I could extend these acknowledgments by describing the perfect California setting (poolside, with Noritake on white linens and enough stemware to accommodate 4 successive tastings and pairings), or by reliving the coquilles Saint-Jacques and coquilles d’escargots (both sautéed to perfection), or by praising Garth’s selection of a 1995 Rutherford Hills chardonnay (aged in French limousine oak) to pair with the scallops, or even by fantasizing about the soft Humboldt Fog goat cheese striped with a thin line of ash (derived from the classic French Morbier) and served with a wedge of Anjou pear. But I’ll desist. Garth and John were toasted repeatedly last night. That’s enough. For now. Even if I can’t stop thinking about their meal….
So, why were we initially pessimistic? Because, from the first page, Miller refuses to make it easy for his reader. The writing in Tropic of Cancer ranges from stream of consciousness, to coarse travelogue, to the caustic observations of a degenerate expatriate. Throughout this fictionalized account of his years in Paris during the Depression, Miller assaults the reader with prostitution, gonorrhea, syphilis, depression, poverty, racism, sexism, xenophobia, profanity, and hunger. And yet, despite the crude language and degrading behavior of all of the characters, there’s undeniable passion and energy and honesty in this novel. As Tom A, Glenn, Dean and others acknowledged, the story has peaks and valleys but the brilliant peaks compel the reader to keep reading.
Garth saw in Tropic of Cancer parallels to the Taoist philosophy of flow and balance with nature. And, indeed, Miller uses the metaphor of flow to describe nature. But his metaphor descends into snide references to urinating and bouts of the clap. He ends his commentary with the depressing realization that the flow of writing is “constipated by words and paralyzed by thought.” In between his rants about the state of art and society, Miller’s narrator lives almost entirely in the moment and in pursuit of gratification. According to Armando, if nothing else, Miller’s provocative tone and his cast of hedonists helped spawn a generation of Beat writers and poets.
Despite Larry’s ambivalence (expressed in his observation that Miller’s novel was much like Seinfeld, only without the humor), those of us who read the novel liked it enough to give it a 7.1 rating. I wonder whether it was Miller or the meal that inspired such a positive critique. (And, about that meal, did I mention John's delectable French tarts, whose taste and whose name tickled our fancy? How about Garth's pairing of a Frog's Leap varietal with his frog's legs? Excellent choice, but hardly subtle. Rather like his deft placement of the escargots between the frogs' legs. )
We also agreed to read Ollestad’s Crazy for the Storm during our bye month of August. Since the publisher (via Carol Fitzgerald and friends at The Book Report Network) has generously offered to send us copies to sample, we’ll come back in September with our thoughts and insights on Ollestad’s touching tribute to his larger-than-life father.