Manhattan Beach Far Better than Jennifer Egan's Prize Winner

Manhattan Beach  (2017)
By Jennifer Egan
Scribner's, 433 pages.

I held off reading Jennifer Egan's new novel Manhattan for a reason that will surprise some. In 2011, Ms. Egan won a Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the Critics Circle Award for A Visit From the Goon Squad, a book I thought was, at best, mediocre. At the time, I speculated that it won awards because aging critics out of touch with the social media references Egan employed were trying to flex their sagging hipster muscles. I simply did not get the hype around Egan.

Now I get it; Jennifer Egan is a spellbinding storyteller. Egan captures Greater New York in the 1930s and 1940s in ways that make us feel as if we are perusing halftone newspaper photographs through a powerful microscope that brings the images into sharp focus. Egan tells numerous stories by intertwining three main characters: Anna Kerrigan as a child and as a young adult; Anna's conniving father, Eddie; and the shadowy Dexter Styles, who is linked to the mob.

The book opens in 1934, when the Kerrigans were like millions of other families: scrapping by during the Great Depression. Eddie isn't content with mere survival, plus his youngest daughter, Lydia, is a brain-damaged paraplegic. Although Anna assumes maternal care for Lydia—their mother is traditional and ineffectual—Lydia's needs strain the budget. Eddie is a scheme-of-the-month kind of guy who often recruits the unwitting aid of Anna in his plans. Even when these ventures go awry, the excitement of the chase makes him a hero in young Anna's eyes. She recalls one of the best days of her life: a trip to the ocean, Brooklyn's Manhattan Beach, where her dad pays an unexplained visit to Dexter Styles at his well-appointed beach house. For young Anna, it was like a trip to Versailles. Her worst day, though, was the one in which her father disappeared. His name is never again mentioned, though Anna cannot help but wonder why he left.

Move the clock forward to 1942. Anna is 19, World War Two is just underway, the Brooklyn Naval Yard is humming in an around-the-clock effort to rebuild the US fleet destroyed at Pearl Harbor, and Anna has secured a mind-numbing job of measuring metal parts with a micrometer. Rosie the Riveter she isn't! But she is a single woman living on her own with a little bit of pocket money. She's also naïve—until she meets free-spirited Nell, who introduces her to dance halls, movies, stylish clothing, makeup, and nightclubs. At one of the latter, she recognizes Styles, whom she finds dashing. Plus, she eventually concludes he knows something about her father.

Anna has another agenda; she wants to move on from her job and the disdain of the prodnose married women who assume she's sleeping with her supervisor. She has her heart set on becoming the first female diver at the shipyard. No one wants Anna in such a job, least of all Lt. Axel, who is in charge of training divers. In those days, diving was even more hazardous than it sounds. A diver had to don around 200 pounds of sweaty gear, overcome the claustrophobia of having a helmet screwed onto a metal collar, dive into murky waters, and be able to use tools while wearing inflated gloves. Additional worries included the fact that one was tethered to a topside hand-pumped air hose; if it or the suit malfunctioned, death was a near certainty. There was the additional problem of needing to decompress slowly to avoid sickness or a fatal embolism. But Anna perseveres.

Egan flips us back and forth in time, juxtaposing Eddie's misadventures with Anna's coming of age and loss of innocence. Egan offers a nuanced look at the war years. For a brief moment, a window opened and scores of formerly tradition-bound women jumped out. Once set free, however, many women struggled with things other than sexism. We all know that many wartime Rosie the Riveters—the collective symbol for all women working in hitherto male work domains—were pushed back to the workplace margins once the war ended. What we seldom discuss is life off the clock. Egan doesn't make Anna into Everywoman, but she does give us rich food for thought.

The mystery of Eddie's disappearance is woven into all of this, as is an inside look at the Merchant Marines at sea and organized crime on the ground. Styles is the pivot around which Egan's story treads spin. A tale such as Egan's could easily come off as a force fit of three separate stories, but Egan expertly ties the threads and hides the stitches.

There are a few missteps. Some of her secondary characters—John Dunellen, Charlie Voss, Lt. Axel, a black bosun, Mr. Q, Badger, and even Nell—are sketchy rather than fully realized. I can live with the under development of the first six, but it's odd that Nell also eventually goes AWOL in the novel. In addition, Anna's aunt/Eddie's sister, Brianne—said to be a kept mistress—has deus ex machina qualities. Some readers may, in fact, view the eucatastrophic manner through which Egan resolves Anna's dilemmas as contrived.  Still, Egan's tales are gripping, the main characters are unforgettable, the book is meticulously researched, and the prose sparkling.

