LaRose, by Louise Erdrich

This is a beautifully written novel from 2016, the language even more beautiful than I can remember from other Erdrich novels. But it is also not an easy novel to follow. Not because of the magic realism that reflects the Indian heritage— with bodies existing outside themselves, or with the dead showing up in the real world. No, it is because the author again shifts her perspective too much. She delays here in making connections that the reader needs, that at least this reader does. This problem arises for me primarily when new characters appear on the scene, and what is not clear is their relationship to the characters I am already familiar with. Or why they belong in this novel at all.

This is the story of two families, the Iron family and the Ravich family. And the novel begins beautifully and dramatically when Landreaux Iron, out hunting, aims at a deer but tragically kills five year old Dusty Ravich, the only son of Pete and Nola Ravich and the best friend of his own son, LaRose. Following Indian tradition, Landeaux and his wife Emmaline eventually offer to share their son LaRose, Rusty’s best friend, with the Ravich family, offering him as a replacement for Dusty. This decision took my breath away, and opened up so many possibilities for this novel.

And to compound this heartbreaking situation, these two families are very close. For Landreaux and Pete are also best friends, and all the children of these two families often play together. Moreover, Landreaux’s wife Emmaline is a half sister of Dusty’s mother, and, while she loves her own son, she realizes Nola is heartbroken at the loss of her son.

What gives this novel much of it reality is the continuing interaction among the children of both families. Particularly by LaRose. He has been named for a long string of LaRoses in his family, most of whom were women. They were also healers, acting to preserve Indian traditions, and this is a role the boy now plays. What is also intriguing is that he becomes comfortable living with both the Iron and the Ravich families. And that both families accept this. For a while. He especially gets along with Maggie Ravich, who grows into a prominent character. She becomes particularly effective when Emmaline insists that LaRose return to the Iron family, and Maggie’s mother Nola becomes despondent at his loss. Whereupon Maggie, aided by LaRose, works to free her mother from thoughts of suicide.

But then we return to the men and to a major plot point. A rather dramatic one, but one which explains the presence of a mysterious Romeo Puyat, who has long been resentful of Landreaux for reasons unknown. In fact, the reason for even his presence in this novel early on has not been clear. But now we learn that when both boys were five or so, they met at an Indian boarding school, and that later Landreaux persuaded Romeo to escape with him. But when they were in hiding, Landreaux accidentally injured his pal, and the pain from the injury turned Romeo into a drug addict and later, as he searched for drugs, into an investigator of the town’s secrets.

Romeo has long resented his injury and the accompanying addiction that ruined his marriage, and has long plotted revenge. He now convinces Pete Ravich that Landreaux was drunk when he killed Pete’s son, and could even have saved the boy if he had not run away. He tells this story convinced that it will prompt Pete to kill Landreaux in revenge. And this drama fills much of the novel’s finale, tying together the two families even more. But it also introduces a major change in the atmosphere of the novel.

Indeed, Erdrich milks this plotting for its suspense. If only the outcome weren’t so anti-climactic, as if she realized that violence would not be in keeping with this quiet story of two Indian families. Evidence for this is that she closes the novel with a graduation party for Romeo’s son Hollis, who has been living with the Irons, another cause of his father’s resentment. This recreates the family atmosphere before the death of Rusty, the two families once again acting in harmony and also forgiving each other. The party concludes with a blend of modern American culture and Indian culture, but overall this final chapter barely fits the events of this novel.

According to Mary Gordon in The New York Times Book Review, Erdrich is asking in this novel whether a good man “can do the worst thing possible and still be loved.” And this party, Gordon says, expresses the forgiveness that the two families feel. That it wipes out the allure of revenge, with even a proud Romeo attending this party honoring his son.

The richness of this novel stems from the Indian culture of these two families. The gift of LaRose to the Raviches is, of course, the strongest evidence of that culture. As is their cooperation and shared perspective. But it is also present in the magic moments when the dead are present, when living creatures rise overhead and look down on their own bodies, and in the small traditions both families observe. Of course, this is a trademark of Erdrich novels, in which her characters work to preserve their Indian heritage in modern day America.

One development, however, seems out of place. Erdrich, a Catholic, introduces here a priest, Father Travis. He is young, serious, and somewhat naïve, but he is sought out by the Indian families for advice. In this role, he is an effective character. However, the author has him fall in love with Emmaline, even having a tryst with her, and I am not sure why this element is introduced. To show he is human? For it has no connection with the novel’s other events. Nor are we given Emmaline’s own perspective. Why does she get involved with the priest? And, at the end, Father Travis is simply replaced by a less consequential priest. Overall, Travis plays a legitimate role as an adviser to these families, but why Erdrich has him fall in love is unclear.

