Bookshelf: James, Percival Everett

Some books are so good – and so widely praised – that not much needs to be said about them. James is such a book.

A reimagining of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” that puts Jim, the runaway slave, at the center of the story instead of Huck, James is a fast-paced, compelling, and moving novel. It is also, because of its clear, descriptive writing and its forceful, focused narration, a rarity, a gem that glistens amid the slag heap of mediocrity that holds most current popular fiction (sequel-driven dross churned out by publishing houses that believe no story can be told too often as long as it turns a buck. End rant.)

I read James in two sittings and had I not needed to sleep (or drink whiskey) I could have finished it in one. The story had me from get-go when Jim code-switches from the shuffling, submissive, yes-suh-ing enslaved man he presents to white folks to, when with other Blacks, an erudite, educated husband and father who reads Voltaire and instructs children in linguistic survival skills.

During one lesson, for example, Jim asks: What do you say if you see a white women’s house on fire:

“Fire, fire,” said one child.

“Direct. And that’s almost correct,” I said.

The youngest of them, lean and tall five-year-old Rachel, said, “Lawdy, missum! Looky dere.”

“Perfect,” I said. “Why is that correct?”

Lizzie raised her hand. “Because we must let the whites be the ones who name the trouble.”

“And why is that,” I asked.

February said, “Because they need to know everything before us. Because they need to name everything.”

More than anything, Jim continues, we need to make sure white people feel good.

“And the better they feel, the safer we are,” says a child.

“February, translate that.”

“Da mo’ betta dey feel, da mo’ safer we be.”

This mechanism of portraying the intellectually free inner being held in chains by the need of his owned outer self to survive is a more powerful and impactful depiction of slavery’s horror than any description of a lashing or a lynching. The latter kills, the former erases a life while it is still in progress – a living death.

There is plenty more to read about James online, and I encourage you to do so. I suggest also you read about Twain and the original book, both its acclaim and its criticism. Of course, I urge you to read “James” itself because more than anything it does what all special books do: it educates while it entertains.

Bookshelf – Annie Bot, Sierra Greer

Be careful what you wish for, wheezes the cautionary bromide, or you just might find yourself overcome by it.

This vexatious thought traverses the easily troubled mind of Doug, a thirty-ish New York bro possessing no last name but enough cash to buy what he always wanted: the perfect girlfriend, a beauty who cooks and cleans and services his libidinous desires, doing it all with the smiling compliance of a high-class robot, which, in fact, is what she is.

In Annie’s company, Doug has never been better fed or better bedded – especially since he had Annie designed to look just like his ex. Being autodidactic, Annie becomes more and more humanlike, which also thrills Doug – until she acquires some of the lesser qualities of the species.

Annie is a Stella, a sentient blend of a CPU, AI, and a human embryo. She is capable of being a nurturing nanny, an efficient housekeeper, or an insatiable pleasure partner when switched to Cuddle Bunny mode, Doug’s preferred option. She is the best $220,000 can buy.

Danger, Will Robinson!

It turns out the complexities of human relationships remain intact even when one of the partners needs to carry a charging station with her. When “Annie Bot” moves beyond the story of a boy with a toy (these passages are NSFW), it reaches for a morality tale of endangered male dominance vs. awakening female independence – the eternal clash of the chromosomes. At minimum, “Annie Bot” is a well-told preview of an inevitable future. At its best, it is an admonitory tale of powerful machines possessing the failings of the humans who design them.

“Annie Bot” is Greer’s first published book, and there are moments where this shows through (what does Doug do for living? why is Annie alternately bold and timorous? who is that guy at the end?), but there are not enough lapses not to recommend the book.

Bookshelf – Be Mine, Richard Ford

My father, who served all of his jokes with a side of corn, would look up from the morning newspaper after reading the obit of some well-known person and lament with mock horror to my mother, “El, people are dying who never died before!”

And therein lies the fundamental flaw with life. No, not Dad Jokes – but dying. Life comes with an expire date. It’s non-renewable. No refills, no second-helpings, no do-overs. Living is, quite literally, a once in a lifetime opportunity.

In “Be Mine,” a father and son share a road trip whose final destination is – ahem – one where every man has gone before. The father is Frank Bascombe, Richard Ford’s Boomer Everyman, who in four previous novels traversed careers and marriages. Now, at age 74, he is behind the wheel of a rented RV chauffeuring his 47-year-old son, Paul, diminished by Lou Gehrig’s disease, across the cold, upper heartland of America.

The father and son are an odd couple. Amid the dissonant commercial clutter of malls and corn-country crossroads, Frank stoically seeks philosophical answers to eternal questions: What is good? (“the absence of bad”); he also longs for the comfort of intimacy, but he looks for love in all the wrong places, including a Vietnamese massage parlor near the Mayo Clinic. Paul, in contrast, is on-the-spectrum manic, grasping at whatever glitters, embracing the ephemera of roadside attractions to compensate for the drip-drip-drip of his coming demise.

Frank and Paul are dying – who isn’t? – but tomorrow’s death does not preclude today’s happiness. As Frank says, “… to go out the door and not bother with being happy is to give life less than its full due. Which, after all, is what we’re here for. To give life its full due, no matter what kind of person we are. Or am I wrong?”

Reviews of “Be Mine” were mixed. “It’s hard to see a better novel being published this year,” said one newspaper critic; the “thinnest and least persuasive of the Bascombe novels,” opined another. I lean more toward the former, in part because I cannot compare this novel sharply enough with “The Sportswriter” and “Independence Day,” which I read years ago, but more so because many of the “chin-stroking proverbs” that Frank utters in a laconic acceptance of our inevitable end seem less like clichés than hard-won truths, loving cups earned during the long game of life.

