September 2011

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Guaranteed: many spoilers

Empire Falls (2001) by Richard Russo, is a near miss, a novel with engaging characters and a lovingly described small town setting I wanted to like better than I did. Russo writes well, avoids cliche and makes you like most of his characters so much you want to spend more time with them (something I have never felt after reading a novel by Philip Roth or even Fyodor Dostoyevsky).

He has two problems. One is plot. He is too good a writer to ask us to believe something impossible. Miles Roby, his protagonist, witnessed an affair his mother had with the richest man in their small town, yet does not figure out until late middle age (after having seen endless newspaper pictures) who the interloper was. This is a ridiculous Victorian device of the kind Dickens shoe-horned into most of his novels. As part of the same failure, Russo's characters haven't advanced or changed very much by the end of the novel's several hundred pages. He leaves them close to where he found them, without the satisfying resolutions that Dickens at least knew how to deliver.

One of the characters is a quiet, odd student who emerges with a pistol in the last few pages and shoots several other characters at the school. This was particularly disturbing, as there are certain territories which are so fraught, so thoroughly staked out, you can't just deal with them in passing. The shooting itself, and the boy who commits it, all seem to be lifted from the meme-library in a way the rest of the characters and their doings, are not.

This novel, which I half-liked, won the Pulitzer prize, which tends to confirm a long standing impression that the people who make the award choices are not that swift. They are certainly not looking for edgy and surprising new work.

Finally, it fascinates me to note that Russo's setting and characters are exactly the same ones you would find in a Stephen King novel. Russo actually has several horror elements in his novel: an angry cat which verges on the supernatural in its discernment and behavior, and a rusting chain and collar which once constrained a mysteriously missing dog. Perhaps every Maine novelist is at a cross-roads: to the left an ancient evil, to the right the homey and cute.

Gilead (2004) by Marilynne Robinson is a Pulitzer prize winner that, by contrast, is one of the most powerful and moving novels I have read in years. It takes the form of a letter written by an aging Protestant minister with an ailing heart to his young son, whom he expects will not remember him very well. He is the third in a line of ministers who kept the same church in Iowa, and much of the novel is concerned with the gradual moral amelioration of the lne, from the fierce grandfather who fought for abolition with John Brown, to the narrator who keeps saying that the fire which drove the last black congregation out of town in the 1930's was only a small fire, a nuisance fire. In the present (the 1950's), he must deal with the re-emergence in town of his black sheep namesake, the son of his best friend, whom he suspects of having designs on his young wife when he is dead. Over-all, the beautiful prose, the pure intellect, Robinson's ability to inhabit the character as he describes moonlight, quotes Scripture, wrestles with love, incipient loss, and jealousy, make this a masterful work. The book is about so much else than race, yet Robinson even weaves race into the subplot about the prodigal son, so that the narrator has the opportunity even to bring some closure to his grandfather's terrible disappointment in later life, that the end of slavery did not end bigotry, that the world was not improved by the Civil War.

Treasure Island (1883) by Robert Louis Stevenson, is the first book I read using Kindle technology on my new Android phone. The novel itself, which I loved as a child, stands up completely, fast, vivid and with dialog that is unusually virile and un-pretentious for the era. Jim Hawkins is a bit of a super-boy, always saving everyone's life, but he does so accidentally and modestly enough that we forgive him and Stevenson. What the latter did effortlessly, no contemporary suspense wrter knows how to do: immerse us in a world so thorough and compelling we inhabit it and believe it and forget we are reading a novel.

The experience of reading it on a screen turned out to be surprisingly pleasant. Having sworn over and over to the truism that there is a certain karma or manna or wu in paper books, and that I would never relinquish them, it was actually a relief not to deal with pages that can tear, a spine which can crack, a cover susceptible to cofee rings, or an entire book which needs to be given away or stored. Amazon of course has found exactly the right contrast of font and backlighting to make the experience book-like, and tapping to turn the page (instead of the endless scrolling, or the clicking a reloading, necessary when you try to read a book on the web) feels very simple and easy.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (2011), directed by David Yates, is almost unreviewable. As faithful embodiments of a beloved if somewhat over-rated book series, the movies are not really made to live up to any standard of film construction: they are overly busy, and confusing, with many characters and incidents of the novels treated only momentarily. I had the vague impression (having read the book many years ago) that the Deathly Hallows were given rather short shrift, while the horcruxes (objects in which Voldemort has implanted a piece of his soul) receive rather more attention. While most Hollywood fantasy movies are incoherent story telling coupled with magnificent special effects, Rowling at least can be relied upon for some kind of narrative click: here the explanation of why the Elder Wand didn't work for Voldemort. However, it is a film-making failure that Harry must explain to the others, in a coda, what happened; a truly masterful filmmaker would have managed to show us, rather than tell us. Think of Inception as a movie representing a particularly complex imaginary world, which presents it with a minimum of didactic explanation, and none at the end.

Yellow Sky (1948), directed by William Wellman, is a mediocre Western which illustrates the precept that itr is difficult to make a really bad one. With Gregory Peck cast against later type as the leader of a ganng of bank robbers, the stock characters and sometimes slow plot is more than redeemed by the beautiful western scenery, the cinematography of men and horses against stunning backdrops. The gang holes up in a ghost town, where an old prospector and his fierce granddaughter are working a secret gold mine. Predictably, they fight each other in "Sierra Madre" style; Peck becomes noble and protects the girl. The otherwise unmemorable movie, which has the most unlikely ending of any western I've seen in years (the surviving robbers return the proceeds from their last robbbery), honorably presents us with a woman character who can shoot and throw a punch, and takes no guff from anybody.

Eagle's Wing (1979), directed by Anthony Harvey, is a lesser known late Western, in the slightly odd, slightly precious, very depressed 1970's style. Martin Sheen is a renegade kicked out of the army, who discovers he can live and thrive in the wide open spaces; Sam Waterston, his skin died dark, is a silent Indian who becomes his indispensable nemesis. Most of the movie consists of them chasing each other through the wasteland. Harvey Keitel does a surprisingly short walk-on as a nervous guide. To be seen in a marathon with "The Missouri Breaks", "Jeremiah Johnson" etc., capped off by "The Wild Bunch".

The Quiet American (1958), written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, is a Cold War artifact of some interest. For one hour and thirty six minutes of its two hour running time, it is quite faithful to the morally ambiguous, anti-American Graham Greene novel on which it is based. In the novel, the British journalist protagonist sets a young CIA officer up to be killed by the Viet Cong, both because he is fomenting violence against civilians and because he has taken away the protagonist's Vietnamese girlfriend. There is a happy ending and he never pays for his betrayal. The movie, having reached the novel's end, adds a ridiculous coda, in which the Brit discovers that everything he believed was false, he has been played by the Viet Cong (a truly incoherent plot twist the movie can't even begin to explain) and the American was a good guy after all. And he doesn't get the girl back.