In this post I visit Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation; Andrew Sean Greer’s Less; Carys Davies The Redemption of Galen Pike; Ross MacDonald’s The Wycherly Woman; and Liz Nugent’s Unraveling Oliver.
August is coming to an end, a time when I usually remark about how quickly the year has flown and look forward to my favorite season, Fall. Not in 2017, I’m afraid. It seems since January we’ve suffered through at least a decade, every day bringing a new horror, abomination, defilement of decency, and a lowering of the bar as to what constitutes acceptable behavior, all thanks to the sociopathic buffoon who somehow managed to ride a wave of hate and deceit into the highest position in the land, surround himself with racist, misogynist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, classist, fascist toadies, bigots, and hypocrites of every stripe, all of them determined to chip away at all that is good and kind and right about this country, to reverse the progress we’ve made toward equality and peace, and move the world backward to a time when only old heterosexual white men claiming to be christian had any power or say.
I wake every day with only a few seconds of joy before I remember what’s been done and being done to this country, to this world, and I am filled with fear and sorrow.
So, I escape into literature. As much as I can. Here then are the last few with which I filled my end of summer days.
Standard Deviation, Katherine Heiny, Hardcover, 336pp, May 2017, Knopf
From the accretion of telling, penetrating details in episode after sharply, wittily drawn episode Katherine Heiny builds a hard to describe but fascinating whole in her debut adult novel, Standard Deviation.
Graham Cavanaugh divorced his first wife, the outwardly staid, stable, and sturdy Elspeth, to wed his second, the unbound, unfiltered, and unafraid Audra, a union which produced Matthew, a son whose results on educational and emotional tests fall outside the standard deviation, resulting in a diagnostic label of Aspberger Syndrome. How these four characters interact with others and navigate the confusing, noisy, complicated modern world is the landscape Katherine Heiny uses to map many varieties of love, leaving, and loss in ways insightful, humorous, touching, poignant, and ultimately eloquently revelatory.
Katherine Heiny manages the sleight-of-prose trick here of using humor — and this is funny, indeed in a sophisticated, sly, dry way — to explore the unknowable distances and secret, private spaces in all relationships, even the most loving, tender, and treasured. Autistic Matthew is hardly the most emotionally reserved and touchy of the people here; all have their own manner of arms-length-ing others, an observation the author elucidates subtly through action. One is taken by surprise as one comes to the end of what started off feeling like yet another light-hearted, near-sarcastic take on the dilemmas of the privileged but has turned into a moving examination of what love is, what it takes, what it does, and how it grows and goes and sometimes, makes for wisdom.
Less, Andrew Sean Greer, Hardcover, 272pp, July 2017, Lee Boudreaux Books, Little Brown and Company
One of the many pleasure of reading is discovering an author whose voice speaks to your soul and realizing, “They have a backlist!” So it is for me with Andrew Sean Greer and his most recent novel, his sixth published work, Less.
There are novels with indelible opening lines, for me, the ideal being Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays:
What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.
It has stuck with me since the first time I read it. Of course, it’s followed by another 200-some wide margined, amply spaced pages of exquisite genius during which Joan Didion manages with her precision of language and laser focus what most novels — no matter the page count — never even hint at.
Point being, I remember Play It As It Lays not just because of its opening line — which is brilliant — but because what follows is equal to the opening.
With Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, the order is twisted: when you reach what seems the inevitable, only possible final line, the preceding 250-some pages — which might have seemed twee or gimmicky in less skilled literary hands — feel earned and right and have that heft of, “Oh, I’ll always remember this.”
And what more can one ask of a book but that it gives you something you will always remember?
So, perhaps I ought synopsize rather than babble. Our hero, Arthur, a self-defined failed (or failing) author about to turn 50 receives an invitation to his boyfriend of the past nine years wedding. To someone else. Desperate to avoid the ceremony without saying no and seeming broken, he accepts a motley deluge of invitations to literary events and opportunities which will take him around the world, making it impossible to attend his long-loved one’s nuptials to someone else.
On the trek which takes him through Mexico, Italy, Germany, Morocco, India and Japan, he falls in love (maybe) and suffers humiliations real and imagined and faces his fears about and the realities of being a gay man alone, turning 50, which equals being a corpse in the youth-oriented world of modern gay life and hookups. Listen:
Arthur Less is the first homosexual ever to grow old. That is, at least, how he feels at times like these. Here, in this tub, he should be twenty-five or thirty, a beautiful young man naked in a bathtub. Enjoying the pleasures of life. How dreadful if someone came upon naked Less today: pink to his middle, gray to his scalp, like those old double erasers for pen and ink. He has never seen another gay man age past fifty, none except Robert. He met them all at forty or so but never saw them make it much beyond; they died of AIDS, that generation. Less’s generation often feels like the first to explore the land beyond fifty. How are they meant to do it? Do you stay a boy forever, and dye your hair and diet to stay lean and wear tight shirts and jeans and go out dancing until you drop dead at eighty? Or do you do the opposite — do you forswear all that, and let your hair go gray, and wear elegant sweaters that cover your belly, and smile on past pleasures that will never come up again?
It goes on, even more eloquently, in ways that made this 50-something, aging gay man with no role models, none of the cohorts I knew when young having survived (in life, or in my life) to show me how to age, especially how to age alone; and age alone here, in a location where the gay community is of limited scope, limited imagination, and just as youth obsessed as the WB network. So, there, on page 22 of a novel mostly funny and warm and comforting, I cried in recognition.
