Canada, by Richard Ford

This 2012 work is a beautifully written novel, but one I did not find that interesting. (Is my reaction too personal, for I like Ford’s work.) It is the story of a family, and then about the son in that family. It is thus two stories, but not quite two novels, for it continually recalls for us this family of four.

The Parsons family consists of father Bev, mother Neeva, and twin children, daughter Berner and son Dell. Their story is narrated by Dell 50 years after the jailing of Bev and Neeva, who robbed a bank in order to pay back criminals for beef stolen from them. The novel then moves to Dell’s life in Canada, to which he has fled in order to escape being institutionalized because there are no parents at home. In Canada, he confronts murders that were mentioned on the novel’s first page, along with the bank robbery. It is the first of the author’s foreboding, presumably to create interest in this otherwise run-of-the-mill family.

The Parsons family is dysfunctional, however. Bev is a retired air force bombardier who got Neeva pregnant (with Berner and Dell) and was obliged to marry her. And they soon become incompatible, even as they stick together. Bev is a funny, talkative, imposing person, while Neeva is shy, artistic, and barely pretty. Compounding this is that Bev becomes a failure at business when he leaves the air force to establish their home in Montana, and Neeva is never comfortable married to someone below her station.

Because we know about the bank robbery on the first page, there is little suspense in the outcome of the family story. The novel’s substance comes from the relationships among its four members, and this I grant is very well done. We feel the incompatibility of the parents and the rivalry between the children during their life together in Montana.

This family situation never intrigued me, however, as well presented as it is. And as effectively as it conveys the adults’ impact on the lives of their two children. It catches a breath of life from the parents’ incompatibility, and even more from the relationship between the two children—in which, born a few minutes earlier, Berner senses she knows more about adult life, and Dell acknowledges and accepts this.

It is just that despite the compassion of the author in presenting both their relationships and the homey details and conflicts of family life, I did not care for these people. Especially for the children, these victims of the family’s circumstances. Perhaps it is because Berner is too domineering and Dell too acquiescent. While the parents are too self-centered, refusing to make any change and refusing contact.

Once Dell is sent into “exile” in Saskatchewan, after his parents are in prison, the novel changes. It is now about Dell alone, and how he accommodates himself to his new situation. And, here again, he is not involved with a set of interesting or sympathetic characters. Which does emphasize that he is on his own. And, yes, we are interested in what will happen to him, not least because of more foreboding. Apparently there is something wrong about Arthur Remlinger, who runs the small-town hotel where Dell is working and who has taken him under his wing. Remlinger is quite a pleasant man when we meet him, however, even if he does have a mysterious past.

The atmosphere of this rural area is a strength of the novel, with Dell helping visiting huntsmen shoot the local geese as sport. But the huntsmen are not characterized, and the hotel personnel he works with barely so. He is closest to Charlie Quarters, whom he finds unpleasant, and who seems to be used mainly to inform Dell about Remlinger’s past.

But the mysteriousness of Remlinger never came across to me. He is supposed to be fleeing the U.S. because, in a union’s struggle against management, he planted a bomb which accidentally killed a man. And lives in fear that U.S. authorities will come after him. When they do, there is abrupt violence that I have not been prepared for. Apparently it comes out of the mysteriousness of Remlinger, but his character has not been sufficiently developed for me to accept that final violence.

After which, the novel effectively ends, as the narrator Dell returns to his current life 50 years later and describes the fates of the other three members of his family. Which becomes a typical wrapping up, a narrative; it is not dramatized.

To sum up, I was not drawn to this family, to their situation (even if it helps recall my own loneliness after my mother’s death—with my family life also disrupted), nor to Dell and his empty life in Canada.

As Andre Dubus III says in his Times review, this family portrait is beautifully rendered. But for me language is not enough. I need to begin with character and story. And I could not identify with the characters at home in Montana, nor get interested in this story of Dell’s lonely life in Canada. I think I needed Dell to interact emotionally with someone in Canada, rather than simply be exposed to two unpleasant characters.

