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.

Cover of THE PILGRIMI hereby publicly confess my sins.… I shall write in plain style and tell the truth as near as I am able.

Such is the promise of Charles Wentworth at the outset of The Pilgrim, Hugh Nissenson’s latest novel (Sourcebooks, 2011), and Charles keeps his word, laying out truths more severely than a fundamentalist preacher. Like Nissenson’s previous works (see, e.g., my comments on My Own Ground), this book makes “unflinching” an understatement. The stern eye on human life will never blink. The Pilgrim is a wise and moving book, a finely crafted book, and not for the faint of spirit.

The year is 1623, and the life of man and woman in Plymouth Colony—and in the England that the colonists have fled—matches the famous phrase Hobbes would use 28 years later in Leviathan: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Except that Hobbes was describing what he called the state of nature, an imaginary condition without culture or government. Nissenson often turns that philosophy on its head, revealing how much blame lies with the institutions that supposedly protect us from our base instincts.

The demands of his Puritan faith torment Charles; he agonizes over his sins and doubts his salvation. At one point, when he complains to a friend that his soul is “quiescent,” the friend offers the kind of capsule life story that the novel uses several times to devastating effect:

Hook replied, “Better than poor Annie Watts in Worksop. She tormented herself day and night as to whether she be damned or saved. She could not bear not knowing, so she threw her four-month-old babe, Clyde, down a well, wherein he drowned. Said Annie, ‘’Tis better to know that I am damned than not to know what God plans for my soul throughout eternity.’ They hanged her.”

Charles will not fault religion for burdening Annie’s mind or the state for executing a mentally disturbed person, nor will the author breach the form to wink at us. Rather, as the ultimate modernist, Nissenson gives us a narrator who is both reliable in his facts and constricted in his interpretation.

Wherever he roams over space and time, Nissenson immerses himself, and his readers, in the moment. In this novel he wants us to see, hear and smell the 17th-century life of these struggling souls, no matter how gruesome it may be. And there is plenty of gruesome throughout the novel. I’ll forebear quoting from the explicit scenes of hangings, but as forewarning, and as a sample of the masterful way the author assembles simple details, here are a couple of passages:

[A bear baiting in the sin capital of London:]
A bear with little pink eyes pursued one of the mastiffs, while the other five dogs pursued the bear. One dog clung with his jaws to the bear’s left front leg, and the bear bit him through his neck bone and got free. Another dog clung to the bear’s belly, just above his private parts. The bear sat up and, with a front paw, struck the dog’s left shoulder. He would not relinquish his hold. The bear ripped open the dog’s breast with his front claws. I glimpsed the dog’s beating heart. The drunken spectators cheered.

[An infected finger:]
The doctor came again and said, “See the thinness of skin about the wound? The abscess is ripe for opening.” He sliced it with his lancet, to a great profusion of blood and pus. The inflammation became livid. Little bladders oozing green and yellow ichors spread all over the skin. The tumor subsided, and for an hour or so, I hoped for the best. Then her whole forefinger turned black.

The “plain style” that Nissenson so skillfully imitates was a deliberate attempt by the Puritans to rid their writing, especially their sermons, of the rhetorical flourishes of the Church of England and the aristocracy. Educated at Cambridge, Charles confesses to being “lewdly disposed to beauteous language,” and in reaction he takes on an almost antiliterary straightforwardness. Even so, the vivid details make his account a compelling read. Here, an ugly scene made me smile because it was so perfectly described:

I alighted from my wagon at the inn named The Sign of the Bear and Ragged Staff in Charing Cross, which is in the City of Westminster, a suburb without the walls of London. The inn was crowded with plump, muddy whores, boy prostitutes, and cutthroats armed with daggers. The press of rowdy maltbugs lugged ale, even as little pigs lug at their dam’s teats.

As that pig indicates, the plain style doesn’t preclude an occasional homely metaphor of the sort that the Puritan preachers loved. Here is Rigdale, a would-be preacher:

“Who is close to Christ all the time? Am I? Surely not. He comes and goes from me like the tide upon the beach I once saw at Dover. At full tide, I am soaked by Him, immersed in His mercy, but then He leaves me high and dry, covered with sandy sea weed. Right now, at this moment, I am high and dry, covered with sea weed, sand, and cockle shells. Yet I have faith that the living waters—His precious blood—will wash over me again.”

