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Go Set a Watchman ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Harper Lee is famous for writing To Kill a Mockingbird but also for something else: she was friend and confidante to Truman Capote and has been portrayed by not one but two Hollywood actresses in movies about Capote and his writing of In Cold Blood. Truman Capote and Harper Lee were childhood companions in the tiny town of Monroeville, Alabama and remained friends until his death in 1984. While Capote became as famous for his eccentricities (his appearances on The Tonight Show) and his partying lifestyle as he was for the books he wrote, Harper Lee eschewed the limelight and has been, like other writers of her generation, notoriously reclusive. At age 89, she still lives in the tiny town of Monroeville, Alabama. You get the impression that fame hasn’t changed her very much.
With the phenomenal success of To Kill A Mockingbird and the equally famous movie that followed the publication of the novel, Harper Lee might have “cashed in” on her fame; she might have written other books or a sequel, but she didn’t. In the foreword to the thirtieth anniversary printing of her famous novel, she said simply that she didn’t have anything else she wanted to say. It doesn’t happen very often, especially when there’s money to be made.
Now, oddly enough, all these years later, in the futuristic year of 2015 (it would have seemed so in 1960), a new Harper Lee book has emerged, Go Set a Watchman. The title is from a passage in the Book of Isaiah: For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. Every man’s island, the book tells us, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.
At first glance, Go Set a Watchman seems to be a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird because it’s set twenty years after the earlier novel, but Harper Lee didn’t intend it as a sequel. It is, we are told, a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. It was apparently shelved for a different version and hasn’t seen the light of day until now. The publisher, HarperCollins, must have recognized the enormous amount of interest (and the cash potential) in a new book by Harper Lee, even if it is a book written sixty years ago.
The girl in To Kill a Mockingbird, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, is an adult in Go Set a Watchman. When she is twenty-six, on her yearly summer visit to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, she witnesses many changes. Her father, seventy-two-year-old Atticus Finch (the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird) suffers from debilitating arthritis and is not as vigorous as he once was. Calpurnia, the black maid who kept house for him for many years, is too old to work anymore and has been replaced by Alexandra, Atticus’s bossy sister. Calpurnia’s grandson is in trouble for running down in his car (and killing) a drunken white man. Jeremy (known as “Jem”), Jean Louise’s older brother, has succumbed at an early age to the hereditary heart condition that claimed his and Jean Louise’s mother’s life. Henry Clinton, a young attorney and protégé of Atticus Finch (four years older than Jean Louise and a lifelong friend of her brother’s) wants to marry her, but she isn’t sure if he’s the right sort or not. The most significant change, however, is in the social and political landscape of the South. Black people, spurred on by “outside interests,” are demanding their civil rights. The white people who have taken for granted the “status quo” in the South for generations are going to have to adjust to a new order of things. It’s a transitional period in the South, not unlike the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War. It’s in this atmosphere of change that Go Set a Watchman is set.
Most people will probably agree that Go Set a Watchman is not as compelling or as nearly perfect as To Kill a Mockingbird. Instead of a five-star novel, it’s a four- or a three-star novel at best. That’s not to say, however, that it’s not worth the time and effort it takes to read it, especially for those who have read To Kill a Mockingbird and/or seen the movie version and would like to know what becomes of the characters twenty years later.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp
Swimsuits are Optional ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
August completed the tenth grade and would go on to the eleventh when school took up again. He was looking forward to a summer of doing what he wanted and not so much what he was told to do. He planned to spend the summer alone, mostly indoors, thinking and cultivating his own interests. Exactly what those interests were wasn’t clear to anybody and especially not to him. He would watch old movies on television (he liked Kay Francis and Mary Astor), read some good books, listen to music (all of Beethoven’s symphonies) and, when he felt like getting out, take a book to the park and find a shady spot under a tree and commune with nature until ants starting crawling up his pants leg. Most other people his age, he knew, would be going out on dates, going to swimming parties and getting their drivers’ licenses. He didn’t have his driver’s license; he would get it someday but not just yet. If he was able to drive on his own, his father would probably expect him to get a summer job and buy a car that he would have to pay for out of his own money. No thank you! All that could wait.
