"Native Child" by R.C. Binstock

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Following the dynamic and memorable Swift River, R.C.  Binstock once again demonstrates his gift for capturing little-known and little-explored episodes from America’s past: in Native Child he considers the Orphan Trains, a scheme by reform-minded East Coasters to move purported orphans and street urchins to a “more wholesome” life with families in the Midwest. Along the way he manages an unforgettable and unique family saga, filling it with eloquence, and a deep understanding of human impulse and folly. Native Child is touching, impressive, vivid, and full of soul.

An infant, named Oscar by hospital workers, is found in a grocery in New York, becomes a ward of the state until, aged eight years, he runs away from the latest orphanage and falls in with a street gang. Later that year, 1922, he voluntarily gets on a train with dozens of other children and alights in Nebraska. From there, Mr. Binstock unfolds the multi-generational story, with its loves and pitfalls, its challenges and misunderstandings - those things which make family family.

But there are several unique features to Native Child that separate it from so many other family sagas. Oscar, warily trying to find his life in this alien land, finds speech too challenging and too perilous, and so stops speaking.
Oscar's reticence can stand in for the thousands of other silenced children extirpated from their lives, but I prefer to judge it in the personal, singular effects it has on Oscar and his adoptive family. It’s a distillation of the many instances of failed communication between and among members of these linked families, most tragically between Oscar’s guardian Lillian and her sister Frances.

But the soul of Native Child, the compelling reason to take it up and delight in it: it boasts an eloquence not often found in today’s resolutely workmanlike fictions. As timeless truths occur to the life-weary and regretful characters, you get passages like this:

“The meter of life: not time as we guess, as we mostly suppose, yes time passes and it passes, untiringly, profoundly, but only because you are. The difference in you: between inhale and exhale, between heartbeat and beat, between what you drink at eight and what you expel at ten, the same moisture in and out, passing through you, its atoms unchanged but you are changed and that’s how you know time has passed. How you perceive you are alive, must be alive, must accept the rhythm’s rule.”

Those are Oscar’s words from late in his life, and from Lillian, his beloved adoptive guardian:

“… I was startled to recall how we’d all acted as if Oscar’s silence, his refusal to speak, was something provocative, bizarre. We all refuse words, all the time! We do it selectively, is all, under the pretense of being willing when need arises but that’s a lie. We keep to ourselves what we keep to ourselves without review, [and] without approval … Silence is golden or it isn’t, but it’s widespread.”

It’s the silences within families, between foundlings and those who would improve them, between generations, that drive this terrific novel, and also swallow up the love and devotion that people have for one another. Definitely take up Native Child. R.C. Binstock’s already distinguished contributions have grown yet again.

Q&A With Author Tiffany McDaniel

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Tiffany McDaniel has just published a debut novel The Summer that Melted Everything, which I had the pleasure to read and review. (See just below.) She graciously agreed to respond to some questions that occurred to me after reading it. Below are her very interesting and engaging answers:

Basso Profundo:Your first novel The Summer that Melted Everything has some straightforward plot elements, like small-town prejudice, a young boy who yearns for the shy girl from class, family lives fraught with difficult histories. But you overlay these elements with some less-orthodox aspects: your characters’ names; a fiendish character ironically named Elohim, God’s name from the Old Testament; the outlandish belief that Sal’s arrival in town heralds the arrival of the devil. How did you settle on these unusual features? 

Author Tiffany McDaniel:
Well, I didn’t plan to settle on these unusual features.  I never outline before I start a novel.  What you read there on the page is what was in my head the moment I was sitting in front of the laptop typing away.  I do this until I have the entire story there on the page from beginning to end.  Then I draft through and I even surprise myself the way the elements started to fit together in that wild and twisty way with each drafting of the novel.  As far as some of the elements you bring up: I’m from a small town and have always been drawn to the politics and dynamics of that type of living and sense of community.  I know the beauty a small town possesses, but also how easily green grass turns to mud.  Meaning how quick and easy it is for fear and panic to ripen in those close quarters of a small community. 
In my writing I do tend to write about families with difficult histories.  There’s something so fascinating to me about history and how it very much comes into play in our present.  I do try to find that balance of universal normalcy and connect it with less-orthodox aspects.  I’ve always been drawn to the strange things that can come to define the most everyday phases of our lives. And sometimes this strangeness comes out in the characters’ names.  There is so much behind a name.  Elohim’s name fit him perfectly because he’s representing that side of the battle in the novel.  So really I wish I could say I planned on these unusual features, but really it just comes down to opening the faucet in my mind and being ready to catch what comes out. 
BP: Your narrator Fielding ends up a bitter, guilt-ridden old man, living in a ramshackle trailer in the desert. Two questions: was there ever a time when you considered this book a coming-of-age story for Fielding, with a much more limited time frame for the ending? And was a more “life-affirming” ending ever a possibility for this novel?

