According to the calendar, at least, autumn approaches (in Boston in the last week of September, it’s 85 degrees with the humidity hovering somewhere around 95 % – in other words, very uncomfortably hot, with absolutely no sign of a more merciful season coming), and autumn traditionally means a crush of prestigious new titles crowding bookstore shelves and tables in anticipation of the major literary awards – and the holiday book-buying season.
The autumn is also often characterized as the time when readers come back from their ramshackle beach-houses and buckle back down to work and ‘serious’ reading – and this characterization has persisted even though there hasn’t been a shred of truth to it in thirty years. It goes hand-in-hand with the very idea of ‘serious’ versus ‘light’ reads – a distinction I’ve never really understood in any but personal terms. The labels certainly can’t be referring to the work necessary to generate them – it takes far more work to whittle a Jeeves & Wooster novel into perfect shape than it does to maunder around for 200 pages about suburban angst. I think the distinction itself is so much bunk and does a great deal of harm to the republic of letters, but if there’s any truth to it (even artificial truth), surely it comes from the handling of plot more than anything else? Surely we’ve come to think of ‘light’ reads are more formally observant of plot – Thing X builds, Thing X happens, Thing X happened – whereas ‘serious’ reads can let even major story-lines just sort of drift off into clouds of precious prose.
I’m recommending eight contemporary novels today, and all eight of them quietly defy the whole concept of ‘serious’ and ‘light’ fiction. None of them is long, none of them boasts the tangled, verbose prose style currently considered ‘genius,’ and almost all of them are written by authors who once upon a time would have fallen comfortably into that disturbing old catch-all, midlist. I recommend them mainly because they’re all really enjoyable – the perfect things to cleanse your mental palate before the autumn publisher lists force you to read whoever’s Jonathan Franzen this year. So consider this post the two of us walking through a bookstore’s fiction section and me pointing out some things that are worth your time.
Diamond Dogs by Alan Watt (2000) – the story of handsome young star quarterback Neil Garvin, whose brutish father is the town’s autocratic sheriff. The book is an insistent (almost tiresomely so) Oedipal conflict between the two – a conflict that scorches everybody else who comes in contact with it, including Neil’s best friend and teammate (the book’s homoerotic elements are handled so delicately the reader almost doesn’t notice them at all):
“He’s been pushing me my whole life and I’m sick of it. I’m sick of doing whatever he tells me to do. I just don’t want to play anymore. I just want to be left alone.” I couldn’t understand why it sounded empty. All of it was true but when I heard the words come out of my mouth they just sounded silly. I didn’t know what it was but I knew that he didn’t believe me.
When a crime-plot enmeshes Neil, it brings every single issue of power and complicity between him and his father to the forefront, and you can’t resist getting caught up in it all.
Mr Darwin’s Shooter by Roger McDonald (1998) – Speaking of brutish – McDonald’s main character Syms Covington leads a brutish, almost sub-human life from his earliest childhood, and yet he stubbornly developes – or refuses to yield – a tender sensibility and a sharp eye for the natural world. These things do him no good landing a berth on the Beagle at the commencement of its legendary voyage, but they come in very handy once he meets that vessel’s oddly curate-like special guest of the captain:
That was when their gent grunted up the side and for the first time in all creation met Covington’s eye – the boy registering a round coppery face and lubberly sea legs – one, two, and a clumsy haul, and Covington had his man to observe, all the height of him uncoiling shy. All he knew of him at present was that he liked to go out with his gun and his dog in the rain. He was, some said, a young squire of the sort who passed time with philosophers discoursing on whether Greeks ate melon seeds, or if they had privies in their gardens. He came from dockside in a cutter near sinking under the weight of extra goods that he wanted this late, everything awkward-shaped and dripping in the December mist as it was hoisted: a bundle of guns, a crate of jars, a sack of books, a rectangular basket lined with paper that was meant for dead birds. As he wondered, ‘Might he trouble them with his extras?’ Covington held his gaze and heard the words, but the gent’s brown eyes still looked through him. ‘I am ashamed,’ thought Covington, ‘to be who I am.’