On the very first day of summer vacation a girl he hardly knew named Beulah Buffington called him on the phone.
“I don’t think I remember you,” he said. “I can’t place the name.”
“Well, if that doesn’t beat all!” she said. “I see you every day at school.”
“I’m not good with names,” he said. “Describe yourself to me.”
He did remember her but was only playing with her in a way she didn’t appreciate. If he disavowed knowledge of her, he wouldn’t need to be nice to her.
“I’m as tall as most of the boys at school. I have brown hair and a full face. I’m what people call big-boned.”
“A lot of people fit that description.”
“I failed the Constitution test two times. I passed it on the third try.”
“You had a crying fit in American history class and called the teacher a bozo.”
“That’s me,” she said. “I think if I had known I was going to have to describe myself to you, I wouldn’t have bothered calling.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” he laughed. “The thing with girls is that they all kind of blend together for me.”
“I can see this wasn’t a good idea,” she said.
“No, no, that’s all right! What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”
“Next week is Dot Gilmore’s seventeenth and we’re having a pool party at my house to surprise her.”
“I didn’t know you had a pool.”
“There isn’t any reason why you should.”
“Who did you say the party is for?”
“I don’t think I know her.”
“August, you are impossible!”
“Can you describe her for me?”
“She’s one of the most popular girls in school. She was yearbook queen. Her picture is everywhere.”
“Oh, yeah, I think I’ve heard the name. What about her?”
“We’re having a pool party for her at my house.”
“I didn’t know you had a pool.”
“When we were discussing who to invite, it seems your name came up. I don’t know why.”
“I don’t know why, either.”
“Would you like to come? It’ll be from three o’clock in the afternoon on Thursday until about dark.”
“I don’t really know how to swim, Betty,” he said.
“It’s Beulah,” she said.
“I don’t think any of us knows how to swim. We just splash around in the water. The boys try to drown each other. There’s a diving board but people don’t dive; they just jump off. There’ll be water volleyball, music and lots of food.”
“I don’t know how to play water volleyball.”
“It doesn’t matter. Anybody can play.”
“Would I need to wear a swimsuit?”
“Swimsuits are optional.”
“What does that mean?”
“You can swim naked if you want to, as long there are no grownups present.”
“And what day is that?”
“Thursday next week.”
“Um, hold on a minute. I need to check my calendar.” He kept her hanging on for a good two minutes and when he went back to the phone he said, “Sorry, I can’t come. I’m having abdominal surgery that day.”
“Oh. Okay. I really didn’t think you’d want to come, but I thought I’d at least try.”
As he was hanging up the phone, his father came into the room, reeking of aftershave.
“Who was that on the phone?”
“Nobody,” August said. “Wrong number.”
“I’m going away for a few days on business. I want you to go stay with Aunt Vivian.”
“I hate staying with Aunt Vivian.”
“I could probably pull some strings and still get you into Camp Bonhomie.”
“I’m not going through that again.”
“What will you do while I’m away?”
“The same things I do when you’re here.”
“I worry about going off and leaving a tenth grader at home by himself.”
“I’m very mature for my age. I like being alone. And I’m in the eleventh grade now.”
“A young boy shouldn’t spend so much time alone.”
“It doesn’t bother me.”
“What would you say if I told you I’ll probably get married again by the end of summer?”
“Not Mrs. Bone, I hope.”
“No, she’s completely out of the picture. I heard she was in Europe. Good riddance.”
“Where do you meet all those women?”
“They’re just…around. You’d never believe how many there are just waiting to fling themselves at a halfway decent fellow.”
“Just give them a little encouragement and they’re all over you like flies on honey.”
