Truman Capote: The Glass Harp (1951) The 1951 Club

I’m glad that I finally managed to participate in one of Simon and Karen’s reading years series. It wasn’t easy to find a book for 1951, not because there aren’t many but because I already have read so many books published that year. Nonetheless, there were a few left on my piles. Dürrenmatt, Koeppen, and Heimito von Doderer’s Die Strudlhofstiege. The latter is a book I’m really keen on reading but it has almost 1,000 pages. I wasn’t in the mood to read in German, and so I picked Truman Capote’s novella – The Grass Harp. I’m so glad I did. It will probably be on the best of list at the end of the year.

Truman Capote’s novella The Grass Harp is set in 1930 or 40, in a small town in Alabama. It’s loosely inspired by Capote’s own childhood.

After the death of his mother, Collin’s father sends him to live with his two estranged cousins Verena and Dolly. The two elderly women live alone, together with Catherine, an African-American woman who pretends to be of Indian origin. It’s a very colorful household because the three women are, each in their own way, eccentrics. Verena is a formidable, bossy woman, the head of the household and main bread-winner. She’s a shop owner and seems to make a lot of money. Dolly, her older sister, is stuck in her childhood. Her room is painted pink all over, she loves to eat only sweets and her imagination’s always running a little wild. But she’s also entrepreneurial. As a kid, a gypsy woman told her a secret recipe. With the help of Catherine, who is also her best friend, and Collin, she collects herbs, tree barks, roots, and berries, and concocts a potion against dropsy. Catherine, who has no teeth, speaks with the help of cotton balls she’s pushed into the cavities in her mouth. Dolly’s pretty much the only one who can understand her mumbling.

Collin’s childhood is lovely. He spends most of his time with Dolly and Catherine who tell tales and behave just like children. They are often outside, go on long walks, collect things from the forests and the meadows.

Beyond the field begins the darkness of River Wood. It must have been on one of those September days when we were there in the woods gathering roots when Dolly said: Do you hear? that is the grass harp, always telling a story—it knows the stories of all the people on the hill, of all the people who ever lived, and when we are dead, it will tell ours too.

Until Collin is sixteen, nothing really troubles him or the household he lives in. But then Dolly makes much more money with her dropsy cure and Verena thinks she has to take things in her hands. Without asking Dolly, she buys machinery and a building and brings along a man who should help them commercialize the “gypsy cure”. Dolly, who never refuses anything, is shocked. She doesn’t want to sell her recipe. She doesn’t want to give up the only thing she has. In despair she, Catherine, and Collin, flee in the middle of the night and take refuge in a tree house.

The tree house is soon visited and surrounded by friends and enemies. An elderly judge and a young man whom everyone admires and despises alike, move in with them. The sheriff and other notables of the small town want to force them down but they fight valiantly.

This is such a lovely, heartwarming story, and told in such lyrical prose. It’s as beautiful as it is melancholy and sad. It’s a much older Collin who tells this childhood tale and the tone he uses indicates that a lot of the things and people he describes in this story, are long gone.

If some wizard would like to give me a present, let him give me a bottle filled with the voices of that kitchen, the ha ha ha and the fire whispering, a bottle brimming with its buttery sugary smells . . .”

While it is lovely, it has serious undertones. One could say this is a tale of misfits who stand up for their rights. While Verena is an unusual character for the time, a successful business woman, each of the others stand for a minority or group of people that’s not taken seriously. Catherine is an African-American woman who doesn’t let anyone treat her like a servant. Dolly might have what we would call “Special needs” today. Collin is a kid and back then, they mostly had to do as they were told. The judge is retired and with retirement, he’s lost a lot of the respect he used to have. He was a very just judge. A bit too just for the liking of some and now that he’s older, they want to pay him back.

I remember how I surprised I was, years ago, when I read that Harper Lee and Truman Capote had been friends since childhood and that she helped him with his book In Cold Blood. While I haven’t read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, thinking of that novella and other elements of Capote’s life, made me assume he was from New York. I realized then, that I had been mistaken. Reading The Grass Harp, makes it obvious where Capote comes from and, given the close friendship with Harper Lee, it’s not surprising that this slim book has a lot in common with To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe it inspired Harper Lee. The stories and the writing are different, but there are many similar themes; childhood, friendship, authority, love, justice, money, society, death, outsiders, life in a small town, the South, the role of women and African-Americans . . .

