Stuff I’ve Been Reading: June 2011
- Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America—Lawrence W. Levine
- Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture—John Seabrook
- The Education of Ronald Reagan: The General Electric Years and the Untold Story of His Conversion to Conservatism—Thomas W. Evans
- The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America—James Sullivan
- London Belongs to Me—Norman Collins
- Unfamiliar Fishes—Sarah Vowell
- Norwood—Charles Portis
- The Imperfectionists—Tom Rachman
- Mr. Gum and the Power Crystals—Andy Stanton
- Mr. Gum and the Dancing Bear—Andy Stanton
My friendship with the writer Sarah Vowell—history buff, TV and radio personality, occasional animated character—is now fifteen years old. For the first decade or so, it was pretty straightforward: whenever I was in New York, we would sit in a park staring at a statue of an obscure but allegedly important American figure, and she would talk about it while I nodded and smoked. Over the last few years, however, it has become complicated to the extent that it has started to resemble one of those Greek myths where the hero (in this case, me) is asked to perform tasks by some enigmatic and implacable goddess (her) or monster (also her). Vowell isn’t as well known in the U.K. as she should be—we have different chat shows, for a start, and because of the awesomely uncompromising insularity of her writing, her books aren’t published here. So, as one of her few English fans, I have been taking the literary challenges that she throws across the Atlantic personally. In my mind, at least, it goes like this. I tell her that I am an enormous admirer of her work, and she says, “In that case, I am going to write a book about the museums of the assassinated American presidents, excluding the most recent, and therefore the only one you are interested in. Will you read it?” I read it, loved it, told her so.
“I see that you are a worthy English opponent, so I will have to try harder. I will now make you read a book about New England Puritans—not the Plymouth Pilgrims, but the more obscure (and more self-denying) Massachusetts Bay crowd.” I read it, loved it, asked her to hit me with something a little less accessible.
And now she has come roaring back with Unfamiliar Fishes, a history of Hawaii, although obviously it’s not a complete history of Hawaii, because a complete history of Hawaii would not have intimidated the English reader to quite the required extent, and might have contained some fun facts about Bette Midler. Vowell wisely chose to concentrate on the nineteenth century, post-1820, when her old friends from New England sailed around the entire American continent in order to tell the natives that everything they had hitherto believed was wrong. (One of the many things I had never thought about before reading Unfamiliar Fishes was the sheer uselessness of New England as a home base for missionaries. It took them a good six months to get to anywhere uncivilized enough to need them.)
Unfamiliar Fishes tells the story of the battle for hearts and minds between the Massachusetts killjoys and the locals. In these wars, the liberal conscience always has us rooting for the locals, even though we invariably already know that we are doomed to disappointment, and that the locals, whoever and wherever they might be, are even as we speak tucking into Happy Meals, listening to Adele, and working for Halliburton. In Hawaii, though, there was a lot invested in the idea that a child born from the union between brother and sister was superior to a child conceived any other way, and this particular belief kind of muddied the water a little for me. I know, I know. Different times, different cultures. But I have a sister, and you too may well have a sibling who operates an entirely different genital system. And if you do, then you might find yourself unable to boo the meddling Christians with the volume you can usually achieve in situations like this.
And yet as Vowell points out, the whole foundation of royalty is based on the notion that one bloodline is superior to another, and therefore shouldn’t be messed with. “The way said contamination is prevented is through inbreeding, which, of course, is often the genetic cause of a royal dynasty’s demise through sterility, miscarriages, stillbirths, and sickliness. That would be true of the heirs of Keopuolani just as it was true of the House of Hapsburg.”
In other words, one of the reasons that my own country is in such a mess is that there simply hasn’t been enough in-breeding: if there had, we might be shot of our Royal Family by now. Incest is more complicated than it looks (and please feel free to go and get that printed on a T-shirt, if it’s a slogan that grabs you). Like anything else, it’s got its good points and its bad.
The one team we can all get behind in Unfamiliar Fishes is the crew of the English whaler John Palmer. They were so annoyed by the missionaries messing with their inalienable right to onboard visits from prostitutes that they started shelling the port. I am, however, grudgingly respectful of the Americans who, convinced of the Hawaiians’ need for a Bible, first helped to invent a written Hawaiian language, and then translated the whole thing from the original Greek and Hebrew. It took them seventeen years. Finally I have a notion of what I might do when I retire. Anyway, I have sailed through yet another task set by the dark nerd-maiden from across the water; I don’t think she is capable of writing anything that I wouldn’t read, although I hope she doesn’t take that as a provocation. And her history of whaling on the island was so enthralling that it got me through the entire first chapter of Moby-Dick.
The idea of this column, for those of you who have arrived eight years late, is that I write about what I have read in the previous month; for some reason, the books I read with my children have never been included. This last couple of months, however, we have been reading Andy Stanton’s Mr. Gum series at bedtime, and as Stanton’s books are providing as much joy to me as they do to the boys, their omission from these pages would be indefensible.
Mr. Gum is an evil, joyless, smelly old man who tries to poison dogs, and whose favorite TV program is “Bag of Sticks,” which is as exciting as it sounds. His best friend is the evil butcher Billy William the Third, and his enemies are the entirely admirable Polly, Friday O’Leary, and the billionaire gingerbread man with electric muscles, little Alan Taylor. The books are a happy product of a tolerably nonincestuous relationship between Roald Dahl and Monty Python, and they are properly funny: Stanton has an eccentric imagination, and an anarchic verbal wit that occasionally redirects his narrative in directions that possibly even the author didn’t expect.
