A Literary Cavalcade

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

Arrival and Departure, by Arthur Koestler

One seldom reads of Koestler today, especially as part of Europe’s literary history. And yet he proves himself a worthy novelist here in this early 1943 work. As well as a probing explorer of human psychology. Perhaps it is his subject and theme that seems less pertinent today. His subject is the flight of his hero Peter Slavek from a central European dictatorship in the 1940s. And he says his theme is “the conflict between morality and expediency,” which “I have tried to transpose…into terms of individual psychology.”

From the moment Slavek drops into the sea, from the bowels of a ship in which he has been hiding, and swims ashore to freedom, Koestler has captured the reader’s interest. And it continues as his hero adjusts to a strange city and a set of new, curious faces. He tries to join the military forces of an unknown country, but since its official is Mr. Wilson, one assumes it is the England to which the author himself did flee. But Slavak is told that since the unnamed country he fled is now occupied by the enemy, such permission is not easy to obtain. The official suggests he try the American consulate as a back-up. America is neutral in the war, and may more readily accept him.

The identity of most countries has to be inferred, however. Which leaves one easily confused, as I was, about people’s loyalties. Thus, the country Slovak has fled to is Portugal, but is called Neutralia—a label which should have been too obvious in Koestler’s wartime era, much less today.

Meanwhile, Slavek is taken in by a Dr. Sonia Bolgar, an imposing women, a psychologist, who has turned her home into a meeting place for refugees. One of these refuges is Odette, with whom Slavek soon has an affair. But Odette is independent-minded, one who says, for example, “after all, love-making is rape by mutual consent.” And one day Odette vanishes because her American visa has come through, leaving Slavek distraught.

To complicate his thinking, he knows he also faces many decisions about his own future. Should he continue fighting the forces occupying his own country? Should he flee to England to do so, since it has now said it would give him a visa? Or should he escape to neutral America and Odette? He cannot make a decision, and soon develops a weakness in one leg that incapacitates him.

We are one-third into the novel, and are about to follow the author into probing the psychology of his hero. Dr. Bolgar uses logic to help Slavek face the critical question of the novel, which is how much the torture he endured under his country’s dictatorial regime he brought on himself—as the result of a guilt he feels about a small incident from his childhood.

It is a harrowing session she puts Slavek through in order to reveal this, but it makes sense. Slavek first recalls dreaming how the enemy back home put its dissidents on mysterious death trains. And then tells of the terrible mental and physical torture he himself endured. The explanation, she says, is that he wished to be punished for a childhood sin. And that he still holds within him that sense of guilt. And yet…one senses that this complex realization by Slavek has been programmed somewhat by the author. Do its explanations of his past and its impact on his future fall too neatly into place? This is not to fault its dramatic effectiveness, but rather to raise doubts in retrospect. Do these developments stand the test of being an outcome of the novel’s theme, morality vs. expediency, rather than chosen to illustrate it?

And so Slavek stops being the idealist, like Don Quixote, and becomes the more realistic Sancho. He decides to be practical, and pursue Odette in neutral America. But does he? He endures a lecture on political theory by a representative of his occupied homeland. Or is it the author? And then the decision he reaches is prompted by a dream, just as other dreams have influenced earlier decisions. But his time he wills not focus on reasons for one’s actions, for “reasons do not matter so much. They are the shell around the core; and the core remains untouchable, beyond the reach of cause and effect.” What matters, it seems, are feelings, not reasons. If this “does not provide a logical answer to its central problem,” Koestler has written, “I felt that it provided me with a sort of answer nevertheless, [although] in a novel it could only be hinted at in an indirect way.” Which is the one reservation I have about this novel: its sound reality caters to its message.

The Departure of the title consists of a final chapter in which Slavek acts out, and justifies, his final decision. We do not know his future, but we know that he will be comfortable with it, with the feelings it gives him. And that, even as the ending grows more abstract, the author is comfortable with having explored and illustrated the inner psychology of his hero.

Saul Bellow in The New York Times summed up my reaction to this novel. “Mr. Koestler has given Arrival and Departure the full benefit of his marvelous ability to create a contemporary atmosphere and to make his characters represent the whole of the civilization to which they belong.” That is, he has met the terms of novel writing. He has created characters, scenes, and human psychology that makes a somewhat abstract concept come alive.

But while Bolgar was right to emphasize logic, Bellow says that “faith has its own requirements, despite logic. And quotes Koestler that ‘in these spheres the right thing [has] always to be done for the wrong reasons.’” He adds: “There is no science of moral convictions; that, in effect, is what Koestler is saying. [That] by themselves, our ideals of reason mean very little; they have brought us few benefits and done us great damage.” Bellow then cites Koestler contrasting the abandoned problem of ethical belief in the past with today’s problem of experimental science. And leaves the reader with the hope that “all mankind may join in answering the questions of moral choice which individual men today attack with inadequate means.”