 “Be Mine” is not a perfect book (is there such a thing?), but it is rich with observation and insight whose value is not attenuated by repetition. The experiences of Frank and Paul, some humorous, some sad, some hard, seem, in a word, authentic. Yes, there is some drag at the end, but not enough for me not to recommend it, especially to anyone struggling with the vagaries of aging, be them their own or those of a fellow traveler.

Bookshelf – Generation Loss, Elizabeth Hand (2007)

There’s not much to like about Cass Neary, the New York photographer who anchors this intriguing, uneven, but ultimately entertaining mystery of artistic crime. If she’s awake, she’s lying. When you’re not looking, she’s stealing. Her anger is always on the prowl, seeking any whiff of a slight. She is high much of the time and when she’s not, she’s drunk. “I have,” she says, “as many words for ‘hangover’ as an Inuit has for snow.”

Cass was a star at age 20, famous for photographing the human detritus of the city’s punk era: needles in arms, semi-public sex, and young bodies, dead from ODs on the streets. Three years later, her fame is flamed out. Emotionally cauterized by a rape, doped into stagnation, she can’t make pictures anymore. And when she does try, she is told her images are both passé and overly violent.

“It’s too raw,” a gallery rep says. “It’s too much like being right inside someone’s head.”

“It is inside someone’s head,” Cass answers. “It’s the inside of my head.”

Rejected and angered, Cass retreats. Two decades later she remains sheltered — working in a bookstore stockroom, hiding out from everything but her rage – when an opportunity arrives via an old friend: a magazine assignment to interview and photograph a reclusive photographer, Aphrodite Kamestros, who published two books of dark, haunting images and then disappeared to an island off the coast of Maine. Cass is reluctant, but takes the job because Aphrodite’s work was a guiding spirit of Cass’s own.

From this point on Cass steps through the looking glass into a world where nothing is what, or who, it seems to be. Contrary to the Maine farmer’s oft-quoted quip, “you can’t get there from here,” in Cass’s version of Maine you can definitely get there, but you probably shouldn’t go.

Heavy with colorful dialog, the story sprints through an obstacle course of missing persons, aging hippies, clannish townsfolk, and artists in the clutch of malevolent muses. With a few exceptions, it’s all fun stuff.

“Generation Loss” has pretensions of being more than just a mystery – and it fulfills some of them when it describes the magic of seeing and making photographs (especially with film) – but it works just fine as a somewhat edgy, somewhat quirky whodunit.

Bookshelf – The Gathering, Anne Enright

Some people carry so much drag and ache and dread that they cannot separate the weight from themselves. They are what they suffer.

The fate of these tormented beings, thinks Veronica Hegarty as she laments the death of her brother, Liam, older by only eleven months and drowned by his own hand in the cold of the English Channel, is imprinted in their bones.

“History is biological, that’s what I think,” says Veronica as her family gathers in Dublin for Liam’s wake. “What is written for the future is written in the body, the rest is only spoor.”

What Liam bore, etched into his marrow, was the scar of a terrible incident that befell him when he was nine, a moment witnessed by Veronica. Liam lives with pain, Veronica with shame. “After a lifetime of spreading the hurt around,” she thinks, “(Liam) managed to blame me. And I managed to feel guilty.”

Veronica feels guilt for her escape from the claustrophobic environment of a family of a dozen children, a mother vanishing into herself, and a rough-cut father. She made it to the middle class. Liam, her soulmate, didn’t. He drank and practiced enough general fecklessness to earn labels like gurrier, messer, and thug from even his siblings.

Liam’s death unleashes not only Veronica’s memories of what happened that fateful day in her grandmother’s house, but also brings to the boil long-simmering dissatisfactions with her own “normal” life – materially rich, emotionally impoverished.

“The Gathering” asks some patience of the reader. Veronica, seeking to make sense of her brother’s death, hopscotches through the calendar — her grandmother’s time, her own childhood, the present, when she is 39. Hard things happen, and both their overhang and portent infuse the story with a heaviness, but it is tolerable because nothing occurs in the story that couldn’t occur to anyone at any time in real life. It is the heaviness of being human.

Enright is a masterful writer and a pleasure to read. The narration is almost elegiac, but also precise and not at all wimpy. When, for example, Veronica speaks of her jumbled sex life, Enright endows her with schoolyard language that shocks with directness. In all, “The Gathering” is as complicated and mysterious as life itself, and just as rewarding.

Bookshelf – Amsterdam, Ian McEwan

To adhere to the adage: sometimes bad things happen to good people, and these tragedies we bemoan. But what of those calamities that also happen to fall on bad people, do we exchange our lament for applause?

They had it coming! So cry those who believe revenge is sweet, no matter at what temperature it is served.

I stumbled upon “Amsterdam” during a recent library visit. Its author and its svelte form called from the “recommended” rack. The book was a fortuitous find, a – per the New York Times – “morality fable, disguised as a psychological thriller,” one told with the descriptive, perceptive precision found in McEwan’s novels.

The story is that of two Londoners, a symphony composer, Clive, and a newspaper editor, Vernon, who find themselves outside of a crematorium on chilled winter’s day. Both are ambitious, both stand at the apex of their respective games (a location that hints of future diminishment), and both are former lovers of the deceased, one Molly Lane, a tempestuous woman of fierce carnal appetites whose other paramours included the current Foreign Secretary of Great Britain.

Molly took ill and died rapidly, and her abrupt descent from eros to ashes shakes Clive and Vernon. The composer feels the cold clamp of mortality on his hand as he struggles to complete his greatest symphonic achievement; the journalist feels invisible amid the chaos of daily publishing and the need to swap ethics for more readers. Neither wants to go out as Molly did, under the incarcerating care of another, so they make a euthanasia pact: When one approaches the brink of the abyss, the other will, painlessly, nudge him into it.

