Michael Pearson

With his new novel, Lost Nation, Jeffrey Lent has proven that there are second acts in American literature. Following on the success of his first novel, In the Fall, Lent has produced a second book with the same sort of tragic power and dignity.

The comparisons that have been made between Lent and Cormac McCarthy are understandable: both writers have mastered the art of the unspoken. Perhaps both learned from Hemingway that poetry and truth can be found in what is never said. But Lent is an original, no imitator of McCarthy or Hemingway or anyone else, for that matter. He is a writer of such breathtaking talent and honesty that one feels compelled to group him with the greats of American literature. But, finally, he stands alone, as all true writers do.

In this follow-up to In The Fall, a young woman finds a way to survive in a brutal landscape.

A novel of brutal originality, Lost Nation is reminiscent of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! or McCarthy's The Crossing—both tragic tales of secrets circling in their own slow way toward truth. Blood, the main character of Lost Nation, could be a scion of Faulkner's Thomas Sutpen, a man with a soul like a closed wound and the morality of a panther. His two sons, young men of taciturnity and deep feeling, are reminiscent of Boyd and Billy Parham in The Crossing. But Sally, the teenage prostitute that Blood wins in a card game in Portland, Maine, transcends any female found in the work of the great novelists. The kind of young woman a man like Blood had ceased hoping for, Sally is everything he did not deserve, a woman who finds a way to face the world without flinching, who finds a way to survive with her soul mainly intact.

And the world Lent creates is not an easy place in which to survive. Set in mid-19th century New England in a lost place known as Indian Stream, the book opens in familiar epic territory, in medias res, with Blood in hobnailed boots and rotting leather breeches, leading an oxcart with the barefoot Sally tied behind it and a mastiff hound named Luther trailing alongside. Heading into the bleak wilderness carrying rum and stores of supplies to set up shop on the edge of civilization, Blood is running from something in his past, in himself something that makes it easy for him to use other people hard. He opens up a tavern and sells Sally's services to the locals, but she is not some waif, helpless and adrift in a world of men. Sally is a match for Blood and for the trappers and outlaws who compose her toughened clientele in Indian Stream, and through the hardness that life has created within her, she is able to maintain her strength of spirit.

Lent creates a strange, violent landscape dotted with corpses, decapitations, rapes, suicides, masturbating monkeys, hangings and slit throats, but it's not the strangeness one is left with, rather the odd familiarity of a dream come clear. The whole book has a sort of power and heartbreaking truth to it, a quality of something long forgotten and now remembered with brilliant clarity. Each time the story takes a turn, you think you know where the road is heading, until Lent opens up a new path in the plot. Which brings me to my penultimate point: this book is a mystery tale, of sorts. It unravels its truths in its own fashion, slowly peeling away one reality after another, and therefore it would be unfair for this reviewer to reveal any more of the story. So, finally, read it.

Dr. Michael Pearson directs the Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University. 

With his new novel, Lost Nation, Jeffrey Lent has proven that there are second acts in American literature. Following on the success of his first novel, In the Fall, Lent has produced a second book with the same sort of tragic power and dignity.

The relationship between Zelda Sayre and F. Scott Fitzgerald stands alongside Frieda and D.H. Lawrence or Elizabeth and Robert Browning as one of the legendary literary love stories of all time. Fitzgerald wrote lyrical and trenchant fiction about the Jazz Age, and with The Great Gatsby he crafted one of the most moving and memorable American novels of the 20th century. It might be argued that Zelda was both the source of his emotional fire and a central factor in his disintegration. For Zelda, it seems, Scott served the same dual role. In two decades of marriage, they managed to transform a vale of fame and talent and passionate love into a tragic landscape of drunkenness, mental illness and never-ending debt.

Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda, a collection of correspondence edited by two University of Maryland professors that spans a 22-year period, includes a few dozen previously unpublished letters. It would be more apt, perhaps, to call the volume "Mostly Dear Scott," for the majority of letters are from Zelda. Yet there are enough responses from her husband to give credibility to the title and, more importantly, to give a sense of the often sad symbiosis of their relationship.

