Thomas McNulty, a refugee of the Irish famine in mid-19th century America, chances upon fellow orphan John Cole, and they stumble into a life together. They become the unlikely entertainment for miners in a Daggsville saloon. But once their boyish looks begin to fade, they’re soldiers, swept up in an atrocious campaign against America’s native tribes. One thing leads another, not least the American Civil War.
But the bitter struggle against ‘Johnny Reb’ is mostly background to the human story that propels everything. A surprising development from the early chapters is that McNulty and Cole adopt an orphaned Sioux girl, whom they name Winona because her real name is too tricky to pronounce. The soul of the novel lies with this tentative family of orphans, trying to survive in a shattered, confused America that must nonetheless be their home, their land.
McNulty’s rambling narration, looking back on these heady days, pulls you right in. He omits, forgets, leaps back and forth within his own history, but he tells a cracking good tale – a grand, gruelling adventure threaded finely through the chaos of war. He pauses to offer folksy but powerful philosophies. He lingers on fantastic descriptions of the natural world he has encountered, from the thick, ancient redwoods of California, to the fractured creeks of Tennessee. In between there’s a damp spring in Massachusetts and a brutal winter stuck inside an infamous Georgia POW camp. All of this travel and trouble comes wrapped in a breezy Irish-American-Yankee vernacular. McNulty’s facility for capturing all kinds of beauty, violence, tenderness and terror within that idiom never seems a stretch.
It’s as if we have pulled up a bar stool next to one of the great storytellers. The night is drawing on, but we hardly notice, as the unlikely, thrilling tales keep on coming, as well as the darker moments, wracked by trauma, as this man comes to terms with the things he has seen and done.
“There didn’t seem to be anything alive, including ourselves. We were dislocated, we were not there, now we were ghosts.”
I’ve created the artwork for a new podcast, Folk Tunes and Englishness. This will be a three-part series in which Dr Alice Little explores English traditional music, its history, and how it is played and passed on today, with input from various musicians, researchers and collectors.
Very glad to be a small part of this, and podcast art is an exciting first for me!
Dr Alice Little, Knowledge Exchange Fellow with the University of Oxford and the English Folk Dance and Song Society, speaks with folk musicians and researchers Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne, Nicola Beazley, Stewart Hardy, Tom Kitching, and Marie Bashiru about the borders of English folk music – regionally, racially, and conceptually.
From the traditions of the North East to those of the North West, from Scottish musicians in England to the influences of Irish immigration, this episode features recordings of a range of folk music (including previously unreleased tracks) in addition to the discussion.
The unnamed, isolated city state where Anna Blume searches in vain for her missing brother is extreme in its desolation, its daily hardship, its moral rot, its cruel bureaucracy, even in its nature, with a brutal, historically ‘Terrible Winter’ to make the urban nightmare even less survivable. The subcultures that spring up in this doomed world, including comically bizarre death cults, precisely different disciplines of scavenging, and a resourceful criminal underbelly, are briefly sketched, but enough to build a horrific overall impression and a gripping backdrop to Anna’s tale.
This sort of dystopian near-future setting makes this novel in one way an outlier in Paul Auster’s work, but otherwise it has so many of his hallmarks — a protagonist on an obsessive, all-consuming personal quest, a fluid, absorbing narrative marked by sudden changes of fortune, and memorable oddball characters encountered along the way.
Perhaps it’s not quite toppled the mighty Moon Palace as my absolute favourite Auster novel, but it’s up there.
I’ve been nudged in the direction of Invisible Cities numerous times over the years, but it took a friend posting a copy to me before I got around to reading it at long last.
In the palace grounds of the Great Kublai Khan, puffing on a long amber pipe, swaying in a hammock, Marco Polo describes to his host many of the most obscure and curious corners of the ruler’s vast, unmanageable empire. Most of the places are summed up in less than a page, with just space for a splendid scenic tableau (often a traveller’s intoxicated first impression) before theres a sharp, strange turn in the telling. A report might read as a thought experiment, a satire, a gentle parable, a mind-bending paradox — most could be very different things to different people.