To sum up, Koestler has written a highly effective novel in literary terms, but he has grafted onto it an exploration of a human psychology in which scientific thinking has replaced ethical thinking. Which makes more sense for a European intellectual who has fled his era’s dictators than it does for an author who assumes here the mantle of a novelist. (July, 2018)

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Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane

This 2017 work ends as a terrific thriller, but it begins as a daughter’s search for her father. It is really two stories about an insecure girl who does not know who she is, and is desperately seeking an identity. Rachel Childs was raised by a controlling mother, who wouldn’t tell her who her father was. The novel begins as she commences that search, is foiled, and begins again. It is a technique the author will use throughout the book: throwing up surprise developments that she must hurdle in a search for the answer to who she is.

She thinks the answer may be in the love she has never experienced. And she believes she finds it in Brian, who enters her life, leaves it, and then casually re-enters it and marries her. Except, we already know from the prologue that she is going to shoot dead a husband that she still deeply loves. Is this Brian? Such a prologue is a tool that thriller writers use to interest us in their story. And it surely works here.

For we have persevered through the first third of the book and her search for her father, a third which is well told and contains its own effective surprises. But it is not the heart of the book, and it reveals little about Rachel, except the needs she has. Is that to be the subject of this novel? For if it is, I found an elusiveness at the center of Rachel. And was not persuaded when, as a television reporter in Haiti after its earthquake, she has an on-air breakdown as a result of the horrors she has experienced. And when this breakdown follows her home, I still did not feel it. While it is intended as an extension of her mother’s coldness, all I felt in her subsequent denial of human contact was a hollowness. I did not feel the torment within her.

And so I never felt that constant withdrawal that keeps her off the street and confines her to her own house. It is a withdrawal that Brian will say he can cure. Because he loves her. But never having felt that breakdown, I could not relate to her desperation, to her search for who she truly is.

But then, one day, years later, when Brian is supposed to be on a plane to London, she sees him on a street in downtown Boston. And all her uncertainties return. Was it Brian? If so, who is this man she has married? Has he been lying to her? What is he concealing? Has he just pretended to love her? And so, the thriller begins. And it is marvelous thriller.

It begins with the tale of a rich mine in New Guinea, with seventy million dollars, and continues with two murderous gangsters, a mysterious corporation that hires them, the Providence and Boston police, a pregnant woman, a Japanese whore, and the dead Brian that Rachel has shot.

But is Brian really dead? What was his plan, and was Rachel a part of that plan? Or just a tool? And whom should she trust? In fact, has she the inner strength, the fortitude, to survive? Her flight from the police, and from gangsters, will take her to Maine, to Brian’s origins, then to an abandoned factory outside Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and then to a bank safe deposit box with money, passports, and tickets to Amsterdam. And the questions arise for the reader as well: Will Rachel escape? Can she survive on her own? And what has Brian planned for her?

There is no issue of morality here. The only issue is: what will work? With the reader pulling, as in all thrillers, for the hero(ine) to survive and to succeed. No, there is one other issue: what will be the cost of success? In human lives.  Lehane forces Rachel to face this issue, when he confronts her with death. “You have to bear witness to your dead,” she thinks. “You simply have to. You have to step into the energy field of whatever remains of their spirit, their soul, their essence, and let it pass through your body.”

And as she goes to confront a dead friend on the last page:

“But there might be some light upstairs and there would certainly be light when she want back outside.

“And if by some twist of fate there wasn’t, if all that remained of the world was night and no way to climb out of it?

“Then she’d make a friend of the night.”

Rachel, above all things, is a survivor. And she discovers she can not only turn the tables on Brian, for a change, she could also produce better ideas, as she does on at least two occasions. There is no hint of redemption, however, which one might expect from an author raised amid the Catholic culture of Boston. There is only survival, and the strength to survive.

Lehane, however, calls this a novel about identity, and I agree it is a strong aspect. Raised by a controlling mother, and deceived by two husbands, Rachel does not know who she is. “The book very much becomes a question of how much of any of us is a con,” the author says. “How much of any of us is a performance. When do you understand the moment? Do you ever understand the moment where that line has been crossed and you can’t come back from it?” But he has submerged that issue in a thriller that challenges her uncertainty, her insecurity, on a physical level. And that is what the reader is concerned about. Rachel’s fate. Not her psychology.

Rachel is also Lehane’s first heroine, after writing exclusively about the experiences of men. And it terms of her subservient role, her internal strength, her new maturity, she is a successful creation. However, she is not in terms of a character of richness and depth. Her growth is on the surface. Her maturity is geared to survival in the world. There is little recognition of the moral road she has travelled, of what she has learned about integrity, or about the responsibility of love.

