Prince Edward, by Dennis McFarland

I have enjoyed McFarland’s novels in the past, and I enjoyed the large portions of this 2004 novel whenever the author followed ten-year-old Ben Rome’s struggle to understand the dysfunctional family he is part of, the life of his black pal Burghardt who belongs to the separate society that exists around him, and the town’s white leaders who say they are acting in behalf of the world he is part of.

But the author also has a political story to tell here, and this kept interrupting the family story, the buddy story, and the story of growing up that so interested me. Indeed, the author writes that he was initially inspired by actual political events, when the leaders of Prince Edward County in Virginia decided in 1959 to close its public schools rather than integrate them, as the Supreme Court had decreed. Instead, the county decided to open whites-only private schools

So while I was interested in Ben’s experiences, as he tried to understand the adult world around him, tried to figure out what these adults, including his own family, were really saying, and tried to understand why the town’s leaders treated the black people as they did, the author kept distracting me with the political events of this small town of Farmville. Yes, these events would eventually come between Ben and his buddy Burghardt, but by then the emphasis was on those political events, rather than on Ben’s efforts to understand what was happening to his relationship with his buddy, and how the world he was so used to was changing.

Ben spends much of his life palling around with Burghardt, as well as working with him harvesting the eggs on his father’s egg farm. He also has a sympathetic sister, Lainie, who is troubled by her pregnancy, a mother who is cowed by an aloof father, an older brother Al, a thief who runs around with dubious pals, and a grandfather, Daddy Cary, both a big wheel in town and a sexual predator, who rules his offspring with an iron hand. Tension builds, as Ben’s family works on behalf of the new private schools, while Ben himself tries to figure out why they want to deprive his best pal of an education.

Each new development in the town’s campaign interrupts Ben’s story, whether it is moving the athletic field’s flood lights, collecting new books, or constructing new classrooms. The novel’s latter portion centers, in fact, not on Ben but on the town’s campaign to close its public schools and create new private schools that cater to white people only. There is even an epilogue that betrays the novel’s focus as well as its origins, since it concentrates on the legal outcome of the public school issue, and only incidentally updates the reader on the future or the fate of the various characters.

How I wish that McFarland had written a novel about a young boy trying to understand the racially mixed society around him. But the author becomes too involved with his inspiration for the novel, the county’s closing of its public schools, in defiance of the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, its illegal strategy to avoid having the black and white races mixed together at school.

Much more interesting, however, is Ben’s struggle to understand the real world. As Ron Charles writes of Ben in his Christian Science Monitor review: “Why, he wonders, do adults insist so strenuously that children tell the truth, when it’s obvious that the key to maturity and power is withholding it?”

But I take issue when Charles further writes: “The result is a novel that provides as much fresh insight into the social history of America as it does into the nature of adolescence, drawing us back with a degree of fascination and horror to the nation’s past and our own.” I take issue because, no, the role of fiction, the role of a novel, is to explore human nature, not to explore the political movements around its characters. The latter belongs as context, yes, but it should not drive the novel, as it does here.

I really enjoy novels that capture an adult’s recollection of a youth in which they seek to understand the world of adults. But that should be the inspiration, not the tool used to recreate a moment in time when society either changed or resisted change. Otherwise, the social change becomes the driving force in the novel, rather than the people in the novel who are causing, resisting, or trying to understand that change.

I would hope that McFarland in future novels gets back to his characters and their changing lives, rather than focusing on the changes in society that affect his characters’ lives. (May, 2017)

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Taft, by Ann Patchett

This early 1994 novel by Patchett is interesting, daring, and not a little confusing. It’s interesting because of its cast of characters, most of them black. The narrator is John Nickel, an ex-drummer who now manages a bar in a black neighborhood in Memphis. It is also interesting because of his personal relationships, as well as among those who work in the bar. But it is even more interesting because of Nickel himself as narrator. From the very first page, he becomes real. His narration, in fact, reminded me of the narrators in many private-eye novels. He is very direct, very open and down-to-earth, from the very first sentence: “A girl walked into the bar.”

The novel is daring because this is a white author writing about a black man, as well as a female author writing from the perspective of her male hero. But it is also daring because this black man becomes fascinated by a young white teenager, Fay Taft, whom he hires right after she “walked into the bar.” He is aware of the racial issues this fascination may prompt, but he cannot help himself. He tries to fight her attraction, but this becomes even more difficult after she says that she has fallen in love with him.

