Monday, April 26, 2010

Entry 10.1: "Ironweed" by William Kennedy (1984)

I am currently on an impressive streak: the last four books I've read (A Death In the Family, American Pastoral, The Old Man and the Sea, and Ironweed) along this Pulitzer journey have been phenomenal. I'm almost as excited about this little four book winning streak as I am about my beloved Chicago Cubs current four game winning streak.

Maybe it was the curious, mysterious title of the book; maybe it was the resemblance the man on the cover has with Pa; maybe it was the Great Depression era subject matter that so closely ties in with our country's current economic condition, but when I first set out on this journey, William Kennedy's 1984 Pulitzer-winning novel, Ironweed, was immediately on my list of titles I was most looking forward to reading. Just like most of the other titles that won the Pulitzer, I had never heard of Ironweed, nor of William Kennedy for that matter. But there was something about this book's presence on my shelf that I was drawn to—I really couldn't wait to read it, but Joshua had no interest in it whatsoever, so I kept putting it off. Finally, after reading three amazing Pulitzers in a row, I decided to just go for it.

What was most surprising about this novel was its raw beauty.

I was very surprised at how beautifully this book was written and how talented of a wordsmith William Kennedy is. There were actually several portions of the novel that seemed almost Joycean in nature. Going in, I was expecting something akin to The Grapes of Wrath—something gritty, destitute, and barren. What I found, however, was that Ironweed was actually quite romantic.
Ironweed is the story of a homeless man named Francis Phelan—a former professional baseball player who returns to his hometown after 22 years of running away from it to confront his past and his ghosts. The unbearable guilt and shame of having blood on his hands drives Francis away and back again on Halloween, 1938, to his hometown of Albany, New York. During his brief visit, Kennedy introduces the reader to a series of misfits and vagabonds, down-and-outers and bums that Francis must make amends with—whether he does so successfully or not, on the other hand, seems to be a minute detail. I suppose, in the long run, it's the thought that counts.

Throughout the novel, peculiar as this may sound, I was constantly reminded of the John Cusack movie, High Fidelity. Much like Francis Phelan, in this movie, John Cusack takes it upon himself to contact his top five ex-girlfriends to try to make sense of their breakups. He, of course, is inspired to do so by the Bruce Springsteen that is his conscience...

Now, I know this seems like a silly comparison, but that is, in essence, what Ironweed is about—learning to cope, learning to deal with ghosts, learning to make peace with the past, and learning to look to the future. And, of course, there's a valuable lesson to be learned there for all of us.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Entry 9.1: "The Old Man and the Sea" by Ernest Hemingway (1953)

Ernest Hemingway is one of my favorite authors—and one of my favorite men. I'm not the first one to say this, not by a long shot, but I've considered Ernest Hemingway to be a man's man: an outdoorsman, a sports fan, an appreciator of beers and wines and cigars and pipes, a fantastic writer, a lover, an explorer. I've read a few of Hemingway's other novels, like For Whom the Bell Tolls, his short stories, and, of course, A Farewell to Arms—definitely in my top three favorite novels, always jockeying for position with The Catcher In the Rye and Fahrenheit 451.

His 1953 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Old Man and the Sea, is one that I've always wanted to read but never got around to. So being forced to read it to complete this journey came as a blessing. What also came as a blessing is the fact that I was able to start and finish it in about an hour—this is definitely going to help me get back on track with the goal of finishing all of the books in one year. I was almost considering changing up the rules a bit and reading all 83 of the Pulitzers in 83 weeks, rather than 52.
There seems to be a trend in award academies.

While Joshua and I were in Chicago last week, getting a $50 parking ticket, we stopped by a rare book store that specializes in first editions and antiques. We got to chitchatting with the guy working that day—the owner's assistant—and I told him about the Pulitzer Project and inquired whether he could help us out with any of the books we needed. I told him that our goal was to read all 83 books in one year, and he stared at me with a dumbfounded look, then replied, "Why the hell would you want to do that...?" To be honest, I didn't really have much of an answer for him. I simply said, "Well, I wanted to embark on a reading journey and Pulitzer-winning novels seemed to be a great theme. I mean—these are the best of the best in American literature." He rolled his eyes, then scoffed, "Look, man—prizes don't mean anything. It's all politics and favoritism. It's like that with any award academy. Look at the Academy Awards, for God's sake! Jeff Bridges is a fantastic actor that should have won the best actor award every other time he was nominated. So they gave it to him because they felt bad and finally decided that he was worthy of a prize. Same goes for Pulitzers, man."