I’m grateful to Karen and Simon because they finally made me discover an author I’ve only known through his short stories and essays so far. What a wonderful, nuanced, and stylish writer. And so quotable.

I’ll leave you with some more of the quotes I liked:

But, ah, the energy we spend hiding from one another, afraid as we are of being identified.

 

What one says hardly matters, only the trust with which it is said, the sympathy with which it is received.

 

If you are not admired no one will take the trouble to disapprove.

 

Dreams are the mind of the soul and the secret truth about us.

N. Scott Momaday: House Made of Dawn (1968) Literature and War Readalong January 2017

house-made-of-dawn

This is going to be a pretty short post. I finished the book but I didn’t get along with it. It had its moments but overall it was frustrating to read.

Published in 1968, House Made of Dawn was N. Scott Momaday’s first novel. It won the Pulitzer Prize. Critics say it’s his most inaccessible novel. Since it’s the first book, I’ve read by him, I can’t say whether the later novels are more accessible or not, I can just confirm that this one is not. At first the writing reminded me of the more challenging Toni Morrison novels I’ve read (Jazz came to mind), but while I could always make sense of her books, this one lost me. Don’t get me wrong, it has beautiful moments and chapters but it goes back and forth in the chronology, uses stream-of-consciousness, fragments, bits from dreams, mythology. The worst was that I wasn’t always sure whose stream-of consciousness I was reading. And I was never sure why he chose the different approaches. At times, it felt like some of the chapters were creative writing exercises. The chapter that was the most readable read like a short story. It comes towards the end and it helped me make sense of what came before. It’s very powerful and the writing is beautiful. The biggest problem I had is that there is no real story. We just follow the protagonist, Abel, stumble from one episode to the next.

Like Abel, the main protagonist, Momaday grew up on different reservations. What Momaday manages to convey is the confusion. The culture Abel grows up in, isn’t intact. Some of it is part of his heritage but a lot is part of other Native American heritages. Then he joins up and fights during WWII. When he comes back, like his mother and brother, he starts to drink. He kills a man, is sent to prison, comes back and drinks again and gets into fights.

We’re held at arm’s length the whole time, never get a good feeling for Abel’s’ emotions.

The beginning was hard to read because there are descriptions of hunting that made me sick. One in particular, in which Abel captures an eagle.

I’m also not entirely sure, this was a good choice for the readalong. Yes, Abel seems to suffer from PTSD, but he suffers from a lot of other things too. He might not have been better off if he hadn’t joined up.

I’m sorry for this lousy review. I hope someone else has read along and enjoyed it more. I’m sure, if I wanted to spend a couple of days doing research, read secondary literature, then I would find more to like but I’m not really in the mood for that.

 

Other Review

TJ@My Book Strings

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House Made of Dawn is the first book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next book is the French WWII novel Magnus by Sylvie Germain. Discussion starts on Tuesday 28 February, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.

Kent Haruf: Our Souls At Night (2015)

haruf-our-souls-at-night

Our Souls At Night, Kent Haruf’s last and posthumously published novel, is a work of sheer beauty. It’s so beautiful in fact, that if there wasn’t also a heavy dose of heartbreak, it would have been too beautiful for its own good.

This is how it begins

And there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters. It was an evening in May just before full dark.

They lived a block apart on Cedar Street in the oldest part of town with elm trees and hackberry and a single maple grown up along the curb and green lawns running back from the sidewalk to the two-story houses. It had been warm in the day but it had turned off cool now in the evening. She went along the sidewalk under the trees and turned in at Louis’s house.

Addie Moore and Louis Waters are both in their seventies and have been widowed for a long time. One evening, Addie calls on Louis and asks him if he wouldn’t like to spend the nights at her house. The reader is just as surprised as Louis, as it’s clear from the start that these two people barely know each other. Addie correctly assumes that Louis is just as lonely as she is and that for him, too, it’s hardest at night.

No, not sex. I’m not looking at it that way. I think I’ve lost any sexual impulse a long time ago. I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably.Lying down in bed together and you staying at night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?

Louis accepts her proposal. At first, they are shy but they quickly warm to the possibility of friendship and after getting to know each other better, after many evenings spent in bed talking, they even fall in love with each other.

