Issue 62. March 2008
A Richer Dust by Amy Boaz
The Permanent Press, NY
Although no real names are mentioned, the novel portrays a life very like that of D. H. Lawrence and his wife, who moved to New Mexico to begin an experiment in new living.
Our narrator is a female artist named Doll (based on the real-life British artist Dorothy Brett, who followed Lawrence and his wife to America). In 1924, at middle-age, Doll renounced her aristocratic background in England and traveled to Taos, New Mexico, out of her belief in the radical social philosopher Abe Bronstone (the model for Lawrence). Doll has always been single, believing herself unattractive, and also hindered by bad hearing for which she had to use a trumpet horn. But she is bright, not desperate. And a superb artist. She had studied at the famous Slade school of art in London in her youth and there she made friends with the bohemian Lorelei and others, and was even half-seduced by her married art teacher. Doll follows Abe for a variety of reasons: a revulsion for post-war England, a love for Abe (part father-figure, part would-be lover) and his beliefs, which she embraces in pursuit of the new and untried for she is an adventuress in her own right.
The loose little community in Taos consists of Doll, Abe, his formidable wife Vera (a hard-smoking German woman who walked out on her husband and children to be with Abe, but now fights with him constantly). Nearby is a mentally unstable poet from Chicago (shell-shocked from experiences in WWI) and his wife Katie, who tends to him. There is also the East Coast heiress Janie, now married to an Indian, Junior (probably to spite her family). These latter two live in relative wealth and have a nice car, quite unlike the others who are trying to live off the land by farming and struggling to do so. They all live closely with the Native Americans of the area, learning from them all they can. Doll loves the light in Taos which brings a new element to her art. Needless to say, the New Mexico landscape—its distinctive blue, blue sky and rust-brown earth shades—forms a central part of the novel and the author captures it beautifully.
At times Vera resents Doll being with them—she lives in a little shed beside the couples’ home. And other bits of “life” upset the idyll (Katie gets pregnant by Junior, for example), but they hold out until Vera decides to stir up trouble after getting angry at Abe and the men—especially the Native American men—for keeping their wives pregnant while they must also work so hard. Vera has already educated the Native American females about their bodies and birth control. Now she gathers all the women of the community and a gender war ensures, of which Doll does not wish to be a part; and culture clashes shortly follow.
Interspersed with this communal experiment in Doll’s life are two other time lines: one going backwards to her patrician youth and onwards to Slade; and the other jumping to the future circa 1964. This latter is where the book really came alive for me. Here we find Doll, still in Taos, seventy-something years old, the last of them all, who have either died or moved away. She lives a solitary life in a small house outside town, still wearing a turban and dressing ever so casually, with, as she describes herself, liver-spotted hands, a big bottom, and huge pendulous breasts which now hang down to her waist. At this unexpected time of her life, she meets the much younger Akbar ("He doesn't know how much younger and I don't plan to tell him"). Akbar has a tightly matted “lion’s mane of hempen coils” which he doesn’t believe in cutting or even combing; he loves trees and makes his living climbing and pruning. (I pictured a slightly aging hippy, around 40.) He’s a bit “touched in the head” in that he speaks in the third person about himself and has never learned to read (from what seems to be dyslexia). He doesn’t like to speak much, but now, even with a hearing aide replacing the old trumpet, Doll can’t hear well, so they nicely complement each other. Akbar, though he has done time in prison for some foolishness, is a kind, gentle soul who enjoys his “fragrant cigarettes,” and through him Doll discovers sex for the first time (and has her first orgasm). These scenes are quite beautiful, the way the two make love so sweetly and give so much to each other: “We sleep tightly bound, Akbar wrapped like a wandering jew around my torso. For safety and warmth, I think happily.”
Doll maintains a kind of detached, amazed view of it all, but at the same time she truly loves her Akbar and sometimes drives her car and parks in order to sketch him while he’s climbing trees. Akbar’s mother is not crazy about this arrangement, so Doll invites her to dinner. Akbar sits weaving in a corner while the women hold forth at the table. Doll speaks of being in London during the war and Akbar’s mother asks “Which war?” Doll knows the woman is trying to suss her age, but she’s evasive, though she does answer “The Great War.” When Akbar’s mother says she left Mexico at age 10 and has lived in New Mexico for 70 years, Doll knows she is 80 and thinks thank god, she’s older than me.
The way the 20s commune plays out, as well as Doll’s unconventional love life in the 60s, makes for some riveting reading. The downside of the novel would be that the radical “philosophy” that Abe spouts sounds trite and 60s hippy. Of course this was 1924 so we must take that into account, but still, Ralph Waldo Emerson he is not. On the upside, the character of Doll is a pure delight. I adored the romance with the young “boy,” as she calls him. Where do we see that in literature so honestly and lovingly portrayed? The film Harold and Maude came to mind, though the age difference here is not nearly that extreme (Akbar has a few grey hairs). The plot is a bit meandering—not sure we need the childhood recollection of the lascivious Sir Jeremy, for example—and as I say the Utopian philosophy is not new. But for Doll alone, I adored this novel. And the New Mexico backdrop tops it. I heartily recommend it. JA
The Perfect Man
by Naeem Murr
Random House, 2008
This blend of suspense and melodrama, set in the 1950s, plays out against a large cast of small-town American Midwestern characters, including an Indian boy.
