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issue 25: July - August 2001

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Note: TBR encourages readers to buy books at their local independent booksellers, but not all UK books are available in the US and vice versa. For on-line book ordering of UK books Amazon UK  carries all titles reviewed in TBR; all US releases carried by unless otherwise noted.
Middle Age: A Romance by Joyce Carol Oates: Harper Collins, U.S., Aug. 2001

Joyce Carol Oates’ prodigious output never ceases to amaze. Nor does her talent for creating characters who draw us into their lives, and for offering insight into all strata of human behavior and motivation - from that of girl gangs to the likes of Jeffrey Dahlmer and Mary Jo Kopechne to Marilyn Monroe to the plainly dressed housewife next door. This latest novel is no exception. Here Oates takes an overview of the upstanding and highly affluent community of Salthill-on-Hudson, a small "village-dwelling" community (as the residents prefer to "suburb") thirty minutes from New York City where the average Salthill male (lawyer, CEO, senior VP of a family business, etc.) has an office and possibly a Manhattan apartment. Here in Salthill the residents who appeared "young" were in fact middle-aged, well into their forties, fifties, sometimes sixties; and those who appeared "middle-aged" were elderly. As one observer notes of the Salthill wives: "There was an uncanny innocence and simplicity to their beauty, as if it had never been tested; as if none of these women had ever screamed in the agony of childbirth, writhed and groaned in orgasm, sweated, defecated. As if beneath their expensive clothes their bodies were sleek in perfection as expensive dolls."

Such are the generalizations - and not unfounded - but Oates homes in on several of its inhabitants, giving each a distinct identity that becomes all the more defined when a certain catalyst strikes the community. That "catalyst" is the death of one Adam Berendt, a respected but atypical Salthill man, given to asking Socratic questions. Adam is a mystery: no one knows much about his background, whether he’s been married, had children, where he’s from, how old he is. He has lived, a single man, in the village of Salthill for several years. He is a sculptor, but not well known and has no ambition to make a name for himself. He owns a respectable "historic" home, but it’s in need of upkeep, so it is suspected he is not wealthy. He is not a handsome man (fifty-something, stocky, blind in one eye, wiry gray hair), but the women all seem to have fallen in love with him and the men take to him as well. Every town needs its "local characters" after all, and Adam had been "an old battered rogue elephant living at the edge of the clearing." At his death (brought about by a boating accident) the women of Salthill nearly fall to pieces. The youngest of these women, 38-year-old Marina Troy (bookstore owner, single), was one of his closest friends. And then there’s Camille Hoffmann, wife of Lionel, a sensitive and delicate soul who epitomizes the ideal Salthill wife, with her two grown children, loving husband, exquisite home. And Abigail Des Pres, the attractive and flirtatious 42-year-old divorcée of the circle, whose teenage son Jared refuses to speak to her. And the voluptuous Augusta Cutler (wife of Owen), a full-figured beauty in her late forties who still turns heads. Were they all or none of them lovers? None, we learn soon enough, but not for lack of trying. Adam was, rather, their confidante, their adult-school art teacher, their personal liberator from the spiritually dry and arid Salthill.

At Adam’s death, each woman must come to terms with the emptiness in her life. Thus begin the personal odysseys of the four women, which we follow over the course of the next year. Marina leaves Salthill for a forty-acre hideaway in the Poconos (left to her by Adam) to pursue her forgotten dream of art; Camille, who will soon lose her loving husband to a younger woman, throws herself into volunteer work at the local animal shelter (one of Adam’s charity causes) and adopts seven dogs; Abigail, in a misguided search for worth and meaning - "perspective," as she calls it - becomes fixated on helping a withdrawn, 10-year-old, adopted Chinese girl, and ends up marrying the girl’s widowed father; and Augusta picks up and leaves her husband in a quest to uncover Adam’s past and find her own identity.

The men, too, are effected by Adam’s death and set out on their own journeys. Camille’s husband Lionel mistakenly interprets something Adam once said to him in a dream as a sign to pursue a lovely young East Indian physical therapist. Adam’s lawyer, Roger, becomes involved in another of Adam’s causes: the National Project to Free the Innocent - a volunteer job that will lead him to the defense of an innocent, black, death-row inmate and open his eyes to the imbalances of the judicial system (which he seems in peculiar ignorance of) as well as throwing him into contact with a feisty young girl who will put him through the wringer.

