Some Rise by Sin, by Philip Caputo

This 2017 novel, set in the small Mexican town of San Patricio, uses three stories to capture the town’s economic vulnerability amid the violence of a drug war. First is the story of Father Tim Riordan, an American priest who has chosen a kind of exile in the town and is a revered figure there. It continues with the story of Lisette Moreno, an American doctor who has fallen in love with the town and its people; but she is also a lesbian, which she must hide from the locals. And, finally, there is the story of the Brotherhood, a violent movement of narcos who have browbeaten the town and seek to control the entire area. Both the army and the national police strive to destroy this gang, but must deal with similar efforts by a local militia led by a parishioner, Cesar Diaz.

Each story is beautifully told, especially that of the priest. The novel introduces him at length, and one expects this work to be a portrait of a lonely, introspective priest far from home who has earned the trust of his parishioners. That is, Caputo gets truly inside him, probing his thoughts on his vocation, his dedication to his work, and his theological doubts. The novel’s overarching story begins when, in a military mishap, two civilian anti-war demonstrators are killed, and Riordan is requested by Diaz, chief of the town’s local militia, to ask the military leaders for an apology

But finding the perpetrators gradually recedes, as the other stories prevail. And while the three stories work in parallel, they remain on separate tracks. The priest’s doubts revolve around the seal of confession, and his efforts to protect his parishioners. Meanwhile, Lisette, the doctor who has brought modern medicine to a primitive village, is entrapped into treating Julien, the wounded leader of the narco gang. And finally, the Mexican army, under Captain Valencia, and national police, under Gregorio Bonham, also known as the Professor, join their forces to destroy this ambitious and violent narco movement.

The problem, as indicated, is that the three stories never come together. Father Tim is involved in each one, but his involvement in one aspect never ties in with his connection to another. His main issue as a priest concerns the seal of the confession. Should he break it, does he break it, when doing so warns of and perhaps even prevents the violence that has penetrated this village. It is a heartfelt search of his conscience that brings the priest alive early in this novel. For some, this novel might recall Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, with its tale of the whiskey priest in a small Mexican village, but the priest here, a responsible man, is far different.

Nor does Lisette connect the three stories. Her own concern is her lesbian affair with a friend, the painter, Pamela Childress, also an American. Their issue is whether their relationship can survive in a distant Mexican village. Lisette is linked to the story of the Mexican drug wars, as I said, when she is forced to operate on the wounded leader of the narcos. But that dramatic scene does not relate to further developments in this novel.

Finally, there is the story of those narcos, The Brotherhood, as they call themselves. Defeating them prompts both cooperation and competition between the army and the national police, who are jealous of each other’s efforts, plus disdainful of the local militia. Their rivalry is personified by the army’s brutal Captain Valencia and the more refined leader of the national police, the Professor. The latter has been a corrupt official in the region’s drug wars, but, unlike Valencia, relates to the educated priest.

The problem is the ending, when the experiences of the five main characters—the priest, the doctor, the captain, the Professor, and the narco leader Julian—never come together. Instead, each story is resolved separately. That of the priest, as he confronts Captain Valencia, is especially disappointing, for its abruptness. And also because the conscientious father abdicates from his responsibility as a priest, after so much of the novel probes deeply his commitment to his vocation and to his conscience.

At least, it becomes an ending, as does his entire life, that only a writer with a Catholic background could impart meaning to. Which is illustrated by these thoughts that arise in the closing paragraph: “It was he who bore the sins—his own sins and Cesar Diaz’s and every sin he’d heard confessed in his lifetime as a priest. He would atone for them all.”

The title, Some Rise by Sin, comes from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. A valid theme for this exploration of evil, it means that some can justify their lives, can rise, by committing sinful deeds. Or, in more direct language, that the end justifies the means, long a source of debate in Catholic circles. It applies here most forcibly to the actions of the priest. Can the breaking of the seal of confession be justified if it can prevent violence and save lives? That issue is fully examined here from a Catholic perspective, and is again evoked on the final page.

