“I now walk into the wild”: the infuriating, mystifying, ultimately harrowing story of Chris McCandless

May 31, 2008 at 10:37 pm (Book review, books) ()

I just finished listening to Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Although the book was published in 1996, the story is back in the news because of last year’s film by Sean Penn. I wanted to read the book before seeing the movie.

The audiobook consists of six discs, and I almost gave up after the first one. I was finding the company of an arrogant, self-absorbed, monumentally selfish young man well nigh unendurable. I stayed with it and I’m glad that I did, although I found it a profoundly disturbing story.

Chris McCandless’s odyssey across the West began immediately after his graduation from Emory University. He fetched up variously in the tiny town of Carthage, South Dakota, where he worked at a grain elevator, in the California desert, in Bullhead City, Arizona, where he worked in a MacDonald’s, and in several other out-of-the-way places before heading north to Alaska.

And the purpose of all this wandering? Well, there seem to have been several purposes, none of them very clearly articulated. One was certainly to slough off the trappings of the upper middle class existence into which Chris McCandless was born. The child of Walt and Billie McCandless, he was raised in Annandale, Virginia, a suburb of Washington DC. His father was an aerospace engineer of considerable eminence, having among other things designed advanced radar systems for the space shuttle. Chris had a younger sister Carine and six older step siblings from Walt’s previous marriage. (Annandale is about fifty miles southwest of where I’m sitting at the moment. I lived there for a year in the late 1960’s. It is now part of a suburban agglomeration devoid of any distinguishing features and choking on its traffic.)

From what I read in this book, the McCandlesses did not experience extraordinary friction within the family unit while Chris was growing up. But he was a complicated person, a restless, discontented soul who often seemed at odds with his environment. His relationship with Walt was somewhat touchy. I read somewhere that all boys, as they grow into men, face a reckoning with their fathers. Chris’s way of dealing with this reckoning was to flee from it, as far as he could, as soon as he could.

In fact, he vanished from the lives of all of his family members. At the time of his death, they hadn’t had word of him for several years, despite having at one point hired a private investigator to look for him. It is this willful act of disappearance that I found enraging. Chris claimed to be close to Carine, yet he froze her out of his life along with his parents, supposedly because he feared that if he contacted her, she would in turn tell their parents something that might reveal his whereabouts.

As Krakauer describes the scene, Carine was utterly desolated when she learned of her brother’s death. Chris’s parents were likewise crushed. I have to admit, I was a bit surprised by the intensity of their grief, especially where Carine was concerned. Family is family, I know, but I thought that at least one of them would have hardened his or her heart against this young narcissist who had so perversely hardened his against them.

(I am reminded of the novel The Tinderbox, in which a family man whose daughter is a runaway never stops loving her and hoping to find her; meanwhile, the mother’s heart has turned to stone where her errant daughter is concerned.)

Into the Wild is not just about Chris McCandless and his ill-fated Alaskan adventure. Krakauer also relates stories of other men whose lives followed a similar trajectory. These were actually fascinating tales. The one I particularly enjoyed was about Everett Reuss (pronounced “Royce”) whose solo traversal of the southwestern deserts culminated in his disappearance, in 1934. The last trace of him was found in Davis Gulch, a canyon of the Escalante in Utah, where he had made camp with his two burros. After several months had elapsed, a search party found the burros grazing placidly at the bottom of Davis Gulch. Of the twenty-year-old Ruess there was no sign, and never has been, up until this day.

When I first visited the California desert, I had already heard of Reuss as a result of my reading about the history of the American West. I’ve always wanted to know more about his brief life and was pleased to encounter him in Krakauer’s narrative.

Many are the speculations – some plausible, some farfetched – concerning the ultimate fate of Everett Ruess. On the other hand, we know what happened to Chris McCandless. In his case, the question is not what, but why. Jon Krakauer does not attempt to formulate a conclusive answer to this question; he presents the facts to the extent that they are known and leaves the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. But it would not be quite accurate to say that Krakauer has no particular attitude toward his subject. This is from the Author’s Note that prefaces the book:

I won’t claim to be an impartial biographer. McCandless’s strange tale struck a personal note that made a disapssionate rendering of the tragedy impossible. Through most of the book, I have tried–and largely succeeded, I think–to minimize my authorial presence. But let the reader be warned: I interrupt McCandless’s story with fragments of a narrative drawn from my own youth. I do so in the hope that my experiences will throw some oblique light on the enigma of Chris McCandless.

