Thursday, September 28, 2017

FINDING MOON – Tony Hillerman

Tony Hillerman published a dozen of his seventeen novels before he got that very first one written. At first he was too busy as a United Press writer to get beyond the first chapter. "It wasn’t a job that allowed time for relaxing," he wrote in his memoir, Seldom Disappointed, "but anyone who grew up as a daydreamer always finds time to let his imagination take him away. In my case to Stanleyville, the gem city of the Belgian Congo, which was going to be the setting of the great novel I was planning. Even the names are forgotten now, but at mid-century the city and the country were paying the awful price of generations of brutal Belgian colonial exploitation."

The ideal setting, he said, for the novel he planned to "test the soul" of his protagonist. "But not now. No time now except to compose scenes in my mind as I trotted back to the bureau from the governor’s office or drove home from work. I wrote one first chapter— my hero standing in the lobby of a posh Stanleyville hotel watching shooting and looting along the boulevard. That’s as far as it went. Neither time nor skill to do it, but lots of talking about it, making Marie [his bride] very aware that I yearned to be a novelist."
He became one, as we know, learning the craft, stretching his imagination, and winning awards and best-selling status with his Navajo Tribal Police series. Meanwhile, although the idea of the Stanleyville tale refused to die, the Belgian Congo did, disappearing “from maps and from memories.
Fortunately for the story, if not necessarily our species, “humanity never fails to provide killing fields." So when he finally gave in to the urge to tackle that long-marinating concept the plot had to be moved to Southeast Asia. He named his soul-jeopardized protagonist Carl “Moon” Mathias after a friend and respected squad leader who'd served with him in a WWII combat infantry outfit. The result was Finding Moon, "the closest I have come," he said, "to writing a book that satisfied me."

Yet, despite his success with the mystery series Moon was a hard sell. “I talked to my agent and editor about it and detected no enthusiasm,” he wrote in the memoir. “The two things you want to avoid on the cover of a book are the picture of a spider or anything about Vietnam, which we were trying to forget. My own common sense told me they were right. It would be stupid to stop writing Navajo tribal police mysteries, sales of which were soaring, to turn out a book nobody wants. But the idea was fully revived now.” So he wrote the book.
As promised, Moon Mathias’s soul is tested, severely, soon after we meet him as a self-described “third-rate managing editor on a third-rate newspaper” in a small Colorado town. His younger brother has just been killed in a helicopter crash in Cambodia, near the Vietnam border. Moon learns his brother fathered a daughter while operating his air transport business in Vietnam. It’s the last days of the war there and pandemonium reigns. He must try to find the toddler and bring her to safety.
Seems simple enough, especially plot-wise, as there’s no mysterious crime for police to figure out and solve. Mysteries there are, but of a more straightforward kind. Where’s the little girl? Can Moon find her and get her out of danger without being captured or killed? Then there’s the deeper mystery that burns in Moon’s head: a tormenting conscience and a regret he’s carried since boyhood of failing his mother. He loved his younger brother but had not known of the child and has no compelling sentiment in her regard. He’s going in place of his mother, who had a heart attack at the airport awaiting her flight to the Philippines. She’s in a hospital when Moon takes her seat on the plane.
To scout the location, so different from the cliffs and canyons where his mysteries are set, the author had to go to Southeast Asia. Unable to get visas for Vietnam or Cambodia, Hillerman went instead to the Philippines. He started taking notes on the flight to Manila, recording material he fed straight to the novel. This included a two-masted sailing ship viewed from the air that became, name and all, Moon’s conveyance from Manila some eight hundred miles across the South China Sea to the mouth of the Mekong River. His male seatmate on the flight, an exporter of bamboo blowguns, became Moon’s female love interest, herself a blowgun exporter. Hillerman’s meticulous notes describe in detail the Philippine countryside, the streets and buildings of Manila, and the prison where Moon visits a supporting character, a pilot who’d worked for his brother’s helicopter transport company.
In his memoir, Hillerman wrote that the evening before flying home he took a long walk along the Manila waterfront, “collecting sounds, smells, and images, including that of a cockroach migration that flows down the sidewalk toward my feet like a flood of black water. I spend an hour in a casino, with soldiers armed with automatic rifles guarding the door and an all-male mix of Japanese and locals, silent and grim, playing blackjack and roulette.
Then more of my good luck. Rain drives me into the empty cathedral, and while I wait in the darkness for the squall to pass, the candles, the smell of incense, lead me to imagine the scene that was the key to making Finding Moon work. Moon becomes a lapsed Catholic. I have him waiting out the rain in the cathedral, ducking into an empty confessional booth where he hasn’t been since boyhood, remembering the prescribed introductory prayer for forgiveness. Reciting it, he finds a young priest has been sitting behind the screen, quietly waiting for penitents. It’s been about fifteen years since I wrote that chapter, and I still remember it as one of those rare and joyful moments when you know you’re writing well.”

