Get In. Get Out. Don’t Linger

Book briefs for June and July

Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America By Wesley J. Smith
Encounter (2001), $23.95

It had to happen. For years, ethicists wrote books deploring the fact that patients were not allowed to choose to die naturally. They told horror stories of prolonged suffering against families’ wishes. Now this book arrives, written by a consumer advocate, a colleague of Ralph Nader, who asserts that doctors and ethicists are in league to promote a “culture of death.” He tells horror stories of families being pressured to prematurely disconnect their loved ones from life support or to withdraw nutrition, thus hastening the end.

The medical profession must be getting closer to the middle of the ethical road if we are now facing attacks from both sides. Since, as Smith admits, the principle of patient autonomy is the accepted guiding principle in medical ethics and, under the law, the patient (or the family, if the patient is unable to express his wishes) has the right to decide about feeding tubes and breathing machines, as a doctor I must carry out the patient’s wishes or find another physician for him or face him in court. Smith insists that this standard of practice doesn’t adequately protect patients.

These are painful and morally treacherous decisions, particularly if no one knows what the now-unconscious patient would have wanted. Each of us has our own definition of a meaningful life, which frequently changes as we become increasingly disabled. I agree with Smith that most people do want their loved ones kept alive at all costs–especially since in many cases the families are neither paying for nor providing the care, why not?

But families facing a loved one who can no longer move independently, talk, eat, or interact with them might not be comforted by such high-minded thoughts. They see the patient grimace as yet another intravenous line is inserted for more antibiotics. They are forced to choose between sedation and physical restraints because words cannot penetrate the patient’s confusion. Or finally, after months of false optimism, misreading open eyes for consciousness and groans for speech, the reality of love already lost seeps through their layers of defenses along the seams, like a flood seeks out the cracks in a dam.

In one sense, Smith is right. Doctors do live in a culture where death is common and imperfect technology dooms thousands to a twilight zone of grave disability. The rest of society does its best to ignore these realities. If Smith’s polemic convinces more people to think about these issues, that good might balance the harm it will cause by scaring those who are the most emotionally vulnerable.–Toni Martin


Close to Shore By Michael Capuzzo
Broadway (2001), $24.95

Nonfiction narratives in which a relatively small moment in history is writ large, their earnest authors spinning out skeins of research to make readers feel like instant experts–will we ever tire of them? They’re like a dream of school, but without bells and homework, so that afterwards you need only remember little bits. And, yes, I think we will tire of them.

The genre, launched with Longitude, has spawned dozens of books on irrepressible explorers and ill-fated undertakings. That the past would become such a pop phenomenon–so many codpieces, so many gaslights–is really something, but it can’t last.

Close to Shore rides that wave, a prime example of right place, right time. To tell this tale of great white shark attacks at New Jersey resorts in the summer of 1916, its author spent the requisite time in libraries, collecting facts. It paid off, more or less, in deft if dutiful descriptions of Gibson Girls and early ichthyologists and Carcharodon carcharias that keep the pages turning, but only just. As mild as the play of sunlight on an early-summer afternoon, the text cross-cuts between human characters, most of them doomed, and the sojourns of one ravenous fish.

The shark chapters are the most interesting, offering easy science (“it came out of the womb four to five feet long, fifty to eighty-five pounds, hunting”) and striking undersea imagery. Steering clear of anthropomorphism, an admirable feat given the risk, Capuzzo evokes a creature whose motives and feats are at once exquisitely simple and at the very fringes of our comprehension.

It is when the author turns his attention to humans that we start to feel the strain of a story better suited to a magazine article being drawn out to book-length. We are to understand that 1916 was an “age of innocence,” that American beach-goers had just begun to shed their Victorian hangups and swim, that just as news of WWI dawned slowly on unbelieving ears, the public no more accepted the existence of man-eating sharks than of unicorns. Capuzzo, a New Jerseyite himself, writes with empathy of the era’s swimmers and the doctors to whom their mangled bodies were remanded. But reading these passages too often feels like hacking one’s way through cotton candy: “In the terra firma of Louisa’s parlor on Spruce Street,” we learn of a minor character with “a life inscribed by a constellation of virtues, certainties as fixed and brilliant as the stars.”

