Friday, March 26, 2010

Old Mr. Flood by Joseph Mitchell

Old Mr. Flood
by Joseph Mitchell
Foreword by Charles McGrath
(MacAdam Cage hardcover edition, April 2005)

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A wise bookseller once taught me that right after reading something really, especially good, it's a good idea to read something completely different, as a sort of palate cleanser. After The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Passage, I felt the need to read something that was definitively not a big fat novel of an unfamiliar world. Luckily, my hand trailing over the unread riches of my bookshelves landed on Old Mr. Flood. As a small collection of three short semi-nonfictional pieces about a downtown New Yorker, it was exactly what I had been wanting.

For some inexcusable reason I had never read Joseph Mitchell before, though he's one of those authors you feel you know all about without reading him (the same way I thought, mistakenly, that I knew what Michaelangelo's David looked like before I saw the real thing). Apparently he is the sort of writer other writers go back and reread when they need to remind themselves how this whole business of stringing words together ought to work. This volume came into my possession at a launch party at a bar for MacAdam Cage's reissued edition (I was the offsite bookseller), where I heard Eli Wallach read Mitchell's words in a precisely appropriate grizzled, humorous old man sort of way.

The cover is a photograph of an old man at the remnants of the Fulton Fish Market, where the pieces about Mr. Flood are set; it's natural to interpret this as a representation of the title character, but in fact the photo is of Mitchell himself. As Charles McGrath points out in his illuminating introduction, Mr. Flood is not only a composite character of men Mitchell had talked with at the fish market, but also "an alter ego, who has countless things in common with his creator", including a fondness for drink, a graveyard sense of humor, and a love of seafood. (Despite his derision of "goormys", aka gourmets, I kept thinking Flood/Mitchell's sense of what's good to eat has a lot in common with contemporary foodie wisdom: he's not interested in vitamins or processed bread, just food as fresh and natural as he can get it.)

Mr. Flood, a retired demolition man who has taken up residence in a hotel near the fish market in the early 1940s, is very old. The subject of imminent death is one often discussed or irritably avoided. But he's also irrepressibly full of life, somehow immortal -- much like the fish market and the New York harbor life itself, which was on its way out even as Mitchell wrote about it. The stories should be depressing, but I found myself laughing out loud quite a bit, and tugging on the ALP's sleeve to read him the good parts. The writing is quite astonishingly good, even as it effaces itself in service of the textures and details and talk and tools and mannerisms of its subjects. I've since been seeking out more of Mitchell's pieces, which are thankfully now readily available, and observing the world with his eyes and thinking in his language -- which is a sure sign that a writer has really gotten to you.

I'm going to take the liberty to quote in full my favorite passage, which I read out loud to the ALP -- I'm hopeful that Mitchell's publishers and estate won't take it amiss. It's got a bit of all the good stuff that the book delivers: humor, dialect, the texture of details, and good food writing. One warning: I gave up eating any meat for Lent, but this bit made me crave oysters something fierce. As soon as Easter comes, I'm going in search of a place that serves oysters just like this. As a cure for a lingering cold or a spell of bad weather or the uneasiness of mortality, it seems you could do worse.

Mr. Flood snorted again. "Oh, shut up," he said. "Damn your doctor! I tell you what you do. You get right out of here and go over to Libby's oyster house and tell the man you want to eat some of his best oysters. Don't sit down. Stand up at the at that fine marble bar they got over there, where you can watch the man knife them open. And tell him you intend to drink the oyster liquor; he'll knife them on the cup shell, so the liquor won't spill. And be sure you get the big ones. Get them so big you'll have to rear back to swallow, the size that most restaurants use for fries and stews; God forgive them, they don't know any better. Ask for Robbins Islands, Mattitucks, Cape Cods, or Saddle Rocks. And don't put any of that red sauce on them, that cocktail sauce, that mess, that gurry. Ask the man for half a lemon, poke it a time or two to free the juice, and squeeze it over the oysters. And the first one he knifes, pick it up and smell it, the way you'd smell a rose, or a shot of brandy. That briny, seaweedy fragrance will clear your head; it'll make your blood run faster. And don't just eat six; take your time and eat a dozen, eat two dozen, eat three dozen, eat four dozen. And then leave the man a generous tip and go buy yourself a fifty-cent cigar and put your hat on the side of your head and take a walk down to Bowling Green. Look at the sky! Isn't it blue? And look at the girls a tap-tap-tapping past on their pretty little feet! Aren't they just the finest girls you ever saw, the bounciest, the rumpiest, the laughingest? Aren't you ashamed of yourself for even thinking about spending good money on a damned doctor? And along about here, you better be careful. You're apt to feel so bucked-up you'll slap strangers on the back, or kick a window in, or fight a cop, or jump on the tailboard of a truck and steal a ride."

