Thursday, November 1, 2012

Dubliners - James Joyce
Dublin emerges from the fog, grey and dreary. Overall, the lives of its residents are as grey and dreary as the city. Only in “The Dead” does a man’s spirit momentarily soar, but at the end he’s meditating on all the dead, including the living who will soon join them. This concluding story differs in significant ways from the others; it foreshadows the shift that would take Joyce on a radically different path as a writer. It’s by far the longest and most ambitious piece in the collection, and whereas the others are executed with a workman’s detachment, in “The Dead” Joyce assumes an intimacy with his main character. The prose, which had previously been simple and precise, attains a gorgeous cadence in the final paragraph. Artful, yes, though I thought the connectivity in Gabriel’s musings – which lead him to a final image – was imposed for art’s sake. “A Painful Case,” on the other hand, is a clinical study of emotional aridity, done in the mode Joyce would abandon. When Mr Duffy learns of the death of Emily Sinico he first condemns his involvement with such a contemptible creature. Then we follow his thoughts as they move in another direction, into the realm of guilt and regret and loss; he ends up here: “He could not feel her in the darkness nor her voice touch his ear. He waited for some minutes listening. He could hear nothing: the night was perfectly silent. He listened again: perfectly silent. He felt that he was alone.” Joyce considered this story to be one of the weakest; I think he was wrong, and this difference of opinion mirrors our differences as to what fiction should do. Dubliners is the only work by Joyce that I could read, and one I have great respect for. He gives us a varied cross-section of lives; though some stories are slight, they take on significance as part of a whole. His prose is easily accessible, and to me this is a virtue. Yet, due to the Irishness of his subject matter, the annotated edition I consulted explained some things I missed, such as what the ending to “Two Gallants” signified (I should have figured this out on my own, but it never occurred to me that two men could be such absolute bounders). In “Clay” there was no way I could have grasped the significance of the “soft, wet substance” that the blindfolded Maria touches. Ultimately, Dubliners left me with a feeling of regret. What would Joyce have produced if he hadn’t turned away from people like Mr Duffy? For he did abandon all the common Dubliners, of whom I am one. *

Strange Fruit - Lillian Smith
In the years following WWII the blacks of Maxwell, Georgia not only remain fettered economically (all the women, including those who are college-educated, are servants), but, as Sam Parks, a doctor, tells a white man who’s sympathetic to blacks, “there’re other things . . . that hurt us more than poverty. It’d be a little thing to call us mister . . . It wouldn’t take a penny . . . to do that . . . It oughtn’t to shame you much . . . to do that.” Yet the white man cannot utter that simple word. Even those blacks who learn how to get along in a white-dominated world have a festering resentment. In this combustible atmosphere one man’s rage leads to murder. I knew, from the title, that a retaliatory lynching would take place, but what was unsettling was my realization that any black body swinging from a rope would do; it needn’t be the guilty party. Interracial sex plays a large role; Sam Parks talks of how white men (for whom proper white women are off limits to lust) take black women as “manure, that’s all they are to you . . . dung . . . to make something grow green in your life.” Yet the love affair – for it has to be called that – between Nonnie and Tracy goes deep. The fact that Tracy can’t live with the feelings he has for a black woman leads to tragedy. Nonnie is an oddly passive character; besides her love for Tracy, there’s not much to her. Of Tracy we know a lot, for we’re often in his mind. In stream-of-consciousness sequences blacks and whites are given equal time, and some of their thoughts will offend people of both races. This is a raw, angry, ugly book, and it offers no solutions to the complex and deep-seated problems polluting Maxwell.

Fruit of the Poppy - Robert Wilder
Wilder is efficient, like a good hit man (this thriller about heroin trafficking has quite a few hit men); he pulls off some plot twists that are both unexpected and believable. Foremost is the peculiar form of revenge that the mob boss, Dano Villanova, takes on Stacy Woodward, the girl friend who makes the mistake of skipping out on him; Wilder sets up this chilling episode with commendable restraint. Yet a lack of restraint mars much of the book, as do characters that come right out of central casting. The hero fully lives up to his ultra-cool name of Sol Madrid (the girl-on-the-run finds in him a fascinating combination of danger and – yes, you guessed it – gentleness). On the opposite end of the cool scale is the accountant who sets the plot in motion by stealing a quarter of a million dollars from El Capo; he’s introduced with this sentence: “Fear gnawed the little man in the gray suit, eating out his guts and leaving him as empty as a termite-ridden log.” It turns out that this quivering worm is capable of murder (which he finds empowering); and, as for the once beautiful, elegant and composed Stacy, she’s reduced to a shell “pathetically eager” to sell her body – which no man wants. Surprises like this kept me reading. I found the concluding section to be oddly flat, as if Wilder ran out of steam and could no longer deliver a punch. Still, this was an engrossing diversion.

1 comment:

Phillip Routh said...

After I finished the review of Strange Fruit I checked out the author on Wikipedia. I was quite surprised to see the photo of a white woman. One who, I discovered as I read her bio, was born into a well-to-do family.
I was disappointed; I expected -- and wanted -- Lillian Smith to be black. Also, doubts about the authenticity of the novel set in: how could a privileged white woman know how poor blacks think and feel?
My reaction illustrates how deeply racial divisions are embedded in our psyches.