Alan Hollinghurst ‘The Sparsholt Affair’


“The evening when we first heard Sparsholt’s name seems the best place to start this little memoir. We were up in my rooms, talking about the club. Peter Goyle, the painter, was there, and Charlie Farmonger and Evert Dax.3B22C1AF-0CA2-4A17-8359-8E3F426D9F8AA sort of vote had taken place, and I emerged as the secretary, I was the oldest by a year and exempt from service”


Alan Hollinghurst’s novel chronicles gay life in a number of distinct episodes in England through two generations of the Sparsholt family. The book begins at the outset of the second world war at Oxford university illustrated at the first meeting of the memoir club in the opening quote where Goyle, Dax and the narrator of the first time period, Julian Green are are present and we hear of Sparsholt, a young freshman keen on rowing coming from an engineering family in Warwickshire with no real interest in books and only really filling in time before he is called up and seems so out of place with the upper class gays in the club:


“Oh, yes, him,” Evert said, as the source of the shadow moved slowly into view, a figure in a gleaming singlet, steadily lifting and lowering a pair of hand-weights. He did this with no apparent effort – but of course it was hard to tell from this distance, from which he showed, in this square of light, as massive and abstracted, as if shaped from light himself. Peter put his hand on my arm.
“My dear” he said, “I seem to have found my new model.” At which Evert made a little gasp, and looked at him furiously for a second.


Sparsholt is then indeed painted by Peter Goyle, a nude torso which is after Goyle’s death in the war later obtained by Dax. In this well described 1940.s Oxford it is also clear that Sparsholt is a more nuanced charachter than he may first seem and that gays even in these times should not be stereotyped.

In the second time sequence, we follow David Sparsholt’s family on a family holiday in the 60’s, a little before the actual Sparsholt affair, where we see that he has married his girlfriend from before his Oxford years, Connie, has a family but still prefers the company of his friend, Clifford, who is on holiday with his wife nearby, nothing is overt here, homosexuality is afterall still illegal. We are also introduced to his son, Johnny the narrator of the remainder of the book as he suspects nothing of his father but is himself discovering his own sexual tendancies in his early teens as he is infatuated with Bastien his French exchange student.

The second part of the book follows Johnny through his life in London as he first meets Evert Dax and then the rest of the Memoire club, this happens after the Sparsholt affair, a scandal involving his father, and follows Johnny as he matures and the grows older.

First Published in English as “The Sparsholt Affair” in 2017 by Picador.

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Patrick deWitt ‘The Sisters Brothers’


I was sitting outside the Commodore’s mansion, waiting for my brother Charlie to come out with news of the job. It was threatening to snow and I was cold and for want of something to do I studied Charlie’s new horse, Nimble. My new horse was called TubEC2DDB73-A815-4577-A8EC-496B350B0A83….Tub was a healthy enough animal but would have been better suited to some other, less ambitious owner. He was portly and low-backed and could not travel more than fifty miles in a day. I was often forced to whip him, which some men do not mind doing and which in fact some enjoy doing, but which I did not like to do; and afterward he, Tub, believed me cruel and thought to himself, Sad life, sad life.


Charlie and Eli Sisters, the Sisters brother’s a famous pair of professional killers are sent by the Commodore from Oregon city to Sacramento in California to find and kill Hermann Kermit Warm in 1851. Patrick deWitt tells us through their eyes of the West around the time of the Goldrush, of the rapidly growing towns of the desperate and lonely 49ers and of San Francisco and he chaos of the time as ships sail into the harbour and are left unloaded with their goods rotting as whole ships companies take to the hills looking for gold.

Into that chaos come Charlie and Eli Sisters, Charlie comfortable with his life as a killer, asking no questions and his brother Eli, tortured by the life he leads but loyal to his brother, Charlie a cold blooded killer and Eli réticent until he loses his temper. The story begins with the opening quote as the brothers are given in part payment for a job The horses they will take on the trip with them, the names say it all as Charlie takes Nimble for himself and leaves Eli with Tub.

Warm has found a way to get gold from the river, he has a liquid which when tipped in large quantities into the river causes gold to shine for a short period allowing him to just wade in and pick it out, but even the loyalist Of killers can be tempted by the promise of gold. What is the liquid? Well it kills anything in the river downstream and you really don’t want to come into contact with it, but then gold is gold and it is lying there waiting to be scooped up.

In his 2011 Mann Booker short listed book, the humour is dry and dark and the setting of the story and the descriptions of the times and the different characters are of more interest than the actual story.

