Gone the Dreams and Dancing, by Douglas C. Jones

I have long been a fan of Douglas Jones, not least because I have been impressed by his capture of the Indian experience, beginning with his tales of George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull. Those two novels worked because he imaginatively recreated the Indian world in tension with the white man’s world. Here, however, as the title suggests, he tells a different story, that of the proud Indians’ painful adjustment, after their defeat, to the white man’s culture.

This 1984 novel is beautifully written, as are all his works, and is a major reason I have long chosen to read Jones. But this novel is less successful in novelistic terms. Not, however, because it is told from the viewpoint of a white man, Liverpool (Liver) Morgan, a Welshman. He is a fine man, as well as an understanding spokesman for the author; and we understand why others trust him and his fairness, especially from his memories of the Civil War as a Confederate soldier, as well as his memories of his Welsh parents. These are often poetic interludes that do interrupt his current narrative with the Indians, but also demonstrate Jones’ imaginative probing into the depths of his character.

Liver first encounters the Indian leader, Kwahadi, as the chief leads his Comanche tribe peacefully onto the land the white man has reserved for them. The novel then takes us through a series of events that both bring Liver closer to Kwahadi and demonstrate the slow absorption of these Comanches into the white man’s ways. But as the Kirkus review sums up, it is a rich “if relatively undramatic, Jones historical novel.”

Kwahadi, the Indian chief, becomes Jones’ pathway into illustrating how the Indians have had to abandon two mainstays of their culture when they pledged themselves to a peaceful life. For that decision has denied its young men important elements of their warrior culture. That is, they no longer go into battle against other tribes; and, second, the buffalo, whom they eagerly pursued as a source of food and clothing, have vanished. And so, to enable these Indians to hold onto one key symbol of their way of life, Liver helps the Comanche leader retrieve a sacred lance that is symbolic of their warrior culture. Then, more practically, he helps the tribe obtain both the horses they need to explore the world beyond their reservation and the cattle they need to feed themselves.

Each of these steps illustrates a need these Indians have as they adjust to their new world. But there is no dramatic unity to these events. There are simply a series of problems Liver helps to solve, and by doing so helps slowly to develop his relationship with Kwahadi and his people. Moreover, that relationship grows quite personal, as Liver soon acts as a successful go-between for a young white army contractor who wishes to marry one of Kwahadi’s daughters.

And this relationship becomes even more personal, when Kwahadi, the son of a white woman who was kidnapped by the Indians and then recaptured a generation later, yearns for the mother he has lost. And because he trusts Liver, who knows the white man’s world, he asks Liver to find what happened to his white mother, and whether or not she is still alive. And this mission carries Liver through much of the remaining novel. Indeed, to re-enforce his trust, Kwahadi directs another Indian to protect Liver from a white man’s ambush. And, finally, the chief offers Liver, a widower, an Indian woman as a wife—to cure a loneliness he sees in the white man—and Liver agrees.

The final integration of the Indians comes with a trip to Ft. Worth, where Kwahadi and his Indian friends are to be honored. But it also ends with a tragedy, as well as with Liver fulfilling the mission that Kwahadi gave him, to discover the fate of the Indian’s wife. And so the conclusion of these two events helps to bring this work itself to an emotional close.

Except, there is an Epilogue, which suggests that Liver and Kwahadi were real people. It is not clear if this is true or an attempt to create verisimilitude. But I do note that Jones’ most successful early novels were built around historical events that really happened, and onto which he grafted his marvelous imaginative powers, powers that brought him inside the head of both Indians and white men. Did he need that verisimilitude again to give more substance to this work of fiction?

This novel did not receive the attention that reviewers gave his earlier work. Perhaps because it was not inspired by a specific moment in history. Instead, it presents the gradual assimilation of Indians into the white man’s culture. It may thus be appropriate to quote from my 2005 review of Jones’ novel Roman, that Jones “fails to offer a single, unified story that stretches itself into a greater complexity. Instead, he offers a picaresque series of adventures that offer no challenge to his hero, even as they immerse us into the daily activities of life on the range and in the towns, cities, and forts.”

