ISSUE 14— December, 2009


Zeitoun, — Dave Eggers

The two most recent Dave Eggers novels, What is the What and Zeitoun, merited front-page features in the New York Times Book Review. I am glad the Times considers Dave Eggers to be an important author, and Bubba’s Book Club can do no less—in fact, What is the What earned a full-issue review. My fulsome praise and associated tangents about that novel grew to a considerable length because so many of my own thoughts and memories were triggered by reading it. That, of course, is its own tribute.

In that review I outlined my appreciation for Eggers’s first book, a zany kind of rambling memoir called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and his later fictional efforts, the hilarious novel You Shall Know Our Velocity, and the engagingly experimental story collection How We Are Hungry. They all offered the same winning combination of humor and pathos, and a deft yet guileless prose style.

Following his early success, Eggers presided over the creation of an artful and original publishing house, McSweeney’s (which began as a literary journal publishing “only works rejected by other magazines”). McSweeney’s grew into a fertile home for many creative talents, as well as Eggers’s own more recent works—which are published in beautifully crafted editions that frame and dignify the story within. (The first stylish hardcover of You Shall Know Our Velocity was only released to independent bookstores.) One admirable detail on these volumes is a removable paper slipcover bearing the blurbs and barcode. You can throw that away and have a beautiful piece of art, unstained by marketing detritus.

That same spirit of maverick activism has stirred Dave Eggers’s writing, on several levels, as he has matured from a humorous observer of comedy and tragedy into a voice against injustice. His narrative arc, so to speak, mirrors that of a number of humorous writers I admire, especially travel writers. Some of them started out carefree and irreverent, then eventually became more serious—thinking of Redmond O’Hanlon, Bill Bryson, and Tim Cahill, for example. It seemed as though after they had gone laughing into the world, they took a good hard look around, and their hilarity and high spirits gradually cooled, tempered, and sobered—as if to say, “You know, when you really look at the world, it isn’t so funny.”

Humor is always a worthwhile lens through which to view human foibles, but to a maturing writer facing tragedy and brutality, or the degrading of the natural world, laughter can seem hollow and inappropriate. Maybe they start to feel like that perfect line from the movie Down By Law, “It’s a sad and beautiful world.”

A similar movement toward the Tragic View is apparent in some fiction writers, too. Mark Twain’s work became more serious with age; John Irving’s later novels are darker and less whimsical than the early books, and even playful tricksters like Tom Robbins and T. C. Boyle embraced earnestness and sorrow. Jonathan Safran Foer, barely into his thirties, has already veered from his darkly hilarious post-modern extravaganza, Everything is Illuminated, to publishing a homily on vegetarianism.

Dave Eggers has turned his gravitas in more interesting directions, and as the natural evolution of an artist, it has been a pleasure to share it as a reader. His creative odyssey is a perfectly relatable progress of life and work from laughter to sorrow. It’s a sad and beautiful world.

Threads of seriousness were woven into Eggers’s early work—A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was based on him and his brother facing life as orphans, and the picaresque plot of You Shall Know Our Velocity is about trying to do something good and selfless in the world. But he launched himself “in earnest,” so to speak, in 2006, with the publication of What is the What, a non-fiction novel narrating the trials and ordeals of a Sudanese boy, Valentino. The story was not funny, but it was true, it had its beautiful moments, and the telling was masterly. What is the What introduced a different voice, and a different kind of dramatizer, blending journalism, documentary, and the techniques of fiction—like Truman Capote’s conception of the non-fiction novel in his enduring masterpiece, In Cold Blood.

When writers are faced with evil, and are moved to try to “capture” it in words, they seem to hoist a flag reading, “Now I will use my art to shed light on this darkness.” Many of the modern realists, from Zola and Balzac to Dickens, Steinbeck, and Dos Passos have been “artist activists,” exposing injustice through their fiction in genuine hopes of ameliorating it. Other examples are Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, and Frank Norris. In a musical parallel, the canon has come to be called “protest novels,” after the ’60s genre of protest songs. Dave Eggers has gone beyond mere protest, becoming not just a muckraker, but an actual activist and philanthropist toward bringing that light—a one-man revolution. (And ¡Viva! that.)

In that sense, maybe Dave Eggers is the Bono of modern literature—using his artistic powers, and his celebrity, to fight evil and do good. Well, we can always use more of that kind of carrying on—never mind the bitter weevils of envy criticizing those who actually try, while offering only cranky, inarticulate hate as their contribution to a better world.

