Louisiana Power and Light, by John Dufresne

This is a clever but frustrating novel from 1994. I was very impressed by its rich literary style as the novel opens. The author directly addresses the reader in a Southern homespun style, and appears in complete control of his characters in the small town of Monroe, Louisiana.

But disappointment slowly grew on me. Because there were too many homespun Southern characters whose lives intermingled but did not come together to produce a single dramatic whole. I also sensed too much local color, too much surface cleverness, and not enough exploration of these characters in depth.

This reaction was not unlike a comment in the Kirkus Review: “We soon realize Dufresne is rambling on about his characters’ lives, never once entering their emotions or examining their motives….[And his] plot is continually interrupted by narratives about minor characters. Dufresne wastes so much time telling readers he’s telling a story and expounding on the art of storytelling that we lose interest in the characters and, thus, in the story.” And as Jill McCorkle in The New York Times suggests: Dufresne “offers a plot line as complex as the network of backwoods roads these people and their ancestors have committed to memory,”

And while I decided to finish this novel to see where the author was heading, what he was trying to say, I also decided that this novel was perhaps not going to be worth writing about.

What prompted to me to pick up this novel in the first place was that its main character, Billy Wayne Fontana, was training in a novitiate to become a priest. This is before he became involved with the citizens of Monroe. It would be interesting, I thought, to learn how that background carries into the secular world. And it is quite secular. For Billy Wayne’s story begins with a family curse that has produced generations of unfortunate sinners, all males; and the authorities have believed they can help end that family curse if he is trained to be a priest.

But, alas, he is seduced by Earlene—an unstable woman who writes country music lyrics—while pretending to hear her confession in a hospital; and then he marries her and leaves the novitiate. Moreover, they soon become incompatible, and she leaves him; whereupon he marries Tammy Lynne, another unhappy woman, and sires two boys, Duane and Boone, the latter also known as Moon Pie. This second son is born with flippers instead of legs and is confined to a wheelchair. Is this the curse again at work? But Moon Pie is a genius, and he becomes interested in God and in the meaning of faith.

And this is why I finished this novel, and why I am writing about it. For the author, in his own idiosyncratic way, is addressing an issue that interests me and that surely is one I should address. For one can regard original sin as, in fact, a curse, and can see this Fontana curse as a way of addressing, in more worldly terms, one of mankind’s spiritual conditions. In other words, this author is addressing a basic religious issue, albeit through quirky Southern characters who live a hardscrabble life, encounter many dead ends, and are often frustrated by the life they lead.

Moon Pie finally convinced me to write about this novel when he becomes a radio evangelist and introduces a lengthy spiritual discussion of the presence of God and how we should relate to Him. Added to the guilt Billy Wayne feels for having abandoned the priesthood and failed to meet the needs of two wives, this suggest the author is indeed addressing more than the foibles of Southern hicks.

The title of the novel also supports this spiritual aspect. While the power company itself plays a minor role here, merely serving the town of Monroe and offering employment, its name suggests the primary characteristics of God that are under discussion here—in terms of both the power He has and the light He generates and offers to others.

Unfortunately, the reviews seem to relate more to the quirky nature of these Southern characters, even calling the novel a blend of comedy and tragedy, than to the spiritual search introduced by Moon Pie and Billy Wayne. Indeed, Billy Wayne asks how he can justify abandoning his priestly vocation, since he has become a failure in his relationship with two wives and has prompted the death of two others. The answer he reaches is not a satisfactory one for me, with its crown of nettles, although it may be for the author, his creator, who seems to rate the symbolism over the reality.

Of course, once things go wrong, humans beings do tend to look in various directions for the reason. Some ask if what happened is their own fault. Others ask if it is the fault of circumstances, or fate. Still others ask if the fault is God’s. In this case, Billy Wayne faults mainly himself, as he takes on the burden of the family curse. But the author, in his approach to the entire novel, seems to suggest otherwise, that the fault, or much of it, rests with God.

In fact, when Billy Wayne sees himself as a failure at the end, he himself begins to question God. “Surely, there had to have been a purpose,” he reasons, “elsewise this world and everything in it were all merely accidental and random—not the kind of world a God would create.”

The implication seems to be that God has failed mankind by instituting this curse called original sin. For allowing a family to be destroyed through no fault of its own. And for leaving survivors with little understanding of the reason, either for their own existence or for the eventual fate of every human. Asked the meaning of life, one character says: “That it ends. Just that.”

The narrator concludes with speculation about the next story people will hear about. “Whatever it is, we’ll feel different when it’s over. We’ll feel wiser, even if we aren’t. Wise and fortunate.” For life will go on. They will discover more about fate, questioning it at the same time that they accept it. But they will not have the answer to God’s role in their lives. Just as Billy Wayne himself did not, which does lead to this novel’s tragic consequences. (December, 2018)

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Apostles of Light, by Ellen Douglas

This 1973 work is an old-fashioned novel, for which it might be difficult to get a publisher today. Primarily because nothing much happens in its opening chapters, which is filled with family members talking extensively as they decide what to do with their surviving older generation. We follow long speculative conversations as they discuss their responsibilities when Aunt Elizabeth dies, and their elderly Aunt Martha survives. They convince themselves that they want to do what is best for Martha, and yet they are also concerned with the financial implications of what they do decide.

