Posts Tagged ‘Writer’s read’

William Kent Krueger’s ORDINARY GRACE:

Krueger delights those readers who pine for literature in a very fast book market, but the author of some fourteen mysteries does not displease the mystery/crime base he has spent years entertaining in his latest, ORDINARY GRACE.

The novel is a coming of age story—a tough trial for Frank Drum, our narrator, just thirteen—it is certainly a mystery, and it qualifies as a literary work in particular for its timely and pervasive examination of faith and of faith under fire.

Frank Drum’s transformation from child to young adult occurs over not more than two months of a summer marked by four deaths, several close to home in distance and relationship. Shut out by the adults surrounding him, seen as too young to be told all, Frank accompanied by his younger brother, Jake, probes and peeks for clues and for truth, trying to make sense of sudden death, natural passing, suicide, and murder. He emerges a changed young man.

Questions abound. What really happened to young Bobby Cole? Did the Sioux “troublemaker,” Warren Redstone have something to do with the itinerant’s death or the drowning of a teenage girl? Why are local ne’er-do-wells focusing on Frank and his family? How can a youngster defend himself against them? What drives the secrecy of New Bremen’s first family? Far from just a who-done-it, questions of why and what happens to the people near these deaths run deep through Frank’s investigations. Frank’s tender heart goes on trial at times but survives the brutality that surrounds him.

Nathan Drum, Frank’s Methodist minister father, fords turbulent waters with the family through its tribulations, proving to be an unusual and towering figure of kindliness, patience, and faith. His faith derives from experience— Gus, a war buddy and church janitor, calls Nathan, Captain—and serves not only to guide the family, the people of the congregations he serves, and the town through deadly damage but also does so in soft-edged, charitable way. Nathan exhibits what the town needs: firm faith far from the hard line judgment often associated, especially nowadays, with the deeply religious.

Frank’s father compares quite favorably with Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird, and may be a greater figure, as Nathan weathers storms far more difficult and trying than does Atticus. Reverend Drum’s sermon on faith, hope, and charity (love in this book) is deep and moving. His grace in the face of prejudice and righteous anger is exceeded only by his patience and insistence on talking things out. Krueger has created a saintly character, who emerges simply a human doing good.

The story grows very dark at times, confronts the wayward human heart, and remains in its fullness, quite optimistic, almost a miracle. In that way it is truly a Minnesota story.

 

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Let’s allow the writer, Sigrid Nunez, some slack. After all, we’re on the same side, and she is that good. When the payoff is big enough, much can be forgiven.

Take the scene at Edie’s and Turner’s lunch meeting. Edie is there to caution her brother-in-law about his affair. Turner is there to announce his intention to marry said affair. Here it comes: waiter “hovers” taking mental notes on what he considers a great line to use in a screenplay, “Marrying each other won’t do what . . . you may be subconsciously wishing. She can’t replace your daughter, and you can’t replace the father who abandoned her.” It is a writer’s (intentional) faux pas, but one you have to love it.  We forgive the author having a little fun because it tickles us and it fits with the Manhattan we all know, whether or not we live there. The City is the human drama publicly playing out before strangers’ eyes.

Sometimes, Nunez too heavily taps the 1960’s and ‘70’s. It is all there: Manson, the SDS, Weathermen, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, the pantheon of drugs, Altamont and Woodstock, the Black Panthers, on and on. It’s review for a child of the ‘60’s, perhaps tutelage for the later born. Sometimes it warms, sometimes makes one turn away. It was convincing though just for support of the story there was too much. For instance, Nunez appropriates the de rigueur acid trip George and her sister Solange take to establish George’s deep desire to have a child. Well, apparently, all acid trips are not equal. That one, I am not buying.

It is as clear as it is daring that Nunez invites comparison of one main character, Ann, with Jay Gatsby, yes, of The Great. Early in the book George(tte), the narrator,  gasses up on speed to write her pan of Fitzgerald’s novel. That scene along with her paper’s reappearance in her daughter Zoe’s hands at several points notably at the end of the novel, elevate this book as literature rather than just story.