Tiffany McDaniel:
To answer your first question, Old Fielding did have a much smaller part in the early draft.  But the more I wrote about the events, the more Old Fielding had to have a life after that summer in order to show how those very events had affected him.  He needed to be seen and his life to be had past the coming of age, to the coming to mid-life, and finally coming to age.  To answer your second question, I don’t think a more “life-affirming” ending was ever possible for Fielding.  A happier ending would have been more fictional than the fiction it is allowed to be.  This ending was Fielding’s truth.   
BP: The Bliss family has one quirky mom. The boys, though, including the father Autopsy, are sympathetically and very believably drawn. How did you manage that? Any brothers in your family (not that that would necessarily be a prerequisite)?

Tiffany McDaniel:

I have two older sisters, but no brothers.  I’ve always wanted an older brother.  I think that’s probably why Grand is the way he is to Fielding, because that’s how I would have wanted my older brother to be.  Heroic and kind, intelligent and the boy everyone thought was going to keep soaring to the stars.  With my characters, I very much feel like they are real people.  That I’m merely the vessel through which they pass to get into this world of ours.  While their beginning and end are confined to the pages of the book, I always see my characters outside of those pages.  In moments that no one else will know of.  Dialogue and conversation that doesn’t end when the book does.  So in many ways they manage themselves.     
BP: Any validity to my belief that you chose 1984 as your time frame because of the period’s lack of general understanding or sympathy about AIDS?

Tiffany McDaniel:

Definite validity.  When I was thinking of what time period the novel was going to take place in, I knew it would be the 1980s because (and maybe this is a stereotype) but when I think about the 80s I think of neon colors, big hair, and suntans.  It’s almost like a decade long summer.  I was born in 1985, so I can’t attest to whether this is true of the decade and can only go on how music and TV/movies from the time make me feel about life then.  Having decided on the 1980s, I knew I had also unintentionally decided on writing about AIDS because, whether we like or not, the 1980s and AIDS are irrevocably linked.  It was the moment that changed not just how we have sex, but how we understand sex, and even in some cases, fear it.  This fear is essential to the novel.  And the earlier you are in a new disease, the more fear there is going to be.  So 1984 was early enough for the disease to still not be understood and still early enough to have that innocent 80s summer mentality.   
BP: You tell Summer behind a smoke screen, if you don’t mind my saying. I thought your casting of Elohim as a steeplejack was a stroke of genius. Any specific inspiration for the character?

Tiffany McDaniel:

When I was thinking about who Elohim would be, and what he would do, I immediately thought of something reaching.  He’s a very short man, as you know.  He seems to always be reaching in life.  Reaching for relationships.  Reaching for significance.  Reaching for the cereal on the top shelf.  I also very much saw him as a builder.  The one constructing.  As he comes to construct those in his group during that summer.  Building his followers and their emotions up, building, building, like a steeple, until in the end, that steeple collapses.  The builder buried under the very bricks he thought were so neatly, and godly, stacked.  As far as inspiration goes, I always say the characters themselves inspire me.  They really are their own people and these are their truths.  I only hope I tell their truths as honestly as I can.
 BP: Old man Fielding is extremely mean to his young neighbor, in an effort to scare him off. Why? I don’t think Fielding has the energy or the inclination to actually hurt the boy. Does he just want to be left alone?

Tiffany McDaniel:
As Fielding says, he scares off the boy not really because he wants to be alone, but because he feels like he’s saving the boy.  Fielding very much thinks himself to be like a poison in this boy’s life, and no matter how much Fielding wants to be friends with the boy, he can’t do that to the boy.  Use him like some sort of ‘ladder out of hell’ as Fielding says, because by being that ladder, the boy has a very good chance of getting burned by the flames himself. 

