Writing alternative history offers an author extra challenges beyond the normal ones presented by any other kind of historical fiction. The accepted history has to be well known in order for the reader to understand what is different and to be able to appreciate the author’s exploration of that alternative. An example of a popular alternative history in the U.S. is to imagine the results if the South had won the Civil War. Even so, the author must be a diligent researcher and make clear and crucial choices about which facts remain the same and which are turned on their heads.
Zach Powers, whose debut novel, First Cosmic Velocity, is out from G. P. Putnam this August, meets these challenges head-on. Powers’ topic is the Soviet space program of the 1950s and ‘60s, a subject that older readers will remember with painful clarity as a blow to American pride when the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957 and beat us into space. Later, Yuri Gagarin completed the first manned orbit of the earth in 1961, making him a worldwide phenomenon and catching the U.S. flat-footed once again.
In Powers’ alternative history, the Soviets still beat us into space, sending multiple manned missions up. The problem, for the program and the cosmonauts, is that no one knows how to bring them back down again.
The story shifts between two time periods: the story’s present day, in 1964, and 1950 in Ukraine, during a brutal, widespread drought and famine. Powers reveals the bones of his story in small steps, starting with an inspired opening: “Nadya had been the twin who was supposed to die. But she lived, and it was her sister, the other Nadya, who’d departed.”
This Nadya is watching the launch of the latest spacecraft along with the Chief Designer, the man responsible for the design of the Vostok capsule, the one that is incapable of surviving re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
In the capsule is Leonid; in fact, he is one of two Leonids. The other Leonid is secreted in a bunker in the same complex, his presence—indeed his very existence—known only to a small handful of people. To the rest of the space program and the CCCP at large, including Premier Kruschev, there is only one Leonid, as to them there was and is only one Nadya.
Yes, the Soviet engineering answer to a persistently non-performing heat shield is: twins. One trains for spaceflight, the other trains to be the gracious, charming hero to the Soviet people upon their “return” from space.
The plan certainly has limitations. Besides demanding extensive and strenuous secrecy measures and lots of set-dressing—for example, the need to pre-position a blackened, battered re-entry capsule that the unwitting recovery team drives out to collect, along with its triumphant cosmonaut—it’s impossible to manage all the variables, such as when the space-trained Nadya breaks her leg two days before the first launch, and the charm-schooled Nadya is pressed into service to take her place in the capsule.
Of the more dangerous of those variables is Ignatius, the professional propagandist assigned to the space program who materializes at inconvenient times and is clearly putting two and two together. The question is what she will do with the information once she has it.
The emotional heart of the story is laid out in the flashbacks to 1950 in Bohdan, Ukraine where the two Leonids (we never learn their given names) are being raised by their stern but devoted grandmother, who tells them the heroic stories of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, for whom their tiny, failing village is named.
As the famine worsens, Russian soldiers arrive by train to commandeer everything valuable or edible; that is when an officer takes note of the twins. It is at the point that there is truly nothing edible left to be scavenged that the next train arrives, carrying the father of the Soviet space program, Konstantin Tsiolkovski (placed here by the magic of alternative history, since he died in 1935), to take the twins for the greater glory of the Motherland.
None of the main characters here are evil or monstrous, merely trapped into the roles they’ve been assigned. In fact, most of them, in their own way, are deeply humane. The Chief Designer in particular, already bearing ugly scars from the gulag, strains under the weight of his guilt even as he continues to add to it.
Woven into the story are some magical elements that add to its other-worldly feel, such as “a possibly immortal dog,” as Powers recently noted in a discussion about the book, and a voice from space from someone who could not conceivably be there.
This is an eloquent and deeply felt narrative, the power of which builds steadily as the story unfolds. Powers’ first book, a short story collection called Gravity Changes, was the winner of the BOA Short Fiction prize, and was included in The Washington Post’s 2017 “A Summer Book List Like No Other.” Expect First Cosmic Velocity to garner significant attention of its own.
I’ve been a fan of the writing of Tayari Jones since I read her novel Silver Sparrow several years ago, so I approached her new novel, An American Marriage, with a great deal of happy anticipation. I was not disappointed. But then numerous awards organizations can’t be wrong. Among the many honors An American Marriage has won since its publication in 2018 are Oprah’s Book Club selection, nomination by the American Booksellers Association for the 2019 Indies Choice Book of the Year Award, selection for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist, and selection as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times book prize.
All of these groups had various reasons for honoring An American Marriage, but for me the joy of reading the novel sprang from two main sources: Jones’s fresh approach to what could have been a hackneyed story and the beautiful simplicity of her writing.
The sentences Jones constructs are not overly long or complex; they flow to a reasonable length with the perfect combination of words to carry the reader smoothly along. They also contain original similes perfect for the characters. For example, “My affection for her is etched onto my body like the Milky Way birthmark scoring my shoulder blades.”
The story in An American Marriage concerns a young professional black man named Roy, who is sent to prison for a rape he didn’t commit. Last November I was privileged to attend a presentation Jones gave about the novel, in which she acknowledged that one of her goals in writing this story was to give back to society by drawing attention to some of the shortcomings of the prison system in America. But she opens up the story by focusing well beyond Roy’s prison experience to explore the effects the prison time has on Roy, his wife Celestial, and their friend Andre.
During the five years Roy is incarcerated, the relationships among these three people change dramatically. Because Roy’s in prison, Celestial and he decide to abort her pregnancy. Then, as a professional doll maker, Celestial creates a black baby doll that looks like Roy and dresses him in a prison uniform to make a statement. When the doll wins a contest at the National Portrait Museum, Roy finds out about it and is hurt that she didn’t tell him. Throughout these and other difficult circumstances, Andre is there to support Celestial. As time passes, Roy and Celestial’s relationship weakens, while she grows closer to Andre.
Jones explores these developments and their emotional impact on the players involved in a remarkable group of letters between Celestial and Roy. It’s a simple, yet highly effective, way to reveal how deeply each of them is suffering—and sets the stage for the final blow when Celestial writes to tell Roy she no longer wants to be his wife.
Before she can take any action to dissolve the marriage, Roy’s lawyer works a miracle, and he’s released from prison. This development puts Roy, Celestial, and Andre in a dilemma. Roy, after spending years incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit, wants nothing more than to be reunited with his wife. Andre, after admitting he’s been in love with Celestial since they were children, wants nothing more than to spend the rest of his life with her. And Celestial, while she loves Andre, is uncertain what she should do.
The moral ambiguity of the situation, Jones said at the meeting in November, provided a key element of the novel. More than one character is right, but they disagree. The book’s individualized chapter structure gives Jones an opportunity to explore each character’s understandings, misunderstandings, and inner conflicts, which she does with brilliant insight. As the story progresses, the reader’s allegiances shift like a frequently diverted stream.
Another aspect of An American Marriage that captured my interest, because I explore the same idea in my novel Surface and Shadow, is society’s understanding of gender. Roy, especially, has very fixed beliefs about who he should be as a man, and once he’s in prison, he thinks all those characteristics have been taken away from him. He has to figure out what he still has to give to society. Celestial is also boxed in by expectations of who she should be as a woman and a wife.
I knew from reading Silver Sparrow that Jones has a gift for developing and revealing complex characters through direct lyrical language, but she takes her gift to a higher level in An American Marriage. I can’t wait to see what her next novel brings.
P.D. James, The Black Tower (1975)
I hadn’t read a P.D. James novel in some years, but came across this one and I’m glad I read it. For those who are not familiar with her, James’ reputation was stellar. (Her dates are 1920-2014.) On the front cover Time Magazine is quoted as calling her “The reigning mistress of murder.” Two British papers are quoted on the back describing The Black Tower “a masterpiece” and James is labelled the “greatest contemporary writer of classic crime.”
James wrote a series of fourteen crime novels featuring a reserved male detective by the name of Adam Dalgliesh. He’s the opposite of James Bond. He uses deduction, perseverance and a dedication to an often thankless job to ferret out the criminal.
There’s no need for me to go into the story of this novel other than to say it’s the fifth in the series. She also wrote an autobiography that describes how in her forties James began her writing career overcoming the chauvinism of the literary establishment to be taken seriously as a novelist.
James was a master in her use of the English language. Soon after starting the novel, I had to find an index card to jot down words I needed to look up. She, however, is not pedantic. Her command of the language allows her to find the precise word for the job. Her descriptions could put to shame many of those who claim to write literary fiction. She not only paints the picture, but gives it depth and feeling.
Readers identify with Dalgliesh because he’s not a super hero and yet he has the qualities of character we all would like to be told we possess. On top of her protagonist and her wonderful writing, James’ plotting is also first rate. As the stories are written from Dalgliesh’ point of view, we know what he knows. Yet at the end we discover he’s made more of the facts that we did.
The only thing I might warn readers about is James’ pacing is a little slow for the modern mystery genre. She’s not Elmore Leonard, Baldacci or the modern writers who think the reader must be kept on the edge of one’s seat from first page to the last. You have to be ready to enjoy the views, sounds and smells. You have to be willing to listen to the characters while looking for clues. You have to be engaged to enjoy these stories to their fullest. Reading James is beneficial for writers as well as readers. She offers a model of a craftsperson who has mastered all the elements of her trade. Fortunately, once the guardians of the printed word got over their parochialism, they recognized genius where it existed. James’ works are easy to find. Libraries and used book stores must have plenty.
I’ve had the good fortune recently to read two upcoming releases, both debuts, that explore the unintended and sometimes darker consequences of pursuing the American dream. In a serendipitous contrast, one does that exploration as a comedy and the other as a tragedy.