First Published in English as “The Sisters brothers” in 2011 by Ecco.
Translated into French by Emmanuelle and Philippe Aronson as “Les frères Sisters” and published by Actes Sud in 2012

Jean Hegland ‘Into the Forest’


—There came a time when I yearned for the life contained in those swaying yellow school busses… it was not long after Eva discovered Ballet when I was so smarting from the hole her dancing had caused in my lifeCBC548E9-3BF3-418A-87D6-C2F0BF82EB0D and I think I tried to persuade my parents to let me go to school as a way of easing my loneliness. ‘We didn’t keep you out of school for all these years just to let you start now’ she said ‘junior high school is one of the most toxic experiences I can imagine’


Eva’s and her sister’s parents have escaped from society, living 30 to 40 miles from the nearest town in the forest, home schooling their two daughters who, having no friends of their own age are very close when they are young with this relationship becoming strained as they develop their different characters, the opening quote showing this separation and the background for the escape in the mother’s

But then all goes wrong in the outside world, maybe due to wars, maybe due to shortages and then to disease, the book doesn’t investigate the why’s. Quickly there is no outside world, and they can only survive if they become self-sufficient. They measure the time from the disruption by their mother’s illness and death, she died in hospital, soon after there were no hospitals.

The girls then live in a false sense of the world and fantasy continuity as their father tries to take care of everything, planting, harvesting and preserving in the clearing around their house to be ready for the winter as the girls continue to prepare for their planned futures back in civilisation in Harvard and Ballet school. And then their father dies, cutting his femoral artery whilst cutting wood The slow realisation that they need to act together to survive comes to them with the final realisation after readingthe tragic  story of a lone woman in the wilderness in the encyclopaedia:


—There will be no rescue! Ever since this began we’ve been waiting to be saved , waiting like stupid princesses for our rightful lives to be restored to us for we’ve only been fooling ourselves only playing out another fairy tale, our story can no more have a happy ending than the lone woman’s did, the lights will never again come on out here, the phone will never ring for us Eva and I will live like this until we die, hoarding and cringing and finally starving.


In this book nature is hostile, a thing to be afraid of, their moth.er had brought them up to be afraid of their surroundings, of the wild animals and for the unknown and maybe poisonous plants. Luckily thanks to books they learn not to tame nature but to live in harmony with it, even killing a wild boar for food when needed, this whole section lacks in reality, especially when read in parallel with Règne Animal, the subject of my next post.

The girls eventually free themselves from their house to live in a tree stump as they pass in the forest from escape to adventure.

The believability of the story aside, on the character side  this is an interesting Bildungsroman for Eva and her sister, the narrator.

First published in English as ‘Into The Forest ‘ by Calyx books in 1996
Translated into French by Josette Chicheportiche as “Dans La Forêt” and published by Gallmeister in 2017

Donald Ray Pollock ‘The Heavenly Table’


—In 1917, just as another hellish August was starting to come to an end along the border that divides Georgia and Alabama, Pearl Jewett awakened his sons before dawn one morning with a guttural bark that sounded more animal than man. The three young men arose silently from their particular corners of the one-room shack and pulled on their filthy clothes, still damp with the sweat of yesterday’s labors. A mangy rat covered with scabs scuttled up the rock chimney, knocking bits of mortar into the cold grate. Moonlight funneled through gaps in the chinked log walls and lay in thin milky ribbons across the red dirt floor. With their heads nearly touching the low ceiling, they gathered around the center of the room for breakfast, and Pearl handed them each a bland wad of flour and water fried last night in a dollop of leftover fat. There would be no more to eat until evening, when they would all get a share of the sick hog they had butchered in the spring, along with a mash of boiled spuds and wild greens scooped onto dented tin plates with a hand that was never clean from a pot that was never washed. Except for the occasional rain, every day was the same.


Following on from my earlier read, 3 years ago, ‘The Devil All of the Time’, I was ready for my next journey with Donald Ray Pollock, this time mostly into the Kentucky-Ohio area around the time of the entry of the US into the First World War. These were desperate times for sharecroppers as the books opening paragraph, and my opening quote illustrates. The story is of desperate men, of the ever presence and devastation of alcohol and of a general feeling of lawlessness, Pollock weaves in for good measure a psychopathic killer and a story of both prostitution and homosexual activity around an army camp at Mead.

The main characters in the book, Cane, Cob and Chimney Jewett, on the death of their domineering father decide to steel horses from the man that was exploiting them, Major Tardweller, but things go badly wrong  and the brothers start on a path of no return as outlaws. Pollock weaves in here ‘The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket’,  The only book they had ever poessed  which Cane had read them over and over until they could recite whole sections of the book, as they get into difficult situations, they identify with Bloody Bill whilst at the same time only just understanding that it is a fiction and not a real story. The brothers have an aim as they flee, they will escape with their gains from robbing banks to Canada, but they have absolutely no idea of where Canada is.

