What I Read in Summer

October 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

[Not a complete list. I’ve skipped a bunch, including a few re-reads.]

Bring the Noise: The Best Pop Culture Essays From Barrelhouse Magazine. This was the first book I purchased at my first (and only) AWP. Barrelhouse prides itself on cultivating a quirky brand of Gen-X pop culture awareness, and these essays from its early years bring an ethic of bro-centricity: Adrian Grenier, Magnum, P.I., pro wrestling characters, The Hills. It is an indictment of the ephemerality of fame that the book was published in 2013, yet some of the subjects already feel out of date in terms of pop culture relevance.

But it is welcoming to read a book that returns to the basic principle of writers writing passionately about the subjects they care about. There isn’t much showboating here, no nerd gloating of trivia that shuts off a reader’s chance to engage. To write with fair criticism about something is to give it a chance to matter and last, and the authors treat their subjects with respect for their seriousness of intent toward that end.

Jill Talbot’s “Lost Calls” takes as an angle a disappearing phenomenon: the use of pay telephones as plot devices in movies. She juxtaposes scenes from her own memories of a relationship with an ex-lover, conducted over pay telephone calls. There is a sense that the impulse to call from a public phone is done when one is lost out in the world, calling out to be found before a deadline hits, and the essay rejuvenates what would otherwise be dismissed as a narrative trope.

Netherland, Joseph O’Neill. This novel was lauded by James Wood and others upon its publication in 2008 as one of the better serious works of post-9/11 fiction. It carries a humane wit that does not try to solve the impossible problem of talking about the September 11 attacks in terms that make any sense. It allows itself room for irony and enough air to breathe.

A Dutch-American professional, Hans van der Broek, separates from his British-born wife, who moves to London with their child to shield the boy not just from the possibility of future terrorism but the rhetoric of war that has enraptured the Bush administration. Afterward, while living in the Chelsea Hotel, Hans befriends an ambitious Trinidadian man named Chuck Ramkissoon, who plays in the Staten Island Cricket Club. Chuck has dreams of starting a professional New York-based cricket league that brings the international sport front and center to the world, and he shares his plans with Hans while conducting some unspoken, shady-seeming business. This activity gets close scrutiny as we learn near the beginning of the novel that Chuck ends up dead, his handcuffed corpse found floating in the Gowanus Canal.

You cannot read a book set in New York about a narrator’s curious infatuation with a new male friend who harbors a mysterious past and a particular obsession and not think of Fitzgerald; indeed, the New York Times blurb on the cover called Netherland “Stunning…with echoes of The Great Gatsby.” Indeed, it is Hans’ willingness to hear out Chuck on his plans that drives the book. (We hear little of Hans’ experience actually playing cricket, which, to this American reader, would have been educational.)

Hans is a well-educated and reflective narrator, and there is a fluidity to the book that is helped by his calm choice of the right word. O’Neill writes with a gentleness that makes even Hans’ trip to the DMV feel humanly evocative.

A Sport and a Pastime, James Salter I decided to re-read this after Salter died; so far it’s the only Salter I’ve read. (I bought All That Is over the summer.) A Sport and a Pastime combines two things an aesthete loves: sex and Paris. It probably integrates Paris into the narrative better than any book that purports to be about Paris, despite the fact that so much of the plot takes place indoors.

The eroticism of the novel is carefully managed by Salter’s deft use of the present tense and a pristine awareness of sense:

In the bathroom he watches her putting up her hair. Her arms are raised. In the hollows there is a shadow of growth, short and soft, and to this belongs a damp, oniony odor which he loves.

The book’s graces are its language and imagery, so much that it disappoints when read linearly. The survival of Philip and Annemarie is secondary to the immediacy of their coexistence. The scenes are so sharply and precisely set out that a writer should keep the book handy if only to consult it when his own writing feels clumsy:

They eat with the rain coming straight down, smoking across the pavements. Dean is excited. His whole mood has changed. Great bands of water move through the darkened air and beat on the cloth of his car.

“Isn’t that beautiful?” he cries.

He is hunched over the table, looking out.

Tiens,” she says, “are you happy now, seal? There is water.”

He nods, ashamed of how he has been, which seems childish. The storm is the first of spring. It turns one’s thoughts ahead. Her freckles—she does not know the word—will come back, she says. Not everywhere, just here, she circles her eyes and nose.

“Ah,” he says. “You’ll be like a raccoon.”

“A what?”

“A raccoon. A raccoon,” he says. “Don’t you know what that is? It’s an animal.”

“Oh, yes?” she says blankly.

Suddenly he bursts into laughter. He cannot contain it. He tries to tell her: c’est trés joli, but he can’t say it, and she begins laughing, too. He starts to draw one for her on a scrap of paper. First the feet, but they are absurd. He collapses in laughter.

“It’s a rat,” she says.

“No, it’s not.”

However, he cannot keep it from becoming that. Its ears. Even its tail. The nose grows very pointed.

“It’s a rat,” she says.

They need only glance at each other to start laughing again.

I read the book around the same time as Didion’s Play It As It Lays, and there is a feeling that the two books belong together on the shelf, side by side.

Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish. There are books that go out of their way to understand things that we already know, and there are books that make the effort to understand the humans we likely don’t know, because those people live hidden in the margins, fearful for their lives in this crowded and hypersped twenty-first century. What makes Preparation for the Next Life an incredible book is the full investment it makes in two difficult characters pushed around by their environments and the author’s dexterous ability to orient them on the same plane.

