‘As Good as Gone’ by Larry Watson – How Long Ago was 1963?

 

‘As Good as Gone’ by Larry Watson   (2016) – 341 pages

 

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‘As Good as Gone’ takes place in Montana in 1963.  It is difficult for me to accept that the year 1963 is farther back in time from today than World War I was in 1963.  We are dealing here with ancient times.  To me it seems like only yesterday.

This is a western story of an old Montana hermit cowboy reuniting with the family he left decades earlier.  Of course Larry Watson could write this novel in his sleep, blindfolded, with both his arms tied behind his back.  The real question is whether or not Watson could make this story meaningful and entertaining to me.

My problem with ‘As Good as Gone’ is that I did not like this old vigilante cowboy that Watson seems to be trying hard to set up as some sort of hero.  This guy is the kind who will shoot first and ask questions later.   This man is quick to take matters into his own hands, especially if anyone is a threat to a member of his own family.  This so-called hero has it both ways. As a child and young man he had an upper middle class existence with a prosperous living through the family real estate business.  He leaves his family and business behind to become a lone cowboy presumably taking some of that real estate money with him.

“Many people believe that he once caved in a man’s head because the man made a vulgar remark about his wife.” 

Due to his daughter-in-law’s medical emergency, this cowboy returns to the old family home to watch his grandchildren. That is one plot point that is difficult to accept but does get the story rolling.  The kids have problems of their own which the cowboy deals with in his reckless manner.  The cowboy even starts shacking up with the lady next door who immediately falls in love with him.

Perhaps the best example of the cowboy’s hard-hearted social philosophy is what he says during a run-in with an Indian who has defaulted on the rent.  The cowboy tells his new-found ladyfriend “We won, they lost.  Simple as that.”  And the Indians kept on losing and losing for over a century and still today due to white men’s – probably a lot of Montanans – attitudes like this cowboy’s.  These wannabe cowboys don’t seem to realize how much the cards have been stacked in their favor.  Their ignorance confounds me.

There is a side story about the daughter-in-law’s medical problems which really doesn’t go anywhere and could as well have been dropped.  The main story line is glorifying this old stubborn cowboy, and it does have its entertaining aspects.  However ‘As Good as Gone’ could have been a much deeper story if Watson could have confronted the more negative issues of this cowboy’s state of mind.

 

Grade:   B 

 

‘Wilde Lake’ by Laura Lippman – “Does anyone get through life blameless?”

 

‘Wilde Lake’ by Laura Lippman    (2016) – 352 pages

 

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Although Laura Lippman has written twenty-one novels, ‘Wilde Lake’ is the first of hers that I have read.  Crime novels are not my usual fare, but in recent years I have been more open to giving them a try.

As a crime novel, ‘Wilde Lake’ has some fine virtues.  This story of Luisa Brant, the first female state’s attorney of Howard County, Maryland, is steady and sure-footed and very readable.  It has an aura of competent professionalism written by someone who is quite familiar with the workings of the office.  Some reviewers have suggested that perhaps with ‘Wilde Lake’, Lippman has transcended being just a crime novelist and moved into the literary category.  I don’t think so, and I will explain why not.

There are two separate strands to the story.  First we have the story set in the present where Luisa, Lu for short, starts working as the state’s attorney.  Second we have a story from Lu’s young childhood involving her older brother and his high school friends.  Each strand revolves around its own separate crime.  Only much later do the two strands meld together into one.

In the strand where Lu is a child, she sees her father and her older brother and his friends as close to perfect.  Her mother died when she was born.   Her father was also a state’s attorney, and they live in a richly deserved (according to Lu) upper class house located in a new town near Wilde Lake.

Perhaps the problem for me was that we see Lu’s father and her brother and her brother’s friends through the eyes of a ten year old girl who sees them all as brilliant and splendid.   This over-simplistic idyllic view of the main characters sustained for more than half the novel annoyed me.  Not only does Lu as a little girl have this view of her family and friends as magnificent, she retains this view into her forties until the events that occur near the end of the book.

Perfect characters have no real depth and are of little interest.  These characters are not fully developed to the point where the reader understands how they are going to behave next.  Thus you have a character who has been built up to be almost god-like doing the most despicable things without the reader being given any forewarning.  I suppose Lippman is making a point about a child losing her illusions about her family as she grows up, but the main characters just do not have the depth to support that point.  Also some of the plot situations are too contrived and simplistic for a literary novel.

