Tag Archives: American fiction

Evening in Paradise by Lucia Berlin: An unexpected treat

Cover imageI owe my short story conversion largely to Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. There’d been others along the way but it was Berlin’s collection that sealed the deal. Given that she died in 2004, I’d assumed that was it and so was delighted when Evening in Paradise turned up. Comprising twenty-two stories, this new collection lacks the more detailed biographical notes included in A Manual for Cleaning Women, perhaps because there’s a memoir due to be published alongside it, but it’s clear that it also draws on her own life and what a rackety life it was: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile.

Opening in segregated Texas in 1943 with the bright childhood memories of ‘The Musical Vanity Boxes’, these are vivid stories which glow with evocative descriptive language, often set against gorgeous backdrops, from the Chilean countryside to the Mexican coastline and the Arizonan desert. Many explore relationships between men and women with a dry wit and sharp insight. Men are artists, musicians and writers who expect their wives to get on with the humdrum details of life such as sorting out the plumbing and bringing up the children, not to mention dealing with the former tenants who never quite move out in ‘The Adobe House with a Tin Roof’. Humour and social observation are hallmarks of Berlin’s style, exemplified in ‘My Life Is an Open Book’ which sees town gossips use the opportunity of a potential tragedy to rifle the home of a single mother in search of her address book, but she can be sombre, too. In ‘Anando’ an apparently sophisticated fourteen-year-old girl is groomed for seduction by her father’s boss almost with her father’s collusion. My two favourites, however, are both darkly comic: in ‘Cherry Blossom Time’ Cassandra, bored with her teeth-grindingly predictable routine, imagines something different with dramatic results while ‘The Wives’ sees two ex-wives compare remarkably similar intimate notes on their rich junkie ex-husband.

Berlin is such an immensely quotable author that it’s hard to know where to start with her writing, or perhaps that should be where to stop, but these are a few of my favourites:

Alma was sweet and beautiful until late in the evening when her eyes and mouth turned into bruises and her voice became a sob, like she just wished you’d hit her and leave. Ruby was close to fifty, lifted and dyed and patched together. (Evening in Paradise)

Downtown the Washington Market is deserted until midnight Sunday when suddenly the fruit and vegetable markets open out onto the streets, wild banners of lemons, plums, tangerines. (A Foggy Day)

The sky was filled with stars and it was as if there were so many that some were just jumping off the edge of it, tumbling and spilling into the night. Dozens, hundreds, millions of shooting stars until finally a wisp of cloud covered them and softly more clouds covered the sky above us. (Sometimes in Summer)

It would have been in poor taste for me to tell the girls at school just how many unbelievably handsome men had been at that funeral. I did anyway. (Dust to Dust)

In the airport women wore fur coats and their dogs wore fur coats. I was terrified by so many dogs. Little dogs with hair dyed peach to match the women’s hair. Painted toenails. Plaid bootees. Rhinestone or maybe diamond collars. The whole airport was yapping. (Itinerary)

I hope that’s whetted your appetite.

Layover by Lisa Zeidner: An episode of madness

Cover imageFirst published in 1999, Lisa Zeidner’s Layover may well be appearing on the big screen starring Penelope Cruz as Claire, its main protagonist, although when that might be seems a little hazy which means we’re spared one of those off-putting film tie-in jackets. It’s been reissued in the UK by the English language imprint of Pushkin Press who seem as keen on seeking out interesting lesser known novels as their translated fiction arm. Zeidner’s fiction explores mental illness and grief through a middle-aged woman who has lost her son and, briefly, her bearings.

Claire is a medical rep, travelling across the States and spending much of her time in hotel rooms. A few years ago she and her husband lost their young son Evan. Both of them has dealt, or failed to deal, with their grief in different ways but Claire is convinced she’s over the worst of it until the discovery of Ken’s affair sends her careening into an episode which sees her scamming hotels, avoiding her work appointments, sleeping with other men and succumbing to an insatiable need for sleep. Her Hitchcockian dreams are filled with images of Cary Grant in a white coat, her husband’s lover harangues her over the phone and her credit card’s been stopped. Claire knows this can’t go on but she’s not quite sure how to stop it.

