Finding distinction in literature

The Genius by Jesse Kellerman. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008. 384 pages

Sixty years ago, Graham Greene, one of the great English writers of the 20th century, differentiated his novels from what he regarded as his lesser works by calling the latter “entertainments.” Novels — Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter — constituted his serious writing, the themes, characters, and plots by which his literary reputation would rise or fall. Entertainments, on the other hand, were in Greene’s eyes those works written off the cuff, lightweight fiction aimed at the wider audience of best-sellers in airport bookshops, composed with an eye toward cash rather than literary fame.

In their lists of the author’s works, current reprints of Greene’s books do not delineate between novels and entertainments. Indeed, Graham Greene’s distinctions cast between his serious and his light fiction may even indeed strike us as humorous, false or perhaps Victorian in a world moving from a print culture to an oral culture and a society in which other media — television, computers — play a much greater role than that of the printed word.

In many ways, however, such a distinction between “light” and “heavy” literature might prove useful to an American culture in which sheer entertainment is often viewed as the high peaks of our culture. Americans 60 and 70 years ago distinguished between “high” and “low” culture, with the former being best represented by a performance of Beethoven sonatas and the latter by the music of Frank Sinatra or even Bennie Goodman. In the intervening years, low culture has swallowed up high culture. For those who doubt such a proposition, we need only ask a few questions. Who among us can them name a great—or for that matter, a not-so-great— American composer of the last 20 years? A great American painter? Thousands of poets publish today, but which of us can name a great American poet writing today? Who can name three American playwrights? In the 1950s, the names of “high-brow” artists — Picasso, Rockwell, Pollock, O’Neill, Hemingway, Faulkner, Frost, Sandberg, and others — were household words known to everyone with a high school education. Today popular culture focuses almost exclusively on actors, pop musicians, and a few best-selling writers.

To a certain extent, of course, “high” art itself must take some of the rap for its decline into oblivion. Many artists left off long ago making any attempt to appeal to a broad audience. A portrait of this rejection, inadvertently offered, may be found in Jesse Kellerman’s novel The Genius (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 978-0-399-15459-1, $24.95).

Ethan Muller, the novel’s narrator and son of one of Manhattan’s wealthier families, finds himself an art dealer after a troubled childhood in which his father essentially abandoned him to loneliness and private schools. He operates his Chelsea gallery with some success, his artists running from Egao Oshima’s “lovely, shimmering paintings” to Jocko Steinberger’s “papier-mâché genitalia. All of the Oshimas had pre-sold, and several of the Steinbergers had gone to the Whitney. A good month.”

Then Tony Wexler, the confidant of David Muller, Ethan’s estranged father, calls Ethan and asks him to look at some drawings abandoned by Victor Cracke, a tenant in Muller Courts in Queens, one of the more squalid pieces of the Muller real-estate empire. After some hesitancy, Ethan arrives at the building to look over the drawings, only to find that they are not only works of genius but that there appear to be box-loads of them, with each drawing ultimately fitting together into a some vast map of Cracke’s vision of reality.

Unable to locate the artist, Ethan uses a select few of the drawings to open the next show at his gallery. After the media cover the show, Ethan receives a phone call from Lee McGrath, a retired policeman who recognizes one of the faces in the drawings as belonging to a boy murdered 40 years previously.

Here the novel widens its scope, moving to include a world of child murder, violence, and death alongside the wild world of postmodern art. Ethan becomes part-time detective, obsessed with finding Victor Cracke to determine whether he was the killer not only of the boy spotted by McGrath, but of four other boys in the drawings as well. During his search he encounters McGrath’s daughter, Samantha, a district attorney to whom he is quickly attracted.

Meanwhile, we encounter through a series of vignettes the Mullers who built the fortune which helped pay for Ethan’s education and which he has now rejected along with his father. We see what Ethan can’t see, that the accumulation of so much money and capital brings both freedom and a self-made prison to this ambitious family, that a scandal which haunts the family will eventually have repercussions for Ethan as well.

The Genius offers its readers many gifts: Kellerman’s knowledge of the art world, an array of believable characters, a tightly-wound plot, and some fine writing. What distinguishes The Genius from many other suspense novels is that Kellerman blends various philosophical insights entertained by Ethan, particularly ideas on genius, art, and morality, into the plot without slowing the action. Here, for example, Ethan offers us his thoughts on himself, on genius, and on the ordinary:

“Ordinariness is nothing to be ashamed of. It carries no moral weight. I don’t believe that geniuses are worth more in some cosmic Blue Book. They are worthy of more attention, of course, because they’re so rare — one in a million, or rarer. What that means for the rest of us is that someone has to be the first of the remaining 999,999 souls; and the higher up you are, the closer you come to the genius’s vantage point.

“To pursue that — to clamber up, to stretch our fingertips in the hopes of grazing the surface — can you imagine a more uniquely modern aspiration? A better metaphor for our oversaturated era than the desire to be the president of a fan club? The hero for the age is Boswell.”

