Miracles, Westerns, and a Mid-West Road Trip: Peace Like A River

peace-like-a-river2It seems my reading has really slowed down after wrapping up my dissertation a week and a half ago. I suppose I am having a bit of a lull after doing so much reading and writing over the past year and a half. Anyways, I picked up Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River on the recommendation of a friend. He suggested it was a mix of magic realism and the western genre, and he wasn’t inaccurate. Peace Like a River centres on the fateful actions of Davy Land who kills two boys in self-defense but then escapes jail and disappears into the American prairies. The novel is narrated by his younger brother, Reuben, a quirky asthmatic who longs for the ability to breath easily and fully. After Davy’s disappearance, his father Jeremiah decides to take their Plymouth car and Airstream trailer out of small-town Minnesota and head west, ostensibly on vacation but actually hoping to find Davy. Reuben’s sister Swede, who aspires to be a writer and loves Zane Grey Westerns, accompanies them and becomes a pseudo-chronicler of the trip as she writes an epic long poem about a vigliant cowboy (Sunny Sundown) trying to hunt down a dastardly villain. The poem provides an interesting counterpoint to the novel’s action as Sundown’s morals and character change according to the increasingly complex moral world that Reuben and Swede find themselves in.

I hesitate to call Peace Like a River a satire of Westerns because it is clear that Enger also has an affectionate attachment to that genre. I cannot claim an intimate familiarity with it, but it’s not hard to pick up the traces of the genre within the novel’s movement. Of course, Peace Like a River is an update Western with the horses replaced (for the most part) by a Plymouth family wagon and the Wild West replaced by the economically-depressed American midwest. Davy is both the villain (he escaped from prison before his trial and is hunted for by federal agents) and the loner hero who is misunderstood by others. There are chases, close calls, guns, and even Swede riding on an authentic Mexican saddle (on a sawhorse in the trailer … there’s also a fair bit of humour too). I suspect that a love for westerns will make this book great in those readers’ minds, but it is not essential as I found it engaging and enthralling.

The other part of the novel that I need to mention is the use of miracles. Peace Like a River is an explicitly Christian novel in that Reuben and his family are Christians, but, more importantly, the novel is a spiritual journey on Reuben’s part. He struggles to understand his father who was on the path to becoming a doctor, but decided on the calling of the Holy Spirit to abandon this pursuit. At the novel’s start he is a lowly school janitor, but boasts an impressive prayer life such that Reuben is witness to various miracles including healing various ailments and walking on air. These events are where the novel borders on magic realism, but I hesitate to call them that because in the imaginative realm of the novel they are simply events (miraculous though they may be). Magic realism has a very specific lineage and genealogy that I’m not sure Peace Like a River fits into (see this site for a discussion of its meanings). If miracles aren’t your thing, then this novel may not be for you … or it may change your mind. Anyways, miracles are a key theme in the novel and I found Enger’s use of them intriguing and sophisticated.

Overall, I loved this novel and am planning on teaching it this fall in a first-year literature and composition class. I would highly recommend this book to all readers.

Enger, Leif. Peace Like a River. New York: Grove/Atlantic, 2001. Print.

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Essential Reading: Everything That Rises Must Converge

oconnor-cover-for-everything-that-rises-must-convergeIt seems strange to me that only a year or so ago, I had not really read Flannery O’Connor. Sure, I’d studied “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and ” Good Country People”, but I had not truly read her. You need to experience O’Connor’s work in its full depth. One story, even if it is a real gem like “A Good Man” or “Good Country People” , does not really do here justice. I read A God Man is Hard to Find last yearand thoroughly enjoyed it. Having just finished Everything That Rises Must Converge, I believe this is a stronger collection and left my jaw dropped consistently. This is O’Connor at her strongest, touching on Christianity, Southern politics, race, rural life, poverty, and, most especially, the bizarre nature of being human throughout.

For the uninitiated, O’Connor was an American writer who only published two collections of short stories and two novels (Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away). She writes what has been called Southern gothic fiction, set mostly in rural areas of America’s south, and often featuring irruptions of the extraordinary or magical. In “Parker’s Back,” Parker, a former Navy-man covered in tattoos who married a woman he does not love, has a revelatory experience when he crashes the tractor he is driving into an old tree in the middle of the field. The sight of the burning tree and tractor scares Parker so much that he immediately goes to a tattoo artist to have a Byzantine Christ portrait painted on his back. He believes that the accident was divine revelation and hopes that putting a religious tattoo on his back will propitiate God. He also hopes that his wife will be pleased, but when she sees it, she throws him out calling him an idolater for putting a picture of God on his back. While it would be easy to join the wife in ridiculing Parker, there is an earnestness in Parker’s response that prevents it. The final sentence of the story (“There he was – who called himself Obadiah Elihue – leaning against the tree, crying like a baby”) reveals a broken and defeated man. The central scene, the accident, is both realistic in the sense that it could have happened but also something else entirely because of the religious tones and epiphanic framing. O’Connor frequently uses these moments, leaving realism behind for a moment and then coming back to it.

