Toni Morrison’s latest effort, Home, is an uneven homage to her universal theme: the residual and everlasting effects of slavery in all of its various betrayals of human dignity.
This slim book about FrankSmart Money (Morrison’s bold and symbolic choice of character names is her trademark), who is perhaps some distant relation to Macon Milkman Dead III in her 1977 masterpiece, The Song of Solomon -- is a young African American Korean War veteran, one of the first to fight in an integrated Army.
A man who is naturally prone to violence, Frank watched his two best friends die in the war, and landing in a mental hospital, he spends his time plotting an escape, an act which turns out to be as easy as a first-grader obtaining a pass to the bathroom. Frank’s life is a constant struggle to exist with dignity as a free man.
In his early childhood, Frank witnessed his family being driven from their home and property by hooded men. Now in his early adulthood in the 1950s, he tries to make his way “home” from Chicago, where integration is more language than reality. He heads back to Lotus, Georgia, “the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield,” where “there is no future, just long stretches of killing time … no goal other than breathing, nothing to win, … nothing worth surviving for.” He is, nonetheless, determined to return there and to rescue his mentally challenged beloved sister. Cee, (Ycidra) is suffering at the hands of an evil white doctor of eugenics.
Not that one is looking for Agatha Christie when reading Morrison, but you won’t find a “can’t wait to pick it up,” plot line in Home, which is fine, since this novel can be read it in one sitting. The various characters who inhabit its pages are people you’ve met before and have already had the vitality squeezed out of them.
The significant incidents that pile up to suck the juices out of Frank’s life are skimmed as if material posed in response to an essay question on a test.
The scars of war and the inherent horrors to which he has been witness blend into Frank’s adult life with the wounds of his youthful experiences with racism. A few pages of switching to a personal analysis of both Frank and his sister from the point of view of Frank’s erstwhile girlfriend seemed to me a kind of gratuitous intrusion, after we have been exposed to Frank’s own first person memories inserted randomly into parts of the third person narrative. But perhaps I am being too nit-picky of the Great One.
The book is actually rescued from its doldrums by its spectacular magical realism ending, wherein Frank, with his healed sister at his side, creates a small pocket of retribution for all the symbolic wounds of his life, and in so doing sprays himself with a snippet of hope for his future.
Morrison, who has amassed enough awards and honors to line the streets of her home-town of Lorain, Ohio, is now in her 80s. She is known for her lyrical language, strong characters, and hard-hitting themes, but must have been plumb tired and downright out of sorts when she put this one together.
Although she is uniquely too Toni Morrison not to have produced occasional spurts of Morrison magical prose, too much of the book is banal narration unsuited to the queen of language. I’m sure that by now you have detected a “no, but” tone to this review.
Morrison’s iconic literary history is unassailable, beginning with her 1970 novel, The Bluest Eye, in which she explored the black world of Ohio’s eleven year-old Pecola Breedlove. The book deals with the relativism of beauty in a white world, metaphorically, the value of having “blue eyes,” as well as the unspeakable ripples resulting from incest.
She was nominated for the National Book Award for Sula in 1973 and was hoisted to true star status in 1977 with the publication of what is considered her best book, Song of Solomon, wherein several layers of theme and symbolism weave into a pattern of song, flight, and of course, racial injustice.
But if you really want to understand Toni Morrison’s impact on the world of literature, her short non-fiction (91 pages) and pithy 1992 Playing In The Dark: Whiteness and The Literary Imagination, is an outspoken critique of such heavyweights as Poe, Melville, Cather and Hemingway and their clueless references to the presence of “blackness” in society, as reflected in their works by metaphors of evil. She challenges writers to rethink their use of language and imagery relating to characters with African backgrounds.
If you are looking for a Toni Morrison fix, the bounty is incalculable. It is everywhere and yours for the reading.
Mention the name Richard Ford to a bunch of writers and chances are there will be some strong reactions. Generally, the writers will fall into two camps: those who love him and those who loathe him. I’ve mentioned in the past that I left the east coast and fled to Montana (a strong word now, but at the time it felt natural) because of a writer’s words. That writer was Richard Ford. He wrote about Montana so eloquently and so persuasively that I felt it would be a sin not to go. His writing convinced me that Montana was a provocative, rousing place where the sky itself offered the reward of greatness.
