For scholars of heartbreak and trepidation, the Dolly Parton songbook is a core text. No other singer would say ‘please’ when begging Jolene not to take her man. In Country Music, Ken Burns’s recent documentary series, Parton insists a great song is like an heirloom or a keepsake, essentially a piece of storytelling. A well-written song can dramatise a wonderful character or bring back a singular voice, and in these senses, among others, the siren of East Tennessee is better than most poets. There’s a giggle and a teardrop in her voice, an unmistakeable set of attitudes about life, and I was looking forward to her novel the way lovers of chocolate might look forward to Easter. It was going to be Eudora Welty, Tom Wolfe, Reese Witherspoon and Tammy Faye Bakker in a wild Southern barn dance. It was going to be a roof-raising, hello God hoedown, a complete riot of personal faith, the sentences glinting with rhinestones and Southern Gothic, all of it secured by a narrative raised on sweet tea and Moon Pie. On her own, Dolly can do no wrong, but like many country heroines she sometimes gets into bad company.
We first meet AnnieLee Keyes as she falls from the balcony of a Las Vegas hotel. ‘Life had been so damn hard.’ (We’re only in the prologue.) Surely, you think, there must have been some star-spangled glory before the fall? To discover that, we go – in the blink of a smoky eye – to the moment, eleven months earlier, when AnnieLee was thumbing a lift out of Houston in the pouring rain. She was 25. Of course she’s a singer and of course she has just pawned her guitar. But it’s clear right away that our heroine is no floozie, and she soon pulls a gun on a rapey truck driver, steals his truck and travels in the general direction of Nashville. In one of those scene switches that were so effective in 1980s American super-soaps, we jump to AnnieLee’s opposite number, a fantastically successful country legend called Ruthanna Ryder. She lives in a Greek castle mansion thing surrounded by gold records, but make no mistake, Nashville’s saintly soprano is filled to the brim with the wisdom that comes from having had a glittering career at the forefront of tearful simplicity. ‘Good Lord,’ she says of AnnieLee, now singing for beers and fries at the Cat’s Paw Saloon, ‘that girl’s so gorgeous she could sing like a barn cat in heat and folks’ll be calling her the next Maria Callas.’
AnnieLee goes back to her alter ego’s mansion in a white limo. For a minute and a half, it’s All about Eve, Y’All, with the wannabe singer trying on the star’s clothes and wondering how to be true to herself, even (or perhaps especially) if she doesn’t quite have a self. AnnieLee lies about her past and says she doesn’t have a family. Sure, she’s got talent, but something is chasing her and giving her the fear, the reason, the drive. Even at this early stage in the narrative, you detect the clumsy fingers of a bad male player drubbing up and down the fretboard of Dolly Parton’s own tune. AnnieLee, you see, isn’t Dolly, and neither is Ruthanna, but together they are a projection of somebody else’s shame about what Dolly might mean, as if her talent could only be explained by a welter of clichés about male brutality and its creative effects. Even as a piece of fun, the book has that strange, bleachy smell of foxes new to the yard, pissing out their territory.
The younger and the older versions of Parton in Run Rose Run are under the control of this guy. The story appears to be flattering to the presiding superstar, as all ghosted fictions must, yet the road from desperation to triumph has never before, in Dolly’s long history of perfect self-articulation, been so strewn with garbage and wreckage, most of it ridiculous in its wish to overcome possible ridicule. Dolly should have dismissed her co-author when she saw the first draft of the first chapter, because it reveals a category error on his part, the supposition that violent men have more to do with a female singer’s creative impulses than her own talent does. She is bound in opposition, trapped in a cycle of running away. It’s a bar-room version of a feminist narrative, where a woman can only be free when a man sets her free, and only in possession of her own voice when the regulars decide to look up from their beers.
That might be deeply un-Dolly, but the yee haws keep on coming. AnnieLee is even frightened of nice women and non-sordid guys, so she sleeps under a tree in the park and eventually moves into an East Nashville motel that is as pink as a Pepto-Bismol bottle (that’s what it says). Meanwhile, the ‘little nobody’ threnody would make the songs of Loretta Lynn sound like the essays of Martha Nussbaum. There’s a fierce piety at play here, poverty porn in Wranglers, where our heroine is forever scratching together a few dollars and proving you can be good while also being trashy. It comes to seem like a familiar American tale about how to get back up after falling down. Patterson knows his audience, though he possibly doesn’t know Dolly Parton’s, who tend to see a freedom fighter under all that gloss and peroxide. Her talent is not the same thing as wanting, though the high priests of modern celebrity would have you think so. They speak of ‘drive’, they speak of ‘believing in yourself’, they overcome ‘the odds’, while Dolly speaks in tongues. She’s a heretic as much as a comforter.
