Reviews by Author: G-J
Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere
Four stars. The two bad guys in Gaiman’s fantasy novel are very bad, so bad that they nearly take over the novel with their presence. Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar are their names. “Oh bless my little black soul, Mr. Vandemar . . . I spy with my little eye, something that’s going to be—“ / “Dead in a minute.” These characters are counter-balanced, as always with Gaiman, by wondrously innocent characters—meet Door and Richard Mayhew. Door is the last of an aristocratic family that lived in the underworld of London. Her family were all murdered and she is seeking answers. Richard is an innocent and budding stock analyst (of all things) who lives in upside London. Upside? Oh yes, and downside is most colorful and dangerous. There are plenteous incidents and intriguing characters filling this novel: a “floating market” that mysteriously meets through word of mouth in the oddest places, a female bodyguard named Hunter who’s returned from a nearly mythical absence to protect Door, a Marquis whose signature characteristic is dealing (and double-dealing?), a bird man who lives on rooftops that connect upside and downside London. This is a page-turner of the best type, with twists galore. Who can you trust? Not many people in this novel, except the author, who delivers a fun ride through the London underworld.
Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book
Illustrated and written with young adults in mind, this novel is a compelling crossover for adults also. The novel starts with a grisly scene that introduces a villain so typical of Gaiman’s craft. Meet Man Jack. Man Jack carries a razor-bladed knife and is in the process of killing off an entire family and bloodline. But wait, the infant has crawled out of the crib and down the steps and into a graveyard. Man Jack follows him there, but the infant has already garnered the attention of the graveyard’s inhabitants—ghosts of course—who adopt the child, with the help of a reformed vampire. Gaiman’s novel is almost a coming-of-age story in the guise of horror. And that part of the novel is completely charming, for Nobody, as the infant comes to be called, meets the ghost of a witch, Elizabeth, who is buried in unconsecrated ground. The witch was killed in her teens, and the closer Nobody grows into manhood, the more unpredictable and pouty Liza becomes. Nobody’s adoptive father, a ghost of course, comments that there was a girl like that once who threw an apple at him for no reason. “A pear,” the ghost of his wife comments. But as manhood approaches, another clock is ticking: Man Jack must kill Nobody before he becomes an adult. And Man Jack is nothing if not persistent. Fun read with lots of tense moments, some set off with comedy, some just downright tense.
Neil Gaimon's The Ocean at the End of the World
Four Stars Problematic Frame Tale This is a brief novel and it is very entertaining. The three main characters, Lettie Hempstock, Ursula Monkton (Skarthach), and the young unnamed male narrator, are engaging and the plot builds nicely in terror. At one point the boy's father submerges him in a tub of icy water--to kill him? To teach him a lesson? There is not, however, the wealth of magic that was in The Graveyard Book, which was equally short. There are, however, some fine Gaimon lines: "but when you are seven, beauty is an abstraction, not an imperative." And there are some fine Gaimon touches of magic--"snip and cut," being one wherein time can be altered. And the boy's response to that alteration of time-cloth: "If I burn this . . . will it really have happened? . . . I want to remember . . . Because it happened to me. And I'm still me." The “flea” from primal time, Ursula, aka Skarthach, is evil enough, though her ignorance might have been played up a bit more to make her more multi-sided. SPOILER ALERT! READ ONWARD AT YOUR OWN RISK! A problem I had with the novel--which is wonderful and entertaining, have no fear!--is the surrounding frame tale. It does not provide a happy conclusion, or even any conclusion. The frame asserts that Lettie wants to see the boy-now-man to check and find if her sacrifice and exile were really worth it. Well, she must have known that already for as a boy he had put his life on the line and braved the hunger birds to save his family and perhaps the world. Final judgment: a fun, involving tale, though not so much as its counterpart The Graveyard Book.
Ernest Gaines's In My Father’s House.