The novel begins in Great Falls, Montana, which Ford wrote about in a previous novel, so one wonders how much Ford identifies with this area, and perhaps has transformed a personal experience into this novel. Yes, he is from the South, but so is Bev, and these family events could have occurred anywhere in the country. This would make the origins of this novel completely understandable, and certainly Ford has put his technical skills to excellent use here.

But I did not feel the loneliness in Dell’s life that I felt in my own life, and missing even more was an emotional connection within the family that I always find to be moving. Dell’s only connection is with his twin sister, and she escapes from family ties after their parents go to prison, leaving them both to lead separate lives. (December, 2013)

Parrot & Olivier in America, by Peter Carey

This is quite a feat. This 2009 novel is about a Frenchman (Olivier) who comes to America and falls in love, and about his aide, Parrot, an Englishman who serves his needs in America and also falls in love. It is a very entertaining novel, as well as a very penetrating one, both in its portrait of the two men and in its portrait of America.

While it works completely as a novel, it is also a fictionalization of history. It is the story of Alexis de Tocqueville, and his adventures that produced Democracy in America. I am not a student of history, so I do not know what is true here and what is imagined. But it does not matter. What matters is that Carey has created here real characters in a real world.

The novel begins slowly, as it reveals the early life that brought these two men together. Olivier is an unformed, privileged aristocrat who is sent to America when French revolutionaries threaten his and other noble families. Parrot, who lives a more confused life as a printer’s apprentice, loses his father in a fire and ends up as the servant of the aristocratic Marquis de Tilbott, who takes him under his wing as an apprentice, betrays him in Australia, then brings him to France, where he is assigned to report on the activities of Olivier in America.

   But once the two board ship, meet its American passengers, and arrive in New York, their encounter with the new culture, and its contrasts to the old, introduces the novel’s solid substance. For while Olivier has an assignment to investigate prison conditions in America, he soon becomes captivated by the social and cultural differences, a development that he will explore in a classic equivalent to Democracy in America.

However, it is not the culture of America that entices the reader, but the personal stories of each man, and of some of the people they meet. We are particularly drawn to the love lives of the two men. Will they find their true love, will their love be acknowledged, and will they each find happiness? It is not an original theme, but a reliable one serious novelists rely on to draw the reader into the substance of their work.

Here, the substance is the contrasting cultures of America and Europe, the aristocratic leadership of the latter and the democratic leadership of the former. Which is what inspired de Tocqueville, of course. And the novel ends with the consequences of that contrast on the lives of our two heroes.

But I find Carey’s conclusion a little too pat. Perhaps because it lacks drama—and because the ending itself lacks any emotional impact. For while there is a contrast in the fates of the two men, even an intended irony, the result comes more from the head than the heart. And their fates seem somewhat arbitrary: one love affair seems to end for the flimsiest of reasons, at least flimsy for our day; and one man strikes it easy, too easy, as he discovers an unexpected, and convenient, source of income.

This novel is told with just enough of the 19th century style to convey its historic portrait of two lives and two countries. But Carey paid more heed to the novel’s structure, which is built around the contrasting experiences of Olivier and Parrot. The emphasis is slightly toward the former, but his fate is less satisfying than Parrot’s. Is this because his character is based on a real de Tocqueville, while Parrot is strictly imaginary? Indeed, the imaginary Parrot is there to create for Carey the contrasting viewpoint that de Tocquville’s actual companion did not.

The contrast exists in the two men’s upbringing, their intellectual acumen, their effort to control their own destiny, their reaction to America, their eventual integrity, and the destiny of their love. While they come together with a certain mutual respect at the end, after alternating chapters heighten their differences, the novel’s conclusion fails to reach a sense of completeness regarding Olivier. His classic work is not enough.

