Books October 2001

New & Noteworthy

A sly and sublime historical novel; disappointing Didion; coming of age in Hollywood
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According to Queeney
by Beryl Bainbridge
Carrol and Graf, 224 pages, $22.00

For a decade now the British writer Beryl Bainbridge has reshaped the historical novel according to a less-is-more agenda. Not for her the lavish spectacle or painstaking sociopolitical overview. Instead she leads her readers, with few guiding lights, toward some tight and often perilous corner of the past—a Crimean War battlefield (Master Georgie), the Titanic on its way down (Every Man for Himself)—as if to see how we'll fare there. Hers is a grisly vision, with death coming for her floundering, blinkered protagonists sooner rather than later. And yet there's something transcendent in the human struggles she depicts, which touch on both the farcical and the sublime.

According to Queeney is about Samuel Johnson in the last two decades of his life, and it shifts the ground from the physical extremes of war and shipwreck to a setting of urban flux and clamor. But the same circumstances obtain: death looms everywhere, and a whole life is to be given meaning—books written, a past revisited, a final romance consummated—before the moment of extinction arrives. The tone, as always with Bainbridge, is complex: a kind of visceral, biting tenderness or wily, anguished admiration, as Johnson and his objet d'amour, Hester Thrale (the latter encumbered with a living husband, a dying mother, and numerous ailing children), fumble toward an understanding of their feelings for and expectations of each other. Snapping those fumblings into focus is Hester's precocious daughter Queeney, whose jealous temper has a simultaneously sharpening and distorting effect on her insights.

The novel's intent is evident in both its title and its structure. Each chapter recounting events from Johnson's life is followed by Queeney's impatient replies, years later, to queries from a would-be chronicler of Johnson's London. And each reply twists or refutes some detail in the passages preceding it. Bainbridge slyly puts readers at the same disadvantage as her characters, who are rarely clued in to the full picture; and this very constriction of viewpoint is what immerses readers so hectically in the lives and era of the novel. The result: Bainbridge never has to tell you where you are, because, by her own oblique and canny means, she has taken you there already.

—Michael Upchurch

Political Fictions
by Joan Didion
Knopf, 352 pages, $25.00

Not long after Joan Didion left southern California for New York, a Los Angeles writer compared her to a cut flower, severed from her roots. At the time, I thought that was just bitterness talking, but now I'm not so sure. In the thirteen years since Didion moved to Manhattan, her work has become flat, almost indifferent, disconnected from the world. The best essays in her collection After Henry (1992) are those dealing with Los Angeles; her novel The Last Thing He Wanted (1996) is as blank and mannered as a polished stone. It's as if Didion on the East Coast has retreated to a strangely insular landscape, devoid of interaction with daily life. Surely that's the case with Political Fictions, her fourth volume of essays, which, even while criticizing the American political process as "perilously remote from the electorate it was meant to represent," never overcomes its own profound disengagement.

There's a certain irony to this, and not just because Didion's remoteness mirrors the process she writes about. After all, Didion's main strength as a writer has always been her aloofness, her ability to stand back and comment on what she sees. In her best work—the essays of Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979), and the full-length nonfiction efforts Salvador (1983) and Miami (1987)—it is tempered by a participatory edge. Here participation tends to go by the wayside, replaced by a fuzzy ruminative quality most notable for its lack of nuance. American politics, Didion declares, is an industry, incestuous and self-involved. The issues that compel us are in no way organic but, rather, manufactured hot buttons, meant to mobilize an increasingly narrow range of swing voters, on whom electoral outcomes rely. Though it's difficult to deny the accuracy of such observations, they're hardly eye-opening in the manner Didion intends. Yet throughout Political Fictions she returns to these commonplaces as if they were revelations by which our understanding of politics might be transformed.

None of that might be so bad were there more reporting in these pages, more perspectives for Didion to navigate. The key failure of Political Fictions, though, is that except for "Insider Baseball" (which already appeared in After Henry) and "Eyes on the Prize," a deftly layered account of the 1992 Democratic Convention, it features virtually no reporting. Instead most of the essays function as extended book reviews, with Didion reacting to her material from the safety of a reader's chair. In "Newt Gingrich, Superstar" she laments the former speaker's influence through the filter of his books as opposed to his programs; in "Clinton Agonistes" she writes not of the journalistic frenzy that accompanied the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal but of how that frenzy was interpreted in, for example, the Columbia Journalism Review. If this were a starting point, a way of mapping out the territory, it could be useful—"History is context," Didion writes in "The West Wing of Oz." But in the end Political Fictions offers not history but historiography, which is a secondhand process at best.

