Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Children and Steamboats: The Missing by Tim Gautreaux

The Missing by Tim Gautreaux

I love Tim Gautreaux's dedication pages. In his debut short story collection, Same Place, Same Things, he writes, "For my wife, Winborne, and our two sons, Robert and Thomas. I would also like to thank the National Endowment for the Arts. I suppose I could have thanked them first, but they haven't ever baked me biscuits." Welding With Children, the second collection, is dedicated "To my teachers, who knew that every fact is a coin." And in The Missing, Gautreaux offers this dedication: "For my father, Minos Lee Gautreaux, who taught me to love children and steamboats."

These three dedications say a good deal about the kind of stories Gautreaux writes, old-fashioned tales where the best characters are not those who achieve great deeds, but those able to happily inhabit modest lives, enjoy simple pleasures, and act in a spirit of decency, kindness, and responsibility towards their fellow travelers in the world. In Gautreaux's universe, these qualities bring about their own rewards, while their inverse invite a host of miseries.

If this vision sounds impossibly naive and wholesome to you, then you've clearly never experienced the joy of reading a Tim Gautreaux book. It works because Gautreaux isn't prone to dewy-eyed nostalgia for a golden small town America, and he understands that even the best of us can't save ourselves from loss, pain, and the hundreds of small meannesses that people enact upon one another.

Sam Simoneaux, the protagonist of The Missing, is a man who has known that kind of loss. When he was a baby, Sam's entire family was gunned down in a vengeance killing, himself spared only because his father managed to hide him in a cold furnace. At the book's beginning, he and his wife have just lost their infant son to a fever. And then, on his watch as a floorwalker in a New Orleans department store, a little girl named Lily is kidnapped. It's 1921, and between spotty local law enforcement, slow communications, and widespread shady adoption practices of the time, the chances of recovering her are slim.

After the kidnapping, Sam loses his job, and guilt-ridden, tracks down Lily's parents and offers to help find her. The girl's parents are performers on a steamboat that specializes in pleasure cruises up and down the Mississippi. Suspecting someone might have noticed Lily on one of these cruises, Sam joins the crew as a third mate, responsible for frisking passengers for weapons, breaking up fistfights, and playing piano with the band whenever their itinerary takes them to a backwater where the boat's black orchestra might be in danger.

It's in these parts of the book that Gautreaux's writing feels most colorful and lived in, which isn't surprising as his grandfather was a steamboat captain and his father, a tugboat captain. All along the river, Sam puts out feelers, makes connections, and ventures into territories populated by generations of violent outlaws who operate outside the jurisdiction of any law enforcement.

As Sam's quest brings him closer to finding Lily, it also brings up old questions about his family's fate, and he faces the problem of how a good man can earn justice when the law is corrupt or indifferent, and the lawless go unpunished. The answers are hard-won, and the book's conclusion is both satisfying and bittersweet.

I checked this book out from the library, but after reading it, I plan to go out and buy a copy. Like all of Tim Gautreaux's books, I suspect this is one I'll be reading and re-reading for years to come.

And if you haven't read Gautreaux's short stories, "Floyd's Girl" and "Died and Gone to Vegas" are two of our favorites. My favorite story, "The Courtship of Merlin LeBlanc," isn't available online, but it's in Same Place, Same Things, and is well worth your time.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Live Through This by Debra Gwartney

Live Through This: A Mother's Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love by Debra Gwartney

When Debra Gwartney's two oldest daughters turned 13 and 14, they began running away from home. At first, they'd stay out all night, then they'd leave for a few days at a time, hanging out with punk rockers and street kids in Eugene, Oregon. Then, after a year of tough love, wilderness retreats for troubled youth, and family counselors, the girls hopped a freight train to San Francisco, and disappeared.

Recently, This American Life rebroadcast the episode, "Didn't Ask to Be Born," which features Gwartney, and her daughters Amanda and Stephanie, telling the story of the rebellion, unhappiness, and family conflict that led the girls to run away from home, and Gwartney's efforts to hold the rest of her family together, not knowing if her daughters were dead or alive.

