In America, the political has been personal ever since the Revolution. Though they're writing about three wildly different eras -- the 1850s, the 1960s and the 1990s -- these authors all work the territory where self meets body politic.
Making the List
One trend this new century won't continue--let's hope--is 1999's passion for best-of lists. The phenomenon has gotten ample ink already and I don't want to waste more on it here (except to express some serious skepticism about how the listmaker/publishers go about their business--do they go for what they really think is best or what they can get the rights to?).
Even looked at through the most cynical eyes, some lists include undeniable winners. Penguin's "Great Books of the 20th Century" -- though bold, the name leaves the publisher some wiggle room -- has just done us the favor of putting out nice softcover editions of two books with a stronger claim than most to the title of American classic: Toni Morrison's Beloved ($14.95) and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow ($18.95).
Somebody was telling me the other day about a college classmate whose favorite party trick was to declaim the "Rocket Limericks" from Pynchon's novel: "There was a young fellow named Hector,/ Who was fond of a launcher-erector./ But the squishes and pops/ Of acute pressure drops/ Wrecked Hector's hydraulic connector." Always a favorite with the fraternity crowd. In fact, Pynchon's narrator says of another sung limerick that "the tune is universally known among American fraternity boys": "There once was a thing called a V-2,/ To pilot which you did not need to -- / You just pushed a button,/ And it would leave nuttin'/ But stiffs and big holes and debris, too."
Trying to capture Gravity's Rainbow in a paragraph or two is about as easy and sensible as chasing after a V-2 rocket bomb, the diabolical secret weapon the Germans are raining down on wartime London as the story begins (famous opening lines here, FYI): "A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now." In a railroad car a captain sits awaiting evacuation "in velveteen darkness, with nothing to smoke, feeling metal nearer and farther rub and connect, steam escaping in puffs, a vibration in the carriage's frame, a poising, an uneasiness, all the others pressed in around, feeble ones, second sheep, all out of luck and time . . . "
From that cigarette-deprived captain the trail leads to Lt. Tyrone Slothrop, an American doing intelligence work for the British. Slothrop's also a ladies' man who keeps a map of his sexual conquests. All's fair in love and war -- except that Slothrop's lays of the land line up with V-2 impact sites. What the heck is going on? That question launches Slothrop on a cross-Europe spree of investigation into why his episodes of lust turn out to be so explosive. Naturally there's a mad scientist somewhere at work (either in Slothrop's present or his past), and an international cabal of military-industrial types, and all manner of oddities historical and satirical. For those wondering about the title, if there are folks out there who haven't encountered it before: "Gravity's rainbow" refers to the arc of vapor -- the killer rainbow -- left by the V-2 rocket as it flies toward destruction.
The destruction in Toni Morrison's Beloved comes from a source as small as she is powerful: a baby daughter done to death by her own mother, Sethe, a former slave who lives with her surviving daughter, Denver, in a house on the outskirts of Cincinnati. It's 1873, and that murdered baby's ghost stalks around the place, turning over kettles of chickpeas, crumbling crackers, shaking the floorboards. "Who would have thought that a little old baby could harbor so much rage?" Poltergeisting isn't enough for this spirit; after Paul D., a fellow former slave from Sweet Home plantation, walks back into Sethe's life, a strange and ghostly young woman turns up at the door in need of aid and comfort. What happens when Sethe takes in the girl, whom she calls Beloved after her dead child, and what happened to make Sethe take that child's life in the first place, are the stuff of this National Book Award-winning novel.
Deep South on Long Island
For a while now, Louisiana State University Press been putting out "Voices of the South," a softcover series dedicated to keeping available books such as Shirley Ann Grau's The House on Coliseum Street and Percival Everett's Suder (subject of a recent Book Club discussion by Book World senior editor Jabari Asim -- see www.washingtonpost.com/bookclub).
This fall LSU added four titles to the list, bringing the total to 50: Robert Penn Warren's World Enough and Time ($18.95), Walter Sullivan's The Long, Long Love ($15.95), Richard Bausch's Real Presence ($15.95) and Nancy Lemann's Sportsman's Paradise ($15.95). In Lemann's comic, underhandedly bittersweet novel, a bunch of Southerners -- one's tempted to call them expats, though they've only gone north to New York -- gather for alcoholic weekends out on Long Island. One of them, Storey Collier, narrates the goings-on and takes gentle stabs at herself and her confreres: "The bay is like a pleasure kingdom. The red-and-white-striped lawn chairs, the children in rubber boats far out in the bay, and people taking drinks on their front porches. Everyone seems to be slowly getting plastered all afternoon."
Into this genteel, boozy atmosphere rolls Hobby Fox, 36-year-old ex-baseballer and now editor on a New York City paper, and so much more than that to Storey: "My old flame, Hobby Fox, is sitting on a deck chair in the night alone. He is the nephew of Constant Fox, the heart throb. Possibly Hobby is too gruff and crusty to be an exact heart throb. But he is one anyway. `His eyes are so blue it just makes you want to go jump in the river,' " observes one of Storey's friends.
Can Storey and her ex-beau overcome what she calls their "moment of dishonor," which took place in a Southern hotel 5 years earlier? (I won't give away what sort of dishonor was involved.) Should they rekindle that flame? Drifting between past and present like a vacationer's skiff, the book takes up those questions while it looks lovingly at the clan rituals and kinship ties of Storey's Louisiana upbringing.
The Hunger Artist
Though like them a transplant to New York, the Taiwanese-born Min--narrator of the title novella of Lan Samantha Chang's debut collection, Hunger (Penguin, $12.95)--seems worlds away from the hard-drinking, soft-speaking Southerners of Nancy Lemann's fiction. A waitress at the Vermilion Palace restaurant, Min's chilled through and through by New York--until she meets Tian, a violinist, who comes in one day for a bowl of beef noodle soup: "I seated him and poured his tea, looking down at the swirl of leaves in the water. I felt the heat of the steam in my face, the warm steel handle in my hands; I watched the tea leaves drift and slide against the blue and white cup. He thanked me in Chinese. His dark eyes followed the line of my face, my throat, down to my starched white shirt. For the first time, I felt warm."
They marry, make a modest life in Brooklyn, have two daughters, somewhat against Tian's will, and live out a life that Min will recall years later in that same small space: "Behind this painted wall, beneath this layer of new sheathing, hides the story of our lives together. I have been silent many years, and my daughters have chosen to forget, but our family story lingers here. It waits under the floor; it has slid into the crawl space, wound around the stubborn beams and girders that were already old thirty years ago, when Tian and I first came to Brooklyn."
Tian's musical career falters and fails; the daughters, Anna and Ruth, grow up, different as night and day, the first desperate for her father's love and the second overburdened by it. As Tian transfers his ambitions onto their youngest girl, Min sees but can't stop the desperate struggle of wills between the parent and the child. Like a rubber band she stretches to accommodate, to keep them all linked together and connected in some way to the place they came from: the project, in miniature, of many immigrants who try their fortunes in alien lands. But her hopes, like her husband's, crumble as the family collapses: "Some Chinese make their fortunes in America. Tian and I were not among them. Perhaps we lacked the forgetfulness that is essential to moving on." Precise yet subjective, quietly lovely, Hunger cuts to the bone of a specific community's experience and finds the universal there.
Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is email@example.com