Category Archives: sentimentality

Review: Ted Kerasote’s new dog book

Pukka’s Promise charms & irks this reviewer, a lover of canines.

I got Pukka’s Promise at a wonderful independent bookstore, Explore Booksellers, Aspen, Colorado.

I got Pukka’s Promise at a wonderful independent bookstore, Explore Booksellers, Aspen, Colorado.

Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs by Ted Kerasote.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 388 pp.

Pukka in action.

Pukka in action.

Once when I was farming, I visited another shepherd and was stunned by the tameness of his sheep. Dave was a retired librarian, tall and energetic and assertive, and passionately in love with his little farm and his flock. Now sheep are timid creatures and know we’re predators—with our staring, front-placed eyes, dominating movements, most of us reeking of meat—but Dave’s let us amble right up. They greeted us with trusting eyes. I saw why: he spoke constantly to them, calling each ewe by name, commenting on her pretty lambs, and inquiring how she was doing. No predator does that. I realized that I didn’t use my own voice enough, but also felt I wasn’t as fine a shepherd as I’d supposed. Busy and all business, I took good care of my hoofed wards but seldom communed with them.

Ted Kerasote’s Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs had a similar effect. I adore dogs and have tried to be a good master to mine, but Kerasote is in a different league—it’s one lucky dog, with one glaring exception, who has him as his master. He hikes and hunts and plays with his pal, talks to him constantly, teaches him many words, and selects the best diet, playthings, and beds. Kerasote’s new book tells how when his beloved Labrador cross Merle died at age thirteen, he set out to replace him with a dog that might live much longer. This means one free of genetic defects and given the best home and veterinary care. Pukka comes from a Minnesota kennel that specializes in genetically screened field-type Labradors.

Canine age-extension is the book’s marketing peg and also a theme that unifies its meld of memoir—his first two years with Pukka—and how-to advice. There are extensive researched sections on diet, breeding, and vet care.

Kerasote’s advice and practices may seem nutty to your average dog owner. For instance, he scorns what he views as unnecessary scheduled vaccinations and also opposes neutering, making the case that both practices shorten dogs’ lives. The first issue I agree with, having grown to resent the way many vets now push products and procedures, though it’s been easier to go along to get along with my vet. The second, while perhaps true, is problematic for typical owners. As would be Pukka’s favorite breakfast: ground elk meat, chunks of elk heart and liver, chopped spinach, kale, chard, broccoli, and cauliflower, mixed with a raw egg and fish oil, and topped with an elk rib.

Given his dog’s diet, Kerasote is surprisingly moderate about kibble—if its maker abjures grain. But when I looked up one of his recommended elite brands I found that it just underwent a massive safety recall. Fact is, legions of dogs have lived to ripe-old ages eating mainstream and boring and grain-extended—and usually fresh and monitored—brands like Purina and Old Roy. Of course Kerasote doesn’t accept that thirteen or fourteen is sufficient. And he’s got a great emotional point, one that might be addressed by the intelligent selective breeding and conscientious care he advocates. Wouldn’t it be wonderful indeed if our dogs lived to at least twenty-five?

Kerasote lets his dog out

I was charmed by Kerasote’s warm-and-fuzzy persona, and admired his bravery in revealing it, while doubting I’d go half as far.

The deal-breaker for me was when he let Pukka roam his Wyoming village with other dogs. To Kerasote, this teaches a dog independence and helps it become an individual and attain the je-ne-sais-quoi Merle possessed after living in the wild before Kerasote found him. But even if Kerasote’s burgh is as dog-friendly as he says, he’s expecting everyone to love dogs, which they don’t. And roaming dogs get into garbage, harass other dogs, kill chickens. As a farmer, I saw the horrors to farm animals that loose dogs inflict. The late lamented Merle carried a bullet, and Kerasote admits this probably was from the gun of someone whose livestock Merle was chasing. He says he teaches Pukka to leave domestic ruminants alone, and depicts use of a shock collar to break a deer-chasing habit, but neither lesson’s foolproof when dogs are untended and in packs. It’s weird to learn that Kerasote is exposing Pukka to the risks of roaming even as he frets over the composition of Pukka’s toys and the effects of herbicide residues in his environment. I sense that Kerasote’s expressed antipathy to industrial agribusiness is larger, the blind spot of a hunter-gatherer toward all agriculture. I imagine he’d have a hard time grasping a husbandman’s distress over maimed ewes or massacred hens: You’re just going to kill them anyway, right?

I gathered from Amazon.com reviews that some readers devoured the book’s memoiristic passages while skimming, as I sometimes did, its swaths of technical information. Kerasote’s melding of the two aspects was impressive, though, and the information is there when and if you need it.

And, again, what a loving buddy he makes. When Pukka rides in Ted’s car, he has his own seatbelt, naturally. When Kerasote backpacks, Pukka also totes—panniers containing a supply of his own dehydrated elk meat—and, needless to say, Kerasote’s first-aid kit includes dog-specific products.

Memoir aspect reveals a poignant choice

You gather as you read that Kerasote is alone in life as in the wilderness, other than Pukka. He’s aware of your awareness and curiosity, and late in the book sets a revealing and poignant scene. As he spends a freezing night in his tent, cuddling Pukka for warmth, he recalls his recent break-up with a woman he still loves. She, president of her own company on the East Coast, can’t relocate to his remote western valley; he won’t abandon his location and lifestyle—both choices inseparable from his career as a top outdoor writer and photographer.

A snippet:

I unzipped the bag and put it over both of us, spooning him against me, my sweet young pup, his head under my chin, his back against my chest. I held him and thought, “How curiously things have turned out.” Here I was—more than halfway through my allotted run—still without a human partner, but with this very fine dog, with whom I was spectacularly in love: alone on the great divide, but not.

