6. American Pastoral

By Philip Roth. 1997. 

As Donald Trump became president today, my Facebook friends cried “The fight starts now” and “We’re doomed” and “Don’t forget to set the clock back 300 years.” A smart journalist friend said she severed three once-cherished relationships over Trump. The women in my small town march against Trump tomorrow, and I live in Mexico.

In this moment of mass angst and sweeping change, remember the Swede.

Seymour “the Swede” Levov, center of the celebrated novel American Pastoral, personifies America’s greatest era. The Swede was a legendary athlete, trained marines for World War II, and ran factories in Newark. He fondly remembers boyhood, “the American way his father said to the guy at the pump, ‘Fill ‘er up, Mac. Check the front end, will ya, Chief?'” The Swede loves America.

His beloved daughter Merry hates America, so deeply that she bombs a post office, killing an innocent man. Then she disappears.

The explosion devastates everything. He cannot understand it, and this lack of understanding is, to me, why American Pastoral matters. Consider the profound shift between World War II and Vietnam, the Greatest Generation aging in the ’60s and watching riots and domestic terrorism committed by Americans their children’s age.

Roth seeks essential American truth, and finds this: There is no answer. His backdrop – macro-level, zoomed way out – is our conflicted country, seething. Zoomed in: a father and his daughter, a self-consciously good man whose baby girl grew into a killer. Why can’t a good life hold? All around him, in his city (macro) and his marriage (micro), other conflicts rage. If he cannot reconcile a conflict, if there is no winner or loser, what can the Swede do? Change?

This is dense literature. American Pastoral forgoes traditional thrills. It’s not a procedural. It enters the mind of a man who wants desperately to understand. Do everything right, build a life of love and hard work, and societal change might fuck everything up. We are leaves on a windy plain.

Half of America cannot understand the other half. Accept it, because it will happen again, like it always does, with terrible consequences, like there always are.

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5. Downtown Owl

By Chuck Klosterman. 2008. 

Written right, normal is weird, because, in real life, weird is normal.

Downtown Owl has no plot. Set in a fictitious North Dakota town (Owl), its chapters rotate three characters: Mitch, Julia, and Horace, repeatedly in that order, except a few welcome surprise chapters toward the end.

And what a fucking ending. It rouses heavy questions about fiction. It makes me wonder if author (and master culture journalist whose essays have long been my secret cure for writer’s block) Chuck Klosterman is cruel.

Characters don’t change, the style shifts wildly, and most scenes feel tangential. But unconventionality is ideal to tell a story with high school football and friends getting drunk. Klosterman is such a funny and specific writer that lines like this…

Horace’s pajamas made him clownlike. He was not aware of this. 

… and this…

Julia was now 90 percent sure she was attracted to this man and 49 percent sure he was attracted to her. 

… and countless others compel investment until the book ends too quickly. Old guys arguing at a coffee-shop counter can be rich entertainment. A drunk young teacher acting belligerent in public is like a pop-art painting that expresses inarticulable ideas about life.

They’re so normal. Except no one’s normal. Horace, a widower, likes solitude genuinely. Mitch reads 1984 for class and thinks Orwell’s future sounds fine, because he doesn’t understand why people decorate, and sex brings misery in small towns.

So how was 1984 a dystopia? It seemed ordinary. What was so unusual about everyone knowing all the same things?

He’s being a smart-ass, but to himself he has a point.

Mitch, Julia and Horace are not heroes or villains. They’re not anything, except alone or with other people. Sharing their time is refreshing.

But does Klosterman hate them? Of course not, and yet… when a long-promised killer storm arrives at the ending, it’s vicious. If nothing is necessary in a book with no plot, bringing devastation seems mean.

Does it matter? Do fates in fiction matter? Why go huge if you’re not saying something meaningful? Why anything?

Downtown Owl is more than funny; it bent my mind. We are fascinating contradictions. Hail Klosterman.

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4. Matterhorn

By Karl Marlantes. 2009. 

Between the Trail of Tears op and the fight for Matterhorn comes – for Bravo Company – the calmer eye of this insane shit storm The Vietnam War. Lieutenant Mellas finally gets beer. He chugs one, then another. He’s upset about something deadly serious and runs his mouth and drinks more beer until he’s drunk. Reading the words, I felt almost drunk. The whole book is like that.

The first half is Bravo Company’s brutal hump through murdering jungle. Their hands and feet rot. Leeches, sickness, a fucking tiger all loom for days and nights long after they finish the food and water and start dying.

The second half is mostly battle.

Two favorite books, Slaughterhouse Five and The Things They Carry, subverted the idea that war is heroic. Matterhorn ain’t like that. The fight is thrilling – its horrors culminate in spectacular glory. Heroes are made but also killed, and because we’ve humped the Trail of Tears beside Bravo, the losses hurt.

Stupid pride rears in scenes of superior officers treating starving marines like game pieces, but the salient theme hits in the concluding act. Racial tension, roiling the entire book, explodes. After the jungle and battle, the worst act of all is committed soldier-on-soldier, because of race. Men who should love each other kill each other instead, because of race.

When I read Matterhorn, I think This is the best novel ever. Probably not, but it is thrilling entertainment, better than any war film. You are wet, hungry, dehydrated, and scared, until it worsens. Tight sentences express what happens inside and all around these young men:

His hands were shaking. The blood pounded so hard in his throat that each heartbeat hurt. His thighs felt too weak to keep his knees from folding. His empty insides still churned with the desire to eliminate watery feces. He gave the signal and walked forward into the nakedness of the hillside. The others walked with him, emerging from the trees in a single quavery line.

