Tuesday 27 March 2012

Hope: A Tragedy - Shalom Auslander

'the past is the present'

Oh, what joy to read a book and laugh. And laugh. And laugh again. Just the title alone of Auslander's previous book, the memoir Foreskin's Lament, was enough to raise a titter but his first novel provides laugh after laugh and has an audacious but simple concept at its heart: a man discovers an old woman living in his attic. She claims to be Anne Frank. He obviously wants her out of his house but who wants to be the man to rat on Anne Frank? Especially if you're Jewish! That man is Solomon Kugel, a man who has moved his wife, two-year old son and ageing mother out of New York and into a farmhouse in the anonymous rural town of Stockton, a place 'famous for nothing' (although a spate of arsons recently threatens to undo that), in order to protect them all from the horrors of the modern world. He is a man who makes note of the famous last words of others in his constant search for a fitting bon mot for his own demise, a man whose mother, despite being born in America the year after the Second World War ended, believes that she is a survivor from the Nazi concentration camps, a man who will find himself neglecting his own family in order to protect the old woman in his loft who has subsisted on a diet of rodents whilst also relieving herself in his air-vents.

It's a brave idea, to make comedy from the Holocaust's poster girl ('Thirty-two million copies..that's nothing to sneeze at!') but the sheer audacity of it, not to mention the confidence with which he sees it through, means that Auslander gets away with it. He's not the first writer to imagine Anne Frank as a survivor, Philip Roth did so to great effect in The Ghost Writer (his first Zuckerman novel), but to imagine it with such black comedy is the mark of a brave humorist. Frank has remained captive in that loft for good reason of course, those thirty-two million copies didn't sell because of a happy ending, and her agent has very simple advice about the best way for things to continue: "stay dead". Up in the attic she remains, working on her next book, the pages piling up around her. Kugel too is trapped by the situation, whether that woman in the attic really is Anne Frank or not, the weight of history means there is very little he can do.

Pity was a funny thing: it would be easier to throw out the real Anne Frank than it would be to throw out a Holocaust survivor so fucked up by the Holocaust that she thought she was Anne Frank. Can you imagine the headlines?

Kugel's experience of the modern world provides plenty of genuine belly laughs whether that be the American obsession with getting bigger and bigger cars ("it was no longer a matter of keeping up with the Joneses; it was a mater of not getting crushed by them") or the increasing fad of foods free of one harmful thing or another, and somehow being more expensive as a result, conjuring a nightmare scenario when followed through to its logical conclusion:

A box of nothing - free of poisons, toxins, pesticides, a box that needed no warnings, no list of possible side effects and adverse reactions, a box that didn't harm unborn children or require checking with your physician before opening, a box of fucking air - would require a second mortgage.
Staying alive was costing them a fortune.
What kind of monster brings a child into this world?

And this of course is a world peopled by the survivors of previous tragedies, a better world, one in which the hope remains that we can improve things for our children. But as Kugel's therapist, Professor Jove , makes clear, hope might just be the most dangerous thing of all, the guiding force behind the previous century's greatest monster.

Hitler was the most unabashed doe-eyed optimist of the last hundred years. That's why he was the biggest monster. Have you ever heard of anything so outrageously hopeful as the Final Solution? Not just that there could be a solution - to anything, mind you, while we have yet to cure the common cold - but a final one, no less! Full of hope, the Fuhrer was. A dreamer! A romantic, even, yes? If I just kill this one, gas that one, everything will be okay...Here's a good rule for life, Kugel, no matter where you happen to live or when you happen to be born: when someone rises up and promises that things are going to be better: run. Hide. Pessimists don't build gas chambers.

