Friday, January 23, 2009

Wait by Frank Turner Hollon

This is not a review. It's a reaction. There are spoilers. If you want a review, here it is: Wait is a worthwhile novel from an interesting mind, that will make you think about your soul, and the state of it, and the reasons why your soul may be in that state. It will make you look around your life with a new, healthy suspicion, and try to imagine your spouse with a gun in his hand, standing there blankly, ready to pull the trigger. So there's your review. Go get the book, and read it, and come back here and talk to me about it.

Frank Turner Hollon has written the life story of Early Winwood, a guy you might pass on the street without noticing, a character you might not think was worthy of having a novel written about him. A regular guy. The difference between Early and most regular guys is that right in the middle of the book, after living through a few dozen unremarkable years, Early does something very remarkable: he kills a man. Then, later, he kills another one.

This book is telling me one of two things. No, there are no other interpretations:

1. The narrator is unreliable. The book is psychological study that takes us deep under cover in the mind of a murderer, to show us how he, twisted and inhuman as he is, sees himself as normal, fitting snugly into the fabric of society. I have two bits of evidence for this interpretation. First, the ambiguity of his relationship to Kate Shepherd, and the fact that this drug user turned model citizen at one point tells the court he is a kidnapper and a stalker. The second is the way the murders really fail to haunt the guy, at least fail to haunt him to the extent that a murder would haunt me. Or maybe a murder wouldn't really haunt me that much, which brings me to possibility #2.

2. Early is a murderer, and Early is an average guy. Both. One does not preclude the other. Murder is closer to you than you think it is, reader, and only a thin hair of opportunity and impetus stands between you and the act itself. Looking back on the book, this explanation seems more elegant. It is as if the whole plot of this man's life was constructed to be a doughy, bland container for that one act of violence, so that the blandness leaks into the violence, and makes it ordinary, all part of the whole.

I don't know which one is the correct reading but I hope it's two. It's not that I agree with him, in fact I don't like the idea that we're all base, we're all murderers, we're all that low, as vile as the least of us is vile. I don't agree. But I think that makes the more perfect novel, and I've never read a book constructed like this, with so much fire-retardant wadding packed around a fuel cell on fire.

The book fails me in a couple of ways -- the second "murder" doesn't seem to fit either of my explanations, and it blurs the lines of what's a reasonable excuse to commit the crime. I was disappointed also a little bit in the lesser characters, in Early's fake son and fake daughter. I never knew what lens I was seeing them through, and Early's take on it seemed more suspect when he was describing these relationships than it did when he was talking about Kate.

Ultimately, a very interesting book and a book that worked my brain. I will have to try another by this author.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott

There are two fine lines that Abbott had to navigate when writing Sin in the Second City, a historical account of the Everleigh Club, the fanciest and most infamous brothel in Chicago at the turn of the century.

The first line is between two moral positions.

Abbott has two heroines here: Minna and Ada Everleigh, the jewel-encrusted madams who elevated their little corner of the vice district beyond the dirty dance hall and onto a level of elegance and sophistication that attracted millionaire visitors and international attention. Minna and Ada are characters that the author clearly loves. As we follow their story from a mysterious lowly past to their glorious position as quiet, powerful queens of vice in a vicious city, we are invited to fall in love with them as well. There are pimps and madams that we can scorn, lesser characters who live down the street from the Everleighs, who run shitty dives and beat their girls, drug their customers and stick to their own floors. But the Everleighs are a different breed: smart, ethical, pure.

If the Everleighs are the heroes, then the villains must be the reformers, the demonstrators and politicians who were trying to eliminate the vice district and "save" the girls who had "fallen" there as prostitutes. Among the characters on this team are pastors and evangelists, pious ladies, and also city officials trying to look good and crack down on crime. The problem with villainizing this side of the fight is that they actually did have a point. The danger with making a madam your hero is that there actually was a lot of horrifying stuff going on in these houses, stuff you don't want to cheer for, and can't fall in love with.

So, as a writer, do you position yourself with the madams, and giggle and titter your way through the book, pretending it's all so naughty and wry, and those stuffy old reformers are just party poopers? Or do you position yourself with the reformers, and spend the book pushing out that really new and interesting concept that prostitution is bad? Maybe there's a third solution, to just report what happened, be historically accurate, and educate us all so we can make... oh, wait, I just fell asleep while suggesting that as an option. So, none of those are books that I would want to read.

Fortunately, Abbott is smart. Very smart. And her smart book can present all these possibilities simultaneously. This is not an expose of the horrors of segregated vice in turn of the century Chicago. Nor is this a blushing homage to all those fabulous madams and the sexual excesses of the times. No one is exempt from criticism here. Abbott tells the stories of those vainglorious preachers and the hypocritical politicians, but also shines an unforgiving fluorescent light into the depths of vice: the strip-and-whip fights where girls lashed each other bloody for an audience, the girl's palm rotting from syphilis while still performing its handjob, the lies, the greed, the corruption, and all of it.

No one is exempt, that is, except the Everleighs themselves. In understanding this, I began to understand where the moral compass of the book truly points. I believe that Abbott would say that the sins of the vice district were black enough -- the sins of the white slavers and the opium dealers and the lower madams operating their 50 cent dives. The Everleighs, however, weren't doing anything very wrong, and in shutting down their clean, sophisticated, elegant club, where the men were treated fairly and the girls lined up to get a job, where the health and well being of the harlots was a priority and the customers were treated like customers, not sinners, the authorities threw the baby out with the bathwater. That is, I think, the way the book gets out of its predicament.

This moral subtlety allows the book to transcend that "choice" between the whores and the reformers, and allows the story of the characters to flourish without the weight of a judgment or the tension of the absence of judgment.

The second line that Abbott dances down is a literary one. She is, of course, telling the true story of actual people, and the research that went into this book is amazing. One look at the bibliography and your jaw will drop. However, there are things that cannot be known from research. The biographer's job is to tell the story in an engaging way that will live on the page, without embellishing the facts too much, to navigate between too strict a focus on reality and too fanciful an elaboration. Abbott accomplishes this brilliantly. Everything in quotation marks, in the book, was actually said by the real Everleighs, or other characters, and recorded in court documents, journals, or letters. But Abbott's story goes beyond the bare facts and delivers a prose that reads like fiction. None of the "we can't possibly know" or "it's unclear" but loads of vibrant descriptions, delightful details, and a narrative sense that really brings the landscape of the levee to life.

Sin in the Second City exploded my expectations. You know I loves me some violated dichotomies, yo. By defying the obvious choices, and creating her own rules, Abbott pays the Everleigh sisters great honor by putting them in the context they deserve.