Tag Archives: American fiction

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Ottie Lee Henshaw is saddled with a lecherous boss and an increasingly withdrawn husband with whom she refuses to have a child.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.

Wait for Me, Jack by Addison Jones: Marriage and how to survive it

Cover imageRegular readers of this blog will know that I have a thing about books and their jackets. Without the right jacket, readers can be disappointed – promised something that wasn’t delivered through no fault of the author – and writers can be let down, not reaching as many readers as they should. This particular jacket, I’m pleased to say, fits its book like a glove. Addison Jones’ novel is the story of a marriage contracted in 1952: Jack is about to playfully pull the laughing Milly into what they hope will be the nice warm swimming pool of married life. Sixty years later, things may not look quite so sunny but they’re still together until one of them goes.

Jacko meets Billie when he’s twenty-four and she’s on the cusp of twenty-two. He’s the new copywriter at Perkins Petroleum Products, his eye already on more literary pursuits when he’s not running it over every attractive woman who comes within sight. She’s a typist, thinking about the kind of man she might marry and dismissing the newbie across the desk as too cocky by half. By the end of the Friday on which they meet, these two will have agreed to a drink together almost by chance rather than design. It’s the first step on the road to a long marriage – sometimes happy, often challenging. Jacko will become Jack, too nervous to put his new colleagues right when he finds himself offered a job at a San Francisco publishing house, and Billie will revert to Milly to save her youngest son Willy a life of constant embarrassment. They’ll weather infidelity, separation, the death of a child and the acceptance of a sibling’s children into their family until they reach the sheer hard graft of old age when one of them will be left behind.

Beginning with their first meeting in 1950, contrasted sharply with the day the couple are finally parted in 2014, Jones tells the story of Jack and Milly’s marriage backwards. From snapshots to longer episodes, each chapter reverses time by several years, neatly shifting perspective between husband and wife in an intricate reconstruction of their marriage. The narrative is a little fragmented in the way that memories are but it’s all beautifully done, anchored by recurring motifs: Milly’s grey honeymoon dress, Jack’s musings about his first love. This is no soft focus, romantic view of marriage. In many ways Billie and Jack are an ill-matched couple, neither of them quite what the other expected or thought they were, but they stick it out, always finding some love left no matter how close they are to the bottom of the barrel. Jones’ writing is perceptive and often very witty: ‘It had been such a long, bloody battle’, thinks Jack at the fiftieth anniversary party their children throw for them; he’s ‘a good man, with a bit of mid-life nonsense on his CV’ is Milly’s charitable summing up of Jack’s philandering. They’re a couple very much of their time: he forges ahead into the world, setting up as a successful small publisher funded by her inheritance, while she stays at home to look after the kids, always feeling a bit left behind in the competition that their marriage sometimes becomes. It’s an engrossing, utterly gripping novel, beautifully bookended by the repetition of Jack and Milly’s first meeting. It’s whetted my appetite for something similar set at a later date. Any suggestions?

Miss Jane by Brad Watson: A life apart

Cover imageBrad Watson’s novel comes with the knowledge that it’s based on the life of his great-aunt. The press release uses the word ‘inspired’ – a word which, I’m not entirely sure why, always makes me feel a little uncomfortable but in this case it seems entirely fitting. It’s the story of a woman born in rural Mississippi in 1915 with a birth defect, a genital malformation which closes the conventional path of marriage and children to her.

Unplanned and unwanted, Jane’s birth is an easy one but it’s clear that something is wrong. Jane has been born with a condition about which little can be done in the early twentieth century. Her father blames himself, her mother keeps her distance.  She’s a bright child, curious and closely observant, looked after largely by her surly elder sister Grace who comes to love her, albeit reluctantly. Their most frequent visitor is Doctor Thompson who delivered Jane and who takes a concerned and professional interest in her development, corresponding with his urologist friend about the progress of research which might help her. Jane attends school for a short time, managing her incontinence with a strict dietary regime which eventually affects her health. She takes herself off to dances, a pretty girl attracting attention and falling for a young boy who returns her love but forced to retreat before the prospect of marriage appears on his horizon. She follows Grace, long flown the coop, to the small town not far away where they live and work together, Jane returning home when her father eventually dies. Throughout it all, Doctor Thompson remains a steady presence in her life. In the end Jane knows she will be alone but it’s something she’s been preparing for all of her life, facing it with characteristic dignity.