I would note that the two reviews I read in The New York Times spend more time on the psychological insecurity of the Rachel we meet early on in this novel. It is there that they seem to find the human being worth discussing, rather than in the woman facing the thriller predicament she is soon confronting. But I wonder if this is not for a practical reason: they do not want to spoil the plot’s many surprises. And so they emphasize the distraught character that Rachel once was instead of the distraught woman she finds herself to be when her former world collapses.

I do look forward to reading more of Lehane. But I hope he focuses more on the inner lives of his characters, and less on their exterior. (June, 2018)

There Your Heart Lies, by Mary Gordon

The heart of Marian Taylor, this novel’s heroine, lies in Spain. And that is what drew me to this 2017 novel. Because my heart lies there as well. But also being a fan of author Mary Gordon, I was doubly drawn to this novel.

This is the story of a 19-year old girl who flees her Irish Catholic family in 1937 to become a volunteer nurse for the Republican forces. While there, she falls in love and has a son, but is never accepted by her husband’s family after he tragically dies. And, as in much of Gordon’s work, there is a parallel story, the story of her granddaughter Amelia in the first decade of the 21st century. Marian is now dying, and Amelia wants to understand her Nene better, especially what she never talks about, those years in Spain.

And so, this novel, this tender novel, moves back and forth between Marion’s life in Spain of the 1930s and Amelia’s conversations with her grandmother in Rhode Island in 2009. Until, Amelia decides herself to go to Spain to resolve Nene’s differences with the son she had left behind.

As a girl, Marian rebelled against the faith of her deeply conservative Catholic family. She loved especially her brother Johnny, but was distraught when he was exposed as a homosexual and committed by his shamed Catholic parents to a hospital— whereupon, rather than suffer shock treatments, he kills himself. Still more distraught, Marian wants nothing to do with her family, and flees to Spain. With Johnny’s lover, Russell, a doctor. It is a fake marriage, but their relationship gives the novel its interesting start.

Their story takes off when Marian and Russell arrive in Spain in 1937. Gordon has done her research, and we truly feel we are there. We sense the tension among fatalist Republicans unsure of victory, more tension between anarchists and communists, still more among the hospital staff, and finally tension that prompts Russell to flee the hypocrisy around him.

When Russell returns to the States, Marian is assigned to a new hospital near Valencia, and the novel comes into its own. For Marian falls in love with a local doctor, Ramon Ortiz, and becomes pregnant. However, he contracts sepsis while operating and dies. She is then taken in by his unsympathetic family, whose purpose is to assume control of her son and then indoctrinate him in their own conservative beliefs.

Meanwhile, the novel is shifting between 1937 and 2009. In 2009, concerned about her dying grandmother, Amelia gets Marian to talk about her early family life. For the first time, we see what motivated her to run away to Spain. We get inside her. We see the family conflict that we have heard about, but we now experience it.

The novel alternates between Marion’s memories of growing up and the years in Spain, when she has the baby and Ortiz’ mother, Pilar, turns the town against her. The young mother was miserable—for seven years. Until, in an ironic stroke of luck, she falls and breaks her leg. For she then meets her half-Irish saviors, a woman doctor and her brother, a priest.

Now Gordon returns to the Spain of 1946, when Marian is recovering from her broken leg. The doctor, Isabel, and the brother, Tomas, help to restore Marian’s belief in humanity after her cruel treatment by the Ortiz family. And then, luckily, Marian falls in love again, with Theo, a visiting American artist who will help her escape back to the States.

The priest, Thomas, plays an interesting role in this novel. He is a sympathetic priest. Yes, he has committed one outrageous act of self-mutilization, but this only makes him more human. What is interesting is that Marian takes to him, even if she has lost her faith. Moreover, this novel, permeated by “bad” Catholics, from Marian’s parents to Franco’s followers, portrays him as a good person. It is Gordon, I think, acknowledging that Catholics can be bad or good depending on their sense of humanity rather than how they practice their faith. This sensitivity also foreshadows a later discussion about whether heaven exists, and whether Marian and Amelia will one day meet again. The Catholic perspective remains in Gordon’s purview.

But to return toTheo. He represents the one weakness in this book. We get to know him only briefly. And we learn even less about Naomi, his and Marian’s child and the mother of Amelia. Why? Because, I presume, this is the story of Marian and her granddaughter. But it does leave a hole in this family story. A full generation wide.

Just as the final chapter also leaves a gap. For Amelia returns to Spain, intent on bringing Marian and her Spanish child back together. Thus, creating a full circle. It is a marvelous, atmospheric passage, blending a modern impression and a distant past. But the outcome changes the entire atmosphere of this passage. And changes Amelia as well. Too much and too quickly. As Gordon makes this moment the key to Amelia’s future life.

