Monday, October 22, 2007

Glad Tidings

Dan Green at The Reading Experience points out a review by Edward Champion that was killed for lack of space -- causing me to reflect "Hey, I wrote a review one time that was killed for lack of space. What in the world ever happened to it?"

For ten minutes I try to remember the author; failing that, the title. Finally I come up with a few words that lead me to Google up the title. Then, after combing through all the files, my own review from 2005.

This was with a major publisher and it went through endless back and forth editing; he thought the last line was weak, and couldn't quite buy my Dawn Powell comparison.

A day of give and take finally resulted in the mutual joy of two minds that had somehow cobbled together a few hundred words that appealed to both.

"You nailed it," he told me.

Last I ever heard from him.

Unfortunately, I didn't keep the improved review, just the original.

That's what blogs are for.

By T. R. Pearson
320 pp. Simon & Schuster. $24.00

T.R. Pearson's 1985 A Short History of a Small Place was an impressive debut that went over and above its modest job description, and nearly wore itself out in the process. Set in the much-ado-about-nothing town of Neely, N.C., where no grievance is too petty and no amusement too dull, it's a grandiose mock epic where every last mundane misadventure rolls out like a Persian carpet, and ravenous Faulknerian sentences gobble up everything in their path.

Pearson has often returned to Neely and his young narrator, Louis Benfield, in his last eight novels, but he's downsized a bit over the years, shedding layers of artiness. Where his rich, ornate, baroque prose almost got the better of him in the past , this latest addition -- which puts Neely in the background and turns Louis loose in a one-damn-thing-after-another series of adventures in New York -- is positively breezy, and the voice of Louis isn't as self-consciously literary. It's conversational, sharper and funnier.

Maybe it's the change of locale. New York suits Pearson much as it did another transplant who made the city her own, Ohio's Dawn Powell. Not the high-life Powell, but the workaday, paycheck-to-paycheck one of later novels like The Wicked Pavilion and The Golden Spur, where people are hanging on by a thread in their dizzying climb to break even. Pearson has that same shrewd eye for scrappers, players and the people they play, the same affection for nuts and rogues, and he's a deft caricaturist with a tart way of summing up everyone, even the passersby. There's the "haute couture refugee who'd rather be dead than lack the upper-arm muscle tone to go sleeveless," the mob wife who looked "like she sat for cosmetological target practice," the lousy actor trying to pass for Hispanic "by way of a tidy goatee and the liberal use of a bronzer which had left him about the hue of adolescent copperplate." Pearson can, at times, be merely bitchy, but on the whole he is a good-natured comic fatalist, which he gets by way of inheritance. As in the earlier novel, Louis's father, a "devotee of human vice and folly, an outright connoisseur of foolishness," is the steady voice of cynical wisdom.

In Short History, Louis was a perfectly observant adolescent who kept his distance while recounting Neely's private and public disasters. Twenty years later, he's the disaster. "As it is," he says, "I'm largely wasted, only spottily engaged and, for a robust thirty-four year old, almost criminally unambitious."

As he loosely backtracks over the years of lows and lowers that got him this far, Louis actually proves rather resourceful. After washing out of the junior-exec program at his dad's old insurance firm, he finds himself a slave of New York, a "cracker import" whose only calling card is his skill as a handyman, among other things. Every job leads to another: the insurance firm leads to work as a commercial walk-on, which leads to residence in a ratty apartment, which leads to his job as a driver for a cut-rate Yemeni car service, whose customers are permanently irate at getting what they paid for. His shady agent Sal introduces him to a mobster named Bunny, who has him fix a freezer where "a disassembled colleague of Bunny's was likely thawing out." He also becomes a driver for Rachel, a beautiful and brainy call girl, who agrees (for a fee) to play his girlfriend when the folks drop in from Neely.

Louis suffers through this pillar-to-post trawl with a wilting resolve to make the best of it; he even devotes an unusual amount of attention to the signs he holds up at the airport for his fares. "I am distinguished by my penmanship," reads the novel's opening line. "By the hang and hue of my suit coat. The sophistication of my haircut." He recalls Bellow's Augie March, and Pearson's picaro moves through his come-what-may existence with a similar self-awareness and openness to random experience, no matter how humiliating.

As Louis shuffles along, hoping the dice will finally roll his way, a sudden, absurd tragedy gives him the depth of perspective on his own life that he gained from Neely as its unofficial historian. Unfortunately, it's not much of an epiphany, as all we learn from this chronicle of wasted time is what either Louis or his dad have been saying since the beginning: God's not in His heaven, and the challenge of life is to live without one -- the kind of banal humanist treacle that would only seem bracing to anyone who hasn't picked up a book published in the last century.

But so what. In this amiable, episodic ramble through defeats and distractions, the journey's the thing.

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