Books of 2010 — Noteworthy, Notorious, and Neglected

Biblioklept already busted out our Best Books of 2010 list, selecting ten of our favorite novels of the year. Such limitations help to generate lists, which internet folks love to circulate–you know the ritual–but those limitations can also prohibit a discussion of some of the other important books of 2010. So, without further ado–

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom has, for some reason, topped all kinds of year-end lists already, and been hailed by writers, critics, and readers as book of the year, decade, and even century. We pretty much hated it, saying–

Franzen is deeply intelligent, even wise, and his analysis of the past decade is perhaps brilliant. It’s also incredibly easy to read, but this is mostly because it requires so little thought from the reader. Franzen has done all the thinking for you. The book has a clear vision, a mission even, but it lacks urgency and immediacy; it is flaccid, flabby, overlong. It moans where it should howl.

Still, we felt the need to defend Franzen when he caught flak for, gasp!, getting attention. Other writers had to work hard to get noticed, including Tao Lin, whose novel Richard Yates we found baffling. Lin smartly hijacked Franzen’s Time cover, parlaying it into the kind of media attention a young novelist needs in this decade to get noticed.

David Shields also garnered a lot of attention after publishing his ridiculous “manifesto” Reality Hunger, a book that cobbled together citations from superior writers to make a point that Henry Miller made over half a century ago and every novelist worth his salt has always known: great writers steal. Although Shields’s points about copyright laws and who can “own” stories are salient in world two point oh, his call for the death of the novel is absurd and offensive.

Lee Rourke’s brilliant début novel The Canal is as good an answer as any to Shields–The Canal is a thoroughly modern reconsideration of existentialism in the post-9/11 world, a new kind of novel in the nascent tradition of Tom McCarthy’s The Remainder (of course, as McCarthy–and David Shields–would point out, these novels are “plugging into” other novels). Similarly, Adam Langer’s witty novel The Thieves of Manhattan pointed to the ways that novels can still be meaningful; Thieves jauntily riffs on adventure and mystery genre fictions, squaring them against a parody of literary fiction and the hermetic world that produces it.

Langer’s novel tracks the quick rise and fall of more than one literary star; Yann Martel might have felt such a falling sensation in 2010–Beatrice and Virgil, his follow-up to the wildly successful book club classic Life of Pi, received mostly scathing reviews. He’ll have to console himself with the piles of money that Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Life of Pi will likely generate. In our review of Beatrice and Virgil we declared the book “a page turner, engaging, propulsive, and quite easy to read. It injects the philosophical and artistic concerns of literary fiction into the frame and pacing of a book designed for broader audiences.” We think too many folks mistook Martel’s aims for something higher.

Martel wasn’t the only big name writer whose 2010 novel found critical disfavor. Don DeLillo’s Point Omega was met with a mix of critical shrugs and outright dismissals, with very few champions. We seemed to like it better than most. In our review we said that “Point Omega takes an oblique, subtle, and unnerving tackle at themes of time, perception, family, and, ultimately, personal apocalypse. It’s not a particularly fun book nor does it yield any direct answers, but it’s also a rewarding, engaging, and often challenging read.”

DeLillo’s friend Paul Auster also received mixed reviews for his novel Sunset Park. We loved Auster’s winding syntax and his keen observations on high and middle culture, but found his take on twentysomethings in Brooklyn unrealistic and perhaps a bit pandering (Picador’s updated version of his Collected Prose that came out this year was a far more satisfying read).

The worst novel we read in 2010 though was quite easily Justin Cronin’s The Passage, a calculated attempt to make money, not literature. We have no problem with writers making money, of course–we don’t even mind writers ripping off other writers’ ideas to make money–but Cronin’s book is a shallow, sprawling laundry list of clichés and stolen-set pieces, a failed synthesis of post-apocalypse tropes, and a naked grab at commercial appeal. It seems to have been written expressly to be sold as a series of franchise movies. Because of Cronin’s earlier literary fictions, many critics mistook The Passage for a work of literature; indeed, many praised it. They were wrong.

