Reading: “Don’t skip out on me” by Willy Vlautin

20180405_201218.jpg

Horace was alone in the city and he realized that being alone in the city was worse than being alone on the ranch. Because when he was alone on the ranch he had the dream of the city, the dream of what he would become in the city. But now he was there and he was still alone. He was just himself in another place.

‘But I don’t care anymore, Mr. Reese. Every night I’m here, I hope I get run over or stabbed or shot or thrown in prison. That’s how I feel.’
‘I’d be tired too, if I were you,’ the old man said. ‘It’s hard to hate yourself every single day, and it’s hard to try and be something you’re not. Both of those take their toll.’

Have I ever before mentioned my love for Willy Vlautin? One of best authors I’ve read in the last few years? One of my favorite authors ever? Have I not? Shame on me.

So, I love Vlautin’s books. He creates unique characters with very special voices, stories, issues, that affect me deeply, remind me of someone (myself at times), let me explore unknown perspectives and lives and introduces new ways of looking at familiar issues to me—all this in his very own, unique way of telling a story. My first Vlautin was Motel Life, followed by Northline. I highly recommend reading both books if you want to enjoy Vlautin’s full ouvre, the early Vlautin, so to say. Northline also comes (at least it did back then when I ordered the book) with a wonderful soundtrack, a musical gem that is one of my main “work soundtracks” next to Cliff Martinez’ Solaris. Moreover, there’s The Free, another masterpiece by Vlautin. Oh my, you see, mine won’t be a sober, impartial “review”…

We are following the story of Horace Hopper, who wants to become a Mexican boxer, even though he does not have any Mexican roots, but is a half Paiute Indian. He also strongly dislikes Mexican food and doesn’t speak Spanish, still he thinks that the identity of a Mexican boxer is what suits him most. Left behind by his mother when he was eight, he grew up with his grandmother, who tried her best but as the saying goes: the road to hell is paved with good intentions… In his teens he started working as a ranch hand on the Reece ranch, where he found a home with the elderly Mr. and Mrs. Reece, supporting them when Mr. Reece’s health and body fail him and giving Mrs. Reece a new reason to live and a purpose in life, which she lost bit by bit after their daughters left the ranch to pursuit their life and luck elsewhere. Mr. and Mrs. Reece are worried about Horace and his plans, wanting him to stay and one day take over the ranch since to them he seems like their own son. But Horace has to prove that he is worth something, that he is worthy of love and attention and respect, even though his mother left him and his father never cared about him. So he will be Hector Hidalgo, and Hector will become a successful boxer, thereby letting everyone know WHO he is and how great he is—even though he is not what he pretends to be. Sounds a bit unhealthy? Like you want to give Horace a hug, tell him he is a great person just the way he is and he shouldn’t waste a present life full of appreciation and love for who he is to let himself be haunted by a past he will never be able to change, no matter who and what he pretends to be? Well, Horace is 21 and he wouldn’t listen to you anyway, as he doesn’t listen to Mr. Reece, and so we are forced to watch another wonderful human being fight the demons of his past.

Reading the quote at the beginning of this post, once again Vlautin’s story reminds me of someone: me. When I was 17, I moved back to the city after having to live with my family on the countryside for two years (I HATED the countryside, still do); I had a lot of shitty teenage drama going on, as we all had at that age, and it’s nothing compared to what Horace is going through BUT I too can remember the moment when I realized that by simply moving back to the city, being on my own and responsible for myself, nothing changed or magically got better; I didn’t become this perfect little butterfly I wanted to be, I was still me, with all my insecurities, fat ass, and shitty thoughts, just somewhere else. This hit me really hard, and I can still remember my desperation when I realized that there was more to improving your overall situation than just moving somewhere or doing something different; it took me quite a few years and gallons of alcohol to find the courage to face the issues that really mattered…
So I do understand Horace, I understand his desperation, his feeling lost and overwhelmed
, not knowing where to go, what to do, whom to turn to. Because Horace feels alone, to him the only person he trusted to turn his luck around, to bring him success, was Hector Hidalgo, and as the story proceeds, Hector (for reasons I won’t mention at this point because you will find out for yourself) might not be so reliable after all. Learning to rely on other people and trust them picking you up and supporting you no matter what you do is hard, and sometimes it comes late in life …

Writing this post took 4 days and several attempts until I thought it’s at least halfway expressing what goes through my head (and heart) everytime I think about Horace and his story. It’s hard for me to write about this book because it was such an intense reading experience. It always is with Vlautin, but this one brought me to tears at the end (though mind you, I cried reading Stoner too, so this can happen from time to time…). Writing about books I like seems much easier than writing about books I love. Anyway, go and meet Horace—don’t skip out on me.