But Lisette might also be said to be furthering evil when she operates to save the arm and the life of the wounded leader of the Brotherhood. Which, in turn, despite all its violence, preaches that it is fighting the corruption of the Mexican state in behalf of its citizens. Even Valencia and the Professor, by the contrast in their actions, emphasize that there are good and bad methods to achieving a desirable end.

And speaking of ends and means, Caputo does not miss the irony that as two Americans, a priest and a doctor, try to alleviate the suffering endemic to this small Mexican village, other Americans are indirectly, if ignorantly, fomenting the town’s narco wars by importing illegal drugs from Mexico in the first place. It is another reason for Father Tim’s commitment to his Mexican parishioners. He is making amends, both personal and political.

Caputo enriches this novel by means of a Catholic framework. Without Riordan’s doubts and self-recriminations, this work would lose much of its texture as well as a philosophical depth. I would hope that more of Caputo novels are enhanced by exploring such a religious texture. It may not please some critics, such as the New York Times reviewer who says that “Breaches of Catholic doctrine are hazardous plot hinges,” and cites as evidence The Heart of the Matter. But that novel refers inward, to a personal sin, while Father Tim’s reaches outward, to his parishioners. (May, 2019)

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Finders Keepers, by Stephen King

From 2015, this is a second mystery novel from Stephen King, one that not only builds on the events of his prior mystery, Mr. Mercedes, but also surpasses that novel in both its believable suspense and its literary context. This novel features two familiar characters from the prior book: Bill Hodges, a retired detective, and Holly Gibney, now his middle-aged and brainy assistant at the detective service that Bill calls Finders Keepers. But at the core of this novel is a new character, the teenager Pete Saubers, who makes a fascinating discovery in a field not far from home.

What Pete finds is notebooks written by John Rothstein, a famous author of teenage angst who has retired to a quiet haven in New Hampshire and no longer publishes his fiction. These notebooks contain two unpublished novels that extend Rothstein’s Jimmy Gold series of three published novels. Rothstein is obviously patterned after J. D. Salinger, the actual author who also retired to New Hampshire after writing about teenagers. In this novel, two Rothstein readers have identified with Jimmy Gold, not only Pete but also a young Morris Bellamy, who becomes the villain of this novel.

It is because Morris is an understandable, if violent, villain, and because this novel’s denouement is much more natural than is that of Mr. Mercedes that I found this to be the superior work. While on still another level, I was fascinated by the worship a literary author prompts in the lives of these two youths. As well as by the contrast in their response to the notebooks, and how differently both their lives are changed as a result.

On the opening pages, a young Bellamy, with two accomplices, kills Rothstein, accusing him of betraying his readers. How? By ending the third novel with Jimmy Gold appearing to sell out to the world of advertising. But an ironic fate now raises its head. Bellamy, fearing being caught after the murder, flees home, hides the notebooks in a trunk, and buries them in a field behind his house—not having had time to read the two unpublished novels and learn how Jimmy’s fate has changed. And then, before he can dig them out to read, he commits a rape and receives a life sentence. With the result that for the next 35 years, Bellamy yearns for freedom so he can recover those notebooks, read them, and learn what happened to Jimmy Gold.

King alternates Bellamy’s life story with that of Pete Saubers, the other Rothstein fan, and his family. And his father, mother, and sister do make a fascinating family. Pete’s father, for example, was injured in the prior book when the car of the title deliberately plowed into a crowd of people. As a result, family tension is high as it falls on hard times.

The stories of young Pete and the grizzled Bellamy begin to come together 35 years after the original murder, when Pete finds the trunk with the notebooks, and reads the rest of the Jimmy Gold story. Whereupon, King continues the suspense, as he did in Mr. Mercedes, by alternating still more between the two adversaries, his young hero and this hardhearted criminal.

Along with the notebooks, Pete discovers in the trunk more than $20,000, which he uses to secretly support his poverty-stricken family. But finally the money runs out, and, with the family finances still depleted, he explores selling the notebooks. For the sale will also enable his provocative and smart younger sister Tina to go to the rich high school of her dreams.

