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The Sun King ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Sun King ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

King Louis XIV was born in 1638 and became king of France in 1643 at age five. He remained king until his death in 1715. His reign of 72 years and 110 days is the longest reign in history for any European monarch. Beginning in 1682 and for about the last 32 years of Louis’s reign, the Palace of Versailles (about twelve miles from Paris) was the seat of French government and the home of the king, his family and the French court.

Louis XIV himself built the Palace of Versailles, starting with a small chateau with a moat, into the most lavish palace in Europe. It remained the seat of French government for over a hundred years, until the beginning of the French Revolution. Today it still stands as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.

Louis XIV was anointed by God, or so he believed (and so did everybody else). He was God’s representative on earth. People stood in awe of him; even his own children trembled in his presence. He was a tyrant when he needed to be, but he also had a more human side. He loved and hated in equal measure.

The Sun King by Nancy Mitford is an account of King Louis XIV and his life in the Palace of Versailles, his family and associates, his enemies, his weaknesses, his foibles, his hunting and eating habits, his mistresses, his children (legitimate and otherwise), his wars, and his political successes and failures. He was called the Sun King because he chose the sun as his personal symbol.

The Palace of Versailles was, at any given moment, home to hundreds if not thousands of courtiers, servants, hangers-on, members of the royal family and others. People were always seeking the gain the King’s favor. Most of the jobs in the palace, down to the most menial, were held by members of one family, from generation to generation. These positions were lucrative and much desired.

Life wasn’t always wonderful for the people living at the Palace of Versailles. Many people died young. Infant mortality rates were high. The King himself fathered seventeen children; ten of them died in infancy. Doctors were, at best, barely capable and many were incompetent. No matter what the illness, doctors “bled” the patient, which proved to be largely ineffective. People died of “stone” (kidney or gall). Smallpox was a constant threat, even among the highborn. The king himself had surgery for an anal fistula, without, of course, any anesthetic. He survived it, without complaint.

No matter what was happening in their lives, no matter what tragedy befell them, these lords and ladies loved to go out hunting. Pity the poor stags and other animals that lived in the woods nearby.

The Sun King is mostly fascinating reading. The narrative bogs down, in my estimation, when the focus is on politics and the political rivals of the king. It is sometimes hard to keep all the names straight because different people are referred to at different times by different names. There are so many children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, friends and enemies of the king (some with unpronounceable and forgettable names) that we don’t always know who’s who, no matter how carefully we’re reading. For example, Mme. de Montespan (sometimes referred to as Athenais) is the King’s longtime mistress. Then the King marries Mme. de Maintenon. Montespan and Maintenon are both prominent characters in the King’s life and their names are almost interchangeable. Such is history.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Other Voices, Other Rooms ~ A Capsule Book Review

Other Voices, Other Rooms ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Truman Capote (1925-1984) is one of those twentieth century American writers whose life nearly overshadows his work. In the 1960s and ‘70s he became a media celebrity and a New York fixture of the jet-setting social scene. He counted as his friends politicians, actors, artists, entertainers, and other writers (to whom he wasn’t always very charitable). He was known for his fey wit, his eccentricity, and his alcoholism, which eventually ended his life prematurely at age fifty-nine.

He was only twenty-three or so when he published his famous coming-of-age novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. It is a floridly descriptive account of an odd thirteen-year-old boy named Joel Harrison Knox (Capote himself). Joel lives with eccentric relatives in New Orleans in, it is to be supposed, the 1940s. When his mother dies, his New Orleans guardian receives a letter from his father (supposedly), inviting Joel to come and live with him in another (unidentified) Southern state.

The place that Joel goes to live is called Skullys Landing, or simply “the Landing.” It is an old house without electricity on the edge of a swamp. It seems the swamp is reclaiming the house; it is slowly sinking (four inches last year). It is the perfect Southern Gothic setting.

The residents of the Landing are—you guessed it!—even more eccentric than the relatives Joel left behind in New Orleans. There’s Zoo, the black girl in her twenties who keeps house for the family. She has a scar on her neck where a bad man tried to slit her throat. She lives in fear that the man will escape from jail and finish the job. Zoo is kind to Joel, so the two of them become friends. Miss Amy is Joel’s stepmother; she is married to Joel’s father and is something of a nonentity. And then there’s flamboyant, fluttery, kimono-wearing Cousin Randolph. He apparently owns the Landing. He talks a lot about the past in flowery language because his present life is that of a shut-in.