Wincing slightly? Auslander doesn't pull his punches. 'Anne Frank' is a decaying woman driven to depravity, infuriating her host to the point where he can think the most appalling things ('Six million he kills, thought Kugel, and this one gets away.') and we cannot stop ourselves laughing. But his greatest creation is Kugel's mother. Every morning she wakes the house screaming (having read somewhere that this is something Holocaust survivors do), and her conversation often ends with the muttered phrases 'ever since the war' or 'those bastards.' Kugel himself has long ago learnt not to challenge her on her status as a survivor. The lampshade that she placed by his bed as a child and which she claimed was his grandfather was impervious even to young Solomon's observation that it had 'Made In Taiwan' stamped on the bottom - "Well, they're not going to write Made in Buchenwald, are they?"

There is a slight problem with a novel like this however and that's that it needs to progress. The slow disintegration of Kugel's life is great to read (similar to that of the protagonist in Jess Walter's The Financial Lives of the Poets) but perhaps Auslander felt that he couldn't just keep making Holocaust jokes and so the injection of plot inevitably comes and it is only partially successful. That is a small quibble however and if the worst thing you can say about this book is that it is merely an entertainment then it seems to me that that is not such a bad thing at all. Few books in recent memory have been so entertaining and none have managed to combine that with the puncturing of the pomposity of those who would use the Holocaust or survival as currency.


Tuesday 20 March 2012

Pacazo - Roy Kesey

'always hope'

A pacazo is an uncommonly large iguana. Just in case you were wondering. Let's move on. Pacazo the novel is large too, over 500 pages, and whilst I'm not the kind of reader to be put off by bulk I have to admit that it was this that led me to put aside a proof some time ago and forget about it. But then voices start to be heard recommending it (real voices I hasten to add, I haven't lost my mind) and a bit of enforced bed-rest provides just the kind of opportunity required to read a book like this and I found myself bringing it down from the shelf. Carefully.

Kesey's novel is set in Piura, Peru in which we find the corpulent American John Segovia. Attracted to Peru by his love of its history, by stories of conquistadors and Incas, he managed to find work in the University teaching English and there continued his historical research. It is a city well suited to this sizeable fellow, food plays an important part in the culture and the varied dishes and drinks are well described by Kesey along with the 'eternal heat' that leaves John drenched in sweat for much of his day. When he met Pilar and fell in love the major problem was her being a student of his and there were plenty of voices warning him off, including that of his friend Reynaldo.

Perhaps I would have listened if he had said, She will alter what it means to be in the world, she will go late to the outdoor market to buy mangos, she will peel them and cut them in slices, she will allow you to run the slices across her bare stomach and thighs and between her shoulder blades, the juice will become one of her many scents and flavours, and four weeks after giving birth to your child, she will be taken into the desert, will be raped, strangled, left for dead, will regain tortured delirious consciousness, walk the wrong direction, and die of heat stroke the following day.
And this will be your fault.

Sorry to land that on you rather abruptly but Keysey doesn't tend to take the sensitive route so neither will I. John is therefore a widower with an infant daughter, a man consumed by grief and guilt. From the very first page this novel doesn't give the reader a chance to find their feet very easily. In fact this is a classic 'hard to get into' novel, oh how many times I longed to close it for good and move on to something else but something made me persevere, maybe the perseverance of the narrator. John's obsession with the history of Peru invades the very text we read, '...threaded through the history I came to research is other history still happening, times and tenses washing over me.' Within the same paragraph, sometimes the same sentence, Kesey switches from modern Peru to its past and we follow Spanish conquerors laying waste to Incan forces and vice versa; heat, sweat and hard work linking both.

The nearest building, sharp white. I close my eyes. There is the smell of decomposing leaves, of heat and wet and grass. I have been this tired before but do not remember when and a ship drifts south along the coast toward the mouth of a river. A shout goes up. The men gather at the port gunwale. There is a Tallan mending a net on the bank. He is the first human they have seen in two days, perhaps of use. The men drop anchor, lower the skiff, go to get him.

