For People Too Hard on Themselves

Less

By Andrew Sean Greer

Andrew Sean Greer’s peripatetic contemplation on love and self-worth is a pleasant and often lyrical experience. The Less of the title is one Arthur Less, the author of several lesser works, and himself a self-deprecating fellow. The novel follows him as he travels the world to lesser award presentations, lecture gigs, and retreats to redraft his latest novel that his long time publisher has rejected. His impetus for leaving is that his younger lover, Freddy Pelu, has left him for another man whom Freddy is about to marry; yet another indignity and punishment the world has inflicted on him. If there’s a literary conceit here it is that while Arthur things little of himself, believes that the world continually catches him in traps designed to pummel him with failure, the opposite appears to be true; that many do like him as a man, respect him as a writer (just not a loyal gay writer), and love him enough to give up other lovers and husbands for him. If we can find a lesson here, perhaps it is that we shouldn’t be quite as down on ourselves as some of us tend to be; that, really, we probably are better people than we give ourselves credit for being.

Greer possesses a skillful style that floats the story along and engages the reader. Even when not much happens, the little bit happens with charm. Greer’s also a keen observer of people, in particular people many readers probably don’t encounter much in their own lives. These are people steeped in the art of thinking about themselves, those around them, and translating their observations into essays, novels, and poems we read to sharpen our own insights not only into the workings of the world but ourselves as well. Greer has created a charming voice for the narrator. The narrator knows Arthur intimately, in fact, better than Arthur seems to know himself. Most readers will soon enough figure out who is telling the story of Arthur’s loves and writings and bouts with angst, but even so it’s pleasantly and warmly rewarding when that narrator steps from the shadows.

So, if you’re in the mood for a charming, witty, and insightful trip around the world that includes San Francisco, Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Morocco, and India (containing some of the best passages in the novel), climb on board Less. w/c

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Eternal Life Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Eternal Life

By Dara Horn

In some ways, our lengthened life spans would seem miraculous or magical to people of the 1st century, when Dara Horn’s main characters Rachel, daughter of a scribe, and Elazar, son of a high priest, were born. So, you might suppose, it is only fitting that we look on the never-ending lives of Rachel and Elazar with not a little touch of envy. Yet, as Horn illustrates, outliving everybody you ever knew and loved not just once or twice but time and time again takes its toll. Each passing year becomes more difficult and modern times even make restarting your life, as you must, more challenging. But more important, if you live and love, as Rachel does, you open yourself up to endless heartache. If you choose to distance yourself from your loves and family, as Elazar does to a large degree, your lives can feel empty. So, then, what appears as a blessing, as a wonderful miracle, turns out to be a curse. Of course, if everybody shared eternal life, well, that might be a different story, one, doubtless, fraught with its own plusses and minuses.

Rachel and Elazar are born and live their original lives during the days of the First Jewish-Roman War era (66-73 CE). They meet, fall in love, have sex, and Rachel becomes pregnant. She marries Zakkai, a boy indentured to her scribe father, who himself learns the scribing trade. She has the baby, a boy she names Yochanan. He becomes deathly ill. Elazar, his secret father, proposes a way to save him: take a sacred vow of eternal life. They both do. Yochanan lives. He grows to become a great teacher (he’s a real historical figure) who preserves the oral word of the Torah (redacted later in the written Mishnah) after the destruction of the Temple Mount by Titus and his Roman troops. As a result of their vows, Rachel and Elazar find themselves condemned to eternal life that includes an eternity of memories (like the siege and destruction of Jerusalem) that both must deal with, well, forever.

The novel focuses on the 21st century Rachel, an eighty-four year old, who doesn’t look her age and her meeting up with Elazar. He loves her and for him she is the only woman in the world, regardless of the century. She has conflicted feelings for him, in the extremes, uncontrollable passion and hatred, the latter for things Elazar did in their past. At eighty-four, she is at the end of her lifetime with her latest family. She must leave, but she can’t seem to. Her one great desire, shared, by Elazar, is death. And in her granddaughter, a biochemical researcher, she thinks she might have found the answer to ending her life.