Of course, our targeting of The Passage feels like backlash of some kind, common to both the internet and the book world. If we’re hating on Cronin for his overexposure, it might be because we feel that there are a host of neglected and overlooked books out there. We put two on our Best Books list: Imre Kertész’s The Union Jack and Nanni Balestrini’s Sandokan are both novellas in translation, not the sort of thing that usually tops critics’ year end lists (let alone get read by the public). We could add Yoko Ogawa’s bizarre, slim novel Hotel Iris to the list. Available for the first time in English this year, Ogawa’s novel is effectively a reverse-Lolita, a David Lynchian-riff on BDSM in a small Japanese coastal town. Not for everyone, but strange, disturbing stuff.

Critics also seemed to roundly ignore the full publication of Ralph Ellison’s second, unfinished novel, Three Days Before the Shooting . . . , which we wrote about twice (here and here) but never managed to finish, which doesn’t really matter because he didn’t finish it either. A much shortened version of the novel was published as Juneteenth in the ’90s to mixed reviews, but it seems strange that this version, collecting all of Ellison’s manuscripts and notes, should go so unremarked upon (still, it’s a big long sucker of a book; perhaps someone out there is still unpacking it all).

So what did we miss? What other books of 2010 remain thus-far neglected? What books did you love? Hate? Let us know.

The Thieves of Manhattan — Adam Langer

The literary hoax at the heart of Adam Langer’s new novel The Thieves of Manhattan explores the line between fiction and fact, asking readers to examine what kinds of truth they demand from their books. The novel’s outset finds protagonist/narrator Ian Minot working in a coffee shop, watching his too-good-for-him girlfriend Anya begin to succeed in a literary world that repeatedly rejects his own small, simple stories. Ian writes character-driven short stories that attempt to capture the banal truths that permeate ordinary, everyday existence. Publishers aren’t interested though, telling Ian that his characters don’t seem to live on after the last page. Aggravating matters, blatant phony Blade Markham sits atop the bestseller lists despite the fact that his memoir Blade by Blade seems too preposterously fantastical to hold up to even the flimsiest exercise in fact-checking. When Anya gets a book deal and leaves Ian for Blade, Ian hits bottom and agrees to work with a former editor named Roth on a literary con. After years of getting his crime-adventure novel A Thief of Manhattan rejected–it’s not realistic enough–Roth enlists Ian to rewrite the book as his own, real memoir. Working together, Ian and Roth revise Thief until it becomes Thieves, a book that weds Ian’s sense for character depth and dialogue with Roth’s crime noir adventure plot. As galleys arrive and it becomes clear that Thieves is poised to be a major hit, it also becomes clear that not all the details of Roth and Ian’s fake memoir are so fake after all. To reveal more of the plot would spoil the twists, turns, and snares of its brisk third act, so we’ll leave summary aside by simply noting that Thieves compels reading to its final page, a reading that you’ll likely complete in one sitting once that third act begins.

Thieves is a hybrid novel, a stylistic balancing act between Ian’s character-based, realist, psychological storytelling and Roth’s adventure-mystery tales. Langer draws his audience in to identify with Ian. It’s hard not to empathize with Ian, especially through his early embarrassments in Manhattan’s literary world, a world that Langer satirizes with equal parts vitriol and love. Ian mocks the successful literati who he feels have rejected him; to him, they’re poseurs, hacks, and shallow sycophants. One of the rewards of Thieves is watching Ian transform into one of the people he would once mock, and to do so through an act of fakery, one which he repeatedly defends (to himself) as a means to artistic expression. Langer’s groundwork in developing Ian’s character pays off tremendously in the novel’s aforementioned third act, which essentially finds Ian transforming into a character in a book that he (kinda sorta) wrote himself. Here, Thieves shifts gears into full-on noir adventure, yet retains its self-referential humor through its final spiky helix. It works because we still believe in the core veracity of Ian’s character. And while plenty of literary comparisons would be apt here, the last act of Thieves reminded me most of the final act of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s marvelous film Adaptation, a film that at once enacts and comments on its own genre status without the pitfalls of academic dithering.