This novel runs just like a strong locomotive, from the beginning until the devastating—but amazing and redemptive—end. Unlike A Gathering of Old Men, which lands plenty of humor amid the drama, this novel's tone comes across more like a Greek tragedy’s. A plus is that the novel conveys the disarray Blacks nationwide were undergoing after Martin Luther King's assassination. An amazing read.
William Gay's Little Sister Death
I first thought of starting this review by comparing Little Sister Death to a tone poem in music, say The Isle of the Dead by Rachmaninoff. Then I realized Little Sister more resembled a symphony, a fugue, for each of the ten movements in this work flutter about the Bell Witch haunting in Tennessee, offering their own permutations of the same. Five of them concern an author investigating the Bell Witch and one of the men she tortured named Beale. But Beale himself may not have been such an honorable person; he may have been a murderer, even a torturer. Is this the reason the witch—if witch she is, for she herself does not seem to know her identity: “I’m everything, I’m nothing . . . I am everywhere and nowhere,” she tells a preacher she calls “Sugarmouth.” The five pieces mentioned center around a writer named David Binder. It is this fact that prompts Tom Franklin to write in his preface that “this is the most metafictional thing that William ever wrote.” But don’t fret: the book is not the “Dear Reader, as-you-can-now-see” type of writing at all. I think that the fact of writer Binder’s persona moving through the book gave Franklin this notion. Indeed, the persistent persona of Binder as a writer adds a good creep factor to Little Sister Death. Binder has returned to Tennessee at the prompting of his agent to write a pot-boiler, a quick and easy paperback sale, since his second serious novel has hit the skids. What better way to recoup than toss of a genre horror novel? Long matter short, Binder is something of a skeptic needing convincing when he returns to Tennessee. Oh, he gets that convincing many odd ways: a pale girl singing spirituals, a loping huge black dog, rats scratching in walls, copperheads, and most harrowing, a butcher knife implanted in the mattress beside his wife’s sleeping head—where he had evidently thrust it during the night, compelled by who knows what spirit. “Did you know,” his wife had recently asked him, “that a man murdered his family in this house?” Binder did not. He certainly does now. And the man who committed those murders plays his own part in the fugue. Unlike Dave Binder, Owen Swaw is a total believer who is nearly paralyzed every time he walks by the place where the Beale mansion and its past horrors once stood. The dog, the rats, the girl continually haunt him. But Swaw is moved to implant the butcher knife—in the form of an axe and then a shotgun—and kill his wife and three of his four daughters. Thus we alternate between intuitions of evil—a fey singing girl, a huge black dog, the many writhing copperheads—and outright depictions of murder. As every good horror novelist or movie director knows, what we fear to be behind the door is often more scary than what actually is behind the door. Often, but not always, as Gay’s back-and-forth sections show. There are several murders, a maniacal ghost, dismemberings and rapes, possibly incestual. The creepy fugue ends—and I don’t think this will be much of a spoiler—with what strikes me as a most earnest autobiographical depiction of Gay himself travelling with his uncle to the Bell (Beale) cave and farm. His uncle frets about sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong, and sure enough, the witch seems to follow the uncle home to stir troubles. He asks his nephew to stay in the house just one night to confirm the haunting. The reluctant nephew—the first person narrator of this section that I’m taking as Gay himself—hears “malicious chuckling,” but cannot find the source. His fearful uncle sells the house, even though the occurrences do somewhat die down. When the narrator—the nephew—Gay?—tells the uncle his curiosity is up and that he’s going to write an article on the Bell Witch, his uncle curtly advises, “It might be best to leave that stuff alone.” A wonderfully ominous ending to a wonderfully creepy work, in my opinion. Then of course, there’s Gay’s prose. The following excerpt ends the scene where Binder finds the butcher knife imbedded in the mattress next to his wife’s head: “Out of this silence came a feminine laugh, fey and whimsical, dry as the sound of cornshucks rustling together. The laugh rose in timbre, strangled itself instantly on a high gurgling note like the watervoice call of a thrush. It was silent again.”
William Gay—a writer worth your attention.