Perhaps Pukka felt my restlessness. Rubbing his face against my jaw, he gave me a lick on the cheek. I pulled him closer and felt his heart beating against mine. Then he relaxed completely and let out a sigh: “Ah, that’s better—touch, together, as we should be.”

How curious it would be—in truth, ironic and sad—if Kerasote’s sentimental view of dogs one day costs Pukka his life. Then again, I’ve never sustained his constant connection to a canine, and I admire it.

Which brings me to a real dilemma in rating Pukka’s Promise. Do I give this five-star book four stars because I disagree with and lament one immature notion? No matter what he says, I’m not going to let my dog roam; I presume his other readers won’t either; and surely 99.9 percent of the owners of roving dogs don’t buy 400-page books like this or expect affirmation for their rudeness and neglect. So maybe this extremist, with his surprising and stimulating contrary vision, is simply challenging the moderate middle to become a little better with our dogs, more worthy of their love.

Reluctantly, and in truth guiltily, I do dock Kerasote’s fine book for my one major disagreement, finding his practice odious. I sense it’s the dark side of his rare virtues as a master, a writer, and an outdoorsman.

Explore Books Photo

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Filed under REVIEW, sentimentality

How ‘Mad Men’ became a soap opera

What’s been interesting to me this season about AMC’s hit series Mad Men is how dead in a classically dramatic sense it seems, how spent its narrative arc. Yet it remains addictive for those who got hooked on its characters. So I watch, but I wonder about the show with morbid professional curiosity. How long and how far can a Pan American jetliner that’s lost its engines glide?

Maybe this is just me. Maybe Mad Men is doing something risky, not milking the franchise. But I affirm my sense at the end of season three: the story ended then, when the principal characters broke away from the Madison Avenue advertising agency where they toiled, loved, and fought, and formed their own firm. Any novel or regular movie with decent self-respect would have ended there, freeing our imaginations to ponder their fates. As it is, two seasons later, they now weather minor turbulence as they walk the earth like the rest of us. I dread the likelihood that the show’s writers will make lead character Don Draper unhappy again, despite his ridiculously adorable second wife and his material success. Meanwhile, viewers this season have mostly followed the supporting actors. They do supply narrative threads, but are peripheral characters, at least in terms of the initial core drama about Draper and his baggage.

The same issue faces AMC’s exciting sister series Breaking Bad. Last year, at the end of its fourth season, protagonist Walter White had finally vanquished his evil rival and won all the chips. What’s left, in next year’s final season, except to wrap up threads that don’t truly need wrapping? But Breaking Bad has at least has kept its focus on Walter, just as The Sopranos kept Tony Soprano dead center. Mad Men has drifted from Draper, maybe because it goofed and made him happy too soon.

Don Draper, with two of his vices at hand

And yet, as I say, I flail along with Mad Men, feeling my love cool and my eye grow more critical. This year the writers are emphasizing the sea-change the late 1960s wrought, as well as cultural reference points like the Speck murders. This infusion cannot staunch the leakage of the show’s drama, and fails, for me, to offset it by dishing up inescapably sentimental period allure. I grew up in the crazed, profound, damaging ‘60s and came of age in the ghastly 1970s. I was raised by a father from Draper’s martini-drinking, Camel-smoking, workaholic, womanizing milieu; my mother, like Draper’s desperate ex-wife Betty, knew a doctor the ladies could go to for “diet pills” so they could stay sexy and keep their husbands domesticated.

And so I look back when I look at the aging Mad Men, as some other boomers surely must, with curious affection and distaste. We know the period, like none since, and can inflict it upon ourselves and the credulous young: look how charmingly naïve they were, dosing themselves with nicotine and alcohol and having a promiscuous good (or bad-but-at-least-entertaining) time. We now know not only what the characters still don’t, but what we—and our parents—didn’t. We were all busy, so busy, trying to get through those years, just like everyone is now.

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Filed under film/photography, narrative, NOTED, sentimentality

Amos Oz’s ‘Tale of Love and Darkness’

By Olga Khotiashova

A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

On January 6, 2012, it was 60 years since Amos Oz’s mother took her life. The memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness, written in 2002, was a tribute to her memory as well as the act of Oz’s reconciliation with his own memories. It took him half a century to gather enough strength to perceive and articulate what had happened that day; and it turned out to be a long story beginning in Eastern Europe centuries before.

In my ignorance I had never heard of Amos Oz, a distinguished Israeli fiction writer, before I watched his conversation with Charlie Rose. This brilliant conversation is worth a separate review. I was so impressed by the writer’s personality that I immediately wrote his name in the top line of my reading list. I decided to begin with his memoir for several reasons: he is a descendant of Jews who immigrated to the Promised Land from Eastern Europe; he had never dropped a single word about his mother’s tragic death before writing the memoir; he mentioned in the interview that his memoir had not caught much attention in the U.S. So there it was, a 560-page volume lying in front of me.

The English translation by Nicholas de Lange is marvelous. I believe it gives the true impression of the original.  Long, flowing paragraphs are followed by ragged sentences; you can hear the strong Russian accent of Oz’s father whichever language he speaks; you can feel the throbbing development of Hebrew language. I was struck by the thought that the book may sound sharply out of tune for American ears; that a story of some Inuit village may appear more customary. For me, the book was surprisingly soothing like a tender touch of a close relative’s hand. Oz’s note about evolving Hebrew correlated with my non-native speaker’s feeling about living in a foreign country: “Perhaps that is how a short-sighted driver feels, trying to find his way at night through a warren of side streets in an unfamiliar car.” I wonder if Amos Oz would be pleased to hear that a Russian immigrant to America indulged her nostalgia in reading his memoir.

