Nostalgia, by Dennis McFarland

This beautiful 2013 novel about the horrors of the American Civil War should be on the shelves of every reader who is interested in serious literature about that conflict. McFarland offers here the story of Summerfield Hayes, a well-off youth who has just lost his parents and who abandons his only sister, beloved Sarah, to enlist in the Northern army. He says it is his only course if he is to serve the nation he loves. What he does not tell her is that he is also troubled by “the wrong kind of dreams” about her.

And war, of course, brings its own kind of dreams, surrealistic dreams of confusion and exaggeration, and disturbing dreams of terror and pain. And private Hayes will discover this during his first battle, the three-day Wilderness campaign of 1864 in which both armies endure major losses but in which the North begins its final victorious drive into Virginia.

But if reality is distorted by war, the structure of the novel reflects an equivalent distortion. We are introduced to Hayes on the battlefield, bleeding, dirty, and hungry, and with no sense of time or where he is. And feeling abandoned by his colleagues, his mind escapes into his past. He recalls early baseball exploits and then relives his life in the Brooklyn home he now shares with his bossy and sensible sister. After which, he recalls his fellow soldiers before the battle, and then refocuses on his struggle to flee the battlefield.

At this point, the reader is as lost as Hayes is. Where is this novel headed? Especially when we suddenly shift to a field hospital, where Hayes joins many new characters and where he is so traumatized, by an experience that we have not fully witnessed, that he cannot speak. But as his hospital life becomes both tender and vivid, the reader feels the beginnings of solid earth under his feet. Which becomes even more solid when his memories return to the battlefield and he again confronts the confusion of fog and smoke and noise, the moaning wounded, and the still images of death littering the ground. Then he is truly overwhelmed by trauma when a shell burst renders him senseless—just as he kills a horribly wounded colleague who is begging to die—and he discovers he cannot talk.

Indeed, the title, Nostalgia, suggests such trauma, which we now call the PTS syndrome but which back then made its victims candidates for an asylum. The title also, however, has another meaning in this novel. An unspoken meaning. For the word’s Greek roots are a blend of “return home” and “pain.”

It is when we move back and forth between Hayes alone on the surrealistic battlefield and silent in his hospital bed that the power of this novel truly blooms. In sharp contrast are, first, the loneliness and desperation of Hayes in the field, and, second, the humanity of the patients, doctors, and wardens in the hospital, some of them cruel but most sympathetic to his internal suffering. Most sympathetic of all is a mysterious, bearded man called Walt.

The Wilderness Battle cost up to 30,000 lives on the two sides, and one senses the brutality of that three-day battle as Hayes reels lost and alone through smoke-filled fields and beneath burning trees. Separated from his regiment, he fears being called a deserter and shot. But all he encounters is men with bloody limbs, men crying out in pain, and men firing blindly at an unseen enemy. He even hallucinates an entire field of dead men rising up and charging the enemy breastworks that confront them.

But literary work is based on human interaction, and if one follows McFarland reluctantly away from the battlefront, one soon becomes immersed in the hospital scenes. Men lie there, still crying out in pain, demanding morphine for amputated limbs, with some doctors sympathetic but one suspicious of Hayes because he has no visible wounds. This is when Walt comes to Hayes’ aid. “You’ve been badly harmed….But I think you’re hurt is a particular way. You strike me in your silence as someone who [awakened] from a terrible dream, then looked down and saw the scar it had left on you…I mean to be your friend…to set you straight when you’re selling yourself short.” Indeed, Walt will later penetrate Hayes’ silence and get him to speak.

With help from Walt and a sympathetic doctor, Hayes is released from the hospital and allowed to return home in order to recuperate. Nostalgia in part, remember, means return home. At first, I was reluctant to follow him there, for I felt the final meaning of the novel was to be found near or on the battlefield. But no, this is to be a novel about the release from pain. Of which there are different kinds.

Then Hayes and his sister Sarah confront their own feelings (nostalgia also means pain), and why Hayes went off to war. Whereupon, Walt arrives again, and helps Sarah to understand her brother. He talked, she says, “about the curative effects of love. He said love’s like truth, that no matter what form it takes, not matter how haplessly it’s expressed, one must try to see to the heart of it, and forgive any of the ugly bits.” And just as he once talked of people “ having more than one side” when talking about a nation split over state’s rights and slavery, Walt means this double vision to apply to human feelings as well. All of which culminates in a beautiful scene at a ballpark that brought tears to my eyes, as Hayes finds a new fulfillment and the personal peace that war had tried to destroy.

This novel has brought unexpected subject matter to the McFarland canon. He is an author I have long admired, especially for his explorations of family tensions. He does so again here, but it is hidden in much more dramatic subject matter. And one can easily miss that aspect of Hayes and his sister’s relationship. Instead, one is swept up by this 19th century tale of warfare and its repercussions, a tale that is vividly told. In fact, as David Goodwillie wrote in The New York Times, “McFarland’s description of 19th century life, from the intricacies of musket warfare to the formative years of our national pastime, are stunning in their lyricism and detail.” He concludes: “Nostalgia is a perfect Civil War novel for our time, or any time.”

Amen. This novel equates national tension with family tension. And the resolution to both is found in our humanity. In our love. (July, 2019)

Leaving Home, by Arthur Cavanaugh

This is an old-fashioned novel from 1970. It begins beautifully with a prologue that describes a cemetery scene and a subsequent repast at the Connerty family home in Brooklyn. These events are narrated by Robbie Connerty, the family’s youngest child. He will then recall for the reader his family history, which will become the main body of the book. We will learn how this family survived the Depression, World War II, and the travails typical of a lower middle-class family. But before he begins that story Robbie reveals that he harbors a secret—he does not say what it is—that has troubled him his entire life. And we deduce that he is recalling both the happy and sad events in his family’s history in order to relieve himself of a sense of guilt that he has carried with him his entire life.

The chapters that follow cover distinct periods of Robbie’s life, from the uncertainty of youth, to a sense of responsibility when his mother contracts tuberculosis, to his brief flirtation with art, to his growing understanding of family life and family love, to his eventual decision to become a writer, and finally to his discovery of love and marriage. These various narrations also deepen his relationships with his parents and his siblings as his family struggles to survive in the era’s floundering economy.

