Everybody’s Fool – Richard Russo

Unknown

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.

 

Advertisements

Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Unknown

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

images

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.

Nobody’s Fool -Richard Russo

Unknown

Nobody’s Fool is a warm, rambling account of life in Bath, a small community in upper New York State that history has passed by.  It is dwarfed by its much more successful, though also quite tiny neighbour, Schuyler Springs.  Bath consistently fails to win at sport or business.  It is on the way down, though some locals have ambitions to build a theme park on the swampy land bordering the highway, next to the graveyard.  Here coffins of casualties of the Vietnam war float down the slope in the boggy ground, eventually finding themselves located under the wrong headstones!

Bath is a place where the generations carry the sins of their forebears in their genes, and no one forgets.  The protagonist of Nobody’s Fool, Sully, a local workman, is near to the bottom of the pile, but doesn’t seem to care.  He is sixty and divorced.  His knee is swollen with arthritis, and the pain is intense. He is in the middle of a long term affair with another man’s wife; their relationship is off and on.  Sully is claiming sickness relief, and has been following mandated college courses to retrain: his philosophy teacher is busy disproving the existence of everything.

Unimpressed by the professional abilities of his one legged lawyer and drinking buddy, Wirf, and by the intransigence of the welfare system, Sully decides that compensation will never arrive and begins to work again, playing truant from college and indulging his anarchic and compulsive personality.  He taunts workmates and bosses, teases waitresses and secretaries, argues and steals.

Sully is a work of art, a hopeless father.  He is the son of a drunken wife beater, and unprepared for family life.  He has completely ignored his own son, leaving his rather neurotic wife not long after marrying her.  He is on good terms with her new husband, a much more conventional character. Now he lives in the flat above Miss Beryl, his former 8th grade teacher.  Her husband is dead, and she suspects her son, the local bank manager, is trying to farm her off to an old people’s home.

Sully’s son arrives back in town for Thanksgiving, along with his wife and three children. Their marriage is on the rocks and he has been refused tenure by the English Department at his university.  Sully is reluctantly drawn into this family conflict.

Sully has charm and wit.  He has a sharp tongue, and the combative dialogue this gives rise to provides some of the best passages of the novel. I could hear the voice of Frank Sobotka, the dockers’ union leader in HBO’s The Wire.  There is that same sharp intelligence and cynicism: the aggression of the essentially powerless manual worker, pugnacious, unwilling to be used and exploited.

Russo has created a small group of characters whose lives are interlinked by location, by family ties and by the mistakes of their past.  Each is brought to life with compassion and humour, in situations which we can all recognise: personal rivalries and animosity, jealousy and greed, love and hypocrisy.  As a picture of American small town life this book is perfect.  It will make you laugh out loud. Sully has a fire in his heart that you will warm to, and whilst the downtrodden characters will draw your sympathy, the more conventional display hypocrisy, neurosis, coldness and greed.  It could be a parable from the New Testament.

Nobody’s Fool is a rerelease of a novel first published in 1993.  Apparently Russo has just published a sequel based on the same small town – it’s called Everybody’s Fool, and is due out in paperback in the UK later this year (2017).  I can’t wait to read it.

About Grace – Anthony Doerr

Unknown

I chose this book because I recently read Doerr’s second book, All the Light We Cannot See, and it was the best book I have read in several years.  I was hoping for more of the same.

About Grace tells the story of an awkward and unheroic character, David Winkler, who for some reason has  premonitions, or dreams that come true.  So the book opens on a plane journey when the protagonist, realising that a bag will fall from the luggage locker, warns the owner, and is first ignored then, when the bag falls, scorned by her for having deliberately left the locker open!!

Later in a supermarket in Alaska he meets a young married woman in a similar fashion – he knows she will knock a magazine to the floor, so rushes to help her pick it up.  Even so she walks away, though later he is able to meet her again.  They have an affair, and run off to Ohio, where Grace is born.

At this point Winkler begins to have recurring dreams about the baby, Grace, drowning in a flood.  In his vision he sees himself holding the dead baby above the flood waters.  Eventually the fear is too great.  When the rains come in floods, Winkler runs away, leaving his family to their fate, hoping that because he won’t be there, the dramatic image of death will not become reality.

He crosses America, takes a berth on a freight ship and ends up in the West Indies where he spends the next years.  Here Winkler makes friends with locals including political refugees from Chile who have a daughter called Naaliyah: she becomes almost a surrogate child for him.  At one point he has similar dreams about Naaliyah drowning; he becomes obsessed, and follows her everywhere, much to everyone’s annoyance, but eventually saves her from this death.

Winkler tries to contact his wife, Sandy, to discover Grace’s fate, but receives no reply.  Eventually Naaliyah, inspired by Winkler, who is a scientist, gains a scholarship to a university in Alaska to study entomology.  Shortly after, Winkler decides to return to the USA to try to find Grace.

After a library search facilitated by a man in a wheelchair, and armed with the names of all the Grace Winklers in the USA, Winkler sets off on a tour of the states, visiting each Grace in turn, but none are his daughter.  There is a crisis when his last visit results in accusations of theft and damage.  Winkler escapes across the open plains, becomes lost and nearly dies.  Stumbling onto a road, he hitches a lift to Alaska, where he finds Naaliyah.  He spends the winter at her research centre deep in the wilderness of the Yukon.  The final section of the book sees his return to Anchorage and the denouement of the story of Grace.

