I never knew – I’m not sure I’m pleased to know – that a gull fed an Alka Seltzer sandwich will explode. That, along with a lot of information about what is done to a lifeguard who loses his man, comes in From Rockaway. The Letter of Marque has an account of 18th-century opium dosages. Tracks is informative about the cultural anthropology of the American Indian. Klara incorporates material for a historical essay about post-war Vienna. Facts give verisimilitude, but tend to diminish status. Detail can get the fraudulent a long way, as is proved by true stories of con men and their patter; and that may be one reason why novels of expertise, where subject-matter determines genres, are suspect.
Even so, some of the best things in the books noticed here are built within, and could not easily have been written outside, the conventions of ‘lower’ genres. The best of the others use the kind of precise detail typical of these genres to give their stories substance. Now that it is uncommon to have direct experience of being, or having, a servant, or of being part of a tribal unit larger than, say, a university department, or a member of a family with dynastic ramifications, an exotic social entity – a ship’s crew, a fragment of Indian tribe – allows kinds of complexity to develop which novels of middle-class life exclude. Louise Erdrich’s knowledge of the Chippewa Nation is coupled with a gift for characterisation which can make strange loves, conflicts and rages seem native to the realistic novel. One is also grateful for Jill Eisenstadt’s more straightforward ability to use smart writing to make a teen plot seem a true account of the place she grew up in. Patrick O’Brian’s stories of Napoleonic sea war have a vivacity which Hugh Thomas’s more fitfully imaginative book lacks, but both have virtues which come directly from the fact that the substantial historical scaffolds which they have erected give their players room to move.
The Letter of Marque opens with Jack Aubrey dismissed the service after a conviction for rigging the Stock Market – a crime of which he was innocent. He is set up as master of a private man-of-war by his newly rich friend, Maturin, a Naval physician who also serves the Admiralty as a secret agent, but the loyalty of comrades cannot alleviate the gloom caused by his removal from the Captains’ List.
An engagement with an enemy national ship of equal force might help, and intelligence of the imminent departure of a French frigate gives Aubrey an opportunity for such a meeting. He leads a landing party which takes her from her moorings; wounded and interestingly pale, he returns the hero. His friends’ efforts on his behalf require that he ask for a pardon. He refuses, taking the line that this would be to admit guilt. His father, a general of erratic and dissolute habits and radical opinions, dies; a cousin puts Jack in the way of a seat in Parliament, and with this added influence his reinstatement on the Navy List is promised.
Despite such plots O’Brian’s Aubrey novels, as John Bayley has said in this paper, are ‘emphatically not adventure stories, or the sort of mechanical marine thrillers which sprang up in the wake of C.S. Forester’. For one thing, delicacy and generosity of feeling are constant themes in O’Brian’s novels. More important, perhaps, the sea story, as O’Brian has developed it, makes work as central to the narrative as it is to most lives. The exercise of professional skills doesn’t lend colour to a plot which could have been built round another discipline: the story takes its form from the particularities of Naval life. The Letter of Marque is both serious and light-hearted, true and sentimental, as comic opera can be. The last scene in the book describes the crew’s view of ‘a gold coach and four, escorted by a troop of cavalry in mauve coats with silver facings, driving slowly along the quay with their captain and a Swedish officer on the box, their surgeon and his mate leaning out of the windows, and all of them now joined by the lady on deck, singing Ah tutti contenti saremo cosi, ah tutti contenti saremo, saremo cosi, with surprisingly melodious full-throated happiness.’ O’Brian sustains threads of narrative and develops relationships rather as the voices may be imagined carrying their vocal lines in that scene.
Klara is more circumstantial. Thomas has marshalled a large cast for his account of the fortunes of Austria in the years after the Second World War. The official world alone has a military contingent multiplied by the four occupying powers, and a political one multiplied by the colours of the political spectrum. The plot is built around the disappearances of Klara von Acht, daughter of Alois von Acht, and of the crown of Charles V. The girl and her friends die or go missing when they rashly walk out to meet their Russian liberators; the crown cannot be found in its proper place among art treasures stored in a salt-mine. These mysteries, although well enough sustained, at first seem to be there merely to give a fictional charge to a narrative of public life. Significant events (the first post-war concerts and political meetings) and illuminating juxtapositions (Russian officers at a Burns Night celebration) occasion conversations in which individuals stand for types. They are not illdrawn as characters, but what they represent is the reason for attending to what they say. For example, a young woman casts her vote for Attlee: what she says about this (she would of course have voted for Churchill if there had been a war to fight) gives information about the young post-war electorate. The ironies and brutalities of the aftermath of war as the Russians sweep Cossacks and other displaced nationals eastwards, the Americans prepare to defend their corner, and the Austrians to carry on the business of politics in a world in which almost anyone’s recent past may contain unmentionable matters, produces moments which go some way to making up for an absence of the fine grain of human relations. In its second half the book becomes more of a straightforward political thriller. Thomas, in Le Carré, Forsyth and Deighton country, is much less enjoyable than he is in conference-rooms and offices: he can do more with the administrative transactions which put injustice in train than he can with the villains at their villainy.
