The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter

The Soul Thief, a novel by Charles Baxter, focuses initially on two guys and two girls living in Buffalo, New York. One of the girls is a lesbian cab driver. The other girl and the guys are students at a Buffalo university. Guy number one, Nathaniel, first falls for good-looking girl number one, Theresa, when they help each other find a party they’re going to. She’s a knock-out, flip, provocative, and Nathaniel thinks immediately he loves her. Waiting at the party is guy number two, Jerome, who has some mysterious appeal to everyone, including Theresa, and apparently has decided he’s going to haunt Nathaniel, assume his identity, work something out with Theresa, and generally make an eccentric asshole of himself in the service of art . . . or philosophy . . . or soul-work.

The setting is early 70s. I was in college then. The references are generally accurate, if overblown, as is the entire short novel. The idea is that the receding tide of the 60s still kept people turned-on, enlightened, and so forth. Well, sort of, yes, but not with the phony pomposity of this crew.

For reasons that aren’t clear, Nathaniel decides Theresa is just a physical wonder and drops her. Instead, he falls in love with Jamie, the lesbian cab driver, who tells him it’s not going to work but sleeps with him anyway.

All the while Jerome is in the background, engineering personal problems for Nathaniel, such as having his apartment burglarized and, ultimately, having Jamie mugged and raped.

The chattering and very normal style of the narration buckles under these events, as does Nathaniel. He has some kind of break-down and drifts off campus into a series of mindless jobs that ultimately lead to satisfaction with a wife and two kids–very bourgeois.

Nothing is very well-developed but fortunately the story moves quickly into a recap of Nathaniel’s recovery and, years later, an invitation from Jerome to visit him in L.A., where he hosts a radio program called American Evenings. Long story short: Jerome pursued Nathaniel because of a gay attraction. He also wrote a manuscript that detailed the ins and outs of what happened in Buffalo, pretending that Nathaniel was the narrator. Nathaniel hates this. What he loves, by now, is the endearments of his very average family life. He doesn’t care about Norman O. Brown or Nietzsche anymore. He just wants to climb out of Jerome’s sick narrative

What ultimately happened to Theresa and Jamie? In various ways, they don’t make it through the story. Jamie left Nathaniel a goodbye letter, but he chose not to open it. To me this is a bit of authorial negligence, if not cowardice. There are a number of Baxter’s literary jokes embedded in this text; maybe this is one of them. If so, it falls as flat as the others. We don’t need strange intrusions by Jane Austen’s fiction. Nor do we need Nathaniel’s sister, who has been mute for years, suddenly regaining her voice when she rushes to him after his breakdown. Really?

I think this is a kind of soft novel about people like you and me having more interesting and devious lives that we’ve actually lived. It’s verbally squishy and needed rethinking before publication. One man’s opinion. On to the next book.

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The Masque of Africa by V.S. Naipaul

The Masque of Africa by V. S. Naipaul is a travel book focused on a contemplation of African religions and beliefs. It begins in Uganda and continues on through Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Gabon, and South Africa.

As with all Naipaul’s books, this one achieves its authority with an understated but stately consistency and knack for the telling detail. He is a master stylist in that he maintains the same tone and pace regardless of what he’s writing about, and he is uncompromising in his reporting.

There’s very little about Islam in this book, which is good, because Naipaul is relentlessly negative about Islam; the one vivid story he tells here about a South African woman of mixed race seeking an identity by marrying a Muslim cleric illustrates this perfectly: the woman fails to achieve a thing.

The spice of the book is its colorful rendition of animistic, spiritual beliefs, which vary from place to place but follow the same pattern of initiation, belief in “the ancestors,” bloody sacrifices of innocent animals, and lots and lots of superstition and fear of magic and demons, some of which can hide right under your foot.

Naipaul begins in Uganda because he had a fellowship there forty years ago and wants to start this trek in a place where he might feel somewhat at home. Not the case. The population in Uganda has exploded, AIDS and Idi Amin notwithstanding, and crowded into cities like Kampala,once beautiful, no longer so.

