A Literary Cavalcade

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

Two Jake Brigance novels, by John Grisham

I have not read John Grisham’s legal thrillers, because of my impression that they are more thrillers than works of literature. But I had heard that his first work, written in 1989, was impressive, and that it had helped Grisham make an early mark in the world of fiction.

Well, those reports were correct. A Time to Kill is an impressive work, and can even claim the label of literature. Because it is about more than a legal case, about more than a courtroom drama, about more than an interesting lawyer acting under duress. It is about an entire society, the American South of the 1980s. It is about race and politics, about white and black relationships, about rape and justice, about demonstrations and violence, about ambition and doubt, about ethics and morality. In its own way, it parallels the work of Scott Turow, with the culture of the South here replacing that of Turow’s Chicago-like city.

A Time to Kill is about two drunken white red necks who rape a ten-year-old black girl, Tonya Hailey, in an opening scene that is blunt, graphic, and tough to read. The men are caught, and, in reaction, the girl’s father, Carl Lee Hailey, executes the two rapists in cold blood while they are being transferred from the courthouse.

From this point forward, however, the reader is pulled back from a close-up view of the events, and becomes a witness to a carefully crafted and complex story of lawyers, the courts, the public’s response, and the overall administration of justice. Beyond the complexity however, is an emotional level, for the reader relates to the father’s revenge, and is meant to, even as he also acknowledges that the murder of the two men was a criminal act. So the reader is torn by separate responses, one by his heart and the other by his mind. He is faced with a choice between true justice and legal justice.

The lawyer chosen to defend Carl Lee is Jake Brigance, a smart, honest, young lawyer in the small Mississippi town of Clanton. He dreams of the big time, and his local reputation has earned him this big case, which challenges his ability, his integrity, his patience, and his loyalty. His key problem is: to get Carl Lee off with a plea of temporary insanity. Around him are his elderly secretary Ethel Twitty; the disbarred lawyer Lucien Wilbanks, from whom he inherited his firm; Harry Rex Vonner, a ruthless divorce lawyer often in his cups; Ellen Roark, a brilliant, aggressive law student from Boston who steals each scene she is in; and Carla, Jakes’ wife, whom he sends out of town when local citizens threaten violence.

In town, Jake must deal with Ozzie Walls, the only black sheriff in the state; Omar Noose, a smart politician turned judge; Rufus Buckley, an ambitious DA; the Rev. Agee, leader of the local black ministers; and Stump Sisson, leader of the state’s Ku Klux Klan. Plus, a public audience of the protesting black community, the National Guard, and members of the Klan. Not to forget a crooked Memphis lawyer, Bo Marsharfsky, and a more aggressive NAACP lawyer, Norman Reinhold, brought in to defend Carl Lee.

At a low point, Jake complains about what he, his firm, and his family have endured. Now close to bankruptcy, he senses his case and his reputation lost. Moreover, his secretary’s husband has been assaulted and died. Klan snipers have shot and paralyzed a Guardsman protecting him. His legal aide has been assaulted. His house has been burned down. His wife may be divorcing him. And, finally, he expects his client, Carl Lee, to fire him.

In summary, these seem like melodramatic events. But they have happened progressively, as both black and white forces increase their public pressure on the court and on Jake. Which makes inevitable each move toward violence in this battle to control the outcome of the trial. Resulting, of course, in greater tension in the community, as well as in the novel. Jake is a fighter, however, and he resists every move to outwit him or to intimidate him.

If there is any disappointment, it is the lack of a strong ending. First, Jake is confronted with the need to make a strong rebuttal to a key prosecution witness challenging his insanity plea. And then he needs to make a strong summing up. Yet we see him make no effort to meet either need—until, suddenly, he does. Unexpectedly. And we never see him preparing. As a result, it is the reader who is unprepared. And Jake’s success seems hollow.

Second, after the verdict is placed in the hands of the jury, we follow them into the jury room, whereupon one juror suggests what she promises is a novel solution. Grisham then cuts away, so we do not know what that solution is. And when it comes, pages later, it turns out to be a letdown. For it becomes simply a sensible suggestion. Whereas, the reader has expected it to be something original, a brilliant interpretation of the law, or of justice, that sheds new light on the entire trial. Indeed, on the entire novel. But it does not.

What we have here is a brilliant novel that explores Southern society at a crucial point in its long history, a point at which racial equality is being demanded by one side and resisted by another. And, with many resisting the law’s move toward equality, real emotions swirl across this town.

In addition, this story of a society is complemented by individual stories of the people involved. Most prominent is lawyer Jake Brigance, who is both sympathetic to change and sympathetic as a person. He is on the right side. But his allies are not all upstanding figures, and his enemies are either smart or ruthless. There is real tension here and a believable adversary. There is also suspense regarding the jury’s verdict, but disappointment, as I said, in the novel’s resolution.