It’s such a tender story and I loved it very much. When I started reading, I thought it was a lovely idea to tell the love story of two seventy-year-olds and could hardly believe that people called this novel sad and depressing. Unfortunately, I soon found out that it wasn’t as uplifting as I thought it was.

I often wonder, why people speak unkindly about people who fall in love later in life. Why do they oppose it so much? In Our Souls At Night, Haruf explores some of the possible reasons. The book starts almost like a fairy tale. Addie and Louis have found something very rare – a person they can love and talk to, a friend with whom they can discover things and find new joy in life. They do a lot of things they never did before or haven’t done in a long time, like camping or just going out. All would be perfect if there were no other people, but those around Addie and Louis, don’t react kindly. Neighbours, children, so-called friends, are shocked and try to sabotage their friendship and throw mud at them. The tragedy of these two lovers is that, just like very young people, they are dependent on others and staying together comes at a very high price. Whether they are able and willing to pay that price I’m not going to tell you. You’ll have to find out for yourself.

I loved the story, which is first sweet then bittersweet, but what I loved even more was the beautiful, luminous writing. In most of his sentences Kent Haruf uses the conjunction “and”. Not only once but often two, three, even four times. This gives his sentences a leisurely pace, a gentle, tone that works so well with the peaceful fictional small town, Holt, his favourite setting. I don’t think he would get away with the overuse of the conjunction, if he didn’t pair it with a very precise vocabulary. All of these elements are present in the first sentences already. That’s why I quoted them. If you like the opening paragraphs, there’s a good chance you’ll like the rest as well. He maintains this pace, the use of descriptions, the gentle tone and mood until the last paragraph. It looks so simple, but it’s very skilful writing.

I have to thank Jackie Cangro for mentioning Our Souls At Night. I hadn’t heard of it before.

The year has only just begun, but I know this book will be on my best of list. I’m even thinking of adding it to my all-time favourites list.

Our Souls At Night is being made into a movie starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.

 

Ben Fountain: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012) Literature and War Readalong September 2016

Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk

Luckily Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was one of my readalong titles or I might have given up after fifty pages. I found it hard to get into but once I passed the fifty page mark, I was so engrossed, I could hardly put it down. What a terrific, poignant, witty, and sarcastic book.

The novel is set on the last days of Bravo company’s victory tour. Billy Lynn and his comrades are heroes. They survived a firefight in Iraq, during which they overthrew a group of insurgents. One of the Bravos died in the fight, another one came back disabled. Nonetheless, this “sacrifice” might have passed unnoticed if it hadn’t been filmed by an embedded journalist. As a reward they receive medals and are sent home on a propaganda tour.

This does it; they throw back their heads and roar. In a way it’s so easy, all he has to do is say what they want to hear and they’re happy, they love him, everybody gets along. Sometimes he has to remind himself there’s no dishonor in it. He hasn’t told any lies, he doesn’t exaggerate, yet so often he comes away from these encounters with the sleazy, gamey aftertaste of having lied.

The last day is meant not only as a special tribute but as a special treat. The Bravos assist and participate in a game of the Dallas Cowboys. They are allowed to go back stage and to talk to the players, their manager and their rich Texan supporters. At halftime, they are on the field, right next to the musical attraction – Destiny’s Child. And during every break, the footage of their fight is shown on a giant screen.

During this tour, and especially on this last day, people force themselves on the young men, telling them how much they admire them, asking them questions about the war “Are we winning?” – “Did you kill many?” – “It’s a god war we’re fighting, right?”

Billy who’s done the most heroic thing, is the 3rd person narrator of this story. Like Holden Caufield he is equally precocious and naïve and such a terrific character. One of the central plot lines is his falling in love with a cheerleader. While his testosterone-fuelled feelings might not be love, as he thinks, hers are even further from the feeling as all she wants is “a hero” – “a soldier”, as Destiny’s Child sing. She wants the idea of a man, not the man himself.

“Hi, you’ve reached Faison! I’m not able to take your call right now…”

It makes for an odd sensation, watching her real-time person in the middle distance while holding her disembodied voice to his ear. It puts a frame around the situation, gives it focus, perspective. It makes him aware of himself being aware of himself, and here is a mystery that seems worth thinking about, why this stacking of awareness should even matter. Ant the moment all he knows is that there’s structure in it, a pleasing sense of poise or mental ordering. A kind of knowledge, or maybe a bridge thereto–as if existence didn’t necessarily have to be a moron’s progress of lurching from one damn this to another? As if you might aspire to some sort of context in your life, a condition he associates with adultness. Then comes the beep, and he has to talk.

