THE MAN WAS THURSDAY

9780140183887I decided for this installment of my exploration of the classics to go to C.K. Chesterton. A Meetup Group (which I don’t plan to attend) broadcast its intention to discuss The Man Who Was Thursday. Why not moi? Glad in a way to avoid the Father Brown stories of PBS fame, I launched. A few pages in, I was saying, more or less, what the hell is this? A fantasy? A political/religious treatise? A mystery thriller? Some sort of other hybrid? Having finished, I still can’t answer.

Our protagonist Syme, an anti-anarchist (we’d call them terrorists today) poet, persuaded by the police to infiltrate the country’s leading anarchist organization and squelch an assassination plot. Syme goes literally underground, meets his co-conspirators, each of whom is a member of the council of seven and named after a day of the week. The Thursday slot is vacant, Syme talks his way into it, and off we go.

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C.K. CHESTERTON

We’re treated to a chase that carries us to Normandy, then back across the channel for a pursuit of an elephant, then a balloon, then a grand ball to cap off the last chapter. Who presides over the party and why and what happens to Syme along the way and at the fete makes for exciting, surprising, and sometimes mystifying reading. In the end, however, this is a profoundly Christian novel that Chesterton intends to carry a substantial message on the nature of good and evil. A highly original read a mile or more down the road from kindly Father Brown.

2.0

MEETING SHERWOOD IN THE WOODS

220px-DeathInTheWoodsWriter Working’s last encounter with Sherwood Anderson was with his disappointing Dark Laughter. Dan encouraged me not to give up on him, however, and guided me to Death in the Woods and other stories. Some people, I guess, can write superb short stories, but can’t stretch out to longer works.

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SHERWOOD ANDERSON

The Title story here is compelling and grisly, and unmerciful look at rural life in a savage and loveless family. Hemingway has nothing on Anderson when it comes to the short sentence, and that suits the stark description and narrative about a woman married into virtual slavery condemned to serve a family of male thieves, liars, and drunks:

She was an old woman and lived on a farm near the town in which I lived. All country and small-town people have seen such old women, but no one knows much about them. . . . [She] comes into town . . . and gets some salt pork and some beans. Then she gets a pound or two of sugar and some flour. Afterwards she goes to the butcher’s and asks for some dog meat. 

She (never given a name0 performs her duties faithfully and mindlessly, with no hope of escape or reward, simply accepting her lot and the fate the title implies.

There’s plenty of humor here as well, as in his New Orleans tale about his notorious Aunt Sally and a friendly crippled drunk he runs across in “A Meeting South.” I enjoyed his meandering style, wherein he spends some time with a supposedly tangential character or event, only to suddenly “remember” that he was actually telling us about someone or something else, but having enlightened us on the detour.

As far as I’m concerned, Anderson has fully redeemed himself from the low opinion I’d formed from Dark Laughter. Just important to keep away from those novels.

2.0

DIRTY LOVE:TITLE ALLURING, BOOK LESS SO

DirtyLovePbk_Four linked novellas is the billing for this Andre Dubus III effort called Dirty Love. The links are superficial except by theme–characters whose relationships are stunted and unsatisfying. Unfortunately, the characters themselves, except for the title story, are stunted and unsatisfying as well.

Mark Welch in Listen Carefully, As Our Options Have Changed (The title’s terrific, no?) is a clueless, pitiful wretch who catches his wife cheating and goes a little nuts. He hires a detective to videotape her and her lover at a tryst, confronts the wrong man with a pipe (no injuries), and spends much of the book figuring out how to repair the floor and ceiling he’s damaged during a tussle with the wife. The household repairs, of course, are a metaphor for the repairs on the relationship. All of this might work if Mark were someone to root for. I didn’t much care whether he succeeded or not, and I never got to know the wife well enough to decide whether she was the party more injured

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ANDRE DUBUS III

Marla is a bank teller with a few rather superficial female buddies and not love life at all. She’s resigned to not having one and is not too unhappy, except she’s left out of all her friends’ conversations about romance. Finally, she meets a guy who’s attentive, tender, caring. They move in together, and she feels rather stifled. He’s overweight, likes movies she doesn’t, is a clean freak, and in the end unable to connect with her needs. But he’s okay. And, as a character, so is Marla. However, she’s not someone this reader falls in love with.

The Bartender‘s name is Robert Doucette, and he’s a pusillanimous dickhead who cheats on his pregnant wife in a most squalid manner. I found nothing redeeming about him and wonder why he would qualify as a protagonist even in a noir story. He’s unprincipled enough, but doesn’t have the nads to hold a reader’s interest.

Devin in the title story has real substance. A late-teenager who got caught on tape giving a blowjob in a peer-pressure situation, which tape went semi-viral on the web, she’s trying hard to live down her ignominy and build a life. She has a sympathetic grandfather, a widower, with whom she moves in when her parents–at least her father–boot her out of the house. She goes to work at a bar (the same bar as the aforementioned Robert Doucette, but the link is spurious) and aims at a GED with her grandfather’s help. He’s a retired schoolteacher, so seems a likely candidate to help her succeed.

Unfortunately, we spend so much time with the grandfather”s backstory–granted, his rocky relationship with his wife qualifies thematically, but it keeps us away from Devin, who is the real interest here–that we keep losing our connection with Devin. It’s like a phone conversation wherein the person on the other end keeps dropping out. The continuity deteriorates to the point where the story is irreparably damaged.

In sum, Dirty Love doesn’t make  the grade because three of the four characters are too weak to hold interest, and the fourth gets submarined by too much focus on a character who is not the protagonist.

4.0