Prayers for Rain, by Dennis Lehane

This 1999 private eye novel, featuring Patrikck Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, is the last mystery Lehane wrote before he produced Mystic River, a novel which announced his graduation into more literary work. And this novel shows he was ready to do just that.

From the opening pages, one senses an author in full control of his characters, as they roam from the streets of Boston to the South Shore, plus encounter the unexpected developments that introduce hidden deceit and moral complexity.

Meanwhile, complementing the action is colorful badinage between Kenzie and Gennaro that emphasizes their renewed relationship, as well as Kenzie’s frequent insights. Such as the “slightly confused, slightly guilty” look of dogs.” Or: “I could see her in a nursing home 40 years form now, alone, spending her days lost in the bitter smoke of her memories.” Or: she “uncrossed her legs and tucked them to the side in that effortless way that all women can and no man is remotely capable of.” All of which evokes a literary sensibility hovering just beyond the action-filled plot.

The story begins when an innocent girl, Karen Nichols, asks for protection against a would-be rapist. Kenzie scares the villain off, then learns a few months later—after Karen tries to get in touch with him and he ignores her—that she has committed suicide. It makes no sense to him that such a girl would do so, and a sense of guilt drives him to learn about the wealthy family she belonged to. It is headed by Christopher and Carrie Dawe, who raised a son Wesley and daughters Karen and Naomi. It is a patrician family, a mixed up family, a family filled with resentment. And a family vulnerable to blackmail and violence.

Soon, Kenzie figures out the cruelty and corruption the family hides, as well as its history of destroyed innocence. He also uncovers the confusing relationships between these family members and scheming interlopers who seek the Dawe forturne. Which leads to Kenzie finding himself in a can-and-mouse game with an unknown villain. This turns out to be Scott Pearse, whose evil strategy is to manipulate his victims’ minds until they do whatever he suggests, even commit suicide. The suspense builds when the sadistic Pearse tries this strategy on Kenzie himself, and appears to be continually one step ahead of the private detective’s efforts to protect both the Dawe’s fortune and its members from further bloodshed.

Fortunately, Kenzie has the help of Gennaro, his side-kick and girl friend, as well as that of Bubba Rogowski, an ex-soldier who exudes brawn over brain and is a typical muscleman for private eyes like Kenzie. Bubba leads their final escapade in the cranberry bogs of Plymouth, resulting in a bloody finale in which life is cheap but the good guys come out on top.

However, I found one fault with this mystery, which occurs when Lehane goes for broke in his ending. He tries to top his initial solution to this family mystery with a second solution that turns the first solution upside down. And this becomes too much for me. Such surprises in other Lehane novels do work, but this time he tries too hard. He doesn’t need the extra twist that suggests that final justice is still to be wrought.

Note also that the meaning of the title I do find to be elusive. Rain is water, which is a symbol of rebirth. Which the Dawes seek in their own way. Heavy rain can also call for courage and peace of mind in order to survive. Which is what Kenzie seeks when faced with the manipulative villain. And so I wonder if Lehane does not intend the title to refer to the villainous Pease and his desire to control others, a control that leads to family disintegration. For there exists a song of disintegration by the band, The Cure, which concludes:

“You fracture me, your hands on me, a touch
So plain so stale it kills
You strangle me, entangle me
In hopelessness and prayers for rain
Prayers for rain
Prayers for rain
Prayers for rain.”

Finally, I read this novel to catch up on Lehane’s complete work. And it was worth the effort, particularly when, despite extended violence, it suggests the literary novelist to come. (June, 2019)

Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene

This 1938 work is generally recognized as Greene’s first serious novel. And justifiably so, I will now agree. It had not impressed me, however, when I first read it perhaps sixty years ago.

And now I can see why.

Because this is not written in the beautiful, rich style of the serious novels that followed. It features a very gritty style, with metaphors that emphasize the ugliness of nature and the world. But it is nevertheless a true Greene work, as well as his first successful one. Because it is about evil. And about love. And about the two in conflict, the boy Pinkie being evil and the girl Rose not seeing the evil because she is in love.

It is a theme that will become richer, and more subtle, in subsequent Greene novels. It is a theme that naturally rises out of the newly acquired Catholicism of the author as well as the Catholicism of these two characters he has created. But it is not a visible theme until the second half, when Rose’s love blinds her. Indeed, Norman Sherry writes in his biography of Greene that the author had intended that this book to be a thriller, but as he passed the 30,000-word mark, he saw the possibilities in writing about more than a murdering punk; it could also be about a punk who personifies evil.

The story until then revolves around two murders initiated by an ambitious Pinkie. He seeks, through the power of his gang, revenge on a man who has betrayed his leader, who was also a father figure; but he also plots to avoid being blamed for the first murder. Greene explores the Brighton underworld and Pinkie’s efforts to survive it for a greater part of the novel, an approach which frankly turned me off in my first reading long ago. But this time I found it provocative because it was unclear how deep the evil went, and I was curious about where this novel was going.

