Monday, October 14, 2019

Red at the Bone, by Jacqueline Woodson

Red at the Bone, by Jacqueline Woodson
Reviewed by NC Weil

Jacqueline Woodson, well-established as a children’s book author with numerous awards to her credit, has taken her next step, into adult fiction. Her new novel, Red at the Bone, aptly demonstrates that she has plenty to say to this larger audience. Into the tale of a pair of African-American Brooklyn teenagers who fall in love and get pregnant, she expertly weaves the backstory of their lives and families.

Aubrey has grown up in many places with his single mother, while Iris has always lived in the Bushwick house occupied by her mother and grandparents. So it makes contradictory-human sense that Iris, after giving birth to Melody as a fifteen-year-old, finishes her education (with some prodding from Aubrey’s mother) and goes off to Ohio to college – being tied down to a place and family doesn’t work for her. Aubrey, meanwhile, is happy to settle in with Iris’s kin, and raise their baby.  

In the background is the issue of generational wealth – Aubrey has none; Iris’s grandmother has what she has put together and hoarded following the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, in which wealthy black Greenville was burned to the ground, and hundreds of its residents murdered, by jealous whites from neighboring Tulsa. The harsh lesson survivors drew was that financial security beholden to the white establishment could be erased in a moment – gold and property were their surest assets, the ones safest from racist attack. The fact that until 20 years ago the Tulsa Massacre was a largely unknown chapter of American history, is testament to the deliberate silence of a record written by the perpetrators.

Woodson’s writing style is replete with open spaces. I was reminded of Robert Cole’s style of sculpture, which he called Essentialism – from an iconic sculpture, The Thinker, he removed an arm here, belly there, until what remained, pared-down, was all the eye required to evoke the complete image. Woodson does the same thing in words, sprinkling memories and deeds, leaving it to the reader’s mind to put the picture together.

The story ranges from the Tulsa Massacre to the September 11 attacks, yet because the focus is on characters, we don’t feel rushed, and the pages are not crammed with more than we can absorb. Each new detail adds another brushstroke to our impression of these people, until by the book’s end we know them well. Woodson has mastered her medium, and it’s a joy to read. Brava!

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Less is a rarity for that honor: a comic novel. Generally award committees gravitate to heavy fare: violence, misery, catastrophe. So it’s refreshing to discover that a tale both funny and very well written has sneaked into the select company of that short list, going so far as to win.

Not to give away too much: our hero, Arthur Less, is a gay writer on the brink of turning 50. His younger boyfriend of nine years has just left him. Less and his older longtime paramour, a noted poet, still love each other, but after twenty years together stopped sharing living quarters. And now Freddy is gone – ready to marry someone else. Knowing he will be invited to the wedding, and not wanting to provoke anyone by either refusing to attend or attending, Less accepts every speaking or teaching engagement that’s recently been offered to him. He doesn’t have to worry about the heartbreaking event, because he’ll be in New York, Mexico, then Italy, Germany, Paris, Rome, Morocco, India, Tokyo – by the time he gets back to San Francisco he’ll be fifty and Freddy will be married.

Less has published a few midlist novels, but was stung in a review as a “magniloquent spoony.” Meeting with his agent on the New York leg of his jaunt, he learns that his publisher is dropping him. He’s not PC enough. “I’m a bad gay?” he asks, incredulous. Apparently they are after less traditional endings than the one he supplied, so he is Out. He hopes to undertake a rewrite of the rejected novel on this hejira – a month in India at the retreat should do it. But this news is a tough start to his trip.

Arthur Less is a naif, even at his age, and people love him for this quality of startled sincerity. His share of misunderstandings, struggles with modern travel – airports, hotels, language barriers, luggage – are all dealt humorously: nothing catastrophic, but he’s forever making embarrassing mistakes. In short, he is Everyman, losing his dignity and bumping into people he’d rather forget. Interwoven with his awkward moments are memories – of his life with the Great Poet, the unexpected nine years with Freddy, the impression he makes on those around him. Here’s a taste:

“Name a day, name an hour, in which Arthur Less was not afraid. Of ordering a cocktail, taking a taxi, teaching a class, writing a book. Afraid of these and almost everything else in the world. Strange though; because he is afraid of everything, nothing is harder than anything else. Taking a trip around the world is no more terrifying than buying a stick of gum. The daily dose of courage.”

Not only is this book delightfully witty, it is also a good story, with poignancy and a satisfying ending. The Pulitzer Committee was right – it’s a winner, and you should read it!