—David L. Ulin

The Devil's Larder
by Jim Crace
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 176 pages, $20.00

Jim Crace is one of the best novelists in Britain; in the United States he is hardly known. His work doesn't clamor for attention, like Martin Amis's and Salman Rushdie's; nor does it draw one in with conventional, reader-friendly narratives, like Pat Barker's and Ian McEwan's. On the contrary, its muted rhythms require a certain engagement from the reader, a willingness to read more slowly, to listen harder. Those who do so will be rewarded with fiction that is thoughtful, harmonic, and original. Crace never squanders a word or an image.

"I count myself to be a traditional, old-fashioned novelist rather than a conventional writer or a new-fangled novelist," Crace has written. "I am more interested in the fate of communities than the catharsis of individuals ... My books are not an exploration of self. They are not autobiographically based. I do not write from experience." Well, yes—up to a point. Individuals, characters, may not be his central interest, but he creates fine ones. And although he is not exactly experimental, it is hard to classify him as traditional: he seems too clearly to be always striving for new forms of evocation and description.

Crace's first book, Continent, a collection of interwoven stories, was published in 1986. Since then he has written, among other fiction, a novel about the onset of the Bronze Age (The Gift of Stones, 1988); one about rural nineteenth-century England (Signals of Distress, 1994); and one about modern metropolitan life (Arcadia, 1992). His 1997 novel Quarantine painted an indelible picture of Jesus' forty days in the desert as imagined by Crace, a self-described "post-Dawkins scientific atheist." His Being Dead (2000), which won the National Book Critics Circle award, was one of the most extraordinary books of recent years, a spare, unsentimental, yet seductive and even spiritual description of the process of death, decomposition, and renewal.

Crace has always shown a keen appreciation for the sensory and the physiological: for him, mind and body are intimately joined. With The Devil's Larder his subject is food and all its social, sensual, aesthetic, and even moral and spiritual implications. The book is not a novel but a succession of sixty-four fictional vignettes, each using food in a central role. He mingles the sensuous and the symbolic with impressive flexibility.

Food as nurture, as a symbol of love, has become a commonplace, but Crace is also aware of its possibilities in achieving revenge, and of eating as an act of aggression. In one particularly sardonic tale a widow whose husband had demanded perfect service at every meal continues to set a place for him after his death, gloating in her current solitude and his deprivation. And in a restaurant somewhere in the Australian or the African bush gastronomic pilgrims, in a grim parody of the restaurant culture of London and New York, dine on soft-bodied spiders, forest roaches, nearly extinct parrots, and a mysterious curry made of something still more sinister and exotic. "The atmosphere is sexual ... We mean, at last, to cross the barriers of taste."

Crace communicates every state from degradation to ecstasy. If The Devil's Larder is inevitably disappointing after Being Dead, which came close to fictional perfection, it is a curious and fresh piece of work on its own rather stylized terms. Will it prove to be, for American readers, Crace's long-overdue breakthrough book, propelling him to the fame he deserves? Doubtful: it's a little too slight and mannered, and, like all of Crace's work, lacks surface razzle-dazzle. For those who don't require such superficial, attention-grabbing style, though, or who can look beyond it, Crace is among the most rewarding authors at work today.

—Brooke Allen

Fire
by Sebastian Junger
W.W. Norton, 256 pages, $23.95

Sebastian Junger was eleven years old when a terrifying experience on a snow-swollen mountain left him feeling as if he'd been "some other place these people don't even know exists." The ordinary world seemed frivolous, oddly unaware, when he made his way back to it. With Fire, the new collection of journalism by the author of The Perfect Storm, Junger proves that he will travel nearly anyplace—to Kosovo and Sierra Leone, to Afghanistan and a dry-lightning fire—to bear witness to life's extremes. Junger is not a moralizing journalist. His stories in Fire, many of which have been previously published, tend to end as they begin—with a discovered detail or an irresistible fact, rather than an epiphany or a petition. The accretion of minutiae is his greatest talent: he lays down the mundane beside the lyrical—patiently, without bravado. Whereas the essays on fire display an obsessive's intensity, and the essays on war and terrorism are engrossing, instructive, and alarming, the essay called "The Whale Hunters" shows Junger at his best. It is an exhilarating piece in every sense—magnificently conceived, lovingly written, perfectly evocative of a place, a time, a passion. A portrait of the world's "last living harpooner," "The Whale Hunters" depicts a gory—even horrific—business with poetically precise prose, as when Junger writes, of the harpooner's whale boat, "The Why Ask ... was built on the beach with the horizon as a level and Ollivierre's memory as a plan."

