Great Weekend Reads: 4 New Novels, November 13, 2011

This week: the great William Kennedy returns with a Cuban adventure, an inventive look at a man’s discovery of his father, a dystopian take on Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”, and coming of age with no where to go.

Dancing to Havana

Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes. By William Kennedy. 326 pages. Viking. $26.95.

This great crescendo of a novel is worth the ten-year wait. Kennedy, now eighty-three, has woven all his visions, all his orphans and widows, all his demons, all his politics, lust and bloodlust, fears and hopes for America and mankind, hero worship, father figures, disappointments and action figures into it. It’s a novel you might want to read under the covers with a flashlight. Go ahead. If the person you’re sleeping with doesn’t like it, you shouldn’t be sleeping with ‘em.

This writer has never forgotten his roots, and they just keep growing deeper. In “Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes” they tunnel through of our collective subconscious, from Albany to Havana; Fidel to Bobby Kennedy; Hemingway to Kennedy. Kennedy grew up in Albany and lives there still. His “Albany cycle,” seven novels including “Ironweed,” for which he won the 1984 Pulitzer, are set there. Chango’s Beads begins in Albany, in 1936, with an eight-year-old boy who wakes to the sound of Bing Crosby singing in his father’s living room: “Just because my hair is curly…Just because I always wear a smile….”

The boy is Daniel Quinn, and we have seen him before—back in Quinn’s Book, the black sheep of the Albany cycle. Set in the 19th, not the 20th century like the others, Quinn’s Book is narrated by Daniel Quinn, orphaned by cholera, a lightening rod (like our current hero) for historic people and events, susceptible to visions, a fool for love. The narrator of Quinn’s Book was the great-grandfather of Danny Quinn, grandson of Frances Phelan, the backbone of Ironweed. It’s a family tree, but the branches break and grafting happens; DNA is strengthened here, watered down there, resulting, if only in the author’s imagination, in Danny Quinn, journalist, Hemingway fan, in his own way a warrior king.

Quinn has come to Havana in 1957, he explains for several reasons. “I thought Miami would be exotic, but it’s pointless. Havana has a point. In Albany they merely steal elections. Here they put a pistol in the president’s ear while they show him the door.” He’s also in Cuba because his grandfather wrote a book about the revolutionary hero Cespedes. “I read that book in high school and dreamed of coming to a place like Cuba and writing about battles and heroes and villains.”

In Havana’s great bar, El Floridita, Quinn meets Hemingway. He also meets Renata, twenty-three year old beauty, bourgeois gun-runner; a woman who believes in having many lovers. When one of them is killed in an attempted coup Renata allows Quinn, who is getting odd jobs as a stringer, to protect her. Before he knows it, he’s running guns. He’s on his way to interview Fidel in the jungle. He’s marrying Renata. Then Renata disappears.

The power of Kennedy’s prose lies in his contrapuntal rhythm—dizzying dialogue followed by understatement so lean it feels like sarcasm, followed by speed, exaggeration, magic, Santeria. He writes a wild death-dance to which every mythical figure is invited—they parade across the pages. The fast and slow creates a tension, points of heat in the novel (love, sorrow, torture) and valleys full of cold air (politics, growing old in Albany, the impossible elusiveness of the “normal” American life).

He plays fast and loose with tenses, slipping into the present, stopping the reader short in front of a brick wall. We feel we are being chased, by history, by Cuban military, by Chango, the warrior king and Obba, the woman he rejected. Kennedy knows that we in America have chased strange dreams, not our own. We have been diverted and everything holy and powerful lies beneath us waiting to submerge and subvert our misinformed efforts toward meaning. Renata brings Quinn to see her babalawo, the ninety-year-old man who reads the language of the soul and he sees Quinn surrounded, burdened by the dead.

“What makes a man a revolutionary?” Quinn asks Fidel. Fidel “puffed his cigar and exhaled his answer. ‘The passionate embrace of the vocation,’ he said. ‘The obsession with changing the order of existence. Reading Marti, my early hero, the poet who organized a war. Listening to the voices from the French and American revolutions. The insights of Milton, Calvin, Luther, Thomas Paine, Montesquieu.” 

