The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

executionerssongIt’s true. There really is nothing like it.

Eleven hundred pages of narrative journalism. Gary Gilmore is released from prison, tries to re-integrate while being a nuisance to friends and families, falls in love with Nicole Barrett, murders two innocent people for no reason, is put on trial and convicted, given the death penalty, refuses to appeal, is executed. In detail both scintillating and banal.

Unlike In Cold Blood, this is not a book trying to understand why Gilmore did the things he did. He spent half his life in prison and was trouble since he was a child. Truth be told, he was a huge asshole. Selfish and racist and manipulative, often under the guise of eloquent and grandiose language. Indeed, his spiel about why he never appealed his death sentence — because he was responsibly accepting his punishment as determined by the people — was a complete farce. He just didn’t want to live out the rest of his life in prison.

Generally the defenses of capital punishment — punishment, deterrence, removing a future threat — are kind of bullshit. But the last might have actually applied to Gary. If he got out, no one would be surprised if he hurt anyone again. Also, the typical criticism of capital punishment: that the state does not have the right to kill anyone, while still true and certainly disturbing when reading of the attorney general and co. scrambling into a rickety plane in the middle of the night to sprint through the Denver circuit court to avoid a stay of execution, does lose a bit of steam when the defendant actually does not want to die.

Yet, willing or no, sociopathic asshole or no, it’s hard to describe the execution as anything other than utterly wrong. On something almost like a primordial level, before you even get to moral. Killing another human, regardless of justification, is just psychologically damaging. The body rebels. Even the people who fought for the execution, or the men who voluntarily carried it out, either felt it was wrong afterwards or had to continously convince themselves they did the right thing. It was only the conservative Utah public, far from the body and blood and gunshots, that could approve with great moral righteousness and zero qualms. Despite a cynical and hobbesian notion of human nature that many subscribe to, we are simply not well-equipped for close-quarters human-to-human violence. It only becomes easy through distance and dissonance.

Don’t get me wrong though. This is not an opinion actively espoused by Mailer. The narrative is trying very hard (successfully) to be as impartial as possible. It’s a major strength of the book. No where is this more clear than in characterization of Nicole Baker. Teen mother neglecting her children, sleeping with pretty much anybody, messed up priorities, and firmly entrenched in the web of Gary Gilmore. There’s many ways this could go wrong. But Mailer’s clinical prose, striving to make the voice as close as possible to the real Nicole, slots the reader firmly into her state of mind. Makes it possible to understand how she was sucked into Gary’s web.

The book does have one clear weakness. After Gary is convicted, several TV producers fall on the scene trying to buy up the rights to all the prominent character’s stories. Chief among them is Larry Schiller. While it’s interesting, both the parasitic nature of the media and internal conflicts between money and morality layered therein, there is way, way too much Larry. One hundred pages too many. At least. The only point I would say The Executioner’s Song bored me was when it strayed too far from Gary and Nicole and the rest.

Great stuff.

Bear by Marian Engel

bearWhen you read the back of a book and it outlines some charming tale about a librarian who spends a summer on a northern Canadian island, digging through old books and cataloging them. When you note this blurb describes her as ‘mousy’. Yes, when you take these things and you read the sentence they sneak in at the end about this being one of Canada’s most controversial novels, I believe that like me, you can only come to one conclusion about what this mousy librarian does with that bear.

What is with Canadian women going wild on remote northern islands? This happened in Surfacing by Margaret Atwood too. Sans the beastiality, but with plenty of dirt and madness. But who am I to complain? I liked both these novels a good deal.

Engel has a pleasant, readable style. The pathos of the protagonist is real. It’s easy to get into her head even as she constantly reveals deeper layers that unveil a very different character by the end of the book. The descriptions of the wilderness — from the very specific feel of the cold morning air to the shape of the mushrooms — is immersive and well done.