And the more I think about it, the more I think that's true—particularly after finally reading The Old Man and the Sea. Now, don't get me wrong—I liked the book. I liked it. It was a good a book. It was not, however, a great book. Certainly not by Hemingway standards anyway (though, to be honest, by Pulitzer standards, The Old Man and the Sea is absolutely brilliant). A Farewell to Arms is arguably one of the most perfect novels ever written—it is a literary masterpiece in every single way. I believe it to be Hemingway's magnum opus. And, yet, that's not the book he won the Pulitzer Prize for. He won it for The Old Man and the Sea.

It's almost as if the Pulitzer committee was sitting around their boardroom in 1953, discussing literature, and they had all come to the conclusion: "Boy, there really weren't any amazing books this year!" Then, one of them timidly spoke up and said, "Well, Ernest Hemingway just came out with a new book last year—The Old Man and the Sea, it's called. Maybe we should just give the prize to Mr. Hemingway for it. After all, he DID write A Farewell to Arms." The other board members stroked their beards, pondered the suggestion for a while, and said, "Yes! That is a fantastic idea!" Then they promoted that timid little guy, who later awarded William Faulkner for The Reivers rather than As I Lay Dying.
The thing that I still can't get over, after finishing the book last night, was the moral that I got out of the story. Of course, I don't know if this is what Hemingway was shooting for with this book, but it's the feeling that's been resonating with me since I turned the last page, closed the book, and set it down on my nightstand—futility.

I can't get over the epic struggle it was for this old man to finally catch the marlin he'd been waiting for on the wide open sea—the hook, the fight, the tension, and ultimately the catch. He fought the fish for hour after hour, becoming dehydrated, more and more weak, starved, tired. Then, after hours of struggle—struggling both with the fish and his aged body, which was failing him in this fight—he finally gets the opportunity to harpoon the fish, then land him. He ties the fish to the side of his little dinghy—a symbol for his old age, as younger, up-and-coming fishermen were trolling the waters in their much more modern, larger boats—and sets sail for home. Along the way back, there are three shark attacks, in all of which he manages to be the victor. His prized marlin, however, doesn't quite make it back. By the time he lands on the beach, he has sailed home with nothing to show for his long trip to sea, save for the skeleton of what would have been an great catch. And, in his weakness, he becomes a mirror image of that fish—nothing but a shell of what once was a great man.
I have a rich history of tough men in my family. My father, closing in on 60 years old, is just as active as ever; his father battled pain everyday of his life, but was too stubborn to get help from a doctor (he viewed it as taking the easy way out); and then, of course, there's my great-grandfather, Ivan Forrester Germain—or as the family knew him, "Pa." If you never met Pa, I can almost guarantee that you've been denied the privilege of knowing the toughest son of a bitch there was.

He died in January, 2000 when he was almost 90 years old. About two or so months before he died, I rode my bicycle over to his house to visit, and to see if he'd let me play his prized possession: a 1933 Gibson acoustic guitar. He usually said "no," obviously—he wouldn't even let his own kids look at it, let alone touch it! But, for whatever reason, he would sometimes let me play it. Every now and again, he would even request songs. He had given up playing in his old age—too weak to even press down on the fretboard. I remember the last time I ever saw him play it though.

I had been playing guitar for a couple years and asked me if I had learned harmonics yet. I shook my head, No, I hadn't. He told me to get his guitar for him, so I ran to the room where he kept it, ran back with it, and eagerly placed it in his lap for him. He rested his middle finger on the 12th fret, just barely touching the strings with his old, leathery hand. "Now," he said, "Strum a couple strings for me." I did as he told me and the strings rang out a swelled tone that hung in the air between us; neither of us spoke—we just listened until the final notes faded into silence. He leaned back in his chair, turned to his wife, Gwen, who was sitting on the couch beside the chair, smiled and calmly exclaimed, "Isn't that the most damn beautiful sound you ever did hear?"