Watson tells Jane’s story with a quiet empathy: never sentimentalising, always compassionate. Jane is a memorable, vividly drawn character – her curious observation as she tries to make sense of sex as a young girl neatly avoids the prurient and her loneliness is quietly wrenching. Watson writes beautifully about the natural world in which Jane finds many of her questions answered. Rural Mississippi is summoned up in vibrant word pictures: the tomato worm studded with a parasite’s larvae under its skin; the plangent cries of Doctor Thompson’s beloved peacocks running wild in the woods; a chapter opening ‘And then there was the long quiet afternoon of autumn’ precedes a particularly glorious description. Watson underpins his story with a wry humour steering it clear of the maudlin – ‘A busy winter it was here with ague and the results of physical violence bred and borne by folks cooped up a bit too much with their chosen enemies’ writes Thompson to his friend. This is beautifully restrained novel – quietly laying out what it is to be different, to understand that what everyone else takes for granted you will not have – all handled with the grace and dignity that Jane embodies. A lesson for us all.

Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney: Revisiting the Calloways

Cover imageIf you’re a fan of Jay McInerney’s series of novels which began with Brightness Falls way back in 1992, you won’t need to be told who the Calloways are nor will you need to have explained to you why I was thrilled at the prospect of a new one despite my disappointment with The Good Life which picked up Russell and Corrine’s story around the time of 9/11. This one begins in 2006 with an America blissfully unaware of the financial calamity which will be visited upon it and the rest of the world two years later. Russell has found himself a backer and has set up a small independent publishing house while Corrine has turned her back on the corporate world and works for a charity, feeding the city’s poor.

The Calloways are close to twenty-five years into their marriage: still living in the loft that satisfies Russell’s lingering bohemian yearnings but now with eleven-year-old twins conceived as a result of Corrine’s sister’s egg donation. The golden couple of Brightness Falls has endured, buffeted a little by financial constraints, work disappointments and the odd dalliance by Russell not to mention Corrine’s (undisclosed) affair. They move in rarefied circles – gallery openings here, launch parties there, charity benefits more than a weekly event. Corrine would much prefer to curl up with a good book but Russell relishes the social whirl and has developed an almost fetishistic relationship with food, its provenance and quality. Corrine, like so many of her circle has the opposite problem, avoiding anything with a hint of calorific value whenever she can. Summers are taken up with visits to the Hamptons where their annual party is happily anticipated by the rich and famous as well as old college friends. Like many couple in their fifties, things are a little stale but they are still the kind of couple whose split would shock even the most hardened socialite. Over the two years that  the novel covers a bright shooting literary star appears on Russell’s horizon; he falls for the kind of proposal the rest of us would have avoided like the plague; Corrine becomes re-acquainted and re-entangled with Luke, her fellow soup kitchen volunteer from The Good Life; parties are attended; revelations are made and rows are had. Meanwhile, America’s first African-American president campaigns for election and the world’s worst economic crisis since the Depression brews.

For me, Bright, Precious Days – although far from being without fault – is a much better book than The Good Life which felt like something of an obligatory response to 9/11. McInerney brings us up to date with the Calloways, reminding those of us who need reminding of their and their friends’ history and sketching in the background for readers new to their lives, all smoothly done. Names are dropped, the rich and famous are pilloried although far too gently for my taste but this is McInerney’s world. Russell and Corrine keep their feet firmly planted in the Art and Love camp, as Russell dubs it, rather than Money and Power with which they lightly rub shoulders. There a nice vein of humour running through the novel: ‘especially unwelcome in this Irish community were the hipsters, scruffy chic invaders from the East Village and Williamsburg attracted by the working-class authenticity their presence was diluting’; ‘Tom had pulled himself up by his grandfather’s suspenders’ offers a sample of the lightly aimed barbs. Not one for readers wanting a glimpse of the gritty, dark underbelly of New York or scathing social satire but certainly engaging and involving enough to suit those wondering how the Calloways are getting along. I’d like to think that there’ll be another instalment but let’s hope it‘s not about Russell and Corrine struggling to cope under President Trump.

