This Week’s Hot Reads, July 15, 2013
From a novel of Brooklyn neuroses to what happens when evangelicals take over an Alaskan national park.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.By Adelle Waldman
A portrait of Brooklyn’s overeducated set as Woody Allen might have imagined it.
For all the writers currently stealing around Brooklyn, until now no novel has depicted that subset in all its waffling, overeducated glory. Nate Piven is an early 30-something writer recently transitioned from aspiring to established as the publication date of his first book approaches. Still, he spends most of his time being obsessed with women without seeming to like them all that much, moving from one withering crush to another with an unsettling talent for retroactive character assassination. “Don’t be an unreliable narrator,” his best female friend tells him as he explains what went wrong with his most recent liaison. Of course, Nate is a completely unreliable narrator, and part of the joy of the book is that Waldman helps us see right through him. In Nate’s mind, women are “either deep or reasonable, but rarely both,” as opposed to himself, his logic obviously goes. At the same time, the reader can’t help but nod in agreement with some of the brainy, longwinded analyses of life and love that his forays into Brooklyn parties and bars produce. Nate’s Brooklyn is one that Woody Allen might have imagined, where human beings with less lofty career ambitions and levels of neurosis scarcely exist, and something of note always happens at parties.
The Hare By Cesar Aira
An elusive flying hare lures an English naturalist to the 19th-century Argentine pampas.
In this new translation of Argentine writer Cesar Aira’s 1991 novel, the lure of a flying hare that may or may not exist brings an English naturalist named Tom Clarke out onto the 19th century Argentine pampas. He sets up camp where he finds himself welcome, and moves on when the opportunity presents itself. Not-at-all historically accurate tribes create the surreal mien of the vast open spaces, and envelope Clarke in their clashes and rivalries. Aira often provides the reader with only partial information, and even clear-cut facts quickly reveal themselves to be their opposites—one twin dies, but it may have been the other one; a jagged line suddenly becomes a perfectly straight one. “You are such a rationalist,” a travel companion tells Clarke, “but you don’t realize that reason itself can prove you wrong.” Such is the law of the land, and Aira’s refusal to make any occurrence definitive gives the world depicted in the novel an element of the absurd. The result can be as frustrating as it is liberating. Whether or not Clarke ultimately catches sight of the hare is beside the point. Even if he found it, we’d soon discover that, maybe, after all, he didn’t. Or that it wasn’t a hare at all.
The novels of an unjustly ignored screenwriter and poet, whose characters dream of what they can’t have.
Alfred Hayes is unjustly ignored. His talents extended far beyond what he was most known for, the poem “Joe Hill” (“I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night / alive as you and me”) popularized as a folk ballad warbled by Joan Baez. In addition to poetry, Hayes wrote journalism for now-defunct New York news rags; film scripts with Italian neo-realist greats like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves bears some of Hayes’s mark, although he is uncredited); teleplays for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Twilight Zone, and Mannix; and novels, two of which NYRB Classics is publishing this month. These novels are lean, romantic, and remarkably outside their time. They’re about love, money, and the illusions inherent in the pursuit of both. One should read them chronologically to get the full effect of the dialogue between them. In Love comes first; it’s a short tragedy about a doomed affair between an emotionally distant writer and a young divorcee whose duty to her child forces her to choose someone else with more security. My Face for the World to See is no less tragic. It’s a Hollywood nightmare: a pretty girl attempts suicide over the banality of her artistic failures and is rescued by a depressive man who feels no desire for anything, least of all his wife. In both novels, the girl is slender and dark, with no talent for conversation and yet charisma to spare. She hypnotizes and provokes violence in the male narrators, but she’s rarely understood completely. In both, money is held up as intoxicating and sinister. Wealth does not guarantee security, but the characters feel its pull anyway. In both, devotion and yearning are fragile, easily combustible, and hard to replace. Hayes writes with an impressive sense of his characters’ psychological drama. His heroes and heroines fall, but they do so because they can’t help hoping. They can’t help dreaming of things they’ll never have.
The Coat RouteBy Meg Lukens Noonan
A journalist stumbles upon a custom wool coat and goes into an exploration of the fashion business.
Several years ago, the journalist Meg Lukens Noonan stumbled upon a website devoted to an unusual accomplishment: a custom vicuna wool coat, made by a bespoke tailor from Australia, for a man from Vancouver. The site presented almost every detail of the coat’s creation, from the lining to the buttons, but excluded its price: $50,000. Such fastidiousness (and such an obscene price tag) piqued Noonan’s interest. She looked at her own closets, stuffed with baggy H&M sweaters and Forever 21 jeans, and she wondered what had happened to craftsmanship. Where did it fit in people’s lives? The Coat Route: Luxury & Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat lays out the answer, in plainspoken prose and with an infectious tone of curiosity. Noonan accounts for everything to do with the coat, from the wool production to its current home in a Canada high-rise. Her exploration of the business of fashion is fascinating and thorough, and her examination of bespoke goods redefines the words luxury and obsession, showing what exactly one is buying when one is purchasing clothes. Is it the thrill of spending? Is it presentation? Is it experience or care? Is it real attention? In her research she saw that the competition between rarity and the demand for quick satisfaction represented a larger pattern of contradictions. Appreciation for custom fit and an increased interest in men’s tailoring has dovetailed with technology that makes artisans essentially obsolete; those J. Crew custom leather shoes you’re wearing aren’t as custom as you think they are. Dwindling numbers of tradesmen around the world mean that real craft is hard to find. In an economy dominated by fast fashion, slow style exists too, but it’s hidden. As Noonan shows, you really have to look for it.
Pilgrim’s WildernessBy Tom Kizzia
A story of die-hard evangelicals who occupied a national park on the Alaska frontier.
“To Love Him You Must Obey Him.” The words have been scrawled into the concrete footing of a makeshift dwelling in the mountains of New Mexico. It is home to Papa Pilgrim, a literal-minded, self-fashioned prophet; his wife, Country Rose; and their 15 dutiful children. But they don’t stay long. Pilgrim leads his family west, towards a promised Jerusalem—in the Alaskan outback. Upon arriving in the tiny town of McCarthy, the family drive their snowmachines onto federal land, occupies an abandoned mining structure, and christens it “Hillbilly Heaven.” A darkly American drama ensues. Speaking in his “strange King James diction and plaintive Texas drawl,” Pilgrim captivates a post-frontier community, and sparks a standoff with the National Park Service, as well as child welfare advocates, who fear another Waco siege. To park-loving non-believers, longtime Alaskan journalist Tom Kizzia’s Pilgrim’s Wilderness may seem predictably voyeuristic, like rubbernecking at a pileup of religious and political extremists. One never roots, or feels, for Pilgrim. From the start, we see him as he is: a despot and a swindler, a Dallas blue-blood with FBI ties, fleeing a violent past. However, emotional payoff arrives in the final chapters during rousing courtroom scenes. With even reporting and spare, lovely prose, Kizzia exposes the tyrannies of faith, and a family’s desperate unraveling. It will make your skin crawl.