But the last time I went to his house specifically to see him, that November before he died, I knocked and knocked on the front door but there was no answer. I was obviously concerned about his life—the man was closing in on 90 years old and was only becoming more and more frail. I dropped my bike in the front lawn and ran around to the back of the house and was amazed to find him hauling huge piles of firewood in a red wagon from his garage to the house, then carrying them, one by one, up the stairs. "Pa! What in the world are you doing??" He gave me a puzzled look and replied, "Well, what the hell do ya think I'm doing...? I'm getting ready for the goddamned winter!"

That was Pa.

But when he lost his wife after 60+ years of marriage, he lost his will to live. And just like the old man in Hemingway's novel, Pa's toughness became more and more futile. He stopped eating, he couldn't sleep, he didn't clean himself up—he became a hollow shell of a man. And yet, despite his obvious weakness, he refused to acknowledge it. He spent hours in his workshop, day after day, building, lugging around firewood, working on his car that he hadn't driven in 10 or more years. I was fooled by this facade all the way up until I played guitar for him for the last time, that November.

We walked back to the house, after I helped him carry the rest of the firewood up the stairs (and by "helped him," I mean "carried the rest of the firewood by myself while he yelled at me to get a move-on"), and sat down in the living room. I watched him sip at his coffee—some of it trickling down his scraggly beard and onto his flannel shirt. "Grab that guitar, would ya?" he said. "Play me one of your damn songs." "Actually," I replied, "I just learned a new one. Hank Williams."

Hank Williams was his favorite.

"Thank God," he said. "Finally, some good music." And clumsily, I strummed the chords of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Root-strum, bass-strum, root-strum, bass strum. C, F, and G. Over and over. I sang the lyrics I could remember over the top of the strumming and fudged the ones I forgot, simply by humming the melody or apologizing profusely for forgetting the words to one of his favorite songs. When I finally reached the end of the song, I looked up, expecting Pa to spew out on of his signature smart-alecky comments to humiliate me (he always told me that he only did it to toughen me up—it worked).

Instead, I was amazed to see Pa, gazing into the distance behind me with a million-mile stare as tears welled up in his eyes. I had never seen the man cry before—not even at his wife's funeral, especially not at his wife's funeral. But here was now, with tears in his eyes. And I thought of the futility of his feigned toughness in the last few months of his life. We all knew how miserable he was, we all knew he was depressed and lonesome. He didn't want us to know, but we knew.

And, in the end, he was nothing more than a shell of a man.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Entry 8.1: "American Pastoral" by Philip Roth (1998)

Let me first say this: I have read better books than American Pastoral, I have read better writing than American Pastoral; I have not, however, been more impressed by a book than I was by Philip Roth's 1998 Pulitzer-winning novel, American Pastoral. I have never been more impressed by a writer who dared to tackle a subject that was so grandiose and epic in its scope and contained it in such a unique way, unlike the way Dan Brown did in The Da Vinci Code; I have never been more impressed by a writer who created such incredibly interesting and unique characters, put them all together, made them interact with each other, and offer the reader their back stories while not overdoing it, nor boring the reader to tears the way Ayn Rand did with Atlas Shrugged; and I have never been more impressed by a book that confronts the so-called "American dream" head-on in such a eloquent way, unlike the way Booth Tarkington did in The Magnificent Ambersons (how much longer am I going to rag on poor Tarkington and that book of his?, I wonder).

With American Pastoral, Philip Roth—an author whom I had never read before—proved himself to be a writer of the highest caliber and one that I will probably be exploring more after this Pulitzer journey finds its completion.
In one novel, Philip Roth managed to single-handedly rip out all the seams of the American dream quilt. Or, perhaps more appropriately, he blew it up. No subject is left untouched, no dream not turned into a nightmare. All of the ideals that propelled America to the forefront of the free world—business ownership, family values and propriety, and basic social freedoms—are confronted, challenged, then completely obliterated by Roth. And even though it seems like it would take an entire series of novels to effectively to do this, and even though it seems like a totally pretentious, or overambitious enterprise to embark on, Roth manages to do it and, most importantly, do it very well in less than 425 pages. And, in all honesty, I don't think this feat has much to do with his writing style, so much as it is because of the subject of his novel: a Jewish family by name of Levov.