It is a hopeful sign that William Kennedy still believes in the power of literature. Once a journalist at the Albany Times Union, he is also a believer in journalism, especially as a training ground for fiction writers like Stephen Crane, John O’Hara, Ernest Hemingway and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to name a few. He believes in failure, so often lacking in our mythology: “Failure can also be a creative act, Quinn decided. One must look straight ahead as one makes the forced march backward into used history. The death of ambition, gentlemen, is a great impetus for grasping this, and soon you will thrill to how urgently you are moving, how truly exciting this quest for failure can be. What you do not know at this point is that your quest for failure may also fail.”

Novelist of Albany, voice of the American poor, voice of the reckless and regretful, a writer who has lived through those hopeless decades and come out dancing to the human drumbeat, not happy, not even certain, but with his ear to the ground. What does he hear? “The glass-jawed, the fallen away, the ignorant, the passive, the skeptics, the cocksure-never-sure…the color-coded, the suicidal rebels and the enraged have-nots, the martyrs and the clerics brainwashed by the mystery, the saints like King who always lose so grandly, the santeros who think they can ride out trouble on the backs of Chango and Oshun….”

—Susan Salter Reynolds

All Aboard

Luminous Airplanes. By Paul La Farge. 256 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $25.

“Nearly ten years in the making” declares the jacket copy that robes Paul La Farge’s third book, Luminous Airplanes. Non-writers, or those not blessed with the productive capabilities of a William T. Vollmann, may be pardoned for thinking that a rare period of gestation for a 244-page novel, which can be dashed through in a couple of sittings. In contrast to such chest-thumping publicity speak, a skeptical reader might wonder if the text, itself, doesn’t betray a bit of authorial jitters early on; for soon after the novel’s unnamed narrator settles into what was his recently deceased grandfather’s house in upstate New York, he ditches the idea of reading the book that he brought with him from San Francisco. He justifies his aversion in a telling way, “Reading a novel, especially a contemporary novel, with its small stock of characters and situations, felt like being stuffed into a sleeping bag head first: it was warm and dark and there wasn’t a lot of room to move around.”

On the tarmac, the plot of Luminous Airplanes fits snugly into this schema; the majority of its events revolve around domestic and local affairs. The narrator of the story—its author as it were—is a literary-minded fellow in his early thirties. On his maternal side, he is descended from an old family whose ancestral seat is located in the fictional small town of Thebes, NY. The beginning of the novel finds him recently returned to San Francisco after having attended a festival in Nevada, “where people danced around bonfires, a kind of dress rehearsal for the end of the world.” From a relative, he learns that while he was away, he inadvertently missed his grandfather, Oliver Rowland’s funeral. Taking the loss in stride, he e-mails his supervisor at his computer programming job to notify him that he’ll be taking a leave of absence.

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Packing up his car, which once belonged to Norman Mailer, he heads out east to sort through the estate’s holdings, so that the house might be put up for sale. (For you Pynchon heads out there who looked at that last sentence and immediately thought of Oedipa Mass—one of literature’s great estate executors—yes, there is at least one allusion to The Crying of Lot 49, on page 36, which calls to mind the famous line, “Shall I project a world.”) Upon his return, he runs into his uncle, Charles, and his childhood acquaintances, Yesim and Kerem. The latter are the offspring of Joe Regenzeit—an immigrant from Turkey who established a sky resort in Thebes much to Oliver’s consternation.

From snooping about the house, as well as talking to his uncle Charles—a crotchety, semi-precious metal in the rough kind of guy—the narrator learns more about Richard Ente, Esq.—the father he never knew. In the late sixties, Oliver retained Ente to sue Joe Regenzeit on account of his weather modification program, which involved seeding overhead clouds with silver iodide so as to increase the likelihood of snowfall. After losing the case and impregnating Oliver’s then sixteen-year-old daughter, Marie Celeste, Ente—another fallen psychedelic cosmonaut—skipped town. As the narrator becomes more entwined In the lives of those around him, he wrestles with the imprint of his father’s destiny in a way that’s loosely consonant with symbolic connotation raised by the town’s name; Thebes, of course, calls to mind the setting in which Sophocles situated his rendition of the Oedipus myth.