This is a tedious process to follow, as the younger generation decides to convert Martha’s house into a home for old people, called Golden Age Acres. Martha agrees, on the condition they accept her long-time boyfriend Lucas as a resident. The idea for the home originates with smooth-talking cousin Howie (keeping it in the family), who managers the facility and who hires Mrs. Crawley as its nurse. These two characters become the villains of the novel, as they pursue their personal success and the home’s financial success at the expense of its residents. Meanwhile, the responsible family members, Albert, George, and George’s son Newton persuade themselves of the benefits of offering a home for a half dozen or so older people, for it both contributes to society and brings companionship to Aunt Martha.

But this is not the life Martha wants. She wants to be independent and to enjoy life with Lucas. He is a doctor with whom she has been romantically linked for decades but has never married. Indeed, their search for companionship and happiness becomes the emotional center of this novel, and the suspense builds as we read to learn whether or not this elderly couple will indeed assume control of their own lives. For independence to them means they will leave Golden Age, which, in turn, means that it will likely fail. And, of course, Howie and Mrs. Crawley oppose this. Indeed, they lie to the family about their careful care of the elderly and resort to drugging not only Lucas but other patients in order to control the situation.

And so, the novel’s main issue is: will Lucas and Martha find happiness together? It is unusual to have a novel centered on such elderly characters, but the work creates considerable power as they pursue their independence. The couple even seeks the aid of Homer, a black caretaker, which complicates the novel, since this story is set in Mississippi. We delve rather deeply into Homer’s mind, in fact, as he plots not only to help Martha and Lucas but also to protect his own black family. And this is not a sidetrack, because he eventually becomes their only hope.

At this point, I decided that, given the tone of the novel, Douglas was more likely to come up with a positive ending. But that she would create a more powerful work if Martha and Lucas failed. Without giving away the solution to their problem, I must say Douglas’ ending does not work for me. Basically, it fails my standards of humanity. First, it introduces too much violence. It is dramatic, yes, highly dramatic, but this reader was completely unprepared for the direction it took. And second, a major individual, for me, acts completely out of character. The author seems aware of this, given some internal dialogue, but such musing does not succeed with me.

One must be familiar with the Bible to grasp the significance of the title. As the book cover says, “Trapped in a nursing home, [the couple] are the victims of the biblical ‘apostles of light,’ the deceitful do-gooders who profess righteousness.” For me, however, the purpose of this title is not to suggest that Howie and Mrs. Crawley are major characters, but to emphasize the situation that these righteous do-gooders put Martha and Lucas in. That is, the title is intended to be ironic.

The blurb goes on to day: “In subtle, elegant prose Ellen Douglas recounts a gripping story of their brave attempt to free themselves from a dreadful plight. They must confront both their corrupt and evil custodians and their well-meaning younger relatives who are tempted by greed, ambition, cowardice, and indifference.” Thus, the family also plays a major role in this situation, seeing itself doing good, when it truly is not. As a result, Douglas draws an effective portrait of a Southern society striving to get ahead on one level, and yet still locked into its old traditional attitudes. That is, it truly captures the texture of Southern society.

To review, even with its slow beginning, much more typical of a novel of 45 years ago than of one today, I was willing to give full attention this family. Because its people were well grounded. I grasped their relationship to one another, their sense of responsibility, their individual priorities, and their sincere effort, even if misguided, to resolve Aunt Martha’s situation. And then, as they tried to adjust to the villainies of Howie and Mrs. Crowley, the author creates the tension that any novel, any drama needs. And so, by the time Lucas and Martha realize that they need to act, the suspense has reached a fever pitch. This is no longer the quiet novel of the opening chapters.

And the literary world recognized this achievement, when it nominated Apostles of Light as a finalist for the National Book Award in 1973. It did so, I believe, because its portrait of Southern society recognized the relationship between whites and blacks, because it created a viable family that worked together even when at cross-purposes, and because the novel as a whole dealt with the responsibilities of both individual families and society for the elderly.

Did it offer this recognition despite the ending, or because of it? For me, it was an ending I was unprepared for—in fact, a cop out. As if the author could not come up with a logical and dramatic success, or a logical and dramatic failure, for the couple, and decided to resort to high drama instead—to go for a surprise. And my personal reaction is that the tone of this surprise and the tone of the violence violated the prior tone of the entire novel.

This novel does not encourage me to look into more of Douglas’ work. (April, 2018)

Everybody’s Fool, by Richard Russo

This 2016 novel reads as if Russo has fallen in love with his characters of Nobody’s Fool, as well as being fascinated by the down-at-the-heels town of North Bath that he has created in upper New York State. And without any overall plan, has decided to re-apply his writing skills to that town and to explore the subsequent lives of these same characters. The result is a serious novel that cares deeply about its creations, but it does seems unfocused, as it follows these citizens around without an apparent purpose in doing so. And as a result, seems simply to create a world that is alive in the author’s mind, and which he is skilled enough to bring alive also to the reader.

And so we follow the parallel adventures of four male residents who talk to each other but whose lives do not affect each other, and who are not dependent on one another. We simply move from one character’s life to the next. These characters are Sully Sullivan, the main character from the earlier novel about North Bath, whose health is now threatened by a weak heart; Doug Raymer, the town’s chief of police, who is the most prominent character in this novel and who seeks to learn the identity of the man who was his wife’s lover before she died; Gus Moynihan, the North Bath mayor, who also has spousal problems but is less significant; and Carl Roebuck, the town entrepreneur, who never achieves the business success he seeks and also fades out at the end of this novel.

