Thursday, July 16, 2009

"New Valley" plunges through varied terrain

The valleys of Virginia are not vastly populated. And yet they are inhabited by the complex and simple people of Josh Weil’s first book The New Valley. The debut contains three novellas. Each utterly distinct from the others despite the fact that they share the same locale.
In the fist novella, a man, Osby, has just lost his father. For years the two of them lived and worked side by side on their farm. They bred cattle and lived a controllable if not entirely contented life as bachelors in a house too large for just two of them. Osby finds himself marooned by the grief his doesn’t know how to express or even own. Left with no one to care for besides his cows, Osby attempts to navigate the new waters he finds himself adrift upon. Innocent and reluctant to open himself up to the world, he approaches everything with good intentions and is bewildered by his inability to succeed.
Stillman Wing is the main character in Weil’s second novella. At seventy he is forced into retirement and in a rare break from his customary caution, Stillman makes away with an ancient Deutz from his former employer’s yard of machines, planning on fixing the tractor up like new.
Stillman lives with his obese daughter Caroline. Her tremendous weight plagues Stillman and he begs her to abide by his own fastidious approaches to physical health. Caroline continually rebuffs him. He has raised her on his own since she was a toddler and his love for her is evident and immense. But his devotion to her is incapable of stabilizing his impetuous daughter.
Two elements of this novella are particularly intriguing. The manner in which Weil deals with time is remarkable in Stillman Wing. Within the space of a single paragraph inside Stillman’s head, a whole year has gone by. The transition is absolutely fluid and once one tunes into his strategy, Weil’s approach to the seasonal cycles is both striking and delightful. Time resides at the axis of the story, and the author’s unique approach to its unfurling makes its importance all the more conspicuous.
Secondly, there are wonderful illustrations splitting up the text in this narrative. The drawings are intricate and surprising. They complement the story beautifully, adding another element of mystery.
Finally, Weil introduces the reader to the last of the Sarvers in the final, longest novella. All of Weil’s stories do a dance on the heartstrings, but Sarverville Remains is particularly affecting.
Weil strikes an entirely different tone in this story. Geoffrey Sarver is the first-person narrator of this dark narrative. He is writing to someone and it becomes evident through his prose that he is mentally impaired to a minor degree. At the age of thirty Geoffrey spends his time with high school boys who are looking for sex and trouble. The company he keeps leads him to his first love affair, an event that disrupts the placidity of the life he had made for himself.
Weil’s ability to enter the minds of the characters on his pages is remarkable. The variations in their lives and personalities are complex and yet ring with a similar searching tremor. None of them are resigned. All three male protagonists strive toward something beyond what they have known; their largest obstacle is only that they are unsure of what lies beyond their immediate existence.
Weil’s debut has rare depths and penetrates into minds and communities that are rarely explored. A literary trend toward the exploration of those outside the spotlight is emerging, a phase that Weil proves to be compelling and profitable.

Monday, July 13, 2009

"Hedgehog" has prickly intelligence but falls into fairy tale predictability

Capricious little girls have the capacity to be annoying or incredibly endearing. Crotchety concierges can be as gnarled as they appear or unpredictably erudite. Muriel Bradbury’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, translated from the French, seeks to examine those who are usually overlooked, peeling back exterior presentations to reveal the subtlety or the prickles that lie beneath.
Renée presides over number 7, rue de Grenelle in Paris. She is a self-described inelegant lady, plump, ugly and utterly uninteresting. This is an image she cultivates as the concierge of a building filled with wealthy men and women, broods of self-important children, and pampered pets. Behind her façade of stoic tedium Renée reads Tolstoy with a vengeance, peruses philosophy, and fosters a deep love for art and classical music. The reader is privy to her scorn for the inhabitants of her building and to her admiration of the academic realms she is not supposed to have access to or interest in. Through Renée’s ponderings and observations the crass and disappointing behavior of modern, wealthy Parisians is revealed and soundly judged.
On the other side of the financial divide is Paloma. She is the 12-year-old daughter of the Josses who live in one of the upper apartments of rue de Grenelle. Like Renée, she is ferociously bright. She also has no tolerance for the frivolity of her mother and elder sister and the tedious politics of her father. Paloma has become so disgusted with the lives around her that she has decided to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. Renée’s musings are interspersed with Paloma’s Profound Thoughts and her entries in her Journal of the Movement of the World. She marks down moments that resonate with her, wondering if something will appear in her last few months that might make life worthwhile.
Paloma and Renée’s withdrawn scrutiny of the world is interrupted by the arrival of a new tenant. He is Japanese and his coming captures the entire building's attention. Much to Renée’s chagrin, her behavior and the offhand quoting of a Tolstoy line, catches Kakuro Ozu’s attention. He senses that something more lies behind the stern exterior of his concierge and works to break down the barriers Renée has constructed to protect herself.
Both Renée and Paloma’s musings verge on tiresome. Intriguing insights glimmer among the precocious ruminations of Paloma, and Renée’s somewhat overdone erudition. But both parties’ decision to conceal their intelligence struck me as odd and disappointing. Renée’s disguise might be explicated by an inability to break out of the class her working class birth dictated, but that notion seems antiquated and Renée’s will too strong to succumb to such prescriptions. Paloma’s suppression of her mental capacity felt childish and somewhat ridiculous. It suggests an adolescent desire to dupe the world, indulgent and immature. Her despair was believable but her behavior made me pity her less.
After the appearance of Kakuro, the novel too closely follows the path of a Cinderella story. He is the exotic prince, come to deliver Paloma and Renée from the farces they have created for themselves. Kakuro plays his role down to the delivery of a new wardrobe for the drab Madame Renée. The transformations occur too quickly and lack the disciplined unraveling that would make them resonate truthfully.
Bradbury does salvage the novel with something of a surprise ending. The upward trajectory of the story comes to a screeching halt and Paloma has a final revelation that strikes a significant chord. But by the conclusion of the book the reader has tired of both ladies’ musings and has little invested in their fates.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Interiors excavated by Wells Tower