Zeitoun continues Eggers’s crusade to dramatize real-life injustice, both natural and human. It relates the story of the title character’s harrowing experience in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—a real man, and his true story. A respected businessman and resident of New Orleans, Zeitoun gets his family safely out of town, then remains behind through the tempest. In its aftermath, he paddles a small boat around the flooded city, helping others where he can, faithfully feeding abandoned dogs, and simply surviving—until he is arrested as a suspected terrorist. That suspicion rests solely upon Zeitoun’s Middle Eastern origins, and thrusts him into the bleak, unMirandized underworld that radiates from the dark nuclei of Abu Ghraib and Gitmo.

“Kafkaesque” is a word that’s perhaps overused to describe a nightmarish encounter with mindless authority, but the fact that Zeitoun’s story actually happened in 21st Century America lends the comparison to Kafka (The Castle, The Trial) considerably more ballast. The story of Zeitoun is sad and terrible, but sensitively and artfully told, with the mature technique of a great novelist.

It is even more admirable that Eggers illuminates these all-too-real issues of government corruption, failures in infrastructure and official agencies, and institutionalized racism, and then goes on to “walk the walk,” dedicating profits from his book, and a few pages at the back listing organizations that are trying to help.

Dave Eggers is a great writer, and seems like a good man, too. That’s something, all right, in this sad and beautiful world.


A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, — David Foster Wallace

If Dave Eggers is the Bono of modern writing, perhaps D.F. Wallace was the Kurt Cobain, or Jeff Buckley—a tragic avatar of an angel beset by demons. He was a native of Illinois, educated at Amherst College and Arizona University in Tucson, and his early novels Broom of the System (partly written as a college thesis, like Foer’s Everything is Illuminated) and Infinite Jest brought him praise and moderate success. However, as a longtime victim of debilitating depression, Wallace suffered from the pressures of having the word “genius” lobbed in his direction, and struggled to live up to his own expectations for his work (another musical echo, of Brian Wilson, a fragile, burning spirit of pure ambition weighed down by the need to “measure up” to some imagined expectation).

Many people have trouble understanding mental illness as, well, illness. Depression, for example—we might feel that someone who is “depressed” ought to just “snap out of it” (“Come on, what do you have to be depressed about?”). In reality, it would be more accurate to say that clinically depressed people “have depression”—or better yet, they suffer from depression.

Because they certainly suffer. Anyone who has had even a glimpse, maybe through grief and bereavement, of how lightless and joyless a day can feel (never mind the night), should be able to imagine how depression can be as cruel, arbitrary, and deadly as any terminal disease. William Styron, in his memoir of depression, described it perfectly: Darkness Visible.

With the aid of antidepressants, David Foster Wallace managed to sustain a functional balance, but in the early 2000s, while teaching in Claremont, California, and working on a novel called The Pale King, the medication failed him. Desperate, he resorted to a series of electroshock therapies, but, unable to face the spiraling darkness, he hanged himself in September, 2008.

I would never judge a person’s decision to escape a fatal illness, or a mental disorder that has become unendurable. That’s one side of the story, but the exit they choose tells a tale of its own. Perhaps scholarly works have already been dedicated to the Psychopathology of Suicide Methods, I don’t know, but it’s a deep subject.

Some choices of exit are deliberately cruel to others—like Ernest Hemingway doing the old toe-and-mouth shotgun trick, and blowing his brains all over the front hall of the home in Ketchum, Idaho, he shared with his fourth wife, Mary. By all accounts, she had been the target of his angry, paranoid, increasingly feeble mind (electroshock therapy again), and the message he was leaving her may have been, “Clean this up, bitch.”

Nearly all suicides leave someone living to suffer for them, to clean up some kind of mess, but some methods are more intimate, more inward. Picture Virginia Woolf wading into the River Ouse, her overcoat pockets filled with stones (achingly sad), people slashing their wrists with razor blades in hot baths (wincing agony), or those who jump off cruise ships (more than ten a year in the past decade), or bridges (imagine a few seconds into those leaps, your very cells screaming in primal terror)—they all signal something with not only their act, but their choice of method.

