By Mario Vargas Llosa
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 409 pp.; $25
Rivaling Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as one of the most disturbing fictional accounts of tyranny meeting its unexpected annihilation, Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat is a fierce, brilliant account of the poorly orchestrated 1961 assassination of the Dominican Republic's dictator, Rafael Trujillo, and its far-reaching repercussions.
Vargas Llosa elucidates his story with alternating chapters employing three sets of characters, many historical, whose narratives are inextricably fused. Urania Cabral brings us into the book's terrible world. Urania, a middle-aged lawyer for the World Bank living in present-day New York City, is the only daughter of Agustin Cabral, once-renowned president of the Dominican Senate during the Trujillo era.
Urania has apprehensively returned to the republic's capital, Santo Domingo -- formerly Ciudad Trujillo -- for what seems to be closure. In 1961, days before Trujillo's assassination, she had escaped on scholarship to the U.S. affiliate of her Catholic high school and swore that she would never return or have anything to do with her long-widowed father or extended family. Nevertheless, on her third day in the city the bewildered Urania's feet take her to her forgotten father's decrepit house, its condition mirroring his own. Once there, sitting wearily before the father she supports from afar, who has lost not his mind but his speech due to a stroke, she begins to dredge up the excruciating past that sent her running from and hating him and her country. She will also subject the remainder of her unwitting family to the appalling truth behind her sudden departure and subsequent silence.
In the second narrative, Vargas Llosa meticulously chronicles the assassination through its executors. In the evening, those who will carry out the plot to kill "The Goat," Trujillo, sit waiting in cars alongside the road the lecherous dictator will take to the ranch where he enjoys the youngest daughters of the republic -- with or without their fearful consent. We enter the minds of each of the conspirators, who will later be called heroes, as their inadequately planned action and the sickeningly brutal reaction of the decapitated regime unfold. Within the regime, a certain high-ranking military co-conspirator, who will soon pay the most terrible price of them all, has lost the nerve to quickly establish the planned civilian-military junta and has doomed all but a lucky few of those involved.
The third narrative comprises the last day of the old goat himself, from the septuagenarian dictator's pre-dawn rage at his incontinence and fast-approaching impotence to the moment he realizes an attempt is being made on his life and, in a final, telling gesture, reaches for his inexhaustible pistol without success. After Trujillo's assassination, the republic's puppet president, Balaguer, is brought into sharp focus and revealed to be much more: a cunning diplomat, with a grandmaster's foreknowledge of political machination, who yearns for democracy.
It is this third narrative within The Feast of the Goat, in which Trujillo leaves a factious upheaval in the wake of his assassination, that is the most fully realized and the most exemplary of Vargas Llosa's genius. While the character of Urania Cabral might be considered a one-dimensional foil for the exposition of the regime's malevolence, she brings the atrocities of the past into the light of the present. By giving the reader an accessible personality through which to magnify the human within the history, Vargas Llosa has exalted a historical footnote and brought it to bear on our present political condition.
-- Jeremy Spencer
By Sue Miller
Knopf; 275 pp.; $25
Novelist Sue Miller's ability to recreate the textures of real life may be her most remarkable gift, so much so it would be difficult to find a rival among her contemporaries. When Miller turns to familiar terrain -- the domestic -- no one handles the sheer physicality of love, motherhood, relationships, and friendships better. Her new novel, The World Below, displays that gift in a multilayered story of overlapping generations.
Miller's first, somewhat controversial novel, The Good Mother, looked at the difficulties when a woman tries to reconcile a new affair and her commitments as a mother. Her last, widely acclaimed novel, While I Was Gone, earned the dubious distinction of being an Oprah Winfrey Book Club selection. If anything, this book widened Miller's range by introducing an element of mystery, some of which reverberates in this new work.
But the element connecting all three novels is Miller's unflinching look at what it means to be female. A strong feminist current runs through even her most domestic, most feminine characters, including, in The World Below, the protagonist's grandmother, Georgia Rice, a woman born at the outset of the 20th century. Georgia's story, including a sanitarium stay for tuberculosis, finds its narrative expression through her granddaughter, Catherine Hubbard.
The novel opens when Catherine learns that her grandparents' home in Maine has been bequeathed to her and her brother. Recently divorced from her second husband, Catherine considers a retreat from her life in San Francisco to her family home a promising diversion. Why not, in her mid-50s, try something entirely new? She was feeling a certain stigma attached to her latest divorce, believing people looked at her "hard" when she mentioned her second husband: "Everyone's allowed one marital mistake, it seems, but two is over the top."
