A Literary Cavalcade

Literary comments by Robert A. Parker on a wide range of serious 20th and 21st century novels

The Ninth Hour, by Alice McDermott

This tender novel works on two levels. It is the story of a Catholic family, of mother Annie and daughter Sally, as they each seek happiness after the loss of husband and father. It is also the story of an order of Catholic nuns, featuring Sister Lucy and Sister Jeanne as they take over from the elderly Sister St. Saviour. And within both stories is an awareness of death, along with a striving for happiness in one’s life.

The emotions that carry this novel belong to the family story, as wife and daughter seek to overcome the disgrace of a suicide. The richness that fills this novel comes from the spiritual life of the nuns, and the sacrifices they make to care for others. These literary qualities join when both the family and the nuns confront death as the inevitable human destiny.

And yet the telling of these two stories does lack cohesion. The action does not flow from one chapter into the next. Instead, each chapter isolates a separate stage in the family story. After a harrowing opening scene of suicide, the narrative settles on the funeral arrangements, with the issue of whether a suicide can be buried in hallowed ground and the reaction of these nuns who are more open-minded then doctrinaire.

Then follow separate chapters that introduce a widow’s love affair, life in the nuns’ laundry room, the pain of a sick and dying woman, then a disillusioning train ride, followed by the funeral of a figure from the past, then a return to the sick invalid. Each chapter is beautifully written, but each is self-contained and could stand on its own as a short story. (One does appear in The New Yorker.) The continuity stems from daughter Sally’s thinking: whether or not she should join these sisters whose dedication to the unfortunate she has been exposed to.

Contributing also to the lack of cohesion are interruptions in the narrative, which suggest we are being told this family story by a character who does not exist in the novel. Every so often, that is, this narrator jumps into the third person narrative, and refers to “my mother, or “my father.” And we realize that this narrator is a child of the daughter Sally. A child who, as I said, never appears. Why is this person present? What is his or her purpose? It is conceivable that Sally, as mother, may have told this figure much of her own thinking, but certainly not that of the nuns or the other characters.

The ending also may be problematic for some. It introduces a death, a death which may be natural, but there is a suggestion that it has been triggered by one of the characters. The author does not say this, but she does leave us with the strong possibility. And it is also in keeping with the human motivations of these characters. The closest the author comes to stating this is when one character talks of heaven. “Out of love, I lost it. Which sounds funny, doesn’t it. You’d think you could only lose heaven out of hate.” And later: “But you’ll pray for me, won’t you…You’ll pray for this lost soul.”

It is the presence of life’s spiritual frame of reference that provides the strength of this novel. The actions of all these characters, even of the nuns, are human actions, but there are consequences to those actions, consequences that originate in the religious convictions that govern the Irish society to which these characters belong. The primary conviction is that the meaning of human life is not limited to the physical world, but is found, more significantly, in the spiritual world. And the conflict between these two worlds is introduced from the start of the novel, when a nun and a bishop debate whether a suicide can be buried in consecrated ground. It is also reflected in the novel’s title, for the ninth hour becomes the time for both the nun’s mid-afternoon prayers and the love affair of a lonely woman.

But what lends this novel its substance is that all its nuns realize that their daily lives are circumscribed by a physical, humanistic world. And that they must adjust their spiritual decisions accordingly. Which means that they lean toward practical considerations. And lean quite far, if one woman’s confession is to be believed.

The order these nuns belong to is The Little Sisters off the Sick Poor. So the richness of the novel also stems from the lives of the poor victims that these nuns encounter. Which highlights both the physical needs the nuns fulfill and the spiritual motives that inspire them. That is, they serve both worlds. And yet there is also that tension between these worlds, illustrated when Sally rejects a spiritual vocation after being confronted by the world of reality on her train ride. As well as, later, when both she and a nun conclude that enabling love, enabling a physical affair, is justified, even though it would deny them their spiritual destiny.

It is this coexistence between the physical world and the spiritual world that characterizes much of McDermott’s work. But with this probing of the nun’s world, perhaps an inevitable extension of the Irish culture, she has raised her explorations to a new level. She has kept the family environment, with its Irish culture, and here the Irish shame of suicide, but also made a family’s spiritual considerations more tangible by introducing the nun’s worldly perspective.

