Book Review Hub




Mark Merlis’ ‘JD’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Merlis-JD-A-Novel-cAt the beginning of Mark Merlis’ engrossing, ambitious new novel, we meet Martha, a 75-year-old illustrator. For decades she has lived alone in her New York City apartment, bearing the double loss of her son, killed in Vietnam, and her husband, Jonathan, who died of a stroke just a few months later.

Now her routines—painting, walks, solitude—are interrupted when a young academic approaches her about writing a biography of her husband, an obscure writer who flared briefly into fame before being forgotten again after his death.

We quickly learn that her marriage was anything but idyllic. She married Jonathan after becoming unexpectedly pregnant; she refers to him early in the novel as “the-man-who-got-me-in-trouble.” Early in their marriage they come to a tacit agreement that each can seek intimacy outside of their marriage: Martha in the summers she spends outside of New York, Jonathan in the bars and alleyways he trawls for sex—often anonymous, sometimes purchased—with young men.

Their relationship is further strained when Jonathan begins writing openly about his erotic life, in what Martha calls a “ghastly little volume of poems” and in his single great novel. It’s the erotic aspect of his work that—to Martha’s dismay—attracts the interest of his would-be biographer, Philip, who tells Martha what it was like to discover Jonathan’s poetry: “I opened this little book and there was a man telling in such a plain voice…the truth. I mean, my truth, a guy who could say outright what was beautiful in the world, which was the same as what I thought was beautiful.”

Martha’s first impulse is to deny Philip access to Jonathan’s papers, not least because she worries about how the book he’s writing will treat her. “I am not a career widow,” she says, “I have made a life of my own. But it will end on the same page as Jonathan’s.” Even so, she knows that a biography of Jonathan is the best chance she has of being remembered—and, more importantly, of preserving the memory of her son, Mickey.

And so Martha finds herself going through Jonathan’s papers, which she hasn’t seen for years, and reading for the first time the journals he kept. Merlis gives us these entries as Martha reads them, a formal conceit that allows us to share in Martha’s discoveries. It also lets us hear Jonathan’s voice and gives us access to the world that’s changing so quickly around him.

The voice in the journals is thrilling: by turns angry, needy, lyrical, and longing. In the first entries, from 1964, Jonathan writes about the pre-Stonewall gay world in New York City, where he moves between salons full of urbane, literary men he envies and bars full of working-class men he desires. As years pass and gay men become more visible and politically organized, Jonathan feels ambivalence, even disgust: “Fairies are just the too richly feathered canaries in the mine,” he writes, “warbling the truth about all of us: that we don’t believe in tomorrow.” At the end of his journal, in the early seventies, he’s bewildered to find himself surrounded at the bars by men who are open about their identity; he tries “to just relax and practice not scowling at the gay people.” 

Jonathan begins keeping a journal because he feels stymied as a novelist, and we follow him as he realizes that the subject of his next book will be the young men he longs for. The passages where Jonathan writes about his desire and his encounters are some of the best in the novel, lit with an electric longing, “an ecstatic hopelessness that was more like longing for God than longing for dick.” “I look at the emergent body of a boy stretching into a young man and see into the heart of the cosmos,” he says, though he will come to question his facility for turning sexual desire into metaphysics.

Merlis-Mark-2014-cThe title of Jonathan’s great book, JD, stands both for “juvenile delinquent” and for James Dean. Martha calls it “a love song to baby-faced hoodlums”; for Jonathan, it’s at once a hymn to “boys as they are now” and a dissection of “The tension between their…animal yearning” and “the monochrome, valueless world we expect them to grow into.”

It’s also, more than he realizes as he’s writing it, a book for his son. Merlis’ novel is deeply moving in its portrayal of Jonathan and Martha as they try to care for their child. They watch helplessly as he seems to slip through their grasp, failing out of school and spending his few waking hours smoking pot, until finally he’s called up for the draft. “Some time in his teens,” Martha remembers of Mickey, “when he should have been white-hot with lust for the world, he forgot how to speak in the future tense.” 

Reading Jonathan’s journal, Martha will be shocked and acidic about what she sees as Jonathan’s hypocrisy. “He railed against the society that drained the boys’ manhood,” she says when she reads of his paying an underage hustler for sex, “and then knelt to catch the last drop.”