By now, Bellamy, paroled from prison, has arrived back in the small Midwestern town of Northfield, where Pete lives. And, as he seeks out the notebooks, he discovers the one coincidence in this story—that Pete Saubers and his family now live in the same house where Bellamy himself grew up. Which has made it convenient for Pete, years later, to wander into the same field and discover where Bellamy had hidden the trunk with the notebooks.

As an aside, the title of this book reflects not just to Hodge’s retirement business but also to the “right” that Pete has to the money and the notebooks that he has found. For this novel is built on that key event.

Alternating among the two Rothstein fans, one seeking to read the notebooks and one seeking to sell them, along with the efforts of Hodges and Holly to support and protect Pete, the novel builds to a deadly confrontation between Pete and Bellamy, which explodes into a threat to Pete’s family, and eventually even puts at stake the existence of the notebooks themselves.

The richness of this novel evolves from its exploration of two points of view about our literary heritage and two points of view about our responsibility toward one another. All of which makes this work more than a tension-filled mystery. Through its reverberations of the world of J. D. Salinger, it draws us into a portrait of our attitude toward American culture, as well as into the tensions between the idealism and the violence that pervade our society.

There is violence here, note, but no horror. None of King’s trademark of the past. This is simply the King the storyteller, with a tale that fuels the imagination of every reader. Until the final chapter, that is, which introduces something new.

This is when Bill Hodges resumes his hospital visits to Brady Hartsfield, the killer of Mr. Mercedes. Because Bill is growing more and more suspicious that this villain is only pretending to remain in the coma he endured after being violently subdued at the end of Mr. Mercedes—and thus preventing from going off a bomb that would have killed hundreds of children. Hodges suspicion is confirmed after he leaves the hospital, for in the final paragraph Brady activates an e-reader, opens a distant water faucet, and tips over a photograph. All without moving from his hospital bed.

It is the only suggestion in this novel of a world beyond the natural, the only suggestion that King has not forgotten his origins as a novelist of horror. But what it also appears to do is to foreshadow the last in this series of three Northfield novels. It teases that something is going to happen in the third novel that will take us beyond our normal human experience. One can only hope that such developments will be believable. And hope for a similar literary or philosophical context that will also extend the story-telling of this final work in the series beyond the limits of a horror story. (May, 2019)

 

The Keep, by Jennifer Egan

This 2006 work is a strange novel. We read mainly about Danny and Howie, two cousins who have a back story in which Howie has a reason to resent Danny. Now, Howie is wealthy and invites Danny to join him at a castle in Central Europe that he is restoring and from which he has deliberately removed all forms of modern communication. Danny has offended some gangster types in New York and needs to escape, so he is grateful for the invitation. But when he arrives at the hotel he is uncomfortable at losing communication with the outside world. He is also not sure whether he should trust Howie. Has his cousin invited him abroad because he finally is out for revenge?

But just as we get into the intriguing and realistic story about their relationship and about the castle and its keep, their story is interrupted, and more than once, by a first person narrative of Ray, a convict confined in a maximum security prison for violent offenders. Who is taking a course in creative writing under a teacher named Holly. And it is difficult to see the connection between these two stories.

But of course they do come together at the end. Except, in a strange way. They come together as mutual stories of confinement and escape, of victimization and imagination. Moreover, only one of the stories is real, even though both have been presented in vivid detail, especially that of the partly restored castle, which is built over hidden tunnels, and otherwise is dark, is falling apart, and houses a mysterious and elderly, albeit seductive, baroness.

One sees such disjunction as characteristic of Egan novels. Which often jump back and forth in terms of place and time and culture. They keep the reader working, keep him off balance, presumably to get him more involved in her work. But there is also a playfulness here, almost a taunting, as if she wants to keep one step ahead of the reader. To say, this is my world, my story. Not yours. Not what you may be accustomed to.

This is illustrated most openly by the voice of Ray that keeps popping up out of nowhere to address the reader. It may be about how a certain transition is achieved. Or it will reveal a character in one story becoming a character in another story. Which certainly pulls the reader up short, pulls him out of the world he is reading about and prompts him to ask: what is going on here? What is this novel trying to say?