Catherine's stay in Maine is cut short by her daughter's difficult pregnancy. But her time there is long enough to uncover her grandmother's diaries, which reveal a surprising affair so out of character with the woman she thought she knew. Each diary entry begins with a recap of the day's weather followed by the daily details that make up a life. Beneath those details is a marriage as complex as any present-day union, something her grandmother had assured her granddaughter of when Catherine showed up in Maine years ago with three small children, her first marriage over.
Catherine's first husband and father of her children, an academic named Peter, is rendered in sobering details. The last baby, according to Peter, was an "inconvenience," and he tells Catherine finally, "I didn't want any of this" -- the children, the mess, the domesticity. His outburst forces her to wonder how all things change -- "That what you loved you come to hate? That it is gone, all the love?" Catherine is transformed by the breakup, her earlier acquiescence discarded in favor of single-parenthood.
"'Leave the car,' I said. That's how I knew it was over. My practicality. My hardness.
"He was startled.
"'I've got three kids. I've got shopping and doctors' appointments and errands. You leave the car right here.'"
That's Catherine talking and claiming motherhood without losing her identity. And while this familiar theme -- successful and unsuccessful mothers -- is evident in The World Below (the title refers to a city submerged but still visible years later), its subject is the interconnectedness of life.
There are many stories beneath the fabric of every life; no one comes into this world without a ready past. Sue Miller makes it all palpable. -- Lisa Hickman
By Jim Crace
Farrar Straus & Giroux; 165 pp.; $20
British fiction writer Jim Crace writes gorgeous prose. Exquisite craftsmanship and fearless invention have marked his previous books, recent novels like Being Dead and Quarantine and early works like Continent and The Gift of Stones, which initially caught critics' attention. He is succinct and graceful, and, at his best, as subtle as the Joyce of Dubliners. In The Devil's Larder he offers 64 very short tales, some no more than half a page, which seem lit from within and have more going on between the lines than many writers manage in whole novels. Each story here revolves around food. His book's epigram: "There are no bitter fruits in Heaven. Nor is there honey in the devil's larder."
These little, untitled fables -- many of them suddenly swinging into age-old depths like folktales -- are so skillful, so finely flavored, they are like prose poems or primitive song. Many have epiphanic endings, elegant, precise shocks that make one want to go back and read the whole thing over again. One such tale ends: "Now I'm waiting at the window, with a smudge of flour on my lips and with the smell of baking bread rising through the house, for the yard to fill and darken with the shadows and the wings." Another makes nature's decomposition echo like human sin: "So the melon darkens, softens, ages on my window shelf: There is a bluish mould around the puncture of the stem scar. The sap is leaking from a split. Already I can trace the brackish odour of decay."
Crace is also expert at immediately drawing the reader in. One story begins, "When he'd been serving in the restaurant, his party trick had been to sing out the names of all the ninety types of pasta, in alphabetical order, in less than three minutes, from angel hair to ziti. Another opens, "There is no greater pleasure than to be expected at a meal and not arrive. It was a comic aria of food." Indeed, the whole of The Devil's Larder may be said to be a mini-opera on food, beautifully sung.
Some of these ingenious tales make Crace seem a modern Aesop. They have their own lightsome lesson enchantingly tucked inside like the yolk in an egg. In one story, about a man whose crab apple orchard is frequently visited by young pilferers, we read, "They'd never pass a crab again without their unforgetting mouths flooding with distaste. Here was a lesson never to be forgotten, about false claims, and bitterness, and trespassing." In another short, meditative piece, a woman who transmits indigestion to her lovers: "Could that old devil, lurking in the bedroom, flourish in the kitchen, too?"
Jim Crace is establishing himself as a modern master of refined sentences and exacting style. Few writers can match him for concision and polish. One thinks of William Trevor or Alice Munro. He is also audacious and spellbinding, even in these mini-plots. The clever premise of this collection is not just a clever premise: Inside there is meat and confection. And, in turns, it's quirky, sensuous, funny, heartbreaking, sweet-natured, acidic, and, overall, just plain lovely. The Devil's Larder is a delightful, delicately spiced ragout, a vast array of flavors and aromas and tangs and textures, of exotic sweetmeats and tidbits. Crace uses appetite as metaphor. In what could serve as a neat coda for the entire book, one narrator says, "We envied them the hungry years ahead."
