Thursday, October 31, 1996

An Interview with Larry Brown

An interview with Larry Brown, discussing his book Father and Son.
Published October 31st, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Shades of Brown

By Larry Brown
Algonquin, $22.95

Back in the 1950s, nobody knew who Flannery O’Connor really was. Her powerful, grotesque, and unforgiving stories burned themselves into the reader, and only a few close friends knew she was a quiet little Catholic woman from Milledgeville, Georgia. Like O’Connor before him, novelist Larry Brown writes with an intensity that’s sometimes nearly unbearable. And like O’Connor, Brown’s private bearing belies his frightening literary presence. With an easy laugh and a quiet, unassuming charm, Brown hardly seems the fiery, unflinching literary persona that has gained so much attention in the past few years.

Brown’s last novel, Joe, evokes such a pathos for his characters that it almost transcended fiction. In his novel before that, Dirty Work, which focused on the aftermath of Vietnam, Brown took on God himself. His new novel, Father and Son, lives up both to Brown’s literary reputation and to its portentous title.

A dark, disturbing look at a small southern town in the late 1960s, Father and Son follows the troubled Glen Davis on a rampage through the other characters’ lives and deaths. Fresh out of the state pen for an alcohol-related vehicular homicide, Glen takes up old loves and hatreds where he thinks he’s left them, but as his ex-lover Jewel says, “Things has changed.”

“I like to start off with a character in trouble,” Brown said in an interview during his book-tour stop in Minneapolis, “and see where it leads. That’s where I start all my stories, with a character, and I like to follow them around, see what happens, and eventually it leads to some kind of conclusion I didn’t know was coming.”

Glen begins as a character similar to the main character of Joe—a flawed but essentially sympathetic character in trouble. But Brown takes the familiar misunderstood rebel theme and stretches it to its breaking point. His first night back, Glen kills Barlow, a slimy bar owner he sees as the reason for his prison sentence. Then he goes on to rape a young woman he picks up around town, all the while ignoring his responsibilities to Jewel and to his four-year-old son, David.

“I wanted to see if I could create an even less sympathetic character than Joe, but still make you care about him,” Brown says. “I wanted to have this nasty guy with almost no redeeming qualities, but make you look at his past, what made him the way he is—and maybe not like him, but at least see where he’s coming from.”

This isn’t easy, but as Glen increases in his evil intensity, the reality of his circumstances makes him understandable, if not sympathetic. Brown’s greatest talent lies in his ability to get inside different characters’ heads, and with Glen he succeeds in creating a horrific, warped mind that's entirely believable—even inevitable.

As the reader’s hopes turn away from Glen, the characters he sees as his enemies rise to take his place. The novel’s beginning paints Glen’s father, Virgil, as a worthless drunk, but as Glen’s credibility shrinks, Virgil’s character gains in richness. Bobby Blanchard, the town’s lawman and Jewel’s new suitor, also slowly shifts in the reader’s sympathy. From seeming like little more than the ominous and antagonistic face of law, Bobby ultimately ends up as one of the novel’s most genuinely likable characters.

“I didn’t know any of these things was gonna happen,” Brown says. “I just had this idea of a guy coming back home after being in prison—coming back and going to the cemetery right away to see his mama. I brought in Bobby’s character in the cemetery, but I didn’t know how tied up he was gonna get, how much he has to do with Glen’s story.”

As the novel progresses, the relationships become more and more intertwined. The reader slowly learns that Virgil dated Bobby’s mother, Mary, before World War II, and that Bobby and Glen are half-brothers. Hence the Dostoyevskian rivalry. Interestingly, Brown discovered these relationships at about the same time the reader does:

“I kind of figured it out when I was looking at Virgil and Mary’s pasts,” Brown says, “and as Mary became a more important character, the relationship just sprung up—and it made a lot of sense. It also made the tension between Glen and Bobby more understandable.”

Plenty of other things arose—and fell away—as Brown wrote Father and Son:

“Originally, it was gonna be a novel about the Civil Rights situation in the ’60s,” Brown says, “and Vietnam too. I grew up with segregation, and I wanted to write something about what it was like, but those things got pushed aside as Glen’s story got going. It just turned into a story about these characters instead.”