He was right—although he later moved to New Orleans and then Maine, confusing me because I couldn’t understand why someone who seemed to feel so deeply for a place would leave it--but now that I’ve read more of his stories I feel I have an understanding of his wanderlust.
Why do other writers dislike him? I was once talking to my friend’s then boyfriend. I found myself in a debate over Ford. I was saying what I used to say about him, essentially that what Ford wrote just felt true and inseparable from how I felt about life. His delicate descriptions, the endings that revealed yet another layer of feeling, the attention to nuance…how could anyone not love it? But he countered. My friend’s boyfriend found the writing cloying and overly sentimental. He preferred Philip Roth. We went round and round that evening, but could not convince the other of our convictions. And so it goes.
I no longer feel that the reason Richard Ford is an amazing writer is simply because I feel like his characters feel. He does deal with character, but he does so much more. This feels especially true with his latest book, Canada.
Dell Parsons is the hero of Canada, but an unlikely hero. When the book begins, he’s a “typical kid,” a chess-playing, bee-loving fifteen-year-old. There is nothing extraordinary about him. Although his family may be a bit eccentric for the western town of Great Falls, Montana—his father is a slick, charismatic, ex-air force pilot, his mother is a tiny Jewish woman with shy ways that impede her large views—his parents are “normal.” He and his twin sister Berner live a pretty happy life. It is not until his parents (unexpectantly) rob a bank that Dell backpedals and tries to reconstruct a fractured life.
The planning of the robbery is one of the most interesting parts of Canada. The father goes out in search of a bank in an area where he can be “inconspicuous.” He decides (for what seems like the most random of reasons) to rob a bank in a small town in South Dakota. His “master plan” is that no one will notice a stranger in town if he goes in disguise. However, this disguise is utterly laughable: a pilot flight suit, which surely does stand out. In fact, Ford plays with this idea of disguise throughout the book as he thoroughly describes the dress of his characters.
For example, here’s a description of the father’s weekend attire: “rubber sandals and Bermudas and a red-flowered Hawaiian shirt that showed his coiled snake tattoo on his forearm.” Likewise, Ford describes the mother’s dress as it changes from scene to scene—the outfits which are an attempt to fit in, as well as the wild way her hair won’t cooperate and her exaggerated tininess.
The mother had thought that wearing a mask when robbing a bank would be a better idea, but the father thought that having a mask would make him “stand out too much.” This borders on the absurd and is delicious to read, as is the rest of the half-baked plan to rob a bank—the stolen South Dakota license plates, the way they spend the night a hundred miles from the bank in a seedy hotel, the plan that the father could eat out the night before the crime is committed, while the mother had to stay in the hotel room because she would attract attention. All this seems at once perfectly calculated and thoroughly crazy. But isn’t the idea of robbing a bank (with the hopeful idea that no one will get hurt) in spite of the fact the father packs a gun, bizarre in itself?
It’s all about circumstance. Is Ford suggesting that pushed hard enough, facing the wall, we would all succumb to the temptation of an easy fix? The father needs just a bit of money—around a thousand, though a thousand was more, of course, during the 50’s. He has certainly got himself into trouble, which is also an interesting tangle of events: his plan had been to bootleg cattle from ranchers with the help of the local Indians (they shoot the cattle at night). Then he sold the meat to the railroad for their dining car. Eventually the go-to man at the railroad declares the meat rancid and won’t accept the beef. Unable to pay the Indians, Dell’s father feels threatened on all sides and compelled to rob a bank (at the same time, Dell realizes his father has always been fascinated by criminals).
After the atrocious event (of course the parents get caught a few days after they return to Great Falls), Dell “escapes” to Canada with the aid of a family friend, while Berner leaves permanently for the west coast (the two never spend time together after this; the family is permanently fractured). In Canada, Dell is introduced to an even stranger set of characters—the disgusting Charlie with his dyed black hair, makeup, and foul smell who becomes Dell’s main day-to-day cohort and Arthur Remlinger, an eccentric who has his own set of problems (he is responsible for a man’s death and is essentially on the lam).