Given that Zeidner’s novel was published nearly twenty years ago it feels surprisingly fresh. Claire narrates her own story in a sardonic voice which becomes increasingly brittle as her crisis bites. She’s an unreliable narrator who scatters small details of Evan’s death in amongst recollections and reflections about her marriage. She’s donned an armour against her grief, indulging in fantasies to avoid the issue with people she meets but now finds herself revealing the truth, much to their discomfiture. Her tone is sharp and funny, another disguise to cover her grief, but by the end of the novel some kind of acceptance has been reached. Witty and accomplished, Layover is an impressive piece of fiction. Zeidner’s skill at evoking both the claustrophobia of grief and the fences we build around it is admirable. Hard to see how  her novel will translate to screen – so much of it is spent in Claire’s head – but let’s hope it’s in the hands of an indie company rather than at risk from Hollywood blandification.

Blasts from the Past: The Next Step in the Dance by Tim Gautreaux (1998)

Cover imageThis is 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 in as many hands as I could.

The Next Step in the Dance is one of those novels that inexplicably – to me, anyway – went out of print in the UK for some time. I’m pleased to say that it’s been rescued by Fox, Finch and Tepper, a tiny publisher set up by my lovely local indie bookshop, Mr B’s, and has been reissued sporting a rather fetching jacket.

Set in Louisiana, Tim Gautreaux’ debut is a love story, and a very stormy one at that. Paul Thibodeaux loves nothing more than to go dancing on a Saturday night, happy to return to his job as a mechanic on Monday morning. He adores his smart, beautiful wife, Colette, but she wants more than smalltown gossip and a rundown dance hall for entertainment. Frustrated by Paul’s lack of ambition and tendency to stray, Colette takes herself off to California, swiftly followed by a bereft Paul who then follows her back again.

Doesn’t sound much, I know, but what lifts this book far above a run-of-the-mill domestic novel Mr B's Emporiusm of Reading Delights (sign)is Gautreaux’ vibrant descriptions of the Louisiana landscape and culture. He writes with wit, insight and a compassionate, clear-eyed view of human nature. You don’t have to make your way to Mr B’s to buy a copy – it’s available online – but should you be passing I recommend a visit.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Magnetism by Ruth Figgest: Families and how to survive them

Cover imageThere’s a puff from Patrick Gale on the jacket of Ruth Figgest’s debut. It’s not one of those slightly gushy quotes with a few too many superlatives to feel sincere. It simply says ‘Ruth Figgest knows how to make a story’ which at first may seem too far the other way but by the time I finished Magnetism it felt precisely right: this is an expertly spun story about a mother and daughter apparently locked into a dysfunctional relationship which seems to consist of a lifelong argument.

Erica and her mother live many miles apart. When she gets a call from a neighbour telling her that Caroline has died, she drops everything, catching a flight to the home she is used to visiting whenever there’s a crisis or a holiday. Her father died many years ago and her mother had long hoped that Erica would move back to Arizona from Oklahoma. Now fifty-three, divorced, childless and orphaned, Erica is left only with her mother’s despised poodle to care for. Figgest’s novel traces Erica’s story, opening with her first episode of mental illness, aged sixteen, and ending on a note of excited hope.