The book is densely inhabited, and each character has a distinct voice. You will never mix up the mesmerizing tales by Amos Oz’s mother with his father’s clumsy literary jokes or his grandfathers’ guidance and inept poems. Here is how the grandfather Naphtali Hertz Mussman spoke about love:

I said a little compassion and generosity, but I didn’t say love: I’m not such a believer in universal love. Love of everybody for everybody—we should maybe leave that to Jesus. Love is another thing altogether. It is nothing whatever like generosity and nothing whatever like compassion. On the contrary. Love is a curious mixture of opposites, a blend of extreme selfishness and total devotion. A paradox! Besides which, love, everybody is always talking about love, love, but love isn’t something you choose, you catch it like a disease, you get trapped in it, like a disaster. So what is it that we do choose? What do human beings have to choose between every minute of the day? Generosity or meanness. Every little child knows that, and yet wickedness still doesn’t come to an end. How can you explain that? It seems we got it all from the apple that we ate back then: we ate a poisoned apple.

In the memoir, the story of the nation, country, language, and family interweaves with the personal story. The structure is subtle. The author goes back and forth, travels in time and space, returns to seminal moments again and again. He draws unforgettable scenes, so vivid that a slight hint immediately revives them later. He repeats the long lists of streets and names. Those names are so unusual you don’t even try to pronounce them; and eventually they make up a visual, almost topographic image, so you can follow the writer in his memory tour, not looking at the signs but just relying on the images deeply imprinted in his heart. The narrative does not go smoothly. Sometimes the cart of memory becomes overloaded with personages and details and gets stuck on sharp turns.

I may also have heard this from Zelda, my teacher, that summer when we were close: if you want to draw a tree, just draw a few leaves. You don’t need to draw all of them. If you draw a man, you don’t have to draw every hair. But in this she was inconsistent: one time she would say that at such and such a place I had written a bit too much, while another time she would say that actually I should have written a little more. But how do you tell? I am still looking for an answer to this day.

A hundred pages in the middle are probably the place where the author wrote “a bit too much.”  It seems he was experiencing a painful transition from the macro-world of the family-tree at large to the micro-world of the twelve-year-old boy in Jerusalem, who had just lost his mother. He came to the point where the bitter words had to be said. And it is there where he reflects on the nature of memoirs:

It’s like a woman you’ve known for a long time, you no longer find her attractive or unattractive, whenever you bump into each other, she always says more or less the same few worn-out words, always offers you a smile, always taps you on the chest in a familiar way, only now, only this time, she doesn’t, she suddenly reaches out and grabs your shirt, not casually but with her all, her claws, lustfully, desperately, eyes tight shut, her face twisted as though in pain, determined to have her way, determined not to let go, she doesn’t care anymore about you, about what you are feeling, whether or not you want to, what does she care, now she’s got to, she can’t help herself, she reaches out now and strikes you like a harpoon and starts pulling and tearing you, but actually she’s not the one who’s pulling, she just digs her claws in and you’re the one who’s pulling and writing, pulling  and writing, like a dolphin with the barb of the harpoon caught in his flesh, and he pulls as hard as he can, pulls the harpoon and the line attached to it and the harpoon gun that’s attached to the line and the hunters’ boat that the harpoon gun is fixed in the sea, pulls and dives down to dark depths, pulls and writes and pulls more; if he pulls one more time with all his desperate strength, he may manage to free himself from the thing that is stuck in his flesh, the thing that is biting and digging into you and not letting go, you pull and you pull and it just bites into your flesh, the more you pull, the deeper it digs in, and you can never inflict a pain in return for this loss that is digging deeper and deeper, wounding you more and more because it is the catcher and you are the prey, it is the hunter and you are the harpooned dolphin, it gives and you have taken, it is that evening in Jerusalem and you are in this evening in Arad, it is your dead parents, and you just pull and go on writing.

A Tale of Love and Darkness covers several centuries but you always feel the presence of the narrator: Amos Oz sitting at his desk in Arad in 2001. There and then he soldiers on with courage and candor. His tale is tragic and funny and thrilling and annoying and unforgettable. He wrote about his heritage, “I understood where I had come from: from a dreary tangle of sadness and pretense, of longing, absurdity, inferiority and provincial pomposity, sentimental education and anachronistic ideals, repressed traumas, resignation and helplessness.”

While I was reading the memoir, a rather bizarre recipe came to my mind: mix healthy European pragmatism with Jewish sentimental romanticism, add a generous portion of alcohol and you will get what is called a mysterious Russian soul; stir the mixture vigorously, skim the cream off, and you will get a fertile substance to germinate an American. It is just a joke, no offense, as Amos Oz’s father used to say.

About three years ago I read one critically acclaimed contemporary Russian novel. I was shocked by how gloomy and pretentious it was, so I have focused solely on American literature since then and have been enjoying my greater journey. A Tale of Love and Darkness made me turn to Russian literature again. Oz’s prose is often called “Chekhovian.” It was Chekhov’s prose, the only one of all Russian classics, which I tried to avoid in high school and never returned to later. Probably, it’s time to reread Chekhov now.

Olga Khotiashova reviews memoirs periodically for Narrative.

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Filed under memoir, REVIEW, sentimentality, structure, syntax

Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Walker Percy

My southern fiction orgy last summer started with Flannery O’Connor. Since I often dip into her stories, I bought and read the latest bio of her, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch. I hoped to learn how she got so wise, and so dark.

Apparently, her mother and their ouchy relationship. And Flannery’s imaginings: she seemingly nudged her own prickly ways a bit to depict sullen grown children like the nasty daughter-with-PhD in “Good Country People”; she showed in masterpieces like “Everything That Rises Must Converge” how such prideful offspring suffered when their mean or silly but always prideful mothers passed.

