Death and Dread in Highsmith’s The Cry of the Owl

I don’t know the exact date it happened, but sometime in the past twenty years Patricia Highsmith went from being called a great writer to being called a lesbian writer. It’s too bad that her biography has come down to useless contemporary labeling, but if you care to reclaim Highsmith’s greatness, read her novels and ignore the fluff. I’ve just finished her The Cry of the Owl, one of her best non-Ripley books, and can’t stop thinking about it.

Robert Forester is a middle-aged engineer in Pennsylvania recently removed from New York, where his marriage to the batty Nickie went south. Robert is depressed awaiting the divorce to finalize, so he spends his free time moping about the creepy PA suburbs until he chances upon a pretty girl in a window of a somewhat remote home. The girl, Jenny, turns out to be an impressionable twenty-something, newly graduated from college and working as a bank teller, and engaged to the meatheaded Greg, what one in the late 1950s might call a square.

Jenny catches Robert peeping at her house, and two become friends. Robert explains his sadness over his broken marriage and new life, and that lately he’s been haunted by a specter of death. This middle-aged angst matches up with Jenny’s youthful ignorance, and a dread match is made. Jenny falls for Robert, breaks off her engagement to Greg, and a series of frightening yet believable encounters take place.

Highsmith’s writing is tops, as are her descriptions of the characters, each of whom get a few chapters told from their own perspective. Robert, debating one evening whether or not to visit Jenny’s yard to stare at her, is “aware that part of his brain was arguing like a suddenly eloquent orator who had jumped to his feet after being silent a long while.” Each main character gets many moments of revelation like this, all of it rewarding and none of it dull.

The Cry of the Owl is not a 4/4-timed simpleton genre novel, but rather a great unfolding narrative on dread and casual brutality, a story of how people affect others whether they know it or not. And it isn’t a downer despite the bleak tone. The humor emerges in the interactions between characters; between the blustery dumb Greg who yearns to fight with Robert but can’t, because Robert is cool and removed and won’t engage him; or within Jenny and her own puttering about in a state of gloom, which we recognize as prolonged teen angst, mixed in with strange admiration for an older talented man.

Highsmith’s strengths are her writing–she seems a natural writer, even if no such thing exists–and her ability to let her characters get wound tightly with their own fears, real or imagined, and then let them stew until conflicts become inevitable. I write “inevetable” but I do not mean “common” or “routine”; I had know idea where scenes and arguments were headed in The Cry of the Owl, and was constantly surprised.

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Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son

I’m half-done with The Orphan Master’s Son, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It’s a wild ride, and for once the praise of a contemporary novel is on target. I’ve only read a bit about the author Johnson, and finding that some of his favorite books are Libra, The Mosquito Coast, and Blood Meridian was comforting; I too love all three of those, especially Libra, which is becoming the book that Blood Meridian used to be to me, a book I can discuss for hours without repeating myself.

There’s a lot of DeLillo in The Orphan Master’s Son, namely in the dialogue, which is modern and sharp and sharp-witted. A good chunk of the early book takes place on a fishing boat, and Johnson keys into the likely fact that fishermen are the same the world over, in the present and in the past (go back to Galilee if you want), and that North Korean fisherman might be like their fellow humans in free lands, filled with wit and swagger and hapless bravado. There’s a spookiness to Johnson’s prose added by the setting, and the roughhouse stuff when it happens–kidnappings both botched and successful, a brutal beating and interrogation that folds in on itself like an odd creation myth–gives a reader pause. Jun Do is a tough hero who lives by his wits, works, and deeds, and it is difficult to get a line on what he might become, if anything, in a free land. Johnson is not capable of easy or neat chapters, thank goodness, and calm is usually followed by unexpected fright.

Reaching new lows

I neglected to mention last year that Janet Maslin yet again fawned over a dumb Lee Child novel. I know it is a dumb novel without reading it, because dumb novels are what Child does. I am certain the book is filled with big dumb Jack Reacher being big and dumb everywhere he goes.

Last year the movie “Jack Reacher” came out staring little Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, and the movie is a hoot. It is too cute at times to be a noir, and it is not a procedural–call it a fun b-grade popcorn movie. Christopher McQuarrie wrote and directed the movie, and he is a talent, the writer of the great “The Usual Suspects” and the decent “Valkyrie,” which starred tiny Tom as a good little Nazi. The movie “Jack  Reacher” is full of wit and silliness and some rough stuff, and I was entertained. Lee Child has a cameo sitting down, tinier even than Tom.

King Solomon’s Mines

The old Puffin paperback of King Solomon’s Mines has sat on my bookshelves for thirty years. The shelves are newer, the book is the same but yellowed and worn, bought new in a London shop when I was a kid.

