A very happy 2019 to you! I’m starting my posting year with the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.
I fell in love with this book to such an extent that I remember sending H off for a walk into the lovely Corsican maquis on his own so that I could finish it. Tom Wolfe’s potboiler The Bonfire of the Vanities is seen as the quintessential yuppie novel but for me Brightness Falls summed up the folly of the ’80s very much better and with a great deal more humanity. It was the first in a trilogy which continued with The Good Life, a grave disappointment after Brightness Falls, and finished with Bright, Precious, Days which fell somewhere in the middle of the two in literary terms. All three follow Corinne and Russell Calloway.
Corrine and Russell are a glittering New York couple, in love with each other and pursuing successful careers in a world where anything seems possible if you are young, bright and fearless. To their friends, they epitomize the perfect marriage but when Russell becomes caught up in an audacious plan to take over the publishing company in which he is the rising editorial star, things begin to fall apart. The adrenaline-fuelled atmosphere of the deal take its toll on both Russell and Corrine, just as the excesses of the ’80s have taken their toll on many others in New York City, from their close friend Jeff, now in detox, to the homeless crack addicts on every street corner. With the knowledge gained from her job as a stockbroker, Corrine begins to realize that the heady days of the rising Dow must surely come to an end. The reckoning finally comes on 19 October 1987 when the bubble bursts with the Wall Street crash.
I reviewed Bright, Precious, Days in the midst of the 2016 election campaign which seems a world away now. McInerney has said that he has no intention of extending his trilogy into a quartet but I can’t help wondering how Corinne and Russell would be faring under the current regime.
What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?
Set in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Joseph Cassara’s debut was inspired by the House of Xtravaganza, celebrated in Paris is Burning, a documentary about Harlem’s drag ball scene. That alone would have piqued my interest but it’s also from Oneworld Publications, one of my favourite publishers. The House of Impossible Beauties focuses on four characters: Angel, Venus, Juanito and Daniel. Angel and Venus are transsexual while Juanito and Daniel are not. All of them are runaways, looking for a home.
Young, sassy and beautiful, Angel inveigles herself into the dressing room of a New York drag scene star where she meets the love of her life. She and Hector dream of setting up their own house but this is 1980: AIDs is cutting a devastating swathe through the gay community and Angel is soon left alone. When she meets Venus they form an alliance which will last years, scraping enough money together turning tricks at the city’s piers to establish Angel’s longed for drag ball establishment. Soon Juanito joins them, a genius with fabric and delighted with the sewing machine Angel buys him. Then Venus spots Daniel, horribly naïve and ripe for exploitation, taking him home with her. Together these four make up the House of Xtravaganza, the first Latino house on the drag ball circuit and a place of sanctuary from a harsh world with Angel at its centre.
The strength of Cassara’s novel lies in his four central characters, each very different from the other but each looking and hoping for love. Angel buries the pain of losing Hector, channelling it into a fierce protectiveness; Venus falls into the trap of thinking she’s found her man only to discover he’s married; the delicately beautiful Juanito whose childhood still haunts him finds love with the adoring Daniel. AIDs is the grim backdrop to this novel, loss and sadness always in the background together with the straight world’s prejudice and ignorance, but there’s a bright thread of humour running through it, lightening its tone. Cassara was born long after the horrors wreaked by AIDs but he writes with empathy and humanity, evoking the pain of it all heartbreakingly well. When I first started this novel, I wondered if it might prove too long but I found myself drawn into its glittering, tragic world and caring deeply about what happened to its characters.
History, family and otherwise, is woven through the fabric of this accomplished first novel which seems appropriate given that Neil Hegarty’s previous books deal with the subject. Set in Derry against the background of the Troubles, Inch Levels is about a young man with only a few weeks to live, wrestling with a dilemma and the tortured family history that has led him to it.
Barely into his thirties, Patrick Jackson has been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. He lies in his hospital bed listening to the ringing of the bell in the nearby school where he taught, trying to stave off his pain with memories. He has much to contemplate, his reverie interrupted by the visitors he doesn’t want to see, the sometimes patronising attentions of the nurses he would rather not have to endure. Each day his mother, Sarah, or his sister, Margaret, come to visit him but it’s only Margaret who’s welcome. Patrick’s reflections are studded with vivid memories – a day with his family at the beach; a march in his hometown of Derry which ended in bloodshed; the loving attentions of Cassie the only person Sarah seemed able to trust – but the memory which haunts him is not his own: the events leading to the death of an eleven-year-old girl one autumn day in 1983. As Patrick’s recollections unfold they reveal a family whose emotions have been smothered: a mother closed off, unable to express affection; a father doing the best he can but unable to compensate and two children, confused and resentful but knowing that each is all the other has.
Hegarty’s writing is often striking, particularly when describing the natural world: ‘the landscape was a palette of greens, changing with height into the deeper green-brown of bracken, purple of heather, hard silver glint of scree-strewn slopes’ vividly summons up an Irish hillside. It’s a novel which shows rather than tells, repaying close attention. Piece by piece Hegarty slowly reveals what has led Sarah into her emotional vacuum and the consequences it has had. Written in the main from Patrick’s point of view, the narrative smoothly shifts from character to character, answering questions but often prompting more. It’s adroitly done: so much is left unsaid in this family haunted by events that only one of them understands. Quietly impressive and wholly engrossing, Inch Levels is a fine debut which gently leads its readers to a resolution entirely in keeping with what’s gone before.