And, though less frequent than the horror, there are some genuinely lovely passages, especially when Charles’s faith works well enough for him to appreciate Creation:

On the day following, I went to weed in the cornfield. Just before noon, as I pulled a handful of weeds from the crumbling earth, my eye caught the yellowish tassel protruding atop a red ear of corn from its sheath of pointed leaves. I peeled the leaves back an inch or two. An ant was crawling on one of the red kernels. I gazed at my gloved right hand, holding the weeds with their roots covered with soil, and the shallow hole left in the earth around the stalk. Then I digged beneath the stalk’s roots. There I saw the backbone of a herring [used for fertilizer] that had rotted away.

Then my soul flowed joyfully into those elements of fecundity …

Anyone who has read this far may wonder whether the novel has a plot. It does, concerning Charles’s attempt to find peace with God and himself, and as an adjunct to that quest, a godly woman to support him and ease his lust. Along the way, the reader is treated to Indian wars, the disastrous attempt to establish a new colony, Charles’s family history in England and multiple side stories. The dozens of minor characters include historical ones like Miles Standish, William Brewster, Massasoit and Governor William Bradford. What stands out for me, though, are the stark images of 17th-century life, both outer and inner: the decent man straining to find peace in a human-mucked world with more abominations than beauty—and with ideologies more fanatical than rational.

We’d like to believe our world is vastly different now. Sure it is: we have antibiotics for infected fingers.

Models of Compression

June 3, 2012

Recent readings: three very different works that use compression to good advantage.

1. Larry Loebell’s short play Will and the Code, just performed by F. Murray Abraham in NYC as part of Resonance Ensemble’s 10th anniversary celebration.

The monologue presents one side of a telephone conversation: theatrical agent Phil O. Strait speaking to his client, Will, about changes Will needs to make in a script to accommodate the new theatrical code. It seems that Will’s play features fairies, enchantment, consciousness-altering substances, a character named Puck, and worst of all, explicit lust. Will gets livid about the recommended rewrites, but Phil, a true professional, handles him smoothly. Loebell, no stranger to politically inspired theater, has posted the entire hilarious piece online at http://loebell.com/will-and-the-code/.

2. Hugh Nissenson’s first novel, My Own Ground (1976), a 181-page tale of a 15-year-old orphaned immigrant, Jake, in the Lower East Side of 1912.

I first discovered Nissenson through The Tree of Life, his amazing 1985 novel of the Ohio frontier. Since then I’ve read Days of Awe, a tender 9/11 novel, and The Song of the Earth, a futuristic fable about a genetically engineered artist. Nissenson’s books roam through time and place. He’s deliberately, perhaps obsessively, innovative, so that he’ll take you into what seems like a generic tale and then bend all of the conventions. Two of his major works include his own strange illustrations, supposedly created by the protagonist. Yet, through all these experiments and variations, his preoccupation with morality and violence remains constant.

In My Own Ground, Jake gets involved with protecting beautiful young Hannele, a rabbi’s daughter, from the pimp who is after her; but Hannele’s self-destructiveness complicates matters. Other characters include a Russian revolutionary who tries to raise Jake’s political consciousness. Though there are plenty of vivid details about immigrant life on the Lower East Side, and even time for a digression or two, Nissenson compresses transitions and omits nearly all of Jake’s self-reflection. For a first-person narrative there’s surprisingly little of the personal in Jake’s fact-driven account; author and narrator let us draw the conclusions ourselves, as in this simple description of Jake’s job and his coworker:

I got eight cents for pressing a tweed jacket and a woolen skirt. The iron weighed fourteen pounds; it was one of those things you knew. I used two of them. There was always one heating up on the stove. I worked at a big table opposite Spiegel, another presser, who’d been at it for six years. His right shoulder was three inches lower than his left; the forefinger of his right hand reached his knee.