Bradbury succeeds again with new novel

We’ll Always Have Paris by Ray Bradbury. William Morrow, 2009. 224 pages

Ray Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Ill., — the town became Greentown in Dandelion Wine and many of his short stories — in 1920. He published his first short story in 1938, married in 1946 — he and his wife Maggie raised four daughters — and continued for the next 60 years to write: short stories, novels, poetry, essays, even a space opera. In addition, he worked as a creative consultant on the 1964 New York World’s Fair, at Disney World and the Epcot Center, and for the design of malls, where he tried to bring his ideas of small town setting into urban setting.

In the last 25 years, many found Bradbury’s stories weaker than those he had written in The Martian Chronicles or The Illustrated Man. The style remained the same, perhaps too much so; the repeated one-sentence paragraphs seemed more a self-parody than good storytelling. The broad sentimentality found in all of Bradbury’s books was often given too much sail; the plots and characters of his stories seemed awash in emotion dishonestly earned. Bradbury’s name and not his talent found publishers for novels like Death Is A Lonely Business and Let’s All Kill Constance. Bradbury was like an old championship fighter who, despite the fact that his reflexes have slowed and his legs are gone, keeps climbing back into the ring to take another pummeling.

But even old fighters sometimes have a few good punches left. In We’ll Always Have Paris (William Morrow, ISBN 978-0-06-167013-8, $24.99), the 89-year-old Bradbury again shows himself as a master of the short story.

“Masinello Pietro,” the first story in the collection and the one which Bradbury in the introduction to the book cites as his favorite, follows Massinello Pietro in his struggles against the neighbors and then the police. Pietro, who was once rich but gave his money away to the poor, now leads the life of an eccentric whose antics have annoyed those living near him:

“I invested what little I had left in dogs, geese, mice, parrots, who do not change their minds, who are always friends forever and forever. I bought my phonograph, which never is sad, which never stops singing!”

“That’s another thing,’ said Tiffany, wincing. “The neighborhood says at four in the morning, um, you and the phonograph ...”

“Music is better than soap and water!”

Although most readers wouldn’t want Pietro as a neighbor — his property is filthy from the animals, and loud music, even the classics, played at four in the morning would drive everyone but an insomniac nuts — the story makes a case for liberty and eccentricity, and serves as a warning against the forces acting against those two great goods. In this passage Bradbury clearly puts the case:

“His house, ablaze with votive candles and pictures of rising — flying — saints, the glint of medallions. His phonograph circling at midnight, two, three, four in the morning, himself singing, mouth wide, heart open, eyes tight, world shut out; nothing but sound. And here he was now among the houses that locked at nine, slept at 10, wakened only from long silenced hours of slumber in the morn. People in houses, lacking only black wreaths on door fronts.”

Bradbury was always particularly adept at short-short stories, tales of modern life that read like fables. In “When the Bough Breaks,” he writes a beautiful story of a couple waking in their bed to a storm and the sound of a baby crying in the nearby forest. Slowly they realize that though they had talked of having no children, they are meant to be the parents of this weeping spirit-baby. They make love — here Bradbury, always the master of discretion, leaves this part to the reader’s imagination — and the child ceases its weeping. Describing the story makes it sound trite or silly; Bradbury’s story, however, has the power of the professional behind it.

The title story, “We’ll Always Have Paris,” tells of an American who leaves his wife in the hotel to go for an evening walk in Paris. He encounters “a strange young man” who takes the American silently to a gym, removes his shirt, removes his own clothes, and kisses him on the forehead. They do not become lovers, promising only “next time.” The man returns to his wife and promises her that they will return to Paris the following year.

This story reflects some of the weaknesses of Bradbury’s spartan descriptions and terse dialogue. We’d like to know why the American followed the young man, why he allowed himself to be undressed in the dark gym, why he then refused the young man’s advances. Hemingway once said that writing is like an iceberg, that “there is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that does not show.” Here, and in other earlier stories of the last two decades, Bradbury sometimes carries this theory too far; too little shows, and the story then seems as if he was himself uncertain of his own characters and their motivations.

“Fly Away Home” returns to Bradbury’s love of the idea of space travel (For years, Bradbury disliked flying and didn’t have a driver’s license, one of the things which made him an object of ridicule from John Huston when they were working together on the film “Moby Dick”). Here a captain and crew land on Mars, only to find themselves terrified at being so far from all that was familiar on earth. One of the men suffers a mental breakdown, and the others appear close to the edge, when a supply ship from Earth brings a pre-fabricated town to them: a barber shop, a drugstore, a church, a library, a hotel, a pool hall, a bar. This town reassures and relaxes the crew, all of whom were chosen from small towns. Here Bradbury provides not only insight into the human psyche, but also tells us once again that these “stereotypes” may make downtowns and shopping malls more attractive to consumers.