Yes, there will be a final tender meeting between the dying Marian and the new Amelia, which is right for a novel that begins with the focus on Marian and ends with the focus on Amelia. But Amelia’s new view of life has not been given space to breathe. She now understands herself, she says. She can say yes and no to others. But will she, as she faces new challenges? We hear her declaration, but we do not see her in action. Is she now too hard-hearted? No, you say. For she believes in the afterlife. Well, yes…the possibility.

At least this novel is not hard-hearted. Yes, its story is pervaded by the hard-heartedness of the Catholic faith. But its main characters, minus Pilar, think and act according to the laws of charity. They balance the evils of humanity with the good. They seek to understand and to love other human beings. And these are precepts that Jesus taught, precepts that the Catholic Church still preaches. That Gordon has not forgotten.

And yet I am curious. Why does she otherwise offer such a negative view of the Catholic Church? Only because it fits her story? No, I shouldn’t say that, because Gordon’s novels often consider how the Church’s values conflict with our humanity. It is more, I think, that Gordon likes to develop her stories through contrast. Another type of contrast she uses, as here, is to create a relationship between two characters, such as Marian and Amelia, in order to dramatize the human condition. And again it works. (June, 2018)

Revival, by Stephen King

What I like about Stephen King is that he begins his novels in the real world. In this 2014 work, it is the world of six-year-old Jamie Morton who is a typical kid in a typical Maine family. There, he encounters Charles Jacobs, a local minister fascinated by electricity, but who will lose his faith and leave town when his wife and child die accidentally.

Jamie is the hero of this novel, and the narrator. We watch as he grows up amid his family and discovers that he lives in what is often a deceptive world. It is also a real world, however, and, as the boy matures, he struggles to make his way into that real world. When the author grounds him as a rhythm guitarist in a series or rock bands, it is not surprising. King has long created fictional heroes familiar with rock music. Music, however, is no longer just atmosphere; it is now his hero’s profession.

But this is not a novel about music; it is more a novel about faith. Or, rather, about the tensions between science and faith. And about how that tension can drive men’s actions. Until it becomes an obsession. And how clinging to that obsession can drive one man into searching for a world beyond reality. A man like Charles Jacobs.

As Jamie make his way through the musical world, he succumbs to the temptation of heroin. But he also tracks down the former minister and discovers he is a flim-flam man at carnivals, and is using electricity as a come on to attract an audience. And so, when Jamie collapses from his last dose, Jacobs is there to help. He even takes Jamie under his wing and uses that same strange electricity to cure him of his drug habit. Which puts Jamie in debt to him. But also plants in Jamie some kind of link.

After they separate, however, Jamie begins to suffer side effects. And when, later, he learns that Jacobs has become a famous preacher, touring the land, performing miracle cures, and growing rich, Jamie becomes curious. What is Jacobs up to? His doubts increase when he learns that some of the cures have produced terrible side effects in a few of those treated.

Up until then, Jamie has lead a normal life on the rock and roll fringes. There is nothing about the horror to come, only teasers about what Jacobs is up to. All we already know is that Jacobs has lost his faith in God after the accidental death in Maine of his wife and son, and that he is fascinated by the power of electricity.

But as he begins to learn about the violent side effects to Jacobs’ miracle cures, Jamie decides he must confront the man in behalf of all those he apparently helped. At their meeting, Jacobs explains he has given up curing people, because he has developed a powerful, new “secret electricity.” But he will explain no more. He even tries to hire Jamie, but Jamie declines, because he does not know Jacob’s end goal. He also sees that, in his intensity, Jacobs has taken on the aura of a mad scientist, although neither Jamie nor the reader understands where the events of this novel are headed.

But that madness does become obvious in the final chapters, when Jacobs contacts Jamie, knowing the power of that old spell. But what he says is that he needs Jamie’s help. First, to cure Astrid, an ex-lover of Jamie from his youth. And then to use his secret electricity to actually raise someone from the dead. King himself has said his inspiration, in part, was Frankenstein. And, indeed, the patient in the second case is named Mary, as in Shelley. Jacobs says he intends to revive her, and so learn what being dead is like. It is his way of defying the faith he has lost, and using the power of science to discover the meaning of death.

But, as in Frankenstein, and in many horror tales, the experiment gets out of control. Now, death itself enters their laboratory—and King goes overboard in depicting the afterlife. Indeed, he confronts the reader with the most terrible horror he can conceive. What if death were like this he is saying, perhaps even chuckling inside. It is as far from the world of reality, a world King himself has established in this novel, that one can get. But I see it more as King testing the waters of horror than rejecting any religious belief in paradise. He is a horror writer here, not a philosopher. He retains his only touch of reality with the implication that there are people who will use religion to achieve ignoble ends.