Virginia Woolf’s suicide note to her husband, Leonard, expressed the suffering, the darkness, the desperate pain, among shreds of gratitude and love:

I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I can’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

 

Turning away from that sad subject, I’ll just say that it is impossible to read David Foster Wallace now without feeling that shadow. And commiting suicide by hanging seems a particularly mean choice—mean to oneself. It is so bleak, slow, and cruel, and it hurts to imagine a soul in such pain.

I was moved to buy one of David Foster Wallace’s books because, in the same way that Jeff Buckley’s name appeared in my consciousness long before I heard his music, Wallace’s name kept coming up in certain circles of people who admired good writing. References like that seem to get filed in my brain and covered with little mental Post-It notes, and when I see the name in a bookstore, those notes start to flutter: “That name = interesting.” I chose this collection of Wallace’s to sample, mainly because I loved the title and the wacky cover.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is a collection of magazine stories, though I can’t imagine any of them were published in the form presented here. (A notice in the book’s front matter suggests the reality: “The following essays have appeared previously (in somewhat different [and sometimes way shorter]) forms.”) They are lengthy, tangential, and riddled with metafictionist footnotes and idiosyncratic abbreviations. (It took me a couple of encounters to decrypt “w/r/t” [with regard to] and “SOP” [standard operating procedure], but once you do, meeting them again is like sharing a secret language with a friend.)

Whether writing about professional tennis, the Illinois State Fair, a David Lynch film location, or the title story about taking a Caribbean cruise, Wallace’s writing is acute, observant, funny, intellectually brilliant, and precociously wise. There is a great deal of personality in the blend of intelligence, humor, and self-awareness woven into the virtuoso language, keen selection of details, and mostly affectionate portrayals of other people.

I enjoyed this collection very much, and look forward to exploring his much-praised fiction.

Too bad we lost David Foster Wallace—but great that we had him at all.


The Good Life, — Jay McInerney

Jay McInerney came to prominence with his first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, in 1984. It truly was a dazzling debut, and the early comparisons to F. Scott Fitzgerald were justified, not only for the youthful talent and glamorous society-page lifestyle (Portrait of the Artist as a Buzzed Young Celebrity), but for the likelihood that such talent and indulgence would burn out early. It was Fitzgerald himself who said, “There are no second acts in American lives,” and some of McInerney’s peers lived up to that tragic prediction.

Jay McInerney, however, persevered, and just kept writing. I admired Story of My Life (1988), which used the daring first-person voice of a female character—Alison Poole, a party girl with complications (as who doesn’t?). I have never forgotten one sparkling simile: Alison climbing a squalid stairwell, the crack vials under her feet “breaking like little promises.”

Amusingly, Story of My Life had a recent bump in sales because of McInerney’s claim that the character of Alison Poole was based on Rielle Hunter (née Lisa Druck), whose affair with John Edwards, while his wife was battling cancer, scandalised the nation and wrecked his political ambitions.

Along with several other novels, McInerney published some journalism, a wine column for House and Garden (collected and published in two volumes), and book reviews. Following a turn-of-the-century bout with writer’s block, and associated depression, he applied himself to the writing of The Good Life with the discipline and self-denial of a dedicated athlete. This American life was determined to have a second act.

When I was only a few paragraphs into this novel, I had the sudden warm feeling that I could relax and trust the author—it felt as though I was in safe hands, somehow. A skilled and discerning storyteller was about to spin me a tale, and I felt I could trust that he had taken the trouble to ensure that reading it was going to be worth my time.

(A raised glass to the invisible hand of good editors, too—the diplomats, confidants, counselors, and cajolers who dwell, literally, between the lines. In all of these novels, and in virtually every good book, there is a secret sharer or two helping to guide the solitary author. Just as a professional musician learns to recognize the effect of an artful producer on a recording, a writer who has collaborated for many years with a dedicated editor [Paul McCarthy, take a bow] learns to sense the editorial presence in a work as finely wrought as The Good Life. Typical issues of unity, clarity, and “what the reader needs to know” refine the glossy finish on the carpentry. Likewise, good copyediting is only appreciated when it’s not noticed—when the reader’s eye is not offended or distracted by typographical flaws, spelling and grammatical errors, and other such technical matters. Editors and copyeditors are unsung heroes, and deserve more acknowledgment than they receive—at least a credit in the front matter, I believe.)

The Good Life shows McInerney working with the confident powers of a seasoned novelist, and right away he exemplifies E. M. Forster’s famous motto from Howards End:

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.

