Stuff I’ve Been Reading: October 2011
- Stone Arabia—Dana Spiotta
- Kings of Infinite Space—James Hynes
- The Waterfall—Margaret Drabble
- To Live Outside the Law—Leaf Fielding
- Hellhound on His Trail—Hampton Sides
- The Fear Index—Robert Harris
- Next—James Hynes
- The Anti-Romantic Child—Priscilla Gilman
It is August, and as I write, burned-out buildings in London and other British cities are being demolished after several nights of astonishing and disturbing lawlessness. Meanwhile I am in the Dorset village of Burton Bradstock, listening to the sound of the wind-whipped sea smashing onto the shore, and to the young daughter of a friend playing “Chopsticks” over and over and over again on the piano belonging to the cliff-top house we have rented. It’s unlikely that the riots would have made it into these pages at all had it not been for Hellhound on His Trail, Hampton Sides’s book about the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. and the hunt for his assassin, James Earl Ray. Just as Tottenham and Hackney, just a couple of miles from my home, were being set alight, I was reading about the same thing happening in Washington, D.C., on the night of April 5, 1968, twenty-four hours after Ray shot King while he was standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. There were five hundred fires set in D.C. that night; the pilot who flew Attorney General Ramsey Clark back to the capital from Memphis thought that what he saw beneath him looked like Dresden. And here in Burton Bradstock it became impossible not to compare London in 2011 with D.C. in 1968. It wasn’t an instructive or helpful comparison, of course, because it could only induce nostalgia for a time when arson seemed like the best and only way to articulate a righteous and impotent fury. And while it is true that a violent death sparked our troubles (a black man named Mark Duggan was shot and killed by police), it was not easy to see the outrage in the faces of the delirious white kids helping themselves to electronic goods and grotesquely expensive sneakers. Luckily for us, every single politician, columnist, leader-writer, talk-show host, and letters-page contributor in Britain knows why all this happened, so we should be OK.
Hellhound on His Trail is a gripping, authoritative, and depressing book about a time when, you could argue, it was much easier to talk with confidence about cause and effect. James Earl Ray, King’s assassin, was a big supporter of segregationist George Wallace and his independent push for the White House; Ray also liked the look of Ian Smith’s reviled apartheid regime in Rhodesia. He was eventually arrested at Heathrow as he attempted to make his way to somewhere in Africa that would let him shoot black people without all the fuss that he had caused in the U.S. Sides has little doubt that he acted alone, and indeed one of the lowering things about his book is the reminder, if one needed it, that it takes very little to kill a man; you certainly don’t need the covert cooperation of the CIA or the FBI or the KKK. You just need enough money to buy a decent hunting rifle.
Of course, there are lots of people who have a vested interest in persuading us that the recent past is easier to read than the present. Paul Greengrass, the director of Green Zone and United 93, has for some time been wanting to make a film about the last days of MLK, but this year the project collapsed, apparently because the guardians of the King estate objected to depictions of King’s extramarital affairs in the script. “I thought it was fiction,” said Andrew Young, who was with King on the night he died. And yet King’s womanizing was, according to Sides, both real and prodigious; he spent the night before he died in room 201 of the Lorraine Motel with one of his mistresses, the then senator of Kentucky, Georgia Davis. Davis has even written a book, I Shared the Dream, about her relationship with King. I haven’t read Greengrass’s script, but it looks as though Andrew Young is attempting, four decades after Memphis, to sanctify his friend in a way that can only impede understanding. Jesse Jackson, meanwhile, attempted to impede understanding there and then: he told TV interviewers that he was with King on the balcony (he wasn’t), and, according to Sides, smeared his shirt with King’s blood before appearing on TV chat shows. The trouble with history, it seems to me, is that there are too many people involved. The next time something historical happens, someone should thin out the cast list. Oh, and by the way, did you know that James Earl Ray was arrested in London, by detectives from Scotland Yard? Oh, yes. Your guys had done some handy groundwork, though, we’ll give you that much.
It has, it must be said, been something of a gloomy reading month, not least because my brother-in-law has written another novel. The Fear Index is his fifth since I started writing this column, back in 2003. I have managed only three in the same period, and though I have also managed to squeeze out a screenplay for a movie, so has he. As I write, he is lying by a swimming pool in the South of France, whereas I am looking through a window at the gray North Sea. I am looking through a window (a) because if I ventured outside I would be blown into the gray North Sea by the gale that is currently blowing and (b) because I have a column to write, and therein, I think, we find the root cause of my brother-in-law’s superior output and income. “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” is now well over one hundred thousand words long, and if I could somehow take those words back and rearrange them into a stylish, ingenious, compelling, and intelligent contemporary thriller, then I would. But there you are. My commitment to your literary health is such that I’m prepared to let my children shiver in their little wetsuits, although I don’t suppose you’re the remotest bit grateful. I wish I could tell you that The Fear Index is a resounding failure that will lie in unsold heaps all over Europe and the U.S., but I can’t. Actually, why can’t I? It’s my column, and there are very few other advantages to writing it, as I have very recently realized. The Fear Index is a resounding failure that will lie in unsold heaps all over Europe and the U.S. I’m not going to tell you what it’s about. You’ll only want to buy it.
