Contemporary Novels

BE SAFE I LOVE YOU by Cara Hoffman

If you had asked me on page 75 what this novel was about, I would have said, “I don’t know. This solider, Lauren, comes home from Iraq. She’s really close to her younger brother. Her father is this old hippie who can barely take care of himself. She has vague plans to meet up with a guy named Daryl that she knew in the service.” But that isn’t a story, that’s background. There are a few omens. She is perhaps a little too sure that she is squared away and in control. When violence erupts on page 77, it is precise and shocking and forced me to rethink everything I knew about Lauren Clay and where this novel was going.

And that’s about all I’m going to say about plot and story. If I even tried to pigeonhole BE SAFE into a genre, I would be spoiling the ride. This is one of those cases where I have to say, “Trust me. You need to read this book.”

The friend who recommended BE SAFE to me compared it to the work of Megan Abbott, and that’s certainly a place to start. Both are great with family drama, both are unflinching in talking about teenagers, both are skilled at making you care for the imaginary beings that inhabit their novels. Hoffman in addition is a world class stylist, clean, clear, evoking scenes in pointillist detail, like this description of the airport where Lauren has just landed in the US after nine months in the desert:

Christmas music played from speakers mounted near the cameras beside the baggage claim. Beyond the sliding-glass doors rain baptized those who ran from the curb to meet their friends and relatives in the roped-off lobby beneath a faded blue and white sign reading simply: ARRIVALS. They came in dripping, disheveled, their faces shining or makeup running as they embraced and balanced packages and bags.

Lauren, ever vigilant, would of course notice the cameras right away. She would also see the cold rain as a blessing after all that heat and sand. Yet the roped-off lobby also separates Lauren from the other travelers, driving home the fact that nobody (by her choice) is there to meet her. The plain language goes down like cool water, not drawing attention to the heavy lifting it’s doing in the background, every choice of detail telling us a little more about who Lauren is.

And that question–who is she, really?–is what the book is about. It’s the question that her fate, and her brother’s, rests on. It’s to Hoffman’s immense credit that, right up to the final paragraphs, I didn’t know what the answer was going to be, and that I was stunned by how satisfying and believable that answer was.

I should stop here, but I feel compelled to point out that there is a lot of weeping in this novel. One person or another had tears streaming down his or her face for the latter part of it. (Oddly, this is the second book I’ve read this month with that problem.) The danger, of course, is that the characters do the crying for the reader, and pre-empt the reader’s own tears.

I cried anyway. This is an amazing, important book.

Historical Fiction

THE BOOK OF BUNK by Glen Hirshberg

The BOOK OF BUNK is labyrinthine, in the best Borgesian sense, with fictional towns within fictional towns, fictional characters portraying fictional characters in a sort of live action RPG before such things existed, all of that layered over “real” places and people and events that seem fictitious–none more so than the Federal Writer’s Project of the 1930s.

The FWP was part of Roosevelt’s New Deal and used government funds to support out-of-work writers (and researchers and editors) during the Great Depression. Though highly controversial at the time, much of the work produced under its auspices, particularly the slave narratives and the travel guides, is now considered a vital contribution to US history.

That’s just the background. The real story is the relationship between the two brothers Dent: Paul, the narrator, in his late teens, asthmatic, compassionate, and withdrawn; and Lewis, four years older and everything that Paul is not—a charismatic, reckless con man. After their widowed father dies in Blackcreek, Oklahoma, Paul hops a freight headed east. In his boxcar he meets a mysterious woman named Grace and an infant called “the Patrol.” Grace recruits Paul as a researcher for the FWP and sends him off to Trampleton, in the western mountains of North Carolina. Trampleton, like the town of Asheville that it resembles, is located in Buncombe County, from which the noun “bunk,” meaning nonsense, is derived. Asheville is “real” and Trampleton is fictional.

Between his reclusive nature and the town’s hostility toward strangers, Paul’s progress is predictably slow, and it’s no help that his brother Lewis has followed him to North Carolina and seems to be romantically involved with Grace. As Paul becomes increasingly attracted to a young local woman, he finds he has a rival in the disturbed and violent orphan Danny, who’s been her protector since they were both children.

In time Paul does begin to penetrate the secrets of Trampleton, secrets that involve racism, arson, and an imaginary mirror-land called Bunk County that has begun to bleed into the novel’s reality.

The book’s subtitle is “A Fairy Tale of the Federal Writers’ Project,” a description that made me fear I was going to encounter elves or sorcerers or the dreaded “magical realism.” Nothing could be further from the truth. This is realism at its best, with instantly memorable characters, vivid settings, and arduous research that seems effortless on the page. The dialog sparkles, and Hirshberg trusts us to interpret it for ourselves. For example, when the boxcar that holds Paul, Grace, and “the Patrol” begins to slow, Paul asks if they should hide. “Grace swept her gaze over the virtually empty car, her kicked-over apple basket, the kid’s ball of blankets. ‘Okay, Paul,’ she said. ‘I’ll count to ten.’”

