One of the most compelling elements of Americana is the periodic rise of a true polymath. By definition, a “polymath” is “a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning” (thank you, Webster’s). In other words, that person is all over the place.
For example, there is legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. Did your mind just flash on a gallery of great movies like The Godfather and Apocalypse Now or his other iconic films? Probably so. Yet, Francis Ford Coppola is also a winemaker and a musician who can still be found in certain orchestral rows – playing his tuba!
One other example: Ezzard Mack Charles. Does that name ring a bell? It should.
Ezzard Charles was the Heavyweight Champ of the world between 1949-1951, but because he defeated Joe Louis, the sportswriters were indifferent to the new champ. However, for solace, Charles did not turn to drink or drugs. Instead, he’d don a suit and tie (a quiet, somewhat mystical man, Charles was always a gentleman) and he’d be found playing the stand-up bass with other jazzmen at Birdland, and elsewhere.
Novelist Edward Kelsey Moore (we’re not related) is also a polymath. He is a professional cellist who lives in Chicago, and his new novel is a joyous, lyrical, graceful, intelligent, funny and downright memorable romp. Yes, it’s that good.
The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues is not about Diana Ross’ Supremes, nor is it a Motown-related narrative. In this novel, a group of lifelong friends are known to each other (and in general) as “The Supremes.” Their presence is one of the many lively triumphs of character giving this novel its buoyancy.
A routine plot summary would do a disservice to this novel. Too many spoilers. And it’s impossible for such a summary to do justice to the book’s animated tone. Suffice to say that The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues (a first-rate sequel to Moore’s prior bestseller: The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat) is a musically-informed, bright, spirited foray into late-in-life love affairs amid all human foibles.
Here’s how Edward Kelsey Moore kick-starts his novel on page one: “It was a love song. At least it started out that way. The lyrics told the tale of a romance between a man and woman who made his life worth living. Being a blues song, it was also about how that woman repeatedly broke the man’s heart and then repaid his forgiving ways by bringing a world of suffering down on him. Here, in a church, this piece of music couldn’t have been further outside its natural habitat. But the tune’s lovely mournfulness echoed from the back wall to the baptismal pool and from the marble floor to the vaulted ceiling and settled in as if the forlorn cry had always been there.”
Phew! In that gloriously fat opening paragraph, a writer in complete control of his material is revealed. And between the lines you can ascertain a deep, appreciative awareness of particular details that have given African-American literature two of its key distinctions: the primacy of Blues, and gospel music within the Black church.
Immediately, the author then pivots and segues from the general to the particular with this flourish: “As the song continued and grew sadder with every line, I thought of my parents, Dora and Wilbur Jackson. The blues was Mama and Daddy’s music. Nearly every weekend of my childhood, they spent their evenings in our living room, listening to scratchy recordings of old-timey blues songs on the hi-fi. One of those might have been as sorrowful as the dirge ringing through the church, but I couldn’t recall hearing anything that touched this song for sheer misery.”
Then, just as deftly, the narrative comes to life as Moore draws character after character in abundant detail: “Mama preferred her blues on the cheerier and dirtier side—nasty tunes loaded with crude jokes about hot dogs, jelly rolls, and pink Cadillacs. The gloomy ballads, like this one, were Daddy’s favorites.” And so on.
The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues offers a unique, uplifting, humorous voice that spins a story of life’s chronic challenges and mysteries. The oxymoronic contradiction at the heart of the title (that “happy heartache”) aptly lets readers know that this is a tale made up of equal parts frustration and fulfillment.
As such, Edward Kelsey Moore (the son of Reverend Edward K. Moore, Sr.) has achieved something remarkable. On the one hand, his new novel is as rooted in the Black church ethos as the most famous novels by James Baldwin. And yet, there is also in Moore’s narrative a funnier, lighthearted mood and spirit that recalls the great musicality often displayed in stories and poems by Langston Hughes.
Few novels in these turbulent times can make us laugh and cry at the same time.
The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues does just that.
It’s a life-vivifying celebration.
Small-town white men who feel the world owes them something and hasn’t come through. While some are more rabid than others, they harbor a collective rage that makes them an imminent danger to themselves and others, especially when they argue with their wives and ex-wives or trust their money and votes to con artists.