Certain images and ideas will fix themselves in the memory especially strongly. For me these included Leonia, so fixated on the brand-new that ‘the street cleaners are welcomed like angels’ and it exists at the centre of an enormous crater of its own expunged rubbish — a pristine city hemmed in by a chain of compressed garbage-mountains that grow by the day. Then there’s Thekla, perpetually under construction out of fear of ruin. Eusapia, with its enormous subterranean necropolis, a somewhat idealised version of the living city above, curated by a mysterious group of hooded brothers, is one of the creepiest vignettes.
Each far-flung metropolis is differently striking, and Calvino never lets Marco Polo linger too long on one and risk breaking the spell. The concentrated imagination poured into each page is inspiring.
Mark Mordue was at work on a complete biography of Nick Cave when events in both of their lives around 2015 caused the ambitious project to fizzle out. ‘I’m a different person now,’ Cave said, seeming to draw a line under his long-standing co-operation. Mordue has since returned to his extensive research, but now he zooms in on Cave’s formative years. Boy On Fire looks in detail at every fad and phase, every side of Cave that can be traced prior to him leaving Australia in February 1980. These include the tearaway schoolboy, the dreaming junkie, the tyrannical frontman and the sensitive young soul blindsided by the death of his father. There are other dimensions to the young Nick we might not immediately recognise.
Mordue finds so much that connects with the Nick Cave of 2021, including how he uses imagination to reckon with personal tragedy. In fact, everything is grist to his mill. His early collaborator and girlfriend Anita Lane once told him, ‘If you were hit by a car, you’d reach for your pencil and try to write what it was like before you died.’
For fans it’s thrilling to read of moments and images from Cave’s early days that will surface in his songs years, even decades, later. A very particular stretch of the Ovens River flows from Wangaratta into multiple lyrics, most notably Sad Waters. The hopeful wisdom of Colin Cave underpins Nature Boy.
My father said, don’t look away You got to be strong, you got to be bold, now He said, that in the end it is beauty That is going to save the world, now
A good music bio has you constantly looking up the tracks and bands it mentions. This one also directs you toward painters (Matthias Grünewald, Egon Schiele, Sidney Nolan, the Dadaists) and writers (Dostoevsky, Alfred Jarry, Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor). It’s a soup of reference that thickens as Cave assimilates culture like there’s no tomorrow, and feeds it all back into his nascent band, The Boys Next Door.
Mordue has aimed for Boy On Fire to show Cave at the centre of ‘a kaleidoscope of people and stories’. He’s particularly strong on the subculture that congregated in the Crystal Ballroom (a legendary venue in St Kilda, then Melbourne’s bohemian-attracting red light district) to watch post-punk bands in the late 70s.
In one interview excerpt, Brownyn Bonney provides a perceptive account of why it is Nick Cave who became a star, whilst other gifted artists from the time faded into obscurity. She carefully lists all the crucial things that he possessed, and notes that ‘everyone else lacked two or three of those ingredients’. In a single page, she threatens to render the rest of the book redundant, so complete is her sense of the young Cave, and so neatly does it tally with the same artist who has just put out Carnage at 63. Work ethic is again and again pinpointed by Cave’s contemporaries as his great advantage. ‘He works like a demon. He deserves his success,’ insists Bonney. In issue #138 of The Red Hand Files, Cave concurs that it’s mainly that surfeit of sheer energy – ‘a shameless and pathological belief in my own awesomeness’ – that has sustained his long career, above any talent he may have had.
Other participants in the scene that whirled around The Boys Next Door and their clique are more blunt in their assessment, less prepared to balance Cave’s virtues against his vices. ‘I thought they were dickheads,’ remarks fashion designer Alannah Hill.