Little more can be said about the plot without revelation. But there is deviousness, cowardice, and avarice, and each exacts a price from Clive and Vernon. McEwan guides the story with expert assuredness, and it is a delight to follow him to a clever, satisfying ending that leaves just enough left unsaid to make you wish for a few more pages.

Bookshelf — My Year in Reading, 2023

If you scan the list below, you will see a wide range of fiction (I only read four non-fiction works) that can be more or less divided into three parts – well-known literary-ish novels I’d never read (“The Lying Life of Adults,” “Rabbit, Run,” “The End of the Affair”); newer popular works (“Small Mercies,” “Crook Manifesto”); and audiobooks, which are exclusively crime, and mostly by Michael Connolly (background noise for the gym).
 
As I have since the pandemic (remember that?) when I told myself to take more reading risks, I reveled in the discovery of writers who fall outside my previously narrow comfort zone, among them: Elena Ferrante, (more) Rachel Cusk), Rabih Alameddine (amazing), and Eudora Welty). Their work widened my world view and heartened my belief that in reading we can find the humanity that is too often hidden amid the atrocity and hatred of our times.
 
I only dropped out of two books, of which the biggest disappointment was “Kairos” by Jenny Erpenbeck, which I’d looked forward to because I’d loved her previous work, “Go Went Gone.”
 
People ask about favorites, a list I find hard to delineate because my tastes vary so much. For me, reading is all all-you-can-eat buffet: who’s to say if the mountain of mashed potatoes is better than the thick slabs of sliced roast beef or the gurgling vat of mac and cheese? Still, one must choose, so in lieu of favorites, I offer some of the books that most delighted or surprised me: 

Non-fiction: “On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey” – Paul Theroux, a marvelously descriptive and insightful road trip by a septuagenarian explorer through our complex southern neighbor.
 
Fiction (in no order): “My Monticello” (a magnetic mirror on the world); “The Wrong End of the Telescope” (phenomenal); “Signs Preceding the End of the World” (the bizarre realities of the US-Mexico borderlands); “The Swimmers” (beautiful simplicity); “The Sentence” (I hope to read all of Erdrich); “Small Mercies” (powerful); “The Great Believers” (so real); “Train Dreams” (a tasty morsel); and “Ask the Dust” (more John Fante, please).

Finally, for me audiobooks are mostly filler, but one set of them made me realize I’ve been overlooking one of the world’s most popular authors: The “Mr. Mercedes” series by Stephen King. Good writing, great storytelling. (The trilogy also includes “Finders Keepers” and “End of Watch.”
 
The List, 2023:
 
1.     The Feral Detective – Jonathan Lethem
2.     Hell of a Book – Jason Mott
3.     The Black Echo – Michael Connelly *
4.     Ill Will – Dan Chaon
5.     The Black Ice — Michael Connelly *
6.     When the Killing’s Done – T.C. Boyle
7.     Northern Spy – Flynn Berry
8.     The Concrete Blonde – Michael Connelly *
9.     Nightmare Alley – William Lindsay Gresham
10.  The Last Coyote – Michael Connelly *
11.  The Survivors – Jane Harper
12.  Chances Are … – Richard Russo
13.  Trust the Plan, The Rise of QAnon and the Conspiracy That Unhinged America – Will Sommer
14.  My Monticello – Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
15.  The Searcher – Tana French *
16.  The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith
17.  Trunk Music – Michael Connelly *
18.  On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey – Paul Theroux
19.  The Poet – Michael Connelly *
20.  The Wrong End of the Telescope – Rabih Alameddine
21.  Signs Preceding the End of the World – Yuri Herrera
22.  To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee *
23.  The Swimmers – Julie Otsuka
24.  Since We Fell – Dennis Lehane
25.  Angels Flight – Michael Connelly *
26.  Telephone – Percival Everett
27.  Ladydi (Spanish) – Jennifer Clement
28.  Dead Lions (Slough House #2) – Mick Herron
29.  A Darkness More than Night – Michael Connelly
30.  Kudos – Rachel Cusk
31.  The Children Act – Ian McEwan
32.  Kindred – Octavia Butler
33.  I Will Find You – Harlan Coben *
34.  The End of the Affair – Graham Greene
35.  City on Fire – Don Winslow *
36.  City of Bones – Michael Connelly *
37.  An Unnecessary Woman – Rabih Alameddine
38.  The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler *
39.  The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
40.  Ask the Dust – John Fante
41.  This Dark Road to Mercy – Wiley Cash
42.  Lost Light – Michael Connelly *
43.  Real Tigers (Slough House #3) – Mick Herron *
44.  The Sentence – Louise Erdrich
45.  Giant – Edna Ferber
46.  Spook Street (Slough House #4) – Mick Herron *
47.  Murder on the Red River – Marcie R. Rendon
48.  The Narrows – Michael Connelly *
49.  Empire of Wild – Cherie Dimaline
50.  The Closers – Michael Connelly *
51.  Small Mercies – Dennis Lehane
52.  Crook Manifesto – Colson Whitehead
53.  London Rules – Mick Herron *
54.  Am I Alone Here – Peter Orner
55.  Kairos – Jenny Erpenbeck **
56.  The Optimist’s Daughter – Eudora Welty
57.  Parrot in the Oven – Victor Martinez
58.  Joe Country – Mick Herron *
59.  Mystic River – Dennis Lehane
60.  The Lost Daughter – Elena Farrante
61.  War Trash – Ha Jin
62.  Echo Park – Michael Connelly *
63.  No One Will See Me Cry – Cristina Rivera-Garza
64.  Train Dreams – Denis Johnson
65.  Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
66.  Mr. Mercedes – Stephen King *
67.  The Lying Life of Adults – Elena Ferrante
68.  Killers of the Flower Moon – David Grann *
69.  The Dog of the South – Charles Portis
70.  If I Survive You – Jonathan Escoffery
71.  All the Sinners Bleed – S.A. Cosby
72.  Finders Keepers – Stephen King *
73.  Old God’s Time – Sebastian Barry
74.  Chain Gang All-Stars — Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
75.  End of Watch – Stephen King *
76.  Bluebird, Bluebird – Attica Locke
77.  Fear is Just a Word – Azam Ahmed **
78.  Among the Bros – Max Marshall
79.  The Lincoln Lawyer – Michael Connelly *
80.  A Line in the Sand – Kevin Power
81.  The Lost Americans – Christopher Bollen
82.  Rabbit, Run – John Updike
83.  Heaven, My Home – Attica Locke
84.  Slough House – Mick Herron *
85.  The Power of the Dog – Don Winslow
 * Audio
** Did not finish