—Beth Kephart

The Donald Richie Reader
edited by Arturo Silva
Stone Bridge Press, 276 pages, $19.95

Donald Richie, an Ohioan who has spent most of his long life in Tokyo, has written on his adopted country better than anyone else writing in English, while reigning as an international authority on Japanese movies. His eye-opening masterpiece, The Inland Sea, forms the backbone of this subtly organized, ingeniously printed sampling of his writings, fiction and nonfiction, which has been somewhat overcurated by Arturo Silva. Richie first encountered Japan in 1946, as a very young man working in the American Occupation, and he has grown through five decades of change into something of a sage. In his portraits of friends, neighbors, cineastes, and landscapes, his ruminations and reportage on places, events, people, and films, Richie delivers a lively, witty appreciation of the details of Japanese food, body language, personality, sexuality, costume, behavior, houses, cities, villages, and gardens. He never loses track of history or ignores the squalors and indignities of the present, and he celebrates Japan's "genius for the harnessing of change." His vision of Japan is at once beautiful and sinister, ambiguous and vibrant.

—Peter Davison

The Webster Chronicle
by Daniel Akst
BlueHen/Putnam, 311 pages, $24.95

A former newspaper-man, Daniel Akst made expert use of his reportorial and rhetorical skills in his critically successful debut novel, St. Burl's Obituary (1996). That book featured a memorable protagonist, a Falstaffian journalist at odds with both organized crime and his own disorganized appetites. But Akst strikes an even richer seriocomic vein with his new novel's hero (of sorts), Terry Mathers. Editor of the eponymous small-town weekly newspaper The Webster Chronicle, Terry is forty and going nowhere fast: he's a self-confessed "aging, impoverished pothead condemned to chronicle the life of a flyspeck town" somewhere in the Northeast, heading toward divorce, cursed by a chronic stammer, and dwarfed by the celebrity of his father, a populist TV commentator revered as "a sage and national shrine."

Richard Russo has pretty much owned this fictional turf, but Akst works it sturdily, juxtaposing the stages of Terry's ongoing early-midlife crisis with the panic that seizes Webster's citizenry when the aftermath of a fatal automobile accident leads to allegations of sexual abuse at the Alphabet Soup Preschool. A tangle of heated accusations and counteraccusations ensnares nearly two dozen vividly portrayed characters, including the stigmatized (and perhaps martyred) family that owns Alphabet Soup, a heartless district attorney, a reformed-alcoholic clergyman, and several women from a Wiccan coven. Akst gathers their intricate (often very funny) interactions into a potent social melodrama that relaxes its grip on the reader only sporadically, whenever Mathers is permitted overemphatic, guilty second thoughts about the furor he has helped to create.

Nevertheless, The Webster Chronicle moves swiftly and deliberately, powered by crisp, flexible sentences that convey information economically while easily accommodating witty, arresting turns of phrase. (Akst even devises a good fictional Time magazine title, "The Devil and Denial in Webster.") Furthermore, its ironic revelations about the power of mass communication to shape and distort public awareness reflect the instinct for accuracy of a good journalist who may be an even better novelist.

—Bruce Allen

Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble
by Stefan Fatsis
Houghton Mifflin, 382 pages, $25.00

The Scrabble-obsessed, dictionary-memorizing misfits we meet in Word Freak make most teenage Olympic gymnasts look well rounded. A sportswriter for The Wall Street Journal, Stefan Fatsis infiltrates the pro Scrabble circuit and almost doesn't make it back. He starts out like Margaret Mead among the headhunters, observing his subjects, learning their lingo, befriending a few of the more approachable specimens. Before long, though, Fatsis goes native. He's conning lists of all the two- and three-letter words in The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. He's avoiding the Q instead of wishing for it. Some days he could use a bath. But for anybody who has ever heard that uniquely flattering phrase "I don't want to play with you anymore," Fatsis and his word-mad friends may provoke more admiration than unease. Writers make up an especially at-risk population here. What is Scrabble, after all, if not the search for le mot juste made scorable? From the dyspeptic Scrabble champ "G.I. Joel" Sherman (of whom Fatsis writes, gloriously, "Water gives Joel mucus") to Mike Baron (he of the DOES ANAL RETENTIVE HAVE A HYPHEN? T-shirt), these lucky maladepts do get to fool around with words all day.

From the archives:

"Masters of the Tiles" (June 1987)
Even to initiates, Scrabble has yet to yield up all its secrets. By Barry Chamish

As Fatsis readily admits between games at the $15,000 world-championship tournament, though, "the common language here isn't English." In English, definitions matter. In high-stakes Scrabble, learning them actually slows players down, because it cuts into their memorizing time. If the book has a flaw, it's Fatsis's reluctance to ask whether his new friends have distilled Scrabble to its essence or perverted it into an altogether different game. These guys—and they are mostly guys—envision a day when Scrabble will gain a long-coveted parity with chess as an elite intellectual recreation. Meanwhile, we lowly Scrabble duffers would rather daydream about a future in which Vegas finally wakes up and makes room for Scrabble tables, thereby widening the casinos' niche beyond people who think they're lucky to the much larger target market of people who think they're smart. Should that day ever dawn, Stefan Fatsis may have to decide between two career options. Either he can become the in-house Scrabble pro at Circus Circus, or he can free up all the gray matter he now devotes to consonant-free two-letter words and put it to work on something he's already good at: funny, thoughtful, character-rich, unchallengeably winning writing.

