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

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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

Zadie Smith ‘Swing Time’

—She would not press play until she had Fred and Ginger exactly where she wanted them, on the balcony amongst the bougainvillea and the Doric columns at which point she began to read the danse as I never could,img_1054 she saw everything the stray ostrich feathers hitting the floor, the weak muscles in Ginger’s back Fred had to jerk her up from any supine position spoiling the flow ruining the lines, she noticed the most important thing of all which was the dance lessons within the performance, with Fred and Ginger you can always see the danse lessons.

Swing time is the story of an unnamed narrator and the four female characters that influence her life up to the point at the end of the book where she is 33 years old and she finally takes the time to begin to question herself.

The First and foremost of the influences on her life is her childhood friend Tracy, from the initial quote, who lives on a nearby estate and who she meets at dancing classes, drawn together by their exact same skin colours:

—Tracey and I lined up next to each other, every time, it was almost unconscious, two iron filings drawn to a magnet.

The narrator is defined by what Tracy is and what she herself is not. Tracy is a gifted natural dancer, determined, earnest and speaks her mind about everything except her father, Louis, a local character no longer living at home, thrown out by Tracy’s mother. Tracy grows up becoming rebellious, getting in to a dancing school and drifting away from the narrator.

In parallel to friendship with Tracy, the narrators home life is in flux as her West Indian mother strives to exist through education in a single minded climb through learning obtaining a university degree, becoming a local councillor and then a member of parliament, the price to pay is her lack of time for her family, her husband leaves home and her lack of empathy towards and time for her daughter who spends more time with Tracey:

—I was not a dancer at all –although I took too much pride in my singing, in a manner I knew my mother found obnoxious. Singing came naturally to me, but things that came naturally to females did not impress my mother, not at all. In her view you might as well be proud of breathing or walking or giving birth.

The story then moves on to its second phase as Tracey begins to get secondary roles in west end musicals, the narrator’s Mother goes through a relationship with the ‘Notable Activist’ and then lives with her assistant, Miriam. As this happens our Narrator begins a ten year role as a personal assistant to Aimee, a mega rich superstar traveling the world on private jets, to ensure that Aimee can be free to live her life in the full whilst ensuring that the narrator can have no life of her own. Aimee unfettered by day to day life, all taken care of by her assistants, moves seamlessly from one idea or obsession to next, one in particular will take up a good deal of the narrator’s  time, a school for young girls in The Gambia:

—Governments are useless they can’t be trusted Aimee explained to me and charities have their own agenda, churches care more for souls than for bodies and so if we want to see real change is this world….well then we ourselves have to be the ones to do it, we have to be the change we want to see. By we she meant people like herself of financial means and global reach who happen to love freedom and equality, want justice, feel an obligation to do something good with their own fortunes. It was a moral category but also an economic one and if you followed its logic all the way to the end of the revolving belt then after a few miles you arrived at a new idea that wealth and morality are in essence the same thing therefore the more money a person had then the more goodness or potential for goodness a person possessed.

The fourth female character to influence her life is Hawa, a young teacher at the village school in The Gambia, a young balanced woman, happy with the simple village life she lives and the gossip that goes with it, Hawa as the other strong female characters in the book are shown as contrasts to the narrator who nonetheless sees her as having some things in common with her. Hawa is however ten years younger than her and as this final quote shows cannot avoid her destiny to marry, which again is seen through the narrator’s reaction:

—I couldn’t rid myself of a nagging sense of error that having misread everything beginning with Hawa who opened the door of her compound wearing a new scarf, black that covered her head and stopped half way down her torso and a long shapeless shirt, the kind she had always ridiculed when we saw them in the market, she hugged me as firmly as ever….oh sister good news I am getting married. I hugged her and felt the familiar smile fasten itself on my face the same one that I wore in London and New York in the face of similar news and I experienced the same sense of acute betrayal, I was ashamed to feel that way but couldn’t help it a piece of my heart closed against her.