Horn tells the tale succinctly, but some readers may sense a vagueness in how Rachel and Elazar pull off moving from life to life, or living those lives without folks becoming suspicious, especially when they advance in age. It’s a book for those who enjoy fantasy and who are comfortable with magical thinking. w/c

Richard + Bobby, Kisses, Alyce

Richard + Bobby,
Kisses, Alyce

Chapter 12: CRANBURY, NEW JERSEY  (Part 10, 11, and 12)

10

I’m on the road to the East Windsor YMCA. I’m concentrating on driving, pushing away the boy’s smile and memory. I focus on the roadside book of garbage I’ve read hundreds of times—markers, ads, signs, bits of litter. Slowly the smile fades away and I’m speculating as to why people must litter, why a clean car is more important than a clean road, as I pull into the Y’s parking lot. And that leads me to Richard, a prime violator.

11

I was composed and arranged by the time I reached home. I went directly to my room, saying nothing about the incident, or anything else, to my mother. Bobby frightened me and I didn’t doubt he was willing and capable of hurting me if I told on him. But fear wasn’t what stopped me. It was Richard, what Bobby said Richard thought of me, how Richard went out behind my back with other girls, girls willing to give him more than kisses, to allow him to go farther than groping under clothing. And how he could take a boy like Bobby for his friend. Before telling anybody about Bobby, I needed to talk to Richard.

Richard and I had planned a date for the evening and he picked me up at seven. We were going to the drive-in movies in Kills River in Bobby’s borrowed car.

As Richard drove, I compulsively glanced behind me, at the backseat, envisioning what transpired on it between Richard and me, and Richard and Terry just that afternoon, and with others like Terry.

“Babe,” Richard said, “what’s with the neck? Somebody following us? Maybe your father checking up on us?”

“No, nothing,” I said. “I don’t want to talk about it now.”

“Sure, anything you say, Babe.”

At the drive-in, Richard parked toward the back, over to the side, away from the route people usually followed to the concession stand and restrooms.

He slid his arm around me. “Cozy,” he said, pulling me to him.

I resisted and anchored myself next to the door.

“Hey, what’s eating you? Did I do something?”

“Bobby says you take other girls out in this car.”

He turned full on me. “Bobby said what?”

“You heard me.”

He laughed. “What a son-of-bitch. Forgive my French, Babe, but Bobby’s lying.”

“He said some horrible things about …” I couldn’t bear to utter the word, freighted as it was with disturbing images, and nodded toward the rear instead. “And there’s nothing funny about it.”

“Hey, I agree with you. Bobby’s pissed with me. Forgive my French again, Babe. Look, the guy wanted to double with us tonight.”

“I would never double with Bobby. Besides, no girl would ever date Bobby McFarlane.”

“I know, Babe. Why do you think Bobby’s mad? I told him you don’t like doubles. And I tried to fix him up with Terry Bishop. No luck.”

“He said you where with Terry this afternoon,” I said, casting my eyes to the back.

“I was. Bobby and I were cruising and passed her on Creek Road. She was riding her bike. Bobby asked me to give it another shot. I let him off and circled back to talk to her. Down in flames twice. If you can’t get a date with Terry, it’s hopeless.”

I was silent for a while, considering what he said, somewhat assuaged by it, and troubled, too.

“Richard, why didn’t you ask me when I talked to Bobby. You know I never talk to him?”

“Hmm, well, I figured you must of run into him somewhere.”

“He ran into me on the path by the creek when you were with Terry. He didn’t tell you?”

“No, Babe, not a peep. I guess he was too ticked about Terry.”

“He attacked me, Richard.”

“Attacked you?”

“He pushed me and knocked me down and said some foul, insulting things to me.” He tried pushing closer to me, but I held up my hands. “Don’t.”

“What did he say?”

“I can’t repeat what he said. It was too horrible. And he said terrible things about you, too.”

“Me?