 

Grade:   B 

‘Patience’ by Daniel Clowes – Realism and Time Travel

 

‘Patience’ by Daniel Clowes, a graphic novel   (2016) –   180 pages

 

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The graphic novel ‘Patience’ by Daniel Clowes is a strange blend of realism and time travel.

In 2012, Patience and Jack Barlow are a young couple, and Patience is expecting a baby.  She doesn’t want to discuss her past which she says was “like a horrible reality show”.  Jack doesn’t want to hear about it either.  However one day Jack returns home to find Patience lying dead on the floor, murdered.  At first, the police try to pin the murder on Jack, but after ten months, Jack finds out that the police no longer suspect him and let him go.  By then, the trail to the real murderer is cold.

Time passes, and the year is 2029.  Jack is still hung up on Patience.  He finds out about a substance that allows one to travel back in time.  He decides to travel back to 2006 in order to find out about Patience’s past, determine who her murderer was, and perhaps stop the murder from ever happening.  He becomes involved with some of the people who were involved in Patience’s life at that time including drug dealers and men who abuse her.  He is zeroing in on who the murderer might be when he accidentally travels back even further in time to 1985 to the time of his childhood.  He has a difficult time to find a means of time travel in 1985, but finally he arrives back in 2012 again, the year of the murder.

As far as graphic novels go, I found ‘Patience’ to lean more toward the fantastical comic book side than the literary side with its time travel and its surreal artwork.  I must admit that the concept of time travel holds little or no interest for me.  Here the time travel was a contrivance which only complicated and convoluted the story.  Thus the idea of having Jack Barlow in the same scenes as both a fifty year old and a twenty five year old was confusing and not enlightening in any way.

Other reviewers were much impressed with ‘Patience’, calling it psychologically astute and darkly comic. I saw no humor or potential wisdom in it whatsoever.  I preferred Clowes’ more realistic earlier work, ‘Mr. Wonderful’.

ct-cth-prj-daniel-clowes-patience-2-jpg-20160317It would be way too unfair and facile to use a graphic novel’s own words against it, but these words from ‘Patience’ sum up my own reactions quite well:  “I’m so god-damned sick of all the science fiction mindfuck bullshit, all the guessing games and all the impossible, unsolvable riddles. I just want it all to fucking end.”

 

Grade:   C  

 

‘The Loney’ by Andrew Michael Hurley – Devout and Creepy

 

‘The Loney’ by Andrew Michael Hurley   (2014) – 294 pages

 

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How best to describe ‘The Loney’?  I would call ‘The Loney’ a religious grotesque.

A small group of devout Catholics make their Easter pilgrimage in 1976 from London to Lancashire, stopping at a bleak desolate place called the Loney somewhere along the northwest coast of England, a “wild and useless length of English coastline”.  Their kindly, good-natured priest, Father Bernard, drives the bus.

Among the passengers on the bus are two teenage boys, fifteen year-old Tonto and his older brother Hanny who has been silent and mute his entire life.   The people on the pilgrimage, especially his mother Mummer, are praying for a miracle, that somehow Hanny will begin to talk.

Mummer has baked a cake to be eaten after the Good Friday service.

“She placed the cake in the center of the table  and everyone, apart from Miss Bunce, made a fuss over it, praising the detail on Jesus’ face, how intricate the thorns were, how the cochineal coloring had made the blood trickling down his cheek so vibrantly red.“

Perhaps no image captures the spirit of ‘The Loney’ better than that red food coloring used on the cake to show the blood trickling down Jesus’ face from the crown of thorns.   This is one creepy religious novel.

The story is told from the point of view of the younger brother Tonto who Mummer expects to later become a priest.  Tonto has a sharp astute mind, and he can see that his mother might be overdoing it when she sticks her hand down Hanny’s throat to pull out food he had eaten when he was supposed to be fasting.

Father Bernard does have the best interests of all of his parishioners in mind.  He is a pleasant good-hearted fellow who does occasionally take a drink and who may even stop off at a local tavern for a while.  He is not at all like the priest he replaced, Father Wilfrid, who died under mysterious circumstances.  This small band of parishioners is still in thrall to Father Wilfrid who was strict and devout, and they are not all ready to accept the avuncular Father Bernard as their head.