The wheel eventually turns full circle with Tracy bringing up her children in her childhood flat, no longer able to dance, still angry, an anger that in her case gives her a certain balance and the narrator having stepped off of the treadmill with only questions before her. Finally it is only the narrator that seems to have an acute sense of observation but no character, a shame for the book.

First published in English as ‘Swing Time’ by Hamish Hamilton in 2016

Liz Moore ‘The Unseen World’

—Her father had made his cream sauce and was assembling the salad he had dreamed up of endive and grapefruit and avocado.img_0991 He was moving frantically now and she knew that talking to him would be a mistake. His hands were trembling slightly as he worked. He wanted it all to be simultaneously precise and beautiful. He wanted it all to work. “What am I forgetting,” he said to Ada tensely.

In the Unseen World Liz Moore offers us a multilayered ideal of a gifted child Ada brought up in the eighties in Boston by her brilliant father who spiritually nurtured  her in a home educated environment, taking her regularly into his laboratory at the BIT (Boston Institute of Technology) where she would converse with her father’s research students and in the evening help her father organise his elaborate dinner parties for his laboratory members. An idyllic world narrated by Ada herself. Until little clues such as the opening quote leads us towards the implosion of the idyll and of Ada’s certainties as her father who has educated Ada to have an ingrained mistrust of government, and police slowly slips into Altzeimer’s disease.

The description of the slow deterioration of his mind in this book seems remarkably close to reality. Ada who cannot imagine life without her father does her best to minimise the effects of this illness to the outside world, this illness which has descended prematurely upon David as she calls her father, until one day when David goes missing and after searching for him all day and all night with Liston her neighbour, David’s senior laboratory researcher, they finish by calling the police thus slowly beginning the inevitable march towards David’s hospitalisation.

The hospitalisation of David is then the real start to the book, Liston volunteers to adopt Ada only to discover that David was not the person he claimed to be, no person by that name had obtained his first degree and in several layers, flashbacks to his tragic youth and to the events that caused him to need to change his identity, up to how he had been able to be employed by the BIT, David’s Background is explained to us.

David’s life work had been on artificial Intelligence, working on a computer code called Elixir which was capable of interacting with people (mostly David and his lab assistants as well as Ada. David had left the information about his past with three sources, two of which died prematurely and Elixir for which he left a disc with a code to Ada who did not crack the code for many years when she herself was working in a laboratory on virtual reality.

The future development of David’s Elixir and Ada’s work would lead to “The Unseen World”. The UW where when Ada is able to travel into it Elixir is present but has taken David’s form.

And of course the only person with the access to all the information in the book to be able to write it wasn’t a person at all.

First published in English as ‘The Unseen World’ by Windmill books in 2016

David Lodge ‘Small World’

—There are three things that have revolutionised academic life in the last twenty years, though few people have woken up to the fact: jet travel, direct-dialling telephones and the Xerox machine. img_0986Scholars don’t have to work in the same institution to interact , nowadays they call each other up, or they meet at international conferences.

Back to 1984 to close my year on a third book loosely linked to literary theory, after The Night and La Septième Fonction du Langage, through mostly imaginary characters, with a few exceptions such as Saussure and Roland Barthes. Was 1984 so long ago? This was pre-internet, the revolution had not yet happened. In hindsight, as one of the characters, Morris Zapp explains to us in the opening quote, the great changes of the previous twenty years which are at the heart of the book, these changes seem tame and so far away compared to the changes that have occurred since then.

A second reflection on time passed is that this book is clearly also pre-AIDS, with the book’s morals linked to my memories  of the seventies:

—Well you see, about ten years ago those two were nominated for our exchange scheme with Euphoria – in America, you know. Zapp came here for six months, and Swallow went to Euphoric State. Rumour has it that Zapp had an affair with Hilary Swallow, and Swallow with Mrs Zapp…one day…he and Hilary Swallow flew off to America together, and we really didn’t know which pair we would be getting back: Zapp and Hilary, Philip and Hilary, Philip and Mrs Zapp, or both Zapps.

