Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Lincoln Highway, by Amor Towles: Growing Pains, Trains, and Automobiles

I guess it makes sense that one of our best pure storytellers would get around to writing a story where the major through-line is storytelling. That's what we have here in Amor Towles' third novel, The Lincoln Highway. On the surface, this is part coming-of-age story and part PG version of On The Road. But really, it's an homage to how stories are constructed, told, read, and enjoyed. Stories are part myth, part fact, part-real life, part pure imagination. At least that's how they are in their ideal state. And Towles very much wants us to read The Lincoln Highway thusly.

It works. Of course it works. With a storyteller of Towles' caliber, it almost couldn't not work. But this is also a story that is sort of in love with its cleverness, its wholesomeness, and its penchant for winking at you, like your grandfather who has just slipped you a cookie before dinner. You may not think that's a bad thing. And I don't either, frankly. You'd have be a giant cynic to think those are bad qualities in a piece of literature. 

But as I am looking back on this novel, I can't quite put my finger on why I liked it, but didn't LIKE IT like it. I think maybe it's enjoying the wink so much that I'd almost have to close the covers and roll my eyes at it (behind its back of course, lest I hurt it's feeling!). Like it's almost too much. It is possible to have TOO many cookies before dinner.

Maybe all this is beside the point. Because really, this is just a rippin' good yarn. It's 1954, and 18-year-old Emmett and his curious, bookish little brother Billy, plan to head out from their failed Nebraska farm to find their mother in San Francisco. Their father has just died, and Emmett has just been released from a stint in juvie after he punched a kid for insulting his family (the kid died when he fell and hit his head). But a couple of interlopers have stowed away in Emmett's ride back to his farm and now insinuated themselves into Emmett's plans. Woolly and Duchess have their own plan: Borrow Emmett's car, drive to upstate New York, and recover a $150,000 trust fund Woolly's rich family has left him. 

Emmett wants no part in this scheme. But when the two "borrow" his car, he and Billy have no choice but to head east to try to recover it. Adventure, a wide cast of characters, and a novel brimming with almost kitschy Americana ensues.

So even though I felt like a little something was missing that would've moved this novel over the good-to-great hump, I still thoroughly enjoyed reading it. To read Amor Towles is to be as delighted reading as he seems to be writing. To me, this was more in the category of his first novel, Rules of Civility than his brilliant and massively successful second novel, A Gentleman In Moscow. But overall, I think readers generally and Towles fans specifically will be more than happy with this new novel.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness, by Claire Vaye Watkins: Awesome Autofiction

So I don't mind admitting my superficiality: I read Claire Vaye Watkins' new novel, I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness, based almost solely on its incredibly awesome title. Hey, there are a lot worse reasons to pick up a novel.

Here's how it started: 

Me, after about 10 pages: Ah, man is this gonna be just another one of these self-indulgent, self-important pieces of autofiction?

Here's how it's going: 

Me, halfway through, and riveted: Okay, yeah, it is, but it's also really good!

If you do some googling, you'll learn that the real-person writer Claire Vaye Watkins' father was one of Charles Manson's right-hand men. Which is crazy! This novel gives a long story about her/the narrator's parents, how they met, etc., right at the beginning. So right off the bad the autofiction/memoir line is a little blurred. In these autofiction novels that seem to be so trendy these days, you always wonder where the line between reality and fiction is, which I realize is not productive to your reading experience. But I can't help it. It sort of feels like you're being tricked a little, but not in a nefarious way. (Of course, to most writers, readers trying to figure out what's real and not is beside the point — and in fact, is probably supremely irritating to them.) 

Anyway, that line is further blurred because the rest of the novel is about a character named Claire Vaye Watkins (also a writer). The character Claire and her husband have just had a baby. And she has had enough — she feels trapped, confined, and felled by postpartum depression. 

When she travels to her hometown of Reno for an author event, she hangs out with some of her old friends, does mushrooms, and slowly realizes she can't go back to her former life. So now what? That's what the rest of the novel is — her just trying (or not really trying, just drifting) to figure out her life. 

All the while, she contemplates a series of letters her mother, who has since died of an opioid overdose, wrote to a cousin when her mother was a teenager in Las Vegas in the 1970s. These letters are give us breaks in the narrator's story. And part of the point is: The apple maybe hasn't fallen far from the tree.

Yes, so once you get past trying to figure out what's fiction and not, you'll find a really sharply written story about returning to your roots. When you start slowly deviating from who you think you are, how do you get back to who you want yourself to be? 

I enjoyed this — a lot more than I thought I might after the first few pages. It's an acutely observed, quickly paced, clever, often funny, often VERY raunchy, and really entertaining read. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Crossroads, by Jonathan Franzen: Testing the Limits of the Family Bond

The Franzen returns! 

You know, for a writer who has such a reputation (warranted or not) for being an unpleasant curmudgeon, he sure understands and seems to like people. And he sure knows how to tell their stories in such a way that even a 600-page novel, like his new novel Crossroads, seems to just fly by.

A few months ago, I attended a Zoom interview with The Franzen, during which he mentioned he's of the (seemingly arbitrary) belief that writers only have six good novels in them, and then they should retire. He said when he started Crossroads, his sixth novel, he was sure it would be his last book — but then he got so into it and the lives of this family, 600 pages later, we have what is the first volume in a trilogy. 

Woo, and may I add, Hoo! 

I for one am delighted about this, because I loved/hated/was absolutely fascinated by this family. To back up a second, Crossroads tells the story of a family of six — the Hildebrandts — living in a suburb of Chicago in the early 1970s. These people are quirky but also about as normal and everyday as people get. The father is an assistant pastor at a local church, the mother is a stay-at-home mom, and the kids do kids-like things, fight with each other, go off to college, try drugs, sex, and rock and roll. 

As each character wrestles with their own problems (and their checkered pasts, in the parents' cases, especially in the case of mother Marion), things, as is the case with all families who are miserable in their own way, get broken. Each member of this family seems to be striving for his or her own individual definition of freedom (a common Franzen theme), both from the constraints of their family, but also, just to live their lives in the way they believe they're intended to. 

Franzen asks us to consider some pretty itchy questions in Crossroads. For one, when you are so mad at someone you love, how is it possible to repair the damage done by intentional cruelty? For another, how do you overcome the feeling that you may not even, much less love, the people in your own family anymore? 

The revolving character studies and how each of these characters relate to each other is interesting enough to keep us moving along quickly. But what Franzen's really got going on here is a novel about the extremely fine lines between ostensible opposites: love and hate, respect and contempt, faithfulness and infidelity, faith and doubt, empathy and intentional cruelty, and self-righteousness and altruism. 

I don't know if this is my favorite Franzen novel — but it's up there. And I can't wait for the next one!

Monday, October 4, 2021

The Dishwasher, by St├ęphane Larue: Up All Night, Sleep All Day

I can't recall exactly how this small-press indie novel, The Dishwasher, by St├ęphane Larue, first popped up on my reading radar — I just remember reading it's about a heavy metal fan working in a restaurant, all the while nursing a nasty gambling addiction. I was like, did this French-Canadian writer dude follow me around in 2001?

Okay, I exaggerate — while I am a huge metal fan (I have the Tshirt to prove it — see below!), and while I've worked some pretty menial catering and restaurant jobs to make ends meet during and after college, and while I do enjoy laying a few bucks here and there on sports, I never had near the problem this guy does with gambling. 

In fact, one of the reason I loved this book is that it's one of the more clear-eyed depictions of gambling addiction I've ever read. Of course, there's much literature about substance abuse and addiction, but gambling can destroy your life just as easily. And this novels pulls no punches in how it shows that.

The story is of a college kid in Montreal studying to be a graphic designer, illustrating album covers for metal bands, and working as a, you guessed it, dishwasher, in a high-end Italian restaurant. But he can't get out of his own way: His girlfriend has dumped him, his roommate has booted him out, and every time he seems to get a little bit ahead, he blows it on the ubiquitous video poker machines at the bars all over Montreal.

Another strength here is showing the crazy lives of people working long shifts and late nights in restaurants. Substance abuse and all-night partying are the norm, rather than the exception — you get off work and after being geared up for hours, you can't wind down easily. So you just go on these booze- and drug-filled benders until dawn, sleep until late afternoon, and then do it all again the next day. Our narrator here easily gets caught up in this cycle, and gets swept away by a colorful cast of characters who work with him in the kitchen.

I love small-press books because in novels like this, some stuff slips through that probably would've been edited out in a novel published by a larger house. For example, here we have a whole chapter just of the narrator and his girlfriend going to a Static-X and Megadeth concert in the late 1999s. I guess for establishing the basis for his relationship, this chapter is important. But it could've been easily cut. I'm glad it didn't because of how much fun it is to read about a METAL CONCERT IN LITERATURE.  I was right there with him, moshing to Symphony of Destruction! 

Anyway, there are a few odd translation glitches and proofreading errors here, the latter which always bug me more than they should — another feature of small-press novels. But overall, this was a fantastic read — a story about people you don't often see in fiction, which I always love to read. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

A Calling for Charlie Barnes, by Joshua Ferris: Who Gets To Tell My Story?

"All this happened, more or less." -- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

If you've read Joshua Ferris before (Then We Came To The End, etc.), you know he loves toying with perspective and narration. And his novel, A Calling for Charlie Barnes, might be his greatest trick yet.

What we think we're reading is a "Man Called Ove"-esque story about an old guy named Charlie Barnes, who is just a little bit off. Charlie has had five wives, several kids, and even more failed attempts at getting rich quick. These schemes have included a toupee frisbee, a clown college, and his own investment firm. Now, at 68 years old, and apparently having just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he still hasn't found his calling. 

But after the initial shock of Charlie's diagnosis wears off, and we start to learn more about Charlie and his past and his family, we the reader begin to wonder about who is telling us this story. Is this narrator unreliable, or just lying to us, or both? Does it even matter, because as this narrator tells us "Like reliability exists anywhere anymore, like that's still a thing"?

So through the story of Charlie Barnes and his wives and kids and failures, Ferris gives us a comment on the nature of fiction, non-fiction, family history, legend, myth, and storytelling generally. "Facts are full of dreary compromises and dead ends. Stare at them long enough and you'll go insane."

This novel is infinitely quotable, and often laugh-out-loud funny. "What self-deceptions we require to get out of bed in the morning," as one of many examples. And the fact that it's a lot of fun to read is a good thing, because for a large part of this novel, you're pretty sure Ferris is playing a trick on you. You're just not quite sure what it is.

One of the important aspects of reading any novel, I think, is being able to trust the writer. Here, we don't trust the narrator one bit. Which is part of the point. However, if you trust Ferris to bring you home, and he absolutely does here, then you're in for a hugely rewarding, really eye-opening, really fun reading experience.