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage
by Justin Cronin
(Ballantine, June 2010)

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Reading Justin Cronin's The Passage was a wonderfully weird experience in so many ways. For one thing, there had been foreshadowing for weeks: my business partner, my Twitter friends, fellow booksellers, the Winter Institute buildup, EVERYTHING and everyone seemed to be telling me to read this book. Not only was it being read by everyone whose tastes I share, it sounded like just the sort of thing I would like. Literary adventure with a soupçon of the supernatural? Yes please thankyou.

Weirder though, I'd read Justin Cronin's previous book The Summer Guest -- way back when, when I was young and poor enough to need the $45 they could pay me, I even reviewed it for Publishers Weekly (login required, sorry). I loved that novel, a piercing but gentle story of a family and its secrets over a summer at a fish camp. But it was a leetle hard to picture that rather quiet literary writer penning something that sounded like, from what people were telling me... a vampire apocalypse novel.

But I needed another big fat novel for a plane ride, so I jumped in, salivating with anticipation. And what an freakin' incredible ride it was. It starts with the very first sentence:

"Before she became the Girl from Nowhere -- the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years -- she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy."

It opened up a world to get lost in. I had to come back to that sentence a number of times as the story got bigger, more epic and labyrinthine, and I needed to remember where we came from and where we were headed.

I love the backstory of this novel, as put forth in the "Dear Reader" letter at the front: that Cronin asked his young daughter what he should write about next, and she said "Write about a girl who saves the world." An unlikely challenge for the average writer of literary fiction -- but Cronin was up to it, with a vengeance. Not only did he write this novel on the full apocalyptic epic scale, but it's the first of a trilogy -- a huge world-building exercise, with heroes and villains and massive set-pieces and romance and destiny and life and death.

I don't want to talk much about the plot, other than that first sentence; I'm sure many reviews will come out that outline the story structure, but it was such a pleasure to read in breathless suspense and near constant surprise that this early on I don't want to spoil it for anybody. My impression about half way through was that it reminded me a lot of Dean Koontz, whom I loved as a teen -- adventure with a scrim of sci fi and a Joseph Campbell-ian hero to root for. But Koontz's morality was always a tad too schematic, his bad guys too obviously bad, his emphasis on the value of home and hearth almost a little right-wing, and his dialogue not especially convincing.

Cronin is showing us what happens when a writer who has cut his chops on stories of families and relationships takes on an operatic fantasy epic. The villains are sometimes monstrously horrifying, sometimes pathetically well-meaning, sometimes just driven and short-sighted. The social interactions -- the love affairs, the family life, the camaraderie and power shifts of extreme danger -- are exquisitely observed. And the action scenes leave nothing to be desired, except maybe the ability to read faster. At times, yes, it seems a little too overdetermined that the good guys will live through the horrors that have killed countless others -- but it would hardly be a satisfying adventure story (at least in Volume One) if they didn't.

What I appreciate most about what Cronin brings to this heart-pounding epic is the Big Themes, which grow on you gradually rather than hitting you over the head. There's a lot of ink spilled these days about what vampires "mean" -- in The Passage, it seems that on some level they just mean mortal danger, of the kind bands of humans have always faced. How to make meaning and value out of a life whose sweetness is likely to be heartbreakingly brief -- is this a question unique to those expecting carnivorous humans to descend on them at nightfall? And there's the question of identity, too. The vampires take away identity into a massive, hungry hive-mind, while Cronin's humans constantly ground their identity in their family name, the work they do, the place they come from -- just like us, just like always. Who are you? is a repeated refrain, sometimes answerable, sometimes not.

These are just samplings of some of the stuff I saw going on in this book, which is made not only to quicken the pulse and keep you up at night, but also to interrogate and reevaluate the deep core of being human. The only thing I hated about this book is that it is fully committed to being a trilogy: at the end, after 700 pages of horror and laughter and tears and ephiphanies and explosions, it ends on a cliffhanger. AAAUUGH!! But what more visceral response could a "literary writer" evoke? Kudos to Justin Cronin for this masterpiece, which I think is going to be the book of the summer if not the year -- and here's hoping he hurries up and writes the next one!

Monday, March 08, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell
(Random House, June 2010)

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Anyone who has ever read my blog, or ever met me, stands a good chance of having heard me talk about David Mitchell. It's rather satisfying, at my age, to have discovered my Favorite Living Writer. Ever since Cloud Atlas left me slack-jawed and inarticulate with its puzzle structure and fearlessly ambitious plots and astonishing humor and humanist compassion and heartbreaking truths -- okay, even before that, when I snapped up Ghostwritten and Number Nine Dream with the satisfaction of finding just what one wanted to eat, a meal that becomes a sweet memory -- and especially afterward, when I met the man at book readings for Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green and he turned out to be the kind, brilliant, self-effacing person you hope in your heart of hearts that your favorite authors might turn out to be -- David Mitchell has been my model for what writing and writers can be, and I have described myself truthfully if unflatteringly as a slavering fan. (That sentence was just because I could. Sorry.)