One year later and we have a town transformed - its leading inhabitants, anyway. In the process we also learn something of Adam’s rough and rocky past, although he will always remain somewhat of a mystery: namely, why on earth did he choose to live in the stuffy, country-club-set village of Salthill and leave his money (which he had surprisingly much of) to the kind of charities that the upper-classes so favor, such as the local historical preservation society? When Augusta returns to Salthill: "[She] kept glancing skyward, confused by so many trees, dense foliage. No horizon! It was a curious, stunted way to live . . . you almost expected inhabitants of this region to be short, anemic, blind-blinking like moles." As for Marina, on her return she ponders: "Why do affluence, beauty, 'order' seem to us more superficial than poverty, ugliness, disorder; why does the human spirit seem dulled by the one, and enhanced by the other? Surely this is illogical? A delusion?" She questions her desire to live in such a community but concludes that it must be all right since Adam had chosen to live there . . . yet "Maybe he’d been her supreme delusion."

Oates’ power of observation is as sharp as ever: Of a typical Salthill couple: "Their children grown and gone. Their marriage persisted like a brave boat caught in an eddy. It was a classic vehicle so pridefully crafted and maintained, it would never break into pieces." Of a Salthill man’s view of immortality: "He’d been baptized in the Episcopal church and he believed in the immortality of the soul, to a degree. Not all souls, not mass-souls, the teeming populations of the under-earth, but the souls of civilized Western populations."

The ironically titled "Middle Age: A Romance" signifies the subtle strain of irony throughout. For some there has been real growth and for others the changes are somewhat daft and superficial as had been their "romance" (delusion) with Adam. We may laugh at some of the characters in their misguided search for love and self-knowledge - and laugh we do - but Oates makes us care about them, too. The novel succeeds in giving us a memorable cast of "youthful" middle-aged characters from upper-class suburbia doing the best they can. It also urges us to ask, rather like Marina, if that is good enough. J.A.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel: Alfred A. Knopf, Canada, 2001

The cover blurb tells us that this is a story about a young Indian boy who finds himself on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific with four other survivors from a shipwreck: a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger. All very nice, I thought, but not exactly my kind of thing - a high seas "tiger-taming" adventure "that will make you believe in God," as declares the man who reportedly told the story to the author while he was in India, and then encourages him to look up the still living, now adult subject of the story who currently resides in the author’s native Canada. No, I wasn’t keen on beginning this book, but I was in for a big surprise: it turned out to be one of the most delightful and enchanting novels I’ve read in a long time.

Piscine Molitor Patel, known as Pi, is an Indian boy whose parents own a zoo in Pondicherry. He grows up loving animals and knows a great deal about them too. He also has a very spiritual nature - perplexing to his modern-day, secular parents - and reads books on Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. When the family decides to immigrate to Canada, they board a Japanese cargo ship which is to transport them and their animals. A mishap on the high seas causes the ship to sink and young Pi finds himself in a lifeboat with the four animals, including a 450-pound Bengal tiger known as Jack Roberts. For seven months he will remain afloat in the lifeboat.

At first the young Pi is in shock, but he slowly begins to deal with the situation. His biggest fear, of course, is the tiger, who stays most of the time under a tarpaulin on the lower level. Pi knows about lion tamers and how it is important to establish territory. He respects the tiger’s territory, and with the help of a whistle he begins to establish his own area, which includes a small raft he has built which he ties to the boat. Thus begins the bizarre journey. The other animals are soon killed off, leaving the boy and the tiger to go it alone. Eventually the two develop a tenuous truce, but it isn't easy:  not only does young Pi have to keep the tiger fed, but he must deal with such problems as the tiger’s constipation.

Various adventures ensue - including a stop at a fantastical, floating island full of meerkats - before the duo finally reaches safe and solid shore. The nearly dead Pi is rescued and put up at the local hospital. Some time later, two Japanese men come to the hospital to question him about how the Japanese cargo ship sank. At this point we are given the transcript of their conversation. This brief exchange presents an amazing and unforgettable conclusion to the novel.

Our narrator throughout is the adult Pi, now living with his family in Canada, whom the author did indeed look up (so goes the fanciful set-up, anyway), and so we are given his reflections on past events in Part One, beginning with his new life in Toronto after the "suffering." Pi tells us he was taken in by a foster mother and later attended the University of Toronto where he took a double major in religious studies and zoology. He speaks of his childhood - growing up around the zoo in Pondicherry; being precocious and attracted to all religions - and woven into the story of this part of his life he offers meditations on both religion and animals, beginning with the three-toed sloth which reminds him of God. We understand that by the time of the shipwreck (Part Two) he was as prepared as any young boy could be for what was to follow.