Returning to the theoretical point about the constrictive atmosphere of contemporary novels, La Farge uses the resources of the internet to give readers a sense of self-direction. Visitors to, can click on additional information pertaining to the narrator’s family, his life after the novel, as well as other subjects raised in the book—like Norman Mailer’s car. Adding to this sense of narrative expansiveness, the sentences in Luminous Airplanes create a network of interlocking details, like the programming code on which the narrator spends his time. For example, what seems like an off-hand description such as “They talked about the opening they’d gone to in SoHo… the writer who’d written about the show but didn’t know what the word lacuna meant,” is refracted upon almost a hundred-and-forty pages later when the narrator describing the serendipitous events that led his aborted dissertation on a nineteenth-century millennial cult, says, “Enthusiastically,  I spent weeks assembling a delicious absence, a palpably hollow space in the tangle of recorded knowledge, which my dissertation would fill.”

By adhering to the old adage of using the micro to illuminate the macro, Luminous Airplanes hurtles through subjects such as gentrification, the internet bubble of the late 90s, the difficulties of staging an effective protest movement, and the psychic upheaval occasioned by September 11. Although none of these issues are burrowed into, they scroll by in manner that is commodious and vivid. 

—Christopher Byrd

Awash in Red

When She Woke. By Hilary Jordan. 352 pages. Algonquin Books. $24.95.

Hillary Jordan’s new novel, When She Woke, opens fiercely. Hannah Payne, a Texan who has been convicted of murder, awakes to find herself the lone red splotch in a sterile white cell. “For the twenty-six years she’d been alive, her hands had been a honey-toned pink, deepening to golden brown in the summertime. Now they were the color of newly shed blood.”

But 26-year-old Hannah isn’t bloody. She’s been melachromed, or “chromed,” a form of punishment the United States has adopted for all but the nastiest of criminals “after the Second Great Depression, to relieve the federal and state governments of the prohibitive cost” of incarceration. And many would refuse to call Hannah a murderer. She fell madly in love with Aidan Dale, the married former pastor of the “Plano Church of the Ignited Word” and current secretary of faith to the president, and soon found herself pregnant. In an attempt to spare her conservative family from the shame of a child born out of wedlock, and to save Aidan from certain personal and professional ruin, she had an abortion. She got caught after the fact, refused to give the state Aidan’s name at her trial, and was sentenced to chroming for 16 years.  

If you’ve been around a high school English class recently, this might be ringing a few bells.

When She Woke is a reworking of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter set in a dystopian America at that familiar time when all dystopian novels are set, the “not-too-distant future.” It’s ambitious and provocative, and it aspires to address ills of society—misogyny, chief among them—as artfully as did Jordan’s first novel, Mudbound. That novel won the 2006 Bellwether Prize for Fiction, which is awarded every two years to a debut novel that addresses “categorical human transgressions in a way that compels readers to examine their own prejudices.” But this novel never quite lives up to its promise.

When She Woke’s greatest asset is Hannah. We know she’s courageous from the start, but chromes, though allowed to move around with relative freedom in society, literally wear their crime on their sleeves, having received a state-sponsored injection that changes the color of their skin. With nowhere to hide, the chroming shoves Hannah from the deeply provincial society in which she was raised into the larger world, and there’s something exhilarating about watching her shuffle off those inherited values. At first, her aim is to merely survive. But by the end Hannah grows to embrace humanity all its messy glory. Readers will be pulling for her all the way.

But the America Jordan envisions here is tough to locate, and this prevents readers from ever fully entering into it. For example, the values of Hannah’s community emerge clearly, but it’s less clear where those values land on the broader continuum of American values. Here, Hannah’s best friend and fellow chrome Kayla talks about books, and Hannah feels ignorant. “If she hadn’t had to sneak books into the house and read them in hasty, furtive snatches, if she’d gone to a normal high school and then on to college as Kayla had, she too would have been able to assert that Miss Welty could write circles around Faulkner and have an opinion as to whether Streetcar or The Glass Menagerie was Williams’s masterpiece.” The scene loses its charge because Jordan never establishes what a “normal” high school would look like. Also, the country is technologically advanced. Cars drive themselves, videos project as holograms, computers run exclusively by voice command. But it’s hard to understand how an America so focused on eternal matters—remember, the president’s cabinet now includes a secretary of faith—could also be so highly invested in temporal things.  

