Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Liar's Club by Mary Karr

A smart little girl survives her traumatic yet hilarious childhood

My reading this week detoured into memoir, although a memoir that was (deliberately so )constructed like a novel. The fact that it is “true” adds to its gripping nature.   It seems like it's a collection of hilarious anecdotes about little Mary Karr and her colorful family, especially her hot ticket crazy mother and tough working class father and ever watchful big sister, interspersed with horrifying tales of neglect, including child rape. The plot is trying to figure out why the mother acts like she does.  And then, at the end, we find out, and everything makes more sense.

“The Liar’s Club” is the Ur-memoir, written in 1995, causing a tsunami of memoirs, , writers applying literary techniques such as dialogue, metaphor and characterization, to their factually accurate.. Ideally, the prose needs to be first class and the life history needs to be unique and shocking, in order get people to keep reading.  That is certainly the case with The Liars's Club.

There were many details so insane they had to be true, such as the family eating dinner on the gigantic bed every night. It’s also a story about Texas, where larger than life things happen and nobody blinks an eye. And a place where people tell stories in a vivid homespun deliberately crude way.  Her parents are really not cut out to be attentive parents, though there is a lot of love in the family. I thought the high point of happiness in the book was the little girls' sitting around the campfire eating fish with their dad.

It starts off with one mystery and ends with the happy solution to a second underlying mystery. This is a survivor’s story and therefore more powerful. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert

An 18 year old girl, stuck on a remote Maine island, avoids her destiny

After boarding school, Ruth Thomas, 19 years old, returns to Fort Niles, the isolated Maine island of her birth, unsure of what she wants to do with her life. Fort Niles is also the summer preserve of the Ellis Family, aristocrats who used to run a granite quarry, a family that has a mysterious and powerful connection to Ruth. The men on the island are, for the most part, cantankerous hard drinking lobstermen. During the course of the novel, secrets are revealed and Ruth discovers her true calling.

First of all, I immensely enjoyed Stern Men. Spectacular prose, quirky characters, deeply weird developments – I didn’t want the book to end. Gilbert consistently maintains a comic vision of the world. We delve into the island’s people, whether misanthropic or loving. Ruth has to choose what side she is on, dead ended selfishness or loving human kindness. (One side makes more money.)  

But there is a flaw with the plotting. I’m not sure if there was a plot, or if there was, it never really came together underneath the colorful characters. As I neared the end of the book, I noticed there were only 15 pages left and the story was nowhere near wrapping up. In fact, the story hadn’t even really launched yet. The story is clearly Ruth’s, but she spends her time wandering on the beach, being a smart aleck, drinking beer and absorbing things. She could have carried more narrative water, I think.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks

Like Huckleberry Finn, a 14 year old boy is set adrift without adult supervision

Chappie, a pot smoking little thief from upstate New York, is kicked out of his house by his exasperated mother and creepy stepdad. Accompanied by his friend, the older craftier Russ, Chappie encounters bone-headed yet noble bikers, hides out for the winter in a posh vacation home, lives serenely in a schoolbus with a Rastaman and a little girl, and finally takes off for Jamaica where he fortuitously runs into his drug addled menacing long lost father.

The book, however, went on far too long. The point of this novel is Chappie’s voice, which is entertaining and lively, but voice alone, not matter how entertaining and lively, cannot carry 400 pages. The structure, characters, plot and vernacular echoed Huckleberry Finn but Huckleberry Finn was a novel backed by a rage, a rage against American obtuseness and hypocrisy and cruelty, a rage against human nature. Huck is the innocent witness. Chappie is also a witness, but there is no rage here, only a genial bemusement at human nature and its kooky foibles. Chappie only wants to smoke some weed and get to a place where people aren’t nagging him. I got tired of Chappie long before the end.

The story felt like it was wrapping up even though I could tell there was a fifth of the book left. Out of the blue (pretty much) Chappie decided to accompany the Rastaman to Jamaica and suddenly we had a completely new plot, one about Chappie’s father, who had been completely absent from the book so far. I lost interest after that.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez by John Rechy

Amalia Gomez walks around Hollywood anticipating and dreading a miracle.

This deceptively simple novel is a character study, and unlike Madame Bovary or Mildred Pierce, this particular character study is not fused to a conventional plot. (Amalia’s story, however, might be fused to a theme – a pointedly political one). Amalia Gomez, the smart but uneducated Mexican-American daughter of El Paso, proud US Citizen, mother of three deeply unhappy children, supports her family with a variety of low end jobs and liaisons with different men. Her life, from the beginning, has been tough. An abusive father, abusive husbands, crappy jobs, society looking down on her because of her brown skin. The people who pass her in the street don’t really “see” her. Amalia endures because of her toughness, her vitality, and her faith/superstition. She never questions her painful life. The “plot” is Amalia spending a day in Hollywood, from East to West, a sealed letter in her purse she dreads to open. In scene after scene, we experience Amalia’s daily life, her interactions with her man, her children, and her coworkers at the garment factory. In between the day’s events, Amalia has almost uniformly unhappy memories of her past.

Amalia herself does not make dumb decisions.   Rather she is a victim of the culture – the profound passivity required by women which has caused her not to question the unrelenting pain she has experienced and expects. Her gritty life is contrasted with the silly glittering stories of the telenovelas and Amalia’s emotional devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The writing is vivid and alive. I really felt inside Amalia’s head. This is a portrait of a person and a time. I laughed with delight at the end – all that walking took her to the Beverly Center, and a finale right out of a telenovela.