Books March 2003

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The Master Butchers Singing Club
by Louise Erdrich
HarperCollins

Fidelis Waldvogel, a crack German sniper, returns from the trenches of World War I, marries a fallen comrade's pregnant fiancée, and then sets out for America, with a suitcase full of smoked sausages and carving knives, to begin life as a new and different kind of butcher. Any novel featuring a sniper turned butcher is bound to contain the occasional outrage, but not even Fidelis, proficient as he is, can run up a body count—or make such strangely tidy work of it—as Erdrich herself does in this, her latest dispatch from the fictional Argus, North Dakota.

"Tidy" because the seemingly complex gears that drive the novel's interlocking story lines are primarily just variations on that simplest of dramatic devices, death. From the very start almost every plot shift, major or minor, is occasioned by someone's or something's being struck down—on the battlefield or by cancer, on purpose or by accident, in the prime of life or in good time. And yet with each such occurrence Erdrich ever more determinedly affirms life, what she calls "a precious feat of daring." In compactly graceful prose she uses death to reveal the unexpected and quite often wonderful legacies of each life, any life, no matter how insignificant, accidental, or misspent that life may have appeared. (In a synthesis of themes, the story culminates in a near death that is at once the book's most gruesome scene and its most triumphant revelation.) But need so many die that Erdrich's laudable sentiment might live? After a time the novel slips toward melodrama, and the reader, among others, suffers a certain attrition.

Early on, in a typically felicitous passage, we're told of Fidelis's father's butchering skills: "His father, having practiced all his life, hardly seemed to move his hands as the animal fell into increasingly civilized circles and predictable shapes. On a block set before him, its creatureliness disappeared and it entered, as Fidelis saw it, a higher and more satisfactory form of being." Something similar might be said of Erdrich's characters, whom she too readily marches into the killing chute in order to serve up choice cuts of human spirit. The results, though civilized, satisfying, and life-affirming, make for a less than lifelike tale. —Jon Zobenica

Return of the Native

Almost There: The Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman
by Nuala O'Faolain
Riverhead Books

The Irish journalist Nuala O'Faolain's 1996 memoir, Are You Somebody?, became a best seller in America and a sensation in Ireland. Like Angela's Ashes, it was published during a momentous period in that country, when countless Irish people were uniting in outraged opposition to some of Ireland's most entrenched and brutalizing forces, including the Catholic Church, alcoholism, child neglect, and an oppressive patriarchy. O'Faolain's life was profoundly shaped by all these forces, and so many readers found a version of their own experience in her story that the book became politically important. "Ireland changed," O'Faolain notes simply and accurately in the preface to the paperback edition, "and I was to be both an agent of change and a beneficiary of it."

If O'Faolain's new memoir, Almost There, is far less powerful, that is only because her subject is minor: the book chronicles her experiences since the publication of Are You Somebody? "The story is a parable," she tells us, "about miracles that might happen to anyone in middle age." And indeed, much of the book is rosy. O'Faolain reports that she has surfaced from a deep depression in these past few years. By adopting some much-loved animals and then by reaching out to new friends and to her siblings, she has conquered the loneliness that marked so much of her life. Many of these anecdotes, particularly those about her siblings, who shared her desperately unhappy childhood, are affecting. O'Faolain writes so well and is in possession of such a keen intellect—not to mention that greatest of Irish traits, wit—that her remarks on a variety of subjects, from the indignities of middle age to the complexities of Irish America, are always engaging, even if they lack some unifying principle to give them a greater, combined effect.

However, although I admire O'Faolain's literary achievements, I find much of her behavior, as recounted in Almost There, questionable. For someone to identify herself as a feminist—as she passionately does—yet to have affairs with married men is, at best, hypocritical. Granted, she possesses more than the usual amount of self-knowledge about this contradiction: "It is an evidently wrong thing to do—for one woman to use her freedoms to secretly steal from a woman who is less free," she correctly notes. Still, her last affair ended not because she acted on this noble insight but because she got dumped.

Consider, too, one of the "miracles" she describes in the book's first chapter: she is at long last helping to raise a child. Whether that child—the daughter of the man who is the current object of O'Faolain's fickle sexual and romantic attraction—will come to regard her exposure to O'Faolain as equally miraculous remains to be seen. O'Faolain is intensely jealous of her lover's attentions, and she rails against the child's share of them: "I have no interest whatsoever in eight-year-old girls," she tells him at the beginning of one sickening harangue, and "We have to have Christmas the way she always had it or she'll be upset? Tell me you're kidding!" O'Faolain reproduces six of these ugly rants, apparently as a kind of public confession. But what about their effect on the poor girl who will surely read them one day, or on the girl's mother, who is helpless to protect her child from someone whose interests clearly run counter to the girl's? I must ask of O'Faolain and her kind: Why bother to cripple the patriarchy when women themselves are so eager to do the old, dirty work of humiliating wives and hurting children? —Caitlin Flanagan

Not Exactly Everyman

Any Human Heart
by William Boyd
Knopf

Like Boyd's The New Confessions (1988), a fictional autobiography, his new novel takes one man on a voyage through the twentieth century. In this case the voyager is an Englishman named Logan Mountstuart (b. 1906, Uruguay; d. 1991, France), who tells the story of his peripatetic, eventful, and not always dignified life through a series of journal entries. Mountstuart tends to be where the action is, sometimes unwillingly. He is a schoolboy in England during World War I and a student at Oxford during the postwar period. He is a hot young novelist in Paris during the glory years of the 1920s. He covers the Spanish Civil War as a journalist, is involved in naval intelligence in World War II, becomes an art dealer in booming New York during the 1950s, witnesses the war in Biafra, and, as a well-meaning valetudinarian, gets himself into a ludicrous pickle with the Baader-Meinhof gang. He marries three times, once happily. On his erratic way he runs into a motley group of celebrities that includes Picasso, Ian Fleming, Ernest Hemingway, Larry Rivers, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who play a sinister role in Mountstuart's life.

But the novel is very much more than a travelogue through the past century. It is a reflection on the shape of individual lives: the themes, the repetitions, the true and false friendships; the way we are inevitably diverted from the straight courses we wish to pursue; the near impossibility of imposing meaning onto our experiences. Boyd has named his book Any Human Heart, but Mountstuart is not exactly Everyman: he is far more generous, forgiving, and free than most of us. He is also more amusing, and more amused by life; he makes an extremely attractive central character. Boyd is one of the most skillful and appealing writers at work today, endowed with both a great natural vitality and an increasingly sophisticated humanism. —Brooke Allen

From Ingénu to Omnivore

Dorian: An Imitation
by Will Self
Grove Press

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