Bubba’s Book Club — Issue 17

All through 2012 and into 2013 I kept a list of the books I hoped to write about for Bubba’s Book Club. (The key word was “hoped.”) Unlike most book reviewers, I have the luxury of choosing to read only books that I expect to enjoy — whether on the strength of a good review, a friend’s recommendation, or a taste for the author’s previous work. Also unlike most book reviewers, I can choose to write about only the books I do enjoy.

Because unless you’re getting paid to be glib about stuff you don’t like, why bother? Over two hundred years ago, the great scholar and wit Dr. Johnson said, “No one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” However, he spent nine years working on the first great dictionary of the English language, and he didn’t do that for money. (Or if he did, he was a blockhead!)

My list of the past year’s literary favorites now numbers twenty-one titles, nearly all of them novels. In addition, I notice with surprise and delight that every single one is by a living author, all but one published within the last decade. That says a great deal about my feelings toward the state of modern fiction.

It’s alive!

But still, that is a daunting number of books to face up to writing about. Past issues of Bubba’s Book Club have managed to cover as little as one book, and maybe up to six. And as someone observed, “The hardest kind of writing is being smart about books.” (Okay, that was me.) Perhaps, to a blockhead, that reason alone makes it worth the effort to try. But there is also the simple motive of wanting to “share the love.”

On this occasion, a couple of reflections encouraged me to attempt it. Although these books are all current and contemporary, the only quality some of the authors share is that they happen to be alive and writing at the same time — their work couldn’t be more different. And yet, whatever techniques and preoccupations they employ to tell their stories, their accomplishment is the same — they spin a good tale, and delight the reader. And not only this reader, for in most cases these titles were well-reviewed and even fairly widely read.

So, wishing to give each of them its due nod from Bubba’s Book Club, I will attack the list alphabetically, with a brief description.

For these are all books that I genuinely loved, and wanted to write about, for one reason or another.

No one but a blockhead ever wrote except for love.

Every Third Thought: A Novel in Five Seasons, John Barth (2011)

Even into his early eighties (born 1930), the long-reigning master of postmodernism (hipsters call it “po-mo,” or even “pomo”) demonstrates his endurance as a playful-yet-profound observer and contemplator of humanity and life. The title refers to aging — how an old man’s every third thought is of death, quoting Prospero in The Tempest, when he is planning to return to Milan, “Where every third thought shall be of my grave.” The main character is an elderly author who remains upbeat and energetic, reflecting, “That still gives First and Second Thoughts to get stuff done in.” The irrepressible John Barth chronicles life’s late stages with the same crafty sleight-of-hand and bawdy gusto he brought to portraying youth — when it might be said that every third thought was of another end.

John Barth published his first novel, The Floating Opera, in 1956. (In one of his later non-fiction pieces, Mr. Barth describes a young writer in a small house in Upstate New York with a full teaching load and a young family. His writing is accomplished in stolen hours, with the aid of earplugs and amphetamines.)

John Barth blossomed into his own mature style with The Sot-Weed Factor in 1960 — highly intelligent and deeply learned, yet somehow warm and friendly, darkly comic and satirical — and always with a light-hearted carnality that might be dubbed “satyrical.” Since then Mr. Barth has produced a steady monument of works large and small, all interwoven with mythology, history, magic realism, unconventional techniques, and dark or ribald humor. I number several of his novels among my “dearest favorites” (seems the right descriptor), perhaps especially The Tidewater Tales (1987), a kind of sentimental touchstone. I certainly consider John Barth a member of my literary “lifetime achievement” pantheon. Many of his novels — in fact all of them dwell among the select “rereadable” list.

In recent years I have reread a number of his early novels chronologically, and it occurs to me that perhaps the best way for a new reader to experience John Barth’s writing would be to start at the beginning.

It’s quite a journey . . .

Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon (2012)

Michael Chabon was born in 1963, placing him among the generation of authors coming into their maturity right now. Some are in full flight, confidently wielding the experience and skill they have gained, yet maintaining their youthful enthusiasm — writing for the love of it, perhaps the need of it. Michael Chabon is a shining example. His first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, published when he was just 25, was followed by great success (Pulitzer Prize, major motion pictures), and he is still aiming higher and wider.

(One side biographical note that I think is instructive: early in his career Michael Chabon spent five long years working on a novel that grew and grew, even as his faith in it faded. Worse, he sent a draft to his editor, who didn’t like it either! Yet he had accepted an advance for the novel — half of which had already gone to his ex-wife — plus invested all of that irreplaceable time on it, five years of his life. However, he forced himself to abandon it, and used that experience as material for his next novel, Wonder Boys (1995), which became a huge critical and commercial success as both novel and film. We are always told “Don’t give up,” but as W.C. Fields said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no use being a damn fool about it.”)

Telegraph Avenue is centered around a struggling quarter of Oakland, California, on the ragged edge of Berkeley, called Brokeland. (Just caught the rhyme myself — nice.) Its heart is symbolized by Brokeland Records, a used vinyl store operated by a pair of True Believers. In telling their story, Michael Chabon’s masterly technique is deftly applied, yet with such subtlety that a casual reader might not notice — the way it’s supposed to be. To quote Ovid (some wisdom demands repetition), “If the art is concealed, it succeeds.”

Subtle shadings of description and mood are woven with consummate skill into sentences of modern brevity and clarity, but the rhythm of words is used like phrases of music — to make description into mood. Michael Chabon is also not afraid to toss in what a John Steinbeck character called “a little hooptedoodle.”

Which brings this conversation about contemporary writers to a brief reflection on their predecessors — the “moderns” before “post,” the “mo” before “po.”

In the early ’80s I was in a Manhattan bookstore, and asked about a biography of John Steinbeck I had read about. The young and severely hip clerk (what we would now call a metrosexual) sniffed, then muttered, “Does anyone read John Steinbeck anymore?”

We certainly hope so, now and always. Likewise the other moderns, Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, Jack London (just reread some of his early stories — powerful stuff, like the best of his novels, Martin Eden and The Sea-Wolf), the “Four Ws” (ooh, I like that!) — Wharton, Welty, Woolf, and Willa — even the earlier pioneers of modern realism, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and Theodore Dreiser. Sometimes clunky, but still important.

But we’re not supposed to be getting into all that right now — we’ve got a lot of books to discuss.

“Hooptedoodle” comes from the comic Prologue to Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, the sequel to Cannery Row. A couple of the shared characters — bums — are discussing the first book:

One night Mack lay back on his bed in the Palace Flophouse and he said, “I ain’t never been satisfied with that book Cannery Row. I would have went about it different.”


Mack goes on to describe to his friend, Whitey No. 2, what he likes in a book, in terms of chapter titles and lots of “talk,” and some description, but not too much.