The book came out in 1995. It was, said Hillerman, “closest to my heart, but not to those of editor, publisher, and many of my readers. Peter Thorpe, the talented jacket designer of my Navajo police books, did a beauty for this one—painting a moon rising over Cambodian mountains with the figure of a man outlined against its face. I got an early look and endorsed it, whereupon it was redesigned to fit more into the pattern of my previous books—the sort of development that reminds writers of their place in the publishing world.”
I’ve read Finding Moon twice now, and I like it. A lot, athough it is quite different from the Navajo police mysteries. I like those novels a lot, too. Almost as if two different authors were at work.

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


My recent five-week marathon wallowing in misery with Walker Percy's brilliant neurotics left me hungry for something ordinary—mellow, even, I was thinking, if that were possible in this day of action thrillers, noir bummers, and speculative (science) fiction mind blowers. It were, of course, although I needed to poke around among some memory banks to find the mellow spot that had begun pulsing the instant the word mellow popped into my prefrontal cortex from the synaptic circuitry where the happy music of Donovan and his ilk spends its retirement from comforting souls jangled by the "far out" weirdness accompanying a certain sort of pharmaceutical entertainment that in many stoked simulated versions of the neurotic adventures Percy's characters experience unwillingly. (You may breathe now.)

Suddenly (a word I use happily in defiance of Jonathan Franzen, and because I like it) I recalled Bill Geroux, a mellow reporter colleague at the newspaper that employed us too many years ago, recommending his favorite mystery author, a new name to me, Tony Hillerman. “His books are sort of mellow. I like them. They’re the only ones I buy as soon as a new one comes out,” Geroux said. For some odd reason I tend to avoid books others recommend to me, but for some odd reason, perhaps simply being in the mood for mellow, I read my first Tony Hillerman mystery. Geroux was right. There was something inviting about the voice and the easygoing style. The writing was plain and crisp, the characters seemed real, they engaged me, and the story kept me flipping pages long past bedtime. I subsequently read most everything Hillerman wrote, including Seldom Disappointed, his autobiography, which I re-read yesterday to soothe a sensibility jangled to distress by Walker Percy’s brilliant neurotics.
Right from the get-go you feel the generous spirit of a man who, gently defying his agent’s advice to “get rid of the Indian stuff,” brought modern Navajo and Hopi people into the forefront of popular fiction. Here’s his dedication:
To Marie, who wanted me to do this, and to all you other writers, wannabes, shouldbes, willbes, and hadbeens included, I dedicate this effort. You’re the ones who know it ain’t easy. May you get as lucky as I have been.