This work does not turn me on to Grisham’s legal thrillers. But I am interested in Sycamore Row, which he wrote twenty-five years later, and is a sequel of sorts to this novel. Does it also have literary ambitions?

What would be interesting to explore is why Grisham turned to writing popular legal thrillers instead of attempting to explore Southern society more deeply in subsequent works. Did he feel himself inadequate to do so? Did writing about the South in depth require more time than his family budget allowed? This novel was originally published by a small press, after being rejected by major publishers. Did the temptation of a major publisher and its marketing needs become too strong to resist? (March, 2017)

 

Sycamore Row, this second novel, from 2013, reaches the borderline of literary works, but does not quite cross it. It reaches it by adding its portrait of Southern culture, meaning whites vs. blacks, to its main story. In this case, Grisham’s return to Clanton, Mississippi, bring us not a story of murder, as in A Time to Kill, set three years earlier, but the strange writing of a will. There are also no violence, no demonstrations. There is mainly puzzlement, about why a rich white man, dying of cancer, could leave millions to a black woman, a housekeeper who worked for and cared for him during the last three years of his life.

Grisham here uses the complexities of law that characterizes his legal thrillers, but it is the racial angle that pervaded the South in the 1980s that distinguishes this work. As in A Time to Kill, the issue is whether a person, Seth Hubbard, a rich recluse, was of sound mind when he wrote by hand a will that disinherited his family. As a wealthy lumberman, dying of cancer, he had undergone chemo and was taking Demerol. Did that treatment affect his decision-making? Or did black housekeeper Lettie Lang persuade him to omit his children and grandchildren from that final will, a will which proposes to make her the richest woman in Ford County?

The hero again is Clanton lawyer Jake Brigance, who has recovered professionally from the murder case three years earlier, but not financially. But, again, his local reputation has earned him this new case. For, on the night before he hangs himself on a sycamore tree, Seth Hubbard writes his will and designates Jake as the lawyer to see that the will is enforced. Thus, as the lawyer for the estate, Jake is determined to see that it is applied. He is opposed by lawyers for Seth’s two deadbeat and selfish children, Herschel and Ramona, and his four grand children. Some critics feel these family portraits weighs the novel too heavily against Jake’s foes, but this works for a novel with a liberal bias. Finally, Judge Atlee, in whose court the will is challenged, is a fair judge, a smart judge, but a judge subject to Southern mores, and while he and Jake get along, Jake is not sure of him at times.

We spend some time reading about the opposing lawyers as they devise their strategy and discover evidence that will besmirch the character of Lettie—discoveries which also create suspense for the reader. There is also further tension, created by an aggressive black lawyer from Memphis, Booker Sistrunk, which recalls similar ill-timed disruptions in A Time to Kill by Bo Marsharfsky and Norman Reinhold. But Judge Atlee will not stand for Sistrunk, and Grisham returns his focus to Jake and his team’s effort to support the hand-written will. His team again includes Harry Rex Vanner, a divorce lawyer, and Lucien Wilbanks, from whom he inherited his law firm, plus a new member, Portia Lang, a young and ambitious black woman who is the daughter of Lettie.

Contributing to the texture that underscores this work are the legal steps that Jake must make to support his case. This means probate (proving that a will is valid), appraisal (determining the value of the estate), discovery (of those who will testify and the evidence to be presented), and the deposition (an overview of what witnesses or experts are to say). In other words, as Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Grisham details the dirty tricks, data dumping, and witness dumping routinely used by a large legal team to flummox the other side.”

A side story, not that significant, concerns Lettie’s antagonistic relationship with her husband, Simon Lang. He drinks, has no steady job, and has been known to beat her. She is considering divorce, when he accidently hits and kills two young boys with his car. This sidetracks her, and distracts Jake in his efforts on her behalf.

In a more significant side story, Grisham sends Lucien off to Alaska to find Seth’s brother, Ancil, who is mentioned in the will but has long ago disappeared. And, as a perceptive reader might anticipate, it turns out that Ancil holds the key to this novel. For it is he who reveals why Seth left his fortune to Lettie. This produces an ending that the reader completely accepts, an ending that refers back to the South’s racial history, but it is also an ending that is almost too neat in how it brings a sense of justice to Seth’s final decision to change his will. However, Grisham then introduces an even higher sense of justice, when Judge Atlee makes a decision of his own. Yet, for me, this reflects an author merely deciding to deepen the satisfaction of his readers. It is a double ending, not unlike that of A Time to Kill.

The strength of this novel lies in its portrait of a determined and honest Jake, in the collaborative efforts by his team and the opposing team of lawyers, in the sense of anticipation felt by the rejected offspring of Seth, and in the racial culture of the South—which involves everything from the tension between the Hubbard and Lang families that goes back decades to the community friction between the races, highlighted in the jury selection. And, finally, there is the dramatic scene in which Seth revisits that day when, as a boy, he witnessed the historic, climactic events that gives the novel its title.