The frequency of this switching comes and goes and how much it really adds to the novel is up for debate. Pacazo is one of those novels that I wished had been pruned whilst I was reading it but I'm sure plenty would argue that to take anything away from it, especially something so intrinsic to the style as the time-switching narrative, would be to take away from the experience of the book. John is obsessed with finding the man responsible for his wife's murder, the taxista who drove away with her to the market. With an image in his mind of the man's face, a memory of his voice and the fragments of a licence plate he scans the streets each day as the taxistas drive by and woe betide any whose plate begins with a P and ends with 22.

He searches also the site of her ordeal, finding significance in anything he picks up and also adding a stone to the cairn he has created in her memory each time he visits. All he can allow himself to want is the 'true story of a single night, less than a night, of a few hours only.' But that single desire is enough to run roughshod over his work and his ability to be as good a parent as he could be. On more than one occasion his daughter suffers, most obviously when he takes her with him on one of his trips out into the desert. There's stark contrast in his efforts to do the right thing, applying sun block assiduously in order to protect her, and yet subjecting her to an awful ordeal in the heat of the desert. And yet one of the remarkable things about this book is the way it marries a man willing to beat a stranger in the street based  on a hunch with a man willing to spend hours singing to his daughter and dancing with her about the room in order to get her to sleep. Grief and guilt have warped him in many ways and yet when his daughter hits him on the head with one of her empty milk bottles and laughs he thinks immediately 'of calling in sick today, every day, waiting to hear that laugh again...'

As well as anger there is sadness, rivers of it (Peruvian poet Carlos Oquendo is quoted at one point: 'Sadness is prohibited.' That sentence for John, 'either magical or dictatorial. I hope soon to decide'). In a book as bloated as its narrator it is surprising how many times the real blows to the gut come from a single sentence or image. As it approaches another anniversary John takes to the streets, hanging flyers asking for any information and he casually mentions that at first it used to take him hours to do, 'Then I learned the secret of not looking at the photograph any more.' The ways in which his friends look out for him, or his long-suffering boss at the University accepts another shortfalling, or his (one-eyed) nanny Casualidad is asked to do a little more than she intended, all go to show how much love there is for this man and how much they want him to move on with his life, convinced that enough time has passed for him to grant himself that release. Mother Nature intervenes in the shape of El Niño, torrential rains swell rivers, cause floods and wash away John's evidence, much of his research and almost precipitate a paradigm shift in his thinking. But the desire to know is too strong.

But it is something else too and when John is questioned at one point about why he doesn't believe in God, showing how he and those of a religious bent use the same tools in the face of death but only achieve different results, we get an insight into the novel's great theme.

We beat death back with narrative...Biologically each of us is pointless. And we cannot bear being pointless. So we create a point by placing ourselves in stories that grow ever longer... and death is the anti-narrative. It is the story not even ending but simply stopping. If the story never ends, death loses.

This is why John cannot let go of his wife's death, this is why John's father told his son about being distantly related to a conquistador called Juan de Segovia ('What a load of shit. But helpful shit, yes? The very best kind. Made me strong. Made me angry and so very strong.'), this is why the conquistadors themselves cut through the undergrowth of this novel to make their own appearances time and again. But our personal narratives can be hard to keep true and as the novel finds its legs in the second half, a new series of murders opening up the prospect of John finding his killer once again, even John knows that he is losing grip of what he once held as facts in his search.

I see him daily, he is every taxista, every shopkeeper, every janitor, his thin dark face dark hair dark eyes. He is every cook every plumber every passenger on every bus and my eyes, the differences...

How can a man hope to chance upon another he has glanced only for a moment in a busy city? We could return to lizards once again and the one that John accidentally stands on and kills, 'there is nothing less likely than this death, not given their speed and agility, so there is hope, always hope, always.'


Tuesday 13 March 2012

Pure - Andrew Miller

'What is hidden'

Attempting to cure myself of my recently developed historical fiction aversion I decided to cheat slightly. Andrew Miller may have chosen to set some of his novels in the eighteenth century but I think most people would call him a literary novelist before calling him a historical one. The fact that this novel had recently won the overall Costa Book Prize (has any literary award ever sounded so cheap thanks to its corporate sponsor?) also meant that it met the stringent criteria of being a 'well-written, enjoyable book that [the judges] would strongly recommend anyone to read.' Snarking aside, I knew it was high time to read this author and I can say that after finishing this book and 'enjoying' it I will be keen to read what many regard as his best book: Ingenious Pain.