Still, Close to Shore is a thinking reader’s Jaws, with the same spine-chilling moral: that we are not alone, and seldom safe.–Anneli Rufus


The Street Of Clocks By Thomas Lux
Houghton Mifflin (2001), $22

Thomas Lux has garnished The Street of Clocks with a whimsicality –generally humorous, occasionally haunting–that unfortunately highlights the insubstantial quality of much of its contents. By combining objectivist description with bizarre metaphors, he can and does produce some new insights, but habitual wryness turns many of the poems into anecdotal one-liners. Someone goes around wearing a poison shirt, thereby killing passersby (“The Poison Shirt”). “Beggar’s Bowl Stolen” too wanly and literally describes that sad caption. And so on. Lux might have meant to write a volume of light or humorous verse, but the abundance of precise, unusual imagery, even in the weaker pieces, and the presence of several compelling poems, seem rather to indicate a lack of emotional connection between the poet and many of his subjects.

For all that, The Street of Clocks is full of evocative, musical phrases. This is especially true for his observations of the natural world, where his writing stays close to the bone. Most memorable is “Jungleside,” the story of a man who challenges the wilderness. “What happened? After the ants/ cleaned his skull of flesh,/a sapling grew through its left eye socket/ and … lifted/his skull up….”

Then there is the lazy afternoon of “The Corner of Paris and Porter,” a study in tenderness. It begins with an aimless walk, two lovers “lost each in the other,” and by the end “lost in each the other,” the whole poem swaying along toward a tersely gorgeous penultimate line, “I could have drowned in your hair.” To drown, to lose oneself–from such acts Lux brings forth his true voice.–Alexandra Yurkovsky


Recollections Of My Life As A Woman By Diane di Prima
Viking (2001), $29.95

One night in the late 1950s, Diane di Prima attended a party at Allen Ginsberg’s. Among the other guests was Beat writer Jack Kerouac, who was holding court from a corner of the kitchen floor. A single mother who had recently given birth to her first child, di Prima announced that she was leaving at 11:30 to pick up her daughter from the babysitter. As she was departing, Kerouac raised himself on one elbow to shout after her, “Di Prima, unless you forget about your babysitter, you’re never going to be a writer.”

As anyone interested in poetry knows, she proved him wrong, and in this engaging new memoir, di Prima writes about her formative years as a New York poet, from her Italian-American childhood in Brooklyn through the heyday of the Beats.

Fans of di Prima’s earlier works won’t be surprised by this frank, gritty, and moving book, which tells her story in a smoothly integrated blend of narrative, journal entries, and dream fragments. Di Prima, after all, was one of the first writers to take poetry out of English literature classes and into the streets. What is surprising is that she managed to accomplish so much while raising five children, often alone and poor, at a time when there were few models for women writers.

Still, di Prima’s early years were a heady time for a poet in New York. Music, painting, dance, literature, and theater were thriving, and di Prima ran with some of the city’s most influential artists. Ginsberg, Kerouac, Merce Cunningham, LeRoi Jones (who fathered her second of five children), and Frank O’Hara are among the dozens of contemporaries who appear in her recollections.

Di Prima was as ambitious for her friends as she was for herself, and even as she was writing at a prolific rate–she’s the author of over thirty books of poetry and prose–she was getting others’ work published. Along with Jones (who later became Amiri Baraka), she started the poetry newsletter The Floating Bear. She cofounded the New York Poet’s Theater and published dozens of writers in the Poets Press. Yet, amid the constant activity, di Prima’s book often imparts a lonely existence. She admits that she didn’t know any other women who considered themselves writers first, and often wondered if she really could be both. Kerouac’s remark underscored the doubts she harbored for years.