I do think this novel might have been stronger, if Lettie had become a more introspective character, if, instead of tracking her problems with her husband, we had been allowed to see inside her, to glimpse how she felt about the impending wealth that awaited her. But she is reserved, knows her place, and has learned not to anticipate any such benefit from the world she lives in. Indeed, Grisham pulls back from her when she tells Jake she has the answer to two adverse discoveries made by the opposing lawyers. But we never do get to hear her defend herself.

Perhaps because this novel centers on a will rather than a murder, it explores the legal world more thoroughly than does A Time to Kill. Of course, that novel also explored the racial tension in the community, whereas, in this novel, the cultural element, the racial tension, exist more at the family level, at the unknown relationship between Lettie and Seth and the known relationship that survives between Lettie’s family and Seth’s family.

One might also note another contrast, that this novel focuses on how a woman’s life might be transformed for the better by the outcome of a legal proceeding, while the earlier Clanton novel focused on how the figurative destruction of a woman’s life led to a lengthy legal proceeding, as well as to the destruction of two lives and to community violence. The earlier novel carried a larger significance. Lives were at stake. But this novel holds its own as an exploration of justice and the racial tension in the South. (March, 2017)

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

If one had asked me if I was interested in a brief multi-generation novel, I would immediately have said, no. Then I picked up this 2016 novel, and was immediately enthralled by the opening chapter, the description of a christening party in a house of cops and other middle-class people. During which there is a casual seduction scene.

Then the second chapter jumps a generation, and we encounter the father of the new-born child in chapter one being treated with chemotherapy. And we learn about both his divorce and his wife’s marriage to that seducer. Whereupon, in the third chapter we follow the six children of the two marriages, all of whom get along with each other—in fact, much better than they do with their parents. Where are we going, I ask, with all this? All I know is that I am again under Patchett’s spell. And am reminded that she is one of my favorite contemporary authors.

I am also reminded that that in the publicity for this novel Patchett acknowledged that she has used some of her own life story for the first time. It seems that her father, who was always the first reader of her novels, has now died; and she feels liberated, able to employ aspects of her own family story that he would not have been happy seeing in print.

This novel is about two blended families. In one family, Fix and Beverly Keating begin as the parents of daughters Caroline and Franny; and the novel opens at Franny’s christening party in California, where the two families live. In the second family, Bert and Theresa Cousins are parents of Cal, Jeannette, Holly, and Albie. Complications begin when Bert kisses Beverly in the opening chapter. Then we learn has married her, and taken both her and his own children back to his original home in Virginia. Which means the children move across the country alternatively each summer to visit their divorced parent—something the children delight in while the parents dread. These events are not related sequentially, however, which will prompt further discussion.

And then, about half-way through this novel, one becomes aware of a unique development. As the author moves us back and forth through disassociated parts of this family story, this has included daughter Franny’s unexpected liaison with a famous writer, Leon Posen. And then the reader learns that this writer has written a novel based on Franny’s family story. And has called it, Commonwealth. So here we have a novelist, Patchett, writing a novel based in part on family history about a fictional novelist writing a novel based on the history of a fictional family. How deep into metafiction can one get?

But while metafiction is behind the structure of this novel, it is not, I believe, the point of this novel. The point is the family story, the story of these two families and how the children blend together as a group. Which, as I understand it, has its inspiration in Patchett’s own story. And the message of these two families together is a message of human relationships—and how the relationships between two families can create a single family of relationships. Which, in turn, expresses not only how important family is, but how important human relationships are. This is underscored when the six children not only accommodate themselves to each other, but also learn to accept the parent who upset their home life in order to find a more compatible spouse.

My single reservation about this novel concerns how Patchett tells this story of these two families. It is as if she has studied the structure of the modern novel, which so often seems to involve a moving back and forth in time. Its purpose, I have written, seems to be to involve the reader more deeply in the novel—that is, by requiring him to actively bring the pieces together. With a secondary purpose of developing his interest in what is happening by forcing him to figure it out.

In this case, it means not only jumping ahead in time, as the first three chapters do, but also jumping back. How did Franny meet her lover, Leon? Why was Albie the black sheep of the Cousins family? But the primary jump back in time concerns the death of Cal at age 15. How did this happen? Did the four children he was with bear any responsibility? The answers are unveiled in multi-flashbacks, as the children debate their responsibility. It is a somewhat obvious technique to create suspense, but the final answer becomes incidental. It does help make the children more real, developing their togetherness; but it does not mark any turning point for this novel.

One strength of this novel lies in the various group scenes in which many characters interact. This strength harks back to Bel Canto. It begins here in the opening baptismal party, but also includes the Palmer House bar where Franny meets Leon; the summer house party of Franny and Leon, which is crashed by many of Leon’s colleagues; the fateful day when the four kids allow Cal to die; the errand of mercy by Franny and Caroline when Theresa falls ill; and even Beverly’s Christmas Eve party at the end.