So I guess we should spend some time doing some analysis on bearsex. What our librarian (who is not actually a librarian, she’s an archivist), Lou, comes to find out in the wilderness is not any particular useful bit of sexual or personal discovery. I read reviews or descriptions that attest to that and I’m confused. It’s more like she affirms what she already knew: that being an intelligent woman in the so-called liberating 70s was still to face stifling, society-wide misogyny on a daily basis. Lou can’t find love but she desperately wants a man: emotionally and sexually. It’s this sort of yearning I can match to 60’s/70s lit (The Golden Notebook for sure), but I see it much less in contemporary texts. Perhaps times have changed or perhaps it’s just disempowering to say that out loud.

Here’s where the bear comes in: with his musk and his enormous masculine presence and his phallus-like tongue, he’s the physical embodiment of strength/protection/power/etc that men are supposed to be. But he’s also impotent and can’t reciprocate Lou’s love. Bear is like the polar (ha!) opposite of the over-intellectualized but useless human men she encounters. Lou imprints a personality on the bear only to find it empty and wrong. It’s just a bear. Wilderness retreats, regardless of what taboos they break, can’t fix society or human relationships.

There’s my take on a woman-bear love.

The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols

milagrobeanfieldwarCheck out this cover: A skeleton in a sombrero with a bottle of tequila. Intentionally yellowed page edges. A brick of mass market paperback in that unmistakable font that used to signify A BOOK to me before trade paperbacks took over and the construction of the book itself became stylized. Along with the funny title, these are the reasons I picked this up for three dollars (more than its original sale price) and took it home.

Do you ever stop to contemplate a physical book that is older than you? This book is about a decade older than me. While I was busy being born and learning to read and playing super mario brothers and being bored at school and entering the workforce and getting married and whatever else up until the present moment, this copy of The Milagro Beanfield War was out there, somewhere. Maybe having adventures and being read by all sorts of people (there was an old receipt stuffed between the pages of the book from a now defunct airline). Or maybe it was just read once and stuffed in a trunk before being sold to a used book store many years later.

Anyway, enough musing. Review time.

This is a political book. The war of the title is not a joke nor a bloody battle, but a sort of Cold War between the inhabitants of Milagro and a combination of the wealthy landowners and government forces seeking to abscond with their ancestral lands to create a golf course and surrounding tourist amenities. It’s a story of rich versus poor, old versus new, white versus brown, tradition versus capitalism.

The chicano subsistence farmers of Milagro, New Mexico have lived and died there for hundreds of years. They were there before the US won the Spanish-American War and they’ve been there since. Never really gaining anything in the way of wealth, they’ve survived OK off the land, taking joy in beers on the front porch, mariachi music, and hunting and swimming around the gorgeous and serene mountain lakes that frame Milagro. But for the past several decades, trouble has been brewing and the working class farming community has slowly morphed to true hopeless poverty. Milagro’s inhabitants are all in danger of losing their lands. Indeed, many already have. They’re pushed into service jobs in faraway cities and a huge portion of them are on food stamps.

What happened? Bureaucratic water laws driven by interests far from Milagro, with dead eye sights on economic growth, out of state tourism and the March Forth of Progress. It almost does not need to be said that the poor farmers of Milagro whose land is the fuel for this endeavor will never see any of profit.

This leads to the events of the novel: Joe Mondragon, fed up with the directionless path his life has taken, heads out to his late parents dusty property and diverts a stream to irrigate a paltry beanfield. A simple gesture, but a seriously illegal one with major political implications that Joe himself, a fiesty hot-head, doesn’t even consider. Government agents, water rights goons, local businessman, and a slew of other interests converge on Milagro, plotting how best to dispose of Joe and his beanfield without blowing the whole delicate political situation like a powder keg. The community of Milagro, slowly, through various means both violent and peaceful, starts to unify in response.

While the paragraph above outlines the plot, it’s not truly the focus of the novel and it falls into the background for many pages at a time. Joe himself will disappear from the narrative for large swathes, heard only of in rumor, and some of his most important deeds occur off screen. Instead, the majority of the novel is spent elaborating on the exploits and histories of its large cast of characters, from old men like the ancient, possibly immortal Amorante Cordova and one-armed Onofre Martinez (his other arm was eaten by butterflies), to the whites who found themselves in Milagro for various reasons, like Charlie Bloom, a Harvard lawyer who desperately sought to escape his own culture but has a love-hate relationship with the new one that adopted him.