She will also learn a great deal about the years when her son withdrew from her, and about the possible causes for that withdrawal. She will be devastated by a shocking, heartbreaking act of trespass Jonathan commits, and she will also come to question her own role in her son’s turning away from the future.

Both strands of Merlis’ novel—Jonathan writing from the past, Martha speaking to us in the present—are vibrant, tense and alive. Merlis has written a profound book about sex and identity and family, about the perils of artistic ambition, about radical longing and the changing social fabric of America. JD is a beautiful novel.

Previous reviews...
Helen Humphreys’ ‘The Evening Chorus’
Kim Fu’s ‘For Today I Am A Boy’
Joyce Brabner’s ‘Second Avenue Caper
Shelly Oria’s ‘New York 1, Tel Aviv 0’

Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in early 2016. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and A Public Space. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


Helen Humphreys’ ‘The Evening Chorus’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

In the Lambda Award-winning Humphreys’ luminous new book, the Second World War serves as a grand backdrop for the intimate dramas of three interconnected lives. But the war has surprising effects in this lyrical and deeply compassionate novel: for all its tragedy, it also offers unimagined opportunity, even freedom, which Humphreys’ characters will later remember with longing.

EveningchorusIn the book’s first pages, James Hunter, a young pilot shot down on his first mission, parachutes into the English Channel, where he’s quickly found by a German boat and taken prisoner. As in Tatamkhulu Afrika’s powerful Bitter Eden, the indignities and deprivations of the prison camp—cold, hunger, boredom—are rendered with sometimes startling vividness.

The men are afflicted with lice, and one day James finds a man naked in their freezing bunkhouse, weeping and unable to bear putting his infested clothes back on. “With the same precision that would have been used to sew that jacket, [James] holds each seam over the flame, moving along the stitch just before the fabric catches fire. The swollen bodies of the lice make a small pop as they burst their cargo of blood above the candle.”

More difficult to defend against is the unpredictable, brutal violence the men suffer at the hands of the guards—violence that’s all the more harrowing for being leavened by equally unpredictable gestures of humanity. One of the moving aspects of these scenes is that Humphreys forces us to see all of the men in this world—most of them boys, really—as imprisoned, thrust from lives as bakers or teachers into their roles as prisoners or guards, in neither case by their own will.

While many of his fellow prisoners attempt hopeless escapes, James takes refuge from the boredom and misery of the camp by keeping meticulous notes on the behavior of a family of birds nesting just outside the camp’s perimeter. (In a note, Humphreys says that this detail is based on the real-life John Buxton, who published a book of his prison-camp observations after the war.)

James finds in this pursuit both solace from the camp and a passion that will continue after the war—a passion he was only able to discover through captivity. “Back in that other life,” Humphreys writes, "which seemed to fade more with each passing day, he didn’t have much time to watch the world. He was too busy moving through it.”

James has left behind a young wife in England, and she too finds a kind of paradoxical happiness among the misery of the war. Rose works as a bomb warden, making nightly rounds to ensure that her neighbors have fully drawn their blackout curtains. Her days are aimless and solitary, a dog her only company. “The abandonment of routine is a response to loneliness, she thinks. But it is also far less unpleasant than one would think to live in this new unstructured way.”

This idyll is interrupted when James’s sister, Enid, joins Rose in her country cottage after Enid’s London apartment is bombed. At first, Enid is distressed to find herself in the country, where “there is nothing but vegetation and few brainless hens.”

Helen-HumphreysBut then she starts to explore, beginning a kind of survey of the countryside she at first dismissed. Like her brother, Enid finds in the beauties of nature something more than solace, a value that goes beyond her own suffering:

“Each little flower has a history and cultural references, is a superstition or cure for something. Everything is its own world, and if Enid stays there, in these worlds, she won’t have to break the surface of the large, terrifying world she actually lives in.”

Humphreys’ novel follows these characters over a decade, and we see how the tensions and revelations of the weeks Enid and Rose spend together will affect the large patterns of their lives. “It’s so hard to get life right,” Enid thinks years later. “All the small balances are impossible to strike most of the time. And then there are the larger choices. It’s hopeless.”

