Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane

This 2017 work ends as a terrific thriller, but it begins as a daughter’s search for her father. It is really two stories about an insecure girl who does not know who she is, and is desperately seeking an identity. Rachel Childs was raised by a controlling mother, who wouldn’t tell her who her father was. The novel begins as she commences that search, is foiled, and begins again. It is a technique the author will use throughout the book: throwing up surprise developments that she must hurdle in a search for the answer to who she is.

She thinks the answer may be in the love she has never experienced. And she believes she finds it in Brian, who enters her life, leaves it, and then casually re-enters it and marries her. Except, we already know from the prologue that she is going to shoot dead a husband that she still deeply loves. Is this Brian? Such a prologue is a tool that thriller writers use to interest us in their story. And it surely works here.

For we have persevered through the first third of the book and her search for her father, a third which is well told and contains its own effective surprises. But it is not the heart of the book, and it reveals little about Rachel, except the needs she has. Is that to be the subject of this novel? For if it is, I found an elusiveness at the center of Rachel. And was not persuaded when, as a television reporter in Haiti after its earthquake, she has an on-air breakdown as a result of the horrors she has experienced. And when this breakdown follows her home, I still did not feel it. While it is intended as an extension of her mother’s coldness, all I felt in her subsequent denial of human contact was a hollowness. I did not feel the torment within her.

And so I never felt that constant withdrawal that keeps her off the street and confines her to her own house. It is a withdrawal that Brian will say he can cure. Because he loves her. But never having felt that breakdown, I could not relate to her desperation, to her search for who she truly is.

But then, one day, years later, when Brian is supposed to be on a plane to London, she sees him on a street in downtown Boston. And all her uncertainties return. Was it Brian? If so, who is this man she has married? Has he been lying to her? What is he concealing? Has he just pretended to love her? And so, the thriller begins. And it is marvelous thriller.

It begins with the tale of a rich mine in New Guinea, with seventy million dollars, and continues with two murderous gangsters, a mysterious corporation that hires them, the Providence and Boston police, a pregnant woman, a Japanese whore, and the dead Brian that Rachel has shot.

But is Brian really dead? What was his plan, and was Rachel a part of that plan? Or just a tool? And whom should she trust? In fact, has she the inner strength, the fortitude, to survive? Her flight from the police, and from gangsters, will take her to Maine, to Brian’s origins, then to an abandoned factory outside Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and then to a bank safe deposit box with money, passports, and tickets to Amsterdam. And the questions arise for the reader as well: Will Rachel escape? Can she survive on her own? And what has Brian planned for her?

There is no issue of morality here. The only issue is: what will work? With the reader pulling, as in all thrillers, for the hero(ine) to survive and to succeed. No, there is one other issue: what will be the cost of success? In human lives.  Lehane forces Rachel to face this issue, when he confronts her with death. “You have to bear witness to your dead,” she thinks. “You simply have to. You have to step into the energy field of whatever remains of their spirit, their soul, their essence, and let it pass through your body.”

And as she goes to confront a dead friend on the last page:

“But there might be some light upstairs and there would certainly be light when she want back outside.

“And if by some twist of fate there wasn’t, if all that remained of the world was night and no way to climb out of it?

“Then she’d make a friend of the night.”

Rachel, above all things, is a survivor. And she discovers she can not only turn the tables on Brian, for a change, she could also produce better ideas, as she does on at least two occasions. There is no hint of redemption, however, which one might expect from an author raised amid the Catholic culture of Boston. There is only survival, and the strength to survive.

Lehane, however, calls this a novel about identity, and I agree it is a strong aspect. Raised by a controlling mother, and deceived by two husbands, Rachel does not know who she is. “The book very much becomes a question of how much of any of us is a con,” the author says. “How much of any of us is a performance. When do you understand the moment? Do you ever understand the moment where that line has been crossed and you can’t come back from it?” But he has submerged that issue in a thriller that challenges her uncertainty, her insecurity, on a physical level. And that is what the reader is concerned about. Rachel’s fate. Not her psychology.

Rachel is also Lehane’s first heroine, after writing exclusively about the experiences of men. And in terms of her subservient role, her internal strength, her new maturity, she is a successful creation. However, she is not in terms of a character of richness and depth. Her growth is on the surface. Her maturity is geared to survival in the world. There is little recognition of the moral road she has travelled, of what she has learned about integrity, or about the responsibility of love.

