“South of the Border, West of the Sun” by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami

By Ray Sawhill

Haruki Murakami’s new novel, “South of the Border, West of the Sun” (Knopf), has little of the deadpan daring of his 1989 “A Wild Sheep Chase,” or of such later works as “Dance Dance Dance” (1994) and “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” (1997). “South of the Border” is narrated by a successful though vaguely unhappy jazz bar owner named Hajime. Once, as a child, he’d had a perfect friendship, with a crippled girl named Shimamoto. But he moved away, and he has gone on to break some hearts, marry, prosper and lose his ideals. Then, as in a scene from a movie (Murakami leans heavily on “Casablanca” throughout), Shimamoto walks into one of Hajime’s clubs, flourishes a cigarette and asks for a light. Hajime starts to feel whole again — yet not quite. The passing of time and the shame of betrayal keep getting in the way. And anyway, is this new, grown-up Shimamoto real or a phantom summoned up by need and imagination? It’s “Brief Encounter” for the New Age.

American writing schools may overdo the injunction always to show and never to tell — our young writers seem to know how to do little but show us things — but it’s advice that Murakami could have used. An amazing amount of this book is devoted to Hajime’s discussions of what Shimamoto means to him, what his wife means to him, what his predicament means to him. It’s possible that Murakami is playing changes on a Japanese genre I’m unfamiliar with, or that he’s needling Hajime’s narcissism in ways too Japanese for me to perceive. And he does have a wonderful way of making the novel’s action seem to play out against a background of serenely classical Japanese art. But he also seems determined to baby his imagination. For example, Hajime tells us of his delight in his rapport with Shimamoto. Yet here’s a typical exchange:

“You mean we’re lovers?”

“You think we’re not?”

I catch the echoes of ’40s weepies. It’s what those echoes ought to be bouncing off that’s missing.

If you’re unfamiliar with Murakami’s work and want to give it a try, start with “A Wild Sheep Chase.” A melancholy yet irreverent phantasmagoria about an ad guy, a girl with beautiful ears, a mysterious sheep and Japanese guilt over World War II, it suggests a 21st century cross between “Absalom, Absalom!” and “Mothra,” and it’s still fresh and moving. My guess is that in this zingless new novel, the writer thinks he’s using Hajime’s tale to wrestle with what Thomas McGuane once called “the sadness-with-no-name,” a forlornness many baby boomers fall prey to and can’t shake off.

But his approach — hunting endlessly for the emotion’s metaphysical and historical meanings — pays off only in Rolling Stone magazine-style banalities. Recalling the end of his ’60s college days, Hajime tells us, “Like a drooping flag on a windless day, the gigantic shock waves that had convulsed society for a time were swallowed up by a colorless, mundane workaday world.” While the significance of it all piles up and the action drifts, the annoyed reader may start to wonder: Does Murakami really think that no one before his generation ever got scared of middle age, asked what life is all about and did a little screwing around in search of an answer?

©1999 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.

Terry McMillan


By Ray Sawhill

Bookstores had never before been home to anything like Terry McMillan’s tour to promote her 1992 novel, “Waiting to Exhale.” Her appearances attracted mobs of ardent female fans. And when she performed passages from her book, the stores turned into call-and-response arenas, with women standing up to testify to their feelings and shout out their likes and dislikes. This was one writer who had hit a nerve. (Inexplicably, the listless 1995 movie adaptation stirred audiences up as effectively as the book had.) A soap opera about four black women in Phoenix — their jobs, their hair, their two-timing no-good men, etc. — the book is one of those innumerable women’s novels in which friends, through all their ups and down, check in with each other periodically, and together and alone watch life’s cycles wheel by. In white hands these days, this is almost always a spent form. With her bawdy humor and unashamed pride in achievement, and with her relish for fleshly and material pleasures, McMillan brought it rousingly back to life. There aren’t many middlebrow page-turners that offer anything like her frankness and sass.

