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

Embrace the Mystery: Easter & Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor, Prayer Journal ($18), Wise Blood ($15), Mystery & Manners ($16), and The Complete Short Stories ($18)

Futurebirds, “Sam Jones,” Hampton’s Lullaby

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On Easter Sunday, this north Georgia Baptist sat in a New Orleans Catholic church thinking of Flannery O’Connor. I recently finished Mystery & Manners, O’Conner’s posthumous publication of essays and lectures about writing, religion, and peacocks. Mystery & Manners led me to several so-called “Southern gothic” short stories from The Complete Short Stories collection. So there I sat in St. Francis of Assisi’s stained glass-colored nave with a head full of Flannery O’Connor’s characters—murderers and grandmothers, a bigot barber, and a Bible salesman who ran off with a woman’s wooden leg after she seduced him, leaving her one-legged up a ladder in a barn’s second floor.

The priest’s sermon directed us to confront Easter confusion with Easter faith and, in full embrace, surrender ourselves to the mystery of life. The priest read from the Gospel of John, showing how Mary Magdalene walked in the dark before dawn and discovered that new life had risen from the tomb.

My wife and I recently read aloud O’Connor’s Prayer Journal, which she wrote when she was 21, away at college and drafting Wise Blood. It offers an intimate connection between reader and author because, in reading someone’s prayers, we recognize shared insecurities and fears. For example, O’Connor writes, “My mind is a most insecure thing, not to be depended on. It gives me scruples at one minute & leaves me lax the next.” She prays for divine strength to restrain her ego from eclipsing her view of God: “You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self as the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon.” She prays for grace and for faith. She admits confusion and prays for Christian principles to “permeate” her writing.

I asked Joe DeSalvo (owner of Faulkner House Books) about the Prayer Journal and he responded that, “Any writer who wants to be a great writer must read Mystery & Manners.” I quickly appreciated Joe’s advice when in the first chapter, “The King of the Birds,” I underlined and reread a dark truth: “Necessity is the mother of several other things besides invention.” Her clarity of verse draws us closer to understanding the human condition.

In her essay, “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” O’Connor discusses living with the teetotaler descendants of famous Methodist evangelist, Sam Jones. It reminded me of a song, “Sam Jones,” by Futurebirds, a critically acclaimed Athens, Georgia-based band. A full century after Sam Jones converted Tom Ryman, the riverboat casino and country music barroom owner, Futurebirds’ Sam Jones gives up on the mystery of life, scratches lottery tickets and waits to die.

O’Connor argues that Southern identity is found not at the surface of “mocking-birds and beaten biscuits [or] hookworm and bare feet,” but in the deepest “qualities that endure,” passed along generations of scripture-haunted people living in the balance of good and evil. Futurebirds’ Daniel Womack questions over a whining pedal steel guitar, “Sam Jones, are you liking what you see?” O’Connor may answer that the truth “is known only to God, but of those who look for it, none gets so close as the artist.”

O’Connor demands that artists and writers stare at everything possible to seek meaning worth extracting. She worries about her generation, which was groomed to eliminate mystery. She defends herself as a Christian writer because, having embraced the mystery of Christ’s resurrection, she is able to see other mysteries of life on earth.

During St. Francis’s Easter service, a little boy sat doodling in the pew behind us. At a quiet moment, he shouted to his mother, “I found the mystery!” In good manners, his mother shushed him.

O’Connor writes about people and their manners which, she argues, reveal to the reader—and writer—mysteries of the human condition. She claims that she did not know her Bible salesman would steal the woman’s wooden leg until five lines before he stole it. Like Mary Magdalene on the first Easter, O’Connor walks in the dark until she has discovered the story worth sharing.

Below is a sampling of her advice to writers about good writing.

–Alex B. Johnson, Faulkner House Books

On grace:

In my stories a reader will find that the devil accomplishes a good deal of groundwork that seems to be necessary before grace is effective…. There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment…. And frequently it is an action in which the devil has been the unwilling instrument of grace.

On good fiction:

A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it can only be expanded. A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you. In fiction two and two is always more than four.

On mystery and manners:

It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind…. The mystery [Henry James] was talking about is the mystery of our position on earth, and the manners are those conventions which, in the hands of the artist, reveal that central mystery.

On the job of a writer:

The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.

On experience:

If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it.” (84)

On perception:

The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins.

On drawing:

Any discipline can help your writing: logic, mathematics, theology, and of course and particularly drawing. Anything that helps you to see, anything that makes you look. The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that doesn’t require his attention.

More on looking:

But there’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once. The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world, no matter how limited his particular scene. For him, the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima affects life on the Oconee River, and there’s not anything he can do about it…. People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.

See also, generally, David Griffith’s Paris Review article, “Reading Flannery O’Connor in the age of Islamaphobia.”

 

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

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

Glowing with Memory and Meaning: Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk

h is for hawk

Helen MacDonald. H is for Hawk. Grove Press, 2014. 26.00.

All summer long a family of Mississippi Kites nested in a centuries-old Live Oak tree sprawling over shotgun houses across the corner of Octavia and Chestnut Streets. I noticed these sleek, soot-colored raptors soaring above me in the windy sky on Mother’s Day—never beating a wing—only slightly tilting their tails for direction. According to an Audubon Society field guide, adult Kites weigh about ten ounces spread across a three-foot wingspan. These silent hunters feed mostly on cicadas and flying insects, but also eat small rodents and birds.

Walking the dog this summer was much more interesting than usual because I was reading Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk (Grove Press, 2014), a tripartite story about the author’s love for her recently deceased father, for birds and nature, and for literature. MacDonald is a poet, historian, naturalist, and falconer. H Is for Hawk—a New York Times bestseller and winner of the UK’s Samuel Johnson Prize and Costa Book of the Year—displays her varied talents because it is not a simply a “birder” book. Rather, its many layers are inspirational for anyone familiar with grief and loss, or anyone ready for a change in life.

MacDonald is struggling to say goodbye to her father, a photographer, who taught her to find the memorable aspects of life’s otherwise mundane moments, and to savor them.

Now that Dad was gone I was starting to see how mortality was bound up in things like that cold, arc-lit sky. How the world is full of signs and wonders that come, and go, and if you are lucky you might see them. Once, twice. Perhaps never again.

MacDonald describes the prehistoric reality that birds of prey are beautiful killers. She meets nature—in all its wildness—with her own emotions, blending the acts of training a Goshawk with the process of exorcising grief and depression:

They were things of death and difficulty: spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths that lived and killed in woodland thickets. Falcons were the raptors I loved: sharp-winged, bullet-heavy birds with dark eyes and an extraordinary ease in the air. I rejoiced in their aerial verve, their friendliness, their breathtaking stoops from a thousand feet, wind tearing through their wings with the sound of ripping canvas.

MacDonald considers her Goshawk killing to eat while illuminating her acceptance of death:

How hearts do stop. A rabbit prostrate in a pile of leaves, clutched in eight gripping talons, the hawk mantling her wings over it, tail spread, eyes burning, nape-feathers raised in a tense and feral crouch…. The borders between life and death are somewhere in the taking of their meal…. Hunting makes you animal, but the death of an animal makes you human.

Throughout the book, she parallels T.H. White’s The Goshawk—and often his Arthurian novels, adapted into Disney’s The Sword in the Stone—as a modern balance to her experience training a Goshawk. White’s abusive youth and life as a closeted gay man led him to write about desolation, hunting, and the desire for freedom. To contextualize her modern falconry stories, MacDonald offers a cultural history of falconry to show these raptors’ permanence in our world. Hawks “conjure history,” for example:

For thousands of years hawks like her have been caught and trapped and brought into people’s houses. But unlike other animals that have lived in such close proximity to man, they have never been domesticated. It’s made them a powerful symbol of wildness in myriad cultures, and a symbol, too, of things that need to be tamed…. The birds we fly today are identical to those of five thousand years ago. Civilizations rise and fall, but the hawks stay the same…. History collapses when you hold a hawk…

Her story motivated me to keep watching my Mississippi Kite neighbors soaring overhead. I would follow the Kites around the block, watching them float, turn, and dive each morning and evening until mid-September when they migrated from the neighborhood for warmer weather. MacDonald explains how learning about our environment helps us learn about ourselves:

What happened over the years of my expeditions as a child was a slow transformation of my landscape over time into what naturalists call a local patch, glowing with memory and meaning.

Since finishing H Is for Hawk, I have noticed more amazing birds in my New Orleans “local patch”: Bald Eagles, Osprey, Cooper’s Hawks, Quaker Parrots, Red-Bellied Woodpeckers, Painted Buntings, and more. The often-mundane task of walking the dog now glows with memory and meaning. I have Helen MacDonald to thank for that, and I cannot forget H Is for Hawk—I can only recommend it.

– 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