Stewart O’Nan’s 16th Novel: An Underground Jerusalem Thriller

City of Secrets, Stewart O’Nan (Viking, 2016, 194 pages)

Militant Zionists bombed the King David Hotel in 1946 and killed 91 people. This terrorist attack occurs again in the lives of Stewart O’Nan’s characters, all Holocaust survivors and underground rebels operating in the British Crown’s Palestine. City of Secrets is a literary thriller, a fast but thoughtful read about survivor guilt, post-World War II Jerusalem, and the intoxication of violence.

O’Nan, a skilled storyteller with fifteen previous novels, won the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society’s first novel prize in 1992. Rosemary James (publisher of The Double Dealer) introduced me to O’Nan’s City of Secrets, and I’m compelled to share her recommendation. O’Nan builds suspense from the first page and carefully weaves the reader from past to present and back again.

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Memories of the dead live on affecting the present. Ghosts of Brand’s wife and family members lurk in his mind as silently and destructively as the Haganah and Irgun rebels work in the shadows of the ancient city. Brand “wanted the revolution—like the world—to be innocent, when it had never been.” He lived through internment as a prisoner mechanic, spared by both the Nazis and the Russians, because they said “he can fix anything.” He “knows the truth,” but decides suicide cannot fix his pain.

Brand saw his wife murdered and speaks to her still. She watches him sleep with Eva, a compatriot and prostitute. As he drives sandy streets and feels the Mediterranean breeze, Brand considers this new life: “It was a kind of cowardice he would never understand, though he was guilty of it himself. How did you kill and still call yourself righteous? How did you live when you let the people you loved die?”

With the war over, survival now depends on trusting the mixed messages and clandestine codes of an insurgency network that supplied Brand an alias (“Jossi”) and a taxi. Jossi drives his taxi, steering the reader and tourists around the city, introducing foreigners to Jerusalem, “a puzzle box built of symbols, a confusion of old and new, armored cars and donkeys in the streets, Bedouins and bankers.”

Like a low-level insurgent, the reader never knows more than what’s necessary to keep reading, to keep driving, keep trusting in the hope of learning how to survive. Such trust requires Brand to accept lethal orders from the unknown, courier weapons and spies through checkpoint searches. Leaders speak in propaganda, be they leading insurgents or occupying forces. He becomes a hero of a train stickup, not from action but from agreed-upon perception, by “barking” commands with the “familiar intonation” learned from years in killing camps.

City of Secrets reads with the speed of an action flick that matters. Brand must decide who to trust as he grapples with life after the Holocaust. Feeling expendable to the secret cause, he learns that only he can live up to his memories of lost loved ones and that true survival requires an open faith.

–Alex B. Johnson, Faulkner House Books

Mardi Gras: “It’s About Being Happy, Baby!”

FHB Mardi Gras

It’s carnival time in the Crescent City. I’m sitting inside Faulkner House behind St. Louis Cathedral listening to musicians’ brass horns and drumbeats blowing up the alley from Jackson Square.

Two women entered with plastic beads jangling around their necks. One of them asked me for books about Mardi Gras. As I directed them to our New Orleans history section and reached for one of my favorites, Lyle Saxon’s Gumbo Ya-Ya (70th Anniversary Edition, River Road Press), a bearded man flashed by our glass doors playing his arms like a trombone. He flashed by again, marching high-knees, pumping an arm up and down with the jazz beat and tooting a loose fist at his mouth.

I opened the door and told him these customers wanted to know about Mardi Gras. He kicked ahead but set his solo parade at a slight diagonal and yelled back to us: “It’s about being happy, baby!”

We wish y’all a happy Mardi Gras!

-Alex B. Johnson, Faulkner House Books

MLK Day & the Most Important Book of 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015), $24

James Baldwin, Collected Essays (edited by Toni Morrison, Library of America, 1998), $35

Coates

The King family lost a husband and father with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His body was stolen, but he lives on in his writings and teachings. We honor his life and pursuit of justice today.

A half-century after the Civil Rights Movement, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a letter to his teenage son explaining the state of race relations in America. The letter was published as Between the World and Me and won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. As Toni Morrison says on the dust jacket, it is “required reading.” It is the most important book of year.

Coates references James Baldwin only twice in the book, but his format resembles The Fire Next Time (1963)—a letter to Baldwin’s nephew—and many insights are Baldwin-inspired, updated for the 21st century context of dash cams, private prisons, and the “new Jim Crow” (see Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindedness, 2010).

Coates believes that a race-based society grows from historical power imbalances rooted in fear and control of the body. With clarity of language and brutal honesty, Coates shares personal stories to show how living in black skin renders life in America to be a struggle against disembodiment. He concludes a story about his father’s anger: “This was a war for the possession of his body and that would be the war of his whole life.”