—David Kipen

Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail
by Bobbie Ann Mason
Random House, 224 pages, $22.95

Like most other Americans in the 1990s, the characters of Bobbie Ann Mason's first collection of new work in more than a decade have grown richer, more mobile, and more at ease with mass media and technology. Mason has always, to her credit, let her Kentuckians enjoy popular culture with a gentle glee, never eschewing it as too vulgar a basis for meaning. Take a left at the end of this author's via negativa and you may just find a Cracker Barrel restaurant.

From the archives:

Interviews: "Poised for Possibility" (September 19, 2001)
Bobbie Ann Mason, the author of Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail, talks about Springsteen, Joyce, and discovering her own writing voice.

Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail shows Mason's working-class heroes branching out, some leaving their customary nooks close to Appalachia, a few even admitting ingress to that horror of horrors, the middle class. As the title suggests, there are bumps along the way, there is energy, there is exhilarating disorientation. The first three tales—"With Jazz," "Tobrah," and "Tunica"—are the most effective. In them her protagonists' reasoning and mordant humor are familiar, if more self-conscious than in her previous work. In these stories Mason goes on, powerfully, to cut various escape tunnels through the hills of her psychic Appalachia, whether by means of a spiky narcissism (in "Tobrah" a woman adopts a child, partly for emotional comfort) or through sex, a "delicious limbo of temptation, where everything at stake seemed make-believe."

Elsewhere Mason almost zigzags out of her depth. "Proper Gypsies," set in London, paints an invidious tour d'horizon of Britain straight from the Lonely Planet guide. And "Thunder Snow," a sort of Gulf War ecphrasis, is unconvincing and oddly parochial. Nonetheless, Mason's return to short fiction is welcome and interesting; if anything, the missteps suggest only that she should practice the form more regularly.

—Bill Broun

A Way of Life, Like Any Other
by Darcy O'Brien
New York Review Books, 169 pages, $12.95

How is it that this minor comic masterpiece could ever have gone out of print? Darcy O'Brien's 1977 novel (now republished by New York Review Books, to which all praise) takes us into an alien culture, Hollywood in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and evokes that kitschy world with spectacularly deadpan humor. In an imperturbable, almost affectless voice, O'Brien (1939-1998) relates a boy's coming of age, mainly by focusing on his life with his faded-star parents—a washed-up movie cowboy and a tormented, promiscuous lush always searching for "the perfect man."

Tone is all here, and the unnamed first-person narrator's tone may be likened to that of a deeply appalled but resolutely unflappable anthropologist. When the ditzy mother confides to her teenage son that she has difficulty achieving orgasm, he says, with typical understatement, "I had no suggestions to make, but she appreciated my sympathy." A likable John Bircher confides that "a recent failure of the cranberry crop was a communist plot to undermine the integrity of the Thanksgiving dinner." In contrast, the actual dinnertime feeding frenzy at a schlock-movie producer's home resembles "the first meal for the Donner Party after six months of shoe leather and cannibalism." This same producer shares a young mistress with his teenage son; surprisingly, the lively sexpot seems "at peace with herself and displayed a unity of mind and body that would confound philosophers." In such a Photoplay lotus land a hypochondriac businessman will naturally rhapsodize about the countless medicinal virtues of the avocado, and a Russian émigré will create a sculpture of Syrinx performing fellatio on Pan.

As in Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes (that other modern classic of this mixed genre, the fictionalized memoir), the narrator's most complex relationship is with his father, who tries to toughen the boy up with boxing lessons and stretches in the steam room, the latter offering "all the attractions of the rack or the gibbet: shortness of breath and such instruction in the sadness of life's course as the sight of scars, boils, and shriveled parts can provide."

Like so many childhood reminiscences, this one ends with our narrator's liberation, as he goes forth "well-armed" into the world, or at least to Princeton. Darcy O'Brien himself went on to become first a teacher of modern Irish literature and then a true-crime author, best known for Two of a Kind: The Hillside Stranglers (1985). For this new paperback edition of A Way of Life, Like Any Other, O'Brien's old friend the poet Seamus Heaney—who apparently suggested the book's gently ironic title—provides a shrewd and affectionate introduction.

—Michael Dirda
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