BP: What are you working on now? What can we expect next?

Tiffany McDaniel:

I’m hoping to follow The Summer that Melted Everything up with my newest novel, When Lions Stood as Men.  It’s an unusual take on a Jewish brother and sister who escape Nazi Germany and survive the Holocaust.  With this guilt of surviving, they cross the Atlantic and end up in my land, Ohio.  While here they construct their own camp of judgment, where their freedom is punished and through that their guilt is relieved, somewhat.  But soon they realize guilt isn’t the only thing they need to survive.  It’s each other, and the old lions that once stood as men. 


"The Summer that Melted Everything" by Tiffany McDaniel

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During the impossibly hot Ohio summer of 1984, a young boy’s presence in a small town catalyzes horrific events which result in splintered families, mob violence, arson, and murder. Debut author Tiffany McDaniel handles all this with assurance and aplomb, such that I’m quite taken aback at the powers displayed in her first attempt. Her very true-to-life first person narrator is a thirteen year-old boy about to grow up in a major hurry, and she places stunning, gratifying eloquence in the voice of another boy who seems to know way too much about God and the world. It’s a remarkable achievement.

We learn at the outset that prosecuting attorney (named, curiously enough, Autopsy Bliss) has published a letter inviting the devil to his small town so he can see it for himself.  And as suddenly as a pre-adolescent black boy, Sal, shows up, that’s how quickly the summer starts to sizzle and oppress the town. I’m generally put off by parables when reading and the beginning of The Summer that Melted Everything made me cautious. Soon enough, however, the very human events and emotions take over, and any discomfort I’d been feeling melted away. It’s a rich novel, very well conceived, but stunningly well executed.

The setting here reminds one of Faulkner - the small town with its dusty lanes, the idiosyncratic characters, the timeless human traits of prejudice, ignorance, and hatred. The author bolsters and enriches her story by grounding it firmly in the here and now, its murderous horrors all too real and familiar. The emblematic character names and
chilling events take on a fuller, heavier significance once the true events are known. And Ms. McDaniel deftly upends our beliefs and expectations for these characters.

I urge you to take up The Summer that Melted Everything from a pure reading enjoyment standpoint. But there’s another good reason: you’ll want to make Tiffany McDaniel’s acquaintance as soon as possible. I can reassure you of this new novelist’s talent and vision.

“The Infatuations” by Javier Marías

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Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

At page 302 of the 338-page The Infatuations author Javier Marías begins a new section this way: “In the end, everything tends toward attenuation …” As characters try to navigate the thorny issues arising when life and love intersect with self-interest and betrayal, they attenuate their guilt and downplay their responsibilities as a way of going on with their lives. With the help of an endlessly speculating and imaginative first person narrator, the author delivers a tour de force on the very unusual agenda he set for himself. It’s amazingly well done.

This narrator becomes aware that someone she knew by sight is murdered in the street. Committed by an addled and aggressive homeless man, it seems a random, senseless crime. Almost by chance she meets and gets involved with a friend of the murdered man’s family, but overhears a highly incriminating conversation between this man and an apparent co-conspirator. Explanations (and attenuations) aside, she must weigh what she thinks she knows (but has no proof of) against her conscience. Her line of reasoning features doubt, a sense of powerlessness, and a tinge of fear. This story manages a measure of suspense for our protagonist, because this man she came to love is involved in a grisly crime and she may know too much.

Sr Marías cites some high-end literary antecedents in his discussion of death. MacBeth complains about the timing of his wife’s death; Balzac’s Colonel Chabert returns home an apparent Lazarus to consternation and rejection; Athos summarily executes his new bride in The Three Musketeers, only to have her return from the dead. In each case the timing of the death remains arbitrary and independent, outside
the control of the living.  The death in The Infatuations, although set in motion by a conspiracy, won’t result in a return for the corpse, and the crime’s chief instigator will not face justice for it. It’s a chilling proposition, one that hits close to home.

The author treads extremely carefully with his plot. He makes rather obvious that a murder conspiracy has succeeded, but that everyone’s involvement in it, including the narrator’s, has been extenuated, temporized, and attenuated, until at last no one suffers any consequences. It’s an exact, careful job of setting up and executing this narrative: it’s powerful because of the skill displayed. As a statement on modern public morals, it’s chillingly to the point, and devastating.