“I thought your interests lay elsewhere. What about Paul? What about Luke?”
“I think a man ought to have a wife, don’t you?”
“In your case, it probably isn’t a good idea.”
“Don’t you want to be a family again?”
“Your mother has been gone for eight years now.”
“I know. I was there. I found her, remember? I’ve been screwed up ever since.”
“We all have our painful childhood memories.”
“Most people don’t come home from school and find their mother swinging from a rafter, though.”
“I know it was awful for you. I’ve been trying to make it up to you all these years.”
“You can make it up to me by not getting married again.”
“You wouldn’t like to have a baby brother or sister?”
“I’ve been thinking I might like to have more children before it’s too late for me.”
“Am I not proof enough that you should never go any farther in that direction?”
“Oh, August!” his father laughed. “I don’t know where you come up with that shit! It’s grand that you read a lot of books, but sometimes you can overdo even that.”
“Okay, I’ll make a point of reading less.”
“I want you to get out more. Cultivate some friendships. I know you’re naturally reserved, but you have to at least try. Meet people halfway.”
“Thanks for the advice, father.”
“You’re young. It’s summer. You need to be out having some fun. Don’t stay cooped up in the house all the time by yourself.”
“I was just invited to a pool party.”
“Wonderful! When is it?”
“Next Thursday afternoon.”
“I know you’ll have a really good time.”
“I need to buy a bathing suit and some other things.”
He took two fifty-dollar bills out of his wallet and put them on the table. “If that’s not enough,” he said, “charge the rest.”
“Get whatever food you want. Try to eat some healthy things. Fish and vegetables.”
“Aunt Vivian will drop by often to see how things are going.”
“I hope she gives me some warning.”
“If you need anything, you can call her any time of the day or night.”
“I know. She’ll be all over me like flies on honey.”
“Hah-hah! Get out and get some fresh air.”
He breathed a sigh of relief when his father finally left and then, without missing a beat, he went to the phone and called his friend Colin Mayhew. Colin was one of the few people in school with whom he had anything in common. They were both repeatedly humiliated in gym class when they were chosen last for basketball.
“How are you, old friend?” he said cheerily into the phone.
“Fine,” Colin said. “Who is this?”
“This is your old friend August Wellington.”
“Oh, yeah. Hi.”
“What’s new and different with you today?”
“My mother is making me move some furniture for the painters.”
“Why don’t you sneak out and come over?”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“My father is gone and I have the whole house to myself.”
“I always love it when my parents go away and leave me alone,” Colin said.
“It doesn’t happen very often, though. They still think I’m a child.”
“So, do you feel like coming over or not?”
“I don’t know, August. I’m not much in the mood.”
“Well, get in the mood.”
“Some other time maybe. I’ve got a lot to do today and I’m tired.”
“You’re sixteen years old! How can you be tired?”
“It happens. My blood sugar is low.”
“Somebody called me this morning,” August said. “You’ll never guess who!”
“How do you know?”
“She called me, too. She’s calling everybody. She’s trying to get a big crowd at her swimming party next week.”
“You’re not going, are you?”
“Yeah,” Colin said. “I think I’ll go. It might be fun. If I feel uncomfortable, I can always say I have a funeral to go to and leave. How about you? Are you going?”
“I told her no.”
“That’s kind of rude, isn’t it?”
“I told her I’m having surgery that day.”
“You aren’t really, are you?”
“Get with it, Colin! You know me better than that.”
“When I can’t see your face, I can’t read the cues.”
“Well, do you want to come over and read some cues?”
“Not today, August. My head hurts and I’ve got eczema on my feet.”
“I get the idea. Well, maybe we’ll bump into each other some time this summer.”
“Sure, August. See you around.”
After he hung up the phone, he tried to call Aunt Vivian but her line was busy. It was probably better not to get her started, anyway.