That’s not saying Nunez is a Fitzgerald, though why shouldn’t she be? Rather like Manhattan itself – and the many sites of George’s life in the city – the connection builds upon what had been there before. If Jay Gatsby was the great American idealist of the 20’s, Dooley Ann Drayton is the same for the 60’s. Both rejected their upbringing. Both failed. Both were too inflexible. Both were culpable and tragic. And each has a narrator that is none of the above.

If Ann is Gatsby, George is Nick Carraway. The class switcheroo should not be a bother. Ann is monied, Jay Gatz poor. George is as “rural class” as Nick is “well-to-do.” But otherwise, the comparison instructs.  For all George’s misadventures in the book (spoilers: dropping out of school, suffering rape, escaping rape, drugging, marrying the unloved, loving the unmarriageable and on) she is nearly as priggish as Carraway. Nor, like old Nick, does she change. Forever the observer – even in her great love affair, she may well have stayed on the side lines as the “she” of that part of her story – George seems to float along, bumbling her way to what she hoped would come: family.  Over on Ann’s side of the dorm room, she is feverishly working for the betterment of the races, while George lets come what may. And the result?  Ann gets less than nothing (like Gatsby). Of course, George gets the girl and the boy as well as reclaiming the prodigal sister. Well, I always liked Nick Carraway, but I have to say, he didn’t accomplish much either. At least, thank God, George didn’t tell Ann about her affair. Such self-indulgence, even for her, would be damnable. But Nunez doesn’t let her off the hook even to the end where she has George meeting Nick in an imagined Fifth Avenue saying to him “Pick me, pick me.”

All things George and Zoe say about The Great Gatsby feed our understanding of of The Last of Her Kind:  Mencken’s critique: “‘No more than a glorified anecdote;’” George’s recapitulation of Fitzgerald’s worry: “‘I guess I just like my love stories to include some important woman character’” compared to her love story which included herself as a deluded, ungracious, and reckless woman, hardly an important one; and Zoe’s new-generation take one the book: “How can you not see that it’s a great love story?”

Nunez includes in that final section on Gatsby the schoolteacher’s assignments, inviting the comparison: “Compare and contrast: East Egg / West Egg. Jay Gatsby / Tom Buchanan. New York / The Middle West.” We could add “the 60’s / the 00’s” and say “speculate” to go even further.

I have been thinking about Lars and Trond, the neighbors in Out Stealing Horses. Do we get to see enough of their relationship to think about what might happen later, after the book ends? Maybe.  Here is what I think is so:

The two have common history rooted in the same place.

They enjoy the physical work of life.

They have lost a huge part of that they once thought their lives included: a father for Trond, a farm for Lars.

Neither went back.

They are over sixty and live within sight of each other.

I think this is a recipe for friendship, at least I would like to think so. Lars seems, to me and to Trond, like a decent fellow, careful, deliberate, thoughtful.

Each could use the other’s companionship even though neither moved there to be near. So, each could use the other’s forbearance too. On that, I think, they could count. I can see them doing some fishing together, working projects that are too hard for one man, keeping an eye out for each other. Cooking for two might be something Trond is willing to do, maybe even twice a week and on special occasions.

Well, we don’t get to see much of that. So, I wonder, what is Lars doing in that story? He intensifies Trond’s loss of a father. Yes, it is a greater loss when your dad fathers another man’s son even if just for a while. It raises our curiosity about the father’s life after Trond returns to Oslo.  If Jon had returned to find Trond’s father still there (his mother was, we know), I don’t think it would make sense for him to demand the farm. Are we, then, to think that he had died? Left? Or was he just living up stream still? (In that case, would he have been a father to Lars? Lars calls him “my stepfather” during the account of the dog shooting). I am not sure which is most likely.  We don’t really have to know.

But Lars is doing something else here. If it were just Trond who was suffering a loss – even though he was the boy in the golden trousers and lived a full live, albeit not without tragedy – alone, the story would be about an individual. More about him, less about us.

But there Lars is. He lived a life parallel to Trond in loss and suffering. He was booted out, young. He did not return. He also lost a father and, like Trond, a sibling (twice).  This makes the book more a tale of two men whose lives intertwined briefly but significantly.

