Category: USA Page 4 of 7

Don DeLillo: Zero K


The latest addition to my website is Don DeLillo‘s Zero K. DeLillo is a Marmite author. Marmite is a disgusting vegetable paste, used in food flavouring or as a sandwich spread. People either love it or hate it. As a result, the word Marmite has come to be used to describe someone or something that people either love or hate. A recent example is our likely next Prime Minister Boris Johnson. My feelings about both Marmite and Boris Johnson are similar. However, I love Don DeLillo, while being aware that many do not.



This book is narrated by Jeffrey Lockhart, something of a drifter, both in terms of his romantic relationships and his career. When he was a young teenager, his father, Ross, walked out on his mother. Ross has become very successful both in the financial world but also at looking at what the future might hold. He married an archaeologist, Artis, who is now dying. At the beginning of the novel, Jeffrey is taken by a series of private planes to a mysterious place called The Convergence, somewhere in Kazakhstan, near the Kyrgyzstan border, where people who are dying are put to sleep and cryogenically preserved with a view to being resuscitated at some unspecified time in the future, probably as someone new. Artis is about to be put to sleep and Jeffrey has come to say his farewells. The place is somewhat mysterious, with strange people, strange sculptures, doors which seem permanently locked and screens popping up with films of disasters and wars. Jeffrey is bemused by all of this and finds it uncomfortable, particularly when his father, who is healthy, announces that he is to join Artis in being put to sleep. Back in the real world, Jeffrey still feels detached, with a girlfriend whose adopted son is Ukrainian by birth, is learning Pashto and clearly is also detached from the world. This is another first-class novel by DeLillo about the human condition as it is and might be and about characters who are, to use the words of one character, fallen out of history.

C. E. Morgan: The Sport of Kings


The latest addition to my website is C E Morgan‘s The Sport of Kings. This novel has already received lots of rave reviews, generally deservedly so. It is a first-class novel about sex, racial politics, horse racing, incest, South vs North (in the USA), families, the failure of the American Dream and the striving to be or get the best, at whatever cost, particularly if that cost is borne by others. We follow two families. The first is the Forges, a family that came over to Kentucky shortly after the Revolutionary War and which has since done very well for itself, owning lots of land. At that start of the novel, in the early 1950s, the patriarch, John Henry, is totally convinced of the inherent superiority of himself and his family and looks down on others, including the poor whites, African-Americans and women. He has one son, Henry, whom he intends to follow in his footsteps. Henry, however, is interested in breeding horses, a task John Henry considers fit for only white niggers. When John Henry dies, Henry gets his wish. Though his marriage is as unsuccessful as his father’s, he does have a daughter, Henrietta, who shares his love for horses. She also has a love for sex with virtually any man she can find. This includes Allmon Shaughnessy who represents the other side of the tracks. He had a white father, who had disappeared, when he was young and a black mother, who died of lupus. He had been in trouble, twice serving prison sentences, but had received training in horse grooming as part of a prison rehabilitation programme, so is hired by the Forges. When a filly is born who looks like being a champion racer, Henry makes a deal with Allmon which will get Allmon some money and a couple of the filly’s future foals, in return for keeping away from Henrietta. The filly does well. Allmon, Henrietta and Henry do not. This is a superbly written novel, full of passion, intensity, sex and horses which, while not quite the Great American Novel that has been suggested, is certainly a very fine novel and will propel Morgan to the forefront of US novelists.

James Salter: All That Is


The latest addition to my website is James Salter‘s All That Is. This novel was published shortly before his death but thirty-four years after his last novel. The main character is Philip Bowman, born, like Salter, in 1925. Like virtually all the characters in the book – and there are a lot – he is not very successful at relationships and does not tend to stay very long in the same residence. His only marriage, to a posh girl from the Virginia horsey set, soon ends when she realises what we and her parents (divorced, of course) have long realised, namely that they are very different and incompatible. His subsequent relationships are no more successful but then nor are those of anyone else in this novel. He goes into the publishing business, starting as a publisher’s reader and then becoming an editor in a small but prestigious house, after having served in the navy during the war. Most of the novel is about the transience of his life, even though he essentially stays in the same job for most of his career, leaving us with a novel, while certainly not a bad one, seems itself to be a bit transient.