Blasts from the Past: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (1985-6)

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.

Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy used to be a handy bellwether for me when talking to bookish acquaintances not yet friends. Enthusiasm might well lead to friendship, blank looks or – worse – annoyance might make me think twice. Of course, this doesn’t always hold true – H can’t stand it and we’re still together. The first thing you should know is that it’s a piece of metafiction and if you’re one of those readers who thinks that kind of thing is too tricksily clever for its own good, best move on.

City of Glass is the first of the three novels. Its protagonist is a crime writer who becomes a private investigator, later driven mad by his inability to solve a crime. Ghosts is about a private eye bored to the point of insanity by his surveillance of his writer subject while The Locked Room, whose title refers to a literary device in early detective fiction, is about a blocked writer who discovers his old friend’s unpublished fiction and not only publishes it but takes his missing friend’s place in his family. Each of the novels is closely interconnected with the others. It’s all about identity, writing and the many-layered nature of reality: Paul Austers abound in the first novel – a particular bugbear of H’s – and the second’s protagonists are all named after colours.

I’ve read all three novels several times over the years but not for a while, it has to be said. Writing about them now, I wonder if I’d feel quite so passionately as I did all those years ago although I still have a very soft spot for metafiction as my reading of Ben Lerner’s 10:04 last year reminded me.

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

The Girls by Emma Cline: Time for girls to become women

Cover imageThe Girls is another one of those novels about which there’s been a good deal of brouhaha – lots of Twitter love and advance anticipation for months – but like The Nest and The Essex Serpent, similarly lauded to the skies, it succeeds in living up to all that hype. I’m going to have to think about putting my sceptical hat into storage if this carries on. As you may already know, Emma Cline’s debut is loosely based on the infamous exploits of the cult which became known as the Manson Family, several of whose members committed the shocking murder of Sharon Tate – eight months pregnant with Roman Polanski’s son – and her friends in 1969.

One day in a Californian park, fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd catches sight of a group of girls flaunting their tatty splendour and laughing in the faces of the staring locals, her attention snagged by the dark-haired one she will later know as Suzanne. Evie’s parents have recently divorced and her unquestioning love for her mother has soured into adolescent scorn. She and her best friend Connie are inseparable but Evie is tired of her prosaic smalltown life. When Evie spots Suzanne, thrown out of the local supermarket, she seizes her chance and finds herself invited to a summer solstice party. Soon she’s is a frequent visitor to the dilapidated ranch where the charismatic Russell holds sway over a collection of runaways, living off the donations of rock star Mitch Lewis and whatever they can filch from the town. When Russell’s ambitions to secure a record deal are thwarted, the mood at the ranch changes. The violence Evie has briefly seen but excused to herself becomes more tangible. Now middle-aged, living on the fringes of other people’s lives, Evie looks back on the events of 1969 as she watches an old friend’s young son and his besotted girlfriend.

The strength of Cline’s novel lies in her portrayal of adolescent girls on the brink of discovering their sexual power, vulnerable and constantly judging themselves and other women by the way they look. Their awkwardness, self-absorption and craving for the slightest sliver of recognition is painfully caught: ‘We were like conspiracy theorists, seeing portent and intention in every detail, wishing desperately that we mattered enough to be the object of planning and speculation. But they were just boys. Silly young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything.’ Lonely and eager, Evie is ripe for Suzanne’s attention – her uncritical adulation tinged with desire all too believable. Cline wisely keeps her as a bit-player at the ranch, engaging our sympathy and making her a credible witness. The murders are foreshadowed with enough suspense to make it gripping but this is a character-driven novel – the killings and their immediate aftermath take up very little of it. It’s both absorbing and thought-provoking, a little overwritten in places for me – a few too many similes – but that’s a small criticism. As Evie looks back on that summer, watching Sasha subsume herself in Julian’s scant regard, hoping for another glimpse of the sassy young woman who emerged briefly in his absence, you long for all young girls to shrug off their girlhood and become women, happy in their own skins, regardless of who looks at them.

