By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Besides, it’s not as if I was just reading classics.
I also read Larry Brown’s Dirty Work, a novel that takes place over two days in a VA hospital and transpires almost entirely through dialogue between a just-admitted white Vietnam vet and his black roommate, who has been there for 22 years and who longs for an end to his suffering. I read The Rhythm of the Road, by an L.A. expat living in London named Albyn Leah Hall, which was published last year. Hall is a practicing psychotherapist, and the novel is a nuanced and textured psychological study of how loneliness can turn infatuation into obsession and a needy person into a pariah, or even a sociopath.
I chewed through Will Beall’s fun debut from 2006, L.A. Rex, a page-turner whose references will not be lost on any of our mildly alert citizens. Beall is an officer in the city’s 77th Division, one of the most dangerous, and it was a kinky kick to see so much familiar terrain play out in a narrative that reveals at least as much about cops and corruption as anything in the newspapers from the past 10 years. I suspect the underrated recent film Street Kings owes a beat or two to Beall’s book.
None of these selections was planned. I wasn’t following anybody’s syllabus. I just picked stuff off my shelves and read. I didn’t care what it was, but it all seems to make some kind of sense now. Hall’s and Beall’s books came at a time when I was ready to move out of my internal universe and back into the world around me. They made for a nice, easy transition.
Then came Denis Johnson’s sprawling 2007 National Book Award winner, Tree of Smoke, followed right away by Cormac McCarthy’s terse-by-comparison 2007 Pulitzer Prize–winning The Road. And here’s where anyone arguing that fiction is insufficient to master the complexities of contemporary life should really check back in, or just check out.
Tree of Smoke is, perhaps, the best novel I’ve read since Saul Bellow’s Herzog, Martin Amis’ The Information or Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. JFK’s assassination and the first dark stirrings of containment policy in Indochina set the stage, and the narrative flows like a river with many tributaries all the way through the Vietnam War and its aftermath. It’s a big story, told almost like an old folktale, Beowulf for modern times, with characters as brave, flawed, earnest and corrupt as your friends and family.
In the end, though, Tree of Smoke is an epic confrontation with the ambitions and disasters of America’s imperial idealism. I don’t think I’ve read anything that so well crystallizes where we are now, how we got here, and what’s likely to come of it. I defy you to stop reading once you begin, so cinematic and rich is its prose and so involving are its players, from the charismatic Colonel and the heartbreaking NGO worker Kathy to Skip, the Quiet American who embodies all the best intentions and disastrous naiveté of this country.
As for McCarthy’s The Road,I’m not sure if it’s a cautionary tale, a parable, zombie thriller or all of the above, but try finding a more compassionately and brutally rendered vision of the apocalypse. It doesn’t seem to offer much hope for those who may feel the weight of collapse in the air, but now that I think about it, his novel is really a love story. And where there’s love, there’s hope. Right? Yes, right, that’s what he’s saying: Where there’s love, there’s hope. No matter how bleak things look, there is still love.
And still, thankfully, the novel.
L.A. Weekly’s former deputy editor Joe Donnelly is a writer living in Los Angeles.
More from Weekly Literary Supplement 2008:
Salman Rushdie: An excerpt from The Enchantress of Florence By SALMAN RUSHDIE
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