At each stop Naipaul has a guide or what anthropologists (and spies) call an informant. Not infrequently these informants are misinformed, and the results are distressingly comical. What he sees are often enactments, not the real thing; shows, not true frenzy.

The best part of the book deals with Gabon. Here the world is really the forest, which is dark and deep, full of mystery, endless, and yet endlessly carved up by Chinese and Japanese industry. Naipaul nonetheless creates a sense of totally integrated life where one form of energy is transmuted into another, and the blackness of night is as complete as the din of the animal and bird cries.

At certain points Naipaul finds interlocutors who are political. Jerry Rawlings is one, Winnie Mandela is another. Winnie Mandela, who appears near the end of the book, is vivid and real and, as Naipul presents her, a great antidote to the westernized image of her as someone who simply rode on Nelson Mandela’s coattails. She’s bitter and eloquent and realistic and disarming. A great portrait.

Another figure who appears is one of our own “ancestors” Albert Schweitzer. I hadn’t known he was more missionary than medical figure, nor had I ever had the sense that he was less than a great, self-sacrificing humanitarian. Naipaul raises questions about this, good ones.

The problem of South Africa in many ways is a good way to end this book. The figures portrayed here are the ones least integrated in the old traditions, and the prospects for a multi-cultural society are dubious. Having not ended apartheid by means of a civil war, the two major groups, whites and blacks, don’t know what they’re all about. Meanwhile South Africa winds down like a watch that needs some attention, but no one is giving it that attention.

For sheer ebullience, there is always Nigeria, the other great giant of Africa. Here, as in other countries, Naipaul sometimes has to back away from his quest–he’s facing too much, knows that there is a point when, as he puts it, an observer becomes an intruder.

For those who know something about Naipaul’s personal character and behavior, it will come as no shock that I found his recurrent expressions of sympathy for cats and dogs (both animal types are appallingly regarded and treated in Africa) rather disarming. He genuinely seems moved by small, fury creatures living on the knife edge of sacrifice.

Overall, I’d say this book wouldn’t impress an anthropologist. There is no theory of religion and society here. It’s an eloquent travelogue that seems honest in its reporting, acute in its judgments, and not prone to distortion. For those of us who have spent some time traveling in difficult countries, The Masque of Africa will save us some discomfort. The one spot I’d definitely like to visit–and never considered before–is Gabon.

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Keynes by Peter Clarke

Keynes by Peter Clarke is a relatively short study of what Clarke calls the 20th century’s most influential economist. The book comprises two parts.First, Clarke offers Keynes’ biography, including his emergence as a major figure in British and international life. Next, Clarke reviews Keynes’ evolution as an economist.

Keynes the man was active socially and bisexually, ultimately settling into an apparently happy marriage with a Russian ballerina whom his Bloomsbury friends did not much like but Keynes adored. He was a great figure at his university, Cambridge, and in the British treasury at Whitehall, and in the counsels of industry, as well. He sponsored and fostered the arts, he made millions as an investor, and he lived well, owning a town and a country house and commuting by Rolls Royce. His quick-witted but apparently amiable disposition made him easy to like and difficult to defeat in debate. He had a mind that broke many molds, pushing people to understand that a government, by stimulating demand, could bring down unemployment and thereby repay the government’s investment in its own society. But Keynes was an active representative of the nation, as well. He was a key interlocutor with the U.S. in the Lend Lease arrangements that helped Britain get through WWII and he performed heroically after WWII in helping give birth to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

What more could you ask from life than to be so engaged in both thought and action while maintaining a circle of friends in high politics, literature and the arts?

Clarke’s book isn’t hagiography primarily because Keynes wasn’t a saint. He didn’t always have the right answers and he changed his mind as economic conditions mandated. He was generous in acknowledging the contributions of other economists, and he left a legacy that was so broad that the monetarist Milton Friedman said that in one sense we were all Keynesians and in another sense none of us were Keynesians.

