This installment: short stories from the south (f); Russell Banks on travel (nf); an artists’ colony in Australia, circa 1930 (f); Oates’s takes on martyrs from both sides (f); chilling, delicious suspense (f); and a very fat Irish fellow seeks redemption (f).
Signals: New and Collected Stories by Tim Gautreaux
I really love this guy! His tales, many set in Grand Crapeaux (is that a real place or just one of his many flashes of humor?), are as tasty as gumbo. This is master storytelling. Sometimes I actually laughed out loud, a direct transmission. He gets everything right, like what’s involved in doing a job in detail or how easy it is to slip though the cracks when things start to go wrong. Some of his characters are scum and some are reluctant heroes. Great salty old folks who tell it like it is. Fabulous!
Voyager: Travel Writings by Russell Banks
In the first section of this rich compendium, Banks revisits the Caribbean and reflects on his personal history in the region which is all tangled up with his three previous marriages. He’s doing this on his honeymoon with #4, which adds a rueful dimension and the lifts the material way beyond ordinary travelogues. Then into mountain hiking, both domestic and further afield, from the perspective of a septuagenarian. What a challenge. Luminous, candid, personal—what else can you ask for?
The Strays by Emily Bitto
In 1930 Lily finds a second home with classmate Eva whose parents, artists, have created a free-wheeling compound in Australia. The friends are 15—a dangerous, seductible age– and there are many temptations around and no supervision to speak of. Quite a contrast to her staid, suburban parents. Undercurrents, hanky-panky, jealousy, and ultimately the community splinters after an up and coming painter absconds with Eva and her younger sister. A reflection on how the nature of self-absorbed artistic entitlement can result in considerable damage. Intense and atmospheric.
A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates
Between the subject and the heft (700+ pages), it took me awhile to approach this book but once in, I was deeply hooked. The two martyrs are positioned on the right and the left. The former, Luther, assassinates the latter, Gus, a principled doctor at a women’s center. Luther’s life has been dim but acting on his own, he views his action as the road to redemption. Gus has sacrificed family life to his cause—the lives of women in trouble rest on his shoulders. Lots of suffering all around, especially the daughters of each. Even though Luther seems repellent at the start, we get to understand what drives him and Oates draws fascinating parallels between the zealotry of the protagonists. Nuanced and thought-provoking.
I See You by Clare Mackintosh
In London, Zoe finds her picture on a classified ad for what appears to be a dating website. Very mysterious because she lives with Simon and her teenage children and knows nothing about it. She starts tracking the site and discovers other women listed who’ve met bad ends. She tells the police but doesn’t get the response she thinks the situation warrants. Turns out someone’s been following prospective subjects on local transit lines and observing details of their routines and destinations. Suspicions fly about but in the end we learn the perpetrators are terrifyingly close to home. Chilling—and delicious.
The Weight of Him by Ethel Rohan
Billy, who works in a toy factory, is very fat. But not until Michael, his eldest son, commits suicide can Billy commit to trying to lose weight. He launches a campaign to raise money for suicide prevention based on his efforts to become half his size. This doesn’t go down well in his family, who don’t want any more public exposure. But Billy, bless his huge heart, perseveres. He also builds tiny scenes in his garage with damaged figures from work, trying to create a fantasy life for him and Michael in which things work out. Rural Irish setting, lots of struggle and ultimately lots of growth and acceptance. Very touching.
Back next week.