07.20.11

3 Must-Read Novels

Great new novels on hippie California, a bookish adventure, and the gritty Midwest.

Introducing…Grindhouse Literary

The Devil All the Time
‘The Devil All the Time’ By Donald Ray Pollock. 272 pages. Doubleday. $26.95. ()

Donald Ray Pollock’s engaging and proudly violent first novel, The Devil All the Time, suggests a new category of fiction—grindhouse literary. Subtle characterization: check. Well-crafted sentences: check. Enthusiastic amounts of murder and mayhem: check, check. This lurid panorama—part coming-of-age story, part crime rampage, set in midcentury Ohio and West Virginia—is easy to imagine filmed in cheap Technicolor with a zinging soundtrack and lots of titillating closeups. It’s also a satisfying diversion for summer, a rural gothic potboiler with dark themes of sin and redemption.

Pollock opens in 1957 in a rural Ohio pasture overlooking a “holler” called Knockemstiff. This seems to be a real place—Pollock’s childhood home and the title and setting of his 2008 collection—but the novel will not make you want to pay a visit. Bucolic local scenes include young boys using a deer carcass as a punching bag, an infant crawling around a front yard unattended, and a fearsome amount of nothing-better-to-do drinking. One of the novel’s many characters, Williard Russell sums up the population to his son Arvin, “They’s a lot of no-good sonofabitches out there.”

No one’s all that good in Pollock’s novel. His is a world of deeply flawed men and out and out criminals. (His women are less memorable, most of them victims and hard-used sex objects.) Arvin serves as the novel’s hero of sorts, a kid who endures the horrific death of his mother and Williard’s mental breakdown (the novel’s most chilling sequence). As he grows up, he has to come to terms with his own instinct for violence and vengeance.

Arvin’s maturation gives the novel its shape, but most memorable are a couple of gonzo subplots that Pollock braids together along the way. One concerns a brain-addled preacher and his wheelchair-bound, guitar-playing sidekick. The former murders his wife with a screwdriver, thinking prayer will bring her back; the latter, who talks him into the act, perishes in one of the more grim scenes you’re likely to read this summer. The other storyline involves Sandy and Carl, a couple of psychopaths on a tear through the Midwest in a black Ford station wagon. They pick up hitchhikers, Sandy seduces them, Carl gets out his Leica M3, his torture tools, and a macabre photo session ensues.

Pollock’s language has piquancy—a fat man’s belly “was starting to hang over his belt like a peck sack of dead bullfrogs”—and he has an ear for small-town talk. (He earned it, having worked in a paper mill for more than 30 years before he started publishing fiction.) The novel is so strenuously dark that at times it lacks emotional weight, turning pulpy instead, but you never stop turning the pages. And grindhouse fans—you know who you are—won’t mind Pollock’s instinct for the rough stuff at all.

Taylor Antrim, Daily Beast Fiction Critic

On the Road

The Borrowers
‘The Borrower’ By Rebecca Makkai. 336 pages. Viking. $25.95. ()

Which of the old adages about home is correct? Can you not go home again? Or can you never escape? The question of home and family is at the center of Rebecca Makkai’s new first novel, The Borrower. This comical and touching book strikes a nice balance between literary artistry and gripping storytelling, and offers a contemporary take on the classic “journey of discovery.”

Lucy Hull is a 26-year-old children’s librarian who is fast approaching the time limit on her post-graduate malaise. Her mild manners diverge from the revolutionary spirit of her Russian forebears, who, she is often told by her father, operated an illegal underground chocolate operation on the other side of the Iron Curtain, before literally jumping ship to America, losing the ‘-kinov’ off the end of their surname in the process. Her most devoted borrower is 10-year-old Ian Drake, voracious reader of any book Lucy will put in his hands, even if it violates the strict prohibitions of his evangelical mother (that include such anathema as “Magic,” “The Theory of Evolution,” and “Halloween”). Everyone that cares to have an opinion on such things has decided, more than a little unfairly, that Ian is gay, based on his bookishness, precocity, and sports ineptitude; so forgone is this conclusion that his parents enroll him in an anti-gay Bible camp on the weekends with the nefarious Pastor Bob. When Lucy finds a truant Ian camped out in the young-adult section one morning, they end up kidnapping each other and hitting the road on an odyssey that will take them from Missouri to Vermont.

This is not quite a fairy tale; although Ian’s mother is certainly unpleasant and deranged, we’re never shown enough of her to conclude that she is so orc-ish as to deserve the kidnapping of her only son. Makkai plays deftly and maturely with this nuance, and Lucy is only righteous in fits and starts, alternating with guilt and a rising sense of panic over what she’s done. She realizes that she won’t be able to “save” Ian, but she hopes to buy enough time for a single meaningful conversation with him, one that will help fortify his spirit for the next 10 terrible years that he’ll still be under his parents roof, especially since she assumes that she won’t be able to offer much guidance after she is thrown behind bars for her various felonies.

Makkai’s fairly strict first-person leaves little room for flowery prose, but in its place we gain an affective familiarity with the acerbic and hilarious mind of Lucy Hull. Regarding Mrs. Drake early in the story, Lucy thinks “She… was now putting on the extremely businesslike air of those perfectionist women who’d only worked in the professional world for two or three years before stopping to have children and were now terrified of not being taken seriously.” Makkai also pays playful homage to children’s literature with sections like “Choose Your Own Fiasco” and “If You Give a Librarian a Closet.”

