A Literary Cavalcade

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

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 he 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)

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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)

Apostles of Light, by Ellen Douglas

This 1973 work is an old-fashioned novel, for which it might be difficult to get a publisher today. Primarily because nothing much happens in its opening chapters, which is filled with family member talking extensively as they decide what to do with their surviving older generation. We follow long speculative conversations as they discuss their responsibilities when Aunt Elizabeth dies, and their elderly Aunt Martha survives. They convince themselves that they want to do what is best for Martha, and yet they are also concerned with the financial implications of what they do decide.

This is a tedious process to follow, as the younger generation decides to convert Martha’s house into a home for old people, called Golden Age Acres. Martha agrees, on the condition they accept her long-time boyfriend Lucas as a resident. The idea for the home originates with smooth-talking cousin Howie (keeping it in the family), who managers the facility and who hires Mrs. Crawley as its nurse. These two characters become the villains of the novel, as they pursue their personal success and the home’s financial success at the expense of its residents. Meanwhile, the responsible family members, Albert, George, and George’s son Newton persuade themselves of the benefits of offering a home for a half dozen or so older people, for it both contributes to society and brings companionship to Aunt Martha.

But this is not the life Martha wants. She wants to be independent and to enjoy life with Lucas. He is a doctor with whom she has been romantically linked for decades but has never married. Indeed, their search for companionship and happiness becomes the emotional center of this novel, and the suspense builds as we read to learn whether or not this elderly couple will indeed assume control of their own lives. For independence to them means they will leave Golden Age, which, in turn, means that it will likely fail. And, of course, Howie and Mrs. Crawley oppose this. Indeed, they lie to the family about their careful care of the elderly and resort to drugging not only Lucas but other patients in order to control the situation.

And so, the novel’s main issue is: will Lucas and Martha find happiness together? It is unusual to have a novel centered on such elderly characters, but the work creates considerable power as they pursue their independence. The couple even seeks the aid of Homer, a black caretaker, which complicates the novel, since this story is set in Mississippi. We delve rather deeply into Homer’s mind, in fact, as he plots not only to help Martha and Lucas but also to protect his own black family. And this is not a sidetrack, because he eventually becomes their only hope.

At this point, I decided that, given the tone of the novel, Douglas was more likely to come up with a positive ending. But that she would create a more powerful work if Martha and Lucas failed. Without giving away the solution to their problem, I must say Douglas’ ending does not work for me. Basically, it fails my standards of humanity. First, it introduces too much violence. It is dramatic, yes, highly dramatic, but this reader was completely unprepared for the direction it took. And second, a major individual, for me, acts completely out of character. The author seems aware of this, given some internal dialogue, but such musing does not succeed with me.

One must be familiar with the Bible to grasp the significance of the title. As the book cover says, “Trapped in a nursing home, [the couple] are the victims of the biblical ‘apostles of light,’ the deceitful do-gooders who profess righteousness.” For me, however, the purpose of this title is not to suggest that Howie and Mrs. Crawley are major characters, but to emphasize the situation that these righteous do-gooders put Martha and Lucas in. That is, the title is intended to be ironic.

The blurb goes on to day: “In subtle, elegant prose Ellen Douglas recounts a gripping story of their brave attempt to free themselves from a dreadful plight. They must confront both their corrupt and evil custodians and their well-meaning younger relatives who are tempted by greed, ambition, cowardice, and indifference.” Thus, the family also plays a major role in this situation, seeing itself doing good, when it truly is not. As a result, Douglas draws an effective portrait of a Southern society striving to get ahead on one level, and yet still locked into its old traditional attitudes. That is, it truly captures the texture of Southern society.

To review, even with its slow beginning, much more typical of a novel of 45 years ago than of one today, I was willing to give full attention this family. Because its people were well grounded. I grasped their relationship to one another, their sense of responsibility, their individual priorities, and their sincere effort, even if misguided, to resolve Aunt Martha’s situation. And then, as they tried to adjust to the villainies of Howie and Mrs. Crowley, the author creates the tension that any novel, any drama needs. And so, by the time Lucas and Martha realize that they need to act, the suspense has reached a fever pitch. This is no longer the quiet novel of the opening chapters.

And the literary world recognized this achievement, when it nominated Apostles of Light as a finalist for the National Book Award in 1973. It did so, I believe, because its portrait of Southern society recognized the relationship between whites and blacks, because it created a viable family that worked together even when at cross-purposes, and because the novel as a whole dealt with the responsibilities of both individual families and society for the elderly.

Did it offer this recognition despite the ending, or because of it? For me, it was an ending I was unprepared for—in fact, a cop out. As if the author could not come up with a logical and dramatic success, or a logical and dramatic failure, for the couple, and decided to resort to high drama instead—to go for a surprise. And my personal reaction is that the tone of this surprise and the tone of the violence violated the prior tone of the entire novel.

