There’s a forthcoming novel I’m genuinely excited about.

(Stark revelation: People in the literary trades often pretend to be excited when they’re not. Imagine that! But in the above sentence I genuinely mean the word genuinely.)

I happened on the first chapter of this book almost two years ago, on the author’s website. I gave it the first-sentence test:

Once there was a girl who did everything wrong.

Hmm: Good premise, and the tone seems right. Serious, humorous and ironic at the same time. On, then, to the first few paragraphs:

Once there was a girl who did everything wrong. Take the time in 1963 when she took part in a wade-in to desegregate a public pool in Chester, Pennsylvania. She almost drowned. She had been the only white girl in the demonstration. When the crowd took the pool by storm, she flailed and sank, and she was pulled out by a lifeguard who forcibly detained her as her Negro comrades were loaded into vans. The police refused to arrest her. They said she should go home and learn to swim.

“Did she?” Tamara asked. She was sitting in the bathtub, with her knees drawn under her chin. The tub was ancient, and the faucet leaked enough to draw a dull brown line across the porcelain.

“Eventually,” Beth said. “Your daddy taught her.”

So it’s historical, including major political events and social conflicts. But it’s mainly personal, about human beings who “flail” and look ridiculous at times and have to interpret their misadventures for their children. Okay, I was hooked.

Waveland TitleNow that novel, Waveland by Simone Zelitch, has found its publisher, The Head and the Hand Press, and I’ve read the whole thing in galleys. It’s about a young white woman’s experiences during the Freedom Summer of 1964, and about her life afterward—working with the Movement, raising a biracial child conceived during that time, enduring the tragedies, breakups and breakdowns. It’s a complicated journey with many ups and downs and sideways slides.

As soon as Beth Fine arrives in Mississippi, she finds out how dull Freedom work can be: she’s assigned to shelve books and clean the floors. Eventually, though, she gets more involved in the field work, finds love and conflict in equal measure, and has her brushes with violence. When a gun under the bed is mentioned early in the book, you can be sure it will be fired at some point.

The novel jumps around in time, and scattered chapters give us three other points of view, widening our perspective on Freedom Summer, the Democratic convention of that year and the tensions pervading the Movement. Yet the book remains primarily Beth’s story. As it turns out, that phrase she uses to characterize herself, “the girl who did everything wrong,” is more than a joke about her social clumsiness and problems in judgment. She’s a person who can’t be dissuaded from doing what she feels must be done. She has a private sense—of justice, duty, love, whatever you want to call it—that impels her, and at key moments she can’t resist its demands even when her brain knows she’s courting disaster. At one point she quotes from Pascal: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” She’s stubborn, headstrong and often infuriating to the other characters. If we as readers fully engage with her, she should sometimes infuriate us too. Damn it, Beth, we want to yell, make the sensible choice! No such luck; she’s not going to listen, and that’s her virtue and her fault.

Simone Zelitch, as I discovered by reading her previous works, has a habit of writing provocative historical novels: The Confession of Jack Straw, about the English peasants’ revolt of 1381; Louisa, about two women who roughly reenact the biblical story of Ruth in post-Holocaust Europe and Israel; Moses in Sinai, about—well, the title explains it. Except for Louisa, released by Berkley, these were small-press books, as is the new one. They deserve a big-press readership.

In her next book after Waveland, an already completed novel called Judenstaat, Zelitch tackles an imaginary past—what might have happened after World War II if the Jewish state had been carved out of Germany rather than Palestine. This novel won her an NEA fellowship, and it has recently been signed by Tor/Forge, the Macmillan imprint known mostly for sci-fi and fantasy. It’ll be back to the big presses for this persistent, thought-stirring, hard-to-classify writer.

In the meantime, check out the girl who can’t do anything right. She’ll agitate and charm you in equal measure. If you want to order a copy before the official release date in May, The Head and the Hand Press is offering a prepublication deal.

The author, metaphorically (photo by Jjron, from Wikipedia)

During the periods when I’m working too hard, which occur far more often than they should—a form of self-flagellation because, as my wife points out, no one required me to accept so many large jobs—a “last straw” feeling often overtakes me, the sense that, like the proverbial camel, I can’t manage one single additional task, no matter how tiny, or I’ll snap. Can I figure out why the copier insists it’s jammed when there’s nothing visible stuck in it? No, I can’t, not another chore, there’s just too much, it’s impossible, ask me next month or next year, or trash the damn thing, I don’t care, but I can’t spend five minutes on it, I can’t possibly do one more thing…

Of course I know this is nuts, a result of overstress, a psychological imbalance, and when the work eases a bit, I recover my good humor and willingness to delve inside the copier in search of a stray paper clip.

