- Vernon Subutex—Virginie Despantes
- “Astral Weeks”: A Secret History of 1968—Ryan H.Walsh
- Voices: How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life—Nick Coleman
- The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border—Francisco Cantu
- Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House—Michael Wolff
- To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface—Olivia Laing
- Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements—Bob Mehr
- Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race—Reni Eddo-Lodge
- 1947: When Now Begins—Elisabeth Åsbrink
- Three Daughters of Eve—Elif Shafak
- Grant & I: Inside and Outside the Go-Betweens—Robert Forster
- The Nix—Nathan Hill
I turned sixty in 2017, and before I reached that dismal milestone, I was of the opinion that you’re only as old as you feel, that age is just a number, that life is a box of chocolates, et cetera. I am working on the assumption that Believer readers had never even heard the number sixty before I mentioned it just now, and certainly had no idea that it could be an age human beings reach, so I bring you news from the far-distant future: there is indeed, as you might have suspected, a pill that men are forced to swallow on the last day they are fifty-nine that makes them less interested in new fiction. I tried to hide it in my cheek, but eventually—another peril of advancing years—I forgot it was sinister and swallowed it, thinking that it was one of the other pills they give me here after dinner.
I try to find works of fiction, I promise, but it’s like pushing a wonky shopping trolley round a supermarket. I constantly veer off toward literary biographies, books about the Replacements, and so on, and only with a concerted effort can I push it toward the best our novelists have to offer. I suspect it’s to do with age and risk. A bad book about, say, the history of Indian railways will inevitably tell you something about railways, India, and history. Reading a bad novel when you are approaching pensionable age, however, is like taking the time left available to you and setting it on fire. (I am also getting the impression that most books by young novelists are about sexual abuse. I know, I know—I shouldn’t be so squeamish. But I’m in the middle of an English winter, there’s no daylight after about eleven o’clock in the morning, I’ve quite often watched my football team play out a dismal, goalless draw… Give me a break until the spring, at least.)
A couple of months ago I was at a literary festival in Germany, and tout le monde, and alles der Welt, was talking about Vernon Subotex, the first in an ambitious trilogy of novels by the French writer Virginie Despentes. I had never heard of it, or her, because I live in an English-speaking country that takes very little notice of fiction published in translation. Those of us in the US and the UK, even those who read, tend to regard foreign literature as entirely laudable—it’s jolly good that these people have a go—but not
for us. And yet here we all are, plodding dutifully through a six-hundred page prizewinning novel written in our own language that we’re not enjoying very much and that nobody will ever read again after the initial buzz has fizzled, while being utterly ignorant of what’s happening in Germany or Italy (pace Ferrante) or France or entire continents.
Vernon Subotex is the hapless former owner of a Parisian record shop. The shop has gone bust, like most bigcity music stores, and Vernon’s luck and judgment have drained away to the point where he is homeless and penniless. His solution is ingenious: he calls all his former patrons, tells them he’s been living in Canada and is back for a visit, and asks to stay on their sofas or in their spare bedrooms for a few nights. Desplantes is thus free to write about contemporary Paris in all its social media–stained, spliff-addled, coke-pumped, money-obsessed, bitter, screenwriter-desperate, violent, racist shambles. Now, first of all, does that sound like a “novel in translation”? If we examine our prejudices— or, at least, if I examine mine on your behalf—they belong to a genre, something we can congratulate ourselves on reading. They frequently get their own spot in bookstores, unless they have somehow found some sort of readership, in which case we co-opt them as our own. You won’t find Elena Ferrante or Stieg Larsson in this section. They have sold their way out of the ghetto.