He went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door to see what was there and then closed it again. Then into the dining room, where he pulled back the curtain and lifted the blind and looked out at the house next door. The people were away and the curtains drawn. Everybody has flown the coop. Nobody here but us chickens.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp
Glass Eye ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
He was a monster to even think such a thing, but the thoughts came into his head unbidden. He and Jewel didn’t have nearly enough money. What if it was just the two of them and they didn’t have Laurette to take care of? She was only two months old, so helpless lying on the bed, and something could easily happen to her. Babies die all the time.
Wait a minute, he thought. How could I even think such a thing? She exists in the world because of me and it’s not my place to think about removing her. Wait another minute. She’s mine and Jewel’s and we can do whatever we want with her, can’t we? The law doesn’t look at it that way. People can’t go around murdering (who said anything about murder?) children just because they’re not convenient or they cost too much money. Think about the stain on your immortal soul just for thinking such a thing.
I’m sorry, Lord. I would never do anything to hurt the precious little thing. But what if somebody was to take her off our hands? And who would that be? I don’t know. We could adopt her out. Adopt her out? Whoever heard of such a thing? People do much worse than that all the time.
When Jewel came home she was exhausted. She was pale and her hands were shaking. Black circles around her eyes.
“Where’s the baby?” she asked.
“Asleep,” he said.
She went into the bedroom and when she came out she had changed from her uniform into her bathrobe. Then to the kitchen to get started on supper.
He sat down at the table, his back against the wall, and opened the newspaper while she began peeling potatoes.
“You know I would never do anything to hurt Laurette, don’t you?” he said.
She turned and looked at him. “I guess I know that,” she said.
“If anything happened to her, I would die.”
“Did something happen today?”
“I don’t know. You seem guilty or something.”
“I’m not guilty.”
“What is it, then?”
“Feeling a little blue, I guess.”
She sighed and put down the knife. “You’re about to get even bluer,” she said.
“I got fired today.”
“They let me go today. One of the patients, an old woman, filed a complaint against me.”
“What kind of complaint?”
“She said I deliberately threw her glass eye in the trash.”
“She threw it in the trash. By mistake. All I did was empty the trash.”
“You knew it was in the trash?”
“Well, truthfully, I did know, but I pretended I didn’t. I was trying to teach the old bat a lesson to be more careful. Honestly, I never heard such a fuss over a stupid old glass eye. It’s just an old marble. She can easily get another one.”
“So they fired you over a glass eye.”
“Well, there were other complaints, too.”
“It doesn’t matter now. I want to put it all behind me.”
Later, when they were eating, he said, “I’m a terrible father.”
“Why do you say that?” she asked, not bothering to tell him it wasn’t true.
“You and Laurette would be better off if I went away somewhere.”
“Where would you go?”
“I don’t know. Drowning myself in the ocean seems like a sensible thing to do at this moment.”
“Feeling a little sorry for yourself?”
“No. Just speaking the truth.”
“I’m the one that got fired today and you’re feeling sorry for yourself.”
He pushed his plate aside and lit a cigarette, knowing she didn’t like it at the table.
“You’re smoking a lot,” she said.
“You’re not as hungry when you smoke.”
“Maybe I should take it up.”
“This afternoon I was thinking,” he said, “how much easier our lives would be if it was just the two of us and we didn’t have Laurette to take care of.”
“You can’t exactly wish her out of existence.”
“I wouldn’t even if I could.”
“Well, now I think there’s going to be another one.”
“I haven’t been to the doctor yet, but I’m pretty sure.”
“Tell me this isn’t happening.”
“You’re not happy about it?”
“I think you’re sorry you married me,” she said.
“That’s not quite true.”
“What do you mean, not quite true?”
“Well, tell me honestly,” he said, “if you knew then what you know now, would you do it again?”
“I wouldn’t either.”
“There’s never been a divorce in my family,” she said.
“And there won’t be one now.”
When they were finished eating, he cleared the table and washed the dishes while she tended to the baby.