As the duo get farther and farther from home, and Lucy begins to learn the truth about the Hulkinov family narrative, we see that the real goal for both travelers isn’t physical freedom but rather freedom from the nature/nurture question. Can Lucy change Ian’s life just by putting some distance between him and his parents? Is she herself doomed to a life of Russian grief and regret based purely on her genetics, or can she save herself with this one huge revolutionary act? Right up to the book’s satisfying and well-plotted ending, Makkai shows us that even though the stories we are told as children are often found to betray us as mere fantasy, there might still be some wisdom in one of their most common and simple morals: Be true to yourself.

—Nicholas Mancusi, Contributor

A Parade of Cures: The Devastating Beauty of Lola, California 

Lola California
‘Lola, California’ By Edie Meidav. 448 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $28. ()

Edie Meidav’s Lola, California is titled after the name two girls, Lana and Rose, give themselves. They stole their name from the identity-bending hit by The Kinks (Lana is Lola One, Rose Lola Two). The Lolas shared a thick, impenetrable friendship, and Meidav captures exactly the sweetness of girlhood co-dependency (think Heavenly Creatures, but healthier).  

This gorgeous, audacious novel goes far beyond a story of two girls, though. Lana and Rose grew up in Berkeley, California in the 1980s, and the book is as much about that town and the millennial Northern California zeitgeist as any character. Meidav is harrowingly precise in her descriptions of the place, where the eucalyptus “smelled like both cat pee and colonialism” and the men “focused on outwitting actuarial odds by their faithfulness to California protocols: ease, cheekbones, the low glycemic index of their diet, fire trail hikes, cardiovascular gestures, wealth, Tuscan vegetables, phytonutrients, heart-benefiting, and cancer-fighting volunteerism, the kind who into their fifties remain manboys, pursuing life-risking activities without ever wiping off that constant smile. If misfortune happens to such men, a hemorrhaging bank account or loss of an actual limb, such men call it process or a learning experience, ready to die before admitting failure, failure bad as a hairweave, a condition practically requiring surrender of the state’s driving license.”   

Yes, that sentence is long. Meidav’s prose is writerly: exact yet maximalist, prodigiously lyrical. Together with the novel’s jump-cut structure and length, Meidav asks her readers to slow down. The opposite of a page turner in the best way, the novel prompts us to linger, re-read, flip back, and figure the damned thing out. 

But don’t worry: Lola, California is no modernist convolution. Meidav offers more than pretty sentences. This book has plot in spades. 

Lana’s father is Victor Mahler, a charismatic Berkeley professor who is so influential he has a gaggle of followers, called “shaggies” within the Mahler family. Mahler’s work is a fuzzy sort of neuro-psychology that hippie types dig, and read on life-changing solo treks into the wilderness. Mahler commits a horrible crime (the details are doled out slowly, so I’ll let you find out for yourself). When the novel opens, he is on death row with ten days to go. 

The Lolas, bonded in girlhood, split up when they go to in college. After a breakdown and then her father’s crime, Lana changes her name to Wagner (get it?) and creates serial new lives for herself as she drifts up and down California. Rose, the more sensible one, an orphan who grew up idolizing the Mahlers—particularly the enchanting Vic—spends most of her adulthood trying to find Lana and writing letters to Vic in jail. 

During Mahler’s last days, Rose is 40, a lawyer, single and hoping for a child. Lana is the mother of twin boys, her ex a suicide and her new partner, Dirk, is a second-rank Mahler guru type who has a gig dispensing wisdom at Hope Springs, a clothing-optional, vegan, communal retreat near where Mahler is incarcerated. There, Lana and Rose meet for the first time in decades.  

Throughout the 20 years the novel covers, Meidav asks of her characters: What good is choice? It makes everyone free and it makes them sick. There are too many options out there, too many ways to rationalize one’s actions, and none better at doing just that, for others and himself, than the self-made prophet, Vic Mahler.  Dirk thinks about “the riddle of identity as the millennium approached: to each individual an orthodox routine as predictable as it was self-invented. You could job your parcourse or sleep in an SRO, but everyone hungered for a buffet of choice, namely the Emersonian invention of a religion that made sense of the individual, as Mahler had said.”  

What bruised the characters? Mahler, the European from unknown Liechtenstein who made himself over in America, Rose, the orphan and Lana’s mother, the child of a Native American and Japanese who was raised by relatives, all lack family bonds. They suffer from the burdensome freedom of self-invention, as sweet for Lana when it is a Lola bubble as it is bitter, later, when she illegally annexes another identity. 

At the days tick down towards Mahler’s execution, Vic terminally ill, and everyone faces more choice: stay or go? Their decisions do not wrap up this beautiful novel neatly, and several strands get lost in the thicket of Meidav’s ambition. Small matter. Lola, California is a startling novel, as prodigiously smart as it is technically proficient. Her characters may be narcissistic zeligs, but Meidav is an American original. 

—Anne Trubek, author of A Skeptic’s Guide To Writers’ Houses