In works by the world’s bestselling author, the suspense is always exactly where you think it will be, so there’s actually no suspense. AnnieLee has a secret. So has Ruthanna. And so has the giant leopard moth that just fluttered past the window. AnnieLee has a source of secret pain? OK. A husband, a baby? Or is it some sociopathic Boss Hogg type back in Shit-Town, who treated her horribly when she was somebody else with a double-barrelled Christian name? You get the picture. The past won’t leave AnnieLee alone and she has to be beaten up by a couple of bogeymen who always seem able to find her and get into her room. Hold the bus: there’s one nice guy, he’s called Ethan and he’s handsome with good muscles. He was a soldier in Afghanistan and he’s in pain too, because of this, that and the other trauma. He plays guitar and he believes in AnnieLee, which is a full-time job, trust me, a job-share, the other half of which the heroine herself takes up with alacrity. Just when you think she’s about to get a break, she has to throw herself out of a car, or gouge somebody’s eye out with a stiletto, or put out a fire that somebody set in her hair, or fend off a group of trolls, or jump off a balcony – you know, typical events in the average day of a self-defining survivor of all the world’s brutalities. Truth is, you get tired of AnnieLee. She can’t enjoy a chat over a snifter without it curdling into Oprahese:
‘Cheers,’ said AnnieLee.
‘It’s a Williamette Valley rosé.’
‘I’m not going to pretend I know what that means,’ AnnieLee admitted.
‘You will, I hope, learn about the finer things in life someday,’ Ruthanna said dryly.
AnnieLee giggled. ‘Just don’t ruin me for vending machine Cokes and cold beans from a can, okay?’
‘That’s the most depressing dinner I’ve ever heard of.’
‘No, the most depressing dinner is the one without any food at all,’ AnnieLee said, ‘and believe me, I’ve had my share of those.’
In the world of country music, having it rough is having it all, although Dolly Parton has managed all these colourful years without placing the garnish of self-pity on her wonderful life. Again and again, however, the sad backstories in her novel turn inappropriately comedic, and we just don’t feel equipped to identify with Ruthanna when she comes to reveal that her dead daughter Sophia was a very good banjo player. Sentence-writers, I want to say, must have an ear for the order of words, and bathos is forever close and dangerous. Poor AnnieLee has told a few fibs. She is haunted by her own fiction in ways the reader can never be, as the paragraphs in the novel begin to imitate a bad singer who is short of breath, gasping out sentiments and unmelodious phrases while reaching for any available noun. Yet clarity prevails. The book is a raucous primer of the bad style used in the creation of cynical bestsellers.
When it doesn’t have a cliffhanger.
It just deadheads the sentence.
Close to the end, you think she’s made it. Oh, AnnieLee, you think, it’s all been worth it, getting to know your heart. But then you realise you’ve only had nickels and dimes of AnnieLee Keyes. She lies because it’s easier than telling the truth. This woman is not just any old Southern liar with a bit of individuality and a sense that she can’t go home again. She’s not Holly Golightly or Blanche DuBois, she’s not Sue-Ellen Ewing from Dallas or the women in The Real Housewives of Atlanta. AnnieLee is different because she is a survivor caught up in the pornography of her own abuse. You think she’s a person in charge of her destiny, then here it comes, the Past, all fat and smelling of sweat and cigarette smoke, ‘his weight pressed her breathless. And he was holding a gun.’
[End of chapter.]
Who is James Patterson, and why does he write like this?
First, a small clue. Hillary Clinton says he’s ‘the master storyteller of our times’. We know that Patterson helped Bill (from Hope, Arkansas) to write his first novel, The President Is Missing, which went to number one on the New York Times bestseller chart after selling 250,000 copies in its first week. Patterson also helped Clinton with his second novel, The President’s Daughter. It was Bill who first called Patterson ‘a master storyteller’, and Hillary must have agreed, though when it came to finding a co-author for her own necessary thriller, State of Terror, she chose Louise Penny. According to an analysis of the Clintons’ tax returns, the couple made $240 million over the last fifteen years, much of it from writing. It doesn’t make them bad people, but it does, perhaps, make them very different from the people they used to be, the couple who plumed on their love of literature and who went to dinners at William and Rose Styron’s house on Martha’s Vineyard, along with García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes, where Bill is still remembered for quoting at length from the novels of William Faulkner.