There is also a grace note in the final paragraph, when Franny reveals that she concealed one family episode from Leon when she related the family history he used in his novel. “She had needed to keep something for herself,” Patchett writes in the novel’s last line.

It is a neat note on which to end this family story that otherwise has no real ending—neat because even though this family story covers 50 years, one is left with a sense of these lives continuing on. And, yes, it also recalls the novel’s metafictional element, which is why I say that as a reminder of Leon’s novel it serves as a grace note. That is, it leaves Franny with a private family experience that never became public.

I remain interested in where Patchett’s inspiration will take her next. (February, 2017)

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

This 2014 work was a difficult novel for me to get into. It is the story of a poor migrant, Lila, from the time she is stolen as a baby until she has a baby of her own. But the way author Robinson tells this woman’s story is frustrating. Even though its theme—of love and human understanding, of sacrifice and steadfastness, of moral and spiritual sanctity—is everything I could ask for.

For the story of Lila is structured like a stream of consciousness novel. That is, the narrative moves back and forth, as if in Lila’s mind. But the telling is in the third person. We see into Lila’s mind, but we are not inside Lila’s mind. But even though this approach did not appeal to me, I persevered, because of the critical reputation that all of Robinson’s novels have earned.

This is also largely a story of the underside of life as well as a story of loneliness. As a baby, Lila is stolen by Doll, a woman she remembers fondly throughout the novel. She is grateful to her because Doll saved her from a life of poverty and degradation. She also has fond memories because Doll was a good woman, and educated Lila to be one as well. Her one regret is that she does not know what happened to Doll, after the woman decided that abandoning her would be for Lila’s own good.

There is, of course, a connection between this novel and two of Robinson’s earlier novels, Gilead and Home. Gilead is about a minister, John Ames, and is comprised of a letter he is writing to his son. Home concerns Ames and his friend, a fellow minister, Robert Boughton, who also lives in Gilead. And Lila is the story of the young woman who married the elderly John Ames, and is the mother of the son the minister is writing to in the first novel.

Yes, the connection to the other novels adds depth to one’s understanding, but this work nevertheless stands on its own. It is about Lila and her troubled experience, one of suffering, abandonment, and rescue. However, these are not easy experiences to identify with. And this further hindered my entering into and identifying with this character.

Which was compounded by Lila’s mind jumping around in time. Indeed, so much so that I was confused at times if we were in the present or in the past, and, if in the past, what period in that past. For there are times in which she is in Doll’s care. There are times in which she is surviving in a whorehouse. There are times in which she is in flight, and times in which she arrives in the small Iowa town of Gilead, where she knows no one.

In Gilead where she meets the elderly John Ames. Whereupon, two events took me surprise. And, for me, lacked conviction. Not that the two marry, but that, first, she proposes to him out of thin air, and he considers it for about a page, and then accepts her suggestion. Because, apparently, he is lonely, like her, having lost his wife many decades earlier. Joan Acocella explains this further in The New Yorker. She explains that Lila proposes because she is bold and because she fears she will be abandoned again, just has she has been before. While he is both drawn to her boldness and sees, with her, an end to his own loneliness.

The second development that surprised me was Lila’s becoming pregnant. This event is important to her and is what sustains both her and the novel through its final pages. But there has been no suggestion that love has originally motivated them. It is more that marriage has been convenient for them both. There is a scene in which they are in bed together, she seeking his comfort, but it is after her pregnancy begins. It would have been helpful if this circumspect author had inserted that scene a little earlier.

However, the affection between Lila and the minister is real. We accept that they share much, even come to love one another, and we watch their devotion to their child engage them equally. Moreover, their connection, their humanity, is deepened, when they acknowledge that they do not completely understand each other. Indeed, the final pages are filled with both a human and a spiritual love, as these two sympathetic creatures share with the child the short time, given the minister’s age, they realize they will have together as a family.

Diane Johnson sums up this novel’s seriousness in The New York Times: “Central to all the novel’s characters are matters of high literary seriousness—the basic considerations of the human condition; the moral problems of existence; the ache of being abandoned; the struggles of the aging; the role of the Bible and God in daily life.” These are indeed the hallmarks of Robinson’s earlier works, and are welcome here in a literary world that seldom acknowledges them.

At the end of her review, Johnson says: “Lila is not so much a novel as a meditation on morality and psychology, compelling in its frankness about its truly shocking subject: the damage to the human personality done by poverty, neglect, and abandonment.” I would accept all but the word “compelling.” Entering into this woman’s mind and following her experiences has not for me been compelling. Is this because I am male? I prefer to think not. I prefer to think it is her life of loneliness, of sacrifice, of abandonment, of deprivation that I found so difficult to relate to.

And, of course, I recognize that many woman have faced such situations in our society. But this author did not draw me into this life, even though it offered a shared human experience that included love and sacrifice, tenderness and yearning, and a sense of our spiritual destiny.

