Taft, by Ann Patchett

This early 1994 novel by Patchett is interesting, daring, and not a little confusing. It’s interesting because of its cast of characters, most of them black. The narrator is John Nickel, an ex-drummer who now manages a bar in a black neighborhood in Memphis. It is also interesting because of his personal relationships, as well as among those who work in the bar. But it is even more interesting because of Nickel himself as narrator. From the very first page, he becomes real. His narration, in fact, reminded me of the narrators in many private-eye novels. He is very direct, very open and down-to-earth, from the very first sentence: “A girl walked into the bar.”

The novel is daring because this is a white author writing about a black man, as well as a female author writing from the perspective of her male hero. But it is also daring because this black man becomes fascinated by a young white teenager, Fay Taft, whom he hires right after she “walked into the bar.” He is aware of the racial issues this fascination may prompt, but he cannot help himself. He tries to fight her attraction, but this becomes even more difficult after she says that she has fallen in love with him.

And if a “romance” between a fortyish black man and a white teenager is not daring enough, there is the matter of Fay’s dead father, simply called Taft. For this brings a major structural shift. Taft abruptly jumps into this novel in the third person, interrupting Nickel’s interplay with the staff at his bar, especially with his smart bouncer Wallace and a brash waitress, Cyndi. But even more, it interrupts his yearning for fatherhood, and his estranged relationship with his girlfriend Marion and their child Franklin.

The purpose of these Taft sections is initially unclear, for they go back as much as a decade or more to recreate the life of Fay’s family, especially the relationships among herself, her father, and her brother Carl. Until, toward the end of the novel, when Nickel, half awake, imagines himself personally witnessing some Taft family events. The reader then becomes aware that, all along, Nickel’s fascination with Fay has been prompting him to imagine her life before he knew her. Has put himself in the role of her father. And this also appears to explain the title of the novel, Taft. That it refers to her father as well as to Fay herself, thus re-enforcing the role that Nickel feels is missing from his life.

Which is also what makes the novel so interesting, this two-fold yearning by Nickel for fatherhood. For he has lost something of his identity when he gave up drumming at his girl friend Marion’s request, on the promise that he could be a father to his son. Except, she than absconded with the boy to Florida. And now he wants the fulfillment of having his son back. But for that he needs to persuade the visiting Marion to remain in Memphis.

Meanwhile, he is torn by his fascination with Fay, this white teenager. She has moved to Memphis with her brother Carl after their father’s death. And the novel’s dramatic tension, already built around Nickel’s relationships with two young people, is magnified when Fay’s brother Carl becomes a regular at the bar, seems to attract new customers, and then turns out to be selling drugs.

This prompts a dramatic confrontation, whose consequences bring the novel’s high point. Except, the novel ends quickly thereafter, without resolving these figures’ lives. Even raising the possibility that Patchett may have been considering a sequel. This did not happen, but all of these characters would have been interesting to follow into their subsequent lives.

It is significant that the issue of racial relations remains in the background of this novel. Meaning that this is, first and foremost, a novel about a good man who is torn by his emotions and by his yearnings for fatherhood. While Nickel is highly conscious of the racial difference between himself and Fay, both he and Patchett are concentrating more on the human relationship he has with Fay. Indeed, this reader had to be reminded at times that Nickel was black, for he is so human otherwise. As are his relationships with his former girl friend and her family, and with the entire staff at the bar.

What the novel concentrates on is Nickel’s frustration at not finding fulfillment in his life. He gave up drumming, at the plea of his girl friend, and he now realizes he is not fulfilled with his job managing the bar. He yearns to be a father, to have his son back, which would bring one level of completion to his life. Whereas, Fay’s advances promise a fulfillment he is not prepared to accept, even as it makes him aware of how much he misses having love in his life—as well as how he might be a kind of surrogate father to her. So we find a contrast between the emotional connection he needs to make with his son and the emotional distancing he realizes he should make with Fay.

