David, the biblical warrior/poet/musician/king has fascinated me for a long time. How could any man encompass all those talents? I once set out to write a musical about him, but could find no composer interested enough, and the project lies tucked away in the files. I’d love to finish it some time. Geraldine Brooks‘ The Secret Chord is the latest in a distinguished pantheon of works about this gigantic (and, vs. Goliath, boyish) figure. I don’t pretend to have read even a healthy fraction of them, but I have some memorable ones under my belt. One of my top three Faulkner works–Absalom, Absalom—is metaphorically tied to him. Joseph Heller gave it a try in God Knows, with what I thought were mediocre results. As for Ms. Brooks, Her effort is right up there with best.
The Secret Chord focuses on David in his decline with flashbacks to his glory days. The title is a literal reference to the musical prowess that enables him to draw such sweet music from his harp and a metaphorical suggestion of his leadership power that draws people to him. Brooks makes extensive use of the prophet Nathan, who is David’s conscience and gadfly. The one who scorches him for the way he expropriated Bathsheba and basically murdered her husband Uriah to make their marriage legal. She quickly disposes of the accusations brought about her over the years. Didn’t she purposely tempt men by appearing naked on the roof? What was she doing up there anyway? The house was full of men taking advantage of Uriah’s hospitality. She was desperate for privacy. She made sure she was covered the whole time. She was a victim of a king she didn’t dare disobey and remains basically his prisoner the whole of his life.
And then there are David’s other women–his first wife, Michal, whom he disgraced and humiliated with his naked dance through the streets of Jerusalem. And any number of others. Brooks brings these women to us, shows us their bitterness and oppression. And shows us how they lose control of their children as they get caught up in the whirlwind of David’s imperial ambitions, and then his downfall.
We see David’s agony and vulnerability. Despite all his powers–more and varied than are granted to nearly any other human in history–he is unable to find satisfaction or security. He confesses his manifold sins, tortures himself for them, yet goes on to sin yet again. Because he wields such great power, his transgressions harm not only himself, but thousands around him. And his kingdom falls apart under the weight of his mistakes. What’s left?
Well, Solomon, of course. When we leave him he is still a boy, a light in the dark days and a product of Bathsheba’s and Nathan’s goodness and David’s hopes. Because of him, one lays down The Secret Chord with a smile to know what’s to come, but a smile tinged with sadness for the tarnished glory of his father.
Isabel Allende‘s works have been uneven of late (Witness the mediocre Zorro, yet Ripper had considerable merit. ), but The Japanese Lover demonstrates that she still has considerable literary power.
It’s a complex story which she keeps beautifully simple. We open in a senior community in San Francisco, keeping company with Alma Belasco and her eastern European caretaker, Irina Bazili. The eccentric Belasco is intent on keeping her dignity and her secrets in her old age. Young Irina has her own secrets and major problems dealing with her own troubled past. Allende delicately teases out their histories, thread by thread, unweaving a tapestry of intrigue containing images reaching back into pre-WWII Poland, through the Japanese Internment camps, and into modern times.
Without going too much into the plot because I don’t want to spoil things, I will simply say that it’s a story of great compassion and wisdom, a tale about people who are dealing with pain and seeking healing in a novel that is as much about how to deal with death and dying as it is about how to deal with hope and living. Finally, it is a tribute to the creative imagination, that element that has kept us Allendephiles following her all these years.
Carla Trujillo‘s Faith and Fat Chances is a unique tale full of magical realism and great humor. Humor is lacking, I believe, in modern fiction, and I absolutely appreciated her ability to conjure up chuckles all the way through.
Not that the story lacks seriousness. We find ourselves in a down-and-out section of Santa Fe called Dogtown, where a materially poor but spiritually rich community is being threatened with extinction. There’s a plot, spearheaded by one of its own people and backed by a powerful mayor, to plow the whole area under to create a vineyard. Hooray for the privileged chardonnay and brie set of Santa Fe, too bad for the displaced people who will be unable to afford housing outside of their community. Not to mention the destruction of an entire subculture.
However, Pepa Romero, a respected unconventional cunandera calls her people to revolt and works her magic to help the revolution proceed. Her trickery is effective, often in ways she never imagined, even pulling the local priest into the maelstrom of magic she creates. The complex dynamic of mistaken identity and a biblical torrent of rain and a host of other hilarious events create an atmosphere of constant action, suspense, and humor.
It’s a confrontation between the virtuous poor and political power and betrayal entirely appropriate for this tense electoral season. We need a laugh, and Trujillo provides.
I’d read a few articles here and there in The New Yorker by Paul Theroux, but Deep South is the first lengthy prose piece I’d encountered. And it’s a doozy. Unlike Travels With Charley and other such meandering journals, Deep South is not satisfied with a single pass at the country and its people. He goes from his Cape Cod home to the south several times over the course of several seasons and returns to some of the same locales and people he has visited before. Theroux’s prose is brisk and clear, his observations trenchant and uncompromising.
He’s traveled the world, but seen many third world countries with more resources than many of the places he visited, especially the Mississippi Delta. Well-publicized charities such as the Gates and Clinton foundations spread money all over Asia and Africa, yet give not a penny to the desperately impoverished people in their own country. The old racial animosities and cultural/institutional separations still exist. Black farmers can’t get loans. White kids go to school at private, segregated venues, black kids get separate and decidedly unequal. And was a wonderful way of life back then and still is.
Yet, there’s still a universal gentility about the whole area that beats the northern mentality all hollow in many ways, though the cost is to remain ignorant of the past and blind to the present. “One of the grand creations of the New South was a mythical concept of the Old South,” he quotes one writer as saying. It’s a strange mix of mentalities. But aren’t we all a strange mix of mentalities. It’s too bad the gap remains, and that there’s no end in sight. And despite all that, when he returns after a year and a half wandering, Theroux can say when he arrives back in Cape Cod, . . .the paradox of it all was that though I had come far. . . I had never left home.
I thought Charles Portis was an unfamiliar name till I heard he wrote True Grit, which meant he wasn’t unfamiliar at all and that I just hadn’t been paying attention. Paul Theroux wrote Deep South about his excursions around the southern U.S. and mentioned that he’d tried to meet Portis in Little Rock, but was unsuccessful. To me, True Grit was, first just another John Wayne movie which I never deigned to see, then a Cohen Brothers remake, which I liked, but I never connected it with a book and author. Thus, does prejudice keep and make us ignorant.
I bought a few Portis books on Theroux’s advice, and started with The Dog Of The South (click for commentary), then moved on to True Grit, since it came later in the mail. No need, I guess, for more palaver about this one. Mattie Ross is one of the most original protagonists of any sex every created, and the tale is as full of suspense and peril as any Louis L’Amour potboiler, yet has a depth Louis never accomplished.
If you want more, get the book. It’s a short, pungent read you will never quite get over.