White Elephant, by Julie Langsdorf
March 26, 2019 from Ecco (Harper Collins)
You know you’re doing something right when the New York Times designates your debut novel as one of the “Twelve Novels to Watch for in March,” as that paper did for Julie Langsdorf’s White Elephant, a dark comedy of first-world problems in quaint and fraught suburbia. Langsdorf skillfully skewers the dark, secret hearts behind the outward show of social respectability and neighborly fellowship.
In the quiet, leafy-green town of Willard Park, just outside of Washington, D.C., battle lines are being drawn between the residents who truly love their tiny, charming Sears Craftsman cottages, and those who perhaps wouldn’t mind tearing theirs down and replacing them with a plus-sized faux bungalow featuring smart technology and a wine cellar.
The chief combatants are Ted Miller, who brought his wife and daughter to live in the small house he grew up in with his parents and developmentally challenged brother, and Nick Cox, a developer who has moved his family from South Carolina, leaving behind a history of building code violations.
Nick has constructed a taste-challenged castle for his family on one side of the Millers, and is hoping to find a buyer for the vast, debt-laden monstrosity he is building on the other, the neighborhood’s titular white elephant. The battle is fully joined when Nick, going overboard with the chainsaw, cuts down the red maple Ted planted when daughter Jillian was born.
Each man thinks he’s fighting for the American dream: Ted for the tree-lined town square and the annual Halloween parade and Christmas tree lighting, Nick for everyone to possess their own self-contained wonderland, which he will gladly custom-build. As he sees it, “Those little houses made everyone want to go outside instead of staying in. What good was a house that made you want to leave it?”
In the middle is Ted’s wife Allison, who fantasizes about Ted and Nick fighting a duel, with her as the prize to the man left standing. Which dream wins: Tree-hugger Ted or Cut-‘em-down Nick? As the neighborhood increasingly divides over a proposed building moratorium, things get ugly, and the veneer of community cracks to reveal dark streaks of pettiness and discontent.
Langsdorf delivers a darkly funny, trenchant view into the self-absorbed of suburbia, who perhaps believed themselves to be more special than they are, or have too late discovered that what they thought they wanted—especially when it comes to spouses, and possibly children—isn’t it. These are adults who haven’t quite figured out how to grow up.
In this well-heeled neighborhood, the only one who seems truly happy is Ted’s unflappable brother Terrance, who can teach us a thing or two about noticing and embracing what we have, rather than forever searching for more, different, or better.
Miracle Creek, by Angie Kim
April 16, 2019 from Sarah Crichton Books (FSG)
“My husband asked me to lie,” says Young Yoo in the first sentence of this courtroom drama set in small-town America, a fitting opening in almost every way. Though we hear many points of view throughout Miracle Creek, Young is the moral center of this story that examines the many lies we tell ourselves and others, and the lasting damage those lies wreak.
Also fitting, Young is the only character who speaks to us in first person, and only here in the beginning, to describe “The Incident” that sets up the murder trial that unfolds through the rest of the story.
In tiny Miracle Creek, Virginia, Young and her husband Pak own Miracle Submarine, a pressurized chamber used to deliver pure oxygen to clients on the theory that it helps to treat a variety of conditions, primarily autism and other developmental issues. The central question is: who set the fire at the submarine that killed a young boy and a mother of five, and wounded several others, including Pak and the Yoos’ daughter Mary?
Author Angie Kim draws on her experience as a trial lawyer to weave an engrossing plot in which victims and witnesses tell their stories, with greater or lesser degrees of truthfulness, while the prosecutor pursues his “airtight” case of first-degree murder against Elizabeth Ward for starting the fire that killed her son Henry and best friend Kitt. The prosecutor appears to have a strong case, until Elizabeth’s defense lawyer starts to punch holes in his theory of the crime, and draw attention to Pak as another possible suspect, whom she suggests wanted the insurance money.
The prosecutor appears to have a strong case, until Elizabeth’s defense lawyer starts to punch holes in his theory of the crime, and draw attention to Pak as another possible suspect, whom she suggests wanted the insurance money.
Pak has already sacrificed family unity to pursue the American dream for Mary, by sending her and Young from Seoul to Baltimore while he stays behind, waiting to join them. In the intervening four years, Young is forced to work seven days a week, leaving Mary entirely on her own to navigate a foreign language and culture amid the brutal rituals of high school. Young suffers from the irreparable damage to her family even before the fire; in the aftermath, she wonders what else her husband might be willing to sacrifice in his implacable focus on achieving a dream that to her now feels like a nightmare.
This is a surprisingly deeply felt story in which we spend intimate time with mothers of severely disabled children, all trying to do their best through exhaustion, isolation, judgmental outsiders, and the dark thoughts that they dare not voice. Theresa — the mother of one of Miracle Submarine’s patients, sixteen-year-old Rosa, who was struck with cerebral palsy as a young girl and can no longer walk or talk — thinks, “Having a special-needs child didn’t just change you; it transmuted you, transported you to a parallel world with an altered gravitational axis.”
The author also draws on her background as an adolescent immigrant to offer a nuanced sense of the many layers of dislocation that come with moving to a new country, which Pak and Mary both think of as an unwelcome change in the very person that they used to be. Pak considers, “it was inevitable for immigrants to become child versions of themselves, stripped of their verbal fluency and, with it, a layer of their competency and maturity . . . In Korean, he was an authoritative man, educated and worthy of respect. In English, he was a deaf, mute idiot, unsure, nervous, and inept.”
Kim expertly keeps us guessing as to which character did what, and who was ultimately responsible, since there are many here with secrets they don’t want exposed. She delivers a taut and compelling story that earns the note of hopefulness on which it ends.
Aminatta Forna, Happiness (2018)
Happiness is a story of subtle changes. Aminatta Forna’s protagonists, an African psychiatrist specializing in trauma and an American naturalist, meet by accident on a bridge in London. Coincidence repeats and a relationship is built over a relatively short time period of time based on open-mindedness, shared natures, and eventually physical attraction, but what is this story about? Forna seeks to keep us interested in the slow evolution of these characters’ relationship by weaving each person’s past in with present events––which include the search for a lost child, dealing with the needs of a former lover institutionalized for dementia, and being tuned into a city populated by foreign nationals, foxes and escaped pet birds.
At one point, the psychiatrist, whose name is Attila, suggests happiness might be found in a village in Cuba which is cut off from that island’s poor infrastructure. Even if that were true––and I don’t think spending almost every waking moment trying to survive can be described as happiness, I believe Forna recognizes it’s not a realistic option. She’s asking whether happiness can be found in the middle of a world where people take out their anxieties on animals and people who look different. Her answer seems to be yes, which is encouraging. Happiness is attainable she seems to be saying by challenging convention––the psychiatrist does so in the book’s final pages––and by adapting. Animals seem better at this than humans, but humans can do it.
Forna is an award-winning author. Her mastery of the language is one of the joys of reading the story, as is her ability to keep us engaged. It helps if one is interested in psychiatry and ecology, but even if those subjects aren’t on the top of your list, Forna doesn’t shove either down the reader’s gullet. I found Attila’s critique of his profession more interesting than Jean’s battle with fox hunters, in part because it has more universal applications and because that I’m not certain whether the problem of foxes in London is real, and if so, whether, as Jean, the American, suggests, it exists elsewhere. We have coyotes––another animal that plays a part in Happiness––in the Adirondacks where I summer, but I’ve never heard of them killing family pets in Albany.
It took a while for me to “get into” Happiness, but toward the end I was less hesitant about picking it up. Some readers will be turned off by the opening chapters. Stick with it, is my recommendation. You may find you’re happy you did.
As author Carrie Callaghan recounted last year in this space, she stumbled upon Judith Leyster’s self-portrait at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and, “I stopped and stared.” The portrait is an arresting image of the first woman to earn a place among the masters in Haarlem’s artists’ guild in what is now the Netherlands. Judith Leyster’s legacy was forgotten soon after her death in 1660—her paintings ascribed to other artists—until she was rediscovered again in the late 19th century.
Leyster’s is a story that simply begs to be told, and Callaghan comes through for her readers in this luminous debut.
In the United Provinces of the early 1600s, the merchant class had begun to amass a bit of disposable income and thus had the ability to purchase works of art to adorn their houses. As the book opens, Judith is struggling to gain her independence and establish her own workshop — demonstrating a willingness to work around restrictive guild rules in order to position herself — under a palpable sense that time is running short. The field of artists in the town of Haarlem has become crowded in response to the demand for paintings, and Judith is not the only artist concerned that the market is close to saturation.
While the story deals with Judith’s obstacles as a woman in the fully male-dominated art world, that is not its focus, and in fact Judith quickly discovers that being accepted as a master is almost the least of her challenges. In order to succeed as an artist, she has to set up a workshop, convince apprentices to work for a woman, and compete for sales and commissions as a relative unknown against the established masters.
As she is working through these challenges, she stumbles into a bit of intrigue. A shady character commissions her to paint a portrait of a beloved local character who later ends up dead. At the same time, linseed oil, which is crucial in creating the paints that artists use, is mysteriously growing scarce, driving prices to astronomical levels.
Judith remains single-minded in her drive to become established, but that focus plays havoc with her personal relationships, driving a wedge between herself and her troubled younger brother, Abraham, and her fellow painter and friend, Maria. Judith considers that her friends “confused her fixedness of purpose with selfishness”, but eventually she needs to consider the point at which she has crossed that line.