William Gay's Twilight
224 pages. On the front cover blurb, Stephen King compares this novel about a very weird undertaker to the writings of Cormac McCarthy and James Dickey. I would toss in William Faulkner. A brief plot: a young brother and sister discover the horrific secrets of a local undertaker and try to blackmail him. He in turn hires a local ne’er do well: “ ‘They’ve got some kind of deathlock on you and you want it off. You want me to kill them.’ ‘No, no, certainly not. I can’t condone murder, hire murder done.’ ‘Sure you can. You just don’t want to know about it.’”
The characters in this novel are all—I mean all—desperate. The good, the bad, and the inbetween. That’s certainly a connecting thread. And Gay’s terse writing is often enough counterbalanced with an odd, darkly humorous lyricism. This is how the young protagonist Tyler imagines his abusive father’s death: “. . . God had been sitting before the fireplace with his feet propped up on the hearth. Or maybe just on midair—God could do that. He was reading an old hymnbook or maybe a seed catalog. Finally after years and years . . . God’s eyes flickered with an electric blue light and the old man’s heart exploded in a torrent of black blood and corruption and he just dropped like a stone, dead before his body touched the stairs, and God went back to his seed catalog.” Gay’s pacing is masterful. Tyler’s brushes with the hired killer—and with the mortician—intensify and keep the reader leaning. Tyler escapes the hired killer and goes on the run through the “Harikan,” a particularly wild part of Tennessee. He’s searching for the next county’s sheriff, who is reputed to be honest, unlike the one in Tyler’s hometown. But instead, he finds . . .
So . . . character, language, and plot—Gay has reached out to remind us just how wonderful a novel can be. By the way, there is a rumor that one last posthumous novel by William Gay is forthcoming in early summer of 2021. Let’s hope that’s true.
Joe Goebel's The Anomalies
3.5 Stars Cameo voices and one-liners work The Anomalies, ostensibly about a new-wave band of the same name, offers good, basic comedy through the voices of five main and various supporting characters. Even before they speak to us, the characters drip with comic Southern grotesque: Opal, an eighty-something sex-fiend on the lookout for any and all men; Aurora, Satanist daughter of a TV preacher who in her teenage idealism shuns sex and men; Raykeem, an Iraqi searching for forgiveness from the American soldier he wounded during the Gulf War; Ember, a feisty, knife-wielding eight year old; and Luster, the band’s leader, a lanky black genius who tosses out quotes from Dostoevsky and Camus while stocking beer at a local dog track. These five and an abundance of cameo narrators who pop up nearly to the novel’s end, give the novel a punch-punch, one-two, one-two. Therein lies the novel’s charm, though there are plots—of sorts—to be sure. Luster’s band gets itself together, has one firework-filled gig, and then . . . demises. Raykeem finds his wounded veteran . . . to his chagrin. Aurora forsakes Satanism . . . and plenty of other things. But the one-liners and the cameo voices are what really make the novel tick.
Here, we have beauteous and busty Aurora the Satanist, who pretends to be wheelchair-bound to hinder male admirers, lifting her glass of puritan water: “I’ve recently become fond of toasting because it’s one of those things you can do to make yourself feel grown-up without spreading disease.” There we have Luster, the band’s lanky black leader and the youngest of 12 crack-dealing brothers, all named Jerome: “The only thing I have in common with my brothers is a hardcore Jedi hatred for cops. My brothers hate cops because they interfere with their drug dealing. I hate them because they interfere with my life progress since they are the muscles of The Thoughtless Confederacy.” And everywhere we have minor characters whom we are obliged to hate despite their amusing moments. Take the “Customer” who speaks to his friends when the five band members congregate at a restaurant: “‘Guys . . . we are no longer at the cool table.’ They laugh. I kick ass. So I’m thinking this must be like a field trip from wherever they keep crazy or retarded people or something. . . . Who’s going to show up next? A rabbi? A midget? A robot? . . . ‘I bet that group really knows how to party,’ I say to my boys. Not a huge laugh, but I’m still the man. I laugh really loud at myself to compensate.”
