“There’s a lot underneath the surface of life, everybody knows that,” says John Ames, age 76 and dying of angina, in a long letter – book length, in fact – to his young son (very late marriage), who will read it years later, when he can read. “A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either.”
These aren’t unlikely words for a dying old man, although the fact that he’s a preacher man might turn a few heads in Gilead, the biblically named small Iowa town where he’s lived his entire life and worked as a clergyman for 40-plus years. Marilynne Robinson’s second novel, and her first in almost a quarter century (since Housekeeping in 1981), tells the story of Ames’ and his ancestors’ lives with all the requisite solemnity you’d expect from a dying clergyman, circa 1956. The Ames men – his father and grandfather were preachers, too – came from the “judge not” school of Biblical interpretation, hardly typical of their time and place, perhaps, but much easier to embrace as protagonists in a popular novel. The first two generations of Ames preachers beheld the concept of the Christian soldier; John Ames is a pacifist with no use for the wars of his lifetime. His brother Edward became an intellectual and atheist, but a good man with a good heart. When Ames reflects on the atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, he lauds the man’s concept of joy, criticizing only his “one error” in suggesting that “religion could just stand out of the way and let joy exist pure and undisguised.” His defense of God, in this instance and others, is either so intrinsic that you’ll trust his faith or so feeble that you’ll wonder if Robinson believes him.
For the longest time in Ames’ tale, life seems to quietly confound and depress him. But of course, in the end, he finds meaning in it all, and he rests in peace. Why, Ames wonders, do the two rough, greasy, non-churched mechanics at the local garage stop laughing when they see him walk by? “I felt like telling them, I appreciate a good joke as much as anybody,” Ames writes. “There have been many occasions in my life when I have wanted to say that.” And so we ask the page: Then why didn’t you? You have the pulpit – and the rapt attention that goes with it – every week. And would you laugh at any joke? Maybe those guys were tellin’ one of them dirty ones. The story moves along in a straight line (without chapter breaks) until 30 pages from the end, when Robinson tells what essentially amounts to a stand-alone short story, or perhaps a treatment for one, about Christian America’s endemic racism.
Robinson seems to have done her research about 19th and early 20th century life – you shouldn’t read when you have cold feet, says a home health book, lest you overtax your circulation – and so Gilead feels like a contrivance of tidbit and treacle that fulfills none of its emotional promise. Control your temper, Rev. Ames has learned, and “eccentricities are thwarted passions,” and “a good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation.” Unfortunately, Robinson comes up with only the blandest of eccentricities, and no compelling sermons at all. One wonders how such hackneyed ponderings ever filled the reverend’s collection plate, or whether this book would have done as well as it did – nine printings in hardcover – were we not now living in the Year of Our Lord George W. Bush and his troubling religio-politics. To be fair, Robinson’s serene humanism undercuts the current tide of sanctimony and fundamentalism more than she exploits it or panders to it, and her melancholy protagonist admits to some frailties (the 10th Commandment particularly escapes him). But do we really need another novel that attempts to parse the Almighty in such banal fashion?
The author is Australian-born and raised, the protagonist a Connecticut Yankee, the setting largely the American South, before and during the Civil War. What’s more, he’s not just any man named March: This Mr. March is the absentee father of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women. As Brooks recreates the fictional protagonist’s untold story, she also tells of war and slavery, so March is at once historical fiction and meta-fiction.
Brooks’ novel is thoughtful and dramatic, although how can such material possibly not be? When, as an 18-year-old traveling salesman in Virginia, March accepts the hospitality of Mr. Clement, a generous gentleman who likes to talk about literature, the conversation eventually turns to his host’s opinions on “Niggerology.” Virginia law forbids teaching slaves to read, but March secretly gives lessons to the bright little daughter of a slave on Clement’s plantation. When he’s caught, he’s forced to witness the whipping of the adult slave who arranged the lessons – a woman who, the night before, March had kissed on the lips (his first ever) in a moment of desperate passion and pathos.