Yet the more I look around at our culture, the less unusual my fits of stress seem to me. Not only do we have crazies who have gone well beyond the snapping point—the ones who shoot up malls or schools—but we sprout flaming lunatics on the radio and in Congress, nasty snipers on the Internet, road rage on the freeways… So many of us seem just two or three straws from the breaking point.

Lately I’ve been sampling advance proofs for a forthcoming book from Temple University Press, American History Now, edited by Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr, a volume that attempts to sum up the ways current historians view major eras and themes in the nation’s history. The main audience, I assume, is scholars from other fields who want a brief overview of what the historians have been up to lately. A chapter by Kim Phillips-Fein of NYU takes on the near-impossible challenge of summarizing recent scholarship on the era defined as “1973 to the Present.” The post-1973 years, she writes,

have been viewed as a time of economic uncertainty and widening inequality as compared to steady growth; as an epoch of ambivalence, skepticism, and even hostility toward politics, in contrast to the idealism and optimism of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s; and perhaps most of all, as an age of conservatism that rejected the liberalism of the postwar years.

Of course, economic uncertainty, inequality, and even skepticism are hardly unique to our era; these are recurring themes throughout the country’s history, dating to before the Revolution. What’s different now, I think, is that we’ve become terribly anxious and insecure—more so, for instance, than in the 1950s when we had Joe McCarthy, nuclear bomb scares and sheriffs clubbing civil rights leaders; or in the 1960s, when we killed two Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and tens of thousands of our own soldiers. Is it 9/11 and terrorism that have made us so jittery, brought us so close to the edge?

I think it goes deeper than that. The “economic uncertainty” that Phillips-Fein points to probably plays a role. We got accustomed to being prosperous, and now that we seem to be running faster and faster merely to stay in the same place—those of us who still have jobs, that is—we lack the emotional resilience to handle the situation. Then there are the many social changes we’ve absorbed in a few short decades. It’s great, for instance, that we can define a “family” in more ways than before, so that two adults of the same sex with three adopted children from various countries are as much a family as any other; yet all of our families, old-fashioned and new-, have become fragile, with divorce rates approaching 50 percent for first marriages and soaring far above that for second and third marriages. (Luckily, by the time you have a sixth wedding like my father, your life will probably end before your marriage.) The best way we’ve found to reduce the divorce rate is for couples not to marry in the first place, a solution that doesn’t do much for psychic stability and calm.

It’s a truism that, after all the gains made by women and minorities in the past decades, we have plenty of stick-in-the-muds uncomfortable with such change, or worse, severely ticked off about it. Yet I also wonder if our recent social advances make the gainers themselves feel more secure. If you’re a minority person in a corporate position previously closed to those of your ethnicity/gender, does your triumph bring peace of mind, or does it give you one more thing to worry about?

It’s my theory that such economic and social conditions have produced a long-running, low-level anxiety that is always with us, magnifying our personal and public stresses and bringing us closer to the snapping point. You might test this idea next time you’re in a traffic jam. Doesn’t one part of your psyche wish you could whip out an assault rifle and start shooting?

Being untrained in psychology, social science, history and just about every other subject matter, I’m totally unqualified to form such opinions. But this too is a prevailing American characteristic, the having of strong, unfounded convictions. There’s a reason bigoted talk-show hosts are popular.

… Oh hell, dammit, the smoke alarm over the stairwell started beeping again. I changed the battery two weeks ago! Now I’ll have to search for another new battery, fetch a ladder from the basement, climb up there and perch precariously while I try to fix the thing with clumsy fingers—or else drive to the hardware store and buy a new alarm, maybe the whole thing is defective—but that store sold me this cheap junk in the first place—no, it’s too much, dammit, I can’t take this anymore! Gimme a broom, I’m gonna knock that stupid piece of crap off the ceiling, take it out on the porch and jump up and down on it till it’s a thousand plastic splinters…

There! Whew! Now I feel better. I’m leaving the shards on the porch to teach all goddamn smoke alarms a lesson.

What was I saying?

SHAME on Saturday

December 1, 2010

Click image to enlarge

It’s not such a bad day usually, Saturday, and for some it’s even a sabbath,* but this coming one, December 4, will be smudged by the official launch of my novel, The Shame of What We Are. The publisher is planning a joint celebration with Sowilo Press, which is launching my friend Debra Leigh Scott’s marvelous collection Other Likely Stories. Everyone who occasionally reads a book is welcome to stop by.

