Thursday, June 21, 2012

Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick, review and giveaway

"I still ask myself sometimes late at night, about what happened, how it all turned out, about the life I've led, you know. Everything. I ask myself the same questions they ask me, these people who've only heard about it, who weren't even around when it all took place.  What happened and why did it have to happen in the way it did?"

Long before we identify the narrator, as readers we find ourselves asking those same questions, even though we know it is 'just' a story, set in Brownsburg, Virginia in 1948. This small town feels familiar--you can imagine driving through it and stopping for soda on a long car trip.  Goolrick describes it precisely, from the simple customs of returning home each day for lunch to the evenings where families sat on porches listening to the single radio station playing.  In some places, it felt reminiscent of Scout and Boo's neighborhood in To Kill a Mockingbird, or as a less-jaded version of The Sound and the Fury.  The almost numbing perfection of homes and streets creates a sort of unexpected's not readily apparent where or when the inevitable conflict will appear in the story.

In any case, the town setting is almost a game board of potential friction, and when Goolrick adds his complicated characters to the mix, he enriches the story in varying layers.  There are seven greatly significant characters (I'm avoiding spoilers here, so I'm going to be as cryptic as possible) that each could carry the novel on their own, as they are so unique and unexpected.  Each could be a subject for study in the subtext of the overall story.

Charlie Beale is a newcomer to the town, quickly buying up land while working in a butcher shop.  He becomes very close to a married couple with a precocious little boy, Sam.  Sam finds a nearly mythic figure in Charlie Beale, and idolizes him immediately.  Charlie settles into this new town with every advantage and a mysterious box of money.  What could go wrong?

Things do go wrong, but not in the ways I was predicting.  I thought I knew where the story was headed and my assumptions led me astray, but I think Goolrick intended to mess a bit with what we may be expecting in this sort of story. 

In creating the fictional city, Goolrick worked in all-too-real issues that his characters were facing (the budding resistance to traditional gender roles and race relations) so that each of their stories felt authentic and fully developed. Beyond these issues, the novel itself, a simple story made up of complicated people, pushes us to consider the drama on our own terms.  Exactly at what point do you cut off a friendship that appears doomed?  If everyone is lying, how do you find the strength to tell the truth? How do you decide when to step away from a problem and turn your back?  Are you complicit if you don't?

Special thanks to Julia Bowen of Algonquin Books for the Review Copy.

Enter to win the hardcover final of the book, just released last week, by leaving a comment below.  A winner will be selected randomly on July 14, 2012 to receive the book.  Please leave contact info in comment.  US only.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Life of an Unknown Man by Andrei Makine (French translation)

Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan

“He pours himself another whiskey, downs it with the grimace of one who has seen through the universal grubbiness of human nature, but, at the same time, with a writer’s reflex, observes himself and finds his own posture false and exaggerated.”

Andrei Makine’s novel begins by summoning the works of Chekhov in the narrator’s consciousness, a Russian voice that toys with his thoughts as he analyzes his doomed relationship with Lea, a woman thirty years younger who has decided to leave him. Chekhov becomes the touchstone that Shutov, our protagonist, keeps returning to, as both emblematic of his own career as a writer but also as a way of remembering Russia. Yet, he’s not necessarily a fan…the Russia he remembers, while now in Paris, is far more brutal than a toboggan ride with a girl named Nadenka.

The end of his relationship leaves him hungering for change, a return to something familiar, so he immediately books a trip to St. Petersburg, in order to reunite with an old lover there. Romantic in theory, but implausible once he arrives. Everything he’s known has changed, and it seems as if Shutov can only look outward at the momentous shifts. For one thing, what he remembers was Leningrad, the Siege, and the hunger of the Russian people just to survive. Now in St. Petersburg, excess is everywhere, and the conspicuous consumption and materialism of New Russia shocks him:

“This is the kind of apartment, the type of food, which in the Soviet era the Russians used to picture when they spoke of the West…And here it is, they have re-created a quintessence of the West that he himself never really experienced in the West at all. A paradox….”

His visit is unfortunately timed during the tercentenary celebrations, with heads of state from all over the world in attendance and with carnivals, parades, and general wildness taking over St. Petersburg. Rather than celebrating, he sees the crowds as chloroformed and participating in a mass “exorcism”. It’s in this position that the novel’s central question is exposed: is it better to celebrate a time wherein Chekhov wrote of rides in the snow and romantic pursuits, or to focus on the horror of the Gulag and the survival of the Russian people to overcome? Or, to leave both behind without a glance and focus on only what is new? It seems that Shutov is lost between these three time periods and can’t find one that fits.

Much of the story line involves writing and publishing, and Shutov questions how these relate to modern history:

“Wisdom after the the old days a collection of poems could change your life, but a single poem could also cost the life of its author. Lines of verse carried the weight of long sentences north of the Arctic Circle where so many poets died…

He imagines Vlad’s mocking reply: ‘And you think that was good?’ There it is. A na├»ve question like this is hard to counter. Why should the Gulag be a criterion of good literature? And suffering a measure of authenticity?....To these young Russians no book is forbidden now. They travel the world, they are well fed, well educated, free of complexes…And yet they lack something.”

Were it only his dilemma of place, the novel would probably get dull quickly. In fact, at times he does seem awfully bleak. But Makine adjusts the flow by bringing in another story, one that ties the three ages of Russian life that Shutov can’t abide into one narrative, shifting us into the story of an elderly man soon to go into a rest home that has been on the periphery of the story since its beginning. Finally (one thinks), the old man Volsky begins to tell another story, a love story of sorts, of his own with a young woman named Mila just before the Siege began. This is the story that connects all the dots that Shutov has been marking, while still leaving ambiguities for the reader to figure out.

Makine’s novel isn’t just about the state of Russia now, but looks at the position of relationships over time, and at the nature of age, in a similar three-stage layout. For example, Lea and Vlad are both youthful counterpoints to his middle-age, while Volsky stands in as the third age. Each action of these characters corresponds in many ways to the historical ages he presents for Russia. There are even levels to relationships by location: street views, balcony views, and within the innermost apartment homes and hotels that Yana owns. It’s no coincidence that Shutov begins the novel living in an attic in Paris with Lea, only to find himself in a spacious apartment in St. Petersburg and then back to his ‘dovecote’ in Paris. The changes he is slowly acknowledging fall into the same path as these locations.

The novel is lovely and atmospheric, but at times, the character of Shutov becomes more curmudgeonly than is appealing. He’s so dismissive of any changes, even positive ones, that his point of view becomes tiresome. It comes as a relief when Volsky begins his story within the story. When Shutov reappears, it’s with a more empathetic understanding of the very changes he was fighting against. The weightiness of the subject matter makes for serious reflection on change on other levels too: familial, political, and cultural.

Special thanks to Graywolf Press for the Advance Review Copy.
This title released yesterday.