The signature literary device of Thieves is a strange kind of metonymy where the names of authors, characters, and other proper-noun literary references substitute for objects or actions with which they are closely associated–at least in Ian’s lit-soaked mind. An example: “I saw us agreeing to split the apartment down the middle, putting a divider between her proust and mine. I could hear her having wild chinaski in the next room with all of her new boyfriends, madly scrawling in her notebook, furiously typing on her laptop, while I sat alone with my hand on my portnoy.” Langer takes a risk here. His narrator’s ergot could have turned out too-precious (and thus eventually irritating); instead, Ian’s litspeak becomes the fitting jargon for a crime novel. In appropriating and recontextualizing other authors’ characters and names, Ian’s jargon underscores Thieves‘s themes of the tension between fact and fiction, the writer’s role in delivering truth, and the concept of the artist as a thief.

Literary hoaxes are hardly new, but in recent years there’s been a small explosion of memoirs revealed to be part or wholly false. Langer clearly has a love for literary hoaxes old and new, and it shows in his book, particularly through his narrator’s transformation from a writer of realist fiction to a fake memoirist to a character in a book of his own making. The Thieves of Manhattan is a tightly-plotted, character-driven adventure-crime noir-mystery-hoax-con game novel pretending to be a memoir (pretending to be a novel . . .) that, despite all its fun metafictional games, never falls into the trap of navel-gazing. Langer gives us a character we can care about and puts him in the middle of a plot we want to see through to its end, but the real testament to Thieves is how much we can still care about that character after the last page. Highly recommended.

The Thieves of Manhattan is available from Spiegel & Grau. For more, read Biblioklept’s interview with Adam Langer.

Biblioklept Interviews Adam Langer about His New Book, The Thieves of Manhattan

Adam Langer’s newest novel, The Thieves of Manhattan hits bookstores across the country this week. It’s a smart, funny hybrid that blends and bends genres with startling results. Adam was kind enough to talk to Biblioklept over a series of emails about his new book, truth vs stuff that actually happened, literary hoaxes, and being mistaken for the author of The Magicians. You can read more about Adam Langer at his website, including info on his previous novels Crossing California, The Washington Story, and Ellington Boulevard, and his memoir My Father’s Bonus March. The Thieves of Manhattan is available from Spiegel & Grau.

Biblioklept: Your new novel (or novel-posing-as-memoir-posing-as-novel-posing-as-memoir . . .) The Thieves of Manhattan is about a con game, a literary hoax, and the problems of art and truth, love and theft. It’s also a send-up of the publishing industry and a clever adventure story with a noir flavor and a self-referential sense of humor. I want to talk about all of that, but let’s begin with your protagonist, Ian Minot, a barista with literary aspirations. Early in the novel, he attends a Manhattan party crammed with literary types, most of whom he thinks are poseurs and hacks. At the same time, under his bitterness, we sense that he’d love to be a part of that world. How much of Ian’s experiences correlate to your own with the publishing world? How much hyperbole is in your satire?

Adam Langer: Looking back on writing Thieves, it’s sometimes hard for me to remember exactly where the reality ends and the satirical hyperbole begins. At some point, fact and fiction fuses in my mind, which is, of course, one of the themes of the book. On the one hand, it’s totally true that, as an editor of Book Magazine, I attended many a literary wingding in which actual events described at the book took place. Yes, just as Francine Prose happily greets our hero until she realizes she has confused him with someone else, I too was happily greeted by Ms. Prose until she realized that she thought I was Lev Grossman (Argh). On the other hand, though, a majority of Ian’s experiences and Ian’s biography emerge completely from my imagination—my resumé has a lot of odd items on it, but New York barista isn’t one of them. I liken this experience of melding the actual with the fanciful to one of those live action/animation movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or Mary Poppins, in which the two coexist to create another reality.

B: At the beginning of Thieves, Ian is writing “small,” realistic, character-based stories that no one wants to read. He enters into a literary con with a man named Roth to produce a big adventure story that they will sell as a memoir–as “true,” despite how improbable and fantastical it is. Thieves is in many ways an analysis on our modern obsession for true stories (and the way that “truth” can unravel). Why do people demand truth–even when it might not be what they really want from a narrative?