Finding the fate of Kwahadi’s mother was not an easy task for Liver, but it was also not enough to tie this work together with any continuity. In part because it was achieved so easily. Liver knew the right person, who in turn knew the governor. One concludes that Jones is really committed here to the larger story, the assimilation of the Indians. He is less committed to the fate of his individual characters. Because this is the story about cultures rather than about individual people. The people merely illustrate the cultures.

This book has sat on my shelf for many years. I felt no urgency to read it, perhaps reflecting the reviewers’ lack of interest when this novel was published. But I am happy I finally picked it up. And it deserved to be published. For it covers an important element of America’s Western history. And we should be grateful that Jones decided to write this story of these two cultures that were so important to our country’s past. (November, 2017)

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

I have put off reading Morrison for many years, simply not drawn to her portrait of black society. But this is supposed to be one of her best, I thought, so let’s give it a try.

Once I started this 1987 book, however, I was immediately lost. Who is Baby Suggs? What is the relationship among these people? What is going on? Fortunately, there is a Foreword, and in it Morrison explains that she has deliberately dumped the reader into the middle of a complex situation. Because this is what life is, especially for black people, who must react to the world around them, often without help.

However, the relationships among these people remain unclear for some time. Especially when Beloved arrives on their doorstep, a young woman whom Denver, daughter of Sethe, relates to. Who is she? Is she a ghost? Because another baby has died earlier. And this new arrival not only has the same name but is the title character. So we know she is important.

There is also a white woman named Amy, who helps Sethe on the day she bears a child. Sethe is grateful, and learns her last name is Denver, which she likes. That baby appears to be Denver, now a teenager. What is clear is that this episode takes us back in time, that we are dealing here with events on different time levels. Which adds complexity to the relationships.

For a long while we have no reference point for the memories and interaction among Sethe, Beloved, Paul D, a former slave, and others. But with more detail, the relationships begin to come together. This is Faulkner territory to a degree, as we bounce around in time. Thus, Paul D escapes from a Georgia chain gang, moves in with Sethe, boots out a baby ghost, and then runs into the opposition of the newly-arrived Beloved, who suggests both that banished baby and a past returned to haunt the present.

Confusion is amplified as the story continues to move about in time, even introducing a new character, Stamp Paid, a ferryman who brought Sethe to freedom. He tries to persuade Paul D to make a realistic appraisal of Sethe, whom Stamp once found with two children, one covered with blood. Nothing is clearly stated, but the implication is that she has killed one child in order to preserve it from the life she has known. But, unlike in Faulkner, where confusion reigns but is eventually clarified, my frustration continues.

Until we remain in the present, where new details finally begin to make sense. That Stamp Paid stopped Sethe from killing Denver, after she had killed her other child, presumably Beloved, and tells this to a distraught Paul D. That Paul D and Beloved hate each other, and she is triumphant when he leaves after learning this. That Sethe still loves Beloved, and now tries to justify what she did by emphasizing the plight of fellow coloreds. But Beloved refuses to listen; and, as they argue, Beloved gains control over her mother, for Sethe is fearful Beloved will leave.

The climax occurs when Denver seeks a job with Quaker abolitionist Bodwin in order to support Sethe and Beloved, but to get that job she has to reveal the situation at home. Which riles up the local woman, who gather at the house to pray just as Bodwin arrives to pick up Denver. At the height of the action, Sethe rushes from Beloved’s side to attack Bodwin, thinking he is a slave catcher. This act also frees her from Beloved. And from her past?

A chapter later, we learn what happened and that Beloved is gone. The house also appears empty, except the faithful Paul D finds Sethe lying in bed, as grandmother Suggs did before she died. Who was Beloved, the town asks. Did she really exist? A final chapter recalls how she has been forgotten.

To sum up, this novel’s mysteriousness and misdirection certainly hearkens back to Faulkner. Why did Morrison take this approach? Partly, I think, because so much of the action is internal, and that while the life of the colored people is vividly captured, not much happens dramatically in the novel’s present. What happens is offstage or in the past, and often told indirectly, with the emphasis on the reaction to those developments.