In her stories O’Connor killed off women like her mother, the most famous instance in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” But she told friends she was safe: her mother didn’t read her stories, found them too depressing. Flannery is a good biography but Gooch doesn’t tell enough about O’Connor’s able, assertive mother, a sharp businesswoman who, astoundingly enough, ran a successful farm by herself in backwater Georgia. And cared for her lupus-afflicted daughter, who couldn’t drive and whom she drove into town to Catholic Mass daily.

Flannery O’Connor never married and died at 39, but she did know romantic love, Gooch reveals: she had one boyfriend, a book salesman. But he’s quoted as saying that the time he kissed her passionately on the lips her lips collapsed and he found himself kissing her teeth. The experience felt like kissing a corpse to him—repulsed, he ran off to Sweden and married another woman.

The bio led me to reread some of her great stories. They’re such distilled parables that their similar plots are striking, and I wonder how she got away with it. On the other hand I marvel at how the differing surface details of her stories obscure the possible downside of the similarity of her plots. Did critics ever complain?

Even though there’s a lot of humor in her stories—they are funny as hell, so to speak—too much O’Connor depresses me.  But listen to her reading  “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in 1959 at Vanderbilt and you’ll enjoy the humor, some broad and some sly, especially if you’ve just read the story.

To cleanse my palate after Flannery and her stories, I read To Kill a Mockingbird, which drags a bit, to me. I enjoy better the movie, which compresses the novel’s three years into one. O’Connor famously dismissed Mockingbird as a children’s book. She has a point, but I disagree. O’Connor mistook Lee’s sunnier view of human nature for sentimentality, I think. Yet Lee’s vision of the human possibility of greatness rings true, as well as inspires, and it’s no more false or fantastic than O’Connor’s consistently bleak view of humanity.

Like O’Connnor, Lee hero-worshipped her father and had a difficult relationship with her mother—and of course Lee killed off the mother entirely in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus is Alabama’s most eligible bachelor. I next read the recent bio of Lee, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles J. Shields, which was decent. The book is handicapped by Lee’s reticence and by her lack of authorial productivity, leaving Shields with scant material.

His best explanation of why she failed to complete another novel she worked on, as well as a true-crime account planned along the lines of her friend Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, was that she was overwhelmed by the success of Mockingbird and quit. Anyway, that’s supposedly what she told a waiter in New York, says Shields.

All this led me back to one of my all-time favorite authors, another southerner, Walker Percy, who knew O’Connor. I reread his second novel, The Last Gentleman, the followup to his National Book Award winner The Moviegoer. I hadn’t read it in thirty years but adored it again for its humor and its rollicking road-trip structure; I was surprised by the beauty of its descriptive passages and by how Percy achieves lyricism in a stripped syntax that uses rhythm to avoid commas:

Nights were the best. Then as the thick singing darkness settled about the little caboose which shed its cheerful square of light on the dark soil of old Carolina, they might debark and, with the pleasantest sense of stepping down from the zone of the possible to the zone of the realized, stroll to a service station or fishing camp or grocery store, where they’d have a beer or fill up the tank with spring water or lay in eggs and country butter and grits and slab bacon; then back to the camper, which they’d show off to the storekeeper, he ruminating a minute and: all got to say is, don’t walk off and leave the keys in it—and so on in the complex Southern tactic of assaying a sort of running start, a joke before the joke, ten assumptions shared and a common stance of rhetoric and a whole shared set of special ironies and opposites. He was home. Even though he was hundreds of miles from home and had never been here and it was not even the same here—it was older and more decorous, more tended to and a dream with the past—he was home.

Gooch says in Flannery that Percy based his character “Val,” a nun, on O’Connor. That was one of the reasons I reread The Last Gentleman—I wanted to understand his take on O’Connor—but I couldn’t see much resemblance between them. And in the novel, Val isn’t much developed.

Then I reread Percy’s revisiting of these characters some years later in The Second Coming. I was surprised that Percy seemed to have forgotten Val’s lineage; he slips in the book’s only reference to her and refers to her as the heroine’s sister instead of as her aunt. Percy, of withered Protestant roots and a ferocious convert to Catholicism, seems to view the fallen world in a much more kindly light than O’Connor did. Much of The Second Coming deals with Will Barrett’s attempt to understand his father’s suicide. Like Barrett, Percy’s father killed himself, and so did his mother. Cancer got Percy, and he was trying to correspond with Bruce Springsteen about the biblical imagery in Springsteen’s songs when he died.

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Filed under fiction, NOTED, religion & spirituality, sentimentality, syntax, theme

America’s greatest essay

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”—James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” from Notes of a Native Son

When he was seventeen, James Baldwin began writing his great, autobiographical novel about growing up in Harlem, Go Tell it on the Mountain—today it might be sold as a memoir—and would publish it after more than ten years of effort. A couple years later he wrote America’s greatest essay, for my money, which appeared in November 1955 in its first incarnation in Harper’s Magazine as “Me and My House . . .” and became the title essay of Notes of a Native Son. I quoted above from the book’s first essay because it pleases me how Baldwin struck at the sin of sentimentality with such vigor, precision, and beauty (as a boy he had reread Uncle Tom’s Cabin so obsessively his mother hid it from him; he knew its sins well).

“Notes of a Native Son” opens with the funeral, on August 3,1943, of Baldwin’s stepfather, a Harlem preacher, the father of eight younger children—the last born on the day of his rites—a colorful, contumacious, and bitter patriarch. Baldwin, a gifted Pentecostal preacher himself when only fourteen, had by seventeen turned away from the pulpit and toward literature, a shift that exacerbated tensions with his difficult stepfather. Baldwin’s portrait of him is unforgettable:

“He was, I think, very handsome. Handsome, proud, and ingrown, “like a toenail,” somebody said. But he looked to me, as I grew older, like pictures I had seen of African tribal chieftans: he really should have been naked, with warpaint on and barbaric mementoes, standing among spears. He could be chilling in the pulpit and indescribably cruel in his personal life and he was certainly the most bitter man I have ever met; yet it must be said that there was something else buried in him, which lent him his tremendous power and, even, a rather crushing charm. It had something to do with his blackness, I think—he was very black—and his beauty, and the fact that he knew he was black but did not know he was beautiful.”