Yet Dell is relieved to be able to exist here in the open spaces of Canada, instead of being locked away in a juvenile home. Here Dell makes the most of these dreamy days—he doesn’t go to school, but helps Arthur with his hotel that caters to bird hunters. The tension about what exactly is going on with Arthur makes the story resonate. The ending is strange, eerie, and worth getting to.
Ford’s early work takes place in Montana and now he has returned to this ground with this new book. He reveals that this book was started more than twenty years ago when he put it aside. Ford writes equally well about New Jersey, Arizona, and France. We have many writers who are associated with place—southern writers and writers who even set most of their stories in specific cities. Yet Ford has never felt the necessity to limit himself. I read recently that he said in effect that in America you can move and reinvent yourself—so why not do it? And yet if you were to abstract meaning from Ford’s so-called movement, he would warn against it. As the character Dell so eloquently narrates, “I believe in what you see being most of what there is, as I’ve taught my students, and that life’s passed along to us empty. So, while significance weighs heavy, that’s the most it does. Hidden meaning is all but absent.” So maybe under the “disguises” that we wear there is nothing more, just a peak at what we become one moment to the next
I enjoy serendipitous coincidences, so imagine my delight at being assigned the novel, Witness the Night, to read and review since I had just recently returned from a three-week trip to India, the setting for this intriguing and disturbing book.
Witness the Night, Kishwar Desai’s first novel, a book deserving much praise and a wider audience, won the Costa First Novel Award in 2010. (The prestigious Costa Book Awards, originally known as the Whitbread Awards until 2006, confer recognition on writers from the UK and Ireland; Desai resides in the UK).
It is a cerebral mystery, with enough twists and turns to make even Agatha Christie lay down her teacup and study the plotting of this Byzantine story. More alarming is the fact that the novel is based on a true-life case of murder, augmented by a compendium of several other cases that the author covered as a journalist.
Money, rape, child abuse, murder, corruption, infanticide – all these staples of everyday Indian life are interwoven in a complex and satisfying thriller.
Desai has set up a fascinating opening – Durga, a fourteen year old girl, found tied up and possibly raped, has been accused of the murder of thirteen people whose bodies surround her on the floor. Even Hitchcock would find it hard to top that opening visual, panning across the massacred corpses, with a few close-ups of agonized faces and blood stained clothing.
The heroine, Simran Singh, is a 45-year old social worker with a fondness for the grape, who feels that Durga has been wrongly accused of the massacre and takes it upon herself to investigate the matter in hopes of saving Durga from a horrible fate. Simran has been left a significant fortune by her father, so she can afford the luxury of a low-paying career as well as the expenses attendant on a crime investigation.
As the story unfolds, we move ever deeper into the morass of Durga’s family secrets - her parents wanted sons, and treated their two daughters barbarically - and the hidden motives of Simran’s associates.
Simran gradually learns that actually no one can be trusted within this world of privileged and corrupt Punjabis and she receives numerous warnings and threats about continuing her investigation.
Desai’s perceptive delineation of the police and justice corruption in India is most accurate, at least, in Punjab, the province where our story unfolds. She is also spot-on describing the vast chasms between rich and poor in India, and the incomprehensible poverty afflicting the majority of its citizens. And her prime target, as a socially conscious ex-reporter and documentary maker, is the hideous practice of female infanticide, in a nation where sons are considered the only desirable offspring. One shudders at the prospect of the third generation’s problems if this practice were, in fact, universally embraced.
Desai employs a rather clever combination of storytelling devices: entries into Durga’s diary, narration of the story, and e-mails to Simran from Durga’s sister-in-law, who also espouses Durga’s innocence. Each, of course, offers differing and illuminating aspects of the case.
Various characters, well drawn, flit in and out of the narrative, serving to increase the atmosphere of foreboding and darkness, including Simran’s rather foolish mother whose only wish is for Simran to find a husband and settle down into marriage.
But despite all of the intricate plotting and suspect characters, and a well- orchestrated narrative flow, the novel is seriously flawed with regard to the finale. Desai abruptly shifts gears and begins a polemic on social injustice, and in so doing she has produced perhaps the most disappointing ending of any mystery I’ve ever read. Perhaps it is inexperience that caused this sudden and unsatisfying decline in narrative continuity or her imagination simply ran out of steam. It is somewhat akin to playwrights’ second act woes.