Recollections seems to encompass several lifetimes, even though it ends in 1965, just after the first of several trips to the West Coast, where di Prima eventually settled. But that’s another story. In this book, she stays focused on the years that shaped her–as a woman, a writer, and an authentically original voice. –Georgia Rowe


Love’s Death By Oscar Van Den Boogaard Translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke Farrar
Straus and Giroux (2001), $20

We get so caught up in our own best-sellers–loving or hating our Bonesetter’s Daughters and our girls variously outfitted in pearl earrings and hyacinth blue–that we at best forget and at worst dismiss other cultures’ most popular literature. Name last year’s standout Nigerian novel, for example, or a single contemporary Tahitian author. When those cultures aren’t English-speaking, dismissing their literature is easiest of all, but our lack of curiosity says a lot about us. Jingoism applies to light reading, too.

So we’d hardly be expected to know that the Low Countries consider Oscar Van Den Boogaard, now a full five novels into his career, one of their most promising authors. In Love’s Death, the thirtysomething Brussels writer paints a haunting picture of married life that, despite his light touch–or more likely as a credit to it–burns scene after scene indelibly into the mind.

Oda and Paul Klein–middle-class, and at the book’s outset the parents of an eight-year-old–sleep in separate rooms and can’t connect. Even after tragedy slices through the life they share, Oda “more than ever had no desire to know what he had been doing, whom he had run into, what he was thinking.” She broods and grieves and looks lovely while Paul, a military man accustomed to taking orders, “is overcome with the fear of her rejection, he can’t stand it, he must put up his guard, stay in this torture chamber.” The Kleins’ world with its routine shopping trips and nearly silent breakfasts is universal yet achingly unique, beset with a constellation of blessings and curses so particular, and so sharply rendered, as to make the reader feel like a voyeur spying on a pair of coolly elegant neighbors.

When a fire destroys the house next door–the house where the Kleins’ tragedy took place seven years before–it dislodges a teenage houseguest whom Oda and Paul invite to stay with them. But the wayward Daisy (“I’m a bat out of hell,” she tells herself, and us) seems more inclined to drive the couple apart than, as they clearly hoped, mend their broken hearts. Love’s Death is no Disney story, and it offers no easy answers.–Anneli Rufus


Silent Extras By Arnon Grunberg Translated by Sam Garrett
St. Martin’s (2001), $23.95

Evidently slackerdom is not a purely American phenomenon.

Arnon Grunberg’s debut, Blue Mondays, written on a dare and largely based on the young author’s own life, was an international hit (over 70,000 copies sold and widely translated). The novel tracked a young, awkward, gangly Jewish youth with bad skin, at odds with his parents, on a laissez-faire ramble through various escorts from Amsterdam’s red-light district.

In Silent Extras, his second novel to be translated into English, Grunberg utilizes a similar protagonist–a young, awkward, gangly Jewish youth with bad skin at odds with his parents–and follows his progress, or lack of it, with friends rather than prostitutes.

Ewald Krieg is a passive sort, seemingly content to yield to the influence of his associate Broccoli, the financially well-endowed, self-appointed leader of the Association of Geniuses, who forges the path that Ewald and another of Broccoli’s discoveries, Elvira Lopez, will follow. Broccoli’s stated goals include Operation Brando (an effort to affect a look somewhere in between the young Brando and the old because “this world needs more Marlon Brandos”) but little progress is made, of course, because Broccoli’s true desire for the trio is to become well-known.

The group’s meandering trek toward this uncertain objective is rendered in snapshot chapters that reinforce their episodic nature. And, despite minor sexual escapades, acting classes, and one prolonged interlude with Broccoli’s emotionally and physically detached parents, the overall tone of Silent Extras is one of fatalistic and idle ceremony.

Which is not to say that the observations aren’t acute or that these characters are without charm. Elvira, the world-weary ingenue from Buenos Aires, in a rare moment of revelation that somehow adds rather than detracts from the mystery that draws both her companions, admits that when she was a little girl she “wanted to be a saint.”

Ewald is taken with her deeply buried innocence: “All the rugby players and film producers seemed to have rolled off her like water off a duck’s back. That wasn’t true, of course, but it seemed that way, and that was beautiful.”

