11/23/18

The Good Wife a Thoughtful Older Novel to Discover


The Good Wife (2005)
By Stewart O'Nan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 308 pages.
★★★★

I keep a "Notes" app on my phone with a list of books I plan to read. Four cellphones ago—somewhere between Nokia, Samsung, and iPhone—I lost my note to read Stewart O'Nan's The Good Wife. Recently I walked into the town library and there it was—The Good Wife resting on the to-be-shelved cart. Better late than never, which is ironic as the novel is constructed around the very question of how long one should wait before moving on.

The titular character is Patty Dickerson. She and hubby Tommy are about to welcome their first child into the world. Like many 20-somethings, the Dickersons are legally adults, but not entirely grown up and certainly not financially set. On a fateful night, Tommy celebrates scoring a goal in a hockey game by having a few too many at a bar with his best buddy, Gary. The two break into a supposedly empty house with the goal of stealing some guns in the possession of old lady Wagner. As it transpires, Mrs. Wagner was home, and they end up killing the 79-year-old when she startles them. It was all an accident, Tommy assures Patty, and things will work out soon.

Welcome to blue-collar life in Owego, New York—a real place, by the way—where neither Tommy nor Gary have the coin to hire fancy lawyers. Tommy chooses the path of honor and rejects the district attorney's offer to turn on Gary. Alas, Gary takes that deal and walks, while Tommy gets 20-years to life. Should Patty also walk away? That's easier said than done; she's young, pregnant, financially strapped, and has only a high school diploma. The Good Wife follows Patty through the next 27 years of her life as she tries to piece together a very different future than the one she envisioned for herself and her son Casey. The novel is also an insider's look at blue-collar life, dead-end jobs, tricky family dynamics, self-discovery, and temptations avoided and embraced. It's also a gaze into the New York State penal system—from Auburn to Danemora to Bare Hill.  

O'Nan doesn't dazzle with poetic prose; his strength is placing us inside Patty's mind and circumstances so that we feel the full weight of being dealt a bad hand. O'Nan wisely says almost nothing of the actual crime. By making Tommy's culpability ambiguous, readers are forced to see things through Patty's eyes, not those of abstract ethics. So do we root for Tommy because Patty does, or do we hope he rots? That's another O'Nan sleight of hand. It's very easy to judge anonymous "murderers," but what if you're not sure? And what if you know the criminal? What if that person was your own spouse or flesh and blood?

O'Nan's tale is the best kind of morality tale: one that refuses to offer easy answers. He invites readers to contemplate what they would do in Patty's situation. And then there's that whole social class thing to consider. You know, class, the Great American Denial. It won't take you long to realize that social class determines how many aces you have up your sleeve when that proverbial bad hand is dealt. Most folks don't have any; sociologists speak of "life chances," the correlation between access to resources and the kind of life one will lead. O'Nan dares to suggest, though, that resiliency might be a potential wild card.

Call this novel equal parts grim and hopeful, provocative and touching, breezy and gripping. It's quite a road trip—a series of them actually. The physical road trips are still another what-would-you-do conundrum. Among Patty's travails is the fact that prisons are not places where you can log onto Expedia and book a room. When Tommy is in Auburn, he's just an hour away; when he's in Bare Hill (Malone), he's more than 4 ½ hours distant and Patty doesn't have the money to waste on hotel rooms. Would you drive more than 9 hours for an afternoon visit? How often?

Is Patty really the good wife? There are other possibilities: dupe, desperate, deluded…. You get to choose. And that, ultimately, is what makes this a strong (and timeless) novel. O'Nan knocks down easy rationalizations, calls numerous moral judgments into question, and then trusts his readers to draw their own conclusions. I was glad I did my time and got to enjoy this book.

Rob Weir

-->

11/21/18

I Evacuated Lauren Goff's Florida


Florida (2018)
By Lauren Groff
Penguin/Riverhead Books, 275 pages.
★★

There is something irresistible about well-written great stories. There is something very resistible about well-written books with mediocre stories, which is why I bailed on Lauren Groff's Florida 200 pages in.

This collection of tales has been much praised by critics, but one gets the sense that Groff is writing to impress them, not engage readers. I concede that Groff knows how to write. Many of the passages in Florida are as finely crafted as poetry. In "The Midnight Zone," a woman concusses herself trying to change a light bulb and lies on the floor as a storm gathers. Groff writes, "The wind rose again and it had personality; it was in a sharpish, meanish mood. It rubbed itself against the cabin and played at the corners and broke sticks off the trees and tossed them at the roof so they jigged down like creatures with strange and scrabbling claws. The wind rustled its endless body against the door." That's fine writing, but it's not in the service of much. Great writing only takes you so far if you don't have a compelling narrative upon which to hang it. That lack is, for instance, what makes James Joyce's Ulysses one of the most impressive unreadable books of all time. To return to Florida, Groff's weakly scaffolded stories reminded me that if I want stylish language alone, I've got a lot of superb poetry residing in my bookcases.

