Stuff I’ve Been Reading: August 2006

Nick Hornby
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  • The Accidental—Ali Smith
  • King Dork—Frank Portman


  • Tender Hooks—Beth Ann Fennelly
  • On Fire—Larry Brown
  • The Sixth Heaven—L. P. Hartley
  • Modern Baptists—James Wilcox
  • True Adventures with the King of Bluegrass—Tom Piazza
  • Digging to America—Anne Tyler
  • The Accidental—Ali Smith

It’s been an unsettling couple of months. It took me a while to get over the notion that I wanted to go and live in Oxford, Mississippi, after my recent visit there; and I’d only just become resigned to my lot here in north London when Arsenal, my football team, reached what we older fans still refer to as the European Cup Final. I’ve been watching Arsenal since 1968, and this was the first time they’d even got close, so the anticipation, followed by the crushing disappointment, pretty much destroyed all my appetite for books, if not for words: I probably sucked down a hundred thousand of the little bastards, as long as they formed themselves into previews of the game.

The Oxford thing was pretty serious for a while—although not, of course, as serious as the European Cup Final, which achieved a level of gravity that I have no wish to repeat in the time remaining to me on the planet. (Without going into too much detail, after early Arsenal domination, our keeper Jens Lehmann was calamitously sent off for a professional foul on Barcelona’s Samuel Eto’o after fifteen minutes or so. Arsenal defended heroically, despite being a man down, and then amazingly and sensationally took the lead through Sol Campbell, who’s had a miserable year both on and off the pitch, what with injuries, form, and the breakdown of his relationship with the designer Kelly Hoppen. Anyway, we held the lead for the best part of an hour, and then—after we’d missed good chances to go 2-0 up—fifteen minutes from the end we conceded an equalizer, followed shortly afterward by what turned out to be Barca’s winner. Like I said, this isn’t the time or the place to give you a minute-by-minute account of the game. Suffice it to say that the game was more draining for me than for any of the players, none of whom have been watching Arsenal since 1968.)

Sorry. Oxford. My plan was to get myself adopted by the poet Beth Ann Fennelly and her husband, the novelist Tom Franklin. They already have a young daughter, but I can look after myself, pretty much, and I was pretty sure that I could contribute to the household income even after sending money home to my own young family. It didn’t happen, in the end—something about some papers that didn’t come through, unless Tom and Beth Ann were just trying to let me down gently—but I still couldn’t shake the notion that their life in Mississippi was an enviable one. Maybe it would get boring after a while, drinking coffee in the sunshine on the veranda outside Square Books and walking down the road to visit Faulkner’s house, but surely not for a year or two?

In an attempt to compensate for the disappointment caused by the bungling bureaucrats, my reading was exclusively Southern for a couple of weeks, and I began with Beth Ann Fennelly’s collection of poems, Tender Hooks. I met Beth Ann and her daughter on the afore-mentioned veranda, admittedly only briefly (Claire will one day find it bewildering to learn that on the basis of these few minutes, I had made concerted attempts to become her extremely big brother), but both of them seemed like the kind of people that one would like to know better. And then, as luck would have it, a few days later I read “Bite Me,” the very first poem in the collection, in which Beth Ann describes her daughter’s birth:

And Lord did I push, for three more hours
I pushed, I pushed so hard I shat,
Pushed so hard blood vessels burst
in my neck and in my chest, pushed so hard
my asshole turned inside-out like a rosebud…

So I ended up feeling as though I knew them both better anyway—indeed, I can think of one or two of my stuffier compatriots who’d argue that I now know more than I need to know. (Is now the appropriate time, incidentally, to point out the main advantage of adoption?) If I had never met mother or daughter, then these lines would have made me wince, of course, but I doubt if they would have made me blush in quite the same way; maybe one should know poets either extremely well or not at all.

