Running from the literary lynch mob
Many of you know John Ernst as co-host of our book list call-ins. John is often ahead of the pack–recommending titles months before they’re selected for Pulitzer or Booker recognition. Recently, I asked John if he ever disagreed with the big name critics. Let’s just say I noticed a wicked twinkle in his eye. Herewith, two books the critics raved about, but not John, who mused to me, “…ought to be enough to set a literary lynch mob on my tail.”
THE YELLOW BIRDS — Kevin Powers (2012)
This brief first novel by an Army Iraq veteran who was a poetry fellow at the University of Texas comes trailing a raft of cheers from well-respected writers arid a favorable front page review in the New York Times Book Review.
Though short and punchy, I felt the book was over-written, with paragraph after paragraph of unfocused, solipsistic reflection — something noted by the Times reviewer Benjamin Percy (“lengthy brow-furrowing meditation…” he calls it) but not considered heavily damaging.
The story follows two young soldiers who bond in basic training and are shipped to the same unit in Iraq. Powers conveys the boredom and horror, the constant fatigue and pressure of fear that combat brings. What he does not do is make intelligible characters out of the narrator (Private Bartle) his friend (Private Murphy) or their battle-hardened sergeant. So the effect of the story relies solely on circumstances — the failure of Bartles to protect his friend, as he had promised Murphy’s mother he would do. The details are stark, but Powers doesn’t have the skill to make them moving.
The novel has been compared to Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” to Hemingway’s war fiction, to Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead.” I think this is a real stretch. The novel conveys the bleakness of war, all right, but a “Red Badge of Courage” it is not.
TELEGRAPH AVENUE — Michael Chabon (2012)
ALSO: THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION; THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY
The story centers on Archy Stallings and his long-time partner, Nat Jaffe, in their efforts to keep afloat a vintage record emporium called Brokeland Records on the fringe of Oakland and Berkeley. Into the whirlpool of their lives are drawn a circus of raffish characters– ruthless real estate developers, politicians, long-lost progeny, former pro football players, the protagonists’ wives who are partners in a midwife business—just to name a few.
Michael Chabon is an impressively talented writer, but here he spreads the icing on so thick that I choked on it. Riff follows riff. The prose is so ornate that one yearns for a simple sentence. One section of eleven pages consists of a single sentence. Enough, already, Stop! Stop!
This is a novel about BIG issues — race relations in Northern California in the 1970s, Blaxploitation films, the music business, life, death, God. Reading it exhausted me.
READERS! READERS! Do you agree or disagree with John’s take on these two well-received bestsellers? Are there other recent books the critics have loved that have not worked for you? Weigh in…but no lynching.