Where he was going was Pinkie’s conviction that Rose could be a witness against him for the murder that opens the novel. He then pursues her, thinking that if he marries her she cannot, by law, testify against him. And Rose, being both unattractive and untutored in the wiles of men, succumbs to his attention, and then falls in love with him. What makes this relationship even more fascinating is that Pinkie is physically repelled by her, as well as by all women. For he has not only never experienced women, being a virgin and terrified by the idea, but also appears to be a latent homosexual. Or, perhaps, not even latent in Greene’s mind.

And so we have another example of Greene’s fascination with characters torn by internal conflict. Pinkie hates physical contact with women, but must seduce Rose. And Rose wants to live with Pinkie, but soon is convinced she must die with him. Indeed, the climactic moment when Pinkie plots with her to commit a suicide pact together—and we know he does not intend to fulfill his side of the bargain—is the most intense and most accomplished scene in the book.

The resolution of that scene, however, is not convincing, for Greene has taken the easy way out. He has three characters arrive fortuitously on the scene, and interrupt Pinkie’s plans. The most important of the three is Ida, whom we have been following at intervals throughout the novel. She was with the initial murder victim at the start of the novel, and seems to feel some responsibility for letting it happen. She is also, in contrast to the lovers, a very secular person, a believer in Right vs., Wrong, rather than, like the Catholic lovers, in Good vs. Evil. In any event, she is intent on seeing that justice is done and that Rose is saved. Indeed, she has been in pursuit of Pinkie for the second half of the novel. Which does lead to her presence in the climactic scene, when she arrives with a little help from the author.

The Raven of This Gun for Hire and Pinkie here are blood brothers. Each personifies evil, and each is involved with a girl who loves them and prefers to see the goodness inside them. J. M. Coetzee also points out that a death in This Gun prompts the killing that Pinkie commits as revenge at the opening of this novel.

One does ask how Greene could be so effective in portraying these characters on the underside of life. Granted, he wished to explore the nature of evil, and evil flourishes most on that underside. Sherry’s biography clearly shows how Greene researched the Brighton scene, using the race course, the hotels and bars, even the Kolley Kibber character who leaves cards all over Brighton and offers a prize to whomever first identifies him. He also cites actress Mae West, whom Greene recently reviewed, as a model for the spirited, blowsy Ida. As for his knowledge of the evil in these underground characters, Sherry says Greene “was tapping his own fundamental view of mankind and religious belief. What he is demonstrating in the novel is the limitations of religious belief which do not accept the existence of innate evil.”

The title, Brighton Rock, is never explained within the novel. It is a type of hard candy, and critics have assumed that the first murder was committed by stuffing the candy down the victim’s throat. This would make sense, and the title also reflects the hard life for these characters in Brighton. But Greene never makes clear why he chose it, as he chose his other titles.

It seems clear that Brighton Rock marked the turning point in Greene’s literary career. He realized that his new Catholic faith offered the entre with which to explore the contradictions in life between evil and sin on one hand, and human innocence and love on the other. And for literary purposes, this was most present in the sexual desire that drove his own life—desire as an expression of pleasure and also as an expression of love.

This is an ugly work on the surface, in its concentration on evil, in its unsympathetic characters, and in the hard metaphors of its style. But it offers a key to understanding the works to come, especially Power, Affair, and the plays. This is where the external world is replaced by the internal world—and by sin, redemption, and pity. It is where Greene finds his true subject: the contradictions within the human mind and the human soul. (February, 2016)

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert

This is a superb translation by Francis Steegmuller of Flaubert’s famous 1857 novel. One is quickly impressed by the details that make the setting and the era come alive, details that are so appropriate to the mood of each scene that they also bring the characters to life. Interestingly, the novel begins by presenting a young Charles Bovary, not his future wife, and this through an unknown narrator. Is this because he is to be an unknown cypher to her, and a negative presence as well to the reader?

Their meeting is a natural one. Charles grows up to become a doctor, visits the Rouault home to treat the father, and is impressed by daughter Emma. She, in turn, frustrated by a provincial life at home, quickly identifies him as a possible suitor and an escape into what she considers the real world. And so they marry. But Emma soon finds she has married a dull husband and is now living in another dull home no better than the one she has left. One might note here that Charles’ life has been narrated from the outside, while we absorb Emma’s life, her thinking, her emotions, from within.

Emma becomes so despondent that Charles moves them to another town. There, she encounters a young clerk, Leon, who intrigues her, but he is too shy to show his feelings, and she is too well-behaved to reveal her own interest. Whereupon, another suitor, a cad, Rodolphe Boulenger, pursues this beautiful, ripe, frustrated wife who needs consolation and is waiting to be swept off her feet. And she is, because she is a romantic, and this is the first man who has made her feel beautiful and wanted.

