Tag Archives: US

You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames (Pushkin Vertigo)

I love the Pushkin Vertigo series, a collection of classic, mind-bending crime novels by a variety of different authors from around the world. (My review of Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo, the novel behind the Hitchcock film, is here.) While most of the books in the series were written in the early-to-mid 20th century, one or two are more contemporary. You Were Never Really Here (2013) by Jonathan Ames is one such book, a taut and compelling noir that packs quite a punch.

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The book centres on Joe, an ex-Marine and former FBI agent who now earns a living as an off-the-books operative in his home city of New York. By way of his middleman, an ex-State Trooper and PI named McCleary, Joe specialises in rescuing people, mostly teenage girls who have been lured into the sex trade through no real fault of their own. In spite of the fact that he lives with his ageing mother, Joe is to all intents and purposes a lone wolf. Living and operating undercover comes as second nature to Joe. He keeps his cards close to his chest, eschewing any unnecessary contact with those around him for fear of leaving any traceable marks. His body is a lethal weapon, primed and ready for action.

So his hands were weapons, his whole body was a weapon, cruel like a baseball bat. Six-two, one-ninety, no fat. He was forty-eight, but his olive-colored skin was still smooth, which made him appear younger than he was. His jet-black hair had receded at the temples, leaving a little wedge, like the point of a knife, at the front. He kept his hair at the length of a Marine on leave. (p.11)

As the story gets underway, Joe is tasked with a new assignment. Some six months earlier, Lisa, the thirteen-year-old daughter of a prominent State Senator, went missing from the family home in Albany. Now the Senator is in New York with a fresh lead on the case, but he doesn’t want the police involved; instead he wants Joe to follow it up with a view to finding and rescuing his daughter, ideally discovering the identity of her abductor along the way. The lead takes Joe to a Manhattan brownstone, the location of a high-end brothel where Lisa is thought to be working. Here’s an excerpt from the stakeout scene, a passage which should give you a feel for Ames’ pared-back yet atmospheric style. Paul, the brothel’s ‘towel boy’ has just left the house.

So Joe loped down the north side of the street and then crossed, five yards ahead of his target. He looked about. No immediate witnesses. It was a cold October night. Not too many people were out. He stepped from between two cars and right into the path of the towel boy—a thirty-two-year-old white man, a failed blackjack dealer from Atlantic City named Paul, who didn’t have much talent for anything. He was startled by Joe’s sudden appearance, and Joe shot out his right hand unerringly and grabbed Paul by the throat, the way a man might grab a woman’s wrist. Paul didn’t even have time to be scared. He was already half-dead. Everything Joe did was to establish immediate and complete dominance. (pp. 42-43)

At 88 pages, this is a short read, so I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot, save to say that the case is more complex than appears at first sight. Power, corruption and dirty cops all play a role in this gripping story of cat-and-mouse in the underbelly of NYC.  What’s interesting here is the character of Joe. At various points in the book, Ames reveals a little more of Joe’s backstory, in particular the abusive childhood that has shaped his outlook on life.

What Joe didn’t grasp was that his sense of self had been carved, like a totem, by his father’s beatings. The only way for Joe to have survived his father’s sadism was to believe that he deserved it, that it was justified, and that belief was still with him and could never be undone. In essence, he had been waiting nearly fifty years to finish the job that his father had started. (p. 23)

Joe’s father, also a US Marine, was destroyed by the experience of fighting in the Korean War. Having entered the fray as a human being, Joseph Sr. ultimately emerged as a bitter and twisted creature, a ’subhuman’ of sorts. In many ways, the nature of Joe’s tortured relationship with his now deceased father has left him with a deep need to gain some kind of vengeance on the evils of the world. There is a sense that Joe remains mindful of the requirement to keep himself in check, to maintain the vigilance and control he must demonstrate in order to preserve his current existence.

This is an impressive slice of noir fiction; quite dark and brutal at times, but that’s all part of the territory with this genre – Joe’s weapon of choice is a hammer, and he knows how to use it. On the surface, Joe is slick, tough and merciless in the face of the enemy, but underneath it all he is rather damaged too. There is something mournful and a little bit vulnerable lurking beneath that hard exterior, these qualities coming to the fore on a couple of occasions during the story. Ames also adds one or two touches of compassion to his portrayal of Joe. There’s a very gentle scene near the beginning of the book where Joe’s mother makes him some eggs for breakfast, the pair communicating with one another without any need for words.

While the book ends at a particular point, it feels as if there is scope for another chapter in Joe’s story, a further instalment so to speak. If that happens at some stage in the future, I will gladly read it.

Ames has also written a novel in a very different style to this one – Wake Up, Sir!, a satire which sounds like a modern-day riff on the Jeeves and Wooster story. You can read Gert Loveday’s enlightening review of it here.

My thanks to Pushkin Press for kindly providing a review copy of You Were Never Really Here.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

Nicholas Ray’s noir classic In a Lonely Place is one of my top ten favourite films. I’ve seen it a dozen times, probably more. It’s one of a handful of old films I watch every 18 months or so, whenever I want to remind myself just how good the movies used to be in the 1940s and ‘50s. As such, I’ve always felt slightly nervous about the prospect of reading the novel on which the film is loosely based. I’d heard that Ray’s version of the story was very different to Dorothy Hughes’ book (also titled In a Lonely Place), so much so that some consider it to be a completely separate entity. Even so, would the novel live up to my expectations? How would I feel about it compared to the film? Well, to cut a long intro short, I absolutely loved the book. It’s tremendous – so atmospheric and suspenseful, a highlight of my reading year.

From here on in I’m going to focus solely on Hughes’ novel (first published in 1947) as there’s more than enough to say about it in its own right without drawing comparisons or contrasts with the film. Maybe that’s something for another time.