( I personally found the narrative of Krakauer’s harrowing mountain climbing experience interesting but over long and therefore unnecessarily intrusive.)

In my estimation, Jon Krakauer seems somewhat in awe of Chris McCandless, believing, apparently, that the young man was in some way preternaturally gifted. Accordingly, Krakauer is bewildered, even hurt, by the vituperation heaped on McCandless in response to his story. The book Into the Wild grew out of an article Krakauer wrote for Outside Magazine: “The article…generated a large volume of mail, and not a few of the letters heaped opprobrium on McCandless–and on me, as well, the author of the story, for glorifying what some thought was a foolish, pointless death.” He goes on to quote passages from this correspondence. I’m no expert on surviving in the wilderness; still, I couldn’t help but agree with some of what was said:

‘Why would anyone intending to “live off the land for a few months” forget Boy Scout rule number one: Be Prepared? Why would any son cause his parents and family such permanent and perplexing pain?’

After I’d finished the recorded book, I got the print version out of the library. Krakauer places many wonderful, thought-provoking passages at the beginning of each chapter. Some were from the works of well known authors such as Thoreau, Jack London, and Wallace Stegner; others were by wanderer/explorers with whom I was unfamiliar, like Edward Whymper (Scrambles Amongst the Alps) and John Menlove Edwards (“Letter from a Man”). I was hoping to find a bibliography but there was none; an unfortunate omission, IMHO.

By the end of July 1992, ill and weakened by lack of food, Chris McCandless knew he faced death alone in the Alaskan wild, sheltered only by the derelict shell of Fairbanks Bus 142. Eventually he crawled into the sleeping bag his mother had made for him, and there breathed his last: “He probably died on August 18, 112 days after he’d walked into the wild, 19 days before six Alaskans would happen across the bus and discover his body inside.” He was 24 years old.

It is impossible to read the book’s concluding chapter and not feel overwhelmed by sadness. In the epilogue, Krakauer tells how he accompanied Billie and Walt McCandless to the scene of their son’s death. They placed a memorial plaque just inside the door of a bus; they also left emergency provisions under the bed at the rear of the vehicle.

I’m pondering the possibility of a post entitled “Books That Haunt Me – or that I think will haunt me.” Into the Wild will be near the top of the list.

************************************************

Here are two interesting and provocative articles about Chris McCandless: “Into the Wild: The False Being Within” by Craig Medred in Far North Science; and “The Cult of Chris McCandless” by Matthew Power in Men’s Journal. The latter piece also offers some intriguing observations concerning the film, which I still have not seen. I guess I’m a bit afraid of it, at this point…

Permalink 12 Comments

The Headhunters by Peter Lovesey

May 27, 2008 at 7:42 pm (Book review, books, Music, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

I always look forward to the new Peter Lovesey because I know I am virtually guaranteed to enjoy an engrossing story, intriguing characters, lots of atmosphere, and exceptionally fine writing. The Headhunters delivers on all those expectations, and then some.

Often in good series fiction, the reader encounters at least one variation on a theme in each series entry. In this novel, we get to know Jo Stevens and her friends Gemma, Rick, and Jake well before the police come into the story. Jo is an earnest, decent young woman who is somewhat confused as to what shape her life is going to assume. One thing she does know: she is attracted to the taciturn, somewhat mysterious Jake Kernow. Jake works in a nature preserve located near the Selsey beach. Not long after their first meeting, Jo takes a walk on the beach hoping to run into him, but instead, she makes a terrible discovery: a woman’s body floating in the shadow of a breakwater.

This gruesome find precipitates Jo’s first encounter with the Chichester police. It’s an offputting experience; Jo finds herself on the defensive, although she has done nothing except act the part of a public-spirited citizen. She is then asked to come to the station in order to observe a group of men in an identification parade (Britspeak for line-up). She agrees, with great reluctance, to this request. Sure enough, her part in this proceeding upsets her even more – and with good reason.