My agent’s advice caused me to seek a second opinion,” Hillerman says, “which sent me to Joan Kahn, the Einstein of mystery editors, who saw possibilities in the Navajo cultural material and subsequently forced me to be a better plotter than I had intended.”
With Kahn’s guidance Hillerman rewrote the novel and published it as The Blessing Way, launching the award-winning Navajo Tribal Police mystery series his daughter Anne would continue after his death in 2008 at 83. Anne Hillerman’s three since then brings the total to twenty-one. The elder Hillerman also published two stand-alone mysteries—The Fly on the Wall, drawing on his long experience as a newsman, and Finding Moon, set in the last days of U.S. combat involvement in Indochina. I’ve read Fly twice and now am re-reading Moon, which Hillerman proclaimed “the closest I have come to writing a book that satisfied me.” It’s good, certainly different from the others, but it’s far from my favorite. That laurel, such as it is, goes to Seldom Disappointed.
Gen. Anthony "Nuts" McAuliffe pins Silver Star on Pvt. Hillerman
Blessed are those who expect little,” he recalled his mother saying. “They are seldom disappointed.” This was her consolation when Hillerman’s father dropped a huge Black Diamond watermelon--“the most delicious fruit known to humanity”--he was lugging home after nurturing it in a garden all summer. It smashed to bits. Hillerman says he was about five then, “and probably didn’t appreciate the doubled-edged irony in that beatitude. Looking back at life, I find I have often received more than I ever expected and suffered less than my share of disappointments.”
He credits both parents with instilling principles in him, his older brother, and their sister that served him well through many challenges. From his father he learned not to cheat (although he admits to being extraordinarily lucky at poker, which I would attribute to an evidently extraordinary memory) and not to bear grudges. Perhaps ironically he learned bravery from his mother (reinforced less nobly by his peers to whom he dared not appear a “sissy”.) These values, he says, were severely tested when faced with the temptation to deliberately smash his bum ankle during WWII to get out of the terrible trials of fighting Nazis in Germany. He ended up badly wounded anyway, and being awarded the Bronze and Silver Stars for valor (which, with characteristic modesty, he claims were undeserved), but those came awhile after his decision to forget the ankle and soldier on.
Our company had at least two cases of men courtmartialed for self-inflicted wounds, but a broken ankle wouldn’t provoke punishment,” he writes. “Why didn’t I do it? It had nothing to do with patriotism, or how badly it would hurt. I think it was because I didn’t want to miss whatever lay ahead, or I didn’t want to go through life knowing I was a sissy.
His modesty, a sense of basic honesty, and an unflinching memory for detail come through with exceptional clarity in this description of his first day at Oklahoma A&M shortly after getting his high school diploma and after he and his brother buried their father on their dirt-poor farm.
Hillerman, United Press
Years later, after reading Catcher in the Rye,” he writes, “memories of that day came flooding back to me and I tried to pull them together into the raw material for a short story—working in the good-bye hug from Mama, shaking hands with Barney, standing on the mostly dead bermuda grass of Mrs. Pulliam’s yard watching our sedan disappear down the street, the mixed feelings of fear, exultation, loneliness, and excitement. Suddenly I was a formally recognized adult. Free at last from boyhood, a career at which I had not felt myself successful. I was skinny, clumsy, slow of foot, the survivor of two tough pre-antibiotic bouts of pneumonia, and a struggle with malaria that kept me home from sixth grade classes for months. I had the sort of ears that made Ross Perot a favorite of cartoonists, a large and bony nose, and a tendency to do dumb things to minimize the risk of being considered a sissy by my peers. (For example, jumping out of a barn loft to show pals how paratroopers did it and, as paratroopers often did, tearing up ankle tendons.) Now I had a new start. I was simultaneously scared and jubilant, an emotional mix that was (and still is) beyond my ability to handle in fiction.” Oh, I don’t know about that last.