To write like that: the rhythms, the conversational yet elevated rounded diction, the hint of oratory, the punctuation—and that surprise at the end! The essay is famous for the soaring grandeur of its elegiac close:

“It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, of men as they are. . . . [T]he second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and now it had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. This intimation made my heart heavy and, now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now.”

One pictures Baldwin rejoicing, or at least smiling all day, after writing that paragraph and especially its last line, a gift. Maybe he cried.

The essay is beautifully structured, opening with the funeral and returning to it after scenic flashbacks and exposition. Many students love it, and it teaches well, with two caveats. The first is that Baldwin writes so gorgeously that he gets away with much exposition—his essays are classical in that sense, meditations relying on voice, and far more rhetorical than his fiction. Second, like any masterpiece it can’t be pigeonholed. Does one tell students it’s a memoir or a personal essay? (This hair-splitting will puzzle non-teachers, but students struggle with telling apart these categories, and there is a worthy if subtle distinction.) “Notes of a Native Son” is poised between its subject—perhaps America’s greatest subject, race—and personal history, the story of a man embittered by white prejudice and of his rebellious stepson who fears that he has inherited that bitterness. For teaching purposes I currently call it a personal essay because, though it is a great memoir, Baldwin’s intent is to show the human burden of racism. He uses his own and his stepfather’s life to explore that much larger subject, and makes white prejudice real and its effect painfully clear.

For Vivian Gornick, who discusses the essay at length in The Situation and the Story, it is a “perfect bridge between the essay and the memoir,” both exploring a subject and defining a conflicted self. She notes its “powerful commonality” with Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” which also pivots around race, interweaves the personal and political, and features a “murderous truth-speaking” and civilizing voice. Ultimately Baldwin’s essay is about the burden of being civilized, Gornick says, and he forges a form that in its content and expression becomes a civilizing instrument. “. . . Baldwin found he could be everything he had to be—rational, humane, and cutthroat—all at the same time,” she writes. “The narrator’s tone of voice is, in fact, the true subject of the piece.”

In the preface to Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin writes, “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” As far as I can see, he was both. Until his death in 1987, during self-imposed exile in France, he was also close friends with one of my favorite writers, William Styron. Baldwin’s eloquent prose is much like Styron’s, a burnished, erudite King James Bible colloquialism, but perhaps even more elegant.

Fiction writer Cynthia Newberry Martin has an interesting new post about Baldwin, Look Again,” with a link to Baldwin’s Paris Review interview, on her blog Catching Days.

Baldwin wrote in longhand, on yellow legal pads, and at night, beginning after dinner and continuing until three or four o’clock in the morning, he told The Paris Review. “When you’re writing,” he said, “you’re trying to find out something you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway. . . . ”

“I don’t know what technique is. All I know is you have to make the reader see it. I got this from Dostoyevsky, from Balzac. . . . Every form [fiction and nonfiction] is difficult, no one is easier than another. They all kick your ass.”

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Filed under discovery, essay-classical, essay-expository, essay-personal, NOTED, scene, sentimentality, teaching, education, working method

When prose becomes political

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In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.—George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

“Vote,” Kathy commanded as she left the house last week on election day.

I wasn’t inclined to. We’d moved here only six months ago.We’d sold my flock of sheep, tended for a decade, and our farm in Appalachian Ohio. Now we lived on the edge of a metropolis. We enjoyed walking to work and to yoga. But everything was still unsettled. New routines were surely forming, but they were hard to see. I hadn’t gotten my annual flu shot—didn’t know where to go—and we kept forgetting to buy food for our little terrier Jack, who eats practically nothing but whose purple sack of Iams Active Maturity was getting low.

In our bedroom I found a flier on the election from a new city friend who was campaigning against the creation of a state livestock-care board. Vote No, it said. The newspaper we’d just started getting in an effort to understand our new world editorialized that the board amounted to factory farmers supervising factory farmers.

Kathy called the house to check up on me: “Don’t forget to vote.”

“Okay. We’re for the school levy,” I said. “Remember to vote against the livestock board, Issue 2. I don’t know the details but Jean is against it.”

I Googled and too much came up to figure out so late in the game. Issue 2 was something that a few months ago I’d have been certain about.

I opened an email from the editor of my old sheep breed society’s magazine and attached to it was the edited version of an article he’d solicited from me because he was running short of copy. Adapted from my memoir, it was an account of Muslim students butchering lambs on our farm on the day that journalist Daniel Pearl’s murder by Muslim terrorists was revealed. The copy editor had condensed the essay, cutting the braid about Pearl and my fear on that day of being surrounded by young Muslim men wielding knives. But in editing it to fit, she’d preserved the point: I admired the students’ taking responsibility for their meat and for their prayers at the moment they cut my lambs’ throats. This stood in contrast to America’s assembly-line slaughter and to the public’s willful ignorance about the origins of its food.

I approved the edits and walked uptown to the poll. I left many categories blank because I didn’t know the candidates or the issues, then went to a reception where people were talking about the election.

“How did you vote on Issue 2?” I asked.

“I voted against it,” one said. “We buy our milk from Snowville Creamery, and the owner said it would be controlled by the Farm Bureau and they could put him out of business if they wanted, because he doesn’t do things their way.”

I knew the couple who supplied Snowville Creamery with its milk—they were big figures in the grazing community I’d belonged to in southern Ohio. They’d sold me our terrier for our daughter’s birthday twelve years ago. I understood the paranoia about Ohio Farm Bureau, which I’d also felt was inherently hostile to my low-tech pastoral approach.

