Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road has not held up well over time. For one thing, the dialog may have been appropriate in the 50's, but today it sounds dated, with questions like "Are you sore at me?" and sentences frequently ending with "you see?". The subject matter is a little offbeat also. Frank and April are a young married couple with two children and consider themselves far too interesting to be living a conventional life in the suburbs. We're supposed to believe that April's unhappy childhood has rendered her incapable of love and that Frank's boring job is just a way station on the road to bigger and better things. To reach their true potential, April cooks up a half-baked plan to move to Europe, where April will be the breadwinner doing clerical work and Frank will have a chance to find himself. If this sounds to you like something that only artists or writers would do, then join the club—so do their friends and neighbors. Frank does, however, have the gift of gab, and a marketing flyer that he dictates off the cuff grabs the attention of a company executive, making the move seem less desirable. I'm not sure if there's a point being made here, but the book implies that hurtful words tossed out in a moment of anger produce dire consequences for this couple. They just did not seem real to me, but I'll bet that Kate and Leo bring them to life on the big screen.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

THE GREAT STINK by Clare Clark

The Great Stink by Clare Clark has an appropriate title in that it describes in icky detail the London sewer system of the mid-1800's. This is a historical novel about the replacement of that system. Although billed as a thriller, the mystery does not develop until about the halfway point. By then, you're accustomed to wrinkling your nose at the descriptions of the stench and of the filthy Thames River. The poverty and dinginess are reminiscent of Oliver Twist. The two main characters meet only once. One is William, an engineer working on the project, who suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome. The other is Long Arm Tom who scavenges for valuable trinkets in the sewers and, along with his friend Joe, catches rats that will be devoured by vicious dogs for sport. The advent of the new sewer will put him out of business. Fortunately, he happens upon a raggedy dog that turns out to be a very efficient rat destroyer. Tom plans to retire on the sale of Lady to a gentleman known as the Captain, who, not surprisingly, turns out to be a no-good-nik. The mystery is that of a murder that takes place underground and that William witnesses but can't be sure he didn't commit himself during one of his blackouts.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

ALIBI by Joseph Kanon

Joseph Kanon's Alibi exudes tension, especially on the part of its two main characters, Adam and Claudia. It's a case of seemingly good people doing bad things for good reasons, at least in their minds. Their actions, of course, compromise their goodness, and their consciences. Keeping a morbid secret between the two of them becomes an unbearable strain, on themselves and on their relationship. The story is set in Venice immediately after WWII, and Adam is a former investigator of German war crimes for the American Army. Claudia is an Italian Jew who stayed alive by becoming the mistress of a Nazi officer. Adam meets Claudia at a party while staying with his mother, who is about to marry an Italian doctor that she has known since before Adam's father died. Adam becomes obsessed with the notion that his mother's fiancé was a Nazi sympathizer, largely based on Claudia's eyewitness account of his having turned her father over to the SS. The plot becomes a bit tangled, and the finale is especially confusing. In any case, as far as the deeds of Adam and Claudia, the big question here is whether the end justifies the means.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Like Dubus's first novel, House of Sand and Fog, The Garden of Last Days has several flawed, desperate characters—three, to be exact. April is a single mother working as a stripper trying to save enough to buy a house or two. Bassam is a customer at the strip club who just happens to be leaving for Boston shortly to participate in one of the 9/11 hijackings. AJ, another customer, is an angry wife-beater who refuses to acknowledge the gravity of his sins. All of the action takes place in Florida during the several days preceding the 9/11 tragedy. April's usual babysitter has gone to the hospital with a panic attack, and April uneasily takes her daughter Frannie to the club where Tina, a sort of housemother, will keep an eye on her for a price. Tina, however, is derelict in her duties, while Bassam is showering April with cash during a private dance. AJ, who has already been thrown out of the club for the night, spots Frannie in the parking lot and decides to save her from, in his mind, her obviously neglectful mother. I read this book with some trepidation, given the gritty outcome of House of Sand and Fog. The theme here, though, seems to be appreciation of one's family and loved ones and learning from one's mistakes. Bassam and his murderous cohorts are the least interesting characters as they try to justify their carousing while seeing themselves as martyrs. AJ is a saint next to them.