Pure is set in the pre-revolutionary Paris of 1785, a city where discontent is whispered rather than shouted from the rooftops. Into the city comes a young, 'but not very young' engineer by the name of Jean-Baptiste Baratte. Summoned to the court of Versailles he has been charged with the onerous task of clearing the centuries old cemetery of Les Innocents in the district of Les Halles and destroy the church that adjoins it. The cemetery and its environs are choked with the smell of decay, something that seems to pervade the very breath of those that live around it. The symbolism is clear. The past needs to be cleared away for Paris to make a fresh start; you can't destroy history and even burying it only lasts so long before it contaminates the present. Hundreds of years of dead bodies must be removed and interred elsewhere, the ground made fresh again for new seeds to take root.

The novel actually contains a fair few characters but they are all easy to keep hold of. Baratte stays in the house of the Monnards near the cemetery under the watchful eye of their maid Marie (thanks to a small hole in the floor of the room above his where she sleeps). Their daughter Ziguette is a haunting presence, keen to impress upon their guest that to dig up the cemetery is to dig up her own childhood. Each night he prepares himself for sleep with a repeated mantra designed to help him keep his focus.

'Who are you? I am Jean-Baptiste Baratte. Where are you from? From Bellême in Normandy. What are you? An engineer, trained at the Ecole des Ponts. What do you believe in? In the power of reason...'

To aid in his labours Baratte calls upon the services of an old friend, Lecour, with whom he used to work at the mines of Valenciennes. He brings Lecour and a gang of Flemish labourers to the city and they bring with them their own ideas of progress and the future, ideas fashioned by years of back-breaking and life-threatening labour. Both he and Lecour used to be idealists, once even made plans for a utopian city and it is soon clear that Lecour has lost none of his original passion.

'...tonight, everything is as it was. Mind speaking to mind, heart speaking to heart. The fountain of youth in our breasts . . . bubbling! You know what distinguishes one man from the next? His willingness to remain unspotted while the other, out of a kind of idleness, lets his mouth fill up with soil. Grave-dirt.'

In the church by the cemetery the organist Armand still occasionally opens the stops but is also another advocate of 'the party of the future' ('It has no meeting place, no subscriptions, and yet it exists as surely as you or I. The party of the future. The party of the past. There may not be much time left to decide what side you are on.') and along with a group of fellow conspirators he dubs Baratte with a new name, Bêche (French for spade). And finally (for you, for now: there are even more characters than this) a pair of doctors are detailed to document the bodies being lifted from the ground, one of them a certain Dr Guillotin.

There's a fair bit of plot too. Revolutionary slogans appear on the walls of the cemetery, the name of Bêche now a weapon of change; Baratte is attacked and almost killed in his bed; an act of violence in the cemetery threatens to be the catalyst to undo the entire project. So there's a lot going on but rather than feeling like a historical novel burdened with detail it actually reads more like a thriller. Those of a literary bent will find most satisfaction in the figure of Baratte himself rather than the plot and characters that surround him. The way in which he wrestles with his ideas of reason and progress, his battles with desire, loneliness and responsibility; the oppression that he feels from the authority figures around him and even 'his own weakness and confusion.' There is always something that clouds his thinking, makes it hard for him to reach any clear conclusions; the stench of the cemetery, the head injury after he is attacked and the 'word blindness' that afflicts him afterwards.

Miller is also a writer who knows how to use contrast in his writing to great effect. This novel contains moments of violence and great tenderness, death and new life, friendship and enmity, terror and beauty. In much the same way that a forest fire can destroy but also bring new life, fire always threatens to be the agent of purification as well as providing one of the novel's more beautiful images as it sweeps across blades of grass 'each tip a delicate flower blooming only for a second or two.' Moments of beauty are few and far between however in this novel of decay and destruction. No matter how noble the aims, the desire to make things pure is always combined with a ruthless disregard for anything that stands in its way.


