Reviews by Author: W-Z
Wallace's Big Fish
5 stars Daddy Problems? Read on! If you’ve seen the Movie Big Fish, you might want to try the book, if for no other reason than to compare the two genres. In the movie, which is righteously funny, the main character is the father, Edward Bloom. In the novel, the main character must eventually be the son and his dance of misunderstanding and understanding his father. The novel uses four chapters, each called “My Father’s Death” as its forwarding impetus. The second of these chapters consists of an elongated joke about Pinocchio, God the Father, and Jesus. The joke turns personal at the chapter’s end, and this twist underlines the son’s frustration with his dad, who seemingly never, never, never does anything other than tell tall tales and jokes. All the other chapters revolve either around a joke or a singular tall tale. This leaves the novel a good deal episodic than the movie. Carl the Giant, for instance, makes a three-page appearance then disappears forever. The novel is also much more evocative of the son’s frustration since Wally Bloom, the son, narrates the entirety of the work. And this is what the movie especially takes from the novel: an ability to evoke so much boyish wonder with symbolic images such as a black dog that won’t let certain people leave the borders of a hum-drum small Alabama town, no matter what their dreams might be. Or a farm-animal eating giant. Sorry, no lawn of daffodils makes its appearance in the novel. It’s a quick, well under 200 pages and well worth the two or three hours you might spend, especially if you’re having trouble with your own father, regardless of your sex.
Brad Watson's Miss Jane
5 stars. A wonderfully layered, multi-narrated novel. And while it certainly concerns the eponymously named character Jane, Watson’s insight cuts deeply into all five characters in the novel: Jane, her parents, her sister, and the doctor who cares for Jane from birth until his death. I’m tempted to call the landscape surrounding Jane a sixth character much as it is in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native. In Watson’s novel, however, the land offers not a trap but a sanctuary for Jane and to some extent for Doctor Ed Thompson. It is there Jane wanders as a child to find solace from her birth defect (a type of cloacal closure that impedes ordinary waste functions and intercourse). And it is there, with his beloved peacocks, that Dr. Ed roams after his wife Lett dies in the 1918 flu epidemic that took so many worldwide. Like Watson’s Heaven of Mercury, Miss Jane is chocked with wondrous characters and writing.
One of my favorite darkly humorous exchanges occurs between Jane and her father: “Sometimes that dog acts like he knows as much about what’s going on as we do.”/ “He does, Papa.” / “Dog’s supposed to have it easier than that.” And sister Grace’s lingering departure throughout the text moves the reader like watching a distant storm approach and then dissipate. While Miss Jane does not have the plot surprises Heaven of Mercury has (think of the necrophilia scene in the morgue, the electric Negro) it does have an onward inevitability in the same dread sense as Greek drama. This makes Miss Jane’s conclusion especially, satisfyingly, sad, I suppose. I bounce back and forth between which of Watson’s two novels I like better: both, that seems to be my conclusion.
Brad Watson's The Heaven of Mercury
5 stars (four and a half). Part mystery, part rhapsody, part social critique, and part character study, this novel is amazing. Did I mention the language? Let’s start with the language: Watson turns the oddest moments into a thing of wonder with language. Here is Parnell, a young undertaker, getting his first glimpse of his future wife: “But when he met Selena, then just twelve to his eighteen, he had lusted after her with the fervor that only a young man who believed he knew an exquisite corpse in the making could lust.”
And here is the main narrator, Finus Bates, sitting down, of all places, upon his toilet: “He set his feet apart on the cool tiles, hands on his knees like half of a serious discussion.” Watson can turn the oddest matter into beauty. And too, several mysteries and secrets pop up as the novel moves along, to be solved only later, much in good mystery-telling fashion: Why did Earl Urquhart die? What brings Frank to Creasie’s shack? What makes him disappear? Then come rhapsody. The rhapsodic parts flow throughout the novel, many involving Finus’s memories of his first and only love, Birdie, several involving after death experiences. “The old homeplace there, little more than an old dogtrot. Brown burnt-up cornstalks in the field beside, it’s August and everybody drenched with sweat and powdered with dirt from the drive over, the highway nothing but gravel and the road from it just red clay dirt all dried. Everybody standing around in the heat and flies buzzing against the screens.” What a contrast this lazy scene provides for the confrontation that follows!
The novel’s social critique mostly—though not exclusively—involves race relations, fitting enough for a Southern novel. Finus, near the novel’s end, questions an aged black herbalist about poisons. Here is part of their exchange: “Poisons invented by the white folks. Black folks don’t need no poisons.” “Why’s that?” [Finus replies.] “Well, sir, we got the white folks, poison enough. . . I reckon I can say that nowadays, cain’t I.” “I reckon you can say whatever you want to . . .” . . . “Ain’t always been the case.” [She said.]
Finus, a newspaper publisher and radio host, inserts other critiques, however, of changing social attitudes—most of them, he judges, not for the better. As far as character study, there are six in-depth characters we encounter: Finus, Birdie, Earl, Creasie, Selena, and Parnell. The latter two come across as especially strange, being a mortician and his wife. Finus is especially well drawn as something of a mystery, his being a reclusive radio host and newspaper publisher—an oxymoron in the making, yes?
Many of the scenes are compact and well-formed as a short story. This is not at all to insinuate that the novel is a cobbling of stories—indeed not. It is to say that the memories and scenes are gems in themselves and finely honed cogs in the tale.
Overall, this novel is a wonder. Though the language and the movement of plot and time are often difficult and Faulkneresque, befitting Watson’s Mississippi heritage, you will be rewarded with peacefulness from your time in reading
Wilkinson's The Wynona Stone Poems
Split into three sections and varying poetic forms, this poetry collection traces the persona of Wynona Stone from adolescence to somewhere in her fifties in the town of Pleasant Bluff. Wilkinson’s use of meter is sometimes inspired: an aging Wynona vaguely realizes she’ll never use—or experience—the word adagio. Instead“She’ll spend her tenure at the fireworks show/ not thinking cherry blossom, jellyfish, / but grass gives me a butt rash andI wish / I hadn’t had that second plate of pork.” Note the switch from a lilting iambic to a blundering mess of misfired alliteration. Wilkinson’s rhymes are similarly often inspired—this from an earlier poem, and a younger Wynona: “Wynona sighs/ By god, I quit,/ a call God doesn’t need: / Almighty Whistle Blower, / earth is just / his rattled seed.” Two more things carry this collection through: the narrative of Wynona’s life—she makes miniature voodoo dolls and has an on-off affair with “the weatherman”—and the surprising and varied poetic forms used to reflect on her life. “A standard issue happiness // The headset voice: Is that not what you had? / Good question, thinks Wynona, maybe so: / she’s not unhappy, but she’s not unsad.” Despite occasional pedestrian images, conclusions, and rhymes that undermine this work, Wilkinson’s collection rewards close reading.