Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

This oddly compelling novel merely cements my view that Michael Chabon can write anything he darned well chooses and continue to entertain me.

This short novel tells the tale of a few highwaymen in the 10th century. It's a tale of adventure, cunning, and loyalty; and I can't believe I read it. I'm no fan of adventure tales. I generally like stories that take place in current time. And this book is light on character development and heavy on action--not my thing.

But I started reading it this past rainy Sunday and I didn't put it down until I'd finished, some 5 hours later.

Chabon is such a stylist that he can make things that don't interest me interest me. That's my view of an excellent writer.

I don't want to give away any of the surprises, so I'll leave it at this. If you want to read a short novel that could have been a fantastic script for Xena:Warrior Princess--look no further. That might not sound like a huge compliment, but it is.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Kaaterskill Falls by Allegra Goodman

I can't believe I haven't read a book since December, but I fear that's true. I've been on a very good writing spree, and when that's so I tend to read magazines and blogs. I'm taking a writing break of a couple of weeks so I'm going to buzz through a few books.

First up is Kaaterskill Falls. Last year I read Intuition by Allegra Goodman and I was stunned by how good it was. It was one of those books that made you want to go to that place and live with those people for a while. I mean, you know them all so well that you'd slip right in with just a nod and an extra spot at the dinner table.

Kaaterskill Falls was Goodman's first novel, and in many ways that shows. She doesn't have the surety of her voice in this novel, and her prose isn't as poetic as I know it can be. She also doesn't use her descriptive powers as well as she can. But those are fairly small quibbles.
Goodman has a wonderful talent for storytelling, and even in this, her first novel, that aptitude shines through.

Kaaterskill Falls is a bucolic spot near the Catskills in New York where many sects of devout Jews began to summer sometime after the Second World War. It's a very small town which had been back on its heels when the Jewish families started to rent or buy their summer homes. It's a very modest place and many of the families are orthodox. Oddly, there are no stores for them to shop at. Each husband stops on the way up on Friday night and buys the family provisions for the week.

The group we meet are followers of Rav Kirschner, a rebbe from Frankfurt whose male followers wear modern fedoras and black suits. The women cover their hair once they're married and they dress very modestly, even in the summer heat. Many of the people we come to know are devout followers of the rav, but, as in all groups, some are more devout than others.

I'm a bit surprised that The Dial Press agreed to publish the book. Not that it isn't worthy of publication. But its style is fairly unique and very challenging, even for an established writer. Goodman tries to show us the town and its inhabitants as a whole, never fully concentrating on any character. We get into their heads, but their are so many heads that we don't know any of the characters well. She also "tells" us a fair amount about the people, rather than letting us "see" for ourselves what their motivations are. This is the type of thing that beginning creative writing teachers always warn against, but Goodman breaks every rule. She jumps from one character's thoughts to the next in the space of a sentence. She explains a complex set of emotions in just a few words. Largely, she succeeds, but I wouldn't have wanted to take the chance if I were her publisher. Just shows what I know.

I had a hard time getting into the flow of the book, but once I realized that nothing was really going to happen I let myself settle into the rhythm and enjoy the seasons with the families. In that way the book is hyper-real. There's no driving plot; actually, there's barely any plot at all. Just people living their relatively simple lives in a relatively simple time-the mid 1970s. 

For those of you who lived in the 70s you might recognize it as a time of great tumult, but if you were a member of the Kirshner sect you'd hardly see a difference between then and 1950. No TV, no New York Times, no theater or movies; in short, just the small joys and sorrows of daily life centered around God.

For me, the book showed how clans are both comforting and binding; satisfying and constraining. Most of the members of the sect have made bargains with themselves to be able to stay and be happy; in the end, the least happy are those who are outside. I think that's probably true for most humans. We love to belong, but we don't want anyone to hold on too tightly.

The book offers a quick peek into a life that most of us will never know, and I'm glad I got to visit. I don't feel like I could go there and join in, but I think that's part of the story. It's not the type of group an outsider would ever feel comfortable in, but for those who are members of the sect belonging can seem like a warm, maternal embrace--or a noose.