"When you know your name, you should hang on to it, for unless it is noted down and remembered, it will die when you die."
And the scribbled no-name "Macon Dead," given to a newly freed black man by a drunken Union Army officer, has stained out a family's real name for three generations, and then we meet the third "Macon Dead," called "Milkman." Raised among the sour hatreds of the richest black family in a Michigan town, Milkman learns not to love or make commitments, learns to turn away from his father's hard, tight greed, his mother's unloved passivity, his sisters' sterile virginity. He stands apart from his outcast aunt Pilate (a figure reminiscent of Sula, living beyond all reason), a "raggedy bootlegger" who keeps her name in a box threaded to one ear. And he stands above the wild untidy adoration of his cousin Hagar, above the atrocities against blacks in the 1950s, even while his friend organizes a black execution squad. However, when Milkman's father opens the door to a family past of murder and flight, Milkman—in order to steal what he believes is gold—begins the cleansing Odyssean journey. His wanderings will take him through a wilderness of rich and wonderful landscapes murmuring with old tales, those real names becoming closer and more familiar. He beholds eerie appearances (an ancient Circe ringed with fight-eyed dogs)—and hears the electric singing of children, which holds within it the pulse of truth. Like other black Americans, Milkman's retrieval of identity from obliteration helps him to shake off the "Dead" no-name state of his forebears. And, like all people, his examination of the past gives him a perspective that liberates the capacity for love. Morrison's narration, accomplished with such patient delicacy, is both darkly tense and exuberant; fantastic events and symbolic embellishments simply extend and deepen the validity and grace of speech and character.
The gut-soul of Roots, with which this will be recklessly, inevitably linked, and a handsome display of a major talent.
Even within the author’s extraordinary body of work, this stands as a radical achievement, a novel that demands to be read and reread.
McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, 2005, etc.) pushes his thematic obsessions to their extremes in a parable that reads like Night of the Living Dead as rewritten by Samuel Beckett. Where much of McCarthy’s fiction has been set in the recent past of the South and West, here he conjures a nightmare of an indeterminate future. A great fire has left the country covered in layers of ash and littered with incinerated corpses. Foraging through the wasteland are a father and son, neither named (though the son calls the father “Papa”). The father dimly remembers the world as it was and occasionally dreams of it. The son was born on the cusp of whatever has happened—apocalypse? holocaust?—and has never known anything else. His mother committed suicide rather than face the unspeakable horror. As they scavenge for survival, they consider themselves the “good guys,” carriers of the fire, while most of the few remaining survivors are “bad guys,” cannibals who eat babies. In order to live, they must keep moving amid this shadowy landscape, in which ashes have all but obliterated the sun. In their encounters along their pilgrimage to the coast, where things might not be better but where they can go no further, the boy emerges as the novel’s moral conscience. The relationship between father and son has a sweetness that represents all that’s good in a universe where conventional notions of good and evil have been extinguished. Amid the bleakness of survival—through which those who wish they’d never been born struggle to persevere—there are glimmers of comedy in an encounter with an old man who plays the philosophical role of the Shakespearean fool. Though the sentences of McCarthy’s recent work are shorter and simpler than they once were, his prose combines the cadence of prophecy with the indelible images of poetry.
A novel of horrific beauty, where death is the only truth.
"I have had this revelation: that you can look at something, close your eyes and see it again and still know nothing—like staring at the sky to figure out the distance between stars." Here once more, then, in another collection of striking stories, are the befuddled people of Beattie's aging Frisbee generation; now in their thirties, adept at games, they know "how to talk about things" and see life vividly—but they're powerless to order, predict, or figure out the real distances between lives and events in their random colloidal dance. In "Learning to Fall," a woman heads for a marital break-up, drifts toward a lover, knowing what a prophesying friend has known all along: "what will happen cannot be stopped. Aim for grace." Other marriages end with the sudden breaking of glass—a favorite Beattie image. Relationships wind down, each cycle wobbling abrasively, closer to the bone. (In "Playback," the friendship of two women circles again through envy and jealousy—bringing death to a love, to an unborn child.) Beattie's apprehensive children "seem older now": in "The Cinderella Waltz," a resentful and unhappy eight-year-old awaits her glass slippers from Daddy, the slippery prince . . . as his ex-wife and male lover exchange confidences, chatting, "pretending to be adults." And, throughout, Beattie's people (upper-middle, educated, drug/Sixties graduates) are curiously bifurcated, painfully grounded but vividly aware of unreadable phenomena—as the women, perhaps more earthbound, begin to fall away from the lure of grand visionary possibilities. (Husband to wife in the title story: "You know what we all feel inside that you don't feel? That we're all going to the stars . . . I'm already gone.") Once again: brilliantly crafted stories about yesterday's children living without context, naked to pain, knowing that home fires can lead to a burning when you "play house.