The book’s depth and texture emerge from Callaghan’s deft channeling of the world as perceived through the eyes of an artist, in observations such as, “A puddle next to a tailor’s shop transformed the white cloth hanging from his display into silver melted upon the earth.” Watching a woman with whom she has a legal dispute, Judith considers how she might capture a sense of the emotions playing below the surface of the woman’s face. Callaghan even frames Judith’s consideration of marriage within her artist’s sensibilities. “Men and marriage were like a greedy black pigment, transforming whatever they touched into their own hue. Judith did not want to disappear into a coupling, no matter how pleasant.”
But indeed Judith did eventually marry a fellow artist, taking on more of the management and less of the creative side of the business. Judith Leyster’s name and talent may have been forgotten for more than two centuries, but author Carrie Callaghan has done a brilliant job in shining a light of her own onto this intriguing artist.
A good novel delves deep into the psyches of its characters while also telling a story that’s intriguing enough to keep the reader turning pages. The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson succeeds on both fronts by weaving three different types of stories about the same people into a seamless whole.
First, The Bookshop of Yesterdays is an adventure story developed through a clever scavenger hunt. For the first twelve years of her life, Miranda Brooks spends happy hours following the clues to scavenger hunts designed by her Uncle Billy. Then, after a hunt that leads Miranda to the puppy she’s always wanted but her mother refuses to let her keep, Uncle Billy disappears, and she doesn’t hear from him again until just before his death 16 years later.
The message Miranda receives is a copy of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which arrives in the mail with no sender’s name, but with two clues that Miranda recognizes as coming from Billy. The clues compel her to return from Philadelphia, where she currently lives, to Billy’s bookshop in California, to start on this last scavenger hunt. What she doesn’t know is that the hunt will take her to physical places, but it will also take her deep into her family’s past and introduce her to people she never knew existed. As a middle-school history teacher, Miranda reveres history and its significance for present-day life, a reverence that permeates the entire novel.
One notable aspect of Meyerson’s writing is the ease with which she slips into scenes from the past and then back into the present. It’s a challenge for most writers, and she does it repeatedly and well.
Secondly, The Bookshop of Yesterdays is a love story about different kinds of relationships, especially the one between Miranda and her mother. Several days before the fiasco with the puppy, Billy misses Miranda’s birthday party and then shows up at her house at 3:00 a.m. From the top of the stairs, Miranda hears her mother yelling at Billy with anger and curse words she’s never heard from her mother before. She’s certain the problem is more than Billy’s missing the party, especially when her mother removes photos of Billy from their living room and Billy disappears. She knows Billy and her mother have always been close siblings and doesn’t understand what’s happened between them.
This incident and the rejection of the dog lead Miranda to say things to her mother that she’s never said before, the first step in the fracturing of their relationship. When she returns home to follow the clues from The Tempest, her mother refuses to accompany her to Billy’s funeral and is disturbed that Billy has left the bookshop to Miranda in his will. Again, Miranda doesn’t understand, but she begins to sense that her mother is hiding information about the family.
Although she and her mother have remained close through the years, Miranda always sensed her mother was followed by a shadow that she thought was caused by her mother’s aborted dreams of being a singer. Now she suspects it has something to do with Billy. When the clues lead Miranda to the father of Billy’s long-dead wife, her mother pleads with her not to talk to the man, which makes Miranda more determined to do it. But what bothers her most is that her mother won’t tell her what’s going on.
The third type of story weaved into The Bookshop of Yesterdays is a homage to literature. Meyerson shows great respect for the power of literature and the influence it can have on people’s lives. The first clue comes to Miranda in The Tempest, which is revealed to be a significant parallel for the story. Subsequent clues come from a variety of novels, including Jane Eyre, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Frankenstein, Fear of Flying, Persuasion, The Grapes of Wrath, and Bridge to Terabithia, and in each book the clue is singularly appropriate for a particular stage of Miranda’s journey. Meyerson’s ability to find the perfect quote in each situation is impressive.
As a whole, The Bookshop of Yesterdays is intellectually challenging (just try to figure out what all the clues mean) and emotionally engaging, with characters who resonate and resolutions that are satisfying in more than one aspect. It’s the story of a family torn apart and then taking the first steps to put itself back together again.
Back in the day, most undergraduates took at least one English literature course. Sometimes it was Shakespeare, 19th century English novelists, or the American Transcendentalists. I took a modern novel course in which we read James Joyce’s Ulysses, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Remembrance of Things Past, and several others––a heavy load for a one semester course. The key lesson in all of these courses is that while it’s possible to read solely for enjoyment additional layers of understanding are available when you analyze and compare each work with others by the same author as well as books by other writers.
A few decades ago the Frederick Ungar Publishing Company launched a line of books about genre authors called Recognitions. The series on Detective and Suspense novels included works on Raymond Chandler, P.D. James, Dorothy Sayers, and others. Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, and other science fiction writers were covered in a second series. Both series featured titles focusing on specific aspects of genre fiction, such as “Critical Encounters: Writers and Themes in Science Fiction” by Dick Riley and “The Murder Mystique: Crime Writers on Their Art” by Lucy Freeman.
While each volume in this series was designed to further readers’ enjoyment of genre fiction, they can also be valuable reads for authors. Probing how these accomplished authors did their craft can’t but help a writer see how to improve his/her writing. That brings me to the study of Dashiell Hammett by Dennis Dooley.
Do readers of mystery fiction today know or appreciate the role Hammett played in advancing the detective novel from the armchair analyst to the engaged P.I. whose personal interactions with both clients and suspects played a major role in his stories? Starting with his short stories, which featured the nameless detective known as the Continental Op through the protagonists of his five novels, Hammett’s detectives struggled with temptations of the flesh not to mention the danger into which they placed themselves in order to do a job. The resulting tension kept the reader in doubt as to whether justice would in the end be served.
The best known of Hammett’s detectives is Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon, a story that was made into a radio adaptation and three movies. The 1941 movie starting Humphrey Bogart is seen as the archetype of film noir. Hammett’s spare third person narrative, which omitted any description of Spade’s motives or thoughts, launched the ‘hard boiled’ writing style featured by many successors and epitomized in the Dragnet TV series by Detective Joe Friday’s line, “Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.”
Hammett’s portrait of Sam Spade is unlikely to work for today’s readers who want to know the hero’s every thought. Yet there’s a justification for his approach. It forces the reader to judge the character’s motivation based on what he says and does. In the end, isn’t what someone does what truly counts?
By taking us through Hammett’s evolution as a mystery writer, Dooley helps us not only see Hammett’s role in advancing the mystery genre but also helps us understand the cultural milieu of post-World War One America. His detectives had to balance the requirements of the job against their personal standards of justice at a time when the country was living through the bifurcated world of the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition. Hammett’s detectives often worked cases for greedy capitalists who hired a detective agency to cover up the consequences of crimes committed against their own families or associates. With social authority at a minimum, the detective was the last barrier to a lawless world where money and power held sway, and the little guy didn’t have a chance.
To truly understand Hammett and the times, Dooley convincingly explains, one needs to read his short stories, which started to appear in pulp fiction magazines in 1922. Featuring the nameless detective, these stories got at the essence of a society that had lost its moorings. Inserting details from his own career working for the Pinkerton Agency, Hammett’s stories brought an authenticity to the genre that had been lacking and eventually increased readers’ demand for his style of writing.
As the demand for his fiction increased, he produced five novels in a short time period. The first two featured the Continental Op, who Hammett portrayed as an average person––short, frumpy and not particularly good-looking––in contrast to the heroes of most mystery fiction at the time. Beginning with The Maltese Falcon, he created three very different protagonists: Spade, the rootless “poker player at life,” Ned Beaumont, the gambler protagonist of The Glass Key, and Nick Charles, the retired detective of The Thin Man.
Each protagonist portrayed the evolution of Hammett’s view of the world, beginning with Spade playing the odds, Beaumont showing loyalty where it was not deserved, and Charles who tried to distance himself from his past life, echoing perhaps Hammett’s own career path. What’s left in a society dominated by corruption and greed, Hammett seems to be saying, but the sole individual doing his job despite the odds, knowing chance’s role in his success.
Today’s mystery readers demand authenticity, which means we want our heroes to be human, possessing average ability, but above average determination and grit. Dooley reminds us that it was Dashiell Hammett who began that trend, and is therefore still worth reading.
For those interested in probing Hammett’s early short stories, there’s The Continental Op (1975); his later stories have been collected in The Big Knockover (1972).
I’ve written before (in Two Ways to Write a Novel, parts I and II, in this column) about a non-cinematic kind of novel, one which tells more than shows, that prioritises interiority and language over action and dialogue. Colm Toibin’s novel The Master (2004) about Henry James, strikes me as one that exemplifies that approach. In any case, how could you make James’s life dramatic? He had no openly sexual relationships. He lived through the Civil War, and two of his brothers fought in it, but he declined to do so. He travelled in Europe and knew many famous figures, but was apparently so discreet and reticent by nature that he seldom quarrelled or even disagreed with anyone. In fact, his life seems to have consisted mainly in observing the lives of others, and using those observations as grist for his fictional mill. But how could anyone make a novel out of such unpromising material?