-- Corey Mesler
By Stephen Hunter
Simon & Schuster; 487 pp.; $25
Readers of Stephen Hunter's previous novels will welcome the return of patriarch/crime-fighter Earl Swagger, this time to a 1950s backwater Mississippi in deep need of cleansing and liberation.
It is an era of racial hatred and oppression, top-secret experimentations with barbaric disease warfare, and other un-American activities. While assisting his friend, lawyer Sam Vincent, plumb the dark secrets of a decaying plantation turned prison and ghost town, down-home lawman and ex-Marine Earl is incarcerated, tortured, and left for dead. It is for us to watch him survive, out-think, out-maneuver, and outlast every foe. And, yes, blatant racial bigotry figures as an enemy in this period piece.
Pale Horse fills a gap in Earl's history. In Hot Springs, the troubled World War II veteran purged his Arkansas homeland of mobsters and divested himself of some personal demons. In Black Light, more of Earl's career was revealed through his son, Bob Lee. A hero had been born and shown to be all too human, but still there were questions. Surely, one thought, there were more exploits to Earl's credit, but, alas, most of Hunter's books have concentrated on the chronologically later, high-tech adventures of Bob Lee.
The Swagger stories have not been written in sequence and it is not necessary to read the others to appreciate Pale Horse. It stands on its own merits and bears the hallmarks of all Hunter's works: Like them, it has a moral -- though vulnerable and flawed -- protagonist; a dense code of treacheries which, when unraveled, reveal an underlying core of evil; the personification of that evil in Bad Guys; and confrontation and destruction that is almost as ugly and violent as the corruption itself. And, of course, artillery and other machines of the gods.
Unlike Point of Impact and Time to Hunt, however, Pale Horse features no catalog of guns, ammunition, sights, scopes, or customized clips and grips. In some of his adventures, Bob Lee arrives so highly equipped that he comes off like some kind of space alien rather than the late-20th-century cowboy he is cut out to be.
Earl and his chosen few carry their favorite weapons and a small cache of homemade firebombs, but everything in Pale Horse is simple and elemental. One of the chief adversaries is a whip-wielding prison guard named Bigboy, who is finally destroyed by Earl with a simple implement used viciously. This is in keeping with what we expect of Earl. He is after all a plain country man who has come home from the war and tried to settle into life as an Arkansas state trooper, but he finds himself inexorably drawn into larger battles.
In Pale Horse there is an unmistakable aura of mythology: Hunter makes outright comparisons of Earl to both John the Revelator and Odysseus. And the plot line, in which seven aging gunmen are pitted against the dark forces that have overcome Thebes, Mississippi, speaks to the same purpose.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, there is little place for women in the world of the Swaggers. Although there is an occasional feat by a plucky female, the women here figure mainly as helpmates or as background figures. At best, they are clever and pleasant. Mostly, they are estranged and long-suffering -- fodder for their heroic menfolks' irritation, confusion, and guilt. (Not for nothing are these guys called Swagger!) -- Linda Baker
By Lydia Davis
McSweeney's Books; 201 pp.; $17
One year and five books into its publishing history, McSweeney's Books -- the brainchild of Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius -- has amassed a modest cabinet of literary curiosities. Its small catalog covers a wealth of genres, from Neal Pollack's subversive satires of first-person journalism (The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature) to Jonathan Lethem's bizarre, anthropomorphic fiction experiment (This Shape We're In) to two commissioned works, a "citrusexual" novel by playwright Lawrence Krauser (Lemon) and a memoir by musician Amy Fusselman (The Pharmacist's Mate). But McSweeney's has yet to publish a book with broad literary appeal: While quirky and worthwhile in their own right, these books seem intended for fans of the journal and Web site rather than for a general reading audience.
Perhaps this situation will change with Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, the latest collection of short fiction by Lydia Davis, an award-winning translator and frequent contributor to McSweeney's print journal. The stories in this sometimes strange and always intriguing book bend genres and experiment with tone and humor well enough to interest die-hard McSweeney's fans, but they possess an emotional clarity and a unique literary inventiveness that should win a much larger audience.
Davis, an original and resourceful artist, combines elements of fiction and poetry to create stories that concern marriage and family, reveal the doubts of youth and the fears of old age, and fret over language and the isolation that comes with losing the ability to communicate. Many of the pieces portray everyday situations and common fears, while others read like fairy tales, containing otherworldly or magical elements. And Davis fills them all with big ideas and startlingly beautiful imagery. In "The Transformation," for example, a tree that has the soul of a girl gradually becomes stone: "When her leaves fell they fell suddenly and with a terrible noise. They crashed onto the cobblestone and sometimes broke into fragments and sometimes remained whole. ... People, though I did not, collected her leaves and put them on the mantelpiece."
Writing in direct and supernaturally concise sentences, Davis seems to be trying to express as much as she can in as few words as possible. Most of the more than 50 stories collected in Samuel Johnson Is Indignant do not exceed a page in length, and only a handful last more than 10. "A Double Negative," which is far from the shortest entry here, reads in its entirety: "At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child." Carefully worded and crafted, the story seems simple enough at first glance, its brevity suggesting slightness or insignificance. But further examination reveals a deep and character-defining fear. The story's lack of clutter -- scenes, descriptions, setting, people, etc. -- intensifies its meaning.
Narrating many of these pieces -- with titles such as "New Year's Resolution," "Happiest Moment," and "Thyroid Diary" -- is a slightly older woman, smart and well educated, married to a well-intentioned husband and raising a child whose care makes certain demands on her time and emotions. Perhaps this is Davis or a fictionalized version of herself. Regardless, this character threads all the stories in the collection into a nakedly personal journal filled generously with humor, sadness, insight, and worry.
The stories in Samuel Johnson Is Indignant read like fiction and are streamlined like poetry, but it is this memoir quality that gives them their emotional impact and ties everything into a cohesive whole. Such a powerful and original collection ultimately deserves a large and eager readership.
-- Stephen Deusner
By Daniel Scott
Turtle Point Press; 232 pp.; $15.95 (paper)
So many times collections of short stories are simply annoying. Just as soon as you fall in love with one set of characters, the story ends and you're introduced to the new cast of the next tale. But Daniel Scott's debut book of stories, Some Of Us Have To Get Up In the Morning, is really a series of vignettes. Each story stands as a thumbnail sketch that, though entirely different from the stories that come before and after, flows into the others as remarkable scenes from ordinary lives.
Perhaps the key to Scott's continuity is that his people are haunting. Scott seems to realize that words can make you cry. He understands that beauty is a sad thing that can leave you hollow and longing. And he writes knowing that you'll come back again and again as if to satisfy a waiting vein screaming from a heroin itch and that each story will serve to introduce a new kind of yearning.
Scott lets his characters stumble and struggle through everyday life and average situations with poetic tension and possibility. Ugly men and fat women are rendered grotesquely graceful through his amazing depth of language. A gay man falls in love with his sister, the cleaning lady in a college dormitory fights with her supervisor, and a drag queen/performance artist contemplates his career. In other stories a bored housewife meets a biker on the lam, a fugitive father tries to kidnap his infant daughter, and the parents of a mentally retarded girl agonize over how to make their daughter feel normal. Scott treats each of these characters with intricate care, and in the end we know them like we know our own relatives and neighbors.
Scott's writing is raw. He strips away the veneer of living and shows us life with all of its bruises and beatings. His language is pared down to the essentials and he lets the poetry exist in the silence. The mark of each story is human longing. Each ends with a hollow feeling. By transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary, Scott has created a stunning collection of stories that is surely just the first outing in what promises to be a remarkable career. -- Rebekah Gleaves
By Albert Murray
Pantheon Books; 208 pp.; $22
On first glance Albert Murray's From the Briarpatch File is a difficult read. With its constant reference to various -isms, the book may start philosophically, but it soon becomes a highly personal, even revolutionary explanation of American culture.
From the Briarpatch is a collection of essays, reviews, and interviews in which Murray relates contemporary America to the arts, especially its popular music. Divided into six parts, the book begins with an explanation of the "briarpatch" -- Alabama, the South in general, and attitudes associated with both. He also parallels literature with jazz and the blues by illustrating their necessary flexibility as conveyors of meaning.
He writes about New York in the 1920s and the beginning of his career as a writer. Murray creatively traces the stages of his life with the music of Duke Ellington, beginning with an 11-year-old Murray in Mobile, Alabama, and continuing until their paths cross and the Duke asks him to confer on a literary project. Not only does this short section demonstrate Murray's appreciation and knowledge of music and its various genres, it also lends validity to his argument that literature and jazz are directly parallel.
In Part Four, Murray reviews books by Harold Cruse, Gilbert Osofsky, and Stokely Carmichael. All three of these men detailed the black experience in America. Murray, however, cautions that their voices should not be confused with the "voice," or representation, of all blacks. Of Osofsky's Burden of Race, for example, Murray writes, "He has no business being promoted into black experthood for the simple reason that he has nothing significant to say about the Negro experience."
Murray then reviews more "acceptable" authors and their works, including Ernest Dunbar's The Black Expatriates, Robert Penn Warren's Who Speaks for the Negro (which describes the fundamentals of citizenship), and Henrietta Buckmaster's Freedom Bound. Murray praises Buckmaster in particular for accurately portraying African-American resistance to slavery, acts of heroism, and the rise of black Americans after Reconstruction. Murray ends this section with a review of the autobiography and several biographies of Louis Armstrong. Here is where Murray really shines and where Murray most convincingly explains the formulation of jazz and its parallels to literature. And here is where the reader best understands Murray's earlier ideas and finds them illustrated with concrete examples.
American culture, like jazz and the blues, is by nature dynamic. Albert Murray understands both music and the culture at large. His expertise is evident. His explanations do more than reiterate the musings of other writers, and he provides us with a deep look into black culture. Written from an African-American perspective, the issues covered in From the Briarpatch are universal. -- Janel Davis
By Matthew Chapman
Picador; 367 pp.; $25
Seventy-five years after the Scopes trial, Matthew Chapman, great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin, had the splendid idea of heading south to find out just how ignorant all us Southerners really are.
While he had some success uncovering the prejudices of his liking, he also came away humbled, having braved the simple (if to him frightening) faith of the people he encountered in Dayton, Tennessee, where the Scopes trial took place in 1925. Being a privileged and faithless Hollywood screenwriter (by his own admission), it surprised Chapman to discover in the backwoods of Tennessee a spiritual depth not found in the flesh and money capitals of the world.
Chapman's memoir, Trials of the Monkey, is a strange tale. It is -- and is clearly intended to be -- an indictment of his own disreputable life. He peels back personal and family failures with discomforting enthusiasm. (The notable exception being his daughter, clearly beloved.) We learn about his mother's alcoholism and adultery, his expulsion (for fornication) from an elite high school, his endless sexual fantasies, his tendency to reduce women to the sum of their party parts, his lack of faith, and various sordid escapades. Every now and again, he even provides some interesting commentary on the Scopes trial and evolution.
Chapman has his flaws, but shyness is not one of them. He meets and interviews a wide range of people, including local residents and students, and still finds time to swill moonshine, cruise town with a Dayton police officer, hang out at the local haunts, and explore caves with a group of Christians who seek to explain creation without Darwin.
Though Chapman is a skillful writer, he does, at times, come across as a child who relishes his power to shock. His memoir is unnecessarily lurid and gets in the way of what could have been an interesting commentary on what it is like to be a descendant of Darwin, who is, after all, one of the most influential scientists in history. Interspersed throughout his personal saga are predictable, though sincere, comments about God, science, and the great trial.
Chapman longs for faith but cannot resist the temptation to strip away what Thomas Wolfe once called -- Chapman would concur -- our "veritable superstitions." As his moving chapter on the death of his mother suggests, he is impatient with "respectability" and confuses discretion and modesty with hypocrisy. Need we all dangle our genitalia in the breeze in order to satisfy Chapman's craving for candor? One hopes not. Meanwhile, the screenwriter searches for meaning in the long-suffering world but finds only extinction, our lives as indecipherable as the cosmic noise that has hummed from the beginning of time.
Trials of the Monkey is not a bad read despite its diversions and self-absorption, but those interested in a detailed history of the Scopes trial should look to Summer of the Gods by Edward Larsen. For a more thorough exploration of evolution and its history, try Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett, Gertrude Himmelfarb's Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, or The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.
As for Trials of the Monkey, it simply reinforces the notion that we humans, whatever our origin, must make choices about how to live in the world. If we can embrace faith and love without losing humility (and many cannot), we might find a little inner peace. And if we go through life thinking we are monkeys, sooner or later, as Chapman's life attests, we will thus behave. -- George Shadroui