This is simultaneously The Milagro Beanfield War’s defining strength and distracting flaw. While it’s essential to get to know the town to truly feel immersed in the politics and get behind the plight of not just one unique main character, but a whole slew of them, it’s also digressive and meandering to the point of madness. Every character gets a backstory, even ones who appear for a mere scene or two. Luckily it’s funny and engaging and also relevant 40 years later, where the axis of wealth and the exploitation of the poor continues.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

what-we-talk-about20091Raymond Carver is magic. Enchantment. His prose is sorcery. A handful of common words somehow reveal the depths of working class anxiety. It goes beyond minimalism or technique, beyond literary dissection.

I grew up in a working class neighborhood and the setting these stories evoke is familiar. Milkweed and cattails, an obsession with catching bass. Why bass?? I didn’t understand fishing then and I do not now. Old, wind-reddened men with inexplicable nicknames reminiscent of Disney characters like Dimmy or Smiley. Rusted cars on cinderblocks. My parents were married and I was born while they were teenagers, a predicament identical to most of Carver’s characters.

What I didn’t see as a pre-teen, before moving out to a more middle class neighborhood, was anything unordinary about the physical grind, the hopeless-hopeful conflict, and the booze and drug excess were only just becoming clear. Nor, of course, the love, drooping and hardy like weeds pinned between pavement, that is incredibly clear in retrospect and the subject of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The doomed romance of alcoholism and dashed hopes. And, just as unique and strange as the magic of Carver’s writing itself, is that despite love being probably the most common topic in all art — literature, film, songs, you name it — the sentiment here, the impetus behind the most memorable quote that I’ve appended to the end of this review, somehow feels unique, barely touched, new.

The best short story collections build on each other; they are not isolated occurrences. It’s hard to even isolate this collection as individual stories and not just facets of the same chiseled granite. It’s like people having the same conversations over and over, circling the same filthy drain.

There was a time when I thought I loved my first wife more than life itself. But now I hate her guts. I do. How do you explain that? What happened to that love? What happened to it, is what I’d like to know. I wish someone could tell me.

Fortunes of France: The Brethren by Robert Merle

brethrenWritten in 1977 and supposedly an unheralded french classic, this is the first of a 13 volume saga finally being translated into english. It’s about two soldiers, both named Jean, sworn brothers-maybe-lovers, who return from war to establish lands, build wealth, be fruitful and multiply. One of the Jean’s sons, Pierre, narrates his family’s life from some time in the future. It’s a tumultuous life indeed as the Jeans are newly reformed protestants amidst the French Wars of Religion. A war and period I knew nothing about prior to this book. But I learned plenty.

Because, you see, the narrator, the characters themselves often speak like textbooks:

(character recounting a battle that happened offscreen)

He reinforced the gates of the citadel with four cannon brought from the streets of the city, and launched numerous attacks on our position but couldn’t manage to dislodge us. When dawn brought low tide, Wentworth, realizing he’d lost half his troops, decided to surrender. At his request, Guise granted all of the inhabitants of the city safe conduct, just as Edward III had done for the French two centuries earlier, when he had taken the city.

Or try this (narration)

On 2nd August, a month after the Bayonne meetings, the principal Protestant lords of the Sarlat region, still greatly alarmed, met at Mespech. Armand de Gontaut Saint-Genies, Foucad de Saint-Astier, Geoffroy de Baynac, Jean de Foucauld and Geoffroy de Caumont arrived separately, under the cover of darkness and in the greatest secrecy.

The worst part is that the history lessons are actually the most interesting part of this book. The characters are two dimensional; they are only known by a handful of unchanging traits. The dumb superstitious servant woman. The lugubrious* man who never speaks except to impart dismal wisdom. The haughty, cowardly older brother. The blessed idiot. The guy with a moustache. The Jeans actually pick up so many random passerby (reminding me of recruiting random people in role playing games) that it becomes difficult to tell them apart, even with their singular attributes.