“What you think of me, Richard, that I’m too prim and proper, that you see other girls because …” I had a difficult time forming the words. “That I don’t put out enough for you.”

Over the years, Richard learned to control his emotions, to project a placidity, a wall competitors, customers, associates, and his wife could not penetrate, an equanimity that, he boasted to me when I questioned his spiritual deadness, gave him the advantage, that put and kept me and the girls in the big house filled with an abundance of things. Early on, I didn’t notice him laying the bricks. That day I credited his fleeting stony reaction to being stunned by the loathsome behavior of a false friend, the way I would respond, as I did, regretfully, respond years later when Angie told me about Bobby and her.

“Babe,” he said, “I would never cheat on you. Not ever, because I never want to lose you. And because I know what it can do to people.”

“You do?” I said. I didn’t know what he meant, didn’t press him, assuming it was probably a girl, perhaps back on Staten Island.

“And it’s why I couldn’t betray a friend, even somebody who did something bad, like poor Bobby.”

“Poor Bobby?” I wheezed, virtually on the verge of tears over the tale of his parents, his wound, and his misguided compassion for Bobby McFarlane.

“The guy’s a mess, Babe. Don’t get me wrong, what he did to you, it wasn’t right. And you better believe he’s getting it from me. No way am I letting him take his frustration out on you. No way. He’s going to get it. But, you know, he’s such a sad sack. In a way, you’ve got to feel sorry for the guy.”

My incredulity was unrestrained and all I could do was exclaim, “Richard, are you insane? He assaulted me. He called me names. He said disgusting things about you, about us. And you’re, you’re making excuses for him? Richard?”

“I’m going to pound him, Babe. I’m going to set him straight. He’ll never do anything like that again, never. I promise. But with Bobby, you’ve got to understand.”

“Understand what, Richard? I understand he’s a lowlife, and he’s dangerous, and he could do something worse another time.”

“There won’t be another time, Babe. But—”

“But what? He’s your friend. He’s still your friend after what he did, what he said? Take me home, Richard, right now.”

I refused to see or talk to Richard for two weeks. He phoned. He visited my house. I saw him in the coffee shop and snubbed him. I was lashing back at him, hurting him, and myself, too. In the end, however, I missed him; I wanted him; I believed I needed him. And I persuaded myself that his staunch loyalty, even to someone like Bobby, was commendable. Richard was a boy I could trust, who I could count on to stand by me. In the end, I compromised on Bobby McFarlane: As long as I had nothing to do with Bobby, Richard could remain his friend. I suppose I believed eventually Bobby would betray Richard in a way he could not forgive.

12

I park in the YMCA lot and pick up Samantha and Emily in the all-purpose room. Other parents, mostly mothers, are doing the same, all of us waiting for our children to gather up the projects they’ve been laboring over for the past hour.

In the car, I ask Samantha about what she had worked on. “Nothing,” she says. She’s a teen and often sulky. I assume today it’s the YMCA camp, which she doesn’t like. She argues she’s too old for it. She’s probably right and I’ll have to find something else for her next year.

Emily volunteers that she’s been drawing and, from the backseat, inserts her creation between Samantha and me. It’s familiar, a brightly colored woman and two girls holding hands dancing in a circle. From the first time we lived in Cranbury, when Emily began drawing, I’ve thought of her as a fauvist, a little female Matisse. After our relocation to San Diego, I bought Samantha and Emily gifts, sort of welcoming presents to smooth away some of the edge of dislocation. Emily’s was a book of Matisse paintings and drawing, because I remembered her picture of a floating, disgruntled cow. Occasionally, in rare moments when she tired of her dervish larking, she’d flip through the book. I can see now the book has made an impression, for the drawing, in color and composition, bears a striking resemblance to “Dance.”

“Beautiful, Emily,” I say. “Looks like everybody is happy.”

“Maybe,” she says.

At least, I think, this time nobody in the picture is distempered.

THE END

Get Your Pants Scared Off

Creep

By Jennifer Hillier

If you’ve been yearning to have a galvanic response to a thriller (and really, who isn’t?), get your hands on a copy of Jennifer Hillier’s first suspense novel. You’ll find it compelling from the first sentence to the last twist at the end.

