Hawking Up Hairballs

Friday, November 25, 2005


I’ve lived in my present location for over twenty years. Up until a few months ago, there were no book stores that were convenient to me. If I wanted a book I had to make a trip to a store several miles away. Now there is a Barnes & Noble less than three miles from where I live. That is not necessarily a good thing. It’s about like a bar popping up next to an alcoholic’s house. If there were a twelve-step program for readers, I wouldn’t be allowed to enter bookstores. That’s how bad I am about impulse buying when it comes to reading matter.

Now, the Barnes & Noble isn’t much as far as bookstores go. Like the rest of the chain book supermarkets, they’re heavy on the best seller lists and potboiler trash. However, so far, their remainders’ table has been kind to me. It was there that I found the history of the Peloponnesian War that I mentioned in an earlier post, and it was there that I found Richard Price’s Samaritan.

Price is the author of the well-received Clockers. It was the story of a young, black drug dealer in urban New Jersey just outside of New York City. The distinguishing features of the book was the understanding with which Price rendered life in those ghettos, and the empathy that he had for his protagonist, who was portrayed, not as some moral monster, but as a young man who was trying to make the best of the difficult circumstances in which he found himself. I really enjoyed the book.

Samaritan is set in the same milieu. It alternates between the stories of Ray Mitchell and Nerese Ammons. Mitchell, who is white, and Ammons, who is black, grew up in the same public housing project. At the time they were growing up it was ethnically diverse, though it is now virtually all black. At the beginning, Mitchell is in the hospital, the victim of a brutal blow to the head that has left him in very serious condition. Ammons is a cop who is a few months from retirement. She takes it upon herself to find out who assaulted Mitchell. It is an unofficial investigation, since the police department isn’t interested in pursuing the case because Mitchell refuses to cooperate with them. He knows who assaulted him but absolutely refuses to say who it was. Ammons finally gets the answer out of him, though without much satisfaction for either of them.

Though the story alternates between the two characters, Mitchell is the true protagonist and, for him, character is destiny. The book is prefaced with the verses from Matthew 6:1-3, the ones which counsel the anonymous giving of alms, so that the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing. This refers to Mitchell. He has come into some money from a lucrative TV writing gig, and he wants to give back to the neighborhood in which he grew up. The problem is that he doesn’t just want to make a difference. He wants to be seen to be making a difference, and he wants to be held in high regard for it. That’s his tragic flaw.

Samaritan isn’t as good as Clockers. There are a few narrative elements that don’t ring true to me. For example, Price is back in New Jersey only because he got fired over a racial incident. The show’s producer was black, as were many of the principals but, at a cast costume party, Mitchell showed up in a wheelchair as Curtis Mayfield. For those of you who don’t remember, Mayfield was a black r&b/funk singer from the Seventies. He apparently became a quadriplegic when a light stanchion fell on him at one of his shows. Given who the character Mitchell is in the book, it is not believable that he would do something so silly and insensitive.

There are a few other minor flaws like that, but I liked the book overall. It’s not a classic or a must-read, but it’s certainly worthwhile, and I thought it sad to find it on the remainders’ table, given the sort of trash that was being given prominent display just a few feet away.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The March

The March by E.L. Doctorow was generally well-reviewed. However, if the few reviews I read are any indication, those who liked the book didn’t have any better idea of what Doctorow was about than did the reviewer on NPR (National Public Radio) who was disappointed in it because there was no overarching narrative arc.

The March is about Sherman’s march through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina during America’s Civil War. In several places, Doctorow describes the march as though it were a living creature crawling across the landscape. He follows more than a dozen characters who are swept up in the march. All but a few of them, like Sherman himself, are fictional, and most do not survive the experience. There is no one character that one could say that the novel is about, nor are there two or three.

All of Doctorow’s characters have their own attitudes, desires and personality traits, and each is striving to achieve his own goals. However, it is the circumstances of Sherman’s march that define the opportunities and possibilities in which their striving takes place. This is not just a stylistic decision on Doctorow’s part. It’s a philosophical one. Given that our American culture is so individualistic, if not downright narcissistic, most of our novels feature protagonists who make their own destinies, or perhaps fail in the trying. That’s because they are grounded in the notion that individuals make history. Doctorow believes the opposite, namely, that history makes the individual. That doesn’t mean that the individual has no freedom and can make no choices, but that his freedom is circumscribed and his choices limited by historical circumstance. It’s a more realistic understanding of how the world works, though it runs counter to the prejudices inherent in American culture.

I read one enthused New York reviewer who said that The March was the definitive novel about the American Civil War. My initial reaction to that was that, though it’s a good book, it is by no means definitive. I then asked myself what the definitive novel about the Civil War would be. The Red Badge of Courage perhaps? I don’t think so. It isn’t so much about the Civil War itself as it is about the experience of war and the nature of courage in a more general sense. God love them, there are probably plenty of fools down here in the South who think that Gone With The Wind is that novel. Come to think of it though, there isn’t really a definitive novel about the Civil War.

After thinking about this some more, I found myself wondering if there were indeed any American novels about war that are definitive in the sense of grasping the nature and collective experience of that particular war. I can think of some good war novels, but I can’t think of a single one that could be called definitive. Perhaps that is just the nature of war, that there is nothing really profound that one can say about it, that it is just killing and slaughter, killing and slaughter, and usually to no worthwhile end at all.