As I believe is becoming clear to anyone who reads my reviews regularly, I have a penchant for things like names and titles. I came across the name Wells Tower two summers ago when I was working at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. At the time, Tower’s book wasn’t even in galleys but I knew I wouldn’t forget that moniker in a hurry. This spring, FSG published Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned and I rushed to the bookstore as soon as I received graduation funds from my grandparents. I vanquished Tower’s book promptly, much like his Vikings vanquish whom they choose in his final story.
Tower’s prose is fairly plain, straightforward. But he knows when to throw in a zesty noun or verb, like ravaged, to prick your attention. The simplicity of his language is deceptive, and neither are his characters hot shots. More often than not, they are regular Joes, playing at bigger roles and quickly determining that what they are suited for is less glamorous and more comfortable.
The internal troubles of Tower’s characters manifest in their surroundings. The helplessness of a recently separated man is embodied by the decimation of his gigantic fish tank, while a boy’s fear of his peers and stepfather is encapsulated in the lurking presence of a leopard. Tower mostly focuses on men in his stories, men and boys who are adrift, have lost or have not yet found their anchors.
In most stories, the events that Tower turns into revolutionary moments are fairly basic. My favorite occurred in “Door in Your Eye.” A man who has just moved in with his daughter believes that their neighbor is a prostitute. He watches a wide variety of men enter said neighbor’s house while perched on his daughter’s porch. Aside from the man’s endearing nosiness, what I liked most about him was what he occupied himself with while spying on the neighbors. Every morning he goes out to paint the sky. It is these sorts of details that distinguish Tower’s people from the usual characters on the fringe, making them unique and plausible.
Tremors of despair certainly loiter beneath the surface of these stories. The fundamentals of the lives described are not dramatically awry, but neither are they particularly secure or even pleasant. These characters are not setback by customary hiccups of existence but they are affected and Tower allows them to be shaped by these occurrences without pitying them or hanging them out to dry.
The men, women and children of these stories are flawed. Few have magnanimous or glamorous goals. Managing their god-given peccadilloes and learning to construct them into something satisfactory is enough work. Tower gets into the heads of the ordinary and unravels their emotions and ponderings with a sensitivity and patience not always seen in a writer.
Tower’s debut is attracting a lot of attention. He is being compared to a number of masters and mistresses of the short story. The praise is largely rooted in his vernacular abilities and the tightly bound quality of each story. Anything of excess has been battered from the lines of his polished first work.
This collection is both amusing and brooding, two moods one can usually expect from life. Despite the down and out situations many of Tower’s characters are found in, the bitterness they might possess remains absent. They maintain their humor: Life gives you lemons, and if you can’t find a way to make lemonade why not crack a grin.

