Reading and Mindlessness

October 5th, 2009

The other afternoon, a blustery Sunday at the end of September, I mowed our lawn for what I trust will be the last time this year. Though I shouldn’t give the impression that I consider mowing the lawn always to be a chore. It is a mostly mindless activity, and mindlessness, like sleep, is a state that I sometimes seek out.

On recent occasions while mowing the lawn, I’ve noticed, in my more mindful moments, iridescent bugs and tawny baby toads hopping in the grass ahead of the mower, trying to escape the whirling blades. They weren’t there earlier in the summer, and I don’t know what their presence means, exactly. The end of things? I don’t think I have the blood of any toads on my hands, but I must have slaughtered hundreds of those bugs, whatever they are.

On Sunday, when I looked up from the grass, I saw my daughter on the porch, waving to me in a kind of tentative way. Nora is two and she has a healthy fear of lawn mowers, learned in part from watching a movie about an aardvark named Arthur whose little dog, Pal, is nearly run over by somebody riding a mower the size of a tank. I waved back, and Nora returned to whatever she was doing at her toy kitchen set. She may have been making a pie. Or she may have been ruminating, the way small children must do every so often, in order to get a grip on the mystery of existence.

Sometimes when I am mowing the lawn and my mind is relatively active–when I’m unable to achieve that mindless emptiness that is sort of like the buzzing in your bones you get before falling into the valley of sleep–I let my mind think its obsessive thoughts. Or I test my memory, by trying to recite the lineup of the 1961 Cincinnati Reds or the names and dates of all the dachshunds that my parents ever owned. Or I make lists.

On the day in question, I tried to list all the books I’d read recently, and then, because this was also a test of my short-term memory that I knew I wasn’t going to ace, I made a list of the books I’d recently read and also immensely enjoyed. (”Recently” is a flexible word that becomes more flexible the older you get. In this case it means “within the last year or so.”)

Here is the list:

Michelle Huneven’s BLAME (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is a gripping and beautifully made novel about guilt and responsibility and love, about needy, complicated people trying to do the right thing. The lead character is an alcoholic history professor in southern California who–not to give away too much of the plot–lands on the wrong side of the law. There is a scene toward the end of the novel that takes place in, of all places, a gas station bathroom and that is among the great scenes in contemporary literature. Huneven (full disclosure: she is a friend from way back) takes a generous, Chekhovian view of character, refusing to condemn the lost and the selfish (which describes all of us some of the time), but she doesn’t ever sentimentalize her characters, either. She is both unsparingly honest and good-hearted. The same generosity animates her prose, which is always precise and as gorgeously fresh as the world may in fact be.

The stories collected in Donald Ray Pollock’s first book, KNOCKEMSTIFF (Anchor paperback), initially appeared in little literary magazines you aren’t likely to heard of unless you are a writer trying to get published in little magazines. The stories are set in an impoverished southern Ohio hollow called Knockemstiff–a real place where the author, who is in his mid-fifties, grew up–and they are hilarious, sad, dark, horrifying, and brilliantly told. (So, why didn’t they first appear in less obscure little literary magazines or even in fancy slick ones?) Just about every cruel or stupid or politically incorrect act you can imagine humanity (and particularly adolescents or arrested adolescents) engaging in (short of genocidal murder) is engaged in in Pollock’s hollow. But the demons that get hold of Pollock’s characters aren’t all that different from the demons that make villagers in folk tales do crazy things, and they aren’t all that different from what drives respectable, educated bourgeois people to extremes. Pollock, who has some Cormac McCarthy in him, writes about humanity at its near-worst. He trains a satirical eye on his characters, but he isn’t dismissive of them; they aren’t mean little creatures meant simply to be gawked at or laughed at. Their troubles are ours.

I hadn’t read much of Antonya Nelson–she has written eight books–until I read a new collection of stories called NOTHING RIGHT (Bloomsbury). In these eleven stories, Nelson writes about infidelity, deceit, families held together with spit and cell phones, children trying to figure out how to negotiate the messes their parents have made for them. A number of the stories are set in places like Wichita and Houston, red-state hubs. (And yet, in a wonderful story about an extended family, Nelson notes this about the biggest city in Kansas, home to a thrice-divorced psychiatrist and his diverse offspring: “Wichita was just that size, big enough for lesbians and psychoanalysis, small enough for impractical, coincidental cross-pollination.”) The dysfunction in some of Nelson’s families seems somehow both extreme and entirely normal. Nelson writes about it all with a disarming wit, even with a sort of cheerful relish. But she doesn’t let characters consumed by their appetites off the hook, either. See the story called “DWI” and in particular the passage toward the end, in which a young mother (whose lover has just died) has to decide, when leaving the house for a vacation, whether to take along her son’s pet toads. “She cannot be bothered by toads. She can replace toads. She will do what the others have done, forgotten their existence, then later come home blameless as everyone else in their death.”

Last February, when I was hunting for a Valentine’s Day gift for my daughter, I came upon Jules Feiffer’s BARK, GEORGE (HarperCollins), first published in 1999. George is a small pup of undetermined breed (Feiffer’s squiggly drawings suggest a dog in the formative stage, wobbly, error-prone), and his problem (or, rather, his mother’s problem) is that he won’t bark like a dog. The sounds of other animals (pig, cow, cat) he enthusiastically does, almost as if they inhabit him, almost as if he strongly identifies with them. So, of course, George’s mother takes her contrarian child to the doctor. The mystery is resolved, but George’s compulsion (a desire to fit in? an existential protest?) doesn’t go away when he returns to the street. When my daughter and I read this book, as we regularly do, she seems both elated and baffled by what the doctor pulls from George’s insides. But Nora seems to mostly side with the mother: a dog should be a dog. Toddlers tend to be conservative, tolerant of only so much variance from the way things should be, though of course they are also at the same time only about an inch away from throwing an anarchist’s bomb.