We learn about Muslim immigrants through the eyes of Zou Lei, a half-Uighur, half-Han living in the United States illegally and scraping by working under barked orders and without guaranteed hours in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. We learn about the afterlives of soldiers through Brad Skinner, an army veteran returned to the U.S. after three tours in Iraq. Like Zou Lei, Brad is alone; it’s not really clear where his family is, or where he had been before the war, but he is an unstable wreck, traumatized by his own injuries and the death of his best friend in combat:

In his bed, he bucked and started struggling.

He was trying to do something—he could feel it hurting his hands—but he didn’t know what it was yet, because he was disoriented. He knew it mattered more than anything else, and he knew he was going to fail at it. He had a feeling of love and anguish in his heart. He was clawing in the sand. He heard himself screaming for Jake.

He felt him, the chest was canvas over steel, the head was bare. He could not find his face, just sand. He had to get him up. He grabbed him by his harness, climbed to his feet and tried to lift him up.

They were carrying ninety pounds of gear per man, give or take, and Skinner could barely stand up on his own he was so fatigued. He strained with everything he had, and for a second he raised him up, but there was no way to hold him up. His back gave out, he got pulled down, and fell on him.

He fell face first in the sand, breathed it in, and coughed it up and spat it out. His own gear weight threatened to suffocate him. He pushed himself up. Big bench press. Their hands reached for each other. Skinner was trying get his balance and took his hand away. He got his knees under him. Something metal bit his knee and sand was hanging in the shorts he wore, as if he had shit his pants, swaying between his legs, heavy pulling them off. Sconyers was dying and he was reaching with his hand. They gripped hands. The feeling of the rough sand and the rough unmistakable live feeling of the man’s hand was what shocked Skinner awake—feeling as if his friend had literally reached out from the other side and grabbed his hand. Do it now or else. They gripped like two guys saying hey, and he felt the other’s weight and the great immovable weight of their combined battle rattle and pulled, and he woke up physically straining, clutching the edge of the mattress, as if he was going to put his arms around it and bend it in half against the steel springs and fold it around himself. Life his entire bed into the air. The house out of its foundations.

He had a wild, drugged, unslept, disoriented feeling. He talked to the room. He checked his phone, looked out the window, listened to the house. It was five-thirty and he hadn’t slept. I can’t do anything, he thought, even sleep. His urine striking the water in the toilet in the small bright bathroom. Turning away from the sight of his own face in the mirror. He snapped the light off. Stunned and stupid in the dark. His head ached.

The deserts of Iraq and northwestern China do not portend any cultivation that suggests hope, and, on this shore, neither do the strip-mall restaurants where Zou Lei works, nor the dollar stores where she buys her shoes, nor the shabby plywood camp where she sleeps. Skinner scrabbles by in his own emotional desert, where he takes painkillers for his shrapnel wound and a cocktail of antianxiety drugs for the blasts and hollers that resound in his head. He rents a room in an unfinished basement from an Irish immigrant family in Queens, a family whose mother is obese and immobile, whose father is an absent union plumber, and whose son, midway through the book, has just been let out after ten years in prison.

Skinner and Zou Lei find themselves in a moonscape of cheap storefronts with signs calling out in a mixture of languages. They adjust to accepting joy with each other in place of the fear of being caught, captured, or killed. They discover a shared love for exercise and fitness and a shared desire to squelch the static:

They were surrounded in neon and headlights, striding through the darkness, going in and out of darkness and light among the Chinese signs and lights, Skinner almost shouting. Asians went around them. Zou Lei was marching with her arms crossed across her chest and her hair blowing around her face and she was laughing.

It’s funny story!

I’m like no, dude!

This animal.

I’m like, do not do it! I’m like, think again!

Their combined momentum moved people out of the way. Or people didn’t move and Zou Lei and Skinner went around them and rejoined on the other side, Skinner saying:

I’m like, take a breath!

–continuing to talk through the silhouettes of people like paper targets who got between them.

Lish composes visual scenes with a human, gasping vector, unafraid to repeat words when new ones would only risk confusion (“in and out of darkness and light among the Chinese signs and lights”; “arms crossed across her chest”; “he felt the other’s weight and the great immovable weight of their combined battle rattle’), and in doing so nails down the brokenness of the alone and overlooked, and the tininess of the miracle that keeps them going.

Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties, Richard N. Goodwin. I received this book for Christmas last year. It was on my wish list because one of its chapters happened to be the basis for Quiz Show, one of my favorite films. As one of the events that launched Goodwin’s career, the investigation into the quiz-show scandals turns out to be a tiny and early chapter in this 792-page tome.

Goodwin is well-positioned to tell an insider’s story. He clerked for U. S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and became a speechwriter for Senator (and later President) John F. Kennedy. He was front and center in the Alliance for Progress, the economic development program for Latin American nations, and met face-to-face with Che Guevara. He became a special assistant to Lyndon Johnson and is credited with writing the “We Shall Overcome” speech given by Johnson in support of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was in Dallas when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and in the Ambassador Hotel when Bobby was killed five years later. We meet a whole roster of cabinet members and advisers: McGeorge Bundy, Jack Valenti, Sargent Shriver, Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara. It’s an informative tour of the political weights of the mid-20th century.

Goodwin’s recall of events, including whole conversations, is presented in vivid and sometimes dry detail. We are treated to the revelation, the reaction, and more than one occasion on which Kennedy or Johnson feel out the author on some idea or another. At times there seems like a fondness for the experience gets in the way of Goodwin’s ability to distill what it is important from what is not.


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