book review

BOOK REVIEW: GOLDEN HILL by FRANCIS SPUFFORD

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I took up this book with a sense of anticipation that was--almost--entirely rewarded.  Set in  New York--then a small city at the tip on the island of Manhattan--in 1746, its protagonist, Richard Smith,  is a well-mannered and cosmopolitan young man.  Versed in languages that extend to Turkish, the London stage, and conjuring tricks, he arrives bearing a letter of credit in excess of a thousand pounds charged on one of the infant City's largest financial concerns, an amount that, if honored, is so huge that it will exhaust its cash reserves.

If honored.  Much of the plot concerns the mystery--which our hero cultivates--as to his origins and intentions and New York's consequent suspicions of his legitimacy. As the City awaits confirmation of the validity of the debt by the next ship from London, in a few months, Smith finds himself embroiled in a series of adventures and misadventures that will not be entirely unfamiliar to readers of Tom Jones.  Or anyone who's just seen the movie.  Smith pursues a romantic interest in a well-born but difficult young woman, but consummates one with another man's wife, with predictable results.  In another episode he is saved at the last minute from certain death in a midnight sprint across the City's rooftops.  And speaking of last-minute escapes, he is twice spared the hangman's noose.  

Many reviewers refer to a startling plot twist.  While there is an entirely unexpected fact dropped two-thirds of the way through, once it is revealed, you can see the "twist" coming from way up the road.  

If I seem dismissive of the plot--and I'm not, to be clear; Spufford acknowledges his debt to the eighteenth-century novel-- my admiration for the setting is unbounded.  Spufford's mastery of the detail of life in eighteenth-century New York is astonishing, and his learning is lightly worn.  What he communicates most clearly is just how small, and how isolated, this largest of American cities was only thirty years before the revolution.  It was a town huddled on the very edge of a hostile continent, separated from the imperial capital by three thousand miles of seawater.  It was a scary place to be, and Spufford shows us that.  Equally compelling is the sense of the chaotic and ad lib nature of political and commercial life--a Governor hanging on by his fingernails, business conducted in the currencies of the dozen other colonies, other countries, or just bartered goods.  And some of the details are truly startling--just what "due process" meant three hundred years ago, for example, or the perils of a same-sex interracial relationship.

Though I didn't think the book quite lived up to the hype, it is nevertheless richly rewarding and not to be missed.

REVIEW: THE DEEP by JOHN CROWLEY

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The well-deserved attention  paid to John Crowley's most recent book, Ka, merits a fresh look at his earliest work.  The Deep (1975) is a richly imagined, dark, and lyrical novel that prefigures much of what was to come.

Into a war between Black and Red factions in a semifeudal other world drops the Visitor in a silver egg from the stars.  A genderless android with memory gone, he is discovered by the Endwives, nurse-coroners who attend every battle.  He is adopted by the Red faction and rises rapidly through their ranks.  He foils an assassination attempt by a woman of the Just, a secret guild headed by the tarot-reading Neither-Nor.  The Visitor compels her to take him to the edge of the world, where Leviathan reveals its history as a colony peopled by human seed in light-driven sailships.  Their tiny circular world is no more than the peak of a tower with its foundations thousands of miles below in the depths of a gas giant.  The Visitor returns in  his silver egg to whoever sent him, and the Just assassin returns to her world as the Woman in Red, a messianic figure preaching the cosmology she learned from Leviathan.

Have I given away too much?  Not at all.  The book's great pleasures are to be found in the intricate machinations of the warring factions--based on the Wars of the Roses but familiar to fans of Game of Thrones--the deeply imagined details of a Celtic medieval society, and Crowley's rich language.   One detail that will never leave me is the "war viols," the stringed instruments that accompany every skirmish.  This is a book to be enjoyed not only by admirers of Crowley's later work, but followers of Ursula K. LeGuin, Mervyn Peake, and--no kidding--George R. R. Martin.

 

REVIEW: KASPER MUTZENMACHER'S CURSED HAT by KEITH FENTONMILLER

Okay, that's a lot of title.  But worth it.

This is an amazing debut novel--wildly imaginative, powerfully written, funny, and deeply humane. However mythic his characters--they include a Nazi interrogator with the power to make women incapable of seeing their own faces and a talking wish-granting hat once owned by the god Hermes--Fentonmiller renders them fully and credibly. Equally impressive is his deft handling of a broad range of time and space--from Weimar Germany to sixties Detroit. This is a book not to be missed. 

 

Literary Video: Evelyn Waugh Interview

A cheerful Waugh.

A cheerful Waugh.

I don't remember who said it, but whoever it was offered this: "The only original thing that remains to be said about Evelyn Waugh is that he was a terrible writer and a wonderful human being."  One of the foremost English prose stylists of the twentieth century, he was also an acerbic snob and ultramontane reactionary.  All traits are on display in this 1960 BBC-TV interview.

I first discovered Waugh in 1974, when he was eight years dead and his literary reputation not what it had been.  Unfortunately I did so through a used-bookstore edition of Brideshead Revisited.  Unfortunately because as a seventeen year old in Western PA I didn't understand it, but under its influence briefly aped 1920's Oxonian aristocrats on my arrival at Yale.  Forty years later I'm soaked with shame sweat at the thought of port on the mantlepiece.  But luckily that was soon beaten out of me and I went on to discover his earlier work.