I like to know what color a thing is, how it smells and maybe how it looks, and maybe how a guy feels about it — but not too much of that.”

“You sure are a critic,” said Whitey No. 2. “Mack, I never give you credit before. Is that all?”

“No,” said Mack. “Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. The guy’s writing it, give him a chance to do a little hooptedoodle. Spin up some pretty words maybe, or sing a little song with language. That’s nice.”


One prize hooptedoodle in Telegraph Avenue is a central chapter that continues a single sentence for about ten pages. Not many writers could make that work, or even feel the need to try, but at Bubba’s Book Club, we like a little hooptedoodle. (Just not too much.)

We also like the description on the flap copy, and will quote it in the spirit it was intended — to entice a reader inside: “An intimate epic, a NorCal Middlemarch set to the funky beat of classic vinyl soul-jazz and pulsing with a virtuosic, pyrotechnical style all its own . . . ”

That describes it pretty well. (We guess virtuoso pyrotechnics fall into the same category as hooptedoodle.)

The Antagonist, Lynn Coady (2011)

This is an extraordinarily original novel by a young Canadian writer (born 1970). (The ages of the authors seem important in reviewing this collection of books that pretty much span a single decade, and a single year in my reading life.) The story plays freely with the “unreliable narrator” device — like classic Nabokov, but fragmented through a broken mirror. This narrator does not set out to deceive, but he is full of self-deception and self-righteousness, and the reader soon realizes that his world-view is skewed. The man, called “Rank” by his friends, is convinced that an unflattering character in his friend’s novel is based on him, and fires off a succession of angry emails, “setting the record straight.” The reality is that no one in the world cares the tiniest bit about what is “true” to him — not the novelist friend, who ignores Rank’s increasingly irate tirades, and not the reader either. Despite his obvious self-serving bias, though, Rank’s unfolding delusions are entertaining, and expressed with admirable skill.

Male writers have sometimes been congratulated for portraying believable female characters, sympathetic and not, and Lynn Coady seems to have an astonishing grasp of masculine patterns of thought — the peculiarly male insecurities, codes, and hormonal drives. None of the main characters are stereotypical, but they all . . . represent.

Clever, funny, and ultimately stirring, reading this novel is a pleasure — even in memory.

Eleanor Rigby, Douglas Coupland (2004)

Another Canadian writer, but closer to the middle generation of the authors under discussion (born 1961), Douglas Coupland is an artist who has also “triumphed over success.” Meaning that success, if it arrives too early, or proves insufficient, is generally something a real artist has to “get over.” Too much attention and praise can be a psychological pitfall, and the artist has to come to terms with “expectations” — his or her own, and those of utter strangers. Not all survive that transition. (Actors, musicians, and authors alike.) However, those who do come through that fire are often purified, ennobled, and freed of any temptation to compromise their work for public approval.

They just make art they like, and hope others like it too. (Sweet innocents!)

Douglas Coupland trained as a visual artist, at which he still excels in painting and sculpture, and became a writer, he says, “by accident.” His fame built gradually with his first novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991), in which he popularized not only an infamous successor to Gertrude Stein’s damning “Lost Generation,” but also nailed enduring pop-culture-driven sociological concepts like “McJobs.”

The theme of Eleanor Rigby, not surprisingly, is loneliness, and the Beatles’ song is an apt soundtrack. Lives of quiet struggle without company, and without notice, in their solitary rounds — people who exist in their own minds, but feel as though they are invisible to others. (As they often are.)

Certain characters in Eleanor Rigby reminded me of Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down (2005 — see Issue 2), and it is fair to say that Mr. Hornby (born 1957) is in some ways Douglas Coupland’s British counterpart. Both have portrayed disaffected, alienated youth through the generational filter of pop culture (members of a club that also includes Michael Chabon and Dave Eggers, I guess), yet both have gone on to cast wider nets over life and lives. They maintain a deep humanity that presents a character with honesty, but generosity. (Many people seem to judge others through a lens that is either cruel or generous, which says much about themselves. Perhaps that filter is anger or hope.)

Eleanor Rigby and A Long Way Down both portray young women who had sex once in their lives, and produced a damaged offspring — for whom they are suddenly responsible, and for whom they will sacrifice the rest of their lives. These star-crossed young women are portrayed without sentimentality, or excessive pathos, but simply as isolated human beings trying to solve their problems, even as new obstacles and humiliations keep rising in their path. In our own ways, we can all share that experience, and one of fiction’s greatest strengths is bringing us into other people’s lives that way. It just takes a great writer. (That’s all.)

Douglas Coupland chooses to speak for those who have no voice, and to draw the reader’s attention to other lives around us — that we might notice them.

Because if anyone matters, I guess we all do.

A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan (2010)

At least one line of connection can be drawn from eighty-something John Barth to fifty-something Jennifer Egan (born 1962) — “metafiction,” or combining a number of techniques to tell a story. John Dos Passos was an early pioneer, in the USA trilogy in the 1930s — incorporating newsreel voiceovers, newspaper clippings, terse profiles of contemporary historical figures, song lyrics, and a stream-of-consciousness device called “The Camera Eye.”

(Yes, for any Rush fans who might be slumming at Bubba’s Book Club, I stole that title and idea for the song on Moving Pictures.)

Going forward a generation, John Barth had a lot of fun with that device (one of the few writers I can think of who always seemed to be having fun). Two generations later, people like Dave Eggers (born 1970) played around with the notion, even adding little illustrations and cutouts to his text. (Eggers also dared the ultimate po-mo trope — a story of blank pages.) Jennifer Egan pushes metafiction up another notch, like incorporating a child’s PowerPoint presentation in a way that is not just clever, but smart and funny (the gold standard of excellence). An observation just occurred to me that seems more than the sum of its parts: It wouldn’t work if it wasn’t excellent.

Perhaps we’ll come back to that elephant at the bar later.

The “goon squad” in the title refers to time, certainly the ultimate mindless brute (John Barth defined it memorably as “The Destroyer of Delights”). Jennifer Egan’s novel of linked stories about a circle of intertwined characters jumps around in time freely. The characters’ fates are not so much revealed, but (forgive me) adumbrated, in a non-linear, yet powerful series of vignettes.

One of the scenes is set in Lower Manhattan in the near future, and portrays an all-too-believable expansion of our reliance on handheld devices in everyday life, along with the degradation of language into near-unintelligible (and far from elegant) textese. In what is also a seemingly inevitable degradation, the power of pop culture rests with infants, so-called “pointers,” whose digits on the handheld devices select images and music with unparalleled marketing power.