Her success helped trigger off a still-running controversy about whether or not black women writers beat up on black men. (They often do, and sometimes do so entertainingly). It also alerted the publishing industry to the existence of a large group of underserved readers hungry for fiction in which they could see their own lives. The industry responded promptly, and, since then, works from what might be called the “You go, girl!” school of fiction (Bebe Moore Campbell, J. California Cooper) have become a staple in bookstores and on bestseller lists.

McMillan’s first two novels — “Mama” and “Disappearing Acts” — are also lively airplane reads. (Avoid her most recent effort, the dizzy “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” unless your appetite for breathlessly narcissistic gab is really epic). If you’re in the market for something similarly female and full-bodied, why not try the marvelous Lee Smith, who writes lyrically about white mountain folk, or that sturdy entertainer Susan Isaacs, who writes humorous mysteries about Long Island Jews?

©1999 Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literature.

“Nobody’s Angel” by Thomas McGuane


By Ray Sawhill

In his new novel, “Nobody’s Angel” (Random House), Thomas McGuane tries to get beneath the surface of hip nonchalance. His early books — “The Sporting Club,” “The Bushwhacked Piano,” and “Ninety-two in the Shade” — were literary stunts performed with an attitude of stoned obliviousness that gave them a mocking pizzazz. In their best passages, McGuane seemed to have perfected his own kind of aristocratic cool — evasive and laconic and loaded with crafty surprises. “Nobody’s Angel” is full of his usual pop-surreal situations and wacko characters, but it shows a new willingness to try to look them in the face; it represents an attempt to bring direct emotion into his fiction. If the novel doesn’t work, it’s because he doesn’t go far enough. When desperation and terror are demanded he manages to beckon forth only their pallid stand-ins: timidity and skittishness. The book seems abashed: apologetic, even repentant.

McGuane’s hero is Patrick Fitzpatrick, 36. Ex-juvenile delinquent, ex-prep-school student, ex-Army captain in Germany, where he chased Frauleins and raced his high-speed tank, he has suddenly been overcome by melancholy. Time to grow up, he decides: “By your late thirties the ground has begun to grow hard. It grows harder and harder until the day that it admits you.” He returns to his family’s Montana ranch, and what he has so diligently avoided all these years — grief, guilt, remorse, pain — catches up with him.

Patrick tends his grandfather, a dotty cowpoke, and his loony sister, and feels exhausted, depleted, bewildered; he’s afflicted with what McGuane calls “sadness-for-no-reason.” He has the side-stepping, wise-guy reflexes of a McGuane hero built into his system, but it has come to the point where they rather appall him. Self-consciousness has him in a stranglehold. Under the vastness of the Western sky, Patrick indulges his taste for wistful reverie, consoles himself with booze and waits for a new, more congenial value system to descend upon him. At a party he meets Claire, a young Oklahoma woman who’s beautiful, oil-rich and married. The action moves between Patrick’s attempts to keep his family and ranch shipshape and his struggle to find the emotional wherewithal to woo and conquer Claire.

McGuane gives Patrick plenty of reasons to feel bad, but he hasn’t located and released his hero’s latent energy; the awful, lurking rage of true misery is missing. If you’re going to show a burnt-out case reviving his flame, giving him some fuel doesn’t hurt: remember the Bill Murray comedy “Stripes”? But McGuane wears his literary skills like a surgeon’s mask — Patrick seems anesthetized by the fastidious wordplay. So a vexing question hovers over much of the book: why should a honey-haired dream like Claire bother with a morose loser like Patrick? Even his desire for her seems willed. And McGuane’s writing gets wispy and precious when he lets the couple make love; the sex they have is so hushed and reverent it would go unnoticed in a church. Readers with a horror of sappiness know enough to run for the hills when a put-on artist tries in all sincerity to be sincere, especially about love.

