By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Recommending novels is a fool’s errand and giving them as gifts is greater folly yet. To this day, my sister assails me for suggesting Norman Rush’s Mating in 1996, and I’ve altogether stopped proposing any of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels, Henry James’ The Spoils of Poynton or Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard because too many friends have whined and complained when they should have gotten down on their knees in thanks. In fact, after years of being in various book groups and classrooms, I’ve found that the better the book, the more vociferous its detractors. Unlike The Kite Runner, no great literary book pleases everyone.
On the other hand, as a reader and writer of novels, I can’t think of anything I’d love better than a stack of books, a week’s or month’s supply of good reading. Who cares if they aren’t all perfect? Their flaws and challenges are often as compelling and revealing and fun to talk about as their pleasures. Herewith, then, is my little stack of big, late-year books, flaws and all.
Cormac McCarthy is our great aestheticizer of manly competence, and of violence. The Roadis a scraggy postapocalypse melodrama set in America a decade after a great earth-killing conflagration has destroyed all organic life, and a few hapless survivors wander the ashen world searching for food and preying on each other.
As ever with McCarthy, some images of violence are so dire, they glitter like toxic jewels set into the narrative as if for us to admire the dark range of this writer’s imagination. There’s “a charred, human infant gutted and blackening on the spit” and a cellar full of people waiting to be eaten, one already with his legs removed and hips cauterized. Meanwhile, “the good guys,” an unnamed father and his sweet 10-year-old son, traverse this world heading south for warmer weather. The father is a master of masculine capability; he fights off predators, finds morel mushrooms in a lifeless landscape, locates forgotten cisterns and hidden bomb shelters. He can fashion the necessary stove valve, whittle a bullet, repair a wheel. “He pulled the bolt and bored out the collect with a hand drill and resleeved it with a section of pipe .?.?.”
While as visionary and brutal as the Torah, The Road is also an ultimate Scout adventure story, a female-free dream world of idealized father-son bonding. (The mother of this small family chose suicide rather than face certain rape and murder.) “You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like,” she told her husband when announcing her decision. “I am done with my own whorish heart.”
It is hard to say which is less believable, the mother’s abandonment of her son or her use of tawdry language to explain it. No surprise, then, that the only other woman who speaks in the book is a kind of Road Warrior madonna who intones biblical prophecy. (“The breath of God is his breath yet. Though it pass from man to man [sic!] through all time.”) Despite all this, The Road is a compulsive read, and I was often deep in its thrall — that’s my whorish heart.
Alice McDermott’s quietly ambitious and lovely new novel, After This, addresses the subtler, more mundane struggles of average, well-meaning people trying to be decent — that is, doing their best to love disappointing family members or irritating friends. McDermott is often cited for her lush, dense prose, and appropriately so, but it is her structures that dazzle me. After This is a family portrait with a curious, episodic composition. It’s as if the author had a panoramic vision of the Keanes, an Irish Catholic family on Long Island, and she homes in on various formative events in their history; the windy day Mary Keane met her husband; her youngest daughter’s eventful birth, the night a family friend broke down on a public bus. With each incident, as McDermott employs the short story’s standard element — the epiphany — for novelistic purposes, an unhurried accumulation of precise detail coalesces into an unexpected charge of insight and poignancy.
The novel is also as idea-based as it is character driven; it is about the changing church, the changing family, loving the unlovable, but most of all, it is deeply, quietly antiwar. The Keanes are a family that bears the personal damage from our country’s military engagements — a father wounded in World War II, a son killed in Vietnam. Reading this book, one wonders how families survive such loss, and how we as a country abide sending our sons and brothers off to senseless death.
In The Lay of the Land, the third installment of his trilogy featuring the former sportswriter turned real estate agent Frank Bascombe, Richard Ford mulls over mortality and marriage. Now 54 years old, Bascombe still sells homes along the Jersey shore. His second wife for some underexplained reason has left him for her mildly deranged first husband. Frank has since started treatment for prostate cancer, and is anticipating Thanksgiving with his “has-bian” (ex-lesbian) daughter and estranged, nerdy son. For days before the holiday, Frank drives hither and yon, meets with old friends and his Tibetan Buddhist/Republican real estate partner; pays a “sponsorial” visit to a possible former lover, sees his ex-wife, who suggests they get back together. He shows a house, he philosophizes about a vague concept called “the Permanent Period,” and catalogs virtually every billboard, tree and holiday activity in his path.