But what of Joel’s father? Why is everybody being so mysterious about him? It takes a while for Joel to unravel the mystery of his father. The father does indeed exist but he’s a helpless invalid. (He didn’t write the letter inviting Joel to come and live with him; it was written by Randolph.)

In a long monologue (soliloquy?), Randolph tells the sordid story of the boxer Pepe Alvarez, a woman whom Randolph claimed to be in love with named Delores, Randolph himself, Joel’s father, Miss Amy, and how they all arrived at the point where they are now.

Joel meets other colorful characters while he’s living at the Landing: the rough-and-tumble, acid-tongued tomboy Idabel Thompkins, with whom he plans to run away; the black midget man over a hundred years old named Jesus Fever (he’s Zoo’s grandfather or something); Miss Wisteria, the vivacious, midget circus performer with whom Idabel becomes infatuated.

Other Voices, Other Rooms was a literary sensation when it was first published in 1948, mostly because Truman Capote was only twenty-three years old, it was his first novel and it launched his literary career. It is an essential work in the canon of twentieth century American fiction, not to be missed.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp       

The Diary of a Nobody ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Diary of a Nobody ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Charlie Pooter is a middle-aged, middle-class Englishman living his proper English life in the 1880s. He has a wife named Carrie and two bosom friends named Mr. Gowing and Mr. Cummings. He also has an exasperating twenty-year-old son named Lupin Pooter. Charlie and his son Lupin almost always find themselves on opposite sides of any issue. Lupin is brash, irreverent, spontaneous and impulsive, all qualities his father deplores.

Charlie is a clerk in an accounting firm. He has an almost reverential respect for his company and for his boss, Mr. Perkupp. He believes that Mr. Perkupp is infallible in all things, almost god-like. He calls Mr. Perkupp his “principal” and his “superior.” We, the reader, see Mr. Perkupp as a company functionary and nothing more, completely unworthy of adoration.

In an attempt to document his thoroughly mundane and uneventful life, Charlie Pooter undertakes the writing of a diary. This diary is the odd little novel called The Diary of a Nobody by a writer named George Grossmith. (The book contains illustrations by Weedon Grossmith, brother of George.) We are told in the background information that George Grossmith was more of a musical performer and an actor than a writer, but he wrote this novel and it has endured for more than 130 years. I never heard of it until recently.

The novel is all diary entries and many of the entries deal with Charlie Pooter being bettered and outdone by his wife, his son, his friends, the servant, or just about anybody else he comes into contact with. Charlie means well, but he is feckless and not very bright. (When he’s leaving a room, trying to be dignified, he will more likely than not catch his foot on the edge of the rug and fall down.) His fondest hope in life is that Mr. Perkupp with take Lupin into his office. When this dream is realized, Lupin discovers right away that he is made for better things. He is never going to be happy with the kind of bowing-and-scraping, subservient life that is good enough for his father.

The Diary of a Nobody is a satire, breezy, light reading, fun to read and entertaining. It may be just the thing you’re looking for after you’ve finished War and Peace.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Cleanness ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Cleanness ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

American author Garth Greenwell’s (born 1978) new novel, Cleanness, is told in the first-person voice of an American high school teacher in present-day Sofia, Bulgaria. The narrator of Cleanness never tells us his name. He is only ever known to us as “I” or “me.” Since I don’t know anything about Garth Greenwell, I strongly suspect he’s writing about himself and his own experiences in Bulgaria, since he seems to know the country—and the city of Sofia—so well.

Cleanness is more a collection of interrelated short stories than a plot-driven novel. Each chapter (story) is told in the same voice, the same point of view, but each story could stand alone. There is no plot to speak of, but that doesn’t mean it’s a dud as a novel. Each chapter is compelling in its own right; you don’t know where the whole thing is going until the end. At the end, we get a sense of completeness, of wholeness.

The narrator of  Cleanness is gay but, since he lives in a former communist country that is not particularly welcoming to the gay way of life, he mostly is “closeted,” adhering, as a teacher of high school students, to a code of ethics. He never touches, or becomes too familiar with, any of his male students, no matter how much he might want to. In one chapter near the end of the book he and two of his male students go out drinking in clubs to celebrate his leaving; he is attracted to the older of the two boys, who is about eighteen (and the feeling seems to be reciprocated), but it never goes any farther than dancing together and flirting.