Styron’s ex-friend Norman Mailer once told me a story about Faulkner and the Paris Review. The late Jean Stein, sometime in the 1950s, had an affair with Faulkner, and they had sex in the loggia of her father’s Hollywood swimming pool. He was so disgusted he had the loggia pulled down and rebuilt. The affair didn’t last, but Jean did secure two long interviews with the man himself, and she told the young editors George Plimpton and Robert Silvers that she would give the interview to the Paris Review, so long as they made her an associate editor. They took the material (Number 12 in their famous series ‘The Art of Fiction’) and Stein got her place on the masthead, but they removed her name after the relevant issues had gone to press. ‘They did the old WASP shuffle,’ Mailer told me, ‘but Jean didn’t hold it against George.’ (They later worked together on her book about Edie Sedgwick, Superstar.) Anyway, in the first of those interviews Faulkner said a thing that sticks in the mind.
The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honour, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.
Patterson says his writing career began at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts in 1965, when he was eighteen. He worked there for five years, but he brings us nothing of its flavour, nothing of its patients or its climate or its social history or its smell, nothing of himself, and thus the Patterson style was born. Unfairly, Robert Lowell, who was an inmate there at the time, gives us more in three lines than Patterson would give us in a career that now spans more than two hundred novels. ‘Absence!’ Lowell wrote in ‘Waking in the Blue’:
My heart grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the ‘mentally ill’.)
A writer obsessed with formulae is seldom interested in detail. Patterson doesn’t know his grandpa’s first name. In his thirties, he saw the name of his first girlfriend on a gravestone near where they had lived but shows no interest in how she died. Writers like that make a sort of camaraderie out of their ignorance and lack of curiosity, as if making it easy on themselves, and easy for the reader, is the true mark of ‘authenticity’, of being neither fussy nor pretentious. It is an entertaining and puzzling aspect of our book culture that the works that sell squillions of copies are usually the ones that make everything in life less interesting than it actually is. If every era must have its busy, global laureate of such dullness, ours will be James Patterson. His novels read as if they were written by committee (he has many collaborators) and they have deeply reliable commercial optics, such that the destruction of Dolly Parton’s interestingness may be judged a solid success. In a way, he offers a compliment to real life by always allowing it to baffle art. No sentence, in the Patterson universe, is equal to the suggestions and nuances of life itself; his galaxy is a constant flow of words that drift towards nullity. ‘Stephen King once called me a terrible writer,’ he says in his memoir, which is quite unjust. He’s not merely a terrible writer, he’s the terrible writer’s terrible writer, a distinction he should enjoy.
Or possibly not. He mentions the Nobel Prize for Literature four times in his book. Self-praise is the surest form of neurosis, and Patterson goes at it like an adman (he used to be CEO of Thompson North America). He tells us his readers love him. ‘A sweet 14-year-old in Boston asked me to sign and personalise Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas, her grandmother’s favourite novel. That afternoon the girl was heading to a local funeral home to put the book in her grandma’s casket before she was buried.’ I mean, the dead can sleep through anything, but not everyone would want to take the risk of waking up in a forest of wild adjectives, surrounded by Powerful Men. Never mind. James has advice for other writers, and that’s what I’ll be taking to my own grave. One: don’t forget the freebies. ‘If you put a product you really like in your book, chances are pretty good that the company that makes it will send you free stuff. Maybe even a case of stuff.’ James Patterson is alleged to be worth $800 million.
Some writers live in their own ‘small-town alley’. That’s what Patterson is proud of and what struck him about Dolly Parton. Twins! ‘I had a half-baked but potentially really good idea for a story about a country singer,’ he writes. ‘Dolly was interested but she wanted to meet – face-to-face – before deciding.’ So he got on a plane to Nashville and rocked up at her ‘homey office’. It was nice, and of course Dolly was ‘down to earth, genuine, thoughtful, smart as a whip, funny and self-deprecating’. They shook on a promise to do the book, with no lawyers or agents present. Now, I counsel all you honky-tonk angels, be very careful of having no witnesses when attaching yourself to a collaborator who uses phrases like ‘smart as a whip’. Still, you can’t have everything, as Dolly herself taught us during the last fifty years of producing heartbreaking truths to order. After reading a batch of pages, she sent Patterson a note saying how much she was loving it. His wife suggested he frame the note. ‘She can’t stop talking about “Dolly’s novel”,’ he said.