Rockaway, New York is where Woody Allen’s Radio Days is set: frame houses face the boardwalk, the boardwalk faces the beach. From Rockaway opens with four kids coming home from Prom Night. The limo driver goes on about ‘kids today’, which is what the book is about. Alex is leaving for college. Timmy wishes they hadn’t stopped making love together – they might get to realise their fantasy of being ‘one day together on a bed like grown-ups’. Alex and Timmy and Peg and Chowderhead gather on the dawn beach; Chowderhead sings to Seaver, tongueless and crippled in his wheelchair, a broken beach bum. Drunk and high, the boys go for a swim, the girls to find a wall to pee beside. Sunrise, not making love in the locker-room, nausea, a dog fight, breakfast in the diner follow. Then you learn more about Timmy. His father went off with the lady doctor who stitched back the fingers a mower took off. Mother wouldn’t give him a divorce and moved to Rockaway, where her sister was a nun at St Francis on the Beach, 129th Street. Timmy, like Peg and Chowderhead, is a lifeguard. He reckons to take the fireman test come September. And so it goes episodically on.
Chowder picks up a lost kid on the beach, a tough kid who, in his puzzled way, Chowder wants to hang on to, as though he was a stray dog. There are dares and initiations: the climactic one a grisly formal exorcism of the guilt which follows Timmy’s failure to save a drowning child. Alex gets to college and has some small troubles and larger confusions and embarrassments. Strip away the sophistication of the writer-school prose and some of the nose-picking local detail (like the exploding seagull), and you find a teen-novel with action not so different from that of, say, the movie Fast Times at Ridgemount High – rough enough to give a frisson to a parent, but not taking alienation beyond the point where it gives a kind of dignity to adolescent gloom. What lifts the book is the sense it gives that, within its formal limits, it is a true first look at life after childhood.
Edna O’Brien has given lush local and emotional colour to The High Road. One imagines her narrator, Anna, may be a bit heavy with the scent bottle, just as she herself is with her descriptions of dreams, of the smells of flowers, of colours and textures. Anna has retreated from a drawn-out love affair and various personal disasters in London to a Spanish seaside town. We know she is old enough to have grown-up sons, and handsome enough to draw the eye of strangers. It is a town where a colony of exotic foreigners, with feathers rather mussed by the wind that blew them there, perches among the natives. Among the stranded birds of passage is D’Arcy, an Irishman whose paint-spattered smock announces his craft; his function is Fool and Chorus, and his Leprechaunish loquacity palls. Wanda, who has been deserted by her husband in favour of a dancer from Seville, lives with her young son, who is trying to get through to his father – now running a mail-order business in California. Iris, ‘her eyelids covered with silver shadow and her hair which is also silverish strewn with little diamanté things which glitter like dew’, is rich and lonely, still pursuing romance, which turns into farce or betrayal or both. Anna accidentally comes upon a taped suicide message from Iris’s son – the deaths in the book are of the fated young, the older generation are cast as the survivors. Anna takes a room with Charlotte, who turns out to be Portia, remembered by Anna as a spoilt imperious deb, now neutralising poisonous rage and disappointment with health food and solitude. Her fury at being identified drives Anna to the hotel, where, as she toys with sleeping-pills for an overdose, she is interrupted by the maid, Catalina.
Catalina is the wire through which Anna’s emotional charge is earthed. The energy which can circulate safely among the exiles and expatriates, generating no more than passing flashes of heat and light, kills when it strikes native ground. Catalina – dark, pretty, capricious and, in the matter of what her life has been, mysterious – draws Anna away from the neurotic frustrations and griefs of the Irises and Wandas into an emotional world where sins are real and retribution fierce. This world is drawn with firm strokes which do not disguise shaky anatomy and perspective. Benighted in a mountain hut, the two women cleave to each other during a night of lesbian self-revelation which brings the prose to heights which the narrative and characterisation cannot carry. Anna’s over-warm narration put me unwillingly on the side of the life-deniers – if only she had been a little quieter.