With so many shifts in time and setting, technically it’s the transitions that are key, if the storyteller is going to keep her listener. The sudden disconnect in each transition is risky, putting the reader suddenly at sea. It can be a challenge for the reader to keep up — but perhaps it is more accurately a challenge to the writer — to keep us readers engaged during such a radical set change.

In the best-case scenario, the reader is rewarded for that effort, I believe, and perhaps further engaged by “helping” to put the story together. A little challenge can be stimulating. However, too much challenge (in entertainment, after all) can be . . . discouraging.

The reader might just close the book and forget about it.

However, I don’t think that should happen with this novel. It is pyrotechnical and fiercely vivid, intelligent and empathetic, and richly deserved its Pulitzer Prize in 2011. We liked it a lot.

A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers (2012)

Here is another modern author who has “triumphed over success” by using it as a proper springboard for everything he wants to do. Dave Eggers has been profiled and praised in a couple of previous reviews (Issues 8 and 14), so without being repetitive here, I will only say that he has not allowed the attention of others to distract him from what matters in art and life, but only used it to “enable” him.

Another pitfall of success can be alienation from the struggles of “regular people,” even a loss of empathy, of caring. Sometimes such feelings derive from a sense of unworthiness, of unearned wealth — when paradoxically, the less-fortunate must be despised and found guilty of causing their own difficulties.

Because if you are going to take the credit, they are going to have to take the blame.

With recent books like What is the What and Zeitoun, both non-fiction novels recounting the real-life sufferings of others, Dave Eggers has shown that his empathy, and his sense of mission, remain fully engaged. Now he turns those powers to an entirely fictional story, and dazzles us with sparkling technique and open-hearted sincerity.

In an age dominated by irony, conscious or not (from Stephen Colbert to the morbid fascination with “unscripted” antiheroes), Dave Eggers is not afraid to be sincere.

A Hologram for the King is set in an oil-rich Arab country, where a troubled, middle-aged American salesman, Alan Clay (even his humble, malleable name associates him with George Babbitt, Willy Loman, and Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom), tries to peddle his company’s technology to King Abdullah. The king is building a “model city,” a surreal and almost pharaonic monument to himself — yet he rarely visits, and the American sales team has only brief encounters with disturbingly surreal bureaucrats.

As the story unfolds, Dave Eggers explores modern tides like the global competition faced by American businesses, the dominant poles of economic power shifting to Arab countries, India, and China — but as always, a story is not made from the background, but from the characters. While building a bizarre little world that yet feels true, care has been taken to people it with unfamiliar, even exotic characters who seem real, and make the reader care what happens to them.

Bubba’s Book Club has raved about every Dave Eggers novel, usually at great length, and A Hologram for the King deserves the same distinction — if we didn’t have so many other raves to hand out just now.

Simply put, Dave Eggers just keeps aiming higher — and getting there.

He is a shining beacon of how to do well, and do good.

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt (2011)

One profile of this Canadian writer (born 1975) described him as “Cormac McCarthy with a sense of humor.” That description certainly fits this novel, a classic “picaresque” (“of or relating to rogues and rascals”) tale, set during the California Gold Rush in the 1850s. (Inspired, said the author, when he found a picture book about the Gold Rush in a yard sale.)

The story is narrated in the voice of Eli Sisters, the chubby, soft-hearted brother of cold and ruthless Charlie. The Sisters brothers are hired killers of some repute, though Eli dreams of a different future — as a shopkeeper, say. Eli speaks in a combination of frontier simplicity and nineteenth-century formality that suits the story’s episodic pacing, which ranges from grimly absurd to absurdly grim.

Funny, that is, but . . . dark.

The banter between Eli and Charlie is among the strongest components of the novel, as they ride from Oregon City to Sacramento. At one point, Charlie says to Eli, “‘Do you think your mangled, brainless horse can make it to the next town without hurtling itself off a cliff? What’s that? You’re not smiling, are you? We’re in a quarrel, and you mustn't under any circumstances smile.’ I was not smiling but then began to, slightly. ‘No,’ said Charlie, ‘you mustn’t smile when quarreling. It’s wrong and I dare say you know it’s wrong. You must stew and hate and revisit all the slights I offered you in childhood.’”

Eli and Charlie have been charged by their fierce and fearsome boss, the Commodore, to kill a perfidious prospector, Hermann Warm — but first they must acquire his “secret formula.” All is not as it seems, suffice it to say, and dark hilarity and grim absurdity result. The climax is splendidly conceived and executed — a mashup of O. Henry, Mark Twain, and Edgar Allan Poe.

Cormac McCarthy might be looking on with an approving smile.

The Sisters Brothers was a winner of multiple literary prizes, shortlisted for many others, and was a bestseller in Canada, voted Best Novel of the year by Amazon Canada.

We agree — it is a superb piece of work, told with a perfectly honed voice, and dark laughter echoing in the background.

Canada, Richard Ford (2012)

Despite the title, this is very much an American novel, by one of the most respected of American writers. Born in 1944, Richard Ford is a native of the American South, growing up in Mississippi and Arkansas. He built his reputation as a highly regarded prose artist with such novels as The Sportswriter (1986) and Independence Day (1995 — Pulitzer winner), in a trilogy that was completed by The Lay of the Land (2006). That series was set in New Jersey, and Ford has gone on to be a “regionalist” for Montana, with many stories and some novels set there.

An interview with Richard Ford revealed a powerful observation, widely applicable to all kinds of regionalists, from Southern Gothic to Latin American magic realism: “When I write sentences set in Montana, I write different kinds of sentences.”

That is a concept to conjure with, in the matter of “sense of place,” and of how that quality informs an author’s voice.

Canada opens in Great Falls, Montana, and its first sentences are unusually compelling: “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.”

The storytelling is shared by the main character, Dell Parsons, in his teens and in his sixties, when he is a retired teacher in Windsor, Ontario. The boy’s father is one of those unlucky visionaries, common among novelistic fathers, who either have the right idea at the wrong time, like Adam Trask in Steinbeck’s masterpiece, East of Eden, or a succession of bad ideas, like Bo Mason in Wallace Stegner’s Big Rock Candy Mountain.

One theme Richard Ford develops is how for men like these (and they are always men), one mistake becomes the near-inevitable springboard to the next, often larger, lapse of judgment. Typically, it seems to them that they have no choice but to follow the only logical way out of their troubles, when it is in fact, of course, the slippery slope of doom.

For them, and for their families — especially the children.

The country of Canada is more a symbol than a place in this novel, an escape from “all that,” where Dell Parsons has an opportunity to build a new, better life. That he manages, despite the obstacles and odds, to do so is gratifying, but Richard Ford also shows us that the sorrows and struggles of life do not taper away with vanishing youth — if anything, they increase, and the battle continues unabated. The young may feel their heartbreak as unique and unbearable, but survivors go forward bearing the eternal knowledge that life will only break their hearts again and again.