And yet this is finally a very hopeful book, as full of joy and small redemptions as it is of grief. This is the first of Humphreys’ novels I’ve read, and I feel at once baffled to have taken so long to discover her work and grateful to have all of her previous novels ahead of me. Quietly profound and gorgeously written, The Evening Chorus is among the most moving new novels I’ve read in years.

Previous reviews...
Kim Fu’s ‘For Today I Am A Boy’
Joyce Brabner’s ‘Second Avenue Caper
Shelly Oria’s ‘New York 1, Tel Aviv 0’
Colm Tóibín’s ‘Nora Webster’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in early 2016. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


Kim Fu's ‘For Today I Am A Boy’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Early in this uncommonly moving debut novel—the last book I read in 2014, and one of the best—the young narrator, Peter Huang, goes to the movies with his adored older sister Adele. The theater plays old movies, and they watch Sabrina, the classic film starring Audrey Hepburn. Sitting with his beautiful sister, heartbroken that in a few weeks Adele will leave for college, Peter sees in Hepburn an impossible ideal, an embodiment of the kind of woman he feels sure he was meant to be.

FuBut everything in Peter’s life seems designed to keep him from anything like an authentic self. The child of Chinese immigrants in a small Canadian town, Peter is the only boy in a family of four children, the answer to his father’s prayers. Peter’s father is in some ways desperate to assimilate—he refuses to speak Cantonese and forbids his wife from cooking their native cuisine—but he has deeply traditional ideas about gender and the duties of children. He gives Peter the Chinese name Juan Chaun, “powerful king,” and expects him to act accordingly.

But Peter can’t be the son his father wants, and he lives for stolen moments when he can imagine himself into a different life. Alone in the afternoons after school, he puts on his mother’s apron and cleans the house, then cooks a meal his sister will take credit for. When his father discovers that his son has been doing “women’s work,” his response is immediate and cruel.

Peter does find allies in his small town, people he can begin to share his secrets with, but it isn’t until he moves to Montreal as a young man that he has his first glimpses of queer life. And even here he can’t let himself make use of his new freedom. Years after he leaves home, even after his father’s death, Peter is still ruled by his parents’ expectations. He feels not just shame at being trans, but absolute certainty that anything like a full life is impossible.

It’s not surprising, then, that Peter’s first sexual experiences are bound up with violence. In one of the book’s most powerful sequences, he enters into an abusive relationship with a much older woman, who stages scenes of sexual sadism and racist humiliation. In a devastating scene, this woman dresses Peter as a woman and then chokes him in front of a mirror, so that “I could watch my own blissful face white out slowly, glowing like an angel’s, until I passed out.”

Kim FuStructured in short, intense fragments and poetic scenes, Kim Fu’s novel follows Peter’s life over three decades, and one of its strengths is that Peter’s coming of age doesn’t fit into any easy narrative of liberation. Even when he does fall in with a group of young people who seem entirely comfortable with their queer identities, with rich lives and loving relationships, Peter’s response, at least at first, is to feel less relieved than enraged. 

“Who were these kids?” Peter asks himself. “What right had they to be born into a world where they were taught to look endlessly into themselves…To ask themselves, and not be told, whether they were boys or girls?”

The novel doesn’t offer any easy answers to Peter’s questions, or to other questions he asks about family and gender and sex. It certainly resists any sense that there are ready-made answers to those questions, or that they can be resolved in anything other than individual, divergent, and partial ways.

In fact, the novel suggests, Peter’s best chance at happiness may not be in the urban queer community Montreal offers, but instead where he began, within his difficult, fractured family, and especially in his relationships with his three sisters, each of them desperate for a wholeness their lives seem to refuse them.

For Today I Am a Boy is an extraordinarily accomplished first novel, and Fu is a thrilling new voice. She’s at once compassionate toward her characters and uncompromising in her refusal of the usual novelistic resolutions of questions that remain intractable in lived experience. Lyrical, sometimes brutal, always beautiful, this is a brilliant book. 

Previous reviews...
Joyce Brabner’s ‘Second Avenue Caper
Shelly Oria’s ‘New York 1, Tel Aviv 0’
Colm Tóibín’s ‘Nora Webster’
Saeed Jones’s ‘Prelude to Bruise’
 
Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in September 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


Joyce Brabner’s ‘Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, And Dealers Plotted Against The Plague’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

SecondavenueJoyce Brabner’s nonfiction graphic novel recounts the early years of the AIDS crisis as experienced by a tight-knit circle of “gay artists, writers, actors, musicians, dyke activists, drag queens,” who respond to the devastation of the disease with acts of remarkable daring and generosity. 