In the US it appears to me that Keynes largely is understood as favoring deficit spending to help economies get out of recessions. Today one would think of Paul Krugman, who has cogently argued that the Obama Administration did many of the right things in dealing with the Great Recession, but not enough of the right things.

Like Keynes, Krugman focuses hard on unemployment. Janet Yellen, chairperson of the FED, does the same. She has a dual mandate from Congress: maintain the stability of the currency (fight inflation, in other words) and also promote employment. In a sense, these are are conflicting tasks. The stability of the currency, or low inflation, matters a lot to the rich. Jobs matter a lot to the poor and out of work. If Keynes has a general influence over what has happened in the U.S. in the last six years, it’s been to keep trying things, even as the Republican House of Representatives believes we’ve outspent our means and should cut back–which would protect the currency’s value but worsen the unemployment numbers. In Europe Keynes may have been less influential than in the U.S. (remember, Keynes died seventy years ago). Only now, as Europe flirts with a second recession have policymakers there begun letting more money flow. It’s obviously needed. Germany has terrible memories of inflation in the 1920s. France is right, though, in refusing to accept the disciplines implicit in the EU’s unsuccessful efforts to get the continent moving again.

I’d recommend Clarke’s book to anyone interested in Keynes, or to anyone who wants to learn about him. It happens that I read this book right after reading an excellent book about Jean-Paul Sartre, and I asked myself which of these giants of the 20th century mattered the most and made the most sense. The fact is that Sartre’s leftism was informed but not highly educated in matters of economics and finance. That does not disqualify him from competing with Keynes in the sense that Keynes himself placed great emphasis on the hard to estimate impact of expectations and outlooks on economic futures. What Sartre stood for was socio-economic equality, and he linked this to the ethics of everyone’s individual freedom and dignity. This has left a powerful legacy. Keynes, by contrast, understood the minutiae of how economies work, and they don’t work with the egalitarian elegance of Sartre’s propositions. Sartre liked to style himself a rationalist, not a metaphysical dreamer. We can grant him that but not in comparison to the multi-decade intellectual leadership Keynes gave the world. He took “the animal spirits” of humanity and developed macroeconomic understandings we still rely upon. By the same token, we still rely upon the IMF and World Bank. In addition, Keynes took the trouble to understand that writing well matters, so while he was not the imaginative equal of Sartre, he was good with the pen as well.

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Talking With Sartre by John Gerassi

I just finished the most enjoyable book I’ve read in some time. Political scientist John Gerassi’s father, Fernando, was one of Jean-Paul Sartre’s closest friends, and Gerassi grew up as a member of what Simone de Beauvoir referred to as “the family.”

At the end of Sartre’s life, Gerassi, by then an American, had an extended series of conversations with Sartre that form the body of this book. It’s a wonderful reflection on the intellectual, cultural, and historical issues that were central to the 20th century. Or should I say that were to the left of the center of the 20th century?

In this wide-ranging sequence, Sartre is completely honest in his self-criticism, criticisms of others, and of history itself. Gerassi, who taught at Queens College in New York, displays a range and subtlety of understanding that to me, at least, makes me think he must have held back most of what he knew from his students. He was exceptionally informed and engaged. It’s hard to imagine the average undergraduate being able to follow him . . . or, of course, Sartre.

Sartre by now is more or less a name. In his heyday, he was the most famous intellectual in France, Europe and the world. He wrote serious plays, novels, and philosophy. He commented on all the major issues of the day. He wasn’t a communist, but he appreciated communism. Toward the end of his life he spurred on what became a kind of fashion in France, anarchistic Maoism. His issue from the beginning was freedom. First man accepts that he is free. Then he must commit to the action that his freedom suggests to him. In a nutshell, that’s Sartre’s philosophy.

He felt that all of history, to the present day, represented a class struggle that kept the lower class unaware of its freedom, and he also felt that as the prime capitalist nation, the United States bore great responsibility for the persistence of classes in modern society. He was no ingenue. He understood the power of capital. But he was something of a Quixote, dreaming of a spontaneous revolution that would disallow and disobey the controlling regimes of finance, trade, labor, currency values, and the like.