Bradbury ends his book with a poem “America.” The last lines from a man who has loved his country for so many years read:

“You be the hoped-for thing a hopeless world would be.

In tides of immigrants that this year flow

You still remain the beckoning hearth they’d know.

In midnight beds with blueprint, plan and scheme

You are the dream that other people dream.”

Anne Rice’s spiritual journey

Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession by Anne Rice. Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. 256 pages.

The books are piling up around my desk, which means the time has come for a spring cleaning.

Several books, all read in the last three months, seemed suited to the Easter season. First off the pile is Anne Rice’s Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession (Alfred A. Knopf, 978-0-307-26827-5, $24), in which the best-selling author of Interview with a Vampire and The Vampire Lestat tells us of her own transformation: her New Orleans childhood in a devout Catholic family, her falling-away from the Faith, her struggles as a writer, mother, and wife, her return to the Faith.

In many ways Rice’s journey reflects the via dolorosa traveled by many of her generation. She married young, spent part of the sixties in radical Berkeley, drank too much for a while, suffered travails as a wife and mother (her daughter died young, followed by her beloved first husband, Stan), and then slowly found her way back to a Faith which she could embrace. After writing some 20 novels about vampires and other otherworldly beings, Rice shocked many of her readers by shifting her focus to the life of Christ:

“From the summer of 2002 through the spring of 2005, my life was consumed with research. I studied not only the ancient historians Philo and Josephus, and all the New Testament scholarship I could lay hands on, but Scripture itself, reading over and over again the Gospels until the language, to which I’d grown so dead in childhood, came alive again, and the vital story of Christ’s life flowed through chapter and verse.”

Although the mawkish jacket cover detracts from Called Out of Darkness — a somber Anne Rice stands at the elbow of a statue of Saint Anthony holding the Christ Child — the worn adage about a book and its cover holds true. Rice fans old and new should enjoy this memoir.

•••

Riven (Tyndale Fiction, 378-1-4143-0904-0, $24.99) tells the story of two men: Brady Wayne Darby, a punk and a small-time criminal, and Thomas Carey, a pastor defeated by life who eventually takes a job as a prison chaplain. Jerry B. Jenkins, co-author of the Left Behind series, writes in a note on Riven that “This is the novel I’ve always wanted to write ...” Like some authors of another generation — Dreiser, for example, or James Jones — Jenkins writes with an acute eye on what he sees as true without worrying too much about style. He takes time developing his characters so that when they finally meet we are thoroughly acquainted with their lives.

Jenkins does a particularly fine job in sketching out the life of Thomas Carey. Many people doubtless know a minister like Carey, a good man, a man of Biblical principles, who nevertheless seems unsuited to the church or congregation to which he is called. Such a life, as Jenkins shows us, is fraught with perils: poverty, rejection, depression, a sense of aimlessness. We follow Carey as a wealthy church elder bullies him into leaving his latest post, the torments suffered by him and by his wife as they look for a new position, the grind of poverty in the face of middle-age and diminished powers. Jenkins’s Carey lets us feel his struggle and empathize with his mental and spiritual pain.

Darby, who will eventually meet Carey, grows up in a trailer park, abandoned by his father, verbally and mentally savaged by his mother, and torn by the needs of his younger brother. Here again Jenkins does a splendid job in sketching and then fleshing out a character. We watch Darby’s wounds fester, his small vices grow into cankers of hatred, his brushes with goodness and with his own talents—the owner of a laundromat does his best to befriend Darby, and Darby later displays gifts as an actor—left withered and dying. Even his honest attempt to find love and companionship with Katie, a wealthy girl who ends up in his AA group, blows up in Darby’s face.

Riven is not a novel in which all turns out well, and the ending itself is both shocking and unrealistic. Yet Jenkins has nonetheless built up a solid tale here of redemption and change.

•••

In The Shack (978-0-9647292-3-0, $14.99), Wm. Paul Young gives us a story in which Mackenzie Allen Philip, known to his friends as “Mack,” receives a mysterious summons to the isolated shack where his murdered daughter Missy was found. Mack, who has felt dead in his life and heart since Missy’s killing, ventures to the shack, half believing that there he will encounter God.

Not only does Mack meet God in the shack — the Almighty appears to him as a large black woman, which might seem shocking had that role not already been done in television and movies — but he meets Jesus and the Holy Spirit as well.

Mack’s pilgrimage then becomes a series of dialogues with each person of the Trinity, discussions which range from the nature of the Holy Spirit to the meaning of forgiveness and love. Many of these discussions offer food both for thought and for discussion with friends. Young is excellent, for example, in his examination of the Trinity and how it works both as a basis for family and for love.

The Shack is also a book, however, which seems designed to be hurled against the nearest wall. Young gives the obligatory slap, for example, to institutional religion, having Jesus say at one point: “I don’t create institutions — never have, never will.” (And yet Christ did obediently participate in an institution, his own Jewish faith; he also instituted the Eucharist, left many commandments for his disciples, and made Peter the keeper of his Church).