There’s not much plot, per se. The characters are largely swept along by history, generally profiting from the ills affecting their countryman. As I mentioned, the history itself is interesting. France was brutally at its own throat as the protestants and catholics tortured, murdered, and dispossessed each other. The actual reasoning that people converted to the ‘reformed religion’ — corruption of the church, nobles buying their way into heaven, excessive pomp that missed the point — and why the catholics tried to hold on, not least of all due to the celebratory nature of feast days and the way the worship of saints endured as a stand-in for pagan tradition is fascinating. They seem mostly indistinguishable to outsiders nowadays.

But if I wanted to read a history book, I would have done so. And surely received a better account.

Also, an aspect of this book important to note: the author is obsessed with breasts. They are described in detail in virtually any scene that involves a woman. They might be barely concealed by rags or about to fall out at any moment. There are tense action scenes with bizarre interludes where Merle deems a status-check on a woman’s breasts absolutely necessary. Moreover, there’s an excessive and honestly hilarious focus on breast feeding.

And this said, she drew out from her blouse with a firm hand and an easy gesture first her right and then her left breast, both so round and large and white that a great silence fell over the room so that all you could hear was the tiniest crackle of the fire and the gluttonous suckling of the two hungries.

I cannot stop cracking up at this passage. Just this whole room descending into silence, mouths agape. When I was mentioning the character types above, I failed to name the wetnurse, as her only function in the narrative is breastfeeding. There’s actually another paragraph or two of description that follows that quote. And this is not the only time this happens. Over and over, with multiple characters. Someone’s got a fetish.

*I have never seen this word used so much in one book in my life. It’s in every sentence that involves this guy.

A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion

commonprayerJoan Didion is one of my favorite authors and working through her fiction, I can basically bullet-point what a book will contain:

  • A detached heroine, probably in her thirties. A woman becoming unhinged.
  • Cruel men in positions of power over the heroine, who have jobs that give them financial and social clout that allow them to be 100% assholes without much consequence (lawyers, producers, etc). The men may be just as detached as the women, but they exude at least the appearance of control.
  • A lost child.
  • A stomach churning body horror scene, probably relating to the above bullet point, involving a botched abortion or miscarriage or horrifying birth.
  • Actually it doesn’t have to be tied to birth. Vaginal blood, arriving in one way or another, and being integral to at least one crucial scene and maybe one shock scene. Maybe they’re the same scene. In A Book of Common Prayer, a bomb goes off outside a birth control clinic and a doctor jumps in fright while inserting an IUD and punctures his patient’s uterus. Meanwhile, the protagonist (who is working at the clinic) is on her period and this is important.
  • A disorienting disconnect between how much money the characters are spending and how much money they can possibly have/make; it’s not merely like those sorts of books where seemingly everyone is rich. In A Book of Common Prayer, the protagonist has left her husband and has no job, and is somehow jumping from airport to airport with ease.
  • Sex is scary and bizarre, but also understated. When it happens, it is mentioned casually or in a scene much later than when it actually happened. It’s generally inexplicable why the heroine is having sex with whomever she is having sex with.
  • Depression and depravity are omnipresent. Everyone is sad or an asshole, but probably both. Hope or escape is generally represented in the (lost) child.
  • Physical and spiritual despoilment in fictional third world countries, mirroring the protagonist’s own fall/state of mind/ennui.
  • A cold, detached narrator who is not so cold and detached as her self image had her believe before the plight of the subject/protagonist came to pass before her very eyes.
  • Just enough hope or possible freedom to make the utter dashing of said hope/freedom sting (but you knew it was coming anyway).

Yet. The writing is so good, so biting and sharp and uniquely Joan Didion that I keep on reading, even as the books become indistinguishable. Plus, they’re really short and move at breakneck speed, so there’s not enough time to get bored.

(Also while looking for the cover image online, I discovered this book, written in 1977, is suddenly going to have a movie adaptation starring Christina Hendricks come out this year???)