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The central character here is ex-pilot Dix Steele, now trying his hand at writing a novel following his discharge from the US Army Air Force at the end of the war. Dix has been in LA for about six months, conveniently holed up in a fancy apartment while its owner, an old college friend named Mel Terriss, is away in Rio. Not only is Dix living in Mel’s flat, he’s also driving his car, wearing his clothes and spending his money courtesy of some charge accounts he has managed to access. With all these resources on tap, you might think Dix would be feeling pretty comfortable with his life, but that’s simply not the case. From the beginning of the book, it’s crystal clear that Dix is a very troubled man; he’s damaged, depressed and desperately lonely.

As the novel opens, Dix is prowling the city streets at night; he’s out by the coast, the fog rolling in from the ocean. When he spots a girl stepping off a bus, Dix’s interest is aroused.

He didn’t follow her at once. Actually he didn’t intend to follow her. It was entirely without volition that he found himself moving down the slant, winding walk. He didn’t walk hard, as she did, nor did he walk fast. Yet she heard him coming behind her. He knew she heard him for her heel struck an extra beat, as if she had half stumbled, and her steps went faster. He didn’t walk faster, he continued to saunter but he lengthened his stride, smiling slightly. She was afraid. (pg. 2)

For the last six months, a serial killer has been on the loose in LA. Young girls are being murdered at a rate of one a month; different neighbourhoods each time, but the method is always the same – strangulation. To the reader, the nature of Dix’s connection to these killings is pretty clear from the outset. Nevertheless, Hughes stops short of focusing on the murders themselves; thankfully all the violence is ‘off-camera’, so we never actually see any of the crimes being played out in full.

Shortly after the incident with the girl from the bus, Dix decides to look up an old acquaintance from the forces, Brub Nicolai. When he calls at Brub’s apartment, Dix finds his old friend a somewhat changed man; much to Dix’s surprise, Brub has landed a role as a detective in the LAPD. When he learns that Brub is working on the recent sequence of killings, Dix knows he should back away. Nevertheless, there is something fascinating about skirting close to the source of danger. In some ways, Dix sees Brub as an opportunity to discover exactly how much the cops really know about the perpetrator, so he decides to stay in touch with his friend, quizzing him carefully while trying not to make any slip ups in the process. Dix knows he is flirting with danger by sticking close to Brub, but he simply cannot stop himself. In his own mind, Dix is untouchable, his crimes untraceable. That said, it’s not just Brub that Dix has to contend with, there’s his wife too, the smart and perceptive Sylvia, a woman who clearly loves her husband, so much so it serves to reinforce  Dix’s loneliness.

He wouldn’t go. He wouldn’t intrude on their oneness. They had happiness and happiness was so rare in this day of the present. More rare than precious things, jewels and myrrh. Once he’d had happiness but for so brief a time; happiness was made of quicksilver, it ran out of your hand like quicksilver. There was the heat of tears suddenly in his eyes and he shook his head angrily. He would not think about it, he would never think of that again. It was long ago, in an ancient past. To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget. They made happiness a pink marshmallow. (p. 17)

Dix is a devilishly complex character. Deep down, he is resentful of all the ‘rich stinkers’, the guys who get everything without having to lift a finger for it. Guys like Mel Terriss, his old acquaintance from Princeton; men like his Uncle Fergus, the patron who mails him a cheque for a measly $250 each month even though he could certainly afford a lot more. Hughes is particularly strong on portraying Dix’s anger and resentment towards the lucky people, the source of which stems from his own lack of status in life. As a pilot in the forces, Dix was respected; he had power and he had control. Now he has nothing.

The war years were the first happy years he’s ever known. You didn’t have to kowtow to the stinking rich, you were all equal in pay; and before long you were the rich guy. Because you didn’t give a damn and you were the best God-damned pilot in the company with promotions coming fast. You wore swell tailored uniforms, high polish on your shoes. You didn’t need a car, you had something better, sleek powerful planes. You were the Mister, you were what you’d always wanted to be, class. You could have any woman you wanted in Africa or India or England or Australia or the United States, or any place in the world. The world was yours. (p. 96)

As the story unfolds, we learn that Dix remains tormented by a woman from his past, a girl named Brucie whom he knew from his time in England during the war. Ever since then, no woman has ever come close to lighting Dix’s fire; no woman except his neighbour, the glamourous Laurel Gray. When Dix spots her for the first time, he is utterly smitten.

Her eyes were slant, her lashes curved long and golden dark. She had red-gold hair, flaming hair, flung back from her amber face, falling to her shoulders. Her mouth was too heavy with lipstick, a copper-red mouth, a sultry mouth painted to call attention to its promise. She was dressed severely, a rigid, tailored suit, but it accentuated the lift of her breasts, the curl of her hips. She wasn’t beautiful, her face was too narrow for beauty, but she was dynamite. (p. 21)

It’s not long before Dix and Laurel are an item, spending most of their evenings and nights together in Dix’s apartment. Laurel is another damaged character. Outwardly self-assured, but more than a little vulnerable at heart, divorcee Laurel is wholly dependent on her wealthy ex-husband for support. Ideally, she’d like to break into the movies or a show, something that would place her in the spotlight where she seemingly belongs.

All goes well between Dix and Laurel for a week or two, but then everything starts to crumble. One evening, Laurel doesn’t come home on time. Dix’s mind goes into overdrive, he gets angry and jealous; and when Laurel gets back, there are hints that the situation might spiral out of control. In this scene, Dix realises how close he has just come to hurting Laurel.

‘I’m sorry.’ He was, and for a moment he tightened. He was more than sorry, he was afraid. He might have hurt her. He might have lost her. With her he must remember, he must never take a chance of losing her. If it had happened – he shook his head and a tremble went over him. (p. 91)

In a Lonely Place is a first-class noir – superbly crafted, beautifully written. I don’t want to say too much more about the plot as it might spoil things, but it’s pretty suspenseful right to the end.