It’s compelling for many reasons, not the least of which is that it proved an intelligent take on the serial killer genre, pitting social psychologist prof Sheila Tao against her own graduate teaching assistant Ethan Wolfe. Don’t fret; this is not a reveal, as you know from the beginning that Ethan is a control freak, and early on he seeks his revenge on his lover, Dr. Tao.

Nobody’s perfect, certainly not the good prof. She is a recovering sex addict, now engaged to an almost to-good-to-believe fellow, successful, wealthy banker Morris Gardener, himself a recovering alcoholic. But, obviously, she hasn’t fully recovered: case in point, her three-month affair with Ethan. Well, life isn’t perfect, is it?

When she finally breaks the affair off, he loses it, kidnapping her and holding her prisoner, with threats of death. She has much to fear, because a serial killer stalks the streets of Seattle, the novel’s setting, and she sees evidence that implicates Ethan.

Much of the novel, and the best part, is Tao’s psychological dueling with Ethan, to preserve her life and, hopefully, to escape her captivity.

While she tries to stay alive, fiancé Morris hires a private detective, a former cop, and the two suffer their own trials and tribulations as they frantically search for her.

Creep will keep you on the edge of her seat and turning pages until you finish, in spite of its need for a bit of editorial paring. w/c

Happy Dysfunctional Valentine’s Day

Gone Girl

By Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn offers up a thriller about love, deception, and sociopathic behavior that is often reflective of real life dysfunctional marriages and just as often funny. Briefly, and without revealing too much, since the pleasure of the novel is revelation upon revelation, twist after twist, Nick and Amy meet in New York, fall in love, marry, and seem happy, until both lose their jobs. Nick decides to move back to his hometown of North Carthage, MO, ostensibly to help care for his dying mother and Alzheimer father. Then Amy disappears, apparently abducted by parties unknown. It isn’t long before the police settle the mantle of prime suspect on Nick’s shoulders. And the question is who took Amy and why, or did hubby murder her? But beware: nothing is as it seems.

Flynn tells the story from Nick and Amy’s perspectives, leaving us to wonder, at least in the first part of the book, who we are to believe. In part two, Flynn reveals what really happened and why. In part three, she resolves the situation. Some have faulted Flynn on the ending, but I found it perfectly acceptable, in keeping with the personalities of the characters. However, morally tidy it is not.

Flynn skillfully handles sociopathy, having her sociopathic character expound, as well as showing how others perceive or misperceive the sociopath. It’s claimed that somewhere around four percent of the U.S. population is sociopathic. Not all, or even a fraction of, sociopaths are psychopaths, and they are nearly impossible, by their very nature, to spot. One trait, however, can give them away; that is, the compulsion to escalate their behavior, something Flynn expertly illustrates.

If you prefer, try the film version starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. And if you prefer your romance even more dysfunctional and just plain psychotic, watch Fatal Attraction starring Close and Michael Douglas again, or for the first time if it’s new to you. w/c

 

 

Richard + Bobby, Kisses, Alyce

Richard + Bobby,
Kisses, Alyce

Chapter 12: CRANBURY, NEW JERSEY  (Part 8, and 9)

8

I’m finished. I’ve been around the track twelve times, getting closer to my goal. I drag off the cinders, over to my backpack containing a jacket, a towel, and what I crave, the bottle of water. I gulp down half the contents and find myself breathing harder than when I was circling the track. The Peddie boys jog by as I’m wiping my mouth with my arm. The laggard smiles at me. Maybe he’s been smiling round and round the track. Maybe smiling is his natural state. I don’t acknowledge him. I remove my towel from the backpack and drop in the bottle. I give myself a quick wipe, face and arms. I shoulder the pack and head for my car. I toss a glance back and see the Peddie boy has been following me with his eyes and has fallen further behind his partner. He smiles again and I turn away quickly and climb into my car. But I can’t extinguish the smile.