Coates reads and writes in search of meaning and understanding. He discusses many authors and poets such that, in a sense, Between the World and Me is a literary treatise on race relations in American culture. Coates discusses the “narrative” of America that perpetuates our looking away. He calls this narrative “the Dream,” the idea that success in America derives from hard work instead of traditional power imbalances. Coates loved The Dukes of Hazzard growing up and offers the TV show as an example of how pop culture helps us look away from injustice and believe in “the Dream.”

“Historians conjured the Dream. Hollywood fortified the Dream. The Dream was gilded by novels and adventure stories.”

Pat Conroy seems to acknowledge Coates’s point by calling Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1936) a “singular, canonical moment in Southern mythmaking” (see Conroy, My Reading Life, 2010). For Baldwin, a belief in the myth of human inequality “protects moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality.” In 1955, Baldwin wrote in Notes of a Native Son (1955) about history’s influence on the present:

“Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious, and the white man prefers to keep the black man at a certain human remove because it is easier for him thus to preserve his simplicity and avoid being called to account for crimes committed by his forefathers, or his neighbors…. Every legend, moreover, contains its residuum of truth, and the root function of language is to control the universe by describing it.”

Like Baldwin, Coates blames our lingering history—not individuals—for racial injustices today. “This is the import of the history all around us, though very few people like to think about it.” Coates explains to his son:

“The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from the police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight…. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.”

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates teaches his son about history, language, inequality, and opportunity. He reminds American readers that we can no longer look away.

“It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods.”

Let’s not forget our collective history as Americans. Let’s remember the good and the bad of how we arrived here. Let’s remember that Dr. King wrote to white clergymen in Birmingham from a narrow jail cell about the “interrelatedness of all communities and states,” proclaiming “[i]njustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (see King, Why We Can’t Wait, 1964). Today, let’s thank Coates for the reminder. Tomorrow, let’s not dare look away.

-Alex B. Johnson, Faulkner House Books

The Funniest Book of 2015: The World’s Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key

This Thanksgiving, I gave thanks for a growing family, good friends, and The World’s Largest Man: A Memoir (HarperCollins, 2015) by Harrison Scott Key.

The World’s Largest Man is the funniest book I’ve ever read. Also, it’s the only book that I’ve read almost entirely aloud, my wife and I only pausing to let uncontrollable laughter subside before reading the passage over again.
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Harrison Scott Key, The World’s Largest Man: A Memoir. HarperCollins, 2015. Signed, $26.99.

Key’s humor and creative nonfiction has appeared in The Best American Travel Writing, Image, McSweeney’s, The New York Times, Outside, Reader’s Digest, and Salon. He is an editor at Oxford American where he writes a column entitled, “Big Chief Tablet”—a reference to Ignatius J. Reilly’s notes in A Confederacy of Dunces.

This first book pulls up a chair for Key at the table of Southern humor, a supper club still led by the prolific author and speaker, Roy Blount, Jr. The World’s Largest Man is a book-length love letter to his complicated and imposing, yet caring, father. It’s a collection of personal stories from childhood in rural Mississippi to adulthood in Savannah, all sewn together with threads of evolving relationships between Key and his parents and, in the later chapters, Key’s wife and daughters. However, there is nothing that I can say to enhance Key’s voice, so below is a sampling of what he brings to the table.

Key joined us in October for the 2015 Words & Music conference and signed a case of his books. Come buy one, and laugh as you read it aloud to your family over the holidays.

The first chapter begins with a context for storytelling:

They say the South is full of storytellers, but I am unconvinced. It seems more accurate to say that it is full of people who are very, very tired. At least this was my childhood experience is Mississippi, where there was very little to do but shoot things or get them pregnant. After a full day of killing and fornicating, it was only natural that everyone grew weary. So we sat around. Some would sit and nap, others would sit and drink. Frequently, there was drinking and then napping. The pious would read their Bibles, while their children would find a shady spot to know one another biblically, or perhaps give birth to a child from a previous knowing. Eventually, though, all the sitting led to talking, which supposedly led to all the stories, or at least the beginnings of stories.

In my family, we were unable to finish any. Until now.

His answer to the question, “What’s Mississippi really like?”

I can tell what they really want to ask is, What was it like to grow up around crazy people who believe that whatever can’t be shot should be baptized? But they are afraid to ask, because they are not yet sure if I am one of those people.

I am.

Kind of.

Not really.

Sometimes.

I do believe in the power of Jesus and rifles, but to keep things interesting, I also believe in the power of NPR and the scientific method. It is not easy explaining all this to educated people at cocktail parties, so instead I tell them that it was basically just like Faulkner described it, meaning that my state is too impoverished to afford punctuation, that I have seen children go without a comma for years, that I’ve seen some families save their whole lives for a semicolon.