The realism of the castle and the keep provide the basic solidity to this novel. And at the same time, we feel ourselves in a world of the unworldly, of the preternatural if not the supernatural. When Danny meets the resident baroness, the novel captures the medieval magic of the past. When Danny explores the tunnels, we feel the desperation of an adventure story. And when the hotel’s entire staff is trapped in the tunnels, we feel immersed in a world of horror and fantasy.

Egan uses most of her creative energy writing about the castle and the keep—which explains the title. And Danny’s adventures there are what most interested me. But those adventures end up being more metaphors for the meaning of this novel than the actual meaning. And the meaning itself is elusive. Is it in Danny’s story or in Ray’s story? For Danny, it involves the abandonment he feels at having lost contact with the outside world and its sources of information. And his adventures at the castle, with its mysterious swimming pool, with its hidden and closed-off tunnels, require a survival therapy. Which he needs, being entirely dependent upon himself, and feeling powerless in an unfriendly world.

But is the castle’s world real? Beginning with the night he spends with the baroness. What, in fact, is reality? And what must he do to escape this form of reality? Especially when Danny suspects that Howie’s banning of all tools of communication serves to control him, even to prevent him from leaving. The novel suggests one answer. That his imagination offers Danny an escape from his sense of detachment and powerlessness. Indeed, his gothic adventures contrast the world of fantasy and magic with the familiar world of technology, and suggests this as the means to open the door for his escape.

Egan herself, offers an explanation during an interview published by The Writer: “I was interested in the ways technology has altered, or questioned, our sense of what is ‘real.’ Though I hadn’t planned it consciously, the gothic environment was the perfect place in which to explore that question.”

Inevitably, this search for what is real leads inward, and to self-reflection in the presentation of this novel. Which places Egan in the literary world of metafiction. Usually, I am intrigued by such awareness than an author brings to his or her work. But, here, the particular world of the castle is so real that the self-reflection kept coming between me and the world I was immersed in. Indeed, the author seemed to be jumping out in front of her characters, distracting me from them.

Madison Smart Bell’s positive review in The New York Times cites the novel’s ”Escherian architecture, replete with metafictional trapdoors, pitfalls, infinitely receding reflections, and trompe l’oeil effects” along with its “unusually vivid and convincing realism.” And this certainly captures my perspective. Except, I place more value here on the realism and less on the effects. And do wonder about the similar literary awareness that the author reportedly brings to her later novel about the Goon Squad. Will the emphasis there be on the characters and their story, or on the meaning of the story?

The Kirkus Review reaches a conclusion similar to the Times. “The beautiful prose doesn’t entirely disguise how wildly improbable the novel’s events are, but the characters’ emotions are so real, the author’s insights so moving, that readers will be happy to be swept away.” And, indeed, I was swept away, but by Danny’s story rather than Ray’s, and by the adventure rather than by the search for meaning.

I am still interested in Egan’s other work. Next on my shelves is Good Squad. But I do hope that from now on subsequent novels will be closer to the reality of the recent Manhattan Beach than to the fantasy inherent in this novel. (May, 2019)
Continue reading “The Keep, by Jennifer Egan”

The Unlikely Spy, by Daniel Silva

Written in 1996, this is Silva’s first novel, which I did not realize when I bought it. But one can see from the early pages set before and during World War II, why he has established himself since with a series of popular espionage novels.

This work is built around the preparations for the invasion of France on D-day. The Allies need to conceal from the Germans that they plan to land on the beaches of Normandy, rather than at Calais, just across the narrowest part of the English Channel. But to move troops and armaments ashore, the Allies need a harbor complex, of which there is none at Normandy. So, to create one, they build huge concrete structures to tow across the channel, but they need to hide this strategy from the Germans, since it will betray that their actual landing site is Normandy.

This novel, presumably fiction, suggests how they tried to deceive the Germans with Operation Mulberry. It required a complex plan, and Silva creates many interesting characters to execute the plan, as well as the German characters whom the Allies are working to deceive. This means that Hitler, Himmler, Canaris, and other Germans appear regularly in this novel, along with Churchill and Eisenhower in smaller parts.

