Louisiana Power and Light, by John Dufresne

This is a clever but frustrating novel from 1994. I was very impressed by its rich literary style as the novel opens. The author directly addresses the reader in a Southern homespun style, and appears in complete control of his characters in the small town of Monroe, Louisiana.

But disappointment slowly grew on me. Because there were too many homespun Southern characters whose lives intermingled but did not come together to produce a single dramatic whole. I also sensed too much local color, too much surface cleverness, and not enough exploration of these characters in depth.

This reaction was not unlike a comment in the Kirkus Review: “We soon realize Dufresne is rambling on about his characters’ lives, never once entering their emotions or examining their motives….[And his] plot is continually interrupted by narratives about minor characters. Dufresne wastes so much time telling readers he’s telling a story and expounding on the art of storytelling that we lose interest in the characters and, thus, in the story.” And as Jill McCorkle in The New York Times suggests: Dufresne “offers a plot line as complex as the network of backwoods roads these people and their ancestors have committed to memory,”

And while I decided to finish this novel to see where the author was heading, what he was trying to say, I also decided that this novel was perhaps not going to be worth writing about.

What prompted to me to pick up this novel in the first place was that its main character, Billy Wayne Fontana, was training in a novitiate to become a priest. This is before he became involved with the citizens of Monroe. It would be interesting, I thought, to learn how that background carries into the secular world. And it is quite secular. For Billy Wayne’s story begins with a family curse that has produced generations of unfortunate sinners, all males; and the authorities have believed they can help end that family curse if he is trained to be a priest.

But, alas, he is seduced by Earlene—an unstable woman who writes country music lyrics—while pretending to hear her confession in a hospital; and then he marries her and leaves the novitiate. Moreover, they soon become incompatible, and she leaves him; whereupon he marries Tammy Lynne, another unhappy woman, and sires two boys, Duane and Boone, the latter also known as Moon Pie. This second son is born with flippers instead of legs and is confined to a wheelchair. Is this the curse again at work? But Moon Pie is a genius, and he becomes interested in God and in the meaning of faith.

And this is why I finished this novel, and why I am writing about it. For the author, in his own idiosyncratic way, is addressing an issue that interests me and that surely is one I should address. For one can regard original sin as, in fact, a curse, and can see this Fontana curse as a way of addressing, in more worldly terms, one of mankind’s spiritual conditions. In other words, this author is addressing a basic religious issue, albeit through quirky Southern characters who live a hardscrabble life, encounter many dead ends, and are often frustrated by the life they lead.

Moon Pie finally convinced me to write about this novel when he becomes a radio evangelist and introduces a lengthy spiritual discussion of the presence of God and how we should relate to Him. Added to the guilt Billy Wayne feels for having abandoned the priesthood and failed to meet the needs of two wives, this suggest the author is indeed addressing more than the foibles of Southern hicks.

The title of the novel also supports this spiritual aspect. While the power company itself plays a minor role here, merely serving the town of Monroe and offering employment, its name suggests the primary characteristics of God that are under discussion here—in terms of both the power He has and the light He generates and offers to others.

Unfortunately, the reviews seem to relate more to the quirky nature of these Southern characters, even calling the novel a blend of comedy and tragedy, than to the spiritual search introduced by Moon Pie and Billy Wayne. Indeed, Billy Wayne asks how he can justify abandoning his priestly vocation, since he has become a failure in his relationship with two wives and has prompted the death of two others. The answer he reaches is not a satisfactory one for me, with its crown of nettles, although it may be for the author, his creator, who seems to rate the symbolism over the reality.

Of course, once things go wrong, humans beings do tend to look in various directions for the reason. Some ask if what happened is their own fault. Others ask if it is the fault of circumstances, or fate. Still others ask if the fault is God’s. In this case, Billy Wayne faults mainly himself, as he takes on the burden of the family curse. But the author, in his approach to the entire novel, seems to suggest otherwise, that the fault, or much of it, rests with God.

In fact, when Billy Wayne sees himself as a failure at the end, he himself begins to question God. “Surely, there had to have been a purpose,” he reasons, “elsewise this world and everything in it were all merely accidental and random—not the kind of world a God would create.”

