Very Cold People a Polarizing Novel



Very Cold People  (2022)

By Sarah Manguso

Hogarth, 186 pages.


Very Cold People is the debut novel of poet and short story writer Sarah Manguso. I have seldom read reviews as extreme as those associated with this one. Some have called it “brilliant” and have hailed Manguso as a rising voice in literature. Others have pegged it as “scrambled memories,” “overwrought,” and “horrid.” If you’re wondering, there is very little gender breakdown in those opinions. I am afraid that I am firmly in the second camp.


By rights I should have liked this novel if, for no other reason, Manguso's fictional town of Waitsfield, Massachusetts, often seems a lot like the Pennsylvania town in which I was raised. But whereas the New York Times credited Very Cold People with making  “beauty of boring old daily pain,” my take is that she made boring even more tedious.


Mancuso is 49 years old, technically Generation X, but her outlook is more that of a Millennial. If I had to single out a salient way in which post-Baby Boomers are different, I'd say that too many Millennials (and Gen Z) are solipsistic and bemoan their vulnerability. By contrast, my generation didn't give a flying fig about what adults thought of us and did not expect anyone to throw pity parties for us. “Work it out yourself” was a common command.*


Mancuso's novel is also written in the stream of consciousness style. It reads like random observations scribbled into a diary that are only tangentially related to other fragments, rants, and pronouncements. Stream of consciousness is notoriously difficult to master. To put it another way, if I only skimmed my way through James Joyce, the only thing that made me finish Very Cold People is that it’s a short, quick read.


The central character Ruthie comes from a battered town where blue-collar dreams have gone sour. It's also a place with big homes and plaques of local elites reminiscent of the Cabots and Lowells. Ruthie’s family has fallen upon hard times and don't think they should be near the bottom of the socioeconomic scale. That's probably true, but they nonetheless live in both proximity to and a proclivity toward violence. Her family is so parsimonious that they count pennies and measure bathtub water. Ruthie wants out of a graying town where her reality and others such as she is that all they have going for them is that they are white.


It's a tough break for sure, and I'd be the first to agree that children shouldn't have to go through such things. But her personal pity party is annoying. It’s if she's the only one who ever felt the way she does. Newsflash, 12 percent of Americans are poor, and half earn less than the median income. That’s also an injustice, but this leads me to another point.


Were this a semi-autobiographical novel with built-in calls for justice or pleas for class solidarity, I would be more charitable. Instead, it's all about Ruthie and how is she escaped Waitsfield. Earlier used the term solipsistic for reason. I found her to be one of the very cold people of the book's title. It's as if she lacks empathy for anyone not named Ruthie. In such a scenario, her escape doesn't warrant applause, merely a shrug.


As noted, Very Cold People is merely a string of random thoughts, the sort that more interesting writers might jot down in a notebook for future use. I couldn't help but compare it with the work of Richard Russo. His blue-color novels have lots of things that Very Cold People lacks: a plot, careful editing, empathy, sympathetic characters, and a point.


Rob Weir


* As I’ve written before, I’m skeptical of generations because whatever criteria that is used to “define” them only holds true in a general sense and often breaks down in voluminous specific cases.


McEnroe a Good Documentary with a Few Double Faults



McEnroe (2022)

Directed by Barney Douglas

Showtime Original, 104 minutes, TV-Mature (language)



Tennis star John  McEnroe was as known for his on-the-court tantrums and abusive language as for his amazing four-year run (1981-84) as the top-ranked male player in the world. In 1984, he was an astonishing 82-3 in matches. The Showtime documentary McEnroe looks at his rise, his triumphs, and character flaws. Watching it today makes you think that if John McEnroe isn’t on spectrum, there’s no such thing as autism. And watch it you can, now that it’s widely available on DVD and various streaming platforms.


Director/writer Barney Douglas follows McEnroe from his time as an Air Force brat to an adult brat who finally found a measure of control after he retired from what was once considered a genteel sport. The film labels McEnroe the “original bad boy” of tennis. Not really. Both Ilie “Nasty” Nastase and Jimmy Connors crapped on that turf before McEnroe, though you might need an elephant parade brigade to clean up after Johnny Mc. What is indisputable is that despite his outbursts, fines, and suspensions, when McEnroe was on his game, he was brilliant. He probably would have been even better had he been able to focus his energy rather than screaming at officials, smashing rackets, and–worst of all from a competitive standpoint–allowing his rage to consume rather than inspire him. (As would later plague Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, and Nick Kyrgios.)


McEnroe, like many bio-docs, relies on a host of testimonials that seek to give insight into what made the subject tick: Björn Borg, Billie Jean King, Chrissie Hynde, Phil Knight, Keith Richards, various members of the McEnroe clan (including some of his children and his tennis-playing brother Patrick), and his doubles partner Peter Fleming. On the latter score, McEnroe is the only male player ever ranked #1 in both singles and doubles. You might notice, though, that there are no mental health experts on the talking head list.


