Thursday, September 17, 2009


I met Mark Feffer through a mutual friend when I was living in Princeton. He kindly invited me to take part in a panel discussion in Trenton after I'd moved to DC.

His book, September, is a post-apocalyptic tale of a handful of survivors from a deadly virus in and around the Trenton, Lambertville area. It is a much gentler narrative than Cormac McCarthy's The Road or all the Mad Max stories of road savages.

It is an interior monologue of the protagonist, Rand Gardner, in the form of a journal. The disappearance of civilization as we know it alters his life only on the outside. Inside, where we spend most of our time, he has the same issues, insecurities and quiet accomplishments he has always had.

Mark's writing is smooth, non-intrusive. I found myself drawn inexorably along with Rand's musings. There is a dramatic confrontation as a climax, but no horror as in so many other books in this genre. I enjoyed reading this book and recommend it.

In the absence of electricity, the characters in September are reduced to a pre-industrial lifestyle, going back really not that far, to, say the early nineteenth century. They build fires, boil water, and, realizing that canned goods won't last forever, re-learn the arts of fishing and gardening.

All the buildings and roads of ex-urban culture are intact, but the physical geography of the Trenton area re-emerges as the characters ski in the winter and bike in the summer to visit each other. Seasons are magnified in importance with the disappearance of much that protects us from weather.

A gentle irony permeates the book. One family has decided to settle in a mall, so that all the legacy products of a vanished civilization -- bedding, tableware, sporting equipment -- are readily available. Rand rebuilds an old-fashioned mechanical typewriter and bikes to the next town in search of ribbons for it.

The focus of the book, though, is the caution that characterizes interaction between the survivors. For the most part, they live alone, separated by miles, meeting only occasionally. The post-apocalyptic setting allows the author to show the distances between people in a physical manner. The reader quickly grasps, though, that these distances are the same in our own civilized world, only masked by the convenience of our lifestyle.

Monday, September 7, 2009

This Boy's Life

I like Tobias Wolff's writing. It's lucid, lean and pulls you along. His descriptions are so deft and his observations so acute that he startles you virtually on every page. I'm grateful to Peter Koenig for the tip to read Wolff.

I read Old School when Peter first mentioned Wolff a couple of years ago, and liked it. This Boy's Life was even easier for me to relate to because I had an odyssey of sorts with my mother after my father deserted us. How poignant the way the narrator sums up their lives toward the end of the book: "We were ourselves again -- scheming, restless and poised for flight."

I say narrator because even though this is branded as a memoir and Old School is a novel, both are autobiographical and actually can be read as a sequence. It is a convention to allow memoirists to render conversations from 40 years ago in quotes as if they were reporting a verbatim dialogue, when of course it is invented on the basis of what may be a very flawed memory. So I consider this memoir to be as much a fictional narrative as Old School, or, to put it the other way around, what's compelling about both books is the universal experience that transcends the characters and makes it irrelevant whether it is Tobias "Jack" Wolff or the unnamed narrator of Old School.

Having said that, I have a problem with the narrator in both cases. The person portrays himself as fundamentally dishonest -- a liar and a cheat. We are apparently supposed to accept this and find it sympathetic because at some level at some point in our lives we are all dishonest -- with ourselves or with the world around us. The process of self-discovery seems to be to realize that dishonesty in ourselves and to stop the evasiveness.

In Old School, the narrator is caught and punished for his dishonesty. So, eventually, is the narrator in This Boy's Life. However, in the latter case, the punishment is by way of a postscript. We are told about his problems at the Hill School, not shown.

We are led to believe in This Boy's Life that evasiveness is a form of survival, that his dishonesty is a form of affirmative action to make up for his disadvantages. It's the reasoning that gives us a Jason Blair -- the end justifies the means.

And the narrator's childish dishonesty -- don't all children lie and cheat is part of the message -- is less grievous than the mature dishonesty of those adults in his life, whether those who oppress him, like his stepfather, or those who help him, like the Hill alumnus who gets him into the prep school.

In any case, I'm ambivalent about this narrator. The punishment in This Boy's Life does not introduce a note of morality, only a certain inexorability. But maybe I'm missing something.

I bought a collection of Wolff's short stories, A Night in Question. I'm not a big fan of short stories, but I wonder if Wolff's gifts aren't best suited to this genre. And perhaps I will be freed of this unsympathetic narrator.