I’ve been working. Nice to have some writing to do that doesn’t have a deadline. Herein is a short report on my progress through the Tottering Stack.
I’ve been meaning to read this one for about a decade and a half. Gorgeously, crazily written by Keri Hulme back in the early 80s, this is about as far as one can get from workshop fiction. Hulme is a New Zealander, and the book is Maori in POV. The protagonist is part Maori, estranged from family, blocked in her artistry, and deeply misanthropic. She is disturbed from her emotional hibernation by a wild and scarred white child, mute and practically feral. The boy is claimed by a Maori man whose foster parent status is neither legal nor questioned. All three are fierce (and not in a good way) and haunted by self-blame, severed connections, muddled identities, and the desperate need to be understood. Which could get very tedious, but Hulme delivers it all in socko imagery and unfettered prose. The long denouement leaves me a bit uncomfortable. Quite a lot uncomfortable. A little too convenient, a little too optimistic. If it were real life, I would be considerably more uncomfortable. But it is fiction, and sometimes, for really good books, you just have to overlook real life.
This is the gold standard of late twentieth century American fiction. Like The Bone People, it deals with misfits and misanthropy, people with identity issues that hide from the rest of society. It is well written, funny, conveys the quiet desperation of middle-aged dog owners who suffer from inadequate socialization. It does not rely on the intervention of friendly deities, but still ends optimistically. I wish I could be more enthusiastic. This isn’t about you, Anne Tyler. This is totally about me. Domestic fiction—that is, novels about fizzled marriages and relatively ordinary people finding each other in this crazy, mixed up village called America—puts me to sleep. Reading is, for me, vicarious living. I don’t want to live in the heads of people who are even less interesting than I am. If you want to make me happy, make me Anna and throw me under a train.
Okay, what happened to the end of this book? Wait, back it up. First, I really liked this book. Everybody likes this book. What is not to like? This is a highly literary work set during the setting of the sun on the American Old West, written in dazzling vernacular, with a widely varying cast of irresistible characters. Except the women. I’m not crazy about any of them, but that’s a quibble. It does, however, highlight my second point: This is not a Western. Women in Westerns are tender on the inside, firm on the outside, and always have a firearm stowed somewhere convenient. Larry McMurtry’s women are raped, tortured, impregnated, abandoned, and idealized. Just don’t try any of that with a Louis L’Amour heroine. Also, the Western hero’s quest has as quarry an end to a troublesome villain and as reward the end of an endless trail. The men of Lonesome Dove have run out of satisfactory villains and pointlessly uproot themselves to take to the trail burdened with cattle and women and creaking joints. Troublesome villains are scarce except among themselves, the women are disappointing, and the trail simply ends. So, to my third point, what happened to the end of this book? Cap turns around and goes home. Sorry, can’t talk about books without spoilers. His last shot at playing Quixote loses him everything. Never mind the actual superhuman accomplishment of driving a herd of cattle from Texas to Montana; the losses are what Cap counts. His return to Lonesome Dove is no less an ill-considered product of dogged will and perpetual motion than the cattle drive that took him from home in the first place. Fine. The wagon splinters and rots beneath him, a journey of self-destruction. Okay. But why? Punishment? Inertia? Chronic depression? There’s got to be something at the end of the trail for me, if not for him.
Another epic with a hero who gets less than he deserves. This is an American novel. Norwegians, plains, sod houses, big dreams, tireless and joyful wrestling with monsters of nature. Bright and bleak and drawn from the experiences of people who were actually there, O. E. Rolvaag recorded the settling of the northern plains in his native language. Fun fact: there was a thriving Norwegian language publishing industry in the U.S. back in the day. Most of those works are lost or untranslated, but this novel hit the big time and is still, even in its English translation, a beautiful and timeless classic.