What I Read in May and June That Wasn’t By or About John Updike

June 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

[As promised, I’ve been working through the Rabbit books again alongside the Begley biography, which I just finished. I am halfway through Rabbit Is Rich. A separate post devoted exclusively to that project will be coming later.-N.]

Freight, Mel Bosworth. I’ve gotten to know the author a little bit since coming across his writing in fwriction : review and other places. Freight, published in 2007, comes with a bit of a twist: submitted in pieces, the novel is designed to be read either in usual linear fashion or by skipping around according to the directions shown in the sidebar (e.g., “>>>PG 158 She pretended to sleep…”), a multi-pathed approach likened to a kind of leaping across text platforms via hyperlinks.

Since this was my first time reading the book, I opted to adhere to the linear format. It is about a young, nameless man who carries a lot of emotional baggage, as implied by the title. We learn early on about a young woman with whom our hero feel an obvious attachment, but who has slipped from his grasp. We hear anecdotes and reflections about bad behavior and regret colored by a yearning for connection. The musings of the lonely protagonist are patient and even, like those of a man who has spent a lot of time thinking about what to say before he writes it down:

All those years I put down a lot of alcohol a lot happened. A lot of friends grew sick. Some died. Others collapsed into themselves like dying stars that weren’t quite dead. And dying stars have a lot of gravity when they collapse because they grow dense. They pull us close. Sometimes it’s hard to get away from them. And even if we do get away from them, the gravitational pull messes up our lives. It messes up my life. Because they’re still in it. Because I’m carrying them even though I put them down. I think nothing ever goes away and nothing ever dies.

Because everything we carry touches everything we touch. Every word and every glance has weight. It’s all part of our gravity. It’s all part of our freight.

The False Inspector Dew, Peter Lovesey. As written about here, I had a flashback to my childhood when I saw this book lying on the bargain table at my local bookshop. I don’t read many mysteries anymore, so I was, perhaps, a little more cautious with this one than I would any other novel, knowing that a reveal was on the way, a mental antenna raised to the logic and evidential details.

The novel, set in 1921, begins with a love triangle: the young Alma Webster, her dentist Walter Baranov, and Walter’s wife, Lydia, who is about to leave him to pursue a career in Hollywood (she believes she has an in with Charlie Chaplin). They plot to murder Lydia while she is sailing across the Atlantic on the Cunard vessel Mauretania. To do so, Walter takes on a false identity, that of the Scotland Yard police inspector Walter Dew, who earned renown for cracking an earlier case relating to the sinking of another Cunard vessel, the Lusitania. (This choice of persona seems the biggest stretch of the book—wouldn’t someone seeking to commit a murder prefer to lay low?)

While on board, a real murder—not the one Walter planned—takes place, and a woman’s body is seen being tossed overboard. Since the legendary detective Walter Dew, now retired, just happens to be among the passengers, he is brought in to investigate and restore order.

Cruise ships, I suppose, make ideal settings for murder mysteries since the contained space places a cap on the number of possible suspects. And, in theory, those suspects—here a cast of card sharps and newlyweds—can’t get away. The False Inspector Dew doesn’t waste time on false leads and trickery. The brisk, comic narrative is less about bringing a killer to justice and more about the farce of Walter keeping up his charade. Toward that end, it wasn’t a bad read.

Incidentally, the Mauretania was a real ship, retired from service in 1934 and scrapped the following year. In addition to Dew, it was also the setting for Clive Cussler’s The Thief.

Fun Camp, Gabe Durham. A book that almost never happened, Fun Camp was originally to be published by MudLuscious Press before that press folded in 2012. Thankfully, Publishing Genius, out of Baltimore, swooped in and grabbed the rights of this fun and quirky book. I read it in one afternoon on Memorial Day weekend.

Summer camp stories were a staple of my reading as a kid, particularly Joel Schwartz’s Upchuck Summer (written by a psychiatrist) and Gordon Korman’s I Want to Go Home! (which I recall making me laugh out loud; incidentally, it is strange that the unhappy protagonist in Korman’s book has the same name, Rudy, as the loner kid opposite Bill Murray in Meatballs). The worst I had to do was a YMCA-affiliated day camp for two weeks when I was nine. We spent part of it raising money for the camp, earning pledges for how many laps we could swim, even though it was something our parents were already paying for. I came away with no idea still how to swim.

Camp stories makes for good narrative because they’re a setting where young people are left to figure out their own rules, how they fit in, and work out their own terms for happiness. But Fun Camp is not just about children; its vignettish format jumps around to include Head Counsellors Dave and Holly, letter-writer Billy, Chefs Grogg and Puddy and Marimba, and skeevy Tad Gunnick. With only glancing allusions and insider correspondences, Durham is able to draw a full picture of this community of individuals abiding by their own governance.

Booth #6. Purchased to read my friend Daniel Hales’s superb novel excerpt Run Story, already previewed here. This issue picks up where number 5 left off, doubling down on Booth’s apparent preference for emotionally damaged characters coping with their limitations in the face of uncooperative scenarios. Ian Golding’s “In the Essence of the Gourd” imagines Charlie Brown and Linus from Peanuts as older men living in poverty, busking in the streets by means of performances drawing from their once-thriving TV special careers. It’s a story loaded with ironic tricks, not because of the cynicism of these once-precious, optimistic characters (from the Great Pumpkin to Lucy’s football to the kite-eating tree, Peanuts is full of lessons regarding cynicism in the face of adversity), but because the of the new, strident level of desperation at which Golding has placed them, removed from the security of backyards and schoolrooms:

Linus stared at his army fatigues and shook his head in disappointment. He’d always hated You’re Not the Only Charlie, Charlie Brown.

“Now, for the last time, we’re Vietnam vets and the Man let us down. I saw kids getting sprayed in machine-gun fire. Kids, man. Kids.”

“What about me?” Linus said, his blanket dragging on the sidewalk, his stomach growling. It was the first time he’d left the Great Pumpkin and Boot Face alone. It was weird.

“You breathed in enough Agent Orange to shrivel your voice box, and now you can’t say a peep about pumpkins,” Charlie said, ruffling up his hair. “But show some emotion.”

The issue also includes “How I Came to Work at Wendy’s,” a sweetly somber graphic fiction by Nick St. John, and the prize-winning “Real Family” by Lenore Myka.

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