Such a slight synopsis makes this novel sound a little hackneyed, trite even, but what marks Magnetism out is the skill with which Figgest reels back the years, telling Erica’s story backwards, from the news of her mother’s death to her parents’ wedding when Caroline was pregnant with Erica. It’s a structure that could easily backfire if handled sloppily but Figgest is too deft for that, dropping clues and hints into Erica’s narrative which are neatly clarified later. The relationship between Erica and her mother is acutely observed and painfully dysfunctional: the hypercritical Caroline never misses an opportunity to mention Erica’s weight, smuggling diet books into the hospital after her daughter’s suicide attempt; the pubescent Erica is whisked off to the plastic surgeon for a nose job. Yet they love each other. Erica is a convincing narrator but we know, of course, there’s another side to the story, left for the reader to infer as Caroline’s character is revealed along with the difficulties she’s faced and the secrets she’s kept. All of this is underpinned with a pleasingly black humour. A very clever and satisfying piece of storytelling which ends with the hope of liberation.

The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara: A book to rend your heart

Cover imageSet 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.

Sisters by Lily Tuck: A tale of obsession

It took me a mere ninety minutes to read Lily Tuck’s Sisters which might lead you to think it’s a slight, inconsequential piece of fiction but that’s far from the case. A sharp psychological study of obsession with a neat sting in its tail, it’s completely riveting.

Our unnamed narrator is married to a man with whom she started an affair after meeting him at a dinner party his first wife chose not to attend. They’ve been married for some time, long enough for her to have seen her stepson from early teenage years through to graduation and help her stepdaughter choose her wedding dress. She’s obsessed with his first wife: taking her stepson’s text book across town to get a glimpse of her apartment; calling her on the phone, then hanging up; researching her old piano teacher. How happy was this woman whose photograph she sees every day? What is her life-like now? How did she feel about burying her musical talent in housewifery? Was she better in bed? A litany of speculation preoccupies our narrator about her predecessor, so different from herself.

Tuck’s novella is made up of a series of short fragments, often just a few lines occupying the entire page.  A great deal is left unsaid and yet a picture emerges of a woman caught up in an obsession, at once unsettling and understandable. The writing is pinpoint sharp, the depth of obsession beautifully conveyed:

In the photo of her pushing the baby carriage down Avenue Foch in Paris, it was hard to tell – even with a magnifying glass – whether she looked happy.

Tuck’s ability to convey characters while saying barely anything about them is remarkable. The two wives emerge as far more interesting than their self-absorbed, insensitive husband. The connection our narrator yearns for with his first wife far deeper than the one she shares with him. This is such an elegant, quietly devastating piece of fiction. Inevitably, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca springs to mind and is given a polite nod by our narrator:

I dreamed – not that I went back to Manderley – that I was in a big city like Calcutta or Bombay in India.

I’ve been left wanting to read as many of Tuck’s novels I can get my hands on.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan: Diving in

Cover imageThere will be lots of fans standing ready for this one, I’m sure. It’s been seven years since the excellent A Visit from the Goon Squad which bagged both the Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle Award. Manhattan Beach is very different, not least because it’s Egan’s first historical novel. Beginning in the Great Depression, it tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, who has learned to fend for herself after the disappearance of her father, and Dexter Styles who may be able to tell her what has happened to him.

Anna adores Eddie who takes his bright young daughter with him to business meetings. The stock market crash has driven him to the fringes of gangsterism, working as a bagman for the childhood friend he saved from drowning. Eddie steers a careful course, wary of risk but needing to support the wife he adores and their severely disabled daughter a little younger than Anna. One day, Eddie takes Anna to Manhattan Beach where they meet Dexter Styles and his family. This is the beginning of a business relationship which will last until Eddie disappears, having made sure his family are looked after. Years later, Anna is working in the Naval Yard checking parts for warships. Summoning all her grit and determination she finds her way onto the diving programme essential to ship maintenance, defeating its leader’s sneering prejudice. When she spots Styles at one of his nightclubs, she becomes determined to find out what happened to Eddie but finds herself embroiled in more than she bargained for.