By concentrating all of his attention on this one family, dealing with the tumultuous 20 years that were the 1960's and 70's, Roth is able to address incredibly complex events, emotions, and, in all reality, the entire human condition in a very contained, but engaging fashion. Love, lust, infidelity, activism, religion, sibling rivalry, politics, terrorism, parenting, racism, friendship—these are just a few of the incredibly lofty topics Roth confronts in this book.
The book was written in an interesting way—one that I found, on one hand, very unique, and, on the other hand, was very surprised I had never seen before.

The book is written in three sections; the first section is written in first-person from the perspective of Nathan Zuckerman, a writer, and the last two sections are written in third-person, from the perspective of an omniscient narrator (whom, I presume, is Zuckerman again, rather than Roth). The first section features Zuckerman as the main character, narrating his life; the last two sections features Seymour "Swede" Levov as the main character. However, despite Zuckerman being the main character in the first section, Swede is his focus.

Zuckerman informs the reader of Swede, describes him in all his glory (Swede was a guy that Zuckerman was both intimidated and mesmerized by), relates an experience he had when Swede propositioned Zuckerman to help him write a tribute to his father, and then writes about a high school reunion, where he runs into Swede's brother and some of Swede's other acquaintances. At this reunion, Zuckerman discusses the Swede with his brother and learns from him that the Swede's glorious, perfect life, which Zuckerman imagined it to be, was nothing of the sort; that, in fact, it was quite sad and tragic.

In the next two sections, Roth takes the identity of Zuckerman and informs the reader of the Swede's rise to the top and ultimate downfall.

And, to me, this way of organizing the book makes sense—a lot of sense. And I can't help but wonder Why have I never seen a book written in this style before?
Here's a bit of Americana for you: Swede Levov is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jew that looks as much an all-American Gentile as G.I. Joe. "G.I. Goy," if you will. Through the course of his life, we see him evolve as a Homecoming King, all-American in baseball, football, and basketball, a Marine, a business owner, a family man. He marries Mary Dawn Doyle—a beautiful Irish-American Catholic girl, his high school sweetheart, winner of Miss New Jersey, and competitor in the Miss America pageant. They have a daughter, Merry, who is exceptionally bright, intelligent, and passionate. They live in a small farm-town outside of Newark, New Jersey, affectionately dubbed Old Rimrock. They raise cattle, they participate in town-hall meetings, they have a tire swing hanging from an old tree in the front yard, they eat apple pie—the only things missing from this portrait of Americana are a family dog and a white picket fence. This Jew—the most ostracized and discriminated-against people group in history—somehow managed to escape the fray and assimilated himself into mainstream American culture.

And all of this wholesome progression of good ol' Americana comes to a grinding halt when Merry, in protest of America's involvement in the Vietnam War, plants a bomb in the general store and, in the process, blows up all of the notions of Small Town, America. And the cinders and ashes, still smoldering in the wreckage, burns away all of the pretense, all of the facades, and leaves the ugly realities of dysfunction that everybody in America's family-friendly middle class worked so diligently at hiding.

This event is the spark that ignites turmoil after turmoil that the Swede is forced to navigate, reason through, wrestle, and come to terms with throughout the rest of the novel.
I don't really believe Roth blew apart the American dream in this book for the sake of blowing apart the American dream. I don't think his intention was to make a grandiose statement about America, or to use this book as his soapbox for anti-Americana sentiments. Rather, I think the real message that Roth conveyed in this book was the question Who are you? Or, perhaps more appropriately, Who do you think you are?