This novel is more successful for me when it is in the real world, the world of Jamie as a six-year old and growing up in Maine in a loving family, then as an adolescent fascinated by sex with Astrid, and then succumbing to drugs as he makes his way into the world of rock. There are hints of miracle cures to come, but at first Jacobs is just feeling his way toward achieving them. King is so good at reality, at day-to-day life, at family relationships, that the reader is committed to his world—even as he suspects that King is leading him toward something…unworldly, perhaps even…awful.

Of course, when it comes, the fictional world of Jamie’s Maine that had so enthralled us vanishes. Instead, the revelation of the horror of the afterlife takes us beyond the world of reality. It is a world that reeks, even, of absurdity. Moreover, King needs a final chapter to explain what has followed that moment of horror—with its visions, its monster, its screaming, and its gunshots. And what has happened to Jamie as a result. But that chapter is a crutch too many author use to justify the sins of their imagination.

On finishing this novel, my message to Stephen King is to abandon the physical reality of horror. To, instead, create a reality that carries an implication of horror, like a dome or a time machine, or else to create the horror within the mind of his main character. If the reader has identified with that character, then that should be enough.

However, I have long thought that King could write a serious literary novel, if he wished. This novel could be a beautiful story of growing up. Why is he so attached to the horror genre? To please his audience? Surely, he has earned enough. Does he lack the confidence of such an attempt? Or is the interest simply not there? Because he has the literary tools. And he understands the whims and desires and fears of people. Ah, well, I have three more of his genre novels on my shelves. I must learn to be patient. (June, 2018)

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

This Man Booker prize novel from 2017 is certainly an original. And also unusual. Highly unusual. It is about the dead, about what happens after people die, a subject that highly interests me. But the direction that Saunders takes here is not a direction that I have followed in my own writing. I do admire his effort here, but it is too worldly for me, too concerned with the humanity of his characters, rather than any spiritual consequences. Saunders also introduces too many characters for me, as if to emphasize how death reaches across such a broad human experience. Indeed, one reviewer says there are 166 characters in this book. But my problem is less with the number of characters; it is more with there being no linkage among so many of these characters, which I will call the undead, as they roam about this cemetery setting—and as they cling to this residue of the life that they know, resisting their transition to an afterlife that they do not know.

As the title indicates, this is primarily a story about President Abraham Lincoln. He is distraught at the death of his young son Willie in the second year of his Presidency. And so he journeys to the cemetery the day after the funeral to mourn his son, and to alleviate a sense of guilt for not paying enough attention to the boy’s illness—a guilt re-enforced by the lives also being lost on the battlefield. However, it seems that, as he developed this novel, Saunders’ vision may have grown beyond Lincoln. As if he also saw the possibility of commenting on the human condition. And so he began exploring the lives and deaths, the relationships and fates, of these dead people who saw in Lincoln’s concern for his son a relevance to their own future.

These dead people are in a transitional state that Tibetan Buddhists call the bardo. And it is a state they are comfortable with, for they can leave their dead bodies, move around freely, and talk to one another. They can even invade the bodies and the minds of both the living and their fellow undead— and, in doing so, impact their thinking. In this case, they are trying to impact both Lincoln and his son.

In fact, Tomas Mallon suggests in The New Yorker that “when his father [Lincoln] lets go, accepts the boy’s death and helps to usher his spirit to a real afterlife, the consequences are world-shaping. Vollman and Roger Bevins [the novel’s main observers] perceive a Lincoln who now fully understands and embraces suffering, and feels a new bloody-minded determination to win the war.” This would seem, however, to be guided more by a literary decision than by historic facts. For Mallon grants that the history suggests that Lincoln did not reveal that determination until later. Instead, he suggests that Vollman and Bevins are indulging in wishful thinking, and that, as Bevins says, “we must do so, and believe in it, or else we were ruined.”

In short, this is an intriguing novel when it is focused on Lincoln and his son Willie, but less so when the relationships among the undead dominate.

And they often do. That is, Saunders will pay considerable attention to one group of undead characters who have a relationship with each other, and then move to another. But none of these groups will have a relationship with another group, much less with Lincoln or his son. And this disparity is often confusing. Why, even, are these separate groups present in this novel? I believe this apparent decision to expand the parameters and introduce a commentary on the human condition was a mistake. And even Michiko Kakutani seems to agree in her New York Times review, writing that the “supernatural chatter can grow tedious at times—the novel would have benefited immensely from some judicious pruning.”

