When there’s more to the Novel than a Story

Not every novel is a classic.  Visit any English class and you’ll hear that a lot of novels are pulp or, as Capote said, “That’s not writing; That’s typing.”  I won’t argue that point (my mom didn’t raise anyone that foolish) but I think some “popular” novels get less respect than they deserve.   These books, whose primary purpose is entertainment, often have insights into the human condition.  To ignore the good in these stories is to turn a blind eye to real gold.

Dick Francis’s 24th novel is called Proof but it could have used one of his later titles, Come to Grief.  Here, Tony Beach is trying to live a reasonable life under the weight of a double burden.  His wife passed away six months before and he’s still mourning her death.   The second is the shadow of a family legacy: Tony’s father and grandfather were famous as brave men and riders but Tony fears the damage that comes from falling off a horse.  So he sells wine and spirits for a living, watches other people ride horses and remains convinced he’s the family coward. 

It’s Tony’s connections to the horse world that have him catering drinks at a party where his own talents are called into play.  Some restaurants are selling inferior wines and whisky under the labels of superior spirits (Only oenophiles and single-malt scotch drinkers will grasp how heinous a crime this is) and Tony’s knowledge and taste-memory skills are used to investigate the fraud.  Once the criminals learn he’s involved, Tony discovers for himself whether not he deserves to be called a coward.

Between the story and some interesting background on spirits (each distillery can recognize it’s own product not by taste but by a chemical analysis called a profile) are some spot-on observations of humanity.  How bereaved people are often expected to act as if they’ve accommodated their loss when their sorrow is painfully fresh; why forgiving a law-breaker may be sensible but removing the consequences of breaking the law is foolish and that while loss may be sudden and devastating, recovery is the process of years. These may be just observations to the casual reader but to someone grappling with grief or injury, these nuggets of sense can be touchstones to be remembered and used.  They make Proof so much more than just a Story.

As for the title, Proof may mean the measure of alcohol in this drinks-related tale or it may be the evidence required to establish the truth of the matter, whether that’s a bottle of Scotch or the content of someone’s character.  According to Tony, the proof of alcohol was once tested by mixing it with gunpowder and fire.  If the mixture burned with a steady blue flame, the drink held at least fifty percent alcohol.   Of course technology can determine the degrees of alcohol in a bottle these days but that won’t work on people.  To gauge the content of their characters may still require a trial by fire.

The only constant in life is change

They don’t teach us that when we’re kids. When we’re little, the routine is a big part of our existence and we rely on it as much as we chafe at its boundaries: on weekdays we wake up and get dressed for school, following a specific route from home to class and back; we meet who we’re supposed to meet when we meet them and homework is done on the dot.  We have a prescribed dinner time, family time and bedtime and our birthdays arrive on schedule every year.  During adolescence we fight to tear up the schedule and we become adults when we realize how our parents fought to keep the reality of change from impinging on our routine.  Adults know the only constant in life is change and to survive they must learn to adapt.  Sometimes in the process they make mistakes but that’s a part of learning to adapt.

This is the undercurrent of Elisabeth Egan’s debut novel, A Window Opens, and her heroine, Alice Pearse, starts the story understanding the need.  As a veteran of the sandwich generation she’s a mom to her children and a daughter of parents who all need her at the same time.  She’s also a loving wife so when her husband’s career takes a radical hit, Alice looks for a full-time job to keep the family income stable and give him the opportunity he needs to re-write his vocational future.  And since Alice believes in the future, she takes a position with one of the new, edgy conglomerates looking to revolutionize the retail experience.

Part of book is focused on the ever-shifting conflict between honoring and trashing the past and one of the comic highlights of A Window Opens captures it in the war between paper and e-books.  Alice’s new employer (no surprise) wants to focus the majority of their product on e-books and comes up with nasty nicknames for the traditional paper-and-spine format  but one of the company perks is each new employee gets a first edition of his/her favorite book.  (I imagined someone offering me that job and then withdrawing the offer after I requested a first edition of Jane Eyre.)  Alice’s choice is there when she starts her job but the book is never really hers.  She can’t take it off the job-site or even read its pages.  The volume must stay wrapped in plastic and under lock and key.  Eventually, Alice has to ask herself: what’s the point of having a book if you’re not allowed to read it?

There are other questions for Alice and some of the answers aren’t that easy but Egan’s best point is about time.   Because of our growing culture people can become almost anything in life they want to be (a parent, an astronaut, a horticulturalist) but no one can be everything, certainly not all at once.  Each life has a limited amount of time and our choices determine how we’ll spend it.  Egan’s advise is to base those decisions on who and what we love, mindful that any choice closes some doors.  That’s not as grim as it sounds, as my mom used to say.  Whenever circumstance closes a door, somewhere A Window Opens.

Elisabeth Egan’s A Window Opens will go on sale in August of this year.  My thanks to NetGalley for sharing a copy of this with me for review purposes

The Gift

Sometimes you just get lucky.

I believe that.