This novel does not encourage me to look into more of Douglas’ work. (April, 2018)

Redemption Falls, by Joseph O’Connor

O’Connor is a difficult novelist to appreciate. I tried, and failed, to finish his predecessor novel, Star of the Sea, which told of Eliza Mooney’s family and their voyage from Ireland to New York City at the time of the potato famine. In this work’s opening pages, Eliza is front and center, walking north from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, many years later, just after the Civil War, in search of her brother who has been a drummer boy in that war of rebellion.

However, the author quickly abandons her, and focuses on General James O’Keefe—a Northern hero of the Civil War with a disreputable past—who has been named Acting Governor of the vaguely positioned region called “The Territory” and whose base is the town of Redemption Falls. He is estranged from his wife, Lucia-Cruz McLelland of a prominent New York family, but has enticed her to join him out West; and the tension between them became the initial bedrock to my understanding of this novel.

But O’Connor is clearly interested in more than their relationship. And his goal becomes much more complicated. He is really writing about the complexity of O’Keefe, both his violence and his tenderness, plus the impact on him of the Mooney’s complex world, the Irish experience in America, the undisciplined West, and the residue of emotions from the Civil War.

The opening pages, in fact, distract us from O’Keefe by introducing other significant characters: Jeddo Mooney, the girl Eliza’s brother; Elizabeth, a freed slave; Winterton a former lover of Lucia; and McLaurenson, an outlaw Confederate soldier—as well as the story of O’Keefe’s past, when he was exiled by England to Tasmania, fathered a child, and then arranged a dramatic escape. All of which leaves the reader at sea. What is he to focus on? What do these characters have in common?

As Max Byrd writes in the New York Times, the novel “sprawls across a vague, unmapped space that resembles mid-19th century Montana and has no more linear clarity than a swatted beehive.”

In seeking a common element, one looks beyond these characters being Irish, as well as the unruly atmosphere of the West. More significant seems to be the literary ambition of the author—as if he wishes to create a grand opus. By entering the psyche of these many different characters. And by reaching toward their many disconnected horizons. Plus, he enhances this by exploring many literary styles, from poetry and song to dialect and foreign languages, even to slang and the brash headlines of yellow journalism. As Byrd adds: “On virtually every page, O’Connor’s hyperkinetic prose throws up a dancing screen of rhetoric that obscures both plot and character.”

Unable to get a grasp on what this novel was really about, I even considered abandoning it. But because of O’Connor’s reputation, I became determined to understand what he was all about. And came to a conclusion that he is driven to attain literary fame as much as to achieve an emotional impact. As Terry Eagleton writes favorably about this ambition in The Guardian, “It is a huge disheveled monster of a book, crammed with all matter of typographical stunts, [which] has a venerable Irish pedigree. From Laurence Sterne to Joyce, literary experiment by Irish writers often includes playing around with the book itself as a material object.”

Within that desire for literary exploration, O’Connor makes legitimate reference to the various, and often conflicting, history of the Irish in America. As well as to the variety of human experiences in the chaotic West. Thus, he has made considerable use of valuable research into the post-Civil War era, the American West, and our literary and journalistic past.

But despite the considerable praise he has received from critics like Eagleton, he is too conscious for me of the methods he uses, and for me the literary and structural frills he employs come at the expense of his story.

One senses, moreover, that this novel—as it brings together a violent general, a revengeful outlaw, and a desperate family member—will reach a strong, and perhaps bloody, climax. And it does. And yet, we do not experience this climax directly. Not as we have the travels of Eliza, the outlaw McLaurenson, or the freed slave Elizabeth. Instead, we read subsequent reports of what happened. We are no longer at the scene, even though we were on the way to that final, fatal ambush. As Max Byrd writes, the author achieves “his violent climax…at the cost of immediacy and drama, as if we were observing the action through the wrong end of a telescope.”

But why this change in the narrative structure? It is not clear. Instead of high drama, the drama is muted. Is the reason to be found in the redemption of the title? That is, O’Keefe is not the harsh, cruel general and administrator that so many of his actions betray. That in his attitude toward the boy, as toward his wife when he entices her West, he is someone to empathize with, that somewhere in his soul he is a kind man, even though the temper of many of his actions indicates otherwise. And we realize this contradiction when his final actions bring a sacrifice—and even redemption? It seems to be an effort by the author to create a grand, tragic figure.

Indeed, one of the problems of this novel for me has been not understanding the role of each of the characters, and their relationship to one another. These relationships are slowly revealed, but the delay inhibits my getting into this book. And the revelations at the end are not enough to justify this reticence. In fact, even the major reveal in the very last paragraph does not have for me the impact that the author apparently intended. That is, the shifting narrative structure has kept me too aloof from the events to enable me to feel an emotional tie to any of these characters.