Of women Young writes: “The world, in many ways, would be a much calmer and gentler place if women ruled.” Has this guy ever been in a church these days? Has he ever dealt with some of the women who today run most churches? Some general once said that there is no more vicious animal on the planet than a young American soldier. Right on the heels of that soldier is a 50-year-old matron who has just been denied her place on next year’s church decoration.

Frank is always provocative and thought-provoking

Criminal Justice in America by Marshall Frank. AuthorHouse, 2008. 276 pages.

In Criminal Injustice in America: Essays by a Career Cop (AuthorHouse, ISBN 978-1-43892062-7), former policeman Marshall Frank gives us his take on the criminal justice system through a series of essays. Although Frank has explored the ideas behind these essays in numerous newspaper columns and novels, here he attempts an in-depth assessment of what he calls our “desperately fractured” criminal justice system.

Frank, who used to reside in Maggie Valley but recently relocated to Florida, begins his book by giving us a look at his background — cop, columnist, novelist, lecturer — and a list of his prejudices. He correctly writes that he considers himself “a centrist conservative, though I have some liberal leanings about social issues, like appropriating government funds for stem cell research, keeping a strict separation of church and state, and endorsing gay rights.” He adds that “I, for one, relish independent thought and hope my readers do the same.”

Certainly Criminal Justice in America trots out some rarely-heard ideas regarding radical change in the criminal justice system. Frank’s views on sex crimes, particularly those committed by child molesters, run contrary to the thinking of most Americans today.

Here, for example, he strongly recommends that child molesters, who according to Frank seem as drawn to their vice as drunks to booze or addicts to crack, receive counseling and help when apprehended. In another chapter, Frank suggests that all federal judges, including Supreme Court judges, have term limits of 15 years. He calls for the elimination of the requirement of a unanimous verdict, as well as for the elimination of the 12-person jury. He advocates the automatic deportation of all illegal aliens convicted of a felony, after they have finished their sentences, and recommends the completion of the fence along the border with Mexico to halt immigration and to slow the problems caused by illegals within the criminal justice system.

These and many other of Frank’s suggestions make Criminal Injustice in America a book well worth reading. The essays are written like newspaper columns and are easy on the eyes, and the conversational style is easy to comprehend.

Yet Criminal Justice in America does present some problems for the discerning reader.

In addition to a good number of typos and mistakes in the book, the statistics, which Frank uses abundantly, sometimes raise more questions than they answer. He writes, for example, that “the Catholic Church scandal earlier in this decade saw 4,392, (or 4 percent of all Roman Catholic clergy in the United States) being accused of sexually abusing children, as far back to the 1940s. (Per the John Jay Report commissioned by the Conference on Catholic Bishops).” Besides the minor mistake here — it is the Conference of Catholic Bishops — we are left in the dark. Does this mean that only 100,000 men have served as priests in the United States since the 1940s? And of the accused, how many priests were convicted?

This foggy statistical analysis extends throughout the book. In the very next paragraph, we learn that during a five-year period there were more than 2,500 cases in which educators were punished for actions from bizarre to sadistic, “all involving sexual misconduct. More than 1,800 of those incidents involved young people, eighty percent of whom were students.” Questions: what were the other 20 percent? If we’re making some sort of comparison to priests, how many educators were accused as well as convicted?

Another complaint that might be directed at Criminal Justice in America is the cost of the programs recommended by Frank. Exorbitant as criminal justice costs now are, to institute the recommendations listed in this book would make the recent stimulus package look like the work of pikers. Many chapters in this book recommend creating more judges, more attorneys, more counselors, more day cares, more educational programs. To be fair to Frank, he lists these changes under the heading of “The Magic Wand,” which is a sort of personal wish list, yet the cost of these programs versus the cost of the current system — in money, in resources — is never compared on any realistic level.

Finally, Criminal Justice in America advocates more repressive and constrictive government than we already have now. In his discussion of abortion, for instance, Frank writes that we should “create legislation making it a crime to harass and harangue pregnant women at abortion clinics.” Even if we assume that the majority of Americans might favor such a move, is it not possible that such a recommendation, enacted into law and enforced by armed police, would lead to other protesters being banned? Frank writes that we need to expand “law enforcement sting operations throughout America to catch pedophiles surfing the Internet for children.” This idea not only increases law enforcement on the Internet, but raises the question: where in the hell are the parents in their children‘s lives? Why aren’t they watching out for children? Frank writes that we should “pull radio licenses from stations that play gansta rap on the public air waves.” Again, why pull radio licenses when the country allows such music to be created in the first place? And pulling radio licenses — what if the government next decides that we shouldn’t listen to gospel music or to certain political broadcasters?

Frank tell us at the beginning of Criminal Justice in America that he once met a house painter at a yard sale who recognized him.

“The painter extended his hand and said, ‘Howdy, I know you. I don’t always agree with what you say, but you sure do make me think.’ That’s better than a paycheck any day.”