©1982 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“True Story” by Bill Maher


By Ray Sawhill

Bill Maher’s “True Story” (Simon & Schuster) is a true curiosity, a book by a popular hotshot (in this case the host and producer of TV’s “Politically Incorrect”) that isn’t an autobiography or a transcribed routine. Instead, it’s an episodic novel about a group of standup comics back in 1979 and 1980. New York City might be a fast-decaying relic, but the standup scene is prospering. Headquarters is The Club, an Upper East Side dive where the fellows go to “work out,” impress women, booze, agonize about their careers, and indulge in obscene-joke shootouts. Every now and then one of these hotshot-wannabes takes a gig in the sticks and shows the rubes a thing or two. Every now and then the rubes show the city boy a thing or two of their own.

At first, the book seems an underdramatized blur. It’s all observations, more a description of a novel than the novel itself. And while the writing has the top-this rhythms of standup, its tone is morose, in a guy-taking-stock-of-his-life way — perhaps because Maher wrote the book in the early ‘90s, between his years as a standup and when he developed “Politically Incorrect.” But Maher has a gift for guys-are-like-this / gals-are-like-that riffs, and the more he complicates the lives of his main characters with love and sex, the more his overgrown boys become distinctive.

And, in the book’s second half, he comes through with a handful of well-conceived scenes. One of them — a comedian-has-an-epiphany chapter, not an easy thing to carry off — delivers an impressively maudlin-yet-bitter wallop; it should be used as a shillelagh with which to tease oversensitive creative-writing students. The creepy competitiveness, the behind-the-scenes lore and the raunchiness all start to work, supplying a texture that’s rank and seductive.

At its best, the book suggests a half-baked cross between “Diner” and “Sweet Smell of Success.” Maher fans should enjoy it. So should anybody who’s fascinated by the standup life, as well as readers who like to fantasize about the movies good screenwriter / director teams might shape out of raw but rich material. Robert Getchell and Martin Scorsese, who worked together on “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” are you listening?

©2000 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The New York Times Book Review Section.

“Respect: An Exploration” by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot


By Ray Sawhill

Despite its title, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s new book, “Respect: An Exploration” (Perseus), isn’t an exploration of the meaning of the word “respect,” and it isn’t a William Bennett-like piece of virtue-advocacy either. Instead, it’s a collection of profiles of people who are trying in their professional lives to do some good in the world.

The book is held together less by the occasional passage about the role respect has played in her subjects’ work than by the social-science earnestness of Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot’s tone. Johnye Ballenger is a pediatrician who gives an afternoon a week to caring for poor clients. Jennifer Dohrn runs a “birthing center” (when did women stop giving birth and start “birthing” instead?) in the South Bronx. David Wilkins is a Harvard law professor who tries to avoid “Paper Chase”-style authoritarianism while still helping students learn the skill of “thinking like a lawyer.” We also meet a “hospice caregiver,” a photographer, and a teacher at a suburban school.

Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and a MacArthur Prize winner, has developed a distinctive way of writing what she calls a “portrait”—a sensitive, even credulous take on a person, delivered partly through that person’s eyes. It’s a therapist’s view of a client, basically.

The profiles whose subjects have the orneriness to cut through Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot’s overeager empathy are reasonably compelling. But it’s a mind-foggingly solemn work that seems to live in terror of sharp edges and clear distinctions—and not a book for readers convinced that there ought to be a lifetime cap on the number of times an author can use the words “empower” and “healing.”

©1999 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The New York Times Book Review.

“Slapboxing With Jesus” by Victor D. LaValle


By Ray Sawhill

Victor D. LaValle has the kind of talent and energy that would make him a star in almost any writing workshop. Your reaction to his first collection of stories, though, is likely to depend on your reaction to his ambition for it, which appears to be to make the book approximate an hour or two of hip-hop videos.

The stories are grouped in two sections, both as portentously titled as the book itself. The first, “The Autobiography of New York Today,” offers a mini-panorama of the city and has the more extreme subject matter: a hustler eager to change his life, a young man obsessed with his ugliness. The stories in the second section, “One Boy’s Beginnings,” are more familiar: a long-absent father makes awkward attempts at conversation with his son; some bullies steal a kid’s bike.

