Short Book Reviews

By Ray Sawhill

* A Separate Cinema: Fifty Years of Black Cast Posters by John Kisch and Edward Mapp. Long before Spike Lee, directors and producers like Oscar Micheaux were making films for what was called the “race-movie circuit.” A fascinating place to begin learning about this tradition is this book by Kisch and Mapp; its introduction by film scholar Donald Bogle covers a lot of ground in 20 pages. Here are posters for Westerns (“Harlem on the Prairie”), comedies (“House-Rent Party”) and musicals (“Reet-Petite and Gone”), nearly all of them featuring an “All-Star Colored Cast.” The posters themselves have a distinctive splashiness and pizzazz that can remind you of the work of the some of the performers they feature: Ethel Waters, Buck & Bubbles, Josephine Baker.

* Another Life by Michael Korda. The editor-raconteur profiles writers and celebs; a canny insider’s look at the book business.

* Asafo! African Flags of the Fante by Peter Adler and Nicholas Barnard. This visual book is like a parade and a festival between covers. On display are flags made by West African warrior groups that were so taken by the visual splendor of European armies that they started making flags of their own, to their own taste. Spirals, crocodiles, wiggles, arrows and fish are some of the main elements — some of the flags have fringe on the edge. Adler and Barnard report that the Asafo have no written language, and that many of the flags convey oral proverbs, most of them commonsensical. My favorite: “If you shoot at a leopard and do not kill it, it is better not to have shot at all.” The designs have a retina-searing ferocity; the Asafo themselves consider the flags so potent that each new one must be approved by the chief of the elders and displayed before all companies to ensure no one is offended.

* Cracks by Sheila Kohler. Classmates from a South African boarding school meet at a reunion and wrestle with a mystery. An unforced erotic-poetic novella, especially good on the naive sensuality and malice of young girls.

* Cyclops by Albert Watson. Judging from his new book “Cyclops,” the photographer Albert Watson is a post-punk Irving Penn. This is all about style, impact and The New, pitched at an almost worrying level of high-strung artificiality. Here are richly-printed, black and white shots of actors, monkeys, rap stars, prisoners. They’re strikingly, boldly composed and sequenced: figures (a chicken, a dead frog) isolated against the white of the page, set opposite smokey-toned full-page portraits. David Carson, of the avant-garde rock and roll style magazine Ray Gun, designed “Cyclops,” giving it some of his chopped-out, splatter-font excitement. This is a coffee table book for cutting-edge coffee tables, with a bonus: a subtle, luscious nude of Sade.

* Key Ideas in Human Thought edited by Kenneth McLeish etc. It isn’t often that the more you leaf around in a reference work the more engaging it becomes. This book, put together by a team of British scholars, manages the feat. It’s certainly a solid way to bring yourself up to speed on notions from chaos theory to rhythm and blues. But it’s also a wonderful browse—a postmodern database with its own character and wry humor. Idiosyncratic and suave, the entries reflect academia’s freshest thinking. Even the choice of topics suggests a piquant notion of what knowledge is, or may be.

* Merrick by Anne Rice. There’s probably no American fiction writer who’s more review-proof than the New Orleans-based, witches-and-vampire novelist Anne Rice. To her fans, she’s a dark diva of blood, visions and lust. When a new Rice is released, as if on an unspoken signal, they apply the black lipstick, emerge from their dungeons, and buy up every copy printed. Nonfans live in a different dimension entirely. For us, reading her is like listening to incantations delivered in a foreign language—a blur of veils, candles, and horror-movie dialog, interrupted by the occasional sound of veins being punctured. Yet unlike, say, the orgy scene in “Eyes Wide Shut,” Rice’s writing is too trance-inducing to provoke giggles. For the record: her new one, “Merrick” (Knopf), is more of the Poe-meets-heavy-metal usual. A bi-racial heroine and voodoo are the fresh ingredients in the otherwise narcotically-familiar gumbo. Lestat (from “Interview With a Vampire”) makes a cameo appearance. Fans will be thrilled—but then they always are. In interviews, Rice has said that writing “Merrick,” her 22nd novel, brought her out of a depression. We couldn’t be happier for her. Me it left feeling pretty undead.