The painter’s remarks hold true in regard to Criminal Justice in America. Frank is his own man, blunt, outspoken, sometimes out of his league but always a searcher, a digger after facts and solutions. Few readers, liberal or conservative, will agree with everything this former Miami homicide detective says in his critique of our laws and courts.

But he will make you think.

Conservatism with a small “c”

Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Ant-Imperialism by Bill Kauffman. Metropolitan Books, 2008. 304 pages.

Try to imagine a book enthusiastically reviewed by George McGovern (former Democratic presidential candidate), Ron Paul (former Republican presidential candidate), and Nicholas Von Hoffman (author and commentator). Bill Kauffman has spent many years staking out his ideas on politics, particularly on conservatism with a small “c.”

Author of several books and writer of essays for such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Onion, and The American Conservative, Kauffman has expended considerable energy, talent, and time on one single theme: that real conservatives, those who trace their lineage back to John Randolph of Virginia, to Thomas Corwin, the conservative Ohio senator who opposed war with Mexico in 1847, to moderns like Senator Taft of Ohio, are often those who oppose and lead the opposition against American foreign wars and bigger government control.

In Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Ant-Imperialism (ISBN 978-0-8050-8233-9, $25), Kauffman brings under one big tent much of his thinking of the last few decades regarding Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, imperialists and anti-imperialists. Although he addresses the gnawing issues of today from many different angles — Republican social concerns like abortion, Democrat traditional interest in bigger government — Kauffman focuses chiefly on the idea of conservatism and warfare. He raises the question: how did conservatives (again, note that little “c”) acquire a reputation as a bunch of warmongers?

Much of Ain’t My America is obsessed with that question and with the its answer, namely, that conservatives traditionally are not warmongers obsessed with expanding American power or with crushing our enemies. Quite the contrary, in fact. As Kauffman digs through the bone yards and reliquaries of American history, particularly its wars, he demonstrates time and again that Americans generally regarded as conservative in the past were rarely supporters of overseas wars. From the War of 1812 to the Mexican War, from the fields of Gettysburg to the battlefields of Normandy and the islands of the Pacific, American soldiers have gallantly fought wars which large portions of the population — often the majority — have opposed, at least initially. Using example after example of politicians, protesters, and conservative anarchists, Kauffman demonstrates that real conservatives — and real liberals — have much in common, especially in regard to the foreign policy of the United States.

Consider, for example, Thomas Corwin, Ohio senator, who in 1847 during the Mexican War thundered at the Senate that “If I were a Mexican, I would tell you, ‘Have you not room in your own country to bury your dead men? If you come into mine we will greet you with bloody hands, and welcome you to hospitable graves.’” Dozens of other examples follow, showing conservatives and libertarians from both of America’s political parties opposing war as well as various writers and thinkers, including the novelist John Gardner, who like Kauffman was an Upstate New Yorker.

Kauffman ends his book with this plea:“The decline of Western civilization? I see it writ across George W. Bush’s petulantly vacant mug. As for John Gardner, daffodils, baseball, bluebirds, my daughter, and the Davids of Albion — hell, they’re the only hope our little corner of American civilization has left.

Come home, America. Reject the empire. Please.” As Ron Paul states on the back of the book, “For those who have been neoconned into believing that conservatism means unquestioned support for the welfare state, Ain’t My America is the perfect way to show that real conservatives defend peace and liberty.”

•••

Nancy Sherman, who has taught at Georgetown University and the United States Naval Academy, has written two books on virtue and character. With her third book, Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind (ISBN 0-19-515216-6, $26), Sherman takes a look both at stoicism, the ancient philosophy of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, and the part played by stoicism in the American military.

Although Stoic Warriors may sound academic, Sherman’s writing is in fact lively and readable. She employs frequent examples of stoicism in the military, where men and women of all branches learn early to “suck it up,” to get tough, to complete their mission despite physical obstacles and personal feelings. Using numerous anecdotes from the wars of the ancient Greeks to our present conflicts, Sherman examines such concepts as “toughness” in war, morals, anger, and abuse. She reveals how quickly a “virtue” such as toughness can become a vice, especially in regard to enemy prisoners or civilians.In addressing the commonalities between ancient Stoics and modern warriors, Sherman also looks hard at such topics as “Fear and Resilience” and “Permission to Grieve.” In all these chapters Sherman considers the value of the philosophy of stoicism to the soldier in terms of military leadership; she addresses the issue of anger from the standpoint of stoicism, showing how that philosophy so strongly advocates self-control; she examines the value of military brotherhood and individuality both from the stoic viewpoint. Sherman writes that the military men and women who took her courses particularly felt the pull of these words by Epictetus:

“Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions — in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices ... So remember, if you think that things naturally enslaved are free or that things not your own are your own, you will be thwarted, miserable, and upset, and will blame both gods and men ... And if it is about one of the things that is not up to us, be ready to say, ‘You are nothing in relation to me.’”