‘The Loney’ is an old-fashioned traditional scary novel loaded with Catholic ritual. Yet it is still a very likeable tale. The portrayal of Father Bernard is the most positive I have seen for any priest for many years.  Sure, there are some plot points and peripheral characters that aren’t very clear, but this reader did not mind because the main characters are so sharply and wonderfully drawn.  ‘The Loney’ does what all the better novels do, it draws you in so you become part of the story.

 

Grade:   A-

 

‘The Meursault Investigation’ by Kamel Daoud – The Arabs’ Story

 

‘The Meursault Investigation’ by Kamel Daoud      (2013) – 143 pages

Translated from the French by John Cullen

 

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A couple of years ago I wrote an article about the novel ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus on this site which you can find here.  Algerian writer Kamel Daoud has written a “Reply” novel to ‘The Stranger’ called ‘The Meursault Investigation’ which won the 2015 Goncourt Prix for first novel.

In ‘The Stranger’ Albert Meursault shoots and kills “an Arab”.  He is imprisoned and tried for this heinous crime.

Why is this Arab who figures so dramatically in ‘The Stranger’ given no name? That is the central question of ‘The Meursault Investigation’ which is narrated by the Arab’s brother.

In ‘The Meursault Investigation’ we early learn that the Arab’s name is Musa.  We find out how his murder affected his mother as well as his seven-year-old brother Harun who now tells this story seventy years later.

Whereas ‘The Stranger’ is cool and detached, cold even, ‘The Meursault Investigation’ is emotional and heated.  Albert Camus himself summarized ‘The Stranger’ with the following remark:  “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.”   The main issue at Meursault‘s trial appears to be his reserve and lack of feeling at his mother’s funeral rather than the murder itself.  Meursault views the murder as a result of his being disoriented by the sun.  The murder is nearly a side issue to him, but that still does not pardon Camus from not giving the Arab a name.  Surely Meursault would have learned the name of his victim after the murder and should not always have to refer to him as “the Arab”.   The worst case would be that Camus himself was dismissive of Meursault’s murderous act because the victim was only “the Arab”.  In 1942 Algeria was a French colony, and that may have been a common colonial attitude.

the-strangerBy 1962, Algeria gained its independence from France.  Many remaining French people left their homes in a hurry, and Harun and his mother move into a house vacated by a French family.  During that time, Harun murders a Frenchman who does have a name.

This murder is not the only scene that mirrors ‘The Stranger’.  There is also the story of Musa and Harun’s mother.  In fact the first line of ‘The Meursault Investigation’ is “Mama’s still alive today” which mirrors the first line of ‘The Stranger’.

Kamel Daoud would have built a stronger case if he had dealt with the fact that in ‘The Stranger’ the two Arabs stabbed Meursault’s friend Raymond in the arm and mouth in a confrontation before the murder.  Earlier Raymond had beat up his Arab girlfriend, and the Arabs responded with violence. Certainly Raymond had it coming, but still that fact should have been discussed explicitly in ‘The Meursault Investigation’.

I suppose at some point the two novels ‘The Stranger’ and ‘The Meursault Investigation’ will be sold as a package so readers will get the entire story of both Albert Meursault and his victim.

 

Grade:    B+

 

‘Aeneid Book VI’ by Virgil – Translated by Seamus Heaney

 

‘Aeneid Book VI’ by Virgil    (Somewhere between 29 BC and 19 BC)    94 pages     Translated by Seamus Heaney

 

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‘Aeneid – Book VI’, this translation of the Roman poet Virgil, is the last work of the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney who died in 2013.

Most of the mythology that I have read before have been translations of the Greek, so this Roman work by Virgil was new to me.  I was amazed though how closely it followed the Greek stories.  Aeneas and his surviving band of Trojans who suffered their terrible defeat from the Spartans at the battle of Troy have landed their boat on the Italian coast.

Aeneas discovers that his father Anchises has died.  Aeneas asks the Sibyl if he can cross the river Styx to talk to his father one last time.  The Sibyl tells him that it is easy to descend into the Underworld land of the dead, “but to retrace your steps and get back to upper air, that is the task, that is the undertaking.  Only a few have prevailed.”