If, like me, you were underwhelmed by a Visit From the Goon Squad, give Manhattan Beach a try. Egan deserves great credit for not resting on her laurels. She took her time and wrote a novel that is both satisfying and has something to say.

Rob Weir



Rad Trads, Alex Fry, Brotherly, Ferdinand the Bull

Rad Trads, On Tap

If you like your music big and robust, the Rad Trads are for you. This Brooklyn-based quintet has been billed as "The Band meets Miles Davis." The vibe is much more Band than Miles, but Davis gets tossed at them because two Rad Trad members—Patrick Sargent and Michael Fatum—air it out on sax and trumpet respectively. If you're a concert hound, you may have seen these folks open for acts such as Buddy Guy, Lake Street Dive, and The Lone Bellow, but they are worthy of headlining on their own. Take a listen to tracks such as "Wishing Well" or GoodLuck Unto 'Ya" and you'll start thinking of Levon Helm, though "My Place" is more like funk rock. My favorite track is "Thumbtack," with an opening early 60s feel and drum sticks banging on rims. It doesn't stay in that groove; the horns make sure of that. The  overall vibe is NOLA rock. But maybe we ought to call this mélange rock, as the Rad Trads serve up everything from soul to jazz to psychedelia. ★★★★

Alex Fry, Taste of Eden

Alex Fry has bounced from LA to New York and back to her home turf in Arkansas. Taste of Eden is a collection of songs that document her journeys, as well as stuff such as love, loss, and feminism. Of the last of these, check out, "Superhero Girl" with its declaration, "I'm going to save the world."  Fry calls herself an indie artist. In her case, it's the pop end of that spectrum. At her finest, her tones are vaguely reminiscent of a young Nanci Griffith. You'll hear traces of this in her piano-based "Anchor," a fragile, pretty song. "Fool" is more soulful, though the project's dominant mood is, as noted, indie pop. For my money, her lovely voice showcases best on quiet material. ★★★

Brotherly, The Bound

First things first: Don't confuse this Nashville-based ensemble with a British duo of the same name. Brotherly is Dale and DJ Liscomb, siblings that drifted apart after their father's death, but reconnected years later. They are sometimes compared to Weezer, though their vocals are stronger and the music generally has more distinct melodies. "Bound Stripped Down but Not Out" probes some of the dark times each has had: "We slip/We fall/I'm down." This is a song that begins as quiet as a museful folk song but builds with increasingly heavier bass lines and fuzzed out guitar. That's also the formula on "I Don't Want to Know," which gets rock out noisy. "My God" also features crunch chords, though this one could be toned down a bit, as the lyrics are lost in the mix. I listened to it several times and am still not entirely sure what it's about. But we sure can hear the brotherly bond on The Bound. ★★★

NOTE: The link to the EP is above. The Liscombs might consider choosing a band name. It's quite a slog to find them online as Brotherly, and the way things work these days, if you're not online.... 

Ferdinand the Bull, Painting Over Pictures

Perhaps some of you grew up with the children's book or cartoons devoted to Ferdinand the Bull, the horned bovine who'd rather pick flowers than fight. Now that you're older, you can enjoy an indie band of that name that's been around since 2013? FTB has a new recording, Painting Over Pictures, the band's most ambitious project to date. This Pennsylvania-bred, Midwest-based quartet is built around the lyrics, lead vocals, and acoustic guitar of Nick Snyder, and the mandolin, electric guitar, and harmonies of Bryce Radideau. The new record also tosses in some cello, percussion, and even some horns. FTB is sometimes compared to Arcade Fire or the Avett Brothers, though Iron and Wine is probably a better fit. Call it a mix of indie and contemporary folk. Give a listen to  "4:30 am,"  "New England," and "Susannah." I picked these three to see if you agree with my assessment. I saw a short set of FTB and have listened to the new record and back catalogue stuff. I like this band, but a lot of their repertoire is hard to replicate on stage. ★★★  (Compare the last song to this version.)

Rob Weir


The Leisure Seeker Flawed, but Well Acted Film of Memory Loss

The Leisure Seeker (2017)
Directed by Paolo Virzi
Sony Picture Classics, 112 minutes, R (language, elder sex)

The Leisure Seeker is a comedy/romance/drama constructed around a road trip by a couple that knows that the Golden Years are about to become Lights Out for Eternity. It follows the sojourn of John and Ella Spencer (Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren) as they wend their way from suburban Boston to Key West in a 1975 Winnebago long ago christened the “Leisure Seeker” by the couple’s now adult children, Will (Christian McKay) and Jane (Janel Moloney).