McEnroe’s bouts with Borg, the man he displaced as # 1, were legendary. Few knew, though, that Borg and McEnroe’s fellow New York bad boy Vitas Gerulitas, were about the closest thing McEnroe had to friends. When McEnroe defeated Borg at the 1981 U.S. Open, Borg retired from Grand Slam tennis, though he just 25. McEnroe couldn’t believe it, but Borg told him he just didn’t want to compete at that level anymore and that Mc would one day feel the same. He was on the money. Without Borg to inspire him, McEnroe began to flame out well before he retired from singles play in 1994.


An angle that Douglas plays subtly but well is showing how celebrity is an addiction in its own right. In 1986, McEnroe married actress Taum O’Neal, with whom he had three children, but their relationship soon mirrored McEnroe’s courtside problems. O’Neal tried to cope via cocaine and divorce occurred in 1994, two years after they separated. McEnroe went to clubs and hobnobbed with other famous people. It was the sort of lifestyle that gave him access to Eric Clapton and Eddie Van Halen when he decided he wanted to play guitar more seriously but by 1990, McEnroe arguably wielded his axe better than his racket. He occasionally played some doubles, but for the most part John McEnroe joined the ranks of those who became famous for having been famous. A key rebound came when he began dating punk/New Wave singer Patty Smyth in 1992. The two married five years later and remain together.


McEnroe doesn’t say much about his life as a tennis commentator or the occasional slips that cause some to believe that he went from a young jerk to an older one. The Douglas documentary suffers from a ham-handed attempt to portray his subject as a family man who learned to laugh. (What about Mc’s admission that he used steroids?) I could also have done without a rather obvious attempt at portraying McEnroe’s dark side with continuing voiceover footage of him walking alone in New York at night. At one point we hear him tell us that he’s “not very empathetic.” No kidding! I liked McEnroe and I always admired Johnny Mc’s talent, but it seems a missed opportunity to gloss the roots of his demons. McEnroe remains a complex man. Whether he can also be a good one is a serve toss suspended in air.


Rob Weir


Sports Ramblings



The football season is almost over. My interest in gridiron football is less than I have for moving to Swaziland to research dust mite, so on to other observations.




I’m angry about the obscene contract the Dodgers handed to Shohei Ohtani. He’s a wonderful player, but the terms of his $700 million contract are immoral. Ohtani was allowed to defer most of the money, meaning he can stiff California out of paying his fair share of taxes. What? He couldn’t cough up the change to pay taxes on $700 million! In essence, he could retire, move back to Japan, buy the island of Hokkaido, and pay next to nothing in state or federal taxes.


By contrast, California workers are expected to pay their taxes, but a multimillionaire pays chicken feed. Have you noticed that every time billionaire sports franchise owners wants a new stadium or arena, they extort the cities for public funding. This is ball pork for the rich paid for by workers who struggle to buy pork chops. I like Ohtani, but I hope the Dodgers crash worse than the 2023 Mets.



On a more serious note, if Major League Baseball doesn’t ban Wander Franco for life, its sexual abuse policy is a joke. Franco is undoubtedly talented, but he’s also a sexual predator. If you’ve not been following this, the 23-year-old Franco is accused of repeatedly raping a 14-year-old girl. Dominican courts have dismissed charges that could have sent him to prison for decades, but get this; the justification for doing so is that Franco paid the girl’s mother to have sex with her daughter. Oh well, that makes it alright, yes? After all, he’s only guilty of soliciting a minor for sex.


Professional baseball is a sport that is self-righteous about steroid use. That will get you banned­, after the third time! Thus far, the only player to be severely penalized for sexual abuse is pitcher Trevor Bauer, but even he was basically exiled after serving a 16-month suspension for spousal abuse. Franco’s actions are a step further. He should never again be allowed to wear an MLB uniform. If MLB banned Pete Rose for life for betting on games, what penalty is appropriate for Wander Franco?



The Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets are riding high in the National Hockey League standings. It would be a major boon for Canada if one of them won the Stanley Cup. I have a sneaking suspicion that the NHL would love to get rid of franchises in Canada everywhere except (perhaps) Montreal and Toronto. The Canadian dollar is weak, TV markets are smaller, and border crossings are seen as onerous. (Heaven forbid you’d have to show a passport or pay Canadian taxes!)


It’s the worst kept secret in sports that the NHL would love to move teams in Calgary, Ottawa, and Winnipeg to somewhere like Houston, San Diego, and Kansas City. Others on the waiting list include such traditional hotbeds of hockey (not!) like Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, and Atlanta, the last of which has already flopped twice.




The NHL already has 32 teams, which is at least four too many. If commissioner Gary Bettman wants to move franchises, several immediately spring to mind. Why the NHL keeps propping up Phoenix is anyone’s guess. The Coyotes hope to move into what will be their 3rd big arena next year. Why? Right now, they play on the campus of Arizona State University whose Mullett Center holds just over 5,000 fans, and don’t fill it!  By way of comparison, the AHL Hershey Bears average 8,700 per game in a town of less than 15,000 people. Note to Bettman: Nobody gives a puck about hockey in Arizona.



