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.

Life chronicles

How To Make A Journal Of Your Life by D. Price. Ten Speed Press, $9.95.

Ant Farm by Simon Rich. Random House, $12.95.

Many people have attempted at least once in their lives to keep a journal. Whether they use one of those expensive, leather-bound journals with creamy white paper from their local bookstore or simply a cheap notebook from Wal-Mart, they set out to chronicle their lives for their own pleasure and perhaps for the edification of their offspring.

The peril of complacency

The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture by Andrew Keen. Doubleday, 2007. $22.95

Web 2.0 is killing our culture.

Evolution In a Nutshell — the book

Evolution In A Nutshell by Martin Malloy. Trafford Publishing, 2007. 302 pages

Evolution is one of those wonderfully fiery topics which, when broached at parties or family gatherings, can convert otherwise reasonable friends and relatives into raging maniacs, shouting, slamming their fists onto the table, and crunching beer cans against their heads (somewhat like chimpanzees signaling irritation or fear).

Another mystery mines our fascination with the past

The Machiavelli Covenant by Allan Folsom. Forge Books,2006. 560 pages

The last 20 years have seen the creation of a special niche within the genre of ÒSuspense NovelsÓ as more and more books have appeared featuring a tiny group of protagonists facing great odds as they uncover some secret from the past.

Big as a mountain

The Encyclopedia of Appalachia.  University of Tennessee Press, 2007. 1864 pages

Sometimes good things come in big packages.

And the Encyclopedia of Appalachia is big. More than 1,800 pages of finely-printed prose make up this boxlike book. I’m not sure exactly what the Encyclopedia weighs, but if you dropped it on someone’s foot you might face arrest for assault with a deadly weapon.

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