It was a harrowing, compelling story, and after listening to it, I ran out and picked up Live Through This. While the This American Life segment includes more details about the girls' time on the streets, the book focuses more on Gwartney's struggles on the homefront. I admire that she doesn't say much about what her daughters did while they were away, that she respects these as their stories to tell or not tell. As a result, it's not an exploitative story of how bad and wild and out of control her kids were. Instead, it's a very frank, introspective, and honest account of a worst-case family scenario.

Reading this book, I couldn't help but think of Linda Carroll's memoir about raising Courtney Love, Her Mother's Daughter, though only by its stark contrast. While Carroll tends to absolve herself of some highly ill-considered parenting decisions (e.g. sticking her kid in foster care while she moved to New Zealand to find herself, etc.), Gwartney doesn't shy away from the hard, ugly parts, the things she did wrong, the times she could have tried harder or better or differently.

And Gwartney's not a "bad mother" - far from it, in fact. She's loving, steady, smart, and supportive, and yet still completely powerless to stop her daughters once they've made up their minds to live on the streets.

It's a great book, with a powerful, hard-won resolution. Check out this interview with Gwartney to learn more about the book, and what's happened with her family in the years since Amanda and Stephanie ran away.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Laudanum is a Hell of a Drug: Drood by Dan Simmons

Drood by Dan Simmons

When I've been telling people about this book over the past few weeks, it usually goes something along the lines of, "Oh my god, it's about Charles Dickens and a train wreck and mesmerism and Egyptian death cults and this shadowy, nefarious creature named Drood, and the whole thing is narrated by an unhinged, laudanum-addicted Wilkie Collins! It's great!"

The weird thing is, people seem intrigued. Either that, or my slightly manic pitch just unnerves them enough to nod their heads and smile so I'll settle down. But I'm inclined to go with the former. After all, Drood's premise is pretty irresistible.

Simmons extrapolates a fantastic and, at times, very frightening tale from true events in the lives of Charles Dickens and his friend, Wilkie Collins, particularly Dickens's last years. On June 9, 1865, Dickens was riding by rail with his young mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother when their train crashed horrifically, killing 10 and injuring 40. After the crash, Dickens's writing fell off dramatically, his health suffered, and he spent much of his last five years giving strenuous reading tours in Great Britain and the United States.

Those are the facts, but Simmons introduces a sinister figure whose presence in the story gives a dark, eerie cast to Dickens's final years. This is Drood, whom Dickens first meets in the aftermath of the Staplehurst crash. Along with Dickens, Drood is seen giving aid to the wounded... or perhaps not. Afterward, Dickens becomes obsessed with Drood, venturing into London's darkest corners, sewers, crypts, opium dens, pursuing danger, courting death, and more often than not, dragging along his good friend, Wilkie Collins.

Though lesser known, Collins was a writer and frequent collaborator of Dickens's (and his two masterpieces, The Lady in White and The Moonstone have experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years). Collins flouted convention, living openly with one mistress, while fathering three children with another. He also suffered from a number of health problems, which he self-medicated with huge amounts of laudanum. A tincture of opium meant to be ingested a few drops at a time, Collins drank the stuff by the glassful, which sometimes resulted in hallucinations (Collins claimed he saw, among other things, recurring visions of his own double as well as a green-skinned woman with tusks).

In the genius stroke of the novel, Simmons makes this hallucinating, drug-addled, perpetual second fiddle the story's narrator. Jealous, paranoid, and particularly susceptible to the dark allure of Drood, Collins is the perfect voice for this surreal story. As his confessions become more shocking, and Drood's endgame becomes clear, the reader gradually becomes aware of exactly how unreliable a narrator Collins really is. What's true about his tale and what's not? Simmons leaves that all maddeningly, deliciously up in the air.

At nearly 800 pages, Drood is something of an undertaking, but fear not. It's also packed with action, scandal, devilry, and what Brady likes to call high-grade nightmare fuel - 800 pages are rarely this much fun.

Also, I should mention that if this book sounds at all interesting to you, you might enjoy this episode of Doctor Who (a different, but somehow not all that different take on Dicken's last days).