Strong Motion, Jonathan Franzen (1992)

The title is a metaphor based on a term used by geologists to describe the activity within about thirty miles of a fault rupture. What is called “strong ground motion” overwhelms a seismometer, and is measured in a scary-sounding scale called “peak ground velocity.”

So there is some serious shaking going on in this story — inside and out.

Strong Motion is Jonathan Franzen’s second novel, published almost ten years before the massive success, critically and commercially, of The Corrections (2011). (Just imagine devoting yourself to one piece of work for nine years, the solitary struggle so many authors endure to produce even one book they can live with — what Joseph Conrad called “le métier du chien,” a dog’s life. No one but a blockhead ever wrote except for love.)

Mr. Franzen does not seem to be the type to hide his light under a bushel (and fair enough — like Dizzy Dean, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up”), and he has remarked that he feels Strong Motion was underappreciated. We agree — it is a very good novel. And it has proved to be remarkably prescient, looking forward from twenty years ago to some of the social rifts that most divide us now — unbridled capitalism versus environmentalism, reproductive rights versus “pro-life” bullies, megalomaniacal religion versus reason. He even foreshadows the current epidemic of large-scale “fracking,” or hydraulic fracturing — a highly controversial method of fossil fuel extraction that is a major environmental concern today.

One quality that will never again be understood or applauded is the amount of hard-core research Mr. Franzen had to do for this book — in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when such information was not just a few key-strokes away, but buried in dusty libraries and newspaper files. Useless to lament such changes, of course — though a lot of people waste time, energy, and emotion trying — but I recall something Douglas Coupland said that seems profoundly post-postmodern.

“I kind of miss my pre-Internet mind.”

(Every reader can probably reflect on that in his or her own way.)

Reading Strong Motion, I thought of another writer who seemed to share a certain kinship with Jonathan Franzen, at least in this novel — my friend Mike Heppner. The connection is ironic, because after Mike’s novels The Egg Code and Pike’s Folly (see Bubba’s Book Club Issue 5) were published to little notice, Mike has been unable to sell any of his subsequent novels. The experimental hybrid fiction Man Talking (see Bubba’s Book Club Issue 12) was more-or-less self-published, and these days Mike makes his living in the usual profession for a writer of literary fiction — teaching creative writing. He continues to write, because he has to — and teaches because he has to.

(John Barth taught for nearly all of his writing career, and David Foster Wallace once observed, “To be a professional writer is to teach.”)

Success can be such a crap shoot.

With all Jonathan Franzen’s success and notoriety, I began reading Strong Motion under the slight cloud of knowing the author was “celebrated.” Even outside the literary world, he attracted the notice of mainstream media for apparently disrespecting the Mighty Oprah. He was smeared with accusations of snobbery for allegedly saying that he didn’t want to be associated with Oprah’s Book Club. (I do hope he wouldn’t feel the same about Bubba’s.) The tone of the outrage was, “Oh — he thinks he’s too good for Oprah’s fans.”

But, on closer scrutiny, it turns out to have been nothing — certainly no “feud with Oprah.” Mr. Franzen only expressed a minor concern in one interview that being on the cover of O magazine might scare off male readers — and he wanted male readers. (A coveted demographic minority.)

But even apart from such infamy, Jonathan Franzen was obviously successful and popular, and that alone is a potentially damning achievement.

However, as I was drawn into the novel, any doubts were soon dissipated. The strength of the story, the characters, and the sheer exuberance of the writing swept me up and carried me away.

Also, judging by the biography of David Foster Wallace reviewed below, it appears Jonathan Franzen was a very good friend to that tormented soul — a man who very much needed good friends. So we like him for that, too.

Nightwoods, Charles Frazier (2011)

Cold Mountain (1997) was the first novel published by Charles Frazier (born 1950), and it won the National Book Award for Fiction that year. It won this reader’s heart, too — I loved that book. Its studied formality, its intimate engagement with the natural world, and its strong characters struggling against a rough-hewn background with emotions held close but dear — it seemed a splendid meal to me.

Charles Frazier was raised and educated in the Carolinas, and the Appalachians became his chosen setting — Cold Mountain and his second novel Thirteen Moons in the 19th century, while Nightwoods remains in the same neighborhood, but moves forward to 1960.

The story ripples outward from a damaged hermit, a young woman named Luce, whose solitary world is gradually invaded by a series of other damaged individuals. However, the next level up from damaged is disturbed, and from there to deranged (the French word dérangé means “messed up” or — even better — “unhinged”), and each of those degrees is present in this story. Damage is the psychological foundation on which Frazier’s characters and their destinies are built, and it is a world-view this reader has come to share — we are all the sum of our childhood damages divided by how well we “compensate.”

Compensating means adapting — means growing — and that process is the engine of this story. To continue that automotive analogy, the powerful engine is enclosed in the swoopy coachwork of a passionately observed natural backdrop, on a chassis of language that is both exacting and artful.

I’m going to fly that pennant over this book — maybe all of these books: exacting and artful.

In One Person, John Irving (2012)

Another veteran among these authors (born 1942), John Irving is still working at full strength, and, like John Barth, remains loyal to his preoccupations and motifs. John Irving abides. You can fairly expect a John Irving novel to include references to wrestling, New England, Vienna, Toronto, and sexual ambiguity, and In One Person delivers, in proverbial spades.

But wait — there’s more.

On a deeper level, In One Person takes up a theme dating back to Mr. Irving’s breakthrough novel, The World According to Garp (1978), in which the title character’s fatal flaw was that he could not tolerate intolerance.

Let us pause on that for a moment, “He could not tolerate intolerance.”

I don’t know about you, but I recognize a fatal flaw when I see one, and also a pretty admirable way to move through the world.

For the ages, John Irving’s moral question is not what people do, or what they are — but how they are seen, in the eyes of the world. If they do no harm to others, then whether or not their eccentricities are “tolerated” is all that really matters. (And isn’t it?)

That is an important theme for these times, and John Irving uses his highly-developed fictional powers, and his deep empathy, to try to let people see how to . . .

behave better.

If being “good” is often a matter of behaving better than we are (or better than we feel), then art at its best is an attempt to inspire that goodness.

Perhaps we can’t expect people to be better, but we can urge them to behave better, and that is the underlying message of this story.

And maybe what all novelists really ought to be saying, underneath all their pomo riffs and unreliable narrators, is a simple reminder of old Philo:

“Go out there and go wild. But be nice.”