Hirshberg’s descriptions of nature are lovely: “Overhead, the branches fanned open, carving the sky into a thousand blue cross-hatched fragments. Giant bud-clusters hung up there like beehives suspended in the eaves, and from them came a deep and constant rustling.”

To this formal elegance, Hirshberg adds the energy of big ideas. Plenty of writers have explored the fine line between truth and fiction, history and bunkum, but here the stakes are life and death. A practical joke becomes a fraud, the fraud becomes a tragedy. Famous writers are made and broken. Communities are created from dust and to dust they return, taking something priceless from the “real” world when they go. And just when we think we’ve seen it all, here comes the House Un-American Activities Committee to reenact the lies and innuendo of Bunk County on a national stage.

As far as I can tell, THE BOOK OF BUNK was printed only in a limited edition of 400 (plus 15 lettered copies) back in 2010. Time for somebody (New York Review of Books?) to step up and put it back in print for good.

Music Nonfiction

ADDICTED TO NOISE by Michael Goldberg

Cover designed by Todd Alcott is based on original Ace Double art for JUNKIE

“When I was growing up, I never felt like a whole person. I always thought there was something mentally wrong with me. I ran away from home a lot as a kid, looking for something. But I didn’t know what it was. There was something missing inside of me, I felt. I didn’t feel I was 100 percent human….Of course, not having a father had a lot to do with it. Being raised by a mother who had to work two jobs all her life had a lot to do with it. Being Black and born in the ghetto and not thinking that you can get out. That’s what most of us go through. Most Black people born in the United States today have a psychological defect. We’re born into something that’s not what we perceive life to be.

“We’re born in fucking ghettos of poverty, drugs, pimps, gangsters, prostitutes, guns. That is what you call mental illness. So from jump street, Black people are mental patients in the hospital of fucking life. A lot of Blacks don’t understand this. So I’m here to tell them: Look at it like it’s a mental hospital. And like in any hospital, the first thing you have to do is get well. And to get well, we have to say we are somebody, we are relevant to life, we can get out of here, and we don’t have to pick up guns and kill people and pimp our sisters. We don’t have to gangbang. And we can get out.”

—Rick James

Yep, you read that right. That’s Rick James talking, from a new collection of interviews called ADDICTED TO NOISE by former ROLLING STONE Senior Writer Michael Goldberg. (I previously reviewed Goldberg’s biography of James Calvin Wilsey, WICKED GAME.) His forte is the extended profile, with a mixture of quotes from the artist, quotes from others, and commentary from Goldberg. The book also contains variations on the interview form such as barely edited Q&As and monologues, most of them less successful. The Q&As can be muddled and repetitious (the Patti Smith piece particularly needed a harsher edit), and some of the hostile interviews (e.g. with Zappa or Flipper or the Sex Pistols) are embarrassing to sit through, even vicariously.

But when he’s on, Goldberg can come up with a moving and insightful story that changes the way you see an artist. His Stevie Wonder profile is worth the price of the collection all by itself, if only for the moment when Wonder acknowledges his perpetual tardiness.

“People seldom have a real perspective on what it takes. They just go, ‘Damn, he took so long.’ They don’t realize all the many experiences you have to go through.

“People do not understand lots of times. Which is okay. I mean, I’m not saying people have to change their lives for me. But if I’m what they want to be involved with, if this situation means that, as opposed to being 3 o’clock, it’s gonna be 9 o’clock or 10 o’clock, and if during all of that time between when it was supposed to be and the time it’s gonna be, I am honestly dealing with something else, then that’s just what that is. I can’t say that a computer’s going to break down. Basically all you can do is the best you can do.”

Goldberg needs time and space to do his best work. When he has enough column inches and access to an artist for days at a time, he can come up with pieces like the one on Brian Wilson’s first solo album, where the walls come down and you really feel like you’re seeing into people’s hearts. He managed the same feat with Brian’s brother Dennis, even with the disadvantage of writing it after Dennis’s death.

Another highlight of the book is a close comparison of Dylan’s “Desolation Row” with Jack Kerouac’s DESOLATION ANGELS. I knew Dylan was a plagiarist (e.g. “With God on Our Side” swipes the melody from “The Patriot Game”; Dylan famously stole Dave Van Ronk’s arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun”) but this time it was personal. “Desolation Row” is my second-favorite Dylan song (after “Positively 4th Street”), and Goldberg’s case for Dylan’s looting is disappointingly persuasive.

Other highlights include an in-depth report on the death of San Francisco’s KSAN as a progressive free-form music station, and personality pieces on Chris Isaak and Michael Jackson.

I can’t imagine a reader who would enjoy everything in this overlong book. At the same time, I can’t imagine a serious music fan who wouldn’t find at least a few pieces to love, pieces that turn a distant icon into a living, feeling human being.