I hesitate to go on about Sartre’s thoughts because they are so much more clearly and simply represented in this remarkable book. Sartre rightly held Gerassi as a valid interlocutor, someone with whom he could debate, be frank, laugh, and ask important questions.

Part of the vitality of this book comes from the intellectual vitality of Europe from the 30s through the 70s. We have nothing similar in the U.S. today. The crudeness of sound bite politics here is dreadful. This is why it’s so important to be reminded that there are alternatives.

In Europe one can have private conversations on this level, but European politics aren’t much better than North American politics. At best we all have begun to focus on one central issue: income inequality. It’s a valid and important issue. Why should a CEO make 400 times more than a plant manager or assembly-line worker? Why should five percent of Americans control over twenty-five percent of the wealth (much more)? At a point in time, around 1960, Sartre accepted the fact, philosophically, that everything is politics, and he made his case incessantly on behalf of limitless freedom. He considered himself a realist, but in fact he was more of an idealist. A more realistic critique comes from economists like Paul Krugman, who points out that in America, at least, the less the income inequality, the better the overall economy performs. It literally grows faster for obvious reasons: more people have more money to spend. (The rich don’t much like Krugman; even Obama keeps his distance,but like Sartre, Krugman won a Nobel Prize, too.)

Anyone interested in the history of the 20th century, World War II, the Cold War, and/or France will find this an exceptionally engaging book.

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Heavy Water — Stories by Martin Amis

Several years ago, perhaps many years ago, I decided Martin Amis’s fiction was not worth reading because he was a snarky Brit who wasn’t all that funny despite his barbed wit and talent for replicating the various accents of Britain’s various social classes. Then I came back to Amis a few years ago and read some novels I liked because they were full, rounded, comical but serious.

Now I’ve made the mistake of trying to read a collection of Amis’s stories called Heavy Water that comprises tales written from the 70s into the 90s. I suppose I wanted to see if I was wrong when I first wrote him off. Well, I wasn’t. It’s just that over time he has become a much better writer.

Back then Martin Amis wrote stories as if they were basically jokes. He’d develop a counterfactual conceit–for instance, that poems were treated like blockbusters by Hollywood moguls–and explore how weird that would be. Pretty weird. Or he would spin out a tale told by a janitor on Mars, eager to communicate with earth (or earthlings). Or he would describe a world in which the gays dominated the scene and the heterosexuals (the hets) were forced to play the role of the gays (mocked, dissed, what have you.) Lots of upside down and inside out stuff. Wouldn’t it be funny if this . . . ? Wouldn’t it be funny if that . . . ?

I won’t belabor the point. One can see even in Amis’s early stories the striking wit, gift with words and images, and pulsing cultural awareness that ultimately made him a significant writer. But he wasn’t really interesting; he was the son of a better-known writer who worked his way through his apprenticeship and kept going. Good for him. Skip the early stuff and read what he’s writing now.

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About Schmidt by Louis Begley

