Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Blood in the woods, occult geometries across the Atlantic: New American novels about 20th century catastrophe

Books time travel with a freedom and ease not granted to other mediums. Not having to physically show us the past, save what it plucks from its imaginary landscape to evoke in our minds, the novel need not concern itself with tracking down a dozen Model Ts or 3000 extras in togas to convince its audience that we’re in another time. The novel conveys the past with such immediacy because it does so through the consciousness of individual characters –though this is perhaps the greatest challenge posed to any artist. The new year has thus far deposited two striking new American novels into my hands that transport us to another time, one from a long-established master, one from a formidable emerging writer making a hell of an impression with his second work. Both concern distinctive moments in the 20th century and summon up scenes of iconic violence to punctuate intimate stories.

It’s tough to know what exactly to make of Russell Banks’ The Reserve (Knopf, $32). Set in the 1930s, it begins with the first meeting between Vanessa Cole, a man-eating, mentally unstable heiress and divorcée, and Jordan Groves, a married-with-children painter and pilot known as much for his scarlet politics, Hemingwayesque travels and extramarital adventures as his painting. That these two might collide in some unruly erotic entanglement seems a no-brainer, but Banks has set a course for an altogether more sanguine melodrama, making the intermittent chapters alternately describing the flight of the doomed Hindenburg and an air strike on a Franco military stronghold more than mere historical context. There will be blood, indeed.

I’ve long admired Banks’ work. In the case of Affliction, I was awestruck by the way in which Banks seemed to stake out some territory within the nightmare world of Jim Thompson –whose brilliantly chilling crime novels The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 set the mould for stories of small town lawmen with deep roots in their local communities and even deeper troubles in their fragile psyches– and making it all his own, bringing a certain expansion of character background, subjective psychological tension and finely detailed atmosphere than was typical of Thompson’s concise, more genre-bound prose. Yet with The Reserve, which is also set in an isolated community, that of wealthy vacationers and poor townees in the Adirondacks, Banks is not just exploiting select elements of a thriller for literary ends. He’s diving right in and just whipping up an unabashed thriller of his own.

There’s an unmistakable trashiness to Vanessa and Jordan’s tale of lurid transgression, replete with an aiding and abetting local yokel named Hubert St. Germain, a guy who could have easily narrated any number of Thompson novels, a lonely widower who’s sweetly natured but just too soft in the head to prevent catastrophe when presented with the opportunity. And there’s a singular strangeness in reading something of this sort realized by the likes of Banks. The result is, as you might expect, a bit uneven, but once you get an idea of what you’re in for, The Reserve does offer its share of salty thrills and moments of elegant, subtle, insightful imagery and emotional depth –and all in the same 287 page novel.

Zachary Lazar’s Sway (Little, Brown, $27.99) sweeps us forward into the 1960s and focuses from page one on the overtly sinister currents that ran through that decade that finally choked on its own rhetoric of peace and love. Its cast of characters will be familiar to anyone with an interest in the popular culture of the period: Brian Jones, founding member and first casualty of The Rolling Stones, Kenneth Anger, the occultist and underground filmmaker behind ‘Scorpio Rising’ and ‘Invocation of My Demon Brother,’ and Bobby Beausoleil, the would-be rock star who featured prominently in ‘Demon Brother,’ became a member of Charles Manson’s “family,” and was convicted in 1970 for the murder of Gary Hinman. How these three connect, in the flesh and otherwise, seems in its own way the manifestation of some occult geometry, but what’s at the base of each individual story is some magnetic attraction to the mystery and power of darkness.

The very first scene in Sway is loaded with a potent air of hazy menace, with Beausoleil taking a quiet little ride with Charlie into town, where some anonymous middle class residence waits to be penetrated in the mid-afternoon suburban stillness. Lazar then takes through a tour of cold water flats in London where skinny English boys try to channel a certain demonic spirit out of their guitars and, soon after, to a blur of nightclubs where these same boys discover that this spirit can make girls go crazy and boys charge the stage. They’re playing music from America, and that music contains a key to intoxicating violence. Finally, Lazar chronicles Anger’s cultivation of his long, arduous career in the international fringe, his films forging alliances with Jean Cocteau and later on Mick Jagger, who gradually usurps Jones as the guiding hand of the Stones. And Lazar writes a haunting, if decidedly unsentimental elegy to Jones as he shrinks away from stage and studio, from his weirdly symbiotic relationship with Anita Pallenberg –who winds up in the arms of the rather fun, amiably portrayed Keith Richards– and finally into that swimming pool, the unlikely site of his unexplainable death at the age of 27, just one of many sour notes that brought that revolutionary decade to a morbid, exhausted close –and brings Sway to its fascinatingly shadowy conclusion.

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