Historical Fiction

BOOTH by Karen Joy Fowler

NOTE: Though Karen Fowler is a dear friend, I believe I’m capable of reading her work objectively. Nonetheless, I might have passed on reviewing BOOTH, had it not been for attacks in the New York Times and the Times Book Review that I considered failures not only in objectivity, but in basic reading skills. Consider this not so much a review as a riposte.


The Buddha said that the greatest cause of human suffering is the inability to accept the world as it is. I include under this heading the inability of some to read what is actually on the page, and not what they wish was there. I’m guilty of this myself. I might wish, for example, that Karen Fowler’s magnificent new novel had been written in past tense. But she has reasons for her choices, and she has long ago earned the benefit of the doubt.

To begin with, the book is called BOOTH. It’s the story of an entire family, not just one man who happens to have murdered a President. Even at 464 pages, there’s no room for all of the story, and it’s important to note the choices that Fowler made to get it to fit. The first is the use of an omniscient narrator who steps out of close third person to summarize, to talk about the future, or to catch a reaction from another character. This voice has a personality of its own, reminiscent of the one in MIDDLEMARCH. The second choice is to focus a good deal of her attention on characters who are not in the (literal) limelight—the Booth women. Childbirth is as important here as swordfights, emotional pain as transforming as ideology.

The novel begins in 1838, shortly before the birth of John Wilkes Booth, the next-to-youngest son. The paterfamilias, Junius Brutus Booth, is the one of the most famous actors of his generation, already beginning a long descent into alcoholism and madness. All of the Booth children, to greater or lesser degrees, will struggle with the same demons. The three older sons will attempt careers in the theater. Living in the shadow of his two older and more successful brothers, seemingly born with tendency to violence and cruelty, John only finds his true calling as an agent of the Confederacy.

Fowler’s great accomplishment here is to vividly invoke the mid-nineteenth century—through sensual detail, vocabulary, attitude, and incident—and simultaneously to remind us of its connection to the present. As Fowler affirms in her Author’s Note, there are more similarities than differences between the secessionists of 1860 and the insurrectionists of 2021. And the present-tense, faintly astringent voice of Fowler’s narrator is a constant reminder that we seem doomed, as a nation, to fight the same battles over and over again.

Racism is baked into the novel in much the way it’s baked into the U.S. Constitution (see THE 1619 PROJECT by Hannah-Jones et al.). Not Fowler’s racism—obviously—but that of the times and her characters, even the most well-meaning of them. Only in the final pages does it become clear that racism is what we’ve been talking about all along.

The novel is full of the pleasures of fine writing. The characters are vivid, unique, and unforgettable. The portrait of this stunningly dysfunctional family is convincing, heartbreaking, and even occasionally funny (“Edwin will not give up his own status as most put-upon Booth without a fight.”). The dialog is sharp, the research amazing. Fowler’s sympathy for her characters never wavers, even when they repeatedly disappoint her. And the last hundred pages are as relentlessly suspenseful as a thriller.

Come to this book without expectations and find the jewel in the lotus.

Contemporary Novels


From the start, PERPETUAL WEST reminded me of DOG SOLDIERS, so it was no surprise to find Robert Stone’s name in the inspirations section of the acknowledgements. Stone, at his best, was one of the great writers of the 20th century. Consider this third paragraph from DOG SOLDIERS:

It was siesta hour and there was no one else in the park. The children who usually played soccer on the lawns were across the street, sleeping in the shade of their mothers’ street stalls. The Tu Do hustlers had withdrawn into the arcade of Eden Passage where they lounged sleepy-eyed, rousing themselves now and then to hiss after the passing of a sweating American. It was three o’clock and the sky was almost cloudless. The rain was late. There was no wind, and the palm crowns and poinciana blossoms of the park trees hung motionless.

Now the second paragraph of PERPETUAL WEST:

When they reached the border it was late August, evening, and still hot outside, but the sunlight was thinning. It fell through their car windows in long slashes that illuminated the dust on the dashboard, the cracked windshield, and expired inspection sticker—details that the police would eventually note in their report, atter finding the Honda abandoned in the Candy Club parking lot, but that was still four months away. On this August day the evidence suggested only that Elana and Alex were too poor to fix the windshield and too distracted to keep the inspection up to date. Behind them, a slope of treeless mountains hunched in shadow and before them, past the squat concrete bunker of the Paso del Norte border station and the brown gulch of the Rio Grande, Juárez rippled with headlights and neon signs.

At his worst, Stone—who was himself a notorious alcoholic and drug abuser—allows his drunken protagonists to occasionally take blame, but rarely responsibility, for the harm they do themselves and others. Similarly, Maren’s characters make one bad decision after another under the influence of mescal or cocaine or oxycodone or panic or lust. We feel Maren’s compassion for her characters, even as they fail to have much for each other.

Maren tells the story through three third-person (and past tense!) viewpoints. Alex, 21, was born in Juárez, but was adopted by a couple in the US as an infant. He’s come back to the border ostensibly to write a PhD thesis on lucha libre, the Mexican masked wrestlers, but in truth has returned to try to understand his identity as a Mexican. Elana, his 20-year-old wife, is escaping her suffocating family, including her incarcerated, emotionally troubled brother. They are both enrolled at the University of Texas at El Paso, but both spend increasing amounts of time across the border in Juárez, much of it with an activist collective, Kasa de Kultura. Meanwhile Matteo, a.k.a. El Vengador del Norte, one of Alex’s subjects, has just had his sponsorship picked up by the Juárez cartel.