He lasted one semester, receiving terrible grades except for an A in English composition, went home, enlisted, and entered WWII as a combat infantryman. You don’t want to hear about the nightmare “over there,” I’m sure, at least not from me. So let’s skip ahead to Hillerman having mustered out at age twenty, limping on a cane, and with a vague notion of becoming a journalist, “whatever that might prove to be.” This he becomes, finds out he’s good at it, makes a name for himself, gets married, goes back to college, begins writing and selling nonfiction, teaches in college, switches to fiction, and becomes a New York Times bestselling mystery novelist. He and his wife Marie (whom we met in the dedication and whom he praises without restraint throughout the rest of the book describing her marrying him as “the greatest coup” of his life) produce Anne, and then adopt five more children.
His generosity comes through even in sharing some insights to the writing craft, the kind some successful authors slyly guard under generalities, such as “show, don’t tell,” rather than giving specifics.
Working on the novel Skinwalkers, Hillerman found himself stumped by a scene where his Navajo policeman protagonist, asleep in his trailer home, must be awakened in time to avoid an assassin’s bullet fired through the trailer’s aluminum skin. “Everything I try sounds like pure psychic coincides—which I detest in mysteries. Nothing works until I remember the ‘clack, clack’ sound made when a friend’s cat goes through the ‘cat door’ on his porch.” Voila! Something outside scares the cat, the cat dashes to safety through the little door, and “clack, clack,” the policeman wakes up and rolls to safety on the floor.
Five years earlier, studying for a graduate degree at the University of New Mexico after barely gaining admission to the program, an essay he wrote describing his father’s dying day earned him an A. This surprised him, as it was the first time he’d tried writing in first person. His professor, Morris Friedman, had suggested the approach after Hillerman explained he’d been trained as a journalist “to be invisible.” to keep himself out of the story. He asked Friedman what made this approach work so well.
“‘For example,’ Friedman said, ‘You show us not just his books on the shelves, but the glass which preserves them.’
I said, ‘Yes, he loved his books.’
“‘From the titles you mention, I’d say they were politically inflammatory for the times. So, as your reader,’ said Friedman, ‘I think that glass protects both his books from the dust, and his children from the books.’
Thus, Morris Friedman caused me to begin thinking of what can be done with those significant little details, and the value of the sort of ambiguity from which readers form their own conclusions.”
Next step, the “clack, clack” of an imagined lifesaving cat door in a bestselling, much celebrated career.

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Tuesday, September 12, 2017


It's been a century and part of another now since Kate Chopin shocked the literary world with a thrilling time-lapse look at the blooming amid a perfectly proper pansy bed of a wondrously rebellious passion flower. (I’m still not completely satisfied with that sentence, and expect to revisit it—perhaps incessantly—for tweaks and twiddles long after I’ve hit the publish button. After all, the literary world is still tweaking and twiddling its opinion of Chopin’s The Awakening, and likely will continue to do so until the looming Apocalypse suspends all tweaking and twiddling, at least in this little corner of the Cosmos.)

Such outraged put-downs as “repellent” and “sad and mad and bad” and “poison” greeted The Awakening at its dawn in 1899, which seems odd now in that twenty years earlier Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll House, with an almost identical theme, met with a similarly hostile critical reception. More recent discussions of The Awakening suggest that Chopin’s neck was on the block because of its setting in Louisiana rather than in some “foreign” country.
The meanest put-down of The Awakening I have found (with help from Wikipedia) was Public Opinion’s "We are well-satisfied when Mrs. Pontellier deliberately swims out to her death in the waters of the gulf." {{Gasp}}

Oops, have I given too much away? Forgive me. The plot is...well, there really isn’t much of one: Edna Pontellier, 28, secretly thumbs her nose at her wooden Creole businessman hubby and his New Orleans society (she’s from Kentucky), allowing herself by increments to fall in love with the charming 26-year-old son of a friend. The increments take the length of a novella to unfold because that’s how long it takes Edna to recognize what is happening to her, that she’s becoming sensually alive and is craving—desperately--to break free of the web of cultural and marital obligations she’d entered with those horrific (for men, ordinarily) words “I do.”
That she and the wooden Creole businessman have two young’uns bothers her a little in this psychological metamorphosis we witness her undergoing, but not enough to keep her from swimming into the Gulf of Mexico, presumably to her death—either unwittingly or deliberately, of which we are not privy.
The two male leads in this story are Robert, whom Edna comes to realize she loves, and Alcee Arobin, the local lothario who seduces her after Robert flees, claiming it’s because he loves her, hence, we’re to assume, protecting her from the stigma a consummation of their love would bring upon her.