Director Paolo Virzi has a tough balancing act. How does one make a film about elderly people, especially when one of them (John) has Alzheimer’s, yet keep it lighthearted enough to interest an audience, but serious enough to not be insulting? It may not be possible to do so, but give Virzi credit for striking quite a few correct notes amidst the discordant ones.

Give this one some time, as it doesn’t start well. John and Ella essentially run away from home, as Will discovers when he drops by their house, wonders where they’ve gone, discovers the Leisure Seeker is gone, and freaks out. Cut to John and Ella on the road with John at the wheel. John may not have all his marbles, but after a few minor mishaps, he’s on autopilot. We learn that he was once a brilliant literature professor who adored Hemingway and that Ella was the dutiful faculty wife. She knows that his memory is on the cusp on the road to no return, so why not head for the Florida Keys to see Papa Hemingway’s home and give the old boy a late-in-life thrill? Along the way they can drive through Ella’s native South Carolina.

The early parts of the film have the feel of a geriatric caper film, but eventually it turns more poignant. Not much in this film would work were lesser actors in the lead roles. Sutherland masterfully portrays dementia as akin to a failing light bulb; that is, he blinks in and out. There are moments in which Ella wakes up, her husband is lucid, and memories flow. Then the light wobbles and fades. Ella has issues of her own; she’s very sick, hides her illness beneath a too-young-for-her wig, and she continues to play her role as John’s booster—though he doesn’t really require it—because it’s what she knows. Together Sutherland and Mirren show a side of older folks that’s seldom depicted well—an age-burnished affection made manifest by mutual respect, mannered interactions, and even physical attraction. Credit Virzi also with delving into their challenges: incontinence, blurted out secrets, a pharmacy of pills to swallow, blathering on in front of people who don’t care, and wondering if it’s time to pack it in.

It must also be said that at times the script has more holes than the Leisure Seeker’s exhaust system. We have, for instance, the clichéd sibling rivalry. Will is the son who never really got his act together, but he lives in the same town and bears the brunt of eldercare. Jane, by contrast, is the calm golden girl who followed in her father’s footsteps and is now also a literature professor. Will wants to kibosh the road trip and spends much of the film screaming at his mother to tell him where they are; Jane tells him to chill and let them have their last fling. It apparently never occurs to either of them that they know the license number and could simply ask the police to look for a rusty Winnebago with Massachusetts plates! Moreover, in road trip films the central issue is always whether or not the destination is achieved, a yes/no situation that invariably leads to padding material to stretch it to movie length. You can probably predict that some of this falls considerably shy of poignant and also occasionally stretches credulity as well as time. Cameo appearances by Dick Gregory and Dana Ivey are only loosely stitched to the film’s fabric. Of course, there is also the issue that a film seeking to be three things—comedy, romance, and drama—usually ends up having an identity crisis.

Still, it is a genuine pleasure to see two amazing actors transcend script issues. Sutherland is convincing in his portraying Alzheimer’s on the verge of when the on-off button will fail to bring light. As one whose mother made this tragic descent, I can attest that Sutherland stirred my helplessness as an observer. Mirren is equal parts determination, frustration, and resignation. Her occasional anger also rings realistic. Call it inappropriate, but it's often infuriating to be around those who forget something as soon as you say it. If you’re wondering, Mirren's South Carolina accent is better than that of a Charleston native! I could have done with about half of McKay’s histrionics, though.

Is this a good film? Objectively, it’s only half good and part are rather lame. But if you have dealt with memory loss in any form, you’ll see plenty that you recognize. It’s also nice to see older people that have agency and, yes, even sex on occasion.

Rob Weir



Martha Scanlan Reverb(erates)

Martha Scanlan, The River and the Light; Sampler

Beautiful voice, reverb guitar, rivers, and the Montana landscape. Rinse and repeat. Scanlan’s fourth album is an intriguing mix of fragility and muscularity. We hear her delicate voice and think of a little bird, but then there are those big ringing guitar tones. From the moment you hear the first notes of “Brother Was Dying,” from her new (and fourth) album you’ll know why she’s shared stages with everyone from Levon Helm to Emmylou Harris. Longtime sidekick Jon Neufeld makes some serious resonant noise with his archtop guitar and Scanlan lays out the life cycles from birth to death and revival. Tellingly, “Revival” is the final track (or at least it was on my advance download). Both songs remind me of an earlier song of hers, “Shape of Things Gone Missing, Shape of Things to Come,” which tells you that Ms Scanlan accepts the fluidity of existence. This includes her personal journey. Scanlan is Montana-rooted, Minnesota-born, and spent some time in the smaller mountains of Appalachia. She pays homage to the last of these in “West Virginia Rain.” Most of her songs are deeply introspective, but “Las Cruces” has a nice kick to it that is reminiscent of how Joni Mitchell shaped songs in her folk phase. The only downside to her new record is that the lyrics are hard to make on amidst all the grounding chords and reverb, but, at the risk of cheap wordplay, when she and Neufeld play “Only a River,” the intro to “Blue Eyed Angel,” we feel washed down.  ★★★★


Eleanor Oliphant is a Completely Fine Novel

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
By Gail Honeyman
Penguin Books, 352 pages.

