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Bookish Delights 2009: The Fiction Edition

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Top Ten-ish anyone? Well, that was the plan when I thought I could curtail my longwinded wordiness enough to encompass both my fiction and nonfiction choices all into one article. Alas and alack, I am unable to dress to the '09s today — but will be back to address the rest, at the top of the '10s.  

Inherent Vice
by Thomas Pynchon
Thomas Pynchon once said that maybe his fiction is “not the world, but with a minor adjustment or two it's what the world might be." The late sixties psychedelic noir of Inherent Vice is definitely a portrayal of a life off-kilter, rambunctious fun but tinged with trademark oppressive paranoia and kaleidoscopic pop culture allusions – from Gummo Marx to Mike Curb. Throwing off some gravitas to chase a few rainbows, subplots and whatnots abound as the affable hippie-ish P.I. Doc Sportello, resourceful throwback to the “great old PIs – Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, the shamus of shamuses,” takes a case involving his old girlfriend Shasta, missing amidst the world of Mickey Wolfmann, a rich and married "real estate big shot” whose wife and lover want him institutionalized, though there are conspiracies galore in the course of getting to the people behind the people behind the scenes. So while Doc is wrestling with his feelings for Shasta he is lured into schemes with an ensemble of characters and entities that include his archenemy, a vindictive cop named Bigfoot Bjornsen; a surf band sax player and spy; and a mystical schooner called the Golden Fang which may also be a heroin cartel, an enterprise of "vertical integration," an international conspiracy, or a tax dodge set up by some dentists. Doc also confronts wildly entertaining dopers (“Watch your head” …”How ‘m I spoze to do that, man?”), counterfeiters, rockers, surfers, hustlers, and — in a persona ostensibly out to make Doc “overthink myself into brainfreeze” — an ex-con with a swastika tattoo and a soft spot for Ethel Merman. It’s a fast-paced and tautly written tale in an L.A. setting – no mean feat for a book so kitchen-sink-and-all full, as much a visionary variety fun-pack along the lines of a Tom Robbins or Carl Hiaasen escapist fare as it is a Pynchon imprimatur.

Juliet, Naked
by Nick Hornby

As Nick Hornby remarks in his 1995 music shop schematic High Fidelity:

“Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands – literally thousands – of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss. The unhappiest people I know, romantically speaking, are the ones who like pop music the most; and I don’t know whether pop music has caused this unhappiness, but I do know that they’ve been listening to the sad songs longer than they’ve been living the unhappy lives."

Now there’s cause for a new examination, from a different angle, about rock obsession and the need for emotional rescue – another illumination of “Lovers laughing in their amateur hour,” to cite Elvis Costello from his original “High Fidelity.” Nick Hornby’s newest novel Juliet, Naked sees one of the main characters Annie brooding as her childbearing years are dwindling in an English seaside town, but also sulking about her relationship – or lack thereof –with longtime boyfriend Duncan, who directs all his time, energy, and devotion to a website dedicated to reclusive has-been singer-songwriter Tucker Crowe. Storyline wheels are set in motion, though, when Annie posts a scathing pan of Juliet, Naked, a stripped-down version of Crowe's breakup masterpiece album. Just to make sure there’s no blood left on the tracks, an angry and threatened Duncan cheats on Annie with a new performing-arts instructor at the school where he teaches. Fiftysomething Crowe, unrecognizable and living in obscurity with his son Jackson in suburban Pennsylvania, and depressed about messing up his upteenth relationship with yet another model, emerges enough from his 15-year disappearing act to begin an email back-and-forth with Annie. The substantive and witty exchanges spark reciprocal feelings that each find appealing. Though there is little hope that Annie can meet with her correspondent, when a family drama brings Tucker to London, she sees an opportunity for… well, I don’t know if you'd call it silly love songs (not that there’s anything wrong with that: “Sentimental music has this great way of taking you back somewhere at the same time that it takes you forward, so you feel nostalgic and hopeful all at the same time." —High Fidelity). But in Juliet, Naked’s thematic linkage of music, love, and loneliness, there are certainly expectations from Hornby, the "maestro of the male confessional," of a relationship forged, adept humor expanded, and a decided depth of poignancy. In any case, maybe we'll see Tucker and Annie creating some new glory days instead of having to hide 'neath the covers and study their pain.