One critic has called Florida a psychogeography, an apt term. But I found that I just didn't care all that much about the Sunshine State if depleted of characters with enough depth to make me care about them. Moreover, there are so many repeated tropes that the tales seemed more like almanac readings than fiction. Most stories feature a character or two—usually a woman and/or children—in danger. That danger is often expressed as weather (blinding rain, oppressive heat, hurricanes, floods), external threats (snakes, gators, panthers), or personal demons (ex-spouses, ominous strangers, booze). Terror comes in three flavors, real, invisible, and imagined. When children appear, one is usually airy, lovable, and bright, the other its evil twin. And children are often in peril. In "Dogs Go Wolf," for example, two children are simply abandoned and might actually starve to death. A chapter titled "Snake Stories" is still another example of why we need more than just burnished prose. It is just nine pages long, but there are thirteen meditations within it. Some are about actual reptiles, but others veer into musings on original sin, women, flora, an injured child, and divorce. Snakes, it seems, are both animals and metaphors. "All the Earth's Corners" literally fills a house with snakes, but they set the stage for a mother who ultimately walks away from her son and ex-husband. Is she meant to be Eve, or an archetypal Bad Mother? I probably wouldn't even ask that question if the characters were better developed.

Physical, psychological, and metaphorical isolation is another Groff subtheme. This suggests that perhaps she underwrote characters to accentuate remoteness. I did not find this to be clever. In my estimation overwriting is no substitution for underdevelopment. By the time page 200 rolled around, I did something I seldom do: put down the book without finishing. My personal rule is to give up on an uninteresting book around the 1/3 mark; if I've invested the effort to slog through 70% of a book, it seems wasteful not to complete the last third. But it became clear to me that Florida was not going to become H. P. Lovecraft goes to the bayou.

I liked earlier Groff works such as Delicate Edible Birds and adored Arcadia, a book that testifies that Groff does know how to tell a story. Beginning with Fates and Furies, though, Groff appears to be working harder at being thought of as literary than of being engaging. That novel was, like Florida, well written and the characters were (just) memorable enough for me to plow through to the end. Not this time. Groff might do well to realize that the bulk of her readers are decades removed from college. I'd prefer that a novel be both literary and entertaining. If you make me choose between those two qualities, though, the song I dial up is "Let Me Entertain You." Florida was a swamp I didn't wish to traverse.

Rob Weir 

11/20/18

Dave Tamkin is Keeping It Real

Dave Tamkin
Live @ eTown
★★★★

Dave Tamkin is a Boulder-based (by way of Chicago) acoustic musician armed with a strong tenor voice and some fine guitar skills. He has shared the stage with luminaries such as Donovan, Guster, Peter Mulvey, and The Violent Femmes. His new live-performance EP is a very good reason to get to know him up close and personal. It is both energetic and has something to say—much like a few of his personal influences: Martin Sexton, Keb 'Mo, and Wilco.

Tamkin often travels with a band, but this solo performance is as stripped down to the basics. "Bleeding Orange" comes at you with a riff that sounds like an acoustic intro to a Who song, but it frames a song on a classic theme: being on the road, wondering if it's worth it—"Building dreams with wire strings and napkins"—and hoping "just to find my way back home." He's aware there's nothing new about any of this—"Generations sing my story"—but he lays it out with earnest longing. One of the things I particularly like about Tamkin is that what you hear is what you get. You can sample what he calls his "rhythmic acoustic" sound on "Fly Me." He's putting it all out there, even though we can hear in the background that not all audience members are tuned in. Another stringed percussive example can be heard on a song titled "Tuesday," with vocal phrasings and lyric snippets that hint at Paul Simon. The instrumentation can only be described as robust. If you think any of this stuff is easy, listen to how Tamkin builds "Drift" to what sounds as if it will be a big crescendo at 2:30, but then pops a few notes that take down the tempo as prelude to a flying spray of runs and ringing strings that take us to another level.

This is unapologetic folk music—the kind where a guy with great guitar licks stands in front of an audience and sings his guts out in the hope someone is listening carefully. He got my attention. He deserves yours. Check out the entire EP at NoiseTrade. If you don't know this site, it allows you to give a donation directly to the musician instead of the .006 cents per song an artist earns on Spotify.