AL: I think we, or at least speaking for myself, I do want truth from a narrative. When I read a book or see a movie, I do want it to resonate; I want it to either connect with my viewpoints or to challenge them and make me rethink them; I don’t like when my BS-o-meter is constantly going off. But I think people often get bogged down when they confuse Truth with Stuff That Actually Happened. Tim O’Brien has an awesome essay on this topic that kind of blew my mind when I was in college. As for me, I’d much rather read a story of space aliens or baboons or Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog that rang true than a self-aggrandizing purportedly-true memoir or celebrity autobiography. There’s a line in Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole, which I quite liked–”If someone said to me, ‘I’ve got this great story to tell you, and every word of it is an absolute lie!’ I’d be on the edge of my seat.” That line has stuck with me. Also, more prosaically, in the publishing industry, there’s a perception that, with the decline of traditional book coverage, a good novel isn’t enough anymore, that the author needs a compelling biography as well. Ian certainly has this perception and part of his frustration is that he assumes his lack of success is directly related to his lack of an interesting autobiography. He later learns he was wrong regarding just about all of his
perceptions.

B: In his recent book Reality Hunger, David Shields makes a point similar to yours that audiences “get bogged down when they confuse Truth with Stuff That Actually Happened.” Shields also calls for the extinction of the “novelly novel” or the “novel qua novel” — he wants hybrid or “remix” novels. Thieves strikes me as such a novel, clearly in its treatment of memoir vs. novel, but also in its self-aware incorporation of genre fiction tropes from adventure stories and crime noir. Had you tried your hand at crime fiction or adventure tales before Thieves? Were there any difficulties you faced in crafting your hoax story?

AL: I haven’t read Reality Hunger, but my sense is that Shields is probably a lot more dogmatic in his views than I am. I’m not particularly interested in rendering any particular literary form “extinct,” except maybe the genre of Manifestoes That Declare Certain Literary Forms Extinct. I’m a fan of novelly novels just as I am a fan of remix novels or hybrid novels. I love writers who experiment with form and writers who hew to the “well-made-novel” and haven’t advanced past the 19th Century. Though Thieves probably does fit the definition of hybrid or remix, I don’t think that’s all I’ll be writing from now on. As for crime fiction, I’ve dabbled. In fact, the first novel I wrote after moving to New York in 2000 was a thriller of sorts set in the publishing world and concerned a research assistant to a crime novelist who becomes chief suspect once that novelist disappears. It had a lot of problems, and I haven’t taken it out of the drawer in about nine years. Although I have other crime/genre fiction ideas, I think my tastes and skills tend more towards character-based, comic social novels. But putting together the hoax plot was really a blast or a hoot or something like that. It was really incredible fun to try. Normally, when I’m writing, I read certain books to inspire me; while writing Thieves, I was religiously doing New York Times crossword puzzles.

B: Speaking of crossed-words, your narrator Ian uses a rhetorical device that will stand out to many readers: he substitutes the names of famous authors, alter-egos, and literary characters for words he associates them with–so, sex becomes “chinaski,” after Bukowski’s stand-in, a bed becomes a “proust,” a thick head of hair becomes a “chabon,” and so on. How did you come up with this idea?

AL: Well, it seemed to me that so many thrillers I’ve read are filled with jargon, whether hard-boiled patois or technical procedural details, that I thought my narrator needed his own lingo. At the same time, the lingo worked for me because it established Ian’s mindset, one completely immersed in the contemporary literary universe. Before I even started Thieves, I heard this voice that spoke in this literary slang, much of which I didn’t wind up using because I didn’t want to overdose on it. The idea of the slang is that it should be understandable in context without anyone needing to understand or even care about what is being referenced.

B: There is an “answer key,” though–a glossary at the end. Was that your idea? Or was that a publisher’s or editor’s inclusion?

AL: My idea, and I was just having fun with the glossary. I don’t like when readers can flip to the last page and see how it turns out. So, my previous books have featured glossaries, an index, and in the case of Ellington Boulevard, song lyrics.