So what does it all mean? Carey wanted to present here, I believe, two reactions to the encountering of America by two young Europeans, one an impractical French aristocrat and one a much more practical, underprivileged Englishman. How their understanding of America differs, how their ambitions differ, how their success differs.

Olivier is allowed to reach certain conclusions about America that are both perceptive and half-baked. Of the former, he believes that the country’s leaders will come from all walks of life and some will be “barbarians at the head of armies, ignorant of geography and science.” He also wrongly holds that a society of equals will never produce great art, that only an aristocracy has the leisure needed to appreciate and create it.

These conclusions are reached after a series of entertaining encounters by each man with the people of America. The most interesting one comes from Olivier’s encounter with the family of Amelia Godefroy, whom he loves. Her father is a wealthy, perceptive man who introduces Olivier to much of America, both fascinating him and disillusioning him.

The book is best summed up by the Reading Group Guide: “Both Parrot and Olivier are profoundly affected by the democratic leveling of class distinctions they find in America. Olivier is alternately repulsed and fascinated, disdainful and admiring of the new democracy, while Parrot, after drifting aimlessly, finally finds the freedom he’s been denied all his life. By showing us their reactions to the fledging democracy, Carey gives readers a visceral sense of just how thrilling and baffling a place America could be for new arrivals from Europe — and how unsettling of old-world social conventions.”

Carey is always entertaining, and I look forward to reading other works by him. He has a unique way of interpreting past reality. It becomes a starting point for his own imagination. And his embellishments, his unique interpretation, convert the result into literary art. (December, 2013)

Live by Night, by Dennis Lehane

This 2012 work is a gangster novel to end all gangster novels. It is Lehane being a serious writer again, producing a work far superior to Moonlight Mile, even if this is not quite a literary work. Why? Because it stresses action, which I like, but at the expense of character, depth, and human values.

It is the story of Joe Coughlin, a minor character in The Given Day—a story of the Coughlin family, and a novel that is literature.

Joe is the black sheep in the family, the son who is impatient, who is greedy, and who does not respect the moral standards his family claims it stands for. He does not, in part, because his father Thomas Coughlin, a severe Boston police captain, is not the upstanding man he appears to be.

The novel begins with a spectacular first paragraph. Joe’s legs have been put in cement by Tampa gangsters who are preparing to dump him overboard, and he recalls how everything began with his meeting a cool beauty, Emma Gold, as he robbed a Boston speakeasy of mobster Albert White. This sets up both the Boston and Florida settings, even as the reader wonders if this first paragraph, besides being a teaser, is actually telling us about Joe’s final fate.

This novel is thus in two parts. It begins in Boston, where Joe calls himself an outlaw rather than a gangster, as he rationalizes his rebellion from his father’s strict moral code. Nevertheless, he works for one Irish boss, Tim Hickey, who is in conflict with another, Albert White. And Joe’s initial fate is sealed when he falls for a woman, Emma Gould, who is the mistress of Albert White.

Joe’s partner in the Hickey gang is a boyhood chum, Dion Bartolo. Joe’s Boston fate is determined when he robs a bank with Joe and his brother, and they are betrayed. As a result, Joe ends up in jail in Charlestown, the most powerful section of the novel, where Joe’s fearlessness impresses Maso Pescatore, the incarcerated but powerful leader of a Mafia gang. Fearful of Maso’s threat on his own and his father’s life, Joe becomes subservient to Maso. And Maso, after Joe’s effective scheming in the jail, even against Maso, is impressed, and sends Joe off to Tampa, Florida, to run Maso’s operations there.

The Tampa section is more interesting than Boston’s, because in Boston Joe was following the orders of his boss, whereas in Tampa he is the boss, even as part of Maso’s empire. Thus, he is making the decisions rather than reacting to orders; and he is joined there by a loyal Dion.