I would note that the two reviews I read in The New York Times spend more time on the psychological insecurity of the Rachel we meet early on in this novel. It is there that they seem to find the human being worth discussing, rather than in the woman facing the thriller predicament she is soon confronting. But I wonder if this is not for a practical reason: they do not want to spoil the plot’s many surprises. And so they emphasize the distraught character that Rachel once was instead of the distraught woman she finds herself to be when her former world collapses.

I do look forward to reading more of Lehane. But I hope he focuses more on the inner lives of his characters, and less on their exterior. (June, 2018)

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Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson

This 2007 work is a difficult novel to digest. I was drawn to it because it is about the Vietnam War and has received extensive praise. But I find that it is not my kind of novel. It is not about people, but about experiences. And while these are brilliantly described experiences, they are disconnected. For one thing, we jump back and forth between the experiences of the two male characters. For another, we jump ahead continually in time.

The first character is Skip Sands, part of a nebulous CIA operation and nephew of the legendary Colonel Sands, an Edward Lansdale type of character. The second is James Houston, an enlisted soldier in Vietnam and his brother Bill. In both these relationships, Skip and James admire their family counterparts and earn our sympathy and identification, but both also end up on the wrong side of the law. This novel is about why that happens, but their sad fates also frustrate the reader’s need to identify with these characters.

In other words, the message of this novel is the harm that this war did to young men, and by implication to society at large. Not simply because of the reason the U.S. forces were in Vietnam, but because of their actions once there. And in this novel, these actions are quite disorganized. Which has resulted, for me, in a disorganized novel. I ended up reading a novel about those actions rather than a novel about the evolution of these characters. That is, both Skip and James are completely different people at the end of this novel, and it is not clear how or why they changed. Yes, the war, in general, caused it, but the reader does not experience the internal change in each one, only the disorganized experiences that seem to have prompted it.

Moreover, those experiences were, for me, too unpleasant, as well as too disconnected, to draw me into this novel. Yes, the author is showing that they were unpleasant in order to make his point. But they reflect too much for me the modern novelists’ detachment from his characters—resorting to a brilliant objectivity that, for me, inserts a barrier between myself and the characters I am reading about. And I acknowledge that for some this is a positive result. They admire such objectivity. But I wonder if it is because they do not approach the reality they describe with social, spiritual, or moral standards.

B. R. Myers writes a devastating review in The Atlantic, which makes me more comfortable in my reaction, but that review concentrates on Johnson’s writing style more than on its content. Whereas, I was more impressed by the vividness of the style that so often put me in the actual scene. I sensed that the specifics meant that Johnson himself had been to Vietnam and witnessed/experienced that life and that landscape. Which seems to say that, for me, the vividness of the style overwhelmed Myers’ critique of the felicities of style.

Geoff Dyer in The Guardian also sums up this novel: “Johnson is all over the place and he is an artist of strange diligence. It is as if his skewed relationship to the sentence – not really knowing what one is and yet knowing exactly what to do with it – operates, here, at the level of structure. Tree of Smoke is as excessive and messy as Moby Dick. Anything further removed from the tucked-up, hospital corners school of British fiction is hard to imagine. It’s a big, dirty, unmade bed of a book and, once you settle in you’re in no hurry to get out.”

That’s me, caught up in each adventure, that is, until it seemed to go nowhere. Thus, the title, Tree of Smoke, the name of a CIA project, is never explored. And the project is as amorphous as the rest of these disconnected events. Speaking of disconnections, the novel ends with Kathy, a nurse with whom Skip has a brief affair—she appears sporadically, unlinked to other events, throughout the novel—giving a speaking engagement in St. Paul years later. And it is she who expresses the novel’s final line: “All will be saved. All will be saved.” Huh? That upbeat seems to come from nowhere.

Perhaps my fascination with the vivid events of this novel, combined with a struggle to get through it, is best captured by David Ignatius in The Washington Post: “This novel makes large demands on the reader: to submit to its length, to its disorienting language and structure, to the elusive and shattering experience of its characters, and finally to its sheer ambition to be definitive, an encompassing novel for the Vietnam generation. It is a presumptuous book, in other words, and you may resist for the first several hundred pages. But it will grab you eventually, and gets inside your head like the war it is describing — mystifying, horrifying, mesmerizing.”