 

The characters are fictional (two of them from a previous novel, Brightness Falls), but like Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun, the story is thoroughly of our time, and surrounds the aftermath of a real tragedy of horrendous scale. In The Good Life, the setting is Manhattan in the days and months following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. If that sounds like an unpromising, possibly depressing background for a love story, then I can only reassure you—trust the author.

Because in fact The Good Life is a complex, romantic-realist, modern love story that embraces many dimensions. Love among the ruins, embers in the ashes, exalted joy and tawdry shame, dire choices and fearful consequences. A bittersweet quality reminiscent of the old Sinatra standard of the same title is an echoed irony that can’t be accidental.

 

It’s the good life, full of fun, seems to be the ideal

Yes, the good life, lets you hide all the sadness you feel

You won’t really fall in love, ’cause you can’t take the chance

So be honest with yourself, don’t try to fake romance

 

As in most of McInerney’s fiction, Manhattan itself is a major character (though there are some fine scenes set in Tennessee), and in that context, the events of September 11, 2001, can be seen as an external force on that organism—the collective consciousness shared by many New Yorkers, and portrayed with subtlety, grace, and deep empathy (McInerney watched the towers fall from his apartment window). In the novel, people’s lives are changed mostly for the worse, yet some survivors are thrown together in unexpected ways that are fresh, chaotic, and sometimes serendipitous. The scenes around Ground Zero, with the ash-covered rescue workers and those who looked after them, are portrayed with the most delicate brushstrokes, and always evoking the one quality that photos and video can’t convey: the hellish smells.

The love story at the novel’s heart is wrenching, yet tender; doomed, yet sweet; dishonest, yet sympathetic. The adulterous affair gives pause to those who believe in promises of fidelity—who believe that the euphemism “cheating” is merely a gloss on betrayal (and sometimes the cruelest kind). The immorality is only in the dishonesty, of course—if the behavior broke no promises (no crack vials), it would be no sin. But sometimes such a liaison can grow innocently, unintentionally—and very occasionally it might be true, in the pathetic-sounding plea of remorseful betrayers, that “It just happened.” Love among another kind of ruins—a grand passion blossoms in a field of shabby lies.

McInerney introduces a level of moral ambiguity, too, because the two lovers believe their spouses are already betraying them. As these characters are shown, the reader can’t help feeling that in this case, the “good” ones are cheating on the “bad” ones. The moral complexity is further amplified because there are children involved—families—and toward the novel’s conclusion, the way that reality is harshly clarified, and the sad resolution foreshadowed, is a stunning and masterly piece of writing.

The climactic scenes of The Good Life reminded me of the mood of an old movie, Strangers When We Meet (1960), starring Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak. Similarly, a circle of lives were destroyed in the wake of a doomed, adulterous love affair, and in the end, everyone loses. McInerney handles that scenario with delicacy, compassion, and skill, and you can’t help feeling sorry for the star-crossed adulterers, and for their families. In the larger sense, you can’t help feeling sorry for everybody.

That is the effect of a great novelist at work. Trust him.


In the Skin of a Lion, — Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka in 1943, but emigrated as a boy to England, then as a young man to Canada, where he became a citizen in 1965. Though primarily known as a novelist, Ondaatje is also a fine poet (one collection I bought just for the title, A Trick With a Knife I’m Learning To Do), and he writes prose with a uniquely poetic flow of rich imagery and gorgeous language. His first novel, Coming Through Slaughter (1976), brought him attention in Canada, and The English Patient (1992) won him international fame after the success of the film version, released in 1996 and receiving nine Academy Awards. The immense artistic and commercial success of the film must have brought Ondaatje great rewards—beyond the wildest expectations of a Sri Lankan-Canadian poet and author of artfully “challenging” novels. It is strange to think of that roulette wheel of major-film adaptation, how it can be such a lottery win for the unsuspecting crafter of literary novels, to be suddenly lofted upward to best-seller status, and seeing glossy film-tie-in paperback editions of his or her books in the airports of the Western World. Yet other equally beguiling novelists, with seemingly equally attractive cinema potential, continue to languish in near obscurity.