How Saunders presents his characters is also highly original. As well as unusual. Each of his 166 characters contributes to what is happening, or comments on it, in just a few lines or a few paragraphs. The result is a kaleidoscope of opinion, often deliberately contradictory. A few of the quoted characters are figures of history, historians and biographers who lend authenticity to the reality of Lincoln’s character and his world. But most are undead fictional characters, who seem to concentrate more on their own lives and their own fates during their back-and-forth conversations. They are most effective, of course, when they discuss Lincoln and his son. But toward the center and the latter part of the novel, these characters address primarily their own lives, their own concerns. And while it expands the undead experience, there is still little or no connection among these various groups of the undead.

There is still more confusion when, toward the end, the reader grasps that not all these undead characters realize that they are dead. Now, I grant that if all did realize this, this would open the novel up to a concern about what was going to happen to them. Indeed, I have written myself of characters who are in a way station between earth and their fate in the afterlife. But Saunders is not interested in those ramifications, such as issues of penance and redemption. What concerns him and his undead is this troubled old man who is visiting this son, this innocent boy he has lost. And the undead wish to help both of them in their sorrow, thinking it may offer a key to their own future, although they are unsure of how to do so.

What many of them prefer is to remain in this undead status, where they are in control of their existence. And they also realize the danger of becoming emotional, that they could lose their undead status and explode in what Saunders terms a loud “matterlightblooming phenomenon.” What seems to have far more potential, however, is that this change is often preceded by what is called “future forms,” by an undead body being transformed into what it might have been like at key points, if he or she had lived out a normal life.

For me, however, my interest is not in the status of the undead, with their various emotional and psychological concerns. Or even in the absence of any spiritual element. What interests me is the psychological and emotional portrait of Lincoln. He is a troubled soul, troubled by the fate of both his son and the tens of thousands of soldiers who have already died in the Civil War. And Saunders, thereupon, has him come to an understanding that history suggests did not happen but which does work here in literary terms: that just as the president must accept the loss of his son, so must he accept the loss of what will become hundreds of thousands of soldiers—in order to save the Union. This realization leaves him in great sorrow, for which he is well known, but it becomes here the price Saunders says he must pay to preserve the freedom and the lives of millions more.

Colson Whitehead in his own Times review re-enforces this position when he praises this novel’s “luminous feat of generosity and humanism.” Of course, the humanistic aspect is what precisely troubles me—that the author chooses to explore only how our humanity continues after death. But if our humanity survives, should not the question be: what happens next? And Saunders has no interest in that. He is interested only in how these characters continue to be human in this way station. Which, granted, is a literary subject, and easier to accommodate in a novel than one’s spiritual fate.

And the generosity that Whitehead cites? That is expressed in the number and variety of human beings Saunders brings onto the scene.

Thus, Whitehead is also in sync with the author’s decision to explore so many characters in this world of the undead. As he states, the undead do crowd around this dead boy and his mourning father, seeming to hope that Willie, with his father’s encouragement, can move on peacefully to the next world. Of the love the father shows, one character, Reverend Thomas says, “It was cheering. It gave us hope.” Or, as Whitehead himself says, “If the spirits can persuade this boy to undertake his rightful departure to the Other Side, they might be saved as well.” And this farewell to one son, Lincoln’s son, Whitehead even says, foreshadows the farewell “to the hundreds of thousands who will fall in the battlefields.”

And he does make Lincoln seem reconciled to this. “Abraham Lincoln must stop being the father to a lost boy,” Whitehead writes, “and assume his role as a father to the nation, one on the brink of cataclysm.” And adds: “Survival depends not only on the captain, but on all aboard.” Which can explain, I grant, the presence of so many of the undead. But it is, again, an explanation in psychological terms or philosophical terms. But not in literary terms. Much less in spiritual terms. No, I still believe the few should have stood in for the many, not the many for the many. Unless they, too, were in mourning for their son—as they would be when the war went on.

This is Saunders’ first novel, after considerable success as a short story writer. But it does not, of itself, lead me to expect future novels from his pen. First, because it is so original in its concept, the expectation by critics of an even more original work might inhibit any attempt by the author to attempt another one. And, second, because its technique of advancing the story by means of brief quotations from a variety of sources suggests an imagination that is more comfortable with using shorter points of reference and outside sources. But if I am wrong, surely the length of my comments here suggests such a work will be worth exploring. (May, 2018)

LaRose, by Louise Erdrich

This is a beautifully written novel from 2016, the language even more beautiful than I can remember from other Erdrich novels. But it is also not an easy novel to follow. Not because of the magic realism that reflects the Indian heritage— with bodies existing outside themselves, or with the dead showing up in the real world. No, it is because the author again shifts her perspective too much. She delays here in making connections that the reader needs, that at least this reader does. This problem arises for me primarily when new characters appear on the scene, and what is not clear is their relationship to the characters I am already familiar with. Or why they belong in this novel at all.