As presented here, my interests were too much distributed among Sethe, Denver, Paul D, and Stamped Paid. Might the latter two, in fact, have been combined? And Beloved, torn between being real and being a ghost, is not vivid enough. She is described more through others reacting to her than through her acting on them. She thus becomes a symbol more than a real person. Especially when she is naked at the end, and some outsiders see her and some do not.

This work does not urge me to seek further Morrison. I must work too hard to understand what is going on. Which is deliberate, as I said, for the Foreword states: “I wanted the reader to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population—just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to any other, without preparation or defense.”

This is a valid purpose. And the work is beautifully written. But the approach makes it difficult to identify with the characters, as the author both moves from one character to another and moves back and forth in time. This is another case in which the events are not told sequentially. Often this is to hide the lack of a dramatic cause and effect, but here it is also because Morrison is emphasizing the significance of the events rather than the events themselves, and the repercussions of the events rather than their causes.

I can understand why Morrison is thought of so highly. Her message, her portrait of where today’s black society came from, is important. And perhaps requiring the reader to dig for that portrait and its repercussions is a valid means to impress that history on the white reader. But I for one would rather have been so immersed in the fate of these characters—instead of having to figure them out—that the same message would have been implanted in my emotions as much as in my mind. Which, I suggest, is the more traditional literary approach. And one that I am more comfortable with.

I regret my reaction to this work. I am still a conservative in literary terms, however, even if I am liberal in social and political terms. (June, 2015)

TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann

Here is a beautiful 2013 novel. I use that word again. But it truly is. It also has an unusual structure, a story told across seven time zones, a back and forth structure that only a master author could bring together and make work. But this is also, and not least, a story of Ireland across those eras.

The first time zone is 1919, when we join Adcock and Brown in a beautifully evoked flight, as they become the first pilots to cross the Atlantic non-stop. And in an insignificant moment before take-off, Lottie, a young female photographer hands the pilots a letter written by her mother Emily. In the second time zone, 1845, Frederick Douglass visits Dublin  to press the cause of abolition that has brought him to Ireland. While there, he catches the eye of a fictional young maid named Lily, but the entire emphasis is on a deeply-felt portrait of Douglass.

In the third time zone, 1998, we jump ahead to follow former Senator George Mitchell as he negotiates peace between the Protestant and Catholic factions in Northern Ireland. This Good Friday section seems least connected to the remainder of the novel, as effective at it is, and as understanding as it is of Mitchell the person. It does not enter the negotiations themselves, but its portrayal of Mitchell establishes the presence of the modern Troubles. These strong portraits of Mitchell and Douglass help provide the historic verisimilitude against which the fictional characters are created.

The next section opens in 1863, when that maid Lily we met in 1845 is now a nurse in the Civil War, and has volunteered to serve at the front in order to find her illegitimate son who has enlisted. We follow her as she next marries for security and has five sons and one daughter, Emily. With Emily, she witnesses another appearance of Douglass, this time in St. Louis, a now elderly Douglass who is still preaching the rights of Negroes. The next time zone is 1929, when Emily and her own illegitimate daughter Lottie are traveling across the Atlantic to interview Brown on the tenth anniversary of his flight. Emily is now a journalist, and with her photographer daughter Lottie is based in Newfoundland—where ten years earlier they had asked Adcock and Brown to bring that private letter with them to Ireland, a letter in which Emily thanks an Irish family for their long-ago kindness toward her mother Lily.

Now the focus on crossing the Atlantic has been replaced by a focus on the female descendents of Lily, who are Emily, Lottie, and Hannah. In Ireland on their 1929 trip, Emily receives from Brown the letter Lottie gave to him before his flight; he had forgotten to post it. And Lottie, who has joined her mother on the trip as her photographer, now settles in Ireland, for she falls in love and marries the driver her mother had hired to find Brown. Next, we move to 1978, to Lottie’s subsequent life, especially her problems with her son Tomas. Finally, the last chapter, in 2011, also in Ireland, deals with Lottie’s daughter Hannah and the misplaced and still unopened letter.

