A North Carolina friend to whom I recommended Deep South wanted me to look at Larry Brown’s Father and Son. She said it gave her insight into how some of the families in her area of the semi-rural south, where she had a long career as an educator, came to be who they are. If so, There are some grim realities down there. However, local as the dysfunction might be for the purposes of this single novel, it’s also I’m sure an unfortunate universal reality beyond the borders of the Southern U.S.

Glen’s just out of prison after serving three years for the drunk-driving killing of a young boy. He’s full of more anger and resentment than a penful of Timothy McVeigh’s. He’s a natural expert at laying off the blame, so he’s got a number of scores to settle in the small community he’s come home to. Brown gives us a younger brother to whom we can compare Glen. They are close enough in age to share parenting and backgrounds. Unlike his brother, “Puppy” is not particularly mad at anyone, though he’s anything but that of a model citizen. He’s pretty fond of cards and beer, to the detriment of his kids and wife.


Glen has a kid as well, and the mother wants him back in the house. She’s wary, but she wants to make it work. Glen can charm when he wants to, so we see that softer, cheery side of him as well. Still, he’s not ready for anything like responsibility. What he’s ready for is some good old fashioned binge drinking and vengeance.  And off he goes.

I don’t like to describe story lines much beyond this point because it kind of takes oxygen out of a tale to know everything beforehand on first reading. Suffice it to say that the relationships in Glen’s and his father’s family are complex, bordering on incestuous, and make for quite a cast on which Glen can work his criminal instincts. And it’s perhaps the insight into the criminal instinct which is the most significant thematic element of Brown’s novel. What would make a person do something like that? We ask that all time, don’t we? Sometimes you can suggest an answer, more often not. But Father and Son will give you a shot at a response and a rousing story beside.

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51v3Mi3J0tL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_So I’m still on my Charles Portis kick, and it’s a kick to be on it. After The Dog of the South and True Grit, I dived into GringosPortis’ people spent a lot of time in Mexico and Belize in Dog of the South, and we predictably, given the title, return there in Gringos.

This time, we’re on the Yucutan, mainly in the city of Merida. Once again, my penchant for travel paid off. Since I spent a little time there once, I had a feeling for much of the novel’s locale, which added immensely to my reading experience.


Jimmy Burns originally came south to this ancient-Maya-rich area as a plunderer of artifacts. A criminal by in some peoples’ eyes, he considered himself a benefactor because he was rescuing artifacts from the anonymity of museum basements and distributing them (for $$, of course) to people who would show and enjoy them. The enterprise eventually became too risky, and he could have returned to the states, but he stayed on, getting involved in a leather-tanning business that provided fashionable coats to the rich. When that dried up, he turned to hauling, which is where he is when we meet him.

He enjoys the friendship of a mixture of other ex-pats, antiquities scholars, and a variety of locals. Among the gringos passing through his world are a number of pretty devilish types, including a brutal sort in a van containing what look to be underage runaways. His efforts to i.d. and capture said youngsters fails, but in the course of another venture, he becomes involved in a quest. This is my third Portis and my third Portis quest. Nothing wrong with that. A quest makes a fine structure on which to build a story, but just thought I’d mention it.

Anyhow, he pursues what he believes to be the husband of a friend who has become lost in the wilderness along the river on the Guatemala-Mexico border. The quest leads him to a hippie encampment on the site of a temple ruin where the assembled are awaiting some sort of transfiguring new-age experience at what they believe is the Lost City of Dawn. At the center of all this is a Mago, or wizard who has yet to show. Beyond that, I will tell no more. You must read it to find out.

I will tell you that the source of this occult tale and the circumstances which lead Burns and the other gringos to the site are hilarious as well as dangerous. Portis’ comic sense is like no other I’ve encountered. Cynical. Out there. And true as a well-tuned piano. All the things gringos go to Mexico to do will amaze as well as what they end up doing instead of what they came for. Sort of like life.

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There’s a marker or two in the Napa Valley mentioning Robert Louis Stevenson and a cabin of his (no longer standing), but in my numerous trips around the area, I never felt compelled to explore the background. The idea of Treasure Island, Long John Silver and Northern California just didn’t compute and I didn’t want to disturb the dust. Then along came Dan, a dust disturber of the first order, and I launched into Travels Across the Plains and The Silverado Squatters. 

I knew Stevenson was consumptive (I don’t know how or when I learned that trivia), and the news that he came west looking for improved health seemed logical. I doubt he found what he was looking for because he went from California to the South Seas where he expired not long after. In the meantime, he scribbled away, partly because he’s a writer, and that’s what writers do, and partly no doubt to pull in a few bucks. Travel’s expensive. How he kept writing, sick as he was, I can’t imagine. But that’s why he’s famous and I’m not, I guess.

Travels Across the Plains is an account of his cross-country journey from east coast to west in 1879, just ten years after the Promontory Summit golden spike ceremony in Utah that marked the completion of the first transcontinental railway. Things were still pretty chaotic, with differing rules, procedures, prices, and accommodations on the train depending on where you were. There was virulent racism with Chinese and Indians being forced to separate cars despite the fact that they appeared cleaner to Stevenson than the whites who were calling them dirty. Same old story. But eventually he arrived. As did his wife, Fanny, though there was no mention in my pages of how or when she got there. She certainly wasn’t on the same train.

After a while, they heard about an abandoned silver mine, the Silverado, which they might be able to inhabit for free. The idea of isolation and economy appealed to them, so they secured the help of some local denizens, cleaned the place up, and moved in. Stevenson talks about the place in rather romantic terms, but it’s hard to hide the hardships. Steep hillsides to and from water. Thieves in the neighborhood willing and able to help themselves to the belongings of the naive foreigners. No roof on much of the habitation. Yet, on good days when the temperatures and breezes were mild, and Fanny had set up a neat and serviceable household, it was a sort of like a paradise.

Since it’s familiar territory to me, I was able to appreciate his evocative descriptions of the low ground fog curtain hiding, then suddenly parting to reveal, the vegetation from his vantage point on the hillside. A lively parade of characters swirl in and around the nearby inn where Stevenson and Fanny go for supplies and transportation. All I knew of the word “Silverado” is that there’s a road running down the east side of the valley called The Silverado Trail. Of the mine I knew nothing. I know more now and of how the Stevensons got forced out of their “squat” by encroaching capitalists who never made a dime out of their nefarious activities.

Anyhow, that little Napa Valley plaque and the story of the vanished cabin of the author of Kidnapped and Jekyll and Hyde and so much else means a lot more to me now. The Scotsman and I are California Brothers.

jumping out of chair


24611425David, 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, Absalomis 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.

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51tM0iSyo7L._AA160_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.

sitting up clapping