Mostly, though, March takes place in the 1860s, where the Rev. March, a committed abolitionist, ministers for a while to the Union army. But his unit hates him, so he takes a job on a captured plantation helping former slaves learn to read and adjust to freedom, all the while writing cheerful letters to his wife and daughters filled with lies that shield them from the suffering and degredation he sees. The novel’s opening passage, familiar from literature and cinema, ably sets the tone: In a raging river, March tries to save a wounded 22-year-old soldier, but the current tears the boy away, and March watches him swirl downstream to his death. The story flashes back and forth between its Civil War present, where March finds Northerners to be as racist as their Southern kin, and the 20 years leading up to it, during which March meets his future wife, begins his family, and unwittingly gets involved in John Brown’s failed 1859 attempt to ignite a slave rebellion.
Brooks writes well, although her prose is sometimes precious, certainly intended to evoke the style of March’s time, as well as his consecrated character. March narrates Part One of the book, but Marmee takes over for most of the shorter, indulgent and rather dull Part Two, adding considerably to the woman in Alcott’s telling. Still, Brooks largely keeps her story focused on narrative and character, and she offers touches sure to either delight or outrage bibliophiles: March’s courtship (and premarital deflowering) of Marmee, his fishing trip with Henry Thoreau, and dinner with Thoreau’s friend Waldo Emerson. This never feels like research, although as her rather lengthy Afterword reveals, Brooks did a lot of it, drawing in part upon the diaries of Alcott’s real father, a radical thinker of his time, to reconstruct Alcott’s fictional father figure. And because March is something of a sociologist and liberation theologian – more neo-Gnostic (no angels, no Hell) than 19th Century Protestant – he’s far more palatable than the Rev. John Ames, the central figure in Gilead, last year’s treacly prize-winner.
One footnote to this year’s Fiction prize: Also nominated was The March, E.L. Doctorow’s Civil War novel about Gen. Sherman, his taking of Atlanta, and his army’s march through the Carolinas. Kaleidoscopic in its storytelling and points of view, it’s far less sentimental and romantic than March, although equally grim about the business of slavery and war, albeit in different ways. In the two months before the Pulitzer went to Brooks’ March, Doctorow’s The March won the National Book Critics Circle Award ($10,000 prize) and the PEN/Faulkner Award ($15,000 prize), and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Brooks’ novel was nominated for none of those literary honors. The better-known Pulitzer earns $7,500.
Do we need an entire book to tell us that a man and his young son, wandering through a vacant post-apocalyptic American deathscape, are going to be lonely, afraid and depressed? The more interesting (if no less original) story might be how things got that way. McCarthy sprinkles crumbs of narrative along the eponymous-cum-allegorical road from north to south that the man and the boy – we never learn their names – follow as they try to move from cold to warmth, although not from despair to hope. The concept of humanity no longer exists, and human beings are few and far between, which suits the man just fine, because to him, all of the others left on earth are threats to his and his son’s safety and survival.
The Road must surely be the starkest Pulitzer novel ever, and perhaps the first that one might call science-fiction of a sort, although McCarthy doesn’t deal in answers of any kind. What happened? Why did some people survive? Why did animals perish? We never know. The man might be a doctor, a lucky break for both of them. The cataclysm occurred one morning shortly before the boy’s birth, so the boy knows only this ashen world. The mother, unable to cope, stayed with the family long enough for her child to have faint memories of her. Now father and son peregrinate, fearful of encountering others who might steal their sporadic rations (canned food from abandoned homes, fresh morels found in a forest), or even their lives. The man tries to speak only happy thoughts to the boy, but his ruthlessness in keeping them alive belies his thin fairy tales, which the boy willfully seems to believe anyway.