But I recalled from the finer print on my friend’s flier that the coalition I’d joined against the board included the Humane Society of the United States. HSUS isn’t what everyone calls the “humane society” but a national animal activist group akin to PETA-lite. When I raised sheep I figured both groups were my sworn enemies.

II.

Arriving home, I got a call from the editor of the sheep magazine saying he had to reject my story. “I ran it by [the head of the publications committee] and he said that at [the state university] they’re trained to use the word ‘harvest,’ never ‘kill’ or ‘slaughter’ or ‘butcher’ or ‘slaughterhouse,’ ” he said.

“That’s fine—you asked for it,” I said. “But this proves the need for the essay.”

What my piece clarified, the editor explained, is that they shouldn’t print personal essays but just reports. Of course politics roiled beneath every straightforward item; the sheep group was as riven with factions as a church, with the infighting just as nasty. But he noted the fear that my essay “could fall into the wrong hands”—activists—and be used against farmers.

For admitting that food animals are killed? For advocating that we should restore a spiritual dimension to taking life?

The agribusiness establishment, grown paranoid between extremists and an ignorant society, now employs verbiage as cleverly as its opponents. Well, it tries. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the “harvest” edict: a few years ago, the Farm Bureau, having fled from the beautiful concept agriculture for agribusiness, and stuck with its foes’ epithet “factory farms,” unveiled a new word for its sector to win hearts and minds: “agbioresource.” Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?

Politics is war, and truth is its first casualty. Another new friend had been disgusted when a hog farmer told Kiwanians here that without Issue 2 to protect farmers from extremists “we’ll all have to become vegans.” Meanwhile, she said, in its pre-election advertisements HSUS cleverly positioned the issue as one of “food safety,” preying on fears of e-coli and antibiotics, a screen for its animal rights agenda.

As euphemisms go, “harvest” isn’t very misleading—such a concentrated philosophical argument and so deeply and obviously political. But we do kill animals as well as harvest them. Our society can’t wash its hands of physical labor and blood and get off the hook for what results: industrial agribusiness. At least the Muslim students took direct responsibility. But Americans seemingly refuse to accept that we live by death. This leads to the sentimentality of the brute; to mistreatment of weaker people, not just animals.

An American counter-culture magazine actually printed my euphemism-free essay in all its bloody glory a few years ago: the Amish-run Farming: People, Land, Community. Their society is driven by communal values and by the desire to preserve community, rather than by the sanctity of any individual’s quest for profits. And its agrarian base has kept it in touch with basic realities. The editor didn’t think twice about printing it or the blunt quote from Ernest Hemingway atop it:

“All true stories end in death.”

III.

I emailed a shepherd friend and asked what she thought of Issue 2, and she sent me this description of the watchdog board from a national shepherds’ association: “The 13-member board will include three family farmers, two veterinarians (one of whom is the state veterinarian), a food safety expert, a representative of a local humane society, two members from statewide farm organizations, the dean of an Ohio agriculture college and two members representing Ohio consumers.”

It sounded pretty good to me, moderate—surely for the status quo, yes, but maybe I’d choose that in defiance of clueless consumers and in preference to extremists. I was beginning to regret my vote against the board.

However, this upset my friend in the report: “Members of Ohio’s agriculture community worried if [disallowing extreme confinement operations] were enacted in the state, it would cause the cost of food to rise for consumers, increase costs for farmers and reduce the availability of locally raised products.”

“Give me a break,” she wrote about such clumsy fear tactics. “I’d be happy to see battery cages, gestation and veal crates abolished, but realize that HSUS wants more than that.”

The irony is that her sheep don’t qualify for activists’ Animal Welfare Certified label because they live too close to nature: they graze outside in solar-fueled sustainable pastures year-round without the required constantly available man-made shelter. Infrastructure is the emblem of industrial agriculture’s mania for control that has led to animal factories, antibiotics to fight barn-cough (pneumonia) and the feeding of petrochemical-produced grain to ruminants.

Yet we’ve removed so many people from the land—more Americans are now incarcerated than are growing our food—that perhaps pressuring and regulating farmers is what we must do. Despite my kneejerk bitterness at society, I know people can sense right from wrong. We regulate employers, why not farmers? It would be better if we outlawed caged layers. Maybe we’re in a slow process of bringing values to another area of commerce. That will run counter to America’s cheap food policy that is another underlying villain here. Maybe we will pay a few cents more for eggs, milk, and meat but we’ll know why.

For now, even the man who knew too much hadn’t known how to vote, so how did I expect other urbanites to figure this one out? I was feeling better about having voted against the board, though. I had bet on evolutionary change by siding with the do-gooders, while hoping the public would control them. Was that logical, political, or just perverse?

The public’s decision came in the morning: Issue 2 had passed. Ohio voters had modified the state’s constitution to install the mainstream livestock board. The only location with a majority vote against it was my old county in the hills of southern Ohio, full of paranoid—or were they wise?—alternative farmers.

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Filed under audience, emotion, evolutionary psychology, honesty, MY LIFE, politics, religion & spirituality, sentimentality

The sentimentality tightrope

from Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg:

“A responsibility of literature is to make people awake, present, alive. If the writer wanders, then the reader, too, will wander. The fly on the table might be part of the whole description of a restaurant. It might be appropriate to tell Goldberg-WritingBonzprecisely the sandwich that it just walked over, but there is a fine line between precision and self-indulgence.

