Sunday, April 21, 2013

Endless Vacation, by Brad Whittington

Brad and I go way back, but don’t hold that against him. He’s a solid writer, and for the purpose of this review, that’s all that matters. Plus, it really boils down to his word against mine. So he has an out.

I always look forward to his latest projects. Of his novels thus far, Endless Vacation is his best yet.

For those who follow my blog, it won't surprise you to read that I prize convincing characters, similes that smile, and metaphors that epitomize the things described. But if plot is your thing, you won’t be disappointed, either. The twists are as intricate as an angler’s triple knot.

Writers are cautioned against creating flashbacks since such devices can potentially slow down a story. In Whittington’s deft hands the transitions are seamless. The characters’ past experiences are always perfectly placed, brief, smooth, and character driven. By the time I realized I was peeking into someone’s childhood, I was brought back to the present with a richer understanding about his or her motivation.

We’ve all read stories with engaging plots, well fashioned prose, and memorable characters. But how rare is it to find a novel that satisfies all these appetites? Brad doesn't just write a story worth reading; his stuff deserves repeated readings, which is the mark of a good writer.

A note about the brothers Davison and Hensley: in a recent phone conversation, Whittington assured me that my love for Hensley and my dislike of Davison is less than unanimous. In response, I chose to breathe heavily over the line until I was sure Brad had hung up. Obviously, my own impressions of the characters reveal more about me than about the writer’s intent. Still, without spoiling things for the uninitiated, I decided to examine why I consider Hensley the champion of the two.

Hensley's unorthodox choice of lifestyle calls to mind those I’ve known and held in high regard for their courage and their independence. I tend to give such creatures a pass when it comes to their quirky traits others might characterize as annoying, since they, like Hensley, tend to be passionate about their worldview and somewhat infectious. Granted, personalities like Hensley are eager to offer unwelcome advice, but I’ve always found this amusing, at least in moderation. Hensley in no small measure is the shining knight on at least one occasion. While his purpose isn't always noble, I think a certain deed within the story more than compensates for at least one of Davison’s grievances against him.

Which brings us to Davison, who, in contrast, reminds me too much of those who’ve reached an economic plateau without ever having questioned the route taken or the ease with which they achieved it. I’m not suggesting those whose aspirations end with death and taxes are dull. Let’s just say I’m not surprised such a man lacks interpersonal skills and that his resentment toward the one person who didn’t pamper him as everyone else seems to have done doesn’t reflect well on his alleged virtue. I don’t begrudge Davison his good fortune. But I’m glad when he finally acknowledges the good in his brother and the flaws in himself.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Speak, Memory (An Autobiography Revisited), By Vladimir Nabokov

My first exposure to Nabokov was in the poorly lit library basement of a local community college I attended a quarter century ago. A handful of his novels stood squeezed against one another on an overstuffed shelf – Pnin, Transparent Things, Glory, The Defense, Look at the Harlequins, Despair. The row reminded me of a three dimensional bar graph. Invitation to a Beheading, dwarfed by the others, represented profit losses in March; the taller bronze one right of it titled Laughter in the Dark stood for gains in April. The titles along the spines ran sideways so that, clumsily, I found myself, as if in some stretching exercise routine, leaning from the hip, craning my neck until my ear nearly touched my shoulder.  

A month before, a friend had recommended the author’s most famous, or infamous, novel Lolita. Based on the subject matter, I vowed to avoid that book. But the promise of impressive prose made me tug a random copy (a collection called Tyrants Destroyed and other stories) from its perch, and within seconds of the first clever line, I’d escaped the dank tomb-like library basement and fallen into a web of words so wondrous I lost track of the waning afternoon until closing time when the lights went out and the shelved catacombs closed in. I thumbed my Bic lighter (I smoked back then) and used the tiny torch to find the stairs and eventually reach the counter for checkout.

It wasn’t the morbid subject matter that interested me, nor the depressing characters and their self-destructive urges. In fact, those things were sometimes cringe-worthy. But the prose! Dizzying chains of sheer delight and wonder, perfectly crafted phrases invoking incredulity and joy, awe and gratitude, not unlike the sensation one feels listening to or reading the rousing speeches of some of our greatest political leaders in times of crisis: Lincoln, Churchill, MLK.

As I’ve said elsewhere: It’s not the plot but the writing that’s a marvel. Nabokov could dwell on squirrel poop and it would read like sheer poetry. I confess: for many years, I entertained a sort of hero worship for the man. I remember somewhat facetiously confiding in a dear friend and fellow Nabokov fan that the only reason I didn’t regard Nabokov as a god is because gods can be impugned. If you’re moved by the magic of a master and his prowess with language, then you too might fall prey to idolatry as I did those many years ago.

Putting this post together, I struggled to find some choice quote I could pluck from the garden and offer as evidence of his genius, but every line was part of a bouquet. Snapshots of a sunset fail to capture the sensation of that warmth on one’s face. Instead, I’ve resolved to return to that moment a quarter of a century ago, this time creating my own artificial dark by shutting my eyes, jabbing a random page with my forefinger, and copying the line printed above my nail.

“… a chair of thin iron, with its spidery shadow lying beneath it a little to one side of center, or a pleasantly supercilious, although plainly psychopathic, rotatory sprinkler, with a private rainbow hanging in its spray above gemmed grass …”

If I hadn’t read Speak, Memory this month, I would’ve assumed my youthful infatuation had been just that. But a quarter century later and approaching fifty, I realize I’m just as spellbound today. Nabokov’s approach is infectious, and despite my efforts to escape his influence, I catch myself channeling his charms, probably in an effort to invigorate my own prose. Unfortunately, my skills are an inferior mimicry of the master. I’m like that boy who tries to lift his father’s dumbbells or that rodent apprentice donning the enchanted conical hat in the magician’s absence. I just hope I can discern my own voice amid the many I admire and enjoy which sometimes threaten, by sheer virtue of their craft, to crush my own.