Tuesday 6 March 2012

Abbott Awaits - Chris Bachelder

'stunned by the real'

The TLS Books of the Year edition often involves an awful lot of skimming over non-fiction books you haven't the faintest interest in, lots of academics and critics chummily gushing about books written by their academic and critical friends and usually consensus about a book or two which you were already well aware of. Or is that just me? Anyway, this year under the dependable name of translator Michael Hofmann was a slim American novel published by Louisiana State University Press. Two things to prick the ears up there: Hofmann first (and recommending an American novel rather than something in translation) and then the publisher. LSU Press were of course the people to originally print John Kennedy O'Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning tour de force A Confederacy Of Dunces. This is a press willing to take a risk or two. Seeing also that the author of Hofman's recommendation was Chris Bachelder, whose name I recognised from my McSweeney's-reading past, and that the subject of this book was a father's musings whilst his wife is in the third trimester of their second pregnancy, I was busy hunting down a copy before I'd finished the paragraph.

And it's brilliant. If you have had a child, buy a copy. If you've had two I can only presume you've already done what I did and gone online to find a copy before moving on to this paragraph. If you haven't then do it now. Right, have you all got one ordered? Then, I'll continue. Abbott is a university teacher on summer break. He and his wife are expecting their second child and we follow Abbott  through June, July and August as they prepare themselves for the new arrival. There is a chapter for each day, many just a page, some only a paragraph, and each comes with its own title such as: Abbott Visits the Pet Store, In Which Abbott Is Surprised by Artifice, and Abbott's Imaginary Letter to an Imaginary Nationally Syndicated Childhood and Parenting Expert. Anyone who is a parent knows that day to day life isn't about any of the grand things or big events, it is about the bits in between. Whilst there is a page for each day it is often the smallest or most innocuous part of that day in which Abbott reflects on his life or has what one might call a moment of clarity. Bachelder knows that it is whilst cleaning the vomited raspberries from your daughter's car seat that a father can suddenly realise "The following propositions are both true: (A) Abbott would not, given the opportunity, change one significant element of his life, but (B) Abbott cannot stand his life."

Abbott's life is filled with paradoxes like these. Here for example is an extract from the chapter Abbott and the Paradox of Personal Growth:

Abbott approaches sleep with an ineffable sense of relief that he did not know, before having a child, what it was like to have a child - did not really know what it was really like - because if he had known before having a child how profoundly strenuous and self-obliterating it is to have a child, he would never have had a child, and then, or now, he would not have this remarkable child. Abbott's wife, were she here, might say that it doesn't quite make sense. Abbot might rub her hip lightly with the back of his hand. "That's the thing," he might say.

Even the smallest paradoxes are like moments of illumination. Abbott knows for example that his daughter's nap time is the perfect time to do housework, run errands, rest or read and yet he, like all parents, spends a huge portion of it waiting for them to wake up. WHY? The domestic chores that fill this novel lead Abbott to compare his lot to Hercules at first before realising that a more accurate comparison would be Sisyphus, whose task wasn't impossible but endless in its repetition. Taking out the rubbish, cleaning gutters, mowing the lawn, doing laundry, caring for daughter, dog and wife, Abbott finds new ways to fail at the most basic level on each and every day but also finds moments of triumph in the most unlikely places too.

There will be particular joy for fathers in reading this book, mainly because there will be several moments of recognition. That isn't to say that mothers won't enjoy it, on the contrary, if you want to understand a little better the mindset of the anxious father, or to understand that his clumsy attempt at intimacy came about not because he's some kind of animal but because even asleep in the back seat of the car with mouth open and nylon seatbelt bisecting those wonderful breasts of yours, you were quite simply a thing of beauty and the only wonder is why contemporary art isn't filled with more breasts bisected by nylon straps ('Where are the songs and poems, the sculpture, the oils on canvas?'). There will doubtless also be moments of joint recognition across the sexual divide.