While the story framework is simple, the blossoming of Edna’s sensuality, given to us petal by glorious petal, kept this old goat reading as raptly as he presumes he might a James Patterson thriller, were he (the old goat) so starved for something to read. And Kate Chopin could write, bringing with her scandalous novel an enviable reputation for her short fiction. You know I’m going to give you some examples—no point in me trying to do justice with paraphrases to her exceptional skill.
Here’s Edna: “Mrs. Pontellier's eyes were quick and bright; they were a yellowish brown, about the color of her hair. She had a way of turning them swiftly upon an object and holding them there as if lost in some inward maze of contemplation or thought.
“Her eyebrows were a shade darker than her hair. They were thick and almost horizontal, emphasizing the depth of her eyes. She was rather handsome than beautiful. Her face was captivating by reason of a certain frankness of expression and a contradictory subtle play of features. Her manner was engaging.”

I like handsome, engaging women. Here’s a glimpse of her sorrow after a mild set-to with the wooden businessman she’d married for reasons practical rather than love: “She could not have told why she was crying. Such experiences as the foregoing were not uncommon in her married life. They seemed never before to have weighed much against the abundance of her husband's kindness and a uniform devotion which had come to be tacit and self-understood.”
Chopin explains that in the Creole culture husbands are never jealous, that the “gangrene passion is one which has become dwarfed by disuse.”
Kate Chopin
Perhaps it’s that understanding, or taking it for granted, that enables Edna to inch almost unwittingly toward what she feels is freedom-and-damn-the-consequences. Here’s her first clue to us that she’s catching on to something happening between her and Robert:Edna Pontellier could not have told why, wishing to go to the beach with Robert, she should in the first place have declined, and in the second place have followed in obedience to one of the two contradictory impulses which impelled her.
“A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her,—the light which, showing the way, forbids it.”
We may assume correctly The Awakening enjoyed a spirited revival, which came long after Chopin’s death, with the advent of modern feminism, in the 1960s. This attitude has matured some since then, at least from the perspective of Edna’s choices in asserting her independence

Kate Chopin
In a group discussion hosted by NPR’s Diane Rehm five years ago, author and Time columnist Judith Warner said she “felt very bad” about not sympathizing with Edna Pontellier. “I felt like a bad feminist and a bad person...” she said. “But I found her really narcissistic and childish… She seemed to me to just have so much frustrated narcissism and be so kind of limited in her ability to think. She can feel to a great extent, but she doesn't seem to be all that capable of rational thought. And even in that depiction, I wondered, it's almost as though Kate Chopin is reprising all of the stereotypes, the dominant stereotypes about the nature of women that were dominant in her time and, of course, it lasted for a very long time afterward as well.”
Rehm cited a Facebook posting on the subject from someone called Susan: "I first read it right after I finished college when I was single. I was inspired by the way Edna took control of her life the only way she could. I read it again after I was married with children and I was appalled at Edna's selfishness. I wondered if Edna had somehow changed while the book was on the shelf. It's amazing how differently I saw her character as my life circumstances changed. It's still one of my favorite novels."
My favorite scene is a brief conversation between Edna and my favorite supporting character, a wise old physician referred to only as “Doctor Mandelet.” The doctor has just asked Edna if she intends to accompany her husband on a planned trip abroad.
"’Perhaps—no, I am not going,’ she answers. ‘I'm not going to be forced into doing things. I don't want to go abroad. I want to be let alone. Nobody has any right—except children, perhaps—and even then, it seems to me—or it did seem—‘ She felt that her speech was voicing the incoherency of her thoughts, and stopped abruptly.
"’The trouble is,’ sighed the Doctor, grasping her meaning intuitively, ‘that youth is given up to illusions. It seems to be a provision of Nature; a decoy to secure mothers for the race. And Nature takes no account of moral consequences, of arbitrary conditions which we create, and which we feel obliged to maintain at any cost.’
"’Yes,’ she said. ‘The years that are gone seem like dreams—if one might go on sleeping and dreaming—but to wake up and find—oh! well! perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one's life.’"

