Sunday, October 26, 2014

American Skin by Don DeGrazia

A Chicago kid trying to survive joins a band of skinheads

One day, Alex Verdi, a blond Italian American, walks down the halls of his high school and is surprised to see a cop going through his locker. Knowing his dad is a small town pot dealer, Alex hightails it for home, hiding in the woods and witnessing the police ransacking his house. Later he learns mother and father have been arrested, and little sister put in foster care. Instead of coming forward, Alex hitchhikes a ride to Chicago and gets an anonymous awful job in a plating factory. He is involved in a fist fight on the subway, and a rainbow coalition of skinheads, led by the impressive Timothy Penn, saves him. Alex moves into the skinheads' communal housing/dance club, becomes a bouncer, starts a romance with the beautiful biracial ass kicking Marie. Further adventures follow until Alex's world is righted.

American Skin starts off wonderfully and I was really sucked in by the narrative tension and the writing. Getting Alex from the country to gritty Chicago and the lively building where all the "good" skinheads live and party was great. But then the story starts to stall and plot contrivances, melodramatic love scenes, and creaky "crazy skinhead" set pieces, do nothing to take the book out of its stall. That might be a common problem for debut novelists. Characters are introduced and dropped, the action is moved forward but nothing really feels motivated. Things stop making sense. Suddenly Alex and Timmy are in prison, part of a white supremacist gang. Huh? The prose, however, was consistently interesting.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Off Course by Michelle Huneven

A promising young woman gets distracted by her affair with an older married man

In the early eighties, Cressida Hartley retreats to her parents’ Sierra A-frame to finish her dissertation, though it's not very long before the isolated charming but hickish town starts to suck her in. She has a quick affair with life-loving bar owner, Jakey, but is taken aback when he turns out to be promiscuous. Later she meets the quiet hyper-masculine carpenter Quinn Morrow, at first becoming his walking companion, then the recipient of his gifts of house made bacon. Next there is a kiss and after that there is a full blown affair that shakes his marriage to the core, scandalizing the town. Quinn and Cressida keep trying to break up, but Quinn bounces between his much loved loyal wife and much loved exciting mistress. Only Cressida, not Quinn, feels the extreme disapproval from the other townsfolk. Instead of hightailing it out of the mountains and salvaging her professorial career, she moons around the redwoods as a waitress, wasting years of her life. It’s clear by the end of the book, while Cressida is nominally happy, she has never recovered from the drama of loving Quinn.

Like Huneven’s earlier novel Blame, the themes of time and what is the meaning of life slowly sneak up on you. I kept thinking, well, the activities of these people are interesting but the stakes are low, than I realized, no, the stakes are actually quite high. Cressida is wasting her life. Slow and steadily in a series of tiny decisions but the consequences are huge.

Huneven is really talented at world creation.  She brings to life this mountain town with its social hierarchies, quaint entertainments (singing and dancing but also adultery and alcoholism). The lives of the town people are correspondingly stunted, though they all seem very comfortable in their beautiful bubble.  The mountain people despise LA, of course. Their parties are hilarious, as is the depiction of Cressida’s eccentric family. Although after a while the people in the town started to run together – Dee Dee, Donna – were they the same lady? Candy?

The twist ending is very believable, just because it happens all the time.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald

Yearning for the American Dream, a man remakes himself

During the Roaring Twenties, Nick Carraway, affluent child of the Midwest, attempting to become a bond broker in New York, rents a modest beach house next to shady millionaire Jay Gatsby’s mansion whose nightly summer parties draw thousands of the glitterati. Gatsby takes an keen interest in Nick, an interest Nick soon realizes is because of his beautiful cousin Daisy, trophy wife to the rich knuckle dragger but Establishment stalwart Tom Buchanan. Meanwhile, Nick falls a little in love with Daisy’s golf pro friend Jordan Baker. When upstart Gatsby tries to claim long lost love Daisy as his own, the situation cannot remain stable.

Everything and I mean everything is set up in the first chapter. The story is economically and beautifully written, with tiny sharp memorable physical descriptions of people. Character creation in a few swipes. Every location, every person, every prop does triple duty in service of the plot, character development and underlying imagery. The book is constructed of a series of spectacular set pieces perfectly written.  The party at the apartment, Gatsby's decadent party, Nick's awkward tea party, the hot room at the Plaza. Driving metaphors abound. For the first time I realized that the car accident is ambiguous-- Daisy has to choose between hitting the other car (killing herself?) or hitting the woman who ran into the street.

There’s sort of a Madame Bovary condemnation of society going on and, as in Madame Bovary, society doesn’t come off well. Tom is a rich racist jackass much like the rich racist jackasses of today. Daisy is thinking about Daisy. In her scenes, Jordan Baker is entertaining as well as a key plot device. She introduces Nick and Gatsby, she's the initial connection between Daisy and Gatsby and she causes Myrtle to believe she's Tom’s wife. Plotting has a lot to do with characters with connections to other characters.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

 A family comes under intense pressures in the days before Hurricane Katrina

Fourteen year old Esch lives in the backwoods of coastal Mississippi with her family, which consists of a drunken widowed father, and three brothers: basketball playing Randall, pit bull loving Skeetah and seven year old Junior. The story begins with dad haphazardly urging the kids to prepare for the hurricane by having them fill jars with water and stock up on extra boxes of Ramen noodles. All the children except for Junior have their own high-stakes problems. First of all, classically educated Esch is coming to the understanding that she is pregnant. She’s had many sexual partners among her brothers’ friends although she is certain the father is Manny, a boy she loves who cares nothing for her. Meanwhile, Skeetah’s beloved dog, China, just birthed a litter of puppies. Skeetah desperately tries to keep the small blind puppies alive, and ward off the fatal infection parvo. But one by one, the dogs sicken and Skeetah gets desperate for pricey medicine. Randall dreams of entry to an exclusive basketball camp, dependent upon his good behavior and more to the point, the good behavior of his family. Their dreams are jeopardized by their own choices, and finally by the impending chaos of Katrina. The storm comes, the floods roll in and the desperate family escapes to the roof of their house.

Wow, what great writing. This book really succeeds at world creation. I was completely sucked into the narrative, the stakes for each character rising each humid day before the storm.  Ward plunges the reader into Esch’s intense bloodily violent world and never lets up. The Michael Vick situation became a lot clearer – pit bull fights deep in the woods gives the boys' circumscribed lives meaning. The plotting is clever – each family member’s desires and motivations are depicted in painful snatches, just enough to carry the action along.

Although I have no idea what the title means – the bones coming out of the flooded graveyard? And, every so often, Esch likens her love situation to Medea’s, which jarred a little as the insertions didn’t feel seamless. There were also an awful lot of boys, between Esch’s brothers and her sex partners -- I started to get them mixed up. There’s a great flood scene at the end, which reminded me of other great flood scenes from Their Eyes Were Watching God and Jayne Anne Phillips's Lark and Termite. There’s nothing like a good flood scene to get everything out on the table.