The characterisation is excellent, complex and subtle in its execution. Even though the novel is written in the third person, Hughes holds the reader close to Dix’s perspective throughout. We gain an insight into the mind of a deeply tormented man. Dix is angry and bitter and twisted, yet he is also rather vulnerable and fearful for the future. A lone wolf at heart, the war has left him with no real hope or purpose in life. Even though we know Dix commits some unspeakable acts, his pain is clear for all to see. At times, there is a sense that Dix is in denial about his actions, as though he is trying to distance himself from the other Dix, the one who hates women: ‘he wasn’t the same fellow.’ If only things work out with Laurel, then everything will be okay.

The other leading characters are portrayed with depth too. I marked up a great quote about one of the women in this story, but I fear it might be too much of a spoiler to include.

Hughes also excels in the creation of atmosphere and mood. As a reader you really feel as though you are walking the streets of the city at night, moving through the fog with only the dim and distant lights of LA to guide you.

If this novel is representative of Dorothy B. Hughes’ work, then I can’t wait to read another. Caroline has also reviewed this book here.

In a Lonely Place is published by Penguin Books.

Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz (NYRB Classics)

Journalist, photographer, album cover designer and party girl – these are just some of the roles Eve Babitz adopted during her early years in Los Angeles. She describes her first book, Eve’s Hollywood, as a confessional novel. Nevertheless, it reads like a memoir in the form of a series of sketches, snapshots of a bohemian lifestyle, a life lived in the cultural melting pot of LA with all its colour and splendour. Taken in its entirety, it’s quite a ride.

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First published in 1972 when Babitz was 29, Eve’s Hollywood consists of 45 vignettes and a scrapbook of photos. Some pieces are very brief (a sequence of three pitch-perfect lines on Cary Grant); others are more substantial (mini-essays on the allure of young ingénues, the trials and tribulations of adolescence and the author’s early lovers). In some ways, the following quote sets the tone for the book – it’s taken from the second snapshot, a piece entitled Hollywood and Vine.

When I was 14, I began writing a book, my memoirs, entitled I Wouldn’t Raise My Kid in Hollywood. A few weeks earlier I had let a spectacularly handsome man drive me home from a party I wasn’t allowed to go to, and when I told him I was 14, he dropped me off a block from my house and said, paternally, before he gave me an unpaternal and never-to-be-forgotten kiss, “Don’t let guys pick you up like this, kid, you might get hurt.” After that I never saw him again except on the front page of the papers two years later when he was found dead in Lana Turner’s bathroom. He was called Johnny Stompanato, poor guy. I’d been writing that book sort of before that, but afterwards I began writing it for real. After that, I’ve always been writing it. (pg. 14)

Eve Babitz grew up in the midst of a talented family. Her father, Sol Babitz, was a baroque musicologist and violinist with the film studio Twentieth Century Fox. Her mother, Mae, was an artist (a few of her drawings of LA appear in the book). Family friends included the composer Igor Stravinsky (Eve’s godfather), the opera singer Marilyn Horne, and the influential poet and essayist Kenneth Rexroth. Here’s one of Eve’s early recollections of Stravinsky.

Stravinsky himself was Stravinsky.

He was tiny and happy and brilliant and drank. He used to slip glasses of scotch to me underneath the coffee table when my mother wasn’t looking when I was 13. At my 16th birthday party, I wore white (very low necked white, of course) and he slipped rose petals down my top when my mother wasn’t looking. (pg. 10)

Several of the vignettes focus on Babitz’s adolescence, the time she spent at Le Conte Junior High and Hollywood High. She writes openly and engagingly about teenage life in the late 1950s, Friday nights at the Polar Palace ice-skating rink and summer days riding the waves at the rather rough beach at Roadside. None of the kids from Eve’s school went there, only the kids from West LA, ‘tough kids with knives, razors, tire irons and lowered cars.’

Babitz is particularly good on the beauty and power of teenage girls. In The Sheik, she highlights the 20 or so girls at Hollywood High who were extraordinarily beautiful, too beautiful for the constraints of the high school environment. The building itself was awash rumours of the girls’ love affairs, their tears and laughter echoed through the corridors. Even the teachers seemed powerless in the face of this overwhelming force of nature.

These were the daughters of people who were beautiful, brave, and foolhardy, who had left their homes and traveled to movie dreams. In the Depression, when most of them came here, people with brains went to New York and people with faces came West. After being born of parents who believed in physical beauty as a fact of power, and being born beautiful themselves, these girls were then raised in California, where statistically the children grow taller, have better teeth and are stronger than anywhere else in the country. When they reach the age of 15 and their beauty arrives, it’s very exciting—like coming into an inheritance and, as with inheritances, it’s fun to be around when they first come into the money and watch how they spend it and on what. (pg. 81)

Babitz develops this theme in Ingenues, Thunderbird Girls and the Neighbouring Belle: A Confusing Tragedy. In this piece we meet Sally, Eve’s best friend in Hollywood High, a beautiful, rich and tragic ingénue. For Eve, it was love at first sight.

It was a romance. Everything to do with Sally was a romance, that was how she was. She wasn’t one of those cheerfully sunny girls who bring spring into a room with them, She was way too Garbo, sullen and tragic. It’s their best friends who flee shrieking from the patio. (pg. 97)

Naturally, several of Babitz’s vignettes capture something of the cultural milieu of Los Angeles. There are the drugs of course, but some of my favourite pieces focus on other aspects of LA life: the sight of a roller skater crossing Sunset Boulevard; the sheer joy of eating taquitos from a roadside stand on Olvera Street, the best taquito place in town; a beautiful mini-essay on the Watts Towers, a set of sculptural structures designed by Sam Rodia. There are many more. This is a book that sparkles with a lively sense of place and time.

Perhaps most importantly, Babitz is keen to put paid to the notion of Los Angeles as a cultural wasteland. She pushes back against the outsiders’ view of LA, those people from the East Coast or abroad who look down on a city they consider to be rather ‘shallow, corrupt and ugly’.