Rob Weir

11/19/18

Leave No Trace Leaves a Huge Imprint upon Viewers


Leave No Trace (2018)
Directed by Debra Granik
Bleecker Street, 109 minutes, PG
★★★★★

Looking for the next John Sayles? Debra Granik might, in fact, be better, as she avoids Sayles' need to tick PC boxes and her characters have considerably more depth.   

Granik's Leave No Trace is a strong contender as the best American film of the year. Have you ever heard of a film receiving a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes? This one did. Its only flaw is that far too few people have seen it. This could be because Granik is an uncompromising director who steers clear of forced happy endings and simplistic right/wrong scenarios. She is, after all, the director who gave us Winter's Bone, which got my vote as best film of 2010, and not coincidentally launched the career of a then little known actress named Jennifer Lawrence. Without Winter's Bone, Lawrence isn't Katniss Everdeen, and she would have been at best a bit player in films such as Silver Linings Playbook or American Hustle. She certainly would not have become the highest paid actress in Hollywood.

If there is any justice, what happened to Lawrence will befall young Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, the co-star of Leave No Trace. We meet her in the thick-growth rain forest near Portland, Oregon, where she and her father Will (Ben Foster) live as survivalists. By the world's standards, "Tom" and Will are homeless trespassers within a sprawling public park. That's not how either of them would describe themselves. Tom's mother died when she was too young to remember her and she is deeply bonded with her father. Will is a PTSD veteran who simply can't fit into regimented society. He exhibits symptoms of being a sociopath, but he's no psychopath; he has a conscience and loves Tom deeply. She is his best "buddy" and his tangential link to the broader world. Will and Tom live a back-to-the-garden existence in which they practice wild crafting, foraging, camouflaging, and survivalist drills designed to hide from those who would reveal their woodland camps. When they need provisions they can't find or make, they walk into Portland, where Will visits the VA for pain pills that he promptly sells. Then it's back to the woods. This is one aspect of the film's title: the desire to live beyond civilization's notice.

American society is not, however, kind to those who wish to live like Will and Tom. Shouldn't Tom be in school? Forget the fact that Will's private tutorials place Tom well beyond the levels of other 13-year-olds. It's not a spoiler to say that Will and Tom will endure several coerced-but-necessary attempts to integrate into society. Granik deftly contrasts state on nature mores with those of organized society, and she doesn't glamorize one over the other. At one point Will is working on a Christmas tree farm and we watch him slowly burn over the wasteful consumption of natural resources, the regimen of work, and lost independence. There is a scene of a sacred dance inside a church that is cringe-worthy and raises questions about which way of life is more Edenic. Tom adjusts a bit better, though she is drawn more to a 4-H kid who raises show rabbits. When Will and Tom bolt for Washington State, it's akin to a Biblical flight into the Wilderness. Circumstances will eventually lead Will and Tom to an RV community that's about as off-the-grid as one can get and still be considered part of society. But can either of them adjust to any sort of rule-bound living?

This is an astonishing film. Foster gives dignity to those suffering from PTSD. His nuanced performance plumbs the various ways in which trauma is made manifest; his is a quiet malady that somehow is more affecting than clich├ęd Hollywood tropes in which a vet "snaps" and goes rogue. Will knows he's troubled, but his desire is to leave no trace. I can only compare his final choice to that of James Allen in the 1932 classic I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.

As good as Foster is, Ms. McKenzie is better. She's so convincing as an American teen that it surprises to learn she's a New Zealander who buried her accent. * She also skillfully navigates playing a 13-year-old—she was 17 when filming began—especially those moments in which we see her poised between childhood dependency and adolescent identity formation. Her shift toward autonomy comes at us in dribbles, not a melodramatic burst. When she tells her father, "What's wrong with you is not what's wrong with me," she does so with such poignancy and tenderness that it rips out your heart. She also has great physical poise. In Leave No Trace, she seems long, lithe, and lean, though she's actually short of five and a half feet.

Let me also sing the praises of Dale Dickey, who plays an RV park resident named Dale. You may know her for her role as Ree, the ominous nearly feral mountain woman in Winter's Bone. Dickey has a plastic face that allows her to wordlessly convey a wide array of emotion—from deep caring to cut-the-bullshit. Give Granik credit once more for casting good actors for small roles. A final kudo goes to cinematographer Michael McDonough for making the forest and weather so palpably real that we are tempted to personify and capitalize Nature as if it were a character on its own.

Rob Weir

*If you've seen Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014), Thomasin played Astrid, a young girl living in Lake-town, which was destroyed by Smaug.