Monday, July 6, 2009

"Some Fun" scrutinizes familial love

I read Antonya Nelson’s short story collection Female Troubles five or so years ago and was immediately enraptured. Part of this had something to do with the title, which I thought incredibly clever. And then there was the fact of her distinct narrative voice. It has a decidedly female tone to it, as well as an edge that is unmistakably Southwestern. It could be argued that her stories sound Southwestern because most are set in that region, but I would suggest looking more closely at the people she chooses to uncover in her stories, and the manner in which she does so before pinning down her style to mere narrative location.
Her collection and novella from 2006, Some Fun, slices through run-of-the-mill domesticity. Nelson exhibits a particular interest in the relationships between parents and their children. Often her stories zero in on the dynamics between a mother and her son. She spends less time on these familial bonds once the children have aged, preferring to focus on the attachments created in the childhoods of her subjects. Happily there is nothing sinister in Nelson’s exploration of these connections. She probes the intricacies of relationships that are merely result from plain old paternal and maternal love.
These relationships, as we quickly discover, are fraught with a smorgasborg of issues, which Nelson expertly draws out. There is abandonment, protection and fear to be wrestled with as well as difficult and shifting dynamics of power within the familial unit. Nelson examines the factors and tensions that sway the balance of authority in a family, whether it be age, mental health or the presence of a person who exists outside of the domestic sphere and threatens to disturb if not destroy it. Nelson, one feels, speaks the stories of the people whom one might run into at the grocery store but whose full lives are never revealed.
Nelson refuses to let her characters off easily. They confront situations that push their beliefs, sense of propriety, and security to the limits. Rarely do they return unaltered. Nelson recognizes and allows for the ugliness in people. She brings these darker facets to light without forcing anyone’s hand or putting them on trial. This is an author who is not particularly gentle with her characters but neither is she forceful. It is easy to keep pace with their turns in mood. Their intentions can always be grasped from one angle, even if their actions are somewhat off the mark.
The love stories that appear in this collection concern the kind of love that isn’t chosen. The relationships that are unwound for the reader depict the depths and weaknesses of familial love. Nelson understands and embraces the fact that the love between parents and their children is both wonderfully exquisite as well as the pits of misery.
The most important thing I learned my first year of college was unpacked for me in a poetry class. It had to do with the desolate realization in adolescence that your parents’ love is incomparable. This is, of course, coupled with the discovery that you desire a different sort of love that they cannot provide and that most people in the world won’t. Meaning, that as much as you might love the world, very little of it will love you back. This concept struck a chord, caused romantic little me to burst into tears and I have been unable to shake the truth of it. Nelson encapsulates this certainty in her characters' relationships. Mothers yearn to forever protect their sons, and daughters are at a loss when they see their fathers slipping from them. These are impossibilities. But what is preserved and exposed by Nelson’s stories is the intrinsic depths of this unchosen love and its undeniable intensity.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Beauty conflicts with decline in debut "Rust"

Opening up the newspaper in the morning you read that the police have found the body of a homeless man in an empty shack not far from the train tracks. He appears to have been murdered. There is, at this time, a single suspect, a young man who has a history of assault. It looks as if he doesn’t stand a chance in court, especially not with the new DA. He had it coming, is your first thought. He got off easy the time before because the sheriff helped him out. It’s a tragedy for his mother, but probably no less than he deserves. Reading American Rust, Philipp Meyer’s debut novel, is like reading the truth behind this kind of newspaper story.
Isaac English is smart; he may in fact be brilliant. But at twenty he is still living with his father, unable to get out of the dying steel town like his sister did when she left for Yale. His staying is due to a mixture of stubbornness and filial piety. But after two years of tending to his broken father, Isaac decides to get out of Buell, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Having stolen $4,000 of his old man’s money he sets off west down the train tracks, headed for Berkley and the education he knows he deserves.
But first, Isaac stops by the trailer where his friend Billy Poe lives. The two are an unlikely pair. The former is frail and bookish, the latter a star football player, who wasted his chances at a college scholarship. Isaac tries to get Poe to come along with him, and his friend apathetically agrees to see Isaac as far as the next town. A rainstorm hits and the two wind up in a shed with three bums, at which point the trouble begins.
A fundamental that must be understood about Buell is its beauty. This aspect of the steel town is repeated continuously throughout the novel. The extraordinary loveliness of the place only belittles the community’s inability to retain the dignity it once possessed. There seems to be no way out.
Meyer uses the lens of his novel to examine the dying industries of America and the lives they take down with them. Poe and Isaac represent one faction of the disintegrating community. They are the misdirected youth, each brilliant and capable in their own ways but neither is given anything to thrive upon. The fathers of Buell toiled at the steel mills and the community prospered. But when those were closed down there was little for them to do and even less for their wives. The towns that once flourished with relative comfort sunk into disrepair in the space of a generation.
Lee, Isaac’s sister, is as much of a concrete character as her younger brother. She made it out, married into a wealthy family even, and her motives are just as complicated and understandable as her brother’s compulsion to stay. Grace, Poe’s mother, has stayed and shedding light on her reasons broadens the scope of the novel, giving the plight of the town’s residents a three-dimensional form.
The aftermath of the shed leaves both Poe and Isaac in an intricate moral predicament. The novel tracks their progress and decline, factoring in the presence of the town’s sheriff, Buddy Harris. I liked and connected with almost all of the characters in American Rust and found Harris particularly appealing. Meyer is careful not to work too hard on a single dimension of his characters and as a result they all materialize as complex people with a thick variety of shortcomings, expectations and disappointment. A human face on the law further strengthened the structure of Meyer’s exceptionally well-developed and multi-dimensioned American novel.