“What is it?” he asked me Wednesday afternoon. “What’s the matter with you?”


I’d been staring at him. He turned a skirt without pleats inside out, spread it on his board, covered the seam with a strip of canvas, and then reached into the tin pail on his right, squeezed the water from the brown sponge and swept it up and halfway down the canvas, leaving a wet trail. It went on and on: a continuous movement of the lowered shoulder, the elongated arm, the hand wrapped in a wet rag. I saw the swollen blue veins on the inside of his wrist as he tossed the sponge back into the pail. When he picked up the iron, he grunted “Oy” under his breath, and a drop of sweat from his temple ran down the left side of his face; another hung from the tip of his nose.

On the way home, I bought a pack of Tolstoys—ten cigarettes for a nickel…

No comment on the implications of Spiegel’s work, minimal transition away from the scene. Perfect. Nissenson deserves more attention as one of our best novelists; I’m eager to read his latest, The Pilgrim, set in 1622.

3. Farthest North by Todd Balf, a short digital history of Elisha Kane’s disastrous 1853 Arctic voyage in search of the lost Franklin expedition of the 1840s.

As a committed armchair adventurer, I enjoyed this brief—and cheap ($1.99!)—tale of derring-do and unlikely heroes. A sickly sort from a prominent family, Kane drove himself to extraordinary feats. Balf writes some crystal-sharp prose in describing the otherworldly Arctic landscape, the jagged cliffs of ice, the myth of an Open Polar Sea to the north beyond the claustrophobic bergs. Here, though, the need for compression—the publisher’s requirement, I suppose—means that Kane’s background and psychology receive less development than I would have liked. I’m curious to learn more about his love affair with Maggie Fox, one of the three spiritualist Fox sisters of the mid-nineteenth century. Maggie was the one who renounced her séances as fake, and then, after Kane’s death, retracted her confession and went back to conning people. I’d also like to know more about some of the subsidiary characters on the expedition, both those who survived and those who didn’t. But for $1.99, I’m not complaining; Balf has done a fine job with this short-form bio-saga.

What Alice Knew

“Henry James was drunk.”

So begins an entertaining literary mystery by Paula Marantz Cohen, What Alice Knew (Sourcebooks, 2010), set in 1888 London during the rampage of Jack the Ripper. Cohen’s animating conceit is that the baffled London police call in the famous American psychologist-philosopher William James for consultation. This puts William in the same city as his brother, the novelist Henry, and their sister Alice, a professional invalid, and the three collaborate in the investigation.

The notion of police employing a psychologist/spiritualist/weirdo is commonplace now, at least in fiction. On TV there’s the popular series The Mentalist, among others. In print, Caleb Carr’s 1994 mystery bestseller, The Alienist, sets up a team of a psychologist, a writer, and a secretary to investigate a serial killer in 1896 New York.

Cohen’s basic set-up is far from original, then. But her Jameses, as eccentric as they are famous, become as psychologically interesting as the killer they track. Alternating their points of view, Cohen allows each to contribute a unique perspective to the investigation. The style is fluid, and the dialogue sparkles. Minor characters like Oscar Wilde and John Singer Sargent step in to enhance the ambiance. Sly humor undercuts the characters’ pretenses, especially Henry’s; the poor chubby aesthete never quite recovers from that classic opening line.

After the recent speculation on the Jameses, Cohen could have made their own relationships as lurid as the Ripper’s slashings. It’s to her credit, I think, that she does NOT put William in bed with Alice, Henry with the male artists’ model, or Alice with her devoted live-in companion. Cohen’s Jameses flout Victorian convention only in their unconventional thinking, which in itself offers plenty of sizzle for this fine novel.