Bookshelf – Rabbit, Run, John Updike

Since I am of an age where secrets have long lost their utility, I am only somewhat abashed to admit that until now I’d not read any of John Updike’s “Rabbit” novels. Blame this oversight on, first, the ignorance sired by youthful arrogance and, then later, a senescent narrowing of perspective.

“Rabbit Run,” the first of the quartet, arrived in 1968 to both coy acclaim and snooty dismissal (a “shabby domestic tragedy” croaked the New York Times, despite being “artful and supple”). At the time I was a truculent teenager awhirl in the rejection of everything conventional, so I knew nothing of Updike and could have cared less about the angst of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. The second novel, “Rabbit Redux,” came out in 1971, still before maturity bloomed in me. And, by the time “Rabbit is Rich” (1981) and “Rabbit at Rest” (1990) appeared, I’d cast Updike onto the dusty reaches of my father’s bookshelf, like Cheever, Roth, and Bellow.

An advantage of advanced maturity (there are not many) is the ability to do an accounting of the errors of the previous decades and, if lucky, rectify them, which I have done in a small way by reading and being amazed by “Rabbit Run.”

The novel ranks high in many academic curricula and is therefore endlessly analyzed, so I have nothing sagacious to add to what is already written about Updike’s commentary on the constrictions of religion, the expectations of male responsibility (leading to the subsequent belittling of female agency), and the mendacious myth of the post-War American Dream. The non-scholastic word that does come to mind, though is: rubbernecking – because following Harry Angstrom as he careens from one emotionally chaotic soap bubble to the next is like seeing a train wreck in slow motion: both fascinating and horrifying.

Rabbit Angstrom is a detestable protagonist, pathetic, whining, exploitive; thoroughly unlikable. The highlight of his short life was being a high-school basketball star in the working-class suburb of a modest American every-town. At 23, married to a woman he thinks is stupid, the father of one child with another on the way, and employed as the salesman of the MagiPeel kitchen gadget, Rabbit’s disenchantment with every aspect of his life causes him to shed his leash and flee in search of …. well … what? Not being a man of more depth than the agility needed to pivot and launch a jump shot, he has no idea what he wants. As he tells a clergyman who tries to lure him back to the flock:

“If you’re telling me I’m not mature, that’s the one thing I don’t cry over since as far as I can make out it’s the same thing as being dead. … but I tell you, I do feel, I guess, that somewhere beyond all this (he gestures around him) there’s something that wants me to find it.”

Domesticated man searching for meaning in life. Enough to launch a thousand books.

Rabbit’s selfish boorishness is tough to take a times – not again! I gasp – but Updike’s wonderful writing more than offsets the unpleasantness of this man/boy-on-the-run. Updike writes with such precision that his words fit like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Unlike so many contemporary novels, which (to me) feel loose and in need of several more drafts, “Rabbit, Run” is tight. No words are out of place, no dialog added for padding. Here is an example:

“His car is waiting for him on Cherry Street in the cool spring noon mysteriously; it is as if a room of a house he owned had been detached and scuttled by this curb and now that the tide of night was out stood up glistening in the sand, slightly tilted but unharmed, ready to sail at the turn of a key.”

Please excuse my longer-than-usual scribbling, but I felt I least owed Updike a few extra words for having ignored him for so long. I am, however, thrilled to discover him. As I soon as I finished “Rabbit, Run,” I ordered the next three.

Bookshelf — The Man Who Saw Everything, Deborah Levy

Despite being, as the title declares, a man of omniscient vision, Saul Adler manages to live his rather truncated and self-consciously disengaged life without every becoming himself.

From the opening of the book, when Saul is struck by a car on London’s Abbey Road and then hours later kicked out of his girlfriend’s bed after he asks her to marry him, he is a man in flight – fleeing from intimacy, seeking what cannot be had, indulging in pleasures that consort with pain.

A professor of history whose field is the communist countries of Eastern Europe, Saul is a cipher, an androgynous wraith of a man berated by his father and bullied by his older brother for being a “Nancy boy” and told by his girlfriend, “You are much prettier than I am.” His beauty attracts men as well as women, but it alone cannot sustain relationships that wither for lack of emotional commitment. His girlfriend, a photographer, tells him, “You were so detached and absent, the only way I could reach you was with my camera.”

The story begins in 1988, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall – a moment critical to the narrative – and leaps to 2016, when another car accident in the same place (the crosswalk immortalized by the Beatles album cover) sends Adler somersaulting through his memories, a jumble of conflated moments lacking a cogent timeline. His life of flight becomes a free fall.

This is a beautiful book, exquisitely written, and loaded with trenchant dialogue, both spoken and heard through Saul’s introspection. The story is intimate, but not idle. There are many surprises, but Levy delivers them slyly. If you read “The Man Who Saw Everything” looking for the blow of a hammer you will miss the sting of Levy’s stiletto.

Finally, about the ending (without giving it away): the last few pages are among the most moving I’ve ever read, forcing a reader to turn toward a mirror and ask: Who am I?