Overall, this is the story of a family that begins in poverty and ends in poverty. A story that some might suggest mirrors the rise and fall of Ireland’s own economy. But it is a beautiful novel, as I have written. And one major reason that it is beautiful is the author’s style. It is a style of short sentences, frequently without a verb, and of clear limpid images. It is a pleasure to read, often with one image built upon another to create an entire scene.

And those moments beautifully bring to life a variety of scenes: the initial flight across the Atlantic, the battlefront of the Civil War, the hardscrabble life of an ice factory and then a newspaper office. But it also brings to life an emotional content: the sensitivity of Mitchell outside the negotiating rooms, the fragility of Emily as she encounters a man’s world, the aging of Lily and her female progeny, the texture of the Irish countryside and seaside, and the gentility, the warmth of the Irish people.

And beyond that, one marvels at the sweep of this novel, across the Atlantic, across cultures, and across more than a century. It deals with violence and protest, with memory and emotion, with historic figures alive on the page and fictional characters whom they encounter and with whom we identify, and, not least, with insignificant fictional women and the march of real history.

The weaknesses of the book are, first, the Mitchell section—as well as it is done, as understanding as it is of Mitchell’s blend of frustration and perseverance. And, second, it is the choice of the first-person narration in the final section, which is Hannah’s story as she struggles to save the family property on the edge of the sea. The switch to the first person is never explained, and we do not enter deep enough into her character to support it. We grasp her financial concerns, her doubts, and her sense of impending loss, but we do not explore her concern for her own future. The author is not interested in the psychology of soul-searching.

To sum up, while this novel encapsulates a full circle of poverty, it also offers a full circle of resilience. Which on another level is a full circle from faith in one’s future to hope in one’s survival There is even a full circle of violence, from that against an entire race, to that against another religion, to that against a single individual.

The final sentence reads: “We have to admire the world for not ending on us.” This is thought by Hannah as she faces a future that seems bleak but also as she is aware that life goes on. It is a message of modified hope for a novel that has captured the beauty of life as well as its frustration, the satisfactions experienced as well as the struggles, the peace as well as the sense of incompleteness.

This work, in fact, has an ending that is not an ending. It stops, just as a thought stops, as a fate stops, before veering off into a new direction. (March, 2015)

The Golden Bowl, by Henry James

I have been a great fan of Henry James. But for some reason I did not get around to reading The Golden Bowl, written in 1904. Perhaps because I had heard that it was in James’ later style, and was a difficult book.

In any event, I tried reading the novel a few years ago, and could not get past the first 50 pages. They were too dense, and seemed to be going nowhere.

So now, I am trying again. I am up to page 200, and it is difficult going. I am not sure right now if I am going to finish the novel, or give up. I certainly had the same difficulty in reading the first 50 pages. We begin inside the Prince’s head before he marries Maggie, and every sentence seems to have many clauses with multi qualifiers, as James has his hero consider all the possible effects of a particular thought or action. Plus, nothing seems to be happening.

When, finally, the characters begin talking to each other, we leave what has been exposition and interest begins with the interaction of these characters. Finally, the narrative is being dramatized. I have not read or seen any of Henry James’ plays, but I know he turned to playwriting late in his career. I would surmise this was because he liked writing dialogue, and perhaps realized he was good at it. I do know I myself enjoyed his dialogue in his earlier novels.

James follows these interesting dialogues, however, with long pages of more exposition, with some paragraphs lasting more than a page. He does this, I believe, because he has developed a rich knowledge of the contradictions of the mind and of human emotions, and he imparts these contradictions to his characters in order to establish a lifelike richness to his characterizations.

