Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Plays Well With Others, by Alan Gurganus

This is a narrator who needs Valium. The frenetic pace of his prose matches that of the striving, hard-scrabble, tumbling lives of the friends he loves so fiercely.  In the club world of 1980's New York there are a lot of drugs going around, but tranquilizers are not among them.

An account of the burgeoning gay arts scene, this book is a paean to the young men who briefly lived and died, mothlike, during an epidemic that rivaled the Black Plague. Hartley Mims is an exile, escaped from his homophobic southern roots to the mecca of artists, performers, scholars, and egotists. He and his friends are close in a way that may be possible only for expats who never even felt at home at home. Their passion for one another is matched only by their competition to be the best artist, the most beloved, the first at everything. Hartley misses first by a hair, and suffers from the great good luck of being the last. Happy, and wondering if that's a decent substitute for genius.

This book made me a little bit tired with its relentless pace, but I liked it a lot. It's fun to read a voice that's so entirely unlike your own. I could never keep up with the young Hartley and his muses, but I wouldn't mind hanging out with the middle-aged version.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Mink River, by Brian Doyle

Did you ever want to live in Cicely, Alaska? The town, the setting for the TV series Northern Exposure, was full of quirky individuals of vastly different types who somehow all came together to give their town and one another an incredible sense of community. Neawanaka, Oregon is just this kind of town. The inhabitants are mostly scraping by, some with luck and joy, others in more dire circumstances.

The dozen characters we get to know intimately (among them a jaded bar owner, an opera-loving police officer, and a beloved sculptress), weave around one another in a way that is possible only in small towns. Ultimately there is something safe and lovely about being known by everyone you encounter, even if it means you are forever categorized by your parent's bad behavior, loose grasp on reality, or saintliness.

Mink River is almost stream of consciousness, with the dialogue unindicated by anything as distracting as quotation marks. Although that can be hard to follow, in this case it mostly isn't. I liked that the difference between a character's thoughts and spoken words was sometimes hard to distinguish. There are a lot of people doing a lot of heavy thinking in this book, though they go about their lives as though they were unburdened by philosophy.

The touch of magical realism the author injects is in keeping with the slightly otherworldy sense of the place and people. In a town where the Department of Public Works considers its main objective to be the happiness of the inhabitants, a talking crow is no big thing. There's a gentle balance of gritty realism and fanciful possibility that keeps this book both grounded and delightful.

Finally, Brian Doyle's lovely use of language. There is a lot of old world in the flow of words across the page; Irish and Native American DNA are intertwined in what is essentially a long, unmetered ballad. I love an author who will create the word he needs if it doesn't already exist.

In the end, the only real problem I had with Mink River was keeping some of the characters straight. The author has a penchant for nicknames and descriptors, which can take a little while to sort out. The main issue for me, however, was that I kept mixing up the two main couples in the story, one the daughter and husband of the other. These relationships were so similar that I'd forget if I was encountering the older or the younger generation. Call me a cynic, but it is, sadly, hard for me to believe in such marital bliss striking the same spot twice.