The main adversaries are Alfred Vicary for the Allies and Kurt Vogel for the Germans. Vicary does not create but he does implement the plan to make the Germans think that the huge floating harbors being built are actually anti-aircraft batteries. Meanwhile Vogel is running two sleeper spies in England who are actually half English, and whom the Allies know nothing about. He assigns them to find out the real site of the Allied landings and the purpose of those huge concrete structures. If they learn the truth, of course, the entire invasion and the future of the Allied war effort will be at risk.

To further the suspense, Silva continually switches back and forth between the sleeper spies and what Vicary and his MI5 colleagues are doing to discover them. One of his achievements here is to make the German spies, Horst Neumann and Catherine Burke, not her real name, very human. Indeed, the reader identifies with them as they develop sincere relationships with other Englishmen. One is even drawn toward rooting for them, although they are both, especially the woman, brutal killers. Meanwhile Vicary, their adversary, is also quite human, with his doubts about himself, about his boss, and about what he is being asked to do.

And the intrigue doesn’t stop with Vicary vs. Vogel. Vicary’s boss, Basil Boothby, also acts very suspiciously, frustrating Vicary at times. And the reader wonders at his true motives. For we learn from the Germans that they also have a secret spy within MI5 who is passing information to them. Meanwhile, over in Germany, Himmler is plotting to take over the Abwehr, which under Canaris is running German espionage operations in England. Because he suspects, as is true, that Canaris is foiling the German spying efforts because he despises Hitler and his methods.

The plot begins when the Allies hire an American engineer, Peter Jordan, to see to the construction of the huge floating harbors. Vogel learns about Peter, and assigns Catherine Burke to seduce him and to discover more about those huge constructions. Which she does. Indeed, the two also fall in love, prompting Catherine to wonder if she is the cold-blooded person she assumes she is. Which earns the reader’s additional sympathy. Momentarily.

But it illustrates Richard Bernstein’s comment in The New York Times that Silva “has a knack for allowing the unforeseen, the accidental, the all-too-human to intrude, pushing the plot in an unexpected direction.”

While this is a highly suspenseful novel, the strategic duel between Vicary and Vogel is less suspenseful than it might have been. That is, while each side reacts to the other’s actions, the reader never feels that the Germans are one step ahead of the Allies, and thus likely to succeed. Indeed, one knows from history that they did not. But from a strictly fictional standpoint, if the Germans could have been more clever—anticipating Vacary’s moves, for example—the suspense could have been even more intense than it is.

And the final moments of the novel are truly gripping, as the two German spies are convinced the information they are sending back home, that the Brits are building anti-aircraft batteries, is false; and so they flee across Britain toward a German submarine hovering just off the coast. It will take them back to Germany, where they will expose the Allies’ deception. Which, in turn, will help the Germans realize the true invasion site: Normandy.

At the same time, their desperate flight prompts their own brutality, which the reader realizes but has been reluctant to accept. For they kill many anonymous and innocent people—as they also have, particularly Catherine, earlier in the novel. It is perhaps Silva’s way of stressing the desperation of spying. But one might note that at the end, one of his characters remarks about how many Allied lives were saved in the invasion because of some innocent lives that were lost earlier in defense of the invasion’s security.

What is unclear is how much of this tale is fictional. My suspicion is that Silva has created fictional characters and fictional events at the heart of his story, but has based them on the fact that the Germans did seek to learn where the Allied invasion would land and that the Allies did plot to deceive them regarding the true landing site. And the events he proposes here do work as one logical possibility.

But Silva also raises an intriguing interpretation at the end. That Vicary—and the reader—were not told how elaborate was the fiction being created for the Germans, such as Peter Jordan’s involvement. That his presence as the engineer working on the harbor project was no coincidence. Nor was his seduction by Catherine. And that Vacary was not informed of this because his chiefs wanted his reactions to events “to feel real to the other side.” Which leaves the reader with the realization the deception is at the heart not only of all spycraft. But also of such novels.

This novel certainly makes one interested in more of Silva’s works. However, the knowledge that most of his additional works of espionage feature one of two main characters prompts one to wonder if they may not be more formulaic than this intriguing and promising first novel. (April, 2019)