March 23, 2015
There’s a forthcoming novel I’m genuinely excited about.
(Stark revelation: People in the literary trades often pretend to be excited when they’re not. Imagine that! But in the above sentence I genuinely mean the word genuinely.)
I happened on the first chapter of this book almost two years ago, on the author’s website. I gave it the first-sentence test:
Once there was a girl who did everything wrong.
Hmm: Good premise, and the tone seems right. Serious, humorous and ironic at the same time. On, then, to the first few paragraphs:
Once there was a girl who did everything wrong. Take the time in 1963 when she took part in a wade-in to desegregate a public pool in Chester, Pennsylvania. She almost drowned. She had been the only white girl in the demonstration. When the crowd took the pool by storm, she flailed and sank, and she was pulled out by a lifeguard who forcibly detained her as her Negro comrades were loaded into vans. The police refused to arrest her. They said she should go home and learn to swim.
“Did she?” Tamara asked. She was sitting in the bathtub, with her knees drawn under her chin. The tub was ancient, and the faucet leaked enough to draw a dull brown line across the porcelain.
“Eventually,” Beth said. “Your daddy taught her.”
So it’s historical, including major political events and social conflicts. But it’s mainly personal, about human beings who “flail” and look ridiculous at times and have to interpret their misadventures for their children. Okay, I was hooked.
Now that novel, Waveland by Simone Zelitch, has found its publisher, The Head and the Hand Press, and I’ve read the whole thing in galleys. It’s about a young white woman’s experiences during the Freedom Summer of 1964, and about her life afterward—working with the Movement, raising a biracial child conceived during that time, enduring the tragedies, breakups and breakdowns. It’s a complicated journey with many ups and downs and sideways slides.
As soon as Beth Fine arrives in Mississippi, she finds out how dull Freedom work can be: she’s assigned to shelve books and clean the floors. Eventually, though, she gets more involved in the field work, finds love and conflict in equal measure, and has her brushes with violence. When a gun under the bed is mentioned early in the book, you can be sure it will be fired at some point.
The novel jumps around in time, and scattered chapters give us three other points of view, widening our perspective on Freedom Summer, the Democratic convention of that year and the tensions pervading the Movement. Yet the book remains primarily Beth’s story. As it turns out, that phrase she uses to characterize herself, “the girl who did everything wrong,” is more than a joke about her social clumsiness and problems in judgment. She’s a person who can’t be dissuaded from doing what she feels must be done. She has a private sense—of justice, duty, love, whatever you want to call it—that impels her, and at key moments she can’t resist its demands even when her brain knows she’s courting disaster. At one point she quotes from Pascal: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” She’s stubborn, headstrong and often infuriating to the other characters. If we as readers fully engage with her, she should sometimes infuriate us too. Damn it, Beth, we want to yell, make the sensible choice! No such luck; she’s not going to listen, and that’s her virtue and her fault.
Simone Zelitch, as I discovered by reading her previous works, has a habit of writing provocative historical novels: The Confession of Jack Straw, about the English peasants’ revolt of 1381; Louisa, about two women who roughly reenact the biblical story of Ruth in post-Holocaust Europe and Israel; Moses in Sinai, about—well, the title explains it. Except for Louisa, released by Berkley, these were small-press books, as is the new one. They deserve a big-press readership.
In her next book after Waveland, an already completed novel called Judenstaat, Zelitch tackles an imaginary past—what might have happened after World War II if the Jewish state had been carved out of Germany rather than Palestine. This novel won her an NEA fellowship, and it has recently been signed by Tor/Forge, the Macmillan imprint known mostly for sci-fi and fantasy. It’ll be back to the big presses for this persistent, thought-stirring, hard-to-classify writer.
In the meantime, check out the girl who can’t do anything right. She’ll agitate and charm you in equal measure. If you want to order a copy before the official release date in May, The Head and the Hand Press is offering a prepublication deal.
December 1, 2010
It’s not such a bad day usually, Saturday, and for some it’s even a sabbath,* but this coming one, December 4, will be smudged by the official launch of my novel, The Shame of What We Are. The publisher is planning a joint celebration with Sowilo Press, which is launching my friend Debra Leigh Scott’s marvelous collection Other Likely Stories. Everyone who occasionally reads a book is welcome to stop by.