* Secrets of the Flesh by Judith Thurman. Nominated for a National Book Award, this bio of the great French writer Colette is intelligent and comprehensive. It’s also, unfortunately, a little fussy and overbaked.

* Truffaut by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana. A suave, anecdote-rich biography of the French filmmaker who was part poet, part careerist, and a compulsive seducer.

* Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman. Life in the Hollywood trenches, as recounted by a well-known screenwriter. Smart, shrewd, and more than a little horrifying.

* With Nails: The Film Diaries of Richard E. Grant. These jottings by an actor who was first noticed in the British cult hit “Withnail and I” read as though they were dictated in a rush and edited with a Saladshooter. Yet they’re also sweetly revealing, because Grant seems never to have lost his bewilderment at the life of make-believe and money he has made his way into. He’s gaga when he meets Barbra Streisand; puppy-eager yet shrewd about his directors, such as Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, and unabashedly fond of performers (such as Julia Roberts) in whom he recognizes vulnerability and a spirit of play. Grant himself—an excess of fizz ever in search of some vessel to fill—has plenty of both.

All reviews © Ray Sawhill.

“The Dark Side of Japanese Business” by Ikko Shimizu, translated by Tamae Prindle

business novels

By Ray Sawhill

As pop culture goes global, we’re becoming more and more familiar with the “Who’d have thunk it” entertainment response. Who’d have thunk steel guitars—which Americans associate with the relaxed pleasures of country & western and Hawaiian music—would ever be set alongside talking drums and tribal rhythms? Yet they are, in the dance music known as AfroPop. Who’d have thunk American action movie forms would mix with French existentialism and then bounce back at us from Hong Kong, like signals from a telecommunications satellite we forgot we launched? Meet Jackie Chan and John Woo.

Recently, some of us have been having fun adjusting to a Japanese form of pop entertainment called the “business novel.” Not many examples of it have made their way to America yet. The enjoyably disconcerting new collection called “The Dark Side of Japanese Business” (M.E. Sharpe) is the third such volume released here, and it’s currently the only one easily obtained. But the genre has been around in Japan since the 1950s, and is now as established as mysteries and historical fiction. Dozens of authors write these novels, which come with such titles as “Disciplinary Lay-off” and “Oil Shock.” Ikko Shimizu, who wrote the three stories in the present volume, is among the most celebrated and successful of these writers; the stories are published individually in Japan, and “Keiretsu,” the longest of them, has sold over 300,000 copies, and has been made into a TV movie. Shimizu, who started off as a financial journalist, is now a rich man in his mid-60s who employs a staff to do his research. His author photo shows him leaning proudly on a Porsche.

There’s nothing in American popular culture directly comparable to these novels. The reality-television series “Cops” has some of their just-the-facts-ma’am flavor. The thrillers of Michael Crichton and John Grisham provide work details and atmosphere. “L.A. Law” and innumerable sitcoms suggest something of how much of our living we do on the job. But you read through these stories looking in vain for glamor and thrills. Where are the Feds? The mob? The laughs and camaraderie? The thrillingly enticing scenes of sexual blackmail?

What you get in a business novel are characters who engage in business skirmishes, then retire to interpret what has occurred and to decide how to respond. Then? Well, then they return to work. Instead of chases and courtroom scenes, we’re given a lot of conferring and reflecting. Instead of the keep-the-tension-mounting writing common in American pop, we’re given language flatter than in any company report. “The high-yield products were odd-shaped headlights, particularly for export cars,” writes Shimizu in “Keiretsu.” The closest thing these works have to a romantic lead describes his likely wife-to-be in these swoony words: “I guess she is rather plain as a matter of fact, or she’s average-looking. But her mouth is kind of gentle.” So, the bewildered American reader wonders, should the role be offered to Demi Moore or not?

Yet Shimizu’s stories are genuinely gripping. Needing help getting my bearings, I gave the book’s translator, Tamae Prindle, a professor at Colby College, a call. She informed me that in Japan, Shimizu is thought to be somewhat Marxist in his view of business. (You could have fooled me). He’s also known for his porno touches—a story here about a beautiful young geisha shows off some of his amorality and bluntness—and he’s considered the most muckraking of the business novel authors. Mainly, said Prindle, “people read these books for information.”