But what he does not realize is that the richness of these contradictions comes between him and his reader, and instead of the dramatic action we seek from his characters we endure endless introspection. His purpose may be admirable: to establish a rich lifelike context, whether of the atmosphere, a person’s thinking, or the ramifications of an action. But in truth, I have found myself skimming over those long paragraphs that freeze the action so that James can probe the complex thinking of these characters—long paragraphs that advance possibilities, but do not advance the story.

The story itself is about two couples. Maggie has married Amerigo, the Prince. Charlotte has married Maggie’s father, Adam Verver. Maggie and Charlotte are longtime girl friends. Charlotte and the Prince were once (this is the 19th century) lovers. Complications ensue among these basically good people. The complications are exasperated by the gossipy Fanny Assingham, who keeps confiding to the reader the ramifications of these relationships, as we listen to her and her husband, Bob, the Colonel.

As we move from Book First, the Prince’s view, to Book Second, the Princesses’ (Maggie’s) view, we learn through Mrs. Assingham the issue that this novel addresses. It is that Maggie has remained close to her father, and is thus withholding her attention from her husband. This appears to result in the Prince renewing his emotional tie to Charlotte, who, in turn, finds herself less attached to her husband, because of Maggies’ caring love of him, her father.

So the issue becomes twofold. Will Maggie realize the reason for the renewed relationship between her husband, the Prince, and Charlotte, and will she trust them? And will her father, Adam Verver, realize that his wife Charlotte is giving her attention to the Prince rather than to him? Finally, how will Maggie and her father react if they discover that her love for her father has reopened that former relationship?

The answers have drawn me into the second half of the novel.

What is initially disappointing is that the first 90 pages of the second half employ what I am calling exposition, which means a narrative of Maggie’s thinking rather than a dramatization of what she is thinking and doing. This raises the question of why James has taken this approach. Yes, it saves space, saves pages, but I think it is because James has so much knowledge of how the mind works that he wants to show its nuances, and thinks that to explore and reveal actions through the mind is the best way to establish the reality of his characters. Whereas, I prefer to reveal character through action, including conversation—rather than through what I would term a more static approach, through the depths of the mind.

Another source of this approach I hesitate to introduce. It is that this is James’ last novel, and that perhaps, perhaps, he has found it difficult to find the concentration to turn a somewhat conceptual concept, his plot, into dramatic action. That he outlined where he wanted the story to go but found it required considerable effort to dramatize where he wanted it to go. And he soon turned to playwriting precisely because he was comfortable with dialogue, and a play does not have the complexity of a novel.

What also may be behind my reaction is that I have not been able to follow the complexity of Maggie’s thinking, or of the Prince’s thinking. There may well be much more to these internal musings than I am aware of, and this master should receive full credit for that subtle treatment. However, given my inability to follow some of these musing has been one reason, I admit, that I have skimmed through those long paragraphs of little action.

On the other hand, there is also the issue of the actual musings of these characters, especially those of Maggie. They are of minor significance in the external lives of these characters. Maggie’s suspicions of the faithfulness of her husband and her best friend arise in her imagination; and her speculations lead to no external action until the end, and then it might be better described as inaction. The subtlety behind her thinking is that she does not wish her father to know her suspicions, for fear it will destroy his marriage, his happiness, as well as her own relationships with both him and her own husband. Thus, she achieves as much as she can by inaction.

What I will grant, however, is that as inconsequential as Maggie’s suspicions are, James knows how to write a scene in which she confronts, first, Fanny Assingham, and then her husband, the Prince, with her suspicions. This may well be the scene that James saw as the turning point of this novel.

The golden bowl of the title also plays a role here, and a very appropriate one. Indeed, it is a symbol of Maggie’s relationship with her father and with Charlotte. For it has a crack. And Fanny Assingham plays a major role in its fate. For Maggie, the issue is why, earlier in the novel, Charlotte was prepared to buy the bowl for the Prince. And the issue for me now is the logic behind how Maggie learns of that earlier encounter in the antique shop, and how she twists it into meaning something significant to her.

Otherwise, this confrontational scene with the vase reminded me of the old, the earlier James, whom I so admired. For it is marvelous dialogue, and truly works as a symbol of Maggie’s psychological fragility.