Jordan treats religion with a heavy hand in the book. Rather than raising important questions, she issues proclamations through her characters that will prevent many readers from examining their own ideas on the matter.  Here’s Simone, one of Hannah’s allies, describing the nature of God. “If God is the Creator, if God englobes every single thing in the universe, then God is everything, and everything is God.  God is the earth and the sky, and the tree planted in the earth under the sky, and the bird in the tree, and the worm in the beak of the bird, and the dirt in the stomach of the worm.  God is He and She, straight and gay, black and white and red - yes, even that.”

Jordan has proven she’s a writer talented enough to have shown us something new as she led us down the well-trod paths in When She Woke. It’s disappointing that she hasn’t.  Still, if you’re already a member of her choir, you might get a charge out of her preaching.  

—John Wilwol. His work has also appeared at The Washington Post, The New Yorker’s Book Bench, and The Millions.

How to Come of Age

If Jack’s in Love. By Stephen Wetta. 368 pages. Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam. $25.95.

In coming-of-age novels, an important law—let’s call it the Law of Adolescence—usually holds true: In return for experiencing a physical or emotional trial, the young protagonist is allowed to grow up, to leave his childhood identity behind.

The setup of Stephen Wetta’s debut novel If Jack’s In Love could be no different: Jack Witcher is a misunderstood, 12-year-old boy who struggles against his family and small Virginia town to win the affection of his ladylove, the willful Myra Joyner. As with all early romances, it doesn’t really matter whether Jack gets the girl, only that the journey permits him to become a new person.

But the Law of Adolescence does not govern this book. In most coming-of-age novels, the protagonist wants to break away from a world that is holding him down. Here, in late 1960’s El Dorado Hills, Jack is trying to hold onto a world intent on breaking him. He is a Witcher, the very word synonymous with white trash. And though he is intelligent and kind and good, he does not question his place in life. He subscribes to these class distinctions “in the depths of [his] being.”

After his house is vandalized with the word TRASH, Jack and his brother try to paint over the slur, but the word “still whispered through the thin coat of white.” Trash also whispers in Jack’s ear wherever he goes. He is scorned and nearly friendless. His relationship with Myra is doomed, a fact cemented when his older brother Stan is accused of murdering Myra’s older brother, Gaylord. 

Wetta’s description of the ill-fated romance is sometimes terrific. Jack says of kissing Myra, “I spun her around and kissed her madly. I put my tongue in. I was like a man in the desert sucking water out of a cactus.” But just as often, the relationship comes across in platitudes: “That kiss…changed everything.” Myra’s feelings for Jack are also unclear. Does she genuinely care about him or is she play-acting? She seems unworthy of Jack’s affection, which could make Jack’s obsession with her appear tragic, but instead makes the love story less compelling.

The real emotion—the book’s raw and complicated heart—is actually hidden inside the Witcher home. Jack’s father is an emotionally stunted, unemployed, soap opera-watching lout. His brother Stan is a sociopathic brute. More than anyone else in the town, these men demand Jack’s complete fealty to the family name—to their caste. “My brother’s bullying and vandalizing had made me who I was,” Jack says toward the book’s climax. “Better loyalty to my brother than forget I’m a Witcher.”

Jack hates the family he comes from, but he knows that rejecting them is dangerous. His fear of his father and brother, unlike his love for Myra, is consistently palpable. At one point, he is so afraid of his brother’s retribution that he begs his mother to spend the night in his room. Jack may be paranoid, but we sympathize with him. We, too, are on edge, waiting for Jack’s father and brother to do something destructive and irreparable. 

It is painful to watch Jack scramble for survival in this seemingly lawless world. He is vulnerable and victimized by an identity he should be able to disavow but cannot. Even so, Wetta allows us to see Jack’s potential—the person he could and should become, if only he’d embrace it.

Whether he does is what keeps us gripped until the end.

—Jennifer Miller. Her debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly, will be published by Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt in May. Follow her on twitter @propjen.