Book Notes 2016.2

Here are random comments on recent fiction (and one irresistible nonfiction work) I’ve read in the last few weeks.

Bill Beverly, Dodgers (Crown, 2016). This is a superbly written tale of a black teenager’s odyssey from the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles to—of all places—Wisconsin, where along with three other young men, he is to murder a witness who threatens his uncle’s crime empire. Part road trip narrative, part thriller, the novel is brilliantly paced, and demonstrates the author’s eye for subtle regional detail and textured characterization.

 Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger, What is a Dog? (University of Chicago, 2016). One of the better nonfiction reads I’ve come across in a while. Written by two distinguished evolutionary biologists, this study will make the average dog owner look twice at the canid of the household.

 Don DeLillo, Zero K (Scribner, 2016). In Zero K, Jeff Lockhart, the thirty-something son of a wealthy businessman, visits his father and stepmother in a compound where people can be preserved cryogenically in anticipation of resurrection in the future. Jeff learns that his stepmother Artis, terminally ill, has decided to enter a state of suspension with the promise of some day returning to a notionally better world. Jeff’s father, Ross, has decided to follow her, though he is still healthy. Jeff is repulsed by his father’s decision, and is determined to experience life in all its messiness and indirection, knowing that its richness comes in part from seeking its confused end.

It has been years since I last read DeLillo, and it was a wonderful experience to step back into his strange narrative world. The imagery and language are devastatingly effective, and though there are the usual self-indulgent surges of literary fireworks, the overall mood is wrought so expertly that the reader is willing to drift along in DeLillo’s prose until he is smacked in the face with some new revelation or turn of phrase. Too, DeLillo decodes the dark undercurrents of American life even more effectively than T. C. Boyle, another novelist unafraid of tackling serious political and social themes. The book’s crescendo comes in the last two pages, which are as beautiful, humane, and moving as any fiction I’ve read in many years.

Karan Majahan, The Association of Small Bombs (Viking, 2016). Everyone dies in terrorism, not only the victims but survivors and perpetrators as well. This is the “association” of death referred to in the title. As for “small bombs,” the author aims to show how smaller terrorist acts do even more damage than large, media-saturated events because “a few have to carry the burden of the majority,” in the words of Vikas, the father of two boys killed in a 1996 New Delhi terrorist attack that frames the novel. The greatest advantage of the novel is its sympathetic understanding of the terrorists, whose alienation and loss is, in an oblique way, mirrored in the survivors’ lives. But the last 30-40 pages lurch toward this theme and never really manage it in a convincing way. The writing is inconsistent, achieving lovely imagery one moment, then veering into pedestrian territory the next. Annoyingly, the writer also often inserts backstory at odd or inappropriate moments. The novel deserves to be read, but addressing the ethically fraught theme of identification between terrorists and their victims in a convincing manner remains an elusive literary goal.

Margaret Malone, People Like You (Atelier26, 2015). Funny, sardonic, generous, sad—these stories evoke people you know, people like you and me, who try to do the right things, but often have the vaguest sense of what “right” means, and who go into the world getting it all wrong—and somehow still surviving and maybe even loving. I love the minimalist style, the quirky tone, and the endearing indirection of the characters. I read these stories with images in my head of people walking around in the dark and repeatedly bumping into walls, and then still keeping on.

Stewart O’Nan, City of Secrets (Viking, 2016). Deftly written, with a compelling cast of characters and a fascinating setting—Jerusalem in Mandate Palestine just after World War II—this novel is both psychologically complex and suspenseful. A smart political thriller.