When Broccoli decides to take Elvira away to America (because “we haven’t had a femme fatale since Marlene Dietrich”), Ewald wonders “whether Elvira wanted to be taken anywhere” but soon answers his own musing: “In the end, that’s exactly what most of us do want, to be taken away by someone or something, even by God if necessary.”–Rob Trucks


Carry Me Across The Water By Ethan Canin
Random House (2001), $23.95

“He was, in fact, 78 years old. Wealthy, father of three, a widower–his life had shown him the fruit and dirt of the world: he had killed one man and possibly a second, told Lyndon Johnson he was a coward after paying two thousand dollars to meet him, grown rich in a business that was abidingly anti-Semitic, beaten all the odds, and then lost the great love of his life before returning, if not to his former self, then at least to a man who could pass as that.” That is August Kleinman. And for a book about a man who does not strike us as one who makes a habit of looking back, Carry Me Across the Water is a deeply reflective work. It’s as if Canin, in typically beautiful style, had a few curves and angles in mind with Kleinman, and just allowed a wide swath of history, the 1930s to the present, to flesh him out. But what makes the book interesting is not the way big events shape human beings, but in Kleinman’s case, how a human being comes to understand who he has become.

Kleinman is a warmly recognizable character to many of us, a self-made man, an immigrant, robust, opinionated, playfully belligerent, a man for whom the idea of retiring is utterly foreign. Hence, even in his seventies, with all the money he could ever want, he takes a job as a checker at Bread and Circus. This book covers so many years that it necessarily abbreviates pivotal events, but we get to know Kleinman through his own self-observation, see him relating to his son and daughter-in-law and new grandson, and observe how these simple interactions trigger more reflection and insights into his own life.

And if we had to summarize the four events that most shaped the man, they were: fleeing the Nazis to America with just his mother, not his father; marrying an Italian girl from Far Rockaway High and, while loving her deeply, berating himself after her death for not enjoying life with her more; starting a business with pretty much his own guts and smarts and seeing it succeed beyond belief; and, perhaps most significantly, fighting in World War II. The book builds a curious suspense so far as we see only snippets of him in action: telling Ginger good-bye in his head as he slogs fearfully through jungles in Japan and enters a cave where an enemy soldier might be hiding out. He keeps flashing back to this moment in the cave, what he discovered, and the repercussions of his actions there. Kleinman’s journey back to Japan seems to come about rather spontaneously; yet it is his last chance to make sense of the events of that day in the cave sixty years ago.–Jill Koeningsdorf


Sirena Selena By Mayra Santos-Febres Translated by Stephen Lytle
Picador (2001), $21.00

So near and yet so far from the US mainland are the various gays and transgenders, el ambiente of Puerto Rican writer Mayra Santos-Febres’ first novel. Her gutsy and erotic tale centers on Miss Martha Divine, a self-described drag-scene fairy godmother with “the blood of a businesswoman” barely contained in her veins, and the title character, an otherworldly fifteen-year-old whose voice leaves even the most fiercely shielded heart defenseless. Martha and Sirena Selena travel to the Dominican Republic to circumvent the child-labor laws of Puerto Rico and establish Sirena as a star. There they meet the rich investor Hugo Graubel who sees in the “boy-woman” Sirenita a lost possession from his own youth. Soon thereafter Solange, Graubel’s wife and a terse choreographer of haute couture, sees a similar reflection in Sirena with perversely comedic results.

Santos-Febres alternates her focus between Graubel and Sirenita’s mutual methods of seduction as they each attempt to gain command over the other. However, the transsexual locas who populate the shadier streets of San Juan provide the novel’s pulse. Each recreates the TS’s marginal world of hustling for plastic-surgeon fees, drugs, and on occasion romance, through bolero-inspired recollections–at once rough-hewn anecdote and richly textured fable, with the pathos and comedy of both forms intact. The result is a wonderland summoned through memory, disco lights, miracles of makeup, and sisterly love–a world in their own image.