Each of these characters sees himself as failing to live up to his potential, just as their town has failed economically to keep up with its wealthy neighbor, Schuyler Springs. However, Russo helps the reader to identify with each of these characters, despite their human weaknesses, as it is clear that each of them is dealing with a personal trait or a family connection that hinders their search for happiness and fulfillment.

These four main characters bring substance to this novel, nevertheless, and give depth to this town. But it is other characters, less substantial, who drive the action of this novel. The most prominent is Charice Bond, a highly efficient black woman who is the aide to police chief Raymer, and with whom he has an emotional connection. There is also her unsettled brother, Jerome, with whom she has an even closer emotional connection; Rub Squeers, a hapless town handyman who tries and fails to be Sully’s best friend; and Roy Purdy, the most significant, a violent man who beats up people, especially his ex-wife and his former mother-in-law, the latter because she has had a long affair with Sully.

One means of probing the interior of these characters, lending them literary substance, is the use of humor. The most obvious source is Dougie, an inner voice of Doug Raymer who needles him, sees his weaknesses, and also acts as his conscience. Unfortunately, this italicized voice is overdone, and becomes too obvious a means of revealing Raymer’s inner thoughts. It also prompts an absurd moment when Raymer becomes a hero by grabbing a deadly cobra and putting it back in a box. Yes, a cobra is loose in town in one of the novel’s major absurdities.

But not the only one. There is also grave robbing. It seems Raymer has found a garage opener in his dead wife’s car, and he goes around town pointing it at neighbor’s garages in order to learn whom she had an affair with. Except, he then falls into a grave, loses the opener, and it is buried behind him. Voila, a grave robber. There is also more humor behind other human foibles, foibles resulting in a collapsed wall or a stinking basement, all of which bring out the ignorance, the pettiness, and the contradictions in the town’s residents.

That is, much of the novel’s humor evolves from the futility that marks these characters. Raymer is an incompetent police chief. Sully has a bad heart, and refuses to acknowledge it. Moynihan is a failure as a mayor, and Roebuck as a businessman. And handyman Rub is the most incompetent of all.

The casual exchanges among these men reflect the shallowness of their character, which, in turn, betrays why this town is a failure compared to Schuyler Springs. But these exchanges also reveal Russo’s sympathy for them, along with their incompetence; which, in turn, keeps the reader involved in their escapades and in this novel. And which also reflects the work’s facetious title, as it suggests the incompetence of everyone, especially in its focus on Chief Raymer.

The major disappointment I have in this novel is its looseness, its moving simply from the foibles of one character to those of another. The result is the portrait of a town and its failures, and yet not a commentary on the reasons behind those failures. For it likes its characters too much. That is, Russo does. Only the violent Roy is condemned. (Indeed, Russo says he took a shower after writing each of Roy’s chapters.)

A final disappointment is the ending, which brings peace, satisfaction, or happiness to these incompetent characters. It is too arbitrary for me, reflecting too much of the author’s sympathy for these people he has created. More appropriate for this town would have been some irony that continues the frustrations confronting these basically incompetent citizens.

As Russo approaches the end of his distinguished career, it is heartening to see him again take a serious approach to small town life. Perhaps the humor is intended to take the edge off the novel’s seriousness, and therefore attract more readers. I will accept that. I just wish the characters could have been more involved with each other, instead of living their own separate lives with their own separate problems. Perhaps such complexity is too much to handle for an author in the later stages of his career. Which does make one wonder how complex, how probing, future Russo novels will be. (November, 2017)

Two Jake Brigance novels, by John Grisham

I have not read John Grisham’s legal thrillers, because of my impression that they are more thrillers than works of literature. But I had heard that his first work, written in 1989, was impressive, and that it had helped Grisham make an early mark in the world of fiction.

Well, those reports were correct. A Time to Kill is an impressive work, and can even claim the label of literature. Because it is about more than a legal case, about more than a courtroom drama, about more than an interesting lawyer acting under duress. It is about an entire society, the American South of the 1980s. It is about race and politics, about white and black relationships, about rape and justice, about demonstrations and violence, about ambition and doubt, about ethics and morality. In its own way, it parallels the work of Scott Turow, with the culture of the South here replacing that of Turow’s Chicago-like city.

A Time to Kill is about two drunken white red necks who rape a ten-year-old black girl, Tonya Hailey, in an opening scene that is blunt, graphic, and tough to read. The men are caught, and, in reaction, the girl’s father, Carl Lee Hailey, executes the two rapists in cold blood while they are being transferred from the courthouse.

From this point forward, however, the reader is pulled back from a close-up view of the events, and becomes a witness to a carefully crafted and complex story of lawyers, the courts, the public’s response, and the overall administration of justice. Beyond the complexity however, is an emotional level, for the reader relates to the father’s revenge, and is meant to, even as he also acknowledges that the murder of the two men was a criminal act. So the reader is torn by separate responses, one by his heart and the other by his mind. He is faced with a choice between true justice and legal justice.

