Throughout The Narrow
Road to the Deep North protagonist Dorrigo Evans strives unwillingly,
unwittingly, “… (t)o follow knowledge like a sinking star/Beyond the utmost
bound of human thought.” These lines from Tennyson’s Ulysses capture the hero’s plight: the more he experiences, the
less he seems to know, the less he seems to be capable of dealing with. Like
Ulysses, Dorrigo finds late in life that he lives among “a savage race,/That
hoard, and sleep,and feed, and know not
After becoming a doctor and enlisting in the Australian army
in 1942, Dorrigo Evans, promised to another, meets – or is captured by – Amy, a
young woman who is married to his uncle Keith. And in her arms he finds he
understands nothing of love, of human conduct, nor of the attractions of any
other woman. He experiences extremes of confusion. Life, the world, the human
race – all are incomprehensible. He never feels more alive nor more confused as
during his weeks with her by the Adelaide seaside. His resulting unmooring,
through his heroic service with doomed Australian POWs in Siam and Burma, and
his subsequent honors and fame, imprisons him in an impenetrable solitude.
Richard Flanagan, author of the astonishing Gould’s Book of Fish, has produced a
work of overwhelming power; it will sear your consciousness with the staggering
facts of heroism, murderous cruelty, a boundless love beyond comprehension. And
yet through it all, our hero cannot feel certain of these basic facts. Dorrigo’s
confusion rings true because the author displays a master’s command of language
and consciousness. He sets Dorrigo and Amy alone in the universe at the seaside
resort, in the thrall of a passion that overwhelms any description, that
surpasses rational thought. He tells of the POWs on the death railway in a more
straightforward way because that story has its own enormity, its own incomprehensibility.
I’m tempted to quibble about a couple of plot points that
seem to rest on flimsy foundation, like Dorrigo’s and Amy’s postwar failure to seek
each other out, or the not-quite-necessary family connection from the POW camp.
But these are quibbles, and certainly not the right way to end this review.
Take this stunning book up. It deserves its accolades, and Richard Flanagan
deserves his prominent place in today’s pantheon of writers.
As one gets further away from first-person narrator David “Dragon”
Horvath in Starbuck O’Dwyer’s gonzo Goliath
Gets Up, the characters become less and less real. And Dragon himself,
although his heart is always in the right place, is a few cards short of a full
deck when it comes to brains. Don’t look for the ordinary or the logical, or
even the responsible, because they’re all missing from Goliath Gets Up. What this frenetically funny book has: a small
band of down-on-their-luck adventurers, a Chinese-American woman who would be
an eco-terrorist, a criminal lawyer with ambitions to be a stand-up comic (he’s
terrible at both), and two geriatric women. One of these is the 87 year-old
sex-crazed mayor of Rochester who wants to bring the Oscars ceremony to her Upstate
New York city (along with gambling and prostitution), and the other is the
narrator’s 102 year-old grandmother who wants to jump into the Genesee River
and go over the High Falls in downtown Rochester.
Got all that? If it sounds ridiculous, it is, but author
Starbuck O’Dwyer has done something remarkable. Early on, he fills his book with
over-the-top one-line gags, but that style won’t sustain a novel-length book. So
he transitions gradually away from the merely laugh-out-loud funny and lets the
absurd premises flow to their inevitable conclusions. (I can’t believe I just
typed that about this book.)
The plot revolves around some men in early middle age and
stunted emotional development who agree, kind of, to try to stop the mayor’s evil
plan to develop and corrupt a beautiful natural section of Rochester. Their
strategy involves a major stunt at Rochester’s High Falls, which attracts
national media attention. Along the way we have a writer of doggerel who’s on
dialysis, an overweight man with discolored teeth who wears t-shirts that say “Have
a Penis Day,” and who becomes engaged to a feminist college professor. We have
a politician who employs loan sharks and hit men and an older couple named Biff
and Beatie. I didn’t look for it, and so didn’t find it, but if the author
included a disclaimer about characters and events not referring to anything or
anybody real, it wouldn’t have been necessary. Nothing in this book resembles
anything real, except for the greed, ambition, ruthlessness, and lack of any
moral compass on the part of politicians.
This book was a 5-star finalist in the 2012 Indie Reader
Discovery Awards humor category. That’s perfectly understandable. What’s harder
to understand is that there was something funnier out there to win. Incessant
humor, frequent misadventures, and a roaring climax – take it up if you dare!
One encounters the full majesty and weight of Nadine
Gordimer’s prose in this wide-ranging, inspiring collection. What this artist
accomplishes with her plain language and her oblique approach strikes me as
uncanny, as a sort of sleight of hand, the whole of which is a great deal more
than the sum of its parts. As in the title story, in which a man leaves a
European city to investigate, in some aimless way, whether his forbear had
taken a black African mistress. The concluding word, freighted with multiple
levels of meaning when uttered by the protagonist, causes mirth and merriment
among his colleagues. We know how inappropriate this reaction is, but we hardly
know how to describe what reaction would
In Tape Measure
our daring author lays out the highly amusing musings of an intestinal
parasite, and concludes the story with a very understated glimpse of menace. Dreaming of the Dead is Ms. Gordimer’s
highly personal elegy to three admired colleagues: Edward Said, Anthony
Sampson, and Susan Sontag. This piece so highly praises the dearly departed
that it shows the Nobel-winning author’s skill in a new light. It also provides
a quick and highly useful introduction to the three. Again, at an extreme
economy of words.