To tell his story, which is something of a test of endurance (his, ours and his characters’), McCarthy slathers on the description of his scarred horizon, then ekes out some fleeting tenderness. His most compelling passages are those where the father ardently guards his son. Decayed, decaying and mummified bodies pock the land. The wanderers encounter an old man whose agony will soon end. The boy wants to help him; the man knows he can’t be helped and keeps walking. When the man finds a rare sweet morsel – a can of Coke, some cocoa, some grape-flavored powder – he gives it all to the boy. But the boy insists that the man keep his promise and eat some of the good stuff himself. “If you break little promises you’ll break big ones,” the boy reminds him. “That’s what you said.” The man replies: “I know. But I won’t.” He has instilled in the boy a consumptive fear of everyone else left alive.
McCarthy writes in short narrative segments, some just one or two sentences long. Many sentence fragments as well. His wisdom is lapidary. “You forget what you want to remember, and you remember what you want to forget,” the man thinks to himself (he would never express anything so negative aloud to his son). Or: “The right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and death.” And, from his wife, just before she leaves her family: “They say that women dream of danger to those in their care and men of danger to themselves.” The Road gets more treacly as it goes along, and it ends, not too courageously, with the rekindling of family and with talk of God, all much more satisfying and generic than actually telling us how we blew ourselves up.
How powerful is fukú, the curse on the island of Hispaniola that the Europeans invited with their arrival? Put it this way: President Kennedy orchestrated the 1961 assassination of Dominican dictator Rafael Lenidas Trujillo Molina, and look what happened to him two years later.
“Bad move, cap’n,” says the enigmatic narrator of this darkly fanciful novel about Oscar Wao (the surname is a nickname) and his kin. “You want a conclusive answer to the Warren Commission’s question, Who killed JFK?” our storyteller asks. “Let me, your humble Watcher, reveal once and for all the God’s Honest Truth: It wasn’t the mob or LBJ or the ghost of Marilyn Fucking Monroe. It wasn’t aliens or the KGB or a lone gunman. It wasn’t the Hunt Brothers of Texas or Lee Harvey or the Trilateral Commission. It was Trujillo; it was fukú.”
Fortunately, this Watcher helps the reader along with footnotes that
explain his historical and cultural references. If you want to know more about Trujillo, just read the fine print. And if you find yourself doubting fukú, then how about this tidbit: On the night that John Kennedy Jr. and his wife died in a plane crash, “John-John’s favorite domestic, Providencia Parédes, dominicana, was in Martha’s Vineyard cooking up John-John’s favorite dish: chicharrón de pollo. But fukú always eats first and eats alone.”
These flourishes cast the tale of Oscar Wao as history, or “history” if you prefer, since everything in this rhetorical mode comes qualified. Our Oscar is a passive, hapless, sci-fi-and-fantasy genre nerd, well on his way, at age 7, to becoming the “overweight freak” of his adulthood. “You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like?” the Watcher asks in a footnote. “Just be a smart bookish boy of color in the contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having the bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.” Pop-cult references abound in the novel, and the Dominicans of its pages are wry, whimsical, quotidian bon vivants. To tell you the truth – would I lie? – they sort of seem like a community of loving contrivances and clichés, each imbued with “authenticity” because their creator – Díaz emigrated with his family to the United States from Dominica at age 9 – comes from this culture.
Oscar’s older sister, Lola, takes over some of the storytelling from the Watcher in a voice that’s more authentic and compelling; his raffish college roommate recalls his pathetic suicide attempt. Díaz’s style from voice to voice remains arch and largely colloquial; his story is a mix of cultural mythologies and the bittersweet realities of immigrant dreams and Dominican life under the dictator Trujillo. Needless to say, Oscar doesn’t fare well in the end (check the title), and fukú has a hand in his destiny. He goes to college (like his creator), majors in writing (op. cit.), and finally meets his Watcher. Meanwhile, his sister struggles to get out from under the heel of her domineering old-world mother, whose tumultuous back story we also learn, along with that of Lola and Oscar’s grandfather, a famous Dominican doctor who loses everything when Trujillo decides to ruin him.