I suppose it wouldn’t be giving too much away to tell you that The Fear Index is a financial-crisis thriller, the second book about the terrifying instability of our banking system that I’ve read in the last couple of months. The other was John Lanchester’s brilliant I.O.U., in which Lanchester says that “Western liberal democracies are the best societies that have ever existed… citizens of those societies are, on aggregate, the most fortunate people who have ever lived.” There isn’t much downside to being the luckiest people in history, but in James Hynes’s brilliant novel Next, which I read because the editors of this magazine gave it a prize, Hynes’s protagonist, Kevin Quinn, is fiftyish and struggling—struggling, at least, with all the things there are to struggle with in prosperous contemporary America. His career has been nudged, gently and undramatically, into a backwater; he has a relationship with a younger woman he doesn’t love. He spends most of his time, or most of the eight or nine hours covered in the novel, anyway, daydreaming about a couple of the standout sexual experiences of his life.
Quinn is traveling from Ann Arbor to Austin for a job interview, on a day when there have been major terrorist attacks in Europe. He’s uncomfortable flying, as we all are in those periods, but this doesn’t stop him mooning over the young, sexy Asian girl sitting next to him on the flight, and when he bumps into her again in Austin, he ends up killing the time before his appointment by trailing idly after her, in an aimless and unthreatening kind of a way. He gets very hot, and extremely lost, both in Austin and in his own underwhelming and regret-filled past. It’s all very real and very familiar, at least to this fifty-plus male.
Hynes writes with the sort of knowing, culturally precise, motor-mouthed internal chatter that brings to mind David Gates’s two monumental novels, Jernigan and Preston Falls, and I can think of no greater recommendation: Hynes and Gates populate their books with men I recognize. They’re not the intimidatingly brainy and, to me, alienating creatures you find in Great American Novels by Great American Novelists. There’s less rage, more doubt, more regret—and, in the case of Kevin Quinn, more of a sense that he is entirely the author of his own misfortune. His failure can’t be pinned on an event, or on a scheming, ball-busting woman. Rather, it’s due to too much introspection, distraction, indiscipline. Quinn hasn’t worked hard enough at anything.
And Next takes a dizzying, heartbreaking, apocalyptic and oddly redemptive turn. As it turns out, the atrocities are not confined to small European countries far away. As Kevin is, finally, on his way to his interview, the cab driver is listening on the radio to news of attacks much closer to home, in Minnesota, where he has a brother. The cabbie is nervous, distracted, upset; he makes frantic phone calls. Kevin, though, is oblivious to all of this. He’s re-creating, in pornographic detail, a night he spent a long time ago with a girl called Lynda. “You need to pay attention, man,” the cabbie tells him, devastatingly, at the end of his ride, but it’s too late for Kevin.
Violent deaths take place in all three of the books described above—in fact, I can’t recall a more distressing reading month. And most of the fatalities are deeply upsetting, rather than fun, although in The Fear Index my brother-in-law does get to bump off a sleazebag we don’t like very much. So I needed the respite of Priscilla Gilman’s The Anti-Romantic Child, which, though serious, contains no bloodshed, and is all the better for it. A memoir about raising a child with special needs would not have been improved by scenes of indiscriminate slaughter. (This is the sort of quality advice you’ll be getting when you enroll in my online writing school, coming soon.)
As regular readers of this column may have noticed, I don’t read many first-person books on this subject, despite, or almost certainly as a direct result of, being the father of a disabled child myself. There are many reasons for this, and I have a feeling I’ve droned through some of them before, so I’ll give it a rest this time around. However, I would like to observe that it’s hard to find books in this genre with ideas in them, and that’s where The Anti-Romantic Child scores. It’s not just about dealing with the tricky hand that the author has been dealt; this is also a book about literature, specifically Wordsworth and the Romantics, and how Gilman’s literary heroes (she used to teach them) have both helped and hindered her understanding of what her child is and what she wanted him to be. It’s smart, soulful, and involving, and it rang plenty of bells for me; I also ended up reading more Wordsworth than I have ever done in my entire life. I understand the appeal a little more than I did, but I would still argue that there is more in those poems about the natural world than is strictly necessary.
I haven’t read as much in Dorset as I wanted to. Perhaps that is what happens when you invite thirty-five kids to share your holiday home with you. (I wish that number were satirical in some way, but it’s not.) I have, however, discovered a new product, the Waboba ball, which bounces off water and is completely tremendous. I’m not sure I can make a case for its literary qualities, which may mean that it has no place in this magazine. But those of us who contribute to the Believer have found that we have enormous influence over the manufacturers of leisure products, and that whenever we mention one we are bombarded with offers of free samples, exotic trips to Caribbean resorts, and so on. I suspect that, completely inadvertently, I have just opened myself up to all sorts of tempting but corrupting inducements. A few Waboba balls won’t make up for the villa on the Côte d’Azur that this column has cost me, but the Waboba Surf, coming soon to a store near you, looks excellent.