Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Desire for Miracles: The Joy and Confusion of Magic in The River Swimmer by Jim Harrison

The River Swimmer: NovellasThe River Swimmer: Novellas by Jim Harrison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm struggling for connections between the two novellas that make up this volume.  The writing itself is uniformly good; Harrison is clearly a master of the English language, and some of his passages captivate.  In fact, my response to these works is more about me, the reader, than the author.  In this way, I can thank Harrison for helping me know more about myself than I did before.

In the first long story/short novel, titledThe Land of Unlikeness, we are made to follow the misadventures of a middle-aged painter of fading renown as he goes back to his childhood home in rural Michigan.  I agree with Harrison that "memories reside in the landscape and arise when you revisit an area."  However, there was nothing heroic or interesting enough about Clive, the protagonist in question, to make me particularly care about his memories or how they made him feel or think about his life.  Late in the narrative, Harrison states of Clive, "He was a man of no importance so why not paint?"

I know that this is a story about how one examines the path his life has taken up to its apex and impending decline; in fact, I know it quite personally.  Unfortunately, however, I agree with Harrison's narration in that I find Clive unimportant and therefore uninteresting.

Conversely, the second piece,The River Swimmer held my attention, mostly, I think, due to a kind of magic realism that was absent from the first story.  Thad is a person who cannot stay away from the water and the wonder it offers him, the true meaning it gives his life when he is swimming.  He is accompanied, time and again, by his "friends," amphibious creatures called "water babies," who, according to native lore are inhabited by the souls of dead infants.  They guide and love him in the dark water, and he muses on whether or not to share his discovery with the rest of the world.  The core of the book is this division between the real and the miraculous.  In my favorite line in the book, Harrison writes, "It seemed comic to [Thad] that people desire miracles but when they get them it adds an extremely confusing element to life.  Maybe Lazarus didn't want to come back to life."

The River Swimmer is all about this struggle we hold; on the one hand, we desire a quiet, comfortable life.  As humans, however, it is in our nature to crave the transcendent, the magical, the divine.  Again, my thanks to Jim Harrison for reminding me that I, too, crave this magic, especially in the fiction that moves me in any "real" sense.

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Book Review: Solo Faces by James Salter

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.
-- Herman Melville

James Salter's great accomplishment in Solo Faces is that he matches, and sometimes exceeds, the magnitude of his enormous subject matter, through vivid characterizations.

While reading a novel about mountain climbing, I expected I would highlight excerpts about the act of scaling an ascent. And yes, Salter is a good writer, and those passages are harrowing, solidifying in my mind the resolution that I will never, EVER be a mountain climber. But I found myself more struck by descriptions like these:

"She already had a stiffness and hesitation that are part of middle age. Her attention was entirely on her feet. Only the humorous, graceful movements of her hands and her kerchief around her head made her seem youthful."

"He's a strange guy. He's like a searchlight. When he turns your way, he just dazzles you. Afterward, you're left in darkness, you might as well not be alive."

I'm not sure how this book would go over with women. His protagonist, Vernon Rand, has both a voracious sexual appetite and a gnawing misogyny at the core of his interactions with the female characters in the novel. "One woman is like another," he muses at one point. "Two are like another two. Once you begin there is no end." His interest, or "trust" in them, circles back to what is ultimately most important to him -- himself, and that he will somehow live on after his death, in the stories they tell of his accomplishments:

"For some reason he trusted only women and for each of them he assumed a somewhat different pose. They were the bearers of his story, scattered throughout the world."

Solo Faces is one of those books that is so well written, you almost forget you're reading it. For a writer, reading Salter is like taking a sip of cold water from a wellspring on top of a mountain. Yes, the mountains in this book are symbolic, just as the white whale is in Melville. However, this is no more a book about mountains than Moby Dick is a book about whales. In the end, this is a "mighty book" about characters who become real and who make the reader care about them, their choices, accomplishments, challenges and joys.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Schroder: The American Dream, Gone Horribly Wrong

SchroderSchroder by Amity Gaige
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you're planning on reading this book, this is where I guess I'm supposed to write the words "spoiler alert," because I plan on discussing how the story plays itself out.  So if you care one way or the other about knowing the resolution of this novel, stop reading my humble review now.

This story of the American Dream gone bad does hold the reader's interest, for the most part.  I did find myself wanting to know what was going to happen to Meadow Kennedy and her fatuous father, Eric.  I'm not sure whether Gaige wanted me to like the protagonist or not.  I can tell you that I didn't.  I found Eric Kennedy/Erik Schroder patently un-likeable.  I wanted things to work out for his little girl, and I found myself wanting Eric to be apprehended.  Maybe he does love Meadow sincerely (albeit difficult to believe any assertions made by a self-proclaimed liar.  It's like Spock's paradox, when he makes Harvey Mudd's fembots blow their perfectly logical circuits, when he tells them in his sexy, knowing way, "Listen carefully:  Everything I a lie."), but even so, Eric is a classic Narcissist, and all roads, even the suffering of his own child, circle back, ultimately, to how it will affect him.

It's unusual to say this, but I liked the book well enough, without liking the main character at all.  If I was supposed to be rooting FOR Schroder/Kennedy, then this novel is an abject failure.  If I was supposed to enjoy his collapse, then Bravo, Amity Gaige.

Not exactly a recommendation, I know.  Read it if you care to.  I'd be interested to hear what you think of it.