It’s a very difficult book to review as it’s not very plot-driven. It’s the exuberant style that’s important, the descriptions of the absurdities, the frenzy with wich football and war are celebrated by the very rich, as if both only served one purpose – to make them feel good about themselves and about being Americans.

Where else but America could football flourish, America with its millions of fertile acres of corn, soy, and wheat, its lakes of dairy, its year-round gushers of fruits and vegetables, and such meats, that extraordinary pipline of beef, poultry, seafood, and pork, feedlot gorged, vitamin enriched, and hypodermically immunized, humming factories of high-velocity protein production, all of which culminate after several generations of epic nutrition in this strain of industrial-sized humans? Only America could produce such giants.

 

No matter their age or station in life, Billy can’t help but regard his fellow Americans as children. They are bold and proud and certain in the way of clever children blessed with too much self-esteem, and no amount of lecturing will enlighten them as to the state of pure sin toward which war inclines. He pities them, scorns them, loves them, hates them, these children. These boys and girls. These toddlers, these infants. Americans are children who must go somewhere else to grow up, and sometimes die.

 

All the fakeness just rolls right off them, maybe because the nonstop sales job of American life has instilled in them exceptionally high thresholds for sham, puff, spin, bullshit, and outright lies, in other words for advertising in all its forms.

I don’t think I’ve ever come across a contemporary book that was so astute and harsh in its criticism of the negative aspects of American culture. It shows that most things are about money and consumption. And even when people pretend they care about something, they ultimately only care about what it can bring them.

Somewhere along the way America became a giant mall with a country attached.

The book is written in a frantic, quick-paced style, with long sentences and paragraphs that reminded me of listening to a frenzied sports commentator.

Billy tries to imagine the vast systems that support these athletes. They are among the best-cared for creatures in the history of the planet, beneficiaries of the best nutrition, the latest technologies, the finest medical care, they live at the very pinnacle of American innovation and abundance, which inspires an extraordinary thought – send them to fight the war! Send them just as they are this moment, well rested, suited up, psyched for brutal combat, send the entire NFL! Attack with all our bears and raiders, our ferocious redskins, our jets, eagles, falcons, chiefs, patriots, cowboys – how could a bunch of skinny hajjis in man-skits and sandals stand a chance against these all-Americans? Resistance is futile, oh Arab foes. Surrender now and save yourself a world of hurt, for our mighty football players cannot be stopped, they are so huge, so strong, so fearsomely ripped that mere bombs and bullets bounce off their bones of steel. Submit, lest our awesome NFL show you straight to the flaming gates of hell!

Sometimes, when I watch a war movie or read a book about war, I have my doubts. I wonder whether or not it’s really anti-war – as it should. I never wondered for one second while reading this book. It’s not only against war but against the justification, the fake heroism, the phony concern and gratefulness. But it’s kind to the soldiers. They are shown as victims who very often only joined up because they were too poor to do anything else.

I was thinking, if Salinger had written Catcher in the Rye right after 9/11, it might have been a lot like Billy Lynn. I loved the Catcher in the Rye. Needless to say, I loved Billy Lynn.

Since the writing is the most important thing in this book, I’ll leave you with some more quotes:

Don’t talk about shit you don’t know, Billy thinks, and therein lies the dynamic of all such encounters, the Bravos speak from the high ground of experience. They are authentic. They are the Real. They have dealt much death and received much death and smelled it and held it and slopped through it in their boots, had it spattered on their clothes and tasted it in their mouths. That is their advantage, and given the masculine standard America has set for itself it is interesting how few actually qualify. Why we fight, yo, who is this we? Here in the chicken-hawk nation of blowhards and bluffers, Bravo always has the ace of bloods up its sleeve.

 

Fear is the mother of all emotion. Before love, hate, spite, grief, rage, and all the rest, there was fear, and fear gave birth to them all.

 

It’s going to be a long, lonesome eleven months in Iraq, long and lonesome being the best-case scenario.

 

Everybody supports the troops,” Dime woofs, “support the troops, support the troops, hell yeah we’re so fucking PROUD of our troops, but when it comes to actual money? Like somebody might have to come out of pocket for the troops? Then all the sudden we’re on everybody’s tight-ass budget. Talk is cheap, I got that, but gimme a break. Talk is cheap but money screams, this is our country, guys. And I fear for it. I think we should all fear for it.