What’s interesting here is that my sympathies were enlisted so strongly on Jo’s behalf that I found myself sharing her fear and resentment of the police, with their aggressive interrogations and frightening insinuations. To me, they didn’t seem like the heroes of the story – at least, not at first.

But eventually, as they showed themselves capable of both subtlety and compassion, Henrietta “Hen” Mallin and her team grew on me. Mallin first appeared in The House Sitter, where she supported an investigation headed up by Lovesey’s series protagonist Peter Diamond. Then, in The Circle, their roles were reversed. Peter Diamond does not appear at all in The Headhunters.

In yet another change, the series venue has moved from Bath to Chichester, a cathedral city located in West Sussex, in the South of England. This is an area rich in both history and legend. Early in their acquaintance, as they walk along the beach, Jake tells Jo something about those legends:

“He stretched out his arm and made a sweeping movement in the direction of the sea. ‘Somewhere out there is a deer park’

She laughed. ‘Oh, yes?’

But he was serious. ‘In the time of Henry VIII, it was hunting country. Fisherman still call that stretch of sea “‘the park.'”

‘Hard to imagine.’

‘And still further out is a cathedral, they say.'”

Jo is understandably incredulous, especially about this latter tale, but Jake is dead serious. Later he tells her that over the years, people claim to have heard church bells at low tide!

( I’ve expended a good deal of effort trying to obtain further information about the legend of the sunken cathedral off Selsey Bill in West Sussex. Information was elusive; I felt as though I were going around in circles. The Wikipedia entry on Selsey has a short section entitled “Early history, prior to inundation.” Also I kept encountering references to the lost city of Ys, which was supposedly built on the coast of Brittany and then swallowed up by the sea. Here’s how that legend goes.

All the while I was doing this research I kept hearing in my head the haunting strains of “La Cathedrale Engloutie” by one of my favorite composers, Claude Debussy. This work was inspired by the legend of the city of Ys.

Click here for the sound file. )

****************************************

I love it when writers of fiction reference the history and lore that’s connected to the setting of their work. In Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, the village of Ewelme in South Oxfordshire appears briefly in the novel’s narrative; the author throws in, almost as a careless aside, that the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Ewelme is where the poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s granddaughter Alice lies buried. One feels instantly thrown back to a time several centuries distant.

[Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Ewelme]

***********************************************

As more killings occur, the plot of The Headhunters becomes increasingly convoluted; at the same time, the sense of urgency is greatly heightened. But the murderer’s identity is only part of what makes this novel suspenseful. One of the problems Jo Stevens has with the local police is that they persist in their belief that the culprit is Jake Kernow. Jake is an interesting character, a shy introvert whose passion for the natural world could not be more genuine. Jo’s unshakeable faith in his goodness is the lodestar of this novel. And yet, as I read, I became increasingly anxious: is Jo in fact right about Jake? Is she willing to stake her life on her conviction? This is the point of tension that kept me glued to the pages of this novel right up to its harrowing conclusion.

Permalink 5 Comments

Preakness 2008

May 24, 2008 at 2:39 pm (Horses) (, )

Having written about this year’s Kentucky Derby, I now feel I should say something about the Preakness. This race does, after all, take place at Pimlico Racetrack*, a Baltimore venue which I have frequently driven past. (But have I ever attended the races there? Don’t think so, and can’t say why not…)

It’s hard not to be stirred by Big Brown’s stellar performance. (That’s him, in the above picture.) Here’s John Scheinman of the Washington Post:” With the jockeys on Racecar Rhapsody [love that name!], Stevil, Hey Byrn and others pushing mightily to keep up. Kent Desormeaux shook his reins at Big Brown and got a response rarely seen in horse racing.”

I love the excitement of the announcer as he proclaims that “Kent Desormeaux looked in the rear view mirror and nobody was there!”

And yet…think of the pressure now being brought to bear on this magnificent animal, his jockey, and his trainer. After the tragedy of Eight Belles at the Derby, the anxiety is palpable.

