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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 20, 2011

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Hard Stuff, Civility, Giant Mechanical Man

Sometimes you come to a book with high expectations, based on previous experience with the author or genre or subject matter. Then, if the book doesn't measure up, the disappointment can be quite sharp, leaving you with an impression far more negative than the book deserves.

When you read a book by a writer you've never heard of before, and it turns out not to be much -- and isn't that what usually happens? -- you don't feel any resentment or animosity toward the writer. You merely dismiss writer and book from mind.

But when I picked up A Drop of the Hard Stuff, by Lawrence Block, I had high expectations. Ever since his days as a columnist for Writer's Digest, I have followed Block with interest, and have found his fiction to be reliably entertaining, whether he's telling stories of a crime-solving burglar, a fastidious hit man, or of Matthew Scudder, ex-cop, ex-drunk, and not-quite-certified private investigator.

And what a good idea it seemed, to go back to the beginning of Scudder's career, when he's coming to the end of his first year of sobriety.

But it turns out that Block is apparently quite fascinated with a recovering alcoholic's constant cycle of AA meetings. By the third chapter of A Drop of the Hard Stuff, I felt as if I had spent a year recovering from alcoholism, or at least had attended a year's worth of meetings.

I might have found this less tedious if the mystery Scudder was called upon to solve had been compelling, but it was barely interesting.

I suppose a reader who had wrestled with addiction and to whom twelve-step programs are filled with resonance and memory would find this a very good book. Block is certainly writing as well as ever.

And yet perhaps not. Because, unusually for him, he writes as if both he and the readers were already so familiar with, so involved in the life of Matthew Scudder that there was no need to introduce him, to make him intriguing, to give him any personality at all other than the thirst for alcohol.

I am familiar with Scudder, but that doesn't mean that I will automatically be fascinated with his endless passage from meeting to identical meeting. And so, alas, I found myself disappointed out of all proportion.

How unfair of me. Pay no attention to this review.

*

The Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles, is the opposite case. This is a new writer's first novel. It's in a genre -- literary historical -- that I approach with skepticism. It touches on motifs that are certified cool and therefore unlikely to be cool at all -- art, jazz music in the 1930s, Gatsbyesque class consciousness.

The audiobook sat on my Nano for some weeks, in which I wondered why I had even bought it.

But then, on a trip to LA, I finished the Great Courses class on the history of the British Empire at a time when I was away from the computer, and could not delete the course and replace it with another.

So I allowed the Nano to move on to the next item, which happened to be Rules of Civility.

To my surprise, I was not bored or irritated. Nor was I "charmed," in the sledgehammery way that overly cute or deliberately attention-grabbing openings can "charm" you.

What happened was that I found myself mildly interested in the evocation of a time and place (Manhattan in 1938), a couple of struggling young women of education and no money, Katey Kontent and her roommate Eve, and the rich young man, Tinker Grey, whom they happen to bump into in a bar on a cold January night.

What carried me farther than mild interest was the quietly deft writing of Amor Towles. I am too familiar with the usual desperate efforts of the graduates of "creative" writing programs, which are usually not creative at all, but rather schools in how to create simpering imitations of Modernists or, worse, imitations of the imitators of pastichists of parodists of worshippers of Modernists, which describes the general run of literary writing in America today (the name Jonathan Franzen comes to mind).

Instead, Towles seems actually to be telling a story, not advertising her own talent, and most of the time her narrator speaks naturally and believably, in a voice true to the character that the events of the story reveals.

In other words, Towles is not a careerist, who tries to be the star of her own books, but rather a true artist, whose focus is on her subject matter, and who uses her tools to communicate clearly, on every level, with her reader.

The result was two days of listening every moment I could spare, simultaneously caring very much about characters who, in lesser hands, would have been as boring (to me) as everybody in The Great Gatsby. Predictable things happen, and then suddenly unpredictable things happen and yet seem exactly right.

For a time it seemed that the story was about Eve and Tinker, with Katey, the narrator, serving merely as oft-frustrated spectator, as lovelorn best friend.

But that impression was wrong. Quite the contrary. This is absolutely Katey's story, the account of her 1938, a year in which six people she met -- we meet the other four much later in the book -- changed her life, but not her soul; instead, her own soul was merely revealed to her, and she continues unchanged in nature, though permanently changed in understanding.

Here is the measure of Towles's accomplishment: She never once succumbs to the temptation to "do a number" on anybody. The evil boss is not evil, merely difficult, and sometimes admirable; this is no Devil Wears Prada caricature. Nor is the Whimsical Young Man a male version of Holly Golightly (quite possibly the most irritating stereotype to afflict literature), Quite the opposite, he is real, he learns, he grows, and yet remains himself.

I ended up with the clear impression that Towles is absolutely unsparing with her characters, showing every weakness and flaw -- and yet she loves them, and even when the narrator can't see their goodness, the reader can, because the writer behind that narrator makes sure we can, long before the narrator learns the lessons herself.