And if a “romance” between a fortyish black man and a white teenager is not daring enough, there is the matter of Fay’s dead father, simply called Taft. For this brings a major structural shift. Taft abruptly jumps into this novel in the third person, interrupting Nickel’s interplay with the staff at his bar, especially with his smart bouncer Wallace and a brash waitress, Cyndi. But even more, it interrupts his yearning for fatherhood, and his estranged relationship with his girlfriend Marion and their child Franklin.

The purpose of these Taft sections is initially unclear, for they go back as much as a decade or more to recreate the life of Fay’s family, especially the relationships among herself, her father, and her brother Carl. Until, toward the end of the novel, when Nickel, half awake, imagines himself personally witnessing some Taft family events. The reader then becomes aware that, all along, Nickel’s fascination with Fay has been prompting him to imagine her life before he knew her. Has put himself in the role of her father. And this also appears to explain the title of the novel, Taft. That it refers to her father as well as to Fay herself, thus re-enforcing the role that Nickel feels is missing from his life.

Which is also what makes the novel so interesting, this two-fold yearning by Nickel for fatherhood. For he has lost something of his identity when he gave up drumming at his girl friend Marion’s request, on the promise that he could be a father to his son. Except, she than absconded with the boy to Florida. And now he wants the fulfillment of having his son back. But for that he needs to persuade the visiting Marion to remain in Memphis.

Meanwhile, he is torn by his fascination with Fay, this white teenager. She has moved to Memphis with her brother Carl after their father’s death. And the novel’s dramatic tension, already built around Nickel’s relationships with two young people, is magnified when Fay’s brother Carl becomes a regular at the bar, seems to attract new customers, and then turns out to be selling drugs.

This prompts a dramatic confrontation, whose consequences bring the novel’s high point. Except, the novel ends quickly thereafter, without resolving these figures’ lives. Even raising the possibility that Patchett may have been considering a sequel. This did not happen, but all of these characters would have been interesting to follow into their subsequent lives.

It is significant that the issue of racial relations remains in the background of this novel. Meaning that this is, first and foremost, a novel about a good man who is torn by his emotions and by his yearnings for fatherhood. While Nickel is highly conscious of the racial difference between himself and Fay, both he and Patchett are concentrating more on the human relationship he has with Fay. Indeed, this reader had to be reminded at times that Nickel was black, for he is so human otherwise. As are his relationships with his former girl friend and her family, and with the entire staff at the bar.

What the novel concentrates on is Nickel’s frustration at not finding fulfillment in his life. He gave up drumming, at the plea of his girl friend, and he now realizes he is not fulfilled with his job managing the bar. He yearns to be a father, to have his son back, which would bring one level of completion to his life. Whereas, Fay’s advances promise a fulfillment he is not prepared to accept, even as it makes him aware of how much he misses having love in his life—as well as how he might be a kind of surrogate father to her. So we find a contrast between the emotional connection he needs to make with his son and the emotional distancing he realizes he should make with Fay.

There is perhaps even more contrast behind his yearning for fatherhood. He was intent on his music, on himself, until he became a father. Then he changed. Franklin’s existence brought a new meaning to his life. But then the boy is taken away. And Nickel’s yearning, it seems, is transferred to white teenager Fay. Except, such love is dangerous for a black man. And so he begins to imagine her father’s life. He sublimates his emotional connection to her by identifying with her own father’s past love for her. He yearns to become two fathers.

Diana Postlethwaite sums up this novel in the New York Times: “Modern variations are played on old-fashioned Shakespearean romance: tragedy and comedy intertwine; broken families are mended; the dead are brought back to life; and what is lost is found again.”

This novel is both simple and complex. The yearning for love, for a human connection, for fatherhood, is simple. The transfer of this yearning to two children, to two races, to two families, is more complex. Patchett understands in this early novel the depth that can be found in the emotional life of a good but lonely man, especially a man on the fringes of society who yearns for fulfillment. (May, 2017).

Conclave, by Robert Harris

On reading the Harris novel, An Officer and a Spy, I suggested his next subject might be a story of the Russian Revolution. But he has denied me twice. He has chosen as his subject for this 2016 novel the election of a new pope. And he has projected the election into the future, rather than as an event of the past.