Scott Fitzgerald was a famous novelist by the age of 24, thanks to the astonishing success of This Side of Paradise. His love for Zelda was made into a metaphor in The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, as well as many short stories. His fictions were made of their life together, and their life seemed the stuff of fiction. The letters between Scott and Zelda trace the arc of their love its great passion, its failures and its enduring strengths. Scott made himself into the famous man that Zelda Sayre needed to marry, and she tried to be the proper accessory. As she wrote in an early letter to him, "I feel like you had me ordered and I was delivered to you to be worn. I want you to wear me, like a watch-charm or a button hole bouquet to the world." She professed not minding to be "pink and helpless," but she soon thirsted for her own identity as dancer, as writer or as painter. She had talents in each art but not enough to make her name stand on the same plane as her husband's. She wrote to him, "I want to work at something, but I can't seem to get well enough to be of any use in the world." The beautiful Alabama belle was tormented with mental illness. Her extended stays in mental institutions drained Scott's money and separated the couple by a continent, forcing them to communicate with letters. Scott supported Zelda in the expensive hospitals and their daughter, Scottie, in costly schools, often through hackwork and Hollywood script writing. But, as Zelda wrote to Scott a year before his death, "Nothing could have survived our life." And, of course, she was right not the life they created, nor the one that rose up to meet them, not even the one they dreamed about when they first met.

Scott died of a heart attack in 1940, while he was in the process of completing what many think might have turned out to be one of his finest works, The Last Tycoon. Thirty people showed up for Scott's funeral. As with Gatsby, it seemed, the famous had forgotten him. Zelda died in 1948, burned beyond recognition in a fire in Highland Hospital, a mental institution near Asheville, North Carolina. The inscription on the Fitzgeralds' shared tombstone reads: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Dr. Michael Pearson directs the Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University.

 

The relationship between Zelda Sayre and F. Scott Fitzgerald stands alongside Frieda and D.H. Lawrence or Elizabeth and Robert Browning as one of the legendary literary love stories of all time. Fitzgerald wrote lyrical and trenchant fiction about the Jazz Age, and with The Great Gatsby he crafted one of the most moving and memorable […]

, John Edgar Wideman's new memoir about the aesthetics of basketball, may be one of the best books ever written about the sport, as deft and breathlessly poetic as a Michael Jordan fadeaway jumper. The first chapter of the book is titled More, appropriate because Hoop Roots is about much more than the game. This is the 59-year-old Wideman's look at a lifetime of playing basketball on the playground, in high school, in college and for a few years in Europe. In a sense, this memoir, like the author's previous Brothers and Keepers (about his brother's imprisonment for life on robbery and murder charges) and Fatheralong (about his son's conviction for murder), is also about the search for a father and the loss of so many black men to violence and racism. Writing this memoir was clearly a way for Wideman to explain to himself and to others why the game is so important. It may also have been a way for him to make sense of the loss of his brother and son and the unraveling of his marriage of 30-plus years. Hoop Roots is his way of holding on . . . starting a story so that a story can end. Although Wideman sees professional basketball as a form of blackface minstrelsy, he sees the playground game as one generated by desire: The desire to play. In this sense also it's truly a player's game. It exists nowhere except where and when the players' minds and bodies construct it. . . . The game's pure because it's a product of the players' will and imagination. If the players' desire cools, there is no game. Or at best some sloppy substitute of game not worth bothering with. Wideman is at his best in this book, as smart and lyrical as anyone who has written on the game in the past three decades. Applying his finely textured prose style to the sport, he has written a book that creates shock waves of recognition. When he brings race and family and politics to bear on the subject, he writes with a brisk persuasiveness. Playground hoop, like all cultural practices at the margins, engages in a constant struggle to reinvent itself, pump out new vibrations, new media and messages of yea-saying, saying loudly, clearly, Yes. We're here, still here, and we're human, we're beautiful. So too is Wideman's memoir.

Michael Pearson directs the creative writing program at Old Dominion University.

, John Edgar Wideman's new memoir about the aesthetics of basketball, may be one of the best books ever written about the sport, as deft and breathlessly poetic as a Michael Jordan fadeaway jumper. The first chapter of the book is titled More, appropriate because Hoop Roots is about much more than the game. This […]

I guess Mark Twain was right in 1897 when he told a London correspondent of the New York Journal, The report of my death was an exaggeration. He's back at least in the form of a short story stretched by the publishers to fit the dimensions of a novella. The story is not the best of Twain, but even mediocre Twain (as long as it's not Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc) is plenty of fun and worth reading. Besides, the foreword and afterword by Roy Blount Jr. is good enough for the $16.95 admission price.