 

Other reviews

 

 

 

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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the fourth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2016. The next book is the German WWII novel All For Nothing – Alles umsonst by Walter Kempowski. Discussion starts on Friday 25 November, 2016. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Lee Martin: The Bright Forever (2005)

the-bright-forever

This has been an odd reading and blogging year so far. I’m only reviewing about one in four or five books I read. Not only because I’m sometimes disappointed in my choices but also because I don’t have enough time to review them. But when I come across a book like Lee Martin’s The Bright Forever and know it will be on my favourites list at the end of the year, then I have to review the book or, at least, write about it.

The Bright Forever was a Pulitzer Finalist but I hadn’t heard of it until I discovered Lee Martin via his blog and a nonfiction flash class he taught online at WordTango.

The novel is set in a fictional small town in Indiana in 1972. It’s a hot summer evening and nine-year-old Katie Mackey, daughter of the richest man in town, takes her bicycle to bring back her library books. She never returns home. Told from the points of view of different narrators, the novel explores a crime and its aftermath, explores themes of loneliness, guilt, shame, and the desperate struggle for happiness.

This isn’t a crime novel, it’s a literary novel about a crime but it’s just as suspenseful as a crime novel. For the longest time we don’t know what happened to Katie, nor who is responsible.

The choice of narrators is not only great and gives the novel depth but it’s also extremely well done. Lee Martin manages to give each of his narrators a very distinct voice. Not an easy thing to do. First we have Katie’s older brother Gilley who feels responsible for the disappearance because he ratted out his sister. He told their parents that she forgot to return her library books. The next narrator is Mr Dee. A lonely, older man who teaches math. He is a bit too fond of Katie. We’re never sure whether his feelings for her a really fatherly or whether he’s a pedophile. This makes him creepy and touching at the same time. Clare is another narrator. She has done the unforgivable. Shortly after her husband’s death, she starts a relationship with a foreigner, Raymond R. Raymond’s voice is the last. He’s the most problematic figure. The most enigmatic and dishonest. Needless to say, that more than one person looks guilty.

Chosing so many narrators allowed Lee Martin to explore many different topics and to depict his characters from many different angles. We see how they perceive themselves, but also what others think about them. In Mr. Dee’s case that’s particularly poignant, We know he has secrets, but we also know something he ignores— some of the villagers know his secrets. This creates a mirror effect that is very arresting.

While I liked the story and the characters, the thing I loved the most was how Lee Martin captured those lazy summer days that seem to never end when you’re a kid or a teenager. It’s also admirable how he shows that even small town people’s lives are complex and full of pain, mystery and beauty.

The Bright Forever is a stunningly beautiful, mellow novel. It is told in lyrical, evocative prose, which suits this bitter-sweet, nostalgic tale so well. I’m not a rereader but I think this is one of a very few books, I’ll pick up again some day.

Here are some quotes to give you an idea:

That dream was still in my head, that crazy dream about Katie and me on Dumbo the elephant and Mr. Dees walking in the clouds. When I opened my mouth, the dream was on my tongue, as was the feeling that I’d had ever since–the sensation that sometimes life was so wonderful it was scary, not to be trusted.

Here’s Clare talking about Raymond

I think it was this: like most of us, he was carrying a misery in his soul. I don’t say it to forgive what he done, [sic] only to say it as true as I can. He was a wrong-minded man, but inside- I swear this is true- he was always that little boy eating that fried-egg sandwich in that dark hallway while the steam pipe dripped water on his head. I don’t ask you to excuse him, only to understand that there’s people who don’t have what others do, and sometimes they get hurtful in their hearts, and they puff themselves up and try all sorts of schemes to level the ground- to get the bricks and joints all plumb, Ray used to say. They take wrong turns, hit dead ends, and sometimes they never make their way back.

And Gilley looking back

I thought to myself then that it didn’t matter where I ended up; I’d always be living that summer in that town, wishing that I had done things differently, tormented by the fact that I hadn’t. I’d never go far enough to be able to escape it. Maybe you’re happy about that. Maybe not. Maybe you’re carrying your own regrets, and you understand how easy it is to let your life get away from you. I wish I could be the hero of this story, but I’m not. I’m just the one to tell it, at least my part in it, the story of Katie Mackey and the people who failed her. It’s an old one, this tale of selfish desires and the lament that follows, as ancient as the story of Adam and Eve turned away forever from paradise.