Sheer entertainment against a fabulous background, proving that late-blooming first-novelist Wolfe, a superobserver of the social scene (The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers), has the right stuff for fiction.
Undertaken as a serial for Rolling Stone, his magnum opus hits the ball far, far, far out of the park. Son of Park Avenue wealth, Sherman McCoy at 35 is perhaps the greatest bond salesman on Wall Street, and eats only the upper crust. But millionaire Sherman's constant inner cry is that he is "hemorrhaging money." He's also a jerk, ripe for humiliation; and when his humiliation arrives, it is fearsome. Since this is also the story of The Law as it applies to rich and poor, especially to blacks and Hispanics of the Bronx, Wolfe has a field day familiarizing the reader with the politics and legal machinations that take place in the Bronx County Courthouse, a fortress wherein Sherman McCoy becomes known as the Great White Defendant. One evening, married Sherman picks up his $100-million mistress Maria at Kennedy Airport, gets lost bringing her back in his $48,000 Mercedes-Benz, is attacked by two blacks on a ramp in the Bronx. When Maria jumps behind the wheel, one black is hit by the car. Later, he lapses into a terminal coma, but not before giving his mother part of Sherman's license plate. This event is hyped absurdly by an alcoholic British reporter for the The City Light (read: Rupert Murdoch's New York Post), the mugger becomes an "honor student," and Sherman becomes the object of vile racist attacks mounted by a charlatan black minister. Chunk by chunk, Sherman loses every footing in his life but gains his manhood. Meanwhile, Wolfe triumphantly mounts scene after magnificent scene depicting the vanity of human endeavor, with every character measured by his shoes and suits or dresses, his income and expenses, and with his vain desires rising in smoke against settings that would make a Hollywood director's tongue hang out.
“Time’s a goon,” as the action moves from the late 1970s to the early 2020s while the characters wonder what happened to their youthful selves and ideals.
Egan (The Keep, 2006, etc.) takes the music business as a case in point for society’s monumental shift from the analog to the digital age. Record-company executive Bennie Salazar and his former bandmates from the Flaming Dildos form one locus of action; another is Bennie’s former assistant Sasha, a compulsive thief club-hopping in Manhattan when we meet her as the novel opens, a mother of two living out West in the desert as it closes a decade and a half later with an update on the man she picked up and robbed in the first chapter. It can be alienating when a narrative bounces from character to character, emphasizing interconnections rather than developing a continuous story line, but Egan conveys personality so swiftly and with such empathy that we remain engaged. By the time the novel arrives at the year “202-” in a bold section narrated by Sasha’s 12-year-old daughter Alison, readers are ready to see the poetry and pathos in the small nuggets of information Alison arranges like a PowerPoint presentation. In the closing chapter, Bennie hires young dad Alex to find 50 “parrots” (paid touts masquerading as fans) to create “authentic” word of mouth for a concert. This new kind of viral marketing is aimed at “pointers,” toddlers now able to shop for themselves thanks to “kiddie handsets”; the preference of young adults for texting over talking is another creepily plausible element of Egan’s near-future. Yet she is not a conventional dystopian novelist; distinctions between the virtual and the real may be breaking down in this world, but her characters have recognizable emotions and convictions, which is why their compromises and uncertainties continue to move us.
Another ambitious change of pace from talented and visionary Egan, who reinvents the novel for the 21st century while affirming its historic values.