If only she had offered smoother transitions between the two worlds. Had told the story through a decade or two of one generation (Sally’s), instead of through two generations, with the suggestion of a third. Had made her witness of her mother’s love affair even more central to the conflict between the two worlds. (Or would that have veered too much toward melodrama?) Because I see a richness in the many considerations that Sally was faced with, especially the wall of innocence both the nuns and her mother had built around this young girl.

Overall, this does not reach the heights of McDermott’s better novels. But I do give her credit for exploring more deeply its spiritual dimension, not always an easy assignment. (March, 2018)


Group Portrait with Lady, by Heinrich Boll

Heinrich Boll won the Nobel Prize in 1972, soon after publishing this novel in Germany. I bought this copy shortly afterwards, not least because I knew the author was Catholic, and believed he would write from a frame of reference that I was familiar with. However, on checking out other novels of his, I found them difficult to relate to. So this novel has been on my shelf for a long time.

Another reason it sat there was my understanding that it did not probe the interior of its characters, neither the psychological nor the spiritual side. But given Boll’s enduring reputation, I finally decided to give it a try.

And immediately discovered that here was quite an unusual novel, one that broke a familiar rule: show, don’t tell. For although this seemed to be a story about Leni Pfeiffer and her family and friends, we were not directly watching her or her friends as they lived through World War II in the Rhineland region of Germany. Instead, we were observing them at a distance, because their story was being told to us by an Author, who, in turn, has earlier interviewed these characters and is now relating to the reader how each of their lives had intersected with the life of Leni.

And yet, even with a major rule broken, I found myself fascinated.

As I recognized that I was in the hands of a master. Who had given this work a very appropriate title. It is indeed a portrait. In which the focus is on the group, even as it pretends to focus on Leni. That is, the novel has the feel of a documentary, as if an objective portrait of Germany during and after World War II is being conveyed through these personal narratives.

However, Richard Locke in the New York Times has cited a much grander achievement. “By going into biographical detail, Boll dramatizes the impossibility of generalizing about people, makes us feel the vast gaps that exist between political slogans and moral actualities, between those who slyly ride with the times and those who, like Leni, may lose their wealth, their family, their social position in the world, but gain their souls.”

The Author opens this work with Leni at age 48 in the 1960s. He describes her circumstances. She is indeed in debt, under threat of eviction, and her son is in jail. The Author then introduces the people who will tell her story, family and friends, co-workers and professionals, all of whom will become part of her life—especially during World War II, but also after.

But, fascinated as I was, I did not find Leni’s story that interesting. Overall, she is too passive, accepting rather than resisting her circumstances. She is far from a rebel—more a romantic focusing internally on love in order to survive. Indeed, a commentary in Kirkus Review calls this work “an elaborate dossier-type anti-novel all about a somewhat dreary heroine suffering pangs of the Zeitgeist.” On the other hand, Locke cites Leni as “a figure of beleaguered virtue shining in a world of vice, misery, destitution, a world vigorously portrayed with comedy, bitterness, sorrow and tenderness.” My only reaction: to each his own. I prefer characters who react to their fate, not a detailed portrait of the circumstances they are reacting to.

Nor did I find interesting the interactions between Leni and those she lived among—even though this novel attempted to offer a comprehensive portrait of life inside Germany during World War II, with all its contradictions, and with its citizens struggling for survival amid the madness and destructiveness of war. The Kirkus review, however, is more critical: “Leni’s school days with the nuns, Leni’s bad days with the Nazis and the Russians, Leni’s amours and marriages, Leni’s complicated adventures during the war and after the war (the reader never did get them straight), Leni’s slightly paranoid middle age—the fortunes of Leni’s life are meant, of course, to represent the dehumanizing effects of history on a free soul. But Leni’s ‘informants,’ though varied, are a toneless lot, and Leni herself a bit dim.”

What fascinated me more, that is, was not the story but the method behind Boll’s story telling, a method that slowly portrays the hard life of Leni and the sixty other characters—characters not always easy to differentiate—whom the Author interviewed because their lives intersected with her own.

And yet, of course, this story of civilian life in Germany during World War II earned its own interest. Even as some details in Leni’s life did not, such as her brief marriage with Alois, who is killed in Poland three days later, or her brief love affair with her cousin Erhart. What was much more interesting is Leni’s long affair with Boris, a Russian prisoner of war who is released to work alongside her at a local nursery. The novel’s narrative high point occurs when they conduct their affair in a cemetery vault, primarily during air raids. Such circumstances emphasize the complexity of their affair, and the emotional link between these two people drawn together despite different life experiences and separate national loyalties. And while this allows Boll to explore her friends’ mixed reactions to their affair, it does lead to an arbitrary decision by him to continue her portrait as a victim.