King Solomon’s Mines is funny and exciting and damn well written. Allan Quatermain narrates in a smart empire-loving tone, and it suits the tale of the adventures of Quartermain, Captain Good, and Sir Henry. The detail is startling and cool, whether describing landscapes or people. Here is his first impression of Captain Good:

He was so very neat and so very clean-shaved, and he always wore an eye-glass in his right eye. It seemed to grow there, for it had no string, and he never took it out except to wipe it. At first I thought he used to sleep in it, but afterwards I found that this was a mistake. He put it in his trousers pocket when he went to bed, together with his false teeth, of which he had two beautiful sets that, my own being none of the best, have often caused me to break the tenth commandment. 

The colonial posturing is amusing now, as is the degradation of natives. But the suspense and adventure holds up, whether our heroes are struggling to stave off dying from thirst, or stalking elephants for a hunt. Might have to read more Haggard.

Don DeLillo’s Libra turns Twenty-five

Why do we care about historic anniversaries? I think it’s the comfort they induce; instead of facing the fact that each day is unknowable, days have a history, 365 histories to provide us a weak sense of stability. November 22nd will always be a meaningless November 22nd to most people. 50 years ago, November 22nd changed America for the worse, and begat one of those “I remember where I was” days. Thankfully most of our memories are less succinct; first kiss or lay, monthly achievement or annual failure, rarely have the permanence of say, June 16, 1904.

Don DeLillo’s Libra is 25 years old this year. I maintain it is the best DeLillo, that my undergraduate admiration of White Noise was kind folly, and the recent praise of Underworld is misguided. Libra fulfills all our wishes, all our desires to know the unknowable, to see behind the curtain the men that shaped the world.

I have a fierce devotion to Libra without believing any of it. Conspiracy theorists, like homosexuals or Kubrick fans, are likely born rather than made. I can’t believe men in rooms plot in secret to carry out terror, even though it happens weekly, sometimes in Boston, more likely in Peshawar. But plots and plans don’t begin on cool weekends in April; they start well before one is aware of one’s capabilities. Perhaps they start with the sound of trains:

This was the year he rode the subway to the ends of the city, two hundred miles of track. He liked to stand at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass. The train smashed through the dark. People stood on local platforms staring nowhere, a look they’d been practicing for years. He kind of wondered, speeding past, who they really were. His body fluttered in the fastest stretches. They went so fast sometimes he thought they were on the edge of no-control. The noise was pitched to a level of pain he absorbed as a personal test. Another crazy-ass curve. There was so much iron in the sound of those curves he could almost taste it, like a toy you put in your mouth when you are little.

DeLillo’s Lee Harvey Oswald is most often Lee–later, captured, he hears reporters mention Lee Harvey Oswald and the name sounds odd to him, foreign.  A child of a single flighty mother, in and out of the orphanage when she can’t afford to care for him, many different schools in many different early years. The motion puts his mind in motion: he starts to imagine himself as someone meaningful, historic. Others see a slighter figure:

They called him Ozzie the Rabbit for his pursed lips and dimples and for his swiftness afoot, as they saw it, when there was a scuffle in the barracks or one of the bars off-base. He was five feet nine, blue-eyed, weighed a hundred and thirty-five, would soon be eighteen years old, had conduct and proficiency ratings that climbed for a while, then fell, then climbed and fell again, and his scores on the rifle range were inconsistent.

Out of the military (dishonorably) he seeks out days in the Soviet Union, new days unlike the twenty-years past of days. He wants to study economics and politics, but he prefers believing he wants to study than do the actual work. The Soviets don’t know what to do with him:

The guard showed up. He showed up every evening before Alek left. Alek never introduced him, didn’t seem to notice he was in the flat. The guard usually sat by the washbasin in the hall, his hat balanced on his knee. There were things Oswald didn’t tell Alek, like details of the MPS-16 radar system, just integrated into the network. He wanted to see how their friendship progressed. It occurred to him that the U.S. military might have to spend jillions to change the system anyhow, now that he’d crossed to the other side. How strangely easy to have a say over men and events.

He meets a girl and marries her, has a family, and makes his way back to the states, to give the familiar days another chance. Still the urge to move events persists. But now others are aware of him; a man can move from NY to CA unnoticed, but not between Cold War foes.

