Kings, Crows, and Teenage Brides

What happens when pomegranates crack and when Aussies sell their souls? Our reviewers get the lowdown.

The King

By Donald Barthelme

Dalkey Archive, $13

Completed shortly before his death in 1989, Barthelme’s last complete work satirizes Le Morte d’Arthur by transposing it onto early World War II-era England. For the uninitiated, this is an accessible and playful introduction to Barthelme; for the postmodern scholar, it remains a malevolent treasure of esoteric allusions and feints. Arthur’s bastard son is a parody of the deposed duke of Windsor; his arrogant refusal of a Bahamian governorship engenders a climactic medieval skirmish — “Great mischief being hewed on helms and hauberks!” — amidst shortwave anti-Semitic propaganda and the hail of howitzer shells. Arthur’s foremost dilemma is presented by the discovery of a mathematical equation yielding the secret of atomic fission. In quite unremarkable fashion, the Black Knight (here, a scholarly, lovelorn Dahomeyan prince) presents the king with his prize: “It’s the Grail you chaps have been seeking. The big boom.” Arthur’s choice — to countenance the horrific, inhumane annihilation of Mordred and the Nazi hordes, or to uphold his “right behavior” and deny the Bomb’s awesome finality — imbues the story (and the king himself) throughout with an affable chivalric absurdity.
— Nicholas Raymond

In the Wilderness

By Manuel Rivas, translated

by Jonathan Dunne

Overlook, $14.95

As a Galician himself, writing in the Galician language, Rivas knows a whole lot more about northwestern Spain than we do. We are assured of that by the historical and mythological namedropping that accompanies us through what is essentially a cultural survey of a village and its region. There are appealing enough conceits here: writing that suggests a hybrid world of medieval legend and the modern Clint Eastwood variety; townspeople who die and are reincarnated as animals with old baggage but new, animal-oriented preoccupations; a poet-warrior crow who amuses his exiled king with the stories that comprise this book. But Rivas fritters away this momentum with a hodgepodge of directionless ideas and inessential local references. The effect is actually both frenetic and listless. And the language in the novel is just as schizophrenic, by turns deftly evocative (“family treasures … mislaid in the maze of inheritance”) and amateurishly awkward (“the sunset entered into combustion in the hood of the city”). There are great little vignettes and toss-offs, like the seven “saints” that appear on a church wall and turn out to be deceptively beautiful representations of the Seven Deadly Sins. Most aren’t quite as arresting or charming, though, and the book is way too short and disjointed for the kind of mythmaking weight it’s obviously going for.

— Jason Shamai


By Michaela Boland and Michael Bodey

Allen & Unwin, $16.95

Yes, Naomi Watts “first tasted theater’s magic as a four year old watching her mother play Eliza Dolittle [sic] in a Shoreham amateur theater production of My Fair Lady.” And yes, Crocodile Dundee was funded via “an investment package which saw 609 high tax payers invest between $5,000 and $500,000 for a 133 per cent tax deduction and a tax exemption on the first 33 per cent of net earnings through clause 10A of the tax act.” But besides showing that Australians don’t hyphenate, this book — subtitled “Australia’s Leading Actors And Directors Tell How They Conquered Hollywood” — ends up serving as its own cautionary tale: One by one, Aussie actors and directors who made brilliant, character-driven pictures in their homeland sold their souls to star in Hollywood horseshit about which they then lament over champagne at fancy awards shows. And why are Aussies so popular in Hollywood anyway? Because they’re “Westernized, adaptable, and don’t have a distinct culture,” explain antipodean journalists Boland and Bodey, who worked very hard on this book and whose dogged, dewy-eyed pride in all things Aussie shows drippingly on every page. Fabulous! Just don’t tell Russell Crowe about the no-culture bit, unless you can duck a phone.
— Philip Huang

Cracked Pomegranate By Fae Bidgoli

Regent, $24.95

Mina, Fati, and Ghanon are three women of different generations, all from the same rural Iranian town. Present-day representative Mina starts the novel on a New York-bound plane, recollecting her childhood and things she has learned about her mom’s old friend Fati. Around every corner of this book, the place of women in both the family and greater society is thoroughly examined and questioned. In rural towns, girls’ educations end and marriages begin at age thirteen and sexual assault is the norm. Publicly and privately, as children and adults, Mina, Fati, and Ghanon challenge these conventions. It is quite clear that women’s rights is a subject very close to Bidgoli’s heart. Unfortunately, realistic dialogue and a brisk narrative pace are not her strong points. Characters do not converse so much as hold forth on weighty themes, stories-within-stories are woefully abundant (one person’s life story often seems to set off another’s), and a dry description of a house’s floor plan or a list of compare-and-contrast differences between backwater Abadi and metropolitan Tehran can go on for pages. Tenacious readers might find here an earnest, sensitive novel carrying a message of faith, hope, and perseverance, but others will succumb to its length and stylistic shortcomings.
— Kim Hedges

Drown Them in the Sea

By Nicholas Angel

Allen & Unwin, $13.95

It’s one of literature’s favorite parlor games: Pin the tale of woe on the farmer. Steinbeck did it best; Faulkner came in a distant second. But neither the sound, the fury, nor even the wrath come close to being realized in Angel’s debut novel. This is a story that’s been told before: Life in the arid wheatfields of the Australian outback is not easy for Millvan and his family. After years of contending with drought and a fat-cat banker, this farmer is dangerously close to defaulting on his loans. He’ll need the help of his devoted mates — and their mates’ brothers — and their mates’ brothers’ mates. He’ll need all the spirit he can muster from the bones of a body longing more for retirement in a house by the sea than for the hardest work of his entire life. Angel nails the stoicism of farmspeak and gets the characters right too. He fails, however, to deliver the knockout punch, the transcendent experience that makes this relevant for a modern, city-dwelling reader whose closest brush with farm life is donning a mesh trucker cap.
— Scott Steinberg

Everyman By Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin, $24

“Old age is not a battle,” Roth writes. “Old age is a massacre.” Everyman is classic Roth: passion, anger, vivid details of lives well lived and profoundly screwed up, especially screwed up by the book’s unnamed protagonist, a seventysomething career adman married three times and now facing his decline with a daughter who loves him and two sons (and two wives) who curse his name. For Roth, dying isn’t something that happens in one’s later years, though that’s when it becomes a lot more real. The narrator spends his days alone, grieving the loss of sexual prowess and the fact that his sons have been poisoned by rage, resenting his multimillionaire brother who has known only perfect health. Some of the details Roth paints are far creepier than the prospect of our protagonist’s body actually going underground: One gravedigging scene in a largely forgotten cemetery beneath the New Jersey Turnpike is indescribably sad. The protagonist is not a man who inspires excessive sympathy. His life was not less ordinary; neither is his death. That Roth makes both so excruciatingly poignant speaks to his brilliance.

— John Dicker

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