Amongst the characters Pollock serves us up are Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler who are swindled out of their savings by a man that sells them cattle in a field that don’t belong to him, and as their son runs away, maybe to join the army and fight the Germans, it becomes clear that the have absolutely no idea where Germany could be. There is Sugar, a black man who lives to drink and stumbles from desperate situation to desperate situation as amongst other things he is tied up and thrown over a bridge into the Ohio river. Then there is the army lieutenant Bovard, with ideals of war similar to those of the ancient Greeks he has read about as he studied classics, discovering drugs and the fact he is gay and finally the psychopath, Pollard, who tortures and cuts up strangers before throwing their remains into the Ohio river.

In this desperate book, full of dry humour, Pollock brings together all of these stories into a crescendo. This book is crammed with the sort of details that hold the reader’s attention and is as good as his excellent ‘Devil All of the Time’. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t yet discovered Donald Ray Pollock.

First published in English as ‘The Heavenly Table’ by Harvill Secker in 2016

Catherine Lacey ‘Nobody is Ever Missing’


—The second thing they tell you about hitchhiking is never accept invitations home for tea because teaIMG_1272 really means dinner and dinner really means sex and sex really means they’re going to kill you.


One morning Elyria says goodbye to her husband as he goes to work in New York, she grabs her backpack, and gets on a plane for New Zealand without informing anyone. Her only tenuous link to New Zealand is an encounter at a book show many years before for a few minutes with a writer who told her if she was ever in the area to look in, the loose type of invitation you don’t ever expect anyone to actually follow up on.

This is the initial framework of Catherine Lacey’s “Nobody is Ever Missing”, A road novel where first of all Elyria’s life is slowly distilled to us as we become aware of her present state of mind. Michael Köhlmeier in his novel ‘Two Gentlemen on a Beach’ describes Churchill and Chaplin’s lifelong fight against depression, telling us of the black dog, well here Elyria is tracked by her wildebeest:


—Nothing is wrong with you, sugar, Jaye said, and I knew she thought that was true, but she didn’t know about that wildebeest that lived in me and told me to leave that perfectly nice apartment and absolutely suitable job and routines and husband who didn’t do anything completely awful—and I felt that the wildebeest was right and I didn’t know why and even though a wildebeest isn’t the kind of animal that will attack, it can throw all its beastly pounds and heavy bones at anything that attacks it or stands in its way, so I took that also into account. One should never provoke or disobey a wildebeest, so I did leave, and it seems the wildebeest was what was wrong with me, but I wasn’t entirely sure of what was wrong with the wildebeest.


Elyria roams over New Zealand hitching from place to place , see the opening quote, and hurting, the book is mostly a monologue, we learn of her mostly drunken mother, of her adopted Korean sister, Ruby, whom she was close to and not so close to at the same time, of Ruby’s suicide as she had become a teaching assistant and finally of Elyria’s marriage to  Ruby’s professor, a much older man, drawn together by separate griefs and living an empty shell of a relationship. As Elyria’s road trip goes on and we are overwhelmed by her ever, mostly self, questioning mind, Elyria takes on senseless routine tasks in an attempt to halt her overheating, continual thinking mind and its mostly self reproach until:


— I was something like a dog I owned. I had to tell myself to leave it, to shut up, had to take myself on a walk and feed myself and had to stare at myself and try to figure out what myself was feeling or needing.


Elyria is in such a state  that she thinks but she does not feel and as for the title, towards the end of her road trip she realizes:


—And after I had deleted my history on Amos’s computer I realized that even if no one ever found me, and even if I lived out the rest of my life here, always missing, forever a missing person to other people, I could never be missing to myself, I could never delete my own history, and I would always know exactly where I was and where I had been and I would never wake up not being who I was and it didn’t matter how much or how little I thought I understood the mess of myself, because I would never, no matter what I did, be missing to myself and that was what I had wanted all this time, to go fully missing, but I would never be able to go fully missing—nobody is missing like that, no one has ever had that luxury and no one ever will.


In order to get a flavor of this nervous high energy narration style the quotes here are longer than usual, this was not an easy read now, one week after I am glad to have read this book.