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell: A tale of obsession and loneliness

Cover imageGarth Greenwell’s debut is one of those novels about which there was a good deal of brouhaha long before it was published.  As regular readers may have noticed that kind of thing tends to bring out the cynic in me but several of the names praising it to the skies are the kind of people who know what they’re talking about – Edmund White and Claire Messud, for instance. Couched in elegant prose, it’s a story of sexual obsession and loneliness in which a teacher at the American School in Sofia finds himself in thrall to Mitko, the beautiful young man he encounters when cruising for sex.

When our unnamed narrator meets Mitko in the toilets of Bulgaria’s National Palace of Culture he finds himself entranced with Mitko’s casual grace, gripped by a desire he finds impossible to shrug off. It’s the beginning of a relationship which slips and slides between a contract as the narrator terms it and a friendship as Mitko calls it. Unable to resist Mitko, the narrator invites him into his home, watching him as he skypes his other ‘friends’, recognising his veiled requests for money, his calculating manipulations, but powerless to turn him away. In turn, Mitko invites the narrator to his home town, disarmingly proud of its beauty and his standing in it. Mitko begins regularly turning up at the narrator’s apartment, slowly but surely slipping into poverty, homelessness and drunkenness. Sometimes he disappears for months, then two years after what the narrator believes to have been their final meeting he appears again. This will not be the last time our narrator sees Mitko but the spell has been broken. Interwoven into the narrative are memories of the American’s childhood, stories of his father and his sisters which draw the reader into a fuller understanding of his life.

What Belongs to You is a slim novel but it’s intensity is such that it’s best read in short bursts rather than swallowed whole. Greenwell’s prose is suffused with a painful loneliness as our narrator unfolds this discomfiting dissection of tortured desire. The episodes from his childhood serve to accentuate and explain his feelings of exclusion; his attempts to build a life in Bulgaria seem strained, a last ditch attempt at adulthood. Mitko’s character is carefully drawn – Greenwell neatly avoids caricature presenting him as gracious and charming, his obvious yet artless calculation explained by his poverty. The consciously chosen grey understatement of the narrator’s life contrasts starkly with Mitko’s rackety vividness. Greenwell’s writing is often striking: the narrator’s desire runs ’alongside my life like a snapping dog’; a colleague is ‘my friend or almost friend’ conveying the tenuous nature of his life in Bulgaria. It’s a difficult read, bleak at times and often uncomfortable, but all that brouhaha turns out to be justified after all.

Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves: Paying for your crimes

Work Like Any OtherI think I would have done better to have saved Virginia Reeves’ powerful debut for another time. I read it while flu-ridden and alone for a couple of days, unable to get out there and find some company. All of which is by way of saying that this is not the cheeriest of novels. It begins with the foreshadowing of a death and deals with the fallout from that death, the devastation of a marriage and the ruination of a life. Lest I’ve put you off entirely, however, I should mention that there is redemption – hard-won though it is – and the writing makes the painful journey to it more than worthwhile.