The narrator never mentions his age, but we assume he is in his thirties. He is not a particularly happy man. He alludes to, obliquely, an unhappy childhood that has left him scarred. We get the sense that he’s teaching school in Bulgaria to escape an unhappy life. He says he likes living abroad, so he is in a way a disaffected American. He has a “boyfriend,” known only as “R,” who is younger and from Portugal. He and R. are in love, the narrator says, but it’s a love that’s not going to work out, we see, because R. is young, unsettled, and doesn’t seem to know what he wants.

A couple of the chapters are intensely sexual. In one, the narrator (in trying to recover from a broken heart) has an encounter with an older man he has met on the Internet. The older man is frightening because he is a sadist who likes to inflict pain on his sexual partners. This episode ends up being repellent and distasteful. In another episode, the narrator meets a man who recognizes no limits when it comes to sex. He doesn’t care if his sexual partners are “old and ugly.” He doesn’t care if he gets sick; he only lives for the moment and wants only to be “used.” (This is a not a book I’d recommend to my ninety-year-old mother.)

Garth Greenwell’s previous novel, published in 2016, is What Belongs to You, which is also about an American man teaching high school in Sofia, Bulgaria. It also is told in the first-person point of view. The narrator, it seems, in both novels is the same. Cleanness if not exactly a continuation or a sequel to What Belongs to You, but the two books are enough alike to make a matched pair. For my money, the first book is the stronger of the two. It will be interesting to see what Garth Greenwell does for his next novel. Will he set it in Sofia, Bulgaria again, or some other highly unusual, foreign locale?

Copyright 2020 by Allen Kopp

A Room With a View ~ A Capsule Book Review

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A Room With a View ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

E. M. Forster’s 1908 novel, A Room With a View, has as its heroine an upper-middle-class English girl named Lucy Honeychurch. Lucy is about twenty-two and is a product of her time. She has hairy armpits, plays the piano (too much Beethoven makes her cross), and is thoroughly conventional. She has a fussy mother and an obstreperous eighteen-year-old brother named Freddy.

Lucy is engaged to a fellow name Cecil Vyse. He is everything you might expect in a prospective match for Lucy: snobby, prissy, conventional, priggish. He has his own idea of the “feminine ideal” and expects Lucy to conform to it. He is constantly “correcting” Lucy to “make her better.” Lucy is all too willing to try to be what Cecil wants her to be. At first.

Lucy’s family, even though they’re not rich, have time and money to travel. When Lucy undertakes a trip to Florence, Italy, she takes as her “companion” and “chaperone” her cousin, Miss Charlotte Bartlett. Charlotte is described as a “nervous old maid.” She is annoyingly self-effacing and proper. When Lucy looks at Charlotte, she sees what she is likely to become herself in twenty or twenty-five years if she isn’t careful.

At their “pension” (small hotel) in Florence, Lucy and Charlotte encounter a problem with their room. They were promised a room with a view of the River Arno, but instead have only a view of a courtyard. Two “gentlemen” staying at the pension, Mr. Emerson and his son George, kindly offer to switch rooms with the two English ladies. Charlotte doesn’t think it’s “proper” to exchange rooms with two strange men, but she agrees in the end for Lucy’s sake.

Lucy doesn’t know what to make of the Emersons. Mr. Emerson is eccentric and seems to not have a full row of buttons; he is rumored to have murdered his wife. George is alarmingly uninterested in propriety or in what people might think of him. When he evinces a romantic interest in Lucy (culminating in a furtive kiss among a profusion of flowers on a hillside), she doesn’t know what to make of it. Her instinct is to run away.

Back in England, Lucy is preparing to marry Cecil Vyse, believing she has put the memory of George Emerson behind her. Wait a minute, though! George and his father are renting a “small villa” in the neighborhood where Lucy lives with her mother and brother. She and George will be neighbors and she’ll be running into him around every corner! Gasp! What’s a girl to do?

George and Freddy, Lucy’s brother, become friends. When Freddy invites George to the Honeychurch home for a round of Sunday tennis, George, cad that he is, steals another kiss from Lucy, this time on the “garden path” when he thinks nobody is looking. Now Lucy is completely thrown off-course! Can she go ahead and marry Cecil Vyse when she has such conflicting (hot and cold) feelings about George?

It seems that spending time in Italy has changed Lucy, made her look at life in a different way. She has “found her soul” and it’s all because of Italy. She is ready to slough off the stultifying convention of her age and upbringing. She is ready to step away from the straight-and-narrow course that has been laid out for her and step into a course of her own choosing.