The lawyer chosen to defend Carl Lee is Jake Brigance, a smart, honest, young lawyer in the small Mississippi town of Clanton. He dreams of the big time, and his local reputation has earned him this big case, which challenges his ability, his integrity, his patience, and his loyalty. His key problem is: to get Carl Lee off with a plea of temporary insanity. Around him are his elderly secretary Ethel Twitty; the disbarred lawyer Lucien Wilbanks, from whom he inherited his firm; Harry Rex Vonner, a ruthless divorce lawyer often in his cups; Ellen Roark, a brilliant, aggressive law student from Boston who steals each scene she is in; and Carla, Jakes’ wife, whom he sends out of town when local citizens threaten violence.

In town, Jake must deal with Ozzie Walls, the only black sheriff in the state; Omar Noose, a smart politician turned judge; Rufus Buckley, an ambitious DA; the Rev. Agee, leader of the local black ministers; and Stump Sisson, leader of the state’s Ku Klux Klan. Plus, a public audience of the protesting black community, the National Guard, and members of the Klan. Not to forget a crooked Memphis lawyer, Bo Marsharfsky, and a more aggressive NAACP lawyer, Norman Reinhold, brought in to defend Carl Lee.

At a low point, Jake complains about what he, his firm, and his family have endured. Now close to bankruptcy, he senses his case and his reputation lost. Moreover, his secretary’s husband has been assaulted and died. Klan snipers have shot and paralyzed a Guardsman protecting him. His legal aide has been assaulted. His house has been burned down. His wife may be divorcing him. And, finally, he expects his client, Carl Lee, to fire him.

In summary, these seem like melodramatic events. But they have happened progressively, as both black and white forces increase their public pressure on the court and on Jake. Which makes inevitable each move toward violence in this battle to control the outcome of the trial. Resulting, of course, in greater tension in the community, as well as in the novel. Jake is a fighter, however, and he resists every move to outwit him or to intimidate him.

If there is any disappointment, it is the lack of a strong ending. First, Jake is confronted with the need to make a strong rebuttal to a key prosecution witness challenging his insanity plea. And then he needs to make a strong summing up. Yet we see him make no effort to meet either need—until, suddenly, he does. Unexpectedly. And we never see him preparing. As a result, it is the reader who is unprepared. And Jake’s success seems hollow.

Second, after the verdict is placed in the hands of the jury, we follow them into the jury room, whereupon one juror suggests what she promises is a novel solution. Grisham then cuts away, so we do not know what that solution is. And when it comes, pages later, it turns out to be a letdown. For it becomes simply a sensible suggestion. Whereas, the reader has expected it to be something original, a brilliant interpretation of the law, or of justice, that sheds new light on the entire trial. Indeed, on the entire novel. But it does not.

What we have here is a brilliant novel that explores Southern society at a crucial point in its long history, a point at which racial equality is being demanded by one side and resisted by another. And, with many resisting the law’s move toward equality, real emotions swirl across this town.

In addition, this story of a society is complemented by individual stories of the people involved. Most prominent is lawyer Jake Brigance, who is both sympathetic to change and sympathetic as a person. He is on the right side. But his allies are not all upstanding figures, and his enemies are either smart or ruthless. There is real tension here and a believable adversary. There is also suspense regarding the jury’s verdict, but disappointment, as I said, in the novel’s resolution.

This work does not turn me on to Grisham’s legal thrillers. But I am interested in Sycamore Row, which he wrote twenty-five years later, and is a sequel of sorts to this novel. Does it also have literary ambitions?

What would be interesting to explore is why Grisham turned to writing popular legal thrillers instead of attempting to explore Southern society more deeply in subsequent works. Did he feel himself inadequate to do so? Did writing about the South in depth require more time than his family budget allowed? This novel was originally published by a small press, after being rejected by major publishers. Did the temptation of a major publisher and its marketing needs become too strong to resist? (March, 2017)

 

Sycamore Row, this second novel, from 2013, reaches the borderline of literary works, but does not quite cross it. It reaches it by adding its portrait of Southern culture, meaning whites vs. blacks, to its main story. In this case, Grisham’s return to Clanton, Mississippi, bring us not a story of murder, as in A Time to Kill, set three years earlier, but the strange writing of a will. There are also no violence, no demonstrations. There is mainly puzzlement, about why a rich white man, dying of cancer, could leave millions to a black woman, a housekeeper who worked for and cared for him during the last three years of his life.

Grisham here uses the complexities of law that characterizes his legal thrillers, but it is the racial angle that pervaded the South in the 1980s that distinguishes this work. As in A Time to Kill, the issue is whether a person, Seth Hubbard, a rich recluse, was of sound mind when he wrote by hand a will that disinherited his family. As a wealthy lumberman, dying of cancer, he had undergone chemo and was taking Demerol. Did that treatment affect his decision-making? Or did black housekeeper Lettie Lang persuade him to omit his children and grandchildren from that final will, a will which proposes to make her the richest woman in Ford County?

The hero again is Clanton lawyer Jake Brigance, who has recovered professionally from the murder case three years earlier, but not financially. But, again, his local reputation has earned him this new case. For, on the night before he hangs himself on a sycamore tree, Seth Hubbard writes his will and designates Jake as the lawyer to see that the will is enforced. Thus, as the lawyer for the estate, Jake is determined to see that it is applied. He is opposed by lawyers for Seth’s two deadbeat and selfish children, Herschel and Ramona, and his four grand children. Some critics feel these family portraits weighs the novel too heavily against Jake’s foes, but this works for a novel with a liberal bias. Finally, Judge Atlee, in whose court the will is challenged, is a fair judge, a smart judge, but a judge subject to Southern mores, and while he and Jake get along, Jake is not sure of him at times.

