Friday, August 15, 2008


It’s not every day you read a book written in the second person singular, present tense. It’s even more rare for a writer to have the skill to write in this POV and actually pull it off, to make the narrator’s second person perspective appear seamless, and not jarring.

When Stewart O’Nan’s A PRAYER FOR THE DYING opens, all’s quiet in the aptly named rural
town: Friendship, Wisconsin. Jacob Hansen, a soldier fresh from the killing fields of the Civil War who is haunted by the ghastly things he had to do to survive returns home, only now he has three jobs. Describing his dual role as sheriff and undertaker, Hansen notes: “… you haven’t had much business of late, which is fine with you. Not that you mind earning your money, but when folks have need of you it’s someone’s misfortune one way or the other. The undertaking’s easy; being a constable is hard. When you put them together it can be too much, though that’s only
happened once since you’ve been back.”

There’s some nice hints that the town has seen its share of conflicts, but that’s nothing compared
to what lies ahead for Hansen, a modest, devout man who’s sometimes laughed at for being the town preacher as well as sheriff and undertaker: “Preach a little,” you said, trying not to sound proud. He really wasn’t interested, only joking, so you didn’t go into how you see all three as related, ways to give praise and thanks for this paradise. He wasn’t that kind of man – he would have laughed at you. Others around town do, some kiddingly. It’s all right. They’ll all come to you someday, and they know you’ll do right by them. It’s a contract, an honor, you tell them.”
Friendship’s my town, you say, and they think you’re a fool.”

In spite of the fact that he experiences the townspeople at their worst, Hansen constantly
strives to see the underlying good in everyone, to understand their motivation and forgive them their shortcomings, but when a diphtheria outbreak occurs, desperate and rebellious locals prove they’re capable of a whole new level of evil. It’s Hansen’s job as undertaker to risk exposure to the disease when he handles the dead, it’s his job as pastor to succor the dying and their families, but more so it’s his job as sheriff to enforce the quarantine and ensure that
nobody, not even those seemingly uninfected by the plague tries to escape.

But the disease isn’t limited to humans; it affects pets and live stock as well and some of the
most harrowing moments in this novel come from Hansen having to capture and burn the animals. When Hansen’s wife begs him to let her and their infant child flee the plague his role as husband and father, as protector of his family, come into conflict with his moral obligation as sheriff to not let anyone leave. How would it look, he asks, if he makes exceptions for some, even his own wife and child, but not others? His struggle with this and many other life-and-death decisions not only add to the suspense but constantly force the reader to stand in Hansen’s shoes
and ask themselves: What would I do?

I’ve said this before in other reviews: forcing your character into a rock-and-a-hard-place choice
is the most effective way to get the reader to connect emotionally with a character, to make
them want to turn the page.

Could it get any worse? Oh yes, and that’s one just one reason why this novel is such a standout.
The dry heat of summer that helped fueled the diphtheria outbreak has also spawned another disaster: a brushfire is raging in a nearby town, and it’s headed for Friendship. And worse, in the face of this impossible dilemma, Jacob falls victim to bouts of madness. The conflict ratchets up a hundred fold when the fire forces everyone, including Hansen, to flee the town, only they can’t
because they’re under quarantine.

Early on, Hansen contacts his friend and fellow sheriff in the next town over, Bart Cox, to help
enforce the quarantine, but when the brush fire consumes Friendship the only way to safety for Hansen and the remaining townsfolk who’ve been spared the plague’s death grip is past the very man Hansen authorized to not let anyone pass through. Hansen has two choices: kill a fellow officer and former soldier to gain passage, or turn back and face certain death for himself and the very people he’s responsible for. This has to be one of the most gripping, nail biting scenes I’ve
ever read, and it’s the culmination of an eminently satisfying and suspenseful novel..

In an interview, O’Nan said A PRAYER FOR THE DYING was inspired by Michael Lesy’s
historical montage WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP, which documented a real-life diphtheria epidemic that swept through the region in the 1890s. “I ran into the book in a library somewhere, he said. “I read it and had this weird, queasy reaction to it, that gothic feeling of being terrified of and attracted by something at the same time. I thought, if I could get that
feeling into a book, into a piece of prose, that would be amazing.”

I would say he succeeded.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story – Glenway Wescott

This slim novel, first published in 1940, takes place in a single afternoon. Alwyn Towers, an American expatriate and wannabe-novelist, is visiting his friend Alexandra Henry in a Parisian suburb. One day, a well-to-do nomadic Irish couple drop by, unannounced.

With deft shorthand, the author describes the couple through Tower’s perspective on Alexandra’s assessment of the Cullens as “…self-centered but without any introspection, strenuous but emotionally idle. It was a type of a humanity that she no longer quite respected or trusted, but evidently still enjoyed.”

The Cullens aren’t traveling alone. Madeline Cullen, much to her boozing, boorish husband’s chagrin, has brought along one her true love, Lucy, a trained hawk. Madeline dotes on the bird (their hats match) and insists on it being fed the same fare as the humans (the bird prefers her pigeon raw, not cooked, hold the currants). Lucy, all dark charisma, is the center of everyone’s attention and a fascination for Alwyn (as well as the reader). She’s also a constant source of ire in Larry Cullen. While the philandering husband tolerates his wealthy Protestant wife’s financial support and lodging of Irish Catholic rebels, no doubt out of his own guilt, but Madeline sheltering this wild bird is something he cannot abide.

Larry knows Madeline’s moral code and upbringing will allow a flirtation with an Irish rebel to go only so far but no further, but her all-encompassing devotion to the hawk is something he can’t overcome, and it drives him to the breaking point.

When dinner is delayed, the ladies decide to rest up a bit. Before doing so, Madeline ties Lucy to a bench in the yard outside. With the hawk finally outside his wife’s dominion, a drunk and enraged Larry sees his one chance to do away with the bird.