A World Elsewhere, Wayne Johnston (2011)

Two of Wayne Johnston’s previous novels have been highly celebrated in this department — The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1998) and its sequel, The Custodian of Paradise (2006). (See Issue 10.) The main character in those two novels, Sheilagh Fielding, is a giant in every way — physical size, appetites, and acid wit.

How wonderful to say that she is matched in A World Elsewhere by Landish Druken, an equally outsized, outrageous, yet somehow believable character. If for nothing else, Mr. Johnston (born 1958) has to be admired just for being able to invent, and inhabit, such characters as these — so smart, so funny, and so tragic that they break your heart even as they delight you.

But Wayne Johnston gives the reader much more than mere heartbreak and delight. (Though I’d say that’s a pretty accurate summary of even the best-lived lives.)

Any writer of even mediocre skill can create a character who is tragic — just make them likeable and do terrible things to them — but portraying even one character who is truly smart and funny is much harder, perhaps the most difficult of all. It has always seemed to me that a writer must simply have to be that smart and funny to manage it.

The legendary Python and creator of the eternal Basil Fawlty, John Cleese, once said that he didn’t think he was particularly funny, but that if he spent enough time in front of a typewriter, he could be.

Perhaps that’s the case with Wayne Johnston, but for some reason I prefer to believe that he is simply that smart and funny. It can be good to look up to people, and admire them.

Landish Druken starts out as a young Newfoundlander of great intellectual promise, but is expelled from Princeton over a veiled scandal involving a classmate, Van, son of the richest man in America. (Van’s family and some settings are based on the Vanderbilts, like the vast Biltmore Estate in North Carolina which in this novel is called “Vanderland,” but seems faithful to the original.) On Landish’s expulsion from Princeton, he promises, “I will write a book that will put in their places everyone who has ever lived. It may take me as long as a month, but I will not falter.”

And write he does — then burns every word in disgust.

Wayne Johnston spins another marvelous yarn about an outrageous character who yet wins our sympathy, and his writing is illuminated with dark laughter and bright music.

Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver (2012)

Previous books by Barbara Kingsolver (born 1955) have been praised here, particularly Prodigal Summer (2000) and The Lacuna (2009) — which was coupled in Issue 15 to Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) in a review that addressed no less than the Meaning of Life.

Because that’s the way we roll here at Bubba’s Book Club — we’re not afraid to take on the Big Stuff.

Likewise, Barbara Kingsolver does not shy away from the Big Stuff. In Flight Behavior, the issue is nothing less than — Earth’s future. Her microcosm is rural Tennessee, the Southern Appalachians, and her characters range from defiantly impoverished locals to cynical journalists to dedicated scientists. One small thread in her tapestry of people and place is a poignant observation about the local people (Hill Williams, they might be called) being so easily made fun of by the media — who delight in finding some yokel to stand in front of a television camera and make a fool of himself, and by association, his neighbors. Yet at the same time, the author shines her light on their easily-mocked evangelical fervor (including this reviewer’s beloved church-sign wisdom, like “Forbidden Fruits Cause Many Jams,” wryly texted by one character to another), and their willful ignorance about, say, science.

Still, few authors can make a reader love their characters like Barbara Kingsolver does, and once again she presents a winning heroine in Dellarobia Turnbow. Sometimes wrong-headed and flawed, she remains good-hearted and means well — even while married (too young, for the usual biological reason) to an amiable oaf, and constrained by a narrow culture and stern, meddlesome in-laws. (A telling detail is that her husband is nicknamed “Cub,” and his father is “Bear.” Those labels hint at the sense of place, and at their natures and relationship.)

(A further note of interest on character names — Dellarobia’s exotic first name is part of a collection that an author’s note reveals are all from her own family tree.)

A walk in the mountains begins with the intent of an adulterous tryst, but becomes an epiphany when Dellarobia wanders into a huge colony of monarch butterflies — millions of them clustered in the trees in a flaming, twitching organism that first overwhelms her, and soon, her world.

The premise is constructed like the proverbial metaphor of chaos theory — the butterfly’s wingbeat. One of the largest known colonies of migrating monarchs winters in the Mexican state of Michoacán, near an old mining town called Angangueo. (So remote that the butterflies weren’t even discovered by scientists until the 1970s.) On a motorcycle trip through Mexico with my buddy Brutus in the mid-’90s, I visited Angangueo, and it was a breathtaking experience — and not just from the 10,000-foot elevation. We parked our bikes in the town, and for a modest fee, a local guide drove us higher up the forested mountain in an old pickup truck. Where the road ended, we followed a path into the high-elevation forest of tall evergreens to an unbelievable scene — a vast grove where slanting beams of morning light played on twitching orange and black butterfly wings, every branch of every tree clustered with dense color. As the air warmed, tens of thousands of wings filled the air and swarmed over the ground (you had to visit early in the day, because later it became impossible to walk without crushing them).

I still cherish the memory — and somewhere still have a souvenir T-shirt of Las Mariposas Monarcas.

But that was almost twenty years ago, and since then loggers have been invading those mountains, legally and illegally, stripping away the very trees that have sheltered las monarcas for untold ages. A more immediate effect of the clearcutting occurred in 2010, when heavy rains over the now-barren mountainsides caused a devastating mudslide that buried part of Angangueo. Thirty people were killed, and several thousand left homeless. (A fictional family from the village appears in Flight Behavior, having fled to America — another twist to the title’s metaphor.) The town remains so precarious that there is even talk of moving it away from its vulnerable canyon. The mines were long ago played out, and one of the main sources of income is eco-tourism — the butterflies — yet those very crowds threaten the sanctuary even more. So . . . it’s complicated.

Ms. Kingsolver predicates that these factors, the shifting climate, and other environmental poisons have derailed the monarchs, foiled their miraculous inner compass that, even separated from its goal by generations, always guided them to the forests of Michoacán. This time they misguidedly (literally) land in an Appalachian grove, where they cannot survive the winter.

The event is imaginary, but plausible, and the butterflies are not the only creatures whose futures are at stake in the story. A biologist in a camper-truck takes up residence on the Turnbow farm to observe the monarchs, and he in turn is observed by Dellarobia. She wants out of her life, or at least out of her marriage, and here is temptation.

Flight Behavior is a fine piece of work, in every sense — finely imagined and finely made. Another sensuously textured and richly empathetic novel from Barbara Kingsolver.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, D.T. Max (2012)

This is one of only two non-fiction books in this collection of twenty-one, yet it somehow seems to belong. David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) certainly has a place among all these postmoderns — what might have been a place of high prominence, had he survived his demons, or what is sometimes called “genius.” (Aha moment — “genius” and “demon” have very similar meanings, etymologically. Think “genie,” an animating, or animated, spirit. Obviously a spirit, a genie, or a genius can be dark.)

