Friday, May 13, 2016

My Struggle: Book One – Karl Ove Knausgaard (Norwegian)
This is the first of six autobiographical novels. The word “addictive” applies. For over four hundred pages I was absorbed in a narrative that, for the most part, consists of ordinary daily events (the parts where the author goes into deep thinking mode were less engaging). The prose is unadorned and straightforward, the dialogue naturalistic, and the secondary characters strong. Most important, I felt that a sincere effort was being made to tell the truth; Karl presents himself to the reader, warts and all. The main focus in this volume is his relationship with his father. As a boy he senses that the man disapproves of him, so he becomes fearful of any contact. As an adult he watches from a distance as his father’s life deteriorates. After his death (the result of a long bout of suicidal drinking) Karl and his brother clean a house that has descended, over the years, into a disgusting state; that a man could sink so low is appalling. Karl has no answers as to what tormented his father; regarding his own struggles, he’s aware of personal inadequacies but seems unwilling to take steps to resolve them. This isn’t a memoir; it is, as advertised, a novel, and it attains the stature of literature in an unusual way. By an accumulation of events, some showing Knausgaard as a boy and some as an adult, we live segments of a man’s life and feel what he feels. But do I want to read more? Not soon; maybe later I’ll pick up the second volume. At this point, I need a break from being Karl Ove.

Norwood – Charles Portis
Dear Mr. Portis. This is the only time I’ve ever written an author. I don’t read many books. Most are long and complicated and I don’t care about the people. They’re not like me. But your book was short and simple to read, and I knew Norwood. He was a good old boy like me. He has some wild adventures and it was fun going along with him. I’ve never been twenty miles from where I was born and I never met a midget. I wonder if that midget will send him his fifty dollars. I doubt it, not the way he hightailed it after he got the money. Will Norwood marry Rita Lee and will they be happy? I’d say yes, because neither expects a whole lot out of life. And both are goodnatured. Norwood thinks he can play the guitar and sing, but I was glad you didn’t have him wind up on the Louisiana Hayride and be a big hit. Because that kind of stuff doesn’t happen in real life. It’s just stuff we dream about happening. I saw in the back of the book that you wrote this other book called True Grit. Now I seen that as a movie, the one starring John Wayne. I expect you got paid plenty for that. So I was wondering, could you send me $50? It’s for a good cause, to bail Granny out of jail. She’s in for battery on a police officer, but there’s two sides to what happened that night. Anyway, the hoosgow ain’t no place for a 67 year old lady. I think from your book that you got a good heart. I promise I’ll pay you back soon as I get my disability check. I’m not like that midget. Just send the money to me at the Tickfaw, Louisiana post office, general delivery. I get all my mail there. Thanks. And keep writing them good books.

The Lieutenant – Andre Dubus
This is a military novel, but the battles fought are over moral choices. Lieutenant Dan Tierney is in command of a Marine contingent aboard an aircraft carrier. Trouble arises among his men; it emerges, gradually, that some of the soldiers are engaging in homosexual bullying. Ted Freeman is their main victim; the role of victim is one he has endured all his life; it was out of a need to gain self-esteem that he joined the Marines. Lieutenant Tierney, though only twenty-five, believes fervently in the old school values of the Corps (he even carries a swagger stick). He takes action to end what’s going on – which he considers repugnant and shameful – while trying to keep it hidden from his naval superiors; his decisions are irresolute and make matters worse. There’s a saying that’s relevant: “The career of a Marine officer is living the lie and making the lie come true.” Tierney lives the lie – that the Marine Corp is an honorable institution – but he cannot make it come true. In a prose as compact as a bullet Dubus relates a series of events that will ultimately crush Freeman. In trying to help the boy Tierney locks horns with the ship’s captain, and as a result his career is derailed from what he believes is his true calling – to lead men in combat. Tierney’s emotional makeup is an amalgam of passion and stoicism. When he gets a Dear John letter from the woman he loves and needs (she’s the daughter of a Marine Colonel and she doesn’t want to live the life of a Marine wife), he writes her, in block letters: “AS THE SAYING GOES, IF THE MARINE CORPS WANTED ME TO HAVE A WIFE THEY WOULD HAVE ISSUED ME ONE.” Andre Dubus was a Marine for six years; he was thirty-one when this novel (his only one) was published. In 1967 the taboo nature of the subject matter – homosexuality in the military – may have contributed to its lack of recognition. The 1986 edition I have was put out by The Green Street Press; it’s beautifully done, obviously an act of respect. The novel deserves respect. *

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