Like many others before him, Abbott discovers, once married, that marriage is a battle - clinically, a negotiation - over possession of the Bad Mood. A marriage, especially a marriage with children, cannot function properly if both its constituents are in a foul temper, thus the Bad Mood is a privilege only one spouse can enjoy at a time. Who gets to be in a Bad Mood? This is the day-to-day struggle. In the Perfect Union, the Bad Mood is traded equitably, like child care or household chores. There is joint custody of the Bad Mood...In a typical marriage, however, one spouse tends to possess the Bad Mood disproportionately. This is called Hogging The Mood.

Any novel that can begin a chapter 'Fucking Thoreau' before going on to point out that Abbott 'could, for his part, happily do without the post office. Leave it to the childless to be complacent about the mail. You put a toddler in Walden and you'd get a new philosophy' (the mail being important because in its regularity 'It not only signals the blessed arrival of mid to late afternoon, it also offers the promise of surprise and wonder') is alright by me. This novel is filled with moments to make you laugh out loud, moments that take your breath away with their simple beauty or truth and the whole book is written with an easy wit and intelligence that will make it possible for even the most tired parent to glide through it. In fact I worry that I'm making this sound too much like the kind of humorous book you'd expect to find in the loo of a middle class house. Be assured that Bachelder is a poet of the ordinary, the short chapters and their short sentences are beautifully put together so that you get that sensation as when...

A cloud covers and then uncovers the sun. Campus is distant and theoretical, like a galaxy or heaven. There is something beyond tedium. You can pass all the way through tedium and come out the other side, and this is Abbot's gift today. he picks up a pinecone, puts it in his palm, and extends his palm toward his daughter. The girl's eyes grow wide and she laughs. She reaches for the pinecone, says, "Pinecone."

This is yet another novel this year with no real plot. Another book whose short chapters could almost be read as separate short stories. Another book that makes a virtue of brevity. Another brilliant book that knows that sometimes the most important thing you might do in the day is simply look out the window.

The window is divided into twelve panes, four rows of three. Abbott imagines that each pane is a framed photograph. He studies the composition of each of the twelve panes. He moves along rows, left to right, beginning with the upper left pane. A cloud of leaves and a single red brick. A squirrel on new shingles. Sky with faded contrail. There is not one pane that is not beautiful.


Thursday 1 March 2012

We The Animals - Justin Torres

'a fistful of seed'

With the very first line of Anna Karenina Tolstoy asserted that 'Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' Like Wilde's epigrams it is one of those pithy sentences that sounds wise and true because it is so neat. There is of course something a little patronising about it and I'm not sure I know any of these 'happy' families, everyone's insanely stressed nowadays, aren't they? Anyway, I mention it because this is already my third book this year that shows just how different those 'unhappy' families can be (see The Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst reviewed here and This Is Paradise by Will Eaves reviewed here). Torres' slim debut is packed full of memorable images, scenes and moments that describe beautifully the unique trials of a family, and it is the sheer concentration of those into so few pages that helps to elevate it above the other two in terms of achievement. There are occasions when it too obviously shows off the arrival of a 'new voice' but each one of those is balanced out by moments of truly brilliant writing that deserve all of the accolades this book has already earned and will go on to achieve.

The book itself has an interesting format. The contents page shows several titles and their page numbers so that it first resembles a story collection. In many ways that is what this is, although they are all linked; we might accurately describe these as vignettes of childhood. Now I gave Verhulst a tough time for pulling the same trick in his book but there's something about the brevity here that makes sense of it. Many are just a page or two and in that manner Torres gives us a whistlestop tour of his, ahem, I mean his narrator's childhood. About to turn seven at the outset he has two brothers, Manny the eldest and Joel between them. Paps is Puerto Rican, Ma is white, both are from Brooklyn but had to marry in Texas in order to do it legally when Ma first got pregnant at 14 (and Paps just 16). The three brothers, as the title suggests, are often depicted like animals as they hurtle through childhood, beginning as birds in the opening chapter We Wanted More.