Bookshelf – A Line in the Sand, Kevin Powers

They say all combat veterans bring some of their wars home with them. In the case of Arman Bajalan, an Iraqi translator for U.S. forces who is relocated to Virginia after his family is killed, he arrives on American soil not only burdened by the war but still actively pursued by it.

What transpires is one of the better crime thrillers I’ve read all year, a slam-bang mélange of greed, guns, and blood populated by well-drawn characters who only risk losing their authenticity when so many bullets fly and blades slash that you begin to wonder: Really, do people actually do these things? And then you realize: Of course they do, this is the U.S. of A., where shooting first is a common go-to option.

The plot spins around Bajalan, a witness to a horrific atrocity in Mosul, and includes murderous mercenary soldiers aka “private defense contractors;” Catherine Wheel, a Norfolk, Virginia, detective whose youth has faded but her passion for justice has not; her partner, Lamar Adams, new to the shield and still imbued with military manners, such as calling his partner ma’am; a troubled young reporter (the most cliched of the bunch); and a crusty-but-benign motel owner who takes young Bajalan under his wing and stars in a Taratino-esque shootout scene that will make a great cameo for some aging Hollywood star. (Stand by, Liam Neeson.)

Amid the fun, there is a subliminal, serious message if you choose to listen: That war long ago ceased to be a matter of territorial aggression; it is now an international business. Says a congressional aide to a reporter: “The borders that matter now aren’t between countries. They’re between tax brackets. Global citizens. Ultra-high-net-worth individuals. Someone’s from Iraq. You’re from Virginia. So what? The real countrymen are the guys with fifty million, a hundred million in assets.”

Makes sense to me.

As for the story itself, it goes fast, has more than one true surprise, and never loses its way. I suspect you might guess the end (I did) but doing so will do nothing to diminish the delight of following Powers’s twists and turns.

Bookshelf – Among the Bros, Max Marshall

There are few combinations more morally toxic than youth, money and testosterone, especially when inflamed by the debauchery that universities tolerate at fraternities under the guise of tradition.

The behavior of frat house bad boys was once limited to the hijinks of “Animal House,” whose motley miscreants stopped at toga parties, shoplifting, and a Mrs. Robinson moment involving the lascivious wife of Dean Wormer.

These days, in an America plagued by drug abuse (legal and illegal), on campuses defined by economic elitism, and throughout a digitized world where the dark side of humanity lurks only a click away, binge drinking, brutal (sometimes fatal) hazing, and persistent stupefaction are as common among the Greek campus community as coats of arms.

This is the world Max Marshall found in 2016 when he began reporting a story about a “small-time” fraternity drug dealing ring at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. To his surprise, he found a massive interstate web of drug trafficking that involved millions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of pills like Xanax and Oxycodone, bricks of cocaine bought from a Mexican cartel, and a murdered student.

Once, says a writer quoted in the book, a “bro” meant “a self-absorbed young white guy in board shorts and a taste for cheap beer. But it’s become a shorthand for the sort of privileged ignorance that thrives in groups dominated by wealthy, white, straight men.”

The dope-dealing bros of Kappa Alpha dressed in polo shirts and pastel shorts. Imagine Tony Soprano’s crew as Andover grads clad in Ambercrombie. They flouted the law and flaunted their audacity. Children of entitlement, their creed was (to borrow from the New York Times): “We will behave badly, and we will get away with it.”

Marshall graduated from Columbia University in 2016, the same year police arrested the ring. His youth and his background as a fraternity member (Delta Sigma) no doubt helped him gain access to the incarcerated kingpin, Mikey Schmidt, as well as to dozen of former College of Charleston students and frat members who in interviews portrayed the campus as “a country club for rich New Englanders.”

Marshall’s reporting is thorough and detailed. He puts you in the frat house, and what you see ain’t pretty. At times, though, he is too thorough. Some pages seem compiled from what we old-time newsies called a notebook dump. Facts make the story, but more of them doesn’t always make a better story.

Still, Among the Bros held my attention and it might hold yours as well if you’re wondering what the incoming generation is doing with the mess we’re leaving them.

Bookshelf – “If I Survive You,” Jonathan Escoffery

As a man of the Anglo-Saxon-mongrel variety, I never had to worry about identity. Sure, in the working-class, industrial city where I grew up we kids would ask each other What are you? But whether we answered Irish or Italian or Polish there was never any doubt what we were: White.

Such certainty eludes Trelawny, the protagonist of “If I Survive You.” The son of Jamaican immigrants he traverses childhood to adulthood afloat in a sea of swirling colors and cultures. In a Miami high school, he is too brown to hang with the Blacks, too mono-lingual to hablar with the Latinos, and too Yankee – meaning adverse to speaking the island patois – to other Jamaicans. In a Midwest college, amid a cloud of pink-toned classmates, he is “unquestionably Black.”

His older brother, Delano, tells him: “You’re Black, Trelawny. In Jamaica we weren’t, but here we are. There’s a ‘one-drop’ rule.” But then a white co-worker, after making a racist remark, says to Trelawny: “What do you care? You’re not Black. You’re Jamaican.” Suddenly, thinks Trelawny, “Black Americans are the only Blacks. Blacker than Africans. Black in the (lowered voice) bad way.”

Escoffery places Trelawny’s personal journey amid a prism of stories about the searches of life: Cukie, a friend of Trelawny’s searches for his father, only to find that truth can lead to betrayal; a tragedy gives Delano one more chance to follow the ambition he abandoned for more pragmatic pursuits; a mysterious middle-aged woman, smitten with love, wishes to weasel her way into the old-folks home where Trelawny works.

Again and again, “If I Survive You” returns to Trelawny’s relationship with his father, a general contractor who dotes on Delano and sees his younger son as weak and adrift, an affront to his immigrant mindset that places survival about all else.