We spend some time reading about the opposing lawyers as they devise their strategy and discover evidence that will besmirch the character of Lettie—discoveries which also create suspense for the reader. There is also further tension, created by an aggressive black lawyer from Memphis, Booker Sistrunk, which recalls similar ill-timed disruptions in A Time to Kill by Bo Marsharfsky and Norman Reinhold. But Judge Atlee will not stand for Sistrunk, and Grisham returns his focus to Jake and his team’s effort to support the hand-written will. His team again includes Harry Rex Vanner, a divorce lawyer, and Lucien Wilbanks, from whom he inherited his law firm, plus a new member, Portia Lang, a young and ambitious black woman who is the daughter of Lettie.

Contributing to the texture that underscores this work are the legal steps that Jake must make to support his case. This means probate (proving that a will is valid), appraisal (determining the value of the estate), discovery (of those who will testify and the evidence to be presented), and the deposition (an overview of what witnesses or experts are to say). In other words, as Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Grisham details the dirty tricks, data dumping, and witness dumping routinely used by a large legal team to flummox the other side.”

A side story, not that significant, concerns Lettie’s antagonistic relationship with her husband, Simon Lang. He drinks, has no steady job, and has been known to beat her. She is considering divorce, when he accidently hits and kills two young boys with his car. This sidetracks her, and distracts Jake in his efforts on her behalf.

In a more significant side story, Grisham sends Lucien off to Alaska to find Seth’s brother, Ancil, who is mentioned in the will but has long ago disappeared. And, as a perceptive reader might anticipate, it turns out that Ancil holds the key to this novel. For it is he who reveals why Seth left his fortune to Lettie. This produces an ending that the reader completely accepts, an ending that refers back to the South’s racial history, but it is also an ending that is almost too neat in how it brings a sense of justice to Seth’s final decision to change his will. However, Grisham then introduces an even higher sense of justice, when Judge Atlee makes a decision of his own. Yet, for me, this reflects an author merely deciding to deepen the satisfaction of his readers. It is a double ending, not unlike that of A Time to Kill.

The strength of this novel lies in its portrait of a determined and honest Jake, in the collaborative efforts by his team and the opposing team of lawyers, in the sense of anticipation felt by the rejected offspring of Seth, and in the racial culture of the South—which involves everything from the tension between the Hubbard and Lang families that goes back decades to the community friction between the races, highlighted in the jury selection. And, finally, there is the dramatic scene in which Seth revisits that day when, as a boy, he witnessed the historic, climactic events that gives the novel its title.

I do think this novel might have been stronger, if Lettie had become a more introspective character, if, instead of tracking her problems with her husband, we had been allowed to see inside her, to glimpse how she felt about the impending wealth that awaited her. But she is reserved, knows her place, and has learned not to anticipate any such benefit from the world she lives in. Indeed, Grisham pulls back from her when she tells Jake she has the answer to two adverse discoveries made by the opposing lawyers. But we never do get to hear her defend herself.

Perhaps because this novel centers on a will rather than a murder, it explores the legal world more thoroughly than does A Time to Kill. Of course, that novel also explored the racial tension in the community, whereas, in this novel, the cultural element, the racial tension, exist more at the family level, at the unknown relationship between Lettie and Seth and the known relationship that survives between Lettie’s family and Seth’s family.

One might also note another contrast, that this novel focuses on how a woman’s life might be transformed for the better by the outcome of a legal proceeding, while the earlier Clanton novel focused on how the figurative destruction of a woman’s life led to a lengthy legal proceeding, as well as to the destruction of two lives and to community violence. The earlier novel carried a larger significance. Lives were at stake. But this novel holds its own as an exploration of justice and the racial tension in the South. (March, 2017)

Corelli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Bernieres

This 1994 work is a serious, imaginative, and moving novel, but not the great novel it might have been. It does, however, reveals much more depth than its almost frivolous title suggests.

This is the story of a small Greek island town at the time of World War II. It is a story of adventure, romance, heartache, and loss. The town’s story is that it endures the Italian occupation, a German reprisal massacre, and a postwar earthquake. The family story revolves around Dr. Iannis, the father, and his beautiful and spirited daughter Pelagia. But taken into the family are handsome Mandras and his mother Drosoula, and then Antonio Corelli, the captain of the Italian occupying force, who is a virtuoso of the mandolin. Another Italian is Carlo Guercio, a homosexual soldier, while there is also a sensitive German lieutenant, Gunter Weber. Others are citizens of the town, such as strongman Velisarios, and two adversaries, royalist Stamatis and communist Kokolios.

The entrancing first half or more of this novel begins with the pre-war romance between Pelagia and Mandras; each believes they are destined to be together. But war interferes, and then political belief as Mandras goes off to fight. Whereupon he is slowly replaced by Captain Corelli who flirts with Pelagia and wins her kisses but nothing more. He becomes her true love.