Toibin does not set out by establishing his protagonist’s over-arching desire, as writers are instructed they must (in creative writing programs, and by agents and editors) in order to drive the plot. Instead we first encounter Henry James on a trip to Ireland, where he is a guest of English aristocrats, and meets a manservant named Hammond whom he finds himself getting fond of, in ways that aren’t completely clear. Nothing sexual happens between the two, and yet there is an apparent tension between the two that certainly seems erotic, in a very Victorian, repressed way. Later in the novel, James meets a young American sculptor in Rome, Hendrik Andersen, and the erotic tension is stronger still. And yet, although Toibin is interested in exploring his subject’s homosexuality, in the most subtle and understated (almost Victorian) way imaginable, this is not the focus of the novel. More important, really, are Henry’s relationships with women: his sister Alice, a young intellectual woman he knows as a young man, Minnie Temple, and later with the American novelist Constance Fenimoore Woolson. With all of these James had close relationships, intellectually, and Toibin implies that both Temple and Fenimoore Woolson may have expected more of him. But mostly, Toibin is interested in how these relationships inspired James’s stories and novels. In fact the whole novel is a speculative reconstruction of Henry James’s inner and creative life. Although it’s not explicitly stated, it’s not going too far to suggest that the richness of the inner life is the result of the poverty of the outer. Toibin’s novel is thus a study in introversion and its benefits for the artist.
Maybe this sounds boring–it’s hard to imagine how Toibin might have spun his story in a query letter, although no doubt he didn’t need to, as he was already an established writer in 2004–but in fact the novel is fascinating, as a psychological study, for the evocation of the period, and as an investigation of the founts of creativity. What it isn’t, is a story. And Toibin admits that he is no storyteller. Is that a weakness? For many people–most people in the publishing industry nowadays, I think–it would be. And yet Toibin is one of the most consistently successful of contemporary literary fiction writers, so maybe the reading public, or a substantial portion of it, is more subtle, more intelligent, and more profound, than most agents and editors seem to think. I would like to see more novels that take the kind of risks that The Master does.
The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a young slave, who escapes a Georgia plantation hoping to hop a ride to freedom on the Underground Railroad. What she discovers is that freedom’s journey has many obstacles. At the end of the story, after suffering psychological and physical harm along the way, we find her continuing her flight still hoping to reach freedom’s promised land.
This novel is an allegory of sorts. It begins offering a harsh portrait of life under slavery; but when Cora leaves the plantation, she moves into an imagined world, still harsh, meant it seems to teach the reader about the dangers of placing one’s hopes on whites.
Cora is transported north, as the title implies, on the Underground Railroad. Only in Whitehead’s fictional world, it is a real railroad with tracks, trains, and conductors. The reader might ask why doesn’t he reproduce the actual system? One answer might be because the journey he creates takes Cora to fictional places.
Cora’s journey takes her to several states where whites seem to be competing to see who can devise the most pernicious use of former slaves. In one state, they are allowed to live without chains and overseers, but for the purpose of cleansing them of rebelliousness by sterilization; in another state, no blacks may remain inside the state’s borders and those who are caught are hung in weekly celebrations. The culminating insult to Cora’s hopes, however, comes in the closing chapters when she lands on a prosperous farm run by freeborn and runaway blacks in the free state of Indiana. This turns out to be another false way station, however, when the farm’s occupants, except for Cora, are decimated by its white neighbors.
Cora seems to embody Whitehead’s personal quest for liberty from the ravages of slavery. Of course, he can only imagine what slavery was like just as I can only imagine what my relatives experienced in the Shoah (the Holocaust). In creating an artificial underground railroad leading to fictional destinations in order to highlight the complicity of whites in keeping blacks down, however, hasn’t he undermined his description of slavery in the early chapters? Can that portrait be accurate if the world after her escape is totally artificial?
The novel is presented in twelve sections. Not all are contiguous in time or place, which works with the exception of one section––entitled “Stevens”––five and a half pages devoted to an entirely separate topic––the practice of grave robbing in the north to provide cadavers for medical schools. In this section, the characters, including a would-be doctor, focus their efforts on robbing the last resting place of blacks. One has to assume Whitehead read something that documented this practice and concluded it needed to see the light of day despite the fact this section has little connection to the rest of the story.
While overall well-written, there were too many times when I had to re-read paragraphs where he jumps around in time and viewpoint. Yet, there is also much to praise in his writing. His characters are unique, his descriptions fresh, and the dialogue is griping.
The danger of Whitehead’s fictional treatment of slavery and the system of people who risked their lives to transport escaped slaves north to freedom is that some people will take it as historically accurate. Rather he treats slavery from the contemporary perspective as a function of white racism rather than how it actually existed as an institution in which people, white and black, were trapped not as a result of hate or “racism,” but rather out of historical, social and economic necessity.
There are almost no good “white” people in The Underground Railroad. There are a few who participate in the railroad, but they are both peculiar and too weak to stop the whites who made it their life’s work to capture runaways.
I haven’t read any of Whitehead’s other works, but based on this novel, I have to conclude that his awards and high recognition are based on his choice of subject matter and the fact that he rubs slavery in the face of the citizens of that nation where the offspring of African slaves have risen the highest. White guilt is easy to exploit these days.
People who are interested in the real story of slavery and its aftermath can find plenty of histories. Certainly histories can be distorted by writers’ biases, but histories are subject to professional review and as such, errors of fact, omissions, and overemphasis are usually brought to light. Fiction is treated through a different lens. Does it seem plausible? Does it fit how I wish things were or are? Fiction can offer a different kind of truth, but should not be taken to represent what actually happened.
Whitehead’s Underground Railroad never existed. Whether it serves as an object lesson in white/black relations each reader must decide for his or herself.
One of the great joys of participating in the D.C. area writing community is getting to know so many of the exceptionally talented authors who call the area home. An added bonus is learning some of the backstory behind their work, including what it took to bring to publication. Here are two books from D.C. writers that were just released in October.
This collection of flash fiction and longer stories, many of which are inter-related, is fully, deliciously unexpected. From the first tiny but densely meaningful story, “The Understanding”, and the second, “O, Tomato,” which reads like prose poetry, it doesn’t take long to catch the rhythm of the stories and a sense of direction, and to realize that what remains unstated carries as much weight as what is on the page.
The collective effect of the brief flashes of character, location, time frame, and subject is as though someone is flipping through their old photo album to tell you the stories behind a few favorite or crucial pictures.
Through shifting voices and viewpoints, we get to know Murray, Louise, and at least a couple of their four children — along with a cast of other characters — and to understand the event that has permanently wrenched apart their family.
The core of the stories here are autobiographical, which we only know because the author shares a name with the eldest child; Bock maintains a humane but unsentimental perspective, and displays a wry sense of humor throughout. Her eye for the telling detail allows her to pack entire stories into a few words. Louise’s early adventures when she first meets Murray are some of the most developed stories; if the flash pieces are photographs, these stories are the films.
Not all the stories in Carry Her Home are related, and it may take readers a moment to process those — primarily in Part IV and the coda — that are not part of the ongoing narrative. Take that extra moment.
Bock is the author of two YA books, Lie and Before My Eyes. To bring this story collection into print, she won the fiction category of her publisher’s annual contest: the Washington Writers Publishing House is a volunteer cooperative that publishes one poetry collection and one book-length work of fiction by writers in the DC area each year; previous winners are then responsible for selecting and shepherding through the next cadre of contest winners. (Coincidentally, I also reviewed last year’s fiction winner.)
Author Alice Stephens may not be extremely famous yet, but she is adopted, and her debut novel arose from a simple, jarring fact: virtually no story about adoption, fiction or non, is told from the point of view of the adoptee. Famous Adopted People — whose Korean-born, US-adopted protagonist, Lisa Pearl, is self-aware and self-sabotaging, funny, flawed, and frustrating — fills that void with wit, smarts, and attitude to spare.
Lisa explains in scathing terms all the messages adopted children absorb over time, reminding them of how “unnatural” they are: “You know that moment in every sitcom when one of the characters is told that he is adopted? The goggled eyes, the boinggg of the sound track, the mirthful guffaws from the audience as the unthinkable horror of the accusation sinks in. It’s all a ploy, of course. The character is never adopted—the writers would never be so cruel.”
She also explains how she and her friend Mindy — BFFs since eight years old at Korean Kamp, with whom she collects examples of famous adopted people — have adapted differently. While Mindy excelled, Lisa was the poster child for rebellion, a habit that has followed her into adulthood. As the book opens in South Korea, Lisa has run from her teaching job in Japan just ahead of a scandal, and Mindy is kicking Lisa to the curb for getting drunk, doing drugs, and staying out all night right before Mindy is set to meet her birth mother.
Cut loose on her own in South Korea with no place to stay and little money, Lisa bumps into her hook-up from the previous night, Harrison, who is also the guy from MotherFinders, the agency that tries to reconnect children with their birth mothers. Lisa has no interest in finding her birth mother, but Harrison is surprisingly insistent. An odd date and a doctored drink later, Lisa finds herself in surreal trouble in one of the most isolated spots on Earth — North Korea.
The backstory on bringing Adopted into print is one that should give would-be authors hope: her agent submitted the manuscript to 40 publishers with no takers. As current events involving North Korea, and its young, unpredictable leader, took up more news cycles, Stephens’ book took on a certain urgency. When she — without her agent — submitted it to indie publisher The Unnamed Press, her book was plucked from the slush pile for publication.
It’s a fittingly surprising provenance for this out-of-the-ordinary exploration of identity, family, loyalty, and home. Alice Stephens blows up the narrative of angelic adoption stories to give us one that is far from pretty but much more true.
