Did not finish because there’s only so much smug old guy I can take

Deep South
by Paul Theroux

I don’t usually review books that I don’t finish, but I find I have a lot to say about this book. I know there will be people who disagree with me because Paul Theroux is much lauded for his travel writing, and at a sentence level I would have to agree that he’s a great writer. But there was something about this book that made me deeply uncomfortable, and it was not the non-revelation that there is serious poverty in the southern United States, or that racial tensions continue to exist there.

Theroux has a high sense of self-importance and takes great pleasure in displaying how well read and well travelled he is. He repeatedly makes sweeping generalisations that are designed to demonstrate his open-mindedness or liberal politics but actually serve to make the opposite point. He keeps presenting the reader with terribly nice southern black men who turn out to have street smarts but little education, and then white men who are hideously racist and gun-crazy. He’s over-simplifying complex issues, and not in a particularly interesting way.

Continue reading “Did not finish because there’s only so much smug old guy I can take”

We seem to have strayed into a timeless moral vortex

Bullet Park

Bullet Park
by John Cheever

I wasn’t much aware of John Cheever until a year or two ago. And even then I lumped him together with the great big male American 20th-century greats, which made me feel that I should read him, but didn’t really feel much inclination to. So I might never have read this novel if my book club hadn’t chosen it. And I’m glad they did, as it was a more enjoyable read than I expected.

This is a comedy, poking fun at suburbia, but it’s a dark, subtle kind of comedy. I certainly didn’t laugh out loud. The story is that of Eliot Nailles, sensible middle-class long-term resident of Bullet Park, a New York suburb, and his recently arrived neighbour Paul Hammer. At first glance Nailles is hard working, happily married, blessed with a perfect teenage son and admired by all around him, while Hammer is somehow mysterious, with a wife who says things she shouldn’t after a few drinks.

The first half of the book, perhaps predictably, cuts through that façade of suburbia and looks behind the closed doors at the details of Nailles’ life. His love for his wife Nellie borders on obsession but does she feel anything like the same loyalty for him? And his son Tony seems to have been struck down suddenly with some form of bedridden depression, which Nailles is trying desperately to both understand and find a cure for.

What I found interesting was that Cheever doesn’t entirely subvert the prevalent view of suburbia, because overall the picture painted is one of dreariness and predictability. Not that the writing is at all dreary, but if this section had gone on much longer I think I would soon have become bored.

“There seemed to be some metric regulation to the pace of the talk. It was emotional, intimate, evocative and as random as poetry. They had come from other places and would go to other places but sitting against the light at four in the afternoon they seemed as permanent as the beer pulls.”

What saves this book is the switch at the start of part two to Hammer’s story. This part is narrated by Hammer and fills in his backstory, and I was immediately grinning and enjoying the ride that he takes you on. He has a wonderful turn of phrase and a calculated assessment of which facts to give. He is an archetypal unreliable narrator, which makes it all the harder to figure out what is coming in part three, when the narrative switches back to the two men in Bullet Park.

“We traditionally associate nakedness with judgments and eternity and so on those beaches where we are mostly naked the scene seems apocalyptic. Standing at the surf line we seem, quite innocently, to have strayed into a timeless moral vortex.”

Hammer and Nailles are very different people, both full of ambiguity, but neither came 100% to life for me. I think this comes down to the style of writing. We talked at book club about how this might be related to Cheever being for the most part a short-story writer, and how this novel in many ways feels like a long short story. This is a slight criticism, but only a slight one. And certainly I would be interested to read Cheever’s short fiction and see if his style is better suited to that.

The writing is often beautiful and the story includes some wonderful quirks, that completely thrilled me. For instance, Hammer has an obsession with yellow rooms – they have to be a specific shade of yellow and he has to find them already painted that colour. Hammer’s mother (a fairly minor character but an absolutely brilliant one) decides that her therapist is too expensive so she takes to analysing herself, aloud.