Brabner’s story centers on Ray, a struggling playwright who earns his living as a nurse. When a doctor he works with offers to hook him up with his “connections in Mexico” in “a potentially beneficial business deal,” Ray begins selling pot to his circle of friends. “The NEA isn’t giving grants to Avant queers,” his partner Ben reasons. “This is our Colombian Arts Council Grant!”

They’re careful to sell only to people they know, and we meet Ray’s vibrant circle of friends, most of them artists, writers, and performers—among them Brabner herself—as they come to his apartment to buy weed. “Fabulous herb…fabulous fantasies…and fabulous friends,” Ray muses, and his apartment becomes the site of “a celebratory, slightly stoned, queer-communal pleasure.”

BrabnerThese early pages of the book are exuberantly joyful, as Ray’s apartment is packed with friends eating and drinking and smoking together, playing games and singing songs, throwing out ideas for plays and musicals, and above all gossiping, cattily and lovingly. Mark Zingarelli’s direct and emotive illustrations capture beautifully the intimacy and trust between these queer outsiders, who create a rich and sustaining family for themselves.

The strength of that community will be tested by the new disease afflicting Ray’s patients. He cares for a man who is “the 24th known case” of what would eventually be called AIDS, and as the scope of the crisis becomes clear, he calls on his friends to “locate gay doctors, researchers, people with some medical training,” quickly creating a network both for information gathering and for providing care to those caught by the wave of infections that sweeps through Ray’s community.

Ray is terrified by the speed with which he loses his friends. “One went so suddenly,” he says, “we knew about it only when we learned he had been buried in a potter’s grave because no one had come to claim him.”

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Shelly Oria’s ‘New York 1, Tel Aviv 0’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Disorientation afflicts nearly all of the characters in Shelly Oria’s nimble and disarmingly moving debut collection of stories. Many of them are (like Oria herself) Israeli immigrants in New York City, navigating multiple cultures and languages; others find themselves in worlds where the usual rules (of weather, say, or time) break down; all of them are bewildered by desire.

Newyork1telaviv0_bThe narrator of the title story has come to the United States after finishing her military service, because “staying in Tel Aviv meant starting my life,” and “It’s a scary thing, starting your life.” As is true throughout the collection, Oria is excellent in detailing how the texture of daily life differs in the two countries: “When I first moved to New York, I kept opening my purse every time I entered a building, before realizing that there was no security guard. And every time I felt relieved, and every time I felt orphaned, and every time I felt surprised at both.”

The book’s title comes from her attempt to keep score of the advantages and disadvantages of her two cities. She never gets very far: “I forget to keep track, and I have to start counting all over again every time.” She meditates on the strangeness of Central Park, “the idea of having a designated area for greenery”: “Tel Aviv isn’t carefully planned like that—trees often choose their own location, and most streets stretch in unpredictable directions, creating a pattern of impulse.”

What’s true of the streets of Tel Aviv is also true of the magnetic men and (more often) women that Oria’s protagonists can’t fully know or possess, and many of the stories are haunted by infidelity. In “This Way I Don’t Have to Be,” a woman is addicted to sleeping with married men. She watches them during sex for the moment they imagine the possibilities they’ve left unlived, when “their entire lives turn to air,” an unsettled state of longing we sense the narrator craves for herself.

In “None the Wiser,” a sly, acid, wonderful story about jealousy and age and grief, a woman’s own desires gradually become clear as she gossips about her neighbors. And in one of the collection’s standout stories, “The Disneyland of Albany,” Avner, an Israeli artist who has left his family behind to seek his career in America, discovers his wife’s infidelity from stray remarks his young daughter makes during a visit.

In the collection’s final story, which might also be its finest, “Phonetic Masterpieces of Absurdity,” the book’s preoccupation with erotic disappointment combines powerfully with one of Oria’s other major themes, the tragedies and absurdities of ongoing conflict in the Middle East—a conflict that her characters can never fully escape, at home or abroad.