She went to bed early, as soon as the sun went down, and lay on her back and made little buzzing sounds in her nose like a giant insect. He sat in front of the TV with the volume turned down, barely paying attention to what he was seeing. At eleven o’clock he got up and went to bed.
He dozed intermittently and when he heard the clock chime two, he got out of bed and dressed quietly. He walked through the house, looking at the furniture, the walls, the floors, everything. Finally he took one more look at Laurette and left.
He walked out to the edge of town to the highway and began walking westward out into the country. The farther he got from town, the more traffic picked up, mostly trucks. He began hitchhiking and in just a few minutes a truck driver stopped for him. He climbed up into the cab of the truck and smiled.
The driver wasn’t interested in talking or asking questions, so he put his head back and went to sleep. He wanted to lose himself in sleep and awake a better man in a different land, exactly as in a dream he once had that he wanted always to remember.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp
The Idiot ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
The title character in Dostoevsky’s 1869 novel The Idiot is Lyov Nikolayevitch Myshkin, or “Prince Myshkin,” as he is generally known. He is fair-haired, about twenty-eight, frail and unwell, an epileptic given to seizures at unexpected moments. For the last few years he has been living as a charity patient in a sanatorium in Switzerland. When the novel begins, he is released from the sanatorium, although he is not well, and is returning by train to his native Russia.
He comes into some money (less than he at first thought) that allows him to live without working. In Petersburg, he falls in with a collection of characters and finds himself so completely out of his depth because he is so unlike any of them. He seems to the others naïve and unworldly, trusting and good (in a world where there isn’t much that’s good). He earns the appellation “idiot,” not for lack of intelligence but for his simplicity.
Prince Myshkin befriends a family known as the Epanchins. The matriarch of the family, Lizaveta Prokofyevna Epanchin, is a distant relative of his and is in fact “Princess Myshkin.” The Epanchins have three daughters in their twenties. Prince Myshkin seems drawn to the youngest daughter, Aglaia. Whether she is drawn to him in return is not immediately clear, not even to her. The Epanchins waver in their belief that Prince Myshkin is an acceptable son-in-law. If they start to have a favorable opinion of him, something always happens to make them change their minds. His potential marriage to Aglaia is an on-again, off-again proposition.
In the meantime, Prince Myshkin has fallen in love (or thinks he is) with Natasya Filippovna Barashkov. She is a flighty, changeable woman who is known for her beauty but, more notoriously, for being the “kept” mistress of a wealthy man. She is both reviled and admired at the same time. Prince Myshkin decides he wants to marry this woman, although he hardly seems to know her. For her part, she is lukewarm toward him. She thinks at times about marrying him while at other times she makes fun of him for being an “idiot.” (If he had any sense, he would get as far away from her as possible.)
Also in love with Natasya Filippovna are Gavril Ardalionovitch Ivolgin (known as “Ganya”) and Parfyon Semyonovitch Rogozhin (on the train with Prince Myshkin when the novel begins and with him also at the end, playing an important role in how the story is resolved). Gavril Ardalionovitch Ivolgin is the older son of the Ivolgins. His father, General Ardalion Alexandrovitch Ivolgin, is one of the most colorful characters in the book. He tells improbable stories about historical events in which he played a part in his younger days (one a long, involved story about being a “page” for Napoleon when Napoleon’s armies invaded Russia).
The introduction of The Idiot states that it’s a “digressive” novel, meaning there’s a lot that happens that doesn’t have anything to do with the plot. It’s a long book (559 dense pages) that could have been shorter if it hadn’t seen so “digressive.” That’s the way with Russian novels, though. Forget tight plotting and economy of words. In one of the digressions, the character Ippolit Terentyev, who is dying of consumption, writes a long, long “explanation” of his life, which he then reads to a roomful of people, for no apparent reason. That’s not to say it’s not interesting, but it just doesn’t seem to serve any purpose.
