Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Walter Mosely: Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned

If you've read more than one novel by Walter Mosley, you know that his narrative artistry is not bound to any one genre despite his reputation for crime fiction with his long time series featuring Easy Rawlins and a newer series featuring Leonid McGill. His official Web site is not update, but it will draw your attention to the book The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (2011). Ptolemy Grey is a 91 year old who lives  alone, afraid to leave his apartment, losing his mind from neglect and inactivity. He meets 17 year old Robyn at the funeral of his nephew who was killed in a drive by shooting. Between the care he receives from Robyn, a dangerous experimental drug, and his desire to find out who killed his nephew, Ptolemy Grey rediscovers a purpose to his life--it isn't over yet. Mosley's 91 year old character allows the author to weave threads of African American history into the narrative.  His 2004 novel, The Man in the Basement, features another character who lives in neglect, although it is self imposed. Living in the family house, which he no longer maintains, fired from his job, reading science fiction, and drinking Seagrams, Charles Blakey's disintegrating life takes a turn when a white man, clearly a wealthy white man used to having his own way, shows up asking to rent Blakey's basement. The rent will save the house, but it won't necessarily save Blakey. He becomes wrapped up in his new occupant's expiation or exorcism of guilt, but not necessarily finding his own redemption in the process. Both this novel and the Ptolemy Grey novel have elements of surrealism as well as mystery.

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned was published in 1998. While it has elements of the hard boiled, it is not a novel about crime or a mystery. It is a story about living beyond mere survival. As is to be expected from Mosley, it is a textured and nuanced story of living in an African American community. In these stories, the community is in Los Angeles. In these stories, Mosley features the character Socrates Fortlow, also known as Socco. As a reckless young man, he killed a man and raped and killed a woman for which he spent 27 years in an Indiana prison. Fortlow is 58 years old. Although he looks older than his years, he remains strong with a powerful vein of violence still simmering within him. He takes full responsibility for his crimes and is determined to live his life remembering what he has done. It is too simple to say that he hopes to make up for the wrong he has done with good, but he lives his life consciously, making choices that correct wrongs and make the lives of those important to him better.

The story of his crime, his time in prison, and the trajectory of his life following his release is revealed throughout the stories. Fortlow is always thinking about what it means to be a man, and more particularly what it means to be a black man, the honor of work, the necessity of honoring those you love, respecting yourself so that you can treat others with the respect they deserve. He is a man who is always thinking and considering. In the first story, Fortlow catches a young boy who has killed a neighbor's rooster. Fortlow tells the boy, that he has killed Socrates' friend. He makes the boy pluck the rooster, which Fortlow then cooks along with other dishes to create a small feast that he shares with the boy. Through force of personality and the gift of a full stomach, Fortlow coaxes the boy into telling his history. Over several stories, Fortlow becomes a mentor and protector to the boy. This is just one of the story lines, however.

Socrates doesn't let himself or others off easily. He calls them to account, but not without examining his own motivation for doing so.

Mosley's books are complex and challenging. His characters, always part of a tightly knit community in a carefully constructed and described neighborhood, have pasts through which they are working, presents to survive, and futures that may or may not materialize. Certainly good and compelling reading, Mosley's novels and stories keep you thinking and asking questions. He is a master at his craft.

Mosley has more than 30 works of fiction waiting out there for a lucky new reader to discover--so get to work!

Many thanks to my brother who gave me the two Mosley books that I've read most recently. I can't think of a better gift!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Kafka: The Man Who Disappeared

Translated by Richie Robinson.

The Man Who Disappeared (also known as America) is unfinished. It is one of Kafka's earlier writings and although dark, has some humor and even slapstick elements to it. This edition comes with "fragments," a few segments that are not connected up in an obvious way with the main body of the novel. They give the impression that the novel might go on indefinitely, one dealing with Karl's servitude to Brunelda and the other about the great theater of Oklahama (sic) and his efforts to gain employment with this great enterprise. America does not seem to be an unsuitable title, as the novel  as much about poor Karl Rossman as it is about the country of America, which Rossman travels across. At least it is Kafka's vision of America. The errors in geography and spelling seem as though they could be intentional, creating a clearly fictional or fantastic ambiance, as they could be errors. Although one wonders why, if Kafka was concerned about accuracy, he couldn't easily look up the geographical distance between Boston and New York (in the novel they are adjacent connected by a bridge), or the correct spelling of Oklahoma.