LaValle’s writing, full of peculiarities of punctuation and phrasing, creates effects impressively close to the scratch-and-sample effects of rap; he has devised all kinds of ways of forcing the eye and mind to skip, stutter and retrace themselves. A case could be made that LaValle has found a way to give linguistic form to the brain patterns of media-soaked, post-PC street youth.

But readers less taken by the idea that literature should come out of a boombox are likely find the book tediously juvenile: full of attitude and posturing, tough/vulnerable in an overly familiar way and top-heavy with edgy production values.

© 1999 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The New York Times Book Review.

“Fair Play” by Steven Landsburg

By Ray Sawhill

One of the more transfixing ongoing spectacles the Web offers is Steven E. Landsburg’s “Everyday Economics” column in Slate. Economists writing for general audiences are largely a gentlemanly, helpful lot, channeling ego into explaining ideas and concepts. Landsburg is the great exception, a breast-beating showoff as exhibitionistic and domineering as a bad actor. I read him with horror and exasperation. He’s the Gary Oldman of popular-economics writers.

Landsburg has now filled a book — his second volume for the general reader — by expanding some of his Slate columns into essay-length chapters, and framing the package with accounts of conversations he has had with his young daughter, Cayley. Even longtime Landsburg watchers will find a wealth of new delights in “Fair Play: What Your Child Can Teach You About Economics, Values, and the Meaning of Life” (Free Press). He moves back and forth between his trademark outrageous stands on touchy issues — he ridicules concerns about the environment, for instance, as well as worries about the national debt — and the passages about Cayley. We’re supposed to find her child’s sense of fair play a trustworthy guide to economics, specifically Landsburg’s own brand. But, as always with this writer, what’s really on display is Landsburg.

And a puffed-up dynamo he is, running from issue to issue as though every question in the world were demanding a piece of his brilliance, right now. His serious work on economics may be immaculate, for all I know (he’s a professor at the University of Rochester), but as an explicator and provocateur for the interested nonspecialist, he’s uniquely unconvincing. At one loony moment, he compares the progressive income tax (an outrage, in his view) to rape, on this basis: that the fruits of our labor belong to us, much as our bodies do. You don’t have to be the swiftest bird in the flock to find yourself objecting that your body, unlike your paycheck, doesn’t exactly “belong” to you, in many respects it is you.

At another moment, he argues that there is no essential difference between a landlord and a would-be tenant. In his view, they’re equals engaged in potentially profitable trade, so the law shouldn’t distinguish between them. How then does he explain our intuitive sense that there is a difference? Alas, exploring life as it’s lived just isn’t part of this economist’s portfolio. We’re wrong, we’re irrational, he has told us what we need to do and he’s off to make his next dazzling point. Landsburg’s views are generally hard-line free market, and he prides himself on his puckish sense of humor, but he’s as drawn to bossy, arm-twisting language as the most self-righteous Marxist. Occasionally he does slow down, but only to give a dramatic shake of the head over how unreasonable lay people are, and how resistant to conclusive proof (his, of course).

Landsburg appears to be completely unconscious of how eagerly he pushes himself to the fore. His book’s subtitle — “What Your Child Can Teach You About Economics, Values, and the Meaning of Life” — promises an account of what Landsburg has learned from his kid. Yet by the book’s final pages, Landsburg has claimed the camera for himself, spending the entire last chapter giving advice to Cayley. And what sensational points he makes! What a great dad! This know-it-all can’t resist upstaging his own daughter.

The book climaxes in a terrifying dance of triumph where Landsburg demonstrates why the Slate readers who objected to one of his columns are stupid. Make that really, really stupid. One gent’s argument isn’t just wrong, “It’s so fundamentally wrong that it can succeed only when people mouth the words without ever stopping to think about what they mean.” Landsburg tells us that he wrote this reader a letter and — lest you doubted — “my correspondent got the point, and said he never thought of it that way before. Now he saw the issue in a whole new light.” On reading this review, will Landsburg write me, rip my thinking to shreds and leave me cuckoo with awe? I can wait.

©1997 Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.