While the dramatic highlight of the book is the Charlestown jail sequence, the Tampa section has a carefully planned robbery of guns from an American supply ship. The weapons are intended for the Cuban underground trying to topple Machado, the island’s dictator. Joe commits himself to this plot—it is here he meets Graciela—because he needs the local Cuban contacts for his gangster empire.

Many Cubans are at risk in this plot, of course, and, as elsewhere in this novel, when someone dies there is no sentiment involved—either from Joe or the novelist. Perhaps because this is a gangster world. Everyone, including Joe, lives with the expectation of death. And, note, it is without an expectation of reward or punishment in an afterlife.

As I said, Joe now meets Graciela, a Cuban beauty who wishes to accomplish good in the world, but is conflicted because she doesn’t believe good deeds can follow (Joe’s) bad money. She and Joe make an emotional connection, however, and he discovers he is over his love for Emma, whom he believes is dead. So Joe and Graciela begin living together, even as they work separately.

It is in Tampa that Joe’s character is hardened, for he reasons with some but is forced to kill others who threaten him or his friends. Not to be ignored is how Lehane has made us identify with and sympathize with this gangster killer. This is probably the book’s major achievement—getting the reader committed to a complex man who breaks all the rules of society even as he remains loyal to Dion, his closest friend, and to Graciela, his lover. This, in its own way, mirrors good coming out of bad.

I have two major issues with this novel. The first centers on police chief Irving Figgis and his beautiful daughter, Loretta. Figgis is introduced as an accommodating but no nonsense chief, and his daughter as an innocent. But she soon suffers an unexpected fate worse than death, and then responds unbelievably, while her father rescues her, then changes, also unbelievably.

My second reservation is the ending. After the Tampa power struggle has ended, Lehane moves his characters to Cuba for a quiet ending. Why, one asks? Nothing is happening. We witness the creation of a tobacco farm, and Joe resolves his love life. Then, on a return to Florida, a final violence seems tacked on, as if Lehane felt that some kind of justice needed to be meted out. I am not convinced, however. There is too much coincidence involved, plus an unconvincing perpetrator.

To sum up, this is an admirable gangster novel. It blends the evil of man and some of the humanity of man, with the former triumphant because this is a gangster novel. While it has a few interesting foregound characters, it kills off a lot of faceless people, producing a heartless novel, a novel of characters who live by a criminal code and accept their fate.

I will follow more Lehane, but I have had enough of the gangster milieu here. I think families offer a much richer environment for exploring the nuances of humanity. The gangster world is too black and white, even if Lehane attempts to mix that black and white. The family setting of The Given Day, on the other hand, offers built-in shades of grey, of good and evil, that provide for far greater character nuances. (December, 2013)

Sacred Hunger, by Barry Unsworth

Again, a book sat on the shelf for a long time, and I kept avoiding it. Because it is about the terrors of a slave ship, the horror of kidnapping the blacks of Africa and transporting them for profit to the West Indies. Who wants to read that? Who wants to know the details of that brutal voyage?

But, surprise, surprise, that is not what this 1992 novel is about. It is about greed, the drive for profit, the sacred hunger of the title. Yes, there are the details of the brutality on board a slave ship, but it comprises only a quarter to a third of this book. The rest is about two cousins, Erasmus Kemp and Matthew Paris. Erasmus hates Matthew because when a boy Matthew picked him up and carried him away from a miniature dam he was building. Erasmus didn’t understand that Matthew was saving him from being swamped by a surge of water, just as he does not understand others as a grown man—beginning with Sarah, to whom he proposes and imperiously assumes her consent.

As the real story starts, Matthew has been unjustly disgraced; he has written “blasphemies,” such as supporting Darwin. And he has lost his wife, for whose death he blames himself. So, to escape a sense of guilt, he signs on to a slave ship, Liverpool Merchant, leaving England, a ship that is owned by his uncle, Erasmus’ father. The captain of the ship, Thurso, is a brutal taskmaster and a vital character in his every scene. Resenting Matthew’s relation to the owner, he makes his shipboard life doubly hard.