What happens next is so insane it should be impossible to write truly. Yet there it is.

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3. ‘Salem’s Lot

By Stephen King. 1975.

How would Dracula consume a small town? ‘Salem’s Lot.

Dark lord Stephen King crafts an evil house on a hill for Dracula to move into. Cue blood sacrifices, disappearances, strange deaths, and, eventually, “all around them, the bestiality of the night rises on tenebrous wings. The vampire’s time has come.”

Dracula (he’s called Barlow) lurks while his vampire takeover is witnessed at street level. ‘Salem’s Lot (of course) has a main character, nice guy Ben Mears, and a love interest, a mentor, a kid. There are many secondary players, some with crucial roles, including drunks and eccentrics and the town gossip and a bully and some trailer trash whose baby is so God-damned scary and (of course) the sheriff.

The town itself, Jerusalem’s Lot, is the saddest character of all, invaded and killed from inside. Here’s an example of a master writer turning place into more. One sentence:

But by mid-May, the sun rises out of the morning’s haze with authority and potency, and standing on your top step at seven in the morning with your dinner bucket in your hand, you know that the dew will be melted off the grass by eight and that the dust on the back roads will hang depthless and still in the air for five minutes after a car’s passage; and that by one in the afternoon it will be up to ninety-five on the third floor of the mill and the sweat will roll off your arms like oil and stick your shirt to your back in a widening patch and it may as well be July.

You’re there. Yet King’s greatest gift is not word skills. The greatest gifts are characters, especially villains, and ever-escalating stakes, scenes of bravery and pain that get crazier the deeper you go, way past sanity. King tells big, ambitious good-and-evil stories, spiced with real fear – the scariest scenes in ‘Salem’s Lot are not vampire attacks. They’re moments so expertly realized that they feel like memory, like inception, like it’s happening before your eyes. It’s terrifying, but responding to a story is also fun as hell.

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2. Franny and Zooey

By J.D. Salinger. 1961.

Zooey Glass finds, written on “snow-white beaverboard” in his twin brothers’ old room, a series of quotations. One is from the Bhagavad Gita, and says, in part, “You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work.” Another, by Marcus Aurelius, says, simply, “It loved to happen.”

The first quote is interesting in the context of author J.D. Salinger’s life. Salinger, famously, was a recluse who wrote for hours daily yet rarely published, despite blockbuster success for The Catcher in the Rye. He liked work, and didn’t care for the fruit.

Franny and Zooey is an atypical book, compiling two stories that ran in The New Yorker in the late 1950s. Franny mostly takes place on a date. Franny Glass is out with her insufferable boyfriend. He puffs himself up, oblivious to her intense physical reaction to his hoity-toity Yale bullshit. She’s not eating, can’t focus, excuses herself to go cry in the bathroom. She returns and it worsens, until she cracks.

The question is: Is Franny a brat? She’s rich and brilliant, so might her breakdown be merely obnoxious? To like this book, you probably have to buy this crisis as legit.

Franny is home, in Zooey, with her brother Zooey dispensing advice over many, many pages.

Maybe Salinger didn’t publish more because he wrote so personally. Zooey is family members in rooms together, discussing the meaning of life. Is selflessness the answer? Franny wants to pray so constantly that the prayer becomes unconscious, like a heartbeat. But must she?

Family leads to higher truth. Zooey spends and hour in the bathtub, gently insulting his nagging mother as he not-so-gently demands she get out. Then he goes downstairs to lecture his sister mercilessly. The whole book takes place in about two rooms.

“It loved to happen,” the great Roman king said. Maybe so. Of all the things Salinger wrote, he published Franny and Zooey. He knew he was onto something with this one. It doesn’t have the answer, but it’s earnestly seeking. And it’s short.

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1. The Catcher in the Rye

By J.D. Salinger. 1951 

The headaches get intense for Holden Caulfield. He becomes too depressed to concentrate. Friends ask him to calm down, to stop yelling. He’s 16, troubled, a mess of neuroses, and The Catcher in the Rye takes place over a few terrible days of embarrassment, assault, and drunken awkwardness.

Because I watch too many movies, I thought this was creepy as I read. The guy who killed John Lennon was obsessed with Catcher in the Rye, and that bit of extremely interesting trivia casts a dark shadow. Holden narrates the story and outright admits he’s a liar. Superficially he seems not to change, violating an essential rule of storytelling. There’s no conflict; he just totes his bad attitude from encounter to encounter. Were he a lying murderer or rapist, and what we read is actually not what’s happening, that would explain the lack of arc.

But a kid who hates adults is no psychopath. He’s normal, but almost too normal. Dark, complicated psychological moments – like rejection or sexual confusion – are rendered in Salinger’s style that perfectly, almost creepily, matches normal speech (“and all”). There are countless lines like this: I was surrounded by jerks. I’m not kidding. 

Clues to Holden’s issues escape. His brother died. He may have been molested: “perverty… stuff’s happened to me about 20 times since I was a kid.”

When his little sister accuses him of not liking or wanting to be anything, Holden misquotes a poem and says he pictures kids playing in a field of rye, near a cliff. When they get too close to the edge he catches them. “I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

That is not a job.

The transition to adulthood can be dicey. Holden’s been expelled and fears his parents, and New York City kicks his ass. He’s not cared-for.

The pissed-off voice makes this novel famous, but Holden’s arc is true. He does change, on the last page. It could be cheesy and all – I just hate it when they end all cheesy – but it isn’t. It’s perfection.

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