But the war eventually interferes, not only with both their romances, but with the novel also. The Italians government surrenders, and the brutal Germans take over the Italian occupation of Greece, including Corelli’s town. And with the novel and its characters taken over by history, our friends no longer control their lives, and we read page after page of fictionalized history.

There are brief dramatic moments, involving an operation, murderous firing squads, and a soldier’s return, but they are momentary before we return to the narration of history. Which continues after the war, as the novel becomes a chronicle of the events experienced by this family and this town into the 1990s—all beautifully described in often lyrical prose, but with all the accounts being told more than dramatized. Finally, there is a dramatic finale, beautifully and emotionally described, and yet more the result of a decision by the author than by the characters involved.

The author obviously intended this novel to be a great work. He writes chapters on both a personal level and an historic level. He writes from the viewpoint of various characters and various political, emotional, and historical perspectives. He writes dramatically and lyrically, brutally and romantically, and with a common touch at times and a tragic touch at others.

The result is that I was enthralled by the first half of the novel, and disappointed by the remainder, despite those occasional dramatic and emotional moments. Since the author is British and wrote earlier novels with a Spanish environment (he lived for a while in Colombia), one senses that this portrayal of events on a Greek island during and after World War II was carefully chosen. And carefully researched. But after the marvelous start, he allowed the research, and an historic message, to take over. This may have been because he wished to create two kinds of potential lovers and then to separate them. But he never created a true romantic triangle, and, for me, he lost the lovers to history. He did try to restore the emotional connection at the end in each case, but while the scenes do work emotionally they are not fully convincing. In one case, his male lover is too brutal, and in the other case he, or the author, is too romantic.

Two themes dominate this novel. The first is the presence of love in the lives of otherwise insignificant people. The other is the impact of war on these same insignificant people. And the author uses history to emphasize the helplessness of these people in any attempt to enjoy one and avoid the other.

One traditional love is Iannis’ love for his daughter, plus that between Pelagia and Mandras, and then, when she believes Mandras is dad, between Pelagia and Corelli. Another is the love of these Greeks for their country and their history. There is also the love of the homosexual Carlo for a fellow soldier, and then his hidden love for Corelli. Not to forget Corelli’s love of music and his mandolin, which, with his wit, turns him into a sympathetic character. And finally there is the love of the townspeople for one another, especially for Dr. Iannis and Pelagia.

The impact of war and violence on otherwise insignificant towns and people is also the theme of other works by de Bernieres. Here, he takes us from the Albanian front as the Greeks defend themselves against the Italians to the violent reprisal of the Germans when the occupying Italian company refuses to abandon these Greeks they have come to appreciate. The reprisal is particularly brutal and treacherous. And, later, the helplessness of the townspeople before history is underlined by an earthquake that completely destroys their lives. (Which is followed by a sardonic revival when tourists arrive and help to rebuild the town and its economy.)

The idea of history is introduced at the very start of the novel, with Dr. Iannis writing a history of his town and its island, and finding it is not easy. He believes that true history is to be seen in the lives of the people, not in movements or the records kept by leaders. Which also reflects the author’s interest in history, for he, too, is writing of the impact of modern history on this island and this small town. What de Bernieres wants us to be aware of is that we cannot avoid being subservient to history, even as we try to be the master of our own destiny.

I have read and enjoyed a later de Bernieres, and remain interested in his other works. I will note, however, that I had a similar criticism of Birds Without Wings. It was, again, a novel about the negative impact of war and violence on a small town and its people, and I again commented on its overemphasis on history during the final quarter of the novel. I would also note that that novel, too, has a sympathetic lieutenant who is part of the Italian occupation of the novel’s small Turkish town. Perhaps the more things change in this author’s work, the more they stay the same. (February, 2016)

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Second reading. I read this 1960 novel many years ago, but with the recent publication of Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman—which she wrote before this one, and which covered the same characters twenty years later—I decided to reread this classic. I wanted to compare my response today with the review I wrote more than five decades ago. Because that review had not been entirely positive for a novel that is now recommended reading in every schoolroom. What had I missed?

My initial reaction to this second reading is to see why it has become so popular, so recommended by both parents and teachers. For this is the ideal book to put into an adolescent’s hands. It has a real story. It is about children; and it is told from their viewpoint, especially that of a young tomboy named Scout. And most important, almost every page teaches a lesson about how both children and adults should conduct themselves.

There are examples of how children should behave toward siblings, friends, and parents, as well as toward teachers, authorities, and neighbors—indeed, toward everyone they encounter. And also how adults should conduct themselves with their children, their relatives, and their friends, as well as with strangers of any age, any social level, and any race. Readers learn this primarily from Scout’s father, Atticus, but also from Scout’s reactions to others, especially to her brother Jem.

In some ways, this novel’s portrait of Southern society recalls The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—perhaps because that novel is also related from a child’s viewpoint. But this work is a far cry from Twain’s classic. Because the events presented here are completely on the surface. There is gossip but no true social satire, and there is no subtle Southern texture, no psychological complexity, no hidden meanings boiling just below the surface.

Indeed, the Gregory Peck movie version was so successful, I believe, because there is so little under the surface to bring forth. And movies, with their emphasis on the visual, belong to the surface. They always find it difficult to capture the complex subtleties inside any work of fiction.

