David Foster Wallace

Wallace’s new novel – The Pale King -arrived in the mail this morning. It’s unfinished, of course, but as editor Michael Pietsch (who also edited Infinite Jest) explains in a moving preface, it was far enough along to merit publication. How can we not look, asks Pietsch, even though “everyone who worked with David knows well how he resisted letting the world see work that was not refined to his exacting standard”. Exactly. I must say that I was among those condemning Dmitri Nabokov last year when he disobeyed his father’s instruction to burn The Original of Laura if it was unfinished at the time of Vladimir’s death – which it was – and published it anyway. I just thought it was rude (not being a big Nabokov fan) but I think most of the lit community trashed him because the work wasn’t very interesting. Now the shoe’s on the other foot, eh? – I really want to read this book,  and at the moment that seems to be superceding any moral qualms about what the author’s  posthumous wishes might have been. An odd thing to say, maybe, given that Wallace’s focus on trying to be truly moral is one of the great great things I love about his work, but there you have it. It’s all about the writing in the end, and for me his is good enough that I can’t help wanting to look.  I suppose that’s how Max Brod felt when he published The Trial and The Castle even though Kafka told him to burn the manuscripts after his ( K’s) death.  Hey Franz – you could have burned them yourself if they were that bad. Actually my favorite case at the moment is that of Ralph Ellison, who struggled something like 40 years to finish a second novel after the huge success of Invisible Man in 1952, but left only an unfinished manuscript at the time of his death in 1994.  An edited version was published in 1999 as Juneteenth and pretty much bombed. Now Random House is trying again, publishing just this spring the entire manuscript, annotated but basically unedited, under the title Three Days Before the Shooting…we’ll see. Anyway, more on The Pale King once I get into it.

Q:How is Donald Rumsfeld like Phil Rizzuto?

A: Both are practitioners of what you might call  the accidental haiku, the found poetry that resides in the publicly-spoken sentences of, say, a press conference or a radio broadcast. (Phil (“the Scooter”) Rizzuto was a Hall-of-Fame shortstop who called Yankee games for 40 years after his playing career with them ended in 1956. Perhaps some of you already own his O Holy Cow!: The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto in the new expanded edition released shortly after the Scooter left this earthly ballpark in 2007 – if not you’ll find it in our poetry section.) But I digress. Our purpose today is to celebrate the release of Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld, edited by Hart Seely (Syracuse journalist who also co-edited the Rizzuto book).  Here’s “The Unknown”, D.H.R.’s “most disturbing work” according to Seely:

As we know,

There are known knowns.

There are things we know we know.

We also know

There are known unknowns.

That is to say

We know there are some things

We do not know.

But there are also unknown unknowns,

The ones we don’t know we don’t know.

I like to think that when Rummy’s memoir is next to W’s memoir in the True Crime remainder bins – it won’t take that long, trust me –  this strange little volume might still be around. Will he measure up to his predecessor’s standards? ehh, not so sure….here’s Phil on growing old in “Golden Years”:

There are mornings

I wake up

And my right leg hurts.

The next morning

My knee hurts.

My shoulder….

The golden years

Have slipped by me.

But you gotta hang in there.

A little low.

Two balls

And a strike.

Return of the DHS

Yes, the Dreaded Holiday Season is upon us, its fanfare accompanied now by dozens of daily emails offering me Black Friday deals RIGHT NOW. Does that make today Black Tuesday? What am I, shopped liver? And what of you, our dear Valued Customer? Fear not – since a good book is in fact a primo present that you can open again and again, as well as a gift in and of itself on any number of levels, we can skip the shameless commerce and commence with the lowdown on what your beloved family members really want this year. In a book.
So, first off let me say that I’m not sure Freedom would be one of them. It’s certainly interesting and worth reading, but in the end I didn’t buy the third guy in the triangle. Plus there’s a plot shock towards the end that just felt like Franzen wanted to push an ending…”ok folks, closing time, let’s get ready to wrap it up”. He still writes wonderful prose, though, and delivers plenty of insightful commentary on modern American life. In terms of fictional chops, I think B. Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist was a richer and more accomplished novel.
But maybe I’m getting burned out on fiction. I used to have a regular habit of reading nonfiction in the morning and fiction at night, but over the years it seems to have shifted to mostly one or the other at any given time. I tried Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn a few months ago and got surprisingly engrossed. I certainly can’t imagine how you could write a much more detailed account of the actual battle, but there’s also much good analysis of the two cultures and the two men they produced. Then I went to Africa and read Adam Hochschild’s King Lepold’s Ghost, an absolutely horrific/fascinating account of colonial exploitation in the Belgian Congo around the turn of the 20th century. Now I’m about halfway through David Halberstam’s Playing For Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, and enjoying it immensely despite our author’s hagiographic devotion to his subject. Actually I feel for him (Halberstam) – he’s already written one excellent book on pro basketball (The Breaks of the Game, about Portland’s NBA championship season in 1978-79, a book that I rank as #2 on the Best Basketball list behind only Bob Ryan and Terry Pluto’s 48 Minutes) and is clearly a fan as well as a superb writer – how could you NOT fall on your knees in the presence of the Living God? BTW, his The Best and the Brightest is easily a top five on my Best Vietnam list, and his social history of the U.S. in the 1950′s is also a must-read for anyone interested in the topic. Great range as a writer, and consistently captivating.