B: Like you, I’m a big fan of literary hoaxes–so one of my favorite passages in Thieves was a detailed list of various literary forgeries and hoaxes, many of which I’d never heard of, like Li-Hung Chang or the works of Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish. How much of Thieves was born of your interest in literary hoaxes, and how much research did you do along the way?

AL:: I’ve always been fascinated by literary hoaxes and, while editing Thieves, I was reading as many as I could including the titles you mention, as well as watching great literary hoax movies such as Orson Welles’s F For Fake and Forbidden Lies, the documentary about Norma Khouri, and some awesome YouTube footage of “Margaret B. Jones.” I was slightly disheartened to note how many literary hoaxes have been forgotten. My personal favorites are the Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in 1764-5 by Madalen King Hall aka Cleone Knox, an incredibly fun read, and the poems of the fictional “Ern Malley,” who has some great turns of phrase no matter how nonsensical. I have no idea what “I am still the black swan of trespass on alien waters” means, but man, it sounds cool.

B: While we’re on literary hoaxes, one of my favorite things about Thieves is that both Clifford Irving and Laura Albert (aka JT LeRoy) blurb it, and then, in the plot, a hoaxer agrees to blurb Ian’s book. How did the Albert/LeRoy blurb come about?

AL: I actually take a very active part in soliciting blurbs for my books, which is partially related to control freakishness and partially related to the fact that, as an author, I much prefer hearing from other writers than from editors, publicists or agents. Clifford Irving’s was the first blurb I got for the book, and getting it was remarkably simple. I found his agent, wrote her a letter that she forwarded to him. We had a very gentlemanly correspondence. I sent him the book and he provided a very generous endorsement. As for Laura, we were introduced via a mutual friend and, after I sent her a galley of the book, we traded dozens of e-mails back and forth and had a number of hilarious, wild and profane telephone conversations. She’s a lot of fun to talk to and correspond with.

My initial idea was to have writers blurb as their alter egos or writer characters in their books—Steven King would write as Jack Torrance, Gary Shteyngart would write as Jerry Shteynfarb, Michael Chabon would write as Grady Tripp, and so on. But I was advised that this would be confusing and most readers who got the joke would think that the blurbs were fake.

B: Have you ever stolen a book?

AL: When I was about eleven, I shoplifted a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise from Rosen’s Drug Store on Devon Avenue a few blocks away from my house in Chicago. But I felt guilty about it, so the next day, I actually wound up sneaking it back.

“—the bitter lapse into everyday life—the hideous dropping off of the veil” — Or, We Return from Vacation

After five five fun-filled (mostly) sun-soaked days on Florida’s glorious Gulf Coast, Biblioklept returns from July 4th reveries. I found time to finish Adam Langer’s The Thieves of Manhattan–full review forthcoming, but now, I’m still in a lazy-loungy mood: so, links and vids and so forth–

First, I ripped my title from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which you obviously knew of course, gentle reader, because of course you’ve read it, but maybe you haven’t seen Jan Svankmajer’s 1981 film adaptation. Creepy stop motion that completely dispenses with actors. Ignore the subtitles.

Another great little film I saw this weekend is Oliver Laric’s Versions (2010), an essay that playfully updates Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Watch Versions. A choice line–perhaps appropriated?–from Laric’s essay: “There is more work in interpreting interpretations than in interpreting things and more books about books than any other subject.”

Still on film: watched John Huston’s 1956 adaptation of Moby-Dick on a lazy post-July 4th demi-hangover. Melville’s novel is unfilmable, really, but Huston’s effort isn’t half bad, although the tone of “high adventure” and the downright jaunty soundtrack hardly fit the grisly images of whale killing that permeate the work. The climax doesn’t really read as big as it should either. Key scene: Orson Welles delivers Father Mapple’s sermon–

Finally, I listened to a good chunk of the audiobook of David Mitchell’s new novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Good stuff so far (great stuff, really), and a full review forthcoming, but for now, here’s Dave Eggers’s review.

In Brief — Adam Langer, William H. Gass, David Foster Wallace, and Frank Meeink

I have terrible writer’s block. It’s not that I have nothing to say, it’s just that I can’t seem to say it. Or that I write sentences like the previous one and shudder at their awkward clunky artless awfulness. But I’m gonna press through it, write through it, and share a few thoughts on what I’ve read this week–

First up: Adam Langer’s new novel, The Thieves of Manhattan, a send-up of the publishing industry that sets its targets directly on the current swath of (faked) memoirs that have done gangbusters for publishers in the past few years. Ian Minot is a broke-assed barista one fuck-up away from an overdue firing, who moves from the Midwest to make it as a writer in the big city. Only he’s not doing so well–in contrast to his gorgeous Romanian girlfriend Anya whose literary star is on the rise. For Minot though, this isn’t the worst–that would be the rampant success of über-poseur Blade Markham, a wanna-be gangsta whose memoir Blade on Blade is a blatant fabrication (albeit a fabrication that no one but savvy schlemiel Minot seems to notice (or, at the least, be bothered by)).  I read the first fifty-odd pages of the Thieves in one sitting–a good sign to be sure. Langer’s Minot’s voice is familiar territory, the boy who loves to mock the literati he would love to be a part of. In one of the signal moves of his patois, the names of famous authors (and characters) regularly replace common nouns–a bed becomes a proust, a full head of hair is a chabon, sex is chinaski and so on. Minot seems to be headed to running his own grift soon with the help of a man he appropriately calls the Confident Man–should be good stuff. Full review forthcoming. The Thieves of Manhattan is available July 13, 2010 from Spiegel & Grau.

I’ve also been reading William H. Gass’s first novel, Omensetter’s Luck. It’s weird, wonderful, Faulknerish in its loose (but somehow layered and constructed) stream of consciousness. Omensetter’s Luck comprises three sections, each progressively longer; I finished the second one today, and so far the novel seems to dance around a description or accounting of its namesake, Brackett Omensetter who carts his family into the small sleepy town of Gilean, Ohio, and immediately perplexes the townsfolk with his amazing luck. As Frederic Morton put it in his contemporary 1966 New York Times review, “It quickly becomes apparent that as other people have green thumbs, [Omensetter] has a green soul. The cosmos and he live in mysterious congruity.” There’s much to commend and unpack in Gass’s writing here, but the pleasure of his musical rhythm are enough for me now (in my writer’s block, I retreat to aesthetic criticism [shudders]). Besides, do I really have to recommend this novel when David Foster Wallace already did so in his semi-famous list “Five Direly Underappreciated U.S. Novels > 1960”? No, I don’t, that’s right. Here’s Wallace on Omensetter’s Luck: “Gass’ first novel, and his least avant-gardeish, and his best. Basically a religious book. Very sad. Contains the immortal line ‘The body of Our Saviour shat but Our Saviour shat not.’ Bleak but gorgeous, like light through ice.”

Speaking of Wallace and début novels, Richard Rayner at The Los Angeles Times has reviewed Wallace’s first book The Broom of the System, which is being republished at the end of this month with a cool new cover by tattoo artist Duke Riley. A considered, well-written review, one which prompted me to dig out (okay, bad verb phrase choice; no unearthing involved, my Wallace volumes are neatly aligned together on a shelf in my living room) my copy of Broom. I remember reading a friend’s copy in the burning humidity of a Gainesville summer, in ’98 or ’99, reading the book in long chunks. I tried to read it again after I finishing Infinite Jest but it seemed kinda sorta goofy (albeit purposely, Pynchonesquely goofy). Anyway, Rayner’s review makes a strong case for a re-reading.