And, no, I am not tempted to seek out more of O’Connor’s work. Which is a pity, since I do share some Irish blood. But I do not share his Irish pursuit of “experiment and exploration,” that Eagleton cites…[where] “bending the rules of realism is as Irish as emigration.” Nor do I share the Irish sense of history that Eagleton calls “dark and fragmented.” I prefer to concentrate instead on a character’s interior, rather than on the confusing and conflicting world outside, and even less on an author’s verbal and ironic pyrotechnics. (March, 2018)

However, the author quickly abandons her, and focuses on General James O’Keefe—a Northern hero of the Civil War with a disreputable past—who has been named Acting Governor of the vaguely positioned region called “The Territory” and whose base is the town of Redemption Falls. He is estranged from his wife, Lucia-Cruz McLelland of a prominent New York family, but has enticed her to join him out West; and the tension between them became the initial bedrock to my understanding of this novel.

But O’Connor is clearly interested in more than their relationship. And his goal becomes much more complicated. He is really writing about the complexity of O’Keefe, both his violence and his tenderness, plus the impact on him of the Mooney’s complex world, the Irish experience in America, the undisciplined West, and the residue of emotions from the Civil War. The opening pages, in fact, distract us from O’Keefe by introducing other significant characters: Jeddo Mooney, the girl Eliza’s brother; Elizabeth, a freed slave; Winterton a former lover of Lucia; and McLaurenson, an outlaw Confederate soldier—as well as the story of O’Keefe’s past, when he was exiled by England to Tasmania, fathered a child, and then arranged a dramatic escape.

All of which leaves the reader at sea. What is he to focus on? What do these characters have in common? As Max Byrd writes in the New York Times, the novel “sprawls across a vague, unmapped space that resembles mid-19th century Montana and has no more linear clarity than a swatted beehive.”

In seeking a common element, one looks beyond these characters being Irish, as well as the unruly atmosphere of the West. More significant seems to be the literary ambition of the author—as if he wishes to create a grand opus. By entering the psyche of these many different characters. And by reaching toward their many disconnected horizons.

Plus, he enhances this by exploring many literary styles, from poetry and song to dialect and foreign languages, even to slang and the brash headlines of yellow journalism. As Byrd adds: “On virtually every page, O’Connor’s hyperkinetic prose throws up a dancing screen of rhetoric that obscures both plot and character.”

Unable to get a grasp on what this novel was really about, I even considered abandoning it. But because of O’Connor’s reputation, I became determined to understand what he was all about. And came to a conclusion that he is driven to attain literary fame as much as to achieve an emotional impact. As Terry Eagleton writes favorably about this ambition in The Guardian, “It is a huge disheveled monster of a book, crammed with all matter of typographical stunts, [which] has a venerable Irish pedigree. From Laurence Sterne to Joyce, literary experiment by Irish writers often includes playing around with the book itself as a material object.”

Within that desire for literary exploration, O’Connor makes legitimate reference to the various, and often conflicting, history of the Irish in America. As well as to the variety of human experiences in the chaotic West. Thus, he has made considerable use of valuable research into the post-Civil War era, the American West, and our literary and journalistic past. But despite the considerable praise he has received from critics like Eagleton, he is too conscious for me of the methods he uses, and for me the literary and structural frills he employs come at the expense of his story.

One senses, moreover, that this novel—as it brings together a violent general, a revengeful outlaw, and a desperate family member—will reach a strong, and perhaps bloody, climax. And it does. And yet, we do not experience this climax directly. Not as we have the travels of Eliza, the outlaw McLaurenson, or the freed slave Elizabeth. Instead, we read subsequent reports of what happened. We are no longer at the scene, even though we were on the way to that final, fatal ambush. As Max Byrd writes, the author achieves “his violent climax…at the cost of immediacy and drama, as if we were observing the action through the wrong end of a telescope.”

But why this change in the narrative structure? It is not clear. Instead of high drama, the drama is muted. Is the reason to be found in the redemption of the title? That is, O’Keefe is not the harsh, cruel general and administrator that so many of his actions betray. That in his attitude toward the boy, as toward his wife when he entices her West, he is someone to empathize with, that somewhere in his soul he is a kind man, even though the temper of many of his actions indicates otherwise. And we realize this contradiction when his final actions bring a sacrifice—and even redemption? It seems to be an effort by the author to create a grand, tragic figure.

Indeed, one of the problems of this novel for me has been not understanding the role of each of the characters, and their relationship to one another. These relationships are slowly revealed, but the delay inhibits my getting into this book. And the revelations at the end are not enough to justify this reticence. In fact, even the major reveal in the very last paragraph does not have for me the impact that the author apparently intended. That is, the shifting narrative structure has kept me too aloof from the events to enable me to feel an emotional tie to any of these characters.

And, no, I am not tempted to seek out more of O’Connor’s work. Which is a pity, since I do share some Irish blood. But I do not share his Irish pursuit of “experiment and exploration,” that Eagleton cites…[where] “bending the rules of realism is as Irish as emigration.” Nor do I share the Irish sense of history that Eagleton calls “dark and fragmented.” I prefer to concentrate instead on a character’s interior, rather than on the confusing and conflicting world outside, and even less on an author’s verbal and ironic pyrotechnics. (March, 2018)