In short, Desai has written a promising first novel, a juicy crime story replete with major social themes and a sympathetic heroine sleuth who undoubtedly will become a staple in subsequent works.
There is already a sequel just published, entitled Origins of Love, featuring Ms. Singh as the intrepid investigator, which should be interesting if only to ascertain whether or not Ms. Desai has the literary stamina and imagination to sustain her narrative skill as a writer of thrillers. As of this writing, fans of Miss Marple need not fear any serious or compromising competition.
I hope the denouement of the new sequel will prove more satisfying than the one in Witness the Night. I am rooting for her – the lady has talent.
I liked The Whipping Club for its redemptive quality. The novel is set in 1960’s Ireland—while the Beatles and bell bottoms were gaining international popularity, Irish society was still dominated by the medieval tyranny of the Catholic Church/government. They ran many orphanages and reform schools, where unfortunate youth were physically, psychologically and sexually abused by the nuns and priests who ran them.
Ms. Henry, an Irish-born American writer, has used this background for her debut novel. Its story is of two young people, Mirian and Ben, who have fallen in love and want to be married. They are well matched but Mirian is Irish and Ben is Jewish. When Mirian becomes pregnant before they are married, her uncle, a priest, Father Brennan, persuades her not to force Ben into marriage because then he may come to resent the baby and her and “whatever love’s between you will be lost.”
Mirian allows herself to be manipulated by this rhetoric—she bears the child, a boy, Adrian, and gives him up for adoption. Believing that he will be adopted into an American family, she signs her rights to her child to the auspices of the Catholic Church, thus unwittingly consigning him into the draconian system of Irish orphanages. This is something she will come to deeply regret.
She and Ben married and they have a daughter, Johanna, who is a teenager when they find out that Adrian was not adopted but has been living in an orphanage nearby. Now a battle ensues for them to attempt to get their son back.
The primary characters of The Whipping Club, Mirian, Ben, Adrian and Johanna, are good people trapped in a system of control and abuse. You’d think since the boy’s parents very much want to have him be part of their family and have the means to provide for him the state would be only too happy to comply, thus relieving it of one less mouth to feed, but such is not the case. Sister Paulina does not want to relinquish the control she has over the fate of the boy.
Adrian is allowed an extended visit, time enough for him and Johanna to bond. His well-being is utmost in his mother’s heart, to the extent that Johanna accuses her mother of favoring Adrian. When the time arrives for him to return, Paulina promises at the end of another year that he may be permanently relinquished to them, pending good behavior on his part. The situation deteriorates when Adrian and his friend Peter are caught stealing the communion host and eating it (because they’re hungry). For this crime they are sent to a reform school that is even worse than the orphanage.
At the reform school Surtane, physical and sexual abuse of young boys is rampant. Although Adrian is not abused beyond being whipped harshly numerous times, his friend Peter is subjected repeatedly to rape, causing him to lose his sense of himself as a male. Either he is murdered or commits suicide. When Peter dies, Adrian realizes that his only salvation is to escape.
The best of novels are those that resonate with one’s own life. I became increasingly more drawn into the story and cared more about its characters, these good, intelligent people being persecuted often because of insane reasons. Modern life seems rife with outrages. Injustices are perpetrated because of some rule that makes no sense at all and yet its tyranny remains. Each of us can probably cite any number of instances. If we ask why, we are told because it’s the law.
If one still clings to one’s Christian or Jewish or Muslim faith, whom among us does not periodically ask how it is that God allows such atrocities to be perpetrated?
The atheists and agnostics seem to have a more realistic understanding of life than do religious people who believe in God. Father Brennan’s rather weak response is that “grapes have to be crushed to make God’s wine.”
After Peter’s death Adrian escapes, but he is captured when he tries to return to his family, captured and dragged back to Surtane to undergo the severe punishment meted out to anyone who had the audacity of escaping. He is whipped unmercifully.
At this point his father, Ben, a journalist, rises up and takes action, which is not politically correct and may cost him his job. “Take him out of the car!” he shouts. “Take that tape off his mouth for God’s sake. Look at the way you’re treating him. He hasn’t done anything!”
“Your boy has broken the law on two counts, Mr. Ellis. We don’t make the laws, but we do have to enforce them.”