In the Skin of a Lion was published in 1987, and tells interlinked stories of early immigrants to Toronto and the vast public works that employed them. At the time of first reading the novel, in the early ’90s, I was living in Toronto, and suddenly what had seemed familiar and mundane features, like the Bloor Street Viaduct—a high bridge arching over the Don River Valley between East and Central Toronto—took on a romance and mystique usually felt for exotic places.

A friend and I were comparing impressions of In the Skin of a Lion, and when he asked me to name my favorite scene, it was the same as his: a winter night in rural Ontario, and a boy, Patrick, watches the Finnish lumberjacks skating on the river, their skates made from old knives, playing tag while holding up flaming torches of reeds and rushes.

Many vivid scenes are evoked with such artistry, and the characters are only a little extraordinary—cast from the mortal clay of laborer, businessman, urban engineer, nun, anarchist, and thief, yet dusted with the luminous patina of myth.

In the Skin of a Lion is a novel of powerful, unforgettable scenes and monumental characters, one of the rare treasures to be placed on the shelf marked, “To Be Read Again.”


The Brothers K, — David James Duncan

In the early 1990s, in an old Toronto theater called the Winter Garden, I attended a talk by one of the foremost cultural scholars and intellectuals of the time, Camille Paglia (Sexual Personae; Sex, Art, and American Culture). Ms. Paglia is worth an essay of her own one day—just for being the voice of honest feminism, and a necessary corrective to those she lumped together as “humorless lesbian feminists.” She was herself either a lesbian or bisexual at the time, but she was no man-hater—she gave due credit to males as occasionally useful, obsessive little boys.

In that talk at the Winter Garden, Ms. Paglia lamented that her own generation, coming of age in the 1960s, had failed to produce a significant body of literature to reflect those times. (I think she blamed it on the drugs.)

Writers of an older generation, like John Updike, Don DeLillo, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, John Irving, Joan Didion, and even James Michener (a little-known gem called The Drifters), had written about that turbulent decade, but Ms. Paglia wondered where the voices of her generation had gone. However, she was speaking almost twenty years ago, and since that time, I believe that apparent void has been filled well, and richly. It seems like it was necessary for sufficient time to pass, to allow those times to develop and come into sharper focus, like a print in a darkroom, before younger novelists could step up to try to portray the turmoil of that decade, and perhaps most especially, the horrors of Vietnam­—in country, and at home.

That dark face of the ’60s has been sharply etched in Tim O’Brien’s novels, like Going After Cacciato (1979), a surreal, dreamlike portrait of that war (or overburdened spirits escaping from it, if only in imagination), his powerful story collection, The Things They Carried (1990), and the harrowing novel, In the Lake of the Woods (1994). Other facets of life in that decade have been explored in Lesley Choyce’s The Republic of Nothing (1994), T.C. Boyle’s Drop City (2003), and —perhaps most thoroughly of all—in The Brothers K, by David James Duncan (1992).

Like Duncan’s endearing earlier novel, The River Why (1983), this is the kind of book that rewards—and invites—rereading. It is a sprawling family saga well packed with lively characters who are rich in virtues and flaws, and decorated with recurring themes and metaphors, especially from baseball (the father, Hugh Chance, is a minor-league baseball player whose promising career is cut short by a factory accident) and the many-splendored foibles of childhood and adolescence.

Deliberate echoes of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov are sounded in some of the characters and events, although reference is made to the letter “k” being a baseball box-score symbol for “strikeout.” Deeper themes, like belief systems of many kinds, are also woven in, but allowed simply to “live” on the page—showing characters who are blessed or damned by faith, for example, and portraying those whose faith supported them, and those who simply use the faith of others as an instrument of power. The Brothers K is set mostly in the Pacific Northwest, and thus Duncan joins a list of great authors who have described and celebrated the region’s unique geology, flora, and weather—Ken Kesey, Tom Robbins, Timothy Egan, and David Guterson in Snow Falling on Cedars and Our Lady of the Forest.

The Brothers K is a large-scale documentary of history, rendered into fiction in the intimate scale of everyday life (like the Stevie Wonder album title, Songs in the Key of Life)—of families, of children growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, of the ideas in the air in those times, and of the eternal power of love to torment, redeem, exalt, torture, and triumph. It’s a big novel, in every way, and is such an absorbing place to spend time that the end is reached with regret rather than relief.