As outlandish as it is, the author manages to convince us of its veracity every step of the way - rather like Robinson Crusoe. The stand-off between the boy and the tiger makes for some riveting reading. We know, of course, that he survives, but how he manages to survive - and keep the tiger alive - is what keeps us reading. It is good, old-fashioned storytelling that sweeps us along, relaying the practical details of survival on the lifeboat and the thoughts  that go running through young Pi’s head. It can be funny too: In one part Pi lists ways in which one can tame a tiger on board a lifeboat "if one should ever find himself in this position."

A pure treasure of a story, told with wit, intelligence, cunning imagination and humor (it has everything except sex), the kind of book you want to urge your friends to read - even as you’re handing them the latest Irvine Welsh or Rupert Thomson. J.A.

Crooked River Burning by Mark Winegardner: Harcourt, U.S., 2001

A big, sprawling, impressive novel in the style of E.L. Doctorow that tells the story of Cleveland, Ohio, from 1948 to 1968. The loose structural set-up hinges on two protagonists whose lives we follow over the two decades: David Zielinsky, who comes from the working-class side of Cleveland (raised by his aunt and private-investigator uncle, a friend of Eliot Ness; and whose daddy is a shady union rep); and Anne O’Connor, who comes from one of the wealthiest families in Cleveland (her daddy owns Cleveland). Early on they have a brief summer romance that ends abruptly when Anne crashes David’s uncle’s car. David goes on to marry his high-school sweetheart Irene, have three kids and work tirelessly toward pursuing his dream of becoming mayor of Cleveland (as Anne’s father once was). Anne never marries and soon makes a name for herself as a TV reporter. The years go by. Kennedy is shot; Cleveland experiences some of the country’s first and most terrible race riots; and the political tide turns against David. Cleveland, in fact, becomes the first (and the last) major city of a white majority to elect a black mayor, and David supports him all the way. He remains politically active on a lower level and Anne remains in TV, now an anchorwoman on the weekend news as well as being a reporter. (In her early 30s she is forced to undergo plastic surgery to retain her job.) The two are destined to run into each other over the years and even have a brief affair at one point. Later, when David’s marriage is over - and his wife is remarried - the two come together again in a bittersweet and tender reunion.

Not much of a plot, but the two protagonists are memorable and their hopes and aspirations and the directions their lives take say much about an era - and life in general. What fill up the pages, besides their stories, are all sorts of side scenarios: there is much about the unions (remember Jimmy Hoffa?) and baseball (the Cleveland Indians) and football (the Cleveland Browns - remember Jim Brown?) as well as key personalities: Alan Freed, the DJ, whom everyone listened to and who claimed to coin the term "rock n’ roll"; Sam Sheppard, the wealthy doctor who was accused, found guilty, and then acquitted of murdering his wife; Dorothy Fuldheim, supposedly TV’s first anchorwoman, who continued working into her 90s (an unknown figure to me but worth the chapter devoted to her, it would seem); Louie Seltzer, the founder of the Cleveland Press; Carl Stokes, Cleveland’s black mayor: everything of interest that is related to Cleveland. And it is all interesting, although only the most die-hard sports enthusiast will relish all the baseball and football minutiae. In case you might wonder whatever happened to some of these key cultural figures, you can find out here. I don’t recall ever hearing the last word on Sam Sheppard and was surprised to read just how weird his life turned out. Ditto Carl Stokes.

Winegardner’s characterizations - both the fictional protagonists and the real-life personalities - are simply superb: deft, compelling, bursting with life; his story-telling is engaging, the prose sharp, without a single lame or cliched line; and the rich, historical backdrop springs to life and appears anew. Various points of view are utilized, including the unwieldy "you," which works here to great effect, and the occasional authorial intrusion, such as the footnotes, which sometimes clarify but also give the author’s p.o.v. The end result is a refreshing, original and intelligent prose style. Forget the whingeing customer comment at Amazon that says you need to be from Cleveland to enjoy this novel. It’s a bit richer perhaps if you’re familiar with some of the key figures but the fine writing will pull you in on its own - and you’ll learn something of mid-twentieth-century social and cultural history along the way. J.A.

