Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Son : Philipp Meyer

The Son
By Philipp Meyer

Impressive.  The novel follows three related characters: Eli McCullough, Peter McCullough, Eli's son and Jeannie, Eli's great-granddaughter from when each of them are younger to when they get older.

Meyer is primarily interested in the nuances of the characters and how incidents and relationships shape them as they grow older.  In the process, he's able to touch upon a lot of interesting topics and describe them in full multifaceted detail.  For example, he covers the frontiers-men' violent and racist treatment of Mexicans and Native Americans and gets into why this thinking comes about.  He describes Peter's attempts to stand up against this prevailing mentality, but how difficult it is to, how the community ostracizes him and how he fails.  He covers the flip-side, how brutal and violent, the Native Americans, particularly the Comanches, were and how brutal and conniving some Mexicans were in taking over folks' land and cattle.  In short, Meyer tries to portray Western history without rose-colored glasses - it was an zero-sum game environment and no one was completely innocent in their actions. 

Another interesting theme was how Jeannie, despite being tough, smart and successful is treated differently than her husband, because she is a woman.
they were slow to follow orders, seemed to think she could not tell the difference between a good job and a bad job, they were reluctant to start big projects that they were certain she would abandon. There were casing problems, cementing problems, flow problems, the equipment broke constantly ... to Hank they had given their best, to her they gave nothing.
Something was going to happen and the overthrow of Mosaddegh was a miracle unlikely to ever be repeated. And so she had begun to look at domestic acreage... it was just a question of seeing what was actually in front of you, instead of what you wanted to see.  
  Oil went nowhere. Then Bunker Hunt bet big in Libya and got massacred and the Egyptians went into Israel and the embargo hit. The boom had lasted ten years. And still this dissatisfaction. She had won her bet but they would not recognize her.  They being... she was not sure. ... You expect a medal, she thought. And she did. It was not entirely unreasonable, some notice from other operators, a bit of recognition, a mention of her alongside the Richardsons and Basses and Murchisons, the Hunts.  She was certain - ragingly certain - that if Hank had pulled off what she had, his name would have been included.  Maybe she had a victim complex.  That's what they wanted her to think.
Just as Meyer is uncompromising in showing the warts of all parties in history, he's also unafraid to show the warts of all three characters. Eli leads the massacre of an entire Mexican family, who the community incorrectly believes stole cattle and who Peter tries to stand up for. Peter is weak-willed and incapable of saving those who mean anything to him and protecting the morals he knows are right.  Jeannie, refuses seeing extended relatives, since they are a Mexican-American mix, thinking that they are solely out for her money.  While not likable, this makes these characters rather realistic. 

 Finally, a couple other quotes that I particularly liked:
She became deliberate to a fault, building cases for every decision, she was never not reading... Though in more sober moments, she knew there was something missing. The men around her were always sure they were right, even when there was no good reason. That was what mattered. Being sure of things. If you were wrong, you just defended your position even more loudly.
The woman's book had come out and later was made into a movie starring James Dean. It was one long exaggeration. It made everyone look like clowns, as if they had stumbled dumbly into wealth, as if the state was nothing but backwoods tycoons without two brain cells to rub together.
  And yet most of the oilmen had liked it. They began to invent over-the-top mannerisms, throwing silver coins out of the windows of their limousins, taking twenty-thousand-dollar baths in champagne. Maybe it was no different from any other time. The frontier was not yet settled when Buffalo Bill began his shows and the Colonel always complained about the moment his cowboys began to read novels about other cowboys; they had lost track of which was more true, the books or their own lives.
All in all, I liked this novel.  A lot of great details on character flaws and how complex societal views come about.  I'll be keeping an eye out for other Philipp Meyer works.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Battleborn : Claire Vaye Watkins

Battleborn
By Claire Vaye Watkins

Brilliant. It's the range that is evident from story to story that is particularly impressive.

One story describes a 60 year old man who finds a young female teenager abandoned in the middle of a dried out lake.  Another portrays a pregnant woman, hung-up on an old boyfriend and scared of becoming like her mother.  Yet another describes the dynamics between a teenager female and her best friends, a male and a female.

All of the characters are unique with varied personalities, neuroses and fears, yet remain realistic. In addition, each story varies in pace, tone and structure, which fits each story and character and yet providing a refreshingly different emotional turn.

A few quotes from different stories to illustrate the point:
I cried and cried on a bench outside the Asian white rhino exhibit after seeing the marks in the enclosure where the rhino had worn his horn down to a stump, scraping it against concrete sculpted to look like mud. It was foggy at the zoo, and Peter sat silent besides me while I cried, his large hand on the small of my back, light as the fog mist on my skin. People walking by probably thought he'd broken my heart, when it likely the other way around.  We sat like that for a long time before he said, What's wrong?
  Just the same old thing, I said.
  And he said finally, Ecosystems are complex things, Catie.
A blackened sheet of baking parchment floats in a dish of hot grease. The grease has a name, and as our girl tells the story this name will return to her, along with other details of this place, which had until now left her - the flatulent smell from a newly opened bag of sausage, the flimsy yellowed plastic covering the computer keyboards and phone keypads, the serrated edge of a cardboard box slicing her index finger nearly to the bone. Naked in her own bed with a man for whom she feels too much too soon, our girl will recall the name of the grease - Whirl, it was called - and the then-exquisite possibility of searing off her fingerprints.
  Lena, her friend, finally pulls her hands from the rack, shaking the sting from them. You win, she says.
  Our girl waits a beat, gloating, then lifts her palms from the surface, lustrous with heat. She folds a pepperoni disk into her mouth. Let's go again, she says.
As soon as Carter and Marin learn they've conceived the child, they begin to argue about it. What will they feed it, what will they teach it, what of this world will they allow it to see? They fight about these things before the child is more than a wafer of cells. Before the child is anything, it is a catalyst for fights.
 Just about the only common thread that runs through these stories is the setting of the American West, which harsh and dusty atmosphere plays an invisible force driving many of these characters.

All in all, I'll be picking up more of Watkins' works.