A few announcements to conclude this post:

  • The second installment of my story “End of the Ride” is up at The Piker Press. In place of similar annoying advertisements for the third and fourth parts, I’ll direct anyone who’s interested to this link to a page that should list each section as it becomes available.
  • My story “MG Repairs,” which came out in Carve Magazine in 2010, will be included in the magazine’s 2009–2010 Anthology. Why two years late? Because editor Matthew Limpede has a sensible approach to the absurd rush of our lives. Myself, I favor setting the clock back to 1993.
  • My novel The Shame of What We Are is now available as an e-book from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Everybody who’s not reading it in paperback can now not read it on a screen as well. But they’ll be missing the wonderful illustrations by Tom Jackson, which come out surprisingly well in the e-book.
  • “Wright has found a way to wed fragments of an iconic America to a luminously strange idiom, eerie as a tin whistle, which she uses to evoke the haunted quality of our carnal existence.” So said The New Yorker about poet C. D. Wright, who will be reading on February 2 at Villanova University’s Literary Festival. I love tin whistles. Complete info. about the festival, which will include William Kennedy and several other luminaries, is available here.

Historical Delvings

November 7, 2011

Adam and EveWhen I was an English major, way back before Garrison Keillor started making fun of our tribe, historical fiction was considered minor-league, pop-culture fare, beneath the notice of highbrows in my high-class department. It was OK for Homer, Crane and Tolstoy to set tales in the past—those Great Writers were already in the canon—but in Vietnam-era USA it was incumbent on serious artists to confront the muck and mire of the present day.

Having long left academia behind, I don’t know exactly when that view began to change, but it must now be as archaic as Papa Hemingway’s bullfighters. Doctorow, Eco, Mantel and many others have impressed the critics with fiction set far back from the present time, and today’s readers, whatever their literary pretensions, seem more fascinated with Anne Boleyn’s head than with any contemporary character’s heart.

Cultural anthropologists may want to speculate about why so much modern fiction has taken flight from the modern. Or maybe it’s obvious.

Personally I enjoy good historical novels and always have, even when under the thrall of my snooty English department. Recently I’ve read a couple of fine ones: The Confession of Jack Straw by Simone Zelitch (Black Heron Press, 1991) and The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead by Paul Elwork (Putnam, 2011; an expanded version of The Tea House, published by Casperian Books in 2007).

Zelitch recreates the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, when tens of thousands of English folk marched on London to protest an onerous tax (a flat tax—Republicans take note!), a low cap on wages, and other legal shenanigans by which the rich exploited the poor. Professing loyalty to fourteen-year-old King Richard II, the rebels wanted to rid the country of his handlers and advisers, whom they took to be corrupt usurpers of power. Chants of the now-famous rhyme,

When Adam Delved and Eve Span
Who was then the Gentleman?

fostered an idealistic hope that class distinctions might be ameliorated—kind of like our yearning that Wall Street float back down toward Main Street, someday, somehow.

The rebels managed to dispatch several of the supposed usurpers, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, and they torched John of Gaunt’s great Savoy Palace; yet they were eventually betrayed by the teenage king himself. Peasant leaders John Ball, Jack Straw and Wat Tyler were all apparently killed or executed. Straw, the most mythical of the three, was said to have left a “confession,” reproduced in the chronicles of Thomas Walsingham; this dubious document may have been wholly invented—for, as we know all too well, it’s the victors who write the history books.

Zelitch imagines for us the true, undistorted confession of Jack Straw, as dictated to his captors. Her Jack is a conflicted and dynamic figure, compelled to betray either his mentor, the half-crazed preacher John Ball, or his own crippled sister, who needs him back home. Poetic and earnest, full of folk tales and country ale, Jack is a sensuous man who drinks in both the beauty and the stench of his surroundings:

The sun rose to our backs, and we reached Maidstone by late morning. The whole town filled the square to greet us. We had to stop if only to push through the hundred who bore baskets and banners. Two women bore a proud new standard, Adam delving, Eve with spindle. Kate Tyler stood among them, some ways off, and she swung a basket full to overflowing, warm with bread and sour with cheese. Her hair was twisted back, and her face was round and white like a moon or a cheese. (p. 174)

We had to climb many a steep mount of cobbles. Townsmen call them hills. Some streamed stink like waterfalls down clefts you call a gutter. Those guts of rain and dung would overcome the deepest gutter. At odd banks of these hell-rivers the merchants hawked their pies or caps or buckles. (p. 201)

The style—lyrical, evocative, but set in those short chunky sentences like the solid clop of a peasant’s boots—gives the story its unique earthy flavor. This is a strong novel and an impressive feat of recreating the past.