I am now curious about Home, yes, but not enough to place it ahead of other novels I wish to read. (February, 2017)

Slowness, by Milan Kundera

This 1995 novel begins as a beautifully written, and translated, work. But it takes a long while to become a novel. We are with the narrator and his wife as they check into a chateau in the French countryside. Then he tells an anecdote about a seduction of two centuries ago taken from on an obscure novel called No Tomorrow. Which leads to ruminations that verge on being personal essays, essays that discuss the differences between the old days and modern life.

The narrator ruminates first about slowness, how it used to leave us time to experience each moment of living, and to remember it. But now all we care about is speed, on the road, at a movie, or with our lover, which leads to forgetting each experience. He also explores the idea of “the player,” those who dominate the public stage in order to attract attention. Finally, he establishes what is to be this work’s theme: seduction. And focuses on the novel No Tomorrow, in which a young 18th century chevalier is seduced by a worldly wife in order to throw her husband off the scent of her true lover.

The “essays” evolve into a narrative that brings sets of characters into competition. Pontevin, an historian, is jealous of an ambitious intellectual, Berck, seeing the latter as a dancer. Then Pontevin’s disciple Vincent, a modern man devoted to speed, is jealous of Pontevin, seeing him as a dancer. There is also an unnamed Czech scientist at a convention of entomologists who are meeting at the chateau where the others are guests—and Berck tries to advance himself by picking on this scientist. Meanwhile, we occasionally return to the narrator and his wife at the chateau. The narrator is a writer, presumably Kundera, who seems to be having writer’s block; and the reader wonders if these characters we are reading about are real or are characters in a novel the narrator is developing.

There is much potential here. The forgetful Czech scientist embarrasses himself, and a pursuing Berck embarrasses him further. But the author foregoes any intellectual seduction. He is more interested in real seduction. Berck rejects a woman who loves him, Immaculata, a television journalist. Vincent discovers a typist Julie who fascinates him and who does accept him for a night. But then complications arise. Berck does not love the woman, but her cameraman does. Except, she rejects him. Vincent tries to make love to Julie, but fails. In public. The implication being that, like Berck, like Pontevin, he is also a dancer, since he wishes to copulate in public. And like them he also fails. Suggesting that the quickie seduction of modern times is not as effective as the slowly executed seduction in No Tomorrow.

And then? In his earlier novels, Kundera relied on variations on a theme rather than on story. My sense here is that he is relying on too few themes in this château he says is filled with ghosts. The novel builds to a climactic scene at a swimming pool, with the failed copulation followed by a false attempt at suicide. It is a climactic scene reminiscent of high drama, but all is coincidental. The scenes have no link. And thus, no drama. And then the novel concludes with a scene in which a character from No Tomorrow and one from today confront one another, one happy about being seduced, one unhappy at his failure to seduce. To little effect, because their meeting is symbolic. It furthers the theme, but is not real. Angeline Goreau perhaps reflects all this when writing in The New York Times, “The speeding up of the farce at the end of this book is inextricably part of the point he is making. But, for all its audacity, I miss here the expansive feel of the earlier novels.”

Kundera would undoubtedly defend himself by saying that he sees fiction differently, that he is writing about ideas, not people. He is simply identifying his ideas with people. And illustrating them with people whose activities parallel each other but do not intersect with each other. And he certainly does this. But while each couple illustrates an example of seduction, the failure to connect among these seductions dilutes the emotional impact.

Also, these casual seductions, so baldly conveyed here, do not reflect my kind of fiction. Moreover, they fail to match the complexity of Kundera’s earlier novels, as if here his imagination has failed him. One critic suggests, however, that the brevity of this novel actually reflects the novel’s theme, that modern life is one of speed and forgetting. And that the length of this novel signals the short attention span of modern readers, who demand the ability to read a book quickly. (But not, I would hope, the urge to forget it.)

For me, however, this explanation goes against the parameters of novel writing. Michiko Kakutani discusses this approach in the Times, calling the work “an extrapolation of ideas and techniques….[it] is less a traditional narrative than a musical improvisation; it’s a series of variations built around a central theme and linked together by leitmotifs.” And later: “The novella is really concerned with the storytelling process itself, with the means by which the facts of real life are turned into fiction.”

With this emphasis on process, on brevity, to illustrate his theme, however, Kundera generates the very showmanship he decries. For when you seek effect, rather then reader involvement, you have become a true dancer. He even has Vincent speeding away on a motorcycle at the end, trying to forget. But has Kundera forgotten that you do not sacrifice real people and real motivation to make your point? Literature requires you to integrate your ideas and your people. In the end, his imagination has focused on his philosophical theme, at the expense of his fictional characters.