Still, Brown keeps a keen eye on the novel’s race relations. He paints a subtle portrait of the small southern town (based on his own town just outside of Oxford, Mississippi), and the levels of power are apparent, even if they aren’t the novel’s focus.

Brown creates the town and its inhabitants so organically that, even just a few pages into the book, the reader develops a mental map of its layout. As with the best fiction set in small towns—Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or Peter Hedges’ What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, for instance—Father and Son succeeds in making you think you’re there.

“I keep an eye on the things you see every day,” Brown says, “the roads, the trees, the wind on the grass, the rise and fall of the water. Without that stuff you don’t really get a good sense of place.”

Even compared to the awesome power of Joe and the hilarious pain of his second story collection, Big Bad Love, Brown outdoes himself in Father and Son. His sense of detail is at its peak, and the writing itself achieves a new level of poetry for Brown.

“I sure do like a pretty sentence,” he says. And with his uncanny gift for evoking the humanity—and inhumanity—of his characters, Brown builds the narrative with layer upon layer of penetrating and, at times, heart-stopping lyricism.

William Faulkner (who shares Brown’s hometown), upon deciding to become a writer, noted that it was a fine thing to be able to create a man who has a shadow. Larry Brown’s writing embraces this notion of real characters whose lives hold true consequence, and with every sentence, Brown makes his characters actually live. With such nuanced attention to the things that make us human, Father and Son confidently places Brown among this country’s finest contemporary writers.

—David Wiley

Thursday, October 24, 1996

The Cattle Killing, by John Edgar Wideman

A review of The Cattle Killing, by John Edgar Wideman
Published October 24th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

’Til the Cows Come Home

By John Edgar Wideman
Houghton Mifflin, $22

A two-time winner of the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction, the novelist, short story writer, essayist, and memoirist John Edgar Wideman never ceases to astonish. His challenging, experimental novels, along with his occasional appearances on National Public Radio, have left an indelible mark on America’s artistic and social consciousness.

Wideman released his last book, Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, in 1994, but he hasn’t published any fiction since 1990, when his masterful Philadelphia Fire won him his second PEN/Faulkner award. So his new novel, The Cattle Killing, arrives amid a flurry of critical expectation.

The novel’s title refers to the South African Xhosa’s infamous 1856 cattle killing. The Xhosa were a peaceful, agrarian people whose livelihoods depended on their cattle, but with the Europeans invading physically, intellectually, and religiously, the tribe reached a moment of truth. In a fit of hysteria, Nongqawuse, the daughter of a tribal priest, received a vision ordering the Xhosa to kill all their cattle.

Wideman recounts the words of the prophecy:

Spread my message to all the clans, daughter. Bid them hear me well. This evil world is dying. A new one is on its way. The whites will be driven out. The ancestors will return and dwell again on the earth, bringing with them endless herds of cattle to fill our kraals.

But only those who kill all their cattle will be welcomed in this new world. The people must kill their cattle now if they wish to live forever in peace and harmony when their ancestors return.

Although this act meant suicide for the Xhosa, they eventually saw that they had no other earthly chance against the encroaching whites. And while not all of them followed the prophecy, they ultimately destroyed 400,000 of their cattle, causing a famine that killed more than 40,000 Xhosa.

Wideman uses this episode as the centerpiece of The Cattle Killing, and even though the novel’s main action takes place in eighteenth-century Philadelphia, the narrative circles around it, drawing the various characters in toward it.

Framing the novel with a kind of metafictional meditation, Wideman himself is drawn into this spiral as a character. Within this frame, however, the real narrator, an unnamed former slave turned itinerant preacher, takes over as the novel’s central intelligence. The preacher begins by explaining that he has visions (probably brought on by epilepsy) that take him to unimaginable planes of consciousness, giving him an almost godlike clarity. But the visions invariably give way to violent, horrific fits that cause him to lose track of time.

The narrative shifts constantly, and it’s never really clear whom the preacher’s addressing when he’s speaking. He tells his story in first, second, and third person, and, if that isn’t confusing enough, as the novel progresses, other voices arise to fill the gaps that he leaves. His main audience seems to be one of two incarnations of an African maid whom he meets on his way to Philadelphia. When he first comes across her, she’s fleeing the plague-ridden city with a dead white baby, and he watches her carry it into a lake and disappear forever.

