This may be the most depressing biography I have ever read. Although I frequently considered abandoning this painful trudge through one man’s tragic descent into addiction and madness, something kept me reading.
In a 12-round heavyweight professional boxing match, at the beginning of the twelfth round there is a bell and the referee motions the two fighters to the center of the ring to begin the final round of the contest. In the fight for life on the planet Earth, and according to a majority of noted scientists, we are in the twelfth round. And Pulitzer-winning biologist E. O. Wilson is the referee.
When Leo Cowan, Jackson County’s noted historian and author, died last February just after his second book was published, I found myself reluctant to write a review of Leo’s last book in conjunction with his obituary. I am an admirer of Leo’s writing and have always felt that his “authorial voice” put him in a special category. Jackson County has a large number of writers who either write about the past and/or record their personal history through storytelling or autobiography (I guess I qualify as part of of that flock!). However, Leo Cowan is head and shoulders above all of us.
In her novel Under The Influence (William Morrow, 2016, 321 pages, $25.99), Joyce Maynard makes her title do double duty in its import and meaning. After being arrested and convicted for DWI, Helen losses custody of her eight-year-old son, Ollie, to her ex-husband. Determined to regain rights to her son, Helen attends AA and stays sober, but the rest of her life lies in ruins.
For reasons unfathomable to me, I have spent the last two weeks on a fiction-reading jag. Until I was about 40, fiction was my favorite literary genre, probably because I wanted to write novels and reading fiction is the best way, other than actually writing, to learn how to put together such a beast.
Back a few months ago, when Hollywood came to town, I was fascinated and when I heard that for a couple of weeks, Sylva was going to become a town in Ohio called Ebbing and that Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell were going to be policemen and that part of the dramatic action involved the fire bombing of the Ebbing Police Station (the old Massie Furniture building). I became foolish and began to make pointless trips to town in the hope of seeing some of the excitement, like the fire bombing and the fight on main street between Rockwell and Harrelson. That didn’t happen, of course. Hollywood is gone now, leaving not a rack behind. I didn’t get to see any celebrities, and although I heard that the dramatist who had written the script for “Three Billboards,” a fellow named Martin MacDonagh, had been seen on the street, no one seemed to have talked to him.
In March, Jim Harrison, age 78, died of a heart attack.
Harrison was among the most prolific of American writers, pounding out poems, essays, short stories, novels, a memoir, and cookbooks. In the memoir, Off To The Side, he addresses what he calls his “seven obsessions”: alcohol, food, stripping, hunting and fishing, religion, the road, and the place of the human being in the natural world. He might have included an eighth — cigarettes — as he was a lifelong smoker.
To review a book or to write a “book review” is to pinpoint its particular presence and its peculiarities. To trap its transcendence of the time in which it takes place. And the time it reaches out to where the reader resides. It hopes to stop time in its tracks and expand it at the same time. Taking us to somewhere else. Somewhere like a window we can look through and see the importance of this book — for better or worse.
Novels that make me laugh aloud are rare. Two novels, Confederacy of Dunces and Freddy and Fredericka, brought laughter, and in several of his books, Anthony Burgess had me going. Some essayists have the same effect — here I’m thinking of Chicago columnist Mike Royko, who died almost 20 years ago, but whose columns, depending on the subject, are still funny, mostly because of Royko’s acute sense of the ridiculous in politics and culture.
Several months ago, I was invited to join the Senior Citizen Book Club at the Jackson County Senior Citizen Center. I did so and have been delighted by the discussions which take place on the first Friday of each month at 10 a.m. So far, we have discussed some classics (John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men) and the in-depth study of the Salem witch trials (Witches by Stacy Schiff). This month’s selection is E. L. Doctorow’s novel, The March, based on General Sherman’s devastating march through Georgia in 1864.