And it’s the information that holds you. As business situation after business situation is painstakingly laid out, expository-flashback fatigue sets in; then you realize that exposition is the whole point. In “Keiretsu,” the aging Shigeya, whose father founded Taisei Automobile Lighting Company, fights to keep control of his company, and to pass its leadership along to his own son. His foe is Tokyo Motors, the leader of the keiretsu his company belongs to. TM insists on placing its own managers on Shigeya’s staff, and keeps its profit margins high by forcing ever-larger price reductions on its suppliers. (Prindle says most Japanese readers would recognize “Tokyo Motors” as Nissan.) “How to contend?” is virtually the whole story.

The novel manages to be absorbing without once making your blood race. The absence of climaxes, initially frustrating, helps you sink into the intricacies of Shigeya’s predicament. Which board members are likely to support him? How should he interpret that phone call from the bank vice-president? How can Taisei expect its employees to keep their morale up if their dormitory has inadequate air conditioning? As a writer, Shimizu is nothing if not methodical; of course, the world he’s portraying is one of elaborate protocol and interlocking obligations. (One of the characters is simply known as Quality Control Section Chief Saito. Imagine making water-cooler chat with him!) When the codes of respect are violated—”We don’t need you, senile old man,” barks one rebellious exec at Shigeya—you’re more shocked, in a low-key way, than you are by the sounds of Uzis in an American thriller.

I found myself becoming fascinated by the Keiretsu Company Binding Rules, and by sentences that might have put me to sleep in other contexts. “A car is made of many parts—some 14,000 to 15,000 on average,” Shimizu writes. “TM had arranged to buy approximately 80% of these parts from its own keiretsu.” Noted—also savored and enjoyed. When a TM engineer asks a Taisei staffer, “You propose putting a washer on each lamp—doesn’t that add to your cost?”, I was genuinely curious about how the inevitable “Yes, but …” answer would be handled.

I even grew to enjoy the lack of what the American novel-reader in me craves. A central human relationship, for instance. What we’d assume would be the spine of the book—the bond between father and son—isn’t developed at all. By American standards, the two men barely seem to know each other. Private lives where the characters can cut loose with their true feelings, for another instance, are nonexistent. Before the final scene, where she displays a steely will, Shigeya’s beloved wife of many decades is limited to a few appearances along the lines of: “Michiko popped her head out of the kitchen and asked if she should serve dinner, but nobody paid attention.”

There’s no use pretending that reading these stories doesn’t make you feel mighty American—ie., clumsy, loud-mouthed, and uncomprehending. There’s also no avoiding the suspicion that we entertainment-junkie Americans will never be able to sweat a detail as thoroughly as the Japanese. Just at the moment when you know you’d be kicking back and slipping a video in the VCR, the characters in “Keiretsu” are starting to comb through their business predicaments all over again. These tales aren’t stories of heroic, embattled individuals; they’re about the costs of consensus. Patience and concentration are the entertainment values they’re selling. Shigeya isn’t trying to release the star within; he’s just trying to deal with a large company that has grown a little arrogant. The collection is a mind-bending cultural artifact. It can get an American reader interested in the automobile-headlights business. Who’d have thunk it?

©1995 Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The New York Times Book Review.

“Run” by Douglas E. Winter

winter

By Ray Sawhill

Has Mike Hammer seen the light and joined Al Gore’s staff?
Douglas E. Winter’s first novel is an example of what might be thought of as a micro-subgenre: the hard-boiled, apocalyptic thriller with a liberal agenda. It’s a condemnation of what Winter clearly sees as America’s insanely permissive laws concerning firearms.

Burdon Lane, his protagonist, is a middle-level errand-runner for a shady gun operation in Washington. Valued for his toughness and ability to keep a low profile, he’s part of a team making a huge delivery of weaponry to a New York City street gang. Things, from Lane’s point of view at least, rapidly start to go wrong.

Winter shows an amusing ability to turn descriptions of firearms into demented arias, and a talent for cooking up interlocking conspiracies. He may be optimistic about the number of times all hell should break loose in the course of a single thriller, and he may also have misjudged how many bitterly ironic cracks about ”the American dream” his book needed.