Thirty-year-old Eleanor Oliphant is fine with being on her own. She’s fine with having been shuttled between various foster homes as a child, with having a tyrannical mother, and a meddlesome council caseworker. She's totally fine with a lifestyle that revolves around vodka and crossword puzzles, living in a Glasgow apartment appointed with thrift store furnishings, and with being thought “mental” by her work mates. For the most part, other people annoy her, so she’s "completely fine" in her own world.

We all know, of course, that more often than not, when someone claims to be fine, they are anything but. Gail Honeyman’s novel is told in Eleanor’s voice and orchestrated in three connected movements: “Good Days,” “Bad Days,” and a new round of “Good Days.” The first chunk of the book is devoted to Eleanor’s worldview and it’s a hoot. With the possible exceptions of Richard Russo’s Straight Man and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, I can’t recall laughing aloud more than I did while reading Eleanor Oliphant.

Two themes emerge very quickly. First, we suspect Eleanor’s colleagues might be right, but we know for certain that she is incredibly smart—perhaps gifted—and possesses an enormous vocabulary. In her world, a sausage is “mechanically recovered meat,” duffel coats are “surely the preserve of children and small bears,” and social worker house visits take place to “make sure I’m not storing my own urine in demijohns or kidnapping magpies and sewing them into pillowcases.”

We also know that Eleanor is socially and culturally inept. She simply disregards filters. When asked is she’d care for a cigarette, Eleanor is not the sort to say, "No thank you.” Instead she replies,

I thoroughly research all activities before commencement, and smoking did not in the end seem to me to be a viable or sensible pastime. It’s financially rebarbative too.

Her first attempt at a makeover results in telling the clerk, “I look like a small Madagascan primate, or perhaps a North American raccoon.” As you might imagine, she also finds MacDonald’s an insipid place. You must read chapter 14 to appreciate Eleanor’s take down of Mickey D's. Here’s a small sample:

Naturally, I had been about to pour [coffee] all over myself but, just in time, had read the warning printed on the cup, alerting me to the fact hot liquids can cause injury. A lucky escape, Eleanor!

Add MacDonald’s to the list of things about which Eleanor knows nothing, one that also includes dancing, cell phones, how to deal with emergencies, music, small talk, and correct social etiquette for most occasions. In fact, she believes the animal world is a better guide for behavior: “If I am ever unsure as to the correct course of action, I’ll think, ‘What would a ferret do?’”

Eleanor’s regimented world is challenged when an elderly man (Sammy) collapses in public and she and a coworker named Raymond come to his aid, he willingly and Eleanor reluctantly. She can’t bear the thought of taking Sammy up on his offer to consider herself a member of his family, but Raymond persists and Eleanor must attempt to deal with this, as well as a visit to Raymond’s mother. It’s all very disruptive of her grand plan: to convince a musician whose looks she fancies to fall in love with her. Mind, they’ve never actually met, but Eleanor has a detailed scheme and she knows it’s a sound one.

I give away nothing when I say that a lot of Eleanor’s veneer of “fine” is as patchy as the eczema on her hands. Honeyman skillfully leads us from light to dark. She does so in ways far smarter than what I call Pity That Affliction books and movies. It is no small feat to keep readers laughing, even when not-so-funny things occur, but Ms Honeyman sticks her landings. In good novelistic tradition, she slowly pulls back the curtain on Eleanor’s life, but avoids venturing into the miraculous. Eleanor, like any adult, changes but not into Cinderella. Do you know anyone who ever did? Special kudos go to Honeyman for making Eleanor a fully realized character on all levels, one who is more than the sum of her sorrows.

My one negative critique is that Honeyman overwrote the concluding section of the novel. She introduces a final twist in Eleanor’s personality profile but by then, it’s an unneeded element that is too cursorily sprung upon us. It’s also one used by other writers, most notably Roddy Doyle. This aside, Eleanor Oliphant is a terrific novel. Honeyman deftly mines Scottish humor and sprinkles its dust upon her unforgettable protagonist before taking us into the dark parts of the cave. Amazingly, this is Honeyman’s first novel. Well done, lass!

Rob Weir