Joe Goebel's Torture the Artist
3 stars An Author To Watch Torture the Artist also holds funny moments, though Goebel switches to a central first person narrator, a nefarious manager of a promising young—very young at the novel’s start—artist. Despite the single narrator, Goebel has inserted in his 265 pages a stunning 156 chapters (chapulets?), which provide a one-two feel of their own. And once more we have plenty of up-to-the-nano-instant lingo, and plenty of satiric barbs pricking contemporary America. But this second novel gives us a shift, for the narrator, Harlan Eiffler, who essentially buys 7 year-old Vincent, the potential artist, off his 22 year-old mother, undergoes both growth and regret by the novel’s end. And, too, the novel’s end shifts with a nasty seriousness as murders and scheming and missing characters increasingly inhabit the pages. Alas, we need to return to my opening because the vehicle of the carefully pruned artist, Vincent, whose puppy is killed by Harlan and whose successive girlfriends are bought off by that same Harlan to insure Vincent’s artistic sensitivity, fails. For after enduring all these silly machinationsto insure productivity, what does the tortured artist Vincent write to raise America from its intellectual slumber? An epic? A razzle-dazzle cyber-world blending of music, film, plastic art, and text? No. He pens lyrics to pop songs and scripts to TV shows. (The text of which, by the way, we rarely see and then only in glimpses.) Likewise, the vehicles of artistic manager Harlan and his clandestine New Renaissance talent agency fare no better, for they reside too in-the-midst-of-the-vapidity to mock the vapidity. For example, Harlan’s favorite way of encapsulating someone’s personality is to assignate that person’s favorite pop tune and movie. Indeed, the entire ensemble of artist, manager, and agency comes across as too light not only to effect any biting satire, but also to uphold the twisting murders and intrigue. (Don’t forget that the first “murder”victim was a puppy.) All in all, though, Goebel remains an author worth reading. And he’s certainly a young author to keep an eye on. Be assured: when he grows the moustache similar to the one he penned on my cover, his subject matter, his vehicle, will be there.
Rebecca Goldstein's Plato at the Googleplex
5 stars of 5 stars. With this book, I finally learned why Plato was so obsessed with math, despite the fact that he included very little of it in his dialogues. He evidently saw the undeniable truth of math as being key to an assurance that there is a higher world of Truth, and also that math serves as a pathway to learning that Truth. Be the truth of that as it may, Goldstein’s work offers a wonderful mishmash of forms—no Platonic pun intended. She shifts from updated and often funny Platonic dialogues to straightforward, detailed, and insightful historical assessments of Plato and his time. If you’re a novice philosopher (though who isn’t both Plato and Goldstein would surely agree), you might care to approach this book in the following manner: Start with xxxPLATO, which is purportedly a love advice column by Margo Howard, who’s enlisted the help of none less than Plato himself. The approach is light, and this helps the subject matter, which is not light. And, of course, the individual queries (“Dear Margo, I’m a female graduate student, and though I’m sexually adventurous, I’m no slut”) are all about love problems, which will pique even the most philosophically reticent reader. This section is the shortest in the book, seventeen pages, and as I mentioned, it offers great fun. Next, read Plato at the Googleplex,one of the updated Platonic dialogues. If these two sections don’t grab you, head for a Harlequin or a cozy. But if they do grab you, you will be amply rewarded by starting with the Prologue and moving onward. Kudos to Goldstein.
Graham Greene’s The Comedians.
Papa Doc was so angered by this novel that he commissioned a bilingual pamphlet entitled “Graham Greene Unmasked.” In the pamphlet Greene was accused, among many other nefarious matters, of being a “torturer.” Hmm. Projection, anyone? As inane and uninformed as that pamphlet was, this novel is wondrous and brilliant. Greene performs his usual slow dance with comedy and tragedy, bringing it to as perfect a dance step as he did in any of his novels. The vegan Smiths, travelling to Haiti to construct a vegetarian center, are not to be missed. And on the other side, the pummeling of a hearse by the Ton-ton Macoute is a horrific scene.