While deer hunting with his brother, Bird:

I did what my brother said and climbed down, because while he may have lacked the ability to conjugate verbs, he would’ve known how to kill those verbs if they had been running through the forest. He was sixteen now, and he’d already killed his first, and his second, and third. Actually there was no telling how many he he’d killed. He obeyed so few hunting laws, largely as a result of his believing that he had Native American blood, which he believed absolved him from all state and federal hunting and drug statutes.

“Cherokee didn’t need no fucking hunting license,” he’d say.

What was the Trail of Tears like, I wanted to ask. Had that been hard, watching all his people die of the measles? But also, I wanted to believe. It was a story our grandmother had told us about being descended from a Cherokee chieftain, a version of the same fairy tale told to most poor whites and blacks across the South, a way of making us feel better about genocide and gambling. I’d heard that such blood could earn me a college scholarship, which I believed was my passage out of this alien land, while Bird used this story to explain his preternatural desire to learn things about animals by smelling their feces.”

As for hunting, Key prefers the grocery store:

Borden’s was our ice cream, and it came in a bucket the size of an above ground pool. How could hunting deer ever compare to hunting vanilla ice cream, which is generally docile and will let you pour syrup on it without running away?

His father’s beliefs:

My father believed a lot of crazy things: that men with earrings were queer, that the pope got to pick the Notre Dame football coach, that we couldn’t possibly have made all those expensive calls on the telephone bill. He would sit in his recliner and review the bill like some Old Testament scholar with a gift for high blood pressure….

Pop especially hated the Boy Scouts….

His only real belief about urban design was that houses should be far enough apart to let a man stand in his own front yard and relieve himself in relative privacy….

In my father’s house, having indoor pets was always a sign of moral decay, assumed to be clear evidence of mental illness and possibly drug addiction. If you wanted to get an animal into his house, you had to tell my father that you intended to eat it.

About learning to be a husband and a father:

If there is anything I learned out in the country, it was that the things that can kill you make you alive, and that you are never more alive than when you are getting beaten by your father because your mother thought you were dead.

And while to the casual observer I may not have turned out much like my father, I came to see in the first years of my marriage that I have proudly carried on this tradition of scoffing at women who are concerned for my safety, as I did with the woman I would marry….

Once we were married, she became even more like my mother, which I made sure not to tell her….

What I didn’t say was, I had very important reasons for throwing my child into the ceiling fan, and those reasons were that I wanted to see what would happen. This was my responsibility, as a man, to endanger the people I love in the service of knowledge that seems important at the time.

She asked me to stop it and all sorts of other silly things, such as to not let the baby stand on the counter and to keep the fireworks away from their faces and to lock the doors.

Lock the doors! Ridiculous!

-Alex B. Johnson, Faulkner House Books

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven

station 11 faulkner house books

Station Eleven. Emily St. John Mandel. Vintage.

When I recommend this book to customers, they are often wary when I describe it as a work of science fiction. Somehow, sci fi has become a dirty word among a certain literary set, signifying socially awkward middle schoolers and Star Trek conventions. I want to join a growing group of readers in making a case for sci fi as an essential literary genre, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is a perfect example.

A 2015 National Book Award finalist and a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, this novel is undeniably literary in its scope. Mandel tells the story of the Georgia Flu, a deadly pandemic that wipes out 99.9% of the human population. The setting shifts among the weeks just before the pandemic, the days after, the years before, and twenty years afterwards. The tale follows Kristen, who was a child when the illness struck, and is now, twenty years later, a member of a traveling symphony, whose slogan, “Survival is insufficient,” comes from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. One of Kristen’s only memories of the time before the plague is from a production of King Lear, in which she was a child actor alongside the movie star Arthur Leander.

Leander, who is long-dead by the time of the novel’s present moment, links together a cast of unexpected characters who play roles of varying significance to the post-apocalyptic world: his best friend; his son; an ex-paparazzo; two ex-wives, one an actress, another an illustrator; and, of course, Kristen. As the story unfolds, the connections are revealed, while at the same time we learn more about the scope of this new world. Here, there is no electricity; no readily available medicine; no cities. People live in settlements, devoting their lives to the necessities of survival.

The traveling symphony is a light in this darkness, bringing performances of Shakespeare to inhabitants of the settlements, giving them a brief respite in the form of great art. This book, though post-apocalyptic, reminds the reader of the beauty and persevering spirit of humanity. Station Eleven gets at a fundamental truth of the human condition: the indomitable will not only to survive, but to thrive. This novel brings to mind a quote from Bertolt Brecht:

In the dark times,
will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.

-Jade Hurter, Faulkner House Books

Faulkner & Justice: Two Short Story Collections

“Smoke” in Knight’s Gambit

“Barn Burning” in Selected Short Stories

Is justice achievable? Or is justice an ideal that we aspire to but find contentedness with partial completion?

Justice is one of those big, atmospheric words like love and hate, good and evil, which we use colloquially to describe otherwise normal occurrences in daily life. Our sense of justice is part of the human condition; it is cross-cultural and flows freely through language barriers. Justice is rooted in the human heart, which—as William Faulkner said in his 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature acceptance speech—is “in conflict with itself.” Only such subjects dwelling in the human heart are “worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”

I was already a third of the way through law school when I learned that literature could help define this ideal we call justice. Reading case law taught me to read actively, but not every judge writes with the eloquence of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and judicial opinions are too narrow to define justice in a larger sense. Alternatively, literature is timeless, and helps us cope with problems for which there are no immediate solutions.

As a young boy, Faulkner attended courtroom proceedings and traveled around with his uncle, who was a practicing attorney. Faulkner, although not a lawyer, was a brilliant observer of the human condition and wrote about justice in many settings. Some great examples are found in a couple of Faulkner’s short story collections.

The Knight’s Gambit (Vintage, 2011) collection features six mystery stories based on Gavin Stevens, the Harvard-educated prosecuting attorney in Yoknapatawpha County. “Smoke” was the first of the six Gavin Stevens stories, originally published in Harper’s in 1932, about two brothers and a murder arising out of a land dispute. The narrator describes his uncle, Gavin Stevens, as:

“a loose-jointed man with a mop of untidy iron-gray hair, who could discuss Einstein with college professors and who spent whole afternoons among the squatting men against the walls of country stores, talking to them in their idiom.”

In “Smoke,” the young narrator reports on various opinions of justice in the community. Before Judge Dukinfield is murdered in the story, the trial audience sits for an “overlong time” while the judge validates the authenticity of “a simple enough document.” But the young narrator waits with deferential patience, as he explains:

“[Judge Dukinfield] was the one man among us who believed that justice is fifty per cent legal knowledge and fifty per cent unhaste and confidence in himself and in God…. So we watched him without impatience, knowing that what he finally did would be right, not because he did it, but because he would not permit himself or anyone else to do anything until it was right.”

The circumstances of Judge Dukinfield’s murder are what allow Gavin Stevens to see the brothers’ guilt. A skilled litigator, Stevens lures the brothers into confession while examining them on the witness stand. During questioning, the narrator emphasizes the county attorney’s thoughts on justice in a parenthetical aside:

“Ah…. But isn’t justice always unfair? Isn’t it always composed of injustice and luck and platitudes in unequal parts?”

Justice is the subject of other stories in Knight’s Gambit about Yoknapatawpha characters, townspeople and rural recluses, with Gavin Stevens leading the investigations and prosecutions. However, “Barn Burning” is perhaps one of Faulkner’s most famous short stories—first published in Harper’s in 1939 and now found in Faulkner’s Selected Short Stories (Modern Library, 2012)—that serves as a prequel to the “Snopes Trilogy” (The Hamlet; The Town; The Mansion).

“Barn Burning” is a story about justice and injustice, retribution, economic inequality, and fathers and sons. We see justice—and one’s reaction to injustice—less in the opening cheese-smelling courtroom scene, presided over by the Justice of the Peace, than we do in the actions of Abner Snopes, a sharecropper who is forced to move his family for the twelfth time in ten years. Abner is a man of “wolflike independence,” “courage,” and “ferocious conviction.” His habit is building small fires, neat and easy to control, but, in response to injustice, he shares the flame with the landowner’s barn and other property. Faulkner reveals through the thoughts of Abner’s son, Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes, that:

“the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father’s being, as the element of steel or of powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion.”

When the Snopes family arrives at their dilapidated tenant house, Abner goes to speak to the man who will “begin tomorrow owning me body and soul for the next eight months.” He takes Sarty with him through a grove of oaks and cedars to a fence of honeysuckles and Cherokee roses enclosing the landowner’s brick-pillared home. Inside, Abner ruins a hundred-dollar imported rug by stomping horse manure on it and, thus, becomes further indebted to the landowner. Yet again, Sarty must decide among competing senses of justice—justice under the law or justice for blood, that of his father.

“Barn Burning” was the first of Faulkner’s works that taught me to look deeper into the fictional characters’ problems for help in answering my own, for help in considering societal questions posed in the newspapers and law school courses. Knight’s Gambit was a suggestion of Joe DeSalvo, the owner of Faulkner House Books, and although I do not agree with Gavin Stevens that justice is always unfair, I appreciate his honesty. Whether in literature or in the law, we need the reminder: justice is often an unequal composition of injustice, luck, and platitudes.

-Alex B. Johnson, Faulkner House Books