But what makes the novel a chore to get through is the ”Natural Born Killers” manner in which he has told his story; hyped-up and full of hallucinatory effects, the voice seems electronically processed rather than written. Even granting that he’s making a point, most readers will want to ask this of Winter and his publisher: Has there ever been a person who, when in the mood for a video-game-style nerve jangling, has reached for a novel instead? If there is such a person, this is the book for him.

© Ray Sawhill 2001. First appeared in The New York Times Book Review Section.

“Blue Pastoral” by Gilbert Sorrentino

sorrentino

By Ray Sawhill

Gilbert Sorrentino has the mind of an avant-garde experimentalist and the instincts of a profane showman. His novels overflow with elaborate literary contrivances and games, and the titles he gives them (“Aberration of Starlight,” “Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things”) lead you to expect one hall of mirrors after another. But there’s nothing dry or ingrown about his writing. His novels have the kind of physical charge and excitement more often associated with jazz and improvisational comedy than with literature.

“Blue Pastoral” (North Point), his new novel, is an attempt at a rococo black comedy, and is populated by people who love the sound of their own voices. Virtually all the characters speak in elaborate periods, invocations, apostrophes — bursts of enthusiasm that build and build, then scatter. The questing, Candide-like hero, a New York lens grinder named (Blue) Serge Gavotte, is possessed by a sudden love of music. Encouraged in his mania by a doctor who is treating him for an infection brought on by too much harmonica playing, Blue loads a piano on a cart and sets out with his son and wife in search of the perfect musical phrase. Whenever his zeal falters, the “doctor,” who using Blue as a guinea pig in an experiment, materializes in a new form and eggs him on.

The novel is full of parodies — of speeches, poetry, pornography and intellectual fashions. One chapter opens with Blue and his wife, Helene, inexplicably miles farther along in their travels. Blue: “We have passed through the great state of Mizzoo in a sudden flash, the time it takes to turn a page.” Helene: “I wondered why the so-called scenery zipped by so fast.” Blue: “I suspect that it the ‘text’ is being ‘deconstructed’ beneath our very feets!” Characters turn aside to argue with the narrator. Weeds, lingerie and sheep are only some of the major motifs.

Much of this is good fun, and there’s drive in the gnarled language. So why does “Blue Pastoral” grow tedious? I think it’s because the story, whose outlines Sorrentino used once before, in his first novel, the 1966 “The Sky Changes,” interest him as little but a display case for his pyrotechnics. In his earlier novels, the innovative techniques had a strange, tickling quality. They seemed at once irrelevant and essential, and provided a fresh way of getting inside frustrated lives; the loneliness, anger and humor they released were startling and vivid. Here the devices are no more than ornate excrescences and, in the end, they overwhelm your interest.

©1983 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“Fair and Tender Ladies” by Lee Smith

lee smith

By Ray Sawhill

Lee Smith’s novels are as consciously “women’s fiction” as anything you might run across in Redbook or McCall’s, but she opens the genre up and makes it seem expansive. Her work has a mixture of lyricism and sexual boldness that makes you go outside of writing, to the work of actresses and women singers, for comparisons. Like Sissy Spacek and Loretta Lynn, Smith can make a performance in a popular medium seem like a complete declaration of feeling.

Her new novel, “Fair and Tender Ladies” (Putnam), consists of letters written by Ivy Rowe, the daughter of a Virginia mountain family, who lives from 1900 well into the ’70s. Ivy’s life is the stuff of a back-country soap opera. When her father dies, her mother takes the family to town; when her mother dies, she boards with a sister who drinks on the sly. Ivy gets pregnant by a boy who leaves to fight in World War I, has an affair with a rich kid, marries a childhood friend, and returns with him to the family farm to raise a passel of kids.

Although Smith’s choice of the epistolary form might lead you to expect a play of irony and distance, the book contains no satire or parody. The author is in closer sympathy with her protagonist than we’re used to in contemporary literary fiction, and the point of the book is how far into Ivy’s emotions Smith can take us. That’s pretty far. Ivy’s letters, when she’s a child, keep shading into bookish extravagance; her words are all needlepoint and ribbons. In adolescence, she’s fascinated by being loved and desired, and by loving and desiring, and she acquires a reputation as a fallen woman even as she sees herself as the heroine of a romance novel.