But while these events concern the same characters, they are often disconnected. Thus, many chapters reach their own conclusion, rather than lead to developments in the next chapter. As a result, this novel does not flow naturally. Which may explains how most chapters originally appeared separately in women’s magazines in the 1960s. What is not clear is how much these chapters were planned as separate short stories, and how much they were planned as continuing chapters in a novel. That is, were financial concerns behind publishing so many of these chapters originally as short stories. One reason that they probably appeared in such magazines, however, is that readers could identify with the mother, Catherine, who is the most deeply drawn character and is at the heart of most family decisions.

One also wonders how much this novel may be autobiographical. It certainly reads as such, and, as Cavanaugh states at the beginning, Catherine “was” his own mother. But it is his third novel, whereas autobiographical works are usually an author’s first or second novel. I lean toward autobiography, however, because the Brooklyn atmosphere is so deeply felt, and because the family relationships are so carefully rendered. And after all, it is the story of one life, Robbie’s, as well as the story of a family, that rings so true here. Moreover, if events in one chapter do not lead to the next, is this not how life is truly lived, even if not how novels are usually constructed.

Of course, these chapters do work as separate entities. There is a chapter on Robbie’s failure to climb a wall to prove himself. There is a chapter on his fights with his sister Roseanne, and another on their reconciliation, and still another on her departure to train as a missionary. There is a chapter on Hanna, a cleaning lady whom the family loves. There are chapters on his mother leaving home for a sanitarium upstate to recover from tuberculosis, and more chapters on how the family survives without her, such as planning for Christmas, and then, in another chapter, on preparing for her return. Not to forget a chapter on Robbie’s Aunt Tillie, who is the first to fill Robbie’s life with art. Or chapters on Robbie’s awareness of death, and then the discovery of love by brothers Daniel and Vinnie, as well as that of his other sister, Margaret. There are, finally, chapters on Robbie meeting his wife, on their marriage, and then on his impending fatherhood

Robbie’s secret, however, does not flow naturally to the surface. Indeed, when it is resurrected in a dramatic scene at the end. It seems rather arbitrary to me, as if the author sees it as the time to reveal the key to Robbie’s character. The secret concerns whether or not Robbie, the youngest child, has been wanted by his parents, and his doubts about it. And the justification of his doubts lies in a collection of photographs, which are resurrected just in time for the novel’s conclusion. But I do grant that the scene in which he discusses his doubts with his mother is indeed moving. It might even be the final scene in the book. For there is a sense of completion in this mother and son discussion that rounds off both their characters.

But the author follows this with an emotional bookend, with a return to the funeral repast for his mother. And we witness these grown children departing the family home in order to return to their own separate lives. This scene is quite moving as well, as we sense the separation that every family endures, when its members return to their own lives after many years as a close family unit.

Julian Moynahan closes his 1970 review with these words: “It takes the hand of an artist in remembrance like Robbie—that is, like Arthur Cavanaugh—to keep time at bay and the miracle intact through the registrations of a narrative art that is always faithful to historical detail and the integrity of persons, and draws its finest energies from love and a deeply felt acceptance of the inevitability of death.”

These comments indeed reflect the intent of the author, and are also belong to the era in which the reviewer wrote them. But I have called this an old-fashioned novel, because I do not believe such qualities are celebrated today. Or, rather, accepted as ideal elements in a literary work. Few literary stalwarts write today of family love, of family integrity, of a family’s acceptance of poverty and death. And critics also do not accept today obvious symbols—like a collection of photographs, particularly when they so blatantly rise to the surface, in this case fortuitously from beneath a blanket in the Connerty basement.

I was drawn to this novel because this family is both Irish and Catholic. But if their nationality is evoked here, their religion is not. And so as deeply as this family experience is felt, it is missing a spiritual element, and does not encourage me to seek out further Cavanaugh novels. They belong to a different era. Today I prefer novels that explore the heart and the soul’s inner life. And certainly not one where the absence of photographs raises a character’s internal doubts. (May, 2018)

To the End of the Land, by David Grossman

This is a marvelous novel from 2008. Nothing happens, yet the reader is fascinated. Because life is created, a family is created, and history lurks in the context.

This is the story of Ora, her husband Ilan, her lover Avram, and her grown sons Adam and Ofer. It is the story of their youth at one level, when as two young boys, best friends, they fall in love with the same girl. Both Avram and Ilan are in the army, whereupon a weekend pass is offered, but to only one, and they agree to have Ora draw the winner from a hat. She does, and draws Ilan’s name, whereupon Avram, left on duty, is sent into battle, becomes a prisoner, and is tortured.

Caring for the discharged Avram, whom they both love, Ora and Ilan are thrown together and conceive a baby they name Adam. But it is a difficult relationship, and Ilan leaves Ora, leading to her having an affair with Avram, which produces the other son, Ofer. However, Avram’s war experiences have turned him into a recluse, and he refuses any contact with Ofer, just as he has separated himself from all human contact following his torture.

And now, on the second level years later, Ora, has persuaded Avram to join her on a long hike. She is separated again from Ilan, and when her youngest, Ofer, is sent into battle instead of being discharged, she decides that she can assure his safety if she is not home to receive a message he has been wounded or killed. She also thinks if she talks to Avram about him she will make the boy come alive to his father, which will also keep him safe.

We learn all this background during Ora’s and Avram’s long hike that comprises the bulk of the novel. It is a fascinating concept, for nothing happens on the novel’s surface except their talk about her family and their own past. With the fascination coming from both the slow revelations that deepen for the reader the complex emotional relationships among the three, and the reader’s gradual ability to get to know each of these characters.

Meanwhile, Ora’s and Avram’s long discussions are grounded in the details of their hike down half the length of their country. With them, we encounter the changing weather, the rocky obstructions, the insects and animals, the rivers crossed and the mountains climbed, and the physical toll their journey takes. It is so detailed that this reader was convinced the author must have based such detail on an actual hike. And, indeed, he did. On his fiftieth birthday, as he was writing this novel, Grossman made a similar hike half the length of Israel—just to get those precise details. And it is through the details that he not only communicates the demands of such a hike but also conveys the military tension within Israel that the two lovers are also trying to forget through discussing their family history.