The books ends with Cave and his cohort aboard a flight to London, to them the promised land of indie music, as the 80s dawn. During the flight they elect to change their name to The Birthday Party. I was reminded of Tune In, the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s mammoth Beatles bio, which also chooses to stop with its subject airborne and on the cusp of something bigger (the soon-to-be Fab Four flying home from Hamburg for the last time, in December 1962).
If Mordue goes beyond that long-haul cliffhanger and does continue with his epic biography of Cave after all, there are four full decades of restless creativity left to cover, as Cave moves through multiple cities and scenes, collects and discards muses and collaborators, and emerges from addictions and complex private torments. It’s a staggering challenge. Such is the artistic depth and international breadth of that story, the ongoing work could end up akin to John Richardson’s all-consuming multi-volume biography of his friend Picasso. But Boy on Fire‘s brief flashes forward into the 2000s only confirm that Mordue is the man to document the Bad Seeds years — the brilliant biographer Nick Cave deserves.
C Pam Zhang’s debut is a Chinese immigrant story that spans the California Gold Rush, centred on two very different siblings. Its early chapters follow the orphans Sam and Lucy on their quest to give their father’s body a proper burial. Just as this plot gathers pace, the novel darts sharply back in time, filling in their parents’ backstories, and soon we have a complete sense of the downtrodden family.
Sam takes after their father, with a volatile temper, a lust for gold, and a connection to the hills that once held so much of it – even if prospecting now means a lot of drudgery and disappointment. Lucy grasps that land, wealth and privilege will always be denied to their kind, so she’s drawn west across the Pacific, to the misty green hills and red-walled cities her Ma describes so vividly. She also feels the lure of a more civilised America over to the East, with its paved roads, neat shops and changing seasons.
Dates are presented as XX62, XX59 and so on, and very little geography is named – Zhang shrugging off specificity, giving herself space to reshape the myth of the American West. Hers is a frontier where immense buffalo and ferocious tigers once roamed, where rituals have tremendous power. This ‘unwritten history’ seems to rear up into the present when the characters move into the wild, wide-open landscapes.
While I gather some of Zhang’s other inventions are problematic, writers have always taken all kinds of liberties with the Wild West. My frustration with this novel really lies with its try-hard style. There are beautiful sentences, but so much the writing is self-consciously lyrical, and muddles the sense what’s actually unfolding. Coupled with that fussy structure, it feels like this otherwise straightforward tale has been overworked.
Although it has this thought crossing Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom’s mind, the third novel in the saga doesn’t really deal in disaster. Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux both built toward cataclysms that will forever haunt the characters – but in Rabbit is Rich, John Updike spares them anything of the sort. Perhaps he is aware that another cruel twist of fate would seem ridiculously far-fetched. Perhaps he also thinks they deserve this providence.
Rabbit is certainly grateful, now 46 and running what was once his father-in-law’s Toyota dealership. Advancing age and disposable income have made him less jittery, and more smug. Where he once sought to explode the family unit, now he wants to sustain and control it. He’s all about securing his wealth, ingratiating himself with some new country club pals, and bossing around his errant, surly son Nelson (now of college age).
After the tacked-on late 60s backdrop in Rabbit Redux, the action of Rabbit is Rich is much more tightly wound around its setting, with constant reference to the 1979 Oil Shock. Fretting over too much money in the bank, Rabbit first invests in South African gold coins, then swaps it all for antique silver dollars. It’s a slight return to those youthful jitters and a plot thread that allows for some bizarre comic set pieces. Another echo of the dithering twenty-something Rabbit is his theory that he may have a grown-up daughter, conceived amongst the inglorious events of Rabbit, Run. His nagging desire to find out for sure stems from that book’s great disaster, the loss of his second child.
If we warm to Rabbit at all, it’s perhaps only because he’s more respectful toward his wife Janice than in previous books, and just marginally less obnoxious than the company he keeps. His new status has only emboldened an ugly conservatism that was always there in him. Readers are liable to snort when he berates his son, “How did you get so prejudiced? Not from me.” Updike wrote in a 1995 introduction to the tetralogy, “Readers who expect novelists to reward and punish and satirise their characters from a superior standpoint will be disappointed.” Yet again, he pushes Rabbit quite far – the unpalatable inner monologues still spill forth without a hint of authorial opprobrium. I admire that, but it’s easy to see why these novels are not especially fashionable in 2021.