Everyone, it seems, has been keeping secrets, and as a result, Alex disappears. Things go quickly downhill for all concerned, and serious consequences ensue.

Maybe the thing that seems most Stone-like in PERPETUAL WEST is that every part of its world has the weeds and scuff marks and broken windows of working-class reality. Maren knows the infinite distance between textbook Spanish and the slang of the street. She makes me see the hand-drawn posters on the walls of the Kasa and the women in its cramped kitchen. I can feel the vertigo of the bus ride over the mountains and hear the Norteña band at the cartel’s favorite restaurant. This is a minor thing, but typical–no one in the book ever says “Mexico City,” but instead calls it “DF” like the locals do (without ever saying what it stands for). As with Stone, the streets and clubs and stores have the casual authenticity that comes from long hours spent in their real-life counterparts.

I have complaints. The self-sabotage of drinking and drugging becomes tiresome. Some of the writing tries too hard to be Poetic. The plot spends too much time in idle wandering, in escapes and recaptures that accomplish little. The ending didn’t convince me that I, as a reader, now knew enough about what would happen next that I could close the book and go back to my own life.

Still, I recommend PERPETUAL WEST unreservedly. For its hyperrealism that has, sadly, fallen from fashion. For the barbed dialog that reveals buried resentments. For the great ideas that make the book smarter than it has to be, like Alex’s thesis that lucha libre presents the struggle between the US and Mexico in symbolic form; like the ongoing comparisons of the northward pull of the US to the westward migration in the 19th century; like the interrogation of Subcomandante Marcos’s philosophy and the references to Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. For that thing that great fiction does, taking you to another, fully detailed world that makes you think as much as it makes you feel.

I don’t think I will escape PERPETUAL WEST any time soon.

Contemporary Novels

HEAT & LIGHT by Jennifer Haigh

Haigh has established herself as an “issue” novelist, who deals with hot button topics like abortion, chronic illness, and sex scandals in the priesthood. HEAT & LIGHT is her fracking book, and of course reducing it to that single Procrustean dimension does the novel no service at all. “HEAT AND LIGHT,” she says in her acknowledgements, “is a book about the world.” If that claim seems a bit pretentious, she’s entitled to it. It’s a big book—in terms of cast, ideas, time span, research, word count, and the stakes involved—and it works beautifully on all those levels.

You do, however, have to get through the first 35 pages. That’s where we’re introduced to three slimy characters from the oil and gas company that is poised to frack the small Pennsylvania town of Bakerton to death: their man signing leases on the ground in Bakerton, and two executives in Houston. These portrayals are raised above cheap satire by two things: Haigh’s compassion, which she is able to extend even to these lower life forms, and the prodigious research that she has obviously done on the subject matter.

Once we start seeing things through the eyes of the townspeople, Haigh sets her hook deeply and the next 400 pages go by in a rush. (Note that Haigh has written previous novels and stories about Bakerton, but you can enjoy HEAT & LIGHT completely on its own.)

At the heart of the story is the Devlin family. Rich, a corrections officer, has dreamed of turning the family land into a working farm. Oil company money would finally allow him to do it. His wife, Shelby, initially in favor of the deal, becomes convinced that fracking has contaminated their well water and is poisoning their daughter.

Meanwhile, aging activist Lorne Trexler comes to Bakerton to lead resistance to the fracking. Organic dairy farmers Mack and Rena watch helplessly as their neighbors’ land is savaged by drilling rigs. Pastor Jess, who took over her husband’s storefront church after his death, struggles to comfort the members of her flock while dealing with her own loneliness.

Haigh is all about connections, and she finds them everywhere. Before the gas companies came, Bakerton was practically a ghost town, but before that it was defined by its coal mining. Before toxic well water there was black lung. As she moves back and forth in time, there are stops at Three Mile Island, the 19th-century Pennsylvania Oil Rush, and critical points in the characters’ pasts. She finds more sinister connections too. Stream Solutions does the actual drilling, but is only a subsidiary of Dark Elephant, which is in turn owned by Darco, which outsources everything it possibly can, making accountability a game of shadows. And, most importantly, there are the connections the characters make with each other: Rena with Trexler, Rich’s brother Darren with his high school fantasy, various townspeople with the invading drillers.

The writing throughout is understated, precise, authoritative, and always shaped by the viewpoint character. It can be insightful and funny (“According to Dick Devlin, there are two kinds of work: the kind where you shower before, and the kind where you shower after”) or it can batter you on the next page with images of hell on earth:

The rig is lit, around the clock, with klieg lights. From a distance it radiates a sulfurous glow, like a football stadium at night. Several trucks idle loudly. Up close the diesel smell is overpowering. The engine noise makes his whole body vibrate. He sees no sign of human presence. It’s as though the giant machines are running themselves.

The book feels like one of these songs about small town America by John Mellencamp or Brandy Clark, or by The Killers from their PRESSURE MACHINE album. Because HEAT & LIGHT is realism of the highest order, things do not end well. No magic is conjured to restore Bakerton to its former self. But for most of the characters, life goes on, lessons are learned, priorities are realigned. And thanks to Haigh’s superb writing, we now have those characters to carry around inside us.