Monday, April 15, 2013

Charley Smith’s Girl - Helen Bevington
There’s a bittersweet irony behind the title, for Charley was never a father to Helen, though she dearly wanted him to be. In the course of this memoir, which begins when Helen is three and ends when she’s in her early twenties, she spends less than a year in his golden presence. Her mother raises Helen; she loves her daughter, but a difficult life has made her severe and unyielding. As a young woman Helen comes to a conclusion: “Both my parents had lost me, by not loving me enough. My judgment was stern and complete against them. Either one, I told myself, could have kept me through love. But my mother wanted a dutiful daughter, and my father wanted no daughter at all.” Though that evaluation is the harsh truth, this book is an effort by a middle-aged woman to understand, and thus feel compassion for, her parents. She succeeds without shirking from reality (even at her own expense). But this isn’t one of those memoirs full of woe and resentment. Not at all; there’s an engaging brightness to Helen’s story. And in that brightness lies the reason why she prevails over her upbringing. Throughout her life she’s always eager for happiness and is open to love. Perhaps that was her pleasure-seeking father’s one gift to her.

The Tortilla Curtain - T. Coraghessan Boyle
In a recent review of a story collection by Boyle I criticized his lack of interest in real people in real situations; I also questioned whether he was motivated in his writing by a mercenary cynicism. In this novel he shows not only a concern for the downtrodden, but for the state of our world. He follows the plight of two illegal Mexican immigrants who’ve come to this country to find work. I can’t go into the hardships they encounter – if I got started, where could I stop? The other two characters, the affluent Mossbachers, lead lives that stand in stark contrast to what Candito and America are going through. Kyra and Delaney have moved to the posh Arroyo Blanco Estates to escape the hectic and dangerous Los Angeles scene, but they’re still not safe from undesirables; a gate at the entrance proves inadequate, so residents decide to wall in the entire subdivision. There are also ecological problems: humans have invaded territory where they don’t belong. Coyotes snatch both of the Mossbacher’s dogs, and residential development high up in a canyon turns out to have disastrous repercussions. Boyle creates an apocalyptic mood, which is good, and I give him credit for tackling serious issues (the book could be entered into the debate about illegal immigration). That said, as a literary work it isn’t very good. Though Spanish words are tossed in, Candito thinks like someone raised in the USA, not in a small Mexican village. Also, the suffering he and his wife experience reaches nightmare proportions; it’s just too much. Delaney is a walking parody of liberal cliches, and his evolution into a rabid racist isn’t convincing. The ending is an out-and-out mistake; it’s chaotic, almost hysterical, and on the final page Boyle abandons his characters in the midst of a massive mudslide. Maybe the novel should be taken as a thriller with social relevance; it does succeed as a page turner.

The Last of Mr. Norris - Christopher Isherwood
This short novel was combined with the equally short Goodbye to Berlin to make up The Berlin Stories. In Goodbye, which I read decades ago, Isherwood writes, “I am a camera with its shutter open . . .” This time the camera is focused on an aging confidence man operating on the international stage. Though Arthur Norris has some talent for double dealing, his weak nerves make him unfit for a life of intrigue; also, his schemes fail as often as not, leaving him in dire financial straits. But he has a remarkable ability to shake off his fears (and to enjoy life in a blithe way), and during his flush periods he lives high on the hog (and is quite generous). He’s a scoundrel without malice, both guileful and oddly lacking in guile (he makes no effort to conceal his taste for sadomasochistic sex, in which he’s on the receiving end of the whip lashes). The narrator, William Bradshaw (a pseudonym for Isherwood), takes a liking to this old debauchee, who in return is childishly eager for his friendship – and his assistance (Mr. Norris is an incorrigible user of people). Little is revealed about Bradshaw’s life; Isherwood stays focused on Norris and a handful of secondary characters. The action takes place in the years preceding the Nazi takeover, so we get the author’s perspective of this tumultuous period in German history. I admired the novel on all levels and wondered why I had put off enjoying the pleasures it provided for so long.

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