Crawling around just beneath the skin of the soft underbelly of the great American novel is How All This Started by Pete Fromm. Fromm's first novel (it follows five short-story collections) is like Bull Durham on lithium. It is in turns disturbing and scary and beautiful and exhilarating and sexy. Depicting manic-depression and baseball, its writing is the literary equivalent of a top-down ride through the desert.
Our narrator, high-school student Austin, describes his stunted life in sub-rural Texas. His life exists almost exclusively in the gravitational pull of his older sister, Abilene, who burns like a supernova. Abilene is gifted in many ways; she excelled in high school academics and is a super-human pitcher whose dreams of stardom were destroyed because of her gender.
The core of this novel is the obsessive symbiotic relationship that exists between the two: Abilene wants to awaken Austin's latent pitching talent, her only possibility of revenge being vicarious; Austin is mesmerized by his sister's charisma and her attention to him is irresistible. You can practically hear the electric hum of the chemistry between the two of them, which includes hints of sexuality and emerges as a force dangerous to those who would come between them, including their parents. They are everything to each other.
Oddly, Austin is relatively well-adjusted, though terribly conflicted. Abilene's erratic behavior eventually reveals itself to be severe manic-depression. As Abilene's stability decreases, the tension is in Austin's attempts to maintain his own stability despite the fact that there is nothing in the world that is even remotely interesting compared to his sister. When she suddenly disappears for weeks at a time, Austin is painfully reminded of his desolate surroundings. Here, Fromm captures the paradoxical claustrophobia found where there is too much open space.
Abilene relentlessly coaches Austin in pitching. Her ambition for Austin is so strong it blinds her to his physical well-being. "I stood on the mound sweating, my right arm feeling six inches longer than my left, waiting for her to see what she was doing to me," Austin tells us. "But even if she'd wanted to see, against all that light I was invisible." His love for her is so strong, he will never let her down by telling her no. This is sibling rivalry so severe that is comes full circle.
Fromm's descriptions of manic-depression are, at times, too clinical, but his descriptions of Abilene's enormous emotional extremes, from the relentless energy of a Terminator to the suicidal downs, are rarely less than seat-grippingly suspenseful. Abilene is terrifying and fascinating; we like her even when we hate what her disease does to those around her, most notably Austin.
Fromm's writing is clever and controlled, filled with symbolism and connection. For example, the title of the book, a phrase frequently used by Clay, Austin's father, is an ironic leitmotif with deepening meanings arising as the book progresses. Fromm ably creates the dark, swirling, character-driven atmosphere of books by authors like Russell Banks and Richard Ford, the action found in the tautness. He beautifully illustrates the burdens of normalcy and the deadening reconciliation process of maturity when we trade our dreams for our place in this world.
You do not have to be a baseball fan to appreciate this book. It may be Abilene and Austin's passion but as Austin's mother correctly notes, "This is not about baseball at all."
Author David Rappaport's attempt at exposing the roots of rave culture in a literary light is beaten back at every turn by overly detailed, repetitious narrative in the guise of "hardboiled" detective fiction.
Snow, Rappaport's first novel, is a glimpse into the life of a presumably young, shell-shocked, opium-addicted private detective and part-time Los Angeles photographer known only as Johnny. When an ex-cop sends Johnny looking for a certain dark-haired "dame," Johnny finds himself drawn to her beyond the boundaries of the case, due to a bad case of dj vu.
We never know why the cop wants to find the girl, and in fact we never find out anything more than that she loves to dance, and as is mentioned often, she has dark, beautiful hair. The story itself provides no excuse for this lack of insight. Not only does Johnny find the girl, he dances with her, photographs her, drinks with her and eventually allows her to become a permanent evening fixture in his apartment.
These vagaries are common -- we never seem to know anything about the characters. Johnny, the story's narrator, lives and breathes in an opiate haze. In an attempt to create phrasing that evokes the heavy-lidded, dreamlike state caused by the drug, Rappaport runs in confusing circles around his own writing. Driving through a certain section of the city, Johnny drifts back in memory:
"Blue City in those days was a banana republic with changes of government arrived in a beige tide of police radios and drugstore Scotch. The whole place was one big dope racket and a network of back rooms where a guy could really lose his head.
And I had a flame here once. And me I had the hunger. And something that kept on turning. I tell you she was still burning. What was she? I don't know."
A good half of the book consists of Johnny dreaming about the past, recalling broken images. Snow reads like a maze, one true path but a thousand places to get sidetracked.
None of this confusion can be attributed to a lack of actual detail. Rappaport's descriptions are nothing if not too descriptive. For example:
"I put up the canvas, parked in an unmetered space parallel to the curb, in front of a sunlit link fence before a blue parking lot that lay in the shade of a red brick building that contained a Pakistani restaurant."