Anthony Grooms' Bombingham
Five stars. Grooms takes a political situation, the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham in the sixties, and infuses it with a wrenching coming-of-age story expanding well beyond the Movement in Birmingham to include Vietnam, cancer, religion’s role in fatalism, loss, hatred and love, fear, and responsibility. The novel opens with and is told from a floating present in Vietnam where Walter is serving combat duty. He has witnessed the combat death of a close friend and is trying to fulfill a mutual promise to write a letter to the family back in the States. Even there, in combat, the Civil Rights Movement and racial tension remain ever-present, ever threatening as Walter mentions Birmingham scratches it out, then re-mentions it. The bulk of the novel, however, moves back to concern “Waltie” as a child growing up in horrific circumstances much like Vietnam with the KKK and its intermittent bombing of a Black neighborhood, “Dynamite Hill.” There, the KKK and Bull Connor’s police and their German shepherds snake forward like copperheads to strike and then vanish into the background. In young Waltie’s foreground lies his mother dying of brain cancer and refusing medical treatment, trusting to God instead—to the dismay and anger of her entire family. His father, chased away by his wife, is living in a hotel and drinking entirely too much. His extended family move in to help with Waltie and his younger sister, Josie. Lastly Lamar, a close friend of Walter, has a grandmother who falls for a visiting preacher from the Movement. For this immediate reason, Lamar pulls Walter and Josie into the dangerous children’s marches and protests in Birmingham. More and more, these protests move into the novel’s foreground, with, alas, devastating effect. A superb, gut-wrenching and informative read.
Anthony Grooms' The Vain Conversation
While Grooms' novel focuses on a racist multiple murder directly after World War II, it remains quite spacious in time, geography, character, and theme. Time and geography: the novel completes its action in the mid-seventies, having traveled from World War II Germany to rural Georgia to hippie California and back to metropolitan Georgia. Character: the novel gets convincingly told from multiple viewpoints, including a white man responsible for the murders, a black victim of those murders, and a young white witness of them. Themes: well there are many, guilt, homosexuality, masochism, racism, abiding ignorance, hopelessness, revenge, to name a few. For me, the most compelling factor of Conversation was Grooms' ability to faithfully give the readers so many varied voices. No, that’s not enough, I changed my mid-stream mind: plot keeps right up there with voice, for its quirky and inexorable movements become completely tied in with Lonnie's voice from the moment he innocently picks blackberries only to witness the murder of his erstwhile "father" Bertrand, a black man who knew his white biological father and extended charity after that father’s untimely death. We hear Lonnie carry the horrific murder through his childhood, through his long stint in the navy, and his time in California. It haunts him as his mother summons him back to Atlanta. It constantly molds him for better and for worse as a man until the inevitable end. The Vain Conversation is a treasure, a darkly pleasurable one.
Alice Hoffman's Incantation
Four stars, young adult; three stars, adult. From the reviews, I gather that Ms. Hoffman was delving into the crossover market for young adult / adult literature. That partly explains Hoffman’s return in this 2006 novel to a much earlier style of, say, Turtle Moon. A sample: “It was something small that made it happen. Small like the bite of a bug. That something was a kiss.” The plot is as sparse as that prose, and that is not a complaint. Just to let you know that this is no The Third Angel or Here on Earth or Practical Magic. Coming of Age is the key to this novel, and betrayal is the lesson learned. Concerned with Spain during the Isabella and Philip period of booting out Jews and Muslims, the novel certainly isn’t going to depict many joys. Its harshness, however, is glossed a good deal by its brevity. A fine novel for young adults—and a good enough read for adults, especially fans of Hoffman’s writing.