"There's got to be something wrong with somebody who'd do a thing like that." This is Perry Edward Smith, talking about himself. "Deal me out, baby...I'm a normal." This is Richard Eugene Hickock, talking about himself. They're as sick a pair as Leopold and Loeb and together they killed a mother, a father, a pretty 17-year-old and her brother, none of whom they'd seen before, in cold blood. A couple of days before they had bought a 100 foot rope to garrote them—enough for ten people if necessary. This small pogrom took place in Holcomb, Kansas, a lonesome town on a flat, limitless landscape: a depot, a store, a cafe, two filling stations, 270 inhabitants. The natives refer to it as "out there." It occurred in 1959 and Capote has spent five years, almost all of the time which has since elapsed, in following up this crime which made no sense, had no motive, left few clues—just a footprint and a remembered conversation. Capote's alternating dossier Shifts from the victims, the Clutter family, to the boy who had loved Nancy Clutter, and her best friend, to the neighbors, and to the recently paroled perpetrators: Perry, with a stunted child's legs and a changeling's face, and Dick, who had one squinting eye but a "smile that works." They had been cellmates at the Kansas State Penitentiary where another prisoner had told them about the Clutters—he'd hired out once on Mr. Clutter's farm and thought that Mr. Clutter was perhaps rich. And this is the lead which finally broke the case after Perry and Dick had drifted down to Mexico, back to the midwest, been seen in Kansas City, and were finally picked up in Las Vegas. The last, even more terrible chapters, deal with their confessions, the law man who wanted to see them hanged, back to back, the trial begun in 1960, the post-ponements of the execution, and finally the walk to "The Corner" and Perry's soft-spoken words—"It would be meaningless to apologize for what I did. Even inappropriate. But I do. I apologize." It's a magnificent job—this American tragedy—with the incomparable Capote touches throughout. There may never have been a perfect crime, but if there ever has been a perfect reconstruction of one, surely this must be it.
This wrenching saga, set in the fictional upstate New York town of Mount Ephraim, is one of the protean Oates's most skillful dramatizations of family unhappiness: A big, involving novel on a par with such successes as Them (1969), Bellefleur (1980), and What I Lived For (1994). The story, from the 1950s through the 1980s, tells of roofing contractor Mike Mulvaney, his beautiful and tenderhearted wife Corinne, and their four children: "High school celebrity" and football hero Mike Jr., intellectually gifted Patrick, sweet and simple Marianne, and troubled Judd, the youngest, who narrates, mixing "conjecture" with remembered facts as he recounts both his immediate family's shared experiences and the earlier lives of their parents. The resulting panorama offers both a brilliantly detailed and varied picture of family life and a succession of dramatic set pieces, the majority of which are ingeniously related to "the events of 1976 when everything came apart for us." In that year, inexperienced Marianne either was raped or had consensual sex with a high-school boy she hardly knew—Oates keeps both possibilities teasingly in play—and in the aftermath of her disgrace, Mike Sr. became a helpless belligerent drunk, Patrick subverted his formidable powers of concentration to fantasies of "executing justice," and the once-proud Mulvaneys began their long descent into financial ruin, estrangement, and death. Their harrowing story is leavened by Oates's matchless grasp of middle-class culture, and by a number of superbly orchestrated extended scenes and flashbacks. These are people we recognize, and she makes us care deeply about them. Just when you think Oates has finally run dry, or is mired in mechanical self-repetition, she stuns you with another example of her essential kinship with the classic American realistic novelists. Dreiser would have understood and approved the passion and power of We Were the Mulvaneys.
The wait since 1981 and Housekeeping is over. Robinson returns with a second novel that, however quiet in tone and however delicate of step, will do no less than tell the story of America—and break your heart.