Another that could go is Columbus. The very idea of Columbus as a major league sports town is risible. I’m also tempted to say Quebec City would pump more money into payroll than the perpetually beleaguered Buffalo Sabers, but at least their fans care.



The National Basketball Association has become globally popular, but it has issues to address. Draymond Green needs to go if he commits another act of violence on the court. Officiating plays a role in exacerbating emotional outbursts. They call ticky-tacky violations but look away when shooters are practically undressed by defenders. You could watch an entire season and never see a traveling or three-second violation. 




More problematic is that the NBA has become more about the show than the quality of play. I’ll bet Red Auerbach spins in his grave every time a team goes into the 4th quarter with a 15- to 20-point lead and manages to pull defeat from the jaws of victory. If winning is really the goal, take the proverbial air out of the ball. By that I mean you slow the piece of the game. The quarters are only 12 minutes long and you have 24 seconds to shoot. The fundamentally sound strategy is to use most of the clock on each possession. Pass the ball, work the clock, and take high percentage two-point shots. There is no reason to rush the ball up the court and launch three-point attempts. That’s posterizing and highlight reel behavior, but it’s individualism in what’s supposed to a team sport.


Not impressed by men’s college basketball this year. The women’s game is far more exciting.


Rob Weir


Rita Woods Folds Time in Powerful Remembrance



Remembrance (2019)

By Rita Woods

Forge/Macmillian, 415 pages



One of Carl Jung’s more controversial psychological theories is his notion of collective consciousness. He argued that consciousness could be passed on to generations that never experienced the things to which memories are attached. Whether or not you are skeptical of that is of little consequence, as many African Americans believe that their culture is shaped by ancestors and their travails.


Remembrance, a powerful novel from Rita Woods builds off of collective consciousness and mixes in what some might call magical realism and others voudon. In present-day Cleveland, Gaelle dreams of an earthquake. It makes sense, as she is about to be evicted from her home despite the fact that she is employed full time at a care facility. What she does not realize, is that her dream is also a rupture in time. Woods plays loosely with time in a tale that takes us from Haiti to New Orleans to Ohio and bends time between 1791 and the 21st century.


In 1791, Abigail is enslaved by the Rouse family in Haiti. Despite her bondage, Abigail’s situation is agreeable enough. She loves the warmth, the scents, and Hercule, whom she views as her husband.* The Rouse family is even on the cusp of freeing her. However, 1791 was the beginning of the Haitian Revolution that (eventually) cast off French colonial rule. Hercule is swept into that struggle, arrested, and burned at the stake. To make matters even worse, when the Rouses fall into debt, promises fall by the wayside and Abigail is among those sold to Far Water, a plantation near New Orleans. She has never experienced such “cold” before! 


The heart of the novel takes place in 1857, after Abigail has escaped bondage and is “Mother Abigail,” the acknowledged doyenne of a community of runaways in Ohio near the Kentucky border. At this point, readers need to let their imaginations roam. Abigail has kept the community of Remembrance free of whites for many decades. Local Quakers trade with the community, but no white has or could set foot in Remembrance because of The Edge, a “fold” that makes it unfindable. The Edge is hard to describe. Think of it as a manipulation of what is seeable. It could be a cloaking device/force field, voudon, magic, simply a well-chosen location, or an illusion. (Your choice!) Abigail is the one who raises The Edge in moments of threat, but she is now quite elderly and her powers are diminishing.


In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, perhaps the most contested legislation in US history. It allowed slaveholders to seize runaways in any part of the country irrespective of whether their “property” resides in a free state. Abigail once used her power to fend off raiders near Remembrance with such effectiveness that it killed one raider and drove another to madness. Abigail and the mysterious Josiah sense that Winter is also “special,” but like many 20-year-olds, she lacks the discipline or concentration to recognize her power or use it safely. When The Edge crumbles and Winter and prickly Louisa, Remembrance’s healer, are seized by slave patrollers, a series of life- and history-altering events unfold that ripple into the 21st century.


Woods uses a “braided time” technique in which stories from different time periods–often with characters of the same name–overlap. Hers is not always calendar time and several characters are deliberately ambiguous. Josiah, for instance, dispenses advice but is surprisingly passive and ageless. Is he a loa (a voudon god) or simply meddlesome? Woods folds stories of those with unusual powers similar to how Abigail folds physical space. Her descriptions of life inside Remembrance and the people therein paint vivid images for readers.** Like all communities, the relationships and hierarchies within Remembrance were complicated. The character of Margot, an educated but haunted individual, is especially intriguing. Present-day figures such as Gaelle and her friend Toya appear sparingly in the text, but help carry forward notions of a collective unconscious and of inexplicable forces and capabilities.


Remembrance might remind you of the works such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing but it is uniquely its own gumbo. A delicious one.


Rob Weir


* Most marriage among slaves were customary, not legal.


** Even if you don’t buy into magical aspects of Remembrance, Woods is on solid historical grounds in that “hidden” communities of runaways indeed existed.