Aeneas must descend to death’s deepest reaches to see and talk to his father.  The ferryman Charon navigates his barge through the waters of the river Styx to take him there.   Along the way we are given a guided tour of Hades.  First we meet those who have not yet been buried – the shades – who are not allowed on Charon’s barge.

“Not until bones have found a last resting place will shades be let across these gurgling currents, their doom instead to wander and haunt about the banks for a hundred years.” 

Later Aeneas does meet his father who gives him plenty of pompous advice.

“So now I will instruct you in what is to be,

The future glory of the Trojan race,

Descendants due to be born in Italia,

Souls who will in time make our name illustrious –

I speak of them to reveal your destiny to you.”

So, according to Virgil, the glory of Rome was due to the descendants of this scraggly band of survivors led by Aeneas who escaped the far-off battle of Troy.  This is preposterous, but aren’t myths usually preposterous?

Those of you who have read Seamus Heaney’s translations of ‘Beowulf’ and ‘The Burial at Thebes’ know how sensitive and intelligent a translator he was.  Of course this Book VI of the Aeneid is mainly concerned with a trip through Hell visiting the dead and learning about posterity.  Thus this is a melancholy austere work.  It is somber  and  not particularly fun, but if you are the type who enjoys reading the ancient myths in close to their original form, you will want to read this stately poetic book.

Journey of Aeneas

Journey of Aeneas

 

 

Grade:   A-

 

‘Sweet Lamb of Heaven’ by Lydia Millet – My Shifting Assessments of Lydia Millet’s Novels

 

‘Sweet Lamb of Heaven’ by Lydia Millet    (2016) – 250 pages

 

41ozBGZ4DcLI can think of not a single writer whose novels have caused more widely varying reactions from me than Lydia Millet.  The highs have been high; the lows have been so low.

So far I have read the following four novels by Lydia Millet:  ‘Ghost Lights’, ‘Oh Pure and Radiant Heart’, ‘Magnificence’, and now ‘Sweet Lamb of Heaven’.

I found ‘Ghost Lights’ to be quite appealing.  At the time I read ‘Ghost Lights’, I wrote:

“A ‘Go To’ writer doesn’t have to go overboard to achieve his or her stories’ effects but is supremely confident, and we readers relax and let the writer’s steady hand at the wheel guide us.  Lydia Millet is comfortable enough in her own talent that she can be absurdist and realistic at the same time.”

At that time I was expecting a long and comfortable future sojourn of reading Millet’s novels.  It didn’t work out that way.

The next Millet novel I read, ‘Oh Pure and Radiant Heart’, was a definite step down for me.   This novel was a low comedy featuring the three atomic bomb scientists Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard. Though the novel is at times compelling, the main characters came across for me here as cartoonish and thus unable to sustain such a long novel.

Then I read ‘Magnificence’.  Even though ‘Magnificence’ was a sequel to the brilliant ‘Ghost Lights’, none of the mundane characters in the muddled interior monologue of this novel sustained my interest.  I selected this novel as one of my two worst reads of 2012.

So now we come to today’s Lydia Millet novel, ‘Sweet Lamb of Heaven’.   In ‘Sweet Lamb of Heaven’, two separate stories are going on.  The first is a straightforward story of a sociopath politician husband harassing and using his wife and daughter for political gain.  This portrait of a Tea Party politician from Alaska is quite accurate and effective.

“Ned’s bible-thumping friends think they’re right and all others are wrong – their powerful fear of other groups that turns to hatred and plays into the hands of the profiteers.  But the profiteers themselves, with their millions of tentacles sunk deep into every crack in the earth, don’t give a shit about being right.  They’re powerful.”

The second paranormal plot of the mother having auditory hallucinations is much more difficult for me to accept or appreciate.  The mother and daughter flee from the sociopath politician husband to a Maine hotel where all of the guests as well as the hotel manager happen to hear voices.  Somehow these people have all gathered (coincidentally?) at this one hotel.  They speak of “an ambient language that underlies life” and of “the background orchestration of the deeper language”. The hotel occupants even talk of the Hearing Voices Movement.

Unfortunately this New Age-y metaphysical stuff just flies right through my head and out the other side.

But I still believe that in time Lydia Millet will write another brilliant novel on the order of ‘Ghost Lights’.

 

Grade:    B-

 

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