First published in English as ‘Nobody is ever Missing’ by Granta Books in 2015
Translated into French as ‘Personne ne disparait’ by Myriam Anderson and published by Actes Sud in 2016

Don Winslow ‘The Power of the Dog’


–And yet the guns will have to come through America and not Mexico, as crazy as the Yankees are about drugs coming across their border the Mexicans are even more fanatic about guns, IMG_1246as much as Washington complains about narcotics coming across from Mexico Los Piños complains about guns coming in from the United States. It’s a constant irritant in the relations between the two countries that the Mexicans seem to feel that fire arms are more dangerous than dope, they don’t understand why it is that in America you will get a longer jail sentence for dealing a little marijuana than you will for selling a lot of guns.


I read Mario Puzo’s Godfather in 1971, two years after its release (waited for the paperback) and have never read anything like it since, well not until now. Don Winslow does for the Barrera’s and their Mexican Cartel what Puzo did for the Sicilian Mafia in New York, and with style. Winslow takes away the decor and shines the harsh cold light on America’s war on drugs. The opening quote explains these two goverments just don’t understand each other.

Winslows book is a sweeping saga over a thirty year period of the Barrera family at the head of the Mexican drug Cartel and the DEA’s war against drugs, against the background of America’s relentless war against communist regimes in South and Central America. His main characters are Art Keller from the DEA a half Mexican American who had learned from a young age to be a YOYO (your on your own) and Adán Barrera, who becomes the leader of the Cartel. The story begins with the Mexicans, with the “tactical” help of America wiping out the Marijuana plantations in Mexico and Art, with the help of Adán’s father, the police head Michael Angel Barrera, capturing the head of the drug trade. Thus leaving the way free for Barrera to create the Cartel.

This is a book spanning many events and many years as Art tries to chase down the Barreras and early on Arts colleague Ernie Hidalgo is captured and tortured to death  for information only Art has. As the book progresses we understand First of all that Adán can turn almost any event to profit:


–Between the DEA and the Mexican Cartel there is a blood feud still from the killing of Ernie Hidalgo, Art Keller sees to that, and thank God for that Adán thinks for while Keller’s revenge obsession might cost me money in the short run in the long run it makes me money and that is what the Americans simply cannot seem to understand that all they do is to drive up the price and make us rich. Without them any bobo with an old truck or a Leakey boat with an outboard motor could run drugs into El Norte and then the price would not be worth the effort but as it is, it takes millions of dollars to move the drugs and the prices are accordingly sky high. The Americans take a product that literally grows on trees and turn it into a valuable commodity without them cocaine and marijuana would be like oranges and instead of making billions smuggling it I’d be making pennies doing stoop labour in some California field picking it and the truly funny irony is that Keller is himself another product because I make millions selling insurance against him.


The second truth we learn is that the war on drugs is high on the political agenda but low on the real covert agenda of the CIA, fighting communism, and as the Head of the CIA program “Red Mist” which was the code name for scores of operations to neutralize left wing movements across Latin America and which needed covert funding, points out to Keller:


–Hobbs stares at him then asks
what do you know about red mist what the hell is red mist Art wonders, Art says look I only know about Cerberus and what I know is enough to sink you
I agree with your analysis now where does that leave us
with our jaws clamped on each other’s throats art says and neither of us can let go
let’s go for a walk
they hike through the camp past the obstacle course the shooting range the clearings in the jungle where cammy clad soldiers sit on the ground and listen to instructors teach ambush tactics
every thing in the training camp Hobbs says was paid for by Michaël Angel Barrera
Jesus
Barrera understands.
understands what
Hobbs leads him up a steep trail to the top of a hill Hobbs points out over the vast jungle stretching below what does that look like to you he asks
Art shrugs, a rain forest
to me Hobbs says it looks like a camels nose you know the old Arab proverb once the camel gets his nose inside the tent the camel will be inside the tent. That’s Nicaragua down there the communist camels nose in the tent of the central American isthmus not an island like Cuba that we can isolate with our navy


I guess you can say that sending GIs to fight communists in the Americas was no longer possible after Vietnam, instead a whole generation was sacrificed knowingly to Crack Cocain in order to provide, via the Cartel, the secret funding to continue the war on communism.

There are dozens of well constructed characters in this impressive thriller of which I have not even scratched the surface, if you have not read it you must, and like the Godfather there is a sequel to avoid you going cold turkey!