Like talking about uprisings in front of the slaves, people travel to Los Angeles from more civilised spots and cast their insults upon the days, only to see their own reflections sniffing down their noses back. It’s perfectly all right to say, “Los Angeles is so garish and a wasteland,” as they sit beneath the arbors and pour themselves another glass of wine though it’s already 3 p.m. and they should be getting back to the studio to earn their money. (pg. 192)

There are other cultural musings too. Babitz writes of her ultimate love for Lawrence of Arabia, a film she resisted seeing for a year as a result of all the hype and the shower of Academy Awards it attracted. In The Hollywood Branch Library, we hear of the writers Babitz loves and admires, writers such as Isak Dinesen, Virginia Woolf and Joyce Carol Oates. Here she is on Colette whom she discovered at the tender age of 9.

When I travel, there are always certain books that go with me. Colette always is right there. I wouldn’t trust myself anywhere without Earthly Paradise, what if something happened and I didn’t have it? What if the electricity went out and all my friends died? Without Colette, where would I be? For me, Colette is one of those books you open up anywhere and brush up on what to do. (pg. 231)

Colette as a spiritual guide – isn’t that wonderful?

If you haven’t guessed by now, I really loved this book. It’s a difficult one to describe, but I hope I’ve given you a flavour of it here. Babitz’s style is at once both easy going and whip-smart (she is eminently quotable). There is a breezy lightness of touch to her writing that feels so effortless and engaging. The same is true whether Babitz is writing about the deeply personal (the loss of her virginity at the age of 17, ‘it was the Rainier Ale that did it’) or the more surprising (a short piece on her dislike of photocopying is a delight). There are touches of humour threaded through this collection of vignettes too.

In the end, it’s a book you have to experience for yourself. In some ways, I was reminded of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays and Lucia Berlin’s stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women (both of which I rate very highly). I feel as though I’ve found a new friend in Eve Babitz, one I’d like to return to again and again.

Eve’s Hollywood is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

First published in 1918, My Ántonia is a story of the American Midwest, of the pioneers and European immigrants who settled in the prairies in the late 19th century. The novel is narrated by Jim Burden, a New York-based lawyer who has documented his memories of Ántonia Shimerda, a Bohemian girl whose family moved to Nebraska when Jim was a young boy. More than any other person Jim could remember from his childhood, Ántonia seemed to represent the prairies, both the tough conditions of the land and the essence of the people who lived there. In other words, she embodied the resilience of the pioneers’ spirit.

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The novel itself is divided into five books, each one dealing with a different period in Jim’s life. As the story opens, the recently orphaned Jim is travelling by train from Virginia to Nebraska to begin a new phase of his life with his grandparents. He is ten years old. Also travelling to Nebraska are Mr and Mrs Shimerda and their four children having just arrived in America from their homeland of Bohemia. During the journey, Jim befriends fourteen-year-old Ántonia (the Shimerdas’ second child) and is intrigued to discover that the Shimerda family are moving to a neighbouring property, the one closest to his grandparents’ farm. Before long the two youngsters are firm friends, spending time together whenever possible. As Ántonia is bright and eager to learn, Jim teaches her to speak English while they explore the countryside, noting the way it changes from one month to the next.

The first snowfall came early in December. I remember how the world looked from our sitting-room window as I dressed behind the stove that morning: the low sky was like a sheet of metal; the blond cornfields had faded out into ghostliness at last; the little pond was frozen under its stiff willow bushes. Big white flakes were whirling over everything and disappearing into the red grass. (pg 39)

The sky was brilliantly blue, and the sunlight on the glittering white stretches of prairie was almost blinding. […] The tree tops that had been gold all the autumn were dwarfed and twisted, as if they would never have any life in them again. […] The cornfields got back a little of their colour under the dazzling light, and stood the palest possible gold in the sun and snow. All about us the snow was crushed in shallow terraces, with tracings like ripple-marks at the edges, curly waves that were the actual impression of the stinging lash in the wind. (pg. 40)

Nebraska is a land of blistering summers and biting winters, and the first year takes its toll on the Shimerda family, Ántonia’s father in particular. A quiet and dignified man by nature, Mr Shimerda has no experience of farming or manual work (back in Bohemia he was a musician). As a consequence, he is desperately lonely and homesick for his homeland. Moreover, the Shimerdas’ new home is terribly run down – it is frequently described as a ‘cave’ or ‘hole’ – and in spite of some help from their neighbours, the new arrivals struggle to get by. After paying over the odds for their land, they have little money to spare for food. If the Shimerdas can make it through to the spring, then they can plant a garden and buy some chickens, maybe even a cow. After a truly devastating winter for the family, the responsibility falls on Ántonia and her older brother Ambrosch to work the land as they attempt to make a go of their new life in Nebraska. While Jim looks forward to the prospect of an education at school, Ántonia must work the fields; she is as strong as any young man.

A couple of years later, Jim and his grandparents move to the local town of Black Hawk where Jim can attend school. On her arrival in town, Jim’s grandmother persuades her neighbours, the Harlings, to employ young Ántonia as a housekeeper. Once again, the two youngsters are living next door to one another and able to spend time together in the evenings. This section of the novel is bright and optimistic; for the most part, Ántonia is a conscientious worker, and she fits in well with the Harling family, playing with the young children and keeping them amused as far as possible.

One of the most interesting aspects of this section of the narrative is Cather’s focus on ‘the hired girls’, the Bohemian and Scandinavian teenagers who were sent to the town to work in some form of service. Jim reflects on the curious social system at play, whereby at first these country girls had to find jobs to help their families to pay off their debts or to make it possible for their younger siblings to attend school. In many ways, their experiences – both on the prairies and in service – made these girls more rounded than their younger brothers and sisters.