There are so many funny, touching, glorious, beautifully structured, recognizable moments in this skillfully, artfully written novel, I could spend pages and pages quoting, but that would waste the time you ought to spend reading this remarkable, moving novel in which the angst of aging, regret, and self-delusion are described full-blown with humor and warmth and compassion. This novel is uplifting without being saccharine and I could not have loved Less more.
The Redemption of Galen Pike, Carys Davies, Paperback, 176pp, April 2017, Biblioasis
I’m fascinated by good short stories and many of the ones in The Redemption of Galen Pike are very good, one or two bordering on great in the manner of Paul Bowles, Flannery O’Connor, or Elizabeth McCracken. While the settings of the stories vary widely, most of the primary characters are located in the same place: lonely people, living in the empty chasms of unknowingness between people, the spaces between. Some are trying to bridge the abyss, others are resigned to their solitude and sorrow. The prose is deceptively simple while managing to contain depths and shadows and layer after layer of meaning and surprise — there are many twists, unexpected gasp-making and/or tear-inducing reveals.
Piece of advice: You’ll want to read them all, right away. Don’t. It takes away from the impact. They should be savored and spread out, because reading them together gives them a sense of sameness they don’t really deserve nor benefit from. And if you MUST read them all at once in the first go-round, then go back and read them again, slowly, one a week or so, when you’ve time to savor the language and the emotional construction.
The Wycherly Woman, Ross MacDonald, Paperback, Bantam, January 1073, Bantam
I was turned on to Ross MacDonald by Eudora Welty. or, rather, by the collection of their correspondence, Meanwhile There Are Letters, which I love and adore. Too, once I knew I had to sample his work, I hied it to the local used bookstore and picked up a few mass market Bantam paperbacks from the late sixties, early seventies for $3.98 each, all of which posted original cover price of $1.25. Discounting the problem that print this small is something I try to avoid now in deference to my weary six-decades-of-heavy-reading eyes, I love the look and feel of these paperbacks, they hurtle me time-machine-heartwise to my protected, rural youth where the only place to buy books was the Read’s Drugstore in Westminster, which had a wall full of books, every one of which it seemed imperative that I have. I got my allowance on Saturday, and, usually, we went to “the city” that day and I would blow my $2 on a book and a comic book; I was a sucker for true love and heart-throb and romance comics, an addiction which was disapproved of by my mom, who refused to buy the comics for me, so I would take them to the checkout myself, when no one was looking, and all hot and tingly with shame, knowing I was again doing something I wasn’t — as a boy — supposed to be doing, I would usually get (or imagine I was getting) a sneer of disapproval from the clerk. How early we learn shame.
But I loved those comic books, the intensity and the colors and the style. And, in the same way, I love my Ross MacDonald paperbacks, now browned at the edges, brittle, aged. Except for the writing which is as fresh and vibrant and sharp as ever it was. The clipped noir dialect. The snarked snaps of hard-won wisdom from the rode rough and put away wet, been there, done that, hard knocks, hard-headed, soft-touch, iron willed, bloody knuckled hero, Archer, are brilliant. I mean that — brilliant.
I’d tell you the plot, but, it isn’t the plot you read these for. It’s the style. As is often the case in MacDonald’s Archer series there is a screwed up family, someone missing or dead, lots of wrong turns and detours and misdirection and deception and good intentions gone bloodily, homicidally bad.
Loved it. Not unlike one of my old family reunions, albeit with a few more bullets and knife wounds.
Unraveling Oliver, Liz Nugent, Hardback, 272pp, August 2017, Gallery/Scout Press
Full disclosure: Let me begin by saying that I’ve a personal connection to this book. That’s right. I’m in the acknowledgements. Well, okay, maybe not technically, but, Liz Nugent does say:
Thank you to Duchess Goldblatt and her loyal devotees, ….
You only need read my title page to see I have LOOOOONG identified myself as a devoted catechumen of Her Grace, Duchess Goldblatt. So, see there? I’M IN THE ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS OF A GREAT BOOK. Life goal = check.
Now about this book, Liz Nugent’s fiction debut which was named Crime Novel of the Year by the Irish Book Awards — it’s a WOW! Don’t pick it up unless you have a stretch of uninterrupted time in which to read because you won’t want to stop — may not be able to stop.
Bestselling children’s author, charmer, and sociopath Oliver opens the book by saying, “I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.” He’s just brutally beaten his wife. His sick reasons for the attack and the truth of him are subtly and surprisingly revealed, strand by horrifying strand, clue by riveting clue, through short chapters in alternating first person voices from the people who have known him throughout his life — or, thought they knew him.
Liz Nugent has a great gift for tessellation, the colorful and grippingly intriguing pieces of the mosaic of Oliver’s life compellingly meted out in fast-moving plot and prose. Wonderful read.
So, there we have it, my last five reads of August and a paragraph or five of my rage let loose. I am truly grateful for the gifts of literature and the work of authors — past and present and future — which serve to help me escape, and to elevate and educate and illuminate. Thank-you writers, thank-you editors, thank-you copy editors, thank-you agents, thank-you publicists, thank-you indie booksellers, and thank you Twitterati, who enrich my world in ways indescribable, incalculable, and unbelievably loving and light-giving and peace-making.
Love to all, even those buffoons and bigots I now think I hate but am working to see the light in, and so, here I am, going.