Suzanne Hudson's In a Temple of Trees
5 of 5 A knockout novel Suzanne Hudson’s recent novel, In a Temple of Trees, is knockout. Just how good a writer is Hudson? She turns a sexual encounter between a white male abductor and his black female abductee into twenty-three of the funniest pages you’ll ever read. Brothers and sisters, if that doesn’t take writing skill, then my childhood cracker name wasn’t Billy Joe. Those two themes, racism and sexism, predominate the remainder of the novel in a much more serious manner, however. When the Klan appears days after a young black boy named Cecil, witnesses a murder at a white hunting camp, the novel turns as haunted as it was comic. Cecil is sexually debased before the Klan, as is his adopted white Jewish mother. Her reaction? “It was then that she let the fire have her, curling into the bowels of it as if it were some glowing embryonic membrane silencing the world.” Set on the Alabama-Mississippi border, the novel’s spine revolves around Cecil’s reaction, his enduring memory of the rape-murder at the camp. When he witnessed it, he was an apprentice cook for five white men. The men have brought a young woman from over the state line to “entertain” them for the night. When matters turn nasty, young Cecil, who’s been befriended by the woman earlier that day, is at a loss to help her. –Guilt over his lack of any helpful reaction haunts Cecil for thirty-two years. Here the plot thickens, for Cecil’s inherited a radio station from his adopted white parents (one a Jew, remember, so an outcast in her own manner). And—this should sound familiar to Alabamians—a statewide voter referendum on charging timber companies realistic taxes is forthcoming. Cecil’s radio station reaches several pivotal counties where the black vote could swing matters. So . . . Hudson is a master of intertwining suspense, tone, and scenes into a plot that will keep you reading throughout the night. And her characters are so real that you might want to sit with a canister of mace to keep some of them at bay.
Suzanne Hudson's The Fall of the Nixon Administration
280 pages. If you like Southern Gothic and black humor about the South, then this novel’s for you. Told from the viewpoints of four women and set in the 70’s—with a bonus chicken coop filled with Nixon administration scoundrels—the novel marks the beginning of America’s questioning of the status quo. The white matron, MiMi, drives around with her husband’s ashes in the trunk. Once, when the battery is run down because she left the lights on, she turns about, “Well g**d**mit, Wick . . . Couldn’t you have turned off the lights?” And the matron takes up with a wild Viet Vet, much to the dismay of her daughter, CeCe. Much to the delight of her black maid, Lindia, and to the consternation of said vet’s lover, Marlayna. Sound Gothic enough for you? Surely so. A fun read.
Aldous Huxley and Christian Isherwood's Jacob's Hands: A Fable
Three and a half stars really. This is supposedly a collaboration between Huxley and Isherwood, though I suspect that Huxley's widow did a good deal of cleaning up and filling in blanks. Its subtitle, "A Fable," certainly holds. In the foreword, Laura Huxley mentions that she found the manuscript in the attic and that it was meant to be a collaborative (screen?)play between the two men. Much of it reads that way, more as stage directions ("We learn," "we can see," and so on). I will say that the prologue and epilogue for once are integral to the novel in both meaning and plot. I did find, however, the plot to be a tad predictable. This, as I just wrote, is somewhat alleviated by the novel's form. I bought this novel because I'd recently seen a wondrous rendition of Cabaret in Tuscaloosa. Isherwood's Berlin Stories served as the germ for that musical. Forthcoming Publication from Red Dirt Press! Ghostly Demarcations, story collection
Lars Iyer's Dogma
Two warnings; two ameliorations. Warnings: the following reading is iconoclastic, and I have yet to read either the precursor (Spurious) or the sequel (Exodus). Ameliorations: even should the author publicly decry this review as blasphemous, the reading still works effectively, and as with the trilogies of Davies and Nichols, this middle novel stands alone quite well.
Dogma opens with a lecture tour from Britain to southern United States. Iyer seems to take the South as emblematic of the schlock and decay of our present day, just as he seems to take the character Lars as emblematic of today’s lazy hedonism. W, the alter ego (in my reading) of Lars, is a hard-nosed Jewish academic forever berating Lars for his laziness, his hedonism: “In the end I excel at only three things, W says: smut, chimp noises, and made-up German.” The “I” in the former quotes is Lars. Or is it? Is not rather W berating himself in fine Puritanical fashion for not working hard enough, for being distracted by the material matters of life? After all, who ever heard of a duo of lecturers traveling together? Academics could never get their act, much less acts, so organized beyond petty backbiting. And this curious manner of narration begs for misinterpretation.