This is a memory novel, a novel that explores the meaning of love within the emotional complexities of life, a novel of talk instead of action and yet a novel in which the exploration of character is the substitute for action. Its story is driven by birth and death, by fear and hope, by openness and withdrawal, by the onset of love and the threat of violence, by both a female and a male perspective, by both external movement and introspection, and by time past and time present. But, above, all, it is a story about connections, especially between Ora and Avram. As Grossman has written: “What interests me most is the nuances of what goes on between two people, or between a person and himself.”

George Packer summed up this novel in the New Yorker: “Ora mainly talks and Avram listens, her words leading seamlessly to scenes from the past. Her story, which emerges slowly and out of chronological order, encompasses both the complex fullness of one life and the broader history of Israel’s modern conflicts.” He writes that this “is not an apolitical novel; it is antipolitical—a protest against history and its endless incursions” into private lives. In sum, he cites Ora’s “awareness of the randomness of life.”

Colm Toibin has equal praise for Grossman in The New York Times Book Review: “He weaves the essence of private life into the tapestry of history with deliberate and delicate skill; he has created a panorama of breathtaking emotional force, a masterpiece of pacing, of dedicated storytelling, with characters whose lives are etched with extraordinary…and unexpected detail…about the shapes and shadows that surround love and memory, and about the sharp and desperate edges of loss and fear.”

Toibin describes Ora, the main character of this novel, as “emotional, introspective, filled with…an ability to love.” Avram is her foil in literary terms and represents the love she seeks. He is, Toibin says “impulsive, brilliant…larger than life,” Ilan, whom Tobin describes as “rational, vulnerable…oddly needy and nerdy” has meanwhile left her and represents the absence of love, and perhaps its risks. While Adam and especially Ofer are there to receive the motherly love that sustains her. On another level, the hiking trail represents both the unity of this story and the diverse complexities that color the history of Israel.

The ending also merits discussion. Like history, like Israel’s fate, it is both inconclusive and elusive. And yet the reader understands it, even as Grossman deliberately does not reveal it. It is undoubtedly why even Israeli critics have called this an anti-war novel. For it has an ending the characters do not want, and the reader does not want, but it offers a reality that the author insists upon. That his entire novel insists upon. That mankind’s pursuit of happiness is subject to the whims of others—and to the whims of history.

Even the title reverberates with the novel’s theme. The end of the land suggests, indirectly, the possible end of Israel as a result of the wars her sons are fighting, as well as, more directly, the end of the hiking trail that will bring Ora back to her home—and perhaps to news of the death of her son. Which is the end that she fears most. It is a much more evocative title than the Hebrew version, whose literal translation is “Woman Flees Tidings.”

While I could not finish David Grossman’s first novel, The Smile of the Lamb, and did not fully appreciate See Under: Love, I did enjoy the simpler Someone to Run With. And now with this masterpiece, I am committed to reading more of Grossman. (February, 2018)

Death of the Black-Haired Girl, by Robert Stone

This 2013 novel begins disappointingly, matures into a thoughtful literary work, and then eases itself at the end into a simple portrait of life. As Claire Messud writes in her New York Times review, Stone, “demands an attentive reader as he explores, through superficially familiar narratives, substantial themes.”

The novel begins with an affair at a small, elite university in New England between a married university professor, Steven Brookman and his smart, attractive student, Maud Stack. And my reaction is: how trite can a novel get? It is truly a “familiar narrative.” Maud is the black-haired girl of the title, an aggressive, opinionated student who allows herself to be seduced and convinces herself that this man is the love of her life. One reads on, unable to relate to her (or to the selfish, womanizing professor), simply because one is curious about how she is going to die.

That death does become a mystery, but this is not a mystery novel. Maud is killed by a hit-and-run-driver outside the professor’s house, when she argues with him and then turns angrily away. What matters to Stone now is what happens to the people who knew her and were left behind. Theirs will be a tale of accountability, and the pursuit of absolution. But unfortunately, we get to know Maud on only two superficial levels, her mad infatuation with the professor and her violent, over-wrought defense of abortion. We do not get inside her, to learn about her relationship with her father or her faith.

Instead, we get to know her through her banter with her roommate Shelby, an older girl but not one wiser in the ways of men. Indeed, Stone allows getting to know about Maud and her affair to take up the first third of the book. Only then do we get to probe more deeply into various characters. Moreover, Shell herself will play no significant role in these characters’ concerns about accountability. Only her estranged husband John Clammer will play a role—that is, be raised by Stone as a suspect, as will also a local madman and the mysterious vision of a priest. Except, these are nothing more than the MacGufins that appear in many a mystery novel, which this is not.

More important is Maud’s father, Eddie Stack, a retired policeman in New York who has lost his wife and now loses his only daughter. He asks if this is retribution because of past cooperation with a corrupt brother-in-law. He is distraught, ridden with guilt, now compounded because he and his daughter have gone their separate ways. And so he seeks a kind of atonement by asking to bury his daughter beside his wife in a church crypt. But a conservative Catholic priest is reluctant to do this, perhaps because of the scandal of her affair but more significantly because she has spurned her Church and has written a pro-abortion column for the university newspaper.

Equally significant is the impact of the girl’s death on Professor Brookman and his newly pregnant wife Ellie. He is filled with guilt for the affair and the disrespect he has shown to his wife. And all he cares for now is to ease his conscience, and to control how his wife will react to the affair.

Outside looking in is university counselor Jo Carr, a mature woman whom everyone leans upon for advice. She was once a nun in South America, and lost her faith after witnessing the evil fostered by a priest who identified with the poor. Also present is Mary Pat, the wife of the university president, who has connections in the Church hierarchy and works to have Maud buried in the church beside her mother. The author himself was raised a Catholic, and here he offers a balanced interpretation, not often seen in the literary world, of the conflict between the beliefs held by the more conservative hierarchy and those by more liberal lay Catholics.

It is the impact of this girl’s accidental death on these people that matters to the author, and it represents the richest portion of this novel. As Messud writes, these “are certainly Christian narratives, but they’re ultimately examples of our human need to find meaning in what threatens to be incomprehensible events.” Basically, the unexpected death of Maud.

