Review: ‘Time’s Arrow’ by Martin Amis

Time's ArrowTime’s Arrow by Martin Amis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have been putting off writing this review of “Time’s Arrow.”

It’s not because I disliked the book. I didn’t. It’s well written (of course; it’s Martin Amis) and thoughtful and even, dare I say it, clever – a tale about a Nazi doctor told in reverse chronological order.

But it’s not because I loved the book, either, and was unable to put my excitement into words.

The thing is, I felt no excitement. I felt admiration, as if watching a magician pulling off a particularly difficult trick, but not excitement. There seemed to be no stakes.

That’s the thing about Amis, at least for me: The man is such a wizard with language, erudite and even astonishing, and yet his facility puts a distance between his subject and me, the reader. He is not visceral or emotional. His abilities are impressive, but cold to the touch.

And with a story like “Time’s Arrow,” I felt he needed some emotion. This isn’t “London Fields” or “Money: A Suicide Note,” in which numerous characters are contemptible or, at least, an easy source of mockery – phony strivers, posh twits or thick-headed chavs. This is about a Nazi doctor — an assistant to a thinly disguised Josef Mengele — who leaves destruction in his wake, though given the book’s conceit, that destruction eerily re-forms into the whole: broken relationships become passionate and innocent; money is refunded for goods and services; shit re-emerges from toilets and is taken back into the body; and, most movingly (or as close as Amis gets to “moving”), ashes recede down chimneys, becoming living, breathing people, who are eventually transported away from Auschwitz and back to their lives of ever-increasing freedoms.

It’s not like Amis doesn’t take his subject seriously. He wrestles with the depths. The main character is introduced as Tod Friendly (his name bestowed by a trafficker named Kreditor); we are guided on his reverse path by what may be his unknowing soul, a spirit careful to note the good things Friendly appears to do. As time is wound back, Friendly works as an illicit doctor in New England, arrives in New York after World War II, hides out in Portugal and eventually is revealed as Odilo Unverdorben, a mediocre medical man with a dim but questioning wife.

The scenes in Auschwitz, which start about two-thirds of the way into the slim book, are harrowing in their detail. “It was I, Odilo Unverdorben, who personally removed the pellets of Zyklon B and entrusted them to the pharmacist in his white coat. Next, the façade of the Sprinklerom, the function of whose spouts and nozzles (and numbered seats and wardrobe tickets, and signs in six or seven languages) was merely to reassure and not, alas, to cleanse; and the garden path beyond.”

The gold removed from prisoners’ teeth is reattached; their hair is brought in, “freight car after freight car,” and put back on their heads; the guards give the women back their rings and valuables and stop their wailing.

It’s powerful stuff. Amis is trying to make sense of what he knows is madness. But in doing so, he reduces it to the clinical. Perhaps this is for the best; there’s a whole body of literature devoted to chronicling the Holocaust and its aftermath, and yet it somehow still resists understanding.

Still, I think of another fictional assembly of details, the passages of Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried,” and I wonder why the lists of items in O’Brien’s work convey such weight and sadness. Maybe it’s because his soldiers have an essential humanity that Unverdorben lacks: “Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.”

In the end, of course, Unverdorben becomes nothing, a being that enters his mother, “how she will weep and scream.” He is also an infant, his dreams “all colors and noises,” before he will grow up to become a monster – a banal evil that not even Amis can explain.

“Time’s Arrow” is a valiant effort. I wanted it to work. I wanted to be moved and dazzled (well, I was often dazzled). But as I closed the final page, the last thing I wanted to do was start again from the beginning. Sometimes you don’t want to know how the trick is done. And sometimes, you wish it weren’t a trick.

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Philip Roth, 1933-2018

Image via (of all places).

Philip Roth died last night. He was 85.

I don’t have much to say to add to the appreciations and accolades he’s received in death, as he did in life. Baseball writer Bill James once noted that Hank Aaron ended his career with a brilliant “finishing kick,” piling up home runs in what should have been his waning years to surpass Babe Ruth. Roth, too, had an amazing finishing kick: In his last 20 years as a writer — after he turned 60 but before he finally put the pen down for good in 2012 — he wrote “Sabbath’s Theater,” the amazing “American Pastoral,” “The Human Stain,” “The Plot Against America” and “Everyman.” Roth should have been rewarded with the Nobel Prize, but for whatever reason — anti-Americanism, distaste with the accusations of Roth as misogynist (ironic, given the reason there will be no Nobel Prize for Literature this year), simple dislike of his work — he never got the award.

