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Wednesday, 14 February 2007 00:00

Two outta three ain’t bad

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Snow and falling temperatures — we’ve had little of the former this winter, and some of the latter — provide for book lovers the same pleasures as the sand and sun at the beach. Both meteorological extremes grant their own opportunities for fun and relaxation, but in both instances there comes a time when the bibliophile begins to look longingly for a comfortable seat, a good light, an appropriate drink, and a book.

 

During the recent mountain storm of winds and snow, I sat up late reading Alice Thomas Ellis’s Fairy Tale. Having previously enjoyed her nonfiction books — the first volume of Home Life, compiled from one of her newspaper columns, made me laugh aloud — I was pleased to discover that Ellis was as good a novelist as an essayist.

Fairy Tales opens in in an isolated valley in Wales, where city-dwellers Eloise and Simon come to try their hand at simple, rural living. Inspired by Moonbird, her New Age guru, Eloise arrives in the country believing that nature is kind, that she has nothing to fear, according to Moonbird, “as long as she was deeply in touch with the Mother.”

Clare, Eloise’s mother, and Clare’s best friend, Miriam, soon pay a visit to Simon and Eloise. Slowly the two older women realize that all is not well in the small brick house. They hear legends about the house being haunted, or possessed; Eloise begins acting more and more strangely, spending time by herself in the forest and fields; the cat, M’sieu, seems terribly frightened of certain strangers who visit Eloise. Then comes the day when Eloise returns from the woods with a baby in her arms, a baby she claims as her own.

To reveal more of the plot of Fairy Tale would do a disservice both to reader and to book. Suffice it to say that Ellis, who died two years ago, once again proves why she was regarded as a master of satire and characterization during the second Elizabethan Age.

Like Ellis, Jonathan Ames is an essayist, but where Ellis writes like an acid-tongued lady of class, Ames writes like a sex-obsessed teenager. In I Love You More Than You Can Know — the title which makes little apparent sense — we can favorably compare Ames to much of our entertainment today, that is, he is all surface and no depth. In his essay “Everybody Dies in Memphis,” for example, he wonders why he is at the Tyson-Lewis fight when “there are huge problems to solve ... While we live with the constant specter of terror, while chunks of polar ice caps are breaking off, while the Mideast self-immolates, I and thousands of others are gathered in Memphis to see two black men attack one another.”

Besides observing an embarrassing juvenile attitude toward global problems, we see the built-in prejudice here of Ames, the prejudice that says thousands of people had come to see two black men fighting. That’s not why the spectators were there. Many of the spectators were, by Ames’s own account, themselves black. They were there to see two boxers fight.

In several other essays, Ames so descriptively creates several physical and sexual scenes — a huge zit on his nose, his trouble with his itchy posterior, his approach to sex via prostitutes and sadists — that we begin to feel as if we were hanging around the locker room in junior high. At one point, when Ames is describing a supper with his mother, father, and son, he forks a hot dog and begins screaming, “My wiener is damaged!” A few seconds later, he cuts the hot dog in half and continues yelling various directions to his family about his damaged wiener. “You’re sick,” his son says, and though Ames says they are laughing at his act, I think his son had it right. This is the sort of stuff that’s best left tightly stashed in the family closet, if only because it‘s so moronic.

An antidote to Ames’s crass vulgarity may be found in James Bowman’s Honor: A History. Though at times confusing in his intents and in his shifting definitions of honor, Bowman has written a valuable book. He has traced the concept of personal honor from the Greeks to the First World War, after which, he contends, the idea of honor being “a stain like a wound” fell into disuse in the West. Our highest idealism evolved into our current worship of toleration (for pistols at dawn, we’ve substituted lawsuits). After compiling this brief history of the early meaning and practice of honor, Bowman devotes the second half of the book toward the diminished concepts of honor as believed and practiced since World War II.

In examining this issue, Bowman contrasts our nearly moribund sense of honor with the fierce honor code of the Islamic terrorists and fighters. His arguments help us to see that Islam is perhaps less at the root of terrorism than is a more primitive belief in personal honor still very much at play in the Arabic world.

Using film, television shows — he conducts a lengthy discussion of The Sopranos — literature, and current events, Bowman demonstrates how our society and nations at large have adapted an honor-free policy. When the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor, for example, it was still possible to speak of our national honor. In the war on terrorism, however, no mention is made of national honor. According to those Republicans and Democrats willing to resist terrorism, we are fighting to make the world a safer place.

Many readers of Bowman’s valuable book will doubtless find many of his ideas and recommendations appalling. Honor, after all, is a primitive concept. It is a belief that some values, the things we most cherish, are worth more than life itself. The personal sense of honor that once led Andrew Jackson into his several duels is largely missing these days. Honor can be a dangerous thing, a reckless virtue — if indeed it be virtue at all. Many of us have decided to tuck it away in the attic with great-grandfather’s military paraphernalia. Such an old-fashioned code of honor seems to have little place in our lives right now.

Whether we as a people can survive without it remains, of course, to be seen.

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