Now there’s a storyline for our times. Jonathan Dee’s The Locals, his seventh novel, set amongst the mostly working-class families of Howland, Massachusetts, a fictitious town nestled in the scenic Berkshire Mountains, is testimony to his finely-tuned ear for the anger that has gripped its tentacles around this American demographic.
That, on the surface, is the theme of The Locals. But, taken with a larger body of Dee’s work, it’s more a continuation of a deeper lament about being adrift in 21st century America.
Previously, in his highly acclaimed novel The Privileges, a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize and winner of the 2011 Prix Fitzgerald and the St. Francis College Literary Prize, Dee took on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum. In that novel, hedge-fund manager Adam Morey gets very, very rich, partly through some shady insider trading that he maneuvers with such cold-blooded expertise. He never gets caught.
Excessive wealth makes it easy for Adam and his wife, Cynthia, and their two children, April and Jonas, to live a life closed to outsiders and devoid of memory. Yet, Adam and Cynthia appear as largely inaccessible individuals uninterested in the past right from the first chapter, which takes place at their wedding. It’s the kind of big messy wedding that in some families might be the scene of both sentimental reminiscences and old grudges, but even at this stage of their lives, right out of college, the about-to-wed couple have decided to keep their families out of their lives, while their friendships are mostly frat-party bonds that aren’t resilient enough to withstand adulthood.
The townspeople in The Locals have a similar aversion to acknowledging the past—which negates, say, trying to gain some self-awareness through psychotherapy—and to a large extent, an aversion to one another. They do business together and have falling outs. They marry and divorce. They have affairs for temporary solace, then drift apart. Agreeable conversations are in short supply, and adults never spend time hanging out with friends—in reality, a lifeline in small towns. They have nothing to believe in, and, as one character sees it, that shows up in a willingness to believe anything. They’re especially willing to believe that others are out to get them.
Dee has a signature technique of weaving in and out of myriad points of view, taking us into the heads of about ten different characters in The Locals and changing perspective every few pages. The result is occasionally a Rashomon effect, depicting different interpretations of life, but the greater result is a moral ambiguity that’s so pervasive it forces the reader to wonder what’s happening to us as a collective species.
It’s as if the characters have a bit of the African wildcat in their makeup; that’s the solitary feline thought to be the ancestor of the housecat, and in Dee’s fiction it sometimes feels as if humankind is evolving in the opposite direction, from social, tribal animals into a cacophony of alienated misanthropes.
Though there are many voices in the novel, the central character is Mark Firth, a nice-looking, ambitious contractor who, as the story opens in the days just after September 11, 2001, has lost his life savings to a shyster investment manager who promised him returns of nine percent. He’s taken an empty train down to New York to meet with a lawyer who is representing all of the people who’ve been swindled, except that the lawyer has joined the throngs who are staying away from their Manhattan offices.
We see post-9/11 Manhattan not from Mark’s perspective, but from that of another victim who lost his money, an unnamed loner who speaks in first person about how “that whole kumbaya, brotherhood-of-man thing” that has people hugging strangers in those days just after the attack makes him jittery. He doesn’t think much of Mark, either: in him he sees a “fucking small-town Mr. Clean... a rube, a sap, a greedy fucking imbecile, and I’m just as bad as he is.” The opening chapter, titled Chapter 0, like Ground Zero, functions as an overture, setting the tone for the jaded future that Mark is about to face.
Eight years pass in the course of the novel, taking the residents of Howland from post-9/11 paranoia through the real estate boom and ending with the country in economic collapse. Amidst these local folk is a newcomer whose true thoughts are inaccessible to them, as well as to the reader, Phillip Hadi, a hedge fund manager from New York.
Hadi was one of the rich summer people, but now he fears a second terrorist attack and has moved his wife and children, against their will, to the peaceful mountains. He hires Mark to build a security system around his house—and the job, as Mark sees it, presents an opportunity to try and figure out what gives some people a natural affinity for getting rich.
Circumstances of birth, education, MBA’s, and connections don’t factor into Mark’s equation. And who can blame him when he’s grown up hearing that anyone can live the American dream? He figures it must be his fault that wealth keeps eluding him. “So much of my life seems so bound, so limited. I want to reimagine myself...I feel like something is lacking in me, in terms of personality, in terms of vision,” he confesses to his rich client over a beer.
The advice Hadi gives him: “Houses are an asset, whose value you understand, and know how to increase.” Uh oh.
The town changes a lot in the course of eight years, partly at the hands of Hadi, though it turns out he wasn’t the first rich man to build a house in Howland and distort things. The town’s biggest tourist attraction is a 19th Century estate called Caldwell House, built by a steel and railroad baron named Winston Caldwell who, according to much-whitewashed lore, wanted a place where his ailing wife could breathe fresh air.
Early in the story, the town is honored to learn that Caldwell House has been added to the state’s official Register of Historic Places. In reality, that means the mansion and its 16 acres come off the tax rolls. It is Hadi who steps in, volunteering to be First Selectman and subsidizing the town in all kinds of ways with his own money.
But his power to be generous arouses outrage from Mark’s already embittered brother Gerry, who starts a blog, under a pseudonym, that seems to grab bits and pieces from every right-wing and left-wing conspiracy theory floating through the air. “Did anybody notice that at some point... the Benevolent Billionaire who rules us has put up surveillance cameras over our heads in town?” Gerry rails in his blog. “Our enemies are coming for us! Meanwhile, your real enemy is the one who claims he alone can protect you... I am so tired of the whole narrative about how billionaires are so morally pure, how they can’t be bought! YOU are what he has to gain. Power is its own end.... He won’t be happy until Howland is a kingdom.”
In fact, Gerry turns out to be somewhat right; Hadi has very little use for democratic consensus.
More than almost any other contemporary novelist, Dee understands the eroding effects of a life in which money propels most of a person’s waking thoughts—whether it’s too much money or not enough. But which came first, the eroded psyche or the thoughts of money? It becomes uncomfortably evident that no policy aimed at income equality would help these characters.
In The Locals as well as in The Privileges, the characters lack both rich inner lives as well as close human bonds, and they fill the resultant void with the pursuit of money, whether for power or survival or both. What Dee risks, though, is coming across as stingy with his emotional investment in his characters. He gives them anger and alienation that, while deftly tailored to each personality, swallows up their capacity for equally complicated human pursuits such as love, laughter, passion, even sorrow.
Nowhere is that stinginess more striking than toward the end of the novel, when Dee contrasts the self-absorbed anger and ennui of the grownups against the not-quite-anchored idealism that Mark’s daughter, Haley, has developed.
I won’t spoil the ending except to say that what happens is as unresolved as life itself—a little nasty graffiti drives Hadi back to New York, leaving the town to fend for itself—yet also satisfying, in the sense that getting into Haley’s head as she grows into a strong-willed teenager is worth the price of admission, somewhat literally, seeing as how she gets a lesson in life through a showdown at Caldwell House. That is where Haley’s mother and Mark’s by-then ex-wife, Karen, unexpectedly comes through as her supporter, even though Karen stands to lose her job by doing so. A glimmer of love might be all it takes to give this girl a life with a purpose. It certainly closes the novel with a more intricate rhythm than the lonely roar of rage.
The Tibetans Buddhists know much more about the dying process and the transition into the afterlife than is commonly known in the West. According to Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, bardo means “transition” or a gap between the completion of one situation and onset of another. Bar means “in between” and do means “suspended” or “thrown.”
Tibetan bardo teaching are extremely ancient and are found in what are called The Dzogchen Tantra. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a unique book of knowledge. It is a kind of guide book or travelogue to afterlife states. To Tibetans, bardo means the intermediate state between death and rebirth.
I bought the Rinpoche book after a dear friend died as means to better understand what he might be going through. What happens when people die is more of interest to me now than it was when I was young and felt that I was immortal.
It was this curiosity that lead me to purchase Lincoln in the Bardo. Even though I knew it would be a fictionalized account, I thought it might give me a glimpse into the afterlife. In it, I knew before I read a line, that George Saunders imagines the grief-stricken Lincoln returning several times alone to hold the body of his son Willie.
In the book, it is February, 1862, and the American Civil War is raging, taking a huge toll of life on both sides. The President’s beloved eleven-year-old son has fallen ill, gravely ill. When Lincoln and his wife Mary think he might be improving, they host a festive state dinner, only to find that he isn’t recovering and, in fact, dies.
The story that unfolds in a graveyard over the course of a single night is the conversation among several cynical ghosts, namely Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins, and others. They are stuck in the bardo because they are unhappy, led unsatisfying lives, and they feel that they are inconsequential and incapable of influencing the living. It reads more like a play than an ordinary novel.
George Saunders writes, “many years ago, during a visit to Washington, DC, my wife’s cousin pointed out a crypt on a hill and commented that in 1862 while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie died and was temporarily interned in that crypt, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln had, according to the newspapers of the day, entered the crypt on several occasions to hold the boy’s body.”
The image conjured in Saunders’ mind was a blend of the Lincoln Memorial and a Pieta. He wanted to write about it but for twenty years he was too scared to try, but then he didn’t want inscribed on his own gravestone, “Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt.” And, so he wrote this book.
As hypnotic as the book is, I was disappointed with it because it wasn’t what I hoped for. It had little to do with Lincoln and Willie but was instead an extended conversation among the ghosts. I had expected that the depth of the president’s grief allowed him something denied to most humans, a brief sojourn into the bardo, the limbo, and I expected we would learn more about what happened to Willie after he died. The idea that he was abandoned among these rather unpleasant ghosts was disturbing.
Furthermore, I wondered since so many young men were being killed daily during this fierce war, why none of the ghosts were soldiers.
The book nevertheless lingers in my mind like a surrealistic play.
People manipulating other people in the name of science
Our narcissistic anti-hero, a film celebrity named Kurt, is determined to “solve love.” Why does love not last but instead dissolves into indifference, boredom, and antipathy? For ten years he has been working on a stalled project, The Walk, trying to capture his own essence on film, staring at photos of himself from every angle, but incapable of finishing his project. Now he decides an inquest into love should take precedence over everything else.
“He did have this hunch that people had been missing some key element of romantic love. He felt sure there was a way to decode our disorganized reactions to partnership.” He assembles the GX team which supplies him with a woman for every need: The Mundanity Girlfriend, Anger Girlfriend, Emotional Girlfriend, Maternal Girlfriend, and so on. The women are instructed to respond positively to all his suggestions and comments and are even given chemical stimuli to alter their reactions.
Kurt, you see, is not quite happy. He experienced some trauma as a child. He changed his name. His relationships have never lasted more than a month or two. He’s ambivalent about all the paparazzi and media attention he receives. He’s seeking answers.
Enter our anti-heroine, Mary aka Junia, a young woman who distinguishes herself by doing almost nothing, saying little, and letting herself be manipulated. She’s had a childhood mildly reminiscent of The Glass Castle and has lost communication with her family in Tennessee. In New York City, she works at a low-level clerk job, becomes seriously and mysteriously ill, and lets her old college roommate talk her into a radical, very expensive form of new-age therapy. Because of mounting debt, she passively signs away rights of all kinds and becomes the full-time Emotional Girlfriend to Kurt.
That’s the story which is told in multiple points of view within the same scene to emphasize the disparate ways communication and action are interpreted by all the players. Can human interactions be reduced to a scientific formula or be subject to hormonal intervention? Is love merely a desire to reproduce oneself in another? Do we just pretend love is about getting to know another person when it’s really about having a foil for our own self explorations?
Catherine Lacey raises these perennial questions about the nature of love, of scientific inquiry, of free choice. She even sticks a toe in the waters of speculative fiction though the type of intervention she describes is probably not far off in the future.
What I found problematic in this well-written novel were the protagonist (Mary) and antagonist (Kurt). Mary, in particular, does not interact much at all with other people; she tends to be inactive and monosyllabic. In a word, dull. We rarely see her take any kind of initiative. She’ll think about what she should do with her afternoon, for example, and then just go back to sleep or lay around. Hardly an inspiring heroine.
By the end of the story, she has perhaps located a nugget of self, a streak of rebellion, but all she does is open a window. Kurt is just your basic monomaniacal egotist, incapable of seeing another person let alone empathizing with her.
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