SPOILER ALERT: I will close this post with a quotation of the beautiful and poetic ending of Vlautin’s novel; though it does not give away much, decide for yourself if you want to read it or not…

Mr. Reese rolled him over and pulled him from the bag as tears leaked down his face. He held him in his arms and rocked him back and forth, and the night went along.

Advertisements

Reading: “The Blackwater Lightship” by Colm Tóibín

IMG_20180114_020233_676.jpg

“I have to keep convincing myself”, Helen said when they got outside, “that this is really happening. You’re all so matter-of-fact about it, but the truth is that he is dying in there and I have to go and tell my mother.”

Helen’s beloved little brother is dying. This brings the family together again – grandmother Dora, mother Lily, and Helen. While Declan has a seemingly casual relationship with his mother and grandmother, Helen hasn’t seen both for years and didn’t even invite them to her wedding. Her mother has never seen her two grandchildren, her grandmother met Helen’s family – her husband and her two sons – only once.

Reading the blurb (which says something like “forced to listen to each other” and “come to terms with each other”) I immediately thought of something blunt like an alcoholic grandmother, a crack-head mother, and two highly traumatized siblings coping with their past in different ways. The last part rings true in some way, but the first part is highly unimaginative, crude, and – thankfully – bullshit. Blurbs usually do their best to convey stereotypes to sell a book (we recognize the familiar), sometimes the opposite (at least for some readers). But I read one of Colm Tóibín’s short stories in The Book of other People, which I really liked, so I wanted to read one of his books. A bargain box at the local bookseller’s gave me the perfect opportunity to do so.

[Spoiler alert]

Helen’s little brother Declan is dying of AIDS. Assisted by his two close friends Larry and Paul, he spends a few days with his mother and sister at their grandmother’s place, an old house close to the sea, and the arrival of three gay men is reason enough to shake up Dora’s world. Nevertheless, this does not mean we meet the average old lady harboring prejudices against homosexuals; Dora is full of prejudices and resentment, so Declan’s friends are just the icing on the cake, at least in the beginning. Dora adapts to the new situation – Declan being seriously ill and dying – fast and seems to cope relatively well with the coming developments; mind you, the emphasis lies on ‘seems.’ For Lily and Helen, the situation is more difficult, since their relationship is strained at best; coming together again after years of not seeing each other and hardly any contact in the light of something as grave as the son/brother dying is a challenge on multiple levels.

“And why is it that he sent you to tell me?”
Helen stared at the road ahead. When she saw a double-decker bus, she thought about asking her mother to make her own way to the hospital, but it was a thought that she did not entertain for long. She softened and tried to imagine what it must be like for her.
“I think he felt that at a time like this we would all forget our differences,” Helen said.
“Well, I don’t notice any difference in you”, her mother said.
“Bear with me, I’m making an effort,” Helen said. She could not keep the dry tone out of her voice.

None of the two knew about Declan’s infection and illness, and especially Lily feels left out after realizing that Declan’s friends, especially Paul, know much more about his health and how to deal with his illness than any of his family, having accompanied him through the various stages of his HIV infection over the years.

Our main protagonist is Helen; though it’s a third-person-narration, the focus lies on her, her history, her issues, and her incapability to deal with her past. We also learn more about Paul, Declan’s friend, who never leaves his side and is the main force regarding his care (much to Lily’s chagrin). But apart from those two everyone else rather seems to set the stage for Helen and the family’s difficult past – at least this is how I felt. And it’s not that I didn’t like it; I loved it. First, when looking back on her past, Helen does not face a ‘huge trauma’ in the stereotypical way of trauma, meaning abuse and violence or the like. Her turning point was the death of her beloved father when she was 12; much of what follows are conflicts that could happen in a lot of families (maybe I feel that way because of my own background in regard to my mother and grandmother, so I’m sorry if this does not sound as serious and insightful as someone else may see the story). So while Helen’s inner (and outer) conflicts are understandable, one does not have to be awestruck how one person can go on with her life in the light of a past as gruesome as hers.
Second, Paul is wonderful. There’s no other way for me to describe it, he is a compassionate, caring, and thoughtful character, the best friend one can have in general and in Declan’s situation in particular. Larry, Dora, Lily, and Declan add their stories and all this together tells a difficult and sad story that will have no happy ending, but also one that shares a certain hope, though I cannot describe this feeling more detailed. I love being so vague…

Hope can feel good, even if it’s false hope. I read this book in two days, and it only took THAT LONG because I needed some sleep. Tóibín is a wonderful narrator, his stories carry a certain atmosphere I cannot specify, but I feel it whenever I read something by him. Nora Webster is already waiting, but I will take a little break before my next Tóibín. It’s an intensive and wonderful reading experience, one I cannot and won’t take lightly, for the best possible reasons.