The Women
by T.C. Boyle

In a dimensional explication of the charismatic egomaniac who not only thrived on “complication” but who virtually sought relationships with a restraining order, T.C. Boyle bears out, in true Taliesin mythological perception, how Frank Lloyd Wright's Welsh family motto Y Gwir yn Erbyn y Byd — which means "The Truth Against the World" — plays out in the often turbulent tribulations vs. tender trap fashion. The narration of The Women puts into motion the triumphs and travails of the four beloveds of Wright’s lifetime blueprint: his devoted and put-upon first wife, Kitty Tobin, mother of his six children; the feminist mistress he ran off with, Mamah Cheney, tragically killed; the obsessive Southern belle Maud Miriam Noel, a morphine-mined life of the lynch party; and Olgivanna Milanoff, the exotic and hardworking Montenegrin “don’t call me dancer” dancer. Told in reverse chronological order, starting with Olgivanna, The Women goes effortlessly backwards in time with episodes and events flowing under the accessible wayback-machine narration of Japanese architectural student Sato Tadashi, who comes in the 1930s to Taliesin, Wright's Wisconsin estate and studio, to be an apprentice (and not incidentally to wash dishes and peel potatoes and such for the miserly Master). Sato gets to witness first-hand not only Wright’s visionary approach to architectural science and aesthetics, and his larger-than-life appetites in life, but also some of the latter days with settled-down Olgivanna, who once led a fascinating life as a ballet dancer and was a student of the Russian mystic Gurdjieff. And who also came to live in fear for her life from Wright’s not-soon-enough divorced wife, the payback poetess, Miriam. An ambiguous denouement and uncertain course of action waives an implication for Wright but lets set some ambivalences while cementing in a certain lifetime pattern. Moreover, The Women seems at the end to come full circle to provide an answer to Sato’s introductory question: “Was [Wright] the wounded genius or the philanderer and sociopath who abused the trust of practically everyone he knew, especially the women, especially them?

American Rust
by Philipp Meyer

Evoking John Steinbeck’s novels of restless lives during the Great Depression while holding an appeal for fans of Cormac McCarthy or Dennis Lehane, American Rust, Philipp Meyer’s noir-tinged character-driven debut, is set in a dying Pennsylvania steel town where rudderless pals Billy Poe and Isaac English are trapped by economic and personal circumstance. Just before their halfhearted escape to California, Isaac accidentally kills a transient who tries to rob Poe. The boys return to the crime scene the next day with plans to cover up the crime, setting the plot — life on the road and the ironic contrast to life as the characters wish it could be — in motion. The characters, left with poor choices and bad decisions, are drawn with depth and subtlety, while the scenes are written with craftmanship and methodically, without meandering, in ways that ratchets up the rust belt forebodings, the insidiousness of the has-been factory town turned meth lab haven and murder rate stat. 

Stone's Fall
by Iain Pears

An intricate yet panoramic historical novel with plenty of spy-versus-spy crime capers at its core, Stone’s Fall is Iain Pears in a return to form for the author of the impressive 1998 bestseller An Instance of the Fingerpost. In an erudite, witty, and always enjoyable delving into the world of international espionage, arms dealing, financial dalliances, and other double-dealings of the ever-deceitful, an ex-reporter attends the funeral of an elderly widow. A solicitor approaches him and hands him a packet of papers that were to be delivered to him only after the woman's death. Reading them takes him back to events never forgotten. In 1909, industrialist/arms seller John Stone fell to his death from the window of his study, leaving an inheritance to an unknown daughter. His widow asked the young reporter to find the daughter, setting him on a search that alters his life. Back through a temporal wayback machine the story goes — London 1909, Paris 1890, Venice 1867 — with surprising disclosures at every turn. The further you read, the more complex and compelling this essentially old-fashioned novel is until everything falls together in the final pages of Stone's Fall.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • Mat Brewster

    Nice list Gordon. I haven’t read a single one, but I’ve got Pynchon and Hornby on my list of things I mean to read. I just stay so terribly behind on that list that I’ll likely get to them sometime around the time you make 2010’s list.

  • Josh Hathaway

    I’ve read the Hornby and quite enjoyed it. I’ll have to try a couple of these others.

  • Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Thanks guys. I know how hard it is to find the time and the quiet.