We have looked at David Foster Wallace (let’s call him DFW from now on) before (Issue 14, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again), and recounted some of the sad details of his life. He suffered from severe mental illness, especially depression, and hanged himself at age 46. Somehow it is impossible for me to read his work without that shade over it — the same is true with Kurt Cobain’s music, now I think of it, always given a deeper vein of melancholy by that damned shotgun.

DFW’s struggle also somewhat parallels the arc of Truman Capote’s career, from the zeitgeist-catching gem Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) to his pioneering non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood (1966). (I cannot resist Mr. Capote’s ironic mock-rehab confession, “I am an alcoholic. I am a drug addict. I am a homosexual. I am a genius.”)

DFW made his name with The Broom of the System (1987) (winningly, the title quotes a grandmother urging a child to eat an apple, “the broom of the system”) and confirmed his intellectual brilliance and original voice with Infinite Jest (1996). Writing those books had been far from easy for him, but now he started running into real trouble. Like Truman Capote, DFW’s later work was sporadic and unfulfilling. Coincidentally, both authors, groping for inspiration and raw material, caused minor scandals of personal indiscretion by recycling real conversations and confessions into their stories (support group dialogue, in DFW’s case — a serious breach of the confessional, as it were). Ultimately, it is fair to say that each was defeated by the inability to satisfy expectations, real and imagined.

All of us are fighting a hard battle, and it is sadly true that some of us lose that battle too early, and in ways that are unspeakably tragic. We try to imagine what goes on inside an ailing brain — where the very circuits are plagued by a cancer darker than any tumor.

D. T. Max quotes from Wallace’s story “Good Old Neon” for his epigraph.

“What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.”

That is a good sample of DFW’s writing, typically wanting a couple of readings to grasp entirely, and a hint of his general state of mind, too. He was desperate to “do more than barely sketch the outlines” of what was going on in his own hyperactive brain. Yet he was painfully self-conscious, erratic in mood and behavior, anxious (his trademark bandanas over the forehead helped to conceal uncontrollable sweating attacks), and competitive — but apologetically, somehow. DFW seems to have been conflicted about many sides of his complex personality — he didn’t want to be “that guy,” even when he was. The competitive edge appeared in him as a talented junior tennis player, an apparent sexual glutton, and even as a writer, kicking at the traces of his forebears and influences, especially John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. Yet during his periods as a creative writing instructor at various colleges, he seems to have been a generous teacher (when he was healthy, at least). Recalling a remark of his quoted earlier, “To be a professional writer is to teach,” he took the job seriously, and lavished tremendous amounts of praise, feedback, and constructive criticism on his students’ work.

DFW seems to have been compulsive that way — watching astonishing amounts of television (though while reading equally astonishing numbers of books), smoking too much weed, then as he entered young adulthood, drinking alcohol to oblivion. He wrote to one friend, “I seem to have developed a bit of a drinking problem.”

He dived into the fellowship and dogma of Alcoholics Anonymous (a major theme in his second novel, Infinite Jest), and began a period of sobriety that lasted more than ten years — until he tried to get off the antidepressant that had apparently sustained him for decades, and fell into an inescapable depression. Even after submitting to the desperate ordeal of electroconvulsive therapy, DFW never regained his balance, and surrendered to an illness he could no longer endure.

The biography seems carefully considered and fair to its subject, but I did sense a certain haste in it — or carelessness. I can’t imagine it was hurried into production to capitalize on DFW’s post-suicide notoriety (almost four years later, after all), but I came away with the impression that there were an unusual number of typographical errors for a major publishing house (Viking). I don’t care to get all picayune, but it leads to some details of interest. Learning that as a teacher DFW was a “spelling and grammar nazi,” and knowing that the author is a staff writer for The New Yorker, this reader was surprised to repeatedly encounter the spelling “miniscule” — once defined as “the chances of ‘minuscule’ being spelled correctly.”

I know it is considered a “variant spelling,” and ever more widely accepted, but I wouldn’t expect it at this literary level. However, The New Yorker is famously conservative, even old-fashioned in its stylebook — maybe it was an authorial mandate from a rebellious writer with the opportunity to assert himself? Perhaps. I have done that myself with publishers, like insisting that television shows appear in quotes rather than italics. (I argue that because novels are in italics and short stories in quotes, and album titles are in italics and songs in quotes, then if movies are in italics, TV shows should be in quotes.)

DFW himself overruled his publishers on some matters of punctuation that ran contrary to their in-house stylebooks. In that line, I was pleased to learn that like this department, DFW insisted on the so-called “serial” comma — meaning that you punctuate “this, that, and the other” thusly, instead of “this, that and the other,” as is common with many newspapers, magazines, and some publishing houses.

In the principle of “service to the reader,” a guiding lodestone chiseled out by Professors Strunk and White (The Elements of Style, 1918, continually updated), I object only to the lack of clarity. Sometimes the reader is going to have to stop and think about such a series to be able to sort it into its properly balanced components: “This,” “that,” and “the other.” Not “one,” “two and three,” or “A, B and C.” One good example of the possible confusion is a bequest in a will that concludes, “to be divided among Jane, John and Julie.”

To the careful reader, “divided” suggests two parts, while “among” suggests more than two. Only that serial comma would make it clear.

I don’t think the reader should have to work that hard.

(Editor-brother Danny doesn’t think the reader should have to work this hard!)

In any case . . . whether or not the reader cares about minuscule serial commas, or even has any knowledge of David Foster Wallace’s work, his life story is engaging, moving, and worth sharing. We can all learn from such a biography — whether affirming or cautionary — and from such a tragedy. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is clear-eyed, plain-spoken, with intelligence equal to its subject.

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004)

Born in 1969 in England, David Mitchell went on to live in Italy, Japan, and Ireland. Perhaps that kind of adaptability gave him the courage and flexibility to design this novel. Cloud Atlas is a daring tour-de-force, leading the reader through six completely different stories in appropriately different narrative voices. At intervals you are forced to pause and recollect yourself, then relaunch your attention and suspension-of-disbelief to six separate times and places — from a 19th century seafaring adventure to future dystopias both high-tech and primitive. Each story seems to have been written by a different author — say, moving through Joseph Conrad, John Barth, Jonathan Franzen, Martin Amis, Isaac Asimov, and Jack London.

That’s a lot of scope for a single writer to cover — a lot of rope with which to hang himself — but David Mitchell has the skill to manage it.

As in Jennifer Egan’s less radical timeshifts, the author has to quickly introduce the reader to a new paradigm, then plant “the hook of interest” — making you care to turn the pages.

