Sunday, June 28, 2009

Everything Matters! Everything Matters!

Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr.
Imagine that you were born with the absolute, unquestionable knowledge that the world would be destoyed in a fiery comet collision somewhere in the vicinity of your 36th birthday. How would you live your life, knowing that every single thing you do or say or think is essentially futile - or at least more finite than we are comfortable thinking about? Would you use your knowledge to try and save the world? Or just your own family? Would you just chuck it all and drink yourself to death? Or would you just live your life as normally as possible? Does anything you do matter? These are the questions posed to Junior Thibodeau, born with an all-seeing, all-knowing voice inside his head. The voice shares its vast knowledge with Junior, whether regarding other people's personal secrets or the impending destruction of the planet, turning him into an lonely, introverted, alcoholic genius who feels that no one really knows him, since he cannot share his knowledge, since no one would believe him. He peppers his life with poor decisions, all under the ruse that nothing he does in life matters at all, since the outcome is so devastatingly pre-determined. But the one constant in life, he finds, is love, and no amount of destiny can impede that emotional connection to other people in your life.

This was an absolutely astounding book that completely caught me off guard. I had a copy on my shelf for several months, not really knowing what to make of it, and I needed something a bit more substantial after breezing through a Ken Bruen & a Denis Johnson pulp novel the week before. Ron Currie is a force to be reckoned with. He has taken a highly unusual, potentially disastrous premise and created a completely plausible, emotionally resonant life story around this Junior Thibodeau, born with a unprecendentedly unique prespective on the world. Junior spends most of his 36 years dwelling on the fact that the world will be destroyed - so much so, that he doesn't know how to actually live a life based in the moment. Once he discovers - perhaps too late? - that life is all about living from moment to moment, that unique prespective he had completely changes, even if the fate of the world may not. Thankfully Currie allows his readers to avoid the potential for morbidity and overwhelming depression of such an end-of-the-world story,
by writing this tale with substantial humor and grounding Junior in reality by lending his "inside voice" a deep-seeded, genuine bonhomie. Despite his mistakes, I cared a great deal about Junior and those he loved - in spite of the fact that I shared his absolute knowledge that he would certainly go down with the ship when that fateful comet arrived. Currie is capable of striking an emotional nerve and helping the reader forget just how absurd the whole idea of a prescient genius boy from Maine really is. What can I say, it really hit home with me. I knew from about halfway through that I will read this book over and over and over again throughout my life, always having my own unique perspective, I'm sure of it.



Listen:

Everything ends, and Everything matters.

Everything matters not in spite of the end of you and all that you love, but because of it. Everything is all you've got - your wife's lips, your daughter's eyes, your brother's heart, your father's bones and your own grief - and after Everything is nothing. So you were wise to welcome Everything, the good and the bad alike, and cling to it all. Gather it in. Seek the meaning in sorrow and don't ever turn away, not once, from here until the end. Because it is all the same, it is all unfathomable, and it is infinitely preferable to the one dreadful alternative.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Signal by Ron Carlson (Review)

Me, Ron Carlson, & Scott Ehrig-BurgessI may tell myself that I'm not completely taken with Ron Carlson's new novel, The Signal, but there is definitely an air about it that is compelling enough that I've already read it twice.

Carlson's previous book, 2007's Five Skies, was far & away the finest novel I read during that calendar year - a year filled with the likes of Denis Johnson, Michael Chabon, Don DeLillo, and Michael Ondaatje, so nothing to sneeze at. What struck me most about Five Skies was Carlson's ability to create a place where the only ceiling is the darkening sky and where there are no physical walls to be found anywhere. The Signal, while it does lose a bit of its narrative path towards its conclusion, shares that same expanse of space, brushing through the pines and casting flies into the clear lakes of Wyoming. Carlson has the unique ability to create that sense of quietude and stillness that comes from walking the wilds of the world.

The premise is rather simple - Mack and Vonnie have seemingly reached the end of their ten-year marriage. Mack has made some terrible decisions in that decade - abandoning his life and livelihood on his family ranch for supposedly greener pastures laden with drink, drugs, and cash - essentially forcing Vonnie's hand, despite her love for Mack. As a final farewell of sorts, Vonnie agrees to accompany Mack on their annual September hike into Cold Creek, one last time. She sees this as a way of closing off their relationship and mending broken hearts, while Mack sees an opportunity to prove to Vonnie (and himself) that he is still the man he once was, despite his mistakes. Of course, he has one last mistake to make before their time in the mountains is over - one set in motion by the actions in his life without Vonnie that may destroy all that he cares about in the end.


