Review 1763: Jack

Jack tells more fully the story of Jack Boughton, whose tale was first alluded to in Robinson’s Gilead and whose fate was more fully explored in Home, which takes place chronologically after Jack. Jack is the hapless ne’er-do-well prodigal son in Home, but Jack explores his relationship with Della Miles, a romance with a young black woman that is forbidden in 1950’s Missouri.

Jack is living in St. Louis at the beginning of the novel, just barely hanging on to the fringes of society. He is drunk part of the time and owes money that he can’t repay. He is fresh out of jail and living in a cheerless rooming house.

He has already met Della at the beginning of the novel and has fallen instantly in love with her, but he is minutely aware of himself and his unsuitability. She is a young woman, educated, a schoolteacher, and she is black. It’s against the law for him to consort with her, and just being seen with him will ruin her reputation. For his part, he’s an older man, an ex-con, a bum.

Della gets accidentally locked in a cemetery one night where he sometimes sleeps. So, the first part of the novel is a long conversation at night.

Robinson is finely tuned to the condition of the human heart, as becomes obvious as we watch Jack, overly sensitive to every nuance of a situation. True to his upbringing by a devout Presbyterian minister, Jack frequently engages in theological discussions odd for an atheist. We watch Jack try to defeat his feelings for the sake of his beloved and fear that any small disappointment will send him on a downward spiral, for he is so fragile.

Robinson is a wonderful writer with a deep understanding of human nature. Although these Gilead books can be difficult, they are rewarding.

Gilead

Home

Lila

Review 1728: A Sin of Omission

A Sin of Omission opens with Stephen Mzamane making a long journey to see his best friend, Albert Newnham, across the region known in the 19th century as Kaffraria on the Cape of South Africa. During this journey, the novel looks back on his life.

Picked up as a starving child in the bush by Reverend Basil Rutherford, Stephen is raised at a mission to become an Anglican priest. Once his family learns where he is, his father brings his older son, Mzamo, there too, reasoning that the boys will not succeed unless they learn to be English. The Ngqika tribe has been driven off its lands by the British, and because of a prophecy that foretold the British would leave if the people destroyed their crops and animals, his father has killed his cattle and burned his crops. Although he is an important man, he has to work on the roads to avoid starving.

The Church is making it a practice to raise the sons of important natives as British clerics in an attempt to convert the people. Both Stephen and Mzamo are intended for this program. However, Mzamo is rebellious while Stephen is dedicated and devout, so Mzamo is ejected from the program.

Stephen is eventually sent to Canterbury to be educated at the Missionary College. There, although he is a fish out of water, he becomes best friends with a fellow student, Albert Newnham. Unfortunately for this friendship, Albert eventually chooses to marry a girl who is completely unsuited to be a missionary’s wife and is racist.

Things begin to go wrong after the young men take an ill-considered shortcut so as not to be late for tea, but Stephen only begins to learn the fruits of this event when he returns to Africa. Although he still needs to pass Greek and Latin exams to become a priest, unlike his white fellows, he is given a post far from any libraries or tutors. The job he expected to get working at the missionary college with his beloved Mfundisi Turvey, principal of that college, eventually goes to Albert. Instead of being give a post together, as promised, they are separated. In fact, Stephen is alone because the nearest cleric to his post is racist.

Stephen is also no longer a part of his own people, although his brother plays a large part in his fate. The major events of this novel are initiated when he learns of his brother’s death.

This novel is partially based on the life of Stephen Mtutuko Mnyakama, a missionary of the Anglican Church of the Holy Trinity. Although it didn’t initially pull me in, I eventually found it absorbing and heart-rending. This is a novel I probably wouldn’t have discovered had it not been for my Walter Scott project.

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Review 1686: You Don’t Have To Live Like This

Greg Marnier in his 30’s finds himself at loose ends. He has been in Wales teaching history classes as an adjunct during the last few years but has moved back home to Baton Rouge and can’t find a job. He is an overthinker, who seems generally clueless and inert throughout the novel.

Marny, as his friends call him, went to Yale with Robert James, who has made a fortune and now claims to want to do some good. It’s 2011, and property is cheap in deserted Detroit. Robert wants to buy a large number of houses and sell them to people who want to change their lives, fix up the houses, and create communities, thereby forcing urban renewal. Marny decides he’s in.

This idea is sort of interesting, but Marny right away struck me as deficient in something. For example, he doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with Robert’s company having tried to force some of the original occupants in the five neighborhoods, most of whom are black, out of their houses, to displace them with newcomers who are mostly white. Marny makes tentative friends with an angry black Detroit native named Nolan, but when his friend Tony won’t let his small child play with Nolan’s small child because Tony is a racist, he says nothing and continues to be friends with both.

Marny half-heartedly pursues a black schoolteacher named Gloria romantically and then doesn’t seem to know what to do with her once he’s got her. But like all the conversations in this novel, their discussions of race seem strangely unfinished and unsatisfying.

In general, Markovits’s handling of the book’s themes of racism and gentrification seems deficient and na├»ve. Nothing much happens for a long time except an exhaustive retelling of Marny’s day-to-day life until there’s a series of events and a trial that change everything.

Markovits has a background in magazine writing, which I wouldn’t mention if it didn’t affect the novel. Just like in a magazine feature, Marny describes each character as he or she comes into the story and provides a short background. This is not an organic outgrowth of the novel, where it is more usual to find out about a character’s background through a conversation or some other organic construct (research on the part of another character, for example) unless the novel is omnisciently narrated. It seems very artificial in fiction as it does not in a magazine article, and frankly, some of the characters seem stereotypical. There are also a lot of them, as there are a lot of those unsatisfying conversations, many of which have little to do with the story.

I think that the subject matter of this novel is important, but I don’t think Markovits is the person to handle it, at least not judging by this book. Including its clumsy title (which seems to be a thing these days), his novel was not one of my favorites from my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1596: Her Father’s Daughter

When I was a girl, I discovered some old Gene Stratton-Porter books of my mother’s, and I just loved them. Later, in high school, I had a job at the public library, so I resolved to read all of her books. However, one of those books put such a bad taste in my mouth that I stopped reading her.

Skip forward 50 years and I found an old copy of one of her books in good shape in a used bookstore, so I bought it. I finally got around to reading it, only to discover on the very first page that this was the same book that turned me off in the first place. How did it strike me now? You shall see.

Linda Strong is in the halls of high school in Los Angeles when she is accosted by an upperclassman, Donald Whiting, who asks her why she wears such odd shoes. She in turn raises an issue with him that I will address in a bit.

Linda is an independent girl who was brought up by her father exploring the desert environs of Southern California, learning how to identify and use plants and how to live in the wilderness. Her parents died four years ago, and she has been living with her older sister, Eileen, who has been systematically robbing Linda of her inheritance to pay for her own clothes and entertainment. Hence, Linda in high school makes a shabby, eccentric appearance, but her shoes are for comfort.

Eileen has also deprived her best friend, Marian, of her boyfriend, which she did as soon as John became successful. Marian is leaving for San Francisco, where she has a job in an architect’s office and has entered an architectural contest. But the plot takes a turn when John brings over an old friend, writer Peter Morrison, who is looking for a place to settle, and Henry Anderson, an architect.

This book is really almost all subplots. I was going to say that the main plot was the relationship between Linda and Eileen, but that plot goes into abeyance for quite some time. There is a romance of some uncertainty, of course, and a plot about a stolen drawing of Marian’s. But my objection to the novel mostly concerns Linda’s issue with Donald. For this novel contains a ridiculous, racist subplot about Japanese adults being sent to attend California high schools so that they can best the American students academically and make them feel inferior. It is one of the stupidest plots I have ever read, and the book is one of the most racist I have ever read, a blueprint to the thinking of white supremacists. Not only does Linda believe all kinds of paranoid things about the Japanese, but she lets others have it as well—African Americans, Mexicans, and Communists. I usually try not to judge books out of their time, but I’ve read plenty of books from this time period (1921), and this one is just despicable. All these horrible attitudes are expressed by an otherwise appealing heroine, which I think makes it worse. I am again disappointed in this author, who has written several really good books for young adults.

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Review 1593: The Long Take

When I opened up The Long Take, which I was reading for both my Walter Scott prize and Booker prize projects, I was not delighted to discover it is mostly a poem. However, it is fairly easy to read, so my next challenge was a search for the plot.

Walker, a World War II veteran from Nova Scotia, first arrives in New York City in 1946. He haunts skid row and dive bars as he tries to find a place for himself. Later, after an invitation, he travels to Los Angeles and gets a job with a newspaper.

This novel is more atmospheric and thematic than plot-driven. It is about droves of homeless ex-soldiers occupying the downtown areas of all the large cities Walker visits. It is about Walker’s feelings about what he saw and did in the war. And it is about the gutting of downtown Los Angeles to make room for parking lots and freeways and the racism underlying the planning decisions.

The Long Take is beautifully written. It is not a noir work, as described on the cover, but it is gritty and depressing.

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