An oddly touching relationship develops, and a really good historical novel is born.
Lit Life by Kurt Wenzel (2002) – In this hilarious satirical romp through the literary world of Manhattan and the Hamptons, Wenzel is able to let a whole brace of personal demons off their leashes, and he centers most of them on the formerly hot not deeply blocked youngish writer Kyel Clayton, who’s such a lazy waster he actually floats to his cutthroat agent the possibility that he just won’t write his next book. The response is not particularly passive:
“If you say no?” Trevor answered, his tone now quietly ferocious. “If you say no, I bury any book you submit after six months; it does me no good after that, and by contract I’ve got your next one by the balls. If you say no, I tell all future houses what an unproductive pain in the ass you’ve been – a real chop job, so that by the time I’m done, Kinko’s will view you as a publishing risk. If you say no, I’ll have my lawyers pull a gang bang on your ass that’ll have you howling like a banshee, not to mention in paralyzing debt until the third millennium. If you say no, Kyle, you drunken bastard, I will personally dedicate my life to tracking you down – even if I have to visit every bar in the city – and sink my shoe into your rotted cantaloupe of a head and laugh as you shit bicuspids and sip single-village mescal through a straw for the next fifty years. If you say no.”
This is by far the funniest book on our little list today (although there’s one moment in Mr Darwin’s Shooter that will make you laugh mighty damn loud despite your finer instincts), and it hits a number of fairly sensitive home-spots for any reader involved in ‘the scene.’
Raymond + Hannah by Stephen Marche (2005) – This is the love story of Hannah, who’s leaving to study the Torah for nine months in Jerusalem, and Raymond, who’s doing his doctoral dissertation on Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. The two of them meet and say some cute/clever things and then end up having sex, and the whole encounter – the whole book – is accompanied by printed marginalia glossing the action of the narrative. It’s a gimmick that should get old in about fifteen seconds, but through the heartfelt poetry of Marche’s prose, it doesn’t. Instead, we get passage after passage like the one the marginalia terms “Toronto aubade”:
Transport trucks, go slowly. Pull yourself over on the side of the road. Bring the night with you into your bunks. Let Raymond and Hannah anticipate endlessly on the stairs up to attics. Nights in August in Toronto are too short besides. And go slowly, street-washing men. Just let the dirt by dirty for now. Let the streets seize with filth. Let your engines stall, and stop the morning from coming. And more slowly, smokestacks; in fact, completely shut yourselves down. Nights in August in Toronto are too full of light besides. For once let all the power in you not flow, and leave Raymond and Hannah asleep in bed alone.
Dedication by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (2007) – These two authors shot to super mega-stardom with their nondescript little book The Nanny Diaries, but readers shouldn’t hold that against them. This book is entirely more genuine and eventually heartwarming, and it centers on the character of Kate Hollis, who’s spent every year since high school listening to the world sing the songs of her life: because her former almost-boyfriend Jake Sharpe went on to become a Justin Timberlake-type international sensation who’s based all of his hit songs on their time together. When they finally confront each other, the encounters will remind readers of the witty, fizzy big screen romantic comedy this book has somehow managed not to become:
Flailing the blankets off, I pull back and stare at his sheepish expression, determined. “If you don’t do right by my friends, there is no ‘you’ I want to know. Are we clear?”
He sits up, flirtatious boy energy suddenly dissipated. He looks me in the eye. “Clear.”
“Really? You’ll tell Jocelyn and your lawyers? You’ll sign the papers?”
“Yes.” An unfettered lightness floods through me as he takes my face in his hands. “I need you – Kate,” he emphasizes my adult name. “I think I keep writing songs about you just to keep your voice in my head.”
“I’m your Jiminy Cricket?”
He laughs. “You are the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“Can your lawyers draw up something to that effect as well?” I laugh with him, finally able to let myself feel the elation of being right where I am.
Popular Music from Vittula by Mikael Niemi (2003, translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson) – music also threads its way throughout Niemi’s grotesquely grim and buffoonish story of the coming-of-age of young Matti in the isolated wastes of Northern Sweden. Whether it’s Niemi or his translator, there’s quite a bit of rather ham-handed satire in this utterly absorbing novel, and several bits of that satire are aimed squarely at the book’s audience, as when the boy gets some sage warnings from his father:
The most dangerous thing of all, and something he wanted to warn me about above all else, the one thing that had consigned whole regiments of unfortunate young people to the twilight world of insanity, was reading books. This objectionable practice had increased among the younger generation, and Dad was more pleased than he could say to note that I had not yet displayed any such tendencies. Lunatic asylums were overflowing with folk who’d been reading too much. Once upon a time they’d been just like you and me, physically strong, straightforward, cheerful, and well balanced. Then they’d started reading. Most often by chance. A bout of flu, perhaps, with a few days in bed. An attractive book cover that had aroused some curiosity. And suddenly the bad habit had taken hold. The first book had let to another. Then another, and another, all links in a chain that led straight down into the eternal night of mental illness. It was impossible to stop. It was worse than drugs.
Away by Amy Bloom (2008) – It’s difficult for me to tell with any accuracy (I’m not really aware of the careers – before or since – of most of our authors today), but it get the distinct impression Bloom isn’t usually ‘my kind of author.’ Something in the tint of her sentimentality, perhaps, or maybe it’s just this book’s fairly gender-specific cover. But however that may be, this book – the story of plain-spoken heroine Lillian Leyb, whose search for her daughter takes her across the breadth of mid-20th century America and brings her into contact with all variety of people and their prejudices:
He had thought she might be a Jew, not that he’s known many – one good boxer and his pretty, wild sister had said they were Jews, but they had also said they were the illegitimate children of Harry Houdini and he had not pursued it with them.
“Jewish. You’re far from home.”
Lillian opens her mouth to say that, on the contrary, Jews are found from China to everywhere else, but really, she is far from home.
“You people sure do land in the skillet.”
This is either the kind of not-unfriendly remark Lillian has gotten used to in the West (in its darker versions, You people sure do have all the money; You people sure do stick together) or just a statement of fact and so observably true in this world that no Jew anywhere would dream of arguing the point.
“Yes, we do,” Lillian says and she does not say, And just what do you make of those skillets, mister?
The Night Villa by Carol Goodman (2008) – Unlike with most of our authors today, I was already familiar with at least something Goodman wrote, the fantastic novel The Lake of Dead Languages. Our current book is equally classically oriented: classics professor Sophie Chase is recovering from a violent episode that happens at the beginning of the novel, and like all good classicists, she chooses to do her recovering on the island of Capri, uncovering the secrets of the long-buried Villa della Notte – which not only allows for a parallel narrative set in AD 79 on the eve of the eruption of Vesuvius but also facilitates her meetings with mysterious businessman Paul Lyros:
We walk slowly and Lyros stops often at water fountains to drink and at benches to retie his sneakers, or at tempting vistas to point out the Marina Grande below us and Monte Solaro towering behind us, or to point past a gate at some villa that lies drowsing in a lemon grove behind mounds of fuschia and azalea, geraniums and jasmine. He always picks a spot well shaded by an umbrella pine or cypress to regale me with a piece of Caprese history and give me a chance to catch my breath. “And this,” he says at one gate, “is the Villa Lysis, once home to Count Jacques d’Adelsward Fersen, who so scandalized the Caprese that he had to leave the island. He did return eventually and lived here until he died of an opium overdoes at forty-five.”
“What was the scandal about?”
“Oh, just another one of those old Caprese stories of degenerate foreigners made up of gossip and lies,” he says, turning back up the path.
“You sound like you don’t approve of the locals.”
“I guess I’m afraid of what they say about me – that I’m just anther in a long line of eccentric foreigners come to live out his fantasies – or to escape the demands of Empire like our friend Tiberius.” He points upward and I see the ruins of Tiberius’s villa have come into view – a mass of sun-struck brick and limestone crowning a high peak above us.
No particular dominant theme governing these eight choices, mind you – just eight very good reads for your consideration on a very hot, very humid fall day.