The Good Lord Bird: A Review

16171272“The Good Lord Bird” is a book I ought to like. I liked McBride’s first autobiography, “The Color of Water,” an appreciative remembrance/meditation on being a black man with a white mother. I liked McBride personally when he visited Messiah College. He is a fantastic musician, whose passion for music I share. Like most America’s I’m intrigued by the fanatical John Brown. The novel’s theme is race in America, the fatal subject of many of the greatest American novels from Moby Dick to Huckleberry Finn to Absalom Absalom to the Invisible Man to Beloved. It’s James McBride’s fourth book, about the time in a career when one starts to see signature work produced. It was chosen for the National Book Award. Everything things about it says BIG. Good writer, big book, big subject.

But the book left me cold.

Well, really somewhat more than lukewarm, which feels like cold when you are eagerly expecting greatness. I liked many passages. It was better than watching netflix…most of the time. But I expect more than that from a National Book Award Winner, and couldn’t help but wonder what the judges were thinking, though it also crossed my mind that American fiction must have been in a bad way in 2013 if this was the best we could produce. Apparently this thought crossed McBride’s mind as well since, according to the Times story on the 2013 NBA ceremonies, McBride was stunned to have won and didn’t even prepare a speech.

The book has often been compared to Huckleberry Finn. indeed, the novel’s cover insists on it, evoking the ubiquitous straw hat that seems to accompany every edition of the novel and rendition of Huck’s story since that American classic was written. Henry, the novel’s protagonist, is a cross-dressing early adolescent struggling to find his own way and own identity in a world full of people who impose their vision of what he is or ought to be at will. There is no river–a good bit of the novel takes place in the plains of Kansas and Iowa, in its own more desiccated way as stark brutal and unforgiving a wild thing as the Huck’s Mississippi. In a different sense, John Brown himself is Henry’s river, a wild thing, a force of nature with a logic and will of his own that bends things to himself, like a Kansas tornado or a Mississippi flood, and does the bending in part through his own fanatical certainty in the will of God.

But the differences between Huckleberry Finn and The Good Lord Bird also point to the latter’s narrative problems. In Huckleberry Finn, the river is a character of its own, but it is never the character that we care about. From the opening sentence we know we care about Huck Finn and coming to know him. The river is finally an occasion for the main narrative character, and not the other way around. If the river drives Huck through coincidence, or if Huck follows it where it carries him, finally the reader follows Huck, only sticking with the river because of that human story. In The Good Lord Bird I could never muster a lot of concern from Henry, who followed John Brown for no good reason, didn’t seem to want to be there, and didn’t seem to learn all that much by his travels. In the Times story cited above, McBride says he enjoyed writing the novel because “It was always nice to have somebody whose world I could just fall into and follow him around.” The novel has that feel. That Henry is just falling in to the world and following John Brown around for no reason we can adequately figure out. In this sense, the novel feels all the way through a bit like Huck Finn feels in its disappointing conclusion, when Huck Finn, who has captured our imagination and matured before our interior eyes, turns freedom and maturity into a banal melodrama at the hands of his would-be mentor, Tom Sawyer.

In the acknowledgements section at the end of the book, McBride thanks the many who kept the memory of John Brown alive. I’m not sure this book will do that very well. When, for the space of several dozen pages in the middle of the novel, John Brown disappears from the scene and Henry is left to his own devices, we realize we just don’t care that much about him. And if Henry is not himself a compelling character, if Henry is not more than an empty sleeve of a boy becoming a man, then we can’t really find John Brown all that compelling either. Adolescents drifting through life are compelled by many things, some of them profound, many or most of them not. John Brown is a terrifying and complex figure in American History, one that Americans still feel uncertainly as both a brutal terrorist and a freedom fighter, and feel this contradiction all the more so in that Brown was indeed on the right moral side of the arc of history when it comes to the story of race in America, unlike so many other of our white founding fathers and mothers. But because Henry does not himself seem to struggle in any meaningful way with the desperate question of whether in pursuing freedom we are winging into flight or stumbling over a precipice, we ultimately don’t feel in this John Brown the terror that can be the birth pangs of freedom. Instead, McBride’s John Brown seems to shift uncomfortably between being a joke and being meaningfully sincere.

A worthy subject for a netflix melodrama, but I was hoping for more.