Trelawny does indeed wander. Booted from father’s house, he moves into his car, and uses the perception that “every light brown thing in Miami is exotic” to entice female tourists with “colonial desires” to take him back to their hotels, where he will have a bed for the night. He cycles through jobs both tedious and perverse (punching a woman in the face for an art project, watching an affluent white couple have sex). Through it all, he seeks to make peace with himself and, at least inwardly, with his father.

The New York Times called Escoffery “a gifted, sure-footed storyteller, with a command of evocative language and perfectly chosen details.” Dead-on right. There are not many pages in “If I Survive You” that lack a savory turn of phrase or a piquant observation, many of them about Miami and its environs, an extra treat for those of us who, rightly or wrongly, see South Florida as the slightly off-kilter uncle in the American family.

Bookshelf – Old God’s Time, Sebastian Barry

Pro tip: When an epigraph cites the Book of Job, you know there’s suffering ahead.

Tom Kettle is the Job of Dublin. A decorated detective with the Irish national police who arrives at retirement not with the joy of an ex-cop looking forward to unburdened days, but bereft of all that he loved and ladened with sadness. Tom is awash in the wake of tragedy, at times so immersed he cannot distinguish the ache of memory from the pain of reality.

What scant solace Tom manages to find during his retreat to a granny flat in an ancient castle, disappears like sea mist in the night sky when he is drawn back into an old case involving sexual predation and perverted priests. Suddenly, he is deprived of what to him is “the whole point of retirement, of existence – to be stationary, happy and useless.”

But Old God’s Time – the title referring to a period beyond memory – is not a cold-case yarn as such (even if it were, it would be lifted beyond the normal realm of the trope by Barry’s lyrical and poetic writing, occasionally liberated from form, occasionally punctuated with the vocabulary of quotidian brutality). Yes, Old God’s Time, is a mystery, but the unraveling of secrets only serves as the vehicle for Barry’s deeper investigation, that of the enigmatic completeness of love and the bottomless whirlpool of loss.

Within these emotional swirls, where what is true and what is imagined intertwine, Tom struggles to find firm footing. He harbors dark truths, about himself and about his late wife, June, who he loved more than life and who, afflicted by her own haunts, “had survived everything but survival.”

In the end, what saves Tom from the bleak remains of his life is the embrace of a simple fact: of all that he’s done, of all the villains he’s dealt with, of all the erosion of his faith in human nature, he wants only one thing: “to be a believer again, in something.”

And what is that? “His life, his little life?” he thinks. “The fog edged away from the shore of himself, the sea opened like a stage in a theatre, the helpful sun burned in its element, there was a truth told to him, a truth, in his curious age, in his palpable decay, that there at the heart of it, there at the heart of it, forever and always, as June.”

Old God’s Time demands patience. Go too fast and you’ll miss Barry’s lingering eye. But bide your time, wrestle over the meanings of Tom’s untethered drifts, and be rewarded by an ending that accelerates as the cold case melts in a furnace of truth.

Bookshelf –All the Sinners Bleed, S.A. Crosby

When I read S.A. Crosby’s breakout book, Blacktop Wasteland (2020), the wild ride with Beauregard “Bug” Montage thrilled me. Then came Razorblade Tears (2021) and the ride slowed to a slog. Was Crosby a one-hit wonder? Was he mired in a sophomore slump?

All the Sinners Bleed (2023) provides an emphatic answer: the slump is over!

As good as Blacktop Wasteland was – and it was a fun romp through the underbelly of backwoodsy Virginia, labeled by those who label such things as a prime slice of Southern Gothic — All the Sinners Bleed is better. It is darker, it is more violent and perverse, and it confronts head on the double helix of white supremacy and religious fundamentalism that forms the DNA of the American South. Cosby has hocked his funny in exchange for substance.

All the Sinners Bleed is a mature work, deep with ideas and populated with (mostly) fully realized characters. If Cosby can stay the course he could become to Virginia what Dennis Lehane is to Boston: an unflinching mirror.

The story is straightforward: Titus Crown, an ex-FBI agent, comes back home to rural Virginia, runs for sheriff and wins – the first Black man to wear the star in the county. His jurisdiction is a quiet one. Crime tends toward drunken brawls, trailer-park beatings, and dope-dealing, much different than the domestic terrorism cases Crown was involved in as a G-man.

A school shooting changes all that, and Crown’s keep runs red with blood. To stop the killing, Crown must dodge the crossfire between the demands of local Black leaders, the threats of entrenched white powerbrokers, and the fire and brimstone promised by fanatical ministers. It is within this vortex – good vs. all forms of evil – that Crosby excels and lifts All the Sinners Bleed above the ordinary.

Crosby, showing deftness, weaves history into the story – the lengthy shadow of slavery; the racial riots of 1919’s Red Summer; the Bible-thumping hypocrisy of Flannery O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” South – and then flays the institutions formed from those values, to whom big, Black, by-the-book Sheriff Titus Crown is an affront to all they hold dear.

The book is not perfect. Toward the end, Crosby rather hastily knots up some loose plot lines, but that sort of finish-line rush seems common in thrillers and crime novels. However, once Crosby breaks the tape, he redeems himself with an ending that will be perfect in the movie that surely comes from the book.

So I forgive Crosby for his last-hour sprint – not that he needs nor has sought my pardon – for I, too, was reading with speed, caught up in the whirlwind of the story.

Bookshelf – Signs Preceding the End of the World, Yuri Herrera

In the borderlands of the West – America’s south and Mexico’s north – reality is fluid: much is not what it seems, permanence is an illusion, and culture and language are trafficked as commonly as contraband.

The monied North hungers for labor and drugs and flat-screen TVs assembled at sub-minimum wages; the impoverished South, conquered and corrupted, huddled in tribes held together by blood, fear, and power, feeds the northern beast, both willingly and by necessity.