The Art of Racing in the Rain, — Garth Stein

No sport has attracted anything like the quality of fiction writing that baseball has, from Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Ring Lardner, Harry Stein, W.P. Kinsella, and many more. And as for true-life stories, even for a non-fan, the tales of the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox,” or characters like Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, are irresistible.

But here is something completely fresh in the line of sports metaphors—not baseball or boxing, or even soccer or hockey, but sports-car racing.

Oh, and it’s told through the voice of a dog.

But be assured that any hint of schmaltz in that device is defused by having the dog, Enzo, harbor the belief that a dog is man’s closest relative. He also believes in a Mongolian tenet in the chain of reincarnation, that a dog is the last step before becoming human. Many people have looked into the eyes of a dog and seen an “old soul,” and this old soul, Enzo, can’t wait until he’s able to “graduate” and finally give aid to the poor helpless people around him.

I became aware of The Art of Racing in the Rain by scanning the New York Times Book Review best seller list week after week, and seeing the unusual title poised high in the paperback list for months—since its publication in June, 2009 (the hardcover came out in 2008).

The Book Review’s capsule description was, “An insightful Lab-terrier mix helps his owner, a struggling race car driver.”

As a dog-lover, a lifelong admirer of fast cars, and an occasional track-day racer, I decided to give the book a try. For one thing, I was curious about the use of the car racing background in a novel. I have driven some of the racetracks Stein describes, and felt an unusual flash of verisimilitude in his description of a “hot lap” around Thunderhill Raceway, north of Sacramento. “Yeah, it’s just like that!”

All of the settings (like The Brothers K, mainly in the Pacific Northwest), are described in economical, yet tender prose, and the descriptions of driving technique are spot-on, too. These sometimes offer metaphors that transcend simple factuality, and evoke universal truths—for example, the book’s epigraph, from the revered Formula One champion, Ayrton Senna (1960-1994): “With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high.”

(You can see from those dates that Ayrton Senna did not fly high for very long—he was killed in a racing accident at San Marino in Italy.)

A fictional racer, Julian SabellaRosa, is quoted on the theme of non-thinking concentration: “When I am racing, my mind and my body are working so quickly and so well together, I must be sure not to think, or else I will definitely make a mistake.”

Substitute “drumming” for “racing,” and I know just what he’s talking about.

Enzo quotes his owner, Denny, on how to drive a race car in the rain: “‘Very gently. Like there are eggshells on your pedals,’ Denny always says, ‘and you don’t want to break them. That’s how you drive in the rain.”’

That is intentionally a pretty good metaphor for life, too—race onward, but gently, carefully, and smoothly. Don’t break those eggs.

“The car goes where your eyes go” is another gem of wisdom familiar to sporting drivers, and to motorcycle riders. In a human reaction called “target fixation,” if you start to slide in a corner, say, and stare at an object you’re afraid of hitting, it’s all too likely you will. You have to look where you want to go—keep looking through the corner—and chances are the machine will follow.

But The Art of Racing in the Rain is about much more than car racing, or it would not have attracted a few hundred thousand readers—not to mention a forthcoming “major motion picture.” The novel is about love and loss, hope and despair, birth and death, struggle and acceptance, wisdom and compassion—the stuff of every great novel.

A movie version sounds promising, but I’m glad to have read the book before the actors are cast. I always try to read a celebrated novel before I see a movie made from it, so the characters aren’t indelibly printed with the actors who portray them. Some of the mystery of suspended disbelief is often lost in the transformation from print to film, and too much is already “given” when a story tries to stretch from film to print.

One “zen parable” among the metaphors, a line that appears as Enzo’s sort-of mantra, left me frowning in contemplation: “That which you manifest is before you.”

I see the message, and like it, though there are all too many occasions when it’s just not true. Ayrton Senna, for example, only manifested death by being a race-car driver, but perhaps that was enough. At least one could live by that manifesto (I think maybe I do), as it’s a kind of belief system that encourages a “responsible” sort of thinking. Not like another zen mantra I’ve run into lately, “Leap and the net will appear.”

I wouldn’t bet my life on that one.

In any case, zen mantras are only one tiny ripple in the slipstream of impressions and reflections that remain after reading The Art of Racing in the Rain. I continue thinking about its themes and characters (especially Enzo, the wise old soul), and passages still stand out in my mind as vividly as scenes from a favorite old movie.

One can only hope the movie version of this novel will live up to its achievement—an affectionate portrait of a sad and beautiful world.

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