Certain tiny connections are drawn among individual characters in the storylines, like a comet-shaped birthmark, but such links seem to hint at something more spiritual than genetic or cultural. And that’s fine — fun to think about.

Generally, Bubba’s Book Club does not address filmed versions of novels under discussion, except in terms of preferring to read the book before seeing the movie — to personify the characters in our mind’s eye, rather than an actor’s camera-friendly features. We have also noted how certain unlikely writers of literary fiction, like Michael Ondaatje, have been elevated on the tide of a successful movie.

Yet readers of a novel that moves them create a holographic image of a character that can never really be matched by any actor, no matter how skilled. The one in our heads is real; the other is . . . just an actor.

But, getting back to filmed versions of novels (haven’t seen this one myself, but have heard bad reports), what if the movie is not successful — does that tarnish the book?

Only temporarily, it would seem. And movies too can survive unpromising beginnings — become “cult favorites.” I don’t know about this one, but considered only as a novel, Cloud Atlas has the depth and power to survive the slings and arrows of the media’s short attention span.

We wish it well.

The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje (2011)

Speaking of Michael Ondaatje (born 1943), he now takes the stage — following along alphabetically. We have praised him before (Issue 14), and are pleased to do so again. The Cat’s Table is an intricately wrought jewel box of a story, tiny drawers and secret compartments opening to reveal surprising, sparkling delights. It begins in the mode of a memoir, even introducing a boy named Michael who sails from his native Sri Lanka to London by sea, at exactly the time and age as did the author. The three weeks at sea are described as a classic boys’ adventure, stealing around the ship in a little gang that aimed “to do something forbidden every day.” The characters and details of shipboard life are closely observed (or remembered), all rendered in the lyric prose for which Mr. Ondaatje is justly celebrated. The impact of the experience on the young boy’s entire life is expressed in this quote.

“The three weeks of the sea journey, as I originally remembered it, were placid. It is only now, years later, having been prompted by my children to describe the voyage, that it becomes an adventure, when seen through their eyes, even something significant in a life.”


The title refers to the dining table at which the “undesirables” are seated on the ship, as far away from the Captain’s Table as possible. For the young boys, their undesirable quality is race — being both Asian and brown-skinned, so twice damned — which foreshadows their future obstacles in England.

Midway through the book, other drawers and compartments open, and the plot becomes darker and more dramatic — no longer a memoir, but now a tale of murder, espionage, incest, and threads tracing forward to the various fates of the boys in adult life.

Discussing The Cat’s Table with one widely-read friend, Brutus, I was surprised to hear that he much preferred the first half of the book — at least partly because the shipboard memoir resonated with his own boyhood experience journeying by sea with his brother — while I most appreciated the second half, with all the drama and intrigue.

Never mind, we both enjoyed it, that’s the important thing. The sensual experience of reading Michael Ondaatje’s lovely prose is a reward in itself.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl (2006)

A brilliant young American writer (born 1977), Marisha Pessl caused a sensation with this first novel. A prize-winning bestseller, it was named one of the year’s ten best novels by the New York Times. Although elements of metafiction are used (like the author’s charming — and quite artful — “visual aids”), the tone and techniques are quite different from Jennifer Egan’s or John Barth’s. Maybe this novel is best described as something like Salinger blended with Nabokov and Highsmith.

The tale revolves around a fiercely intelligent and precocious young girl doing battle against the adult world — related to so many memorable and endearing characters created by authors such as Louisa May Alcott, Harper Lee, Miriam Toews, and a legion of authors of children’s books and Young Adult fiction. The plot and narrative technique blend elements of pop culture, murder mystery, gothic horror, and psychological thriller.

A section on the author’s website titled “Cliffs Notes” offers a cover and a detailed index — every item on which links to a single page, “Unfortunately in life, there are no shortcuts.” (Oh, well played!)

Literary references abound, with chapter titles like Othello, Wuthering Heights, Women in Love, Heart of Darkness, Things Fall Apart, and The Big Sleep. We like literary references.

The obliging Jonathan Franzen provided a quotable blurb for the book’s cover: “Beneath the foam of this exuberant debut is a rich, dark drink.”

It is the kind of book, both devilishly clever and richly entertaining, that I finished with the thought that continues to express how I feel about it:

Loved it!”

The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers (2012)

It happens that Kevin Powers is the youngest author reviewed here (born 1980). However, as a soldier in the American invasion of Iraq, which is the background of The Yellow Birds, as well as the struggles of a returning veteran, he has lived more than just about anybody — except another soldier on the front lines of any war.

My reading buddy Brutus is a good book-recommender, and this title came among some other gifts at the Pagan Winter Festival. I make it a habit never to read any of the cover blurbs, flap copy, or any front matter before the title page — wanting to experience the story as the author made it to unfold — no spoilers.

However, after reading this one, I had to write and scold Brutus for not giving me any warning about it. He thought it was better that way, but I’m not sure. Though infinitely worthwhile, The Yellow Birds is a tough, brutal story.

Thinking of Tim O’Brien’s fiction about the Vietnam War, such as Going After Cacciato (1978), The Things They Carried (1990), and In the Lake of the Woods (1994), this book is harrowing like that — but The Yellow Birds is not about past wars, or fictionalized history. It is set in the war in Iraq — basically now.

Like Mr. O’Brien’s stories and novels, The Yellow Birds is told with a poetic sensibility, and a survivor’s authenticity. Similarly, along with Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948) and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), it is war experienced with raw nerve endings.

Like the best of war fiction, it is a gritty, realistic story based on harsh experience — and there is no experience harsher than war. Any individual life can be a tragedy, of course, full of sorrow and suffering, but it necessarily pales among such wholesale torture and slaughter. The gift of these writers is to bring our focus back to the individual tragedies.

Right from the opening scenes, The Yellow Birds is artfully written, yet you know something awful is going to happen. Maybe lots of awful things. So, I told Brutus, reading it was like being tortured with exquisitely crafted bamboo splints and finely engraved needles — then smacked upside the head and stabbed in the gut.

“So if that sounds like something you would enjoy! . . . ”

Of course, “enjoy” is not at all the right word. The cover blurbs (read after finishing the book!) compare it to other war novels, like O’Brien’s, Mailer’s, and Hemingway’s, and the company is fitting. However, those are all about history. The Yellow Birds will assuredly survive as history, but right now, it is news to most of us. News we should hear.
    I believe The Yellow Birds should be required reading for every citizen of today’s world — especially Americans, but everybody. It is truly a heavy story, in the ’60s sense, and in the way its weight continues to resonate in me.
    But I feel wiser — or at least more knowledgeable — about something important, and that is a heavy reward.