Debra’s book picks up in the 1960s, where mine leaves off, and ends with the fall of Saigon in 1975. Together the two books portray a troublesome quarter-century in American life, when we engaged in a nuclear arms race; persecuted our own citizens; fought in mysterious places in Asia; assassinated political leaders; invented, perfected, and then (in my opinion) destroyed rock ’n’ roll—and, somewhere along the way, undermined the traditional nuclear family. How much connection was there between public misadventures and private confusion?
I’m told the party will feature live music appropriate to the time period. If it’s disco, I’ll be hiding under a table.
*Which reminds me: Hanukkah has just begun here on the East Coast. To all who celebrate it, or wish they did, have a joyful one.
October 30, 2010
After Marcy Casterline O’Rourke posted a rave review of my novel The Shame of What We Are on Amazon, I wondered who she was and why she liked the book so much. Exploring her own blog entries, I realized that we’ve both been pondering the past lately, and maybe that’s what first attracted her to Shame, which is set in the 1950s and 1960s. (Though this doesn’t explain her lofty rating of the novel; for that, we’d need to know what she was smoking.)
One of Marcy’s blogs focuses on her late husband, the actor Tom O’Rourke, and she talks about reading a diary he left behind, using it to fill in details of his life before she met him and puzzle out facets of his character that, after decades of marriage, she still didn’t understand. “The Great Mystery of Tom,” she titles one post. Her musings are both pointed and poignant.
Oddly (or perhaps not) I’ve just finished the first draft of a short story about a man who rediscovers his own adolescent diary. This proved difficult to write, because for me nostalgia is often painful. Beyond the poignancy and bittersweet pang, it leads to a deep sense of embarrassment about my younger self, and that happens in this new story, in which the character becomes ashamed of the young man he unearths.
Here’s another—not fictional but all-too-real—case in point: Last night I reconnected with a major icon from my youth. Our niece Anna, for no reason that we can fathom, has become a fan of folk music, and her greatest star, higher in the pantheon even than Pete Seeger, is Joan Baez. Hence we went with Anna and her family to Joanie’s concert last night in Philadelphia. Anna wore a handmade T-shirt with a 1960s image of our favorite folk diva; it must have taken her hours to draw with permanent markers.
So, there was the bittersweet sensation of remembering when Joanie (who looked a bit stiff and sore) was a young barefoot maid, and we too were young, and the music meant that the times they were a-changin’, that the deep achy yearning that swelled in our souls could find its place in the world and we would somehow connect not only with the zeitgeist but with the oversoul, the mystery at the heart of things.
It’s bad enough remembering inchoate hopes like that. But here’s where it gets really rough for me. The first time I saw Joan Baez in concert, she was indeed in her barefoot-maid stage, and a heckler yelled at her from the audience, “Why don’t you wear shoes?” She shot back, “That would spoil my image.” Today that seems a perfectly apt, funny reply. To my idealistic younger self, however, it was like a slap in the face. I wanted to believe, I guess, that she chose to go barefoot in the simple, honest, pure way in which I might grab a jacket out of the closet: “Hmm, it’s over 65 degrees and I’ll be on stage most of the night, so I won’t need shoes.” To realize that she might consider something as crass and commercial as her “image,” even with an ironic twist, shocked my entire belief system.
It’s painful to remember being that naive, that stupid. And to make matters worse, Joan sang the Leonard Cohen song “Suzanne.” Not only was that once my favorite song, but I considered it truly poetic, profound, inspirational. A woman who dresses in rags and feathers and leads you to a mysterious river/harbor where you meditate upon Jesus walking on the water—heavy stuff, man! But today when I hear lines like “you know that you can trust her / For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind,” I feel the opposite of trust. Sloppy, simple-minded, juvenile, semi-fake spiritualism, I call it now.
So, picture me at the concert in a balcony cheap seat, uncomfortable with memories of idealizing Joanie, growing more restive as Cohen’s pseudo-poetry wafts in ethereal waves over the rapt audience. … My wife reaches over and lays her hand on mind. I squeeze back in reluctant acknowledgment. Then she leans in and whispers, “Remember when you used to sing ‘Suzanne’ to me? Will you sing it to me tonight?”
I want to hide under my chair.
Luckily, though, we’re old enough that, after the long concert, a bus ride to our neighborhood, a short hike to our door in the brisk fall air, we fall harmlessly asleep.