Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Hustler – Walter Tevis
In a lean, efficient prose Tevis takes us into a world that has elements of grime and grandeur. For Fast Eddie Felson the bright rectangle of a pool table is an arena where he can impose order by guiding the paths of ivory balls with amazing precision. When he goes against men nowhere near his level he pretends to be only a middling player – until the stakes are worth exploiting. Sometimes his opponent is as good – or nearly as good – as he is, and these encounters are prolonged battles of skill and will. The movie version, which I saw many years ago, stuck closely to the novel in plot and casting (Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats is Tevis’s creation brought to life). As in the film, Eddie meets Sarah in a bus station lunchroom where she’s killing time until a bar opens at 6AM. They come together largely because they’re both drinkers and lonely; though they begin to care for one another, they’re emotionally wary and thoroughly mismatched. At the novel’s end their relationship is left unresolved – as are many issues. Eddie has the determination and discipline needed to beat a player like Fats; but after victory he finds that he’s the property of his manager, and to go against this imposed arrangement is as dangerous as going against a mobster. This seems like a last minute – and unwarranted – complication. For an author whose endings are usually strong, to leave so much hanging is perplexing. The Hustler was Tevis’s first novel; I had previously read three other books by him (starting with his best of the lot, The Man Who Fell to Earth). I consider him to be a neglected author; he should be better known. He was always good, and at times he could be as exceptional as Fast Eddie on a run.

Signals – Tim Gautreaux
This collection has twenty-one stories, of which I read twelve. Gautreaux abides by the solid old virtues of storytelling – particularly the primacy of voice – and though the results are sometimes good, the slight nudge to very good isn’t there; often it’s sabotaged by a tendency to get sentimental or to send a message. In the title story, sixty-year-old Professor Talis lives an isolated existence; his radio – a venerable Pioneer SX-1250 – has been his “Mozart-seeping companion” for decades. It breaks down, and it turns out that the all-capable lawn lady is capable of fixing it. She’s a life force, his opposite, and in the course of the repairs he awakens to what he’s been missing. He asks her out, she refuses, saying “I don’t believe we’re cut from the same bolt of cloth.” With the radio once again producing beautiful sounds, he asks her to dinner, and she replies, “You stay home and be a good listener.” Talis responds by lugging the radio out of his house and throwing it on the sidewalk, where it breaks into pieces. He says, “And now?” She accepts. The Message was not only too overt and simplistic, but it came by means of a foolish act. Another aspect that kept recurring in the weaker stories was an over-reliance on outlandish characters (often old folks whose mind has given out) and the weird situations they get into. When this outlandishness goes rogue – when stories feature low-life types who are scraping bottom (such as the vicious, drunken cretin in “Sorry Blood”) – I felt I was being dragged through the mire for no good reason. But even in its milder manifestations, as in “The Adventures of Sue Pistola,” a character study is sacrificed for laughs based on someone’s freakish behavior. Bottom line: I have too many objections to what Gautreaux offers. He and I just aren’t cut from the same bolt of cloth.

My Antonia – Willa Cather
This novel is set in the Nebraska prairie in the 1880s. Jim Burden and Antonia Shimerda arrive at Black Hawk at the same time, but they face drastically different circumstances. Jim is ten and has been recently orphaned; he’s going to live with his grandparents, who have forged a comfortable life on their farm. Antonia is a few years older; she and her family are immigrants from Bohemia. When Jim and his grandmother pay a visit to the Shimerdas they find that their home is a hole dug in a draw-bank. Antonia’s father is a cultured gentleman, totally unfit to farm the land; the mother is a shrewish study in negativity. Jim and Antonia form a closeness in the few years before she’s saddled with work (which she embraces, proud of her strength). Though they never lose the bond from their early years, she begins to live her hard life while his continues in an unruffled fashion. In the book’s second section, called “The Hired Girls,” Jim leaves the farm when his grandparents move to Black Hawk. Antonia is one of those hired girls, employed as a domestic; at the Saturday night dances life opens up for her, with mixed results. When Jim goes to the university, he and Antonia part ways (and the book loses some of its spark). As an adult Jim comes to think about Antonia in an almost worshipful way. In the closing scene he visits her, now a woman in her forties with a large brood of children, and he sees someone battered by life but still vital and able to “stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning of common things.” Maybe, through Jim’s outsized emotions, Cather is trying to express an appreciation for the pioneering spirit that can survive all obstacles. Not all survive – Antonia’s father commits suicide. Madness is not uncommon, and in some people the worst aspects of human nature take root. Others work and grow in generosity and understanding. Cather’s prairie is a testing ground for character. This is a rich and heartfelt book. And a tough one – when events or subject matter warrant it, Cather can be as unyielding as a Nebraska winter.

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