“Stay on the side of precision; know your goal and stay present with it. If your mind and writing wander from it, bring them gently back. When we write, many avenues open up inside us. Don’t get too far afield. Stay with the details and with your direction. Don’t be self-absorbed, which eventually creates vague, muddy writing. We might really get to know the fly but forget where we are: the restaurant, the rain outside, the friend across the table. The fly is important, but it has its place. Don’t ignore the fly; don’t become obsessed with it. Irving Howe wrote in his introduction to Jewish American Stories that the best art almost becomes sentimental but doesn’t. Recognize the fly, even love it if you want, but don’t marry it.”

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Pitfalls of first-person

I’ve been struggling through Gilead this July, trying to ascertain why I’m lukewarm, at best, toward this acclaimed book so many have savored with such pleasure from an author I respect and admire. Marilynne Robinson’s novel won the Pulitzer and rave reviews from all the large-circulation review outlets that remain in America. Gilead has earned a raft of adoring reader reviews on Amazon—too many people to have been deceived by the superficiality and log-rolling of major book reviews. But there’s a contrary subcurrent who say they were bored to tears and shut the book halfway through, which is where I gave up before deciding to soldier on.

I know that a work of art that fails for me may be another’s huckleberry. Yet I believe my minority response springs from more than mere taste or temperament—there are technical issues here of interest to writers. Gilead puts its eggs in the basket of first-person narration, which like any point of view has strengths and weaknesses, and is a risky novel in its breaking of literary and storytelling conventions.

The book is told by an elderly minister in the form of a letter to his seven-year-old son, really to the man that boy will become. John Ames knows that his heart is failing and that he will not guide his son to adulthood. The dying man rambles over his life with scant narrative thread and plot structure. Ames writes of life’s fleeting beauty—Gilead is largely a hymn to existence—and meditates upon theology. He depicts the conflict between his crazed, abolitionist minister grandfather and his mild, liberal minister father. A prodigal figure appears in the form of Ames’s namesake, his best friend’s despairing son, whom Ames is threatened by, dislikes, and fails to comfort. The novel has been called essayistic, which I suppose is a way of saying  that it explores subjects and lacks narrative drive.

There’s a difference in how literary novels unfold story and in the dominoes-falling action of plot-driven potboilers. But even serious readers enjoy discerning meaning (really, in grasping the conflict) in subtle narrative, in putting an author’s particular puzzle of existence together. Readers can feel betrayed when their efforts do not add up. That is, when there’s insufficient causality in events. Robinson has said she wrote the novel like a serial, in chunks she sent off for publication, which may account for what feels to me like insufficient authorial shaping. But it may be that Gilead is simply too subtle for this reader. I enjoyed its father-son stories but failed to find a meaningful thematic link in them.

The author’s stroke of genius was to find Ames’s voice, which gives Gilead its intimacy and its elegiac tone. Such literary ventriloquism is problematic if the author loves a narrator more than her readers do. People who adore Ames revere Gilead. I think this is affection at work rather than fascination stemming from suspense, because Ames lacks interior and exterior conflict for most of the book, interesting flaws, and even garden-variety regrets. But then I dislike Ames. He’s the central character, and I find him inane. He doesn’t spark my interest or sympathy—nothing seems at stake with him—and so his cherished truths strike me as tedious wanderings. His weary “I suppose” began to grate.

When I don’t want to slap Ames silly, I want to edit the hell out of him. Robinson uses language gorgeously, and Gilead contains some great insights as well, but too often Ames’s wistful “letter” dredges up mush. A typical passage: “If I were to go through my old sermons, I might find some that deal with this subject. Since I am presumably somewhere near the end of my of my time and my strength, that might be the best way to make the case for you. I should have thought of this long ago.” And potentially I might almost agree, were I to somehow summon a whit of interest that would overcome my waning desire to turn the page. I think Robinson likes Ames and doesn’t mean to depict a smarmy old coot, but he’s enough to make me revoke my pledge to National Public Radio and stick a National Rifle Association decal on my Prius. To others, obviously, he is wise and lovable.

Consider another first-person narrator, Nick Carraway, of The Great Gatsby, who consciously thinks well of himself—he’s full of himself—and who, in that and other ways, is deliciously human. He’s not riddled with doubt like most people, but readers identify with uncertainty’s flip side, his conceit, and thrill to the clever aphorisms and mean pronouncements of this man who claims to be totally nonjudgmental. He’s also telling us a story primarily about other people, dramatic actors in tumultuous action—affairs, negligent manslaughter, murder.

Gildead’s prodigal figure, the son of Ames’s best friend (another minister, who’s also dying, at a rate faster than Ames), is a great character, by nature an ecclesiastical man riven by his inability to believe in God and by his self-destructiveness and inexplicable meanness. The stories of how, when he was a boy, he tormented Ames with malicious pranks are compelling—he was a satanic Dennis the Menace—and funny, if Ames irks you. The best thing about the guy is that he brings in mystery and tension. Ames can’t understand him, and neither can we, and he actually gets Ames riled. But this all late in the book, after much saintly Ames and his distant memories, and by then I was skimming.

Dramas are narratives of trauma and struggle by flawed characters. This rule has special relevance for personal essayists and memoirists, who are almost stuck with a first-person narration in which the narrator is seen as being identical with the author, or perhaps with a past version of the author. The inherent self-serving nature of first-person must be addressed in some way. Another pitfall of this point of view is that it tends to pitch the balance of showing vs. telling toward telling. There’s a voice lulling us with story, yes, but that virtue is in tension with the creation of images in the theater of readers’ minds. The power of showing is that it bypasses analytical receptors and triggers emotional ones.

Art trades in emotion. As such, it always risks sentimentality, which is unearned emotion. Yet one reader’s disgust with the maudlin is another’s experience of pity and sorrow. I experienced Gilead as deeply sentimental because its narrator and structure didn’t earn what they asked from me, that I be moved by the fine thoughts of a dying man.