In this thin, magical novel (2009), Yuri Herrera distills the complexities of the American-Mexican symbiosis into the clarity of a single purpose: self-preservation: the North to keep what it has, the South to survive what it doesn’t.

It is a story set against archetypes: the Village, the Little Town, the Big Chilango; gunmen named Thug .45 and Thug .38 for their favored weapons; the “top dogs,” the caciques, Mr. Double-U, Mr. Aitch, Mr. Q, whose favors carry indebtedness. Two-dimensional places and figures, they are stand-ins for the stereotypical American perspective of the lands to its south: dusty, dangerous, and dismal.

Within this anonymity lives sharply defined Makina, a fierce, independent young woman from the Village, a human switchboard who take calls and passes messages, connecting the North and the South. She speaks the local lingo (an indigenous dialect), anglo, and the latin (Spanish), and “knew how to keep quiet in all three.” Makina enforces a set of rules that gain her the trust of all:

“You don’t lift other people’s petticoats.
You don’t stop to wonder about other people’s business.
You don’t decide which messages to deliver and which to not.
You are the door, not the one who walks through it.”

Makina’s mother sends her North to search for her brother, and there, on the far side of the river, she finds herself entangled in the amorphous nature of the region and its people, both white and brown:

“They are homegrown and they are anglo and both things with rapid intensity; with restrained fervor they can be the meekest and at the same time the most querulous of citizens, albeit grumbling under their breath. Their gestures and tastes reveal both ancient memory and the wonderment of new people. And then they speak. They speak in an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable.”

The story is too compact to reveal more, but the depth of Herrera’s perception is unlimited. Signs Preceding the End of the World is a marvelous ode, lyrical at times, hard-edged at others, to the incessant river of language, ideas, and bodies that flow across “la frontera,” impeded by government, exploited by mafia, but as impossible as the tide to stop.

It is one of the most compelling books I’ve read about trans-border culture – and more timely now than when it was written.

  • Note: Herrera’s remarkable use of language reflects the supple nature of border culture. He plays with known words and creates new ones. Language becomes identity. Should you read the book, be sure to read also translator Lisa Dillman’s comments following the narrative.

Bookshelf – Confidence Man, Maggie Haberman

What most surprised me in this thorough, readable biography of the narcissistic, bullying charlatan who captured the White House and then held the nation hostage for four years is how surprising I found his political success at the time. Had I been paying attention, as Maggie Haberman had through most of her career as a reporter in New York City and then in Washington, D.C., I would have seen Donald Trump coming – and so might have enough others to thwart his rapacious intentions.

It seems almost redundant to use the word revelatory to describe any book about Trump because he himself is an open book. As Haberman writes, he treats everyone he knows as “a chance for him to vent or test reactions or gauge how his statements are playing or discover how he is feeling. He works things out in real time in front of all of us.” However, Confidence Man is filled with revelations, at least for those us who never saw an episode of “The Apprentice”:

  • The decades-long ties between Trump and the political puppeteers he employed as president such as Roger Stone and Paul Manafort (both convicted, both pardoned).
  • Trump’s lifelong habit of deliberately exploiting hate and controversy: “I bring out the worst in my enemies and that’s how I get them to defeat themselves.” And: “I want to hate these muggers and murderers. I want them to suffer.” Thus answering the question: Is he the way he is by choice? Yes, partly.
  • His instinct to simultaneously bloviate and obfuscate is purposeful: “Whatever complicates the world more, I do. It’s always good to do things nice and complicated so that nobody can figure it out.”

There are many books in print about Trump’s White House tenure, but of the few I’ve read – Bob Woodward’s Rage and Peril among them – Confidence Man tells the story of the craziness and immorality that characterized the period in the least breathless way, relying as it does on the solid reporting that won Haberman a Pulitzer, and, more importantly, wrapping all the self-serving shenanigans and the sideshow of characters in the context of Trump’s fundamental yearning to be recognized and rewarded.

In a post-presidency interview, Trump exposes this need, which Haberman describes as “for people to know who he was, and not merely to be rich.” He tells her: “The question I get asked more than any other question: If you had to do it again (run for president), would you have done it? The answer is, yeah, I think so. Because here’s the way I look at it. I have so many rich friends and nobody knows who they are.”

Sadly, the nation is not yet done with Trump. Even if he can’t rise out of the muck of Mar-a-Logo to despoil once more the Oval Office, he has sullied the American democracy with a stain that won’t be removed in the short term.

To Haberman’s credit, she acknowledges that despite her formidable reporting she cannot answer the question: Who, really, is Donald J. Trump? “I spent the four years of his presidency getting asked by people to decipher why he was doing what he was doing, but the truth is, ultimately, almost no one really knows him. Some know him better than others, but he is often simply, purely opaque, permitting people to read meaning and depth into every action, no matter how empty they may be.”

Trump remains afoot. We are forewarned.

Bookshelf — Tears We Cannot Stop, Michael Eric Dyson

When Donald Trump got elected president, friends who lived in other countries asked me what happened. How could the United States, they asked, elect such a mendacious, immoral con man to the most powerful democratic office on the planet? I didn’t have an answer.

Over the course of Trump’s four convulsive years, a torturous test of democracy that culminated in the madness of the January 6 riot in Washington, I asked myself the question again and again. There were, and there continue to be, plenty of theories, among them the economic stagnation of the working class; the arrogance of Hillary Clinton; and the generalized cluelessness among upper-crust Americans – the so-called elites – of the political tectonics at work in the nation.

There is one more factor, though, one which I’ve come to believe not only determined the 2016 election but underlies the accelerating rancor in the country, and that is race.

In the wake of the nation’s first black president, a Harvard-educated lawyer with a Harvard-educated wife, white Americans of moderate and lower income and education levels – which, of course, are linked – voted overwhelmingly for Trump, who shamelessly planted the seeds of his candidacy with his dog-whistling insinuations that Barack Obama was not a “real” American – not one of “us.”