If you lived in the D.C. Metro Area in October, 2002, you remember the terror you felt as the Beltway Snipers killed people randomly on the street, in a store, filling gas, loading groceries into a car—17 killed in all with 10 wounded. I was afraid, as we all were, to walk from my car to my house or anywhere else. If you were at the gas pump, you stooped to hide behind your car. You ran zigzaggedly into a store, kept your kids home from school, and prayed you wouldn’t be the next victim.
So this month I had the pleasure of being a panelist at the Mechanicsburg, PA, Mystery Book Shop. I sat next to David Reichenbaugh, also a panelist and author of In Pursuit: The Hunt for the Beltway Snipers. Dave served as the criminal intelligence operations commander for the Maryland State Police and as the commanding officer at the scene during the Beltway snipers’ capture in Myersville, MD. I found him an enthusiastic, pleasant, entertaining, and knowledgeable fellow panelist. He didn’t talk “copspeak” and he never once called me “ma’am.” Of course, I bought his book.
And what a read it is. I couldn’t put it down till the last page. This is a behind the scenes, first-person account, from day one to the capture and ultimate fate of two psychopaths, written by a man who was a leader in the local, multistate and FBI search across three states for the killers. The account conveys the frustrations, anger, and helplessness felt by the police officers with each murder. Everyone involved worked long hours, sometimes around the clock, in a race to prevent another killing.
The investigation involved organizing and coordinating the efforts of local police units, the state police, and the FBI despite territorial claims and ego interference The investigators had to deal with the media, too, scrambling after every scrap of information, insisting on more, giving the killers media attention, and offering media time to any self-proclaimed authority to second-guess what the investigators were doing.
As killing after killing occurred, the investigators realized they needed software that linked the various databases kept by the different departments. Computer programmers were hired to streamline and digitize the data collected.
Profilers were used who concluded that the killer was a white man working alone. The killers turned out to be a black man and a black teenager working together. After each killing, witnesses said they saw a white van with two men drive away. The killers’ car was actually a blue Caprice, but the witnesses’ reports of a white van put investigators on the wrong track for weeks.
The author writes in a straightforward, highly readable style, and he doesn’t use “copspeak.” He expresses the rage and fear and frustration he felt as the investigators explored one blind alley after the next. He does give full credit to the other organizations and people involved in the investigation. I found his account fascinating and highly recommend In Pursuit – The Hunt for the Beltway Snipers by David Reichenbaugh.
I also recommend the Mechanicsburg Mystery Book Shop in Mechanicsburg, PA. This is a well-organized, neatly arranged shop with pleasant staff.
Imbolo Mbue’s novel Behold the Dreamers has been on my mind as I’ve read about the thousands of migrants from Central America walking the long miles toward the United States. The fictional story about Jenda Jonga, an immigrant from Cameroon, could be the story of so many people who see America as the promised land. One of America’s central myths is that of the poor immigrant who amasses riches. Mbue’s take on it is powerful and original.
Mbue herself is the embodiment of the immigrant success story. In 1998, an aunt sponsored her to come from her native Cameroon to study at Rutgers University. She went on to get a master’s degree from Columbia University. Behold the Dreamers, her debut novel, landed a million-dollar advance.
Jende Jonga, the book’s protagonist, came to New York with a temporary visa and grand hopes to get a green card and live the American dream. When we meet him in 2007, he is going to Lehman Brothers, the financial services firm in New York, to interview to be a chauffeur for Clark Edwards.
The interview is a make-or-break moment for Jonga, so he goes to great pains to impress Edwards. He visits a volunteer career counselor at a library to write his first-ever résumé, he dresses in a suit—the green double-breasted pinstripe suit he wore when he came to America and a clip-on tie—and he prepares for the questions with the help of his wife and Google. The search engine reveals that “Tell me about yourself” is asked at every job interview.
Immediately we readers see the contrast between the job hunter and employer. Edwards is a busy man, typing into his Blackberry during the interview, while Jonga is sweating with anxiety and trying not to show his desperation. The interview concludes with Edwards telling him, “If you hope to further your career, you’ll get a better suit. Black, blue, or gray. And a real tie.” Jonga assures him that he will, though there is almost no way he can afford one. Needless to say, he gets the job.
The economic and cultural divide is at the heart of the story. On the one side there is the Jonga family—Jende, Neni, his wife, their son, Lioni, and later a baby daughter—and on the other, Clark and Cindy Edwards and their children, Vince, a law school student, and Mighty, a nine year old.
The Jongas live in a cockroach-infested Harlem apartment they illegally sublet for $500 a month. The Edwardses’ apartment is “millions of dollars more beautiful than their sunless one-bedroom apartment,” Jonga tells his wife after his first day at work. “ One could see the whole city through the window in their living room.”
Over the kitchen table, Jende and Neni look ahead to what they could do with his $35,000 salary and her $10,000 income as a home-health aide. “After we pay your taxes and my school fees and rent and send money back home and everything else, we can still save like three or four hundred dollars a month,” she says. Within seven or ten years, Neni would have a degree in pharmacy, and their future would be assured.
But we readers know what the Jongas don’t. While they’re enjoying their newfound riches, the financial crisis of 2008 is brewing with impending repercussions for them and the Edwards family.
Other tensions are playing out as well. Jonga’s immigration lawyer convinces him to seek asylum by claiming his father-in-law in Cameroon would kill him if he returned. That plan doesn’t look hopeful. Neni goes to work for Cindy Edwards at their vacation home and sees a side of her that is hidden from others. That revelation creates a bond, which, without giving away too much, does not always hold. The Edwards’ older son, a student at Columbia Law School, becomes close to Jende and confides that he rejects his parents’ wealth and aspirations that he become a lawyer and that he plans to move to India.
Mbue describes both families with great sensitivity. She explores the relationships within each family as well as the two families’ affection for each other. The Jonga and Edwards are complex people, not innocent Africans come to America or heartless Wall Street villains. We know the financial crash will come and create tensions, but we can’t foresee what will happen. Mbue has a deft hand.
In June 2017 Oprah Winfrey selected Behold the Dreamers for her book club, saying, “It’s got everything that’s grabbing the headlines in America right now. It’s about race and class, the economy, culture, immigration of the danger of the us-versus-them mentality.” That’s still true.
When Stephen King writes a blurb for a novel, readers take notice. When a book is reviewed in the New York Times Book Review section, readers take notice. Let’s look at how Elizabeth Brundage’s fourth novel, All Things Cease to Appear, which was published in 2016, is being received by the reading public.
All Things has earned over 7,000 ratings and 1,000 reviews on Goodreads. That is very good, yet the book scores only 3.72 (out of 5)––not what one might expect. On Amazon, it does a little better with a 4.1 score, but from only 300 reviews.
What are the chief objections to the novel among Amazon and Goodreads reviewers? First, and least important in my opinion, is that she does away with quotation marks. Some people find that disconcerting. I do not, as this is not the first novel I’ve read where the author does that. With only a couple of exceptions I was able to distinguish when someone was speaking out loud and when they were thinking to themselves without having to re-read a sentence.
The second most frequent criticism focused on the ending. I agree that Brundage did not tie up all the loose ends and in fact created a few that I felt were unnecessary, such as the divorce of the detective investing the murder that drives the story. I also was not entirely thrilled with how she handled the demise of the book’s antagonist, George Clare. I would have liked to see justice of another sort. It’s not that I believe evil people always get their just deserts, but in this case there was enough collateral damage that might have come home to roost. Then she preserves for twenty-five years important family possessions––letters and photos––in the house where the murder took place despite the fact that it had been rented from time to time. More about the ending below.
Another factor that may have hurt the novel’s ratings is the publisher’s insistence in calling it a literary thriller. I write thrillers and this shouldn’t be confused with the works in that genre. It doesn’t possess the structure of a thriller although she includes some elements, such as the impact a deranged individual has on a community, that are true of thrillers.
Attempting perhaps to attract readers by labeling All Things a thriller may have earned the book extra sales, but it also disappointed readers who know their thrillers.
Some readers also felt the story was slow to develop; others thought it bogged down in the middle. Here’s my take.
Brundage is all about characters. What happens is secondary. Murders occur all the time, but what she cares about are the people involved in this one. How did someone reach the point where he was capable of murder? What was the victim’s role in her demise? How did people view the perpetrator and the victim before the murder? How did the murder affect the community?
To tell a story that is unique, that gives us insights into our world, Brundage must get to know her characters intimately, then reveal them to us by following them through their daily lives and portraying the circumstances that lead inevitably to conflict. This cannot be rushed. We need to see these people in their environment, how they interact with the natural world, with the institutions of society, and with each other. She wants us to see not just the primary characters—the murderer and his victim, but others whose lives they touched. She has to do so in part to make us believe in these characters, to believe they are capable of what they do and don’t do, and in this she succeeds.
Having accomplished her goal, however, she must also resolve the story or readers will end up throwing their copies in the fireplace. Her ending, which I’m not going to describe, is creative, but it must be done in a way that is consistent with the author’s outlook. Hence the loose ends and the poetic, but not totally just, demise of the antagonist and the tying together of the two characters who can be labeled good people.
Novels like this one cannot be written during NoNoWriMo (November Novel Writing Month). It must take a lot out of a writer to write about a good person being murdered by her husband, a man who skillfully pretends to be someone he’s not. One doesn’t do this for fun. Nor can we say this kind of novel has lessons about life to teach us. Just the opposite since the emphasis is on the uniqueness of these characters at this time in this environment.
