Book Digest: May 21, 2007

The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish; American Youth; Later, at the Bar; Black Panther; Reclaiming History; The Pesthouse; Tattoo Art & Design; Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream; Thick as Thieves

My buddy Howard and I were involved in a somewhat heated dispute over recent remarks in this space suggesting the pantheon of iconic American painters was in his words, “small enough to fit on the head of a pin.” I had mentioned Grant Wood (and demurred on Disney and Warhol), but my friend Howard insisted on dragging in a long, snore-worthy list of accomplished artists—to which I suggested they might have a chance of recognition in the few zip codes resembling 02138 but nowhere else. Any thoughts on this subject, dear readers?

Also, having recently mentioned new Edward Hopper tomes and the traveling exhibition, I would be remiss not to mention the 30-minute DVD—produced by the National Gallery of Art and narrated by Steve Martin—15 minutes of which is part of the traveling Hopper show.

It being Memorial Day next week, and as a few Americans will be opening their summer houses while millions of others will be shopping or some other patriotic activity mandated by the Department of Homeland Security, this space will be taking a short—well-deserved—rest. Though, in an act of resistance to Big Brother, no shopping will be taking place on my part. You might keep in mind these words of the late Kurt Vonnegut:
I dreamed last night of our descendants a thousand years from now. If there are still human beings on Earth, every one of those human beings will be descended from us—and from everyone who has chosen to reproduce.

In my dream, our descendants are numerous. Some of them are rich, some poor, some likeable, some insufferable. I ask them how humanity, against all odds, managed to keep going for another millennium. They tell me that they and their ancestors did it by preferring life over death for themselves and others at every opportunity, even at the expense of being dishonored. They endure all sorts of insults and humiliations and disappointments without committing suicide or murder. They are also the people who do the insulting and humiliating and disappointing.

I endear myself to them by suggesting a motto they might like to put on their belt buckles or tee shirts. I give them a quotation from that great 19th-century moralist and robber baron, Jim Fisk.

Jim Fisk uttered his famous words after a particularly disgraceful episode having to do with the Erie Railroad. Fisk had no choice but to find himself contemptible. He thought this over, and then he shrugged and said what we all must learn to say, if we want to go on living much longer: “Nothing is lost save honor.”
The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish by Elise Blackwell
Book Digest That Southern writers seemingly had been relegated to some ghetto of regionalism may explain my own lack of contact and familiarity—but in the ‘90s I discovered Reynolds Price and Larry Brown and Barry Hannah, and thus bloomed a love affair that has not subsided. Tom Franklin, Tim Gautreaux, Brad Watson, and Ron Rash were authors whose work—to my great fortune—I enjoyed immeasurably. Louisiana gal Elise Blackwell, now teaching at the University of South Carolina, has spun a hypnotic tale based on the historic Mississippi River deluge of 1927. Narrated by the elderly Louis Proby, a man looking back over his life just before Katrina, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish exhibits a dynamic tension between the attractions of urban life and the splendors of the natural world.

Brad Watson, whose Heaven of Mercury shares some tonal similarities with Blackwell’s opus, observes, “The present haunts the past in this beautiful and timely book. Blackwell burns time, love, and loss down into a bed of discrete mnemonic coals. The voice is so true that it reads like the purest, most authentic memoir. This novel is tough, and sad, and lovely.”

My kind of book!

» Read an excerpt from The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish

American Youth by Phil LaMarche
Book Digest As one might expect, LaMarche’s mentors at the Syracuse University graduate creative writing program gush about his debut effort. To wit:

George Saunders: “The most compelling and exciting debut novel in years. What an amazing, gratifying book—we are lucky to have it. LaMarche proves that there are still young geniuses among us, wringing new life from the novel.”

Memoirist/poet Marry Karr: “Men have never written about becoming a man as Phil LaMarche does in this page-turning debut. He’s the new Cormac McCarthy-in-waiting, wielding firearms with a muscular prose also evocative of Hemingway. The story runs hot as a pistol bore all the way through, with characters you can’t bear to leave. LaMarche’s book is a heartfelt offering to the world.”