Vernon Subotex deserves a better fate too. It has a smart high concept—a little like High Maintenance in the way that doors are literally opened to the protagonist, although Ben Sinclair’s ‘The Guy’ is a lot sunnier, perhaps because pot is easier to sell than music, and he’s not homeless, as far as we know. And it’s peppered with references you will recognize, and some of them will make you chuckle with delight at their appearance in a literary novel: “Groove Is in the Heart,” Cassandra Wilson, the Exploited, Thee Oh Sees, KitKat McFlurrys… It’s long, Vernon Subotex, and if I don’t follow it through to the second and third in the sequence, then it’s because I don’t know how much appetite I have for the fury and the pitilessness of Desplante’s singular worldview. But I’m very glad to have wrestled this one to the ground. I have never read Balzac, so the references for me were Dickens and the young Martin Amis: the teeming population, the grotesques, the relentlessness and energy of the narrative. I’m not sure Desplantes has the same faith in social reform, however. Her Paris seems too far gone for that.
And then I’m sent a proof of Ryan H. Walsh’s “Astral Weeks”: A Secret History of 1968 and suddenly I’m not wrestling at all. I’m drinking it down, too quickly, almost, and in part this is because Walsh has no need and can find no place for fury and pitilessness. Some of the characters you meet in this book are unsavory, granted, but the story he has unearthed is so mind-boggling, so full of extraordinary detail and coincidence and strange, now impossible ambitions, that one can only share in his delight at the sheer improbability of it all.
Where to begin? Van Morrison’s celebrated album is part of it all, but it glides in and out of the book like a particularly lovely ghost. The record was shaped in Boston, and the songs were performed for the first time in a Boston club called the Catacombs in the summer of ’68—Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band, then a Boston R&B DJ who went by the name of the Woofa Goofa, has a tape of the show, although Nelson never gets to hear Wolf ’s copy. But mostly Astral Weeks is about why a grumpy cosmic Irishman like Morrison would end up in Cambridge in the first place, and it turns out that Boston was, for a while, completely and utterly loopy.
There was the experimental TV program What’s Happening, Mr. Silver, which on one memorable occasion asked viewers to place one TV set opposite another so that the young British presenter, the eponymous David Silver, could interview a theater director in black and white on one screen, while on the other a color Silver provided a cynical running commentary on his own efforts. There was the Bosstown Sound, a desperate attempt to turn the city into a San Francisco or a Liverpool, and which resulted in too much money being paid to average, and green, musicians, and which also produced two touring versions of the Bosstown band Orpheus. (The phony version, which was playing without the knowledge or permission of the original band, featured a young Chevy Chase, but this is the sort of bizarre fact that becomes almost routine in Walsh’s pages.) There was James Brown’s concert the night after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., when the show was televised on a local station, Brown was paid by the city for the shortfall in box-office sales, and everyone stayed home instead of going out and setting everything on fire.
If there is a central character in this book, it’s not Morrison but Mel Lyman, a charismatic former folk-rock singer who led a commune, founded a terrifyingly alternative underground magazine, befriended—some might say brainwashed—the daughter of the epic painter Thomas Hart Benton, bought every house on a rundown Boston street, and invested in a Los Angeles construction company that still exists today. Lyman probably died, probably in the late ’70s, although his death wasn’t announced until 1985, and there is no death certificate; dead or alive, a lot of what was going on in Boston in the late 1960s was due to him. Avatar, the underground magazine, provoked an all-out war with the authorities, a war that Lyman had the money to fight—one of the witnesses for the defense, incidentally, was the young Howard Zinn.
Who else turns up? There’s Michelangelo Antonioni, who cast one of Lyman’s commune members as the lead in his first English-language movie, Zabriskie Point, after a casting director saw him get into an altercation at a bus stop. (Antonioni came to regret it.) There’s Jonathan Richman, devoted fan of the Velvet Underground, who remade themselves after taking up semipermanent residency at the city’s Fillmore-like venue the Boston Tea Party, and there’s the Boston Strangler and Timothy Leary and Frederick Wiseman and and and… Possibly if you were to spend years investigating a crucial period in the life of your city, you would find stories as good and as rich as these, but even then you would have to have an eye as keen as Walsh’s, a nose as sharp, an ear as sensitive and as attuned to the frequency of the times. This is a wonderful book, I think, funny and interesting and completely absorbing, if you have any interest in just about anything this magazine holds dear—art, politics, fun, music, chaos.