Actually, some critics see the value of this novel to be in its philosophical depth, in its being built around the concepts of slowness and remembering in the past world and speed and forgetting in the modern world. But for me, this is not the purpose of literature: to illustrate philosophy. The purpose is to illustrate the emotions, the desires, the frustrations, the thinking of individual characters in a tangible world.

In sum, I was disappointed in this novel, in part because I did not understand what Kundera was trying to do. And I thank the reviewers for explaining that. But I would also note that the reviewers I cite do not believe he pulled off his blend of theme and story. Nor do I. (January, 2017)

Volcano, by Shusaku Endo

This 1959 work is a symbolic and elusive short novel from Japan. It is also both provocative and down-to-earth, as it follows the daily routines of its characters. At its center is a volcano called Akadake, and the story is built around four men who are drawn to it. Indeed, this volcano holds the key to understanding the novel. It is a symbol of both death and the evil in mankind.

Endo creates a fictional Professor Koriyama, who establishes the symbolism: “What a mount of heartache it is. A volcano resembles human life. In youth it gives reign to the passions and burns with fire. It spurts out lava. But when it grows old, it assumes the burden of past evil deeds, and it turns as quiet as the grave.”

The four men drawn to this volcano are Jinpei Suda, section head at the Central Weather Bureau, from which he retires on the opening pages; Father Ginzo Sato, a local Catholic pastor who wishes to establish a retreat house on the volcano; City Councilman Aiba, who wishes to enhance the city, and his own wealth, by building a hotel near the retreat house; and Father Durand, an elderly, cynical, apostate French priest who can no longer relate to either his faith or to other human beings.

As the novel progresses, these four men live separate lives that are joined only by the volcano that hovers over their city across the bay. And the question the novel raises is whether or not this apparently dormant volcano will once again explode in fury, as in the past. Or will it remain dormant, like old men, as the distinguished professor says. For if it explodes, it will ruin, of course, the plans of both Father Sato and Councilman Aiba.

The cynical Father Durand believes it will explode, and the retired Jinpei Suda, who loves the volcano and has studied it for years, sees signs of that possibility even as he denies it. And, of course, the issue of whether or not it will explode leads the reader to anticipate that one or more of these older men might also explode.

Nothing much happens in this novel. There is office politics, a retirement party, a family squabble, trips to the volcano, holiday celebrations, dinner conversations, hospital visits, dreams, hallucinations, etc. What matters are the relationships that stem from the characters’ differing views—about the volcano, about civic growth, about one’s worth. About life below the surface of these pages.

One wonders how much of Endo’s own life influenced this and other novels of his. As a Catholic in Japan, part of a tiny minority, he surely had that sense of being an outcast that characterizes some of his characters here. Such as the retired Suda and the apostate Durand, the two key people in this work. Moreover, Endo himself fell ill after World War II when studying in France, and reportedly felt that adhering to his faith in a foreign land, plus anti-Japanese prejudice there, precipitated that illness. As a result, he endured a crisis of faith. And that faith survived. But what if…and we have Father Durand.

Endo is a major Catholic novelist who has been compared to Graham Greene. And so it is perhaps natural that he explores in his work the question of old age and death, as well as the question of evil. Toward the end, Suda recalls Professor Koriyama’s message, saying: “When we have taken on the years, we look back on our past, and even though we come to know the mistakes we made, there is no time left to live again and repair the damage. The tragedy of old age, after all, lies precisely in this, does it not?”

Thus, Suda introduces an awareness of one’s past and the wrongs one has committed, and speculates how one can make amends at the end. And, seeing his life paralleled with that of a volcano that seems to have died down, he decides to build the retreat house. While Councilman Aiba, who has adopted the same belief about the volcano, makes his plans for the hotel.

But we the reader are not that sure about the dormant future of the volcano. Not if there is meaning in the inner turmoil that Suda and Dormand endure. And perhaps also because this Catholic writer, a believer in original sin, accepts that evil does exist in the world, and often explodes within us.

There is also an emptiness to these characters’ lives. And a desperation within. No wonder they feel themselves to be outcasts. For they live alone, within themselves. Their main relationships are administrative and political. They are not friends. They share an interest in the volcano, yes, in its past history or its future role, but that is all they share. As translator Richard Schuchert writes, “Volcano depicts the sad state of human life when it is devoid of deep love. Suda, Ichiro [his son], and Aiba, and the other non-Christians show no trace of compassion. The Christian characters, like Durand and Father Sato go through the motions of Christian charity but without the spirit.”

As a result, there is a certain dryness to a novel when its characters are not infused with love. And have no personal relationship to others. Their common relationship here is with the volcano. And so we experience this novel on the more abstract level of humanity, rather than on the level of human interaction. Yes, there is significant meaning in its theme, but we encounter this early novel on an intellectual level rather than on an emotional level, that of identifying with its characters. We come away with the sense of the often elusive, often frustrating, meaning of life. As well as the meaning of death. And of how much there is a connection between the two.