“What laws?” Ben bellowed.
“He’s a runaway, charged with breaking and entering. He left Surtane illegally.”
“We’ll no longer abide by laws that are unjust.” Ben shouted at the officer as he himself is escorted to another police vehicle.
This is the story’s defining moment. This is the boy declaring that the emperor has no clothes. This is when Rosa Parks will no longer take a seat at the back of the bus. Now Ben’s story is the story his newspaper prints.
When told he will be released when he agrees to be silent, Ben refuses. “I refuse to eat until justice is done,” he declares.
Public pressure brings about Adrian’s release. Knowing that once things die down the reform school will lobby for his return to his family secures a work permit to work in a mine in Poland. At the story’s end Adrian is again separated from his family, but as Mirian says, “Things will be better now.”
There were times when reading The Whipping Club that I felt Ms. Henry was not exploiting the dramatic potential of her own story, but as I relaxed and allowed myself to be carried along by it, that complaint faded.
Indeed, I needed to be reminded from my reading and observations long ago: that injustices don’t change until the people rise up and demand them. For that reminder I thank Deborah Henry.
 I believe things have changed dramatically in Irish society since the 1960’s (the time of The Whipping Club.) The stranglehold of the Catholic Church/Irish government has lessened and many of its orphanages have been closed, but this was difficult for me to research because I know not one person familiar with present day Ireland whom I could consult.
Tatiana de Rosnay adds The House I Loved to her growing and impressive bibliography. Written with Parisian flair, The House I Loved delivers the story of Rose Bazelet, a widow living in her late husband’s family home on rue Childebert, facing the destruction of all she holds dear due to the modernization of Paris. As the demolitions creep closer with every word she writes to her dead husband, Rose reminisces on her life, her love, her losses, her secrets, and how she came to sit in their basement waiting for death. She is determined not to abandon the house that had meant so much to her husband and has been the setting of so many meaningful and painful memories.
The House I Loved resonates with life, begging the question, “What is needed to make life worth living?” Rose struggles with the loss of her husband’s death and finds the tenants that rent the shop below her home to be her saviors. Each of Rose’s neighbors face the same predicament, but each reacts based on their answer to the question de Rosnay poses. Rose’s brother moves to a rural area and couldn’t be happier. The hotel owner misses his clients, the comings and goings and chatter, but he moves on with the rest.
Rose decides that she will never give in. The house is all she has. The letters she writes serve to unburden her weighted heart and remind her of the joys in her life, and temper her resolve to remain.
Rose loves her Paris: the streets, the buildings, the people, and the fashions. This is apparent in the storytelling. Most listeners can relate to watching the world they’ve come to know intimately changing before their eyes, to Rose’s sentiments, and the struggle to hold on to what is slipping away. As we get to know Rose (through Kate Reading’s voice, her intimate laughter, and the smiles that we can hear in her tone), we begin to wait patiently as she builds the courage to tell us the secret she’s kept locked up for most of her life.
We sense the relief she experiences (although de Rosnay prepares us well for the revelation) when she finally spills her heart and soul, and shares her fears and guilt. The House I Loved is a touching story of life and loss, friendship and love, certain to leave you with a smile.
In the classic noir film, The Lady from Shanghai, a husband trails his wife and her lover to the hall of mirrors in a fun house. Although he’s trying his best to shoot her, he keeps shooting the mirrors instead. Unfortunately for him she has a gun, too, and the reflections don’t fool her.
In this anthology, one of several of the outstanding Noir series published by Akashic Books, the myths about bucolic, wealthy Long Island are shattered like glass in a carnival. In the 17 stories included within, the characters are the underserved, the lower-middle class, the poor migrant and immigrant workers, and the elderly
Each story takes place in a different town on the island and highlights the unknown dysfunction of its residents. The authors clearly know the interior and exterior terrain of the natives. In this book, the land mass is more a culture than a point of geography.
In “Semiconscious,” by Steven Wishnia, the protagonist has lost his sense of belonging, of home. “He’d been cast out east by successive waves of layoffs and two divorces.” A reporter for a Lake Rokonkoma newspaper, he covers a story in which a Mexican immigrant has been beaten to death. The journalist has a computer whiz research local hate websites, and learns that all of the writers on these sites endorse the killing. Their comments make the reporter feel cut off from civilization and morality. Unlike the victim’s community, he doesn’t believe that God will bring the killer to justice.