Libra is a dual narration, one part Lee and the other part a hodge-podge of men who make the dark world go, men of influence and means and guns, men upset with Castro and failures and the state of the nation, guardians like Lee who believe in events and man’s ability to shape the world. But these men are old hands, practiced hands that know the tools and time required of the job:

It was Everett who’d made the leap. Everett took the once-bold idea of assassinating Castro and turned it over in his mind, finding it unworkable and crude. He struck a countermeasure that made better sense on every level. It was original, spare and clean. The man we really want is JFK. Mackey gave him every credit. Everett was a complex and passionate man who could think economically. All over Langley and Miami they were still formulating plans to hit Fidel. It was an industry like wood pulp or shoes. Everett had seen the logic in staying home. The idea had power and second sight. Of course Everett did not plan to shoot Kennedy in the strict sense. Only to lay down fire in the street. He wanted a surgical miss.

The men bent on destruction are frightening. It’s to DeLillo’s credit that he depicts them as mostly aimless charmers in their social lives. One can picture these men as friends and neighbors. Then the chills set in:

Plots carry their own logic. There is a tendency of plots to move toward death. He believed that the idea of death is woven into the nature of every plot. A narrative plot no less than a conspiracy of armed men. The tighter the plot of a story, the more likely it will come to death. A plot in fiction, he believed, is the way we localize the force of the death outside the book, play it off, contain it. The ancients staged mock battles to parallel the tempests in nature and reduce their fear of gods who warred across the sky. He worried about the deathward logic of his plot. He’d already made it clear that he wanted the shooters to hit a Secret Service man, wound him superficially. But it wasn’t a misdirected round, an accidental killing, that made him afraid. There was something more insidious. He had a foreboding that the plot would move to a limit, develop a logical end.

I don’t know what “deathward logic” means outside of the context of plot, but it’s a great phrase of contemplation. DeLillo’s smart characters are wise from practice, not philosophy, though a selfish philosophy streams beneath their activities. Then they all meet up on that day in Dallas. Lee sees his counterpart’s shot through a rifle scope:

Lee was about to squeeze off the third round, he was in the act, he was actually pressing the trigger.
The light was so clear it was heartbreaking.
There was a white burst in the middle of the frame. A terrible splash, a burst. Something came blazing off the President’s head. He was slammed back, surrounded all in dust and haze. Then suddenly clear again, down and still in the seat. Oh he’s dead he’s dead.
Lee raised his head from the scope, looking right. There was a white concrete wall extending from the columned structure, then a wooden fence behind it. A man on the wall with a camera. The fence deep in shadow. Freight cars sitting on the tracks above the underpass.
He got to his feet, moving away from the window. He knew he’d missed with the third shot. Went wild. Missed everything. Maggie’s drawers. He turned up the bolt handle.
Put me on. Put me on. Put me on. 
He was already talking to someone about this. He had a picture, he saw himself telling the whole story to someone, a man with a rugged Texas face, but friendly, but understanding. Pointing out the contradictions. Telling how he was tricked into the plot. What is it called, a patsy? He saw a picture of an office with a tasseled flag, dignitaries in photos on the wall.
He drew the bolt back, then drove it forward, jerking the handle down. He walked diagonally across the floor to the northwest end, where the staircase was located. Books stacked ten cartons high. That fragrance of paper and binding.

DeLillo turns the last chapter of Libra over to Lee’s mother. She makes the case for Lee in a trickle of consciousness that would please both Joyce and Molly Bloom:

They’d taken her youngest son and now they were taking the daughter-in-law and the two little girls. Marguerite felt a weakness in her legs. The wind made the canopy snap. She felt hollow in her body and heart. But even as they led her from the grave she heard the name Lee Harvey Oswald spoken by two boys standing fifty feet away, here to grab some clods of souvenir earth. Lee Harvey Oswald. Saying it like a secret they’d keep forever. She saw the first dusty car drive off, just silhouetted heads in windows. She walked with the policemen up to the second car, where the funeral director stood under a black umbrella, holding open the door. Lee Harvey Oswald. No matter what happened, how hard they schemed against her, this was the one thing they could not take away—the true and lasting power of his name. It belonged to her now, and to history.

I’ve read Libra three times and the first two times I preferred the shadowy men chapters over the Lee chapters. This completely reversed on the most recent read, and I now prefer the Lee. Libra is a historical novel, the history of events that for the most part never took place. But some of them did take place, and a generation remembers where they were on the 22nd of November. If that memory lasts deep into history, it might be because of Libra and other works of art and myth.

The long shelf life of A Handful of Dust

22225538057Some of us who read A Handful of Dust never get over it. The Waugh-heads in college were all Brideshead Revisited junkies, but for me it comes down to Dust, and I’m always surprised by its cutting clarity, the method (mostly dialogue) Waugh employs to showcase the coming apart of a union, and how sad and funny it is, all of it. A Handful of Dust is a novel that is self-contained and full of itself, and like the best novels of that persuasion full too of the world.