E. M. Forster’s novels are gem-like, so carefully and precisely written; never pretentious or overly wordy. Every word has its place. There’s none of the extraneous claptrap and tortuously twisted sentences that you might find in the work of writers such as Virginia Woolf or Henry James. If you’ve never ready any books by E. M. Forster, you’re missing out on something good. If, on the other hand, you don’t give a rat’s ass about good writing or good fiction, you’re probably better off to have never heard the name.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Mirage Factory by Gary Krist is “historical narrative,” a fascinating nonfiction book that is as easy to read and as entertaining as good fiction. It is the story of how an improbable city, Los Angeles, came to exist in an improbable place, the parched American Southwest. More significantly, it is the story of how three different people (Amy Semple McPherson, William Mulholland and D. W. Griffith) contributed, in their own unique ways, to the formation, growth, moral fabric, and culture of what would one day be the second-largest city in the United Sates.

In the 1890s, Los Angeles was a small, dusty town in the California desert, where farms and citrus groves were the most prominent feature of the landscape. Nobody at that time envisioned Los Angeles as one day becoming a great American megalopolis. For one thing, there wasn’t enough water. It was, after all, the desert, plenty hot and largely inhospitable to most people’s way of thinking. (And what about those Gila monsters?)

One person, self-taught civil engineer William Mulholland, was largely responsible for bringing Los Angeles the water supply it needed to grow into a major city. People from all parts of the country were drawn to Los Angeles for its “newness” and “cleanness,” its almost perpetual sunshine, its scenic wonders, its proximity to the ocean and its uniquely Anglo-Saxon personality. So what if there wasn’t enough water to sustain a phenomenally growing population? That’s where William Mulholland came onto the scene. He devised and oversaw the building of an elaborate aqueduct system from the Owens River, over two hundred miles from Los Angeles. The project was beset with legal and logistical problems from the first. The residents of the Owens River Valley weren’t too happy about their water supply being commandeered (“stolen”) by distant Los Angeles. The situation erupted into small war.

The movies began as a cheap pastime for the lower classes in the large cities of the eastern United States in the 1890s. For one trifling nickel, a person seeking thrills and excitement could patronize the local “Nickelodeon” and see short films (some of which were only a minute or two long) of mundane scenes, such as an approaching train, a cow nurturing a newborn calf, or a scantily clad woman dancing the hoochie-koochie.

As movies became longer and technically more sophisticated, they gained a wider audience. The making, distribution and exhibition of movies became an industry, settled first around the East coast and then moving to California for its agreeable climate. Soon, movies were a bonafide American artform with the potential of generating obscene amounts of money for its artists. Hollywood and Los Angeles became synonymous.

David Wark Griffith was an early film pioneer. He is known as the “father” of movies, the creator of the movie picture narrative “language.” His vision for making movies was big and bold. His 1915 epic Birth of a Nation was a landmark film that set the standard for movies to follow. It made a tremendous amount of money and emboldened Griffith to make even bigger movies. His Intolerance was also a grand vision and expensive to produce. With its incoherent storyline about man’s inhumanity to man, Intolerance was a critical and commercial failure and a huge career setback for Griffith.

Aimee Semple McPherson was a Canadian Pentecostal evangelist who was instructed by God (she believed) to make Los Angeles her home base. She was a charismatic figure whose message was one of hope and redemption, rather than doom and hellfire. Her sermons were entertaining, uplifting and sometimes theatrical. (She even did “faith healings” on occasion.) She gained a huge and devoted following and established the influential Angelus Temple in Los Angeles. She held coast-to-coast radio services and was soon almost universally known. She became a cultural phenomenon and was arguably the most famous woman in the United States from the 1910s into the Depression era of the 1930s and the war years of the 1940s.

So, what did the Evangelist (Amy Semple McPherson), the Artist (D. W. Griffith), and the Engineer (William Mulholland) have in common? They were all flawed human beings in their own right and each experienced a spectacular fall from grace through pride, overreaching and the taint of early success. Their lives and destinies were inextricably interwoven with Los Angeles during the early days of its phenomenal growth from a small, sleepy desert town to a magnificent city, a megalopolis, that could compete with any other city in the world.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

City of Night ~ A Capsule Book Review

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City of Night ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

American author John Rechy was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1931. His novel, City of Night, was a literary sensation when it was first published in 1963, a best seller, and now an acknowledged “modern classic.” It’s an unusual novel in that it has no story or plot to speak of and is written in a loosely structured, stream-of-consciousness style.

