Author, Book review, Fiction, Kent Haruf, literary fiction, Picador, Setting, USA

‘Benediction’ by Kent Haruf

Benediction_hardcover

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 272 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Kent Haruf’s Benediction is the final volume in the author’s Plainsong Trilogy, which also comprises Plainsong and Eventide, two of my favourite novels from the past couple of years. All three are set in the fictional rural town of Holt, Colorado, and each is just as lovely, heartbreaking and joyful as the one that precedes it.

One last summer

In Benediction, which was recently shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize, we meet Dad Lewis, the owner of a local hardware store, who has terminal cancer. His last final summer is spent getting his affairs in order — making sure the business goes on without him, preferably with his somewhat reluctant adult daughter in charge — and catching up with old friends and loved ones, who visit him and his wife, offering prayers and assistance.

But as the story gently unfolds and Dad recalls incidents from his long life, we discover that he won’t be entirely at peace until he finds his son, Frank, who fled the family home as a teenager, more than 30 years ago.

Several other characters dance around the edges of this main narrative: an orphaned girl called Alice, who moves in next door to live with her grandmother; Alene and Willa, the elderly mother and adult daughter, who befriend Alice; and Reverend Rob Lyle, a new arrival in town, whose familial relationships are strained, along with the relationship he has with his congregation.

And, once again, the town of Holt, is also a character — in this case, melting in the heat of a long, hot summer, some time after 9/11, when America is mired in the “war on terror” and public suspicions are running high.

Ordinary people

There’s a telling scene about mid-way through this book, when Reverend Lyle, who has been accused of being a terrorist sympathiser, wanders around the streets observing the residents through the windows at nightfall. He’s not stalking them or doing anything deliberately creepy. He tells the police that he simply wants to witness people’s lives — he wants to capture the “precious ordinary”.

And that’s an apt description for what Haruf achieves in this novel: he captures the precious ordinary of people leading ordinary lives in ordinary small-town America. He makes no judgement about them. He simply shows us their struggles and their small joys, he gives us their back stories and highlights the various decisions — some bad, some good — they made along the way, and he lets the reader come to their own conclusions about them.

I read the book in a kind of hypnotised wonder, not just at the beautifully clear and concise prose, but at the way in which Haruf exposes the inner-most workings of the human heart — the lies we tell ourselves to get by, the shame, the pride, the desire for connection we all feel. But what I most admire is the way he manages to wring so much emotion out of the story without it ever tipping over into sugary mawkishness. It always feels genuine and real.

I think it’s largely to do with his under-stated, limpid prose style and the simple, to-the-point dialogue between characters (of which there is much) that puts you firmly in the thick of the “action”  in much the same way a good theatre production would do so.

But perhaps it is because he addresses universal themes — what it is to be a good person and to lead a good life; the importance of little kindnesses, acceptance, love and friendship; the sense of community between people and places; the need for connections, whether spiritual or sexual; what it is like to face death; and the struggle to achieve the “precious ordinary” — that makes Benediction such a wise, humane and powerful read.

And finally…

Please note, even though Benediction is part of a loose trilogy, it is very much a standalone book — you do not have to read the first two to appreciate it. There’s a whole new cast of characters and only one or two passing references to those who appear in the previous two novels, so you won’t be missing out on anything if you start with this one. That said, I must warn you: if this is your first Kent Haruf novel, I’m pretty sure it won’t be your last.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Roddy Doyle, Setting

‘The Guts’ by Roddy Doyle

The-Guts

Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 328 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown TrilogyThe Commitments (published in 1987), The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991) — is one of my favourite ever volumes, so I was falling over myself with excitement when I heard he had a new novel out that turned the “trilogy” into a “quartet”.

Back with the Rabbitte family

The Guts is set in modern-day Dublin — there are references to Whitney Houston’s death, boxer Katie Taylor‘s gold medal in the London Olympics, and Christy Moore, Sigur Ros and The Cure playing the Electric Picnic, which suggests the date is 2012.