Stoic Warriors should appeal to many readers who enjoy their military history flavored with a strong dose of philosophy.

The age of acting and the rapture of writing

The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr. Akashic Books, 2008. 320 pages

Every once in a while a novel comes at us out of the blue to capture first our attention, then our minds, and finally our hearts. Such a novel is Nina Revoyr’s The Age of Dreaming (Akashic Books, 2008, ISBN 978-1-933354-46-0, $15.95).

Here is the story of Jun Nakayama, narrated by himself, a young Japanese student living in the United States who, on his way back to Japan in 1911, stops in Los Angeles, visits a Japanese theatrical production, tells the struggling producer that he could do a much better job of both writing and acting in such a play, and then proceeds to do just that.

After only a short time, Jun’s stagecraft attracts the attention of William Moran, a director of successful silent films, and of Hanako Minatoya, the beautiful actress who at that time is working for Moran. Because of his sultry face and superb acting skills — he is a quick take in picking up tips from those around him — Jun becomes a silent movie star. He changes directors, leaves Hanako to star in other films, soon earns a fabulous income, and becomes involved with two different actresses, Elizabeth Banks and Nora Niles, and Ashley Bennett Tyler, a British director. This dark combination of lives eventually leads to an unexplained murder, a mental breakdown, alcoholic suicide, and Jun’s own abrupt end as an actor.

What adds to the excitement and insights of The Age of Dreaming is Revoyr’s creation of Nick Bellinger, who tracks Jun down in the 1960s for an interview. He befriends Nick and even convinces him to try out for a movie with a descendent of a producer who was once Jun’s acquaintance. From this modern producer, we learn more about Jun’s muddied past and the secrets from that past which have remained hidden from him all these years.

In addition to a taut story filled with intrigue and sudden revelations, The Age of Dreaming has much else to offer any lover of fiction. First, Revoyr takes us into a Hollywood long vanished, a place of silent movies (on visiting a modern movie set, Jun is shocked by the silence; he remembers all the noises and distractions permitted when making silent movies), of working in an entirely new medium, of making movies in less than a week on budgets that in today’s world wouldn’t provide a picture’s limo fees. Jun Nakayam breathes such excitement into these movies that many readers will, on finishing the book, begin looking for these masterpieces with eyes that might now better appreciate them.

A second delight in this fine book is the studied, polished commentary of Jun Nakayama (A blurb on the front of the book states that ‘the carefully restrained voice of the narrator, once a silent film star, recalls Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day ....’ a comparison that seems slightly silly, as if only another Japanese — Revoyr’s mother is Japanese — could write with restraint). This careful writing, in which we sense a great delicacy at play in the diction and syntax of each sentence, can be found on every page and in every paragraph. Here, for example, Jun finally says goodbye to Hanako, the woman whom he has always secretly loved:

“I kept my silence because words would have diminished what I felt, and the strength of those feelings confused me. And now, when it was many, many years too late, I mourned the inability to speak my own heart, as well as the empty decades that have followed. For it seems to me now that I have been reliving that moment through all the long years of my life. It seems to me that I have always been standing there with joy within my grasp, wanting to reach for it, but forever holding it back.”

•••

Jincy Willett’s The Writing Class (Thomas Dunne Books, ISBN 978-0-312-33066-8, 2008, $24.95) tells the story of Amy Gallup, a writer whose career peaked too early and who now teaches university extension courses in writing. Anyone who has ever attended a writing course will recognize the various characters who appear in this particular class and may even sympathize with their motives for being there. In several scenes that are by turns pathetic or humorous, Gallup deals with the obstacles presented in the classroom while the class of strangers slowly comes together and seriously begins critiquing one another’s stories.

Among the students of this class, however, there lurks a murderer, an unpublished writer driven crazy by resentment, loneliness, and hatred. As the murderer stalks the class members, taunting them at times with bizarre letters or reviews, the tension within the group grows, a mirror reflecting the needs and desires of these people. Willett also shows us how a group of strangers, out of common interest — in this case, writing fiction — or for common preservation, will eventually bond with one another.

Although the author’s portrayal of some of the members of the writing class is sketchy and so makes the character difficult for the reader to see, Willett does give us a fine portrait of a woman who seeks solitude while at the same time fearing loneliness. Amy Gallup represents many people who live alone, people who may have enjoyed a happier past, people to whom social conversation no longer comes easily, people whose chief pleasure now consists of drinking a glass of wine, reading, and petting a cat that doesn’t particularly care whether it is petted or not. We leave The Writing Class feeling as if we know Amy Gallup.

Readers who enjoy a good mystery, or comedy, or who simply like to read books that touch frequently on literature and writing, should take much pleasure from The Writing Class.

Savage salvation

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb. HarperCollins, 2008. 752 pages.