The last Triple Crown winner was Affirmed in 1978. He was the third horse in that decade to gain thoroughbred racing’s greatest prize. Seattle Slew won in 1977; he was preceded by the great Secretariat in 1973. Before that, no horse had won all three races since Citation in 1948. (Click here for a complete list of Triple Crown Winners.)

My parents frequently attended the Belmont Stakes and occasionally traveled to Baltimore for the Preakness. They had never been to the Kentucky Derby. In 1973, Dad said, “Lil, let’s go to all three races. They’ve got a real winner this time.” And so it proved. I still remember my mother describing the near-hysteria in the grandstand and the clubhouse as Secretariat galloped toward the finish line. Many of the spectators were in tears.

[Secretariat]

The next day’s headline in the New York Times, if I remember correctly, was “Thirty-one Lengths to Immortality.” Talk about seeing no one in the rear view mirror!

The Belmont takes place on June 7. We wish Big Brown well. No – let me broaden that: We wish all the participants well, both equine and human.

********************************************

*This interesting, rather poignant article appeared recently in the Washington Post. It seems that some of the stable hands at Pimlico live in small rooms in the training stables. The accommodations, though austere, are rent free. Darryl Scott, one of the residents, says, “I could make more money doing something else, but if you love horses the way I do, you’re going to stay.”

Permalink 3 Comments

Amazing Grace

May 22, 2008 at 4:39 pm (books, Film and television)

In an effort to track to its source my preoccupation with the hymn “Amazing Grace,” my husband and I watched the film of the same name last week. I was ready for a Sunday school lesson in period costumes, but actually, we enjoyed the movie quite a bit. Its structure was somewhat confusing, and there were a few inevitable moments of didacticism, but the uncanny ability of British filmmakers to recreate – no, to channel – their own history overcame any lingering reservations.

We thought Ioan Griffudd was fine as the tireless abolitionist William Wilberforce, and it was a pleasure, as always, to see some of the lions of British acting, like Michael Gambon and Albert Finney.

[Michael Gambon as Lord Charles Fox in Amazing Grace; and as Inspector Maigret in the Mystery! production]

Gambon is my favorite Maigret, and as for Albert Finney…well, for me, he will always be the impudent, life-loving, sexy, and utterly irresistible hero of Tony Richardson’s 1963 film Tom Jones.

[Albert Finney, above left, as John Newton, William Wilberforce’s pastor and composer of the hymn Amazing Grace; and below, as the irrepressible rapscallion who, in the words of his creator Henry Fielding, “was certainly born to be hanged.”* ]

(From time to time, in his column for the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley revisits the classics. Here’s his take on Tom Jones, both the novel and the film.)

*********************************************

I expected to see explicit depictions of the slave trade in Amazing Grace, but there were none. Instead, scenes were described in detail horrific enough to make your blood run cold. You cannot help asking yourself how human beings could be so pitiless in their treatment of their fellow creatures. Alas, the answer, blunt and cruel, comes back readily enough: There was money in it.

In his book The Reason for God, Timothy Keller discusses the British abolition movement in a chapter entitled “The Church Is Responsible for So Much Injustice.” Keller’s thesis is that while there is truth in that statement, it is likewise true that Christianity has served to motivate believers to correct that same injustice. He notes that historians are genuinely puzzled by the drive for abolition because “…most historians believe all political behavior is self-interested.”** This movement was anything but:

“When the abolitionists finally had British society poised to abolish slavery in their empire, planters in the colonies foretold that emancipation would cost investors enormous sums and the prices of commodities would skyrocket catastrophically. This did not deter the Abolitionists in the House of Commons. They agreed to compensate the planters for all freed slaves, an astounding sum up to half of the British government’s annual budget. The Act of Emancipation passed in 1833, and the costs were so high to the British people that one historian called the British abolition of slavery ‘voluntary econoside.’

And yet they did it. Why? To rid their country of a blot on its moral conduct, and to help rid the world of a hideous evil. And, Rev. Keller avers, because they were impelled to do so by the tenets of their Christian faith.

