Thursday, November 10, 2011

Look How the Fish Live - J. F. Powers
Seven good stories (if you disregard the three short ones, which are unsuccessful oddities). Five of them feature pastors, bishops, curates, etc. Powers is able to make these stories relevant to someone like me, who has little interest in religion, because his characters are first and foremost human beings. Though the religious life is treated with respect, it isn’t depicted as all-fulfilling. Powers writes about lonely (and often eccentric) bachelors who want to make close connections with others; instead they engage in a struggle of wills over petty issues, resulting in hurt feelings and resentment. My favorite story was “Farewell,” about a retired bishop trying to fill his days and to stay relevant; his plucky efforts are amusing and sad. Amusing and sad – Powers has the ability to evoke those feelings. The intricately-crafted buoyancy of his writing is on display in the opening lines of “Priestly Fellowship”: “The time to plant grass seed is in the winter, the man in the next parish had told Joe: just mix it with the snow and let nature do the rest. So Joe had done that – had believed a priest who rode a scooter and put ice cubes in his beer – and, toward the end of April, had ordered sod.” Powers never states that the grass didn’t grow; he frequently leaves it to the reader to fill in gaps, both small and large; this demands one’s attention, particularly in the dialogue, which can become a tangle of non sequiturs. To do justice to these stories, they shouldn’t be read one after the other; a sameness sets in because of their limited subject matter and the absence of women characters.

Mildred Pierce - James M. Cain
A woman bakes delicious pies, and out of that talent she builds a thriving business. Cain, who wrote this novel in 1946, when the memory of the Depression was fresh, cared about the money concerns of ordinary people. Mildred Pierce is an ordinary person; she has strengths and weaknesses, she acts well and she acts badly. Although there’s one aspect of her personality that’s aberrant: she’s obsessed with her daughter. It’s not motherly love, as Mildred wants to believe; she even has repressed sexual feelings for Veda. The roots of this obsession aren’t explored, but it seems that the girl’s proud, haughty nature, her determination not to be ordinary, made her someone Mildred looked up to. By her teens Veda is in the driver’s seat, and when thwarted in her goals she strikes out at her mother with a whip made of barbed words (“you poor, half-witted mope”). Mildred, no pushover, isn’t a match for a daughter unencumbered by tender sentiments. Though I found this sick relationship fascinating, it wasn’t convincing. The book delves into every aspect of Mildred Pierce, and in all other ways, in all her other relationships, she rings true. A book about a woman making her way in the business world can be engrossing, but Cain needed to inject an element of wildness into his plots, and calculating, amoral Veda provides it. As for the prose, the opening sentence can be seen as a stylistic statement: “In the spring of 1931, on a lawn in Glendale, California, a man was bracing trees.” Cain’s writing is devoid of ornamentation, admirably simple and straightforward.

High Sierra - W. R. Burnett
This novel was written nine years before The Asphalt Jungle. Though it’s much more crudely done, Burnett’s skill at portraying characters in different lights is again a strength. Roy Earle, just out prison, is thirty-seven but feels like an old man nearing the end of the line. He’s a career criminal with a reputation for being hard and dangerous. He is those things, but something has gone soft in him; the conflict between his callous and compassionate sides is at the core of the story. His relationship with Marie – one she wants for security – begins with Roy setting the terms: to him she’s “nothing but a lay.” The feelings they have for one another grow slowly, in a halting, uncertain fashion; love is unknown territory for both of them. This is a sad book. Roy has made a mess of his life; he accepts that fact with stoical resignation. Marie, outwardly tough and self-reliant, is neither; at age twenty-five she feels herself precariously close to becoming a bum. They form a makeshift family, which includes a stray dog. As the net closes in on him, Roy sends a short letter to Marie; it ends with the words: “I will get back some way. Don’t worry, kid. Tell the little nuisance hello for me.” He signs the letter “The Old Man.” For a hard-boiled crime novel High Sierra gets sentimental at times, but this reflects the soft side of Roy. It got to my soft side too.

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