Just as Swede Levov helplessly watched his supposedly perfect life crumble around him, just as Nathan Zuckerman's image of the Swede was shattered, I think Roth dares the reader to question their own lives. What in my life is pretense and what is genuine? What in my life is facade and what is at the core of me? What is for show and what is for real? How many layers of stylish clothes will need to be stripped off of me until I arrive at the naked man that I came into this world as, and that I will leave this world as?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The 2010 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction

Tonight I heard about the 2010 winner for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, Tinkers by Paul Harding (Bellevue Literary Press). This particular novel, Joshua and I have agreed, is going to be last on our reading list, despite how much I am interested in the story. And that's fine, considering it's probably going to be pretty difficult finding it at used bookstores for a while.

I found a short little article about it online and I'm genuinely impressed:

Tinkers, a debut novel by Paul Harding, a former drummer for the rock group Cold Water Flat, was the surprise winner Monday of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

A lyrical, 191-page account of a man's dying days and his relationship with his father, Tinkers got great reviews but is published by Bellevue Literary Press, a small, 3-year-old, non-profit publisher affiliated with New York University's School of Medicine.

Editorial director Erika Goldman says Tinkers has sold 15,000 copies since its publication in January 2009. That's a hit for a small press but nothing by commercial standards. Bellevue plans to reprint more copies but hasn't decided how many.

The last time a small publisher won the fiction Pulitzer was in 1981, for John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces, released by Louisiana University Press.

Harding, 42, says he's "stunned. It was a little book from a little publisher that was hand-sold from start to finish." The Pulitzer's "imprimatur," he says, adds "a sense of freedom. I can afford to continue doing what I love to do."

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Joshua's Guesses

In this Pulitzer journey, Joshua, my brother-in-arms, is currently reading the novel that I absolutely despised: Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons. So far, he has absolutely despised it as well—equally, if not more than me. He is 23 chapters in and he keeps telling me, "Drew, I just want to give up on this one all together, it's so bad." But like a good friend, I keep pressing him on, exclaiming, "Finish the race that is set before you!"

In order to encourage him to finish the novel, I informed that there is a scene in the novel that is so puzzling, so confounding, that it makes the the hardship of reading the book more satisfying. All along, Tarkington makes the story so obnoxiously predictable that it's actually humiliating for well-read English majors like Joshua and myself ("Booth—we understand symbolism! You don't have to explain everything and beat us over the head with it!"). However, there is one scene in the second to last chapter of the book that completely takes the reader by surprise, and completely confounds the reader.

For those of you who haven't read the book, one of the characters, Mr. Morgan, for whatever reason, consults a psychic, participates in a seance, and communicates with the ghost of a woman whose identity is never revealed (though we are to assume the ghost is that of his deceased love interest). This scene is so completely puzzling, on so many levels. For one thing, it sticks out like a sore thumb, like a black sheep, like blue text on a green screen—it doesn't blend in with the rest of the novel at all! And, to be honest, this might have been intentional on Tarkington's part—perhaps he knew that this book was so predictable, dry, and dull that it would lull its readers to sleep, so he threw in this crazy, wacky scene just to mix things up a bit. I don't know.

Joshua, however, is not one for surprises (perhaps this is why he informed me that he bought me which two Pulitzer first editions for my birthday about a month before my birthday came); he really doesn't enjoy knowing about a scene that's going to slap him in the face, but not knowing what it is. And though I refuse to tell him what happens, he keeps making guesses. Collected here is just a sample of some of these shots in the dark:

"Drew, please tell me what happens at the end of this book."
"I can't, Joshua... But you'll know it when you see it."
  • Does he go to Chicago?
  • Does he eat a Chicago-style hot dog?
  • Does he go to a White Sox game and watch them throw the World Series?
  • Does he run over Georgie with his car?
  • Is he in a suitcase on the luggage rack of that car that runs Georgie over?
  • Does he eat fried chicken at his kitchen table, then gaze listlessly out the window and smile mysteriously?
And, sadly, as ridiculous as some of these guesses are, he really isn't that far off from the truth.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Entry 7.1: "A Death In the Family," by James Agee (1958)

It's funny how life (and death) works. After finishing The Bridge of San Luis Rey last Monday or Tuesday, I had already decided that I was going to read James Agee's 1958 Pulitzer-winning novel, A Death In the Family. Within a day of making my decision, I learned of a death in my own family—a bizarre, tragic coincidence that made the story of my Pulitzer journey all the more life-defining. It's as though my life truly is becoming one of the many stories Joshua and I are reading along this journey—or at least an eerie facsimile thereof.