A number of the letters she writes are to a mentally handicapped sister: in them, Ivy confides feelings she tells no one else about. These words stream out of her like feathers, clouds. She writes her sister about a hallucination she had the day she discovered she was pregnant: “I could see that baby as clear as day, tiny and pink and all curled up, and then it started beating me with its little fists against my stomach, trying to escape. It hurt me. And then … I was that little baby caught inside my own self and dying to escape. But I could not. I could never get out, I was caught for ever and ever inside myself.” By old age, facing down the coal company with a shotgun by her side, Ivy has become an eccentric buzzard and her words have grown crabbed and spiky. But her feelings still transport her; she still has the avidity of a little girl.

“I didn’t care if he was lying or not,” she writes her sister about a sweet-talker she once left her children and husband behind for. “It seemed like years since I’d heard a story.” Smith brings a more wide-ranging awareness to her tastes than Ivy does, but she shares Ivy’s susceptibility to storytelling. She reacts to stories as many people react to favorite songs, and she fills the novel with legends and tales. Smith’s love for the Appalachian hills gives off vibrations. She makes a reader feel the presence of spirits; she still sees in the land what folk artists saw there. Her work is about the moment when, as you look at or listen to a work of naïve art, it stops being a curiosity and starts to speak to you in a human voice.

It’s these longer, darker rhythms, pulsing beneath the hillbilly-Victorian flowerets of Ivy’s voice, that give the novel its physicality, and that help create the illusion of coming into warm contact with lives that have always seemed to take place at an impassable distance. “Fair and Tender Ladies” might have been sung into being.

© 1988 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“Dvorak in Love” by Josef Skvorecky

skvorecky

By Ray Sawhill

From 1892 to 1895, the Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorak lived in New York. Lured here by the sponsor of the new National Conservatory of Music to help Americans develop a distinctive style of music, he worked, drank oceans of beer, and was wowed by the surreal scale of the country. What he discovered about our musical life came as a surprise: we already had a magnificent tradition. “In the Negro melodies of America I find all that is needed for a great and noble school of music,” he wrote. “There is nothing in the whole range of composition which cannot be supplied from this source.”

Josef Skvorecky tells the story of this visit in his bighearted and wide-ranging novel “Dvorak in Love” (translated by Paul Wilson; Knopf), using it as an opportunity to explore American musical history and to suggest the mystery of Dvorak’s creative fire. He takes us from the 1840s, when a composer in search of the American essence entitled one of his orchestral works “Pocahontas, fantasia romanza,” to the mid-20th century, when jazz was finally performed at Carnegie Hall. And, though he never brings us inside Dvorak’s mind, he sketches a vivid, mobile portrait of an earthy man of the senses with a peasant’s simple religious faith, who also happens to be a genius. The “love” of the title is Dvorak’s private drama: his adoration of his wife’s older sister, an actress who died early and for whom Dvorak composed his most cherished melody. Skvorecky tenderly and humorously places this unrequited passion at the center of his novel; the effect is to draw a connection between ephemerality and love.

That’s what happens in “Dvorak in Love,” narratively and structurally. But this is a far from conventional novel. You don’t experience it primarily in terms of drama, character development, or finely tuned sentences. You experience it musically, as an unruly jazz suite on themes suggested by Dvorak’s visit: high art and folk art, the Old World and the New, music and words, exile. The chapters, told from a variety of points of view, many of which shift internally, are riffs — long, seemingly improvised passages that charge off in all directions. “To me, literature is blowing a horn,” Skvorecky has said. It’s clear that, for him, beauty, youth, emotion and music are close to synonymous, and that his writing is an effort to keep them alive, to prolong the music. His books, including the novels “Miss Silver’s Past” and “The Engineer of Human Souls,” are soulful, comic laments about what vanishes between youth and age, one language and another. In his best work — in passages here and in his earlier volume, “The Bass Saxophone” — his humor and lyricism work together in ways that make entire paragraphs seem to rise right off the page, borne away by nostalgia, bewilderment and love.

