Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Cotters’ England - Christina Stead
I’m using the book’s original title, when it was first published in England (it appeared in the United States as Dark Places of the Heart, which is too conventional for such an eccentric work). Stead was a writer of extravagant dimensions who let her passion and intuition have free rein; she didn’t abide by rules or limits. Her strength is her weakness; she has so much energy that she can tire the reader out. As her characters talk – and do they talk! – it’s as if floodgates have been opened. The voices of Nellie and Tom, a brother and sister, are the most insistent. But what lies behind their words? We get insight into the tangled alleyways of Nellie’s mind, but Tom is nebulous; I don’t think Stead dug her claws into him to the degree that she did with his sister. The England of the Cotter family is a dumping ground, sordid both physically and morally. Despite this setting, the book has indefatigable verve and spirit; it soars in a crazy, crazed way. And behind Stead’s seemingly haphazard approach is a sense of unity. Though she veers off in a unexpected new direction in the last paragraph, I was left feeling that a circle had been closed. A fitting way to end this review is to give you a taste of the voice of Nellie, as she talks to Tom: “Ah, ye devil! Come, chick, let’s have your news, don’t tease! Tell it in your own deprecating style, at the rate of one hint a half-hour, to be tiresome. Come, what did you do last night, chick?”

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner - Alan Sillitoe
The long-distance title story (over fifty pages) is good, but its potential is meaty enough to be better than good, so in a sense it falls short. Early on we know too much. The boy’s intention to lose the race (which is stated on page six and never wavers) is part of his overall attitude toward life – he’s far beyond any hope for rehabilitation. Sillitoe arms his protagonist with a thoroughly worked-out defiance toward society (“. . . by Christ, I’d rather be like I am – always on the run and breaking into shops for a packet of fags and a jar of jam – than have the whip-hand over somebody else and be dead from the toe nails up”). The boy’s voice is good, but that one note – defiance – is sounded too often. As for the next two pieces – “Uncle Ernest” and “Mr. Raynor the School-Teacher” – the first was weak, the other inconsequential. The Fishing-Boat Picture” (about a failed marriage) was initially interesting, but it needed an emotional kick at the end. To achieve this the reader must be made to feel emotions, and this won’t happen if they’re directly stated – which is what Sillitoe winds up doing.

These Thousand Hills - A. B. Guthrie, Jr.
When I was in my teens Guthrie’s The Big Sky and The Way West played an important role in furthering my love of books, so reading These Thousand Hills was disheartening. It follows fifteen years in the life of Lat Evans as he moves up in the world of the Montana Territory in the late1800s. I became increasingly uninvolved with this taciturn, stoical, colorless character. I also felt no empathy for him; Guthrie doesn’t develop a basis for some judgmental decisions Lat makes, so he seems heartless. The ending is a melodramatic grab bag (including a gratuitous murder mystery). Lat owns up to his shortcomings, but the impact is diminished because it has no repercussions; on the last page his wife lyrically forgives all. As for that wife, and the prostitute with a heart of gold who precedes her, they’re merely role players. There’s a mechanical, paint-by-numbers feel to this book. The prose is inventive, but in a diligent way, and the re-creation of the past has the type of authenticity that seems researched. Maybe a determination to finish his “Big Sky” series was spurring Guthrie on. Missing is the inspiration that marked those two earlier novels of my boyhood. Or, at least, that’s what I want to believe.


jimmy scoville said...

That is sad to have a childhood beloved character & author pulled down before your minds as in 'These Thousand Hills.'

'The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner' is a good title. Wish it played out more. To lose the race seems the easiest option.

Even 'Cotters’ England' leads you as reader into a sense of betrayal. Not good.

Being a lesser reader than you, but a reader all the same, I hate to stop reading a book. Recently I ceased Mojo Hand. It was because the lead was more like a ghost or a robot as the world bloomed dangerously around her. No one would surrender so easily to such blues-men or just any persistent male when she is so young, so pretty, able to pass off as white, around Lake Chalres, LA. She has to do something, something besides simply putting a food forward. But the scenes blooming around her were very real, beautiful, savage, & alive in their descent.

Ah, I've gotten off the track here & into my own review.

Hope your reading has gotten better...

Phillip Routh said...

The characters in Guthrie's "Big Sky" series change from book to book. The first of the series takes place when the west was Indian territory, with very few white men. The next is about a wagon train making its way west. Those two earlier works stand up in my mind.
My review of Cotter's England was meant to be a good one. It's quite a book. Just sort of overpowering.
Christina Stead is special, in a category of her own. She wrote one of the great novels of the last century: The Man Who Loved Children.
The higher purpose of this blog is to spotlight under-appreciated books/authors. My hope is that people will come across reviews of deserving books and get interested enough to read them. And then it would be gratifying to me if they'd write comments about them, even if they give dissenting opinions.
But that may be pie-in-the-sky thinking on my part.