The novel is narrated in the voice of an unnamed “youngman.” (The words “young” followed by “man” are always one word in the novel.) The narrator is on a nighttime quest for acceptance and validation in America’s largest cities in, let us say, the late 1950s. He is a drunk, a “hustler,” a male prostitute, a versatile homosexual who will never (hardly ever) turn anybody down, no matter how creepy or repellant they are. He gets money in exchange for sex with (all kinds of) strangers, but money isn’t the real reason he does what he does. He does what he does out of loneliness and a need for acceptance.

What large American city the narrator is in doesn’t matter, because when it comes to the nighttime, urban sex scene, all cities are the same, whether it’s New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, or New Orleans. His world is peopled by hustlers like himself, “scores” (men who pay hustlers for sex), sex-starved women, older men who prey on younger men in movie theatres or public toilets, “screaming queens” (gay men who try to be like women), and worn-out hustlers who no longer attract the kind of following they once had because their one saleable commodity, youthful sexual attractiveness, is not what it once was.

This one passage toward the end of City of Night encapsulates the novel perfectly:

Times Square, Pershing Square, Market Street, the concrete beach in Chicago…movie balconies, bars, dark hunting parks: fusing for me into one City…Yes, if I take the subway, I’ll be on 42nd Street. Or in Bryant Park, or on the steps of the library, waiting for Mr. King…or in the park in Chicago, also waiting…Or if I hitchhike on this street, I’ll be on Hollywood Boulevard, which will be lighted like a huge electric snake—and there, I’ll meet…

And ghostfaces, ghostwords, ghostrooms haunt me: Cities joined together by that emotional emptiness, blending with darkcity into a vastly stretching plain, into the city of night of the soul.

Despite its subject matter, City of Night is not overly sexually graphic by today’s standards. It was a “groundbreaking” novel for its time for its candor and explicitness, but that was fifty-seven years ago. What shocked people then does not necessarily shock them now.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Roanoke, Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Roanoke, Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

During the long reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England (1558-1603), there were malcontents—religious dissenters and Separatists—who didn’t like their country and wanted to live elsewhere. England was overcrowded, disease-ridden, and becoming more and more libertine and loose in its values. Constant religious fighting raged among Catholics, Protestants, and Church of England. The New World, which meant the North American continent, beckoned. It was largely untouched and contained unlimited land and unimaginable natural resources, which would translate into wealth, power and prestige. Every European power wanted to be the first to claim this prize.

In 1587 a group of 115 colonists set out for the New World. Their destination was the Chesapeake Bay, but they ended up on Roanoke Island off the coast of what is today North Carolina. Roanoke Island was completely unsuited for colonization. The colonists believed they would, in time, be relocated to a better place. They were essentially abandoned, cast off, sacrificed. What was going on here? Their leader, John White, set off to England to get help (the voyage across the Atlantic took about four months). He promised to return as quickly as he could with supplies and whatever help was needed. He had a personal interest in the venture because his daughter was among the colonists. When he returned to Roanoke Island three long years later, there was not a sign of the 115 colonists. They seemed to have vanished, along with their houses and any other trace of them. What could have happened to them? Were supernatural forces at play? It’s a mystery that has endured for four hundred years.

In the nonfiction book, Roanoke, Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony, author Lee Miller lays out a compelling case that the 115 Roanoke colonists were sabotaged by someone who didn’t want the venture to succeed. Who could that someone be? There were only a few men in the government powerful enough to pull off such a scheme. Lee Miller narrows it down to Walsingham, powerful member of the queen’s Privy Council. Walsingham despised the upstart Sir Walter Raleigh, who had become the queen’s favorite. If the colony had been a success, it would have been in a feather in Raleigh’s cap. If it failed, it would cast a pall over Raleigh’s career from which he might never recover.

Several rescue attempts were launched to save the 115 colonists stranded on the inhospitable Roanoke Island, but all of them failed or were scuttled by co-conspirators who were in on the plot. The 115 colonists were left to die, to fade away, to succumb to disease and starvation. And why was their fate such a mystery over all the centuries? Why was the public left to believe that the colonists simply “disappeared?” They didn’t just disappear; they were sacrificed and then the truth was covered up. If the truth had been told, it would have been very bad publicity for colonization in the New World.