We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching heads, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.

When it's cold they huddle together for warmth, when their father comes home and beats them they take it together, and when they play it's rough or involves them hunting together like a pack. Their mother works graveyard shifts at the local brewery, often getting confused as to what time of day or even day it is. The boys learn not to correct her after a while, it being easier than the time she tried to send Joel next door at midnight to get butter so she could make a cake for Manny

"Ma, you're crazy," Joel said. "Everyone's sleeping, and it's not even his birthday."
..."I hate my life," she said.
That made Joel cry, and Manny punched him hard on the back of the head.
"Nice one, ass wipe," he hissed. "It was going to be my fucking birthday."
After that, we went along with whatever she came up with; we lived in dreamtime.

Ma is also a victim of abuse. On the morning of our narrator's seventh birthday she has been holed up in bed for a couple of days with swollen purple cheeks, the result the boys believe (because their father told them so) of a visit to the dentist ('that's how they loosen up the teeth before they rip them out'). What she's really upset about however is that her baby boy is turning seven, the age at which her other two changed, no longer happy to sit on her lap and be cuddled, far more interested in wrestling and smashing things. This whirlwind of a novel has a pretty quick tempo on the whole but every now and then there are moments of suspension so that we can notice something tender, something beautiful, something cruel or something heartbreaking.

Ma could hold tears on her eyelids longer than anyone; some days she walked around like that for hours, holding them there, not letting them drop. On those days she would trace a finger over the shapes of things or hold the telephone on her lap, silent, and you had to call her name three times before she'd give you her eyes.

These moments aren't always as sad as you might expect. Whilst their father is clearly a man of brutish strength and quick temper he also has moments when he shows not just tenderness but insight too. When he takes his youngest son on an errand up to Niagra on one occasion he leaves him alone in a museum of curiosities for a while. Our narrator watches a film about the daredevils who tossed themselves over the famous Falls in barrels. Alone in the room and seeing the film projection on his body he begins to do a dance for himself and only notices his father watching from the doorway when he finishes. His father says nothing until many hours later when they pull onto the road that will lead them to their home.

"I stood in that doorway, watching you dance, and you know what I was thinking?...I was thinking how pretty you were," he said. "Now, isn't that an odd thing for a father to think about his son? But that's what it was. I was standing there, watching you dance and twirl and move like that, and I was thinking to myself, Goddamn, I got me a pretty one."

This tight family experience it all together, the three boys witness to their parents lows and even, in one eye-opening scene for them, their highs. Even the possible life-changing moment when Ma bundles boys and a few hastily grabbed possessions into the new truck she so hated her husband buying (it being a totally impractical bit of posturing without even enough seatbelts for the family) ends with them all returning at the end of the day, having experienced worry that she might actually do it, excitement at the change and finally as they drive back up to the house 'when it was safe to feel let down, we did.' Outside of the home the boys know that their best hope for survival is together and they tend to roam about as a pack. As they grow older their wish to escape is tempered by a sense of how dangerous and difficult the world around them is. Manny's increasingly religious talk leads him declare, after another abortive attempt at flight, that "God's scattered all the clean among the dirty. You and me and Joel, we're nothing more than a fistful of seed that God tossed into the mud and horseshit. We're on our own."

But we always sense as they approach adolescence and young-adulthood that this bond, however violent and punishing, will not be able to hold and it is naturally our sensitive and bookish narrator who will become separated. The way in which his sexual awakening is used to finally break that tie is perhaps a little predictable and neat but there is no doubting the power of the final few chapters and the very real pain of this family. In the same way that we all recall just flashes of our own childhood's Torres' novel selects those enlightening moments, not like photographs as such because nothing about this book is static, but Kodak moments nonetheless, the paper now tinged and dirty, colours still vivid and yet somehow not true, and all of it passed by rather than past.


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