The other thing that stood out for me in this collection was O’Connor’s ability to throw a twist in the endings. These are not cheap-tricks but key moments that force readers to re-examine everything that has come before. In “The Enduring Chill,” Asbury believes he is dying from a self-induced existential fever. Readers are invited to see through his self-delusion throughout, but in the final sentences, he has an epiphanic experience of the shape of a dove made in the cracks of the ceiling plaster morphing into the Holy Ghost descending on him. Asbury had invited a Jesuit priest over to spite his mother, but in this ending O’Connor suggests that something more spiritual has happened to him. While it might be easy to see these as imitation Edgar Allan Poe plot twists, they cannot be discounted.

I think it was these more than anything that made Everything a more enjoyable read than A Good Man. The characters of Everything are both despicable and lovingly crafted. We despise them and yet cannot help but see through their eyes. Simply put, Everything That Rises Must Converge is essential reading for any fan of short fiction.

I highly recommend this collection.

O’Connor, Flannery. Everything That Rises Must Converge. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965. Print.

Less Shocking Than the Film, But Still: A Clockwork Orange

orangeI admit that I approached Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange with a fair bit of trepidation. Watching Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of the novel was a shocking revelation for me a number of years ago. However, I seemed to have missed the point in the film, but, thankfully, the book corrected this for me. It is easy to focus on the ultra-violence of Alex and his droogs, nadsat for henchmen or gang members, rather than on the overall moral questions that Burgess asks in the novel. For those who have not had the experience of either novel or film, Alex is the first person narrator of A Clockwork Orange and he leads a gang of four youth who terrorise the streets of England (at least that’s where I think it is set) at night. The novel can be quite difficult to get into at first because Burgess has completely adopted Alex’s nadsat, teen slang, that takes at least several pages to get used to reading. Alot of the controversy over Kubrick’s film and Burgess’s book focuses on the ultra-violence (Alex’s term) they commit, and, trust me, this is not family friendly material.

What this criticism misses are the second and third acts of the book. In the second act, Alex is put in prison for killing an elderly woman and, once there, he undergoes a radical new therapy to cut his sentence. The new therapy is a form of extreme aversion therapy whereby he is drugged to feel sick to his stomach while he is forced to watch films of violence, rape, and brutality. Eventually his body takes over and he becomes violently ill with the thought of or sight of any form of violence. His problem now “fixed,” being unable to commit any crimes simply because his body will not let him, he is free to go. The third act concerns his attempts to return and re-enter society. He is caught by some former victims and beat up several times before he tries to take his own life. In the hospital, doctors manage to reverse the psychological treatment and the Government is saved from a growing scandal that Alex had become an unwitting centre of. The film ends with Alex once again able to enjoy listening to Beethoven’s music, but the book does not end here. It gives a final chapter where, and I think this is important in terms of what the novel is doing, Alex grows out of his violent youthful ways.* Although he blames what he does on youth, he decides to leave that life behind and find a wife so he can have children.

At the heart of A Clockwork Orange, then, is the question of free will and choice. If a human, even a criminal, has no ability to choose, then are they really living a moral or full life? The epilogue of the novel suggests that Alex must choose to leave his violent ways behind and that any attempt to short-circuit violence by removing Alex’s ability to choose is short-sighted. I am convinced that Burgess is not interested in indulging in violence for its own sake (unlike say Fight Club), but instead uses Alex as an extreme case for a moral dilemma concerning the human condition. Yes, Alex is an evil man, but does this legitimize totalitarian measures including the removal of the human ability to choose? This question nicely sidesteps many issues including whether Alex should be allowed to continue brutalizing others so that his free will can remain intact and what forms of punishment are appropriate or necessary.

I should say that I think the novel does a much better job of addressing this question because Kubrick’s film can be construed as revelling in the violence and rape. In many ways, the visual impact of the film can prevent access to the deeper questions of free will and choice whereas Burgess’s novel often sidesteps direct depictions of what Alex and his gang do. Moreover, there are a number of parts, including the final chapter, that do not make Kubrick’s film and hence make it easier to construe in a manner it was not intended. This is not to say that Kubrick’s film is not good in its own right, but rather that the two works achieve very different things and that each should be judged on its own merit.

I would not recommend this book to sensitive readers, but for those interested in a controversial yet deeply thoughtful philosophical book, I would say jump in.