The World War II experiences comprise about 75 percent of the novel. The 25 percent that follows is much less interesting, even confusing at times. One reason is that it switches from personal interviews to professional reports with all their purported objectivity, all their jargon; and this jargon holds the reader at an even greater distance than do the Author’s interviews.

Much time is spent at the end telling the story of Lev, Leni’s son that she had with Boris. Lev is now in jail for forging checks in order to provide his mother with funds to pay for her home. There is little, however, about Leni herself, about her involvement with her son or her concern for his problems. There is more, in fact, about her friends’ struggles in post-war Germany. Indeed, the novel seems more interested in wrapping up the lives of these friends we have met through the Author—and providing this information through official reports that eliminate any drama—rather than bringing us back to Leni herself, and any issues she is facing in adapting to life after the war.

This complex novel and its objective approach certainly does not encourage me to look up more of the author’s work. (February, 2018)

To the End of the Land, by David Grossman

This is a marvelous novel from 2008. Nothing happens, yet the reader is fascinated. Because life is created, a family is created, and history lurks in the context.

This is the story of Ora, her husband Ilan, her lover Avram, and her grown sons Adam and Ofer. It is the story of their youth at one level, when as two young boys, best friends, they fall in love with the same girl. Both Avram and Ilan are in the army, whereupon a weekend pass is offered, but to only one, and they agree to have Ora draw the winner from a hat. She does, and draws Ilan’s name, whereupon Avram, left on duty, is sent into battle, becomes a prisoner, and is tortured.

Caring for the discharged Avram, whom they both love, Ora and Ilan are thrown together and conceive a baby they name Adam. But it is a difficult relationship, and Ilan leaves Ora, leading to her having an affair with Avram, which produces the other son, Ofer. However, Avram’s war experiences have turned him into a recluse, and he refuses any contact with Ofer, just as he has separated himself from all human contact following his torture.

And now, on the second level years later, Ora, has persuaded Avram to join her on a long hike. She is separated again from Ilan, and when her youngest, Ofer, is sent into battle instead of being discharged, she decides that she can assure his safety if she is not home to receive a message he has been wounded or killed. She also thinks if she talks to Avram about him she will make the boy come alive to his father, which will also keep him safe.

We learn all this background during Ora’s and Avram’s long hike that comprises the bulk of the novel. It is a fascinating concept, for nothing happens on the novel’s surface except their talk about her family and their own past. With the fascination coming from both the slow revelations that deepen for the reader the complex emotional relationships among the three, and the reader’s gradual ability to get to know each of these characters.

Meanwhile, Ora’s and Avram’s long discussions are grounded in the details of their hike down half the length of their country. With them, we encounter the changing weather, the rocky obstructions, the insects and animals, the rivers crossed and the mountains climbed, and the physical toll their journey takes. It is so detailed that this reader was convinced the author must have based such detail on an actual hike. And, indeed, he did. On his fiftieth birthday, as he was writing this novel, Grossman made a similar hike half the length of Israel—just to get those precise details. And it is through the details that he not only communicates the demands of such a hike but also conveys the military tension within Israel that the two lovers are also trying to forget through discussing their family history.

This is a memory novel, a novel that explores the meaning of love within the emotional complexities of life, a novel of talk instead of action and yet a novel in which the exploration of character is the substitute for action. Its story is driven by birth and death, by fear and hope, by openness and withdrawal, by the onset of love and the threat of violence, by both a female and a male perspective, by both external movement and introspection, and by time past and time present. But, above, all, it is a story about connections, especially between Ora and Avram. As Grossman has written: “What interests me most is the nuances of what goes on between two people, or between a person and himself.”

George Packer summed up this novel in the New Yorker: “Ora mainly talks and Avram listens, her words leading seamlessly to scenes from the past. Her story, which emerges slowly and out of chronological order, encompasses both the complex fullness of one life and the broader history of Israel’s modern conflicts.” He writes that this “is not an apolitical novel; it is antipolitical—a protest against history and its endless incursions” into private lives. In sum, he cites Ora’s “awareness of the randomness of life.”