In Molly Keane’s pictures of between-the-wars Anglo-Irish society in decline characters are dealt sharp blows. In Loving and Giving eight-year-old Nicandra (named after a winner which Dada, a very small man, trained and rode in good times before Nicandra was born) is doomed to love and to give. As one unreciprocated act of propitiation follows another it becomes clear that she hasn’t the knack for it. Unrewarded altruism brings depression. Nicandra alleviates this by having a lower-order hen to peck: Silly Willy, aged six, small and a bit retarded, who lives with his mother at the West Gate Lodge of Deer Forest, the Irish country house which figures as largely as any character in the book and affects everyone’s fate. One day Nicandra sees Anderson, the handsome Scottish land steward, being unexpectedly driven off to the station. Later Maman takes the 4.30 train. ‘Just be Dada’s little girl. Promise?’ she says by way of farewell. Aunt Tossie (Mrs Fox-Collier), who had been happily drinking herself through widowhood, carries on the management of the house. The decline of the establishment, as servants retire or get put away – the butler is replaced by Silly Willy – as dry rot advances and Tossie’s funds diminish is described with comic precision.
Family lines which run through Louise Erdrich’s novels The Beet Queen and Love Medicine are carried further back in Tracks, a very good novel indeed. It begins in spring 1912 and ends in spring 1924. The narrative is shared by two voices: in the first pages Nanapush, the last representative of his clan, describes how he saved Fleur, last of the Pillagers, taking her from the cabin where five members of her family lay dead of consumption. Some said that the troubles which followed came from the spirits of the unburied Pillagers, but Nanapush knows that is not so: ‘We stumbled towards the government bait, never looking down, never noticing how the land was snatched from under us at every step.’ The second voice is that of Pauline, ‘a skinny big-nosed girl with staring eyes’, a Puyat, ‘mixed bloods in a clan for which the name was lost’. She had travelled south to Argus the spring before the TB epidemic which had killed Fleur’s family – to learn lace-making from the nuns. ‘ “You’ll fade out there,” he [her father] said, reminding me that I was lighter than my sisters. “You won’t be an Indian once you return.” ’ Fleur comes to Argus looking for a job. She gets one in the meat-packing plant where Pauline works.
These three minds shape the story. Nanapush stoically and intelligently resists the destructive tide; Pauline struggles to transform tribal beliefs in order that she may swim with it; Fleur, known darkly through the other two, exercises powers which are, or seem, magical. In the one case intelligently and in the other viscerally, Nanapush and Pauline have admitted the possibility of cultural integration. Fleur has not, and strength and isolation both follow. The fragmentation of a culture is described through the things that happen to these three characters, whose obscure lives resonate in an immense imaginative space. The novel’s humour is raw and sometimes violent, the physical harshness of life colours the narrative. Its mainspring, however, is character. In Pauline, Erdrich has created a figure who, unattractive even to herself, is full of frustration and of destructive energy.
Fleur Pillager, as seen by Pauline, is dangerous too: twice drowned as a child, she survived by passing on her death to those who found her, or so Pauline says. Pauline is witness to bad things, which happen to Fleur and because of her. Fleur’s sexual presence, for example, is disturbing; in Argus she winds up men she is winning money from at poker, and when she returns to the reservation she draws Eli Kashpaw to her in a way which to his mother seems like witchcraft. But then Pauline is malicious; and her dialogue with her malicious self is there for us to read in her own words. Nanapush says of her: ‘The practice of deception with her was so constant that it became a kind of truth.’ Envious curiosity makes her potently knowledgeable: ‘She was the crow of the reservation, she lived off our scraps, and she knew us best because the scraps told our story.’ Her knowledge of the violent things that went on in Argus, and of her own involvement in them, becomes a weight to her; and when Eli Kashpaw’s mother gets the story from her Pauline is lightened by confession. Too plain to find a husband, and brought to distraction by the sexual heat generated by Fleur and Eli, she seduces him vicariously, by preparing the girl and the event. When eventually she becomes a nun, Christian and Indian magic join battle within her. A considerable invention, she is so fully realised that you hesitate to think of her as a symbolic figure: as an individual, however, she seems to be at the mercy of all the forces the book describes. Tracks is subtle and energetic, plain as a folktale, and as compelling. It is also political. Erdrich takes the novel – a form belonging to the dominant culture – and shows how that culture’s claims to a superior rationality can be questioned.