The story behind A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage, certainly more interesting than the book itself, goes something like this: During a visit by William Dean Howells, longtime editor at The Atlantic and steadfast friend of Sam Clemens, to Twain's home in Hartford, an evening of friendly conversation and cigar smoking turned (as it often would with Twain) entrepreneurial. Twain proposed he write a skeleton plot and that 12 famous authors of the time write up a story, using the same plot, blindfolded' as to what the others had written. Howells went along with the idea, but rightly called it a scheme in a letter he wrote trying to convince another novelist, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, to join the party. Twain expected Bret Harte, Charles Dudley Warner and Oliver Wendell Holmes to participate. Warner and Harte maybe, but who can imagine Holmes in such a project? Or more inconceivable, Henry James? Roy Blount Jr. says it best and most succinctly in his afterword: Of all the gang that Twain hoped to enlist in his project, the most unlikely was Henry James. Can any sane person, we may ask, have expected to get Henry James' juices flowing with a plot abounding in bumpkins, spleen, assault, and battery? And, basically, that's what the story is, a parable moving toward a punchline. I won't ruin the ending for anyone, because there is a mystery of sorts. It has to do with Jules Verne, whom Twain clearly did not like. But I may have said too much already. Suffice it to say that a young man is found by a Missouri farmer out in the middle of a field. The young man is dressed like an aristocrat, lying full-length in the snow, no footprints around him and speaking French. There's also a girl in this tale, of course, a beautiful one, and a handsome and gentle-spirited young man who is in love with her. In addition, there's a greedy father and a mean-hearted uncle. We end up where we'd expect to be with such ingredients except for the dash of Jules Verne, that is.

Not a plot, certainly, for Henry James. But one, Blount argues in his afterword, for Twain, especially the Twain who was stuck in the middle of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. According to Blount, this story shows the darker vision of Twain emerging, his newfound politics evolving. As Blount sees it, He began to acknowledge that the roots of his innocence were in a village corrupted by slavery. In the second half of Huckleberry Finn good-natured people are abused over and over again by meanness, callousness, and violence. A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage is worth reading for the simple pleasures it gives, but perhaps more interesting for the complex working of Twain's mind that it suggests at a time when his most famous character, a white boy with a sound heart and a deformed conscience, was floating down the river with a black man and into territory that no American writer had fully explored before.

Michael Pearson directs the creative writing program at Old Dominion University.

 

I guess Mark Twain was right in 1897 when he told a London correspondent of the New York Journal, The report of my death was an exaggeration. He's back at least in the form of a short story stretched by the publishers to fit the dimensions of a novella. The story is not the best […]

Tony Earley crafts an elegant reinvention of the past The line between fiction and nonfiction is often blurred and in most cases arbitrarily drawn. In his new book, Somehow Form a Family, a collection of essays that reads like the cohering fragments of a memoir, Tony Earley walks gracefully along that line, writing about growing up in the South in the 1970s, the eccentricities of love in most families, and the essential longing to connect with a community that any writer feels but is rarely able to satisfy. "All writers are spies in their own country," Earley said in a recent phone interview. "We are afflicted or blessed with this strange sort of consciousness in which we are always looking in from the outside. I can remember being a kid walking through the playground, imagining myself as I did it, conscious of my every move, always feeling different and never comfortable in any group. Perhaps that's why we become writers, to deal with that longing." Earley, a North Carolina native and an associate professor of English at Vanderbilt University, is the author of the 1994 short story collection Here We Are in Paradise and the highly acclaimed novel Jim the Boy, published in 2000. A few years back Granta magazine named him one of America's best young authors, and shortly after that announcement, The New Yorker featured him in an issue that focused on the best new fiction writers in America. The last three stories in Here We Are in Paradise depicted Jim Glass and his family. From those stories, Earley developed the idea for the novel Jim the Boy, a work whose style has been compared to both Ernest Hemingway's and E. B. White's. Being compared to Hemingway would not come as an unwanted surprise to most young contemporary fiction writers, but a comparison to E. B. White, in our deconstructed new world where any writer worth his ink seems destined to have a distant, ironic voice, may not seem a compliment. Earley, though, is happy with the comparison and thinks he understands its source. "I started it," he said. "It's flattering, but the comparisons probably came from my epigraph to the novel from White's Charlotte's Web