Colm Toibin has equal praise for Grossman in The New York Times Book Review: “He weaves the essence of private life into the tapestry of history with deliberate and delicate skill; he has created a panorama of breathtaking emotional force, a masterpiece of pacing, of dedicated storytelling, with characters whose lives are etched with extraordinary…and unexpected detail…about the shapes and shadows that surround love and memory, and about the sharp and desperate edges of loss and fear.”

Toibin describes Ora, the main character of this novel, as “emotional, introspective, filled with…an ability to love.” Avram is her foil in literary terms and represents the love she seeks. He is, Toibin says “impulsive, brilliant…larger than life,” Ilan, whom Tobin describes as “rational, vulnerable…oddly needy and nerdy” has meanwhile left her and represents the absence of love, and perhaps its risks. While Adam and especially Ofer are there to receive the motherly love that sustains her. On another level, the hiking trail represents both the unity of this story and the diverse complexities that color the history of Israel.

The ending also merits discussion. Like history, like Israel’s fate, it is both inconclusive and elusive. And yet the reader understands it, even as Grossman deliberately does not reveal it. It is undoubtedly why even Israeli critics have called this an anti-war novel. For it has an ending the characters do not want, and the reader does not want, but it offers a reality that the author insists upon. That his entire novel insists upon. That mankind’s pursuit of happiness is subject to the whims of others—and to the whims of history.

Even the title reverberates with the novel’s theme. The end of the land suggests, indirectly, the possible end of Israel as a result of the wars her sons are fighting, as well as, more directly, the end of the hiking trail that will bring Ora back to her home—and perhaps to news of the death of her son. Which is the end that she fears most. It is a much more evocative title than the Hebrew version, whose literal translation is “Woman Flees Tidings.”

While I could not finish David Grossman’s first novel, The Smile of the Lamb, and did not fully appreciate See Under: Love, I did enjoy the simpler Someone to Run With. And now with this masterpiece, I am committed to reading more of Grossman. (February, 2018)

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

When this early novel appeared in 2015—describing the life of Scout Finch and her father Atticus two decades after their appearance in the classic To Kill a Mockingbird—reviewers jumped all over the work because of its portrait of Atticus. How could this lawyer who defended a black boy in the classic novel have later become a Southern demagogue who despises black people?

But I think they misread this earlier novel. For starters, the focus is not on Atticus. It is on his daughter. And I can understand why Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, advised against publishing this work at the time. Indeed, why she suggested that Lee turn to its flashbacks of Scout and Atticus of two decades earlier. Because she saw in those flashbacks a more heartwarming version of the South, one told by a child who adored her father and saw him acting in behalf of social justice. Of course, the editor also saw that in this work Lee otherwise had the skills of a true novelist. She could draw characters and scenes. She could create dialogue and human interaction and handle flashbacks. And, most important of all, she was prepared to tackle Southern society and the relationships between black people and white.

However, this editor also saw that Lee did not have here a real novel, certainly not the literary one her skills suggested she was capable of. But given that she did have a valid subject, the racial tension in the South, her editor suggested the warmer approach. That the novel’s flashbacks set in an earlier time still acknowledged the tension between the races, but might be more acceptable if explored from the viewpoint of an innocent child in more innocent times. Because a 1960s society surrounded by racial tensions would be unwilling to confront such tension if set near their own times.

Moreover, what the author had actually produced with this earlier work was a rather ordinary story. It is about a young girl of 26, now known as Jean Louise, as she returns from New York City to her home in Maycomb, Alabama, and discovers that she is uncomfortable with the world she encounters—and keeps asking herself why. Which, alas, the reader does as well. For the author spends the first 100 of 278 pages merely creating the Atticus family atmosphere and reminiscing about Jean’s past, but never introducing new dramatic developments to make the reader curious about the girl, her discomfort, or the old Maycomb that she sees with new eyes.

And then, confronted by post-war racial tension at a town meeting, our heroine is taken aback on witnessing white supremacists baldly preaching their beliefs. Indeed, the abrupt scene reminds one of similar generalities about family relationships and generational relationships that permeated Mockingbird. This author preached to us there as well.