It’s the Swedish Academy’s loss. Everybody knew Roth ranked as one of the greatest writers in the world, and perhaps — along with Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo — the greatest living American novelist, period. The Nobel would have been a mere rubber stamp, if an incredibly valuable acknowledgement.

I’ve probably read just under half of Roth’s books, and I’ve rarely failed to be bowled over, even with slighter works such as “Indignation.” Simply put, the man could write, and his later works had an energy — a distillation of force, rage, empathy and, yes, humor — that I could only envy.

“American Pastoral,” in my opinion the greatest Roth novel, bursts with such power and fluidity that I sometimes felt I was inhaling it, particularly his exacting scenes of glovemaking in Newark (how does someone learn about that lost trade and describe it with such poetry and precision?) and the appearance of Swede Levov’s daughter as a squalid Jain. I’ve always felt the book falls apart during the closing dinner party, full of Levov’s ruminations, but the material before that is among the greatest I’ve read.

“The Plot Against America” is painfully prescient and “Everyman” is a gorgeous, if melancholy, eulogy.

I haven’t loved it all. I was bored by the Zuckerman books, particularly the one largely set in Eastern Europe. And I’ve put off reading others — “I Married a Communist,” notably — because … well, his books can be heavy, and it’s easier to deflect.

(Of course, they’re also brave. In “The Facts,” he talks about his feelings upon hearing that his ex-wife — a troubled woman who caused him much grief — has died. He was thrilled, freed of alimony payments and practically skipping home, if I recall correctly. Roth often used his life as a jumping-off point, fictionalizing many elements to the point where the reader wondered if he was writing memoir or simply playing with literary convention or both, but this has the ring of truth.)

For a Jewish (and American) male, I came to Roth late. I never had to read “Goodbye, Columbus” in high school and didn’t really get into him until the ’90s, though I’d read “The Counterlife” and “The Great American Novel” years before. (I should pick those back up … but I say that about a lot of books. I’m just now reading “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” for the first time in 30 years!) He was an author I always admired; in his later years, though, he became undeniable.

When I was at CNN, I desperately wanted to interview him, but his publisher’s PR rep couldn’t convince him. He apparently expected interviewers to be highly conversant with his work, and he had a narrow set of news outlets he talked to — The New York Times, NPR, the Guardian. CNN (or, he probably felt, wasn’t in their league.

He was probably right; he would have had to announce he was fucking Britney Spears to move the needle on traffic. Even then, the average reader would likely have wondered what this Roth fellow did for a living. (I seem to recall that Saul Bellow’s obituary was one of the most poorly read stories the day it appeared, and even Gabriel Garcia Marquez probably did well only thanks to international users.)

Anyway, the giant is gone. May his memory be a blessing — and may the rest of us never look at a “maddened piece of liver” without laughing.



Tom Wolfe, 1930-2018

Image via Rolling Stone.

The story goes that Tom Wolfe, having spent months reporting and not writing a story on car customizing in California, was pressed by Esquire editor Byron Dobell to come up with something, anything, because Esquire had just spent $1,000 on a photograph of some of the cars and was going to run a piece in the next issue. Wolfe had until Friday, Dobell told him; the photograph would go to the engraver on Monday.

On Friday Wolfe called back. He was blocked. Esquire editor Harold Hayes made plans for another Esquire editor to turn Wolfe’s notes into a workable piece. So Dobell told Wolfe to type out his notes.

According to Carol Polsgrove’s “It Wasn’t Pretty Folks, But Didn’t We Have Fun?: Esquire in the Sixties,” Wolfe sat down at 8 p.m. that night. Ten hours later he pulled the last of 49 pages from his typewriter. Dobell pulled the “Dear Byron” salutation, made some minor edits, and the piece ran in full as “There goes (VAROOM! VAROOM!) that Kandy Kolored (THPHHHHHH) tangerine-flake streamline baby (RAHGHHHH!) around the bend (BRUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM …” (The headline was courtesy of David Newman, who with Esquire pal Robert Benton later wrote the “Bonnie and Clyde” screenplay.)

That Wolfe story has been told in pretty much every Wolfe obit I’ve read today, as the great American author died Tuesday at 88. (Some sources list him as 87.) And no wonder; it’s symbolic of the beginnings of what’s been called the New Journalism, which is the kind of journalism most every journalist aspires to write — not just AP-style inverted pyramids, but colorful, rapturous, liberally punctuated reportage that reads like fiction.

I know I wanted to write like that, and I didn’t even aspire to be a journalist. I just wanted to have one-fourth the zest Wolfe instilled in his works.

Gay Talese may have been more formal — Wolfe could never have gotten away with “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” or that great Joe DiMaggio story in which Marilyn Monroe tells DiMaggio, “You never heard such cheering,” and DiMaggio responds, “Yes, I have” — and Wolfe’s New York Herald Tribune colleague Jimmy Breslin may have been more earthy. (Breslin’s story of John F. Kennedy’s gravedigger, written on deadline when the rest of the journalism world was looking in the opposite direction, is one of my all-time favorites. I wish I could write like Breslin, too.) And no tribute to Wolfe should be without a tribute to his editors, including Dobell, Hayes, Clay Felker and Jann Wenner. Somebody had to let the greyhound run.

But Wolfe, who coupled hyperbole (all those exclamation points!) with such precise detail that it seemed like he lived in his subjects’ lapels, was a style unto himself. (Literally, too.)

He chronicled celebrities and their milieus, but he never wrote the expected hack profile. Tell him to talk about the New Yorker, and he positively sneered at what was then the fattest, richest magazine in America. Let him in to Leonard Bernstein’s Black Panthers fundraiser, and you got “Radical Chic.” Even when he did approach hagiography, as in the portrayals of Chuck Yeager and the Mercury astronauts in “The Right Stuff,” it was leavened with such grit and realism — what they call reporting — that it was earned.

Wolfe could drive me crazy. Sometimes, particularly after he became the regularly best-selling brand name Tom Wolfe, his reported essays approached polemics. I share his dismal opinion of Brutalism, for example, but his shots in “From Bauhaus to Our House” feel gratuitous.

The same attitude could infect his novels. “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” his debut novel, had a brilliant eye for ’80s New York, but upon my rereading it a few years ago its characters were revealed as cardboard cutouts. “A Man in Full,” his expansive novel set partly in my longtime hometown of Atlanta, managed to miss the more cosmopolitan aspects of what is admittedly still a provincial place — of course, so is New York in its own way — and also had one of his characters making an impossible trip from Midtown to Buckhead. (There’s poetic license, but should it carry over to making Piedmont Avenue one-way in the wrong direction?)

By the time I finished “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” I thought he’d let his reporting become almost superfluous, a few glittering details he could attach to laments on the demise of Western civilization.

Still, the glittering details and the language was what mattered, so that’s not taking much away from a man whose descriptions of clothes, accessories, vehicles, housing, and even genitalia bordered on the fetishistic, they were so rich. (It’s no wonder his phrases — “Me Decade,” “the right stuff,” “radical chic” — entered the lexicon.) In doing so, he captured whole worlds — often those of the wealthy, but also those of the rest of us, scrambling to climb the American ladder. Indeed, Wolfe’s works, taken together, were nothing else if not the story of the United States in the last chunk of the 20th century.

All in all, it makes for one hell of a story. I’m glad Wolfe got to write so much of it.

RIP, Doctor.

Review: ‘True Grit’ by Charles Portis

True GritTrue Grit by Charles Portis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I posted on Facebook that my next book was to be Charles Portis’ “True Grit,” one of my friends quickly chimed in.

“You are in for a profound treat,” he wrote.

Was he ever right.

I feel like I’d been misled about “True Grit” for years. When I was younger, all I knew was the John Wayne movie, which seemed very Hollywood-y, with Wayne winning a lifetime achievement Oscar (yeah, it was best actor, but it was one of those sentimental honors) and co-starring the now almost unknown Kim Darby and the then-rising Glen Campbell. I’m not a big fan of Westerns and was dismissive of the film, which seemed somehow phony.

Years later, I saw the hardcover edition in a used bookstore. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but the cover did the book no favors, with a primitive, almost two-dimensional rendering of the humorless Mattie Ross and the title in a bland sans-serif font. And who was Charles Portis? Was the book a reprint of some minor novel of the 1920s, brought back because of the 1969 Wayne film?

It wasn’t until the Coen brothers’ 2010 version came out – with accompanying press about the underrated Portis, who’s still very much alive – that I realized what a jewel I’d overlooked. The Coen brothers’ film was terrific, of course – truer to the novel than the 1969 Henry Hathaway version – but I kept hearing that it was the book, the book, the book that really mattered. The book was funnier and truer and just better than any film.

Which, indeed, it is.

The story itself is uncomplicated: In the late 1870s – the year is never identified but there’s a passing reference to President Hayes — 14-year-old Mattie is looking for a man to avenge the death of her father at the hands of Tom Chaney. She finds a lawman with “grit,” Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, and says she’ll pay him $100 to bring down Chaney.

Cogburn is a man old before his time, a 40-something former Confederate soldier who got tangled with the violent William Quantrill, made his way to western Arkansas and makes his living as a tracker and bounty hunter. He and a Texas Ranger named LaBeouf, who’s pursuing Chaney for different reasons, join forces and try to dismiss Mattie, but she stays part of their group as they make their way into Indian Territory to get Chaney and the Lucky Ned Pepper gang he’s joined.

Along the way they find other outlaws, have a gun battle with Pepper and his gang, and end up succeeding in their mission. They also gain respect for one another and display heroics when necessary. The end.

But such a description doesn’t do the story justice. This is a tale of outsized, beautifully drawn characters and stark, colorful writing. Ross may be the most humorless child in American literature: literal, sexless, every bit the chilly adult at 14 as she would be 50 years later, when she’s recalling the tale as a spinster (and banker — she was always shrewd with finances). But not only does the reader find amusement in her humorlessness, there’s also admiration, because she, too, has “grit.” It’s not many people who would have the presence of mind to keep snakes and bats at bay with human remains while wedged into a pit.

And then there’s Cogburn. I can’t do justice to Portis’ dialogue, so I’ll just quote a bit of it, from a long conversation between Mattie and Rooster as they camp out on a cold Oklahoma night:

“Now you are working for the Yankees,” Mattie says.

“Well, the times has changed since Betsy died. I would have never thought it back then. The Red Legs from Kansas burned my folks out and took their stock. They didn’t have nothing to eat but clabber and roasting ears. You can eat a peck of roasting ears and go to bed hungry.”

“What did you do when the war was over?”

“Well, I will tell you what I done. When we heard they had all give up in Virginia, Potter and me rode into Independence and turned over our arms. They asked us was we ready to respect the Government in Washington city and take an oath to the Stars and Stripes. We said yes, we was about ready. We done it, we swallowed the puppy, but they wouldn’t let us go right then. They give us a one-day parole and told us to report back in the morning. We heard there was a Kansas major coming in that night to look over everybody for bushwhackers.”

It is simple, unadorned, contraction-less language, and yet it gives you a wealth of information about Cogburn: He’s devious and brutal, proud and ashamed, unapologetic and resolute. He’s filled with bold shades of gray.

Even LaBeouf, somewhat of a dandy, proves to have unexpected depths.

I don’t know how Portis does it. It takes a brilliant writer to create such characters, throw in a few winks at the audience, but never condescend to the characters themselves. And it takes an even more brilliant writer to create such a casual, loping story then stud it with brief action scenes that are sudden, violent and moving. I dare anyone to read the last 40 pages and not get choked up. I read them on a dead run and shed tears for a character I didn’t know I cared about.

As I mentioned before, I had several reasons why I hadn’t read “True Grit” years earlier. I’ll reduce it to one word: ignorance. But learn from me and don’t delay your own reading of this classic. You are in for a profound treat.

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Review: ‘The Library’ by Stuart Kells

The Library: A Catalogue of WondersThe Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I approached Stuart Kells’ “The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders” warily. A book about books and book collecting? As much as I love books, I had little desire to lose myself in 250-odd pages about ancients, eccentrics and the vagaries of printing if the narrator came off as too pleased with himself, as bibliophiles sometimes do. (Listen, I resemble that remark.) Even the publishing business could be made dull, as I found with Robert Gottlieb’s tedious “Avid Reader.”