James Salter: Solo Faces


The latest addition to my website is James Salter‘s Solo Faces, a novel about mountain-climbing. We first meet Vernon Rand as a roofer in California but we soon learn that his passion is mountain-climbing. Much of the novel is set in the French Alps where Rand will go mountain climbing, initially with others and then, as the title tells us, on his own. He is loner, fiercely independent. He gets trapped by bad weather, has to help a companion who is badly hurt and even leads a small team to rescue a couple of Italians, one of whom is hurt, trapped in bad weather, which makes him briefly famous. He has a series of relationship with women, always abandoning them and moving on, as he does with the mountains. Rand is actually based on Gary Hemming though Salter certainly did a fair amount of climbing himself, mentioned in this interview.

James Salter: Light Years


The latest addition to my website is James Salter‘s Light Years. This is a very well-written but ultimately rather gloomy tale of failed relationships and failed lives. Viri and Nedra are seemingly happily married, living in a nice house in upstate New York with their two daughters. He is an architect. She likes to go into New York, have a drink, see friends and go to the theatre. They regularly entertain and are entertained. However, beneath the happy surface there is an indication that things are not quite right. She is looking for something but is not sure what. He falls in love with someone who works for him but his passion is not reciprocated. She has a brief affair. Meanwhile, around them, things are going wrong for others: a young neighbourhood girl dies of cancer, a friend is mugged and loses an eye. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Viri and Nedra drift apart but, even after they divorce, things just do not seem to work out for either of them. Salter tells his tale well and he is a superb writer of moods and perceptions but this is a depressing novel.

James Salter: A Sport and a Pastime


The latest addition to my website is James Salter‘s A Sport and a Pastime. The novel is set in France, specifically Paris and Autun, and is narrated by a self-confessed unreliable narrator. He has borrowed the house of Parisian friends in Autun, where he is staying on his own, lusting unsuccessfully after the divorcee Mme Piquet. An old friend, Phillip Dean, arrives in a borrowed car and the pair travel around a bit. Dean meets Anne-Marie, a young, uneducated French woman, six years his junior. The pair start a passionate affair, described pruriently by the narrator, who admits some of the descriptions are part of his fantasies (he clearly relishes Anne-Marie’s body and their sexual activity). However, it is soon apparent to us and then to Anne-Marie and Dean, that the affair is doomed, not least because Dean has no money (he is a brilliant drop-out from Yale) and his father will not subsidise him. Salter tells his tale very well, as we follow his humdrum life, drifting between Paris and Autun, and all the while following the affair of Anne-Marie and Dean.

N. Scott Momaday: The Ancient Child


The latest addition to my website is N. Scott Momaday‘s Ancient Child, another superb novel about Native American culture from Momaday. The story focuses on two quasi-outsiders. Grey is half Kiowa and half Navajo but has been brought up by her Navajo mother. She returns, aged nineteen, to her Kiowa family to assist her ageing great-grandmother, Kope’mah, and the two soon establish a bond, in particular both having visions about Billy the Kid and Set-angya, a Native American who resisted the whites and was killed doing so. Locke Setman, known as Set, was an orphan, with his mother dying giving birth to him and his father dying when he was seven. After some time in an orphanage, he was adopted by a white couple. He has since become a celebrated painter. When he gets a telegram about the impending death of his grandmother, Kope’mah, he is surprised as he knew nothing about her. He does go but arrives too late but does meet his family, including Grey. We then follow Set as his career develops while his relationship does not. We also follow Grey as she continues to have visions of Billy the Kid, about whom she writes, and develops as a medicine woman, medicine she will use to summon Set back to her. Momaday tells an excellent story, against a background of Native American myth and legend as well as the legend of Billy the Kid, as well as raising important issues about identity and belonging, and about art and artists.