The implication seems to be that God has failed mankind by instituting this curse called original sin. For allowing a family to be destroyed through no fault of its own. And for leaving survivors with little understanding of the reason, either for their own existence or for the eventual fate of every human. Asked the meaning of life, one character says: “That it ends. Just that.”

The narrator concludes with speculation about the next story people will hear about. “Whatever it is, we’ll feel different when it’s over. We’ll feel wiser, even if we aren’t. Wise and fortunate.” For life will go on. They will discover more about fate, questioning it at the same time that they accept it. But they will not have the answer to God’s role in their lives. Just as Billy Wayne himself did not, which does lead to this novel’s tragic consequences. (December, 2018)

Advertisements

The History of the Siege of Lisbon, by Jose Saramago

After 60 or so pages, author Saramago introduces into this 1989 novel an interesting, provocative premise. But he uses the first sixty pages to set up that premise, which depends on his main character, the proofreader Raimundo Silva, inserting a “not” at a crucial point in a history book he is proofing. He does this arbitrarily, acting, as he says, as a Mr. Hyde rather than a Dr. Jekyll. But because his action is so arbitrary, Saramago must spend those initial sixty pages setting up his hero’s action. And, in the process, this delays when the action of the novel truly starts, for he must first both convince us of the man’s unsettled character and establish his particular role in the world of publishing.

What the inserted word “not” does is confound Portuguese history. For it makes the book of history our hero is proofreading say that the Crusaders, on the way to the Holy Land, did not stop to help free Lisbon from its occupation by the Moors. When, of course, they did stop to do exactly that.

As a result of his inserting the one word, falsifying history, a woman, Maria Sara, is hired by his publishing house to manage both him and other proofreaders to be hired for subsequent works. Raimundo meets with her and learns he will not be punished, because of his long and faithful service to the publisher. But she reveals she is intrigued by his bravura insertion, and she provocatively proposes that he himself write a book, one in which the Crusaders do fail to help in the recapture of Lisbon from the Moors.

Raimundo at once rejects the idea, but when he goes home it begins to intrigue him. Just as Maria Sara does. And he starts speculating how and why the Crusaders would reject the king’s appeal. Which leads to typical Saramago speculation about the various possibilities. And then leads to Raimundo one day visiting the castle that was the headquarters of the Moors—whereupon, the answer comes to him.

Except, author Saramago is not one to immediately reveal his hero’s insight. Instead, the proofreader delves still deeper into the process by which the Crusaders might decide to deny their services in his new version of history. He decides this means the Crusaders would enter into negotiations. They would ask how they will be rewarded if they help defeat the Moors, and the answer Raimundo’s king comes up with is that just as God has helped the Christians in other battles in Portugal, he will help the Crusaders enjoy such a victory if they agree to join in retaking Lisbon from the Moors.

The Crusaders’ answer is a kind of blasphemy, for they say that since God has brought you victory in the past, you surely do not need our help. The king is mollified, however, when a few token Crusaders do agree to help. Whereupon, Saramago switches from Raimundo’s imaginative speculation to the reality of Raimundo’s life. The proofreader decides to bring a book of poems he has proofed to his publisher. And just as the man weighs the possible outcome of every encounter, whether in his own life or in his fiction, his indecision is amplified when he is faced with the attractive Maria Sara as he delivers the book of poems. Since this is the first time, half way through the book, that he has finally made a connection with another person, one anticipates Saramago, at last, picking up the pace.

But, instead, Saramago develops his story on three levels. He concentrates on the viewpoint of the Moors under siege, especially a blind muezzin to whom is described the movement of troops below. Then he switches to Raimundo at his writing desk but also thinking of Maria Sara. And finally, he gets inside the writer Raimundo, who is evaluating the impact on the king of most Crusaders abandoning the siege and heading off to sea, while a few troops remain behind to join the besiegers. The overall impact is that of watching Raimundo figure out how to write a book that contradicts history. Which approach Saramago continues in the following chapters, moving back and forth, in and out, ending with Raimundo hesitantly approaching Maria again.

And for the first time, about three quarters into thus work, there is a human connection. But what is not clear to me at this point is Saramago’s intent in writing this book. The title suggests the goal is a portrait of history. And that as a novelist he knows he must approach this purpose through a human being, his proofreader. But we don’t sense the humanness of this proofreader until now. When it briefly takes over the book.