"Valentine Lake was a twenty-acre heart of silver, blue rimmed to the edge by pines and red sandstone. They came over the low ridge and saw it set out as if invented this morning."

Mack and Vonnie's relationship is complex enough to carry the underlying love story plotline - Carlson has a deft hand when it comes to the human heart, I have no doubt - but he falters a bit when the third act action crescendos and stumbles towards a conclusion. Things end up being a bit like a cross between the gunfight at the OK corral and a white trash bar fight, but maybe I see it that way because Carlson's true talent is so evident throughout the rest of the book. The visuals are so clear, vivid, and eloquent - the mud on the trail, the smell of waning campfire, the sun glinting off the ancient lakes, the whisper of the breeze through the pines - that it reads like a John Muir nature narrative or, as Carlson says, "a love letter to camping", however modestly dull that may seem. I have never read an author who so expertly draws you into the world he creates. I imagined Carlson writing this narrative actually out in the woods of the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming - how else would he have been able to capture that essence? (He denies this, actually, so I don't know how he does it.) Mack's impeccable knowledge of this wilderness is comforting, especially in light of his bumbling experiences in the world at large. One of Carlson's reoccurring themes is of the encroachment of the "civilized" world on the old, green spaces of the land - this encroachment is never more evident than in the embodiment of Mack. He cannot survive in the cities and towns of the world, making error after error, ruining his own life and those of whom he cares for most. But once he is set out into the mountains and forests, he has no match and truly comes alive. This hiking trip is more an opportunity for Mack to live again after having death hover above him for the better part of the previous year. Watching his transformation from greedy, stupid fool in town to peerless naturalist and woodsman in the mountains is truly the great strength of this novel.

"He walked back and opened the tailgate and sat, finally lifting his eyes to look east across the tiers of Wyoming spread beneath him in the vast echelons of brown and gray. It was dark here against the forest, but light gathered across the planet, and he could see the golden horizon at a hundred and fifty miles."

After reflecting a bit, I realize that my issue with the third act of The Signal actually has nothing to do with the writing or the plotting - it's entirely on my end. The conclusion is taut, suspenseful, and perfectly paced, I just resent the fact that such an ending was necessary to begin with. The leisurely pace of treking through the mountains which Carlson sets out with becomes so comfortable that I was jarred awake by the rockslide of events on Mack & Vonnie's fifth day out. I was so content to linger near the icy glacial lakes, sniffing the pine trees and fishing for trout, that I failed to fully notice the outside world's encroachment. Civilization slowly creeps from the edges of Mack's memories to being fully formed and roaring above the treeline, destroying the tranquility of the wilderness. I resent that. I resent Mack for making such idiotic decisions prior to their trip that lead to the disruption of that perfect, wild splendor. Again, this is a Carlson theme - the human world at large has an uncanny ability to intrude on the natural world, whether there are those of us who like it or not. So in that sense, the third act, in all its human action and greed-fueled violence, fits perfectly into that thematic view of the world. I just took it personally, which is a testament to Ron Carlson's abilities as a remarkable writer.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

PC-illin'

Yes, its a fax machine but the idea is the sameI planned on getting some new posts up this weekend, as I've been off the Catapult for the better part of a month it seems (dead cats, weddings, & birthdays), but spent a pathetic chunk of my day today trying to remove an unbelievable pain-in-the-ass virus from my hard drive instead. ("System Security 2009" hilariously disguises itself as a legit Microsoft product. Good times.) Problem now solved, book stuff coming - thanks for sticking with me, faithful reader.



Coming this week: reviews of Ron Carlson's The Signal and Ron Currie, Jr's Everything Matters! Books that will change your life!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Breakthrough Novel

Since the entire process is spread out over half a year and my part ended months ago, I forgot to check back & see who the winner of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award was - not that any of the manuscripts I read made it anywhere near the finals, thankfully. The winner, who receives a publishing contract from Penguin Putnam, was James King for his novel Bill Warrington's Last Chance. You can read an excerpt on the ABNA page or just wait until the book is published, I guess.

I wish that my scathing reviews for the manuscripts I read were also available on the site, but they didn't publish any PW reviews for books not in the top 100. The egos of those developing writers must be preserved, I suppose.