Certain themes recur in this collection, in addition to the
usual highly charged political viewpoints. Characters in most of the stories navigate
the treacherous waters of love and marriage. The higher the stakes, the more
care the characters take. Like the wife in Alternative
Endings – The Second Sense, who chooses to spare her cheating husband, the
owner of a soon-to-be-bankrupt airline. But the widow who visits the gay man
who had a love affair with her husband many years before, hadn’t bargained for
so much involvement. However, in Mother
Tongue, one of the most haunting and rewarding stories here, a beautiful
young German bride moves to South Africa with her new husband. Although her
English is more than passable, she doesn’t comprehend all the slang and lingo
thrown around at the parties she attends. Even when her husband is embraced by another
beautiful woman amidst of all the banter, she’s justified in her confidence
that she knows all that’s necessary. I found the concluding language here quite
sensual and alluring.
In some stories, the younger generation engages an older one
to search for and sometimes find answers. A grandson wonders at the actions
taken by his grandmother, a German Jewish performer who returns to Europe from
Africa at exactly the wrong time before World War II. The Frivolous Woman of the title seems to have survived her brush with
death, all right, and thought hardly anything was amiss. In The Beneficiary, a pleasing and
surprisingly powerful piece, a woman comes to love and appreciate her adoptive
father, as the story concludes with the line, “Nothing to do with DNA.”
All the stories here offer rewards for the reader. Ms.
Gordimer’s oblique language and unadorned handling of her plots camouflage the
vast range of her subject and theme. This is remarkable: varied, engaging,
uniformly brilliant. If you haven’t made Ms. Gordimer’s acquaintance yet, this
is an excellent place to start.
Georgia “Peachy” Archer learns a lot about herself over a
weekend in which she takes an impromptu trip from her home in rural Canada to
New York. She takes this trip under false pretenses, although the pretenses are
not her own doing. We ardently want the best outcome for this character, but in
the end, I felt torn between a couple of different outcomes, any one of which
would be fine. Such is the balance and artistry on display.
Peachy Archer, now Mrs. Laliberté, has a husband and two
young sons, one of whom is sick. Her glamorous sister Beth has the looks, the fame,
and the addictions that Peachy never aspired to. Beth’s dazzling New York
success seduces Peachy’s two impressionable sons. And her history with Peachy’s
husband adds to the general disruption when she comes for one of her regular
visits. Peachy and Beth briefly collaborate on a plan to get back at Beth’s
ex-boyfriend (the false pretenses part), but events take an unexpected direction
when Peachy heads for New York unaccompanied.
The Almost Archer
Sisters bulges with family: family history, family failure and strife,
tough love, and shocking weakness. Peachy, at one point an aggrieved party,
flirts with a beautiful, appealing man and with the possibility of forbidden
fruit, all the while knowing very well the needs of those who depend on her.
This story has a highly unusual balance – a reflecting quality. Peachy’s yang dynamically
anchors Beth’s yin, and we see some of Beth’s fast-lane influence on Peachy
during Peachy’s excursion. This centrifugal balance drives the narrative,
pulling our emotions along for the suspenseful ride.
Ms. Gabriele takes her heroine on a journey, a richly
dramatic one, and she treats the reader with laugh-out-loud comic touches
throughout. This book shows the author’s power and assuredness with a fraught
family situation; it never approaches anything cloying, and holds a ton of
promise for Peachy, the heroine. This story soars, it delights, and it rewards
the lucky reader. Well done!
A motley group of four American women meet in Normandy on a
tour of Emma Bovary sites, and against the odds stay in touch with each other
after their low-grade tour is over.The
one talisman that binds them – barely – is the trite and New Age-y Love Book,
with its red binding and its exhortations to make oneself available to one’s
soul mate by changing one’s “vibrations.”
I put this book aside several times while reading it, and
moved on to other material, because I have an extremely tough time with the
self-pity and angst of women having difficult love affairs. The men always seem
to fit one stereotype or another: the beautiful and charming serial
philanderer; the trying-to-be-suave number who is pathetically past his prime;
the maladroit too-eager nerd in the sweater vest. This novel chronicles the
misadventures of the four women; the men are nearly all ghastly, the women
confused and put-upon. I must say the men in particular are cardboard, and only
rarely described as even visually interesting.
But: I honor Ms. Solomon’s attempt to throw the happy-love-affair
convention on its ear. She distributes the Love Book in a comic, almost
magical, way among the protagonists. She recounts its hopelessly naïve and
silly instructions – and I think this is the point: the things we, especially
women, are meant to believe about finding a “soul mate” are ridiculous –
insanely counterproductive. This couldn’t be clearer from the book.
The frequent comic moments and the lack of a tidy wrap-up
for Emily, the chief and most sympathetic of the four, struggle to outweigh the
characters’ constant frustration and disappointment. They struggle, and they
fail. Can’t recommend this one.