He writes the story from the viewpoint of Cardinal Lomeli, the Dean of Cardinals, whose role as dean is to run the election. And from the opening pages, when Lomeli learns of the death of a reformist Francis-like pope, I was immediately caught up by the cardinal’s sense of responsibility, his dedication, his integrity, his worthiness. And I remained comfortable with this viewpoint for the entire novel, as Lomeli offers both a human and a spiritual insight regarding each event. Insights so appropriate for a dedicated man of the cloth that I projected that the author was himself raised a Catholic, since he reflected such a complete understanding of this man of faith.

But as Harris himself explained to the Catholic Herald, “I was never baptized. I have always mildly resented this, as I have felt one should be plugged in from birth, just like one is given inoculations.” And adds: “I don’t think this book could have been written by a complete atheist.” Indeed, that he first submerged himself in the Gospels, as well as in Pope John XXIII’s Journal of a Soul, adds to the dedication to and achievement of this novel. That he has so submerged himself into the subconscious of a Roman cardinal that he makes not only him but this portrait of the Church entirely credible. Indeed, even the fear of loneliness on being elected pope rises on these pages.

The initial chapters also drew me into an appreciation of the additional research Harris pursued in order to write this work of fiction. And of the degree of cooperation he received from the Vatican, which he cites in his Acknowledgements. For we are inside these men’s minds and souls, inside the Sistine Chapel as these 118 cardinals cast their votes, and inside the mission of the Catholic Church that the Vatican sustains. Even the repetitive procedures that apply to each ballot, and there will be seven ballots, increases the weight that is given to the burden on these men’s shoulders.

And yet this is also a novel. So new developments must evolve to sustain reader interest. These are built around the fortunes of each candidate, as their electability rises and falls. They do so as a result of certain character revelations, revelations based on sex or bribery, revelations which, however, are not truly original. This is perhaps where this serious novel veers toward the popular side rather than toward the literary side. And it concludes with acts of violence that may have a factual basis in the world of today’s reader; but they reflect more an external force bringing this novel to its climax, rather than any turning point in the lives of these cardinals.

As for the ending itself, it operates on two levels. On the cardinals’ eventual choice of the new pope, I was not surprised. It is somewhat telegraphed. On a second level, we are offered a final twist, which reflects for me too much just that, a final twist. It is like an add-on by Harris, in which he changes one of the characters. One even sees Harris writing it with a smile.

On the cover are the words, “The power of God, the ambition of men.” And the novel certainly reflects this conflict. Ambition drives the actions of up to a half dozen of the cardinals in the conclave. In fact, even those who would deny ambition succumb to it at the end.

The candidates are three Italians: Cardinal Lomeli, the conscientious leader of the election process; Cardinal Bellini, an ambitious reformer; and Cardinal Tedesco, an ambitious archconservative. In addition, there are Cardinal Tremblay, a media-savvy Canadian who is ambitious for his own sake; Cardinal Adeyemi, a charismatic Nigerian conservative; and Cardinal Benitez, an unknown, modest Filipino. And the fortunes of these men will rise and fall as the election proceeds, falling either because of discoveries of their past, or because of their own aggressiveness. One might also note that these changes in fortune occur conveniently between each of the ballots, meaning they are carefully placed by the author to build his suspense. As well as to prompt the next shift in the leading vote-getter.

Unfortunately, however, we witness each candidate’s rise and fall more as representatives of their individual ideology than as fully-fleshed human beings whose private beliefs are probed. Which is why, as we dig further into this novel, the outcome of the voting becomes more pertinent than the fate of these individual candidates. Except, one might say, for the winning candidate. Which, as I said, involves a change more at the instigation of the author than it is of the candidate.

All of this works, however, within the secretive atmosphere that Harris has brought alive onto the page. As a former political reporter himself, as well as a novelist fascinated by the hidden machinations of power (see his Roman era novels), Harris says his initial inspiration for this novel came when he compared the faces on the Vatican balcony—“worldly, cunning, benign”—as the recent pope was announced, to the faces he imagined in Cicero’s senate.

Harris understands how ambition and power function in a complex organization like the Church. Especially when its leaders are brought together to choose one among them to be their chief. He also uses Lomeli to spell out the history and traditions of past elections, as well as the implications for today. Perhaps most powerful of all, he emphasizes the seclusion of these cardinals and the ritual secretiveness that each cardinal accepts. Finally, he balances the institutional and personal needs that confront these men.