The American lecture tour ends quickly enough at Pigeon Forge, Dolly Parton’s hometown amusement park. The remainder of the novel occurs in Great Britain and Europe. A pre-apocalyptic Europe, I should note, for that historical conjecture of civilization’s imminent demise sets the dark—though comic—tone for the entire novel. When Lars tries to book a trip to St. John’s Patmos, he winds up instead at Piraeus and then Paros, evidently a Greek resort island. No revelations, only decadence are forthcoming. “Our eternal puppet show, says W.”
This novel’s tenor is intense, compelling. Don’t look for plot, but do look for a quest—perhaps unfulfilled for sure, but human all the same, a “mayfly of thought.” And thus, my reading of this supposed dialogue as an interior struggle, W on one side, Lars on the other, listening for “Pythagorean spheres,” hearing only “the amazing force of idiocy, a solar wind sweeping through empty space.”
And what of Sal? Ah Sal, with her impeccable musical taste. Well, why not go further, since I’ve trod out on a limb: Sal is the eternal feminine, Lady Sophia, Wisdom—exactly what W and Lars will never attain.
Bonus addendum: If you bought into the above interpretation, you can also expand it to read the entire novel as symbolic of what W refers to as the conflict between capitalism (materialism) and religion (spirituality). That is, what is evidently seen as the main conflict of modernity and perhaps the source of its malaise.
Lars Iyer's Wittgenstein Jr.
226 pages. Something of a study of a fall into madness, this novel centers around three characters: a Cambridge logic professor jokingly called Wittgenstein Jr; Ede, an aristocratic student; and Peters, a scholarship student and the novel’s narrator. At the term’s beginning there are 45 students enrolled in the professor’s class; by the third week only an apostolic dozen remain. When discussing why they are hanging on, one student quips that they want to watch the professor’s nervous crack-up. And Wittgenstein Jr does seem on the verge at all moments. His teaching defies logic—his supposed field—to border on the type of mysticism that revels in affirming opposites: “Perhaps it is not a question of belief. Perhaps the concept of God is not a thing in which one can believe or disbelieve.” It very soon comes out that the professor’s older brother, an Oxford mathematician, committed suicide. With that fact, the novel’s tone moves from complete understated comedy and satire of the English university experience into its prime mode, a character study. Not that the humor subsides, for there are grand comic moments: when Ede splits up with his “fated” love appropriately nicknamed Fee, he and Peters make tea of magic mushrooms in hopes of achieving “choking despair . . . chaotic despair . . . the despair of Lucifer . . . annulling despair . . . crawling despairs, like rats, like spiders.” And so on for two pages. While there is little plot—and I won’t ruin the climax of that little bit—the work builds like a novel with the increasing intensity of the dark soul journey that Wittgenstein Jr is taking and the efforts his students, especially Ede and Peters, make to rescue his sanity. This is a read that is both funny and moving, and it serves even better on the retake. Lots of allusions to Shakespeare and Nietzsche, appropriately.
T. Geronimo Johnson's Welcome to Braggsville
Four and a half stars. Synopsis: Four “little Indians,” four UCLA college students gathered from across the country and unified in their outcast disunity, decide to stage a “performative intervention” at a Civil War re-enactment in Braggsville, Ga. The results are personally devastating.
This novel is a tour de force in three ways: first and primarily, it takes on the tangle of racism in America from all perceptions—black, white, Mexican, Chinese, and onward. And Johnson cuts no slack to those whose simple answer is to take a simple stance and throw epithets at anyone who differs. (I know, I know. This simplicity is what politics in America have been lurching toward for quite some time.) Johnson’s empathy extends toward all the groups, and that means ALL.
