The Nephew - James Purdy
The nephew of the title is an eighteen-year-old who’s declared missing-in-action in the Korean War. Though Alma and her brother brought Cliff up since he was fourteen, when she embarks on writing a memorial to him (despite her hope that he’s still alive) she draws a blank. She turns to others who knew Cliff to provide material. In a simple and concise prose Purdy effectively creates a gothic atmosphere in which dark secrets lurk behind Rainbow Center’s facade of middle American normalcy. Trouble is, though he tosses in teasers, the author doesn’t have much to offer when it comes to revealing. An example: photos of Cliff, taken by a bisexual neighbor, are discovered, but we never find out what they show (is Cliff naked?); since Purdy simply dismisses these photos as having no relevance, why did he introduce them? At the end Cliff remains indistinct, and the townsfolk, for all their eccentricities, are just flawed humans. What we get is a message, which comes directly from the author: love one another. Maybe his capacity to embrace the residents of Rainbow Center made Purdy feel magnanimous, but I found his message of compassion to be a letdown. It’s significant that the two scenes with impact are ones in which characters act cruelly: A senile old lady goes into a tirade in which she expresses her virulent hatred of everyone, and an aging homosexual and his young companion verbally tear at one another. In these scenes Purdy may reveal the real secret behind his Rainbow.
A Weakness for Almost Everything - Aldo Buzzi (Italian)
I got this book because I wanted more of the arcane knowledge (particularly about literature and food) and the zest for life (particularly for food and pretty women) that Buzzi displayed in Journey to the Land of the Flies. So I was brought up short in the introductory “Self-Interview” when Buzzi answers his question as to whether cooking still interests him: “Really . . . nothing interests me anymore.” Then, a few pages later, in the section called “Notes on Life,” he gets a call – a wrong number – from a woman asking for Enrico. After he puts down the phone Buzzi writes: “Enrico must be the usual little shit, one of those self-important types, who establish a family, with children, just to demonstrate that they exist.” Who, I wondered, is this dejected cynic? The most that can be said for “Notes on Life” is that it contains a sprinkling of engaging observations. Things pick up in “Notes on Gastronomy” (it seems that food does still interest Buzzi), but the first “Notes on Travel,” about a Mexican journey, is little more than a logbook recording where he was on particular dates. The second trip, from New York to Charleston (which also took place in 1956), is much better, mainly because Buzzi describes the meals he has (and the pretty waitresses who serve them). Still, this second travel section, along with some other good parts, should have been included in Flies, which had come out three years earlier. Weakness exists, probably, because there was a demand for more from Buzzi, but all he could scrape together was a plate of leftovers.
The Lazarus Project - Aleksandar Hemon
During the course of the first chapter, which takes place in 1908 Chicago, we spend time in the mind of a young man who will end up riddled by bullets in the hallway of the chief of police’s house. We’re made aware of Lazarus’s innocence (he isn’t even armed), yet the truth of what happened is distorted in newspaper accounts: the police chief and others were shooting in self-defense; the man was a “vile foreigner” of a “Semitic type,” obviously a “degenerate” and an “anarchist” bent on destroying the American way of life. In subsequent chapters the police act in ways that would get a nod of approval from a concentration camp guard. When the sister of Lazarus is shown his mutilated corpse, a detective asks, “as if delivering a punch line, ‘Happy to see him? Give him a kiss . . .’ ” Rather than generating a sense of outrage, this version of events struck me as suspect; like the newspaper account, it was just too one-sided and lurid. The person writing it is a Serbian immigrant living in present day Chicago (Brik is clearly a fictional stand-in for Hemon; their bios match). Why is Brik interested in a century old atrocity? Because, like Lazarus, he’s an immigrant? But Brik is an immigrant married to an American neurosurgeon. What connection can he (who’s not even Jewish) have with a poor ghetto-dweller? Anyway, his idea for a novel necessitates a grant-financed trip to Eastern Europe. Again, why? What can he possibly expect to uncover about Lazarus? Brik is accompanied on his travels by a photographer he knew in Serbia. Rora is the type of over-the-top, always triumphant super hero that twelve-year-old boys dream up. Hemon also reveals a twelve-year-old’s mentality in what he considers to be humorous. In one scene the sister of Lazarus goes to an outhouse, and down in the hole, totally submerged in excrement, is a friend of her brother (okay, he’s hiding from the cops, but why there?). In the next chapter we’re in the Ukraine, and the car Brik hires “smells of feces.” It’s a Ford Focus, but the author thereafter refers to it as a Ford Feces. Funny, huh? When I quit reading this novel, just short of the halfway point, it had become hugely annoying (including the pretentious black and white photos that precede each chapter and were inserted, I suppose, in an attempt to provide authenticity). The only parts of this “project” that ring true are those which describe Brik’s efforts to advance his literary career. Since Hemon has received a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, he should have no worries. But I still have a word of advice for him. Brik refers to Jesus as “the nailed gymnast” and at one point asks “Why is it that churches have no bathrooms? Did Mr. Christ have no bladder?” Don’t, Aleksandar, make the mistake of having a character treat Mohammed in such a disrespectful way.