Egan’s novel explores the history of mid-twentieth century America through the lens of Anna’s experience. She’s a smart, strong character, taught to interpret the world by her father and wary of what she might give away. She’s different from the women around her: Nell makes her way through sex and what it buys her; Rose is bringing up a child, working while her husband is at war but Anna uses her intelligence and determination to break into a staunchly masculine sphere, earning respect but not without a fight. Styles’ world contrasts with the hard graft of the shipyards, moneyed and comfortable but hanging by a thread of influence. Egan has clearly done a great deal of research for this novel, all framed within an engrossing story replete with some very smart writing: ‘the man raised in him a welt of provocation whose itch he could barely withstand’; ‘No one talked more than men on ships, but the point of the stories they told was to hide the ones they could never divulge to anyone’. It’s an accomplished, enjoyable piece of fiction but all stitched in a little too neatly for me – to say more on that would be to give too much away. I’ll be interested to see what other Egan fans make of it.

Blasts from the Past: Plainsong by Kent Haruf (1999)

Cover image Back from sunny Split – more of which later in the week – 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 in as many hands as I could.

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog you’re probably aware that I have a weakness for stripped down prose – each word carefully chosen, not one wasted. Kent Haruf’s novels are such shining examples of this style that his name appears on my About page for those who might be wondering whether the blog is worth their time. I’ve been delighted to introduce several readers to his work over the years and I hope that this post might tempt a few more. As with all his novels, Plainsong is set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. It’s not the first in the Holt series – there’s no need to read them in order – but I’ve chosen it because it’s first Haruf novel I read.

The aptly named Plainsong is about a mere handful of characters: Tom Guthrie bringing up his two young sons alone; Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant teenager kicked out by her mother and taken in by the elderly Macpheron twins, and Maggie Jones who introduces the twins to Victoria. These are ordinary people living in a small American town coping with whatever life lobs at them but Haruf’s writing is so quietly compassionate, his characters so simply yet sharply drawn that Holt comes vividly to life, entirely convincing in its prosaic sometimes heroic daily life.

Haruf wrote only a handful of novels – his first, The Tie That Binds, was published in 1984 and his sixth, Our Souls at Night, came out in 2015, the year after he died. All of them exemplify a humanity and empathy that few writers attain; all of them are expressed in elegant, beautifully  pared-back prose. I’ve yet to meet a reader who’s visited Holt and not fallen in love with it. If you haven’t read him yet, please do.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

The Evening Road by Laird Hunt: A long dark night

Cover imageI’m not sure how I’ve managed to miss Laird Hunt’s fiction before now – he’s written six novels besides The Evening Road. I remember Neverhome being published but somehow failed to get around to reading it, something I’ll be putting right very shortly. Set in 1920s Indiana, Hunt’s odyssey follows two women through a searing summer’s night on which a lynching is to take place: one white, making her way to what she sees as a show; one black, travelling in the opposite direction.

Ottie Lee Henshaw is saddled with a lecherous boss and an increasingly withdrawn husband with whom she refuses to have a child. When Bud gets wind of a lynching in Marvel, he offers Ottie a lift, picking up her husband Dale on the way. Bud drops in at a church fish supper to pass the word around, knowing he’ll pick up a few life assurance sales once death has been stared in the face. They visit a Quaker prayer vigil, pick up another passenger, suffer a catastrophic blowout while avoiding two bloodhounds wearing neckties then commandeer a mule wagon. This somewhat quarrelsome party trundles along, swigging whiskey, telling stories and shooting the breeze until both Ottie and Dale fall out of the wagon. Then Ottie hears a shot and sees Calla Destry with a gun. Calla has been travelling away from Marvel, having stolen her adoptive parents’ automobile, too grand for a black family to be seen driving in the daytime without arousing suspicions. She’s been to see the site of the lynching, hoping to help the boys escape then deliberately provoked the crowd’s anger before fleeing. She’s eaten her first orange, thought about her lover who’d failed to join her at their picnic then stolen a wagon from his mother after seeing him speechifying at a prayer meeting. Both these women travel a short distance down a very long road, their paths crossing back and forth