In passing, I would note that most of the book’s earlier confrontations in dialogue form concern the Assinghams, either between themselves or hers with Maggie; and they clearly exist to explain to the reader the ramifications that so concern Maggie.

The ending begins with final confrontation scenes, in dialogue, between Maggie and Charlotte and then Maggie and her father. It seemed to me to be a perfect ending, with Maggie resolving her situation with each of these people who are important to her. But then we read more than 25 pages of narrative exposition before we get to two more conversations, one again between Maggie and Charlotte that bring a change in all the relationships. It seems to me that James wanted here to give his novel a new twist at the end, but for me it was far from necessary, much less in any way significantly revealing of Maggie. For James, perhaps, it brought a greater sense of completion. On the other hand, I am thinking here of the overall situation, whereas James may have decided that it important that his hero Maggie change from being a person who only reacts to others to one who herself acts on others.

However, I do have to admire the sure, confident technique of the final pages‑—its resolution of the relationship between Maggie and her father and Maggie and her husband. Which, I think, is intended to represent the completeness of Maggie’s portrait. For James keeps us uncertain until these final pages. And even then, those final relationships are elusive to this reader. Yes, Maggie has maneuvered them as she wished, but they have also taken their own initiative in reaching the same conclusion. Indeed, both the Prince and Charlotte agree, in effect, to give up each other. Thus, there is goodness in each of these four characters who have, for various reasons, put themselves into this difficult situation. And for Maggie, what matters is her decision that her loyalty be, first, with her husband, whereas previously it has been with her father.

And yet, it is such a slight obstacle that this novel has resolved. An obstacle that Maggie initially creates in her mind. That is, her view of the relationships among these two couples. Which becomes a greater obstacle when it transforms itself into the tension between her love of her father and her love of her husband. However…it is still an obstacle that lies within their three minds. It does not exist in their external world. Which, in turn, shows us what interested James in this stage of his career: the internal world.

In an introduction, Richard Brett has offered some interesting ideas. He asks: “What is the point of this slight, breathlessly refined action? How does it come to seem both trivial and profound?”

And: “The people are characteristically concerned with the questions of where they are, what do they know, what do others know, what can be said, what can’t be said, what can others say or not say, do or not do” And this certainly captures the narrative exposition that continually turned me off.

He also suggests that the wealthy Maggie wishing to buy a prince for his social ranking and to “buy” Charlotte for her lonely father “may well seem a guiltier thing than the adultery committed against them and which, in any event, they have themselves provoked by the logic of their bargains.”

He continues: “James point, perhaps first, is that no matter what the original appearance of the morality of the Ververs’ bargains, all four characters are mutually implicated in them; all give and all take; and further all are transformed by their interconnectedness.”

In the end, this is a story of love. Of Maggie’s for her father, and of Maggie’s for her husband. Not to forget that between the Prince and Charlotte. Indeed, Maggie realizes, for them all, that giving up one love can be a commitment of love to another. And Brett asks “But how else is love to be conceived…if it is not the allowance to others of as much freedom as one assumes for oneself.”

So what I am evaluating is the effectiveness of this portrayal of love requiring a sacrifice, when that sacrifice is explored too much within the characters’ minds rather than in any external action. Yes, these characters, and most of James’ characters, live through their consciousness more than through their body; but there was too much of that consciousness here for my taste. There was too much subtlety, too much goodness, in the actions of these characters; too much speculating that if I do this to achieve my good end, he or she will do that to achieve their good end.

In sum, this was a novel to struggle through. In part because of its complex style. In part because of its narrative rather than dramatic approach. And in part because the drama is inside these characters rather than, as in most novels, in the physical world. James was obviously drawn here to that internal world, much as Joyce was when he used another format. Perhaps that new knowledge of the mind was an avenue novelists wished to explore at the turn of the 20th century. However, I also wonder whether or not James himself was dissatisfied with this novel. And wonder if that influenced his turning thereafter to the stage. (July, 2014)

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)