The heart of this book is the contrasting portraits of Erasmus and Matthew. Erasmus is full of himself, distorts every motivation to his own benefit, and is blind to reality. The reader recognizes this from his early dealings with Sarah. But while she sees through him, others do not. And Matthew, who has not dealt with him for years, does not realize that Erasmus still remembers their affair on the beach, and is intent on revenge. And, indeed, Erasmus sees the perfect opportunity when he learns of the fate of the slave ship Liverpool Merchant; he will see that Matthew is hanged for mutiny and murder.

Meanwhile, we have followed Matthew aboard the ship. As a doctor, he cares equally for the crew and the slaves below deck. Through his journal, we come to understand he is a just man, not worthy of Erasmus’ resentment. This pursuit of justice culminates with a small community he helps build on the shore at Florida following the sinking of the slave ship. It is a community of equals, whether white survivors from the crew or the black slaves. Together, they live under a fair administration of justice, including the sharing of women by the men who far outnumber them. It is a community that lasts a decade, with no awareness of Erasmus and the English justice waiting in the wings.

These are the story details, but more significant is this portrait of mercantile life in the 1750s and 1760s. The priorities, the selfish motivations, the duel between fairness vs. justice, the cutthroat dealings, the physical brutality, the greed, the role of influence, etc.—all enrich that portrait. And on a more practical level, this novel puts the reader in bars and whorehouses as a crew is “recruited” by force, then on the deck of a rolling ship in the Atlantic as cruelties abound in the name of discipline, then below in the filthy hold with the slaves, and, finally, prowling the jungles of Africa and, later, Florida.

Unsworth himself commented on the choice of his theme in a 1992 interview. “It was impossible to live in the [19] Eighties without being affected by the sanctification of greed. My image of the slave ship was based on the desire to find the perfect symbol for that entrepreneurial spirit. The arguments used to justify it [then] are the same used now to justify the closure of these pits and the throwing out of work of all these miners. I used the term ‘wealth creation’ deliberately. I knew it was anachronistic.”

And not to be overlooked is the large cast of believable characters that populated that life of greed, ranging from English capitalists to angry sailors to despairing slaves. Some live for the moment, some for the long term. Some think only of themselves, some of others. Some are brave and confident, some afraid. Some relate to others and learn how to survive, some do not. Some seek to dominate, some to get along, and some to help the unfortunate. Each one is distinctive, and alive on these pages.

The finale of the novel is written to be inevitable, given the violence of those distant times. And the final confrontation between Erasmus and Matthew does work. But the fate of Matthew, for me, does not. It reflects too much an author’s choice, an author’s denial of the justice he has created, an author’s attempt to create for the reader a “justice” he can be comfortable with. In addition, Unsworth shows Erasmus reaching a self-understanding at the end that seems too brief, too tidy. and is barely credible.

A review in the Manchester Guardian sums up the novel’s qualities.  “It’s a cracking adventure story. It isn’t pleasant – slavery is a disgusting business – but there are rewards. The story moves at a smart pace, the cast is huge and colorful, and there’s enough detail to make us feel we are breathing in the salt air, the scent of the ship’s timbers and the claustrophobic stink of the slave’s quarters – but not so much that it smells of the lamp. Above all, there is fine writing. As with the period details, Unsworth’s prose has enough 18th-century inflections to create the right mood, but not so many that it feels laboured.”

This work has to be the highlight of Unsworth’s literary career. It has breadth, it has power, and it has strong emotions. One marvels at the research into that era’s shipboard life, the inhuman treatment of the enslaved, the primitive level of medicine, and the daily environment of that distant era.

I need to catch up on more of Unsworth’s work. It has the broad vision I seek, and yet a concern for individual souls. There is a philosophy of life, a sense of humanity, that underlies the surface action. (April, 2013)