I don’t normally give such detailed accounts of the plots of books, but this one is pretty weird and seemed worthy of some detail.  It’s a very odd book.  I suppose it’s about Winkler finding Grace, and so that in itself is a pretty fine metaphor, suggesting there is a theme of morality in this book.  And after all Winkler did run off with a married woman, did fail to live up to his responsibilities as a father and husband, and did hurt several innocent people, so I guess he needed Grace, as we all do.

On the other hand the whole book is based on a pretty weird and whacky premise and that in itself is a big question mark against a novel that seems to preach psychological realism.

Winkler is a scientist – a meteorologist actually.  He is obsessed with the beauty of snowflakes and the nature of hydrology, of the water cycle.  Naaliyah is inspired by his scientific knowledge and becomes  an entomologist.  In Alaska she is breeding insects on a remote experimental station.  The book contains lots of descriptions based around these two scientific disciplines. So the scene before the flood, and the scenes in the Yukon, are fraught with images of water cycles and snowflake and frost, of death and hibernation.

As the story reaches its denouement Winkler begins a correspondence with his wife’s former husband in the hope of finding Grace.  A few quotations here will show you how Doerr attempts to pull all these ideas and images together.

Collecting snowflakes and admiring their beauty, Winkler claims the ones in the wild are bigger and more real than in the lab – like wild animals that make zoo animals seem like shadows.  Here he encounters the heart of life – its essential beauty and integrity, as if even snowflakes have a soul.  But there is more.  It’s not so  much a science for him he says, it’s the light, the way it absorbs sound.  The way we feel that the more that falls, the more we are forgiven.

He goes on: dreams are a ladle dipped, a bucket lowered. The imagery of water continues: dreams are the deep cool water beneath the bright surface; the shadow at the base of every tree. Now his only dream is to find Grace.

Doerr is clearly a great writer with a fantastic imagination and a beautiful turn of phrase.  He uses imagery extensively to explore themes and ideas, and to show the way that Winkler is alienated from life by his own self consciousness, by his fear and inability to engage.

For me About Grace was not as good as his second novel All the Light We Cannot See.  The plot focuses on the question of what has happened to Grace, and this was not as compelling an issue as the wartime dynamic in Doerr’s second book.  Nevertheless I think it is a book that would repay a closer reading, a book that is ambitious, well written and carefully constructed.

 

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon

unknown

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is an intriguing and unusual story of hypocrisy, guilt, judgement and forgiveness, set in an avenue on a small housing estate in the middle of England – in Nottingham I think.

The narrator of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep can pop in and out of the houses in the avenue at will, and into the minds of most of the residents, but principally we see this suburban world through the eyes and ears of two small children, Grace and Tilly.  They offer an innocent and naive perspective on this little England, and the sections concerning their escapades are told with wit and charm.

Early in the novel the children attend the local church, where they are told that God is everywhere, and that for Him the world consists of goats and sheep.  So they set off to search for God, seeking him in the different houses and on the avenue itself.  This in itself is an amusing and lighthearted conceit that offers a moral perspective to the story without being at all didactic.

The narrative thread concerning the children’s search for God runs in conjunction with a second concerning the night of a fire several years earlier. There are flashbacks between two eras – the night of the fire in 1967, and the present of the novel in the hot summer of 1976.

During the house fire an old lady died.  Her son survived, but has been an outcast ever since.  There are hints that some of the residents of the avenue were involved in some way with the fire, and that others know the secrets of that night.  Some have feelings of guilt, whilst others merely remain judgemental and self justifying.

When a woman from The Avenue goes missing, and the police arrive, memories are stirred and we are able to see how each person deals with events they have consciously hidden in their past.  As their guilty secrets return to haunt them, some become worried that the police will investigate

Much of the book deals with a slow reveal about the state of affairs in The Avenue. We are introduced to interesting characters, each with their own burden to bear.  There is a real sense of compassion and humanity in this book, which interestingly was written by a psychiatrist.  Well she would know about guilt wouldn’t she?

As the story progresses, a patch of creosote leeches out of the whitewashed wall of a local garage forming an image of Jesus.  This exciting and unexpected event brings the characters of the book together.  Here they sit in deckchairs eating Quality Street and chatting, whilst we learn more about their lives, and feel quietly urged to consider the nature of guilt, judgement and forgiveness.  The writer makes no explicit comments about these issues, but shows us the hypocrisies and dishonesty, the lack of courage and the prejudice that have led to this situation.  It is the clever use of the image of Christ that brings this theme most clearly to the reader’s attention.

Throughout, the writing in this book is simple and plain, but the writer does have a facility with words, and uses the simple language of child’s point of view especially well.  So a cat padded along with careful paws before it  folded itself  into a hedge.  She also has a fine insight into the mind and vanities of her characters, whether an eleven year old child, or her grandmotherly ward.

If the issue of human frailty is of interest to you, I would recommend this book.  At the beginning there is a little map of the housing estate – the avenue – showing the names of the characters residing at each house, and you will find this helpful if, like me, you have a terrible memory for names.