Indeed, when, in the epilogue, the narrator sums up her memories of 1938, she speaks of four people who transformed her life; yet we know, we cannot forget, that there were at least six people who made a significant difference. The four she thinks of are the ones she knew she loved, the ones she knew she lost, the "auld acquaintance" who should never be forgot.

But isn't that a true thing? That we don't always see who has changed us? That sometimes the ones who meant a lot to us had less effect on us than the ones who merely annoyed us, the ones we never really liked?

This is a novel of every kind of love. It has moments of ugliness, though there is nothing shocking -- Towles is true to the period and the social classes she writes about. Bad words are few; sex scenes are completely curtained away, as they would have been in movies or novels of the time.

In short, this is a beautiful book, a masterpiece in the old sense -- a work of art that marks the maker as having passed from apprenticeship into mastery. Whether Towles can keep this ruthlessness, this quiet brilliance, in her future work.

Richard Russo, for instance, wrote with a very similar kind of genuine, deep-seeing brilliance in Mohawk, Nobody's Fool, and The Risk Pool,; Straight Man was a satiric digression; and then, with Empire Falls he became just another li-fi hack, destroying his own stories by making his "artistry" intrusive and obvious, leaving me to mourn the death of a great writer -- even as the university clowns who mar so many young writers applauded his writing more than ever. Probably because now he was obvious (and bad) enough that they could tell what he was doing and say smart things about him while sipping cheese and munching wine at departmental soirees.

But Towles has not yet made a misstep, and I can hope that she will have three great books in her, as Russo did. Or perhaps, like Anne Tyler, she will merely alternate between the tepid and the searing.

This book, at least, is in the searing category. I can't get it out of my mind.

Here's how good it is. Towles comes back several times to George Washington's "Rules of Civility," a list he made for himself of rules for good behavior in company, because it was important in the life of one of the characters, and because the meaning of the list keeps changing as the narrator learns more about the man who tried to follow those rules.

At the end of the book, in an appendix, she actually includes the entire list of 110 rules. I would never have done more than skim this list -- it is not, contrary to the claims of some, a particularly useful guide to anything that matters. But I was so caught up in the beautiful trance of this nearly perfect novel that I could not bear to stop or skip to the end.

Rebecca Lowman does a pitch-perfect job of reading the novel in the audio edition. Mispronunciations are unusually rare. But audio does call attention to the errors of the writer, and Towles has the unfortunate habit of mixing up "lay" and "laid."

It is as if she tried to learn the rules of distinguishing between the transitive verb (lay, laid) and the intransitive (lie, lay, lain); she never says "lay" when she should have said "lie," or "laid" when she should have said "lay." But she still has no idea of the actual rule -- she invariably says "lay" when she should have said "laid," the opposite of the ordinary mistake.

It is the same sort of ignorance that gives us "between you and I," in the effort to avoid saying "me and you should get together some time."

So Towles reveals herself to be, alas, well within the recent tradition of American miseducation. It is especially ironic, however, since the narrator is someone who prides herself on correct grammar and literary erudition, so that errors like that -- which would have been glaring and humiliating in 1938 in someone pursuing an editorial career (her demanding boss would have fired her) -- leave me forced to call this book merely "nearly perfect" instead of the "perfect" that Towles aspired to and so very nearly achieved.

*

I don't like sweet potatoes much, not even mislabeled "yams" and covered with brown sugar and "candied" at Thanksgiving. I can eat them if forced to in company, but not with much pleasure.

So when, at point of sale in Fresh Market, I spotted two kinds of Sweet Potato Crackers from Polka Dot Bake Shop, I bought one package of each kind for my wife, who not only likes sweet potatoes, but even thinks of squash as a treat instead of a reason to shudder. (I think of squash as being to sweet potatoes what heroin is to laudanum.)

Imagine my surprise, then, when we opened both packages and I found that they are quite delicious. The "original" definitely tastes like sweet potato, but I now realize that my aversion has less to do with flavor than with mouth-feel, so that a crisp cracker version is actually enjoyable.

It was the cracked pepper variety that I like best, though. I must warn you, however, that the pepper sneaks up on you. I didn't realize how extremely peppery the crackers were until hours after my consumption of a shocking number of them all at once. And yet I have no regrets. Well, few regrets, anyway.

*

We were waiting for Jordan House, our favorite florist for nearly thirty years, to do a special order we had sprung on them (they did it from start to finish in 45 minutes, and the results were perfect), and decided to kill time by doing some window shopping.

We ended up at the Target shopping center on New Garden, and because I turned one road sooner than I meant to, we found ourselves facing the abandoned hulk of yet another dead bookstore, the former site of Books A Million.

Nothing is so forlorn as a retail cemetery, but we were pleased to see a little island of spunk and verve off in a corner, called Evy's Gifts. Apparently there's a mother store in Kernersville, but since I doubt I'll ever drive that far for a gift shop, I find myself content with this little taste of Kernersville in Greensboro.