Hapless John Beaver is introduced, a young negligible idler who frequents Brat’s Club and his bedroom in his mother’s house. He has 300 a year and no ambition, and is invisible to most his peers. He arrives somewhat unannounced at the Lasts’ estate for a weekend holiday.

Brenda and Tony Last don’t know what to do with Beaver so they run him down, until ever so subtly Brenda succumbs to Beaver’s city charm. She’s been in the country too long, misses her set and friends and the buzz of bright lights. She turns from Tony toward Beaver and falls hard.

Tony is unaware of Brenda’s affair, the only one ignorant. Waugh uses dialogue of the Lasts’ peers to illustrate the frivolity and excitement of the Last situation; these peers live for gossip.

The Lasts’ son John Andrew dies in a riding accident, and Brenda has one of the strangest reactions to tragedy in literature. It’s a heartbreaking scene, because a reader up to this point in the novel hasn’t come down on either side of the marriage. Afterwards, one is firmly pro-Tony, and Brenda Last joins Fran Dodsworth as one of the great bitches in all of literature.

Brenda wants a divorce, and Tony agrees to participate. Divorce meant for cause then in England, so Tony takes a tart on holiday to Brighton, in order that he be found out by hired detectives. It’s a great farce Waugh showcases, sad and noble. But Tony changes his mind soon about giving up his estate and giving over cash to Brenda, and  he takes leave of England. He stands up for himself rather selflessly, if such a move is possible–of course Brenda sees it as beastly behavior–and he undertakes a frivolous and dangerous last-minute adventure to the Brazilian jungle.

Tony’s jungle adventure makes up the last third of the novel and it is the best section, full of Waugh’s vivid language and prejudices. Stranded and feverish, Tony’s hallucinations read true and frightening; it is an ending of bad circumstance and fear, and features one of the great evil characters in literature, Mr. Todd.

What strikes me most about Waugh is that his people and scenarios usually arrive at truth despite at first being unaware of needing truth. Not many in Waugh are happy though they certainly don’t encounter honest problems. There’s something of Wodehouse in Waugh, but Waugh has deeper feeling on two counts; he writes women better, and he is proficient in conflict, with dueling ideals. His chapters are usually chapters in characters’ lives; they end succinct but not neat.

A Handful of Dust is a perfect novel, and risky, and everything works except the brutally flawed characters, who like real people don’t work well at all.

The Shape of The Quiet American

I know that record. Siam goes. Malaya goes. Indonesia goes. What does ‘go’ mean? If I believed in your God and another life, I’d bet my future harp against your golden crown that in five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they’ll be growing paddy in these fields, they’ll be carrying their produce to market on long poles, wearing their pointed hats. The small boys will be sitting on the buffaloes. I like the buffaloes, they don’t like our smell, the smell of Europeans.

The dates of work on the last page of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American are March 1952 – June 1955. It seems a long time for this short novel, and that it takes me half a day to read it might belittle the three year effort. But I’ve read it many times, it is familiar as an old friend, and I’m presently reading it for a second time this year. Twice in one year?

One learns the title character’s name (Pyle) and status (dead) within the first ten pages of the The Quiet American. This is not a spoiler; the book is a journey, not a destination. I have dozens of thoughts about this novel, but I’m now enjoying it for its structure as much as its story.

Greene didn’t play much with continuity in his novels–part of his apprenticeship as a thriller writer likely shaped his linear habits. But his best novel The End of the Affair jumps from wartime and peacetime London in odd fashion, and The Quiet American, with its four parts and divvied chapters within, loops back onto itself like an infinity ribbon ∞, mixing past and present, city life and countryside wars.

There is plenty of detail and color to the Indochina warfare of the mid-1950s Greene describes, and the chapter cuts Greene makes–from a nightclub dance floor to a darkened coastal outpost battle in the northern part of the country–are severe and catch one by surprise. The novel’s structure is jarring in that way, but fluid in its overall graceful shape; imagine cracks in that perpetual ribbon.

One reason the haphazard scenes work without linear relation is that Fowler, the narrator, is a journalist, and one can imagine a journalist in Vietnam covering disparate events from one day to the next–a celebration Friday, a bombing raid Saturday. Fowler is also a bitter man, and that too plays into the shape, as bitterness has a short shelf-life, and needs breaks and air to work well in a novel. The sharp cuts, the lack of continuity, are excellent techniques if one has a compelling narrator like Fowler, who acknowledges his happiness is his woman and his opium pipe and little else; he is narrow minded, but a great watcher in a vibrant warring country.

I likely won’t read The Quiet American a third time this year, but there is still time to do so.