Tom Tomlinson’s main character in “Snow Job” has a proactive approach to making things right. The story is set in Wading River where a retiree wraps up garbage and excrement in beautiful gift boxes and anonymously leaves the “presents” at malls. When one of his treats results in a deadly encounter, he becomes the victim of a blackmailer. The gift maker asks for help from a friend and gets more or less what he bargained for. The author makes the prankster and the blackmailer equally contemptible.
Extortion is also the main event in the Richie Narvaez story, “Ending in Paumanok.” Here a Stony Brook University professor coerces her brother-in-law into giving her money. She’s being squeezed, in turn, by one of her students who is also her lover. She might be the academic, but the author makes it clear that she’s not as smart as she thinks. The story has ironic twists. It’s difficult to differentiate between the victims and the victimizers. The climax is partly poetic justice and deeply disturbing.
Sarah Weinman, on the other hand, has a very satisfying ending in her story, “Past President.” Its protagonist is the first female head of a shul in Great Neck. She gets the job when her predecessor is murdered. A former NYPD detective, the new president has relocated to her hometown to renew her faith. She handles the blatant sexism of older members of the synagogue with diplomacy. Still, against her better judgment, she gets roped into investigating the murder. Then the killer comes after her—with surprising results.
More of a shock than a surprise is the mindset of the characters in “Thy Shiny Car in the Night.” The town of Northport is made up primarily of Mafiosi, according to writer Nick Mamatas. They are enforcers and money launderers. They send their children to colleges and expect them to come home and work in the “family business.” The narrator tries to get his father to stop beating up people who don’t want to launder money and want to open up legitimate businesses.
“What about the government? What about the law?”
Listen, if the government cared, they’d just municipalize garbage collection and put us all out of business. We’re more efficient than they are, even with the occasional present we have to buy, or a labor action here and there.” According to the father, organized crime is one of the best examples of capitalism that America has to offer.
For African Americans in the South, the lure to Long Island wasn’t just free enterprise. It was the escape from homicidal racism, as in “Jabo’s,” by Amani Scipio. However, many simply exchanged one horrific life for another. The story’s narrator outlines the hardships that Black migrant workers in the 1950s endured to get work on potato farms in Bridgehampton. In one passage, she describes the living conditions in the camps where the laborers lived. “One such social worker saw my mother, almost eight months pregnant, kneeling down by a stream with no shoes on in the cold, trying to catch fish.” The social worker helps as much as she can, but there are deeper wounds that are festering in the young mother. Scipio presents the before and after of a life without hope.
Despair is more visual in “Boob Noir,” a comic strip by Jules Feiffer. It begins with a possibly suicidal man walking along the beach in Southampton. He explains the difficulties he has forgetting about a dead woman’s breasts. How she died is never really clear. How he came to be in the same room with her naked body seems to elude him as well. What is clear is that notifying the authorities is the farthest thing from his mind. In Feiffer’s rendering, the man is more concerned with her anatomy than he is with her death.
On the other hand, the doctor in the Garden City of “Anjali’s America,” written by Qanta Ahmed, MD hopes that a murder was committed by one of her former patients. The arranged marriage of this patient was horrible, as described by the doctor. The young bride was abused to the point that her womb was literally destroyed by her husband. The doctor, who shares the same cultural background as the former patient, escaped a similar fate. “And yet I found a way out. I won a place in residency to study medicine in New York. But I was not brighter than she—just stronger, hungrier, more defiant.” The doctor believes that many women with her background are not so fortunate.
The fates do not smile on the protagonist in “Seven Eleven” either. Author Tim McLoughlin’s story takes place in Wantagh. In the piece, the narrator insists that he can’t help but gamble because he was born on July 11th. As the writer describes him, the narrator is really an addict. Slowly, the addiction takes away everything and everyone he loves. Unlike the other characters in this anthology, he is in complete denial about who and what he is. In this passage, he loses the only transportation he has: “Whether it had been towed by the municipality for some infraction, or seized by the now rightful owners, was irrelevant; …This morning, after the first truly cold night spent on a concrete floor, I walked the two miles back.” There is a big difference between resourcefulness and psychosis, as the author defines through this character.