But then, in his finale, the author returns to the siege of Lisbon, and spells out in detail how the siege could have ended, even though, in history, it did not end that way. In his version, Saramago also tells the story of a knight and his concubine Ouroana. And how a common soldier Mogueime declares his love for her and how she replies. This suggests a parallel to the love of Raimundo and Maria Sara, with the common soldier standing in for the common proofreader. Just as Saramago’s history of the siege stands in for the real siege without repeating it.

In an Afterward, translator Giovanni Portiero explains why Saramago has written this novel in this way. That he prefers “stories inserted into history.” That “the central concern of Saramago’s novel focus[es] on our ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, to differentiate between reliable and suspect historical reporting, and the difficulty of drawing the frontier between the two.” As Saramago himself says, “The truth is that history could have been written in many different ways and this idea of infinitude and variation are the essence of my writing.”

And so we have a work of fiction in which the fiction merely embellishes a literary philosophy, rather than explores human relationships. This is not for me true fiction, but I must also acknowledge that this work has made me aware of a moment of Lisbon history that I knew nothing about. Which, in a way, is perhaps Saramago’s intent. To make history come alive, by inserting his own fiction, by showing, in the translator’s words, that “history and fiction are constantly overlapping.” (December, 2018)

A Small Death in Lisbon, by Robert Wilson

The small death in this 1999 novel is a kind of culmination of larger deaths, as we begin in the 1990s with the rape and murder of a young girl in Lisbon and then are switched to Portugal in the 1940s and that country’s role in aiding the German cause that resulted in the deaths of millions in World War II. Indeed, for the rest of this novel, we alternate between the recent small-scale story and the earlier large-scale story. Can there be a connection between the two?

One story concerns Lisbon Inspector Ze Coelho‘s investigation of the girl’s death, and the other the adventures of Klaus Felsen, a German factory owner conscripted into the SS, and who is assigned to smuggle wolfram out of Portugal for the German war effort. Felsen later is ordered to smuggle German gold into Portugal and to set up a bank in order to preserve the gold, and we follow his fortunes postwar as the bank he helps set up reaches international prominence. And as the time frame narrows between the two stories, we do begin to wonder how, or will, these two stories ever come together.

The search for the girl’s killer is rather routine, with the inspector interviewing the girl’s family, including her powerful father, a lawyer, and various people on the fringes of society who know of the secret life that led to her murder. The wolfram adventures of Felsen are also routine for an espionage novel, as he works underground with the head of the Abrantes, a Portuguese peasant family, to set up the supply chain. In fact, his relationship with them continues after the war, as the sons use the banking gold to create a new and prosperous image for themselves with no ties to the past.

Despite what I find to be somewhat formulaic adventures in both the present and the past, this work has earned laurels from many crime critics. But for me it gradually became a disappointment. In part, because the pursuit, in one case of facts and in another case of fulfillment, seemed to be reaching no conclusion. Interest heightened only when the stories of Coelho and Felsen become personal. When they introduced sexual or family relationships, or when sudden violence was required because one’s reputation or one’s survival was threatened. This also results in a number of brutal murders that do, if only briefly, heighten the dramatic tension. As a small counterbalance, however, the author, as a resident himself, is very effective at using streets, plazas, and landmarks to ground these various adventures in a real Portugal.

One waits to learn the connection between these two tales, the girl’s murder and the earlier maneuvering with, first, the wolfram and then the gold. When the connection comes, it begins as a generational link, an obvious but arbitrary outcome that disappoints. And then come the details, which are quite complicated, as in many a mystery. The details involve teenage prostitution, obscure characters playing major roles, a major character taken out of commission, a family rape and revenge, the innocent being guilty, the truly guilty not participating in the deaths, and, finally, the irony of an illegitimate birth.

Given both the violent acts and the sexual activity of these characters, The New York Times review by Richard Bernstein speculates positively about author Wilson’s intent in writing this crime novel “It as though Mr. Wilson wants to draw a private, personal parallel to the organized breakdown of civilized behavior represented by the Nazis, the idea that mass murder engineered by a mad ideology has its microscopic counterpart in individual acts of sexual domination and cruelty.”