Not that I am inclined to cross swords with Ms. Karr, but Russell Banks’s Rules of the Bone and Jim Shepard’s Project X come to mind as two books of the kind she is identifying. Nonetheless, LaMarche’s narrative, set in a New England town, is a powerful exploration of the gauntlet youths run to advance past the storms and travails of adolescence. Jerry Stahl goes to some length to say why he usually hates this kind of book, only to conclude:
Along with boys-in-boots classics like the straight-edge novel American Skin or the movie American History X, starring Edward Norton, American Youth traffics in the inchoate angst and damage that morphs young men into pubescent fascists. But Phil LaMarche does not simply show us this jagged world, he makes us feel what it’s like to live there. This, in the end, is what makes American Youth nothing less than a masterpiece.
» Read an excerpt from American Youth

Later, at the Bar: A Novel in Stories by Rebecca Barry
Book Digest The great, good place is not an unusual setting for fiction—it’s surprising there are not more fictions that use it as setting for a story cycle or, in Ms. Barry’s case, a novel in (ten) stories. Of course, there is a danger and temptation of leaning too far toward the aberrational and psychotic, but in Barry’s skillful hands we have some appealing, bittersweet stories of the kind Richard Ford, Kent Haruf, and Richard Russo tell so well.

Lee K. Abbott, no slouch himself, lauds his former student:
Those down-and-out and never-were, those bushwhacked by want, those haunted by hooch, those pining for an imagined past and about to charge into a public square to howl at heaven, these are the men and women who people Later, At the Bar, Rebecca Barry’s movingly splendid first novel, a book as much about what mends as what rends. Clearly, Ms. Barry loves our crooked kind, for she’s given us story-telling to hope with, page after page of our analogues taking punch after punch at what cheapens and trivializes and corrupts. Here’s a novel to press on your pals, your neighbors, even the strangers you bump into on your own way to paradise.
» Read an excerpt from Later, at the Bar

Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas edited by Sam Durant
Book Digest If you are familiar with the turbulent ‘60s—lived them or saw the footage—almost as ubiquitous as Che Guevara’s beret-clad visage was the poster of Black Panther Chairman Huey Newton seated in a wicker throne with a spear in one hand and a rifle in the other.

The Black Panther Party was founded in 1965 by Newton and Bobby Seale and for some years had a powerful effect in black ghetto communities and college campuses—until it found itself targeted by hyper-paranoid government agencies and a number of its key members were incarcerated or murdered.

Artist Emory Douglas was the party’s Minister of Culture, and art-directed its newspaper for the 12 years of its existence; this tome collects some of the potent and resonant images and collages Douglas created. As the book’s editor Sam Durant (better known as the director of the Lethal Weapon movies) writes in the introduction, “They are dangerous pictures, and they were meant to change the world.” Amiri Baraka proclaims that Douglas’s artwork functioned, “as if you were in the middle of a rumble and somebody tossed you a machine pistol.”

Incidentally, Douglas now lives with his blind mother in San Francisco, and is currently working on a children’s artwork series called “Health is Wealth,” a dialogue between two kids about HIV/AIDS. He explains: “My politics have evolved because politics always do, but I’m still concerned about the same things. I think people are drawn to my work right now because they see the same issues in it on the line today—police brutality, education, housing. It’s a different time but we have the same needs.”


Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Vincent Bugliosi
Book Digest Considering this book’s 1,632 pages, I feel confident that far more people will read from the multitudinous reviews than will even pick up this ballast of a book. Novelist Thomas Mallon, who unintentionally became a JFK assassination buff (in order to write Mrs. Paine’s Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy) and who can tell you the names of the strippers Jack Ruby hung out with, unpacks this gargantuan effort by former prosecutor Bugliosi in his sly piece at The Atlantic, “A Knoll of One’s Own.”

Mallon points out the dilemma facing Bugliosi: In order to make a claim of completeness, he entertains—and dignifies with serious analysis—even the most crackpot theories, making for less-than-compelling reading and manifold detours in the main narrative. Of course, as with all matters connected to the Kennedy case, controversy will continue to roil the sea of history, some of it amusing and loony.

But in the mainstream, the verdict on Reclaiming History doesn’t deviate much from that of Bugliosi’s hometown newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, which bloviates:
From this point forward, no reasonable person can argue that Lee Harvey Oswald was innocent; no sane person can take seriously assertions that Kennedy was killed by the CIA, Fidel Castro, the Mob, the Soviets, the Vietnamese, Texas oilmen, or his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson—all of whom exist as suspects in the vacuous world of conspiracy theorists.
The Pesthouse by Jim Crace
Book Digest The eight novels of Jim Crace (rhymes with “grace”) are an exhibition of a writer of splendid originality and compelling imagination. Just peek at Being Dead, his award-winning novel with a dead couple as the main characters. Some years ago Jim Shepard exclaimed something to the effect that he didn’t understand why Crace wasn’t more famous. (A frequent feeling one encounters in the seemingly marginal world of literary fiction and one that might be applied to Shepard as well.)

