Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Fool Killer - Helen Eustis
A twelve year old boy relates his experiences (which take place in rural America in the late 1800s) after he flees his foster home. He speaks to the reader in a dialect not unlike Huck Finn’s: “When I come home, I knowed the Old Crab was waiting for me, and I would catch it.” Because of his youth, he’s dependent on adults; in his wanderings he stays with families or lone individuals. George is observant and thoughtful; he’s also very emotional and impressionable. An eccentric old man tells him of the mysterious fool killer, who’s “eight feet or over – tallern any man – and carries a chopper so sharp it’d cut through a fence post like it was a segar.” George develops an amorphous fear of this lurking entity. The person who has the greatest impact on him is Milo; George comes to idolize the man. They make plans to wander from place to place, always sleeping outdoors (Milo won’t sleep in a house), until they reach the Pacific. Milo abhors society, and they intend to live outside its restrictions. It gradually becomes clear that George has formed a bond with a deeply disturbed individual. The two are separated after a murder at a camp revival, and George is taken in by the Galts, a kindly (and childless) couple. George becomes part of a family; he’s loved and is finally able to lead a normal life. Then Milo reappears . . . This is a good tale, but what’s remarkable about it is the final short paragraph, when the reader suddenly sees things in a wholly different light. This can happen only if the author has planted the seeds to make that which is surprising and unsettling seem to be absolutely right.

Whistle Stop - Maritta Wolff
You don’t want to have the Veeches as neighbors. They’re trashy, noisy and continually embroiled in some commotion. Nine people are crammed into a small, rundown house, and they’re often at each other’s throats (sometimes literally). One of the occupants is the child of the eldest daughter, Mary. The father’s identity is never disclosed, but it’s strongly implied that he’s Mary’s brother, Kenny. The two definitely have an unusual relationship. So we’re talking incest, though Wolff never puts that card directly on the table. She glamorizes both these characters. Kenny refuses to be ensnared by any ties – a job, one woman; he’s like a strong (and sometimes dangerous) animal, confident in his ability to fulfill his immediate needs. Mary is beautiful, competent, and as self-contained as a sphinx. They live lives (separate ones) outside the confines of the house, and only stay there intermittently. The novel gives a full share of attention to each member of the Veech family during one summer; the young people are all dissatisfied and want to get away from the dead-end little town they’re stuck in. This was Wolff’s first novel, written when she was in her early twenties, and the prose is far from polished. I wondered why an editor didn’t tidy it up a bit, then decided that maybe its messiness reflects the messiness of the lives being portrayed. The dialogue (“Now lookit here, I been telling you you gotta cut this kind of business out and I ain’t just been talking to hear myself, neither”) is true to how the uneducated Veeches speak. What matters most is that Wolff was an author with the right instincts. The book is alive, it moves (sometimes, in the action scenes, with velocity). Each character is a distinct individual, and I was involved in their predicaments. Though they make major mistakes, I wasn’t judgmental as long as I understood them. In the case of Mary and Kenny, the deep fault lines in their personalities are unsettling. Mary casually neglects her daughter (who’s becoming a warped little girl) and Kenny’s legacy in the town takes the form of a horribly disfigured woman. The hidden tragedy at the heart of this novel may be incest. What lingers after the inconclusive ending is a feeling of sadness, like the sadness evoked by the whistle of a passing train.

Born Twice - Giuseppe Pontiggia (Italian)
Though subtitled “A Novel of Fatherhood,” this book seems autobiographical. I could do a bit of research and find out if Pontiggia had a severely disabled son, but why bother. The author had his chance to engage me, and he did so on only a few occasions. The short episodes that comprise the book are written in a prose that’s elegant, even pristine. Because the grim facts of disability are handled gingerly or avoided altogether, they make hardly a ripple on this immaculate surface. Of primary interest to Pontiggia are the thoughts and encounters of the father. On almost every page we get ruminations like this: “To challenge one’s limits as an end to itself (otherwise known as the fashionable imperative) derives from the fear of accepting one’s limits.” I soon reached the conclusion that this isn’t a novel of fatherhood; it’s a novel of self-absorption. The son – the ostensible focus of the book – isn’t given much attention; in most of his appearances he utters comments that are extraordinarily insightful (and thus suspect). The narrator has a wife, though not a marriage; in their exchanges she constantly expresses her disapproval of him. I could sympathize with her.

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