There is perhaps even more contrast behind his yearning for fatherhood. He was intent on his music, on himself, until he became a father. Then he changed. Franklin’s existence brought a new meaning to his life. But then the boy is taken away. And Nickel’s yearning, it seems, is transferred to white teenager Fay. Except, such love is dangerous for a black man. And so he begins to imagine her father’s life. He sublimates his emotional connection to her by identifying with her own father’s past love for her. He yearns to become two fathers.

Diana Postlethwaite sums up this novel in the New York Times: “Modern variations are played on old-fashioned Shakespearean romance: tragedy and comedy intertwine; broken families are mended; the dead are brought back to life; and what is lost is found again.”

This novel is both simple and complex. The yearning for love, for a human connection, for fatherhood, is simple. The transfer of this yearning to two children, to two races, to two families, is more complex. Patchett understands in this early novel the depth that can be found in the emotional life of a good but lonely man, especially a man on the fringes of society who yearns for fulfillment. (May, 2017).

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)

The Prisoner of Heaven, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

This 2011 work is a highly readable commercial novel, but another step down from the literary promise of The Shadow of the Wind. With some of the same characters from Shadow and The Angel’s Game, this is again a story of Barcelona, books, and intrigue. The intrigue occurs on two levels, more significantly when Franco takes power in 1939, but also when the novel’s resolution occurs almost twenty years later.

The novel begins in 1957 when the hero Daniel Sempere, a boy in Shadow and now distraught over the possible infidelity of his wife Bea, reveals that his older friend, Fermin Romero de Torres is under even greater distress because of events that occurred under Franco in a Barcelona prison castle in 1939. Fermin was an assumed name his friend used, when he was arrested as a spy and put in prison; and now he must not only resolve a threat that harkens back to that era but also officially produce new papers in that name twenty years later so he can marry Bernarda, his true love.

Those in prison with Fermin back in ‘39 include author David Martin, a hero from earlier books in this series, and Sebastian Salgado, a former jewel thief who has secreted away a rich treasure from his last escapade. These Franco prisoners undergo torture, privation, and blackmail, witness arbitrary executions, and face a life without hope. In fact, the horrendous life in this prison run by the cruel and ambitious Mauricio Valls is the finest portion of this novel, suggesting the literary depths that the author once achieved.

But the novel’s early emphasis on the texture of life under Franco shifts to an emphasis on the characters’ personal lives—and on the plot—once Fermin cleverly escapes from prison and is pursued by Valls. At the same time, Isabella, not yet David’s mother, is trying to get Martin freed from prison, and Daniel wonders, a generation later, if she actually loved Martin and that Martin was his real father.

The remainder of Daniel’s narration concerns his efforts to find papers for Fermin, learn who is real father is, and revenge himself on Valls, whom he believes had murdered his mother. But these efforts seem inconsequential, compared to Fermin’s adventures: his flight from Barcelona, his long recuperation, and his return to Barcelona to reunite with Daniel and then both resolve his identity issue and discover the jewels that the prisoner Salgado had hidden away.

Even if Daniel narrates much of this novel, and has his own concerns, the main character is Fermin. He is not only a much more interesting person than Daniel, but so are his daring adventures. Especially in the prison and with his escape, but also in the 1957 scenes narrated by Daniel. I would also note that even the minor male figures, such as the letter-writer and the priest, imbed themselves in the reader’s memory—unlike the women, especially wife Bea and fiancée Bernarda, whose lack of depth diminishes the personal motivations of both Daniel and Fermin.

None of these efforts, however, by either Daniel or Fermin, reaches the significance or complexity of the issues the characters confronted in The Shadow of the Wind. The issues here are personal, whether motivated by revenge or love or greed. Moreover, The Cemetery of Forbidden Books, so provocative an idea in the earlier books, does not appear here until the final pages, when it seems tacked on, as if to provide a possible (but is it believable?) conclusion to David Martin’s bond with Daniel’s mother.

The other mystery we are left with is the existence of Valls, who has disappeared two decades later. An epilogue suggests that the answer will come with a fourth volume in this series. But one anticipates that such a novel will continue on the level of mere personal motivation, that it will boast no psychological, philosophical, or political developments that will enable that upcoming story to regain for Ruiz Zafon his former literary significance. (March, 2015)