9

Creek Falls is at the foot of a mountain, surrounded by woods and creeks, and summer there is lovely, and instills in me the urge to walk. Walking was how I got my exercise when I was growing up. And how I got around town, even after I had my driver’s license, since we owned only one car and my father used it for work.

In those first weeks with Richard as my boyfriend, he and I would walk with no purpose other than to be together. Often, we would find ourselves in the cemetery at St. Mary’s, usually atop the grave of some poor nun who, if she were able, would slap us silly and condemn us for our sacrilegious antics.

Other times, when Richard wasn’t available, I walked alone, walked and fantasized of our lives after we finished school. I was sure we would be together, married, with children, perhaps not in Creek Falls, but certainly nearby. My favorite walk was along the creek down the hill from our row house.

That summer Saturday afternoon I can’t recall why I was alone, where Richard was, though I’m sure I assumed he was with Bobby. But he wasn’t, because Bobby was with me on the path.

I’d been on the path for twenty minutes and was near the point where I turned around. The path begins in an area where there are houses, both close by and on the ridge above, where I lived. Farther on, where I usually turned for home, it was woods and the creek, the area looking much as it had before the Dutch arrived, when the long gone Wappingers tribes hunted the land.

I was devoting my full attention to the woods and the creek and the lore of the setting, listening for nothing more than the soft susurration of the breeze in the trees, the mellow babble of the water lazing around and over branches that had fallen into the creek, and the occasional scurrying of squirrels on the ground and in the trees. So, when I turned to retrace my steps, he startled me, and I whispered a scream.

“It’s only me,” Bobby said.

He wore blue coveralls and heavy brogans. A blue tee underneath showed through at the neck. The entire outfit was filthy with grease and grime smudges. His hair was wild, flying every which way, dirty too with grease. Only his eyes were clean and clear, big eyes, bright blue like a cloudless January sky, promising warmth but bitterly cold.

“What are you doing here?” I said.

“Walking, like you. Can’t I walk?”

“Sure, I suppose. It’s just you’re always in that car.”

“Ritchie’s got it.”

“Richard?”

“Yeah. What? You think you’re the only one who gets in that car with Ritchie?”

“I have to get home,” I said. I tried pushing past him, but he hopped in front of me, arms extended like a basketball guard.

“Yeah, but with you I don’t have to worry about cleaning the backseat.”

“Let me by, Bobby.”

But he kept bobbing left and right.

“Guess who’s in the car now.”

“Bobby.”

“Guess. Guess and I’ll let you go.”

I tried dodging around him, but he flung me back with an arm.

“Bobby, watch it. You’ll hurt me.”

“Who’s the biggest slut in school? Come on, you know. Terry Bishop.”

“She’s Mike’s girlfriend. You shouldn’t say things about her.”

“Mike McGrath. Big football star. Big asshole is what he is. You know what Ritchie says about Terry?”

“Bobby, I’m late.”

“There’s a bitch with a classy chassis. ‘Classy chassis.’  I love Ritchie. I mean, who can think of stuff like that?”

“Bobby, please, I don’t want to hear anymore.”

“Yeah, he told her, ‘Babe, I want to take that chassis of yours for a ride.’ ‘Okay,’ she said.” He snapped his fingers, thick, grimy, repulsive things. “Just like that, ‘Okay.’  Don’t believe me? Hey, I was there, cruising with Ritchie right up there on the road when she came by on her bike. What could I do? I had to let him take the car. It’s what Ritchie and me do. We share stuff.”

As he spoke, he inched closer to me, until he was on me, and seized my arm. He attempted pulling me to him. I twisted and yanked free.

“Stay away, Bobby.”

“What about a little kiss for your boyfriend’s best friend? Don’t you want to share like Ritchie?”

“Stop it, Bobby. I need to go home.”

“Ritchie says he can’t get to second base with you. I said, ‘You got it too easy, man, the girls falling all over you and all. Now me, I got to work harder.’  ‘So give it a try,’ he said. ‘Share and share alike, you know,’ he said.”