And one more

When someone you love disappears, it’s like the light goes dim, and you’re in the shadows. You try to do what people tell you: put one foot in front of the other; keep looking up; give yourself over to the seconds and minutes and hours. But always there’s that glimmer of light-that way of living you once knew-sort of faded and smoky like the crescent moon on a winter’s night when the air is full of ice and clouds, but still there, hanging just over your head. You think it’s not far. Your think at any moment you can reach out and grab it.

 

 

 

 

Emma Cline: The Girls (2016)

The Girls

I knew a lot about The Girls and Emma Cline’s publishing deal before the book was even out. It has been sold at an auction for 2,000,000 $ – together with the next, not yet written – novel and a collection of short stories. That must put a lot of pressure on the author. Another sign of a major hype is that the German translation came out at the same time as the US original. Oddly, since it’s been published, I’ve not heard so much about it or read many reviews on blogs. The title might not be doing it any favours as it makes it sound like another “girl thriller”. While it’s about a crime, The Girls is a literary novel, not a crime novel per se.

I’m in two minds about this novel. The first forty pages were terrific. Emma Cline showed major talent. Her prose was stylish and original and the approach to her topic daring, but then came the long, frankly rather boring middle section that made me almost abandon the book. I’m glad I didn’t because the end was good.

The Girls is told as a split narrative. Most parts are set during the summer of ’69 and told from the point of view of fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd; the other parts are told by the now middle-aged Evie, who’s looking back. In 1969 Evie’s a lonely girl who lives with a mother who’s just rediscovered dating and doesn’t have time nor patience. She’s going to send Evie to a boarding school. That would be misery enough but on top of that, Evie’s just fallen out with her best friend and is discovering her sexuality, which she can’t handle at all. Then, one afternoon, she sees the girls—a group of beautiful, dirty teenage girls who appear self-assured, arrogant, and wild. Evie’s fascinated, especially by Suzanne. Evie finds out later that the people in her town are wary of them. There are rumours of drug abuse, delinquency and orgies.

Evie sees them again and is invited to their farm and introduced to Russell, their leader. She’s quickly sucked into the life on the farm and becomes one of them. Being part of that group means following Russell’s every move, waiting to be summoned by him, stealing for him, doing drugs, having sex with much older men. Russell pretends to be enlightened but he’s narcissistic and deranged. What he really wants is to become a famous pop star.

Evie’s too miserable in her life to notice that something’s going very wrong on the farm. Not only are they taking too many drugs, but there’s hardly any food. The houses they live in are decaying. The whole place is dirty and insalubrious.

Early in the novel, we learn that a horrific murder was committed and we know that, for some reason, Evie wasn’t part of the group who committed it. What we only find out at the end is why she wasn’t there and what happened to her afterwards.

It’s not often that a book comes full circle at the end like this one. For a long time, I didn’t like the dual narrative, found it artificial, but it made sense in the end.

Emma Cline does a great job at showing us the world through the eyes of a lonely teenage girl. A girl that’s very much a product of her time. She manages to make us see how girls like Suzanne and Evie were easy prey for a man like Russell (or Manson). But she also shows us that Russell wasn’t the only reason for a girl to stay on the farm. In Evie’s case, it’s not Russell who has a hold on her, but the charismatic Suzanne.

At first I was a bit afraid that given the nature of the crime, the book would be too sensationalist. It is sensationalist, but not because of the crime but because of the way Cline writes about sex. The book is explicit and occasionally shocking. I guess that’s one of the reasons why it’s not been marketed as a YA novel.

I didn’t find this novel entirely convincig and certainly don’t understand the huge advance payment she received. While there are great parts in the book, there are many parts that are dragging and the story was far from original. It certainly wasn’t a must read.

If you’d like to get to know her writing – here’s her only other publication, her short story Marion. It was published by the Paris Review and received the Paris Review Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2014.

James Salter: The Hunters (1956) Literature and War Readalong May 2016

The Hunters

The Hunters was James Salter’s first novel. It is based on his own experience as a fighter pilot during the war in Korea.