Imagine, then, in the midst of a presidency rooted in racism – don’t forget Trump’s opening-day salvo about Mexican rapists – how timorous whites reacted to the sight of tens of thousands of black Americans protesting the police murders of black men and women by chanting “Black Lives Matter.” Gun sales rose nationally to record levels, conservative states made it harder for blacks to vote, and unabashed white supremacists ran for office and won (Marjorie Taylor Greene).

Yes, it is really about race. There are other culprits, of course, chiefly mind-warping religious dogma, but the specter of the United States become blacker, browner, yellower, or any shade other than white-ish frightens the living bejeezus out of many white Americans and drives them to embrace extremist thinking – such a stealing a democratic election.

The blood of racism courses through the veins of America. In Tears We Cannot Stop, Michael Eric Dyson uses the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., to time-stamp its origins.

“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race,” King said. “Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society.” We are “perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population.”

I came across this book, published in 2017, during my ongoing inquest into what happened to the America I thought I knew but clearly did not. Written as “a sermon to white America,” Dyson, a widely known author and scholar who also is a Baptist minister, says his intent is “healing our nation through honest, often blunt, talk” that “will make you squirm in your seat with discomfort before, hopefully, pointing a way to relief.”

As a preacher, Dyson is both frank and avuncular. Each stinging slap of truth about white racism, whether institutional such as hiring or housing discrimination, or individual such as white retail clerks who ignore black shoppers or white cops who brace black college professors in front of their children for being in the “wrong” neighborhood – comes with the salve of, not compassion, but understanding that centuries of racist messaging causes whites to act as they do. Dyson doesn’t excuse, but he does recognize the involuntary racial reflex, an unconscious response which, he urges, can be overcome with conscious effort.

Planted in the pew, I hung on Dyson’s words when, in the heart of his sermon, he writes about what it’s like to be black in America, even for a man of letters and financial good fortune like himself. He speaks of how he was raised, to defer to whites, to defer to police, to defer to any authority, subservience learned in an unwritten manual of survival in a white world.

The manual “tells you to make sure you lower your eyes, say yes sir, no smart mouthing, no anger, no resentment, just complete total compliance without a whiff of personality or humanity,” says Dyson, who then asks his white readers, “Ever had to endure that humiliation, my friends?”

No, I have not.

Even when, in my younger days, I had a few scrapes with the law and awoke more than once to a barred view, I never felt I shared the same fate as the black boys and men who occupied similar spaces in the same institution. I could not have articulated this then, but I see now how my whiteness elevated me to a rung above them. I was in a cell. They were a cell. But I was white.

A shameful perspective to admit to, but it was true then, just as it is still true now for so many white Americans. Not all. Not me. But many.

Like all good teachers, and preachers, too, I suppose, Dyson focuses me on my ignorance, a condition, I have found, that increases with age despite my best efforts to keep it in check. Near the end of the book, Dyson offers tonics for white Americans who’d like to detoxify themselves. One remedy is education. “You must educate yourselves about black life and culture,” he says. “Racial literacy is as necessary as it is undervalued.”

If such an education interests you, my fellow pale-skinned Americans, and I hope it does, add Tears We Cannot Stop to your syllabus.

Bookshelf – A Promised Land, Barack Obama

There are many places to begin when thinking about Barack Obama’s personal, thoughtful, accessible and human recounting of his campaign for the presidency and his first term in office – the writing itself, which carries the same familiar cadence of his mesmerizing speaking voice; his relationship with Michelle, the rock that roots his dreams; the reality of being Black in America, of being, regardless of how high you rise, of how many versions of the American Dream you realize, “the other,” what W.E.B. Du Bois describes as the “two-ness” of being Black; the emergence of Donald Trump as a credible political figure, riding to prominence astride the racist pony of birtherism; Obama’s visceral belief in the transformational power of the most fundamental of American ideals – equality – and his sobering consideration of the long chain of compromises necessary to move this country, and others, closer to that promise; or the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan,

Any of these is worth a long conversation, but I am going to start at the end, with something personal: the tears that rose in my eyes as I finished the book. What triggered the emotion were not Obama’s closing words, but the five pages that followed. Five pages of acknowledgement, thanks and gratitude – to editors, friends, and researchers, to office staff, ex-colleagues and first readers, dozens upon dozens of people.

The tears sprang from the realization of how far America has fallen in four years, from a collaborative, visionary, grateful president to a selfish, petty, wannabe tyrant; from a man who worked with others to make dreams happen to an aging adolescent whose self-interest works against the interests of others and of the country.

I will not sanctify Obama. He made his mistakes and he came up short plenty of times, but to his credit he owns up to the failings of his time in office. Still, reading Obama was like drinking the from the cool waters of a desert oasis after a long trek across the sand. He reminded me of our better selves and how even though our diverse society is bubbling with hotpots of baser instincts we do not have to allow their toxic vapors to poison our hopes.

In this context, A Promised Land is both inspiring and saddening, the former because of how well Obama articulates the possible and the latter for how clear-eyed he recognizes the reality. It is well worth reading now, while the stink of the Trump shitstorm still lingers in the air so that you can inhale Obama’s freshening language and ideas and recognize, despite the despair you might have fallen into these past four years, that we were not always as we are now nor do we have to be so in the future.

I’ll end with Obama’s words, written in reference to the 2011 killing of bin Laden by a team of Navy Seals after years of investigation, pursuit and planning by hundreds – if not more – of government employees, from military personnel to CIA spooks:

“I found myself imagining what America might look like if we could rally the country so that our government brought the same level of expertise and determination to educating our children or housing the homeless as it had to getting bin Laden; if we could apply the same persistence and resources to reducing poverty or curbing greenhouse gases or making sure every family had access to decent day care.”

Just imagine.