Treasure Island, Buried

As some may remember from the distant past of this blog, I set out to actually read a whole e-book from start to finish on Book Glutton, all this in honor of read a book month, or read an e-book month, or some other kind of month. Given that most Americans don’t even read one book a year, e or otherwise, I am so proud of myself for managing to fulfill my quota in a mere three weeks. Or so. Anyway, I finished Treasure Island about a couple of weeks ago, but have been too swamped with work (and my kids soccer games) to collect any thoughts. And, of course by now, given that I am uncomfortably close to my fiftieth birthday, I have actually forgotten most of the experience. So the comments that follow are no doubt not anywhere nearly an accurate reflection of my experiences but more a kind of fiction of what I construe could have happened in my reading experience. Pierre Bayard and Roland Barthes would be so proud.

First Treasure Island itself. What a romp! One consequence of being an academic is that works in my specialization I am always reading as an academic. Which probably means dully and ponderously. So when I read for pleasure…well, I never really do read for pleasure. But let’s just say that in order to re-activate the pleasure zones in my reading brain, I often have to get far away from stuff I have to teach or write about in my official capacities.

Treasure Island is surely a boys book in a certain sense of that word. For all the sturm and drang about about the dominance of masculine narratives in the canon, it’s worth saying that boys books aren’t much appreciated as boys books per se. They have to first be turned in to “LITERATURE.” That is, something ponderous and masculine rather than, well, rompish. If “rompish” even qualifies as a term of analysis. And much of what we talk about as literature–things like The Great Gatsby as exhibit A; things like The Scarlet Letter as exhibit B–are really chick flicks dressed up to go out on the town. No wonder boys don’t read.

But then there are boys books. Romps that lose their fun in becoming literature, or which are ignored because they seem resistant to literary seriousness. Huckleberry Finn used to be sold as a boys book, in fact, though now it is banned from high schools. For my money Melville’s most readable works are Typee, Omoo, and Redburn. Works written for adolescent boys, and adolescent men, who were looking for a little tittilation in thinking about naked polynesian breasts. Let’s be truthful folks. How many of us really truly loved Moby Dick. Confession of the week. I can’t bring myself to finish Pierre. And I did my master’s exams on Melville. I think I read the Cliff’s notes. Perhaps if either book did more to foreground Polynesian breasts I would get more interested.

In any case, Treasure Island, falls into the category of a boys book so stereotypical that we now can hardly feel it as anything but predictable. The boy in search of a father since he’s lost his own. And finding fathers in all the wrong places, especially among barely disguised pirates who everyone and their mother knows are pirates except apparently Jim Hawkins himself.

I was struck in reading it by how much Jim is the characteristic “good boy.” The loyal son to his mother. Although the novel is often described as a coming of age story, there’s a peculiar sense in which jim is already aged. He is already formed as the good man that he will become, protector of his mother becomes protector of his friends and ultimately, even, the protector of his erstwhile enemy, Long John Silver.

In other words, Jim is already his own father, a boy seeking for a father he doesn’t really need or want. Thus, explaining Jim’s constant penchant for running off for no good reason, whether in to the apple barrel or jumping ship to gain the Island ahead of the others, or stealing the ship out from under the noses of the pirates themselves. Jim is a boy who doesn’t need a father because he is a father already, the one who can save those even whom he despises. Sprung whole and righteous from his own loins. (This is, of course, also a description of Milton’s Satan, but I won’t press the point).

For my money, this makes Treasure Island more of an adventure story than a coming of age story or bildungsroman. Jim is already who he is or will become. He is threatened by evil, but he is not tempted by it. Huckleberry Finn could worry about whether he is going to hell, and he could play his pranks on the slave Jim on the raft for his own selfish ends and pleasures, but Jim Hawkins always chooses the good and we always know he will. And perhaps more importantly, he always knows he will. Thus the story is not about whether Jim will be good and will grow as a human being–he doesn’t grow at all. It is more about whether goodness will out. Does goodness pay off in the end? Is goodness the treasure that we can have without seeking.?Will goodness save our own necks from the noose, and perhaps the necks of Long John Silver as well?

Well Stevenson seemed to think so. I’m tempted to say it’s a vapid vision of the world, where the mutineers of the world exist not to tell me that I too might be one, but as foils for my own moral self-display. Nevertheless, this criticism is awfully literary and ponderous. So I’ll stop before I lose sight of the fact that I actually loved reading it.

Of course, I also weep when watching Brian’s Song. What does this prove?

More later about the actual experience of reading on book glutton.

Mitt Romney, Untrustworthy Literary Flip-Flopper

With my headline I just thought I’d try out my chops as a writer of currently high level American political discourse.