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Thursday, September 7, 2017


After rereading five of his six novels, I wondered after the fifth if maybe I was burning out on Walker Percy's whiny angsty men. But upon reflection I believe I'm “onto something,” as Percy liked to put it about chasing life’s dark mysteries. What I’m onto is a suspicion his male protagonists are simply rotten spoiled. They’re all good looking, athletic, articulate, accomplished, and moneyed—either by birth or marriage—but, alas, they’re not happy. Oh me oh my.

I reread the novels willy nilly, not in the order they were written, as I’d done the first time around. Not sure now it would have made much different. The existentially miserable men, it’s become plain as what I think is dog doo-doo on the toe of my shoe, are essentially the same miserable man. In fact two men ostensibly appear by name more than once, one each in two of four of the novels. But this is a small point, as either of these two men are easily interchangeable with the protagonists of the other two novels. Only the names and ages are different.
What I like best about The Last Gentleman, which was Percy’s second, and which I reread second to last, is a secondary character so refreshingly different from the predictable Percy protagonist I wish Percy’d written a novel featuring him instead of the ubiquitous whiner. Were this character in the movie that surely would have been made of such a novel, he’d be played by Hugh Laurie reprising his irascible genius diagnostician of the too-short-running TV series called simply House. Or rather his TV role would have been a reprise of the Dr. Sutter Vaught character, first introduced in The Last Gentleman, since that novel predated the TV series by several decades. What I’m trying to say is Sutter Vaught is Gregory House, the physician you would want at the bedside of you or your loved one if life were at stake. No matter how rude, seemingly indifferent, or self-destructive he (the doctor) might be.
Dr. Sutter Vaught scoffs at Will Barrett’s dismay over not finding happiness. Barrett is torn between what Vaught calls “transcendence” (idealism) and its opposite “immanence” (realism). Here’s how Percy describes Barrett’s problem: “It had come over him again, the old itch for omniscience. One day it was longing for carnal knowledge, the next for perfect angelic knowledge.” You want to slap the kid and tell him to get laid, which he evidently doesn’t in this novel. We have to wait for the sequel, The Second Coming, for that, but then, of course, he’s still having trouble finding happiness. Unfortunately no one can slap him down to Earth because, psychologically fragile though he is, he was a middleweight boxing sensation before dropping out of Princeton to work as a janitor in New York City and spy on Kitty, the young woman he’ll eventually have carnal longings for, the young woman who is Dr. Sutter Vaught’s sister. [SPOILER ALERT] Barrett’s still having carnal longings for Kitty—at least her ass--in the sequel, although now he’s “nearing middle age.” a widower with an unpleasant screwball daughter, and falls “in love” with Kitty’s daughter, who just might be...nah, no carnal, er, solid evidence.
I liked Will Barrett better in the sequel, found him easier to identify with. Partly because the sexual tension is less angsty. Still troubled, of course, he’s learned to take charge of himself. He has to. There’s no Sutter Vaught to look to for advice. Sutter Vaught, who cured patients of depression by admitting them for a brief stay in the hospital’s terminal ward.
Dr. House trying either to save a patient's life or seduce her
Barrett is too contrived a character in The Last Gentleman to be sympathetic. Reminded me of the sort of modern fictional action types who can do whatever they need to do to win—shoot like Annie Oakley, fly an airplane, a chopper, race a speedboat, a motorcycle, etc. etc. Barrett’s self-proclaimed “nervous condition,” which involves episodes of amnesia and deja vu, and a leg with a mind of its own, does not impair his effectiveness in a barroom brawl, which he manages with aplomb because, we learn at the opportune moment, he’d been quarterback of his high school football team.
Yet he’s unhappy. Oh, poor baby.
Yet, I give Percy a pass on his characterizations because his writing is sublime, is so artful you can never be sure if he’s pulling your leg or sending you up or screwing up an eye to get your reaction. He’s a sly, Southern gentleman, and his take on sly, shrewd Southernness is so authentic this old Yankee-cum-Virginian knows to sit back and enjoy the show and keep his notions to himself. And Percy’s getting at more here than merely why philosophizing, privileged males are so conflicted. He’s taking on all of modern Western society, claiming the “malaise” that helped Ronald Reagan spoil Jimmy Carter’s re-election hopes is real. Percy’s philosophizing miserables blame “everydayness” in a world that promises unlimited possibilities that individuals—men, anyway—go nuts worrying if they’re making the right choices.
Here’s Percy explaining young Barrett’s epiphany after concluding the woman he’s peeped at through his telescope in Central Park—Kitty—is the love of his life: “For until this moment he had lived in a state of pure possibility, not knowing what sort of a man he was or what he must do, and supposing therefore that he must be all men and do everything. But after this morning’s incident his life took a turn in a particular direction. Thereafter he came to see that he was not destined to do everything but only one or two things. Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.” Alas, as this is the beginning of The Last Gentleman, and because this is a Walker Percy novel, we know poor Barrett has fooled himself once again.
As The Last Gentleman came out seven years after Percy’s debut, which shocked the literary world by winning a National Book Award, it’s understandable he was under considerable pressure to follow up The Moviegoer with another slam dunk. I’m guessing either he felt licensed by his success to pull out all of the stops, or he simply tried too hard. As I mentioned above, his writing is so splendid that the former seems more likely, and that he focused more on this aspect than on character and plot. Startlingly brilliant use of language in the oddest places kept me on my toes despite my body English trying to slap some sense into the infuriatingly waffling Will Barrett. Here are a couple of insights regarding silence that astonished me:
The engineer [Barrett] woke listening. Something had happened. There was not a sound, but the silence was not an ordinary silence. It was the silence of a time afterwards. It had been violated earlier. His heart beat a strong steady alarm. He opened his eyes. A square of moonlight lay across his knees.
“A shot had been fired. Had he dreamed it? Yes. But why was the night portentous? The silence reverberated with insult.”
And here’s description that’s pure beauty:It was a dewy bright haunted October morning. The silvery old Rock City barns leaned into the early sunlight. Killdeers went crying along the fallow fields where tough shallow spiderwebs were scattered like saucers. Now and then the Lincoln crossed deep railroad cuts filled with the violet light of ironweed.”

