Sep 24, 2008

Francis Feeds Phelans as Terry's Turkey Tantalizes Thirteen

Terry’s dinner last Wednesday was quite a feat: he picked a fine novel for discussion, he set a superb table replete with butterflied roast turkey, new potatoes, and pumpkin pie, and he neatly connected both despite the hunger and scarcity that pervades Ironweed. Terry credited John with the recipe for the main course, and the irony wasn’t lost on us. The man whose vision of scarcity led to our eating from unmarked cans during our discussion of The Road now inspires fine meals in the kitchens of others.

As our host, Terry began his duties with a new MBC ritual. Not only did he share the fruits of his larder, he also shared some of his personal story during dinner. Raised in a separatist Christian environment, Terry described how he grew up and later broke away (to Bible college, then to Harvard, and eventually to Marin County). His story gave us new insight on the power of communes and religious cults in America.

Speaking of communes, we were fascinated to hear about the largest annual in-gathering of artists, healers, and hedonists in the United States. Thanks to Garth and Glenn, we got the rundown on this year’s Burning Man Festival. We were amazed by the scale of Burning Man (48,000 people camped in the desert!), impressed by the absence of commerce, intrigued by its celebration of fire and art, and (mildly) titillated by the anything-goes nature of this vast encampment.
The Book
The inspiration for Terry’s turkey dinner came, of course, from the novel’s protagonist, Francis Phelan, who stays sober just long enough to deliver a 12-lb turkey to his estranged wife and grown children. After dinner, Francis returns to the streets and to the cycle of drunken violence that scars his journey through adulthood. Through his eyes, Kennedy sketches a life of talent and possibility that is hopelessly dulled by alcohol and riven with guilt.

The early reviews of Ironweed (i.e., the crossfire of emails before the meeting) were not encouraging. Stan, Peter and George complained that this month’s selection was depressing and continued the tired theme of middle-aged angst. None of them was at the meeting and--without their bullying--we reached a different consensus. Indeed, our discussion found much more to admire than to criticize in Kennedy’s writing, his characters, and his view of Albany street life in 1938.

The writing certainly had us taking sides: it started slowly for Roy, bogged in the middle for Tom, and closed too slowly for me. The alternating narrative voice gave us interesting perspectives, but John and Doug both commented on how intentionally unreliable the narrator became as Kennedy forced us to make our own judgments about the effect of alcohol on the characters’ memory and observation (e.g., the impact of Helen’s singing or the choice of endings for Francis). Some of us found the story’s mystical elements a little distracting, but Dean felt that Francis’ ghosts gave him a special clairvoyance and Glenn (Jack? Doug? Dan?) noted that the ghosts were a clever narrative shortcut into Francis’ past.

Kennedy leaves little room for ambiguity about his characters and their choices: no one is on the street (or bottle) by accident. Indeed, Kennedy’s main characters repeatedly articulate the universal themes of reason and free will coupled with their own interpretations of morality and mortality. While Chris felt that the accidental death of his child transformed Francis and pre-ordained his future, Kennedy hints that the opposite may be true: Francis chooses to kill people (the ghosts), help people (Helen), and visit people (his family) for quite rational reasons. His individuality stands in real contrast to, as Larry and Jack both observed, the homeless people we see every day and whose stories we don’t know.

Ironweed’s environment aroused our interest as much as the characters did. While the 1930’s diction was praised (Tom) and criticized (Armando), Kennedy’s evocation of place and time was powerful enough that it took Armando back to a parallel moment with his father in the 1970’s. We look forward to the rest of that story when it’s Armando’s turn to host….

Our fourteen votes, combined with proxies from Peter (4) and George (8), pushed Ironweed's rating above the mean to a surprisingly strong 7.3.

Next Up
For the second time, the upcoming host was not present to defend his choices. As a consequence, we rejected Jeff’s posted choices and instead adopted his last-minute addition, T. J. English’s Havana Nocturne, which meets our selection criteria only if we stretch them beyond recognition. T.J. English is indeed a man and is also a past winner of the Humanitas Prize, which sounds impressive until you learn that it is awarded each year to honor outstanding TV screenplays in various categories. Hmmm…didn’t we turn to books as an alternative to television?

Sep 13, 2008

October Selection

Greetings MBC,
Below are four suggested titles for October (although I'm tempted to go back to the Hunter Thompson offering from last month). Comments/notes are brief as I'm confident of an Andrew 'book-selection-coup'...

- Independence Day by Richard Ford (1996 PEN/Faulkner; Pulitzer). MBC "sweet spot".
- The Alienist by Caleb Carr ( Staff Pick). October murder/mystery.
- The Search by John Battelle (Finalist for the Goldman Sachs/FT Business Book of the Year). Local/tech.
- Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Pulitzer Prize-winning historian; #1 "New York Times bestseller). Historical/political. Violates both "length" and our "cardinal rule").