At its heart, then, this early work is a message novel. And it has two messages—messages that the author has placed together rather than blended together. The first concerns Jean Louise, now 26, and the process of growing up as she returns home and reabsorbs the Southern culture. But after it evokes the girl’s innocent childhood, the novel fails to develop from within her newly discovered doubts about how she was raised—doubts that arise from the second message of the novel, the injustice behind post-war racial unrest and the social tension that follows. This hits home when Jean Louise not only sees blacks being treated unfairly, but is horrified that her father Atticus and her supposed fiancée Henry seem to support the town’s white supremacists.

Lee does try for editorial balance, offering the reader the response of Southerners to Jean Louise’s distress. Through Uncle Jack, she offers that the South doesn’t like having new laws and customs imposed on them by outsiders in Washington. While through the girl’s fiancée, Henry, she explains that to be a comfortable part of your local society, and to succeed in business, you need to support the laws and customs of your community.

The author’s major false step occurs, however, when Jean Louise has a no-holds barred argument with her father, accusing him of betraying her, of teaching her racial ideals he himself does not believe in. “You’re a coward as well as a snob and a tyrant,” she says. This is the dramatic climax of the novel, but it is too blatant. First, because Jean Louise’s point of view is stated too baldly. And, second, because it does not read like a natural argument between father and daughter. There is no human interaction between them; they are merely making political points.

Moreover, author Lee apparently felt unable to end her novel with this family tension. For Uncle Jack argues that “every man’s island, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.” And, he explains, Scout grew up identifying her conscience with that of a father whom she saw as perfect, not as a human being, not one merely acting “by the letter and by the spirit of the law.” In fact, Jack argues, the South now needs people like Jean Louise, people who can see through white supremacists’ fears that sharing facilities with blacks will result in the destruction of their white culture. And he is persuasive, leading Jean Louise to a closing meeting with her father.

If this novel’s end is calculated, it mirrors Lee’s calculating way of addressing racial issues. Which re-enforces my conviction that, on reading this manuscript, her editor, while recognizing that this author was addressing an important subject, also realized that there was not in 1960 an audience ready to confront her tension-filled portrait of the South. Whereas, the flashback to Jean Louise’s youth, her positive feelings then about her father—and Atticus’ own belief in the law and in justice—could prove a fruitful source of interest to contemporary readers.

One can understand why Lee did not publish this novel after the success of Mockingbird. It in no way reaches the level of that earlier novel. Should it have been published? I think not, except as a curiosity. For it reduces rather than enhances Lee’s literary reputation.

But what it also does, of course, is make the reader aware of the complex tensions that survived in Southern society. That many of its citizens were not willing to turn against the culture they inherited, and tried—with varying success, as black people insisted on their new-found rights—to remain a part of the world they belonged to. But this response becomes more a sociological rationale than a literary one. (January, 2018)

The Running Target, by Gerald Seymour

This is a superb novel from 1989, as well as an excellent thriller. It marries the literary and espionage worlds, as it creates a political and social environment, peoples it with complicated characters who have differences of opinion, and raises issues of morality and justice.

This is a story of competition between the British police and British intelligence, and of leaders who belong to the old school and the foot soldiers who see today’s reality differently. It also covers the struggle between Iranian dissidents and Iranian authorities under the ayatollah, and about whether the ends of justice justify the violent means. And, finally, it tackles personal pride vs. personal disgrace, personal decision-making vs. professional discipline, and one’s personal duty vs. professional judgment.

The novel begins with three stories, each one interesting but each in conflict with the other, with the novel’s richness arising from this complexity. The reader’s involvement increases, moreover, as the author jumps back and forth from one story to another, obliging the reader to orient himself to each one and to anticipate how these three stories will link together.

The first story is one of revenge. Charlie Eshraq is a young Iranian exile whose father and sister have been killed by the Iranian revolutionaries, and so he vows revenge on the men who carried out those deaths. To do so, he carries Iranian heroin illegally into England and sells it to raise money to buy the arms he needs to carry out his private executions back home.

The second story revolves around David Park, a young strait-laced leader of a British Customs team assigned to stop all heroin trade. His job in the novel is to find the supplier of heroin which killed the daughter of an important politician. The one lead he is given will lead him to Charlie Eshraq.

The third story concerns Mattie Furniss, who runs British agents in Iran, and who is sent, against all rules, into Iran by an aggressive boss to beef up the information their Iranian agents are providing. And, since coincidence can drive such novels as this, it so happens that Mattie knew Charlie’s dead father and regards Charlie as a virtual son, and so willingly helps him obtain the arms he needs to carry out his avenging murders.