I have just started The Moviegoer for the fourth time, was surprised to see how happy the protagonist is with his situation. “I am a stock and bond broker,” Binx Bolling tells us. “It is true that my family was somewhat disappointed in my choice of a profession. Once I thought of going into law or medicine or even pure science. I even dreamed of doing something great. But there is much to be said for giving up such grand ambitions and living the most ordinary life imaginable, a life without the old longings; selling stocks and bonds and mutual funds; quitting work at five o’clock like everyone else; having a girl and perhaps one day settling down and raising a flock of Marcias and Sandras and Lindas of my own. Nor is the brokerage business as uninteresting as you might think. It is not a bad life at all.”
Presumably, when I read this the very first time, before the others, I felt good about old Binx (whom I would identify with) and settled in for a pleasant ride. Soon, however, still in the first chapter, I came upon the first uh oh: “For ten minutes I stand talking to Eddie Lovell and at the end of it, when we shake hands and part, it seems to me that I cannot answer the simplest question about what has taken place. As I listen to Eddie speak plausibly and at length of one thing and another—business, his wife Nell, the old house they are redecorating—the fabric pulls together into one bright texture of investments, family projects, lovely old houses, little theater readings and such. It comes over me: this is how one lives! My exile in Gentilly has been the worst kind of self-deception.”
Nonetheless, I much enjoyed the ride, bumps, frustrations, and all. That damned Percy!


[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]