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 The Tu Do hustlers had withdrawn into the arcade of Eden Passage where they lounged sleepy-eyed, rousing themselves now and then to hiss after the passing of a sweating American.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.


Contemporary Novels

THE MARRIAGE PLOT by Jeffery Eugenides

For a change of pace, I’m going to skip my usual format and focus on two moments in Jeffery Eugenides’ superb 2011 novel, THE MARRIAGE PLOT. The story starts as a somewhat conventional love triangle formed by three graduating seniors at Brown University in 1982. Madeleine is in love with literature, and the opening paragraphs catalogue the books in her bedroom. She’s also in love with Leonard, a brilliant but emotionally unstable biologist. And she is loved by Mitchell, who is finding himself increasingly drawn to a Dostoevskian religious mysticism.

The charms of the book are plentiful–clear prose with seductive rhythms; deeply imbedded narrative viewpoints; backstories and contradictions that make the characters rich and believable; carefully chosen details that bring the various settings to life. The book is full of unexpected twists without it ever turning into a suspense novel. The very setup is heartbreaking–I cared so much for all of these characters, but knew it was impossible for them all to get what they wanted.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

THE MARRIAGE PLOT is a master class in using allusion, cultural references, and arcane information to deepen the reading experience. Consider the following moment, late in the book, as Madeleine and Leonard arrive by train at Penn Station. This is all from Madeleine’s viewpoint.

Madeleine led Leonard away from the packed escalators to a less trafficked stairwell, where they climbed up to the lobby. A few minutes later they stepped into the heat and light of Eighth Avenue. It was just after six.

As they joined the taxi line, Leonard eyed the nearby buildings, as though worried they were going to topple on him.

“New York,” he said. “Just like I pictured it.”

It was his last little joke. When they got in a cab and were heading uptown, Leonard asked the driver if he could please turn on the air conditioning. The driver said it was broken. Leonard rolled down the window, hanging his head out like a dog. For a moment, Madeleine regretted bringing him along. [p.370]

This is far from Leonard’s first trip to New York, so Madeleine interprets his acting like a rube as a “little joke,” as, probably, would most of Eugenides’ readers. However, if you, like me, consider the INNERVISIONS album by Stevie Wonder to be one of the masterpieces of the 20th century, you immediately recognized that quote from the dramatic interlude near the end of “Living for the City,” cut 3, side 1. And you know that the narrator who speaks those lines on the record is just about to step into a world of hurt.

I don’t believe Madeleine got the reference. I think if she had, she would have remarked on it. She might have even responded with the next line, “Skyscrapers and everything,” which is what I hope I would have done in the circumstances. And I don’t believe Leonard intended her to get it. He’s talking to himself, entertaining himself, isolating himself, as he has been doing increasingly, because by this point in the story Leonard is seriously mentally ill.

Eugenides could have had Madeleine recognize the quote, but that would have been out of character, and part of Leonard’s intention was to exclude her. Eugenides left this complex and fraught moment to carry its own weight, a gift for the readers who would appreciate it, letting them feel even greater empathy for Leonard because of a shared love of the song.

It’s a great trick–but it doesn’t always work. And that brings me to the second moment I want to talk about. (Warning: This is going to get very “inside baseball.”) Much earlier in the book, Madeleine and Leonard are driving to his new job on Cape Cod. Madeleine is again the viewpoint.

Madeleine had a Pure Prairie League tape that Leonard tolerated until they stopped at a gas station with a minimart, when he bought a cassette of Led Zeppelin’s Greatest Hits and played it the rest of the way over the Sagamore Bridge and onto the peninsula. [p. 172-3]

Now, many readers will know that Atlantic Records never released an album called Led Zeppelin’s Greatest Hits. For one thing, Zep was the quintessential FM radio band and rarely bothered to release songs on singles–thus they had almost no “hits” as traditionally defined. They didn’t even have a “best of” compilation until the 1990 eponymous 4-CD boxed set.

But wait. Eugenides makes a point that Leonard bought this cassette at a gas station. And in 1982 it was not unusual to find pirate tapes at gas stations. (There are three main types of illegal recordings. Bootlegs offer material that’s not available elsewhere. Counterfeits attempt to mimic content and packaging of an existing legitimate release. Pirate recordings typically come in generic packaging and use authentic content without paying for it, sometimes copying whole albums, sometimes putting together previously non-existent greatest hits packages.)

So did Eugenides erroneously assume there was an official Zep Greatest Hits album? Or does he perhaps own a copy of this very pirate cassette, which he bought at a gas station on 1982? It doesn’t really matter. This moment doesn’t work as well as the Wonder reference because it can pull the reader out of the narrative flow and make us start asking just those sorts of questions.

Had we been in Leonard’s viewpoint, he might well have put the word “pirate” in front of the word “cassette,” preempting any confusion. But this is Madeleine speaking, and so we’re left to guess. Which makes the Wonder reference that much more impressive, because Eugenides pulls that one off without Madeleine’s help.

Fortunately, THE MARRIAGE PLOT is full of stealth cleverness of the Wonder sort and few stumbles of the Zep variety. Because the characters themselves are so smart and so well read, it’s all the more impressive that Eugenides can keep up with them, showing their brilliance rather than having to tell us about it.

And if, every once in a while, I had to stop and mull something over, well, better to think twice than not at all.