About six months ago I started this  column, writing about books I’d come to love dearly and early on, I praised Shirley Jackson, a writer that almost seemed forgotten.  My mother had loved her work and introduced me to it at an early age.  That was lucky because, in those days, Jackson’s work (with the exception of one story) wasn’t reprinted.  At that time, Jackson wasn’t often remembered in literary circles and when she was the discussions were limited to her supernatural or psychologically disturbing tales.   The author also wrote a lot of well-crafted stories about family life but these were given less weight because a)they were funny or b) they were “chick lit.”   Of all of her works, these looked like they had the least chance of getting back into print.

Except, now they are.

Ms. Jackson’s books about life with one husband, one sheep dog, four children, 10,000 books and innumerable cats are back in print.  Life Among the Savages follows two parents and their two young children from a New York City apartment to an old Vermont house with Pillars in the Front and ends with the arrival of the fourth child, Barry.  Raising Demons sees the family of six move into their last home (a huge house that had been cut up into apartments) and the older children move toward adolescence through the eyes of the somewhat overwhelmed and sharp-eyed mother.  Her dry sense of humor about the absurdities of life carries everything along without straying near sentimentality, a quality few domestic writers can claim.  That kind of writing is a gift.  Luckily, that’s not the only present we’ve got coming.

Let Me Tell You is due to be released late this summer and of course, I’ve ordered my copy.  The collection comes from previously unpublished essays that were edited by two of her children, Laurence Hyman and Sarah Hyman Dewitt.  Early reviews (oh, those lucky critics who have read this already) promise a varied collection that showcases Ms. Jackson’s wonderful subversive humor and her clean-as-a-whistle prose.  The book comes out on August 4th.  I’d better take vacation that day.  I won’t be worth shooting until I’ve read this book.

Like I said, I was born lucky.  A newly invented product saved me when I was an infant and, despite scores of mistakes, I’ve avoided a lot of pitfalls and found an awful lot of friends.  Oh, and my mother let me read the work of Shirley Jackson.  Actually, that was more of a gift.

The trials of fathers and daughters

Okay, I know it’s close to Mother’s Day but there’s something about Fathers and Daughters.  God knows, I adored mine.  He was funny, smart and bullheaded, just the kind of man to indulge a mischievous daughter who didn’t want to obey her mom.  Yes sir, I think my father was brilliant but a lot of girls feel that way about their dads..  Adela Rogers St. Johns certainly did and she captured that father-daughter spark in her biography, Final Verdict.  Of course, when she said her Old Man was brilliant the rest of the world agreed.  Earl Rogers may still be the greatest trial attorney that ever entered a courtroom.
It’s funny but no one remembers Earl Rogers these days.  Mention Johnny Cochran or F. Lee Bailey or Gerry Spence and legal heads will nod.  Talk about Bill Kunstler or Clarence Darrow and some history mavens will admit they had skill but they point out these guys lost as many cases as they won.   Talk about the man who Perry Mason was based on and you’ll hear “Perry who??”  Well, such is the nature of fame.  Still, in the first half of the twentieth century, if you were charged with murder and everyone assumed you were guilty, the best news you could hear was “Earl Rogers is taking your case.”  And if he was, Adela would be at your side.
In the era before computer simulations Rogers brought re-enactments into the courtroom and visual aids to instruct and aid the juries.  He was an expert on forensic evidence and is considered the inventor of the art of cross-examination, one of the skills highlighted in the character, Perry Mason.  Perry used to irritate me with his habit of cross-examining a witness until he or she confessed to the crime.  Earl Rogers actually did that while Adela watched him from the first row behind the defense table.  She went with him to client meetings in jail-cells and crime-scene investigations while Mother sat in the house and raged about the husband and daughter who embarrassed her so with their antics.  Adela wouldn’t or couldn’t become the kind of girl her mother wanted any more than her mom could be the kind of woman Earl Rogers needed in his life.  Mrs. Rogers was beautiful, popular and demanding but she lacked the spiritual generosity and intellectual curiosity her husband treasured.  In the end, the couple split up and Adela looked after her dad, instead of him looking after her.
Earl Rogers had incandescent gifts but his life and career were shortened by booze.  Time after time he would disappear for days or end up under arrest himself and he drank up the fortune he earned.  Eventually the alcohol affected his brain and Rogers could not give a client what he felt they were entitled to, the very best defense.  That broke the heart of the lawyer and probably increased his drinking.  Finally, Adela asked the court to commit her father to an asylum so he could dry out.  In typical Rogers fashion, he fought the commitment, cross-examined his daughter and freed himself with just two questions.  Of all of his victories, this may have been the costliest as he died in a flophouse a few months later.
Adela writes of her father with with great dignity, honesty and love, rightfully crediting him with the confidence, knowledge and network that helped her build her own career as one of the first Hollywood journalists.  I used to watch her on chat shows talking about the early days of pictures or about San Simeon and William Randolph Hearst.  I don’t remember her talking about her Dad.
Well, great fathers are hard to speak of once they’re gone, even the ones who let you down.  With all of his troubles, Earl Rogers did  the best he could for his daughter, just as he gave his clients the best defense he could muster.  In turn, she loved and was loved by him.  That’s my final verdict.