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Beach Landscape with Two Boys and Their Father

The waves roll in, one after the other, after the other, and three heads bob in unison.  One belongs to a grown man, the other two to his sons, one of whom is ten and the other eight years old.  This picture is precious to me, because it actually represents two groups of men.  If the picture were on Polaroid or Kodachrome stock, it might be dated 1973.  The beach could be Fire Island, or the Cape or somewhere along Highway 1 in California.  The man might very well be my father, Hanno Fuchs -- overweight, smiling and hairy.  The boys, full of courage and joyful smiles are likely myself and my younger brother, Michael.

Now if the photo were digital, posted on Instagram or Facebook, the year would be 2013, and the hirsute, rotund man would be me, the older boy would be Diego Reyes Fuchs, and the younger boy would be Jackson Hanno Fuchs.  Apart from the names, the remaining details would be very much the same.

"Okay guys, we're gonna ride this next one!" I call, loudly enough to be heard over the sound of the constantly breaking waves of Cancun.  The three of us fixate on the wave that builds toward us. 

"No, Daddy! The NEXT one!  The next one!" Jackson calls.  All three of us nod in agreement, and we let the wave I'd originally chosen pass, bouncing and bobbing over it, in favor of the whitecaps that are forming on the one Jackson has chosen for us.

"Here we go!" says Diego.  "Ride it! Ride it!"

All three of us begin swimming with the breaking wave, and when I come up from the water, I see that the boys have caught the wave and have ridden it all the way to shore.  Not me.

"I missed it!" I yell to them over the continuous roar of the surf.

"I caught it!"

"Me too!"

I want to stop, to interrupt the game, in order to tell them, to let these two boys know, how incredibly happy this seemingly simple activity is making me.  I want to grab them up and smother them with kisses and tell them of my love for them.  But I know my children; their moods turn on a dime, and this perfection we are sharing in the midst of the planet's tidal undulations is as delicate as a moth's wing.  If I touch it, even slightly, it may turn to powder and blow away.

Because I don't want this moment to end, I stay in it, stay with it, and keep my mouth shut.  I smile with each boy, as we connect -- with each other, and with the tides.  Occasionally, we mis-time a wave, and rather than guiding us gently to shore, it lifts us up like an enemy, dashing us headfirst into the gritty, unforgiving sand.  This is fine, though; this is good.  Part of this whole experience -- an important part, in fact -- is failure. 

I realize now, looking back on all the time I spent on beaches with my brother and father, that body surfing is a life lesson.  Each wave is an opportunity that presents itself to you.  You must decide quickly whether or not to seize that moment, and when you do, there is no guarantee that it will work out for you.  When the opportunity bears fruit, the sensation of gliding along with the wave is almost like sprouting wings and flying.  When it falls flat, you are literally dragged through the grit and muck. 

This was a great life lesson for me, and those beach memories are indelible, as much a part of my heart as the blood that pumps continuously through it.  My hope is that these times will take root in the hearts of my sons, and give them the same comfort they have always provided me, even in my darkest, loneliest times. 

As my wife Jeanette said on the beach today,when we finally decided to come out of the water, "It's so great that you are in there with them, making memories."

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Flying, Then and Now

The flight attendant bunches her nose up, so that she looks like a bunny, as she baby talks my sons, handing them each a cookie on their way off the plane in Cancun, Mexico. 

"Oh my goodness," she says, to my wife really, I suppose, "can't I have one?  Can't I just keep one of them?"

The boys say thank you, almost as fast as we can remind them to do so.  The cookies are on the nasty side -- some overly soft combination of oats and cranberries.  Even I, their human Hoover, cannot vacuum them into my gullet.  They're that bad.  It's as though someone had, in their haste to put together a healthy cookie, forgotten to actually cook the thing.

Anyway, that's hardly the point.  This isn't about how good or bad the airline's cookies were.  This is a post about remembering when the stewardesses (as they were called then) doted over me when I was a boy the age mine are now, back in the early 1970's.  I recall the way they would spoil me and my brother, and giggle at how we blushed, much the way the flight attendants do with my boys today. 

I also remember EXACTLY when that all came tumbling down.  It was in the spring of 1985, on my first ever flight to Madrid, Spain.  I was on my way to meet up with my girlfriend who was studying there at the time.  I was 22 and in the prime of my life, flying with my roommate, Greg, and probably drinking too much Jack Daniels.  It was a charter flight, and I remember it being very full.  One of the flight attendants was a Spanish woman, not much older than me at the time, and very cute.  Deep dimples in her cheeks, and dark, dark eyes, if memory serves.

Flight attendants (or "stewardesses") as I remember them
back in the day, as they like to say

I'm sure I was putting on a bit of a show for my friend, but I began an ill-fated (and probably half-hearted) attempt to pick up on this young woman.  Her weariness became immediately apparent, and as she shunned my attempts at humor, I realized she was an extremely patient and hard-working individual, who I would never, ever see again.

"Why don't you just tell me what you want to drink, and I'll go get it for you, okay?" she said, or something close to that.  It had the effect of chilling my blood, and I realized I would never fly as that cute young boy the stewardesses liked to embarrass anymore.  Instead, I had become just another young, drunk Lothario, there to make her day even longer and make her ask God what exactly she'd done to deserve this. 

I remember exactly what Diego and Jackson feel like as they are mooned at by grown women in airline uniforms, because they did it to me and my brother too.  I almost want to tell them to enjoy it while it lasts.  Before too long, they'll be the young guy on the make, and in a few breaths after that, the invisible, if sometimes charming, middle aged man with the beautiful wife and kids.