Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Break-Up of Our Camp and Other Stories - Paul Goodman 
Unique, innovative – those qualities are sharply etched on every page of this collection of interconnected stories. The setting is a summer camp for Jewish boys where Matt/Goodman is a counselor and head of the drama department. Woven into the plots are philosophical and sociological observations, and the psychology of Matt and those he interacts with is rigorously explored (Goodman was a philosopher, a psychologist and a sociologist; it was his nature to dig deep). If you follow the thinking (which isn’t that hard to do) you arrive at the point Goodman is trying to make. The first story is exhilarating. “The Canoeist” is a lone Canadian who rows up to the camp, hungry and tired. Initially he’s treated hospitably, and he makes a place for himself among the boys (and the girls in a nearby camp). He says he’ll be leaving soon but keeps putting off his departure. Gradually the boys begin to exclude this outsider, then to barely acknowledge his existence. He responds by setting out in his canoe late one stormy afternoon; all gather on the shore to watch as he battles the wind and rain, slowly disappearing from sight. This is an important incident, and no aspect of it is left unexamined. Later the canoeist returns, not in the flesh but in the imagination of the members of the camp; he has become a mythic figure. Matt narrates all this in the first person, but we also enter the minds of others and get their intimate thoughts and feelings. I’ve written a lot about a single story in a very slender volume – Camp contains six stories, and one is three pages long. But Goodman was an original, and for that reason he deserves attention. Someday I’ll tackle his magnum opus, The Empire City, though I find the prospect daunting. Too often he lets philosophical and sociological matters predominate over character and plot. Fiction can’t breathe if it’s encumbered. I wonder if Goodman, for all his intellect, was aware of that basic fact. 

The Trouble of One House - Brendan Gill 
The “trouble” of the title is, in one sense, the early death of a woman who loved her three children and husband; all Elizabeth aspired to do in life was to love. Though this quality places her at the heart of the novel, her absence from events makes her a shadowy presence on the periphery (she is a shadow in a photograph she took of her children – the last thing she sees). Others, who occupy center stage, can’t be summed up in simple terms; unlike Elizabeth, they’re complex and conflicted. Besides the members of the Rowan family there are seven major characters and as many secondary ones. All come to life: they breathe, they sweat, they feel. Though most are fully comprehensible, a few act in ways I found baffling (which constitutes the only problem I had with the novel). Some people stand at the opposite end of the spectrum from Elizabeth; they’re not only incapable of loving, they’re bent on destroying others. They aren’t merely villains; they’re people we know, they’re even ourselves. Gill constructs scenes with assurance, his dialogue rings true. He didn’t write a tidy book, nor a consistent one, yet everything seems interconnected. I discovered a fact that may account for the underlying unity. Like Elizabeth’s son, who is five years old when she dies, the author lost his mother when he was five. Though she surely left an indelible impression, Gill’s memories of her must have been vague. As he grew to manhood the diverse world of complex characters he interacted with stood out distinctly. His ability to capture that world is his major achievement. But he needed to include love: Elizabeth insisting from the shadows, quietly and perhaps futilely, People, it’s so simple.

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