Upon reaching Philadelphia (where he aims to help fight the plague), he hears rumors of her story and finds that the whites believe the blacks to be not only immune to the plague, but to be its cause. He pieces together the rumors to find that a prominent white family had expelled her from their quarantined home because their child became sick. They forced her to take the child outside the city to die, and thus begins the spiral of events that follow (or, rather, lead up to) her encounter with the preacher.

If all of this sounds perplexing, it probably doesn’t cover a fifth of The Cattle Killing’s layered storytelling. The preacher tells his story to his audience, who tells her own story, and within their stories, their memories tell their own stories. But it all leads to one culminating central image: the cattle killing.

A parable encompassing hundreds of years of racial horror, The Cattle Killing succeeds on a level that exceeds even mythmaking to become truth. Wideman’s prose sears, using the written word to transform the horror of history into something beautiful. Reaffirming the regenerative power of storytelling, The Cattle Killing leaves the reader exhausted but inspired:

Tell me, finally, what is a man. What is a woman. Aren’t we lovers first, spirits sharing an uncharted space, a space our stories tell, a space enchanted, written upon again and again, yet one story never quite erased by the next, each story saving the space, saving itself, saving us. If someone is listening.

The New Republic calls Wideman “our leading black male writer.” While this is certainly true, it’s like calling Franz Kafka the greatest German Jewish writer from Czechoslovakia, or Aretha Franklin the greatest female soul singer. Of course it’s absurd to separate Wideman’s writing from his race and culture, but such appellations, however accurate, miss the point. Wideman’s body of work, especially this novel, distinguishes him as one of the greatest writers—and minds—of our time.

—David Wiley

Thursday, October 17, 1996

The Life of God (as Told by Himself), by Franco Ferrucci

A review of The Life of God (as Told by Himself), by Franco Ferrucci
Published October 17th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Heaven is a Place Where
Nothing Ever Happens

By Franco Ferrucci
University of Chicago Press, $22

Question: In all of Western literature, what character is the most widely scrutinized, admired, deplored, and debated? Who, finding a way into nearly every novel, story, and essay, resounds more widely and more deeply than any other? (Hint: It’s not Holden Caulfield) Why, God, of course—Yahweh, Allah, Jehovah, the Big G Himself.

Whether playing the all-powerful (if inconsistently characterized) war god in the Hebrew Scriptures, the resplendent deity in Dante’s Paradiso, or the petty technocrat in Carol Hill’s The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer, God just won’t stay out of our literature.

Now, Italian writer and critic Franco Ferrucci takes Him on again in his new novel, The Life of God (as Told by Himself). The book originally came out in Italian in 1986, drawing raves from the Italian critics—notably Umberto Eco—and Ferrucci has finally translated it, with the help of the now late Raymond Rosenthal, into English.

Drawing mostly from the Bible and Classical literature, Ferrucci re-imagines the often misconstrued (and always male) deity as a kind of clueless schlemiel. He has little power—He can create, but He can’t control—and He can’t seem to get a grip on His own existence.

In this account, the rhetoric of the vengeful, petty God of the Pentateuch (and latter-day evangelists) proves inaccurate; this God is more interested in understanding His universe than lording over it. He’s just like us: He ponders creation; He falls in Love; He gets depressed, even suicidal. The Bible got a few things right, though: God has a terrible memory, and He’s often so wrapped up in Himself that He misses great lengths of earthly history:

For long stretches at a time I forget that I am God. But then, memory isn’t my strong suit. It comes and goes with a will of its own.

The last time it came back to me I was sunk in one of those late-winter depressions. Then one night I switched on the television set, and a fire of events burst before my eyes.

Jumping in and out of history at will, God meets all the big names—Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Dante, Einstein—and gives the reader a full lowdown on each. He views Moses as more of a bureaucrat than a prophet and deplores the absurd list of rules he sets out as holy writ. And although God admits Jesus as His son (Catholics beware: It’s not exactly an immaculate conception), He sees no real reason why Jesus has to martyr himself.