Tom Franklin’s novel Hell at the Breech—which I haven’t yet read—is set in 1890s Alabama, and is by all accounts gratifyingly bloody. So from the outside it looks as though they obey old-school gender rules ’round at the Fennelly/Franklin place: the man writes about guns and mayhem, the lady writes about babies and home. But as the above excerpt indicates, it’s not really like that at all. Yes, Tender Hooks is mostly about motherhood, but Fennelly’s vision has more in common with Tarantino’s than Martha Stewart’s. One long, rich poem placed at the center of the collection,“Telling the Gospel Truth,” puts the blood and sweat back into the Nativity, before moving on, cleverly and without contrivance, to contemplate the fatuity of poems that use “dinner knives to check for spinach in their teeth.” Fennelly’s poems aren’t mannered, needless to say. They’re plain, funny, and raw, and if you want to buy a present that isn’t cute or dreamy for a new mother then Tender Hooks will hit the spot—and won’t stop hitting it even though it’s sore.

Larry Brown lived in Oxford before his untimely death in 1994. On Fire is a terse, no-bullshit little memoir about his life as a fireman and a hunter and a father and a writer (he did all of those things simultaneously), and though I know next to nothing about the last two occupations….Ah, now, you see, that’s precisely it. It’s not true that I know next to nothing about the last two occupations, of course. I know a reasonable amount about both of them, and I was making a silly little self-deprecating joke. (There I go again. Was it silly? Was it little? Probably not. It was probably a brilliant and important self-deprecating joke.) But what struck me about Brown’s memoir is that, if you have experience of firefighting and hunting, self-deprecation is inappropriate and possibly even obstructive. It’s not that Brown is self-aggrandizing in any way. He isn’t. But in order to describe simply and clearly how you rescued someone from a burning building, you don’t want to waste words on all the throat-clearing and the oh-it-was-nothings that many of us (especially many of us in England) have to go through before we’re able to say anything at all. Before I read On Fire, I believed that self-deprecation was a matter of taste and personality, but now I can see that it’s much more a function of experience—that old joke, the one about having a lot to be modest about, is unavoidable here.There is a very precise description of the self-deprecator and his mindset in The Sixth Heaven, the second part of L. P. Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy (about which more later):

Eustace had no idea in what guise he wanted to appear to his listener—he tried to confine himself to the facts, but the facts must seem such small beer to her, with her totally different range of experience. He tried to make them sound more impressive than they were; then he was ashamed of himself, and adopted a lighter tone, with an ironical edge to it, as if he well knew that these things were mere nothings, the faintest pattering of raindrops…. But he thought she did not like this; once or twice she gently queried his estimate of events and pushed him back into the reality of his own feelings.

And that, of course, is the danger of self-deprecation: its avoidance of that reality. Larry Brown can confine himself to the facts, which actually aren’t small beer (or certainly don’t seem that way to those of us who experience no physical danger in the course of a normal working week); and as a consequence, the truth of any given situation is perhaps a lot easier to reach…. Oh, there we are! Thank God! It was actually easier for him than it is for me! He had it cushy, with his diving into burning buildings and his, you know, his heavy equipment!

Still on my Southern kick, I read James Wilcox’s gentle, rich, and atmospheric Modern Baptists, and True Adventures with the King of Bluegrass, Tom Piazza’s little book (it was originally a magazine article) about Jimmy Martin, in which the backstage area of the Grand Ole Opry is rather charmingly revealed to be a kind of country music limbo, where Nashville musicians wander around, apparently forever, harmonizing and jamming with anyone they bump into. (The only bum notes are struck by Piazza’s hero, who tries to pick a fight with anyone who still speaks to him.)

Baltimore isn’t really in the South, I know, but when a new Anne Tyler novel is published, you have to kick whatever habit you’ve developed and pick it up. And then read it. Digging to America is, I think, my favorite of her recent books. It may be disconcerting for those of you reared on Bret Easton Ellis and Irvine Welsh to read a novel whose climactic scene deals with a parent’s comical attempts to get her child to give up her pacifiers (or “binkies,” as they are known within the family); I can imagine some critics complaining that Tyler ignores “the real world,” wherever that might be—especially as Baltimore, where all her novels take place, is also the setting for The Wire, HBO’s brilliant, violent series about drug dealers, their customers, and the police officers who have to deal with them.The best answer to this actually rather unreflective carping comes from John Updike, in his New Yorker review of bad boy Michel Houellebecq’s new novel:

But how honest, really, is a world picture that excludes the pleasures of parenting, the comforts of communal belonging, the exercise of daily curiosity, and the widely met moral responsibility to make the best of each stage of life, including the last?