“Dvorak in Love” is sometimes halting and it has its tedious stretches. But the network of themes Skvorecky has devised is loose enough to let his riffs take off and sturdy enough to hold them together. His prose is robust — it has a smoky, gypsy flavor — yet the book has an airy theatricality. Skvorecky shines the poetic light of a “lunatic moon” on this factually based past, and he tells wild, true stories about early visionary naifs like Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, who once led an orchestra of 2,000 and a chorus of 20,000, and who kept his huge ensemble in some rough kind of synch by firing off cannons.

Some of the solos in “Dvorak in Love” have the nakedness and lift of great spirituals. In one chapter, set in the 1940s, the woman patron of the arts who brought Dvorak to America is musing about Duke Ellington and the sound of saxophones, and she wonders how the long-dead Dvorak would have responded to swing. This old lady settles into sleep, and when she “awakens,” whom should she see but Dvorak himself. There he was, “sitting next to her bed in a waistcoat, with his sleeves rolled up, and he was playing the saxophone.”

  • Buy a copy of “Dvorak in Love.”
  • An interview with Josef Skvorecky.
  • Robert Winter’s CD-ROM about Dvorak’s “From the New World” symphony is a wonderful work in its own right. I can’t find anyplace that currently sells the disc, but you might be able to find a copy on eBay. Highly recommended.

© 1987 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“Monday’s Warriors” by Maurice Shadbolt

shadbolt

By Ray Sawhill

The action in “Monday’s Warriors” (Godine), Maurice Shadbolt’s new novel, has a roughriding excitement, and the language is sharp — there are no ominous premonitions or nameless dreads. This crackling Conradian adventure yarn is based on a true story. Kimball Bent, an American conscript in the British Army in New Zealand, deserts, and talks the Maori who find him into sparing his life. It’s the late 1800s, and the British have mounted a military campaign to wipe out what remains of Maori resistance. Bent gradually realizes that he hasn’t entered an inchoate, savage world — he’s entered a culture in disarray. The Maori are at odds with each other over how to deal with the whites.

When the English, determined to teach the Maori a lesson, crush one of their peaceful villages, Titoko, the village elder, who has been a spokesman for peace, consults the ancient war gods and talks several tribes into reinstating the old customs and going on the attack. The body of the novel concerns this war, one of the last Maori uprisings against their invaders. As Titoko wins battles, more and more Maori join up, and he grows close to Bent, whose realistic yet detached viewpoint he values. The Maori use the Anglos’ fearfulness against them; essentially, Titoko suckers the English into defeating themselves.

Is Titoko having a lucky streak, or has he really summoned the ancestral magic? Or is he just futilely acting out what history demands? Bent, the American, provides the reader with an opening onto a world of Maori ambivalence. Whipped and out-smarted, the settlers demonize Bent, convinced the Maori couldn’t outfight and outthink Her Majesty’s troops without some kind of Caucasian help.

Maurice Shadbolt is almost entirely unknown in America, although he has written over a dozen books. “Monday’s Warriors” is his first to be published in this country since the defiant, supercharged 1987 “Season of the Jew,” one of the least-noticed, least-discussed major novels in recent years; still available in paperback, it, too, concerns the Army and the Maori in the 19th century. The two novels are each complete, self-contained works, yet are also fine companion pieces.

They’re also very funny. Is there something about the Maori — their mocking humor and ferocity, perhaps, and their apparent invulnerability to sentimentality — that leads to treatment of their tragedy as black comedy? In both of these daring epics, the conversations and faceoffs have the rapidfire wit and formality of a high level karate match — and Shadbolt never tries to glamorize his terseness or style. The scenes of slaughter, and the evocation of the New Zealand landscape, have an Elizabethan unruliness and splendor; the author suggests a mystical component without dragging the stories down. If we’re drawn to marvel at the senseless trouble people cause themselves and each other, Shadbolt leaves us on our own to do it. He sets us down in the mistrust and beauty and keeps the dramatic tension keyed way up. Readers may feel that at its best Shadbolt’s work outdoes Hemingway.

© 1992 by Ray Sawhill.