I just finished A Death In the Family about ten minutes ago; despite its paltry 318 pages and surprisingly quick pacing, the novel took me a little more than a week to finish because I had to keep putting it down. Not surprisingly, with the recent goings on in my own family being as they have been, the novel hit pretty close to home. Of course it didn't help any that Agee was an incredibly gifted writer and that A Death In the Family is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever had the good pleasure to read. I felt the book was honest and genuine, completely and totally accurate in its portrayal of people facing the bewilderment, anger, and sadness that accompanies the death of a close relative, and the ultimate bonding, the coming together as a family, that results from that death.

Unless, of course, it's my family.
One theme running through the book, and through the veins of its protagonist family (whom I, don't believe, Agee supplies the reader the name of), especially resonated with me, as it is a theme that has run its course through my family's story as well—alcoholism. Two years ago, I considered myself very nearly an alcoholic—I was working a dead-end job that was sucking the life out of me, I had quit going to church and cut off my ties to just about all of my friends, I was angry and bitter, pissed off at God for His (I perceived) wrongs against me, and I coped with all of this sadness by drinking. I would get pretty heavily drunk when I went out with the friends I kept around, but more often than not, most typical nights would find me on my couch, watching reruns of my favorite television shows until the wee early hours of the morning with nothing to keep me company except my favorite spirits, Guinness and Jameson. Now, this phase of my life only lasted for a year—a mere fraction of the time most alcoholics spend dealing with their addictions—but I remember that one year being one of the most painful years of my life.

Alcoholism is a burden my entire family has been carrying for the last 50+ years.

My father also went through a nasty bout with alcoholism, all of his brothers, to any certain extent, had their own battles with alcoholism, his mother's life was ended prematurely due to her alcoholism, his father dealt with alcoholism, and his grandfather dealt with alcoholism. On the other side of my family, my mother was an alcoholic for ten years, she was married to an abusive alcoholic (Paul, a stepfather I have written about before), both of her uncles (one of them being my late Uncle Jerry) were/are alcoholics. With a track record like that, it's a wonder I hadn't dealt with my own thirsts earlier than I did, or for a longer amount of time than I did. With the weight of statistics and genetics bearing down on me, I know I have only God to thank for delivering me from such a lifestyle. As I said to my dear friend, Catherine, last night, "I am truly amazed by the life-altering properties God possesses."

Similar to my own family, the family that Agee chronicles in this novel also dealt with the curse of alcoholism. Dissimilar to my family, however, their alcoholism wasn't a quiet, sneaking thing that everyone refused to acknowledge—everyone was well aware of the demons that each character wasn't necessarily battling, but actually, to a certain extent, embracing. There are several confounding scenes in the book in which one character or another will start drinking to deal with stress or trauma, and another character, instead of telling the other the stop, that drinking is no way to cope, will actually coach the other! Instead of warning the other of the consequences of alcoholism, will teach and instruct how to properly drink!
The other connection I made with this book, of course, rests with its title—as aforementioned, while reading about this family's way of dealing with a death in their family, my family and I were also figuring out a way to deal with a death in our family.

A couple weeks ago, as I have already written about, my uncle, Jerry, passed away. Now, when Jay died, in this novel, his family came together; they united to comfort each other. My family, on the other hand, divided for, what I believe will be, the final time. The night before the funeral, my grandfather called my mother and told her, "You and your husband can come. But if the kids come, there's going to be some... static." Static...? "Yes. If they come, it will make some of the family uncomfortable." Some of the family...? Like who? "Family... Members."

And, so, my mother decided, once again, that she would have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of our family. She then decided to upstage our family at the cemetery by showing up there first, with an extravagant bouquet of flowers that was sure to be more showy and extravagant than those of anyone else who would be attending, then told other family members who had already gathered about the entire saga. Her aim was not just to ensure the division that had already occurred between us and the family, but to create divisions amongst everyone else in the family.

I can't decide whose evil is worse.