Angela’s Ashes – Frank McCourt
On the opening page McCourt claims that of miserable childhoods (the only ones worth writing about) none can equal the misery of an Irish Catholic childhood: “the poverty, the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father, the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters.” This is a despairing book, filled with death and suffering and filth; only a bitter humor ameliorates the heaviness. A character, in speaking of the English “quality” (those with money), says that they wouldn’t give the likes of him “the steam off their piss.” But even family members are mean and grudging toward one another, and city officials exhibit a callous indifference to the needy. As for Catholicism, all it breeds is a prejudicial hatred. Frank’s memories begin when he’s three, and his main concerns are getting food in his stomach and staying warm; these concerns will hold sway over his entire childhood. One sea change in his attitude occurs, and it involves his father. The boy loves him for his inherent kindness; but when Malachy gets paid for his intermittent periods of work he heads directly to a pub, where he drinks the money away. Meanwhile his wife and children live on the verge of starvation; it comes to the point where Frank finds this unforgivable, and his heart hardens toward the man. McCourt’s depiction of life in Limerick has a sensationalistic aspect, and I sometimes wondered if he was leaning heavily on exaggeration. That I didn’t pause to give my skepticism much attention was due to the book’s entertainment value. Unfortunately, McCourt moves us far past the point where his story should have ended. Most likely an editor saw a gold mine in these ashes and wanted to set things up for a sequel. So we follow Frank into his late teens, skipping years along the way; I found the young man who occupies these pages (in which we’re subjected to his sexual awakening) to be unappealing. And the final scene served to revive my doubts about the memoir’s authenticity. Immediately after Frank arrives in New York he and some companions go to a party where five bored American housewives (their husbands are off hunting) are ready for an orgy. Maybe McCourt was trying to express the freedom he’d find in the new world as compared to that in repressive Ireland. But, whatever, it’s never a good thing for a reader to finish a memoir thinking, “Yeah, right, in your dreams.”
A Hazard of New Fortunes – William Dean Howells
Reading this, I could visualize an author who’s aware of his preeminent position in American letters and is carefully, and with confidence, plying his craft. Trouble is, a reader should never see the author behind the words. For all its expertise in individual scenes, and its good depiction of life in New York in the 1890s, this novel is overpopulated and unfocused. Howell posits an interesting premise: a new literary magazine will take a different approach to submissions: “Look at the way the periodicals are carried on now! Names! names! names! In a country that’s just boiling over with literary and artistic ability of every kind the new fellows have no chance. I don’t believe there are fifty volunteer contributions printed in a year in all the New York magazines. It’s all wrong; it’s suicidal. Every Other Week is going back to the good old anonymous system, the only fair system.” So the “fellows” who don’t have impressive “names” are to be given a chance. But near the end of the book (when I abandoned it) the magazine exists and is doing quite well, yet not one word has been expended regarding its content and quality. Like everything else, Howell introduces a situation and leaves it undeveloped. And his efforts at recreating vernacular became ridiculous. We get ignorant country folk (“Then what are we goun’ to do? She might ’a’ knowed we couldn’t ’a’ come alone, in New York.”), Southerners (“Ah’m so much oblahged. Ah jost know it’s all you’ doing, and it will give papa a chance to toak to some new people.”) and a German (“I ton’t tink we are all cuilty or gorrupt, and efen among the rich there are goodt men.”).
The Moviegoer – Walker Percy
The first person narrator’s voice – the way he thinks, his observations of people – gives this novel a sharply-etched noonday brightness that’s as fresh and and original as it was when I first read it, decades ago. Binx begins by describing his uneventful existence in Gentilly, a suburb of New Orleans. He’s quite happy in a movie, even a bad one: “Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives,” but what he remembers is “the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.” Binx gets mild pleasure from making money as a stock and bond broker; his affairs are uncomplicated by emotional entanglements. He has carefully structured his life in such a way as to avoid being engulfed by despair (a feeling that he is intimately acquainted with). His cousin Kate does not fare so well; she has no defenses to the onslaught of her emotions. Though Percy suggests the acrid whiff of desolation and emptiness which can creep upon us in the most mundane situations, we never plunge into gloom. What keeps us afloat is the artfulness of the writing: “At last I spy Kate; her stiff little Plymouth comes nosing into my bus stop. There she sits like a bomber pilot, resting on her wheel and looking sideways at the children and not seeing, and she could be I myself, sooty-eyed and nowhere.” *
On Leave – Daniel Anselme (French)
France’s war in Algeria was a quagmire that dragged on for eight years and involved, at its height, a half million young men. In this novel there are no battle scenes, just brief flashbacks – images of a heap of bodies, a burned village. It opens with three soldiers on a train; they have a highly-anticipated week’s leave in Paris. Though we follow Lachaume (a sergeant), he meets up with the other two men. For all of them the leave turns out to be devoid of pleasure. They’re unable to slough off their anger at being asked to fight a war they don’t believe in; they can’t express how they feel to anyone who hasn’t experienced what they have; they know they can’t change things politically. They’re isolated souls in the midst of a city that has turned its back on them. Their only release is in getting drunk. This makes for glum reading, but that mood is the only honest one to convey. The book ends with the men again on a train, this one taking them back to the front. Anselme’s depiction of the state of mind of soldiers in such a situation is one that our Vietnam vets could surely commiserate with.