If this is so, would Trond be the Sydney Carton who loses a father that another man might have one? The allusion strengthens the argument that Lars’ presence adds a universal scope to the theme. We have to see life as loss. How much it hurts will be up to us.

 

 

I taught English for seventeen years. That is not a confession.  One thing we worked on when I taught seniors was irony.  I suppose seniors in high school are ripe for it since they are all focused on leaving the place that they most do not want to leave.

We rehearsed the normal definitions of the concept, dividing them into verbal, situational and dramatic irony.  All seniors love Oedipus the King. The ironies of all kinds are rife (let me paraphrase here): Oedipus – “I am going to hunt down the king’s murderer and seek vengeance;”  Oedipus, again – “I left my father and mother to avoid killing one and marrying the other;” the Audience, Greek or modern – “OMG, don’t you see? You are the culprit.” And on and on and on.

The ironic would have gone the way of metonymy if life itself were not so full of it.  And if a book is as full of ironies, chances are that it is a fair picture of life.  Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses is both full of irony and truth about living and observing life.  It is widely agreed that it meets the test. The truth that it would NOT make a good read for seniors anxious to live life rather than examine it is all to its credit. Besides, the tripartite definition of the concept is far too clumsy to describe what goes on in Petterson’s book.

Start with the title, Out Stealing Horses. It is a password of sorts, used during the resistance to Nazi occupation in the war. As such, it is both symbolic and ironic. It symbolizes the danger involved – the consequence is well-known, even to Jon and Trond – and the verbal irony is clear.  No, in neither instance, the war or the episode with Barkald’s horses, was stealing involved. It is further ironic in the way Jon uses it.  He uses the phrase literally, but at the same time we know – at least later on – that he used it to cover a far more serious happening of his life, one so serious that only a password with a history could convey enough significance.  When Trond tells his father that he and Jon were “out stealing horses” his father’s reaction is ironic.  Immediately, he might think his cover has been blown, that his son knows a truth that he has not revealed, one that he may not yet know himself. There are secrets here, just as in Oedipus, that when revealed will render life long and life changing irony. Some of it may become clear when Trond hears the same words from Franz as the World War II stories of his father are passed along.

An irony that is more pronounced at the time it is read is Trond’s assertion, “I trusted my father.” When I read these words, I flushed with gratitude that there were fathers who could be trusted.  Mine could not. But within a second, the thought came, “If he has to say it so flatly, it will turn out not to be true.” More succinctly, “Fat chance.”  No father can be trusted, at least no more fully than any man, and should not be trusted in the way a young son does. The boy must say it if we are to know he believes it. If a grown man were to say it, we would be immediately convinced he was eulogizing or outright lying. Of course, one beauty of the narrative is that the reader gets to know as does the boy, little by little, what the grown-old narrator has already found out. The trust of boys, of sons carries its own risks.

I am certainly not going to catalog each irony that appears in Out Stealing Horses but permit me one more, so emotionally evocative that it is perhaps the best example of how very good Petterson can be, and that is very, very good: Trond is leaving the village by the river where he spent the summer with his father. He will return to Oslo now.  The irony is verbal and dramatic. It is also neither of those.  Verbal irony unfolds when the reader hears a character say something he clearly believes is true but is in fact opposed to what is known to be so.  In this section, Trond is forced to say he understands and that it is OK. But he tells us he is not sure he understands and that it is definitely not OK.  The reader knows that Trond does not understand and easily agrees that it is not OK.  The reader also knows that it is less OK than even that, thus, dramatic irony.  This scene would work without ironic twists, but it would then only be sentimental, something the older Trond guards against.  As it is, the reader sees a father bidding his son farewell, not for a week or two nor for a month or two, but for much, much longer than that.  We are aghast – we scream out at Oedipus, “It’s is you; you are your father’s killer.” – we cannot understand, like Trond, how a man, even a man who barehanded pulls up nettles, can do this without tearing out his own eyes.

Maybe it’s because I am experiencing something I did not understand when I was ten and my mother was forty-two.