It is not an easy novel to classify. It begins with 5-year-old Rajiv Travers— born to an Indian mother who was sold to his English father for £20— who is now not wanted by either his father or his English stepmother back in London. At age 12 he is taken by his father to live with his uncle and his partner, Ruth, in Pisgah, Missouri, a small town full of prejudices, especially against someone of “black” skin. To make matters worse, the uncle has committed suicide just before the father and Raj arrive. Ruth, an independent middle-aged woman, has no interest in children and is stunned when Raj’s father insists she take him on for at least the summer (though she suspects he will never come back for the child and he does not).
Ruth, a writer of Romance novels, is at least a bit brighter than most of the townspeople and gives a go at raising the boy though she is a cold fish and never touches him. Raj is bright in school and has the ability to mimic other people, which entertains his classmates. Most reject him, but the sprightly Annie becomes his best school friend along with a boy named Lew. The reader expects Raj to be the center of attention in this novel, but about here he drops off the page for a considerable time, never to regain a prominent position. Instead, we focus on a huge cast of local adult characters—eccentrics, biased idiots, lost and apathetic souls, etc. We also focus on the kids, who for the most part come off a bit better. So, it becomes a coming-of-age story for the kids in Raj’s age group; while showcasing the sorry lot of adults.
The suspense arises thus: two years before Raj’s arrival in 1954, the young Lew witnessed his little (supposedly autistic) brother being thrown over a cliff into the river. He tries to kill the man who did it—Annie’s father, Sal—but only manages to shoot up his store. Lew is then sent to a mental institution where an overzealous Freudian shrink brainwashes him, leaving Lew to think that HE killed his brother. When he emerges from the cuckoo's nest, he is never again quite right in the head though Annie continues to be his best friend and Lew also takes Raj as a friend when not many other people have the time of day for him. Later, another little girl, Nora, joins the group along with the oddball voyeuristic Alvin who goes on to cause all hell and then some.
We never doubt that Lew witnessed Annie’s father throw his little brother over the cliff to his death. But why? Well, that little mystery disappears until the end of the novel, so it is not like the novel builds to this point necessarily. Instead, we get all involved with the local characters who really form center stage: Otto, whose daughter Shannon has been raped (by, Otto claims, a black man with a white dog); Sheriff Siggy, who doesn’t seem too concerned with the law; Clyde Tivot, Lew’s widowed father, who is cowardly and ineffectual; the minister Mr. Hewitt, who delivers terribly boring sermons, which he practices over and over, and who is obsessed with his looks; the minister’s wife, Judy, who is trapped in an unfulfilled marriage; Annie’s dad Sal, who is passive to the point of pathetic, and her older teen brother Frank, who drinks too much; Finn, the local Irishman, who fought in the war; young Nora’s daddy, who takes an uncommon interest in his daughter when she begins to develop big breasts; two crazy older Russian ladies, who take all they can get from anybody; and so on and so on, all bullied over by loud-mouthed Bennett. They’re all small-minded and full of prejudices; even Ruth has a weird side—secretly writing horrible things about the townspeople, which she claims she is writing in the voice of her (mean) mother. Ruth, however, is the only person who evolves in any way: going from being an embittered soul into a woman who truly loves and cares for Raj.
As they hit about 15, Annie realizes she loves Lew, as she always has, despite his mental illness, but she also loves Raj. And the big-breasted Nora loves Raj, too, though her father “would kill her — or kill him” if he knew. And so we follow the kids into their teens and on into the future.
Near the end of the novel we flash back to day of Lew’s little brother’s death, as we know will come, but by this time quite honestly one has almost forgotten the whole business, so it is not the kind of novel that continually builds on the suspense of what happened and who-done-it because we’ve been so long tied up with the kids and small-town goings-on.
Besides the coming-of-age aspect—with an Indian boy thrown in the mix—we have a novel about the ignorant, and sometimes violent, men of the town, trapped in their own prejudices. The author portrays the characters well, but what is this novel actually about? I don’t want or need to pigeonhole a novel, to force it into fitting any one genre, but I never got a good grip. I read where the author has been compared to Faulkner, but that is far from the case. Faulkner was a master of this kind of backwater ignorance—and no one would ever accuse Faulkner of melodrama, which is contained in part in this narrative. Faulkner also knew how to work the violence of his plots. Somewhat bizarrely, The Perfect Man all points to the end and the fact we have one “perfect man,” who not surprisingly is Raj. Ruth had always said there was no such thing as a perfect man, but Raj proves her wrong. The real clincher, though, the thing that makes him perfect, rests on such a prudish moral issue that frankly I was put off. You’d never find that in Faulkner either.
But for all my griping, I have to say the author has a gift for straightforward, fresh prose, and the dialogue is pitch perfect and worth the read alone. It kept me engaged to the end even though I never quite found my footing. I look forward to reading more from this author for he’s a natural, for sure, and I predict good things to come. JA
© TBR 2008
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