This is the story of two families, the Iron family and the Ravich family. And the novel begins beautifully and dramatically when Landreaux Iron, out hunting, aims at a deer but tragically kills five year old Dusty Ravich, the only son of Pete and Nola Ravich and the best friend of his own son, LaRose. Following Indian tradition, Landeaux and his wife Emmaline eventually offer to share their son LaRose, Rusty’s best friend, with the Ravich family, offering him as a replacement for Dusty. This decision took my breath away, and opened up so many possibilities for this novel.

And to compound this heartbreaking situation, these two families are very close. For Landreaux and Pete are also best friends, and all the children of these two families often play together. Moreover, Landreaux’s wife Emmaline is a half sister of Dusty’s mother, and, while she loves her own son, she realizes Nola is heartbroken at the loss of her son.

What gives this novel much of it reality is the continuing interaction among the children of both families. Particularly by LaRose. He has been named for a long string of LaRoses in his family, most of whom were women. They were also healers, acting to preserve Indian traditions, and this is a role the boy now plays. What is also intriguing is that he becomes comfortable living with both the Iron and the Ravich families. And that both families accept this. For a while. He especially gets along with Maggie Ravich, who grows into a prominent character. She becomes particularly effective when Emmaline insists that LaRose return to the Iron family, and Maggie’s mother Nola becomes despondent at his loss. Whereupon Maggie, aided by LaRose, works to free her mother from thoughts of suicide.

But then we return to the men and to a major plot point. A rather dramatic one, but one which explains the presence of a mysterious Romeo Puyat, who has long been resentful of Landreaux for reasons unknown. In fact, the reason for even his presence in this novel early on has not been clear. But now we learn that when both boys were five or so, they met at an Indian boarding school, and that later Landreaux persuaded Romeo to escape with him. But when they were in hiding, Landreaux accidentally injured his pal, and the pain from the injury turned Romeo into a drug addict and later, as he searched for drugs, into an investigator of the town’s secrets.

Romeo has long resented his injury and the accompanying addiction that ruined his marriage, and has long plotted revenge. He now convinces Pete Ravich that Landreaux was drunk when he killed Pete’s son, and could even have saved the boy if he had not run away. He tells this story convinced that it will prompt Pete to kill Landreaux in revenge. And this drama fills much of the novel’s finale, tying together the two families even more. But it also introduces a major change in the atmosphere of the novel.

Indeed, Erdrich milks this plotting for its suspense. If only the outcome weren’t so anti-climactic, as if she realized that violence would not be in keeping with this quiet story of two Indian families. Evidence for this is that she closes the novel with a graduation party for Romeo’s son Hollis, who has been living with the Irons, another cause of his father’s resentment. This recreates the family atmosphere before the death of Rusty, the two families once again acting in harmony and also forgiving each other. The party concludes with a blend of modern American culture and Indian culture, but overall this final chapter barely fits the events of this novel.

According to Mary Gordon in The New York Times Book Review, Erdrich is asking in this novel whether a good man “can do the worst thing possible and still be loved.” And this party, Gordon says, expresses the forgiveness that the two families feel. That it wipes out the allure of revenge, with even a proud Romeo attending this party honoring his son.

The richness of this novel stems from the Indian culture of these two families. The gift of LaRose to the Raviches is, of course, the strongest evidence of that culture. As is their cooperation and shared perspective. But it is also present in the magic moments when the dead are present, when living creatures rise overhead and look down on their own bodies, and in the small traditions both families observe. Of course, this is a trademark of Erdrich novels, in which her characters work to preserve their Indian heritage in modern day America.

One development, however, seems out of place. Erdrich, a Catholic, introduces here a priest, Father Travis. He is young, serious, and somewhat naïve, but he is sought out by the Indian families for advice. In this role, he is an effective character. However, the author has him fall in love with Emmaline, even having a tryst with her, and I am not sure why this element is introduced. To show he is human? For it has no connection with the novel’s other events. Nor are we given Emmaline’s own perspective. Why does she get involved with the priest? And, at the end, Father Travis is simply replaced by a less consequential priest. Overall, Travis plays a legitimate role as an adviser to these families, but why Erdrich has him fall in love is unclear.

Nevertheless, Erdrich novels continue to interest me. And not least because she is a Catholic. And while religious concerns are not always paramount in her works, I do often share the perspective with which she delineates her characters and their lives. In this case, what interests me is her concern for the conflict between revenge and forgiveness. (May, 2018)

 

Leaving Home, by Arthur Cavanaugh

This is an old-fashioned novel from 1970. It begins beautifully with a prologue that describes a cemetery scene and a subsequent repast at the Connerty family home in Brooklyn. These events are narrated by Robbie Connerty, the family’s youngest child. He will then recall for the reader his family history, which will become the main body of the book. We will learn how this family survived the Depression, World War II, and the travails typical of a lower middle-class family. But before he begins that story Robbie reveals that he harbors a secret—he does not say what it is—that has troubled him his entire life. And we deduce that he is recalling both the happy and sad events in his family’s history in order to relieve himself of a sense of guilt that he has carried with him his entire life.