The impact of her death extends even to a local policeman, Lou Salmone. He once shared with Eddie Stack a New York beat. The major suspense of the novel is whether or not Stack will take revenge on Professor Brookman for the death of his daughter. And both Salmone and Jo Carr will take steps to prevent this. It is here, in the concealed emotions that impact all these characters, that the heart of the novel lies.

And so, will he or won’t he? That is, Stack take his revenge. The novel builds to his confrontation with Brookman. Whereupon we follow all these characters into the future, some impacted more than others by Maud’s death. But life continues on, the author seems to say. People adjust. This is what our existence brings. Moments of drama. Tragedy for some. And the accommodation to reality for others.

Michiko Kakutani sums up Stone’s intentions with this novel: “It explicates its characters’ hope that life is not completely random—‘people always want their suffering to mean something’—and their contradictory awareness of the dangers of religious certainty; their understanding that choices have moral consequences; and that innocents frequently are tangled and hurt in the crossfire.” All true, but not conveyed, I believe, felicitously by Stone. His work is too encumbered by the set-up that takes one-third of the novel. As well as by the complex emotions of Brookman, Stack, Jo Cobb, and policeman Salmone. Perhaps it would have been better to have concentrated only on Brookman and Stack, and gone still more deeply into their desire for redemption and absolution.

This is a predictable novel by an author nearing the end of his career. It is a kind of summing up. About life. About family relationships. About our trust in one another. But mainly about our faith and the meaning of our lives. It is also not a complex story, one that challenges the author intellectually or structurally. Thus, while he uses the structure of a mystery, with a death and a police investigation, he does not write a mystery. He examines, instead, the impact of the death of Maud on all the people in her life. Indeed, the “death” in the title re-enforces this intent. (April, 2017)

Identical, by Scott Turow

This starts out as a wonderful novel from 2013. It begins with the family tensions that arose in 1982, when Paul Gianis tried to save his twin, Cass Gianis, from marrying the provocative and beautiful Dita Kronon. Then it jumps to 2008 and takes on a political flavor, as Paul decides to run for mayor.

So I settled in to read a wonderful novel, even literature, as author Turow introduces these two Greek families. And it soon becomes apparent that what occurred in 1982 between the Gianis and the Kronons has major repercussions in 2008. Of the two families, there is the wealthy entrepreneur Zeus (Zisis) Kronon and his son Hal (Herakles) and daughter Dita (Aphrodite). And from the Gianis family, there are the twins, Paul, a lawyer and leader of the state senate, and Cass, and their mother, Lidia. Turow presents these families in considerable richness and depth, with their present reflecting the past and their past influencing the future.

To help convey the link between the past events and current relationships, Turow has made two decisions. First, he has scattered through his novel, step by step, details of the violent scene in 1982 in which Dita Kronon was killed. Each step in the series appears in an italic sans-serif type, and each anticipates the knowledge that two detectives, retired cop Tim Brodie and ex-FBI agent Evon Miller, will encounter when learning in 2008 about what happened in 1982.

Turow’s second decision was to explore the truth of Dita’s death through those two detectives. Evon now heads security for the Kronon family business, which son Hal now runs; and Hal has directed her to prove that Paul Gianis was involved in the killing of his sister. For that killing, Cass Gianis pled guilty, has served his sentence, and is now eligible to be released from jail. By his strategy, it is clear that Hal wishes to scuttle Paul’s run for mayor.

However, I would have preferred Turow convey this story through the Gianis family itself, especially through such an interesting person as Paul. Except…he couldn’t have done that, because of the surprises he has in store for the reader about the past relationships between the two families. (Paul already knows them.) And the result is that as we move into the novel, the story, unfortunately, becomes more about the revelation of those surprises—as they are timed to coincide with the detective’s and the reader’s gradual understanding of what led to Dita’s death. We therefore move away from the mayoral race and the political texture—and, more significantly, away from the complex family relationships—that would have enriched this novel.

Which means that for me this potential literary novel about family and politics has lowered itself to the level of a crime novel. It has also left the intimacy of the two families to concentrate on the perspectives of two outsiders. The author does make an effort to enrich both Tim and Evon, but they are loners and not especially interesting. Tim is an elderly widower of about 80 who continuously mourns his dead wife, and Evon is a lesbian of 50 who is trying to flee her clinging lover Heather. A lack of tension between these two detectives also serves to flatten their characters.

The heart of this crime novel lies in the title, with the significant action revolving around the identical twins, Paul and Cass. Yes, Cass has confessed and gone to jail for the crime. But was he truly guilty? And, if not, why did he confess? Could it be Paul who was guilty? Or Lidia? Whose blood was actually found on the scene? Or could the killer be someone else?

We learn a lot about DNA, blood samples, fingerprints, and plastic surgery—subjects, note, that belong more to crime novels than to literature. Turow also leaves aside the issue of justice, why and how a possibly innocent man was convicted of murder. (And, until late, why he confessed.) Instead, the emphasis is on whether or not he is guilty, not on the injustice if he is not—which certainly should be an emphasis for an author with literary ambitions.

Turow acknowledges in an Afterward that identical twins were born into his own family (although one died at birth), and the idea of such twins has always fascinated him, especially the love relationship that develops between them. And certainly here he has explored that relationship, what each twin will do for the other. But when he explores it within the context of a crime, rather than its overall effect on family relationships, he has for me lowered his literary sights.

Yes, the author has tried to dress up the relationship by creating two Greek families and recalling the legend of Castor (Cass) and Pollux (Paul), and how the two were conceived. He claims that he has embroidered their legendary fate to create his story here; but it comes across to me as window-dressing to enrich the identical twin theme—albeit provocative window-dressing when you realize the Greek legend. But the result is that the intricacy of the crime’s solution is overwhelmed by this identical twin theme and the self-sacrifice it entails.

And we, in turn, are less involved in the solution to Dita’s murder than in the decision of the twins as a result of their love relationship. Indeed, that decision has very little to do with the crime’s solution, which is the supposed point of this novel. On the other hand, the twin’s love and support of each other does not bring one back to the complex family relationship. Rather, it is a thing apart, from both the two families and the crime itself.