“Three times a week, I lie down on my bed and talk to myself for an hour. I’m very frank. I don’t spare myself any unpleasantness. The therapy seems to be quite effective and, of course, it doesn’t cost me a cent.”

In the end, I liked this book but I didn’t love it. This is partly related to the ending, which I won’t discuss here and I wasn’t necessarily disappointed by, but I did feel a certain…deflation at. But I also wonder if it’s related to the comedy not being that funny but also not that biting. Another thing we mentioned at book club was that this book reads like a satire without a clear target. Bullet Park is both a safe, happy place and a dull or even sinister place. But New York City gets lots of mentions and it isn’t painted as particularly better or worse than suburbia. And society itself is similarly both lampooned and forgiven. I think ultimately I would have enjoyed it more if it was either more sharp and biting, or if it had more relatable characters.

First published 1969 by Knopf.

Source: I bought this from Topping Books in Bath.

It’s Hell in here

Damned
by Chuck Palahniuk

This, Palahniuk’s latest offering, is every bit as crazy, vitriolic, scathingly sarcastic and darkly comic as you might expect if you’ve read any of his previous work. It might actually be lighter than usual and more funny, but it’s been a few years so maybe I’m mis-remembering.

I throw out words like “light” and “comic” and then have to tell you that this book is set in Hell. A really nasty, gruesome Hell to boot. But it’s narrated by a chirpy 13-year-old American girl whose view of both the world above and the one below is hilarious.

Each chapter begins, “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison,” in a riff on just one of the many literary influences in this story. In life, Madison, slightly chubby and hopelessly naïve daughter of rich, famous parents, liked to read romantic novels and watch feel-good films. In death she raves about how she managed to die in an outfit particularly practical for Hell and tries to make friends with fellow damned souls. We gradually hear her life story, told in-between descriptions of Hell and her attempts to get on with spending eternity there.

Initially I found Madison irritating, though the concept was funny. She repeats the same phrases, harks back to the same references and makes the same jokes over and over. Which is realistic, I don’t doubt, but not the makings of a sympathetic character. However, death forces her to examine and analyse herself, remember details she’d rather forget and question the identity she clings to, so that she gradually becomes more likeable. Perhaps it says something about me that I vastly prefer her once she has lost her innocent guilelessness!

The depiction of Hell plays on preconceptions, twisting and turning them around. There are demons, sure; in fact every demon ever invented by any culture or religion. There are fires and pits of torment and endless methods of torture, but there are also the very gruesome indeed Great Ocean of Wasted Sperm, Swamp of Rancid Perspiration, Dandruff Desert and many more of that ilk. Thankfully they are not all described in detail but, well, some are. And there are strict rules. Many, many rules. In fact, it becomes a running joke. At first it seems to Madison that perhaps the Christian right had all the answers, but she slowly discovers that the rules of Hell are petty, almost arbitrary, and can trap anyone. But the fact that there are rules means that you can learn them, and play them.

From the cell in which she first finds herself installed in Hell, Madison makes the acquaintance of a cheerleader (Babette), a jock (Patterson), a nerd (Leonard) and a punk (Archer). Adding her goody-two-shoes self, that makes her very own Breakfast Club and she determines to befriend them all. When Archer uses the safety pin from his cheek to spring them all from their cells, the motley crew journey across Hell together. Patterson just tries to get off with Babette while Leonard drones on about all the different demons encountered (he’s more of a history nerd than your typical science nerd) but Archer and Babette prove themselves surprisingly useful friends to have around.

I found this book genuinely funny, but also disturbing (it is Palahniuk, after all) and even sad. I grew to like Madison’s style of chatter, though the obviousness of her references never failed to grate. With her uber-bohemian parents and Swiss boarding school, surely she could have some less mainstream books or films to refer to occasionally? And while I accept that in the parents Palahniuk is mocking a certain kind of hypocritical celebrity, I did find some of his attacks a little too broad-ranging.

I think I will continue to look out all Palahniuk’s new releases, but so far his Diary: a novel has not been ousted from the favourite spot.

Copy kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.
Published October 2011 by Doubleday.