And, speaking of Wallace (again), or at least using him as a crutch–I’ve almost finished Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead by Frank Meeink (“as told to” Jody M. Roy; they’ve sort of got the whole Malcolm X/Alex Haley thing going on there). So, yeah, why the Wallace segue? How to justify it? Well, reading Meeink’s story, the true story of an abused, battered Philadelphia kid who falls into the American neo-Nazi movement and its attendant violent crime and terrorism, who goes to prison and finds redemption and human connection and a new purpose for the nihilistic void of his life, who falls into alcoholism and drug addiction only to be redeemed again–reading Meeink’s story, even knowing its veracity (demonstrable to a point that would satisfy even Langer’s Ian Minot)–I couldn’t help but read his strong, immediate, gritty, and utterly real voice as something not unlike one of the creations in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. It’s not just Meeink’s hideousness, his violence, or the grace that he works toward–all constituents of DFW’s collection–it’s that voice, the realness of the volume, surely the book’s greatest asset. Recovering Skinhead is an engrossing read, fascinating in the same way that an infected wound prompts our attention, our paradoxical compulsion and repulsion, but most of all it’s an exhilarating and exhausting performance of voice, of Meeink’s unrelenting, authentic telling of a tale, a telling that any novelist would thrill to channel. Only Meeink’s voice isn’t a novel creation: it’s real. Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead is available now from Hawthorne Books.

My Father’s Bonus March — Adam Langer

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Early in his new memoir My Father’s Bonus March, Adam Langer writes: “It seems appropriate that the most dramatic event in my relationship with my father might be one that I can’t actually remember happening.” Langer then goes on to describe a particularly colorful episode at an old-timey barbershop, wherein he, as a young lad, chokes on a piece of hard candy and is saved by his dad. “My father would never tell me this story,” Langer concludes, revealing the sense of disconnection at the heart of his book. Simply put, My Father’s Bonus March is Langer’s attempt to know, or at least understand his father. Strangely, he uses his father’s passion for a little-remembered event in American history as a means to better know his father, who passed away in 2005, leaving Langer with a sense of unfinished business.

In 1932, a group of WWI Veterans and their families (and sympathizers) camped out in Washington D.C. in protest: it was the middle of the Great Depression and the vets were demanding the bonuses they were promised. (The book’s jacket calls this “a forgotten moment in American history, but I’d like to go on record that, after the intensive hell that was Ms. Bone’s first-period AP US History class, I knew exactly what the bonus march was before I got the review copy). Langer’s father was seven at the time of the protest, but his father served in WWI, and, in any case, it left enough of an impression on him that writing a book on the subject became a life-long dream. Langer’s project is to complete that dream–which he does, quite successfully. Langer’s historical investigation is thorough without dreariness; he draws not just from first-hand sources, like newspapers and editorials covering the march, but also the memoirs and diaries of figures like Eisenhower and Studs Terkel, as well as the work of novelists like John Dos Passos. He even interviews neocon Norman Podhoretz and Bonus March aficionado John Kerry.

Langer’s scholarship is successful, but more affective are his interviews with people who knew his father, including cousins, neighbors, and classmates. Langer has the good sense to present their comments as first-hand accounts, presented with little context. Their stories build a concrete, vivid depiction of Langer’s predominantly Jewish old Chicago West Side neighborhood (“‘GVS’ is what we called it. The Great Vest Side,” one witness recalls). I wish Langer had employed this straightforward documentary technique more often in his memoir as its succinctness and clarity achieves an emotional immediacy in contrast to Langer’s prose passages, which sometimes come across as sentimental or too-artfully constructed. This is simply a matter of taste, of course; I prefer my memoirs raw, and I occasionally found myself grimacing at some of Langer’s constructions, like a trip with his brother to the Hoover Presidential Library or the opening scene with his daughter on the stoop.

At its core, My Father’s Bonus March successfully evokes the reality of one of literature’s oldest narratives–the attempt of the son to know his elusive father (Telemachus and Odysseus, Oedipus and Laius, Stephen and Simon Dedalus, etc.), and it does so with affecting aplomb. Whether we really need another story about a son trying to understand his distant dad is beside the point–Langer has found an inventive and rewarding way to do so. I can’t end without mentioning that at the same time I was reading Bonus March, I also happened to read another memoir about a son trying to better understand his elusive father, Stephen Elliott’s recent essay My Father’s Murder” (published in last month’s issue of The Believer). Elliot’s terse, frank, reportorial style is in direct contrast with Langer’s overt sentimentality, yet both authors are working toward the same theme–one that clearly resonates across styles and genres. With this in mind, I think plenty of readers out there will both identify with and enjoy Langer’s memoir.

My Father’s Bonus March is available October 20th, 2009 from Spiegel & Grau.