Waiting Around for Grace

sleepy-guy-300x199261What can I say?  I got lazy.  Again.  The thought of cranking out 1,000 words every few days got to be too much for my TV- and video game-loving ass to handle,  and that’s the only excuse I have for the gap in posts between mid-December and mid-February.  I wish I could say I was doing something important – writing a book, traveling the world, solving crimes with a plucky sidekick – but I was probably watching movies and playing Far Cry 4.

And reading.  Loyal followers of this blog will notice I’ve started posting full book reviews again.  As usual, the primary motivator for this was guilt.  I’m asking my students to write and post reviews of what they’re reading this semester, so it seems just a wee bit hypocritical for me not to do the same.  Walking the walk, etc.  And even though I haven’t been posting formal reviews, the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project is still in full swing.  So, in keeping with precedent, here’s a bunch of one-sentence reviews of all the books I read in the lost months of early 2015.

Sherman Alexie – The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. A gritty and unforgiving short story collection set in the one corner of the United States we rarely see: a Native American Indian reservation.

Ian Rankin – The Black Book. Rankin’s Inspector Rebus digs into Edinburgh’s history of organized crime to solve a murder in the fifth compelling book in the long-running series.

Russell Banks – Trailerpark. Banks is one of my favorite authors, but this loosely-connected collection of short stories set in the titular mobile home park is an entertaining but ultimately minor work.

Michael Chabon – The Final Solution. Simultaneously clever and slight, it’s unabashed genre fiction (starring a never-explicitly-identified Sherlock Holmes) from one of America’s greatest writers.

Elmore Leonard – 52 Pick Up. One of Elmore Leonard’s first crime novels is also his best – hard-boiled tough-guy deliciousness.

Don DeLillo – The Body Artist. DeLillo wrote one of my favorite books (White Noise), but two months after reading The Body Artist, I don’t remember a single, solitary thing about it, which probably tells you all you need to know.

Jennifer Egan – The Invisible Circus. Egan’s first novel is a stunning, melancholy tour de force about the perils of delving too deeply into family history.

Ian Rankin – Mortal Causes. Rankin broadens his scope in this sixth Inspector Rebus book to take in the connection between Scotland and the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Joshua Ferris – Then We Came to the End. A laugh-out-loud condemnation of modern office life, Ferris’ book is Grade-A satire.

Alex Grecian – The Yard. Depicting the birth of Scotland Yard, Grecian’s first book in this series is  a brutal murder mystery that promises great things to come.

Elmore Leonard – Mr. Majestyk. More modern noir from the master of the crime novel, it’s a testament to the badass who refuses to take shit from anyone.

Matt Haig – The Humans. An outer-space alien takes over a professor’s body to protect an intergalactic secret and in the process learns schmaltzy lessons about What it Means to be Human. ™

John Irving – A Widow for One Year.  I love Irving but struggled with this one, an epic-length treatise about family, obsession, and the writing life that takes a long time to go nowhere special.

Ian Rankin – Let it Bleed. After taking on the Troubles, Rankin investigates the corridors of power in the twisty-turny  seventh Inspector Rebus book.

Stephen King – Blaze. An early Stephen King novel (writing as Richard Bachman) that really should have stayed lost.

John Le Carré – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It’s a brilliant spy novel – totally, unequivocally, unquestionably – but holy cow was I bored.

Elmore Leonard – Swag. The funniest of Leonard’s early-career crime novels, it sets the template for all of his subsequent novels that revolve around dim-witted tough guys.


Current listening:

Cure kiss

The Cure – Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987)

Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave

Matt deadWhen it comes to religion I am, at best, apathetic.

I’ve never been much of a believer, although I’ve backed off on my staunch identification as an atheist – realizing eventually that that group’s smug certainty that there is no God is every bit as obnoxious as the holy rollers who proselytize and damn others to hell.  I suppose that technically makes me an agnostic, but I think the most accurate description of my religious belief is “I don’t care.”  I try to lead a good life, be kind to others, do more good than harm, etc., etc., and hope that, should there be an afterlife, that’ll be enough to stand me in good stead with the management.

The most fervently I’ve wanted to believe in an afterlife, though, came in 2011 after my mom died.  Unlike her heathen son, my mom was a devout churchgoer – she and my dad were (and are, in my dad’s case) active in their local Episcopal church, and I knew that her religious faith is something that got her through those last difficult weeks.  I wanted there to be an afterlife because I knew she believed in it, but also for all the usual selfish reasons following the death of a loved one; chiefly, that I’d get to see her again one day. I can’t say I’ve clung to that desire with any tenacity, though.  Three years on and I’m pretty much back where I started.