Nevertheless, Erdrich novels continue to interest me. And not least because she is a Catholic. And while religious concerns are not always paramount in her works, I do often share the perspective with which she delineates her characters and their lives. In this case, what interests me is her concern for the conflict between revenge and forgiveness. (May, 2018)

 

Advertisements

Nemesis, by Jo Nesbo

The popularity of this Norwegian mystery writer has been growing, and I was curious to learn what it was all about. I can now understand that popularity, although this early 2002 work did not impress me that much with its story—a prime reason being that the complicated events were difficult to follow. Why was this? One reason is that the characters were not clearly delineated, neither the policemen nor the suspects, villains, and victims. Nor did their interactions help distinguish themselves from one other. But what did impress me was the texture of the writing, the setting of the scenes, and the constant action moving ahead.

The novel begins as a story of two crimes, that of a bank robbery and a murder and that of a death that suggests suicide but may be murder. The bank robbery that opens the book results in the death of a woman teller, and the suspicion that the killer and the victim knew each other. Meanwhile, a young woman is found shot to death, with a gun in the wrong hand. She is a former girlfriend of Nesbo’s series detective, Harry Hole. He had spent the previous night with her but cannot remember what happened.

The result is a series of complicated developments that are difficult to follow, not least because the author keeps shifting his focus: from one crime to the other and from one suspicious activity to another. But also, as I said, because the characters serve more the functions of the plot than come alive on the page. And their shifting motivations are complicated as well. They involve love affairs, jealousy, rage, revenge, the rivalry of brothers, and gypsy culture.

We follow the story mainly through Harry Hole’s efforts to clear himself from suspicion of murder. He duels with a fellow cop who wants to pin the murder on him, negotiates with a gypsy prisoner to find the girl’s actual killer, and receives teasing emails from the girl’s presumed murderer, who intensifies his own sense of guilt. The result is a complexity that keeps the reader off-balance, which promotes the book’s intrigue but can be confusing, as Harry shifts from one concern to another, and from one crime to another.

For a long while, it is not clear which crime is intended to be dominant. The bank robbery and murder that begins the tale, or the girl’s murder that implicates Harry. More time is spent with the latter, which hits closer to Harry’s home, but the former has international implications that prompt a visit to Brazil. While the solutions never come together, their themes, their motivations, do in many ways. There is brotherly conflict, there is betrayal in love, and there is authorial misdirection. Indeed, the solution to the girl’s death, while intended as a big surprise, is for me too much of a twist that betrays the author’s hand. I was unprepared, and therefore somewhat reluctant to accept it.

As Marilyn Stasio writes in the Times: “Nesbo falls back on coincidence and some other questionable devices. The problem isn’t that he fails to tie up all his story lines, it’s that he does it so carefully and neatly that the plot machinery is revealed for what it is— machinery.” Perhaps the novel’s length of around 500 pages has also been necessary to develop this complicated machinery. And so winding it down somewhat succinctly at the end lends a sense of arbitrariness.

Nemesis is the Greek god of justice and revenge. Thus, the title, for each major death is motivated by revenge. But one senses the author has backed into this theme, or at least the title. As if to make the execution fit the crime. But while these solutions reflect a psychological depth, they do not rise out of character depth. They seem to have been pasted in by the author to fit the facts.

And yet, there is enough depth here, enough intriguing plotting, enough Norwegian atmosphere, enough interesting series characters to prompt interest in more of Nesbo. As a series hero, Harry Hole offers distinct, if familiar, possibilities. He is moody, rebellious and hot-headed, tends to drink heavily, and likes to act alone; but he is also one whom other policemen respect, and whose superiors also accept, because of his incisive detective skills.

Among the interesting police characters are Beate Lonn, a new female recruit who seems innocent in the ways of the world, but who can remember faces and whose interaction with Harry offers possibilities; and Inspector Waaler, who dislikes Harry, and is out to pin a murder on him. The other police officials, however, such as Halvorson, Moller, Ivarsson, and Weber are mainly supernumeries who serve a purpose rather than exist as real characters. As is psychologist Stale Aune, whose discussions with Harry serve primarily to give psychological depth and psychological possibilities to the actions of the more suspicious characters.