In a recent interview, Brundage was quoted as saying “my work tends to unravel some sort of mysterious knot.” In All Things she succeeds in unraveling who the murderer was at heart and how circumstances led him to kill two people and maim a third. I would give her 5 stars for the skill at which she accomplishes that task and for keeping me involved in the story to the final page. In Brundage’s case how we label her books is less important than the pleasure we get from reading them.
In a review I wrote in 2013 of Brundage’s three earlier novels, I concluded, “There’s much to praise in these novels. Even where she comes up short, Brundage pushes the boundaries of modern culture, asking her characters to confront the implications of their decisions and behavior. Few writers achieve those heights. Let’s see who she goes after next.” I feel Brundage has evolved in a positive direction, moving away from an issues agenda to portraying characters lives in such depth that we not only feel we know them, but accept their behavior as inevitable. Let’s see who she dissects next.
“This is a work of genius, a metaphor-studded treasure chest filled with wisdom for anyone willing to go look,” says author and entrepreneur Seth Godin of David Leddick’s little gem I’m Not for Everyone. Neither Are You. A few chapter-ette titles will give you the idea. “There is no lasting comfort in a safe landing. Better to stay in flight…and embrace impermanence.” “In confrontation, never answer the way people expect you to.” “He was a man and I like that in a person.” (Leddick is gay, remember.) “He doesn’t want to give up everybody for somebody.” This chapter-ette begins by saying, “This applies more to men than to women. And not just gay men.” “A child says nothing matters, but it takes an adult to say it doesn’t matter that nothing matters.” And consider this quote from one chapter-ette: “The language you speak has much to do with your personality. You should really have more than one to understand who you are and who you can be.”
I am sometimes asked to speak on historical research for writers because of my two historical novels, Shadow of the Rock and In Rembrandt’s Shadow. I visited libraries and special collections, traveled to sites in Florida, St. Thomas, Morocco, and Gibraltar, consulted maps and long out-of-print books, and interviewed historians and others to collect the information I needed. It was quite an adventure.
So I pay attention to the resources used in offbeat research and not necessarily by academics. Recently, a slim book called Finding the Little Klondyke Gold Mine: Grandpa’s Last Nugget by John Cox Williams crossed my desk. It’s the author’s story of searching for and finding his grandfather’s gold mine. He started with a vague memory of his mother showing him a nugget from the mine. She didn’t say that it was in Nova Scotia or even that it was in Canada, but the author decided to try to find the mine, and the book is the story of how he actually located it, then the trek he took with his grandson to visit the site. He wrote it for his family, but he includes step by step descriptions of how he found the mine, making it a handy research tool for us writers as well.
Speaking of gold and research, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kindler, first published in 1998, became a bestseller and is still available. It’s what I consider a manual on how to locate, claim, and salvage the gold aboard a sunken ship. It goes beyond that to the legal issues involved as well. It’s the story of the sinking of the SS Central America,
I’ve never been eager to see movies based on books, mostly because they never live up to the original, but I’m willing to make an exception when Emma Thompson is the star. That’s how I found myself at a showing this week of The Children Act, an almost-excellent film based on the novel of that name by Ian McEwan.
The film and the book both come to life in the opening scenes. We meet Fiona, a British High Court judge in the Family Division, wrestling with multiple cases that defy easily solutions, even as she’s confronted with a crisis in her marriage. Her husband of 35 years, frustrated by Fiona’s lack of interest in sex, has just demanded that she let him have an affair with a younger woman. At fifty-nine, he insists on one last chance at passion, and if Fiona won’t oblige, he’s already found someone who will. Feeling humiliated, betrayed, and afraid, Fiona naturally refuses. And when Jack packs a bag and leaves, she wastes no time in having the locks on the doors changed.
While this is playing out, Fiona is confronted with a harrowing case—whether Adam Henry, a Jehovah’s witness with leukemia, should be forced to undergo a blood transfusion that will likely save his life and possibly allow a full recovery. Adam wants to obey the tenets of his religion (and his parents) and refuse the transfusion, even though it will almost certainly mean a slow and painful death. But Adam is not old enough to make that decision on his own. He’s three months shy of eighteen, the age that would put him beyond the reach of The Children Act, a British law meant to safeguard the welfare of minors.
The case lands in Fiona’s courtroom, with the hospital warning that waiting more than 24 hours will severely reduce the chances of restoring Adam’s health. After hearing arguments from the doctors who want to treat Adam and the parents who do not, Fiona rushes to the hospital to meet Adam in hopes of determining for herself whether he is acting out of his own beliefs or because he’s been unduly influenced by the beliefs of his parents and church elders who have been visiting him daily in the hospital.
While the visit helps Fiona make her decision, it hardly puts an end to her dilemma. In fact, the repercussions, which fill the second half of the novel, present a new ethical dilemma. As in many of the cases that fill Fiona’s docket, doing the right thing is never easy and even in hindsight, it’s far from clear whether she made the right choice. I’ve always been a fan of ethical-dilemma novels (which is obviously why I write them), and while McEwan’s novel is much more than that, it was the ethical minefield he created that made it difficult for me to put The Children Act down.
The beauty of the novel is not just in the content, however. McEwan’s prose is nothing short of remarkable —strong, smooth, nuanced, with an elegance you won’t find in many courtroom dramas. There are moments when a reader might fear that the novel is about to take a polemical path, ridiculing religion and faith, but it never falls into that trap. The arguments and choices are presented with objectivity and tact, despite the emotional baggage they carry, and the reader is free to decide on his or her own whether Fiona does the right thing at several key points.
Much of that nuance is beautifully brought to the screen by Emma Thompson’s performance. Her face and subtle action can convey a mood and struggle that may take up paragraphs in the novel. Other actors in the film are less successful, particularly Stanley Tucci, whose depiction of a whiny, selfish husband doesn’t do justice to the more nuanced character in the novel who wants more from his marriage, both physically and emotionally.
McEwan wrote the screenplay for the movie and in most instances, he sticks closely to the dialogue and specifics of the novel. But there are two significant changes in the way the ending is revealed that I thought leaned too close to melodrama. I wonder whether those were forced on an unwilling McEwan. I can’t help but hope so.
If you have to choose one or the other, I strongly recommend the novel. But the movie is not a bad substitute. Or tackle them both and see if you agree.
I finished reading JL Carr’s novella (or novel, depending on your definition: it’s about 100 pages, probably 35,000 words) about two weeks ago, and have found myself thinking about it daily since. It’s not that usual for me to be so haunted by a book, so it’s prompted me to consider why. Some of you might not have read it but may be familiar with the 1987 film, which starred a very young Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh, as well as Natasha Richardson—an unusually sensitive, faithful adaptation, of considerable power, too.
Let’s start with a synopsis and statement of theme. It’s set in the summer of 1920, in the North Riding of Yorkshire, an area I know quite well, having spent a year there in my youth, when I was unemployed and forced to live with my mother. It’s an area of moors and fells, bleak in winter, but charming in summer: very rural, and by English standards, sparsely populated. Into this land, which at the time was almost untouched by motor traffic, come two men to work at a village church, both of them ex-soldiers in the recent Great War, and both suffering from what we now call PTSD, but which was then known as shell shock, and simply dismissed, usually, as weakness and whining. Both have been hired by the vicar in order to fulfil a bequest, which requires that efforts be made by an archaeologist to find a grave belonging to one of the dead person’s medieval ancestors, and that an artist or restorer try to recover what is believed to be a medieval wall painting, long since whitewashed over. The archaeologist, who it turns out has a rather shocking secret—one that was shocking in those days, at least—is named Moon; the artist (although he refuses to call himself that) is Birkin. Both men are penurious: Moon camps in a tent in the churchyard, while Birkin bivouacs, much to the vicar’s disapproval, in the belfry. Along the way, Birkin falls in love with Alice, the vicar’s wife. But if that were not impediment enough, we learn that Birkin too is married, although his wife has run off with someone else, more than once in fact. Still, in 1920 being legally married was taken seriously.
The unusually fine, hot summer turns out to be a chance for both men to recover from their horrific experiences in Flanders, as their work, which turns out to be unusually rewarding, proves redemptive. But of course there’s more to it than that. As Birkin slowly recuperates, he’s tempted by the young vicar’s wife, who seems far too lovely and gay (in the old sense of the word) for the embittered, irritable, insensitive Revd. J.G. Keach. So there’s a classic ethical quandary that drives the narrative (along with a certain amount of suspense considering what the men will uncover in the church). Will he or won’t he?
It may sound like a nostalgic work, and unquestionably it’s an elegy to an England now departed, which J.L. Carr, who was born in 1912, must have remembered. But the background, which we’re never allowed to forget, is the senseless slaughter of the trenches. This lends the story a depth and seriousness that it might otherwise not have had. Carr asks how traumatised men can hope to be integrated into society again, and what right they may have to seek their own happiness. He also asks—a question as pertinent today, or more so today than then—how we are linked to our ancestors, and what responsibilities we bear towards them. For these reasons, although by contemporary standards it’s an undramatic, contemplative work, and indeed one which wouldn’t find a publisher nowadays, because of its length, the little book has extraordinary power. In fact it was shortlisted for the Booker—William Golding won it, for Rites of Passage—and did win the Guardian Fiction Prize. (A glance at Booker winners around that time shows how far we have fallen since then.)