Roanoke, Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony is a minutely and meticulously detailed account of the feckless and ill-advised Roanoke Colony, of the treachery and political machinations that made the venture the failure it was. The message is simple: powerful politicians will screw over anybody they can, will double-deal their way into hell, and then lie about it to make sure the truth is never known. Sound familiar?

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Muscle for the Wing ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Muscle for the Wing ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

We first met boxer-turned-policeman Rene Shade in Daniel Woodrell’s 1986 novel, Under the Bright Lights. He’s back two years later in Muscle for the Wing, another crime romp set in the fictional bayou city of St. Bruno. Muscle for the Wing is not as atmospheric as  Under the Bright Lights, but there’s still plenty of murder, mayhem and people doing ugly things to each other.

Wanda Bone Bouvier is the redhaired femme fatale in Muscle for the Wing. (She inflames men’s passions, don’t you know.) She’s married to the much-older Ronnie Bouvier, who is behind bars.  She claims to love Ronnie, but that does not keep her from being carnally unfaithful with tough-guy Emil Jadick. She’s going to get revenge on Emil for Ronnie’s sake (and at his direction from the state penitentiary), but she admits openly that she “digs” Emil’s muscular body. (She’s a good-time girl who will take her fun wherever she can get it.) Emil wants Wanda to be his number-one girl—and his alone—not knowing she will eventually hurt him in a big way. When she gets a job as a do-anything stripper in a naughty nightclub, it’s all part of Ronnie’s plan.

When young, off-duty police officer Gerry Bell is shot to death at a gentlemen’s poker game at the country club by intruders set on robbing the wealthy poker players, police officer Rene Shade is called in to figure out what happened. Evidence leads to Emil Jadick and his two dimwitted associates, all members of a white supremacist prison clique called “the Wing.”

World-weary, boxer-turned-policeman Rene Shade has lived in St. Bruno his whole life; he knows the city and he knows the people. In investigating the murder of Gerry Bell, he’s drawn into a morass of crime and corruption, involving some of his old friends and associates, including friend-since-childhood Shuggie Zeck, who beats his wife to a bloody pulp. In St. Bruno, everybody is tainted in some way. There’s no such thing as innocence. Everybody is guilty of something. You can’t even tell the good people from the bad ones.

Daniel Woodrell is one of the best current American writers. If you like redneck noir, nobody does it better. His books are a delight to read, even if you are on your second reading. I highly recommend The Death of Sweet Mister and Tomato Red.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Nickel Boys ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Nickel Boys ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Nickel Boys, won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It’s a story about a fictional (but based in reality) boys’ reformatory in Florida, the Nickel Academy, in the early 1960s.

The principal character is a black teen named Elwood Curtis. Elwood lives with—and is raised by—his grandmother, Harriet, since his parents have run off and left him. Harriet works as a maid in a hotel.

Elwood is a “good” boy who doesn’t get into trouble the way some of his friends do. He works in a small store that sells newspapers, cigarettes, and candy and he understands the value of an education. When he is riding in a stolen car that he doesn’t even know is stolen, he is arrested and ends up being sentenced to the Nickel Academy.

Elwood is out of his depth at Nickel, meaning he doesn’t belong there. He meets all kinds of other boys, some of them friendly and others bullying and cruel. They all have one thing in common: they are all part of a cruel and unjust system that punishes young people, black and white, who haven’t yet reached adulthood. Boys are routinely mistreated (inadequate food), beaten, locked in solitary confinement or a “sweat box,” or sexually assaulted. Those who commit a serious enough transgression might be beaten and tortured to death and, after their bodies are furtively buried, reported to have “run off.”

When state inspectors come to Nickel for an inspection, management puts on a good show to demonstrate that they are taking good care of their charges, even to the point of serving good food with ice cream for dessert (on that day only). Elwood Curtis has a plan. He has been keeping a written record of what conditions are really like at Nickel and how people are really being treated. He hopes to slip the written record to one of the inspectors without any of the Nickel employees seeing. He’s taking a dangerous risk; if he gets caught, it could mean the end of him.

The Nickel Boys is a good book, but I think you will agree it’s not a great book. It’s the companion piece to a novel from three years ago called The Underground Railroad, which also won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. (Colson Whitehead is one of only four writers to win two Pulitzer Prizes for fiction in their careers; the others are Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner, and John Updike.) Both novels deal with black issues while embracing universal themes of belonging, oneness, isolation, and functioning in a world that is very often unjust to anybody of any skin color.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp