Summer Reading 2013 continues
You might think of Vladimir Nabokov as rather heavy weather for the beach blanket. But Pale Fire is an excellent summer read, a book that neither tires of itself nor manages to tire the reader. It’s in love with language and in love with itself. In turn, you fall in love with it.
The book takes the form of the meticulous annotation of a 1000-line poem. The poem, which precedes the novel’s text, is worth reading in its own right. Don’t skip it, thinking you’ll just get right to the meat and potatoes. It’s quiet and beautiful, possessing both understated wit and a believable, emotional gravity that is then mirrored, twisted, and distorted in the exegesis that follows.
Much of the book’s special pathos, as well as its humor, arises out of the majestically unreliable narrator’s complete lack of understanding of the poem he is explicating. This narrator, Charles Kinbote, is beside himself, unable to come to grips with the fact that the last poem written by his neighbor and “friend”, John Shade, did not turn out to be an epic recounting of Kinbote’s life. That epic recounting happens, instead, through the annotation, although it remains unclear how much of the story is truth, how much is fiction, and how much it simply doesn’t matter. If the story’s good, after all, why not tell it?
It is good, and as Kinbote’s history emerges from his warped view of the poem, Nabokov is riotous, loud, broad, quiet, subtle, erudite and wicked. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry – you’ll definitely snicker, often twice over the same passage, first as read by yourself, and then when Kinbote “explains” it. A favorite example concerns this passage from the poem, recounting the bric-a-brac and ephemera kept by the poet’s eccentric Aunt Maud:
The human skull; and from the local Star
A curio: Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4
On Chapman’s Homer, thumbtacked to the door.
Working a reference to Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” into a baseball headline – cute, right? And not implausible. The Sox did employ a slugger named Chapman back in the 1930s. Moreover, America’s sportswriters have always been fond of a pun and if they need to dust off some romantic poetry to get there, so be it. But then comes Kinbote’s explanation:
A reference to the title of Keats’ famous sonnet (often quoted in America) which, owing to a printer’s absent-mindedness, has been drolly transposed, from some other article, into the account of a sports event.
The pun is lost on him, nay, must be lost on him – he’s not the sort who could countenance the notion that anything he does not immediately understand is actually meaningful. That the obtuse, self-aggrandizing Charles Kinbote comes to seem, if not lovable, then understandable, and despite himself, dignified, is just one of the book’s happy wonders.
A much more understated book indeed is Sylvia Townshend Warner’s Mr Fortune’s Maggot, but like Pale Fire, it is also blessed in a memorable main character. Whereas Pale Fire’s Charles Kinbote is outrageous, aggravating, and somewhat repulsively fascinating, Timothy Fortune is endearing, in the way that a baby duck with a broken foot is endearing. One’s heart both goes out to, and shrinks from, such a pitiable object.
After a life as a bank clerk, Timothy Fortune begins a second career as an Anglican missionary. Determined to preach to the inhabitants of Fanua, a tiny island in the South Pacific, he makes but one convert in three years, and an indifferent one at that. Indeed, he manages to lose his own faith in the process. So as far as God’s work is concerned, Timothy is basically a wash.
Mr. Fortune is painfully earnest, extremely self-doubting, and simply not up to the task of transforming his island’s healthy, easy-going heathens into such anxious, pious balls of civilized worry as himself. But while his mission is misguided, and comes to seem ridiculous even to him, Timothy Fortune is ridiculous only in the way that any gentle, earnest person caught up in and frustrated by his own beliefs may be ridiculous. A bit of a Pooh Bear, perhaps, but too generous and genuine to be mocked, and more Christian in his wounded, flailing concern for those around him than a phalanx of Archbishops. Timothy’s mission may be a joke, but it is a sad, small, wistful one.
Timothy comes to love both the island and his sole convert, a boy named Lueli. And while that love is not physical, Timothy is as ashamed of it as if it were, because it is not a selfless love. He enjoys the island, he enjoys Lueli’s company, and his religious sensibility labels him a failure. Eventually, he leaves Fanua and Lueli behind, conscious that he provides them only with “that sad, civilized and proprietary love which is anxious and predatory and spoil-sport.” One wishes he wouldn’t leave the island. If his presence hasn’t done any particular good, he hasn’t done any real harm either, and he seems so much better off there himself.
If ever a fictional character could use tea and sympathy, it’s Timothy Fortune, but his tragedy is to be clear-eyed and harsh only with respect to himself. The soft, slow-paced story of his pointless ministry will make you smile, but with a strange admixture of pleasure and pain. At the book’s end, Townshend Warner adds a short post-script: “My poor Timothy, Good-bye! I do not know what will become of you.” As I finished the book, how I wish I knew the answer for that myself! It seemed awfully unlikely that it would be anything good. That said, I’ve just learned that, many years after completing Mr Fortune’s Maggot, Townshend Warner wrote a sequel, The Salutation. Perhaps you’ll see me recommending it next year.
Jeffrey Eaton, Editor-At-Large
If you only read The Great Gatsby in high school English, you may be forgiven for recalling it as too-serious literature, heavy with symbolism and Dr. Whats-his-face’s giant eyeballs endlessly peering at a green light or something. Please allow me to assure you the idea that The Great Gatsby is a paragon of symbolism is entirely overblown. The book is far more potboiler than it is Mexican magical realism. It has a very tight, very neat plot lavishly decorated with period attitudes, language, costumes, and jazz. It’s half period piece and half patter-filled noir film.
Returning to The Great Gatsby as an adult was delightful for two reasons. First, in my case, 20 years is enough elapsed time that I’d forgotten major plot points (I wonder what else I need to reread?). Nick Carraway leaves the midwest to become a bond trader. Did I know what a bond trader was back then? West Egg is described in a shorthand designed to drive home what a transparent stand-in it is for new-moneyed Great Neck. It really helps to know about these things.
Most revealing though is what a pack of assholes these characters are. That, at least, was apparent to me 20 years ago, but even that was incomplete. A young reader isn’t necessarily prepared for an unreliable narrator. While Nick is more or less reliable, he casts himself as above it all while being a first-rate jackass himself. He is, for example, an early pioneer of breaking up with his girlfriend over the telephone. His ambiguous declaration at the end of the book that he’s not cut out for the West Egg lifestyle, “‘I’m thirty,’ I said, ‘I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor,'” arrives waaaay too late to make any kind of difference.
I recently passed three hours on a trans-Atlantic flight reading The Great Gatsby, and although it perfectly suited my purpose of passing those three hours, I regret not having read it in a more summery setting, a beach, a sun-drenched porch, or a stifling backyard. As to why, I present the most literal of reasons: it’s hot in that book! Characters are constantly sweating through an air-conditionless New York City and Long Island summer:
The next day was broiling, almost the last, certainly the warmest, of the summer. As my train emerged from the tunnel into sunlight, only the hot whistles of the National Biscuit Company broke the simmering hush at noon. The straw seats of the car hovered on the edge of combustion; the woman next to me perspired delicately for a while into her white shirtwaist, and then, as her newspaper dampened under her fingers, lapsed despairingly into deep heat with a desolate cry.
The heat is present at almost every gathering, except the nighttime parties which are a deliberate contrast. It’s this persistent heat that has introduced several generations to the concept of the mint julep a half-dozen years before they were allowed to order one. It would make no sense to read this book in the dead of winter. If you have three hours to spare this summer, and I hope you do, The Great Gatsby is your perfect summer read.
Kennen McCarthy, Compositor
You’re on a trans-Atlantic cruise in the late ‘fifties, yet another heartbreak behind you and one undoubtedly on the horizon; now you’re an adolescent boy shuttled off to your newly widowed grandmother’s Swiss condo for Christmas, or you’re the grandmother herself, misty-eyed with nostalgia; now you’re a late-returning prisoner of the Second World War, a residue of the recent past everyone would rather forget; in truth you’re none of these – you’ve just been spending some time with only a few of the voices Mavis Gallant expertly adopts in her stories; you feel quite comfortable in a skin not your own.
Gallant’s reputation as a “writer’s writer” may not make her a typical candidate for summer reading, but her writing appeals to me in any season, for many reasons. For example, her brush-stroke settings, with great economy of words, afford glimpses of a world since past, trapped in amber. (An economy of words, ironically, that is impossible for me to employ when even thinking about her.) Then there is her flair for summarizing characters through their idiosyncrasies. From the eponymous story in The Cost of Living, a NYRB Classics edition of her early and uncollected short stories:
Sylvie was the coarse and grubby Degas dancer, the girl with the shoulder thrown back and the insolent chin. For two pins, or fewer, that girl staring out of flat canvas would stick out her tongue or spit in your face … Sylvie was always where you wanted to be; she had always got there first. Having got there, she remained, turning pages, her voice cheerfully lifted in the newest and most melancholy of popular songs.
But most of all, for me, there is her skill at representing internal monologue – any internal monologue – and leaping in and out of minds in a story without any interruption of narrative flow. Gallant is a listener, a watcher, a sharp-eared collector of unmoored souls. The Cost of Living starts off with “Madeline’s Birthday,” the first in a long run of Gallant’s fiction to be published in The New Yorker. Mrs. Tracy hosts Madeline, seventeen and fiercely independent, and Paul, a sullen, displaced German student. Madeline is a guest there against her wishes; she would be much happier to be forgotten by her mother in a Manhattan apartment, as she was before being collected by Mrs. Tracy. Paul is there because he has nowhere else to be – Gallant’s stories are full of such aimless people.
Miss Tracy had hoped that Paul and Madeline would become friends, but, as it happened, they were without interest in each other. Their only common ground was the help Madeline could give him with his studies, and this she did with an ill grace.
“They’re nearly of an age – only three years or so apart,” Mrs. Tracy had told her husband in the spring, before she opened the house in the country. “They’re both adrift, in a way – Paul on account of the war, and Madeline from her family. A summer there might do wonders.”
Edward Tracy had said nothing. Technically, the Connecticut house belonged to his wife, who had inherited it. Loving it and remembering her own childhood there, she looked upon her summers as a kind of therapy, to be shared with the world. Edward, therefore, merely added this summer of Paul and Madeline to his list of impossible summers … They were, on the face of it, quiet and undemanding. But there was an unhappiness about them, a lack of ease, that trailed through the house, affecting the general atmosphere. Sometimes Edward felt that having them there was bad for [his daughter] Allie, but he wasn’t certain why or how. He said nothing about it, since, as he told himself, he saw them only weekends and couldn’t judge.
A makeshift household of people united by their daily activities otherwise see past each other, prevented from deeper connection by their grievances toward each other and the world at large. They don’t know the pulse of the other’s thoughts, but we do. A friend once pointed out to me that the best writing is a kind of telepathy; summer is as good a time as any to share the mind of Mavis Gallant.
Max Ross, Editor
Paying attention to a couple simple criteria can help greatly when choosing one’s summer reading: Unlike in winter, when it’s comforting to carry around long Russian novels—in a pinch their pages can be used for kindling—a summer book should be compact and lightweight. Also, as beach settings, with their skin and sweat and salt, naturally suggest the subject, it’s usually a boon if one’s summer reading focuses on sex. Small and sexy, a polka-dot bikini of a novella, Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus is an excellent book to fit in one’s pocket and bring down to the ocean or the lake.
The story begins at a country club swimming pool, where Neil Klugman, of Newark, New Jersey, first meets Brenda Patimkin, a Radcliffe student from suburban Short Hills. She asks him to hold her eyeglasses so that she may dive into the water. Although they share a cultural and intellectual heritage (i.e. Judaism), Neil—the narrator—is quick to point out the many differences between the two, which he fears will inhibit their developing fondness for each other.
Their rift is in large part geographical. In summer Newark is hot, its citizens having no way to cool themselves except for taking a folding chair out into the street and praying for a breeze. But when Neil goes to visit Brenda for their first date, he is quick to notice a change: “Once I’d driven out of Newark…the night grew cooler. It was, in fact, as though the hundred and eighty feet that the suburbs rose in altitude above Newark brought one closer to heaven…and soon I was driving past long lawns which seemed to be twirling water on themselves, and past houses where no one sat on stoops, where lights were on but no windows open, for those inside, refusing to share the very texture of life with those of us outside, regulated with a dial the amounts of moisture that were allowed access to their skin.” One might say that Neil accepts the weather and endures it; Brenda, meanwhile, believes she is entitled to control nature—and everything else around her.
Roth’s first book, and winner of 1960’s National Book Award, Goodbye, Columbus has coiled inside it many of the themes and moods that emerge more fully in the author’s later work: an unsentimental take on Jewish domestic life, a notion of an individual’s supremacy over his heritage, a notion of sex’s supremacy over an individual. But it’s sweeter than a lot of Roth’s stuff. A love story, pure and complicated, we follow Neil and Brenda’s courtship through a hot and heavy summer, as the coming school year threatens—like it so often does—to ruin everything.
Lisa Peet, Host of Like Fire
E. L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair is a family reunion of a book. Though thoroughly urban from start to finish, giving us a child’s-eye view of the Bronx on the eve of World War II, there is still something to it of the back yard picnic table, potato salad, and your favorite uncle telling you stories of how things used to be. Not necessarily your favorite uncle, perhaps. But I think E.L. Doctorow may be mine. A good memoir doesn’t always make for a good story, but this one—fictionalized as needed—may be better than the real thing: lovingly reconstructed, with just enough mess and sharp edges to ring true.
We first meet up with Doctorow’s young alter ego, Edgar Altschuler, at age three. He has just wet his bed, and is crying for his mama to come pick him up, change him, admonish him, and then bring him into bed with her and his father. From the first, Doctorow makes it clear that this is no child narrating, but a child’s memories filtered through his adult sensibilities, and we get all Edgar’s sweetness and neurosis jumbled together in one damp moment: bracing for harsh words, he is muttered at softly and then “I ride, the young prince, in her arms to their bed, and am welcomed between them.” Here is everything you need to know about Edgar, then. He is a worrier, overly aware of the dynamics within the small unit of himself, his parents, his older brother Donald, and their extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends. As the youngest by eight years, he keenly feels his lack of power everywhere.
What he never questions, though, is the fact that he is loved; Edgar’s life thrums on a low but constant voltage of affection, and this is one of the things that makes World’s Fair such a palatably sweet tale. His mother may chafe under her mother-in-law’s disapproval, or his wealthy Westchester aunt’s airs, but he simply notes this as fact and refuses to pass judgment himself: “I could not believe anything bad about any one of these people for very long, because they all seemed to love me so much.”
All this love still can’t touch Edgar’s anxieties, which are manifold and often elegant. Within the microcosm of his family, he watches his parents clash—his mother’s striving, serious efficiency jarring against his father’s irresponsible “happy animal energy”—his brother grow restless and leave home, his little addled grandmother die. World War II is looming, and he absorbs its seriousness through a child’s osmosis of glimpsed headlines, neighborhood bullies, and chalked swastikas. His father loses his store, the family moves to a smaller apartment. Even the wonderful World’s Fair, which hovers, marvelous, at the edge of nine-year-old Edgar’s inchoate desires, makes him uneasy:
I had misgivings about it, it seemed so vast, such an enormous place, with so many things going on simultaneously, shows and exhibits and people from foreign countries, that I did not know where I wanted to go first. It was difficult to visualize. I was not even there yet but had fallen into the habit when I thought about the World’s Fair of worrying that I would miss the best things.
At the same time, he is able to vanquish his fear of death with a child’s concise superstition: if he can envision something terrible, then it can’t kill him. And though he does nearly die from an episode of peritonitis, he dismisses it coolly:
My theory held that if I thought of something before it happened, it wouldn’t happen. I had experienced a ruptured appendix before I had thought about it and that was unfortunate, but I had thought about dying from it before it had the chance to kill me, so now it couldn’t. It was very simple.
The specter of death thus dispatched, he goes back to railing at the indignity of having to sleep in a hospital bed with slats on the side, like a baby’s.
Constantly jockeying for a sense of authority in his small life, Edgar ranges around his Bronx neighborhood, endures the miseries of clothes shopping with his mother, puzzles out why she disapproves of his friend Meg’s free-spirited single mother, and watches the Hindenburg float over his neighborhood one afternoon like the portentous vision that, sadly, it is. And, because this is above all a good story, he gets to visit the World’s Fair not once but twice. The first time he’s the guest of Meg and her mother, who turns out to be part of a soft-core burlesque swimming act and who stirs up Edgar’s burgeoning sexual self in a confounding yet oddly satisfying way. The second time, though, is his true triumph: Edgar’s parents and brother get to go as his guests, as he’s been voted runner-up in a World’s Fair-sponsored essay contest on the theme of the Typical American Boy. (“He is kind. He cooperates with his parents. He knows the value of a dollar. He looks death in the face.”) Clearly a writer has been born. But Doctorow benevolently allows the reader to move right past the obvious, straight to the visceral glee of Edgar and his brother and the mad abandon of bumper cars:
Donald let me drive, his arm over my shoulders, as we spun about crashing and banging into people and being bashed in return, everyone’s head threatening to fly off.
I have seen home movies of my mother, age 11, at the World’s Fair in front of the Trylon and Perisphere with her cousins—now the sweet, stooped, liver-spotted elders of my own Bronx-born family. Strangely enough, the colors in that old 8 mm. film, the Kodachrome blues and greens and oranges, perfectly match those of the World’s Fair pins and postcards and metal banks that have made their way down to me. At least they do in my memory. And World’s Fair is like that for me as well. Doctorow perfectly captures a small person’s serious, vaguely distorted viewpoint, then turns the telescope back around so the reader can understand it against the wider view of the adult world—which is, after all, “so vast, such an enormous place, with so many things going on simultaneously,” like the fair itself, that it only gets better in the telling.
Justin Hickey, Editor and Host of The Four Color Opera
This summer, cape-smart director Zack Snyder (Watchmen) delivers Man of Steel, a Superman film to which much hope is pinned. The icon’s last cinematic outing, 2006’s Superman Returns, blundered into theaters like some kind of lost pigeon, offering beauty but almost no brains. Comic book publisher DC, rather than scramble to release a flock of mediocre film tie-ins (as they always are), has just repackaged a pair of incredible stories from the Superman Returns era. Last Son of Krypton is a trade paperback collecting Action Comics issues written by superstar Geoff Johns, and drawn by creative powerhouses Adam Kubert and Gary Frank.
The first tale features the mysterious arrival of a boy who’s super strong and speaks Superman’s Kryptonian tongue. Quickly thereafter, he’s hunted by three militant Kryptonian villains who are shocked that Superman hasn’t simply conquered Earth (the other-dimensional Phantom Zone prison plays a key role here). With marvelous watercolor effects by Dave Stewart, Kubert’s rough-and-tumble pencils teeter on astonishing.
The second tale pits our hero against the information-obsessed alien Brainiac. He travels the Universe absorbing (and destroying) cultures, while occasionally shrinking an entire city for his trophy room. Artist Frank, with sharp lines and dazzling emotional range, gives us a Superman with actor-of-steel Christopher Reeve’s face. This is quite haunting, and Johns rises to the occasion in crafting a gorgeous, if thoroughly tragic, story. Whether you think Man of Steel bores or soars, both of these adventures comprise everything a Superman film should be!
Meanwhile, a worthy Marvel trade paperback to peruse this summer is X-Men: Days of Future Past. Director Bryan Singer (Superman Returns–COUGH) is, as we speak, filming an adaptation for the July 2014 season. The original 1981 issues, from the end of writer Chris Claremont’s collaboration with artist John Byrne (the title’s richest period), glimpse a future where mutants are pushed toward extinction. Half of our familiar cast (Storm, Kitty Pryde, Magneto) rot away in a concentration camp, while the rest have been killed by giant robotic Sentinels. Only Wolverine is free to act. The trade also includes a few numerical issues to either side of the main attraction (Guest-starring Dr. Strange and Alpha Flight), and better represent the era’s adventuresome innocence.
Or, if neither of these mainstream picks squeezes your lemonade, there’s always Locke & Key. This inventive horror title, written by novelist Joe Hill and drawn with twitchy fervor by Grabriel Rodriguez, has five trade collections so far (which are best read in order) and has been greenlit by Universal to become a film trilogy. It’s also quite possibly the most sophisticated and daring narrative currently published in comics. It tells the story of the three Locke siblings–Tyler, Kinsey and Bode–and their strange new lives in the Key House mansion, located in Lovecraft, Massachusetts. As the two teens and their younger brother begin finding keys hidden all over the lush New England property, misfortune and demons find them.
I can’t recommend this series enough, to those who’ve read a million comics or none at all. Ideally, Locke & Key will be like Watchmen someday–read by everyone and acknowledged as a game-changing masterpiece.
Adam Golaski, Contributing Editor
Finally watching the full run of the X-Files counts as summer reading, n’est-ce pas? I began a few summers ago, but really buckled down late this May. Season eight—the one where Agents John Jay Doggett and Monica Reyes, alongside Dana Scully, search for Fox Mulder, isn’t bad! “Via Negativa,” in which Doggett pursues an axe-murderer with a third eye, is perfect, and “Badlaa”—while significantly flawed—might be my favorite. The monster in “Badlaa” is a wronged Siddhi Mystic who crawls into the bodies of a few unfortunate Americans, and uses them as puppets.
“Badlaa” reminded me of Scott Thomas’s brilliant short story “The Puppet and the Train” from his collection Cobwebs and Whispers. The copy I own is apparently worth $589.95; see if you can’t borrow it from the library. I won’t loan you mine.
As for books, I sat down with Geeta Dayal’s entry into the idiosyncratic 33⅓ series, Another Green World. I did so with headphones on, so I could listen to the Brian Eno album it explores as I read. I’ve owned the album for a while, but it failed to interest me until Dayal drew my attention to certain passages that intimate Eno’s ambience to come. In her introduction, she shares that she attempted to write the book using Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards—a deck of cards printed with ideas to be used when in a creative logjam. The cards didn’t quite work for her, but Dayal’s willingness to enter Eno’s process gives her little book the right ethos for an exploration of Eno’s work.
I’ve read most of two other 33⅓ titles: Gillian G. Gaar’s In Utero, which is a little too catalog-like, detailing versions of various tracks from the album—useful, but not to be read for general pleasure, and John Darnielle’s novella Master of Reality, told from the point of view of an institutionalized teen who finds solace in early Black Sabbath.
The project of Alex Ross’s Listen to This is to locate intersections between pop and classical music. Ross wrote, “I am a white American male who listened to nothing but classical music until the age of twenty. In retrospect, this seems bizarre; perhaps ‘freakish’ is not too strong a word.” In college He discovered pop via punk, bought albums by Pere Ubu and Sonic Youth and discovered The Beatles and Bob Dylan. The result is that Ross is brilliant at writing about classical music and specifically about classical music recordings, and when he writes about pop he sees it as flowing alongside—not apart from—classical. An extremely valuable perspective.
Music I – LXXIV, by August Kleinzahler, is (maybe) organized around an enormous CD collection Kleinzahler was forced to sell when he was “really squeezed for dough.” He’s very honest and funny:
Collecting takes on a life of its own after a while, quite apart from the pleasures of listening. A not entirely wholesome appetite begins to assert itself at some point and along with it something like pridefulness, a lust for acquisition, covetousness. One has a collection. Friends would walk into the room off the hall with the shelves of music and remark: “Holy shit.” It became part of my identity.
He has the wit to make his musical interests interesting to me, to make me wanna listen—even though his taste is old man cool, a taste I’ve not acquired.
I’m partway through volume one of Alan Ryan’s On Politics, but I’ll write about it some other time.
Steve Danziger, Contributing Editor
In 1976, recidivist criminal Gary Gilmore murdered a gas station attendant and a motel manager, was sentenced to death, and became a media sensation when he insisted that the government actually go through with the execution. He was set to be the first person executed since the reinstatement of capital punishment, and his refusal to appeal sparked a frenzied public debate which often seemed not so much about the validity of the death penalty but the warring interpretations of an American anomaly, the man who would fight for his own death. The Executioner’s Song chronicles Gilmore’s last nine months, from the time he was released from one prison and killed by firing squad in another.
Two things make people groan when I recommend this book: one is that it’s 1,092 pages long, and the other is Norman Mailer. If length is an issue, the only assurance I can offer is that it’s the fastest thousand-plus pages you’ll ever read. And regarding Norman Mailer, if, like me, you find his narcissism insufferable, and much of his best work irredeemably corrupted by vanity…well, I salute you. But a very different writer showed up for this story.
Mailer said, “I think The Executioner’s Song, more than any book I’ve ever done, was an exercise in craft. I’ve never felt close to it,” perhaps not realizing this was a good thing. Saved from the distractions of self-aggrandizement, he found a discipline and restraint most thought him incapable of. The resulting style is so direct, the tone so subdued and unwavering, and the accrual of detail so patient, that from the very beginning, the reader senses a methodical building of something monumental:
Brenda was six when she fell out of the apple tree. She climbed to the top and the limb with the good apples broke off. Gary caught her as the branch came scraping down. They were scared. The apple trees were their grandmother’s best crop and it was forbidden to climb in the orchard. She helped him drag away the tree limb and they hoped no one would notice. That was Brenda’s earliest recollection of Gary.
Those wary of Mailer’s fondness for romanticizing violence, fear not – the monument is not to a charismatic sociopath’s lost innocence, but to the fathomless melancholy of wasted lives. The Executioner’s Song’s journey through Gilmore’s American West – his doomed romance with the thrice-married teenage mother Nicole Barrett, the poverty, ennui and madness of his family and neighbors in Mormon Utah, the hypocrisies and chaos of the criminal justice system, the callous ambition of the American media, and, not least of all, the pointless deaths of his victims – gives testament that any American life, patiently examined, will yield depths and contradictions specific to our country and impossible to reconcile. It’s the great American (non-fiction) novel, and not even Norman Mailer’s crimes against humility should keep you from reading it.