This is the last of the Endo novels there are for me to read. Perhaps because it is an early novel there is more to the symbolism, the meaning, behind this novel, than there is to the richness of movement and character that I prefer. Its perfection, that is, is more in its message of life and death and evil than it is in the actual life story of its main characters. The prime memory one has of this novel is not of these people but of an inanimate (or is it?) mountain of earth. (January, 2017)

Identical, by Scott Turow

This starts out as a wonderful novel from 2013. It begins with the family tensions that arose in 1982, when Paul Gianis tried to save his twin, Cass Gianis, from marrying the provocative and beautiful Dita Kronon. Then it jumps to 2008 and takes on a political flavor, as Paul decides to run for mayor.

So I settled in to read a wonderful novel, even literature, as author Turow introduces these two Greek families. And it soon becomes apparent that what occurred in 1982 between the Gianis and the Kronons has major repercussions in 2008. Of the two families, there is the wealthy entrepreneur Zeus (Zisis) Kronon and his son Hal (Herakles) and daughter Dita (Aphrodite). And from the Gianis family, there are the twins, Paul, a lawyer and leader of the state senate, and Cass, and their mother, Lidia. Turow presents these families in considerable richness and depth, with their present reflecting the past and their past influencing the future.

To help convey the link between the past events and current relationships, Turow has made two decisions. First, he has scattered through his novel, step by step, details of the violent scene in 1982 in which Dita Kronon was killed. Each step in the series appears in an italic sans-serif type, and each anticipates the knowledge that two detectives, retired cop Tim Brodie and ex-FBI agent Evon Miller, will encounter when learning in 2008 about what happened in 1982.

Turow’s second decision was to explore the truth of Dita’s death through those two detectives. Evon now heads security for the Kronon family business, which son Hal now runs; and Hal has directed her to prove that Paul Gianis was involved in the killing of his sister. For that killing, Cass Gianis pled guilty, has served his sentence, and is now eligible to be released from jail. By his strategy, it is clear that Hal wishes to scuttle Paul’s run for mayor.

However, I would have preferred Turow convey this story through the Gianis family itself, especially through such an interesting person as Paul. Except…he couldn’t have done that, because of the surprises he has in store for the reader about the past relationships between the two families. (Paul already knows them.) And the result is that as we move into the novel, the story, unfortunately, becomes more about the revelation of those surprises—as they are timed to coincide with the detective’s and the reader’s gradual understanding of what led to Dita’s death. We therefore move away from the mayoral race and the political texture—and, more significantly, away from the complex family relationships—that would have enriched this novel.

Which means that for me this potential literary novel about family and politics has lowered itself to the level of a crime novel. It has also left the intimacy of the two families to concentrate on the perspectives of two outsiders. The author does make an effort to enrich both Tim and Evon, but they are loners and not especially interesting. Tim is an elderly widower of about 80 who continuously mourns his dead wife, and Evon is a lesbian of 50 who is trying to flee her clinging lover Heather. A lack of tension between these two detectives also serves to flatten their characters.

The heart of this crime novel lies in the title, with the significant action revolving around the identical twins, Paul and Cass. Yes, Cass has confessed and gone to jail for the crime. But was he truly guilty? And, if not, why did he confess? Could it be Paul who was guilty? Or Lidia? Whose blood was actually found on the scene? Or could the killer be someone else?

We learn a lot about DNA, blood samples, fingerprints, and plastic surgery—subjects, note, that belong more to crime novels than to literature. Turow also leaves aside the issue of justice, why and how a possibly innocent man was convicted of murder. (And, until late, why he confessed.) Instead, the emphasis is on whether or not he is guilty, not on the injustice if he is not—which certainly should be an emphasis for an author with literary ambitions.

Turow acknowledges in an Afterward that identical twins were born into his own family (although one died at birth), and the idea of such twins has always fascinated him, especially the love relationship that develops between them. And certainly here he has explored that relationship, what each twin will do for the other. But when he explores it within the context of a crime, rather than its overall effect on family relationships, he has for me lowered his literary sights.

Yes, the author has tried to dress up the relationship by creating two Greek families and recalling the legend of Castor (Cass) and Pollux (Paul), and how the two were conceived. He claims that he has embroidered their legendary fate to create his story here; but it comes across to me as window-dressing to enrich the identical twin theme—albeit provocative window-dressing when you realize the Greek legend. But the result is that the intricacy of the crime’s solution is overwhelmed by this identical twin theme and the self-sacrifice it entails.

And we, in turn, are less involved in the solution to Dita’s murder than in the decision of the twins as a result of their love relationship. Indeed, that decision has very little to do with the crime’s solution, which is the supposed point of this novel. On the other hand, the twin’s love and support of each other does not bring one back to the complex family relationship. Rather, it is a thing apart, from both the two families and the crime itself.