There’s a character list at the beginning of the book that helps to keep the characters straight, especially since the same character will be referred to by one name in one place and then referred to by another name in a different place. For example, the person we have come to know as “Prince Myshkin” is called “Lyov Nikolayevitch” a little farther along. I found myself referring to the character list a lot.
For the dedicated reader of “heavy” reading (not “light,” not “breezy”), or for the fan of Russian novels, The Idiot is a fascinating reading experience. I was really glad to get to the last page. The next book I read will be something fun and easy.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp
Baby ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Louise was gone for three days. When she returned home, she was carrying a bundle in the crook of her arm.
“Where have you been all this time?” Theodore asked. “I was about to call the police.”
“Oh, you silly thing!” Louise said. “Where do you think I’ve been? I’ve been giving birth to your son.”
She lifted the corner of the blanket to show him the baby’s face.
“This one has blue eyes,” Theodore said.
“He has your eyes.”
“My eyes are brown.”
“I think I’m going to name him Nathaniel,” she said. “After Hawthorne.”
“Name him whatever you want.”
“If I give him the name of a great writer, he might turn out to be a great writer himself.”
“You like that name?”
“It’s as good as any other, I suppose.”
She laid the baby down gently on the couch and took off her coat and laughed. “Believe me,” she said. “It’s not easy carrying a newborn baby home on the uptown bus. I had to stand up the whole way, holding the baby in one hand and trying to keep from falling with the other. You’d think a gentleman might have given me his seat, but nobody even noticed me.”
“I could have come down and met you.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” she said. “I managed perfectly fine. And, anyway, I wanted to surprise you. What do you think of our new son?”
“He’s, uh…I can’t seem to find the words. I’m speechless.”
“I know! It’s a shock, isn’t it? Seeing him for the first time?”
“Especially since I didn’t know he was expected.”
“But that makes it that much more fun, doesn’t it?”
“If you say so.”
“Now, don’t you be an old grump puss! I’m going to need lots of help from you with this baby. Feeding him, changing his diapers, bathing him, and all the rest of it.”
“I don’t think that baby is going to be any trouble at all,” he said.
“No, of course not! He’s such a good baby! I can tell already, as young as he is.”
Theodore played piano in a jazz combo in a bar, so he had to leave to go to work. “Don’t wait up for me,” he said.
“Have a good time,” she said, “and don’t worry about me. The baby and I will be here when you get back.”
With Theodore gone, Louise was glad to have some time alone with the baby. She carried him into every room in the apartment, talking to him all the while, even though she knew he didn’t understand a word she said. She fed him, bathed him, and put him to bed in the crib at the foot of her own bed.
She slept until one o’clock, at which time she got up and fed him again. After she put him back in his crib and got back into bed, she had trouble going back to sleep. She kept thinking about how Theodore didn’t seem very happy about the baby. Well, men, she thought. You can’t ever tell what they’re thinking or how they really feel. They keep it all bottled up inside.
At two o’clock she still hadn’t gone back to sleep. She got up and checked on the baby and when she saw he was sleeping peacefully she knew the problem wasn’t with the baby but with her. She was lonely and sad. She picked up the sleeping baby and put him in the bed beside her. After that she was able to go to sleep.
Theodore came home about three-thirty. He undressed quietly and got into bed and after he had lain there a couple of minutes Louise began to cry.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“I’m not going to have any more children,” she said.
“I don’t think you love them.”
“Could we postpone this conversation to another time? I’m very tired.”
“Take Nathaniel and put him with the others. They need to get acquainted.”
“I just got into bed. Can’t you do it?”
“You’re the father.”
He sighed and got out of bed again without turning on the light. He picked Nathaniel up by the neck and carried him out of the room and down the hallway to another room. In this room was a bed with six lifelike plastic dolls lying side by side, all exactly like Nathaniel. He added Nathaniel to the collection and went back to bed.
“Better now?” he asked Louise.
“And this is going to be the last one?”
“Yes, I think so. Seven is my lucky number.”
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp