USA National Book award. That seemed a good recommendation.

The blurb also attracted me, but words like harrowing and brutal put her offYes, there are some gruesome moments in the book, but they are nothing compared to what we see on TV most days. Anyone who can stomach 9pm thrillers like Waking the Dead, or Line of Duty could certainly stomach this.

The Underground Railroad is a novel about slavery. The first episode takes place on a slave plantation, and shows the life and experiences of Cora. Later she escapes and goes on the run. The episodes in the rest of the novel show life as it was for black people elsewhere in the USA in the middle of the 19th century.

Cora’s first port of call is a state where slavery has been abolished. Instead, black people, including runaway slaves, are placed in hostels, or farmed out to local families, and given work to do. Cora thinks this is a very benign environment until they encourage her to undergo voluntary sterilisation. The real agenda is control of the growing black population.

Next Cora heads to a state where the desire to eliminate blacks is much more explicit. The dead line the roadsides, hung from trees. She finds herself in the home of a former underground railroad helper, but he is terrified by a new political régime. He is too scared to help her escape. Trapped in an attic, and looking through a tiny window, Cora witnesses the hysterical racism of the townsfolk, and the cruel hanging of innocent blacks. Her helper comes to a gruesome end, but she escapes.

A slave catcher is sent to hunt Cora, and she is captured. She is to be taken back “home” where there will be violent reprisals. Again she escapes, finding herself now in a free community of black people. They live on a shared farm. Many are freed or escaped slaves. Political speakers come here to Saturday night gatherings, and discuss slavery and democracy, and this gives the writer some opportunities to preach and philosophise.

This is not the first fictional account of the underground railroad, an organisation which helped slaves to escape bondage. Slaves were hidden in barns or cellars and smuggled under tarpaulins in wagons, at great risk to themselves and their supporters.

But Colson Whitehead treats the term literally. The sections when Cora moves from one episode to the next take place on an actual underground railway! With steam trains!! So this is not a conventional novel. This is not a realism or naturalism.

And the story is not really about Cora’s escape, and the dangers associated with it. Cora is really only an emblem or a type. She is a picaresque heroine in a way, because the writer sends her on a journey through America in order to show us the state of the nation. But it’s not a picaresque novel in the conventional sense – there is no humour, and she is a just a victim, not an amusing rogue like, for example, Tom Jones.

Colson Whitehead writes well. You can imagine the settings, and the characters and dialogue seem real. But it’s all undercut by the treatment of the railroad, which makes the story predictable and formulaic. The first escape is dramatic, but not the rest. It’s obvious that there will just be more, similar episodes until the book ends. So there is little suspense.

The approach made it harder for me to identify with Cora and her sufferings. They were certainly moving, shocking and pitiful, and Whitehead describes them in detail. But it was obvious that she would survive each adventure, because the writer’s prime intention was clearly not to describe the suspense of the journey, but to show the different aspects of American society she encounters.

I suppose it’s not good to criticise a book for being what it is, and not what you want it to be. It’s like criticising a cow for not being a horse. But sending a hero on a journey is a classic way to show a society’s flaws and hypocrisies – Oliver Twist and Huckleberry Finn are prime examples. It’s a technique often used in American literature – The Grapes of Wrath for example. I enjoyed these books much more.

When Steinbeck places the workers in the government camp in The Grapes of Wrath, and they first encounter the benefits of Roosevelt’s New Deal, we are made to realise the beneficial impact of socialist reforms in the USA. By this time in the novel the reader feels real commitment to the characters because we have been on their journey with them, every inch of the way from Oklahoma to California. I didn’t feel like that about Cora.

Alex Preston, writing in The Observer claims that this novel opens up thrilling new vistas for the novel itself.

Maybe he’s right. But I see the lack of realism as a weakness. The novel becomes a pamphlet, or a propaganda piece. It’s not really about a person called Cora, who becomes a travelling companion with whom we share joys and fears. It’s about a social evil that we all abhor. It’s about a corrupt and racist society. But Cora isn’t really an interesting person. She’s just a device to show us that society.

I think you could make the same criticism of some of the other characters too. They are really stereotypes or caricatures, in my view – the slave catcher, the helper who is caught, the black politician.

I would want not put anyone off reading this book. It was ok, and certainly had a valuable message. But it didn’t live up to the plaudits it has received.

Everybody’s Fool – Richard Russo

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Everybody’s Fool is set 10 years after Russo’s Nobody’s Fool, in the same run down town in upper state New York:

Nobody’s Fool

Of course in Bath, a spa town whose waters have run dry, little has changed.  The characters’ lives run along the same rails, set down by their genes and their cultural inheritance. But now the main focus shifts from Sully, the working class anti-hero of the previous novel, to Raymer, the hallucinating Chief of Police.

Once again we meet Sully’s long time lover Ruth, and her loyal husband Zack. There is Sully’s workmate, Rub, and the bar and cafe which are the focus of local life. There have been deaths – including Wirf, Sully’s one legged lawyer friend, and Mrs Peoples, his one time 8th grade teacher, who was Raymer’s teacher too.

But there are new additions, such as the crazy dog, licking its sore balls, and peeing over the inside of his van, cruelly named by Sully after his friend Rub. Or Charice, Raymer’s assistant, and sister of his best man, Jerome Bond. Charice, allegedly with a butterfly tattoo on her backside, is ultra efficient, and so essential to the functioning of the police department that Raymer can never allow her to leave the safety of the office and actually do police work.

There is Mr Smith the mysterious arch criminal trading in drugs and poisonous snakes, Raymer’s wife, dead now, Gus’s wife Alice, mentally unstable, and her cruel former partner, Kurt. Russo is so inventive, creating characters that step off the page full of energy and life, stupid, ignorant, foolish, greedy, cruel or mad as a snake. This is a violent world, and an ugly one too, but the cruel violence of the worst characters sits alongside a quiet compassion and forgiveness that might be unexpected in Bath.

Everybody’s Fool has elements of a Greek tragedy, in that the events take place pretty much in a 24 hour period, and we never leave the twin towns of Bath and Shuyler, so there’s unity of time and place for you. But there’s no real unity of plot, as several different stories are interlaced cleverly in alternating cliffhanging chapters in a way that’s more typical of a soap opera.

The close knit relationships, the betrayals and lusts for power, the focus on madness and sanity have all the grandeur and reach of tragedy. It’s a dramatic story, that opens at a graveside, and is lit by the lightening of a summer storm. Its heroes are ordinary men, not Greek soldiers or kings, but they engage with all the universal questions. Russo has real courage in dealing with the big subjects, often taboos in fact – death, mental illness – as well as the more common themes of sex, adultery, love and friendship, where he also pulls no punches.

If this is a tragedy, it’s a Shakespearean one, full of dark comic interludes and base characters, at times unrepentant, and with base desires. There is so much to laugh at, and I laughed out loud frequently, so it’s easy to see the book as a sort of literal Comédie Humaine: all life is here, in Bath.

I really recommend Everybody’s Fool, and will probably read some more of Russo’s books, but I did think the ending was a bit too comfortable. The novel provides a bleak vision of the world, and there is a sort of darkness at its heart  – it’s a very black kind of humour and no one is safe from death, crime or corruption. Without giving too much away I’d just expected a more brutal and less compromising last thirty pages, one that reflected more the harsh world Russo describes.

 

Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Half of a Yellow Sun tells the story of a Nigerian family in the 1960s before and during the Biafra crisis. The book opens several years before the war, and follows the lives and loves of a small group of well educated university people, then cuts to and from the Biafran conflict as the story unfolds.

The opening chapter was very striking and particularly effective. It introduces the main characters, living on a university campus and discussing politics and philosophy over bottles of alcohol. It concludes in an amusing triangular relationship in which the house servant is worried about being usurped by the new mistress of his boss. This relationship acts as a kind of ironic summary of the whole colonial enterprise: she is seen as the coloniser in his domain, whilst he is worried that he will be discarded and replaced.

Adichie is a clever writer and the scenes before the Biafran war are amusing. The characters are varied and reveal a range of quirks and flaws. They mimic European habits and prize the ability to speak English well. They are well educated but I guess many of them overestimate their own abilities: we are shown this in an understated and amusing way.

There is snobbery and tribalism, but this is shown through individual characters and not in broader more general terms. So a protagonist’s mother criticises both his mistress, and his failure to marry a serious woman and produce children. She is dismissive of his servant’s rural and uneducated background, and criticises his cooking. In order to procure grandchildren for herself she introduces a young girl from the village to her son’s household, and partakes in various rituals. to encourage their love. The poor girl becomes pregnant, but of course that solves no problems at all. I enjoyed this part of the book the most, it’s full of human observations and humour.

Later there is infidelity and betrayal within the group, and in particular within one family, so that when the war begins the family conflict further separates the characters, and we await both denouements – that of the civil war, and of the war within the family.

Half of a Yellow Sun was on the shelf for a long time before I finally plucked up the courage to read it. I was alive in the 60s, and remember the cruel jokes about Biafrans, and the horrific nature of the war, so the book didn’t seem an enticing prospect. But I was quite young then and knew few of the facts so it was interesting to discover more about how the war started. It seems that jealousy about the financial success and the power of the Igbo tribe provoked violent attacks from the moslem community in the north of the country, which led to Biafra seceding from Nigeria and declaring independence under its own flag – a half of a yellow sun.

Biafra was badly lead, and its people lied to repeatedly: well that’s not unusual is it? Defeat was inevitable but slow and painful. It occupies most of the second half of the book, and makes the novel quite hard going.

Adichie is a great writer, and I really recommend her work. It’s amazing to think that someone with such serious aspirations and achievements as a writer and feminist has been used by Boots to advertise makeup.

Boots Number 7

One up for literature there I say. But if you are interested in Adichie’s writing, don’t start with Half of a Yellow Sun, try:

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

 

 

The Bricks that Built the Houses – Kate Tempest

TempestKate Tempest is a performance poet whose work I’ve caught occasionally on TV  – just glimpses, not extensively – but what I have seen has really impressed me. She seems a powerful and original voice, full of rhythm and dynamism with a distinct political stance. So when I saw this book on a two for one offer I picked it up, and read it quickly.

The Bricks that Built the Houses is a very contemporary novel set in south London in the 21st century. It’s full of young characters living in what might be considered a moral vacuum, their lives liberated from so much of the baggage carried by previous generations. I say modern, but this is pretty much a post modern world where one person’s moral stance is as valid as the next. It’s a world with no absolutes, a world of complete freedom. In fact that’s the only constraint – the need to accept those freedoms, to accept that people are different, mostly troubled and struggling, but with the liberty to mess things up on their own terms, and without conscience.

Of course that adds up to a pretty exciting mixture of drugs and sex and rock and roll. Chuck in a couple of gangsters, some real East End thugs, and you’ve got a pacy and exciting thriller that frequently spills into comedy and where the occasional violence and sex is merely an intrusion into a family saga of the most soapy kind.

Tempest’s plot is really quite brilliant. I wanted to draw the family trees, just to make sure I’d got the details right. This is really a book about Becky and Harry; it’s about their lesbian relationship, and their lives in what some reviewers would call the underbelly of South London. Becky is a masseuse, touring the hotels as instructed by her agency. Harry is a misfit, a girl in a tiny man’s body who visits expensive hotels and parties providing the rich and stupid with cocaine. The book opens with two sections in which they drift towards each other on the tides of London night life. But Tempest slows the story right down and introduces us to the families of these two characters. In fact the novel is nearly over before they consummate their love.

Becky’s father, a former author and political activist of Indian extraction, is in prison. He has split from his wife. Becky lives with her uncle Ron, and works in his cafe by day. Harry left home as a teenager unable to feel accepted by her family or school friends. Harry’s brother Pete is an unemployed graduate. He falls in love with Becky, who is bisexual, and intrigued by the fact that Pete is reading her father’s book when he comes into the cafe. But Pete can’t hack the fact of Becky’s profession and that becomes a stumbling block. Meanwhile Harry’s supplier is in jail, so a new meet is set up. This is a disaster, and leaves Harry vulnerable to gangland retribution. This is the point at which the book starts, actually, so no giveaways there: the rest is a flashback.

Tempest describes two family meals which are devastating in their comic portrayal of the middle classes. Harry and Pete are invited around for a meal by their mother. She wants them to meet her new partner, a guy she met at the opticians where she works. He’s very boring. At a later meal Becky is added to the dramatis personae, bringing a touch of hot sex to the bourgeois mumblings and misunderstandings of the first meal, as she helps Harry with the washing up.

Later there is a comical encounter with a half baked gangster in a dingy cellar enlivened by a tropical fish tank. The name Shogavich becomes suddenly significant with respect to two more gangsters with addled brains, and more money and cocaine than sense. There’s a smooth Peruvian drug dealer, an escape to Europe and a denouement that is sufficiently satisfying but not completely closed.

Tempest is a great writer and the book is fast paced and exciting. She pushes the boundaries of language in her descriptions, and whilst not all are totally convincing it’s just really good to read someone who’s willing to make the effort, who’s not just treading the path that others have trodden before.

So, you should read this book. I recommend it.

 

 

Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton

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My Name is Lucy Barton is a short and quite gripping novella that was long listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize.

It tells the story of a midwestern girl, Lucy Barton, now living in New York. She is married and has two children, but is ill in hospital, and mostly alone: her husband has a phobia about hospitals and rarely visits. He pays for the protagonist’s mother to fly in and care for her daughter, and the book mostly concerns the short period in which the girl’s mother sits by her bedside and looks after her.

As she lies in hospital and talks with her mother, Lucy Barton reflects on her life, and especially on her childhood. The book is really a series of these memories retold in short sharp chapters of brief, yet vivid and detailed description.

From the hospital window Lucy can see the Chrysler building, an icon of New York city and a reminder of the distance between herself and her childhood home. The mother has never flown before and has no knowledge of, or interest in modern culture. Her own husband was psychologically damaged in the the second world war, and never recovered, inflicting the consequences of his own guilt and pain onto the next generation.

Lucy grew up in cultural and financial poverty, living in a cold garage and a victim of bullying at school.  She was also the victim of abuse, and we are told that she was regularly locked into the car whilst her parents worked. There are more explicit comments, but these are not developed in detail.

From the dialogue and commentary it is clear that Lucy’s mother knew nothing of these incidents, or if she did was in denial. Lucy would like to ask, but never has the courage.

But this is a book about love and about dignity. We see the powerful love Lucy has for her mother, a love that its clearly reciprocated. The book revolves around other moments of tenderness and compassion, including the doctor who calls regularly, even at weekends, and goes easy on his medical bills. There are others in the mid-western town, more fortunate than Lucy’s family, who show her compassion and sympathy, including a teacher who chides the class for laughing at her, insisting that all children must be treated equally and with kindness.

We also learn about the fates of some of Lucy’s childhood friends, their selfishness or foolishness, their broken marriages and disappointments. This is a book in which human failings are writ large but with compassion and sympathy.

We are given brief glimpses of Lucy’s life away from the mid-west: relationships that failed or never matured, her own marriage and her love for her children, her encounter with a professional writer, an inept creative writing tutor who nevertheless didn’t manage to stop Lucy becoming a professional writer herself.

In the end Lucy has grown into an independent and confident writer, a modern, metropolitan woman.

Strout is not judgemental, and there is sympathy here for even the most unsympathetic of characters – her damaged father, the old schoolfriend who abandoned her husband, or the self centred and fashion conscious lecturer in art with whom she had a brief fling as a student. The criticisms are subtly communicated, the judgements clear but understated.