Spring non-awakening

There once was a saying scrawled on a wall in a downtown Austin bar, perhaps it's still there, and not in the bathroom, either. It was part of a droll collection of variations on Murphy's Law written over the bar, if memory serves. This one declared, simply, that 90 percent of everything is crud.

Not "crap", mind you, but crud. Nor did it say "everything is crud." Either remark would suggest the author was particularly bitter or disillusioned about his not particularly unusual discovery. Crud, on the other hand, suggests he put some consideration and sad experience into this; it's a thoughtful assaying of content.

Over the years, while reviewing pop music, movies, theater and books, book/daddy has found the unnamed author's estimation holds up fairly well. As would you, if you'd ever seen the sheer numbers of CDs that pile up in a newspaper office, CDs that are never reviewed, never aired on any radio station, never listened to by anyone other than the musicians' friends. And probably not even them.

Case in point: this spring's crop of novels. book/daddy confesses that he's read a slew of them and failed to review most. Time after time, the book turned out to be just a leetle disappointing. Or majorly so. But always just enough to dissipate the critic's verve. Despite the cliche about how it's easier to write a pan than a rave, the flat-out hardest reviews to write are for books that don't truly excite one way or the other. The critic has to gin up some energy and insight for a book that's OK, fair, not much, decent, pretty good, but nothing to get excited about.

Which, of course, is most books, and most everything in life.

90 percent of everything, or so book/daddy has heard.

The best of the bunch, so far, has been Don DeLillo's Falling Man, which book/daddy had some reservations about, although DeLillo is rarely less than chilling. The other fine novel -- novella, really -- is Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach (see my recommended books on the right). And then there's Peter Temple's The Broken Shore, which also quite happily appears in the "recommended" column.

Most of these novels, book/daddy should make clear, are definitely not crud. But he still had a hard time getting up the right spirit to review them. Collectively, though, they amounted to Something This Blog Needed to Take Care Of.

So now that spring has only three more days, here goes the round-up.

One of the bigger disappointments this spring, although disappointment seems a strong term -- "less than hoped for," shall we say -- was Sherman Alexie's Flight. Hailed as Mr. Alexie's first full-length novel in a decade, it's more a novella, so thin and repetitive that it makes the decision to bring it out as a paperback original look less like an interesting change-up and more like a smart commercial move to disguise its brief, lightweight nature.

Zits is a half-Indian, half-Irish, acned, abused, homeless teen in trouble -- with an alcoholic father, a dead mother and, not surprisingly, a lot of sardonic anger. Talk about overdetermined. He escapes his 20th foster home and ends up in a bank shooting people and getting shot.

What follows resembles an extended Twilight Zone episode, one of those where the ironic lesson gets hammered home. Zits time-travels and body-surfs from an FBI agent tracking Indian radicals in the '70s to a young brave at Little Bighorn to Zits' own father. We get the point. It's a history of America, an education in empathy, a theme and variations on the pointlessness of violence and power abuse, and if it weren't for Zits' voice -- self-mocking but deadly earnest in a Caulfieldish way -- Flight would be far too heavy-handed for its own plot-thin self. The book's opening line, "Call me Zits," pretty much tells you all about the book's strengths (smart-ass humor) and weaknesses (it's a well-worn line to joke on).

Haruki Murakami's After Dark is similarly heavy-handed and lightweight but in a way that seems almost tossed off. Compared to such dazzling, puzzling, beautiful novels as Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, After Dark is like a shrug, an unenlightening Zen koan, not even as compelling as the author's other short works, such as Sputnik Sweetheart.

Three main characters, three stories intertwined around a solitary, sleepless student named Mari. A young trombone player and law student, Tetsuya, meets Mari in an all-night Denny's. Tetsuya used to have the hots for Mari's older sister Eri, and we switch to Eri, alone, ever-asleep in an ominous netherworld of sorts. Tetsuya leaves, but a Chinese woman named Kaoru arrives, and because Mari can speak Chinese, she goes with her to help with a prostitute who's been beaten up in the "love hotel" that Kaoru runs. Things get progressively stranger for these nighthawks at the diner.

Murakami's themes of alienation, quirky sexual connections and spirit worlds, his hypnotic ability to make the familiar seem liminal and hushed are all here, but in a so-what? manner. Eri's TV-box-like entrapment clearly represents the nightworld that Mari avoids with her insomnia -- the world of dreams, fictions, alternatives, cyberspace. But then Mari physically enters such a world when she goes to help at the brothel -- like "Ulysses in Nighttown" but in a less wildly inventive way. Other critics found After Dark eerie and delicate, intimate and jazz-like. Maybe. I found it alternately obvious or nearly random. It has its beauties, and I'll always give Murakami a read, but the magic failed to entrance this time.

Finally (you say, gasping), book/daddy respectfully dissents from what seems to be a consensus that Michael Wallner's April in Paris is a splendid debut, a romantic WWII thriller of great promise. (It was a bestseller in Germany.) Remember those earnest TV dramas with the good white liberal who loves black people so much that Christ-like, he sacrifices himself for racial equality? April in Paris is a case of the Good German taken to a similarly embarrassing martyrdom.

It's basically Romeo and Juliet Meet the SS, with those mean old feuding Capulets and Montagues played by the French Resistance and the Nazis. They're not so much star-cross'd lovers as swastika-cross'd: Roth is an impossibly naive 22-year-old translator assigned to the SS in Paris, where he must interpret the confessions dragged out of tortured Resistance fighters. On a stroll through the city, he falls instantly in love with Chantal and, because he speaks French fluently and is soulful enough to empathize with all of Paree, he convinces her and her cohorts he's a Frenchy.

Right. He can pull that off, but he's so dim he doesn't realize Chantal is a Resistance fighter, something the reader figures out in the time it takes her to disappear into a storefront. And of course, their love ends tragically -- with Roth expiating all the sins of the German nation by taking the place of the suffering noble Resistance, getting tortured by his own compatriots, etc., etc. Mr. Warner's style is clear and poetic, even if his story feel patently guilt-ridden and earnest.

This book, like the others piled together here, is not crap. But is it crud? In this case, book/daddy says, yeah. it's definitely a 90 percenter.

June 18, 2007 8:48 AM |



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