Whiskers On Pine by Larry Hand: Russell Dean and Company, U.S. October 2001

There are certain genres that people persistantly avoid and even though I try to be as open-minded as possible I too have biases. I say this because such   generalizing can lead to our missing little gems. Whiskers On Pine would fall under the coming-of-age tag and has the double whammy of being set in the South during the early 60s. That alone conjures up a predictable story-line and stereotypical characters. I think we all know what I mean: White/black boy/girl grows up on a farm/forced to work on a farm/escapes to a farm/fucked on a farm in heavy/political/drought times of the South (mules/donkeys etc). The 50s and 60s are always cool due to racial integration/KKK/Kennedy, and of being able to say ‘nigger’ loads of times and make the author a champion of whatever. If 40/50/60s, make sure grandma/pa/dad/Aunty Bastard is mentioned eating shoe leather/rats/dirt/roaches during the depression but is now the source of wisdom/stability/tedious stories in the family. Daddy has to be a drunk/lovable drunk/killable alcoholic and Mom is usually, but not always, OK. Elder brother or daddy fucks narrator (either sex or color). Work/life is hot, miserable, tedious, hard, boring (when I were a lad I used to get up before crack of dawn, lick the lake clean with my tongue…etc) but because ‘you’ are growing up ‘you’ have friends and the fun of sexual experimentation/first drink/drugs and the total shock-horror of really meeting someone of a different color for the first time. A close friend/member of family usually dies in the middle of the book. All old white people (except for one plus the narrator) are racist and spit tobacco, and all old black men are a fount of inspiration. All back females are 12 with no panties or 170 and weird with names like Mama Morrison, speak in riddles and mix herbs that heal y’awl ills. Everything gets resolved because wilting-flower-woe-is-me narrator escapes to college/army. Nobody in these novels EVER stays and, strangely, about 95% of narrators have dreams of becoming a writer.

Larry Hand can’t avoid one or two of the pitfalls above, but must be applauded for the way he cleverly stays on the edge of many potential stereotype traps and pushes them into the background. So, narrator Buddy Barns is poor and works his butt off in the hot, hot summer, and his violent, alcoholic dad walked out on mom, etc. But Larry Hand’s take is that Buddy likes the work, enjoys the heat - hell, this is his life; he sees no rosy future - and when dad turns up he’s actually nicer than originally painted. Judging by the author’s long biography at the end one presumes this novel is autobiographical enough to add a certain amount of authenticity and maybe wisdom, but it could also explain why it is better focused than many.

Buddy starts the novel by being a young ‘un having an experience that he later believes is a visitation by a Guardian Angel. Later in his early teens the angel gets rather pushed to the back of his thoughts as Buddy falls in love with braces-wearing Sidney. Their first metallic kiss will haunt Buddy - just the taste of metal brings back memories. But in their late teens beloved Sidney, whom Buddy naïvely thinks he’ll marry someday, goes and gets her cherry popped by Bubba, a brainless meat-mountain. Buddy is left a seething, hormonally-frustrated, ego-dented virgin teenager with revenge on his mind. And it is his mind and Walter Mitty imagination - filled with sick killings of all who live in town, especially the muscle-mountain and Sidney - that loner Buddy has to confront to help him through some potentially dangerous times. Apart from love relationships, Buddy also has the minefield of family, friends, town and workmates to contend with, and he really isn’t up to the task – just where did he put that Guardian Angel now he needs one? And once found, can a Guardian Angel really save him from the emotional fallout over Sidney or protect him from the dangers of a looming war in South-East Asia?

I am glad I confronted my bias as Whiskers On Pine is a surprisingly warm and friendly book with a totally non-predictable and very unconventional feel-good ending. The sentiments here make for a fun, humorous, touching novel that could also make a good coming-of-age teen movie but would require a deft touch sadly lacking in today’s big-bucks, money-is-god Hollywood. MGS

© 2001The Barcelona Review
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tbr 26               September - October  2001


Des Dillon - The Blue Hen
John Aber - City of Sperm
Jim Ruland - Kessler Has No Lucky Pants
Daniel Gascón - The Conference
picks from back issues:
Steve Lattimore - Seperate States
Alden Jones - Shelter


Virginia Woolf Quiz
Answers to last issue's James Baldwin Quiz

-Book Reviews Joyce Carol Oates, Yann Martel, Mark Winegardner, etc
-Regular Features Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives
(authors listed alphabetically)

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