Nicely put, John. (And if there’s more where that came from, maybe it’s time to have a go at something longer than a book review.) Neatly, his summary of Houellebecq’s omissions serves as a perfect summary of some of the themes in Digging to America, although the emphasis on pleasures and comforts can’t do justice to Tyler’s complications and confusions. Perhaps no single novel can capture the variety of our lives; perhaps even Houellebecq and Anne Tyler between them can’t get the job done. Perhaps we need to read a lot.

Ali Smith’s brilliant The Accidental manages to capture more of our lives, including both the humdrum and the uncomfortable, than any novel has any right to do. The central narrative idea (stranger walks into a family holiday home) is basic, and the book is divided into three parts, “The Beginning,” “The Middle,” and “The End.” And yet The Accidental is extremely sophisticated, very wise, wonderfully idiosyncratic, and occasionally very funny. (It says something about Ali Smith’s comic powers that she can make you laugh simply by listing the schedule of UK History, a British cable channel.) Here’s a little bit from the middle of the book, the section entitled “The Middle”: “The people on the TV talk endlessly…. They say the word middle a lot. Support among the middle class. No middle ground. Now to other news: more unrest in the Middle East. Magnus thinks about Amber’s middle…” I should own up here and tell you that The Accidental is a literary novel; there’s no point trying to hide this fact. But it’s literary not because the author is attempting to be boring in the hope of getting on to the shortlist of a literary prize (and here in the UK, Smith’s been on just about every shortlist there is) but because she can’t figure out a different way of getting this particular job done, and the novel’s experiments, its shifting points of view, and its playfulness with language seem absolutely necessary. I can’t think of a single Believer reader who wouldn’t like this book. And I know you all.

I read The Shrimp and the Anenome, the first part of L. P. Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy, bloody ages ago. And then I lost the book, and then I went off on my Southern thing, and then it was way too slow to pick up in a European Cup Final month, and… to get to the point: I’ve now read The Sixth Heaven, the second part, and it was something of a disappointment after the first. The Shrimp and the Anenome is an extremely acute book about childhood because, well, it explores the reality of the feelings involved, even though these feelings belong to people not quite into their teens. Hartley (who wrote The Go-Between and hung out in country houses with Lady Ottoline Morrell and the like) never patronizes, and the rawness, the fear, and the cruelty of his young central characters chafes against their gentility in a way that stops the novel from being inert. In The Sixth Heaven, however, Eustace and Hilda are in their twenties, and inertia has taken hold—there is a lot more hanging out in country houses with posh people than I could stomach. The Sixth Heaven, indeed, might have become an Unnamed Literary Novel, as per the diktats of the Polysyllabic Spree, if Hartley didn’t write so wonderfully well. I nearly gave up hundreds of times, but just as I was about to do so, along come another brilliant observation. Even so, the third novel, Eustace and Hilda, begins with a chapter entitled “Lady Nelly Expects a Visitor”; the first sentence reads thus: “Lady Nelly came out from the cool, porphyry-tinted twilight of St Marks into the strong white sunshine of the Piazza.” I fear it might be all over for me.

I have just consulted my Amazon Recommends list, just in case anything took my fancy, and the first five books were as follows:

1. Fidgety Fish by Ruth Galloway
2. The Suicidal Mind by Edwin S. Shneidman
3. The Very Lazy Ladybird by Isobel Finn, Jack Tickle (Illustrator)
4. Clumsy Crab by Ruth Galloway 5. No Time to Say Goodbye: Surviving the Suicide of a Loved One by Carla Fine

It will have to be The Very Lazy Ladybird, I think. I haven’t got time for books about clumsy crabs in a World Cup month.

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