Louis Begley’s novel, About Schmidt, tells the story of Albert Schmidt after his wife Mary died and before his daughter, Charlotte, goes through with her plan to marry a former colleague of Schmidt in a prestigious NY law firm . . . and a Jew, imagine that. Schmidt is lonely, rich, and lost. He and Mary were a good pair although he fooled around on most business trips. They had a large income, a large NY apartment, and a large house on Long Island. None of this means much to him with her passing. He isn’t much of an anti-Semite but enough of one, by rumor at least, to turn Charlotte’s fiancee’s family against him. Having retired a bit early and spent his entire life being a lawyer, just a a lawyer, he doesn’t know what to do with himself except start up an affair with an avid Puerto Rican waitress at the local mid-quality restaurant, O’Henry’s.
The curiosity of this novel is that it’s more a narrative sequence than a novel. Schmidt has some encounters with his college roommate, he is haunted by a bum who moved into the nearest Long Island village, he fends off his daughter’s future mother-in-law who either wants to screw him or cure him (she’s a psychoanalyst), he takes a brief vacation on a distant island far, far up the Amazon, he drinks a lot, he wrestles with estate issues and how to give Charlotte what’s her due without lowering his own standard of living, he has wild, abundant sex with Carrie, the waitress, while allowing her to continue to sleep with her sometimes boyfriend, a leech and a nuisance. But in his sixties, should Schmidt care, or simply be grateful for the kindness of young girls?
My sense is that the key to the story is the bum who appears now and then and whom, one foggy night, Schmidt, kills in a car accident. He’s Schmidt’s alter ego, his Id, the sloppy, smelly, disagreeable interior personality normally kept under wraps beneath Schmidt’s Harvard education and carefully developed legal persona.
The point of this book–you’ll notice I keep changing the way I refer to it, first a novel, then a narrative sequence, then a story,and now a book–seems to be that it’s disagreeable and somewhat degrading to enter retirement alone. Schmidt is a cultivated but not very sympathetic man. He plots a lot. He keeps his daughter (also not very sympathetic) at arm’s length. And yet he remembers how one is supposed to act and chastises himself for falling short, which he often does. Almost everyone on earth, except the waitress, is a nuisance or a menace or a blighted memory to him. He doesn’t like his house cleaning crew. He doesn’t like his former partners. He doesn’t want to go to Venice with his one true friend–the college roommate–because the traveling party will all be married, and if there’s a single woman involved, Schmidt will have to be gallant and might not enjoy that.
So here is a self-centered, highly intelligent man who is dimly aware that the forces stirring within him don’t correspond at all to the way he’s lived his life, or what’s expected of him, and ultimately, he doesn’t care. He’s going to have things the way he wants them anyway.
The crisis hovers around this tale but never quite lands. In a way, that’s subtle. But it’s also disappointing and ends with a vaguely witty plot twist unworthy of how well Begley writes and how much more he could have done with Schmidt if he’d wanted to.

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The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens tells the tale of little Nell, a girl of indeterminate age who is fated to take care of her grandfather. He, in turn, is an addictive gambler who is ruined by one of Dickens’ more intriguing villains, Daniel Quilp, a vile dwarf and old-time loan shark.

The novel was a sensation when it was released in serial form. The question on both sides of the Atlantic was whether Nell died or survived in the end.

Of course, she died, an angel incarnate who had to fly away to some Dickensian version of heaven, far, far from the terrible world in which we live.

Almost nothing Dickens wrote better illustrates the way he transformed Romanticism into Sentimentalism. Lurking behind the twisting, turning plot, full of good and bad characters, one can detect a theatrical urge to outwit some of the horrors of existence by means of lachrymose melodrama.

As Dickens’ fourth novel, The Old Curiosity Shop displays the power and progress of a genius finding his voice. For me the best passages come on the very first pages when an unnamed narrator sets the stage–London–for what ultimately becomes Nell’s demise. Throughout the novel similar passages yield an eerie, suffocating atmosphere that reflect Dickens at his best. But at the same time, the heroine is virtually an allegorical figure of no intrinsic interest or credibility, and it does take an awfully long time for an unnamed, mysterious family member to emerge in full . . . too late to save Nell or the grandfather who was, in fact, the mysterious fellow’s brother.

There are scenes and characters in this novel that are funny, biting, and supremely self-confident. Dickens more or less grew up as a court reporter, and he’s never better than when he is satirizing the ways of English justice.

But the heart of the affair is the desperate attempt to find and save the little girl, and as we know, Dickens undoubtedly chose to foreground such a situation because he felt abandoned by his indigent father and forced to work in a miserable factory as a child. Like Dostoevsky, Dickens had a simple ethic in some senses: God can only be God if children are safe. Also like Dostoevsky, Dickens had the ability to abstract himself from his convictions in order for the darker images within him to emerge. Ultimately, this is what gave his later, greater novels their power. The Old Curiosity Shop is a tear-jerker, and as such it is a kind of early moral surrender. Reductionism of this kind is something that an artist cannot afford. Saying all is white or all is black diminishes us in the face of realities that are much more complex than that.

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