Jimmy Rabbitte, the man who invented and managed the soul band The Commitments in The Commitments, is now 47. He’s married to the lovely Aoife and has four kids — all named after soul singers.

While he’s not rich, he has managed to survive the collapse of the Irish economy via an online business (www.kelticpunk.com), which he founded with his wife, selling long-lost Irish punk songs as downloads. After paying off the mortgage, he sold 75 per cent of the business to a partner, Noeleene, but keeps his hand in by managing reunion gigs and other associated projects.

But now things aren’t so great: Jimmy has been diagnosed with bowel cancer. He needs an operation and a series of chemotherapy treatments. And just when it’s all looking pretty grim he stumbles upon three things to distract him — the gorgeous Imelda Quirke, who was a singer in The Commitments he hasn’t seen in 20 or so years; trumpet lessons; and a project to find punk-like music recorded in the same year as the International Eucharist Congress held in Dublin in 1932.

Black comedy

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the company of the Rabbitte family — and I have to say I enjoyed every minute of it. I knew I was going to love this book when I got my first laugh on page 3. From then on, I pretty much tittered my way throughout it.

Occasionally Doyle does waver into sentimentality, especially where cancer is concerned, but he usually reigns it back in with a good dose of black humour —  I especially loved that Jimmy’s purple velour tracksuit bottoms, given to him as a Christmas present by his wife, are dubbed “cancer trousers” and that the book Chemotherapy & Radiation for Dummies sent to him as a joke actually becomes bedtime reading material.

There are some delightful set pieces involving the family that particularly tickled my fancy. For instance, when 10-year-old Brian, nicknamed Smoke (presumably after Smoky Robinson), requests a  sat nav for Christmas, his parents buy him one even though he “doesn’t have a fuckin’ car”. And this is what happens on Christmas morning:

He walked down the road with Brian and got excited with him when they came to the first corner, and there it was, on the sat nav.
—Brilliant.
They took the left and watched themselves taking it.
—Coolio.
Here, Smoke, tell it where we’re goin’ and it’ll tell us where to go.
Brian impressed Jimmy, the way all his kids did, with his ability to negotiate the buttons, the confidence, the effortless speed. No grunting from this boy.
—Where we goin’? he asked.
—The Spar, said Smokey.
—It’s only over there.
—Drive forward, said the sat nav.
The voice was posh and reassuring, like an Aer Lingus pilot’s. […]
They found the Spar and were going on to Brian’s school. […] Brian turned right.
—The wrong way, Smoke.
—I know.
—Turn left, said the voice.
Brian kept going.
—Turn LEFT, said the voice.
Brian looked down at the sat nav.
—Fuck off, he said, and laughed.
He looked at Jimmy. And Jimmy laughed too.
—It’s brilliant, Dad, said Brian.

A musical project

The main story arc charts Jimmy coming to terms with his cancer treatment and reconnecting with the people he loves, including his long-lost brother, whom he manages to trackdown via Facebook. He also re-establishes contact with Outspan, another character from The Commitments, who has lung cancer and is in far worse shape than him.

But the real highlight is Jimmy’s musical project in which he hunts for tracks to include on a record of controversial Irish songs from 1932, the idea being to sell it during the 50th International Eucharist Congress held in Dublin in the summer. As he hunts about in people’s attics, looking for old recordings, he can’t quite find the song he’s looking for — one that will sum up “the great escape”, one that will “say things that weren’t allowed” — and because of that he hits upon a rather radical idea: he will simply write one himself and find someone to record it.

What ensues is a kind of modern-day farce, involving YouTube and social media “buzz”, culminating in a very public, very surreal performance at the Electric Picnic music festival.

A heartfelt story

I think it’s clear from The Guts that Roddy Doyle has written this one from the guts: it’s frank and funny, it’s about things that matter (love and family and friendship), and it crackles with feisty Dublin dialect and richly comic exchanges. And the endless music references are just brilliant.