Poor Karl Rossman's story is something of a Pinnochio tale except that Rossman's moral sense is strong--in fact his moral sense is much stronger than that of anyone with whom he comes into contact. He knows right from wrong, and in fact exhibits common sense, industry, intelligence, drive, trustworthiness, and resilience. Bombarded with the haphazard, unpredictable and irrational whims of the Americans he encounters, Karl has little chance of thriving. He moves from expecting people to have rational and logical responses to situations and details, to having little hope that those with whom he interacts will behave in a reasonable manner.

Karl first was sent to America as a young boy because of his run in with a 35-year-old woman. Her seduction of him left her pregnant and Karl in trouble. The women in The Man Who Disappeared are not unanimously trouble, but are  consistently troublesome for Karl. They are sexually promiscuous, powerful, demanding, and spoiled. Two women do come to Karl's rescue, but in they end they fail him. The chief cook at the Hotel Occidental, takes him in, gets him a job, and introduces him to her protégé who becomes Karl's close friend. They are unable to save him when he is wrongfully accused of misconduct at the hotel and unceremoniously fired from his position. In fact, most of the Americans Karl encounters are undisciplined, driven by emotion rather than reason, scheming or lazy, and criminal.

Regardless of Karl's sincerity, desire to please, respect, and hard work, he is consistently dragged down. After his first good fortune of being recognized and taken in by his wealthy but idiosyncratic uncle, he is not long after completely rejected by him because he leaves to spend the night with one of his uncle's friends despite the uncle's reluctance to have their routine interrupted. The house he visits is one with unfinished halls, staircases unnavigable because of darkness, twists and turns that lead the uninitiated wanderer astray. People seem to take liberties with Karl, they stand too close, their hands are all over him, he is treated something like a small child or worse yet, a toy. Karl is vaguely aware that the way he is treated is inappropriate but in the early days of his American sojourn chooses to think the best of most people.

After leaving his uncle's care, Karl runs into two rascals, an Irishman and a Frenchman, who are happy to keep Karl with them to pay for their meals and lodgings. It is the chief cook at the Hotel Occidental that helps Karl escape from these two ne'er do wells. Karl lost faith in them when he realized that they had gone through his things and lost the one photograph he had of his parents.

It is these two rascals that cause him trouble at the hotel leading to his dismissal, and that then take him captive and force him into servitude. The antics of these two men (also reminiscent of the rascals that lead Pinnochio astray) are not unlike unsavory but comic characters of Dickens, or the absurdist antics of, to be anachronistic, a Samuel Beckett play or characters found in Alice in Wonderland. One scene features a chaotic political demonstration that reminded me of both the political scenes from the Pickwick Papers and generally, Dickens' description of the United States in Martin Chuzzlewit.

The novel ends, not including the fragments, with Karl ingeniously putting together a breakfast of left over scraps for his demanding but madly delusional captors. As they enjoy the food he has scavanged for them, he is rewarded with a handful of biscuits.

Karl, unlike the Americans, always does his utmost. He answers questions fully and succinctly to a suprising detail. He is perceptive and knows what is futile and what is not. He becomes less naive as the novel progresses. His difficulties make him wiser and more cautious. In one of the fragments, his captors seem to have disappeared but Karl is still responsible for their employer/lover Brunelda. In the fragment, Karl is transporting the very large Brunelda who is hiding beneath a blanket, in a hand pulled carriage. Karl is able to follow a very intricate path to their destination. "He went very cautiously; before turning a corner he would scrutinize the next street . . . if he foresaw what could be a disagreeable encounter he would wait till it could be avoided or would even choose a route through a quite different street. Even then, as he had carefully studied all the possible routes in advance, he never ran the risk of making a substantial detour" (192). So despite his distaste for Brunelda and his involuntary servitude, Karl puts his all into the task.

Because Karl's story is unfinished we can't know what lessons there are to be learned from the culmination of his life events. In the introduction there is some suggestion that Karl would meet his end through execution, innocently, but gently (xxii). It is certainly a cautionary tale for the would-be immigrant, and perhaps also a joke at the expense of the uncivilized American. For my part, I'd like to think that Karl achieves the "American dream," and finds a place to call home, a good book, a good friend, and food on the table.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Giersbach on O'Reilly and Lincoln

After a long hiatus, the review is pleased to post this insightful look at Bill O'Reilly's book on Lincoln. Inadvertently it may be good timing, coinciding with a new film on Lincoln, and following not too far on the heals of that great biopic, "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter." Many thanks to Mr. Giersbach. If you enjoy his writing, please visit his Web site Allotropic Lucubrations to find and read his short fiction.
Score: Lincoln Loses, So Does O’Reilly

Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 was as shocking as President Kennedy’s almost a century later, but reflected a country still polarized by war.  Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (2011) unrolls the drama leading up to John Wilkes Booth’s infamous act while unveiling the band of amateur conspirators.  In fact, history classes tend to skip over the widespread rabid hatred of Lincoln and the motley group that conspired to murder the President.  Perhaps it’s good to be reminded of such things.  O’Reilly more recently wrote Killing Kennedy (2012), so let’s hope there are no more presidential assassinations.