Turow knows how to establish complex family relationships and how to structure a slow revelation of those relationships, as well as how to explore the inside workings of our justice system, particularly in the courtroom. But here he has let the needs of a thriller overwhelm the stories of both families. One will, as a result, approach future Turow novels expecting entertainment rather than a deeper exploration of justice. And expect to witness the external repercussions of love, such as the self-sacrifices here, rather than explore its internal workings—of the pain, for example, felt by these characters for what they did. (January, 2017)

The Fall of Light, by Niall Williams

This 2001 novel comes to us as a legend. It is about a father and his four sons who journey across Ireland, leaving their home, their life, and a stubborn mother behind. The author pretends—or does he?—that this is his family, that he is passing down family tales that have been enhanced by each generation. That is, he writes in the tradition of Irish story telling.

But the proposed reality does not matter. What matters is the beautiful language that is characteristic of all of Williams’ novels, and which is perfectly suited here to the novel’s legendary tone, to its tale of Ireland in the middle of the 19th century, an era of poverty just before the Irish famine that led many families to cross the sea to America.

The adventures of the five Foley men begin as soon as we meet them. They are swept apart as they attempt to cross the raging River Shannon, and their father disappears, leaving the sons alone. Is their father lost? Will they ever see him again? And, later, will each of the sons also reunite, when circumstance also separates them? This novel offers the tale, a romantic tale, of each family member—of Francis the father, of the son Thomas, the twins Finbar and Finan, the youngest son Teige, and Emer, the stubborn mother who has refused to join them.

Frances is a dreamer who has refused to raise his sons to a life of poverty. He steals a telescope from the manor house at which he works, and will forever spend free time gazing through it at the stars. It is a perfect symbol of his desire to escape a family life of poverty, of dependence, and to fulfill his dream of a more satisfying life. It may even be reflected in the novel’s title, as the light of the stars falls toward him on earth.

The oldest son, Thomas, encounters the beautiful Blath, and his pursuit of her makes him the first to be separated from his brothers. We shall later follow him as he crosses the Atlantic and then crosses the United States, joining an army engineering team as it scouts future railroad routes. The remaining three sons are enraptured by a caravan of gypsies. Finbar is seduced by the woman Cait and will follow her troupe across Europe, where he will become its leader with a yearning to return home. His twin Finan joins the gypsies for a while; but, to atone for a crime, he will leave them for a monastery and become a missionary in Africa.

The prominent son in the novel is Teige, whose skill at horsemanship first pleases the gypsies, as he wins a traditional race on a white pony; but he refuses to join them and uses his skill with horses to work for a rich landlord whose daughter seduces him and changes his life. Indeed, his visits to her bedroom at night represent the romantic high point of this novel. But the two have different dreams, and he, too, will cross the ocean, and there will survive because of his skill with horses.

But we are following these characters from the perspective of a legend, and, like many legends, there are high points; but legends also may arrive at uncertain conclusions. And that is true here. For there is no climactic ending, no rush of emotion, as we learn the fates of these characters. What we have, instead, is an imagined future in the mind of their father as he stares at the stars, stares into their future and the future of his family.

He will scan the skies from an island in an estuary of the River Shannon, where he and Teige have built the family’s new home, a site that is the geographical center of this novel. Indeed, it is this isolated island in the estuary that the characters regard as home turf—much as all Ireland sees its identity to be in this small island off the coast of England and France. The Foley’s cluster of buildings also represents the perspective from which the author tells this family story.

As Diana Postlethwaite quotes in The New York Times, ”Always the story returns there. . . . It is as if the teller understands that the island is an image for all Foleys . . . something passionate and impetuous . . . that made each of its men islands in turn.”

To criticize, there may be a little too much coincidence in this novel, both when circumstances seem to change the course of a life—such as a raging river, a seductive woman, or the arrival of gypsies—or when these individual characters have separated and then, casually, rejoin. And yet, this is a legend, after all, enhanced by generations of retelling—and why might not coincidences have crept in to fill certain gaps?

Another mild criticism I have concerns the extended details of some of the brother’s adventures, particularly of Finbar with the gypsies. Granted, the author wanted to include the stories of all four brothers, along with the father, but I was more interested in the adventures and fates of Frances and his two sons, Thomas and Teige. Thus, the long sojourn of Finbar with the gypsies does slow down this novel, even if his will continually draws him toward home on that estuary island.

What ties the book together, indeed, is this sense of family, the yearning the five men have for each other, their continual thinking about the each other, and their desire to be together. This is emphasized by the island home the father and Teige build for themselves. And it is held together by the telescope and the stars, by the dreams of the future they represent. It is a fitting romantic dream that belongs in a legend.

Some have criticized this novel because of its romantic view as well as its coincidences, but Williams might have cast this story as a legend because he was aware of precisely that. Certainly his typically rich and poetic writing style is appropriate to this tale he regards as a legend. And certainly this reader, who is a romantic at heart, will continue to indulge in more of Williams’ novels. (January, 2017)