But the novel’s subtle layering causes God’s criticism of these visionaries to fall back on Himself. He simply wants people to be happy, to enjoy the wonders of His universe, but He hasn’t equipped them for happiness or understanding. He can’t even be happy Himself. So it’s up to Moses to find a way of making sense of the world, even if it’s through petty rules and regulations.

Jesus also emerges vindicated, even though he’s more of a trickster and manipulator than a deity. He sees humanity’s need for a savior and provides a tangible—if slightly bogus—connection to the mysterious, which is more than the philosophically paralyzed God ever does.

Still, despite His shortcomings, God comes off as a pretty decent fellow. He doesn’t demand that we kill each other over holy land, condemn the so-called immoral, or even go to church. He simply asks that we try to get along and enjoy what He’s given us. Interestingly, this attitude sounds a lot like secular humanism, which, coming from God, may be one of the richest and most instructive ironies in religious literature.

This novel’s great triumph, however, is its terrifying and illuminating re-evaluation of traditional eschatology. Achieving nearly Biblical resonance, The Life of God (as Told by Himself) brilliantly depicts the growing incompatibility between God and His creation. Ferrucci has produced a near-masterpiece of anti-apocalyptic prophecy.

—David Wiley

Drown, by Junot Díaz

A review of Drown, by Junot Díaz
Published October 17th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

By Junot Díaz
Riverhead Books, $21.95

Junot Díaz’s debut collection, Drown, arrives at an interesting time in the history of the English language. With Congress pushing for an “English-only” state, and with conservative word-hawks like William Safire trying to keep the language from expanding, Díaz’s Spanglish comes on like a wake-up call for America’s tired ears and tongues.

Drown mixes English and Spanish street dialect to create some of the finest, most sublime prose this side of the Atlantic:

When times were real flojo, when the last colored bill flew out of Mami’s purse, she packed us off to our relatives. She’d use Wilfredo’s father’s phone to make the calls early in the morning. Lying next to Rafa, I’d listen to her soft, unhurried requests and pray that our relatives would tell her to vete pa’ carajo but that never happened in Santo Domingo.

The collection follows one boy, Yunior, through his childhood in the Dominican Republic, his adolescence in Nueva York, and his eventual exploration of his family’s past. Díaz accentuates this cyclical pattern with radical shifts in his storytelling approach: He writes the first seven stories in first person, with Yunior as the narrator, and in the eighth story Yunior narrates in second person. And in the last two stories, Yunior narrates mostly in third person, seemingly taking the writing duties away from Díaz.

Like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in reverse, Drown circles into the past to find his character’s voice. And what a voice it is. This collection marks the arrival of a major new talent.

—David Wiley

Thursday, October 3, 1996

Behind Closed Doors, by Alina Reyes

A review of Behind Closed Doors, by Alina Reyes
Published October 3rd, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

And Behind Door No. 1…

By Alina Reyes
Grove Press, $22

Do you sometimes feel like you’re a character in a novel? Do you dream, like Madame Bovary, that thousands of eyes watch your every move and that some benevolent author has planned a series of enlightening adventures for you? Then maybe you’re the protagonist of Alina Reyes’ new novel, Behind Closed Doors.

Billed as “an adventure in which you are the hero (or heroine),” Behind Closed Doors contains two sections, male and female, and the reader can choose to be either. The novel has two beginnings, one at each cover, so the male and female readers read toward each other.

Reyes seems to have gotten much of the inspiration for this structure from Milorad Pavić, whose first novel, Dictionary of the Khazars, exists in male and female versions, and whose latest work, The Novel of Hero and Leander, was written toward the center from both ends. To this Reyes adds a device borrowed from Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch—within each section, the reader chooses the paths that most please him or her, creating a new story with each reading. Each section (or gender) offers four or five possible endings and an almost infinite variation of stories.

Reyes, however, adds her own wrinkle to the mix. Rather than writing the novel in second person, telling the reader what he or she does, she uses first person, making the reading feel more like a recitation or a memory than a novel. With the reader as the “I,” the novel seems more intimate and less separated from the reader. The device also strengthens the reader’s feeling of autonomy, making the stories seem less ordained by the writer.