Wally Lamb’s newest novel, The Hour I First Believed (HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN (978-0-06-039349-6, $29.95) opens with a quotation from Dante’s Inferno: “And so, they moved over the dark waves, and even before they disembarked, new hordes gathered there.” The quotation may remain obscure in terms of the novel, but a selection from the Inferno to introduce this important novel is entirely appropriate, as Lamb deals with the shooting at Columbine High School and the aftermath of devastation it left among the survivors.

Caelum Quirk and his wife Maureen leave Connecticut and Caelum’s tormented past to take jobs — Caelum as a teacher, Maureen as a school nurse — at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where both hope to make a new start in their lives and in their marriage. In April 1999, Caelum returns home to stand beside the hospital bed of his dying, stroke-crippled aunt, a strong humorous woman who helped raise him. While Caelum is away, two students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, enter the high school and randomly massacre students and faculty, focusing in particular on the library where, as it develops, Maureen has hidden herself in an empty cabinet, listening to the gunshots, screams, and cries for mercy from the students hiding beneath tables and chairs.

Those of us who have escaped such horrific tragedies in our own lives may not have stopped to imagine what such insanity and murder might do to the survivors. Lamb gives us such a victim in Maureen, a character tormented by her survival, a woman whose fixation on the evil that entered her life that day may astound, baffle, and even exasperate readers. Lamb largely shapes Maureen for us through Caelum’s eyes, letting us understand what has befallen her even while, like Caelum, we sometimes can’t understand why Maureen reacts as she does in the wake of the murders.

Lamb’s recreation of the massacre is immediate and vividly written. He has studied the journal excerpts, notes, and videotapes left behind by the killers. He also relies on first-hand accounts and, of course, his own rich imagination to create scenes like this one:

“Maureen said she saw them enter, carrying duffel bags, the tall one in a long black coat, the shorter one in a white T-shirt and cargo pants tucked inside his boots. He was carrying a shotgun. He looked at her, grinning. Eric, his name was. Luvox, 75 milligrams at lunchtime. ‘Get up!’ he shouted. ‘All the jocks stand up! We’re going to kill every single one of you!’

‘Anyone with a white hat, stand up!’ the other one shouted. ‘Are you guys scared? Well, don’t be, because you’re all going to die anyway!’

... She heard screaming, pleas, the crack of gunfire, shattering glass. ‘How about it, big boy? You want to get shot today?... Hey, you? Peekaboo!’

... Over the alarm, she could hear their taunts, the ridiculing of their victims before the shotgun blasts. It was as if each of the shots passed through her, she said. She knew they’d find her. She was sure she was going to die — that this cabinet would be her coffin.”

By the end of the summer, both Caelum and Maureen abandon the nightmare that has become Littleton to return to Three Rivers, Conn. Caelum takes over his Aunt Lolly’s farmhouse and buckles down to several years of intense labor, working as a baker and an adjunct instructor at the community college to pay for Maureen’s medical bills while at the same time having to endure her despair and emotional depression. Eventually, Maureen returns to work as a nurse, this time in a retirement home, only to once again find herself in the middle of tragedy and personal doom. How she and Caelum face yet more fires of their own personal inferno finishes out the novel.

The Hour I First Believed, however, is much more than a replaying of the shootings at Columbine. The secondary characters here are vital to the plot and theme of the book. Velvet Hoon, a lost, freakish teenager whom Maureen takes under her wing (she calls Maureen ’Mom’ through much of the book), floats in and out of the Quirks’ lives, always on the verge of falling back into her old life of prostitution and abuse, yet providing both Maureen and Caelum with odd friendship and at times an acerbic love. Alphonse Buzzi, Caelum’s best friend from adolescent, demonstrates again and again his own loyalty to Caelum, using his hard-edged humor as a sword against the threatening mental darkness.

Friendship and family, it turns out, are as much a focus of this powerful story as disaster and savagery. Back in Three Rivers, Caelum slowly comes to understand the mystery of his own family: the apparent coldness of his mother, the dissolution of his father, the idealism and steel will of several of his female ancestors. Through the discovery of a journal, letters, and newspaper accounts, he is finally able to make sense of a past which for his entire life had eaten his pleasure and fed him despair.

The Hour I First Believed is a sprawling novel — it runs more than seven hundred pages — with a half dozen major themes. Yet the final message of the book is clear. “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” a man once wrote, and in the case of Caelum, the spiritual beatings he has taken, the losses he has born, the truths he has discovered, do indeed make him stronger, not in the ways we normally think of strength — power, might, force — but stronger in the ways and wiles of love.

Westward Revelations

Art in America by Ron McLarty. Viking Adult, 2008. 384 pages.

In Art in America (ISBN 978-0670—01895-6, $25.95), Ron McLarty introduces us to the world of the artist —the writer, the musician, the playwright, the actor, the painter — as it exists in the year 2009.

Here you will not find the writers and artists normally created by the popular imagination, neither best-selling novelists and electronic artists making six figure incomes nor radicals who slash and gouge at their hated bourgeoisie. Quite the contrary: Art in America gives us a series of portraits of artists as they generally are, real people who struggle to earn a living while still practicing their art, ordinary people in some ways who suffer the same maladies of modern life as the rest of us: unemployment, malaise, cancer, family troubles.