He lunged at me. Retreating, I tripped, fell, and rolled down the embankment to the edge of the creek. I scrambled to my hands and knees, stared up at him, tears flooding my cheeks, whispering a halting plea, “Leave me alone, Bobby.”

He laughed, a vicious howl. “Look at you, little Miss Goody Two-Shoes, crawling like a little doggie bitch.” More cruel laughing, then he said, “Miss Goody Two-Shoes,” mimicking the high pitch of a child, a bully, as if we were on a playground and his thrust had been malicious play, not an assault. “That’s what Ritchie calls you, Miss Goody Two-Shoes.”

I’m convinced to this day Bobby would have come down the embankment for me, if faintly, over the breeze and the burble of the water, had not drifted the incessant, impatient call of a car horn.

“No little goodbye kiss for Bobby?” he taunted, pursing his lips obscenely.

“Get out of here,” I screamed. “Leave me alone.”

He pivoted to the summons and then swung back. “Just remember, Ritchie’s my friend. Mine. You’d better not say anything. You get it?”

He didn’t wait for my answer. He scurried off the path and up the hill through the woods to the road, to the car, to Richard.

Are We Immune to Authoritarianism?

It Can’t Happen Here (1935)

By Sinclair Lewis

While not Lewis’ best what with his sarcastic and sardonic style in highest dudgeon, it does remind readers just how thin the layers of democracy and civilization are, more easily than we care to believe blown away like topsoil during the Great Depression. It warrants a reading because of the warning and prescient message it has delivered to every generation of Americans since its publication in 1935. 

While readers, distant as they are from the 1930s, may think the novel alerts to the dangers of fascism, it’s really more about the rise of populist demagogues who play on the emotions of disgruntled and disenfranchised people, specifically in Lewis’ case, Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long. The message is it can happen here when given a sufficiently dissociated electorate who respond to simplistic messages, such heard numerous times in American history, as well as most recently: “Make America Great Again,” and “What Have You Got to Lose?”  and most recently, “The Deep State.” To which Lewis, and millions of others, would respond: “Nonsense, if the messages weren’t so fraught with danger.”

The novel divides into three parts. The first covers the furious campaign of one Berzelius Windrip (even the names drip with the sardonic) and his cohorts to win the 1936 Democratic nomination, the winning of it, the organization of a fascist-like corps, and then the rapid conversion to virtual dictatorship. In the second comes the complete destruction of democratic institutions and the use of propaganda and doublespeak to befuddle a nation and whip up enthusiasts, while actively suppressing all kinds of opposition, as well as tossing many into concentration camps and the liberal use of physical abuse and murder. Windrip’s “The Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Man,” a hodgepodge of socialist and fascist fantastical pledges aimed at those who feel left behind bear a striking resemblance to Long’s eight “Share the Wealth” planks, among them limits on personal wealth, guaranteed income, proper treatment of veterans, and the like. In the third the oppressed organize to conduct their own propaganda campaign to undermine the authoritarian government of Windrip and his successors by palace revolt and assassination, closing on the thought that the effort will be long and relentless.

The focal character here is a sort of intelligent everyman, small town newspaper editor and armchair philosopher Doremus Jessup. As his name implies, Doremus is something of a gatekeeper, here a defender of the American republic way of life, who fails at first to recognize how easily the nation can be swayed by demagoguery into giving up its precious freedoms. However, once aroused, Doremus joins with others, to his own personal peril, in active rebellion. Readers will find it interesting to compare the final words of It Can’t Happen Here with those of Tom Joad in Steinbeck’s 1939 ode to the plight of the oppressed, The Grapes of Wrath. The former concludes with, “And still Doremus goes on in the red sunrise, for a Doremus Jessup can never die.” Tom Joad exits near the end with these words to his mother, “Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look.” (It continues and represents one of the most stirring moments in the novel.)

While not Lewis’ greatest, it is a book with a message, a shouted warning that the lovers of democracy must always be on guard and always ready to rise to its defense, the sooner always being the better. w/c