Nevertheless, this novel fits more into the thriller category than into the literary category. It is more concerned with the outcome than with any change the outcome brings—either to the Church or to these characters. And yet it is a fine novel, because of its texture of secrecy, its reflection of the Church’s past in its art, its overview of Church politics, its clear understanding of ambition and power, leavened at times by one’s conscience, and finally by the sincere humanity of these cardinals. (May, 2017)

Phantom, by Jo Nesbo

This is a long, complex crime novel from 2011 that offers many dramatic scenes to offset a complicated plot that is often difficult to follow. Nesbo’s hero is again Harry Hole, an out-of-favor ex-policeman who becomes involved in the drug wars of Oslo when his illegitimate son, Oleg, is charged with the murder of a friend. Estranged from his son and his son’s mother, Rakel, both of whom he loves, he cannot help but investigate what happened.

The complexity begins with the reader’s discovery that some of the policemen Harry knows have been co-opted by a drug baron, resulting in a confusing perception by both Harry and the reader of the true motives of many of his former colleagues. Such as “burners,” policemen who are convinced to destroy evidence against the drug cartel. There is further complexity when the friend, Gusto, that Oleg is charged with killing begins relating his final moments as he is about to die. Which adds suspense to the story, but also seems somewhat artificial, since we first encounter him at the brink of death and then he backtracks his story to reveal what led up to his death.

Nesbo knows how to create such suspense. Whether with chase scenes, shifting motives, our changing perception of a character, violent confrontations, or methods for escaping from death. Except, some of the confrontations seem to end arbitrarily. Such as when the former alcoholic Harry escapes from drowning by sucking air out of an empty liquor bottle—well, that’s reality, and irony, stretched to its limits.

In this novel, Nesbo is dealing with a drug baron; a pedestrian policeman and his friend about to become the chief; a political seductress; a kidnapped girl and two of her brothers; a hired killer; Harry’s girlfriend and a lawyer who loves her; and a pharmacist who creates the special drug called violin, the cause of drug warfare and police corruption. Throughout the novel, Harry’s view of many of them changes, and so does the reader’s, especially regarding their involvement in the initial murder of Gusto. That is, who actually killed him? And, at the end, he suggests the future or the fate of each of these characters, although they are not neatly connected with each other.

But their fates do often seem arbitrary, beginning with Harry’s and ending with the identity of the actual killer. The latter becomes the least suspected person that all authors seek, and it, too, seems somewhat arbitrary. Especially when the actual murder is in some ways not a murder. There is a certain cynicism to this solution, but one has to grant that it is appropriate for a crime noir such as this. And even to the character of the killer.

What makes is novel work, beyond the continual confrontations, the deceptive shifting of suspicion, and the constant suspense is the character of Oslo and the character of Harry Hole. The dark side of the city and its corruption is perfectly suited to the noir atmosphere of this story. And Harry being an introvert continually makes him a distinctive character. For he is insecure about his ability to make a personal commitment, about his own worthiness to be loved, about the personal failings of his past, and he possesses a certain fatalism. As a result, however, we are more fascinated by him than willing to identify with him.

Some reviewers have been critical of the rat scenes that open the book, appear regularly, and nearly close the book. They certainly reflect the noir environment that Nesbo has created, but he uses them at the end to hint, to suggest, that a major character may not have died, after all. Which is an admirable purpose, I suppose, but it does undercut the impact of one of the final dramatic scenes. It seems to be a case of the author wanting to have his cake and eating it, too.

Nesbo himself acknowledged in an interview how he creates suspense in his crime novels, by shifting suspicion from one character to another, as he does here: “It’s like being a magician onstage. You are supposed to manipulate your readers. You are supposed to make them look at your right hand while you are doing a trick with your left. That sort of contract makes for a more intimate way of storytelling.”

Nesbo also says that after each book he gets tired of being with Harry “because it’s a very dark place to be.” Which perhaps partially explains the ending of this novel. But as a reader who has read only two of these novels, I am not tired of Harry myself. And I am particularly intrigued by the noir setting, the Oslo setting, and the Norwegian culture. So I look forward to more of Nesbo. (April, 2017)