Agate Nesaule’s IN LOVE WITH JERZY KOSINSKI (University of Wisconsin Press) is a kind of follow-up to her wrenching and beautifully told memoir, A WOMAN IN AMBER, about a childhood spent in Displaced Persons’ camps in Germany during the Second World War and then, after the war, in the Latvian immigrant community in Indianapolis. (Full disclosure: Agate and I are friends, and we also share a publisher.) In her new book, a novel, Nesaule writes about a Latvian exile named Anna now living in Wisconsin whose marriage is on the rocks, who falls for a too-good-to-be-true driving instructor and ecology student named Andrej, who wrestles with her memories of the war and the anger and despair those memories engender, and who regards the Polish-born novelist Jerzy Kosinski (at least until revelations about his fabrications surface) as her hero. When Anna hears the news of Kosinski’s suicide on the radio while sitting in a traffic jam, she thinks, “She was finally beyond doing everything he or another man might demand. She would not lie for Jerzy. She would not collude with him, the way his mother had, to uphold a false version of his childhood. She would not write his books. She would not give him her story. She would write it herself.”

By the time I’d finished cutting the grass, Nora had gone inside to watch cartoons (some vintage “Casper the Friendly Ghost” shorts from the fifties) and then she and her mother had retired to the bedroom to take a nap. I sat on the porch with Thomas Pynchon’s latest, INHERENT VICE (Penguin), a book funny enough to lift a person out of a depression, and the best Pynchon I’d read since V. (Full disclosure: I never finished GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, despite inhaling lots of dope and absorbing some peer pressure, and his later books I have taken only half-hearted stabs at.) INHERENT VICE put me in mind of Robert Altman’s 1973 reimagining of THE LONG GOODBYE. (There’s more than a touch of Elliott Gould, who played Altman’s version of Chandler’s detective, in Doc Sportello, Pynchon’s P.I.) Pynchon’s novel gives the sort of pleasure that Elmore Leonard whips up in his noir entertainments, and there is also an extravagance of period detail and much fine, seemingly loosey-goosey writing like this: “Doc took the freeway out. The eastbound lanes teemed with VW buses in jittering paisleys, primer-coated street hemis, woodies of authentic Dearborn pine, TV-star-piloted Porsches, Cadillacs carrying dentists to extramarital trysts, windowless vans with lurid teen dramas in progress inside, pickups with mattresses full of country cousins from the San Joaquin, all wheeling along together down into these great horizonless fields of housing . . . under a sky like watered milk, and the white bombardment of a sun smogged into only a smear of probability, out in whose light you began to wonder if anything you could call psychedelic could ever happen, or if–bummer!–all this time it had really been going on up north.” There are many suggestions in INHERENT VICE that things didn’t improve when hippie culture gave way to what we’ve been stuck with in America ever since: a culture devoted to money.

I thought I could easily spend the rest of the afternoon reading INHERENT VICE, but the fact was that I was myself due for a nap, and the skies were darkening in a way that suggested some bad weather coming, and almost before I knew it, I was half-asleep in my porch chair, listening to myself snore.

Dwight Allen

Postscript: When writing the above, I didn’t take into account the likelihood that global warming would (not for the first time) extend the grass-cutting season to beyond what used to be normal. Or, to put it another way, I forgot to foresee that one of the side-effects of global warming is that, even as far north as Madison, Wisconsin, the grass (not to mention the day lilies) will think November is April and start growing again. So, on a mid-sixtyish November Sunday, I cut the grass one more time, in part because there were a lot of leaves scattered around the yard and if I mulched them I could pretend they were too small to rake. While cutting the grass, I thought of another book I’d read recently that you shouldn’t pass up.

THE END OF THE STRAIGHT AND NARROW (Southern Methodist University Press) is David McGlynn’s first book, a collection of stories. (Full disclosure: David is a friend; he teaches at Lawrence University, in Appleton, Wisconsin, where I was a student back in the early seventies, when Pynchon and Nabokov and Barthelme and Barth and Borges were the names we were all on fire with.) McGlynn’s stories are set in southern California and the Southwest; the second half of the book is a cycle of stories about a Houston family, no less singularly peculiar (or engaging) than any of Antonya Nelson’s urban Texas families. Religion (a stand-up-and-testify Protestant variety) animates a number of McGlynn’s characters. “He waits by the trunk while Rhonda shares Christ with the skycaps” is the first line of the book, and it signals not only McGlynn’s preoccupation with believers but his quiet wit and his refusal to take sides. When, a few lines later, he shows us the proselytizing Rhonda’s teeth–they aren’t quite straight and she likes to wet them with her tongue before speaking–McGlynn isn’t suggesting that Rhonda is a fraud or simply lascivious, though it later becomes clear that in Rhonda’s mind a religious impulse, the need to fill a hole in oneself, isn’t so far removed from a sexual one. In “Testimony,” one of the stories about the Houston family, the father, a neurobiologist whose wife has gone blind and who has had a long-running affair with his wife’s in-house caretaker, finds Jesus near the end of his life. “Jesus drowned my father in an inflatable pool,” the young narrator writes, “killed him dead, and brought to the surface a different man, a believer. This is the story my father tells. It is his testimony.” But the father’s story, as the son points out, is not entirely reliable. “In Christ’s mercy our sins are forgotten, but so is the person who committed them.” The narrator sees it as his duty to give us the truth that his father would like to suppress. What McGlynn, with his steady, unflinching, generous-hearted gaze, gives us throughout this collection of stories are people we look at every day but don’t often clearly see.

Dwight Allen

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