I bet "little taste of Kernersville" is a phrase you never thought to hear, or expect to hear again.

We expected to browse for a moment, and if we weren't driven out by the headache-inducing industrial-strength potpourri that infests most gift shops, we'd find a few things to amuse us and make us feel smug that we would never have them in our house.

Instead, there was no such vile perfume, so we didn't have to flee; and as we browsed, we found several things that charmed us enough to cause a credit card to fall out of my wallet and slip through the electronic card reader. Who knew? I won't tell you what I bought, lest you know just what a knick-knack aficionado I am. Suffice it to say that if you happen to be in that center anyway, it's worth going around the corner from the Ten Thousand Villages store into the Books A Million ghost town area to take a look at Evy's.

And speaking of Ten Thousand Villages, if you're a collector of nativity scenes, they have a delightful variety of them from diverse places in the world. It was my first visit to a Ten Thousand Villages store, and I was very pleased with what I found.

And speaking of obnoxious odors (which neither store contained), if you're one of those people who think potpourri is a good idea, I beg you, for the sake of us who get migraines from the ammonia-strength potpourri that is the usual in gift shops and car deodorizers, go to Fresh Market while they still have cinnamon brooms for sale.

I'd never heard of such a thing, but it really is what it sounds like -- a switch of the twiggy ends of cinnamon branches, which, when we plunked it in a vase of artificial flowers (the only kind we don't kill), gave a lovely cinnamon smell to the whole downstairs.

No headache. No trying-too-hard whiff of ersatz lilac or lavender. It is real cinnamon. And it makes your house smell as if you have been baking something wonderful.

Of course, if you haven't been baking something, wonderful or otherwise, it will make people feel just a little testy at not being offered something cinnamony to eat. So perhaps it will spur you to keep cinnamon-chip cookies or cinnamon rolls on hand for visitors. And that's never a bad idea, is it? You can text me your invitation.

*

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, an actor friend invited several of us to a screening of an independent movie produced by a friend of his. The movie was called Giant Mechanical Man. It has no robots in it, which suits me fine -- I don't like many sci-fi films.

Instead, it's a sweet romantic comedy, but one so filled with loneliness bordering on despair that I had to invent a new genre for it to be placed in. Not black comedy, in which you laugh in the face of death and plague and humiliation, but bleak comedy, in which you find gentle amusement in the way plucky people deal with disappointment, hurt, loss, and -- to my great relief -- the recognition of love, the making of a good connection.

I almost dare not tell you any part of the story, because then you might not go and see it -- it really is bleak, and it sounds like an art film. It is an art film, though one without subtitles. And yet you should go see it, not out of duty, because it will remind you, as it reminded me, that great stories can be told about common people, or at least about unsuccessful people, since one can hardly call "common" a man who paints himself silver and stands like a machine in public places until someone pays him to move and speak.

Here are some things that may induce you to watch: Stars!

Topher Grace -- the best thing about That 70s Show and an actor who has been shockingly misused or underused in the past few years -- plays what seems at first a cameo role, but eventually becomes the most desperately sad character of all, a motivational speaker who teaches seminars in how to make conversation, despite the fact that there has never been a worse conversationalist in the history of film.

Topher Grace is as brilliantly understated as ever, and it isn't his fault that he was so ineptly bewigged that his hairline doesn't look so much like a bad wig as like a surgical scar from the accident that tore away the top half of his head. There's really only one shot where this is painfully obvious, and in a way it only adds to the bleakness of his life.

The other star is Jenna Fischer -- Pam from The Office -- a similarly brilliant actress whose shtick (the long-suffering nice person) is so low-key that audiences often don't realize what a masterful performance she is giving. Fischer plays a young woman who is fired from her job because she isn't outgoing enough; broke, she has to move in with her outgoing (and deliciously appalling) sister (Malin Ackerman -- the sister from 27 Dresses), who promptly sets her up on a date with Topher Grace's character.

But the jewel of the movie is the giant mechanical man himself, Chris Messina. This is an absurdly difficult part to play; his life's work, his dream, is to do something so ridiculous that only a writer of art films could ask us to take such a character seriously. Only because of Messina's performance does it work; I can't think of another actor who could do it without a whiff of self-pity or clowning or eye-winking irony.

But Messina is not Johnny Depp, which in this case is a very good thing: In a similarly absurd part in Edward Scissorhands, I felt that Depp was never able to lose his smirk of self-satisfaction at making such a cleverly ironic film. Messina instead becomes a figure of compassionate calm.

He is, of course, a little insane, but this is an attribute of all the characters and is one of the points of the movie: Can we somehow overcome our insanities enough to live together, or even to love each other? Since I have called this a romantic comedy, as well as a bleak one, you know the answer, but this will not diminish any of the pleasures along the way.

If, however, you find the Hangover movies funny, don't waste your time. Clearly you have had your sense of humor deafened by movies that have the comedy amp turned up to eleven; this is a film that plays at no more than two, and you must be very still to hear it properly.


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