Tony Earley crafts an elegant reinvention of the past The line between fiction and nonfiction is often blurred and in most cases arbitrarily drawn. In his new book, Somehow Form a Family, a collection of essays that reads like the cohering fragments of a memoir, Tony Earley walks gracefully along that line, writing about growing […]

illie Morris is one of the sweet and tender voices of the South. I don't mean by this that he is without irony and toughness or that his work fiction or nonfiction is without violence and breathtaking loss, but rather that there is a sense of deep longing and a gentle heart in just about everything he has written. And, to be sure, he has written some lyrical and unforgettable work about his Mississippi homeland books such as North Toward Home and Homecomings as well as funny, touching tales like My Dog Skip and My Cat Spit McGee that bridge the gap between the worlds of adults and children.

Taps, a posthumously published novel, is Willie Morris' best book, a story written with genuine passion and soulful understanding. It is an old-fashioned Dickensian sort of novel, but with a Southern accent, filled with main characters one is compelled to love and hate and minor characters one is unable to forget. The plot has the simple authenticity of an honest memory, along with the mesmerizing power and the stunning inevitability of a gathering storm. The story is a retrospective tale told by Swayze Barksdale about the years during the Korean War when he played the trumpet at a succession of military funerals in his small Mississippi town. Fisk's Landing, population 10,000, is surely a fictional stand-in for Morris' own Yazoo City. As Sam Clemens had his Hannibal, Missouri, Willie Morris had his Yazoo City, the locus of his imagination. Swayze's narrative, written as a funny and poignant backward glance at young love, depicts an evolving understanding of all the heartbreaking beauty and sadness and unearned terror the world can offer. Morris' characters are truly and memorably drawn from a principal character like Georgia, Swayze's teenage sweetheart, an attractive collection of contradictions, to a minor figure like the ornate and complex personage named Asphalt Thomas, Swayze's basketball coach. Tragedy and loss are at the heart of the novel just as the Korean War shadows everything that happens in Swayze's life his love for Georgia, his friendship with Luke, his basketball games, his trumpet practices with his misanthropic friend Arch Kidd. Loss is a part of love and beauty Morris is not coy about that. But we have our stories to sustain us, and Swayze tells his, a story of death, of passionate love, of the fact that not even innocence can protect us from the cruelties of the world. Swayze's voice is Morris', it seems to me, at once comic and compassionate, as sparkling with poetry as F. Scott Fitzgerald's and as capable of illuminating evil as Mark Twain's. In a sense, this is a Southern story of arrogant patriarchs like the Godbolds and wonderfully eccentric teachers like Mrs. Idella King, of obsessive mothers and lost brothers, of a restless and powerful land . . . gentle too in its eternal promise of a place where all our troubled kind can rest when day is done. This novel is Southern in its lush Romanticism a quality tempered by a fine-tuned humor and in its sense of mystery and craving, in its occasional Faulknerian sentences and ever-present concern with old verities like loyalty, honor, decency and love. At times Morris' style may seem ornate or antique, but to me it is the sound of wind rustling through magnolia leaves, plaintive and lovely. This book, coming two years after his death, is like a gift, his spirit returned to us to speak one more time. Morris was a great lover of practical jokes. Not many, of course, were better than Tom Sawyer's observing his own wake. Morris, like Sawyer, returns after we thought he was gone. He comes back, it seems, to remind us just how much we miss him. This novel is a fitting elegy for him, a mournful tune, graceful and evocative, making us recall his remarkable talent and generous heart. Taps is Morris' voice from the grave, and it is hard to imagine a more lasting or beautiful epitaph.

Michael Pearson directs the Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University. His most recent book is Dreaming of Columbus: A Boyhood in the Bronx Syracuse University Press).

illie Morris is one of the sweet and tender voices of the South. I don't mean by this that he is without irony and toughness or that his work fiction or nonfiction is without violence and breathtaking loss, but rather that there is a sense of deep longing and a gentle heart in just about […]

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