So this book takes place in the academic jet setting world of English professors, with foreign travel, hotels and sexual encounters being the driving force, the conference subject matter being merely the oil that keeps the machinery going. The two main intrigues concern firstly a new well endowed UNESCO chair of Literary Criticism, with all the main characters vying for this appointment and secondly the relationship between the young  Persse Mc Garrigle from university college Limerick and The mysterious Angelica Pabst who herself is trying to finish her doctoral dissertation on Romance, as she herself explains later on in the book:

—The paradox of our pleasure in narrative, according to this (Roland Barthes’) model, is that while the need to ‘know’ is what impels us through a narrative, The satisfaction of that need brings pleasure to an end….Romance, in contrast, is not structured this way. It has not one climax but many, the pleasure of the text comes and comes and comes again. No sooner has one crisis in the fortune of the hero averted than a new one presents itself.  No sooner has one mystery been solved than another is raised. No sooner has one adventure been concluded than another begins.

And effectively speaking, Persse spends most of the book seaking out Angelica, constantly moving from one climax to the next as Angelica seems continually to be something else than he at first imagined.

Who will be awarded the UNESCO chair, who will leave his or her partner for whom? Will Persse and Angelica end up together, is romance more about the quest than the finding?

First published in English as ‘Small World’ by Martin Secker & Warburg in 1984

Michael Connelly ‘The Wrong Side of Goodbye’

-Chief Valdez ….when he was with the LAPD….ran afoul of a lieutenant named Pounds, who filed an internal complaint and unsuccessfully attempted to have Valdez demoted or even fired.img_0974 Valdez avoided both and just a few months later heard about a detective named Bosch who himself got into an altercation with Pounds and ended up throwing him through a plate-glass window at Hollywood Station. Valdez always remembered that name, and years later when he read about a now-retired Harry Bosch suing the LAPD for forcing him out of his job on the cold case squad, he picked up the phone.
Valdez couldn’t offer Bosch a paycheck, but he could offer him something Bosch valued more: a detective’s badge and access to all of the tiny city’s unsolved cases.

So Bosch is back, no longer with the LAPD whose hierarchy Connelly has milked to death in this long series, but as an unpaid detective in San Fernando -Barely bigger than two square miles in size….an island city within the megalopolis of Los Angeles working the unsolved crimes. The release from the LAPD lets Connelly take us back to the fluidity of some of his earlier works such as Black Ice or The Poet  and leaves the reader without that empty feeling of ‘why did I read another one of these?’ that some of his later works have left me with. That said, writing this a week after reading it I have completely forgotten the story and have had to re-read parts to remind myself.

This is then, as is to be expected today a book with two non-intersecting mysteries whose only common point is the detective and his limited time to handle two affairs. (I’ll have to read some of his earlier works to see if it was the fashion then) The first affair is a private detective affair where Bosch is contracted by Whitney Vance, a very old billionaire, at the centre of an industrial giant, who is without offspring, to find a woman he had been close to in the 50’s and to see if he had any descendants through her.

-What do you want me to do? Bosch asked again.
-I want you to find someone for me, Vance said. -Someone who might never have existed.

But of course this won’t be straightforward

—Don’t be naive, Mr. Bosch. I am sure you conducted a modicum of research before coming to see me. I have no heirs, at least known heirs. When I die, control of Advance Engineering will go to a board of directors who will continue to line their pockets with millions while fulfilling government contracts. A valid heir could change all of that. Billions could be at stake. You don’t think people and entities would kill for that?

The second affair is with The San Fernando police and a serial killer, where no one before Bosch had dotted the ‘i’s and crossed the ‘t’s And realised that the cases were linked.

I did read this through quickly, the mystery and twists held to the end, and if I should forget, do remind me never to volunteer to be Bosch’s partner!

First Published in English as “The Wrong Side Of Goodbye” in 2016 by Orion Books