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. 1962. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2011. Print.

* Apparently the early American versions of the novel omitted this chapter, so be sure to look for a copy that includes a 21st chapter (part 7 of part 3) if you are going to read it.

Quick and Brutal: The Hunter

hunterWow, that was over fast. This was probably the fastest read book I’ve had so far. I think I may have started this morning. Richard Stark’s The Hunter is noir fiction with Parker the betrayed thief who lays a bloody trail of revenge out over the novel’s 190 pages. L, a colleague who writes on detective fiction, has helped me to make some sense of the various genres of detective/crime fiction and after reading this I can see the importance of these tags. Parker pulls heist or bankroll job once or twice a year to fund his resort hotel lifestyle, but he is betrayed by his wife and a sleazy disgraced gangster, Mal. The plot centres on Parker’s attempt to have his revenge on Mal, but in doing so it also shines a light on New York in what I can only guess is the 1930s. There is an element of stylized description and setting in this book, and I would be amiss not to mention that I have also read Darwyn Cooke’s graphic adaptations of Stark’s series. They are excellent and well-worth a glance if you are interested in graphic novels.

As to The Hunter, I am not sure how I feel about it. Quick and brutal sums up my feelings of the narrative arc of the novel. There is plenty of violence along with the seedier aspects of organized crime. However, I would not say that the novel revels in the violence or the crime. What surprised me was how the novel asks readers to sympathize with the wronged Parker, in part, condoning his quest for a bloody revenge. Parker is a hard man whose ego drives him to “right” the “wrong” done to him. There’s something sexy with Stark’s writing (I should say that Stark is a pseudonym for Donald Westlake). I wanted to root for Parker, but something held me back. Call it a sense that literature should call its readers to higher purposes. This is not to say that all books must be moral, in fact many books shed a light on morals precisely by not being moral, but I found nothing redemptive about this book. I just did not enjoy the misogyny or the casual violence of The Hunter.

This is not to say that Stark’s book is not well-written. It is. It’s just that the subject matter does not interest me in any sustained manner. I never liked The Sopranos, so I am going to go out on a limb and guess that noir fiction is not for me. However, the variety in the selection of detective/noir fiction will hopefully help keep this group from getting stale.

I would not recommend this book to most readers. I suppose if I knew you liked noir fiction, I would recommend it but I don’t really know many who like crime/detective novels to being with.

Stark, Richard. The Hunter. 1962. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008. Print.

PS – The image I found for the cover is from the original run of the book. It looks pretty amazing. I feel like current trends in book covers just do not match the allure of previous generations.

This Book is Slippery and Surprising: Lolita

lolitaChances are that even if you have not read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita you at least know what it is about. It’s about an older man loving a pre-pubescent girl, or nymphet as Humbert Humbert calls them.  It is is titillating and immoral.* Well, this is what I thought going in. But this is not what the book is about. If you are looking for a pornographic or lascivious book, then Lolita is bound to disappoint you. Yes, Humbert is a pedophile, but he openly admits this at various points. Yes, there is sex between an adult and a minor, but it is never portrayed directly nor is it crude or lewd. What Lolita is about is a self-deluded and totally unreliable narrator.

This is not to say that the novel is not slippery. Humbert is cunning as he tries to get readers to sympathize with him. The novel is set up as a kind of memoir written while Humbert is in jail, long after his relationship with Lolita is finished. I say Humbert is cunning because he gets readers to sympathize with him through his various rationalizations of what is he doing, but then something slips in the narration and we suddenly realize that we have unwittingly crossed some kind of moral line. Nabokov is masterful in his ability to string readers along and then expose them for their own failings. As my friend J said to me about the book, part of its strength is its ability to make us realize that we are all, at heart, animals; we are not so different from Humbert no matter how much we want to be.

This might be the first case, at least since my high school years, where I was nervous about reading a book in public. J and I had a long argument about this, but the fact that most people assume Lolita is an immoral and pornographic book, even though they probably have not read it, meant that I was careful where I brought it out to read. I have read far worse books, yet Lolita’s popular reputation tended to precede itself.

Two things really surprised me in the novel. First, that it is a road novel in the sense that a lot of its action takes place on the road. Humbert and Lolita travel across America several times, and I loved how Nabokov dove into the tourist countryside, exposing its cheapness yet also showing how we enjoy it all the same. A lot of this comes in the first few pages of Part 2, and most of it is quite funny. For example, Nabokov writes “we avoided Tourist Homes, country cousins of Funeral ones, old-fashioned, genteel and showerless, with elaborate dressing tables in depressingly white-and-pink little bedrooms, and photographs of the landlady’s children in all their instars” (146). I could immediately call to mind a couple of different roadside inns that fit this example quite well. This is just one of a number of descriptions that resonated with my own experience travelling across North America.