The Hunters tells the story of Cleve Connell, an excellent, seasoned pilot who is sent to Korea. Cleve is anxious to get there. He wants to prove himself and become an ace, a fighter pilot who has shot down five enemy planes – MIGs. He knows he’s running against time because he isn’t a young pilot anymore.

One thing he was sure of: this was the end of him. He had known it before he came. He was thirty-one, not too old certainly; but it would not be long. His eyes weren’t good enough anymore. With a athlete, the legs failed first. With a fighter pilot, it was the eyes. The hand was still steady and judgement good long after  man lost the ability to pick out aircraft at the extreme ranges. Other things could help to make up for it, and other eyes could help him look, but in the end it was too much of a handicap. He had reached the point, too, where a sense of lost time weighed on him. There was a constant counting of tomorrows he had once been so prodigal with. And he found himself thinking too much of unfortunate things. He was frequently conscious of not wanting to die. That was not the same as wanting to live. It was a black disease, a fixation that could ultimately corrode the soul.

Cleve and every other pilot lives for nothing else but the adrenaline rush of a mission that may bring the possibility to shoot down an MIG and to survive another dangerous mission. The pilots are all competitive but that doesn’t mean they would endanger each other.

They had shot down at least five MIGs apiece. Bengert had seven, but five was the number that separated men from greatness. Cleve had come to see, as had everyone, ho rigid was that casting. There were no other values. It was like money: it did not matter how it had been acquired, but only that it had. That was the final judgement. MIGs were everything. If you had MIGs you were standard of excellence. The sun shone upon you.

Then, one day, Pell arrives. Pell is by far the most competitive pilot Cleve has ever met. And the most reckless. He’s assigned to Cleve’s flight, a small group of pilots of which Cleve’s the leader. Cleve hates him immediately. Not only because he’s so competitive but because he senses he would do anything for a kill and that he’s dishonest. Pell hates Cleve just as much. He’s jealous of his reputation and undermines his authority from the start.

At first, Cleve’s very sure of himself because he’s known to be one of the best pilots but after he returns from many missions, without one single kill, he loses confidence. On top of that, Pell shoots down one enemy plane after the other and, so, killing turns into an obsession for Cleve.

Cleve’s not the only pilot who seems to have forgotten, that ultimately they are in a war. The following quote might explain why this is the case.

They talked for a while longer, mostly about the enemy, what surprisingly good ships they flew and what a lousy war it was. The major repeated that despairingly several times.

“What do you mean, lousy?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Abbott said distractedly, “it’s just no good. I mean what are we fighting for, anyway? There’s nothing for us to win. It’s no good, Cleve, You’ll see.”

The Korean war is often referred to as the “forgotten war” and this sense of not really knowing what they were fighting for, seems to have been almost universal. Many of the pilots who fought in the Korean war, fought during WWII. While they had the sense of having done good in Europe and the Pacific, they often didn’t really understand why they fought in Korea. However, the book doesn’t explore the political or historical dimensions of the war. It only focuses on the drama of the pilots.

The Hunters is an excellent novel and the reader senses that from the beginning. The writing is tight and precise. Salter uses metaphor and foreshadowing with great results. He’s also very good at capturing emotions and moods like in this quote:

He was tired. Somehow, he had the feeling of Christmas away from home, stranded in a cheap hotel, while the snow fell silently through the night, making the streets wet and the railroad tracks gleam.

The book offers a fascinating character study, or rather the study of two characters. And it’s suspenseful. We wonder constantly whether Cleve will make it, become an ace and leave Pell behind or whether Pell will leave him behind for good. And then there’s the almost mythical figure of “Casey Jones”, a Korean Fighter pilot who is so reckless and successful that everybody speaks about him and thinks he’s invincible. Shooting down a pilot like that, would make up for everything else.

I can’t say more as it would spoil this excellent novel. It’s amazingly well written and surprisingly suspenseful. And, as if that was not enough, the end is unexpected and satisfying.

The book comes with a foreword, for which I was glad as it’s key to understand in what formations the pilots flew and to know what the characteristics of the respective planes were. There’s a great scene towards the end, in which Cleve and another pilot fight with almost empty tanks. The logic of this and other fights would have been difficult to understand without the introduction.

Other reviews

 

 

 

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The Hunters is the third book in the Literature and War Readalong 2016. The next book is the US novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. Discussion starts on Friday 30 September, 2016. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including the book blurbs can be found here.