As all the stories in this anthology attest, the truth is there whether you like it or not
Long Island may well be the playground of the rich and famous, but it is also a never-ending hell for the poor and anonymous.
At the end of The Lady from Shanghai, the husband and wife die with cracked mirrors all around them. No more illusions. The wife’s lover simply walks away.
Tom Wright’s mesmerizing prose grabs you from the very first page. His sentences seem to rethink their purpose and change course with the passing of each clause. His words flow like a stream, branching off into little rivulets, leading us we don’t know where.
“As a driver, Cam never seemed to be in a hurry, but he stayed alert as he drove, kind of the opposite of Jack, who was one of those kill-or-be-killed drivers, always seeming to be on the verge of having some kind of seizure when he was behind the wheel, like he was flying a fighter in a sky full of bogeys and he was out of bullets.”
Wright’s style brilliantly captures the swift currents of a young boy’s mind. He takes us inside that mind, trying to make sense of too much stimuli, too many secrets, and too little trust in himself. He/we need to make sense of our surroundings pronto or more lives may be lost. For he’s living in a Grimm universe, as we all are.
Two innocents in the woods, a boy nicknamed Biscuit and his girl cousin, L.A., both in their early teens, wind up living with Gram for the summer. Their parents are, shall we say, lacking in the maternal and paternal feelings department. Gram, cultured, educated, loving -- the one person in their lives that they can count on for some measure of normalcy, nurturing, and hopefully, safety, turns out to have a fatal flaw -- cluelessness.
She’s unfazed by the various gruesome events that unfold (the discovery of mutilated teenage girls); she cheerfully sends the cousins out every day “lollygagging” around town, assuming they’re clever enough not to get into too much trouble. Has she never read Hansel and Gretel??? Thankfully, this is where their inherited “touch of the sight” for sensing when things are not quite right comes in handy. As we learn more and more about the characters in their Dallas neighborhood of Oak Cliff, we have to start wondering: Is the whole town hopping with pedophiles?!
Biscuit is a wonderful narrator, inquisitive, doubting, open to experience, just learning about his potential, fiercely conscious of his role as the only male in the household and his responsibility to protect his fragile cousin. Haunted throughout the summer by vivid forebodings of death, he ultimately owes his survival to these quasi-mystical premonitions.
The normal people around him seem to love him and trust him (L.A., his girlfriend Diana, his friend, Dee, Gram, the professor, Dr. Kepler). But can he single-handedly ensure safety for his loved ones? Being a teenager, several times he puts them and himself in compromising positions with sleazy strangers, street people and other disreputable folks. Considering the role models available and the examples of his elders, it is amazing that he has such a sweet nature and strong moral compass.
Attracted to L.A., wildly protective of her, Biscuit knows the difference between recognizing sexual feelings and acting on them. Wright explores the theme of sex and gives us one or two examples of sex as an expression of love, respect and intimacy to offset the more prevalent examples of sex as an instrument of destruction, torture, and lasting trauma. Perversions seem to nest in the family tree; pornography is indicted as one manifestation of abusive tendencies
Another theme Wright returns to again and again is the question of belief and religion. We see the worst characters in church. We see Dr. Kepler, a holocaust survivor, braving the unknown with trust in doing the right thing, in morality for its own sake. She teaches Biscuit that life is a job and we have to do it well.
Perhaps the theme closest to Wright’s heart is safety – how can you ever be safe in a world where danger lurks in unsuspected places and you can’t trust your own family and friends? The answer seems to be that safety lies in trusting your own intuitions, but that complete safety is not a possibility. There is simply no safety in the home or the world and no way to ensure it.
The mood throughout this wicked tour of the woods is one of danger and impending death – there’s a crazed killer of children on the loose - and we’re on tenterhooks along with Biscuit and L.A., who know they’re outnumbered. Ultimately, they need to save themselves because the adults around them, even the well-intentioned ones, are not as clever as they are.
It’s quite a summer, one taken right out of the nation’s headlines. Nevertheless, we wouldn’t have missed it for the world, and we’ll be looking for the next great thing written by Mr. Wright.