And Alwyn, the aspiring writer, is all too keen to watch this drama unfold, recognizing its potential for story material. Drawing parallels of live and love with that of a captive, wild bird, he muses, “…if your judgment is poor you fall in love with those who could not possibly love you. If romance of the past has done you any harm, you will not be able to hold on to love when you do attain it, your grasp of it will be out of alignment. Or pity or self-pity may have blunted your hand so that it makes no mark. Back you fly to your perch, ashamed as well as frustrated. Life is almost all perch. There is no nest….”

There’s more drama, more insight into the complexities of human nature, the drinking life and the writer’s way, and the subtle undercurrents of the war known as marriage in this literary novel’s mere 100 pages than there are in all the modern novels I’ve read this year put together.

Michael Cunningham, in his introduction sums the merit of this oft overlooked must-read classic: “… the enormous is amply contained within the small; that the ingredients of tragedy can be found in abundance among genteel, indolent people passing an afternoon together in a parlor and a garden.”

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Handsome Is: Adventures with Saul Bellow – a memoir by Harriet Wasserman

Could an agent-client relationship start more disastrously? When a notorious womanizing author decides to seduce his agent’s young assistant, Harriet Wasserman is just a girl who can’t say no. After all, it’s Saul Bellow. When their date (and the sex itself!) ends badly, they make the decision to put the unpleasantness behind them as if it never happened.

In the early 70’s “Male Jewish American Writers” were considered the high point of literary culture. Since Diarmuid Russell already represented Bernard Malamud, when his rival agent and partner read a Bellow story in Harper’s Bazaar, Henry Volkening wrote a letter offering his services (Bellow’s first two novels were already out, having been published without benefit of an agent’s negotiating skills).

At that time, young agent assistant Harriet Wasserman already has her hands full: she worked for the two senior partners who were not on speaking terms with each other! The two agents would “communicate” by standing in the hallway outside their respective offices and issuing “proclamations” for the other – and Harriet - to overhear. When both chain-smoking agents contract terminal lung cancer within months one of one another, it’s not long before the young assistant becomes a full fledged partner. She takes on her ex-lover and future Nobel Prize winner as her primary client.

They spoke on the phone at least once a day for more than twenty years. Ms. Wasserman reveals that Bellow trusted her so much that he never read any of his contracts; her say so was enough for him to sign them.

Through Harriet Wasserman’s eyes, we learn about the complex workings of a literary agency as well as get an insider’s look at the publishing biz, including her opinion on exactly what it takes to get a book onto the NYTimes bestseller list.

What’s her advice to agent clerk/assistants on how best to learn about the biz? Read everything you file. “Filing isn’t just filing if you read what you are putting into that folder.”

Of Russell and Volkening’s justification for taking on a particular client: “Their only criterion for taking on representation of a writer was their belief in the work’s high literary quality. They never compromised for commercial reasons. Once they made their commitment, their faith in the author was unshakable, and eventually rewarded, sometimes after years of rejection after rejection.”

Agent/editor feuds are related along with the pros and cons of one- vs. two-book contracts (with or without the vacation rental in Spain thrown in to entice the author to sign). Bellow’s power as a client is also made clear: any unknown writer he recommended got signed by the agency and his publisher.

In one hilarious incident, Bellow, at a public appearance is besieged by a gaggle of wannabes all wanting to foist their manuscripts on him. Always keen to accompany Saul anywhere, Harriet is standing close by. He points her out to the crowd of budding scribes and says: “Oh, here’s my agent. You can talk to her about your manuscript.”

One author recommendation that does pan out for Wasserman is that of Bellow’s late-in-life friend, Allen Bloom. His nonfiction title: THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND not only outsold Bellow’s books, but landed Bloom that most coveted of author positions, a seat on Oprah’s couch. It’s Bloom, not Bellow who brought the agent her biggest commercial success.

She reveals that Volkening taught her a dirty trick, one utilized by agents who are too pressed for time to actually read a manuscript in advance of an author meeting: Just memorize a couple of lines from the MS and recite them back to the author as “proof” they’ve read the entire work.

More revealing was the role Harriet Wasserman played as not only Bellow’s first reader but as critique partner. That the Nobel winner would need constant, ongoing feedback and creative input from his agent on his works-in-progress, that he’d send freshly written sections to her piece-meal for her approval, that he was insecure about his writing and badly hurt by reviews (which he read!), came as surprise because his blustering public image and persona was that of the arrogant, confident literary legend. An astute observer, Ms. Wasserman notes that “the subject of each new work seems often to be a reaction to the criticism of the work that came before it.”

From his trip to Sweden to pick up the Nobel, through his 5 marriages and four divorces, through serious illnesses and fun trips to exotic places, through incredible critical acclaim and harshly negative reviews, through it all Agent Harriet was there at Bellow’s side. But as the great man aged, as his health faltered, Bellow attracted the attention of Andrew Wylie, an agent who prefers that least troublesome and demanding of authors: the dead kind. There are reasons why this carrion sniffer is nicknamed “the jackal.”

Years earlier Wylie had become infamous for making a vulgar and highly public insult of Bellow’s book, MORE DIE OF HEARTBREAK. In spite of the many witnesses to this disgusting gesture, Wylie not only denied it to Bellow but decided to convince the author to sign with him. When Agent Harriet gets tag teamed by “the jackal” along with Bellow’s son (and literary executor) she doesn’t stand a chance. It’s a stunning blow she suffers, but Wasserman relates this final episode without rancor; she leaves the reader to their own outrage over how her 25-year long relationship with Bellow came to its awful end.

Spanning nearly 30 years of the publishing industry, this well written, lively memoir is a must read for anyone who's in the biz or aspires to be in it.