I needn’t have worried. Kells’ book is generally engaging and breezy, and at its best when the author is digging into his prodigious knowledge of the literary trade – doing so without being too high-flown about it.

“The Library” starts out slowly, as it must – since libraries are a relatively recent invention, dependent as they are on a written language and portability. (It’s not like they could house a battalion of griots and bards. Who would feed them?) So early libraries – those of the Egyptians and Mesopotamians – contained clay tablets (often kept on trays) and rolls of papyrus. All were handwritten, of course; Gutenberg doesn’t enter the picture until the 15th century, which makes the achievements of the scribes and monks of previous millennia all the more amazing.

Also amazing, in a sad way, is how much literature has been lost. Though there weren’t thousands of copies of the same work, copies were made and held in famed libraries such as the one at Alexandria, as well as in private homes. But fires, looting and natural disaster took their tolls. It’s astonishing, frankly, we have as much as we do; some books were saved purely by chance, found in garbage pits or smuggled by explorers.

Still, it’s in the post-Gutenberg age that Kells, an Australian-born book-trade historian who’s written a history of Penguin Books, really comes into his own, because it’s here when the “The Library” becomes as much about people as it does about books. And people who are fond of books are certainly an odd lot.

Take diarist Samuel Pepys. He “could not tolerate even the slightest deviation from straightness,” Kells writes. “Pepys had even less patience for the ragged line that occurs when books of different heights are shelved together. He commissioned tailor-made blocks – little wooden plinths disguised with leather – and placed them under his books so that the tops would be exactly even.”

Related are bibliophiles who purchase books that are precisely the width of the space on their shelves. I can’t help but be reminded of the rock star played by Daniel Stern in “Hannah and Her Sisters” who wants to buy a painting from Max von Sydow’s artist not because of his talent, but because his giant works will fill Stern’s walls and match his décor. “You don’t buy paintings to blend in with the sofa!” thunders von Sydow.

Despite – or perhaps because of – these folks, libraries flourish. Thomas Bodley wanted to establish a library at Oxford; thus was born the Bodleian, which tripled its collection just three years after it opened in the early 17th century. The Vatican has a renowned library that’s actually not as mysterious as reputation would have it, Kells says, though its aura hasn’t hurt its collection. There are libraries devoted to Shakespeare (Washington, D.C.’s, Folger, established by a Standard Oil executive) and libraries that disdained Shakespeare (Tolstoy was apparently not a fan).

They’re also beautiful buildings. Kells devotes several pages to J.P. Morgan’s marble pile in Manhattan; when Morgan died in 1913, half his fortune was tied up in the library’s collection of books and art. (Morgan’s library also benefited from having a great librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, a colorful character who seems worthy of a book in her own right.)

Still, what is to become of libraries in this digital age? Kells addresses that topic, too, though not as energetically as he does the library overseen by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins and other characters in Middle-earth. (I’m not a “Lord of the Rings” fan, so the Tolkien excursion went on for a few pages too long.) He makes passing mention of Nicholson Baker’s “Double Fold,” a book about book and newspaper destruction, and notes that digital conversion of books is no answer to retaining knowledge, since there’s no guarantee discs or computer memory will last as long as well-preserved paper – or be as readable, books such as the Voynich manuscript to the contrary. (We won’t even talk about card catalogs.) Still, he leaves the question hanging. Let someone else write a book about new uses for libraries; for Kells, they’re places to hold written volumes.

Near the beginning of “The Library,” Kells tells the story of Jorge Luis Borges, who turned an unhappy interlude working at a Buenos Aires library into “The Library of Babel,” his famed short story about a library that contains an infinite number of books, where the sheer yawning expanse of the collection provokes religious arguments and even suicide. Later, Borges became the head of the city’s National Library, where he was much happier. It wasn’t the books Borges loathed; it was the people and tedium at his old job. Fortunately, Kells’ “Library” offers more of the joy of books than the dreariness. I wonder what he’d think of Robert Gottlieb’s work.

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