Yes, this novel jumps around too much for me. From Bill to Skip, from Bill to James, from Skip to the colonel’s lieutenants, and then to Kathy. Also, from year to year, and then to a decade later. All is disconnected. How does Skip get blamed for the colonel’s failed plans? Why does he then turn criminal? Why does James also turn criminal after he comes home to his brother? Why does Kathy lose her faith in God but not in man? I suggest the Vietnam War is too simple an explanation for all this. Especially for a novel that does not get inside its characters.

Johnson’s favorite milieu appears to be the underside of life, whether in the military or back home. And Vietnam offers a fine opportunity to enter that world, both the American world of an ineffectual CIA or military mission and the Vietnam world’s interchangeable allegiances. One should note that there is no military action here for a war novel, no actual spy missions for its espionage atmosphere, only talk and planning and new talk and new planning, a year later, to new off-screen developments. There are also long journeys through nature, but no climactic revelations, no missions accomplished. There are only mysterious assassins, mysterious loners, and the mysterious Vietnamese culture.

Matterhorn remains my favorite novel about the Vietnam War. We follow our soldiers actually fighting. They have a mission. And they succeed or they fail. And react accordingly. (January, 2017)

Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson

This is a quiet little book, a novella really. It was first published in the Paris Review in 2002. It is the story of a life, the life of Robert Grainier—who lives alone except for a brief marriage, who represents, in the variety of his adventures, the history of westward expansion at the start of the 20th century, and whose end symbolizes the end of an era.

His was an era of logging and lonely train whistles, of latent violence and quiet emotion, of bachelors in a womanless society, of sudden, unexplained death, plus howling animals in the night, of open landscapes, empty forests, and lonely cabins. It is a time of small, unimportant events beautifully told, of a daily existence that seems to lead nowhere and yet expresses a way of living.

Grainier’s life is not told chronologically. For example, his wife Gladys appears early, then we backtrack to their early courtship. He loses wife and daughter in a forest fire, endures the empty world without them, and then he imagines the return of both in a moment of magic realism. The only one of these moments that carries any drama is the forest fire, which also reverberates in later scenes. The remaining events are simply told. There are no stylistic flourishes, no deep introspection, only flat, realistic detail.

One is not impressed by this work while reading it. Indeed, one wonders at its purpose. One also wonders where it is going, and why it has received so many hosannas. Even the ending brings no dramatic fulfillment. Only when one sits back and thinks about what one has read, does this book come together. Does one see its perfection. Does one understand the completeness of this life. Does one realize how the small events have created the whole.

There are no false steps. Even though there is no linkage, no direct continuity as one scene flows into the next, as one chapter follows the next, the portrait of this one man is complete when we arrive at the matter-of-fact ending. And as one realizes that one has read the complete story of one ordinary life, one also realizes that it is a life that contains much of the history of the West. It is a simple tale, but it is also profound. Its reach extends far beyond its individual scenes.

For one does grasp that the ending of this life represents the ending of an era. The railroads have been built, the forests have been removed, more women have arrived, automobiles are replacing horses, planes are in the air, prosperity approaches, and men have lost their desperation. Each of the novella’s nine chapters hightlights an event in Grainier’s life. A Chinese railroader flees his execution. There is the fate of Arn Peeples, who sets off dynamite charges, and of the wounded William Haley leaning against a tree, and whom Grainier is too young to know how to help. There is Grainier’s ruined world after the forest fire, and then his realization that he is older and can no longer log trees, so he turns to trucking and to hauling trees. There is his belief in an imaginary wolf-girl, and the return of Gladys, in his mind, followed by the return of his daughter Kate. But few of these moments of drama are told in a dramatic way—as if Johnson does not want us to concentrate on these moments but on the entire story, not on the story of this man’s life, but on what it represents.

Anthony Doerr sums up this short work: “The novella also accumulates power because Johnson is as skilled as ever at balancing menace against ecstasy, civilization against wilderness. His prose tiptoes a tightrope between peace and calamity, and beneath all of the novella’s best moments, Johnson runs twin strains of tenderness and the threat of violence.”

This is a perfect, little introduction to the work of Denis Johnson. And in its brevity lies is perfection. It is not typical, however, for he often writes at a longer length. But its perfection makes it worthy of study by novice writers. Here is how to create universality through the commonplace. How to find meaning in the incidental. How to build emotion through unexpected moments.

I am interested in reading more works by this author, but I confess that this novella does not draw me to his more expansive fiction. (April, 2014)