Three children are at the center of this novel, Scout, her brother Jem, four years older, and their friend Dill, a smart but immature boy supposedly based on the author’s friend, Truman Capote. Much of the action and most of the social observations revolve around Scout’s father Atticus Finch. He is a respected lawyer, with a black servant, Calpurnia, running his household.

Beyond Scout’s home are gossiping neighbors who provide simple social satire, and downtown are Judge Taylor and Sheriff Tate, both involved with the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. This trial and its repercussions are the centerpiece of the novel. Finally, there are the Cunninghams and the Ewells, lower class whites derided by the upper levels of white society, and Boo Radley, a neighbor who represents innocence.

Early events in the novel show Scout’s childhood life, from tensions on the school playground and in the classroom, to the scouting of recluse Boo Radley’s house, to the building of a snowman and its loss in a neighborhood fire, to, finally, the arrival of Aunt Alexandra to “civilize” Scout and Jem.

Then the rape of an Ewell girl and the trial of Tom Robinson is introduced. In my original reading, I suggested that the rape and the subsequent events exist in an adult world that the children do not belong to, and that they had to be forced into that world (as downtown witnesses at night, and joining the blacks in the courtroom balcony). I did not feel that earlier concern this time, but that reaction does have validity. Meanwhile, town events ranged from the people’s reaction to Atticus defending a “nigger,” to a dramatic confrontation with Atticus before the jail, to the extended treatment of the trial itself. Some critics, note, attribute the details of the trial to Lee’s interest in the law, and to her father having been a lawyer.

I wondered, however, in my first review whether Scout’s innocence might have been better joined to the heart of her childhood if Boo Radley had been identified more as an outsider, like the blacks were, and that Scout could have seen in her treatment of Boo much of what she objected to in the treatment of blacks. Or, if rather than Tom Robinson being accused of rape, someone in Calpurnia’s family was accused, for this would have given that trial much more significance in Scout’s personal life.

For its conclusion, the novel switches back to Scout’s childhood, specifically to her school’s Halloween pageant in which she wears a clumsy costume. On heading home from the school at night, she is attacked and falls, and during that confusion a man is killed. In both readings, I found the circumstances of that attack quite arbitrary, because it represented a return to Scout’s childhood, and it had no connection to the preceding events, except its justification of Boo Radley’s presence in the novel. There is also a lengthy discussion between Tate and Atticus about whom to blame for the death, which bothered me until I realized that underneath was a debate about how not to charge a good man with the death of the evil man who attacked Scout.

When Go Tell a Watchman came out last month, we learned the story behind the creation of Mockingbird. That Harper Lee wrote Watchman first, and that her New York editor convinced this young author that the real story was in Scout’s youth twenty years earlier. And so Lee wrote Mockingbird, a novel that created a very different Atticus Finch. For the Atticus of Watchman is a member of the White Citizens’ Council, while the Atticus of Mockingbird is himself mocked for “defending a nigger.” (Although one might note that Atticus does say that the leader of a lynch mob in Mockingbird is “basically a good man,” with “blind spots along with the rest of us.”)

All of which started me speculating. For Watchman was written in the late 1950s, when the civil rights movement was just picking up steam, and I wondered if the New York editor was perhaps not comfortable with publishing a beginner’s novel in which a main character is a member of the White Citizens’ Council and the work is filled with racist venom. And so to get around this, my theory holds, she suggested that this novice author refine her work and focus on an innocent child as the heroine who is just confronting the racial reality of that era, the 1930s. Which the young author did. Whether or not this happened, it is interesting to note that there is a trial of a black man in both novels, and that the outcomes are reversed—as if Lee chose a negative result in the 1930s novel to make her racial point stronger.

But it is also interesting to note law professor Monroe Freedman, who observed that Atticus did not change that much. That he went along with the white supremecist times in each case. In Mockingbird, he defended Robinson only because he was assigned that task; and he did not object to the prevailing norm of no black jurymen, nor to their segregation in the courtroom. Whereas in Watchman, when the civil rights movement is beginning and white Southerners are reacting with White Citizens’ Councils, we learn Atticus stays with the politics of his fellow Southerners.

Is the shift simply because the older Atticus is more conservative, more resistant to social change? And being a politician in Mockingbird, he is geared to remain so in Watchman?

A current New York Times review by Michiko Kakutani helps to set up the differences in the two novels. “Mockingbird… represents a determined effort to see both the bad and the good in small-town life, the hatred and the humanity; it presents an idealized father-daughter relationship…and views the past not as something lost but as a treasured memory. In a 1963 interview, Ms. Lee, who now lives in her old hometown, Monroeville, Ala., said of Mockingbird: ‘The book is not an indictment so much as a plea for something, a reminder to people at home.’”

Perhaps we might conclude that both novels are a tale of innocence. It is a sin to kill the mockingbird of the 1930’s book because the bird is an innocent. As Scout is an innocent girl in Mockingbird when, from the ages of five to eight, she discovers the real world and thinks she understands a father who is totally good. While in Watchman, now called Jean Louise, she returns home to discover her father is not who she thinks he is, but is actually a bigot.

In my original review, I speculated that Mockingbird might end up being Lee’s only novel because “the first half is truly her own life and the second half is mainly her imagination.” And that she may have “written herself out of her childhood memories.” But I also wrote that I would be interested in reading her next work, because “she can create children, can create the Southern scene, can be humorous, can be compassionate, can know exactly what she is doing in framing her scenes, and can create an interesting variety of people. {But] can—will—she do it again?”