And when her seduction culminates in one phrase, “she gave herself to him,” this reader stepped back to mark how the literary world has changed. In Flaubert’s time, as in ours, one knows what this phrase means. One doesn’t need the details spelled out to understand the release of Emma’s emotions. Which is what the literary world is all about. The physical details we read about today do not make the act of love any more convincing. Nor the characters, by their actions, more richly portrayed.

Such a reaction will never, of course, change today’s literary world. The cat, so to speak, is out of the bag. And it’s a big commercial cat. But Flaubert’s era understood where literary propriety should lead one—to the characters emotions rather than on their physical exertions. Lurid descriptions, I feel, even distract the reader today from the author’s purpose. That is, the “freedom” authors seek to express themselves can get between themselves and the reader, can divert the reader from the novel’s emotional, philosophical, or psychological objective.

Emma’s own declarations of love are, of course, futile. You cannot oblige a man to love you when what he seeks is only physical. Flaubert makes this clear. And as he does so, he is deepening this portrait of a woman who is a dreamer and a product of her era. She is unfulfilled and lives for her emotions, is otherwise insecure, and will become a victim of the next man who declares his love.

On the other hand, critic Victor Brombert, acknowledging Baudelaire, writes that Emma, “is the only dignified and poetic figure in her small world. Her feverish yearnings experienced in the context of the most banal daily existence and in the most mediocre provincial setting, reaffirm the powers and prerogatives of the imagination. She not only towers over her lovers…but positively gains in stature as she approaches her doom, always in pursuit of an unattainable ideal of love and happiness.”

Yes, we relate to her and sympathize with her pursuit, but it is all a little too baldly stated for modern taste, especially when she collapses after the inevitable rejection by Rodolphe. This is somewhat exaggerated for a modern reader. She even asks herself if life is worth living. But it soon is, when Charles takes her to Rouen to hear an opera, and they encounter a mature Leon who has learned much while studying in Paris. Now, he does pursue her, and again she succumbs to a man’s intentions.

There is a clear pattern here, a portrait of this woman who comes alive only when she is loved, who perhaps reflects the women of her era whose lack of an internal fulfillment must be satisfied by the male society around her. Otherwise, a woman is incomplete, and Emma is desperate to become a complete woman. Whether she will or not becomes unclear. She does make an effort to control her husband’s finances, but this seems simply to provide an excuse for meeting her new lover, Leon.

Emma is still a dreamer, and the bloom is eventually off this new rose. She is also naive, and soon gets into hot financial water, frustrating her even more. The words “death” and “suicide” surface, as the author begins to prepare the desperation she will soon feel. Indeed, what is interesting here is that the emphasis is now not on her emotional frustration but on her financial straits. It is a shift by Flaubert to a more realistic approach to Emma, rather than on an emotional weakness that male critics then, and all readers today, might find difficult to relate to.

Now we come to the ending. It is a dramatic scene, I grant. It involves an act of desperation, and then a drawn-out, very realistic death. But the novel continues. And Charles, for the first time, becomes human and quite sympathetic in his grief. Indeed, his prominence at the end balances his prominence at the beginning of this novel.

For some reason, however, the pharmacist, Homais, also rises in importance at the end. And seems to illustrate the perfidy of mankind. Steegmuller notes that his prominence is to emphasize the “bourgeois banality” of the provincial backwardness that Emma is rebelling against and that Flaubert is criticizing in this novel. Also, Brombert notes that this three-chapter epilogue makes the reader aware “that the real tragedy of the novel is the victory of existence over tragedy. Life simply continues, indifferent to tragedy; it continues, mediocre and unaware.”

Is this note of negativity intended to bring a sense of realism to this novel? For me, more significant is its negative tone. That the romantic Emma has simply been taken advantage of, first by two lovers and then by the endless debt she has incurred by signing promissory notes at the persuasive hands of Monsieur Lheureux. And that when Charles says at the end: “No one is to blame. It was decreed by fate,” he is absolving himself. And Flaubert is labeling her as an innocent victim of this provincial world.

My conclusion is that Flaubert did create an inevitable ending, and perhaps one that was quite original for his era. But his handiwork is visible in today’s terms. In the manner of her fate, yes, but even more in the negative social portrait he draws at the conclusion. No one comes off good here. No one. And I wonder if the author would justify this in the name of realism.

One must grant, however, that Flaubert has created here a real society, a provincial society, a society of various tradesmen with their wives and children. It is a society that does give substance to Emma’s role as a victim and a dreamer, as well as significant substance to the novel itself.

Brombert notes that a comparison has been made between this novel and Don Quixote. This is true. Like Quixote, Emma has been seduced by novels into becoming a romantic, into believing in a world, a way of life, that is long gone, that has no connection with her era’s own reality.