Turow knows how to establish complex family relationships and how to structure a slow revelation of those relationships, as well as how to explore the inside workings of our justice system, particularly in the courtroom. But here he has let the needs of a thriller overwhelm the stories of both families. One will, as a result, approach future Turow novels expecting entertainment rather than a deeper exploration of justice. And expect to witness the external repercussions of love, such as the self-sacrifices here, rather than explore its internal workings—of the pain, for example, felt by these characters for what they did. (January, 2017)

Jack Gance, by Ward Just

This 1989 work is an ambitious novel that doesn’t quite come off. It is too episodic as it portrays the world of politics. It is most effective when its hero Jack Gance is young and naïve, and discovering the mysterious, hidden compromises behind the conflicts in Chicago politics. He also discovers the road his own life will take, when the Chicago machine hires him as a political pollster and he becomes fascinated by the power and intrigue in a world he never knew existed.

Like many youth in politics, Jack starts out as an idealist. The idea of polling appeals to him because in the Kennedy era ”hope, not fear, animated America at that time; and a campaign needed a narrative as much as a movie did, and for the same reasons.” And, in an apt metaphor, the human political reactions that polling reveals creates the novel’s narrative—that is, Jack’s rise in the political ranks. Ward here introduces the moral richness that lies deep within that political life. Indeed, as Judith Martin summarizes in her New York Times review, this novel “is about the difficulty of weighing loyalties, strategies, and principles in the not-always-successful attempt to achieve an accommodation of conflicting demands in public and private life.”

Jack also has a personal life that makes us interested in these career decisions. His parents are not happy with those decisions, particularly his father, a worldly man who tries to teach him about political life but then mysteriously lets himself be a fall guy. The IRS sends to prison for a crime neither Jack nor the reader understands. The only explanation is that his father has stood for a certain uncompromising standard that Jack himself cannot relate to. And this will later be contrasted with the compromises that Jack himself makes with E.L. Mozart, a Chicago lawyer deep inside the Chicago political machine.

Jack’s personal life also includes two affairs, one a true love affair and one a merely physical affair with a married women, Carole Nierendorf, when she is ignored by an ambitious husband also in the political world. Her presence seems intended to underscore Jack’s commitment to politics rather than to any personal life. He also somewhat falls into this affair on a rebound from the serious affair, which is with a refugee student, Katrina Lauren, who carries to Chicago the scars she endured in Berlin during World War II.

Except for these two women and his mother, the daily lives and career decisions of all the characters early in Jack’s career revolve around the world of Chicago politics. And, indeed, it is a valid presentation of Chicago and that world. Martin, however, suggests in her review that Jack is portrayed at a deeper level: “One sees a man without malice or inflated ego trying to do his duty to people and institutions but finding it all immensely complicated.” But for me the result is too arbitrary a portrait, because of the novel’s short length.

What I mean is that after the learning experiences of Jack’s youth, the author jumps ahead from career step to career step, without detailing for the reader how one step led to the next. Jack has simply moved up—to the White House as an aide to the president, then back in Chicago running for the U.S. Senate. It is as if Just has wanted to describe two worlds, that of Chicago politics and that of national politics, and the compromises that are required to take each step. But until the final approach to Jack by lawyer Mozart on a Chicago golf course, Just offers no connection in terms of those steps. He simply leaps ahead to a new decade, letting the reader fill in the gaps. As if he did not want to double the length of this novel in order to spell out what often takes a lifetime in politics to achieve.

Instead, his primary connection is more thematic. Thus, he introduces a conversation much earlier in the book in which Jack’s mentor, Professor Karcher, a Jewish refugee, tries to awaken Jack from what he calls the innocent hypocrisy of their university. He wants Jack to get out and discover the realities of real-world politics, and recommends a first step, which Jack takes. “City Hall is your graduate school,” he says. “That’s where the fieldwork is.” Which we are intended to recall, as we review the final practical decisions Jack needs to make to advance his career.

Finally, Just ends with a chapter whose idealism offers an ironic contrast to the corruption and deal-making that Jack bought into in order to achieve his final success. That Washington and national politics does work, he says, because of compromise and the art of dealing. But it too obvious an irony, underlining too strongly for me the author’s message that real politics does not preclude the ambition, selfishness, and aggression of political human beings.

Christopher Lehman-Haupt disputes that irony is suggested by this ending, saying that Jack’s words “seem more wise than ironic….He has accepted his figurative castration. He reflects the truth of recent American history.” But this final scene does not work for me because of the obviousness of the message, which is given to a visiting group of receptive, naïve high school students. While their bored teachers, who represent the standard disbelief in politics, respond with yawns.

Most of the individual scenes of this novel do work however. They cover Jack’s visit to a summer lake with his family, the dissolution of his casual affair, deal-making in Chicago restaurants, trading news with a Washington columnist, a phone conversation while looking into the Rose Garden, or making a career decision on a golf course. Author Just captures the atmosphere in each case, and, more significantly, what is not being said directly but which is nevertheless being communicated.

I am ready to read more Just novels, despite my disappointment here. He is one of the few novelist willing and able to portray the world of politics, with all its conflicts, its ironies, its moral issues, and its human ramifications. (October, 2016)

Purity, by Jonathan Franzen

This 2015 work is a confusing novel from a writer I have long admired. It is confusing because it moves back and forth among different characters and different time frames. It is a method authors often use today, chiefly to involve readers into figuring out what is going on and, not incidentally, to create suspense.

But I found myself asking too many questions. Who, for example, is the main character? Is it Pip (Purity), whom we encounter at the start of the novel. Is it Andreas Wolf, a German computer hacker whom we next meet in Berlin, and follow to Bolivia, where he is a WikiLeaks-type provocateur? Or is it Tom Aberant, an American journalist tied to Andreas by a crime and his investigative journalism web site, but who also endures a ten-year marriage to Anabel, a marriage of conflict that this reader also found difficult to endure.

Also, why do we meet Pip in the middle of her story? Why is her mother so afraid to tell her about her father? Why does Wolf entice Pip to come to Bolivia? What is the point of the disastrous marriage of Tom? What is the lasting connection between Tom and Andreas? Eventually, we do learn the answers to these question, but rather than work as teasers, these questions frustrated this reader, actually inhibiting his interest. As suggested, I am not a fan of presenting characters and their stories out of chronological sequence. What I wish is that the suspense come from the actions of the characters, and wondering what they will do next, not from wondering what the actions of the characters actually mean.