But Bernstein also says the novel is “not persuasive in absolutely every detail” and that the author “overdoes matters” towards the end, resulting in a kind of “lurid indiscriminateness.” Which remarks reflect my own opinion. That there is too much authorial ambition here. Too arbitrary an effort in trying to connect past and present. And there are too many complications, with too many characters, some obscure, playing too significant a role, as the author tries to make sense of their complicated relationships.

I have another Wilson novel to read, about a police inspector in Sevilla, and, while I have enjoyed the author’s work in the past, I am not sure how eagerly I should look forward to a work that appears to be similar to this Lisbon story. (December, 2018)

Two Moons, by Thomas Mallon

I have always been intrigued by Mallon’s historical novels, but have read only Henry and Clara, which did disappoint me. This 2000 novel, however, is quite effective. It is a quiet novel, but its youthful romance, its pursuit of scientific evidence in the heavens, and its late 19th century Washington scene are quite effective. The actual year is 1878, when the Capital is still recovering from the Civil War and people are yearning for a brighter future.

This is the story of thirtyish Civil War widow Cynthia May and her love of an ambitious astronomer Hugh Allison. Both are fictional characters. She is a mathematical whiz at the U.S. Navel Observatory, while he is a handsome and ambitious, but physically delicate, astronomer scientist. The author blends their love affair with the lives of real scientists who surround them at the Observatory. And he supplements those lives with the predictions of a presumably fictional astrologer, Mary Costello. This woman advises a powerful senator, the historic Roscoe Conkling of New York, on how the stars might help him beat back reformists who are challenging the party machine. Conkling is a ladies man, and the plot turns when he encounters Cynthia, is fascinated by her, and decides to pursue her.

Cynthia’s own story is a quiet one, not a dramatic one, and yet, as I indicated, effective. For she is both smart and settled into her widowhood—until, that is, she meets Hugh. The reality of their affair is enhanced by the care the author takes to create the hectic daily life of the Observatory, where Mary is called a computer since she deals with mathematical calculations and Hugh tracks the planets through a telescope. What also enlivens this scientific background is the political and personal infighting at the Observatory, climaxing with the desire of most of the scientists there to move their location away from Foggy Bottom, where the fog and the malarial mosquitoes both disrupt their investigation of the skies and endanger their health.

And this effort to move the Observatory is complemented by the political maneuvering in Washington D.C between the Presidency and Congress. Even as Mallon captures the woman’s point of view through Cynthia and Mary, he also captures the political history underlying this novel. Such as the maneuvering by Senator Conkling, for example, in support of President Rutherford B. Hayes, maneuvers which are not always clear to the average reader.

The scientists at the Observatory spend their time searching the skies, studying the planets (the discovery of two moons around Mars is made during this period), and seeking to identify new heavenly bodies through their telescopes. But while these efforts are directed toward reaching out and discovering unknown civilizations across the heavens, Hugh Allison thinks about knowledge flowing in the opposite direction. He wants to send out a message to those possible civilizations and make them aware of we fellow beings here on earth.

And so Hugh seeks to shine a powerful light into the sky that will draw attention toward the planet earth. As he says, he wants the speed of light to carry through the universe a message that will be found long after he himself is gone.

Much of the novel focuses on his efforts, aided by Cynthia, to obtain a machine from a fellow scientist in France that emits the powerful light that he needs. Senator Conkling enters the scene here because Cynthia realizes that, after their casual encounter and his efforts to seek an amorous relationship, she needs to develop that relationship. Because he has the power and influence to help them bring over the searchlight from France and pass it through customs.

Hugh’s plan is to take his searchlight to the top of the then unfinished Washington Monument, and to shine its beam into the sky. This effort represents the climax of the novel, after which their story eases into a quiet ending. Meaning that there is no dramatic finale, no earthshaking discovery. What follows is merely a New York Blizzard ten years later that allows the author to settle the fortunes of his main characters.

We have glimpsed in this novel a moment if imaginary history, and a moment of imaginary reality. And it is a reality both highly believable, and symbolic of its times. It reflects, as the Washington Post says, “a quaint kind of homegrown ambition and optimism that is uniquely American.”

Yes, one wants to seek out more of Mallon’s work. In his historical fictions, he brings together the humanity of his characters, whether historic or fictional. And then, as he captures the sense of their times, he lets a quiet moment of history reverberate into our future. (November, 2018)