Our library has recently acquired a new biography of William Wilberforce by William Hague. And Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award in 2005, has long been on my (ridiculously long) to-read list.

At the conclusion of Amazing Grace, the Irish Pipe Band offers a stirring rendition of the hymn. You can see and hear it on the post Weekend Miscellany II.

*****************************************

*The Fieldings were yet another example of a preternaturally gifted British family. In addition to being a novelist, Henry Fielding was also a magistrate. When he died in 1754, he was succeeded by his half-brother John. The latter was known as “the blind beak of Bow Street:” despite being without sight, he was supposedly able to identify some three thousand miscreants by their voices. Sir John Fielding is featured in an exceptionally fine series of historical mysteries written by the late Bruce Alexander.

**In an essay entitled “The Animal People,” Joy Fielding makes a similar observation concerning those who campaign for the humane treatment of animals:

“They appear to be ordinary, caring, middle-class Americans marching for justice. Yet has any group in this country ever had such an extremist agenda, based utterly on non-self-fulfillment and non-self-interest? The animal people are calling for a moral attitude toward a great and mysterious abd mute nation. Their quest is quixotic; their reasoning, assailable; their intentions, almost inarticulateable. The implementation of their vision would seem madness. But the future world is not this one. Our treatment of animals and our attitude toward them are crucial not only to any pretensions we have to ethical behavior but to humankind’s intellectual and moral evolution. Which is how the human animal is meant to evolve, isn’t it?

The complete essay can be found in Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals by Joy Williams.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Dyspeptic jeremiads and gaseous theologians

May 20, 2008 at 1:59 am (books, Eloquence)

I love the splendid locutions that occur with gratifying frequency in The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby

Here they are in context.

First:

“Americans would move toward a debased culture as generally accepted standards were defined downward; but it was Masscult, not Midcult, that triumphed. And the dyspepetic jeremiads of highbrows looking down on the bourgeois middle class had nothing to do with happened.

‘Masscult’ is mass culture; ‘Midcult’ is middlebrow culture. The quote is from the chapter entitled “Middlebrow Culture from Noon to Twilight.”

Second:

“The most aggravating result of the reign of rock was that everyone took it too seriously. Undeterred by the censorious grumbling of the cultural right, the gaseous theologians of the cultural left have long attempted to enshrine the music of the sixties counterculture–as id this particular pop manifestation possesses a mythical and philosophical significance raising it above the level of mere entertainment.

This passage is from the chapter entitled “Legacies: Youth Culture and Celebrity Culture.”

Susan Jacoby

Permalink Leave a Comment

Venice, in life and in literature

May 16, 2008 at 1:06 pm (books, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized) ()

Re Donna Leon’s novel The Girl of His Dreams; with what pleasure did I encounter mention of a certain Venetian landmark, as Commissario Brunetti speeds via police launch to a watery crime scene:

“They passed Palazzo Mocenigo, then the imbarcadero of Sant’ Angelo, and then they came abreast of the stairs running down into the water to the left of Palazzo Benzon.”

Ah, yes – the Palazzo Mocenigo! This was the sumptuous residence of the family into which Lucia Memmo married while still in her teens. It was just the beginning of the long and turbulent life. Born in 1770, Lucia starts out as a naive, overprotected girl and goes on to become the quintessential woman of substance. Here’s my review of Lucia, and here’s an interview with author Andrea di Robilant, her direct descendant. ( I am envious of his ability to connect so directly and intimately with his ancestors.)

Permalink Leave a Comment

Andy Grove – and his biographer

May 15, 2008 at 10:59 pm (books)

In October of 2006, I had the pleasure of attending a book launch at Time Warner in New York City. The event was in honor of Richard Tedlow, whose biography Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American had recently been published. Richard is the Class of 1949 Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. He already had several books to his credit, and this latest got excellent reviews.

Andy Grove’s managerial and technological genius more than anything guided Intel Corporation to greatness. He is a complex, fascinating man, whose life history is well worth chronicling. Richard was initially daunted by the challenge of writing a book in which he would, among other things, be charting the history of the computer revolution that occurred in the latter half of the twentieth century. Ultimately, though, this book proved to be as much about people as it was about machines. Andy Grove’s early life makes for particularly compelling reading. Of Jewish origin, he was born in Hungary in 1936. It’s hard to imagine less auspicious circumstances in which to begin life. Andy Grove’s subsequent achievements are made all the more remarkable by the parlous conditions that marked his early years.