There she was again, sitting in her chair.  She hadn’t started to use the throw she knit yet. That came later, and she sure wasn’t using the pansy- patterned throw I bought for her years after I move out and on, the one I now spread across my legs when I am reading at night and am too lazy to climb in bed. She was sitting there again as I was bouncing around the living room looking for excitement.

“Why are you always sitting so much?” I asked.

She gave me her best, most exasperated look and laughed. (She spared me my father’s famous and oft-repeated wisdom, “You’ll find out”).

“I’m pooped. I’m tired.”She laughed again. I guess I wasn’t there all day for the cleaning, laundry, cooking three meals and getting up an hour ahead of every body else and finally turning out the lights and turning down the thermostat. In between, she held a full-time job at the hospital kitchen. Later, I found out she deserved to sit down and put her feet up.

Well, I did find out, Dad. I know the kind of tired she felt.  It doesn’t hurt so much. It just won’t go away. You can’t complain about it so much and you know that the alternative is downright out of the question. What a pain it is to grow old.

But pain is not confined to the old.  Thank heaven for that. But the old have a deeper appreciation for pain and spend less time trying to avoid it. Now whether that is true or not Per Petterson in Out Stealing Horses certainly investigates pain, and since his narrator is both a 15 and a 67-year-old throughout the book, we get to see pain of the young and the old.  The fact that it is the same person suffering these pains tells us something about how life, and suffering, changes us and changes our view of ourselves and our lives.

Okay, let’s start with the centerpiece of the pain theme.  Trond avoids cutting the nettles. Questioned, he tells his father, “It will hurt,” after which dad pulls them up one after another with his bare hands. Now don’t get the idea that I am still whimpering after being stung years ago working on the grounds-crew at the university. But, hey, Trond was right. Nettle stings hurt. They really hurt. Dad, though, had, as we find out, suffered much deeper pain: the pain of his homeland being overrun by brutal brigands, the pain of making wrong choices, the hurt of loss even before it really became loss.  The man had lived.  He tells his son, “You decide yourself when it will hurt.”

I am not sure that this means we dismiss the pain and go on, or if you initiate painful actions only when you are sure you must, or that you simply appreciate the pain for what it is: proof that you are alive. I has to be that this is a lesson father teaches son, and Trond could never forget a scene like that. So, what do we find him doing later on?

Out stealing horses with Jon,  fifteen-year-old Trond crunches his balls jumping from a tree to a horse. Most boys know how that feels since there is no end of other boys trying to kick them there, usually with eventual success. The result as it was with Trond is direct vomiting.  Then, Trond is thrown from the horse across a barbed wire fence slashing his arm, landing hard and believing he is paralyzed. Not long afterward he is confronted with the psychic pains of loss as his summer friend who minutes before had seemed as he normally was, a wild and wonderful boy, seems to go insane. Immediately following, Trond is attacked by pseudo-asthma and then by a drenching, chilling thunderstorm. Now that’s painful. (Who called this a quiet novel?)

How does the old Trond respond to pain.  First, he is philosophical about it: “I have been lucky, I say to myself. I can go out to a neighbour in the night when he is searching for his dog, and it will take me only a couple of days and I will be OK again.”  Yes, even though he needs his sleep which will be disturbed, Trond considers himself lucky.  The irony of this passage was clear to me only at the end of the book, maybe even beyond that. In any case,  the old narrator is watchful if not careful of his body, especially his back, and has to plan his activities to avoid exhaustion which does overtake him.  I must say, both the young and old Trond suffer weak stomachs.  That much did not change.

Pain and injury – Trond nearly disables himself jumping out of his bunk – play major roles in the book.  But it is the special way that Petterson employs them, Trond’s approach to them, the tools he uses to manage them, especially when old, that bond the father with the son and the young narrator with the older one.  Among the many skills his father taught him, although he let his son explore and make his own mistakes frequently, handling the pain of life proves to be one useful and important.  Even the boy with the golden trousers, the lucky devil in life, Trond needed this skill. I wonder just how much forethought  his father, who was a noted planner, gave to imparting that lesson. It would be most important were Father not be there to continue the training.

Tim