Paul Elwork’s book is also well done, but in his case the historical setting—a country estate on the outskirts of Philadelphia in the 1920s—seems more a convenience than a structural necessity. His principal characters are a twin brother and sister, Emily and Michael, thirteen years old, who pretend they can communicate with spirits. Discovering that she can make an eerie cracking noise with her foot, Emily uses this technique to spook Michael, who at once sees the potential for duping adults in the community. Their con game of “spirit rapping” is loosely based on the real-life saga of the Fox sisters of New York state, who helped spark the spiritualist movement in the mid-1800s. Elwork shifts the story forward to the post–World War I era, when so many have perished in the war and the flu epidemic that the survivors make easy marks for a spiritualist who professes to connect with the dear departed.

Though the details from the 1920s feel authentic, the main interest here is the spiritualism itself—its motivation, its psychological effects, its sometimes tragic consequences. Elwork draws a nice contrast between Emily, who remains dubious about the play-acting, and the cynical Michael, who takes up with a professional con man. Both of these kids seem remarkably adult but believable. And if the harrowing outcome is plotted a bit awkwardly, the tale is a compelling one, drawing out buried family secrets and guilts, recollections and imaginings about the dead, plus a long-suppressed romance. The novel ends by taking advantage of its time frame to skip ahead to 1939, when the world is entering another murderous conflagration. Emily, now a semi-recluse who has studied Dr. Freud in college, reflects on “old things” and on what she has learned or failed to learn. There’s a sense that some passions, dreams, mysteries, misunderstandings—the components of our Freudian underground—are best left unexplored. About her mother’s erstwhile romance, Emily remarks that “as the years went by, I acquired the habit of not asking, and found myself not wanting an answer, despite my occasional curiosity.”

Busara Road

September 19, 2011

David Sanders in KenyaMy friend David Sanders, whom I mentioned in my last post—an excellent writer and all-around good guy—has started a campaign on IndieGoGo.com to support the research for his novel-in-progress, Busara Road. The novel is set in Kenya during the early years after independence—a time when David himself was there, as a child. Now he’s won a prize to help him return to Kenya for a few weeks to work on the novel, meet with leading African writers, and visit the Quaker mission he remembers from childhood.

The great thing about IndieGoGo is that lots of people contribute small amounts to make the project happen. The smallest suggested donation is $10, and you can go even lower than that by clicking on “Other” in the drop-down contribution field. David has listed a variety of creative “perks” for donors, but the main reward is knowing that you gave a little bit to a good artistic cause. So please consider giving the cost of a cappuccino, at least. You’ll be amazed and proud when this novel is published.

William Wordsworth, from Wikimedia Commons

“. . . trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home . . .”

Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” offers perhaps the strongest explanation of the types of nostalgia that I’ve been exploring in recent posts.

Wordsworth’s poem is famous because he describes a universal sensation, the inkling that once—when?—we connected more deeply with life’s mysteries. That time at the beach, holding Mom’s hand, when we clambered out over the rocks—why is that scene stuck in the mind? what was it we saw or said? Or on that summer sidewalk in a far-off city, in the flickering leaf-shadows under a street lamp, we felt a stirring that seemed almost to tell us—

Uh-huh. Wherever quavers like that were tugging us, most of us never quite made the connection, and in time we got busy and ceased to think about it. That’s certainly true of me. In fact, I discount most of my adolescent mysticism as the fumes of an overheated sexual furnace. And yet, when I take time to reflect, I miss feeling that way. In my notes for a recent story, I jotted that the protagonist was “yearning for yearning,” that is, wishing he could once more experience the unfulfilled urges that drove him crazy as a young man.

Recently I had a chance to read a draft of Byblos, an extraordinary novel-in-progress by a friend, Miriam Seidel. It tells two stories that on the surface seem widely disparate: the burning of the great Alexandria library in the time of Caesar and Cleopatra (and, yes, those characters appear in the novel); and the personal travails of Nina, a female dot.com entrepreneur in the early twenty-first century. The modern-day plot takes Nina back to her childhood home in upstate New York, where she experiences mystical connections not only to her younger self but also to a kind of spiritual zone that ultimately connects the two plots. She realizes that, in some way, numinous sensations like these sustained her through her difficult years of growing up in a discombobulated family.