Richard has always put plenty of blood, sweat, and tears into his authorial endeavors, but I think that the Andy Grove biography was an especially tough assignment. Nevertheless, the results were gratifying in the extreme.

Now, how do I know this about Richard? In fact – Why am I calling him by his first name, in so familiar a manner? Because…HE IS MY BROTHER!!

We recently discovered that there’s a You Tube video of Richard presenting this book to a group of managers at Google Inc. in November of 2006. This presentation is, in essence, the same as the one I saw him give at the Time Warner Center in October of the same year as part of the book launch.

So, without further ado:

Permalink 7 Comments

Hooked – well and truly hooked! – on books

May 14, 2008 at 11:47 pm (books, Film and television, Uncategorized)

Last night, we finally got around to watching the “deloused” recording of one of our favorite programs, CBS Sunday Morning. What a treat was in store for Your Faithful Blogger! In a segment called “For the Books,” the perennially congenial Bill Geist visited Lloyd and Lenore Dickman. This unassuming farm couple from central Wisconsin have a collection of books that fills twelve buildings, including a former slurry tank (a structure that stores manure) and a disused schoolhouse dating back to the 1800’s.

The purpose of the segment was to entertain viewers with facts concerning the extreme unlikelihood of such an enormous quantity of books being housed in so unique a manner. The Dickmans are booksellers, but they seem sublimely indifferent to the exigencies of the business. A potential customer can be reasonably certain to gain access to this hoard on a Saturday, but on any other day of the week, you just have to hope you can find a Dickman somewhere on this vast tract who might be free to let you in, show you around, and maybe even sell you something.

As I said above, this segment was about the sheer strangeness of all those books gathered in that remote place. But, almost inadvertently I think, it was also a portrait of a marriage. Lenore Dickman obtained a doctorate after she was married – Lloyd supported her efforts wholeheartedly. When, after a hiatus, he wanted to go back to farming, she then supported him. Lloyd and Lenore Dickman come across as two people who, on the face of it, have little in common. What they do have is mutual respect, loyalty, and love. It appears to be a quietly companionable bond, built to last – something for young couples to aspire to.

The Dickmans keep a pretty low profile. Googling them produced only this video segment:

Permalink 3 Comments

Weekend Miscellany III

May 12, 2008 at 2:34 am (Art, books, Film and television, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

In which Your Faithful Blogger, stuck inside due to inclement weather, reads, writes, and reflects on the following:

Michael Pollan’s terrific “Why Bother?” in the April 20th “Green Issue” of The New York Times Magazine. (April 20? I’m running behind; what can I say…)

*******************************************

As I gazed into the woods behind our house, I took in for the first time how quickly the trees have leafed out. There are no evergreens back there, so in the winter it’s all bare branches and spindly trunks. There’s a footpath just beyond, though, and I like to watch people walking their dogs. This becomes increasingly difficult once the leafing out process nears completion.

Anyway, all of this put me in mind of a painting by Rene Magritte. It’s called “Le blanc-seing,” which roughly translates as “free hand” or “free rein:”

I first heard of this artist when The Museum of Modern Art put on a major retrospective of his works. This was a long time ago. Magritte died in 1967; he may have been still living at the time of this exhibit. Some scoffed at the paintings, calling them gimmicky; I thought it was the most fun I’d ever had in a museum! Here’s why:

[From top to bottom: The Lovers, The Listening Room, The Sirens, Time Transfixed, The Menaced Assassin]

Born in the province of Hainaut, Rene Magritte lived for most of his life in Brussels. He’s right up there with Georges Simenon and Hercule Poirot in my personal pantheon of favorite Belgians.