Secondly, there is a good deal of sarcasm pointed at the naiveté of academia and ingénue students—who are the ones who bring their “performative intervention,” a mock racial lynching, across the country from the safety of Berkeley, California to the reality of small town, Georgia. Even when describing this, Johnson empathizes with the four students, who have admittedly (admitting too late after the fact, that is) acted with reckless irresponsibility. Thirdly, Johnson’s technique of layering the plot and the characters is amazing. I will confess to thinking he was cheating by having the lynching, the performative intervention that causes such havoc, occur offstage. Well, no, for the reader gets threads and patches, just as do the characters, and these weave their way into a devastating conclusion, mainly because we have invested in so many of the characters by that time.
My sole complaint is that this novel itself becomes something of a strident performative intervention in a Faulknerian manner near the ending couple of pages. Nonetheless, it’s well, well, well worth the read, and its overall effect, one hopes, will be to make the reader slow down in making judgments.
Johanna Johnston's Mrs. Satan
Along with Schneebaum’s Keep the River to Your Right, this book counts as one of the more serendipitous finds of my reading life so far. (I found Mrs. Satan in a desk drawer as I was administering an exam.)
If you’re interested in the early feminist movement, abnormal personalities, NYC post-Civil War politics, the Vanderbilts, religious hypocrisy, free-love, spiritualism, dysfunctional families, life in upper-class Britain—you get the picture, almost anything—this book is for you. Well-written with a novelistic feel, Mrs. Satan undergoes many of the twists that the wildest novel’s plotline would. My only complaint is that Johnston spent a good deal of time on Victoria Woodhull’s early dysfunctional family life—her father toured her and her younger sister (Tenny C—cute, eh?) through several states as spiritualists to make money. BUT, author Johnston, it turns out, was right to emphasize these sordid beginnings, for they hovered over everything in Victoria’s life, even her candidacy for President. Yes, she was, indeed, the first woman to be so nominated, with the then blessing of Susan B. Anthony, who later withdrew her support because of Victoria’s insistence on free-love. Victoria Woodhull comes off as a complete enigma in the end, albeit a wonderful, fascinating enigma. Was she a con-artist, a mad and hallucinatory psychotic led by the voice of Demosthenes, a disillusioned crusader and martyr to a lost cause, or victim of childhood abuses from both parents? My opinion wavered throughout. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a great 19th century feminist and defender of Victoria when others abandoned her, concluded on seeing Victoria in England, “May the good angels watch and guard her. I will not condemn.” Whatever Victoria was, she was fascinating. If the proverbial creek don’t rise, I hope to include this wondrous enigma in a future novel of my own. A very pleasant dip into the late nineteenth century and feminism. And sadly enlightening in many, many ways, I fear.
Lee Klein's JRZDVLZ
247 pages. JerseyDevils, see? Part allegory (the Jersey Devil is composed of thirteen animals, to match the thirteen original colonies), part moral fable (whenever the Devil dons a white wedding dress, he turns human), and part illumination of folklore (the Jersey Devil itself) —but this novel’s real theme is longing. After a briefly narrated note to the reader, the novel opens with the Leeds Devil (aka Jersey Devil) devouring almost his entire family upon birth. The entirety of the remaining narrative concerns the Devil’s desire for expiation, for repatriation into the human race, for fulfillment with a mate. Exiled in the second chapter, the Devil spies a woman in a wedding dress who daily and nightly strolls the shore: “I longed to contact her but could not. It would have been like disturbing the sun.” Then, after contacting and conversing with the first of his many—mentors? opponents? benefactors?—the Devil is coaxed into donning the wedding dress, for their has been no bride inside. Doing so allows him to transform, albeit shakily, into a somewhat civilized human with complete freedom of speech (before, the Devil’s words are punctuated with screams). The first-person narration of this novel is compelling in evoking the Devil’s longing. And that Devil, of course, is Everyman: “The churning, unpredictable scrum of impatience seemed set to overcome the curtain and become the show itself. The crowd was now the Leeds Devil, waiting for an up-close sight of a captured beast . . ." This written during a harrowing scene of scapegoat sacrifice. JRZDVLZ is a fine, oftentimes brilliant read.