But back to why this very ‘slim volume’ has had such an impact on me. Apart from the themes I’ve indicated, which I consider important, and the clarity of the prose, which is admirable, I think it’s precisely because Carr doesn’t follow ‘the rules’ for a modern novel that it’s so engaging. We all know that a novel needs a protagonist with a clear, strong desire, for a start. Birkin’s only aim at the start of the book is to prolong his employment as long as possible. Then there has to be conflict—strong opposition to the fulfilment of the protagonist’s desires. In fact there are none, unless we except a certain amount of internal struggle. There should be crises, a climax, and constant drama—show don’t tell, and all the other rubbish students are taught on creative writing courses. But in fact the true masters of the art (who most often don’t have an academic title to prove it!) don’t necessarily follow those rules. This is something like a great Japanese novel in tone—like some of the works of Kawabata, for example, in which not much happens, but a great deal is suggested and implied, and, as with Japanese pictorial art, in which much is asked of the imagination of the viewer or reader.
It strikes me that maybe we should stop writing to the formulae that the creative writing professors (the bad ones!) and the money-grubbing agents and editors insist are the path to success. Maybe we should stop painting by numbers. If we were true to ourselves, as the modest J.L. Carr was, we might just start creating great art again, as few people are doing in these days of ever-increasing conformity in fiction.
Richard Russo is a star . . . in Bulgaria––to wit, a few years ago he was invited to their annual writers’ conference and when his flights got scrambled, he thought about saying sorry . . . until they told him he was the headliner. That’s what happens when you win a Pulitzer Prize. It also means publishers want books and are even willing to publish nine essays that barely hang together. Oh, by the way, Russo participated in the conference during which he meditated on the life of writers in a country where not long ago you had to remain silent lest you be imprisoned or worse for writing the wrong thing about the country’s rulers.
The Destiny Thief should be read by fiction writers, as well as by devoted Russo fans. The essays that will be of most interest to authors are the title essay, “The Destiny Thief,” as well as “Getting Good,” and “What Frogs Think: A Defense of Omnipotence.”
That Russo is also a star in the U.S. is an object lesson for writers. He wasn’t a child prodigy nor was he a top student at the University of Arizona where he earned a Ph.D. in American Literature and a MFA in fiction. His career began like many lit/MFA graduates, teaching intro classes at third-tier colleges to students who looked much like he did not too many years earlier––working class and battling mixed emotions about their abilities and ambitions.
That Russo found his rhythm and produced award-winning novels seems to have taken him by surprise; it also irked some of his fellow AU grads. Reflecting on his success, which required him to come to terms with his origins as the son of divorced parents in the same upstate New York mill-town that I emerged from several years earlier, Russo concludes that “writing isn’t easy. Most people who want to be writers end up abandoning the struggle.”
That Russo didn’t give up is testimony to how the need to write can subsume the pretensions that often go with ambition and the tendency some have of connecting one’s self-worth with career recognition. “And so,” he tells us, “with no one left to impress, not even myself, I began, finally, to write.”
Russo’s first ambition was to be a rock and roll star. In high school, he formed a band, played badly and eventually gave it up, but the experience was instructive. More so, his relationship with his grandfather, a skilled glove cutter, who taught him to value good work, as well as not to place oneself above one’s fellow man. When the glove industry replaced skilled craftsmen with machines, his grandfather refused to downgrade the care he put in his work and yet he supported the union movement that eventually displaced him.
Reflecting on his early experiences as a laborer and as an underpaid instructor, Russo supports collective action, but when it comes to writing fiction, he stands on the side of craft, harking back to the guild model where an apprentice worked along side a skilled craftsperson for years before he was entitled to call himself a master. In addition to putting in one’s hours, however, an artist needs to “slow down, observe, contemplate, court quiet, practice stillness.”
In “Getting Good,” Russo raises questions that proponents of self-publishing ought to consider––namely, whether the absence of gatekeepers who stand in the way of traditional publication is a good thing. Becoming good at the craft of writing fiction, Russo believes, requires would-be authors to have one’s work rejected because only out of rejection can come the dedication it takes to reach a high level of craft.
Beginning fiction writers often flounder on the question of point of view. Should my story be written from first person perspective? The drawback is everything known to the reader must come from the protagonist’s senses and thoughts. Should it be written in third person? That means the story can be told by more than one person, but the writer’s viewpoint must be intuited from what his/her characters say and do.
Once upon a time, most novels were written from an omniscient viewpoint. The writer, in effect, was another character, telling us what his characters saw, felt and thought, but adding his views as well. The narrator knows things none of his characters know and thus is able to provide history and detail that can only be revealed awkwardly in first person or third P.O.V. stories. Omniscience, Russo tells, us “favors writers who know things, who are confident of their knowledge and generous enough to want to share it.” Needless to say, Russo’s novels are written in omniscient viewpoint.
The other six essays in The Destiny Thief are of less value to writers, but nevertheless are worth reading for insight into Richard Russo’s life and career. They show the kind of man he is . . . apart from being a star. They include a piece on Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, one on Mark Twain’s non-fiction, a brief graduation address, his friendship with a transgendered person, and his trip to Bulgaria. All are worth reading.
Within the first few sentences of Waiting for Eden, readers realize they are in for something out of the ordinary when the first-person narrator says matter-of-factly, “I was sitting next to Eden and luckier than him when our Humvee hit a pressure plate, killing me and everybody else, him barely surviving.”
But out-of-the-ordinary has become the rule for the novels of Elliot Ackerman, author of the critically acclaimed debut Green on Blue, National Book Award finalist Dark at the Crossing, and now his latest, Eden, being released on September 25.
As a journalist, Ackerman was based for a number of years in Istanbul, starting in 2013, where he covered the Syrian Civil War. Among other publications, his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and The New York Times Magazine, and his stories have been included in The Best American Short Stories. He is both a former White House Fellow and a Marine, and has served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart.
Those tours of duty fully inform his novels, which are often bleak and claustrophobic, and still utterly compelling. What may seem remarkable for a U.S. Marine-turned-author is the level of empathy he displays for his subjects. The narrator in Green on Blue is a young Afghani soldier, Aziz, while the protagonist in Dark at the Crossing, Haris, is a native Iraqi and naturalized American working as a translator with U.S. troops in Iraq.
Now, in his latest, the narrator is a dead U.S. serviceman whose name we never learn. He is waiting for his best buddy, Eden Malcolm, “the most wounded man in the history of war,” to cross over to the other side and join him. But Eden, down to seventy pounds and no remaining limbs, improbably persists. His pregnant wife Mary does not leave his side for three years, even when her family and his beg her to let him go. She gives birth in the hospital’s maternity ward, and the baby spends her first years with them before finally going home with Mary’s mother.
A common theme in Ackerman’s novels is a sense of there being no choices, of the main characters almost lacking free will. The narrator posits that this story is all about the choice that Mary makes, but it doesn’t appear that Mary sees or believes there is a choice to be made. Nonetheless, she has called out her husband and their friend for looking at things exactly the same way.
She comments to the narrator, “It’s always have to with you all, as if you have no choice, as if you’ve conveniently forgotten you volunteered for all this . . . You ever think that once or even never was enough?”
In response, he tells her, “The first time, I wanted to go. Now I need to.”
Mary, though, is desperate to keep Eden from re-enlisting, and knows that he won’t go if she is pregnant. So she is doing her best to give him only one choice.
Waiting for Eden is a spare but tightly-packed novel. Most gripping — and, for me personally, hardest to read — are the times when the narrator takes us inside of Eden’s head, when he is awake but unable to communicate. I considered Ackerman’s earlier books to have a sense of claustrophobia, but Eden — with its portrayal of a man being trapped entirely inside his brain — offers a glimpse directly into hell.
One of Ackerman’s talents is his ability to ratchet up the tension in the smallest moments, when on the surface not much is happening, and he does that perhaps most expertly here. Each of the characters is waiting for something, even if they aren’t sure why. But at least they are waiting together.
The English publication of the volumes of Karl Ove Knausgard’s My Struggle coincides with a renewed interest in “auto-fiction,” also known as the autobiographical novel. While I have read and enjoyed several of these works of auto-fiction, my favorite is Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, which seemed to draw on some auto-fiction elements, but also used other literary devices such as image patterning and developing character arcs, while incorporating motifs of class, politics, art, motherhood, friendship, and feminism.
Since finishing the Neapolitan series I’ve found myself wanting to read more novels that span generations, placing themselves in historical context, in which history itself (just as Ferrante’s working class post-war Italy) becomes a character. Three recent novels fit this bill, and I recommend them to anyone desiring epic historical novels that educate as well as entertain.
The first novel I recommend is Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016). Shortlisted for the Booker and winner of both of Canada’s top literary awards, The Giller Prize and the Governor’s General Award, Thien’s novel spans generations of several Chinese families from before the Revolution to the present day—the nexus of the novel being the lead up to and the aftermath of Tiananmen Square. Successfully ambitious on all levels, the novel is well deserving of all its accolades.
Min Jin Lee’s breakthrough Pachinko (2017) covers a generation of a South Korean family living in Japan during the twentieth century. Although the novel, a National Book Award Finalist, is going to be made into a TV miniseries by Apple, I encourage you to read this riveting novel about the hardships Koreans faced in Japan before then.
Finally, Richard Powers’ The Overstory (2018) is an epic novel of trees and the people transformed by them. Intricately plotted—like the complex root system, this novel (currently longlisted for the Booker Prize) also spans more than a hundred years, and is my favorite novel of the year so far.
If you are looking for stories that take you out of the mundane world and instead challenge and expand your own understanding, I recommend any or all three of these powerful novels.