Those girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had got little schooling themselves. But the younger brothers and sisters, for whom they made such sacrifices and who have had ‘advantages,’ never seem to me, when I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated. The older girls, who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Ántonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new. (pg. 109)

In time, this decision to send their daughters out to work in service helped the foreign farmers to become prosperous more quickly than several of their native-born peers. Many American farmers were just as hard-pressed for money as their immigrant neighbours but were too proud to allow their daughters to go into service. If the girls couldn’t get positions teaching at one of the local schools, they simply sat at home in poverty instead.

In the next book, we follow Jim as he continues his education in Lincoln where he meets up with Lena Lingard, one of the Scandinavian hired girls who was friendly with Ántonia back in the town. Having trained as a dressmaker in Black Hawk, Lena now runs a successful business of her own in Lincoln. Once again, Cather touches on the developments within society at the time as Lena is a portrayed as young, independent, self-made woman with no desire or need for a husband to support her. It’s one of several contrasts in the novel: the experiences of the immigrant settlers vs those of the native-born farmers; life in the country compared to life in the town; opportunities for the educated vs those for the uneducated; a family’s expectations of their daughters vs those of their sons. There are many more.

For the most part, I really enjoyed this novel. Cather’s descriptions of the landscape and the natural world are simply stunning; she perfectly captures that blend of beauty and brutality, the blossoming of nature within a fickle environment. My one niggle relates to the somewhat episodic nature of the narrative. For me, the story feels most alive when Ántonia is in the frame (either directly or through another character’s observations). As we follow Jim, there are times when he is apart from Ántonia, and while certain elements of these sections of the novel are interesting (the social observations, for example), I have to admit to missing the luminosity of Ántonia’s presence when she is absent. Nevertheless, this is a fairly small criticism, one that certainly wouldn’t stop me from reading another of Cather’s books. (I’m already thinking about O Pioneers!). Also, there are some fascinating stories-within-stories in My Ántonia, particularly the various backstories and tales from the past. (Along with several other characters in the novel, Ántonia is a great storyteller.)

By the time we reach the final section of the book, a good thirty years have passed since Jim first met Ántonia, and he returns to Nebraska to see her again. Life has been hard on Ántonia, and yet the qualities that shine through are her optimism and determination, her unquenchable spirit and ability to survive. I’ll finish with a quote that captures a glimpse of this.

She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.

[…] She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races. (pg. 186)

For other perspectives on this book, here are links to reviews by Emma and Ali.

My Ántonia is published by Oxford World’s Classics; personal copy

The Ivory Grin by Ross Macdonald

The Ivory Grin (1952) is the fourth book in Ross Macdonald’s series featuring the Los Angeles-based private eye, Lew Archer. I’ve been trying to read them in order, so here are links to my reviews of the second and third novels in the series, The Drowning Pool and The Way Some People Die, both of which I would wholeheartedly recommend – they can be read as standalone works.

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Back to The Ivory Grin. As the story begins, Archer receives a visit in his office from a rather strange, mannish-looking woman named Una. Here’s how the novel opens – I was hooked from the get-go:

I found her waiting at the door of my office. She was a stocky woman of less than medium height, wearing a blue slack suit over a blue turtleneck sweater, and a blue mink stole that failed to soften her outlines. Her face was squarish and deeply tanned, its boyish quality confirmed by dark hair cut short at the nape. She wasn’t the type you’d expect to be up and about at eight thirty in the morning, unless she’d been up all night.

As I unlocked the door she stood back and looked up at me with the air of an early bird surveying an outsize worm. (pg. 3)

Una claims she is looking for a former employee – a young ‘coloured’ maid named Lucy – who has disappeared along with a pair of ruby earrings and a gold necklace. At first, Archer proposes that this is a matter for the police; Una, however, doesn’t want them involved, keen as she is to talk to the girl to see what she’s up to. Archer is none too keen on Una and remains rather sceptical about her stated motivations for wanting to find Lucy. That said, curiosity gets the better of him and he agrees to do a little surveillance, at least in the short term. According to Una, Lucy has been seen at a restaurant in Bella City, so Archer heads off to find the girl to monitor her movements for a while.

Archer finds Lucy and follows her for most of the afternoon, the trail taking him from the bungalow where she’s been renting a room to a seedy motel in the same area. When she hears of Lucy’s whereabouts, Una decides to pay the girl a visit at the motel, giving Archer instructions to resume his surveillance once she has left. As Archer continues to follow Lucy, the journey takes him to the office of a certain Dr Benning, whom the girl consults before heading to the railway station. Along the way, Archer realises that there is someone else on Lucy’s trail, another private eye named Max Heiss, who tries, rather unsuccessfully, to persuade our detective to collaborate on the case. In the meantime, Lucy’s boyfriend, Alex, pulls up to the station in his car, picks up the girl and drives off, losing Archer in the process. When he returns to the Mountview Motel later that afternoon, Archer discovers that Lucy has been murdered, her throat cut from ear to ear.

At this point, we meet one of my favourite characters in the novel, the world-weary police chief, Lieutenant Brake. Here he is, talking to Archer at the scene of Lucy’s murder, a passage that illustrates Macdonald’s skill with dialogue.

“Who hired you?

“I don’t have to answer that.”

“You weren’t hired to kill her, by any chance?”

“You’ll have to do better than that, if you want any co-operation from me.”

“Who said I wanted any co-operation from you? Who hired you?”

“You get tough very quickly, lieutenant. I could have blown when I found her, instead of sticking around to give you the benefit of my experience.”

“Can the spiel.” He didn’t needle easily. “Who hired you? And for God’s sake don’t give me the one about you got your client’s interests to protect. I got a whole city to protect.”