Steven Kearney has written tens of thousands of pages — novels, poems, essays, plays — none of which has ever tasted the sweet wine of publisher’s ink. Booted out of his apartment by his fed-up girl friend, then struck by a car while wandering into the street, he eventually lands at the apartment of his best friend Roarke, a lesbian who brings him back to health and encourages him to continue his writing. Kearney works for a friend in construction to earn some fast money, then is contacted by a woman from Southern Colorado who remembers him from a writing conference and wants him to write a play for the historical society about their town, Creedemore.

Kearney accepts this three-month position and heads for Creedemore. Here he lands in the middle of a range war over water rights. On one side is Ticky Lettgo, a crusty, aged landowner who claims all rights to the water running through his land. On the other side is Red Fields, a newcomer who wants to use the river to develop a whitewater rafting business. As Kearney works away at his play, he must also find a middle road between the warring factions of the town. Lettgo fires on Fields’ rafting party, putting holes through the rafts and bringing the town to the attention of the national press. The townspeople begin to take sides during the trial, with Sheriff Petey Meyers, a recent transplant from Boston, trying to maintain order between these two factions. Soon a radical domestic terrorist enters the scene — she intends to blow up the local dam — and a score of other characters give us glimpses of themselves and of life in the West. Meanwhile, Kearney has fallen in love with Mollie Downs, a cancer survivor and local painter who finds the value and beauty of his writing.

The jacket promos of Art in America uses words like “warmth and heart” in describing the work of Ron McLarty. He is known, we are informed, “for fashioning authentic, well-conceived characters that feel like people you’ve met.”

The above statements regarding Art in America accurately describe Art in America. The “warmth and heart” to this writing are not sloppily sentimental, but are genuine and likeable. Moreover, McLarty has the talent to show us the evolution of his characters in a natural way. Abhorring the radicals who swam the town to take his side and cause near-riots in the street, “Mountain Man” Red Fields moves from hating Lettgo and his stand on water rights to befriending him. Beaten down by life and by his failures as a writer, Steven Kearney finds his historical play a success and a place for himself in the town. Like so many others before him, he has “Gone West” and found a new life. He “realizes that he’s too old to keep beating up on himself and discovers both love and a new confidence.”

McLarty also has a wonderful eye for the humorous, the silly, and the whimsical. Kearney’s introduction to the West, Red Field’s shot-up canoe expedition, the antics of Ticky Lettgo: these and many more scenes bring pleasure to the reader. Performed at the end of the book, Kearney’s historical play brings together all of the characters, sometimes in humorous ways. Here, for example, Suzy, a radical advocating the abolition of property rights, marches into the middle of the outdoor drama chanting slogans, and is confronted by a poet-cowboy, Cowboy Bob. After ad-libbing some poetry telling Suzy to run, Cowboy Bob glares down at her from his white horse:

“Suzy’s in-place marching pumped the scholar’s blood into her already stuffed brain. She smirked at the rhyme and breathing heavily to the rhythm of her steps shouted: ‘I am responsible for myself and for everyone else. I am creating an image of man of my own choosing. In choosing myself, I choose man.’ Jean Paul Sartre!

“Cowboy Bob would have to think about that one for a while, but when he heard another round of applause for her retort, he simply lost it. He reared up and fired two quarter-blank loads a foot or so over her head.”

For a country which is often sorely divided by politics and religion, Art in America offers a vision of reconciliation and mutual respect. It offers art as one possible venue toward that reconciliation. Even more, it offers as an antidote to poisonous political hatreds a sense of humor, a humor which in turn promises a sense of perspective and even an understanding of those opposed to us.

Highly recommended.

Taking back America for Christianity

God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America by Hanna Rosin. Harcourt, 2007. 304 pages

Every once in a while a book sees print that inadvertently tells the unwashed what the elite thinks of them. Massa waltzes out of the Big House —Washington, Manhattan, Beverly Hills — rubs elbows with the field hands, and then retreats to the Big House to write the other massas about conditions on the plantation. Sometimes Massa morphs into an amateur anthropologist, breathlessly explaining to fellow denizens of the West Side or Georgetown the mores of the poor dumb savages she has encountered in the foreign wastelands of Tennessee, Kansas, and Wyoming.

Poetry dying for readers

In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955 by X.J. Kennedy. — The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. 224 pages

Although tens of thousands of American citizens today may call themselves poets, the fact is that poetry has hit hard times. Despite the fact that verse seems conducive to our hamster-wheel, ADD culture — poetry does, after all, have the virtue of brevity; even a slow reader could gulp down three or four poems of average length in less time than it takes to eat a Happy Meal — we have more poets than ever before and fewer readers of poetry. Some commentators have remarked that even poets themselves don’t read much poetry anymore.

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