CONTINUED, AFTER THE JUMP...

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Colm Tóibín's 'Nora Webster': Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

It’s hard to explain the speed and excitement with which I turned the pages of the Irish writer Colm Tóibín’s astonishingly beautiful new novel. Nothing extraordinary happens in it, at least at the level of plot, and it’s almost free of the large-scale dramas that usually unify novels and give them their tension and forward momentum.

Nora WebsterInstead of those dramas, Nora Webster offers not just the texture but the shape of what we might call daily life: quotidian events and minor crises swell and then ebb away, without anything building to a life-altering climax. How to understand, then, the profound changes undergone by its protagonist, or—rarer still—how deeply I was moved when I reached the final pages?

When the book begins, Nora Webster has just lost her husband to cancer. This novel is perhaps the most careful and revelatory study of character I have read, but such is Nora’s—and Tóibín’s—reticence that only slowly, over the course of the novel, do we realize how profoundly she loved her husband and how devastated she is by grief, how pain has separated her from the people she loves and undermined the certainties of her life.

Instead of grand gestures of mourning, the opening chapters concern themselves with the petty annoyances of living in a small town. The book is set in Wexford, Ireland, where Nora is surrounded by people she has known since childhood. “She knew the story of her life,” Nora thinks about one woman, “down to her maiden name and the plot in the graveyard where she would be buried.”

Nora has to defend herself against both the sympathy and the prying of the town, carving out a privacy in which she can learn how to bear her new circumstances. “She would learn how to spend these hours. In the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live." 

Part of what this means is learning how to relate to her children again, who have changed in the months that she spent caring for her husband as he died. Her daughters are away at school, and during their visits she finds herself excluded from a new intimacy they have forged. “It was like being in a room with people who knew each other in ways that she did not, who had a language in common but, perhaps more importantly, could understand each other’s silence.”

Her two young sons return from the house of the aunt who kept them, and since they don’t speak of their father Nora doesn’t understand at first how deeply they are grieving. But Donal, the older of the two boys, wakes at night screaming with nightmares, and Nora discovers that he has been bullying his younger brother. The book is deeply moving in its portrayal of Nora’s bewilderment as a single parent: “She did not know whether it was better for him to cry or not to cry,” Nora thinks at one point about Donal. “Someone would know that, she thought, but she did not.”

Nora returns to work for the first time since her marriage, and with financial independence comes, very slowly, a new confidence and eagerness for life. “It pleased her now to be grateful to no one,” she thinks at one point, as she begins to explore new interests and to discover a new strength. She learns almost not to care about the gossip she knows her actions provoke, and, having established her privacy, she learns how to engage with her family and neighbors in a more authentic and nourishing way.

Most profoundly, Nora finds a way toward a new life through music. Her mother had been a singer, and in the months after her husband’s death (the book covers a period of about three years), Nora begins taking singing lessons. She sings Irish songs, but also Schubert and Brahms, and at meetings of the Gramophone Society, a group of classical music lovers a friend encourages her to join, she discovers a depth of response to music that suggests to her possibilities for life she had never considered.

Colm_ToibinAs she listens to a Beethoven trio, Nora “thought how easy it might have been to be someone else, that having the boys at home waiting for her, and the bed and the lamp beside her bed, and her work in the morning, were all a sort of accident. They were somehow less solid than the clear notes of the cello that came through the speakers." 

The end of the novel doesn’t offer any final resolution of Nora’s troubles and dissatisfactions; there’s no tidy summing up of lessons learned. Nora hasn’t healed from her husband’s loss, but she is a changed person from the woman we met in the first pages, able now to face both her grief for the dead and her responsibilities to the living.

Colm Tóibín has already written, The Master and Brooklyn, two of my favorite novels of the last decade, and his essay collection, Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodóvar, is essential reading. But Nora Webster is an even greater achievement than those earlier books. Tóibín has mastered a rare alchemy, somehow producing, again and again, a kind of quiet sublimity out of the unvarnished moments of daily life. Read this book. I’m not sure art gets much better.

Previous reviews...
Saeed Jones’s ‘Prelude to Bruise’
Michael Carroll’s ‘Little Reef and Other Stories’
Francine Prose’s ‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932’
Mark Gevisser’s ‘Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Faber/FSG in 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


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