Normally I have minimal tolerance for mysticism, especially if it comes too easily (see my grumpy comments about “Suzanne” in “Nostalgia, Part 1”). But Miriam grounds her spiritual flights in a deep sensory appreciation of the earth and its creatures. At the old homestead, we get a vivid sense of the tangled trumpet vines, the pallid mushrooms, the worms, the stones, the mucky pond with its slimy frogs, the cicadas screeching in the summer heat—along with Nina’s attempt to rediscover something important from her childhood that has gone missing. Heading for the pond, she rips her legs on a patch of brambles. Opening herself to all of this, she reaches out tentatively to sense the hidden links that bind the people and animals and rocks and plants together. She can’t name or describe these links, but she ends up putting her sensations to use by—well, I’m not going to reveal the end of the novel.

This kind of mysticism is grounded enough, literally and figuratively, for me to appreciate, and I believe that Miriam’s version is truer than Wordsworth’s because it blends the ugly with the pleasant, the hostile with the welcoming, the scummy pond with the pretty trees.

Old Willie did have talent, though, and I don’t mean to diss him. He’s worth quoting for the final words on the subject:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

“The two young men—they were of the English public official class—sat in the perfectly appointed railway carriage.”

We hear so much about the need for a “hook,” something to grab the reader immediately, that I take more and more pleasure in authors who ignore that dictum, or who wrote before it became the Apostles Creed of Literature.

The sentence quoted above opens Some Do Not…, the first novel in Ford Madox Ford’s magnificent trilogy Parade’s End. Does anything, other than the balance and rhythm of the style, hook us? What are the men doing? Merely sitting. Who are they? Members of a humdrum group of bureaucrats. Where are they? In a railway car whose principal attribute is that it has no faults. This is an anti-hook.

As those who’ve read the trilogy will remember, Ford’s purpose here is to establish the stasis of pre–World War I English society—a stability that will soon be rudely interrupted. Hence the men are seen first as unmoving stereotypes. But even after establishing their stillness, Ford is in no hurry to bring us action. Not until deep in Chapter IV do we reach the scene when Valentine Wannop alters Christopher Tietjens’ life forever by barging up to him on a golf course to demand that he save her friend and fellow suffragette from being manhandled. In the meantime, Ford treats us to, among other things, a description of Tietjens’ companion Macmaster, including his origins, current position, aspirations, and the thesis of the new book whose proofs he has been correcting on the train; a brief history of Tietjens’ disastrous marriage, which leads to an explanation of why the two friends have embarked on a golf outing; a mention of Tietjens’ pastime of finding errors in the Encyclopaedia Britannica; a philosophical discussion of monogamy; a long chapter with the wife, her mother, and a priest, who utters such observations as “’It’s a good maxim that if you swat flies enough some of them stick to the wall”; and, immediately after the opening quoted above, a leisurely survey of that boring railway carriage:

“The leather straps to the windows were of virgin newness; the mirrors beneath the new luggage racks immaculate as if they had reflected very little; the bulging upholstery in its luxuriant, regulated curves was scarlet and yellow in an intricate, minute dragon pattern, the design of a geometrician in Cologne. The compartment smelt faintly, hygienically of admirable varnish; the train ran as smoothly—Tietjens remembered thinking—as British gilt-edged securities. It travelled fast; yet had it swayed or jolted over the rail joints, except at the curve before Tonbridge or over the points at Ashford where these eccentricities are expected and allowed for, Macmaster, Tietjens felt certain, would have written to the company. Perhaps he would even have written to The Times.”

The writing is confoundedly leisurely, as Tietjens himself might have said. It’s also brilliant, pointed, and amusing.

No hooks. The reader isn’t treated as a fish. I admire that, and envy Ford for living in a time when it was possible.