But how true is the fictionalized treatment?  A seven-page index offers no sources, nor does the prologue, but O’Reilly fills his work with interior thoughts and imaginary conversations the way an éclair is puffed up with cream filling: light and airy, but not nutritionally good.  This is history for non-history buffs, delivering a quick back story of the Civil War generals and their final battles, the political animosities blocking the generosity of our “greatest President,” the nationwide chase to find the assassin, and the tragic aftermath of hanging a possibly innocent Southern woman sympathizer.  It’s a fast read and will deliver information you never learned in school.

This is not a bad book, but somewhat thin after wading through Drew Gilpin Faust** and Bruce Catton.*  By the middle of June, the book has spent 36 weeks on The New York Times list and is in fourth place among non-fiction works.  This may say more about American reading tastes and Bill O'Reilly's popularity among a certain demographic than it being an original contribution to history.

Historical novels are an enchanting genre that lead readers into the dark corridors of the past.  We walk unseen next to characters — some we’ve heard of and some fictional — who are explorers and adventurers, romantic lovers and nefarious brigands.  Politicians are exposed, the self-righteous are quashed, and the meek inherit the earth before everyone goes home for the day.

Killing Lincoln is a non-fiction adventure set against a historical backdrop.  Can we dare imagine the tall, gaunt President walking alone through the cheering throngs at war’s end, heedless to the warnings that he might be assassinated?  Do we gasp seeing General Grant show up at the peace table in Appomattox with mud on his boots to remind the impeccably dressed General Lee how Grant was upbraided for sloppiness during the Mexican War?  Do we titter to hear the conversation between Lincoln and his wife in the closed carriage en route to Ford’s Theatre?

Killing Lincoln is populist literary drama for our times, in which the past and the present exist contemporaneous with each other.  It’s branded as “history” that really isn’t history.  The drawing-room drama of Mary Todd’s spiteful resentment and state-room drama of Lincoln casually dropping in on Secretary of War Stanton could be played out today in a soap opera or on a cable channel.

Artist and writer Douglas Coupland calls this new literary genre Translit:  “Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place.”  The contemporary reader is tossed into the past without having to leave the present.  It’s almost as if, Coupland says, one “can travel back to Victorian England — only with vaccinations, a wad of cash and a clean set of ruling-class garb.”

In this case, we’re given gripping moment-by-moment drama.  O’Reilly and his partner Dugard adopt the narrative tricks of short writing sections and quick cutting worthy of “breaking news” on CNN.

 *Bruce Catton is author of the Civil War Trilogy
**Drew Gilpin Faust is known, for among other works The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War and Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slave Holding South in the American Civil War

Kafka: The Man Who Disappeared

Also known as America. This edition is newly translated by Ritchie Robertson. This is my first foray into Kafka in some time. The first thing that strikes me is that The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, a wonderful novel by a versatile writer, is not merely Kafkaesque, it is very much written using Kafka's techniques, maybe even an homage to Kafka. Some of these characteristics include the announcement that you are a related to an individual you seem to have met randomly and yet you are expected (you are surprised, the relative is not), a character's long, confident pronouncement seemingly out of nowhere--with no signs to the reader that the character should have that knowledge or the confidence to deliver it, unexplained attachments, and, of course, the inability to find one's way.  In The Unconsoled, Ishiguro's main character, a concert pianist, is looking for a place to practice. Try as he might, he never finds the practice room, but winds (an appropriate descriptive term) up somewhere else where people know and perhaps even expect him. At the very beginning of Ishiguro's novel, the protagonist finds out that he is related to the elderly bell hop. Kafka's main character, Karl Rossman, arrives in America via ship after having been sent away from his German home. He loses himself on board at the time of disembarkation, losing his suitcase while looking for his umbrella.  In the process, he is taken in by the surly and disgruntled "stoker," who Karl confidently helps to make a case to the Captain of the ship, despite having met him minutes earlier, for better treatment and pay. While engaging with the captain and the stoker, another man who has been waiting about, asks Karl who he is and then pronounces himself to be Karl's uncle. The uncle knows every detail of Karl's story, and despite the fact that his name does not fit Karl's recollection or logical expectations, he accepts the fact although he heart broken at having to leave the stoker.

to be serially reviewed ...