There are very few things a boy can do for a living in 1920s Alabama. Coal is king but Roscoe has conceived a passion for electricity and found himself an apprenticeship. He’s entranced by this new form of power, seeing the future writ large in lights, eclipsed only by his love for Marie. By the time her father dies leaving Marie the farm to run, their marriage is already strained, the many children they’d planned reduced to just one son. Roscoe refuses to take up the running of the farm, leaving it to Wilson and his family who worked for Marie’s father for many years. Then Roscoe conceives a plan: he will bring electricity to the farm. All it would take is a little adjustment to plug into the Alabama electrical grid, bringing power to Marie’s land and modernising the failing farm. For two years the farm prospers but then a young man is killed while inspecting Roscoe’s illegal handiwork. Roscoe is sentenced for larceny and manslaughter as is Wilson for his part in helping him. The difference is that Roscoe is white and will serve his time at Kilby jail while Wilson is black, subject to ‘leasing’ by the mining corporation – slavery by any other name. Reeves unfolds her tale through Roscoe over the nine years of his incarceration.

Roscoe spends his time in jail longing for his wife who refuses to answer his letters. He’s a well-behaved prisoner, soon achieving trustee status but wracked with misery at what he’s done, not least to Wilson. He endures brutality and finds ways to make his life a little easier, never giving up hope that Marie will forgive him no matter how forlorn the prospect becomes. Alternating between first and third person narratives Reeves tells Roscoe’s story in language which is immediate and direct. Roscoe’s urge to escape and his constant persuasion of himself against it are powerfully portrayed: ‘I could run right now, take to the cotton like Jennings, crawl my way through its branches until I get to the woods. I do this again and again. I run. I escape. I return to my wife and son’. Prison life is bleak and purposeless: ‘I fear we don’t grow, either, here in these walls. Instead, we go backward.’ It’s all a little relentless, a relief when Roscoe returns home to find it changed yet unchanged, the forgiveness of Wilson and his family – surely the most wronged parties of the whole sorry story – contrasting starkly with Marie’s granite judgement. In the end redemption is won, and very welcome it is too. it’s quite an achievement but perhaps best read when cheerful.

Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser: In the bleak mid-winter…

Cover imageTravis Mulhauser’s novel first caught my eye on Twitter last year thanks to a quote from Ron Rash who seemed to think it well worth a read. Rash belongs to that stripped-down school of writers whose names always snag my attention. Set in blizzard-swept Michigan, Sweetgirl certainly lived up to his ‘gritty, compelling’ billing but what I hadn’t expected was a hefty dollop of black comedy.

Sixteen-year-old Percy’s mother has been missing for nine days. Percy has an idea where she might be, and heads off through the snow in her pick-up for Shelton Potter’s farmhouse where he cooks up methamphetamine for the locals. There she finds Shelton and a woman passed out on the floor, the place stinking and dishevelled. Creeping around the farmhouse looking for Carletta she stumbles upon a baby, her face lightly covered in snow from an open window. Percy instinctively picks her up, calming the child’s distress and taking her off to the only safe place she knows: Portis Dale’s, the closest to a father she’s ever had. When Shelton comes to, the first thing on his mind is to persuade the unconscious Kayla to get rid of his beloved dog’s corpse and clean up the house. Once upstairs he discovers the baby has gone. What to do? Far from the sharpest tool in the box, Shelton flounders about coming up with ever more ludicrous explanations for Jenna’s disappearance before ringing his Uncle Rick’s henchmen and dangling a reward in front of them then setting off to search for her, taking the time to admire himself in his new snowmobile outfit before he does so. What follows is a suitably nail-biting race against time and the long forecast blizzard as Percy and Portis try to get Jenna to the hospital with Shelton and co. on their trail.

I finished off my last review hoping for an Ang Lee adaptation of Thomas Savage’s cinematic The Power of the Dog. Sweetgirl is equally ripe for a screenplay but this time it feels like Shelton and his motley, clownish crew have walked straight out of a Coen brothers’ movie. Shelton could easily have become a caricature, if ridiculous, villain but Mulhauser keeps him human, allowing him a few shreds of decency as he does with Carletta who loves both Percy and her older sister but is rarely sober enough to have been a mother to them. The hilarity of Shelton and his sidekicks with their casual, backfiring violence may be almost slapstick but the novel’s deadly serious theme is clear as Percy tries to save Jenna from the same trap she’s found herself in.  Not quite what I was expecting, then, but well worth reading and the ending’s everything you could hope for.