Franzen is obviously trying here to write a major novel of literature. A novel of generations. A novel of family hate and jealousy. A novel of relationships between parent and child. A psychological novel (the Killer who haunts Andreas). A novel of international scope and subterfuge. A novel of literary complexity and commercial surprise.

The ending, in particular, reflects that commercial aspect. Marriage partners reconnect, but there is no conclusive ending to their relationship. A love affair continues on also, but inconclusively. Perhaps the characters are intended to continue on in our minds, but one also wonder if they are being set up to continue in a sequel. Or is Franzen simply unable to imagine the future of these characters, once their basic drama has concluded?

The novel’s title. More than a name for Pip, it seems intended to be symbolic. There is a billion dollar inheritance being refused. Does that reflect a sense of purity? There is truth being hidden and being exposed. About a nuclear bomb, about a murder, about a paternity. Is hacking in the interest of truth, and is that for reasons of purity, as Andreas pretends it is? There is even a suicide that, for me, comes out of nowhere. Of course, it is Pip’s mother who named her, and she is living her own interpretation of a life of purity. But the title seems meant to go beyond that, and for me is a little forced as a result, as if the author wants to make sure we get his point.

As Colm Toibin suggests in his Times review, Pip seems for a long time seems to be a victim of circumstance and an innocent in the ways of the world—far from the qualities of a major character. Indeed, Toibin calls her “a damaged innocent in need of rescue and redemption.” But even when her central role is more clear, she remains for me a passive character, more a character used by the author to reveal the more significant actions of the other characters. This is again evident when the author uses her to build a final scene that goes nowhere.

Toibin accurately sums up this novel when he writes: “it dramatizes the uneasy and damaging relationships between parents and their offspring in white America, the strains within friendship, and the ways time and familiarity and human failings work at corroding a marriage.” Of course, this is very abstract, perhaps because a critic needs to avoid spoilers, but it accurately reflects the family relationships that are the concern of Franzen in many of his works

The long section of Tom and Anabel’s corroding marriage particularly aggravated me. Especially Anabel’s whiney one-upmanship, her insistence that she is always right. And Tom’s acceptance of her, because he loves her, and his refusal to free himself from her for ten years. Of course, we finally come to understand her, as we finally realize who she actually is, but it is a long slog, barely justified by Franzen’s revelation.

Many of the reviewers comment on the coincidences that appear in this novel. And at the same time, they praise the forward-moving plot. Of course, that forward movement depends often on the coincidences, which bring these characters together at key points and at other times help them understand the motives of others. Such as Andreas and Tom meeting in Berlin. Such as Pip working for Andreas and then for Tom. Such as Andreas and Tom ending up in the same profession, that of revealing secrets. Such as, on the other hand, Pip’s ignorance of who her father and mother really are, the premise of the entire novel. And, finally, such as Pip bringing people together at the end, but with inconclusive, unconvincing results.

I observed that family relationships have long been a concern of the author. And in telling his other stories, he would move among the family members and tell each story from different viewpoints. But there was unity, because he was always within that family. Here, however, he goes beyond that basic family. First, we are not even sure who the basic family is comprised of. And, second, he makes Andreas, an outsider, part of that family. And both these factors require him to move about in time as well as in geography, in order to tell us this complicated story. And they also require him to hold back on key information. In other words, his structure is at the service of the story he wishes to tell.

I shall continue my interest in Franzen, but I hope he discovers a simpler way next time to tell his story of family relationships. (July, 2016)

Aloft, by Chang-rae Lee

This 2004 work is a truly American novel by this Korean-born writer who arrived here at the age of three and is now completely Americanized. Unlike his first two novels, however, it is not about an Eastern hero adapting to American life. It is about another kind of immigrant, one Jerry Battle, a third-generation Italian encountering the normal travails of an American family seeking the advantages of a middle-class Long Island life.

Yet Lee does not completely ignore his own cultural integration. For Jerry’s wife Daisy was a Korean, but now has died and left him with two children, Jack and Theresa. And Jerry now has a former girl friend, Rita, who is Puerto Rican and whom he yearns for. Plus, his children, of course, are half Asian, and Theresa has an Asian boyfriend. And important also is Jerry’s father, Pops, now at an assisted-living home, but who also represents the Italian immigrant experience.

What captured this reader from the start, what involved me with Jerry and his family, was his voice. It is readily captured by Ron Charles, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, who describes a voice “that’s maddeningly self-absorbed, wonderfully witty, constantly conflicted, often wise, and ultimately redeemed.” He also writes that “Lee’s genius is this confidential voice, full of cultural analysis, ironic asides, sexual candor, and unconscious revelations…perpetually buoyed by wit and insight.” The reader is both inside that highly opinionated voice and stimulated by it, and yet also aware of Jerry’s failure to understand those in that world outside him.

Jerry confronts a number of problems in this novel, but his primary one stems from his aloofness from everyone, his refusal to involve himself in any situation, even the problems of his own children. Instead, he prefers to escape from them. This is represented metaphorically by his hobby, in which he flees to the airport to fly his small plane, enabling him to rise above the world and everyone in it. This hobby also prompts the novel’s title, and will lead to a climactic flying scene that is the dramatic high point of the book.

But Lee keeps the reader grounded as he writes about Jerry and his family, and their pursuit of the America dream—the dream for wealth, love, and happiness. While completely different from Jonathan Franzen’s novels, this work does share an interest in family life, what pulls a family apart and what brings it together. (Other reviewers have noted a link to Updike and Roth for their focus on family life, but those are authors not writing today.) In the Battle family (ne Battaglia), a masonry business that Jerry’s father turned into a landscaping business now has been turned by his affable son Jack into a home improvement business serving the wealthy. Because Jack has wanted to please his wife and impress his cold and aloof father. But his problem is that he has overextended in an economic downturn, and now faces bankruptcy. Meanwhile daughter Therese, the brains in the family, has returned from Oregon, to which she escaped. She is back with her Asian boyfriend, and now reveals she is pregnant and has a health issue.