Waugh was born into a literary London family in 1903.  His older brother, Alec, got the heave-ho from the exclusive Sherborne School when he got caught with another boy--really?  at an English public school?--thus condemning Evelyn to the less prestigious Lancing.  He went on to an undistinguished academic career--once more, my role model--at Oxford, and after a brief stab at a career as an artist, settled into an apparent dead-end  as a master at an obscure school.  It almost proved to be a literal dead-end; he attempted suicide by drowning, but returned to shore after being stung by jellyfish.

He abandoned teaching and tried to support himself through journalism.  Shortly after the acceptance of his first novel, Decline and Fall, he married his first wife. also Evelyn.  My first wife was also Terry.  Creepy!

The first marriage swiftly crumbled; the literary career did not.   Though his personal life was so unsettled that he had no permanent home for eight years, instead staying with a succession of friends, his second novel, Vile Bodies, was a critical and popular success.  (It also became the basis for a deeply disappointing movie, Bright Young Things2003.)  He also achieved prominence as a journalist, attending the coronation of the Emperor Haile Selassie in then-Abyssinia as the representative of several newspapers.  This trip led not only to reams of travelogue but the comic novel Black Mischief.

In 1930 Waugh--then 27--converted to Catholicism.  It became a defining moment in his life. He once said: "You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being." Obtaining an annulment of his first marriage, he next married the daughter of an Anglo-Catholic aristocratic family and buckled down to repopulating England--his last child was named Septimus for the very good reason that he was the seventh.  He also buckled down to writing, producing in four years Scoop and A Handful of Dust.

When war broke out Waugh joined up.  He was personally fearless but so constitutionally insubordinate that he was repeatedly transferred and finally granted a six-month leave, in the middle of a desperate war, to write what became his best-known work, Brideshead Revisited. Waugh's conversion novel, it comprises a disillusioned middle-aged British Army officer's recollections of his relationships with an aristocratic Catholic family when he finds himself billeted at their palatial seat early in the war.  I say "relationships" deliberately, because he becomes romantically involved with two siblings--first, consummated or not, with the younger son while both are at Oxford in the twenties; later, with war approaching and the first love throughly lost to alcoholism, with his sister.  Though the story is scarcely without humor, it's nevertheless driven by Waugh's profoundly conservative spirituality.  Surprisingly, its adaptation as a TV series in 1981 is the only example I can think of where the knockoff was equal to the original--possibly because it was written by John Mortimer, who had fourteen hours of screen time to play with.

After the War Waugh's output declined in quality and quantity.  Though a trilogy based on his military experience was well-received and sold well, a novel based on the late-Roman Empress-Saint Helena's search for the True Cross did not do nearly as well.  

His output wasn't the only thing going downhill.  Always a heavy drinker, even by Oxbridge standards, Waugh added crude 1950's tranquilizers to the cocktail.  Shortly he became convinced that people were whispering about him.  He kept hearing the whispers when the people were gone.  Soon he believed he was possessed by devils.  Ultimately he was diagnosed with bromide poisoning, and a change in medications stopped the hallucinations.  This experience became the basis of Waugh's last significant work, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.

In his later years Waugh became a caricature of himself.  A dandy as a young man, he turned into the fat tweedy squire who appears in the interview.  As his hearing failed he affected a Victorian ear-trumpet.  He would no doubt have been comforted to know that he would die just after Mass on Easter Sunday; not so much, perhaps, by the fact that his death in the bathroom would form the basis of a persistent rumor that he had drowned in the toilet.  

 

 

REVIEW: THE WHITES by RICHARD PRICE

Noir not only lives, but flourishes with Richard Price.  His latest is equal to Lush Life and Clockers.

The protagonist is the aptly named Billy Graves.  Aptly because he runs the Night Watch, the only detective squad on duty in Manhattan during the small hours--the graveyard shift.  Not the most desirable duty, perhaps, but Billy's glad to have it.  Years before, his rapid rise through the ranks had stopped cold when his bullet passed through its intended target and killed a teenaged bystander as well.  The resulting uproar--protesters outside his house for weeks--cost him his marriage  and chained him to a desk.  Through the ordeal he had the closed-ranks support of his brother and sister Wild Geese, a half dozen detectives who'd had each others' backs since the start of their careers.

But now they're all deep into middle age and--with the exception of Billy--retirement.  Yet each has a case he can't let go of--a White.  As in the White Whale Ahab can't leave alone.  The one that got away, usually from an horrific crime committed with notable cruelty and arrogance.  Each of the Geese has an old file in a corner of the rec room; each periodically shows up at the perp's house or hospital room just to remind him that he's not forgotten.  The story opens when one of the Whites meets his end on a platform at Penn Station on St. Patrick's night and Billy's squad catches the call.  Rather than risk a spoiler, I will only say that this White is not the last.

The other line that drives the plot is another cop's quest for vengeance.  But in his case, the target is Billy's present wife.  

Price does his usual virtuoso turn describing the gritty realities of police procedure, the bond among cops doing a dangerous job, and the strain that tests that bond when one crosses the line even farther than usual.  (And usual is pretty far.)  But what's really striking is language that's simultaneously lush and tough.  An example: "Well, if the Bronx is good at one thing, it's hurting people. . . .He'll get his."  Another: "The state-run nursing home in Ozone Park smelled like cooking diapers."  

If you're a Price fan, you won't be disappointed.  And if you're not, you will be.

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