At each section’s beginning, the reader stops at a traveling circus and enters a funhouse of sorts called “The doors of Eros.” Within these doors the brave adventurer finds every variation of erotic fantasy, and the paths follow the reader’s sexual and intellectual desires. Along the way, a male reader finds nurses, secretaries, ogresses, amputees, ghosts, and hermaphrodite angels to fulfill his desires. The woman finds pirates, Black Knights, firemen, kilt-wearing bagpipe players, and even an aged version of herself. Both sexes find innumerable voyeuristic opportunities for self-abuse—glass doors, hidden portals, conveniently placed hotel windows—and this voyeurism seems at first to be the whole point of the novel.

There’s much more to this than erotic pleasure, though. Just when all the bumping and grinding starts to sound repetitive, each story funnels through a middle section called “The Exchange.” Here the stories take on a more serious tone, because instead of finding another sexual partner, the reader/protagonist meets the author. In this exchange the protagonist and author discuss the nature of writing, reading, desire, and free will, illuminating Reyes’ motives as an author and provoking the reader to examine why he or she reads—and lives.

Here the reader makes the choices that affect the final outcome of the story. And despite the illusion of free will, here Reyes writes with the heaviest hand. Of the possible endings, Reyes obviously favors the choice of commitment to an idealized “true love.” All other endings leave the reader pathetically alone and unhappy, as if love were the answer to all of life’s problems.

Reyes’ slight puritanical streak is not this novel’s only shortcoming, either. Even with the wacky innovations in structure and the variety of Reyes’ sexual imagination, the novel often reads like a Penthouse letter. Lacking any kind of lyrical edge—even in its most inspired and riotous moments—the novel simply reports the mechanics of sex.

With little or no poetry in her erotica, the intimacy that Reyes so strategically renders loses much of its immediacy. She sets up the most amazing scenarios—two women and a battalion of firefighters, acrobatic sex under the big-top, even sex with the reader’s own shadow—but the pedestrian language mars the whole effect.

Often lapsing unwittingly into silliness, Reyes uses phrases like “hard pine cone” and “rod” to describe a penis and “crack” and “shell” to describe a vagina. The reader often ends up more amused at the situation than aroused or enlightened.

Still, Behind Closed Doors offers much to the adventurous reader. If only for Reyes’ treatise on the nature of authorship, authority, and individual will, this novel is well worth reading. Well, maybe that and the great cross-dressing scene….

—David Wiley

The Enchantmentof Lily Dahl, by Siri Hustvedt

A review of The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, by Siri Hustvedt
Published October 3rd, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

By Siri Hustvedt
Henry Holt, $23

Northfield, Minnesota native Siri Hustvedt stunned the international literary community with her experimental 1992 novel, The Blindfold. Now Hustvedt returns with a much more conventional second novel, The Enchantment of Lili Dahl.

Set in the small town of Webster, Minnesota (a fictionalization of Northfield, says Hustvedt), the novel draws a motley cast of small-town characters into a sensational web of obsession and violence.

The protagonist, the beautiful ingénue Lili Dahl, works in the Ideal Cafe and spends her nights as Hermia in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Soon she enters into an affair with an exotic stranger, Ed Shapiro, a painter transplanted from New York. At the same time, Lily develops a strange interest in the 1932 murder of Helen Bodler, and a reclusive, stuttering weirdo named Martin Petersen (who plays Cobweb in the play) starts to show his interest in Lily.

The coincidence of all this happening at once seems thoroughly unlikely, and the contrived tensions build to a climax that’s straight out of Hollywood.

Hustvedt has an astonishing eye for characterization, though, drawing a wholly believable and memorable cast, and it’s frustrating to see them wasted on such a hokey plot. Despite her descent into the novel’s ersatz drama, Lily remains  an intriguing combination of quaintness and transcendent wisdom. Her inarticulate genius shines even through the silliest, most unbelievable circumstances.

Hustvedt also strings interesting motifs through this flawed novel. With Lily and Martin Petersen acting out a drama on and off stage, and with Martin’s psychotic final public display, the novel cleverly skirts the line between reality and the stage, between life and art.

—David Wiley