Reading:”American Gods” by Neil Gaiman

 

2017-04-22-23-25-06.jpgYes, I know, there is no need for another sort-of-review of any of Neil Gaiman’s books because there are already thousands of highly qualified writings about his work out there. He is a prolific writer, has a wide, diverse and also devout audience (of which Wonderguy is a proud member) and countless different platform—a lot of them highly professional and influential—have already discussed his numerous works. Still, thoughts are free and unicorns are still a thing, so let me reflect on my personal adventure with Shadow, Wednesday and all the other blokes who are setting the stage for a reading experience that was by far not as smooth as The Graveyard Book (my favourite Neil Gaiman book so far, though I have some more reading to do), but still gave me one of my favorite characters.

First off, I have to confess that I do not “like” and therefore hardly read any fantasy novels. I never read the Harry Potter-series (though I always wanted to read something by J.K. Rowling and A Casual Vacancy made that happen, but that’s another story) or Lord of the Rings  and I was surprised to find out that Philip Pullman was NOT in Independence Day (though: kudos to a fellow atheist, may the bridges we burn light our way…). Apart from an occasional Terry Pratchett I am hardly Neil Gaiman’s target audience, which might be a reason why reading The Graveyard Book, with its comparably small cast and fictional world, was ‘easier’ and much more enjoyable to read than American Gods. Another reason might be that Wonderguy told me to read Norse Mythology  before American Gods to be well-prepared and—truth to be told—this sort of preparation pretty much killed my vibe. I am all for some deeper insight into the backgrounds of stories and novels, but my enthusiasm has its limits and Norse Mythology exhausted these: starting with all the ridiculous names I never had a chance of remembering (for e.g. Gullinbursti the boar, Svadilfari the horse, or inanimate objects like a chain called Dromi)  followed by the mind-boggling number of protagonists, I lost track of the stories most of the time and confused everyone with everything except for the main ‘characters’  Loki, Thor, and Odin. [At the risk of sounding indifferent to fascinating historical knowledge: I’m an atheist which in this context means that religious and mythological symbols and/or characters are interchangeable and mostly irrelevant to me; the Norse mythology may be far more colorful than many of today’s religious symbols, stories and myths, but to me, in the end it is just another ‘metaphysical instrument’ for explaining seemingly inexplicable events and experiences while at the same time using this power of illusory knowledge to control the people seeking help and guidance.]
By the time I actually started reading American Gods I was already exhausted regarding the stories and adventures of Odin a.k.a. Wednesday and his various henchmen thanks to the enlightening ‘research reading.’

But Shadow kept me going. Through all the exhaustive dream sequences and fantastic elements which would otherwise rather discourage me to continue reading a book, I wanted to know what would happen to Shadow. Of course I acknowledge and appreciate the immense research work Neil Gaiman must have accomplished for this novel—no one needs me of all people to state that Gaiman is a master of his craft. Moreover, I loved the stories he tells in small subchapters throughout the novel about how the various gods and mythical creatures came to the US; they feature different voices and perspectives which introduce interesting and captivating insights in how myths and ‘gods’ can be created, transformed, and sometimes even killed off. 
Though the book dragged on at times—at least for someone who is not that much into fantasy—there were of course quite a few surprising twist and turns that made it an entertaining read, not only for the sake of finding out where Shadow’s path would lead him. Gaiman is a great author and knows his way around language, which always makes him a great read, even when delving into a genre one usually avoids (yeah, the “one” is me…).
With Shadow, American Gods features a protagonist that seems familiar, even though I cannot thoroughly explain how and why; he reminds me of Bukowski’s Hank Chinaski, various protagonists in war literature (Joker in Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers, Walter James in Larry Brown’s Dirty Work, some of the guys in Tim O’Brien’s The Things they Carried  and Paul Berlin in Going after Cacciato as well as Colby Buzzell’s depiction of himself in the midst of the Iraq War) and probably some others I can’t remember right now. Shadow is the one you want to have with you on a road trip (yeah I know, what a surprising remark considering parts of the book); he is the one you want to ask how to handle the ugly shit—even better, you want him to handle the ugly shit; in short he is the big brother I always wanted. He is THE one invariable in the midst of an ugly and violently changing world—and I’m not referring to the sort of Ragnarok Gaiman describes in  American Gods. Maybe Shadow is in some ways an all-American hero which makes him seem so familiar; maybe it’s something personal in regard to ex-cons in literature, I don’t know. I do know that his character, his story was the reason I finished the book. 

Again, this is in no way a book review; though I work in the field of literary studies, I don’t do reviews here (or elsewhere, for that matter). Literature is art and art has no limits (sort of); different people like different things, that’s all. It’s just another account of my reading experience and reading adventure, this time with Neil Gaiman. It was not the first, it won’t be the last, though it was a difficult one. But it was more than worth my time.