Yet for all of its anguished fury, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is rarely moving (perhaps by design), and it finally feels like something Díaz just needed to get out of his system. He took 10 years to write his book – it’s his first novel, after a well-received story collection – and one can easily imagine its evolution from a realistic story into this post-modern hodgepodge of history, sociology and psychological autobiography.
Strout’s collection of interconnected short stories, each one inhabited – sometimes briefly, sometimes at length – by her titular character, does for small-town Maine what The Amityville Horror did for upscale Long Island. Or maybe it’s worse. The people of Crosby, Maine, struggle with more common afflictions: anger, bitterness, suicide, depression, melancholy, loneliness, lost love, abuse, alcoholism – you name it, more than one person in Crosby has it, although their misery neither likes nor seeks much company.
Each of the 13 stories in the book revolves around someone who lives or lived in Crosby, and many of the chapters focus on Olive Kitteridge, a junior high school math teacher, and her husband, Henry, a pharmacist. Olive appears in every chapter, but sometimes she merely does a walk-through, as in “The Piano Player,” which is about Angela O’Meara, who has performed for decades at the local restaurant and cocktail lounge, and who requires several shots of vodka before starting each night of work, and then copious Irish coffees to get through it. She ostensibly suffers from stage fright, but also from a 20-year affair with a married man that she breaks off one evening between sets with a brief phone call to his home, the first time she’s ever called him there (although she’s had the number memorized for years).
Olive Kitteridge moves backward and forward in time, often within each story, so we see Olive and Henry from their early days through their placid retirement. Their son, Christopher, becomes a podiatrist and lives with his parents until his late marriage, to a gastroenterologist, at age 38. This somewhat comforts Olive, who had begun to fear Christopher would be alone when she and Henry died. But nothing can fully mollify her. So at the wedding, she slips away to her new daughter-in-law’s bedroom, where she opens her closet:
The dresses there make her feel violent, though. She wants to snatch them down, twist the expensive dark fabric of these small dresses hanging pompously on wooden hangers. . .The beige sweater is thick, and this is good, because it means the girl won’t wear it until fall. Olive unfolds it quickly and smears a black line of Magic Marker down one arm. Then she holds the marker in her mouth and she folds the sweater hurriedly, folding it again, and even again, to get it as neat as it was at first. You would never, opening this closet door, know that someone had pawed through it.
Hardly Daisy Buchanan. This assault pleases Olive, and on the way home she plots further acts of enmity, resolving to “give herself a little burst” by occasionally stealing a sweater here, a bra or pair of shoes there, when she visits.
Strout stacks the deck of anguish and despair pretty heavily in Olive Kitteridge. She grants everyone ample reason to be miserable, even the sweet young Denise Thibodeau, Henry’s assistant, who has to learn how to take care of herself – driving a car, writing checks – after her husband dies in a hunting accident, shot to death by his best friend. Some would find this to be cruel, but if it’s what Strout sees fit to do to her characters, then so be it. She writes well, and if you find yourself disliking one particular tale or person, you can move on quickly to the next. Crosby has a few kind people – Henry Kitteridge, Joe the bartender, Walter the town “fairy” – but they tend to occupy the periphery, even when their stories come to the fore.
As for Olive, she emasculates her husband, smothers her son, speaks tartly to pretty much everyone else (she is a schoolmarm, after all), lacks self-awareness, and is generally bitter and unhappy – another lost soul in a town that spawns them, and one of the most unlikable protagonists of a Pulitzer Prize novel ever. The message here seems to be that life is “shit” (a favorite word of Olive’s), and that the younger generation has particularly gone astray, emotionally and morally. This state of affairs surprises most of the older folks, although they really only need to look around at their own infidelities and depressions to see that their little apples haven’t fallen far from their trees.