Despite the tragic illness at its core, the story is largely optimistic and upbeat, though it does stray into the saccharine every now and then.

But on the whole I loved spending time with Jimmy, a middle-aged man getting back in touch with his emotions and enjoying what he loves: women, family, pints and music, not necessarily in that order.

Australia, Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, Helen Garner, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Spare Room’ by Helen Garner

TheSpareRoom

Fiction – hardcover; Canongate; 180 pages; 2008.

Even before I started reading Helen Garner‘s The Spare Room I knew I was going to like it. It was the design of the book that convinced me, because surely a publisher wouldn’t go to all this trouble to make it look so beautiful if the content was rubbish? The cover image grabbed me initially when I ordered it online, but once I had it in my possession I loved the whole package: the gorgeous cover image (tulips are my favourite flowers); the dust jacket with its luxurious matt sheen; the pretty endpapers (tulip petals interspersed with green leaves); and a green bound bookmark.

But putting the sheer physical beauty of the book aside, The Spare Room is also rather special because it is Garner’s first novel in 16 years. Her last novel, Cosmo Comolino, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 1992, but she then took a different writing path, concentrating on short stories and journalism. The first (and only) Garner I have read was The First Stone, a non-fiction account of a sexual harassment scandal at a residential college at the University of Melbourne, which caused much controversy upon publication in 1995. I ate that book up in the course of a day and closed the last page feeling dazed, slightly dirty and not quite sure whether the author was a genius or a traitor. Having now read The Spare Room my opinion lies toward the former rather than the latter.

That other great Australian author Peter Carey endorses Garner’s talent by describing her new book as a “perfect novel”.  Of course this is an oft overused trite phrase but, in this specific case, it’s a wholly appropriate one. In fact, I’d go so far as to describe it as a sublime novel, and one that works its way into your subconscious so that you find yourself thinking about it when you are doing other things.

Reviewing the book is difficult though, because the synopsis sounds terribly dull and depressing. A 60-something woman offers her spare room to a cancer-stricken friend of the same age and then finds their relationship tested to the core, doesn’t really grab you by the throat, does it? And yet, in Garner’s careful hands this story becomes a thoroughly engrossing one. The carefully measured prose, stripped of unnecessary clutter, serves to remove the claustrophobia of such a dark storyline, imbuing it with a light-hearted touch. Indeed, there were many times when I laughed out loud, not the least of when Nicola, the cancer sufferer, asks Helen, the friend caring for her, to buy some organic coffee for an enema.

When I saw her brewing the organic coffee in the kitchen after dinner, I said tentatively, ‘Do you need a hand to set it up? I can…
She shook her head, too busy to listen.
‘I wonder, though,’ I said, as she forged off to the bathroom with the equipment. ‘Is it a good idea to have a coffee enema at bedtime? You don’t think the caffeine might keep you awake?’
‘Why on earth would it do that, darling?’ she said breezily. ‘I won’t be drinking it — I’ll only be putting it up my bum.’

Supposedly based on Garner’s own experience of caring for a dying friend, The Spare Room has a genuine ring of authenticity about it. You can understand Helen’s anger, her fear, her inability to look after her dying friend, even if it is for just three weeks, because you know to be in a similar situation you’d probably feel the same way. Why should a friend do what a family member should be doing? And what happens if this friend dies in your spare room?

This is a novel about death and friendship, about drawing lines and crossing them, about facing up to hard truths and shying away from things we’d rather not confront. But it also embraces other uncomfortable issues, including whether it is permissible to believe in alternative therapies if Western medicine does not have a solution, but all the while it never preaches, never comes across as heavy or patronising.

The Spare Room is one of those books that throws you in at the deep end and, to completely mix my metaphors, you either run with it or you don’t. I’m pleased to say I ran with it… and only wished it was longer than its brief 180 pages.