The three stories kick into high gear, when Mattie’s presence in Iran is detected. He is kidnapped and cruelly tortured in gruesome scenes, after which he reveals both the names of his agents and, in a moment of weakness, that of his revenge-minded friend Charlie.

All this is accompanied back home by the story of incompetence combined with the story of justice. The incompetence occurs in a London familiar from many a LeCarre novel, when Furniss’ Intelligence bosses casually delay warning their Iranian agents that they have been exposed. Moreover, the Customs team, led by David Park, is ordered by these same bosses, who are using Charlie for their own purposes, not to break up Charlie’s efforts to fund his revenge by distributing heroin.

Further complications arise when, ridden by guilt for breaking down under the harrowing torture and betraying his Iranian agents, Mattie surprises his guards, kills them, and flees across Iran toward Turkey. He becomes the running target of the title. Now, to the growing suspense, the novel adds an element of morality and justice. For, once back in London, Mattie is lionized by some as a hero, while others debate that he broke down and betrayed his agents. And this conflict strains his conscience, as he resists confessing the truth to a close friend who is debriefing him.

Whereupon, the novel returns to David Park, who is assigned to accompany Charlie Eshraq back into Iran with his weapons. And so he is also conflicted. Should he help this Eshraq who has brought the ravages of heroin into England, and so betray his, Park’s, own personal sense of justice?

Such richness and suspense are enhanced by the novel’s multiple viewpoints, which range beyond the main characters to their colleagues, bosses, and spouses, and even to their enemies. And a new viewpoint may not be identified at the start of a scene, with the reader being forced to wait for the proper identification, and even at times bring forced to figure it out. Which draws the reader more deeply into the action.

This novel is also enhanced by the convincing presentation of the Iranian intelligence service. Both the investigator and his team in pursuit of Mattie and then holding and torturing Mattie are intelligent and consistent professionals. They are dedicated to their mission; they are not stock villains, but worthy adversaries who make the risks Mattie and his agents face all the more convincing.

But what truly makes this novel stand out from other works of this type are the complexities of all the main characters, particularly the moral complexities. First comes the dense British Intelligence director who orders Mattie to go to Iran and demand that his agents provide more information, his prime motive being to build his own reputation. But his orders break all agency rules, for it risks the safety of both Mattie and his agents in Iran.

Then, there is Mattie himself, and how much he should hold out against torture when he is captured, and the guilt he feels about whether he deserves praise or condemnation for that struggle. Plus, there is Charlie Eshraq, who breaks British law by selling heroin, but who is allowed to do so in order to the buy the arms he needs to execute his justice back to Iran. And finally there is David Park, the policeman who has a one-track mind, intent on stopping all drug trade that harms British society, even as his own government helps one of his targets in the interest of British foreign policy.

I have always been impressed by Seymour’s thrillers, the last being Field of Blood, which also concerned political violence, in that case during the recent conflict in Northern Ireland. And where Seymour again focused on the moral issues involved. For when his hero is imprisoned by the British, he shows both the Irish and the British being honestly dedicated to their cause. So, I will be alert to other Seymour thrillers on sale. For his works are literary thrillers, merging suspense with the richness of politics and with moral and emotional complexity. (December, 2017)

Everybody’s Fool, by Richard Russo

This 2016 novel reads as if Russo has fallen in love with his characters of Nobody’s Fool, as well as being fascinated by the down-at-the-heels town of North Bath that he has created in upper New York State. And without any overall plan, has decided to re-apply his writing skills to that town and to explore the subsequent lives of these same characters. The result is a serious novel that cares deeply about its creations, but it does seems unfocused, as it follows these citizens around without an apparent purpose in doing so. And as a result, seems simply to create a world that is alive in the author’s mind, and which he is skilled enough to bring alive also to the reader.

And so we follow the parallel adventures of four male residents who talk to each other but whose lives do not affect each other, and who are not dependent on one another. We simply move from one character’s life to the next. These characters are Sully Sullivan, the main character from the earlier novel about North Bath, whose health is now threatened by a weak heart; Doug Raymer, the town’s chief of police, who is the most prominent character in this novel and who seeks to learn the identity of the man who was his wife’s lover before she died; Gus Moynihan, the North Bath mayor, who also has spousal problems but is less significant; and Carl Roebuck, the town entrepreneur, who never achieves the business success he seeks and also fades out at the end of this novel.