Hunt narrates his characters’ stories through their own voices – first Ottie, then Calla – weaving them together neatly through the episodes and incidents in which each of them unwittingly plays a part in the other’s fate. Ottie’s voice is sassily sardonic, a mask for her secret loss and fears. Calla’s is angry, her narrative darker. Smart and curious, she’s incandescent at the way black people are mistreated by whites. The writing is striking, both in its chillingly dark comedy and its vibrant descriptions. ‘The man was so filthy he looked like he’d rolled around in bacon grease then taken a long nap under the tail of a sick cow’ observes Ottie; ‘Nobody out but old Turner Jenkins trickling false hope onto his doomed geraniums with a beat-up watering can’ thinks Calla. The two women’s paths crisscross until they are brought face-to-face, each incident mirrored and illuminated by the other’s narrative. Throughout it all is the prospect of the lynching: a festive event in prospect for Ottie; a source of fury and fear for Calla. We never get to Marvel, nor should we. Hunt has very effectively shown us both sides of this sorry story, each told by women who have more in common than they might imagine. It’s quite riveting, shocking at times, very funny at others, and vividly memorable.

Reading Hunt’s novel prompted me to check the date of the last lynching in the US: shockingly, it’s 1981. In Mobile, Alabama, Michael Donald was first beaten then killed by several Ku Klux Klan members who hung his body from a tree. I’ll leave you with that.

The World Made Straight by Ron Rash: A land steeped in blood

Cover imageRegular readers may remember that I’m a keen Ron Rash fan. His pared to the bone writing laced with lyrical descriptions of the Appalachians is right up my alley. I’m not sure the beautifully jacketed The World Made Straight, originally published in 2006, has made an appearance here in the UK before now or if it has, how I managed to miss it. It’s set in the 1970s but the Civil War, fought over a century before, throws a long shadow for some living near Shelton Laurel, the site of an appalling atrocity.

Trying to find a way to make money after losing his job at the local supermarket, seventeen-year-old Travis Shelton is fishing when he stumbles on a field of marijuana plants. He knows they belong to the Toomeys who are not to be tangled with but he steals some anyway and heads off to see Leonard, the local dealer. On his third visit, Travis walks into a bear trap, landing himself in hospital. When his father all but chucks him out he turns up at Leonard’s door and is reluctantly taken in. Leonard has his own demons to fight. Dismissed when a pupil framed him for possession, furious at being found cheating, he’s a teacher whose ex-wife and young daughter are living in Australia. A relationship grows between these two: Travis is a smart kid, curious about the world; Leonard can’t resist feeding that curiosity, finding Travis books to read and encouraging him to go to college. Running through the novel is the memory of the Civil War and the massacre at Shelton Laurel. The ancestors of both Travis and Leonard played a part in that bloody conflict, along with those of the Toomeys. As the novel edges towards its tense conclusion it’s clear that the sides taken have not been forgotten.

The most striking aspect of Rash’s fiction for me is his use of language. His writing is spare –  ‘he rubbed a pot leaf between his finger and thumb, and it felt like money’ – yet his descriptions of the natural world are often quite lyrical – ‘the leaves of the trees thinned out enough that the sun laid a scattered brightness on the water’. He’s clearly a fisherman: gorgeously vivid descriptions of the river run throughout this novel, always with an eye to fishing opportunities. The novel’s characters are astutely observed and convincing – both Travis and Leonard are flawed yet redeemable. Rash weaves the Civil War deftly through his story, prefacing each chapter with an entry from the local doctor’s ledger in the years leading up to and during the conflict whose implications become clear as Travis immerses himself in the region’s history. It’s an engrossing read with a gripping climax which ends in a brutal redemption. What a treat to be presented with an unread Rash novel so soon after last year’s Above the Waterfall.  Wikipedia tells me that there are two novels preceding this one. I hope Canongate are on the case.