Debra’s book picks up in the 1960s, where mine leaves off, and ends with the fall of Saigon in 1975. Together the two books portray a troublesome quarter-century in American life, when we engaged in a nuclear arms race; persecuted our own citizens; fought in mysterious places in Asia; assassinated political leaders; invented, perfected, and then (in my opinion) destroyed rock ’n’ roll—and, somewhere along the way, undermined the traditional nuclear family. How much connection was there between public misadventures and private confusion?

I’m told the party will feature live music appropriate to the time period. If it’s disco, I’ll be hiding under a table.

*Which reminds me: Hanukkah has just begun here on the East Coast. To all who celebrate it, or wish they did, have a joyful one.

After Marcy Casterline O’Rourke posted a rave review of my novel The Shame of What We Are on Amazon, I wondered who she was and why she liked the book so much. Exploring her own blog entries, I realized that we’ve both been pondering the past lately, and maybe that’s what first attracted her to Shame, which is set in the 1950s and 1960s. (Though this doesn’t explain her lofty rating of the novel; for that, we’d need to know what she was smoking.)

One of Marcy’s blogs focuses on her late husband, the actor Tom O’Rourke, and she talks about reading a diary he left behind, using it to fill in details of his life before she met him and puzzle out facets of his character that, after decades of marriage, she still didn’t understand. “The Great Mystery of Tom,” she titles one post. Her musings are both pointed and poignant.

Oddly (or perhaps not) I’ve just finished the first draft of a short story about a man who rediscovers his own adolescent diary. This proved difficult to write, because for me nostalgia is often painful. Beyond the poignancy and bittersweet pang, it leads to a deep sense of embarrassment about my younger self, and that happens in this new story, in which the character becomes ashamed of the young man he unearths.

Joanie & Bobby in 1963

Here’s another—not fictional but all-too-real—case in point: Last night I reconnected with a major icon from my youth. Our niece Anna, for no reason that we can fathom, has become a fan of folk music, and her greatest star, higher in the pantheon even than Pete Seeger, is Joan Baez. Hence we went with Anna and her family to Joanie’s concert last night in Philadelphia. Anna wore a handmade T-shirt with a 1960s image of our favorite folk diva; it must have taken her hours to draw with permanent markers.

So, there was the bittersweet sensation of remembering when Joanie (who looked a bit stiff and sore) was a young barefoot maid, and we too were young, and the music meant that the times they were a-changin’, that the deep achy yearning that swelled in our souls could find its place in the world and we would somehow connect not only with the zeitgeist but with the oversoul, the mystery at the heart of things.

It’s bad enough remembering inchoate hopes like that. But here’s where it gets really rough for me. The first time I saw Joan Baez in concert, she was indeed in her barefoot-maid stage, and a heckler yelled at her from the audience, “Why don’t you wear shoes?” She shot back, “That would spoil my image.” Today that seems a perfectly apt, funny reply. To my idealistic younger self, however, it was like a slap in the face. I wanted to believe, I guess, that she chose to go barefoot in the simple, honest, pure way in which I might grab a jacket out of the closet: “Hmm, it’s over 65 degrees and I’ll be on stage most of the night, so I won’t need shoes.” To realize that she might consider something as crass and commercial as her “image,” even with an ironic twist, shocked my entire belief system.

It’s painful to remember being that naive, that stupid. And to make matters worse, Joan sang the Leonard Cohen song “Suzanne.” Not only was that once my favorite song, but I considered it truly poetic, profound, inspirational. A woman who dresses in rags and feathers and leads you to a mysterious river/harbor where you meditate upon Jesus walking on the water—heavy stuff, man! But today when I hear lines like “you know that you can trust her / For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind,” I feel the opposite of trust. Sloppy, simple-minded, juvenile, semi-fake spiritualism, I call it now.

So, picture me at the concert in a balcony cheap seat, uncomfortable with memories of idealizing Joanie, growing more restive as Cohen’s pseudo-poetry wafts in ethereal waves over the rapt audience. … My wife reaches over and lays her hand on mind. I squeeze back in reluctant acknowledgment. Then she leans in and whispers, “Remember when you used to sing ‘Suzanne’ to me? Will you sing it to me tonight?”

I want to hide under my chair.

Luckily, though, we’re old enough that, after the long concert, a bus ride to our neighborhood, a short hike to our door in the brisk fall air, we fall harmlessly asleep.