400+ pages in the company of the Angstroms is kind of exhausting, but it’s hard to say what Updike could have cut. Late on in this indulgent opus, Rabbit stares up at a Caribbean night sky and waits a while for a shooting star, until ‘there it is…vivid and brief as a scratched match, a falling star, doused in the ocean of ink’. That’s something like the feeling of reading Updike – he’ll test your patience, but he is sure to dazzle or surprise you sooner or later.
Mort was the first Discworld novel to focus on Death (previously limited to scene-stealing walk-on parts), and arguably the first one to have a proper plot. Death, for reasons never quite explained, recruits an apprentice named Mort, a gawky, gangly teenager from the Ramtops. Mort is soon upgraded from stable-cleaning to soul-reaping duties, but he bungles one of his early jobs, thwarting the fated assassination of a princess and thereby causing a schism in reality.
It’s clear Pratchett takes delight in this opportunity to flesh out (for want of a more appropriate term) Death. As the skeletal harvester of souls enjoys some downtime, we learn of his passion for cats, his bemused regard for human customs, and his confected, monochrome Domain. Death’s otherworldly presence is captured wonderfully from the very beginning – his hand ‘smooth and rather yellowed like an old billiard ball’, his cough ‘like the pistol-crack of an ancient beam full of death-watch beetle’. Pratchett can send a shiver down the spine, then immediately undercut it with a wisecrack as dry as a bone, or a (literal) pratfall.
It’s an odd experience re-reading a Discworld novel after more than 20 years – the movement of the story feels nearly new, but particular scenes and jokes are startlingly familiar, as if the better part of them had been lodged in the back of my mind all this time. Among these old favourites were a footnote about monarchy travelling faster than light, and the section where Mort visits a pub and samples the corrosive drink ‘scumble’. There’s also plenty of stuff that must have flown way over my head during my first read.
After his comic Western The Sisters Brothers, and his Alpine Gothic fable Undermajordomo Minor, Patrick DeWitt brings his addictively arch style to a novel that’s less precisely located in genre, but owes something to screwball comedies.
Frances Price is the widow of an absolute rotter, a lawyer who made his enormous fortune representing the most repugnant clients – ‘the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries, the apparatus of the war machine, gun lobbyists’. She’s since been frittering away his cash. As French Exit begins, she learns it’s almost all gone. She and her adult son Malcolm will have to vacate their luxurious Manhattan home and take up a friend’s kind offer of an apartment in Paris. Across the Atlantic and into this uncertain future, they must also drag Small Frank, an elderly cat who contains the frustrated soul of Frances’ dead husband.
Malcolm is a little passive and dull-witted compared to Frances, who is ready with a shocking remark, a withering put-down or a wild non-sequitur whenever bored of the conversation. The dialogue between mother and son is always fun, and always dancing around deep shadows of unspoken resentment and remorse. More sparks fly as they travel to Paris and collect hangers-on – including a fortune teller, a needy, overly talkative fellow ex-pat, and an out-of-his-depth private detective.
French Exit is less pacy than DeWitt’s last two novels, but no less charming. It has strong characters and a sharp sting in the tail, making for a memorable book that continues his hot streak.
I thought Jacques Audiard’s 2018 film of The Sisters Brothers was great, and rather overlooked at the time, but French Exit seems perhaps trickier to adapt, and the imminent film version doesn’t really appeal.
The more I’ve written, the less I think of novels in terms of metaphors and symbols. I think the least important thing about a novel is the intentions you start with and the ambitions you have at the start – and once the story starts to move, you need to move with it. If the writing isn’t surprising you, it’ll never surprise or interest the reader.