First Published in English as “The Power of the Dog” in 2006 by Random House Inc

Herman Wouk ‘The Caine Mutiny’

At the instant that Mrs. Keith saw Willie swallowed up, she remembered that she had neglected an important transaction. She ran to the entrance of Furnald Hall. The chief stopped her as she laid a hand on the doorknob. “Sorry, madam. No admittance.” “That was my son who just went in.” “Sorry, madam.” “I only want to see him for a moment. I must speak to him. He forgot something.”IMG_1107“They’re taking physicals in there, madam. There are men walking around with nothing on.” … “Madam,” said the chief, with a note in his rasping voice that was not unkind, “he’s in the Navy now.” Mrs. Keith suddenly blushed. “I’m sorry.” “Okay, okay. You’ll see him again soon—maybe Saturday.” The mother opened her purse and began to fish in it. “You see, I promised—the fact is, he forgot to take his spending money…. suppose he wants some? I promised him. Please take the money——Pardon me, but I’d be happy to give you something for your trouble.” The chief’s gray eyebrows rose. “That won’t be necessary.” He wagged his head like a dog shaking off flies, and accepted the bills. Up went the eyebrows again. “Madam—this here is a hundred dollars!” He stared at her. Mrs. Keith was struck with an unfamiliar sensation—shame at being better off than most people. “Well,” she said defensively, “it isn’t every day he goes to fight a war.” “I’ll take care of it, madam.” …The chief looked after her, then glanced at the two fifties fluttering in his hand. “One thing,” he muttered, “we’re sure as hell getting a new kind of Navy.” He thrust the bills into a pocket.

In this 1951 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Herman Wouk brings us ‘The’ story of the Pacific war or more precisely a study of the wartime Navy told by way of a Bildungsroman of young Willie Keith on the more or less obsolete mine sweeper, the Caine. The opening quote illustrates the difference between the peace time Navy, illustrated by the Chief and of the new Navy with officers from different walks of life, we can imagine that ‘two fifties’ as pocket money was not the norm for peacetime enlisted  officers.

Who was Willie at the outset? He had a Princeton education which left him wanting to be a night club piano player and he had the prejudices of his class where the following quotes illustrate his views of women and of religion:

—in Willie’s world familiarity with opera was a mark of high breeding—unless you were an Italian. Then it became a mere racial quirk of a lower social group, and lost its cachet. Marie Minotti was someone Willie could cope with. She was pigeonholed after all as a mere night-club singer, if a very pretty one. The feeling that he was tumbling into a real relationship was an illusion. He knew perfectly well that he would never marry an Italian. They were mostly poor, untidy, vulgar, and Catholic. This did not at all imply that the fun was at an end. On the contrary, he could now more safely enjoy being with the girl, since nothing was going to come of it.

—Her agent and coach, Marty Rubin, came several times each week to watch her. After her performance he would spend an hour or more talking to her at a table or in her dressing room. He was a short stout moon-faced man, perhaps thirty-five, with pale hair and very thick rimless eyeglasses. The exaggerated breadth of shoulder and fullness of trouser in his suits showed they were bought on Broadway, but the colors were quiet browns or grays. Willie spoke to him casually. He was quite sure Rubin was a Jew, but thought no less of him for that. Willie liked Jews as a group, for their warmth, humor, and alertness. This was true though his home was in a real-estate development where Jews could not buy.

After military training, Keith is transferred to the Caine as an Ensign from where he is able to witness and take part in the events leading up to the Caine Mutiny. The Caine is taken over by the new Captain, a tyrannical, cowardly career officer who cannot come to terms with the relative leniency on officers and men that actual wartime engagement requires. The officers and men soon notice that when there is action he is always to be found on the opposite side of the ship and he avoids engagement with the enemy so that the crew  nickname him old yellow stain, or as the officer Keefer says:

You can’t say he isn’t on the ball, invasion or no invasion Dewsley does his assignment, you never saw a more fearless wielder of a checklist than old yellow stain.

Willie Keith, still a relatively young officer is on deck during the Typhoon when Queeg freezes putting the ship and the lives of his crew in danger and goes along with the decision of the executive officer Maryk to relieve Queeg of his command, the central event of the book, we know he was right to do it and that he would be wrong in the Navy’s eyes.

Events eventually come full circle when Willie, as executive officer saves the ship after the new captain, Keefer, abandons ship during a Kamikaze attack. He however remains loyal to the Captain:

I now see pretty clearly that the mutiny was mostly Kiefer’s doing though I have to take a lot of the blame and so does Maryk and I see that we were in the wrong, we transferred to Queeg the hatred we should have felt for Hitler and the Japs….our disloyalty made things twice as hard for Queeg and for ourselves.

This book is an epic story of the Pacific war seen through the eyes of small cogs in a big wheel, that elusive creature, an enjoyable war time story. I will now have to dig out the film!

First Published in English as “The Caine Mutiny” in 1951 by Doubleday