The Pesthouse is another one of today’s selections that will not lack for review attention—apparently even the literary world has its corrections. Written about a post-apocalyptic America, The Pesthouse may appear to tread the same path as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but I can assure you that while both books are similarly preoccupied, they could not be more distinctly different—which my recent chat with Crace will bear out whenever I get around to publishing it. In the meantime, I urge you to feast on the Crace oeuvre, where each book is informed by a wonderful playfulness and an unleashed imagination.

» Read an excerpt from The Pesthouse

Tattoo Art & Design edited by Viction:ary
Book Digest Some years ago, in a pension, in Barcelona, a fellow pilgrim showed me a book of Maori paintings that depicted that culture’s incredibly detailed facial tattooing. Despite the increased popularity and visibility of tattooing in contemporary America and the rest of the exponentially post-industrial world, I have never found it a subject of much interest. This anthology of nearly 500 designs from over 60 tattoo designers serves as a corrective—for one thing, simply removing the distraction of the denizens upon whose bodies these embellishments are found.

Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration by Sam Quinones
Book Digest Mexico’s border with the U.S. has its own culture, invisible to outsiders—especially know-it-all (or know-nothing) legislatures—and has occasionally received intelligent attention by writers like Ruben Martinez and Jim Harrison, whose July 2001 Men’s Journal piece “Life on the Border” is a superior example of concerned and conscientious journalism:
A historian might very well consider the validity of the Gadsden Purchase, wherein we bought my locale for fifty-two cents an acre from a group of Mexicans that had no right to sell it. The United Nations would question our right to take all of the Colorado River’s water, leaving the estuarine area in Mexico as dry as the bones their people leave up here in the desert. A true disciple of Jesus would say that we have to do something about these desperate people, though this is the smallest voice of all. Most politicians have the same moral imperative as a cancer cell: Continue what you’re up to at all costs. Meanwhile, the xenophobes, better known as the xenoids, merely jump up and down on the border screeching, surely a full testament to our primate roots. Everyone not already here must be kept out, and anyone here illegally, if not immediately expunged, should be made as uncomfortable as possible.
Los Angeles Times staffer Sam Quinones’s second collection puts a sharp, unflinching lens on the migration of Mexicans into the United States. Luis Alberto Urrea (The Devil’s Highway and The Hummingbird’s Daughter) celebrates Quinones:
[He is] a border legend. For those in the know, his reportage has been cause for celebration. Now…he takes us behind the lines and undercover. He puts a human face on “illegal immigration,” and he gives us stunning stories of survival and dread. However, he accomplishes something more valuable than a mere parade of sensational set pieces—Quinones starts to put the complex issues in the light of understanding and hard-won wisdom.
» Read an excerpt from Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream

Thick as Thieves: A Brother, a Sister—a True Story of Two Turbulent Lives by Steve Geng
Book Digest Check back in the archives if you doubt my claim, but to date I have not used the word “amazing” to describe any of the books I have talked about here. Steve Geng’s story is an amazing one—which doesn’t necessarily make for an amazing book—and will no doubt be a valid counterpoint to all manner of posturing, would-be renegades. A partial homage to his sister, legendary New Yorker writer Veronica Geng, Thick as Thieves covers Geng’s long, strange trip—he’s now 64—from thrill-seeking thief, to junkie, to acting in Miami Vice and Jonathan Demme’s Miami Blues (a delightful, albeit dark film based on a Charles Williford novel), with numerous side trips to various states’ penitentiaries. James Marcus, a dependable and enjoyable book person (who is worth reading whether or not his subject interests you), concludes:
To his credit, Geng doesn’t conclude Thick as Thieves with a dose of uplift. He denies us the easy satisfactions of a recovery memoir, where the author’s demons are conveniently stuffed back into the tube. For that reason alone, it feels churlish to dwell on the book’s defects. You want to like it more than you do. Still, it’s Geng who notes at one point: “People didn’t always work out, but a sentence you could usually get straight.” Hey, Record Steve [a nickname Geng acquired early in his life of crime], it’s harder than it sounds.
No doubt.

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