You never know why Johnny is in the diner, but you know the tile is blue and the waitress is Spanish. There's no explanation as to why he's parked on Ocean Avenue, but he did park diagonally. We're not sure why he's in the back of the club, but we are certain the light bulbs are cream, not white. The author's intense need for the reader to understand that, yes, he really does know L.A., combined with the lack of depth in the characters, creates such a jumbled mess that reading Snow becomes as laborious as running through it.
If Rappaport had used his descriptive strength to develop his characters early on, the vivid world of raves, drugs and memory through which Johnny stumbles might have blossomed into a rich portrait of the underground scene. Instead, just when the reader finally feels a connection with the mysterious pair, the dark-haired girl suddenly lands in a mental hospital, comatose. Next thing you know, you're being led through a snowy storybook village full of widows and mailmen from another time, and it is revealed that not only is the dark-haired girl Snow White, but Johnny's fleeting, remembered connection to her is through reincarnation, a fitting end to a confusing ride.
Between Terror and Progress
In undeclared wars at home and abroad, and losing 40,00 blue-collar jobs a week to automation, America in the mid-1960s was a country "on the blade of change." The North discovered that racism was not just a Southern problem, while "the South [still] treated Klan murders like traffic offenses and treated civil rights traffic offenses like murder."
These words are from Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65, the second remarkable book in Taylor Branch's projected trilogy of the Southern civil rights movement. Parting of the Waters, the Pulitzer Prize-winning first book covering 1954 to 1963, ends with the bombing of the church in Birmingham and the assassination of President Kennedy.
Pillar of Fire gives depth to the famous historical contours of that struggle -- especially Freedom Summer, the Civil Rights Act, Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and the pivotal 1964 letter of Martin Luther King Jr. from the Birmingham jail. As the details of that era become shadows to many, the heroes on the frontlines of terror and progress testify again in these pages.
Branch frames his history with the Los Angeles police assault on the Black Muslims at Temple 27 in 1962 and with the Muslims' assassination of Malcolm X in February 1965. The intervening chapters trace the arc of Dr. King's and Malcolm X's evolving and converging politics, while focusing primarily on the trauma of Southern change and the interplay of civil rights in U.S. Cold War politics.
It has taken 40-plus years for mainstream opinion to face the reality of what the police did in Los Angeles and in the South, what the Kennedys did and didn't do, and the kind of man J. Edgar Hoover was.
Hoover's FBI mailed tapes of King's sexual affairs to his wife and tried to blackmail him politically; in an anonymous letter, encouraged him to commit suicide; and, among other disinformation successes, convinced Marquette University officials in 1964 to back out of giving King an honorary degree.
The book bears witness to King's strategic brilliance, his ability to engage principalities and powers, his courage in facing arrest or worse, and his political shrewdness in evaluating whether to push ahead or to negotiate with government leaders, to consolidate and heal his forces.
"King, who recognized drawbacks to every option, also weighed reminders from the past about the distorting perspective of his traveling engagements. For all the daily excitement of large crowds and police escorts, often with a buzz over rumored threats or a newly broken color barrier, these occasions were no more than thimbles of conversion that evaporated in reality; while civil rights eruptions made hard news in dozens of cities. Yet again, he had to decide whether to tear himself from the inertia of sermons, and whether another leap toward suffering would fortify the nonviolent message or merely aggravate the opposition. Eight years after the Montgomery bus boycott, his familiar dilemma touched the rudder of national politics."
The strength of the first two books of this civil rights trilogy is the telling of the black liberation story in its own terms: the stories and voices of its heroes, the movement's internal contradictions, and its deep and lasting contributions to the nation. But Branch doesn't discuss the profound effect this movement had on contemporary Chicano and American Indian movements, on the following environmental, women's and anti-Vietnam war movements, and even on international struggles from Africa to Northern Ireland.
He does articulate how the George Wallace Democratic presidential bids began to break apart that party's New Deal coalition of white workers and progressives, and he quotes King's remark about Republican Barry Goldwater being the "best man" at the marriage of white racial appeal and conservative economic values.
While these dynamics remain alive and well in U.S. politics, Branch does not draw out the other echoes of that era that still ring: the racial terror of church burnings today; cultural racism (the Confederate flag as racist heritage); the economic disparity King railed against which has only grown worse in the years since; or the dualism of fighting for integrated public schools vs. establishing Freedom Schools (then) and Afro-centric choice schools (today).
The suppression of the black vote in Florida's recent presidential balloting is foreshadowed by similar forces at work in the severe intimidation directed at the St. Augustine civil rights movement almost 40 years ago.
We can only await, and eagerly so, the last book in the trilogy, At Canaan's Edge.