Half a century ago, readers of the New Yorker thirsted for the short stories of John Cheever for the window he opened into suburban life and the tensions he exposed between an emerging post-scarcity society and the vanishing World War II way of life that fertilized his stories. That role today might be assigned to Andre Dubus III. Best known for his novel House of Sand and Fog, the movie version of which, starring Ben Kingsley, earned three Academic Award nominations, in Dirty Love, as in his other works, Dubus mines the tension between generations and the widening gap between traditional behavioral norms and today’s technologically-driven anything-goes code.
Dirty Love consists of four interconnected novellas. In “Listen Carefully, As Our Options Have Changed,” Mark Welch, a fifty-year-old project manager, has discovered his wife is having an affair. Dubus takes us through Welch’s stages of rage to the moment when he finally admits his role in the rift.
In “Marla,” a single bank clerk, despairing of getting married, finds herself courted by a man who it turns out is not her perfect match. Will she repair to her uncompromising approach to life or settle for a man who says he loves her?
In “The Bartender,” Robert has trouble leaving behind a lifestyle where alcohol is the doorway to do-it-if-it feels-good-behavior. When he gets married without thinking through the consequences, he quickly puts himself in a position where he jeopardizes the good fortune that fell into his lap.
Dubus’ fourth and longest piece, “Dirty Love,” reveals the gap between generations as 18-year-old Devon moves in with her grand-uncle because of conflict at home. Francis is still mourning the death of his wife and wants to be a positive influence on his niece. He drives her to and from her job at the same restaurant where Robert is the bartender and where Mark Welch nurses his anger. He wants to help her study for her GRE so she can go to college, but the future Francis envisions for Devon is years away from her present concerns.
Devon––like many young women––is the product of a culture where sexual activity begins at a younger and younger age. Does her method of dealing with those pressures and her attempts to retain her self-worth differ from that adopted by others? Women who have had similar experiences to this character can answer that question better than I. I can only marvel that Dubus has portrayed her inner life with such sensitivity and depth.
Dubus deserves to be read not only because he sees the ways that people live at cross purposes, but because he helps us see them as well, and because he treats his characters as unique individuals without moralizing or stereotyping. You won’t find easy answers in Dirty Love, but you will come away with a greater appreciation of life’s questions.
1954, offshore from Bikini atoll: Never mind radiation, naval crew, bored by days of waiting for a hydrogen bomb test, were taken ashore afterward to swim and drink so much beer that many couldn’t jump from the dingy to the hatch of the ship on their return, and their drunken bodies had to be piled en mass into netting and raised by a crane to the deck. So reports self-aware, precocious young naval officer Bill, a college graduate from Illinois. “We were a military attachment aboard a naval supply ship that had civilian officers…I chatted my head off with the second mate, who sometimes took his duty on hot days wearing only shorts. Not bad at all. But he ran a poor second to the third mate, who was really sexy. That is, his body was sexy. He wasn’t sexy at all. In fact, he was incredibly boring. But I was young. I couldn’t tell the difference in those days.”
We’ve all heard someone say that the right book appears at the right time. That sounds mystical, as if there were a benevolent deity planning every detail our lives, which I think the Holocaust disproves. But it may be that the Taoist notion of simply paying attention to the universe, and let’s say ‘using the current’ (rather than the horrible cliché ‘going with the flow’) comes closer to what happens. In any case, I was very low, partly because I couldn’t write—at least I wasn’t writing anything worth a damn. Then by happenstance I came across Carol Bly’s Beyond the Workshop, a book I’ve owned for years, I believe, but had never read. And lo, it was exactly the book I needed.
I should say first that it purports to be a book for creative nonfiction writers, but almost everything Bly says applies to fiction too (and I daresay poetry as well.) I should add that it appears to be intended mainly for teachers of creative writing, which I used to be, but although I see how useful it would be for anyone who teaches, it’s also valuable for someone who simply writes, particularly if they are stuck or re-evaluating, as I was.
Bly is not afraid to give her own very strong opinions. She criticises many writing teachers for being lazy, or simply unskilled—she doesn’t blame most of them for that, if they’ve been given assistantships before they’re ready—and she argues that most American students are badly under-read, and too committed to being pleasant and neutral in the classroom. She also disapproves of peer responses. However, her main arguments are that writing has an ethical dimension, i.e. that the best writers are working not merely to describe the world, but to change it, to make people more aware of the injustices and cruelties and plain stupidities of human behaviour. She thinks that craft is over-emphasized in most writing workshops, and content is under-valued. She thinks that there is an important part of the writing process that is usually neglected, the middle part between inspiration (and composition of the first draft) and revision (the completion of the final one.) That middle part involves a deep psychological enquiry by the writer into herself or himself, to make sure that their deepest concerns have really been addressed.
Such a short summary doesn’t do her ideas justice, of course, but I found this liberating. I realised I had been looking for a story, as if one might descend upon me out of the air, like some archangel with his annunciation, whereas what I needed to do was focus more clearly on my philosophy (which, Bly thinks, all writers should have.) That’s not to say, as I understand it, that your story should be didactic, a kind of essay in fancy dress; but that the story should grow organically (and indeed subconsciously) out of one’s philosophical and ethical concerns. In other words, the best stories come not out of the shimmering world of sensory images, but out of our inner worlds. Bly discusses developmental psychology, which she is knowledgeable about, relating it to ideas about how writers develop by authors like Schiller and Orwell. According to this theory, many people, and some writers, are stuck in stage one, which is driven by practical and physical desires: for good food, drink, comfort, sex, and so on. A great deal of junk culture—most of Hollywood, it seems to me—is frozen at this stage. The characters are driven by greed, lust, revenge: primitive instincts. Obviously thoughtful art can be made out of this, but Hollywood mostly prefers to keep things superficial. Next comes the aesthetic stage, and many writers, including very successful and skilful ones (she mentions Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Borges) do not go beyond this. They reject the idea that writing might have a political or ethical dimension. The final stage is awareness of the suffering of others and the desire to alleviate it, to protest and to rectify.
Just a few weeks ago I moderated a panel on politics and the short story at the International Short Story Conference in Lisbon—and yet, despite my conscious espousal of the idea that all writing must have this dimension, I believe that after getting home, I fell into an earlier, one might almost say an atavistic stage, the physical and practical stage. So strong is our culture of hedonism and mindless materialism that it is easy to revert to a childish, feckless mode of storytelling, one designed merely to pass the time, to amuse and to reassure. (By the way, neither Bly nor I am against genuine humour. What I deplore is the silly kind, which is also often cruel—as in those detestable Adam Sandler movies, for example.)
Not everyone will like Bly’s book—she is too forthright, in an age that likes its truths to be sugar-coated—but it is a truly humanistic one, in that she thinks people come to writing classes and retreats not necessarily to learn how to write, but in protest against the junk culture, because they are hoping to find meaning in their lives. And she finds that a brave and noble aim. So do I. In a world in which philosophy as a formal discipline is hardly studied any more, perhaps the writing class is one of the last refuges of philosophical thought, and writing may be the best way people not trained as philosophers have to find out what they think and develop a coherent philosophy of life. In short, know thyself, and then change the world. Not a bad aim.
A good story or novel isn’t just beautiful: it makes meaning.
You learn what you think and believe as you write, provided you go deep enough.
Now all I have to do is put into practice.
In the Soviet Union in 1922, men who had been counts under the Tzar were either dead or in exile, with one exception. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who had returned to Russia from exile to participate in the 1918 revolution, was brought before a tribunal, and when his answers were found wanting, he was confined on penalty of death to The Metropol, Moscow’s largest hotel. Why was he spared the firing squad? A revolutionary poem published under his name in 1913.
Count Rostov has little choice but to make the best of his situation. As it turns out, this gentleman displays¬¬ all of the attributes one would normally assign to that title, and thus accomplishes the necessary adjustment with relative ease. Even when he contemplates suicide, it takes no more effort than showing up for his weekly trim at the hotel’s barber.
The irony of a gentleman confined to a hotel during thirty plus years of life in the Soviet Union offers Towles a large playing field that he exploits with entertaining side stories, many focused on food. The story line that will win over many readers is how Rostov becomes the parent to a six year old and raises her to become a concert pianist. This situation is used to justify Rostov’s compliance with the request of a high level communist to provide him insights based on his life in France, as later that official aids the count during a crisis in the life of his adopted daughter.
Yet to entertain the reader with Rostov’s survival story, Towles downplays the milieu in which his gentleman lives. Yes, his adopted daughter’s parents are sent to the Gulag and are never heard from again; yes, his friend, the poet Mishka, who it turns out was the real author of the poem that saved Rostov’s life, is similarly punished. But two cases don’t convey the horror and the death toll experienced by millions under communist rule.
For example, we don’t hear from Towles what happened to people who wished to practice their religion under communism. Rather we learn that people lined up for miles upon Stalin’s death, many of them crying. Why? Stalin, we are told, helped defeat Nazi Germany and converted a backward country into a world power. Stalin did those things––not the soldiers who died in the tens of thousands nor the factory workers who were worked to death¬¬!
Also missing from the story of the count’s life are money and religion. Towles doesn’t seem interested in the role religious belief played in the lives of Russians prior to the revolution. His count gives up whatever religion he might have had prior to the revolution without a second thought. Nor do we learn how he is able to pay his bills, although lack of currency right to the end is never a problem.
The ending? Rostov could escape the Soviet Union, but doesn’t. We are left to imagine that a gentleman can go to the village near his family’s estate and that his gentleman’s personality will dissuade locals from turning him in or making him join them in the fields.
A Gentleman in Moscow is an enchanting story as long as one is ignorant of the real history of the Soviet Union and is not foolish enough to try Towles’ technique for survival in places like Cuba, Argentina or China.