We faced each other across the drying moat of blood. He was a rough small-city cop, neither suave nor persuasive, with an ego encysted in scar-tissue. I was tempted to needle him again, to demonstrate to these country cousins how a boy from the big city could be hard in a polished way. But my heart wasn’t in the work. I felt less loyalty to my client than to the dead girl on the floor, and I compromised. (pg. 53)

Alongside this first strand, a second one starts to open. When Archer finds Lucy’s body in the motel room, he also discovers a newspaper clipping in her purse – namely, an article advertising a $5,000 reward for information on the whereabouts of a young socialite called Charles Singleton. Some two weeks earlier, around the same time as Lucy’s disappearance from Una’s employ, Singleton had also vanished (he was last seen in the public rooms of a local hotel). As a rather reluctant heir to the family business, Singleton had been trying to break away from his wealthy mother and her money for years – ideally, he wanted to create a life of his own. So, following the discovery of the clipping, Archer heads off to Arroyo Beach to visit Mrs Singleton in her home. Once there, he is hired by the lady’s young companion, Sylvia Treen, with the aim of finding Charles, hopefully still alive.

The two cases are of course connected, but I’m reluctant to reveal how – let’s just say that they intersect in unexpected and complex ways. Lieutenant Brake is convinced that Lucy’s boyfriend, Alex, is responsible for his girlfriend’s death, especially when the murder weapon turns out to be the boy’s knife. Archer, however, isn’t buying this, especially once the details surrounding the Singleton case start to emerge.

I had been trying to decide all morning whether to give Brake everything I knew. I decided not to. The frayed ends of several lives, Singleton’s and his blonde’s, Lucy’s, and Una’s, were braided into the case. The pattern I was picking out strand by strand was too complicated to be explained in the language of physical evidence. Brake’s understanding was an evidence box holding the kinds of facts that could be hammered through the skulls of a back-country jury. It wasn’t a back-country case. (pg. 148)

The Ivory Grin is a story of fear, desire and the lure of money (there are links to mobsters and collection rackets rumbling away in the background). It’s another very fine entrant in Lew Archer series. The plot is tight yet complex enough to keep the reader guessing; the lead characters are intriguing and just a little different to the usual types one tends to find in this genre. One of the highlights is the interplay between Archer and Lieutenant Brake, the police chief who’s been dealing with guys and girls from the wrong side of the tracks for nigh on thirty years. Brake is weary and frustrated, tired of ‘trying to fit human truth into the square-cut legal patterns handed down for his use by legislators and judges.’

Another high point is Lew Archer himself, a detective I’m growing to love more and more with every novel in the series. On the whole, Archer treats people with respect. He is a good judge of character, keen to observe and scrutinise wherever possible, but compassionate too. Archer’s treatment of the black characters is very sympathetic; he is on the side of decent people, irrespective of their colour, race and gender. There are some very nice touches with some of the minor characters too, most notably an elderly next-door neighbour who proves useful to Archer in his surveillance of Lucy, and a homely milliner who lives with her cat. Macdonald captures their personalities with just the right amount of colour.

The novel is very strong on the sense of place and period. Small-town America in the 1950s is portrayed in vivid detail, a community divided into ‘lighter and darker hemispheres’ by the highway that runs through it. Archer finds himself in the bottom half, a run-down place packed with laundries, warehouses, and dilapidated houses.

Main Street was loud and shiny with noon traffic moving bumper to bumper. I turned left on East Hidalgo Street and found a parking space in the first block. Housewives black, brown, and sallow were hugging parcels and pushing shopping carts on the sidewalk. Above them a ramshackle house, with paired front windows like eyes demented by earthquake memories, advertised Rooms for Transients on one side, Palm Reading on the other. A couple of Mexican children, boy and girl, strolled by hand in hand in a timeless noon on their way to an early marriage. (pg 12)

Alongside this picture of the small-scale environment, Macdonald’s descriptions of the Californian landscape are as evocative as ever. I’ll finish with a final quote on the scenery surrounding Bella City – Archer is driving there in search of Lucy.

From the top of the grade I could see the mountains on the other side of the valley, leaning like granite slabs against the blue tile sky. Below me the road meandered among brown September hills spattered with the ink-blot shadows of oaks. Between these hills and the further mountains the valley floor was covered with orchards like vivid green chenille, brown corduroy ploughed fields, the thrifty patchwork of truck gardens. Bella City stood among them, a sprawling dusty town miniatured and tidied by clear space. I drove down into it. (pg 11)

The Ivory Grin is published by Vintage Books – Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

Disturbing the Peace by Richard Yates

Continuing with my aim of working my way through the canon of one of my favourite writers, I recently turned to Richard Yates’ third novel, Disturbing the Peace. Following its publication in 1975, critics considered the book to be something of a disappointment, possibly even his weakest. While it may not be as accomplished and as devastating as Revolutionary Road, or as subtle and as melancholic as The Easter Parade, Disturbing the Peace is still a very fine novel. It’s a brilliantly realised portrait of one man’s descent into the depths of total despair. Here’s how it opens:

Everything began to go wrong for Janice Wilder in the late summer of 1960. And the worst part, she always said afterwards, the awful part, was that it seemed to happen without warning. (pg. 1)

Janice is married to John Wilder, the central figure in Yates’ novel. At thirty-five, John finds himself stuck in a comfortable but utterly stifling middle-class existence in New York. Despite his success as a salesman, John doesn’t really enjoy his job selling advertising space in The American Scientist magazine. His marriage to Janice is comfortable but dull, so he plays around a bit; plus he is losing any real ability to connect with his only child, ten-year-old Tommy. In other words, he feels very frustrated with his life.

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As the novel opens, John has just arrived back in NYC following a week-long business trip to Chicago. Unable to face the thought of returning home to Janice, John calls her from a hotel bar. It soon becomes clear that John has been drinking fairly heavily, and he is spoiling for a fight.

“Okay, here’s another thing. There was a girl in Chicago, little PR girl for one of the distilleries. I screwed her five times in the Palmer House. Whaddya think of that?”