The excellence of the two other nonfiction books I read this month didn’t help with the state of my current appetite for novels. Nick Coleman has written a brilliant book about singing, Voices, a simple title for a complicated subject. Can Bob Dylan sing? Of course he can, in the sense that he conveys feeling, thinks about his phrasing, knows how to turn some of the most memorable verses ever written into punches that sting. Can Frank Sinatra sing? Well, yes, that’s not in doubt, although in his chapter on crooners, Coleman essays the puzzling question of why that particular voice leaves so many of us who came of listening age post-Beatles unmoved and uninvolved. These essays are about vulnerable voices (Amy Winehouse’s, Aretha’s, Mary Margaret O’Hara’s), prayerful voices (Van’s again, Burning Spear), English voices (Ray Davies’s, Mick Jagger’s, David Bowie’s), the voices of people who sing through brass instruments (Hank Mobley). There’s an idea on every single page, and sometimes you may want to argue with the mind behind it, but then, Voices wants your engagement. And such is the clarity of thought and efficacy of expression that you’ll need to be right at the top of your game to make a point that hasn’t been anticipated. I have been talking to Nick Coleman about music, in person and in my head, for forty years now, and though you can get only a tiny sliver of my good luck through both this book and his beautiful memoir, The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss, you at least have the opportunity to hear what I have heard. I hope you take it.
The music in Francisco Cantu’s The Line Becomes a River is in the prose, and gosh, it’s sad. Cantu is a gifted, sensitive memoirist who worked for five years as a border patrol agent, and the painful collision of those two incompatible sensibilities has produced a brave, affecting, memorable book. Am I saying that it’s impossible to be both sensitive and a border patrol agent? No—Cantu is. His job involves stopping people from joining up with their families, and trying to save the lives of those who have set out across the desert without enough food or water—for
themselves or, sometimes, for their children—and picking up dirt-poor juvenile Mexicans who are on their way to the US to sell heroin. People are sent over the border by narcos— because bodies are, like drugs, worth something to somebody—and then held captive in safe houses, fifteen or twenty to a room, until a loved one is prepared to pay something for their release. It’s an unstoppable tide of human misery, and Cantu is plagued by dreams—dreams of wolves, of crumbling teeth. They feel real enough to the reader, let alone the dreamer. At the end of the book Cantu is working in a coffee shop while enrolled in an MFA program. When a colleague from the mall goes back over the border to see his dying mother, leaving his wife and two boys behind, and doesn’t come back, Cantu does what he can to help his friend cut through the bureaucracy, but the branches are too thick; at this point, Cantu hands the narrative over to José, and the anguish of his situation is allowed to ring out clear and true, and so loud that even we can hear it. One good thing, amid all the unhappiness: in the author photo, Cantu is wearing a bolo tie, and he looks cool in it, and I bought one and wore it on New Year’s Eve. Thank you, Francisco.
Oh, what to do about fiction, when nonfiction is so reliably good? Maybe I should go back to reading old novels. That might be the answer. Read a book by a young novelist and you end up saying to yourself, No, young fella or young lady. That’s not what people are like. Read a book written in the ’50s or the ’20s or the nineteenth century and you think, Wow, that’s what people were like? The particular psychology of a moment, the sort of thing fiction is so good at capturing, is preserved only within the pages of novels, which gives the oldies a distinct advantage: you can’t argue with them. Of course, back in the nineteenth century, old codgers like me were probably reading George Eliot and grumbling about her inability to portray real nineteenth-century people. But we’ll never know. STOP PRESS: I started a novel on the Tube this morning. The first ten pages were great. I’ll let you know.