Yes, I will read more of Nesbo. But I would hope he explores more deeply Harry’s relationships with his fellow policemen. That he avoids fictional complexity in favor of psychological or political complexity. And that he sharpens his focus by digging into the heart of a single criminal activity. Whereupon, the Oslo setting and/or the darker Norwegian atmosphere and culture will also become a plus. (November, 2016)

The Whites, by Harry Brandt (Richard Price)

This multi-level mystery novel from 2015 is true literature in every sense. It begins as a police procedural that establishes the bono fides of Billy Graves, a side-tracked police sergeant now assigned to the Night Watch in Manhattan. It is also a portrait of a once-heralded police team, the Wild Geese, whose members still love and support each other, even after some have left the force.

Interwoven also is the story of Milton Ramos, a renegade cop out to extract revenge for the personal injustices which life has dealt him. The ending, moreover, relies on a solution that is a classic of the mystery genre, and then humanizes that solution. And, finally, helping this work to a truly literary level is the moral issue raised by that solution in the minds and souls of characters whom both we as readers and Billy himself have become comfortable with.

The novel works on all levels. We are especially close to Billy and his wife Carmen, both of whom have endured tragedy in their past. They both love each other and are protective of each other. And Billy also remains especially close to four former policemen who were members of the Wild Geese. There is Pavlicek, now a real estate baron; Redman, now a funeral director; Whelan, now a building superintendent; and Yasmeen, now a campus security chief. Each will play a key role in this novel, as well as exemplify the ties of police brotherhood.

The title, The Whites, refers to the criminals the police have pursued obsessively but have failed to catch, not unlike the white whale that Ahab pursued. It is an ironic designation in terms of color (not race), but it also reflects the complexity of police duty and the frequent moral issues that are raised. The basic moral issue raised here is: should the guilty be punished? But also, should the past be forgotten? And: what is the nature of true justice, and who has the right to deliver that justice? It is a moral issue that is examined in all great literature, and here Price as Brandt is reaching for those heights—and achieving them.

But morality does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in the actions of human beings; and these human beings, in literature, need to exist in a specific world. In this case it is the island of Manhattan, yes, but it is also Manhattan at night, and even more significant it is the felony crime scene in Manhattan at night and the human beings responsible for catching the criminals in the name of justice. This is why the policemen are the prime movers of this novel, and why Price as Brandt has made such an effort to show us the cruelty that they confront, the frustration they often feel, and the camaraderie that keeps them going.

This camaraderie, indeed, is a key element of this novel, both for the resulting interaction it causes and for the humanization it brings to men whose blue uniform often makes all of them seem alike. As Kakutani writes in the Times: [Brandt’s] “ability to map his characters’ inner lives—all the dreams and memories and wounds that make them tick—results in people who become as vivid to us as real-life relatives or friends.”

And Billy Graves is the first to have any vulnerabilities. His police career was detoured before the start of this novel, when a bullet he fired at a criminal hit an innocent boy, and he became fodder for the tabloid press. This resulted in initial assignments to dead-end posts; but he has finally earned recognition, and been placed in charge of the Night Watch. However, his private life is also in travail, because his first wife had abandoned him after the shooting scandal and left him with two young sons. Now, he is married to Carmen, a nurse and a temperamental woman whom he loves but does not always understand.

And while we realize that Billy is a good man at heart, we begin reading about another cop, Milton Ramos, who also lost a wife and is left with a young daughter. But he reacts to his unfortunate situation very differently from how Billy does, and seeks revenge on someone for some unknown reason. And we sense he will confront Billy at the novel’s climax. As we follow Billy through his routine investigations, however, and watch as a new and violent crime confronts him with memories of his past, with his own white—and also reunites him with his colleagues of the past—this building confrontation with Ramos moves from the background to the foreground, drawing the reader into this novel even more, although we do not know what will prompt the climactic confrontation.

What is not clear to me is why Price chose a pseudonym for this novel. Is it to be part of a series? Is it the police aspect that makes it different from his other works? He dedicates it, in part, to a Carl Brandt. Is that a family member or a friend, perhaps a policeman, whom he wishes to recognize? Perhaps the most reasonable difference to be found in this novel is that it does not focus on a specific location in sociological terms, as in his previous novels, but rather on individuals in psychological terms. But why would this shift prompt him to use a pen name? In any event, the reason does not really matter.

This reader will continue to pursue the work of Richard Price. While he has his dedicated followers, his work has thus fear not entered the contemporary literary canon. Perhaps because of his subject matter, the underside, the criminal side, of daily life. But the underdogs of his novels—victims, pursuers, and perpetrators—are worthy subjects that we in our comfortable reading chairs tend to forget. And Price stands out because he portrays these people, even the most villainous, like Ramos here, as human beings. And he helps us realize that there are often reasons why they are what they are. (March, 2016)

The Keepers of the House, by Shirley Ann Grau

This is another novel that has sat on my shelves for a while. Grau was recognized a half century ago as an important writer, but has lately been forgotten. After a recent note revived my interest in this 1964 novel, I opened its covers. And was immediately enthralled.