So between Rita, whom he yearns for, and his two children needing help, plus an unhappy father at a nursing home he decides to flee, Jerry’s struggle to connect with them is real. And as he narrates these issues in a self-deprecating manner, revealing his self-awareness about his failure as a husband, father, and lover, he earns the interest and sympathy of the reader. The result is an interesting novel, one which might border on soap opera for some, but which drew me into this family and earned my concern for their fate—especially the fate of a 60-year-old man, not often the hero of a novel.

On the other hand, Lee avoids milking a dramatic scene at times. First is a grudge tennis match with a rival for Rita’s affections. Jerry risks his airplane on winning the match; and while the lead-up to that scene is brilliantly, even satirically, dramatized, we do not read about the final drama of the match. Likewise, Jerry dramatically lands his plane in the soup at New Haven with his daughter on board and about to give birth, but we do not witness what happens after he lands. Perhaps Lee wishes to focus on the effect of these scenes on family relationships rather than on the event itself.

However, there are also dramatic scenes from the past that Lee and narrator Jerry do recall. Foremost is the death of Daisy, Jerry’s wife, in their swimming pool. Jerry receives a new insight at the end about how it happened, which justifies an earlier and extended dramatic confrontation with her just before her death. He also recalls the drama of Pops struggling with the original business and the drama of the loss of Jerry’s brother in Vietnam—all of which serves to deepen these family relationships.

Perhaps what Aloft has in common with Lee’s earlier work is the theme of adapting to one’s circumstances. In this case, it is about a reserved father who finds it difficult to adapt to the needs of his own family. Who flies above it all whenever he can. Indeed, fatherhood offers the key to this novel. It begins with Jerry’s relationship with his own father, a philanderer who kept aloof from his family and taught his son to do the same. Which Jerry does, but then finds himself uncomfortable with the kind of freedom it gives him, freedom to travel the world, for example, and not commit himself to anyone or any place. He is uncomfortable with this life because he misses not being a real father to his children, not having a connection that enables them to come to him for advice or him to approach them if he sees them troubled.

Yes, I will continue searching out Lee’s novels, for I am drawn to characters who seek to accommodate themselves to a different culture. And Lee has not only the background to do that but also has the sensitivity to bring it to a personal level. And not least, to understand the specific, concrete symbols of that different culture— such as the details of flying, cooking, landscaping, travel agenting, nursing homes, middle-class living, and confronting death.

Ted Weesner, Jr. sums up Aloft, citing “characters who are precisely drawn, lovably human, painfully flawed, viewed in the deep and knowing manner of a caring parent [while] unspoken resentments, grievances, befuddlement, [and] failed expectations come to the surface.” (January, 2016)

Only Say the Word, by Niall Williams

Is this 2004 work one novel or two novels? It is surely one commenting on the other. But is it one completing the other? And which is completing which? The one guide, the only clue, we have is that one part is printed in italic and one in roman type.

We begin in italics, with the first-person narrator, Jim, in his forties and apparently a successful author. He is bemoaning the death of his wife Kate, and in later italic sections is attempting to make a normal family life for his two children, older Hannah and younger Jack.

This story alternates with a much longer story in roman type. Told in much greater detail and also in Williams’ elegant prose, this is about Jim Foley growing up in Ireland, always reading and wanting to be a writer but not knowing how. His is not an easy life. A younger sister dies, disrupting family life, then his mother does also, suddenly, and his aloof father suffers a stroke. While a brilliant brother deserts the family for London.

Reaching manhood, the roman type Jim falls in love with a wealthy American girl and follows her back to New York to marry her. But, uncomfortable in adapting to American life, he persuades wife Kate to return with him to the same house in the small Irish village where he grew up. There, she attempts to become a painter and he a novelist.

What becomes confusing at the end is that the italic section seems to reach a completeness, while the roman section, which is much longer, appears not to. All along, the reader has sensed that the roman section is the earlier life of the successful novelist of the italic section. That is, this is one story we are reading. And so, the completeness of the italic section is meant to bring completeness to the novel. But there is an Afterward that completely undermines this interpretation. Indeed, it represents a surprise ending, if I am reading it correctly.

And because Kate is not present in the italic sections, having died, although we do not know how she died, and because Kate is alive in the roman sections, and there is no hint that she will die, I am drawn to the conclusion that these are not, despite appearances, the same families. I see this interpretation in none of the comments on this novel, so perhaps I am wrong. But the work shows such a sensitivity to family life and the emptiness behind the lack of love that the separation of the two families seems deliberate.

And, still, there is more to my interpretation. In Church liturgy, the title, “Only Say the World,” is followed by “and my soul shall be healed.” This clearly applies to the italic portion, in which the narrator father and the two children are traumatized by the loss of Kate, their wife and mother. And they are “healed” by their confrontation with water at the climax of that section, water often being a symbol of rebirth. But the title suggests a deeper meaning, as well, if one focuses on the word “word.” In this case, “word” represents the written word, or Jim’s efforts in the roman typeface to write his first novel. And the Afterword reveals that by writing his initial words, his initial novel, be conquers the writer’s block he has endured in the roman section and is on the road to becoming an author.

But, in another sense, my interpretations do not matter. For this beautifully written novel can be appreciated on so many other levels than its plot. It is a novel about family life, about the relationships between parents and children, about their inability to express love to one another, and about children being able to conform to the world they are growing into. It is also about death, and the survivors adjusting to it. Indeed, it begins with the narrator rejecting God after the death of his wife, then ignores any spiritual aspect until the end, when a dramatic scene at the seashore helps both the narrator and his children to accept her loss—and, by implication, the spiritual world as well. It is also a novel about the written word and the reading of books, even the stealing of them, and even more the writing of books, especially the difficulty of writing that first book. It is a work that takes full advantage of the meaning behind “word” as used in the Gospel of John.