It wasn’t the first news of its kind – there had been a good many girls – but it was the first time he’d ever flung it at her this way, like an adolescent braggart trying to shock his mother. She thought of saying What would you like me to think? but didn’t trust her voice: it might sound wounded, which would be a mistake, or it might sounds dry and tolerant and that would be worse. Luckily he didn’t wait long for an answer. (pgs. 2-3)

The remainder of the phone call leaves Janice feeling very concerned about John’s state of mind, so much so that she calls their close friend, Paul Borg, and asks him to go and talk to John at the Commodore – hopefully Paul will be able to sort things out, to talk to him man-to-man. When Paul arrives on the scene, John claims he is suffering from exhaustion brought on by a bad case of insomnia in Chicago. In reality, John is on the cusp of a nervous breakdown; he just doesn’t know it, or maybe he cannot admit that he needs help. When Paul persuades him to check into a hospital for some much-needed rest and recuperation, John ends up arguing with one of the doctors, an action that results in his transfer to the Men’s Violence Ward at Bellevue, a psychiatric unit which sounds more like a prison than a place of care. With it being Labour Day weekend, John ends up spending the best part of a week in Bellevue, an experience that is relayed in vivid and gruelling detail in the opening section of the novel.

When John is finally released from Bellevue, Janice arranges for the family to take a short break at their second home in the country. As with certain other family pleasures, John knows that expectations of the trip will almost certainly outweigh actual fulfilment. Janice gives it her best shot, playing the role of the concerned and devoted wife, talking away in an attempt to fill the silence. Meanwhile, John spends much of his time drinking bourbon, looking out of the window and gazing at pretty young girls as they dive into the nearby lake. At one point, he seems fit to burst with it all.

One good thing: there was plenty of bourbon on the kitchen shelf. As soon as he was dressed he got out the ice and made himself a double that was more like a triple.

“Feel like a drink?” he asked Janice.

“No thanks.” She was sitting on a tall kitchen stool in her slacks with a colander in her lap, snapping string beans for dinner, and didn’t look up. “It’s a little early, isn’t it?”

“Seems late enough to me.”

And not until he’d gone outdoors for the first few greedy swallows did he figure out why he was so angry. It wasn’t because of the girl on the raft (the hell with the girl on the raft), or because Janice had asked if it wasn’t a little early, or because her crisp little snap-snap of string beans had always been an irritating sound; it was because the stool she sat on, with her tennis shoes hooked over its middle rung, was exactly like the cop’s stool at the door in Bellevue. (pgs. 59-60)

This scene ends with John imagining just what he’d like to do with that stool, and it’s not a pretty picture.

As a condition of his release from Bellevue, John agrees to see a psychiatrist. At first, talking therapy seems to provide him with a brief release, a way of delving into the past, but it’s not long before he gets fed up with his physician. There is also the requirement to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but most of the time John’s heart isn’t in it, and he sneaks off for sly drinks immediately before and after each session.

Things start looking up for John when he begins an affair with Pamela Hendricks, an attractive, bright, young girl whom he meets through work. Everything is rosy for a year or so as Pamela seems to offer John some hope in life. The couple share a mutual love of movies, and, with the help of some of Pamela’s old college friends, they begin work on a film based on John’s stint in Bellevue. In time (and following a few developments I won’t go into here) John leaves Janice and moves to California with Pamela with the aim of finalising the movie and getting it into distribution.

The remainder of the novel charts John’s downward trajectory as everything around him unravels. Fuelled by an addiction to alcohol and tormented by his past failings, John systematically destroys pretty much everything that is bright and promising in his life; ultimately he sinks into a depression, one that makes his earlier breakdown seem mild by comparison. Interestingly, there is a direct parallel between John’s own life and that of the protagonist in the final version of the film (the one the producers consider to be more commercially viable than the inside story of Bellevue itself).

As with Yates’ other novels, Disturbing the Peace chips away at the façade that is The American Dream. In this scene, during a brief ‘second honeymoon’ period with Janice, John reflects on the sham of his marriage. It is all merely an act, and he wonders how long they can keep it up.

We’re having Tommy’s favourite tonight,” she said when he was settled at the table. “My own very special meat loaf, baked potato with sour cream, and a simple tossed salad. It used to be one of your favourites too, John. Is it still?

“Sure is. Especially the meat loaf. You suppose I could have another slice?”

“Why, certainly kind sir,” she said. “I’m very flattered.

As the conversation continues in a similar vein, John comes to the following realisation:

Was this really happening? Was she sitting there forking meat loaf into her mouth and dabbing at her lips with a napkin, and was Tommy really there across the table? How could any family as unhappy as this put on such a show every night, and how long could it last? (pg. 149)

Yates is also very strong on the small disappointments in life: John’s frustration at his lack of height; the fact that he never learned to swim; an uneasy game of catch with Tommy that fails to satisfy both father and son. I love this description of a stole that John bought for Janice, a minor tragedy that seems to capture his feelings about the marriage itself.

That stole, too, was a heartbreaker. He had given it to her as a birthday present years ago, after seeing one just like it slung from the shoulders of a pretty girl at the office. But the girl at the office had known how to wear the thing, as a sort of elegant loose shawl, and Janice hadn’t. From the moment she’d rushed from her birthday celebration to pose with it at the hall mirror (“Oh, I love this, John…”) he knew she would never to wear it – it looped and dangled from  her elbows like a rope – and every time she tried only made it worse. (pg 161)

Set as it is in the early 1960s, the novel also touches on the Kennedy phenomenon. John dislikes the Kennedys and everything they represent. When John F. Kennedy is shot dead in 1963, John Wilder realises he feels a degree of sympathy with the assassin. Kennedy had been too tall, too young, too good-looking and too damn successful; ‘he had embodied elegance and wit and finesse.’ Kennedy had been everything John Wilder knew he couldn’t be.

The period detail is wonderful, too. There is a scene where John’s boss takes him out for lunch, a long, languorous, martini-fuelled discussion that could have easily served as the template for one of Don Draper’s liquid lunches with Roger Sterling in Mad Men.

Disturbing the Peace is a more self-analytical novel than Revolutionary Road or The Easter Parade. It is clear that Yates has drawn on his own experiences for inspiration here. There is a bitterness running through John’s narrative, and the ending, when it comes, is pretty bleak. Even so, it leaves me all the more eager to read more of this author’s work in the future; it’s just a question of deciding which one to read next.