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Filed under craft, technique, fiction, memoir, narrative, Persona, Voice, POV, REVIEW, sentimentality, structure, theme

A meditation upon ‘Infinite Jest’

This is a guest post by my son, Tom Gilbert, a college sophomore majoring in philosophy.

David Foster Wallace expressed dissatisfaction with the reviews for his ambitious  Infinite Jest. The 1,104-page book is so expansive that any attempt at a plot synopsis is useless; any sweeping thematic summation seems to feel reductive.  However, the novel’s polyphonic structure and character voices are illuminating in its discussion.

The novel bears numerous similarities to Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in its character relationships.  Infinite Jest3Instead of Fyodor we have possibly the most disturbing matriarch in fiction.  Each of the Karamazovs had a different mother; here (possibly) it is different fathers.  But Wallace’s book lacks the central engine of Dostoyevsky’s: instead of Dmitri’s passionate hatred and rivalry with his father over a woman, Orin simply became estranged from his father.  Likewise, the naïve and religious Alyosha of Dostoyevsky’s novel is replaced with Mario Incandenza, an ambiguously deformed and slow-minded teenager with a passion for filmmaking.  Finally, Hal is essentially Ivan minus the philosophical ebullience and plus a substance abuse problem.  I am tempted to conclude that Wallace is trying to say something about modern life, that we have the freedom now to cut off our connections with humanity when they become too painful; modern life encourages self-fulfillment in the worst possible way.

But Wallace is not merely trying to capitalize on Dostoyevsky’s archetypes by affecting a postmodern setting for them to frolic in.  Their motivations have become completely twisted.  Orin shares Dmitri’s passion for women but not his passion for living—his life consists entirely of seducing women.  Mario, like Alyosha, is the only character able to break outside the dysfunction of his family, but he remains oblivious to the pain they are experiencing.  His spiritual transcendence does not necessitate emotional maturity, awareness, or even compassion. And Hal instigates no action throughout the course of the novel.

Karamazov is explicitly mentioned once in Infinite Jest, when the narrator refers to its philosophical conundrums as a “carcinogen.”  The primary difference between the two novels is that where Dostoyevsky’s characters passionately aim their pistols directly at each others’ temples, Wallace’s would rather shoot into the air or into themselves.  The immediate effect of this on the reader is the formation of a narrative that is at best severely disjointed and at worst nonexistent.  This is not exactly a flaw; Wallace’s editor described the novel as shattered pieces of glass dropped from on high, and the novel does indeed import an epic emptiness in proportion to its considerable girth.

I have read several reviews of the book, all of which mention the point at which the reader realizes, close to the end, that there is no way in hell Wallace is going to be able to wrap up the search for an infinitely entertaining piece of film, and by extension, any real sense of closure for the reader to absorb.  It remains unclear if the novel is an assortment of hundreds of unrelated subplots, one giant plot that we are missing the pieces to, or a work that simply necessitates a second reading.  The “narrative,” rather than taking its usual place as the engine of the book, instead feels like an iron lung that cruelly resuscitates characters that really, truly, agonizingly, would be better off dead.

I don’t think it’s a novel about addiction, the same way Moby-Dick isn’t about whaling.  But I do think that the real meta-question here is whether the reader is anything more than a lab rat pushing a button for its endorphin fix.  We crave narrative because of its assistance in finding meaning, and for its unparalleled ability to deconstruct and reinforce whatever parts of ourselves we care to open up about.  Is that infantile?  Sure.  But Wallace is subverting his characters and plot so much that the narrative is our own addiction (and withdrawal) to the bleeding-heart sentimentality of the aesthetics of Aristotle.

We are Wallace’s narrative.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this.  But narrative is a covenant between the author and the receptor; and if we pervert it and abuse it in an escalating and never-ending search for the next post-structural, postmodern “high,” we aren’t really growing as people—we’re just shooting in the air.

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Noted: Miss Welty

Eudora Welty’s great short essay “The Little Store” takes us with her, as a child, to a neighborhood grocery. It’s a story about the lost world of childhood and captures turn-of-the-century Jackson, Mississippi. All she conveys is suffused with meaning for her, but Welty avoids sentimentality by showing in vivid details instead of telling readers what to feel. As for the store, it’s a realm of children on errands and of a grocer who waits for them to “make up their minds.”

Early on are these foreshadowing thematic lines: “Setting out in this world, the child feels so indelible. He only comes to find out later that it’s all the others along his way who are making themselves indelible to him.”

One day on the store’s stoop little Eudora encounters an organ grinder and his monkey, exotic and jarring presences. They break the illusion of normalcy, though they’re quickly fused in her mind with the benign store—as all the objects and people and activities on her store trips are connected with the adventure of going there. Except she didn’t think the store had an ongoing story of its own.

The patient storekeeper and his shadowy helper (his wife, his sister, his mother?) wore black eyeshades, Welty realizes in hindsight: “It may be harder to recognize kindness—or unkindness, either—in a face whose eyes are in shadow.” The wallop soon comes as the essay, her innocent girlhood, and the store end together in terror and mystery and “news of people coming to hurt one another.”

The climax comes at the end this way, its impact felt and lingering because the preceding narrative has prepared us to comprehend the enormity of the loss.

Welty (1909–2001) sent me with this haunting little essay to One Writer’s Beginnings, a memoir of her sensibility growing within the gift of her stable, happy family. She makes clear that what impelled her work was the love inculcated there. Not that her future spared her, as artist or woman, her allotment of human pain. Discussing one of her short stories, about a girl who learns in painting to frame scenes with her hands, only to see unwelcome reality thereby intrude upon her inner dream of love, Welty writes:

“The frame through which I viewed the world changed too, with time. Greater than scene, I came to see, is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all of these is a single, entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame.”

(“The Little Store” is available in a paperback collection, The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews, and is included in the Library of America’s Eudora Welty: Stories, Essays & Memoir.)

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