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Book Review: The History of Now by Daniel Klein

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Have you ever thought your life was so average that no one would want to read about it? Daniel Klein dispels that myth in his new book, The History of Now as he tells the story of a somewhat typical family living in Grandville, Massachusetts. The town is the quintessential image of bucolic New England. As the story unfolds you quickly become enmeshed in the ordinary yet extraordinary sequence of events that are destined to become Now.

Wendel deVries is a 65-year old divorcee who runs the projector at the local Phoenix theater. Before his divorce he had a daughter Franny. His daughter Franny suffers from a lack of self-esteem and confidence. Her daughter Lila, is a recalcitrant pot-smoking lazy high school teen coupled with a strained mother-daughter relationship. Since Lila has never known her father, grandfather Wendel is the closest to a father she has had. Wendel moves on with his life and surprisingly one day meets someone and they fall in love.

Meanwhile, somewhere in South America a young boy named Hector flees to Miami with hopes of starting a new life. One day in class, Lila learns that years ago, nineteenth century, there were deVries in Grandville who were African American. With impish amusement she questions her grandfather hoping to discover the validity of her teacher's historical findings. Were there slaves in her family tree? Could she have black relatives and possibly relatives who owned slaves?

Klein's novel is the story of the lives of these people and how they will ultimately connect. Philosophically, who cares? Well, the story would be no story if the lives of many people did not happen before those who live now. Sound confusing? It is a cause and effect model shaped in the beliefs of David Hume. Now is now because it was destined to happen because of the history that came before it.

The Ravel's orchestral piece Boléro comes to mind as I read this book, with the novel starting out diminutive and simple, and as each person, each layer, each cause to the effect is added the pulse slowly builds, gradually increasing in complexity. Discord and a cacophony of drama comes together toward the middle as each person becomes more conscious of their life and their actions. The past is revealed through a series of flashbacks, but still, like the composer Ravel, the author Klein, carefully scaffolds the story to a perfect climax and then conclusion. 

The History of Now presents philosopical questions disguised in a small town family drama. One caution I have is the description of the day-workers and confrontation that ensued in the town of Danbury, Connecticut. I realize this is a work of fiction, however the scene described would be grossly exaggerated. Otherwise, what I enjoyed about this book was that it is so ordinary, so believable, that anyone wanting to write their story can visualize their own chronology of history instead. It is also idiosyncratic as you often reflect upon the author's philosophical dogma, making this a noteworthy novel of Now. Let's hope there is a short wait for book two in this trilogy. (4 of 5 stars)

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  • John D. Madden

    The actual town behind Klein’s Grandville is Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where he now lives and where I grew up some 50 years ago.

    It is worth noting that there has been a significant African American population in the town since colonial days, including a family named duBois (as in W.E.B., who was born and raised there).