Update: MarinaSofia has also reviewed this novel – click here to read her review.

Disturbing the Peace is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. (pg. 3)

On the evening of 30th December 2003, Joan Didion sat down to dinner with her husband and fellow writer, John Gregory Dunne, at their home in New York. Moments later, John experienced a massive coronary event that was to lead to his death. At the same time, the couple’s only child, Quintana, was lying unconscious in an intensive care unit at the Beth Israel North Medical Center in the city. She had been there since Christmas Day when, what had at first appeared to be a case of flu, suddenly morphed into pneumonia and septic shock. The Year of Magical Thinking charts Didion’s attempts to make sense of the weeks and months that followed these tumultuous events in her life, a period that swept away any previous beliefs she had held about illness and death and grief, about probability and luck, about marriage and children and memory, about life itself. It is a deeply personal exploration of these concepts, all written in Didion’s signature style, that of the cool, perceptive, surgically-precise chronicler of our times.

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Written between October and December 2004, the book’s title has its origins in “magical thinking,” a state whereby a person believes that their thoughts and wishes can bring about certain events or change an outcome in some way. Despite the fact that Didion appeared cool and rational in the hours and days immediately following John’s death, she began to believe that she could bring him back, ‘to reverse time, to run the film backwards.’

I see now that my insistence on spending that first night alone was more complicated than it seemed, a primitive instinct. Of course I knew John was dead. Of course I had already delivered the definitive news to his brother and to my brother and to Quintana’s husband. […] Yet I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible. That was why I needed to be alone. […]

I needed to be alone so that he could come back. (pgs. 32-33)

As she looks back at that time, Didion identifies a number of instances of this covert thinking which remained somewhat hidden from others and even from herself: she had not been able to read the obituaries when they appeared in the papers as they would have confirmed John’s death; she had resisted the suggestions to clear his clothes, to give them away to charity, as he might need them when he returns; she had declined a request from the hospital to donate his organs. ‘How could he come back if they took his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?’

In an attempt to make sense of the range of emotions she is experiencing, Didion begins to explore the literature on grief, turning initially to poetry, novels and memoirs. Given that grief touches virtually all of us as some stage in our lives, there is surprisingly little coverage of it in the sources Didion finds close to hand. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most illuminating insights into grief come from Didion herself. In this passage, she distinguishes between our image of what grief will be like and the reality of actually experiencing it for ourselves, a description that rings completely true to me based on my own experience of loss.

In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself. (pgs. 188-189)

Didion is also very good on the feeling of utter disorientation and dislocation that follows the death of a loved one, that fuzzy, ‘mudgy’ state of mind that perhaps only others going through a similar experience can fully recognise. There is clear sense of fragility and vulnerability here.

People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. I have noticed it on my face and I notice it now on others. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. It is the look of someone who walks from the ophthalmologist’s office into the bright daylight with dilated eyes, or of someone who wears glasses and is suddenly made to take them off. These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible. I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal. I seemed to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could be seen only by those who were themselves recently bereaved. (pg. 75)

Intercut with these reflections on bereavement are Didion’s examination of her life with John, in particular, the years they spent in California and their time with Quintana. She describes how even the smallest of objects – often chanced upon at the most unexpected of times – can trigger the vortex effect, the opening up of a tunnel of memories that catapult her into the past. While glancing at a TV commercial, Joan happens to catch sight of a familiar stretch of coastal highway – all of a sudden she is back at Palos Verdes Peninsula, immersed in memories of the house where she and John lived with Quintana when she was a baby.

Reflections from the months leading up to John’s death form another focal point. There are a number of occasions when Joan wonders whether John had sensed that time was running out for him. In the autumn of 2003, John persuaded Joan that they should take a trip to Paris as he feared that if they did not go then, he might never see the city again. Moreover, when she thinks back to the time shortly before his death, Joan recalls John saying several things about his current and previous work which, at the time, made it difficult for her to dismiss his mood as depression (something she considers a typical phase of any writer’s life). Here is just one example of the things that continue to gnaw away at her. It was either the evening of John’s death or the previous night; John and Joan were travelling home in a taxi having just visited Quintana in the ICU unit at Beth Israel North.

Everything he had done, he said, was worthless.

I still tried to dismiss it.

This might not be normal, I told myself, but neither was the condition in which we had just left Quintana.

He said that the novel was worthless.

This might not be normal. I told myself, but neither was it normal for a father to see a child beyond his help. (pg 81-82)

I don’t think I’m up for this, he had said in the taxi on our way down from Beth Israel North that night or the next night. He was talking about the condition in which we had once again left Quintana.

You don’t get a choice, I had said in the taxi.

I have wondered since if he did. (pg. 217)

‘Did he have some apprehension, a shadow?’ These questions and more continue to haunt Joan as she tries to make sense of John’s death, prompting a re-examination of life with her husband as she had previously understood it.

Magical Thinking is a remarkable piece of writing, at once utterly compelling, deeply affecting and emotionally truthful. (There are other threads within Magical Thinking which I haven’t even touched on here, most notably Joan’s account of Quintana’s illness and its impact on her own state of mind.) Didion brings a great deal of honesty and candour to this work. She is relentless in her questioning of herself and of others, constantly seeking to understand what was said, what was felt, what might have been. Certain questions are left unanswered, doubts remain in the mind; and yet there is a sense that the very process of writing this book has helped Didion in some way.

As is often the case when I try to write about a favourite book, I am left feeling that I have fallen short, that I haven’t done it justice, that I have failed to articulate what makes it special. All I can say is that this is an exceptional book. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Delphine de Vigan’s autobiographical novel, Nothings Hold Back the Night, a book that made my ‘best-of’ list last year.

The Year of Magical Thinking is published by Harper Perennial. Source: personal copy.