The second thing that surprised me was how Humbert actually loses Lolita with more than a third of the novel left. She disappears and he spends several years desperately searching for her. This was a turn I had not expected and kept me turning the pages.

*spoiler alert*

Humbert does find Lolita again, but by this point she is out of his “nymphet” stage. Yet it is at this point that his love for her actually becomes visible. He even recognizes that he has, in a major way, stolen Lolita’s childhood. I really appreciated the emotional depth that Nabokov suddenly springs on the readers. Lolita is a masterpiece. That being said, it is not for everyone. It is about a very problematic relationship that has troubling implications, but it is also quite high-brow in the sense that it is loaded with allusions to French, German, and European literature. If you get an annotated copy, it is probably easier to make sense of the dense writing, but this is not totally necessary either.

I would hesitantly recommend this novel for those interested in American literature. But if the subject matter is not something that you can, at the least, suspend judgment about, then this is not for you.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. 1955. New York: Vintage International, 1997. Print.

*If you have made your judgment based on the movie (Kubrick’s or the other more recent and less successful Lyne adaptation), please read the book. It is different in a number of critical ways.

Vietnam War Stories and So Much More: The Things They Carried

thingsI was skeptical about reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried even though it came with a very high recommendation by my friend J. I am not a fan of war stories. I used to be, but at some point I just got sick of them. After reading this collection, I suspect that this was because I read too many bad or stereotypical war stories. O’Brien’s collection reflects on the Vietnam War and a group of soldiers including a character named Tim O’Brien. There is an autobiographical element to this collection as O’Brien actually did go to Vietnam and many of the characters are thanked in his acknowledgement. However, the first page also states this is a work of fiction “except for a few details regarding the author’s own life.” I am not going to treat the book as a work of autobiography not only because it does not enrich the material but also because doing so takes away from the more fictional and deliberately metafictional elements of the book.

A couple of different stories reflect on the narrator, O’Brien, hearing them and his own or his children’s reactions to them. These are amazing moments that puncture the veil of authenticity that may have saturated a previous story. “Speaking of Courage,” the story of a soldier struggling to come to grips with life after Vietnam as he drives around a small Iowa lake again and again, is followed by “Notes” a story about O’Brien composing “Speaking of Courage” after Norman Bowker, the protagonist, suggested he do it. The links between these two stories are rich and intriguing as that line between fiction and reality is continually bent. By the end of “Notes,” the narrator admits to making up Bowker’s failure to win the Silver Star, a key element in the story. Rather than simply being a “true” war story, O’Brien provides readers with a rich reflection on what it means to experience intense human violence and what it means to write about that violence. Trying to quantify one of these stories as more true and the other as less seems to me a kind of misguided quest.

The Things They Carried is an interconnected series of short stories so that each story meshes and blends with the other stories that surround it. This is not to say that you cannot read the stories as stand-alone pieces, but that you gain something more rich when you read the collection as a whole. Several stories stand out as “centre-pieces” if I can call them that: “The Things They Carried,” “On the Rainy River,” “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” “Speaking of Courage,” “In the Field,” and “The Ghost Soldiers.” These are the lengthiest stories and all were published in journals or magazines beforehand. Yet the shorter interconnecting stories craft a circular narrative about a writer’s own insecurities and anxieties about using his experience of the war as fodder for writing. “How to Tell a True War Story” is both a story about Rat Kiley’s story of a group of soldiers going stir-crazy in the quiet of Vietnam’s jungles and a story about the narrative structures and principles of war stories. At one point, the narrator drops this amazing line: ” In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe ‘Oh.'” (84). That was, in essence, my own reaction to many of these stories. There are no heroes here, there are no easy morals, there is some form of patriotism but it isn’t a “rah-rah, go America” type. In a way, this story colours all the other stories because it self-consciously calls into question how O’Brien has written all of his war stories. Later in the “How to Tell,” the narrator writes “often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn’t hit you until twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you’ve forgotten the point again” (88). This, in my humble opinion, is how all the greatest stories work. There is no “real” point to them. They are just stories about life. Yes, you can draw out meanings, political agendas, strategies, literary devices and so on. I am an academic and this is what I do. But a story like, say, James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” or “Speaking of Courage” from this collection really cannot be boiled down to a single point. That is reduction at its worst.

I can see why J recommended this book and I can also see why this book is taught in many creative writing courses. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will, probably, at some point teach it in creative writing courses. It is so good. I highly recommend it.

(Apologies for the rantiness of this review – my brain has been a little scattered lately)

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. Print.