This is a complex novel in my reading. If this reading is true, it is a far richer novel that that perceived by most critics. If it is not, I apologize to my own readers. I am partisan to family stories that focus on personal relationships, the world of faith, and love. I am also needless to say, a partisan of works that explore the mind of a writer as he explores the art of creation. (November, 2015)

 

Note. Unsure about my interpretation, I e-mailed a query, and received an immediate reply from the author himself. He wrote:

“For me the aim in that novel was…to try and capture something of the healing if mysterious power of art, in this case fiction. And to dramatize this by engaging the reader on two fronts at the same time, so that in fact the reader would experience the same journey the writer in the novel does. That is, healing through words, through storytelling….I do believe the two ‘Jims’ are the same person, but with this difference: the one in Roman type has been written [been created, I would add] by the one in italics, and so by necessity therefore less real in the normal use of that word. If that makes any sense.
“My intention was that The Afterword be on a different plane entirely. It should ideally have been in a different typeface. I wrote it, deleted it, added and removed it several times before publication. But in the end I thought it was the most truthful way to finish the book. Here there is no Jim and the woman says ‘You call me Kate in this one.’…This is the person who in turn writes the two Jim narratives and by doing so faces the fear that he will lose his wife, who in this one he calls Kate.
“I know that many readers hated the Afterword….So perhaps it was a misjudgment. You can’t go back and delete it now. Personally I still tend towards believing it was truthful to the intention of the book, even if it failed artistically.” [The book itself didn’t fail. I am grateful to the author for the clarification.]

The Unfinished Season, by Ward Just

This 2004 work is an unusual novel for the author. It is not about politics, not about war, not about Washington, DC. It is a coming-of-age novel, and a fine one. An excellent one. A literary one, beautifully written.

It is also a paean to Chicago and the Midwestern life.

This is the story of the teenage Wilson Raven. It begins as a family story, a story of his relationship with his distant father, an altruistic lawyer who becomes a victim of commerce when he inherits a stationery printing company. A liberal who considers himself fair to his employees, he becomes disillusioned when his employees don’t think he has been fair, and go on strike. All of which occurs in the 1950s, when Republicans ran Washington and his father’s fellow businessmen fear the big Red scare.

But this is not to be a political story, even one far from Washington. It is to be the story of 19-year-old Wils, who fills the summer before entering college with a day job as a newspaper copy boy and his nights cavorting at debutante parties given by Chicago’s high society. The heart of this novel is to be a love story, a love between Wils and Aurora, a girl he meets at one of the dances, and a girl with whom he immediately clicks in a brilliantly created (by Just) conversation.

Wils meets Aurora about one-third into the book, and just as there has been no story line in his relationship with his aloof father, or his father’s tenuous relationship with his mother, and we have been completely enthralled, so, too, even as nothing dramatic happens when he starts courting Aurora, we continue to be enthralled. This is Just in complete control of his material, as well as the technique of the novel.

Indeed, in the relationship between his father and mother, he is foreshadowing Wils’ coming relationship with Aurora. For both the women seek the adventure that back East offers, while the men see themselves as Midwesterners. Dreaming Midwesterners at that.

In the absence of drama, what makes this novel work for me is Wils’ observations about the people he meets and the Chicago life he encounters, from the debutante dances to the city room to the jazz clubs that he frequents.

Finally, the drama arises when Wils meets Aurora’s father, Jack, a famous psychiatrist, an aloof man with a mysterious past who watches with pride over his daughter. He likes Wils, and there is no immediate dramatic conflict, but an adversarial relationship between his daughter and his mistress Consuela suggests the inevitable confrontation that will change Wil’s life.

But before that confrontation there is a wonderful section two-thirds into the novel, when, without Aurora, Wila spends a day alone in Chicago. Again, nothing happens, but it is beautiful writing. Its purpose seems to be to reflect the title of this novel that has an ending but no conclusion, which is why it is Wil’s “unfinished season.”

It is Wils’ last day at the newspaper, and he has a wonderful conversation with his boss, in which his boss says he will never make a good reporter because he loves the mystery, the romance of an event, especially when it is inconclusive. He cites Wils’ fascination with a women who was found frozen, who was revived, and who then disappeared. Whereas a good reporter, he says, digs until he finds the facts and comes up with a conclusive ending. In fact, as we finish this novel we realize the inconclusiveness to Wils’ love story is again being foreshadowed here.

Then Wils kills an afternoon at the Chicago Art Institute, where he is entranced by the Impressionists and how their style suggests the lives behind the characters being portrayed. Whereas, the works of Edward Hopper are hard-edged, with anonymous figures filled with melancholy, and no suggestion of what waits them beyond the picture frame. It is, again, a metaphor for the “unfinished season” Wils is about to endure.

In the final scene of that afternoon, there is a finely drawn wake, and then the book’s only dramatic flare-up. Which changes Wils’ life and leads to a deeper inconclusiveness. And yet we as readers do not feel cheated. There is a completeness here, not least because Wils accepts what has happened, is not resentful, realizes it is part of entering manhood. And also because the author brings together two adversaries, has them holding hands, has them also accepting the ending of their relationship.

Just concludes his novel with a scene set 40 years later, a technique many authors use to reveal the final fate of their characters. I often dislike those chapters; they become a cop-out. But not here. In part because this final chapter is beautifully written, and in part because it brings contentment to two lives but no clear answers about what caused Wils’ life to change.

Ron Charles’ review does not accept the narrative. “The moment you stop reading,” he writes, “the spell breaks and you’re left with the aftertaste of pretentious thought.” He cites “slippery comment from this maddening narrator, who oozes earnest sincerity and weighty import.” He cites a “most treacherous of friends (and narrators), the humble, self-effacing observer who wants only to witness and understand the challenges other people face.”

Which is precisely why I loved this novel. I identify with this sensitive boy who does not understand himself or the world he inhabits. Whereas Charles does not. Which suggests that what the reader brings to the novel, his life experience, can determine the novel’s effect on him. What I do find, as consolation, is Charles’ summing up: “If you fall in love with that voice, as the author did, The Unfinished Season is a moving and beautiful reminiscence of a time of great change.” And fall in love I did.

To sum up, this is a wonderful change of pace for Ward Just. He was clearly writing out of his love for the Midwest, and yet is aware that that love often cannot be reconciled with the dreams, the ambitions, of the loved one. He is also writing about the romance of youth, when all seems possible, when endings are not needed. And yet the voice of one writing 40 years later frames this story with reality, with the realization that this was the story of the youth he no longer is. (May, 2014)