Seriously, though, Romney needs to lay hold of a literary position and dig in to the trenches rather than pandering to pundit expectations. This past summer the media exploded with disgust and disdain that Romney declared his favorite book to be L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth, a book that I confess has yet to make it to the top of my pile but which John Dickerson at Slate says indicates “very deep levels of weird.” Sensing a scandal in the making, Romney—or rather Romney’s “people”—backpedaled quickly, declaring that Romney’s favorite book was really the Bible. As if we didn’t know that. Battlefield Earth is merely his favorite novel.

This seems to have done little to diminish the very high levels of weirdness the blogosphere detects in the choice of overly long fiction written by the founder of Scientology. My guess is that Romney would have done better to choose something that would overcome the Mormon factor, which for many people, rightly or wrongly, also signifies very high levels of weirdness. (On the other hand, anything sniffing of religion strikes many people in the media as highly weird, so this may not be saying much). Still, I don’t think Mitt’s people wanted the electorate going in to the voting booth with the image of the Romney family Bible stacked on the bedside table alongside the Book of Mormon and a novel by L. Ron Hubbard, especially since that novel focuses on the predatory practices of “hairy 9-foot high, 1000-pound sociopaths” called The Psychlos.

In the passing months, Romney and his people have apparently backpedaled yet further. A gander at Romney’s Facebook page now lists a dozen solid, not to say stolid, books with one novel—Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. What Hemingway described as the foundation of modern American literature takes its place on the Romney bookshelf alongside a variety of business leadership manuals and scary books about the evils that face us: jihadism and Thomas Friedman’s flat world. The weirdness factor seems to be tamped down for good (though I admit I tend to find leadership manuals highly weird, my being a middle level manager in an academic institution notwithstanding).

L. Ron Hubbard has gone the way of all flesh. But so, apparently, has the Bible. The Book of Mormon still has yet to show its face and I really think that some intrepid reporter needs to ask Mitt why that may be. Just what, exactly, is he hiding? Religion is represented by Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. For many politicos, Warren is clearly much safer than the Bible. He is after all “a new evangelical,” which in our current political lexicon tends to mean an evangelical you could bring to fundraiser without worrying about whether you could offer him alcohol. Certainly Warren’s book can be brought up at a Republican cocktail party without raising eyebrows, something you can’t always say about the Bible. Depends on the cocktail party. I’m not sure that this says a lot for Rick Warren, or for how well people may be reading his book, but the image does go along with Romney’s well-coifed hair and perfectly massaged public image.

Last year I wrote a paper, still being revised, where I speculated a bit on the ways people used books to identify with others. We signal our desires, values, goals, interests through the kinds of books we read—or pretend to read—and how and where we read them. But what exactly is Mitt signaling with all this shelf-shuffling? Probably nothing, except that he wants to be president. I was prepared to write a few paragraphs on the peculiar choice of Huckleberry Finn as a boy who stood against the status quo, willing to give up his status and his standing—little as it was—to try and do the right thing. How different and odd that choice seemed given that Romney seemed mostly about status and the status quo. However, I suspect, frankly, that the leadership manuals are Romney’s real favorites and Huckleberry Finn is a book he remembers from his days as an undergraduate English major at BYU.

I actually think Mitt really likes Battlefield Earth, that this literary slip of the tongue was the real literary Mitt before he realized the weirdness quotient could do him in with the 1% of the electorate that actually cares about what he reads. I liked him better because of it. We all have our perverse reading pleasures. Things we get in to against our better natures. This devious pleasure-taking in the alternative world of literature is one of the great things literature affords us. I think of myself as a half-baked pacifist but I can’t get enough of war movies. Heaven forbid, but I sometimes prefer a vampire novel to the latest tome by Don Delillo or Philip Roth. I actually like the fact that Mitt Romney loves shlocky sci-fi novels that have been badly-written by a man a few pancakes short of a full stack. It suggests to me that Romney’s hair isn’t perfect when he gets out of bed in the morning, that maybe when he can’t sleep late at night he gets on a sci-fi chatroom and becomes Megalorg, laser scourge of the planet Kryl-9.

Or whatever.

Makes him human and interesting, a little like Hillary’s tears earlier today.

What I don’t like is that he seems to change his favorites at the first whiff of scandal. Too much like the guy in high school who always seemed to find a way to like whatever the cool kids liked. The guy held in contempt by even the people he calls friends.