Kathryn Davis: Duplex


The latest addition to my website is Kathryn DavisDuplex. This novel takes a fairly conventional story – a street somewhere in the US, with a boy and girl growing up together and destined to be married but somehow not quite working it out. However, to really confuse us, Davis has thrown in both strong science fiction elements and strong fairy tale elements. Eddie and Mary are childhood friends and later sweethearts. However, on this street are not just the usual assortment of characters but a family of robots, who do not eat or sleep, and need their batteries recharging regularly but, in many respects, at least on the surface, are similar to human beings. Eddie when a young teen is taken to an enchanted isle and he changes, though it is not clear how. Later, he will become a very successful baseball star. While still at high school, he gets Mary pregnant and he makes her give the baby up but then leaves her. When injured in his baseball career, Eddie will go back to an enchanted place. Meanwhile, the former teacher of Eddie has an affair with a man who is a sorcerer and known as Body-without-Soul and will later travel herself to a strange enchanted place. What are we to make of this? Davis, I think, leaves it deliberately ambiguous. We can see it as a conventional story disrupted by two genres, science fiction and fairy tale, or we can see it as a moral tale about being true to oneself or we can add our interpretation and let the story take us where we will. An interesting idea but one that did not entirely work for me.

Kathryn Davis: The Thin Place


The latest addition to my website is Kathryn DavisThe Thin Place, a brilliant but understated novel about spirituality, the forces of nature and the role they play in our lives and the often arbitrariness of life, but all firmly rooted in the real world. The real world, in this case, is a small New England town called Varennes, not far from the Canadian border. The people of the town get on with their lives but Davis also shows us that nature also does, in its way. This can take the form of animals doing what animals do, plants growing, and meteorological and geological forces affecting the lives of the people, either brutally, as in the case of a storm, or more subtly, as Davis shows us the geological forces that shaped the town and surrounding area. In the hands of a lesser writer, this could have varied from the sentimental to the silly but Davis cleverly integrates it into the different stories of the people of Varennes. Much of what the people do is what people do elsewhere. They marry, separate, grow old, go to school, have affairs, go to church and so on. But other things happen. A man seemingly dies but is revived by a young girl. Was he dead or just unconscious? One of her friends does the same to a dog, that had been shot and apparently killed. Accidents happen and people are injured and die. But meanwhile, people worry about the homeless using the church, about their relationships, about the Gilbert and Sullivan performance the children are putting on at school. Davis is clearly telling us to be responsible towards nature in its broadest sense but also warning us that sudden forces, whether from outside or within, can suddenly send us veering off course and, of course, can bring death. This a wonderful novel about some of the bigger things in life and how they affect our everyday life and deserves to better known.

N. Scott Momaday: House Made of Dawn


The latest addition to my website is N. Scott Momaday‘s House Made of Dawn. This was the first Native American novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. It tells a familiar tale, that of a Native American man who cannot find his way in white society and turns to drink for solace. Abel had been a fine runner as a young man and had been brought up by his grandfather in the traditions of his people, hardworking and responsible. His mother and older brother had died when he was still young and he never knew his father. However, he had had to go off and fight in the war, where he did not fit in and the memory one of his white comrades has of him is doing a crazy war dance in front of attacking German tanks. When his grandfather collects him from the bus stop when he returns from the war, he is drunk. A defeat by an albino in a horsemanship contest at a local celebration leads him to murder the man, as he is clearly, in Abel’s eyes, a witch. After six years in prison, he is in Los Angeles but things do not go well there and he turns to drink. Only after being badly beaten up by a rogue cop and sent to hospital does he return home, to look after his dying grandfather. Momaday not only tells his story very well, showing in a fairly dispassionate way the plight of the Native American in a white society, his painterly description of the land and the people on it are masterful. It is still as worth reading now as it was forty-seven years ago.

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