Each of these characters sees himself as failing to live up to his potential, just as their town has failed economically to keep up with its wealthy neighbor, Schuyler Springs. However, Russo helps the reader to identify with each of these characters, despite their human weaknesses, as it is clear that each of them is dealing with a personal trait or a family connection that hinders their search for happiness and fulfillment.

These four main characters bring substance to this novel, nevertheless, and give depth to this town. But it is other characters, less substantial, who drive the action of this novel. The most prominent is Charice Bond, a highly efficient black woman who is the aide to police chief Raymer, and with whom he has an emotional connection. There is also her unsettled brother, Jerome, with whom she has an even closer emotional connection; Rub Squeers, a hapless town handyman who tries and fails to be Sully’s best friend; and Roy Purdy, the most significant, a violent man who beats up people, especially his ex-wife and his former mother-in-law, the latter because she has had a long affair with Sully.

One means of probing the interior of these characters, lending them literary substance, is the use of humor. The most obvious source is Dougie, an inner voice of Doug Raymer who needles him, sees his weaknesses, and also acts as his conscience. Unfortunately, this italicized voice is overdone, and becomes too obvious a means of revealing Raymer’s inner thoughts. It also prompts an absurd moment when Raymer becomes a hero by grabbing a deadly cobra and putting it back in a box. Yes, a cobra is loose in town in one of the novel’s major absurdities.

But not the only one. There is also grave robbing. It seems Raymer has found a garage opener in his dead wife’s car, and he goes around town pointing it at neighbor’s garages in order to learn whom she had an affair with. Except, he then falls into a grave, loses the opener, and it is buried behind him. Voila, a grave robber. There is also more humor behind other human foibles, foibles resulting in a collapsed wall or a stinking basement, all of which bring out the ignorance, the pettiness, and the contradictions in the town’s residents.

That is, much of the novel’s humor evolves from the futility that marks these characters. Raymer is an incompetent police chief. Sully has a bad heart, and refuses to acknowledge it. Moynihan is a failure as a mayor, and Roebuck as a businessman. And handyman Rub is the most incompetent of all.

The casual exchanges among these men reflect the shallowness of their character, which, in turn, betrays why this town is a failure compared to Schuyler Springs. But these exchanges also reveal Russo’s sympathy for them, along with their incompetence; which, in turn, keeps the reader involved in their escapades and in this novel. And which also reflects the work’s facetious title, as it suggests the incompetence of everyone, especially in its focus on Chief Raymer.

The major disappointment I have in this novel is its looseness, its moving simply from the foibles of one character to those of another. The result is the portrait of a town and its failures, and yet not a commentary on the reasons behind those failures. For it likes its characters too much. That is, Russo does. Only the violent Roy is condemned. (Indeed, Russo says he took a shower after writing each of Roy’s chapters.)

A final disappointment is the ending, which brings peace, satisfaction, or happiness to these incompetent characters. It is too arbitrary for me, reflecting too much of the author’s sympathy for these people he has created. More appropriate for this town would have been some irony that continues the frustrations confronting these basically incompetent citizens.

As Russo approaches the end of his distinguished career, it is heartening to see him again take a serious approach to small town life. Perhaps the humor is intended to take the edge off the novel’s seriousness, and therefore attract more readers. I will accept that. I just wish the characters could have been more involved with each other, instead of living their own separate lives with their own separate problems. Perhaps such complexity is too much to handle for an author in the later stages of his career. Which does make one wonder how complex, how probing, future Russo novels will be. (November, 2017)

A Painted House, by John Grisham

This 2001 work is a different Grisham novel, not a thriller, not one centered on the law. And this is precisely why I was drawn to it. It is the story of a seven-year old boy, Luke Chandler, who lives with his family in the cotton fields of Arkansas. Luke narrates the struggles of this farm family—presumably based on Grisham’s own youthful origins—as his parents and grandparents try to survive their hardscrabble life against a context of human evil and natural disaster.

The story encompasses just a few months in the fall, but they are key months to these farmers, since this is when the cotton is harvested. It is also when a family learns whether it has made a profit or sunk deeper into debt. But a family cannot harvest its cotton alone, and so the Chandlers hire migrant Mexicans, who come north to make money, as well as poor people from nearby hill country. This year, it is the Spruill family, who leave their Ozark home to earn money.