[Rene Magritte, photographed by Lothar Wolleh in Brussels, 1967]

***************************************************

On the DVD front, we watched one of the Ruth Rendell Mysteries, “Orchard Walls.” Set in wartime, this is a gripping tale of illicit love and lost innocence. And it features an early performance by an actress whose artless appeal has captivated fans of PBS’s Foyle’s War: Honeysuckle Weeks.

*****************************************

I was deeply moved by today’s post on the blog The Other World.

******************************************

I have now encountered the use of the 2004 tsunami as a plot device in two recent works of fiction: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri and The Water’s Lovely by Ruth Rendell. In an interesting instance of synchronicity, I encountered yet another mention of that terrible disaster yesterday in Susan Jacoby’s masterful The Age of American Unreason. In a chapter entitled “Middlebrow Culture from Noon to Twilight,” Jacoby discusses authors like Allen Drury, Irving Stone and James Michener. In a footnote, she writes:

I immediately thought of Hawaii when I read about the number of lives lost in the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami because many people, watching the tide suddenly recede, had walked out to see the creatures and coral formations revealed on the ocean floor, only to have the tsunami wave return with deadly force. Michener describes a similar scene in his novel.

Permalink Leave a Comment

“‘Is there no pity left in any soul?'” The Girl of His Dreams by Donna Leon

May 11, 2008 at 7:55 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Roiled. Distressed. Even distraught. Even in tears. That was me, wandering through the house in the early hours of this morning, contemplating the emotional wreckage so vividly depicted in Donna Leon’s seventeenth Guido Brunetti novel.

The book begins and ends with a funeral. In between these two solemn events, Brunetti and his team investigate the death of an eleven-year-old girl found floating in one of Venice’s many canals. Identifying her is the first priority. She turns out to be a child of the Gypsies – or, more properly, the Rom. Her parents are eventually located in an encampment outside the city. The scene in which the mother is informed of her daughter’s death is shattering, like something from one of the great Greek tragedies.

Interestingly, Brunetti has been reading in just this area, encouraged by Paola, his ferociously intellectual wife. (A university professor whose personality is a nice synthesis of the brainy and the sensual, Paola is one of my favorite continuing characters in this series.) This conscientious, caring policeman is haunted by the scene in The Trojan Women by Euripides in which Hecuba bewails the death of her grandson Astyanax: “‘I, homeless, childless, and the one to lay you in your grave, you so young and miserably dead.'”

[ Engraving of the death of Astyanax]

Once again, Leon gives us a Venice with all its contradictions: choked with the tourists that are its life blood, filled with hidden beauty, its people by turns generous and ruthless. And once again, she limns a society where favors are traded, and veiled – and not so veiled – threats are made against those who would pursue justice into unwelcome territory.

Of course, much of the beauty of Venice is in plain sight. At one point, Brunetti wanders into a church to look at a favorite painting, Tintoretto’s Crucifixion:

“Brunetti had always been struck by how bored this Christ looked, stuck artfully up there on his cross, posed in front of the hedge of perpendicular spears that divided the painting in half. Christ seemed finally to have come to accept the truth of those warnings that all this business about becoming human would come to no good; He seemed eager to get back to the job of being God.

Passages like this illustrate well the reason why so many of us cherish Donna Leon. This is simply not the kind of scene, not to mention the caliber of the writing, that you commonly find in contemporary crime fiction.

Guido Brunetti is not in the mold of the middle-aged detective with secret sorrows and a messed up personal life. On the contrary, his family – he and Paola have two children – is what sustains him, the one immutable good in his troubled universe. He knows he can go back to them and find renewed strength with which to fight the good fight. And go back he does, especially when a meal is on offer. The entire family frequently has lunch together as well as dinner. We readers are invariably told just what’s on offer chez Brunetti, and it’s inevitably something utterly mouth watering: fusilli with black olives and mozzarella and calamari ripieni, for example. Even the pizza sounds special, when kicked up several notches with mozzarella di bufala and pomodorini!

Believe me, you’ll be as grateful for these interludes of warmth and sanity as Brunetti himself is.

As I was reading The Girl of His Dreams, I kept waiting for the meaning of the title to come clear. It eventually does, with the utmost poignancy.

Donna Leon

Permalink 9 Comments

Next page »