Fiction Roundup II

I’m definitely giving a thumbs-up to Rick Moody for Four Fingers of  Death.  One reason I like the 4 so much is the voice of our most unreliable meta-narrator  Montese Crandall, a citizen of what’s left of the US in 2025. Our man gets the nod to produce a screenplay for the remake of 1963′s The Crawling Hand; the bulk of the novel consists of Crandall’s novelizaiton of said screenplay. But it’s Crandall’s own voice that narrates the introduction, and what I think is so brilliant on Moody’s part is to let us feel that (very weird) persona filter through to the first half of the novelization, which is told in the first person by one of the astronauts on their way to Mars. I just think that’s gotta be tough to get right as a writer, so all props to RM just for the chops. In the second half, the crawling hand (arm, actually) comes back to earth and we switch to a 3rd-person voice. Moody has cooked up an imaginative near-future dystopia, so I give him more props as a sci-fi writer. Maybe could have used some editing in that second half but hey, I dug it.  If  you’re not a fan of cheesy Baby-boom generation horror/sci-fi tropes like I am, then maybe it’s not for you, but I would encourage anybody to pick it up and read a few pages – if you don’t find Montese’s voice at least kind of creepily fascinating then you can put it down and walk away.

Up next: Franzen. I’m about 1/3 of the way through Freedom, liking it but wondering what up with my new unstable autobiographical narrator, Patty Berglund. Meanwhile, I also started the new Michael Connelly crime thriller (The Reversal) and people, it was like coming home to the favorite easy chair in the living room. Couple of chapters and he’s got our two familiar characters set up in a good new plot, and I have NO doubt that I’m gonna get my money’s worth.  Connelly is just really really good at this. Literary fiction? Probably not. Franzen? Almost certainly.  Honestly, I’m not sure I care that much about the distinction any more…good genre writers are worth their weight in gold.

Fall Fiction Roundup

Fall is when publishers roll out the big guns and take aim at the holiday gift market, so let’s see what’s on the New Arrivals table in the front of the store..

The two hits in the literary fiction parade so far are Freedom, J. Franzen’s follow-up to The Corrections, and Emma Donoghue’s Room, a highly original take on the child-raised-in-captivity plot. Both get raves from numerous critics. And in the ‘you won’t find this on the front table at B&N’ category, we’re also featuring Steven Moore’s history of the novel: The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600. (Ok, I dig being able to effortlessly use 3 colons in one sentence. But about this trend of double-coloned subtitles…where does it stop, is what I want to know.)

I hesitated to put Rick Moody’s Four Fingers of Death on the lit fiction list because a) I’m not done with it yet; more than that though, b) it’s just getting really goofy. He did some heavy  lifting, lit-wise, in the first half of the book, introducing a playfully unreliable Meta-Narrator and spinning the gossamer word webs around a semi-plausible tale of interplanetary travel. Go Rick! Second half is supposed to be at least partly a sci-fi/B movie parody, so I should cut him some slack if at times he seems to be phoning it in. Right? ehh, I dunno. Nor am I actually at all clear on what does or does not constitute Literary Fiction. More fiction rounded up and a full review of the Moody in a few days.

The Great American Family

Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist is such a delight that I am positively lingering over the last few chapters.  You want a BIG family novel? Our titular protagonist has 4 wives, 28 kids, and a life that’s becoming more unglued every day.  In lesser hands this might have turned into a “Big Love”-style soapfest, but Udall is such a  careful and empathic writer that I never felt his characters were anything but genuinely fascinating. I would say a little warmer than J. Franzen was in The Corrections, maybe a little closer to Richard Russo or early John Irving.  You might even say Dickensian – certainly in terms of its length – but that’s all good because I really don’t want to say goodbye to these people I laughed and cried with for 600 pages.

Don Winslow is the best thriller writer you never heard of

And if you have already read him then forgive me for preachin’ to the choir, but I am still surprised at the number of, say, Michael Connelly or Elmore Leonard fans who draw a blank when Mr. Winslow’s name comes up.  So I definitely want to give props to my man before I get critical on his latest, Savages.  Previous works like The Winter of Frankie Machine and Dawn Patrol showcased a Leonardian wit without getting too close to whimsical (something I wish I could say about Carl Hiassen).  Seriously entertaining and serious as well about his characters and the consequences of their actions, like good noir should be. His masterpiece, The Power of the Dog, is a massive runaway train of a book that will take you into the so-called ‘Drug War’ between U.S. law enforcement and Mexican cartels and leave you wrung out, despairing, and crying for more.  All the more disappointing, then, to read Savages in under 2 hours and realize it’s more of a screenplay waiting to happen than a fully realized novel.  (Same way I felt reading Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men the first time, even though it did make a great movie, after the Border trilogy it was like Cormac, wtf ?) Okay, nobody’s going to claim that thriller characters are always fully believable – you gotta give your heroes and perps some pizzazz. But the 3 leads in Savages are just too good to be true for me to take seriously, plus it was all over WAY too quickly.  Granted it was an exciting 2 hours but I expected more. Save the $25, stock up on the back list, and wait for his next one.  Special web bonus for anybody still reading: be the first to email me and I’ll loan you the store copy…plebar@allegheny.edu

Hot beach reading

I was pretty impressed with John Birmingham’s Without Warning, a post-apocalyptic thriller that gets off to a great start when 98% of the continental U.S. population is vaporized by a Sudden Event. Birmingham energizes a fairly stock cast of characters with some intriguing speculations on what a world suddenly unmoored from any number of American underpinnings might look like. Bonus: I’m down to the last few  pages, seriously wondering how our author can wrap this baby up into ANY kind of ending when suddenly we find out this is part I of a trilogy. Kewl!  (Part II is After America, just out this month.) – Pete LeBar