I first read Ford when I was quite young, and now I’m wondering if my convictions about him would change during a new read. By accident in browsing, I discovered one person who has recently come to Parade’s End for the first time and finds it fascinating: see the entry in Hannah Stoneham’s Book Blog, http://hannahstoneham.blogspot.com/2010/04/read-along-of-ford-madox-fords-parades.html.

Interview with Noel Farrell

October 13, 2010

Many thanks to Noel Farrell, a.k.a. Don Booker, for posting an interview with me on his blog, The Writing Life and Other Absurdities. Click on the image above to go there.

In future posts I may try to explain some of the answers I gave him, such as why my favorite writer is Ford Madox Ford (is that still true? I have to figure it out).

Other Likely StoriesMy friend Debra Leigh Scott, a fiction writer, playwright, scriptwriter, dramaturg, writing teacher—an annoyingly multitalented person—has just published her first book-length collection of fiction, Other Likely Stories (Sowilo Press, available on Amazon and elsewhere). What follows is a brief and totally biased commentary.

Other Likely Stories brings together nine linked tales that follow two young sisters, Rachael and Valory Meade, and their cousin Marlena in the American South during the 1960s and early 1970s—the Vietnam War era. Debra typically packs more drama in a few paragraphs than I could manage in an entire novel, and these stories are no exception. In less than 200 pages we get child abuse, rape, arson, murder, war deaths, cancer, the Mafia, prostitution, a car crash, a mother’s desertion, insanity, and alcoholism. The characters are burdened by such cataclysmic pasts that it seems impossible for mere humans to bear the emotional load. Yet there’s an odd tenderness here, and a resilience in the three girls that keeps you reading, makes you think they’ll manage to overcome their personal traumas and the outrageous social tragedies of the era. It’s definitely a time for women’s toughness to emerge. Here’s an exchange between Valory and a college friend, Bina. Bina is describing her parents:

“Picture a grown man,” Bina said, handing me a joint, “sobbing through a Gene Autry record. His wife’s quoting Isaiah and ironing ferociously in the corner.”

“Where are you in that picture?” I asked, holding a hit and passing the joint back.

“Exactly,” she inhaled.

Though life deals out broad, hard swipes to the head and heart, there’s nothing broad about the characters’ reactions. In one story, when the sisters are living with their bitter mother at an army base, their long-estranged grandmother appears at the door, and it becomes apparent that she’s come to their house to die. The girls’ drunken grandfather, Billy, then shows up to reclaim his wife, and 12-year-old Rachael forms a bond with him, only to find that he’s not going to stick around. Look at the subtle interplay of compassion and cruelty here, in a scene on the morning of the grandmother’s funeral:

Shyly, I slid closer to him, gratified at how quickly he closed his roughened fingers around my chilled shoulder.

He looked down at me. “I’ll be goin’ away now, you know. I’m sure nobody in there’s gonna mind it,” he indicated with his head toward the house.

It hadn’t yet occurred to me that Billy wasn’t going to stay, that he wouldn’t stay for me. I hadn’t yet realized that these were my last moments of safety.

“I’ll go, too,” I said.

He removed his hand from my shoulder and nodded his head slowly. “That you will, someday,” he said, “and it will be a distance.”

He spoke the words easily, as if the torn fabric of my life could be tacked together by a simple pronouncement, as if the certainty of my mother’s uncontrollable fury was no concern of his.

I wrapped my arms tightly around my chest, where it felt, all of a sudden, as if something big had cracked.

“This is why my mother hates you,” I said, realizing the edges of something too vast to see all at once.

Billy’s face stayed empty. The blue of his eyes was too diluted, too watery; I saw no reflection of myself in them.

“They’re throwing the only one who ever cared about me in a fresh-dug hole today,” he said. “The rest of you can all go to hell, the whole stinkin’ lot of you.”

That’s powerful writing, and after scenes like that throughout the book, the reader emerges with a strange but genuine-seeming view of American life, one full of violent and complicated beauty.

“Nothing will ever feel the same again,” Rachael says in a later story, as the girls escape the scene of yet another disaster.

“It will,” Valory answers. “Once this is the sameness we mean.”