Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Afterlife: Mythological Battle of Good vs. Evil

No two ways about it: Marcus Sakey's new novel, Afterlife, is ambitious. Even though it clocks in at only about 300 pages, it has elements of several recognizable creative triumphs: The movie Inception, Stephen King's Dark Tower series, Gaiman's American Gods, and Nelson DeMille's best police thrillers, for starters. Hell, there's even a love story here. Perhaps this is why Sakey admits in the acknowledgments, "This one was a beast." Sakey spent "nearly a decade" with this novel, writing and rewriting, fleshing out ideas, and solving problems.

The result is a polished, compelling, inventive "alt-fic" (a genre Sakey just invented) novel that's by turns smart as hell and as shocking as they come. This was a novel I had to put down several times in astonishment, take a deep breath, and then keep reading. It's really mesmerizing in spots — Sakey gets pacing just right here, which is no small feat given the relative complexity (especially in the last third of the novel), the characters, and just how all this fits together.

Here is what happens: Will Brody is an FBI agent chasing a serial killer in Chicago who gets his jollies sniping innocent victims at gas stations and grocery stories. Acting on a tip, Brody is searching for clues in an abandoned church, when it blows up. He's dead. This happens on page 38 — a risky decision for any novelist to kill a main character so early. (Not a spoiler: This is on the back blurb.)

His boss and erstwhile secret lover, the ultra-competent director of the FBI's Chicago office, Claire McCoy, vows to find the killer(s). And while doing so, she also must mourn in secret because no one knows she and Brody were together.

Meanwhile, Brody wakes up. Sort of. He's in a place he comes to understand is an "echo" of real-life — an afterlife that resembles real life in many ways, but has many glaring differences as well.

In this afterlife, there's a choice, just as there is when you're alive: You can choose to be good, and help other people. Or you can choose to be evil, and live only for selfishness. In the opening pages of the novel, we actually get a glimpse of what this evil looks like. And it's terrifying. So Brody soon finds himself stuck in this mythological battle of good vs evil in the afterlife. That's all you need to know plot-wise to get you started. What happens with Claire and Brody's cross-dimension love story? How does Brody fight this mythological and powerful evil? Read it, man. It's worth the trip!

One of the things I loved about this novel is Sakey's vision of how the afterlife works. I got to sit down and talk with him about it a few weeks ago as I worked on a piece for the Chicago Review of Books, and Sakey told me the sort of spark for the novel was how we're so sure that there is going to be an answer for what happens when we die. So what happens if there's either not an answer, or the answer is completely unexpected? Sakey's afterlife has some very specific rules in how it behaves and how its occupants can behave in it — and spelling these out had the potential to bog down what is otherwise an extremely fast-moving story. But Sakey describes these "rules" quickly and clearly and moves on. It's a definite strength of the novel.

Another strength here is dialogue — Sakey is funny. Sakey is cool. And after talking with him for an hour, it's apparent how much of his personality comes out on these pages in dialogue. He mentioned that to him the patron saint of dialogue is Aaron Sorkin, and you can see that influence here. Dialogue is quick, snappy, sharp, and often really funny.

This is one of my favorite novels of the year — I really enjoyed it, both for sheer entertainment, but also for its inventiveness. I had a blast with book. Highly recommended!

(Side note: Ron Howard's company Imagine Entertainment has already optioned the novel, and Sakey is writing the screenplay! He said he loved this book enough, and that his vision of it was so clear, that he thought it was worth taking on the screenplay himself. I'm really hoping this one makes it to production!) 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Hearts of Men: What Does It Mean To Be a Good Person?

Nickolas Butler writes with more empathy and feeling for his characters — even those who act like jerks — than just about any novelist I've ever read. That was definitely true in Shotgun Lovesongs — one of my favorite books of the last five years. It's true in his terrific story collection, Beneath the Bonfire. And it's perhaps most true in his new novel, The Hearts of Men.

This is readily apparent in one of the opening scenes of this fantastic, heart-wrenching novel: Thirteen-year-old Nelson's parents throw him a birthday party, and he waits patiently for the boys in his Boy Scouts troop to arrive. But they never do. It's a long, excruciating day for poor Nelson. But finally, an older boy named Jonathan arrives, shoots some arrows with Nelson, and then having completed his obligation, takes his leave. It's a near-perfect way to open a novel: We immediately feel just gutted for poor, nerdy, friendless Nelson. 

And then it gets worse: We follow Nelson to his beloved Boy Scout camp in northern Wisconsin. There, he's constantly picked on — the other boys taking perverse pleasure in pulling particularly mean pranks on him. And even more sadly, he doesn't get much support from his father, a typical emotionless 1960s fellow, who doesn't exactly wear his emotions on his sleeve. His father seems more embarrassed by his son than protective of him. Jonathan, the older popular boy, who seems to be a good kid, is Nelson's only agent. 

So we follow Nelson through various misadventures at scouting camp, and then we jump forward 30 years. In the second part, it's the mid-1990s, and we follow middle-aged Jonathan, who now has a teenage son of his own named Trevor. Jonathan is preparing to take Trevor to the Boy Scout camp, per tradition, even though Scouting isn't really en vogue anymore. Nelson is now the camp's director after a stint in Vietnam, and he and Jonathan have remained acquaintances through the years. Jonathan has kind of morphed from a good kid to a bad father and husband. But he's an affable fellow, so it's hard to dislike him. Throughout this part, we learn a new, more modern definition of manhood in a sort of "what not to do" way. Jonathan pesters his son, has an affair, and just generally does everything a good father and husband probably shouldn't.

Finally, the third part, takes place in 2019. This may be the best, and most harrowing, part. It's about yet another trip to the camp — this time with Trevor's son, Thomas. Only this time, Trevor's wife Rachel goes on the trip, which creates some consternation among the other fathers there. Nelson is still there, and he and Rachel become good friends. In this part, we find out what it means to be a truly despicable man. It's a hard section to read at times, but again, probably the best.

So on the whole, this three-part novel is about not just want it means to be a good man, but simply what it means to be a good person. Are you a good parent? A good friend? Are you a faithful spouse? Can you be a good person if you're not any one of those things? Butler seems to be wrestling with these questions as much as he asks his reader to. And that's why it's so apparent how much he cares about his characters — which of course, we do too, then.

I loved this book. Butler (who, by the way, is reading and signing at RoscoeBooks on August 16!) is a must-read writer for me now. And this novel is a sure sign that he's only getting better. Highly, highly recommended! 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Leavers: A Morally Complex Immigrant Tale

Lisa Ko's absolutely heart-wrenching debut novel, The Leavers, is a terrific exploration of both the cruelty of our immigration system and also how difficult it is for those coming to the U.S. to find opportunity to actually find that opportunity. Ko's novel won the Pen/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction last year — novelist Barbara Kingsolver's annual award for a previously unpublished manuscript that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships. It's amazingly worthy recipient — this is a book that needs to be in the world!

The story is about Polly Guo, a Chinese immigrant, who, in the first few pages of the novel, disappears, leaving behind her 11-year-old son Deming. No one has any idea what happened to her, not her boyfriend Leon, or anyone else who knew her. So, because Leon (a Chinese immigrant as well, who then returns to China, ostensibly to search for Polly) and then his sister Vivivan can't afford to care for him, Deming is put up for adoption and brought in by a well-meaning middle-aged white couple, who moves Deming away from his NYC home. Again, with only the best intentions, they change his name to Daniel, so he'll fit in better in their small, predominately white college town in upstate New York.

Even in the opening pages of the novel, we get a good glimpse of Polly's character: She's a strong-willed, outspoken woman who constantly strives for a better life for herself and her son, despite the obstacles thrown up in front of her. At the time she disappears, she is contemplating taking a job at a restaurant in Florida, and she's been trying to convince Leon to go with her. But both he and Deming are resistant, not wanting to leave their lives in NYC. So there's a huge question: Did she abandon her son and her relationship for a better life for herself? Or did something else happen?

The rest of the novel alternates between two threads of story. We learn more about the circumstances under which Polly came to America: As a young woman, after moving from her tiny village to the huge city of Fuzhou, and getting a taste of big city life and opportunity, Polly took out a massive loan from a Chinese loan shark to come to the U.S, leaving her father behind. Ensconced in a tiny, all-Chinese-immigrant apartment in New York City, she goes to work at a factory, doing a similar job she did in Fuzhou, but for much better pay. Oh yeah, and there's a big caveat: she's pregnant. Needless to say, life isn't easy, and when Deming arrives, she loves him, though she wasn't totally sure she wanted him (planting the seed of doubt in our minds — might she really have abandoned him?), and life gets even harder.

For Daniel, as a 21-year-old struggling musician and failed college student living with his friend Roland in New York City, life isn't easy either, but in a different way. Despite an ugly online poker addiction which has ruined his life and alienated some of his friends, he still has the safety net of his adopted family, who keep urging him to go to back to school, and pull strings for him so that he can. But as he gets more disillusioned with his adopted parents trying to control his life, he begins to wonder about his mother — and begins to takes steps to try to find her.

The revelations come fast and furious as the novel nears its end, and even once you and know and understand what happened, you're still not quite sure what to think about these characters, their motivations, and why they did what they did. It's the best kind of novel: One that really makes you hunker down for a good think once you're done.

One of my favorite novels of last year was Imbolo Mbue's Behold The Dreamers, a story about Cameroonian immigrants struggling to make ends meet in America. One of the strengths of that novel is its moral complexity — how there are no real winners, mostly losers because of our broken immigration system. And The Leavers explores similar themes, though I think I actually liked this one more: It's one of my favorites of the year so far: A timely, thought-provoking, immensely entertaining novel!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Men Without Women: Murakami's Stories About Lonely Fellas

May is unquestionably the best month for new collections of short stories in recent memory. Last week, Richard Russo published Trajectory, which is awesome, and this week, Haruki Murakami, published a new collection titled Men Without Women.

(As well, Joshua Ferris — he of Then We Came to the End and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour fame — also published a collection titled The Dinner Party, which I haven't read yet, but will very soon.)

Murakami's new collection includes seven stories tied together by the common theme of lonely dudes with unusual relationships with women. Several of these stories are delightfully mundane by Murakami standards, but that doesn't mean they're in the least disappointing. There's a theater actor who hires a woman to be his driver, and unloads the story about his wife's death and possible infidelities. There a fellow who gets a call in the middle of the night informing him a former girlfriend has committed suicide. And there's even a shut-in whose care-taker comes over, has sex with him, proclaims to have been a lamprey eel in a past laugh, and tells him various stories (yeah, this last one is probably approaching the Murakami you know and love).

But my favorite in the collection is actually the most Murakami-ish. It's titled "Kino," about a guy named Kino who catches his wife cheating on him with one of his co-workers and quits his job to open a bar. Weird things happen, including a cat that shows up periodically (I told you it's Murakami-ish). There's a mysterious guy named Kamita who comes in periodically and sits at the end of the bar reading big books. Kamita eventually warns him that he needs to close the bar and escape. Which he does, though he's not sure why. And it rains a lot, and he finally feels sadness about his divorce. It's so awesome, such a strange, mysterious little story.

Another story, titled "Samsa In Love," is also just amusingly weird — Murakami imagines if Kafka's cockroach woke up as Gregor Samsa, a reverse Metamorphosis! And the Samsa character is surprised when he discovers sexual desire for a handy-woman who comes over to fix a lock.

The most serious story is "Yesterdays," which weaves Murakami's love of the Beatles with a story about how love is often about timing, and how about reminiscing about love often gives it more weight than it had in the moment. It's a really terrific, insightful story — about the most "normal" thing from Murakami I've read. I loved this one too.

There are a few misses here, but overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. Murakami is just so droll, here, so strangely goofy, that you can't help but smirk along with him.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Trajectory: Russo's New Volume of Terrific Short Stories

We're living in charmed literary times, friends! Last May, Richard Russo published Everybody's Fool, a sequel to his novel Nobody's Fool, and there was much rejoicing because it was excellent. Today, he publishes Trajectory, a new volume of short stories — only his second (after 2002's The Whore's Child & Other Stories).

Trajectory is fantastic! There are only four stories here, but three of them are longer than average short stories. This includes the near-novella length "Voices," about an aging and perhaps disgraced English professor named Nate who is visiting Venice with his older brother, a shady dude who seems to have involved Nate in one of his schemes. Nate and his brother Julian have serious reckoning to do, both with their shared past, but as well as their individual pasts as well.

All four of these stories, in fact, are about aging people — college professors, a writer, and a real estate agent. In "Horseman," an English professor named Janet catches one of her students cheating, and then begins to question whether her own academic career is a fraud. In "Intervention," an aging real estate agent, who may or may not have cancer, tries to sell a house owned by a stubborn woman who won't get rid of her stuff to an obnoxious Texas couple in the dead of Maine winter at the height of the Great Recession. Challenging, to say the least.

My favorite story in the collection is the last one, "Milton and Marcus," about an aging novelist named Ryan who has dabbled in screenplays to help pay the bills. Now, he's hoping to return to the realm of the silver screen to secure health insurance from the Screenwriter's Guild for his ailing wife. He flies to Jackson Hole to take a meeting with a famous actor-turned-producer who wants to make a movie from the start of a screenplay Ryan wrote 10 years ago for another actor who has since died. While he's there, we're treated to an account of the sneaky, cynical, backstabbing nature of the movie business, and it's utterly fascinating, if not a bit sad. This story is Russo at his best — his understanding of human nature and feelings and motivations is just unapproachable. As well, this story felt the most autobiographical of any in the collection. Really terrific.

If you're a Russo fan, this is a must-read. He's absolutely at his the height of his game here — his little jokes and folksy aphorisms ("all hat and no cattle," eg) are all here, as is his typical whip-sharp insight. He's just a fun writer to read, whether short story or novel. This is highly recommended!