Ultimately, in Santos-Febres’ world, no matter what disrobing might reveal, no one is what she seems. The sensually poignant language of this former poet astounds and beguiles, and is finally the true siren of the novel.–M.R. Daniel


The Fourth Hand By John Irving
Random House (2001), $26.95

Yearning for a love lost or found can be melodic or jarring, creeping or volcanic. Or it can settle in with a harmless smile and declaim its intentions in the cool tones of a network talking head. That Patrick Wallingford–“the lion guy,” so known for the accident that resulted in the loss of his left hand–is just such a head, and a not very smart one, speaks to the TelePrompter quality of his desire. He’s as vapid as the trivialized disasters he reports when we meet him, a megahandsome “penis-brain” who would never consider himself a womanizer, because the women always want him. But as his pursuit of the ambivalent Mrs. Clausen veers away from familiar scripts, the story of his bumbling acquisition of his newfound soul becomes more interesting.

Though not enough so. Of the novelists who rose to prominence in the 1970s, John Irving was the jock who would snub fruity Tom Robbins, while proving himself no better a writer. In trying to maintain the shock and deep response that greeted The World According to Garp, the Wrestling Hall-of-Famer has developed a style that, while not cynical (that has come from the younger generation that reads him), places the action on a smirky surface over which the author pastes himself, smothering his predictably quirky, charming characters.

This habit is particularly annoying in the first half of the book when the writer’s lack of transparency (and those damnable parenthetical asides–Irving seems incapable of advancing his plot without them) slows what seems to be a light black comedy about the prescient power of dreams. Then later, our inability to duck the narrator drains the resolution of surprise.

Conveyed convincingly, however, is that dyspeptic reckoning of the stupid, sometimes sudden, often deliberate choices we make when what we really want might not come through. Patrick’s emergence towards authenticity also scorches his environment, where the news that is reported (minus its context) is not necessarily the news that should be reported. What is that context? “The terminal illness of the world.” And this pleasant love story is again no cure.–J.D. Buhl


Call If You Need Me The Uncollected Fiction and Other Prose By Raymond Carver Edited by William L. Stull
Vintage Contemporaries (2001), $13

Hang around enough “creative” writing classes and sooner or later somebody will hand in a story where a glob of grape jelly slowly congeals on the kitchen table as a couple argues. At this point, you are in the presence of somebody laboring in the shadow of Raymond Carver, America’s Chekhov, and the man indirectly responsible for more bad workshop writing than anyone this side of Donald Barthelme.

While expressing provisional admiration for Don B., RC (as he’s referred to in the notes) couldn’t be more different. No gossamer mentalisms or fabulist forms: instead, recognizable situations, spare common language, provisional hope–the sort of fiction where, as William Gass put it, when it rains the streets usually get wet. Men drink and quit drinking, women leave and are left, work is either elusive or grinding, fishing trips erupt into paroxysms of violence, and hippies cheat at bingo.

The bait for this collection is late, newly discovered stories and several early ones, all proving that RC pretty much had his style and turf down early. The turf was the working-class world from which Carver emerged, trudging through unchic locales like Chico State; the style the spare language of Hemingway shorn of Papa’s Superman posturing (No Heroics Please is not just this collection’s earlier title but Carver’s worldview). The nonfiction included here–memoirs, introductions to anthologies edited, book reviews–provides the theoretical underpinnings for the man who was the world’s foremost practitioner of non-Borgesean short fiction: “Get in. Get out. Don’t linger.” Carver also paints a portrait of his booze-defeated father, defends Hemingway from marauding Freudians, and furnishes several tributes to writer pals, suggesting that friendship was a somewhat bleak and embattled thing not only in Carver’s fiction but in his life.

And the grape jelly? Well, it’s usually identified as Smucker’s. Rookie mistake: much better to make it the Safeway house brand. But truest of all would be Springfield, a brand with a large and loyal following among the Okies and Arkies of the unfashionable strata from which Carver emerged to immortalize.
–David Hill

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