How It All Began - Penelope Lively
It all begins with a seventy-seven-year-old woman being knocked to the pavement by a purse snatcher. Charlotte’s hip is broken; this necessitates a temporary move to the home of her married daughter. We’re then introduced to eight characters whose lives are altered by what happened to Charlotte; it may affect them in seemingly trivial ways (one man’s lecture notes are left behind), but the repercussions are far-reaching. Lively follows the story of each character; she enters their minds and makes them distinct and believable. I gradually became aware that some people were positive personalities, others negative. The negative ones were self-centered; satisfying their desires was their primary concern. They weren’t bad people; they were like you and me. One person who changes from negative to positive is Charlotte’s daughter. Though Rose takes her mother into her home and is considerate, there’s something brusque in her attitude. But when she falls in love with Anton she softens. And deepens. This love – which is destined to go nowhere – is the novel’s strongest aspect because it’s the most moving. That said, the person I felt closest to was Charlotte (she is the Penelope Lively portrayed in Lively’s memoir of old age, Dancing Fish and Ammonites). This is an absorbing and thought-provoking book, and I had only a few quibbles. There are times in the last fourth when we seem to be treading water, as if looking for a place to go ashore. And the mugger who makes an appearance in the closing paragraph is a mistake. If he had been omitted the ending would have belonged to Anton – and he deserves it. Though, when Lively rounds out Anton’s life, I wished she had given him more than loneliness. Actually, my response is a tribute to Lively – for it was she who made me care about him. *
Rum Punch - Elmore Leonard
The Library of America has devoted three volumes to Elmore Leonard’s work (one exclusively to his westerns). He was highly prolific, and many of his novels have been made into movies. The adaption he liked best was “Jackie Brown,” directed by Quentin Tarantino. I’m no Tarantino fan, but I saw the film (in a form edited for television), and I liked it. So I chose to read Rum Punch, the novel it was based on. There were a number of changes, one major. In the film Jackie Brown is in a romantic involvement with a white bond bailsman by the name of Max Cherry. Jackie, played by Pam Grier, is black (or, as they say, chocolate-colored). But in the novel Jackie Burke is white. Still, the personality of Jackie is the same in film and novel. Leonard, who saw his work get butchered for the screen, must have appreciated that Tarantino got some things right. Actually, I thought the film was better than the novel. I admired Leonard’s swift, unencumbered prose and his smart, sharp, quirky dialogue. Also good was the sense of authenticity; Leonard seems to know all about guns and the legal aspects of being a bail bondsman. But gradually these virtues wore thin. We get too much snappy dialogue – it’s as if Leonard were showing off a talent. The same goes for authenticity – too much. In the Chronology section we follow Leonard’s life from birth to death, and it’s clear that he didn’t get his street smarts from firsthand experience. He did research, and I felt that he was piling up all he had learned for display. The overly-complicated plot didn’t help my mood, nor did I find lowlife characters committing casual murder to be entertaining. Only Jackie and Max had enough substance to interest me. But it was only enough for me to take a peek at the ending before calling it quits. The film was more successful because, for starters, it consumed only ninety minutes of my life. And the script simplified the plot and cut down on the cast; one lowlife (Samuel L. Jackson’s Ordell) survived. When the dialogue was spoken by talented actors, it worked; and since what people said was there to move the plot along, much idle talk was eliminated. Leonard was an unabashed writer of pop fiction, so a question arises: does he deserve the honor of being part of The Library of America? Actually, the question should be rephrased: is being in the LOA an honor? They’re in the business of publishing and selling, so they face a problem: Who next? (How about Evan Connell?)
Last Things - Madison Jones
In her letters Flannery O’Connor expressed admiration for the work of Madison Jones. At least for his early novels; the book I’m reviewing was written when he was sixty-six and she was long dead. I wonder if, like me, she would have found it ponderous. Not in size – it’s a little over two hundred pages. But we’re always in the mind of Wendell, and it wasn’t a pleasant place to be. He’s an academic young man who finds his fellow human beings to be contemptible; he has no sense of morality, nor any purpose to his life. Through a unlikely series of events he gets involved in drug trafficking and begins an affair with a married woman. He will coerce this woman – Tricia – to commit a murder, and later she will take her life. Jones frames this story of a man’s downfall in religious terms. Wendell feels that he’s in the clutches of someone named Farrow; the word “devil” is never used, but in lines like “This was Farrow’s doing, his sorcery” it’s clear who he’s meant to represent. There’s also a fundamentalist-style preacher to whom Wendell attributes powers. This religious bent was probably always an aspect of Jones’s work, and it would have appealed to O’Connor. The problem with this novel – and here’s where the word “ponderous” comes into play – is that nobody elicits sympathy. Wendell’s increasing agony and confusion merely began to weigh heavy. As for Tricia, she needed to be someone the reader could sympathize with, yet she comes across as a plot prop; I cared as little for her as Wendell did. At the end he experiences a moral awakening, but goes unpunished fo his crimes; I thought he should serve hard time in the state pen. The real moral of this story: if a writer must convey a religious message, it has to be subordinate to the demands of good fiction.