To sum up, these critics have helped me to better understand the context in which this novel was written. That it was ahead of its time. That the internal musings of Emma, so helpful in both understanding her and sympathizing with her, were new. That the reality which she dreamed of escaping was not itself new, but that both the expression of her sexual transgression and her financial rebellion against her society were new. And that with this novel Flaubert was breaking new literary ground, even as his world did not yet possess the literary tools for doing so.

This novel has survived because it is truly a modern novel—in its subject of an unhappy woman in a heartless world, in its themes of sexual desire seeking an outlet in a frustrating provincial society, and in its exploration of the internal thoughts and emotions of its main character. It is less successful than a modern novelist might be, however, because today’s novelists have the literary tools and training that Flaubert did not have.

As a result, for modern tastes, this novel is too obvious at times, such as when Emma’s passions arise so readily as she is seduced, when she collapses so completely when rejected, and when both she and her husband succumb so easily to signing promissory notes when they are in financial trouble. On another level, the negative portrait of this provincial society is also too obvious, extending the novel beyond its obvious end and leaving this reader, at least, with an unpleasant image of humanity. Which negates, to a degree, the sympathy for Emma which one should be left with.

Reading this novel provides an education about the world’s literary past, and an appreciation of the literary advances that have been made since. This is an imperfect classic in today’s terms, but it is a classic nevertheless in its portrayal of a lost, helpless woman. (April, 2015)

The Silent Cry, by Kenzaburo Oe

As soon as I began this 1967 novel. I realized I was in the hands of a master. I understood why Oe had won the Nobel Prize, and wondered why I had allowed this work to sit on my shelves for so long. Because here was an interesting family situation, with a story that involved past history and present-day Japan. And because the overall perspective reflected the Western approach to literature. There was also a beautiful style, even in translation, with continuous imaginative and appropriate metaphors. And I could not wait to see what would happen when this family explored its past.

And then, the master began to fail me. I could not accept some of the developments, particularly as the author introduces his explanations for the actions of the hero’s younger brother. The narrator Mitsu, weak-willed and an intellectual, is distraught because his young son has been born deformed, and his best friend has just committed suicide. So he allows his younger brother Taka, emotional and assertive, to persuade him to move back to their native village so they can start a new life together.

But Taka also has an ulterior motive for moving back. He identifies with family lore, and is haunted by a village revolt that occurred in 1860, and was led by his great grandfather’s younger brother. The revolt failed, many were killed, and his ancestor fled and was never heard from again. Taka identifies with that other younger brother, and wants to redeem the family honor by redressing current injustices, especially those he traces to a local Korean shopping center mogul.

There are further complications to this family history. Another brother has been killed in a kind of retribution for an assault on local Koreans, and it is not clear whether or not he sacrificed himself to balance an earlier death of a Korean. In addition, a sister has committed suicide. Also, Mitsu’s wife has become a drunkard and is estranged from Mitsu following the birth of her deformed baby.

Oe’s major mistake, I believe, is in trying to tie many subsequent developments together. For Taka is involved in his sister’s suicide, and also seduces Mitsu’s wife. And then Mitsu learns the true fate of his grandfather’s younger brother, but it is too late to affect the fate of Taka. Indeed, all of these events reverberate from the opening suicide of Mitsu’s close friend, a suicide that introduces issues concerning the ending of various character’s lives.

What Oe attempts to do at the end is suggest that Mitsu is responsible for the fate of his brother Taka. But for me this is less ironic than a manipulation by the author. For just as I was not willing to accept some of the earlier actions of Taka, I was not now persuaded by the psychologically complex relationship that Oe tries to establish between the two brothers.

The silent cry in the title refers, I believe, to Taka’s pent-up emotion as he tries to atone for his family’s conduct both more recently and a century ago. His character is the opposite to the cool, insecure Mitsu, for Taka boils inside as he attempts to atone for the family by leading a new revolt by the villagers. Of course, we learn that he also wishes to atone for the suicide of his sister.

This novel is built around the contrast of and the conflict between the two brothers. But translator John Bester also notes that “all kinds of themes are hinted at—the quest for identity; Japan’s relations with the outside world during the past century; the breakdown of tradition; the peculiarities of the Japanese mentality—these and a dozen other subjects are touched on, often with a biting irony.”

This is all true, and they do enrich this work, particularly in those early pages that so enthralled me. But this work depends on the relationship between the two brothers, an attempt to balance who is responsible for what, and a resolution that attempts to contrast the fate of the brothers.

I am not drawn to other Oe works, although I do find intriguing his other novel that centers on the impact on the hero of the birth of a deformed son. This is because of my own back history, even if our family’s case was not as deeply consequential.

Overall, this is a rewarding but imperfect work. It is perhaps too ambitious for the given situation. (February, 2014)