A reverend in tiny Gilead, Iowa, John Ames is 74, and his life is at its best—and at its end. Half a century ago, Ames’s first wife died in childbirth, followed by her new baby daughter, and Ames, seemingly destined to live alone, devoted himself to his town, church, and people—until the Pentecost Sunday when a young stranger named Lila walked into the church out of the rain and, from in back, listened to Ames’s sermon, then returned each Sunday after. The two married—Ames was 67—had a son, and life began all over again. But not for long. In the novel’s present (mid-1950s), Ames is suffering from the heart trouble that will soon bring his death. And so he embarks upon the writing of a long diary, or daily letter—the pages of Gilead—addressed to his seven-year-old son so he can read it when he’s grown and know not only about his absent father but his own history, family, and heritage. And what a letter it is! Not only is John Ames the most kind, observant, sensitive, and companionable of men to spend time with, but his story reaches back to his patriarchal Civil War great-grandfather, fiery preacher and abolitionist; comes up to his grandfather, also a reverend and in the War; to his father; and to his own life, spent in his father’s church. This long story of daily life in deep Middle America—addressed to an unknown and doubting future—is never in the slightest way parochial or small, but instead it evokes on the pulse the richest imaginable identifying truths of what America was.
Robinson has composed, with its cascading perfections of symbols, a novel as big as a nation, as quiet as thought, and moving as prayer. Matchless and towering.
Between V., Pynchon's maverick if disorderly first novel, and Gravity's Rainbow, which is still more unstrung and far denser while lacking the narrative encroachment of the earlier book, there is even a direct line of extension. Very literally — it is a third longer than the original's 500 pages; but where V. was only death-directed, this seems almost death-obsessed and annihilation (from the V-bombs of World War II to the later Rocket with which this is concerned) looms over every page in a world where the technology of terror presides. . . . "Is the cycle over now and a new one ready to begin? Will our new Edge, our new Deathkingdom, be the Moon?" Somehow surfacing above it are other nonspecific, mystic, psychokinetic forces, perhaps Gravity, the "extrasensory in Earth's mindbody," or more simply, just a sense of wonder. They are personified in Tyrone Slothrop, the central character, who is identified as some sort of receiver when first institutionalized in the Abreaction Ward of a London hospital — he's paranoid — and later tagged as the Rocketman and sent to the Zone where the later postwar action partially takes place. Around him are all sorts of others — scientists, behaviorists, friends (Tantivy, who is killed; statistician Roger Mexico, who remains trapped in the detritus of the War and is unfit for Peace) and assorted girls. It is reductive, perhaps presumptive, to say what this is all about — the "depolarizing" or neurotic instability which follows war; the metallic mechanization of life thereafter; the blacks and blackness; drugs and sex — a kind of vacant, performing sex; and a lot of catch-as-catch-can cabala all figure in Pynchon's sort of social surrealism. He has made no concessions: from the proliferation of acronyms (some very clever) to the hybrid referrals (King Kong, Murphy's Law, Godel's Theorem) tailgating each other in one paragraph; to the words (azimuth, megalo, runcible, terrenity) which are an "impedance." As of course is all this jammed input — a parlous challenge to the reader's perseverance. But then however much the latter may have been strained, one must pay tribute to Pynchon's plastic imagination, his stunning creative energy, and here and there the transcendent prose: "It was one of those great iron afternoons in London: the yellow sun being teased apart by a thousand chimneys breathing, fawning upward without shame" — all marvelously descriptive of the world in which we live and are sure to die.
Immensely readable, provocative, challenging, if not always wholly credible- this is Stegner's most mature and rewarding book. From his early novellas- to his short stories- to Big Rock Candy Mountain and Second Growth. Stegner has given evidence of a major talent. A Shooting Star is full justification for those who have watched what has certainly not been a meteoric career. It was worth waiting for. Some will feel that it is a subject- and a handling-that would have been expected from a Rebecca West, perhaps, rather than a Wallace Stegner. For the central figure is a woman, Sabrina Castro, rich, tantalizing rather than beautiful, at the end of her tether in a marriage that holds seemingly no love and little affection. In a slow spiral of disintegration she goes down through various stages of infidelity and dissipation, always battling with her own New England conscience and her agonized need to be wanted and loved. The story is set against the isolation of great wealth in the Peninsula section below San Francisco- and the neighboring suburban developments — and against Sabrina's vacuity of heritage and background is highlighted the content and satisfaction of a childhood friend, serene in her middle-class suburban home. It is a compassionate but never sentimentalized handling, which, perhaps, will touch women's sensibilities rather than men's.