The Tao of Travel, Paul Theroux (2011)

The second of only two non-fiction books reviewed here, The Tao of Travel is a selection of travel writings by Paul Theroux (born 1941, half Canadian), among the best and most loved travel writers of our time, interspersed with observations from other writers about traveling. Unlike some other toilers in that genre, though, for Mr. Theroux the emphasis is on both travel and writer. He is a writer by avocation, turning out a steady series of novels, stories, and travel accounts (almost fifty titles), plus biographies and book reviews, over a long and successful career.

One perceives that he is a traveler by temperament — he just likes to go places and see things. It is only then that the writer’s instinct takes over, and he wants to learn about what he sees and share those insights with others. It is, I believe, a generous urge — and Paul Theroux has long stood as a paragon for me in that pursuit.

Like his friend Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989), also a novelist and literary travel writer, Paul Theroux is an authentic nomad, and born writer.

I once attended an appearance by Paul Theroux at a small independent bookstore in Malibu (oh yes there is!). That experience was a tale I must tell at length one day, but at the end, I stood in line to get a copy of his latest novel (Blinding Light, 2006 — see Issue 1) signed for my brother Danny. While waiting in front of the signing table, I recited a quote to Mr. Theroux that I had always liked, and used in one of my own books:

“I like to think I have a sunny disposition, and am not naturally a grouch. It takes a lot of optimism, after all, to be a traveler.”

He looked up with a little smile and said, “That’s true!”

I laughed, “Of course — you said it!” He didn’t seem to “place” the quote, and I told him I’d found it in a collection of quotations about travel.

And that’s what we have here, in a first-rate compendium. Of particular note are passages about writers who wrote about places they never traveled. For example, Saul Bellow wrote Henderson the Rain King (a personal favorite) without ever visiting its setting — Africa, of all places to try to describe without ever seeing. But being Saul Bellow, he launched the story in a satirical voice, and stayed economical with the description, so pulled it off, I think. But others do not. I recall a novel by an author I admired that described a road trip through the American Southwest (another personal favorite), and it became obvious that she had never seen — never felt — the landscapes her story visited. For this reader, it was a deal-breaker.

Paul Theroux, on the other hand, whether in novels or non-fiction, is dedicated to the “sense of place” that so animates him, as both writer and traveler. He goes there, and brings it back alive.

This edition is attractively bound in an old-fashioned style, and is a valuable resource for anyone who dreams of travel — a book to keep by your armchair, or in your backpack.

A Good Man, Guy Vanderhaeghe (2011)

“The Cormac McCarthy of the Canadian West” is not a bad description of Guy Vanderhaeghe (born 1951), and a flattering comparison. Still, of course it is limiting. And, in both fact and public awareness, there is a vast difference between what is expressed by “the Canadian West” and its American version. They are two entirely different stories, in most every way.

One common struggle was the inevitable conflict between the European invaders and the Native residents. Looked at through a suitable lens, reduced by a factor of ten, Canadians — even before they were Canadians — treated their predecessors, like the Mi’kmaq, Iroquois, Cree, and Inuit — with the same rapacity, greed, and cruelty the Americans inflicted on the Cherokee, Lakota, Navajo, and Nez Perce. In the end, relatively speaking, the abuse and neglect resulted in the same ultimate decimation.

(Though decimation means killing one in every ten. One way or another — smallpox on the prairies or gold in the Black Hills — both Canada and the U.S. probably managed more like nine of every ten.)

To arriving pioneers, the frontier of Canada, across Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, offered little but a narrow belt of prairie that was marginally productive for wheat — and then only if the weather was kind. The lands to the south — the American frontier — were likewise arid, but considerably warmer and less cruel. So naturally the American West attracted many, many more people than did the Canadian prairies.

Likewise, before that arrival, the American plains and mountains had attracted greater numbers of “previous tenants” — who now had to be displaced with necessarily greater violence. (See: “Manifest Destiny.”)

After one of the last and worst of those acts of genocide, the Massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890, Sitting Bull and a few survivors escaped north, seeking refuge in the land of the Great White Mother (Queen Victoria). That, of course, was Canada — and only recently born, in 1867. A Good Man is the third in a trilogy beginning with The Englishman’s Boy (1996) and The Last Crossing (2002), all adding up to an epic collection of tales in the “literary Western” genre.

The fictional main character in this story, the “good man,” is a privileged son of Eastern Canada driven west by scandal and rumors of cowardly behavior (classic Western plot point).

His past introduces another interesting wrinkle of Canadian history, the so-called “Fenian raids” of Irish Republicans from the northern U.S. into Southern Ontario — all dramatic and long-neglected material for historical fiction.

Guy Vanderhaeghe is a master of that admirable genre, fully achieving its potential to both enlighten and entertain.

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruis Zafón (2001)

This Spanish author was born in 1964, and began his writing career by publishing several Young Adult novels. His first novel intended for adult readers was The Shadow of the Wind, and it became an international bestseller. It successfully carries forward some elements of youthful fiction to mix into a hybrid genre that might be called “Latin gothic” — a stew of magic realism, mysteries and shadows, and characters from the noir heritage. (Continuing the books and movies thread, the cinematic school called film noir actually derives from the covers of the books they were based on — in France, American crime novels by authors such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were published with black covers.)

Remarkably, The Shadow of the Wind is said to be among the bestselling books of all time — something like 15 million copies sold worldwide — which attests to the novel’s strength of narrative and mood. Yet Carlos Ruis Zafón also feels a higher calling, and brings ideas into his serpentine narrative, perhaps comparable to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum.

The magic part of magic realism is applied to settings like a Brigadoon-like bookstore called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where the young hero finds a novel called The Shadow of the Wind, by an obscure author whose books are being methodically destroyed.

On the “realist” side, the story is set during the fascist regime of General Franco, and the Spanish Civil War looms powerfully in the background — in fact, it may symbolize the wind in whose shadow the characters dwell. Dark powers and sinister officials are also shadows — of brutal authority and menace. The city of Barcelona is itself a major character, poetically rendered in loving detail, from the mysterious, amorphous backstreets to Antonio Gaudí’s wonderfully bizarre masterpiece, the cathedral Sagrada Familia. One centerpiece location, the abandoned and crumbling Aldaya mansion, is portrayed as something close to alive.

It is that very “aliveness,” that vitality, which draws the reader into what is otherwise a very “mannered” structure. In a phrase from a previous review in this series, “It wouldn’t work if it wasn’t excellent.

And in another reprise from earlier, The Shadow of the Wind is “exacting and artful.” Among the sliding panels and hooptedoodle, the characters live and breathe, while the author who gave them life pulls the strings of his own heart.


No one but a blockhead ever wrote except for love.


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