But having a favorite writer also means you approach every new work of theirs with an inevitable trepidation: will it hold up? Will you have to love it half-heartedly, out of loyalty, or will it blow you away again? Will it move you in the same way -- or better yet, in a different way -- or will it be simply good, and not great?

For this reason, after I had gotten Random House's postcard last fall announcing a new David Mitchell title coming in June, and after I had begged the publicist to consider Greenlight for an event*, and after Mitchell's wonderful editor David Ebershoff had stopped into Greenlight and we'd talked about our mutual love for the man, and after Ebershoff had, taking pity on me, sent me the bound manuscript for Mitchell's new book -- I looked at it on my shelf for about a month and a half before opening it. I told myself and other people I wanted to wait until I could set aside time to read it straight through, and that was partly true. But of course I was also nervous about whether he could do it again, and whether I could love like that again. Finally, on the plane to see my family in California for a post-Christmas vacation, I pulled the 8 1/2 by 11 thing out of my bag and started to read.

So? What was it like? It was not like Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten; it was a single narrative thread, ostensibly, the story of a Dutch trading post in Japan in 1799 and following. I noted with satisfaction that it was written in third person, a first for Mitchell -- he had noted at a reading I attended that he had always written in first person, since he "wouldn't know where to look" without a single perspective, but that third person sounded like a challenge he should set himself -- and look here, he had.

I also noted, as no doubt reviewers will, that one thread of this narrative involves a European (in Jacob de Zoet's case a Dutchman, in Mitchell's case an Irishman) falling in love with a Japanese girl (in de Zoet's case, Orito Aibagawa, a young surgeon in training who has a scar that makes her unmarriageable, but not unbeautiful; in Mitchell's case, his now wife and mother of his children, whom I know nothing more about). Here the similarity ends between Mitchell's biography and the story, but it is a telling detail -- I think during Mitchell's time in Japan he fell in love with Murakami and a kind of Japanese-ness as well as with the woman he eventually married, and Japan looms large in his pantheon of influences. There is an outsider's tenderness and frustration and fascination and longing and homesickness in the book that rings true to life; the part of me that considers myself to a very small degree David Mitchell's friend (we have had dinner together in a group, and he writes very kind things in my galleys and remembers my bookstore plans when he sees me) is glad that he wrote this part of his story, and that he did it in this particular way.

In fact, a great many things in the book delighted me, though they swam up slowly, rather than bursting in a flood of revelation. I love that Jacob de Zoet is a Dutch Reformed Calvinist (I am one myself, unlikely as that seems), and that his faith is taken seriously, as are the various faiths or skepticisms of the Asian, African, European, and other characters that populate the book -- they're not neuroses or tools of oppression, though they can be used that way. I love how in this simple through-line narrative about a young Dutchman in Japan, Mitchell manages to include dozens of other stories -- nearly every character in the book finds space to tell his own story, including some of the most contemptible. I love the endless invention that goes into making these many imaginary and believably specific lives, and the compassion that Mitchell, typically, has for them all.

I love several instances of good triumphing decidedly and sometimes hilariously over evil, as well as many more instances of good intentions bringing suffering and disappointment. I love that part way through this rigorously historical novel, a never-quite-resolved hint of creepy supernaturalism is introduced, as well as a very real nefarious institution, and the novel becomes, for a while, an adventure story. I love that, though he knows exactly how to write a satisfying adventure story, Mitchell cannot be relied upon to give all of his characters happy endings (though I didn't exactly love it at the time I was reading it -- I was actually a little angry and sad). I love how the novel in the end manages to be drawn together and loosened, resolved and heartbreakingly abandoned, all at once. I love how it stayed with me and grew in me after I had read it (on the plane and during the weekend I should have been hanging out with my family, though they're all readers too so it was mutual) -- as the best novels do.

As the ALP has postulated, the works of art that stay with us are usually not the ones that we love easily on first experiencing them. Rather, they tend to be the ones that grow on us, that we find ourselves thinking about and wrestling with and returning to. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is that second kind. It seems to have made its own distinctive ache in my heart -- for the heartbreaks of the story, and its beauties, and its delights that I will never experience for the first time again. In this way it does seem very Japanese: infused with an appreciation of the ephemeral that is as much about the nostalgia as about the event -- an autumnal beauty, in fact.

There is one delight, though, that I have yet to experience. When asked about the occasional recurrence of his characters from one book to another, Mitchell described a sort of waiting room, where every character he's ever written hangs out, and if he has a place for them in a story, they get a new part. I'm wondering whether Thousand Autumns is populated by any of the characters from the first section of Cloud Atlas, which takes place on a sailing vessel around the same time. Now, I'm gloatingly preserving the delight of re-reading Cloud Atlas to discover which characters might have life in both books. And perhaps "gloatingly preserving" is what made me wait so long to read Thousand Autumns anyway.

* The Greenlight David Mitchell event, by the way, has been scheduled: Saturday, July 17, at 7:30 PM. Random House is giving us a little budget to throw a party -- we're thinking sake and champagne. Open to ideas, though.