My sons’ enormous enjoyment of the books has been intensified through a series of superb readings by their father, readings that, in his mind at least, are comparable only to the performances Dickens is reported to have given at public events. Billy William the Third is rendered as an evil version of the great English comic actor Kenneth Williams, Alan Taylor as the football commentator John Motson, and Mr. Gum as a kind of ancient Cockney gangster paterfamilias. It seems ridiculous that performances with this level of invention take place night after night in a child’s bedroom, in front of an audience of two; I may well have to throw them open to the public.
If you, like me, have been cursed by boy-children, you too may have found that their relationship with books is a fractious one, no matter how many times they see a male role model lounging around the house with his nose glued to a partial history of Hawaii. Andy Stanton’s series has been a real breakthrough, and a testament to the importance and the power of jokes; we are just about to start the seventh of the eight books, and I’m already fearful of the Gumless future.
I don’t have the heart to tell my sons that the older one gets, the less funny literature becomes—and they would refuse to believe me if I tried to explain that some people don’t think jokes even belong in proper books. I won’t bother breaking the news that, if they remain readers, they will insist on depressing themselves for about a decade of their lives, in a concerted search for gravitas through literature. Charles Portis is a Believer favorite (one of our editors wrote an enormous and completely excellent piece about him in the very early days of this magazine’s life) partly because he takes his humor seriously: the Coen brothers’ recent adaptation of True Grit was admirable in many ways, but it didn’t really convey the comic brilliance of the novel, nor was it able to, as so much of it was embedded in the voice of the priggish, god-fearing Mattie Ross. I suspect that we have the Coen brothers to thank for the reappearance of Portis’s first novel, Norwood, in bookstores, so they have done their bit for comedy anyway.
“Norwood” is Norwood Pratt, a marine who obtains a hardship discharge so that he can return to Texas to look after his incapable sister Vernell. Vernell promptly marries an unlikable disabled veteran called Bill Bird, however, thus liberating Norwood to go to New York, partly in an attempt to reclaim seventy dollars that an Army friend owes him. So Norwood is a road-trip book, and the simplicity of its structure allows for a dazzling range of eccentric minor characters, and plenty of room for any number of terrific, short, often crazily pointless passages of dialogue. Here’s Norwood, on a bus, trying to engage with a two-year-old called Hershel Remley:
“I believe the cat has got that boy’s tongue,” said Norwood.
“Say no he ain’t,” said Mrs. Remley. “Say I can talk aplenty when I want to, Mr. Man.”
“Tell me what your name is,” said Norwood. “What is your name?”
“Say Hershel. Say Hershel Remley is my name.”
“How old are you, Hershel? Tell me how old you are.”
“Say I’m two years old.”
“Hold up this many fingers,” said Norwood.
“He don’t know about that,” said Mrs. Remley. “But he can blow out a match.”
There’s so much to love here: the portrayal of the clearly slow-witted toddler, Mrs. Remley’s desperate and hopeful pride, the author’s merciless ear for disastrous parental anthropomorphizing…. This is the third novel I have read by Charles Portis, and I am now completely convinced that he’s a neglected comic genius. And here’s a cool fact: in Nora Ephron’s new book of essays, I Remember Nothing, she talks about dating Portis in the ’60s. The relationship clearly didn’t last, but it feels as though their children are everywhere anyway.
Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, which I suspect you may have read already, is an ingeniously structured work of fiction that manages to tell the entire history of an English-language newspaper based in Rome through a series of linked short stories about its members of staff. This to me makes The Imperfectionists a collection rather than a novel, despite the bald assertion on the cover (“A Novel”), and I slightly resented being misled, for entirely indefensible reasons; in most ways I haven’t aged at all over the last quarter of a century, remarkably, but I seemed to have developed some kind of old-geezerish resentment of story collections. Is that possible? Is resentment of short fiction a sign of aging, like liver spots? And if it is, then why? As the end of one’s life draws closer, surely one should embrace short fiction, not spurn it. And yet I was extremely conscious of not wanting to make the emotional effort at the beginning of each chapter, to the extent that I could almost hear myself grumbling like my grandmother used to. “Who are these people, now? I don’t know them. Where did the other ones go? They’d only just got here.” It’s a great tribute to Rachman, to his sense of pace and his choice of narrative moment, that within a couple of pages I had forgiven him. And the world of the expatriate is, it occurred to me halfway through the book, rich with fictional possibilities; almost by definition, the characters are lost, restless, discontented—just the way we like them.
I feel that I cannot leave before explaining some of the more baffling choices in the Books Bought column. Lawrence W. Levine’s Highbrow/Lowbrow was, along with John Seabrook’s Nobrow, a recommendation from a reader who felt it might help me with some of the difficult issues raised by Carl Wilson’s essay on Céline Dion; the book about Ronald Reagan’s time at General Electric I bought after watching a riveting Reagan documentary on the BBC. The chances of me reading either of them are, I suspect, slim; as is so often the case, however, I am, at relatively modest expense, intent on maintaining a risible self-delusion about my intellectual curiosity. I know way too much about James Brown already, so I’ll probably choose that one next.