The arrival of these cotton pickers adds drama to Luke’s life. He takes his own family for granted—that is, his grandparents, Pappy and Gran, and his father and mother. He also has a young uncle, Ricky, off fighting in Korea. Since he has no one his own age to relate to, Luke regards the absent Ricky as just an older brother, and, like the whole family, yearns for him to come home. Luke is also taken with pretty girls, reflecting still more awareness of the world, and he is fascinated by teenager Tally Spruill. Although he is too young for it to be a sexual attraction, he is not too young not to be disappointed by her own subsequent betrayal of their friendship.

There is continual drama in this novel, but it stems from a series of interesting events rather than one dramatic development that grows more and more complex. There is the tension of picking the cotton on long hot days, and wondering what price one will get when one takes it into town. There is tension between the Mexican group and the Spruills, but also within each grouping, a tension that produces a brutal murder and a seduction and elopement. Then comes, separately, the tension of a birth everyone wants to conceal from town gossip. There is also tension, as the hot sun is replaced by rain, and then by a flooding that threatens the harvest. For without a full harvest, of course, the family finances will flounder.

Amid all this drama, there are also quieter moments that lend substance to narrator Luke and to his family. Luke is a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, and dreams of playing for them one day, just as other children dream of playing for their favorite team. Trips to town for either supplies or entertainment also lend variety and moments of escape. Finally, the unity of the family, and its idealism, is represented by the painting of the family farmhouse—thus bringing more continuity to this work, as well as the dreams that lurk within these struggling farmers.

What we have here is an old story, an innocent boy’s exposure to the harsh world of reality, a reality brought by the evil in men as well as by the reality of Mother Nature. It is also a reality that the boy Luke learns to accept, indeed is forced to accept. Which means that the sad and moving ending to this novel is colored by a vision of hope. And so, as life brings change, one senses that Luke and this family will survive.

One does wonder, however, if this was too much a positive ending, or a superficial ending, for literary critics. For, when published, this work did not receive many favorable reviews. It was welcomed as a literary attempt, but was faulted for its shallowness. It was criticized frequently for its lack of black characters and any racial tension. But that, clearly, was not what Grisham wanted to write about. He wanted to portray the difficult life of cotton farmers, and how they fought nature and worked around another kind of social tension—the tension between the middle-class and the poor.

In sum, these critics wanted Grisham to write another kind of novel. And so, when they addressed the novel he did write, they labeled it superficial. The family is also called stereotypical. Pappy’s leadership is unchallenged. Gran practices folk medicine and makes great biscuits. And mother has her vegetable garden. The social context is shallow, critics wrote, because there are no blacks. And the plotting is weak, they also wrote. They did not acknowledge that farming life itself is slow, since it follows the slow processes of nature—and one deals with an environment in which one must fight fatigue, the hot sun, and tumultuous rainstorms.

These critics are also looking for an adult world, not the world of a seven-year-old boy. This precocious boy, who is conveniently able to eavesdrop on the conversations behind adult decisions, is for them either too precocious or not precocious enough. Or old enough. But it is the boy’s innocence that Grisham also wishes to convey. And how that innocence slowly accommodates itself to the reality of cotton farming.

There are moments of high drama, of course. There is a beating the entire town sees. And the issue of how the perpetrator should be punished. There is also a brutal murder that Luke witnesses. Should he report it, after the killer threatens to kill his mother if he squeals? This is another interesting moral issue that the novel only touches upon. And there is the disappearance of Tally, and how this disillusions Luke, raising another moral issue. But such drama comes from isolated moments, a drama that has in common two alienated characters, two representations of evil, but offers no inevitable connection in which each act leads inevitably to the next.

Grisham’s subject, to sum up, emphasizes social tension, but it has nothing to do with race. One critic points out that blacks represented only three percent of the population of the county in which the real Black Oak, where this novel is set, is located. One may surmise, indeed, that Grisham chose this town for precisely that reason.

One may also conclude that Grisham has written here a novel of youth and innocence that earns him a certain literary status. It is not a great novel, but it is a worthwhile one. Indeed, here is a wish that he would more often leave the commercial world of trial lawyers and write more novels like this one. (November, 2017)