It brought back memories of Faulkner. The style was different, much smoother, but it was concerned with family, with generations and ancestors, and with the culture of the South.

This is the story of the Howland family. We learn early on that their history is being recalled by Abigail, and she says that it is about her grandfather, about Margaret, and about herself. (It is also about their life in the changing farmhouse of the title.)

The work begins as a series of portraits, complete in themselves. We read, first, of grandfather William’s courtship, marriage, and widowhood, then of the beautifully portrayed family celebration of the marriage of his daughter Abigail, and then of his sojourn into the swamp to win a bet that he can find an illegal still. He journeys in a boat, and it is a particularly evocative portrayal of man confronting nature, reminiscent of Faulkner.

On this journey, William encounters Margaret, a poor black woman, and we then read of her lonely upbringing before and after her own grandmother dies. Again, there is a moving portrait, this time of her family’s encounter with death. This is followed by additional sensitive writing, as Margaret encounters the plant life around her, as well as the insect and animal life. Finally, she meets Howland and goes to work for him. She is seventeen, and we are unprepared for what happens next. But are we unprepared because Grau was reluctant to write about the sex that soon looms between them, or because writers wrote about this less often in the sixties?

Grau then skips a generation, and the longest narrative is given to Abigail, the granddaughter of Howland, a Howland who has already impregnated Margaret five times. Three generations are joined, and we are up to the present. But the next 30 to 40 pages are disappointing. Abigail has no internal life and develops no relationships. Not with her grandfather, not with Margaret, not with Margaret’s children, not with Nature. Her mother, a shadowy figure, abruptly dies off stage. Abigail has a crush on a high school boy, but he never appears. There is no story, only anecdote, no connections, no interest, until Abigail reaches college and both loses her virginity and meets her future husband. (Is it irony, or just planned coincidence, that her own marriage will encounter the same fate as that of her mother?)

However, as the anecdotal approach continues, we sense, between the lines, that her new husband John’s political ambition and his attitude toward Negroes may lead to marital tension. One speculates that the novel’s earlier coverage of family events had interest because they featured only the highlights of those events, and, as related by Abigail, were given a certain perspective. Whereas, the routine of Abigail bearing children, supporting her husband, and running a home, are simply sequential events, and lack any perspective, much less any tension.

Emotion and perspective finally do enter, however, with two deaths. First, that of Grandfather Howland, and then of Margaret. In each case, it is how the family reacts rather than any description of the death or the service to follow. This is particularly true in the case of Margaret, as we anticipate that the South’s attitude toward Negroes may at last become significant.

And finally, the chickens do come home to roost—with two bits of melodrama that really do not fit the tone of the novel. The first concerns the town’s revenge on the dead Howland for having married a Negro woman. And the second is his daughter Abigail’s revenge on the town. Both scenes are well drawn, but one senses the author wanting to conclude her novel with an emotional punch. I even wondered if she had planned those scenes, especially the first, from the beginning. But I decided not, or hoped not, for it would make the rest too calculated.

To sum up, this begins as a beautifully written novel, a beautifully felt novel whose perspective fades when Howland’s daughter, Abigail, takes over as narrator of her own story. Then it becomes a routinely plotted young woman’s life, until the past catches up with the present—a catching up that I think is too arbitrary. And which ends up betraying the hand of the author, who uses an election “scandal” to instigate this tale of retribution.

As I recall, I became aware of Grau following reviews of her previous novel, The House on Coliseum Street, which is about a New Orleans family. I purchased this book as a remainder, but cannot recall whether I did so because it had won the Pulitzer Prize. (I have to believe it won, in part, because of its racial theme. For that committee likes novels that capture a bit of the American scene.)

So reading this work has been a rewarding literary experience, and acquainted me with a truly literate American author. But, like many, I would also label her as a Southern writer, even though she derides that label. One has to, I believe, because she captures so well the Southern culture.

Which was her mission here as a novelist. To portray through one Southern family the complications that arise from whites and Negroes being so tied together, and yet so separate. It is a social contradiction that easily disrupts, as here, the family life of both races. But for me, the author’s mission interferes with her novel’s literary value. Which ends up being driven more by plot, the election scandal and the barn-burning scene, than by character.

Yes, Abigail is a strong character at the end, but in the final scene, with her laughter and her crying, the author seems to lose control over her. Or has Abigail been undone by her own actions? Has she become as vengeful, as corrupted, as the prejudiced townspeople around her?

Reading more Grau would be interesting, but her work is not at the top of my list. (November, 2014)