The chapters that follow cover distinct periods of Robbie’s life, from the uncertainty of youth, to a sense of responsibility when his mother contracts tuberculosis, to his brief flirtation with art, to his growing understanding of family life and family love, to his eventual decision to become a writer, and finally to his discovery of love and marriage. These various narrations also deepen his relationships with his parents and his siblings as his family struggles to survive in the era’s floundering economy.

But while these events concern the same characters, they are often disconnected. Thus, many chapters reach their own conclusion, rather than lead to developments in the next chapter. As a result, this novel does not flow naturally. Which may explains how most chapters originally appeared separately in women’s magazines in the 1960s. What is not clear is how much these chapters were planned as separate short stories, and how much they were planned as continuing chapters in a novel. That is, were financial concerns behind publishing so many of these chapters originally as short stories. One reason that they probably appeared in such magazines, however, is that readers could identify with the mother, Catherine, who is the most deeply drawn character and is at the heart of most family decisions.

One also wonders how much this novel may be autobiographical. It certainly reads as such, and, as Cavanaugh states at the beginning, Catherine “was” his own mother. But it is his third novel, whereas autobiographical works are usually an author’s first or second novel. I lean toward autobiography, however, because the Brooklyn atmosphere is so deeply felt, and because the family relationships are so carefully rendered. And after all, it is the story of one life, Robbie’s, as well as the story of a family, that rings so true here. Moreover, if events in one chapter do not lead to the next, is this not how life is truly lived, even if not how novels are usually constructed.

Of course, these chapters do work as separate entities. There is a chapter on Robbie’s failure to climb a wall to prove himself. There is a chapter on his fights with his sister Roseanne, and another on their reconciliation, and still another on her departure to train as a missionary. There is a chapter on Hanna, a cleaning lady whom the family loves. There are chapters on his mother leaving home for a sanitarium upstate to recover from tuberculosis, and more chapters on how the family survives without her, such as planning for Christmas, and then, in another chapter, on preparing for her return. Not to forget a chapter on Robbie’s Aunt Tillie, who is the first to fill Robbie’s life with art. Or chapters on Robbie’s awareness of death, and then the discovery of love by brothers Daniel and Vinnie, as well as that of his other sister, Margaret. There are, finally, chapters on Robbie meeting his wife, on their marriage, and then on his impending fatherhood

Robbie’s secret, however, does not flow naturally to the surface. Indeed, when it is resurrected in a dramatic scene at the end. It seems rather arbitrary to me, as if the author sees it as the time to reveal the key to Robbie’s character. The secret concerns whether or not Robbie, the youngest child, has been wanted by his parents, and his doubts about it. And the justification of his doubts lies in a collection of photographs, which are resurrected just in time for the novel’s conclusion. But I do grant that the scene in which he discusses his doubts with his mother is indeed moving. It might even be the final scene in the book. For there is a sense of completion in this mother and son discussion that rounds off both their characters.

But the author follows this with an emotional bookend, with a return to the funeral repast for his mother. And we witness these grown children departing the family home in order to return to their own separate lives. This scene is quite moving as well, as we sense the separation that every family endures, when its members return to their own lives after many years as a close family unit.

Julian Moynahan closes his 1970 review with these words: “It takes the hand of an artist in remembrance like Robbie—that is, like Arthur Cavanaugh—to keep time at bay and the miracle intact through the registrations of a narrative art that is always faithful to historical detail and the integrity of persons, and draws its finest energies from love and a deeply felt acceptance of the inevitability of death.”

These comments indeed reflect the intent of the author, and are also belong to the era in which the reviewer wrote them. But I have called this an old-fashioned novel, because I do not believe such qualities are celebrated today. Or, rather, accepted as ideal elements in a literary work. Few literary stalwarts write today of family love, of family integrity, of a family’s acceptance of poverty and death. And critics also do not accept today obvious symbols—like a collection of photographs, particularly when they so blatantly rise to the surface, in this case fortuitously from beneath a blanket in the Connerty basement.

I was drawn to this novel because this family is both Irish and Catholic. But if their nationality is evoked here, their religion is not. And so as deeply as this family experience is felt, it is missing a spiritual element, and does not encourage me to seek out further Cavanaugh novels. They belong to a different era. Today I prefer novels that explore the heart and the soul’s inner life. And certainly not one where the absence of photographs raises a character’s internal doubts. (May, 2018)