It was worth reading To Kill a Mockingbird again. But the earlier, and less accomplished according to critics, Watchman is not at this point on my reading list. (August, 2015)

Still Life with Bread Crumbs, by Anna Quindlen

From the moment Rebecca Winter awakens in her rustic upstate cottage in the middle of the night, thinking she has heard a gunshot, I was in that dark cottage and in the mind of this woman—and was committed to this 2014 novel. Because it quickly caught her fear, her questioning, her uncertainty about why she was in this cottage in this godforsaken town where she knew no one.

Indeed, loneliness is a minor theme of this novel, underpinning the empty life of this sixty-year-old photographer who was once famous but now is almost ignored. She became famous for a photograph that gives this novel its title, part of a series of kitchen counter photographs that caught the public’s eye, especially feminists, and made her wealthy. But the money has run out now, she is divorced from an egotistical man who never appreciated her, and she has now fled Manhattan to balance her budget and revive her creative juices—renting this cottage that has no heat, no telephone, little electricity, and a bad roof.

Rebecca becomes such an interesting woman, as she ponders her loss of fame, deals with her house, and wanders the woods with her camera, that I had as little need as she in wandering into town. And even less interest in getting to know her upbringing, her fickle husband, her Manhattan apartment, her film-maker son, and her now elderly parents. Because these scenes which fleshed out her past interrupted the flow of this work. But apparently Quindlen likes these abrupt shifts in time, for she says she is going to use this technique in subsequent fiction. I did not need such flashbacks, however, to sense the depths of this woman. Instead, I wanted to leave the past each time, and follow her as she adapted to her new rural life.

Rebecca does meet a roofer, Jim Bates, a tea shop proprietor Sarah, and Tad, a former boy soprano but now a party clown; and we sense something will come of these relationships. But more interesting are the tiny white crosses, each with a personal memento, that Rebecca encounters and photographs in the woods. Worried about her bank account, she also takes on a job photographing migrating birds, working alongside Jim who has volunteered to track them. Their conversations suggest a promising relationship may develop. She also takes in a stray dog, and as she begins photographing him one senses her creative juices beginning to flow.

And yet, too much background keeps slowing my interest. It is Rebecca and Jim I am interested in, and Rebecca and the town. They like her, and so do I. I do not need to know about Sarah’s husband, or even Tad’s unhappiness. What does keep me turning the pages are those white crosses. Who is leaving them around? What do they mean? And why, early on, did Jim spirit away one he found in the woods?

But finally, the plot clicks in. Rebecca and Jim spend a night together. But a misunderstanding then separates them. It is a conventional device, but both are likable people, and we want to see them back together. More plot mechanics take Rebecca to the funeral of her father, introduce a new agent for her, and take us to her grand opening at a gallery in Brooklyn. Each of these scenes works, not least the gallery opening because both Quindlen and Rebecca scorn the pretentious art world it represents.

And then comes the philosophical raison d’être for this novel. It is not about feminism. It is more about life alone, another’s life. It is about why the white crosses were set out. That they were personal. That they were an unspoken plea. And that Rebecca has taken their three-dimensional reality and reduced them to two-dimensional art, when: “They’re not just pictures,” Jim says. “They’re real…The point is…what they mean. Not what the pictures mean, what the things mean.” And we suddenly understand the solid reality Quindlen has implanted in this book, and why she has made her heroine a photographer.

The realization also comes to Rebecca. “She looked at the White Cross photographs again with her new knowledge about what had become before and after them, and instead of static images they seemed an infinite prolonging….She wondered if the great artists had ever considered this, da Vinci with the woman who would become Mona Lisa, Sargent with Madame X, whether they had ever considered the terrible eternity of immortality….

She sat in a chair in the dark, watching [Jim and the dog], and when she was tempted to use her camera, she was suddenly ashamed of herself for the very first time.”

It is a marvelous evocation of photography, indeed of all art. All artists. Even novelists. That we use life to create art. That life is real and art is not, and that we must not confuse the two. This is not to deny art its legitimacy. It is simply not to put it above man. I found this moment quite moving, surely because it made me more aware of my own photography.

In the background, Rebecca often refers to the women’s movement in describing her success. That she pointed her camera at commonplace subjects in the home, such as a new baby, or a kitchen. But I see this novel more as the portrait of an individual woman, not of a movement. What carries this work is Rebecca herself, her loneliness, her doubt, her independence, her conviction, her family responsibility, and her need for human contact. She is a believable human being, even a convincing lover, at 60, for a man of 45.

To sum up, this is an outstanding Quindlen novel. I remember my regret when she quit her New York Times column in order to write fiction. But she had that belief in herself that Rebecca has here. And like Rebecca’s, her decision was the right one. Like Rebecca, moreover, her approach to a novel here appears to change. The premise does not begin with a situation, a violent husband, a baby on the doorstep, but on the loneliness, the doubt, of her heroine. All develops from that. What she does retain is the detail, the tiny observation that reveals character, that captures a moment of time.

I look forward to the next Quindlen novel, knowing it will be filled with pertinent details, with personal strengths and weaknesses, and, one hopes, with a further comment on the human condition. (July, 2015)