Poverty and Violence

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Literature is rarely taught or even thought of as a socio-political device, but it often is, has been since Homer. The best writers are the best, most legitimate observers of society, and Cormac McCarthy has been the best of both in recent years of these United States. In his novel, Child of God (click for a previous review), he grapples with the consequences of generations of abject Southern poverty, a poverty from which there seems no escape. As these generations of the poor wear on, violence becomes the overwhelming consequence, the only escape from servile humiliation.

What’s the answer to such lives? McCarthy, correctly, doesn’t say; that’s not the novelist’s responsibility. His responsibility is only to pose the problem.

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A Novel Hanging by Many Threads

Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

 

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image via goodreads.com 

 

This is about as complex a novel as you’re likely to find these days. That’s not praise, exactly, but neither is it a complaint. It’s about New York City in the grander perspective, probably why it was honored with a National Book Award.  And it’s written disjointedly, in the stylish structure of Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Thomas Pynchon. Another thing in its favor in the book award sweepstakes. 

It begins with an Irish man looking for his brother in New York, the brother some sort of sidewalk saint, who, well, does what he can for the down and out. In and out of this story walk many characters: several hookers, some office workers, a Guatemalan nurse, a judge, and a high-wire daredevil, to name a few.

The book’s coherence, as much as it exists, concerns a man walking a tightrope between the two World Trade Centers, as New York collectively looks on. Incidentally, McCann’s dialogue between the watchers is some of the most vivid I’ve read, and that’s definitely a compliment. Imagining this guy's high wire act almost gave me vertigo. 

 


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image via vulture.com
 

McCann juggles his memorable characters admirably, his dialogue is taut and evocative, and  his prose often sparkles. The pitfalls with this sort of story are those of coherence and detail. His strung-together story often hangs by one of several threads, but in the end, he makes it work. Still, all too often there are details to the book's goings-on, to the characters’ lives, that take us nowhere but deeper into minutiae. Maybe that's New York fer ya.

 

My rating: 15 of 20 stars

 

 

Listening to Life

 

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image via hollywoodreporter.com

 

 Salvage The Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

 

I don’t remember why I bought this book. It probably wasn’t that it won the National Book Award for 2011; more likely that it’s about the Mississippi coast in the time prior to Hurricane Katrina. I have family living on that coastline, and have visited the area many times, being from the not-so-far-away Louisiana “hill country.” (Don’t laugh – there are some.)

I’m white, though, and while all Southerners or all classes and races interact (although they sometimes don’t admit it), this book has a lot to say about the underprivileged of all ilks throughout the South. The book is about a black family – or what remains of one – in the two weeks or so leading up to Katrina.

The principal character and narrator is the girl of the family, Esch, and she’s pregnant. Esch has an alter ego of sorts in her brother Skeetah’s pit bull, China, who in the first few pages gives birth to her first litter. Skeetah is something of a dog whisperer, and his hold on China is little short of magical. There’s another brother, Randall, who has hoop dreams, and a late addition to the family, Junior.  

A young lad named Manny has done the dirty with Esch; she’s in love with him, and is reluctant to tell him she’s pregnant. She goes through all the usual throes of morning sickness, having to guess what’s going on in her biology, but she’s a plucky kid, and she perseveres.

When Katrina hits, the family, which has already been turned upside down by poverty and the brood’s mother’s earlier death, is turned – I don’t know – sideways.

But this isn’t a story about victimization. It owes a lot to Victor Hugo’s underclass in Les Miserables – they improvise, they adapt, they attempt continually to overcome. Ward’s book leaves us with a poignant ending, but stamped with resilience and promise.

 

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 image via theparisreview.org

Jesmyn Ward knows how to hold a reader, she takes us deep into the souls of Esch, particularly, but each of the others in the family as well. She paces her story like a pro, never leaving us in despair, with a hint of promise just over the horizon. The story’s details are what continued to charm me: Esch-as-narrator’s eloquence, her insight (although she often spoke more “street” in dialogue – but it works) in her condition, the family’s ongoing plight as well as their separate and collaborative dreams.

And especially the book's attention to nature: the weather, of course, the dog’s fleas, ants crawling across Esch’s toes, the smell of the unkempt house, the feel of sweat, the ramen and Vienna sausages they eat. Even the details of a series of dogfights.

This book clearly deserves the award. It’s about life, and I can tell you it speaks to life as a Southerner, regardless of race, or color, or creed.

 

My rating 19 of 20 stars.

 

 

Crossing the Border

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End of the year magazine issues tend to be retrospectives, or the content seems more strained than usual. The January 2012 issue of Harper's Magazine seem to fall in line with the latter. However, there's one curious juxtaposition:

A piece of first person reportage by Cecelia Balli, "Calderon's War," exposes the way the war on drugs leaves the average Mexican citizen caught, if not in the well-reported crossfire between soldiers and drug gangs, then at least at the mercy of both in other ways. In a country as corrupt as Mexico has been, says Balli, reform and stability of the Law and Order variety is slow, but it's happening. Of course, this slowly fructifying stability will affect the U.S.in a positive way if it takes root.

Whech brings us to a memoir/essay by Alexandra Fuller, "Her Heart Inform Her Tongue." Fuller is from Rhodesia, a British colony of yesteryear that more or less assumed its independence sometime between 1965 and 1979, and she wrote this piece about a trip she and her daughter made to Mexico, ostensibly to learn Spanish. On the way to that, her thoughts returned to the conditions, the bloody days that fomented the move to Rhodesian independence. Why? She saw so much of that in Mexico.  

Both articles are, in a way, object lessons for us of the U.S. We're precariously perched on, hopefully, the other side of economic apocalypse, but there are predators all around us, who could send us backsliding. Just knowing how bad conditions have been and, for the most part, still are with our neighbor to the south, should make us work harder to maintain a middle class, to revive our egalitarian ethos, to basically live up to our ideals. And that will take honest pragmatism, not ideology-cloaking elitism, racism, and whatever other isms brought us to this place.