There’s no such equivocation in Matt Haig’s The Dead Fathers Club.  His second novel takes up the question of the afterlife in the form of a ghost story that, fittingly for a novel preoccupied with limbo or purgatory (I can never remember which is which), straddles the line between adult and Young Adult fiction.  It exists in an uneasy middle ground that has – I think – more in common with the former than the latter, and which might be a little too sophisticated and bleak for younger readers despite the presence of a child protagonist.

Its closest comparison is probably something like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a book written for adults but which I know is taught in some high schools.  Like that book, The Dead Fathers club features a young narrator – 11-year-old Philip – who is precocious and insightful, but who probably lies somewhere on the autism spectrum.  His narration is often an unfiltered stream-of-conscious jumble of sights, sounds, and impressions, such as this passage that comes early in the book when his mother receives news of his father’s death:

And then they went into the office and shut the door and I could hear nothing for ages and then I heard Mum.  She was howling like a WOLF and the noise hurt my stomach and I closed my eyes to try and hear the policeman and all he was saying was Im sorry and he kept on saying it

Im sorry

Im sorry

Im sorry

and I knew that he hadnt done anything wrong because he was a policeman and policemen only say sorry if something very bad has happened.  So I knew right then what the pain in my stomach was.  And I saw the policeman leave and the hat was in his hand but not on his chest any more like the Bad News had been in there and set free.  And I saw Mum and she saw me but didnt see me properly and she went to the corner of the hall by the radiator and sat down in a ball and cried and shook her head in her hands and said No no no no no and everywhere round us looked the same but bigger and I wanted to go and tell her it was OK but that would have been a lie and so I just sat there and did nothing.

It’s shortly after this that the ghost of Philip’s father comes to him and says that his brother, Alan, murdered him by severing the brakes on his car.  Along with this news, a few other things:

1) Not everyone can see ghosts, but if you do, they are the spirits of the murdered.

2) You have to avenge their death before their next birthday.

3) If you fail to do that, the ghost will remain an unsettled spirit forever.

Philip – who has enough trouble just getting through the school day – now has only a months to figure out how to kill his uncle and set his father’s spirit free.  It’s convenient, though, that there’s a bit of a Hamlet situation going on, as Alan, who clearly has designs on Philip’s mother, moves into their home and tries to take over as Surrogate Dad.

For a character who engages in as much internal monologuing as Philip, there’s initially very little ambivalence over his mission.  There’s no moralizing about whether it’s right to take Alan’s life, but maybe that makes sense.  Life is simpler at 11: Philip loved his father, his father’s ghost says Alan must die, and so Alan must die.  The problem, though, is that his father’s ghost – who at first appears to be omniscient and gifted with preternatural awareness – makes an increasing number of inaccurate predictions, some of which have disastrous consequences.  And this brings Philip to a crossroads: Is his father an tortured spirit or just a spiteful douchebag?  And if it’s the latter, is his death still worth avenging?

While I enjoyed Haig’s spin on the revenge tale, I actually found the most appealing part of the book to be Philip’s voice, especially the way he attempts to come to grip with the world around him.  There are several gems throughout the book that might not be particularly insightful to adults, but which seem to perfectly capture the child’s evolving understanding of how the world works.

On his teacher trying to involve him with his peers by making him dance at a party: “Mrs Fell was only being nice because she thought I was on my own but sometimes being nice is as bad as being horrible.”

On the paradox of war and murder: “Its like how in War soldiers are told to kill other men and then they are Heroes but if they killed the same men when they were not in War they are Murderers.  But they are still killing the same men who have the same dreams and who chew the same food and hum the same songs when they are happy but if it is called War it is all right because that is the rules of War.”

And this one especially, on, well, the nature of life itself: “I was thinking Mrs Fell was right.  There are choices.  You can listen to ghosts or you can not listen to ghosts and you can think what you want to think it is up to you because there are only two things that are true 100 out of 100 times and that is that you live and also that you die and every other thing is not true or false it is a mix.  It is both.  It is none.”

Philip’s voice is so strong and so engaging that it carries the reader through the book, even in those moments when the revenge plot is less interesting.  The real surprise is the end, which is, in the immortal words of Spinal Tap, none more black.  It ends on a decidedly dark note, one that unambiguously puts Philip at the center of everything bad that ultimately happens.  It’s a curious – and curiously harsh – choice, and it’s probably the strongest argument that Haig hasn’t intended this to be a children’s book.  Young Adult Lit typically ends optimistically – the young protagonist having overcome whatever challenges he/she faced to emerge victorious on the other side – but there’s no light at the end of the tunnel in the closing pages of The Dead Fathers Club.   If there’s a bleak central thesis implied by the conclusion it’s that, on Earth or in the afterlife, there’s no way out for tortured spirits.


Current listening:

Siouxsie hyaena

Siouxsie & The Banshees – Hyaena (1984)