Friday, December 25, 2015

When is a commercial book literary & a literary book commercial? THE MAGIC STRINGS OF FRANKIE PRESTO and GINNY GALL

THE MAGIC STRINGS OF FRANKIE PRESTO by Mitch Albom and GINNY GALL by Charlie Smith seem worlds apart. Albom's novels have sold more than 35 million copies in 42 languages. Charlie Smith, author of eight novels, three New York Times "Notable Books" won the Agha Kahn Prize and has written for the Paris Review and The New Yorker. Albom, who started as a sportswriter, is a screen writer and syndicated columnist. His prose style is simple, at times even flat. Smith is a literary stylist whose "writing can  make the mountains ring." (NYTBR).

Albom is a big commercial success without being a literary writer. Smith is a literary success from Iowa's prestigious writing program, whose books have been well received by critics but are not bestsellers. Commercial and literary are marketed in different categories--one makes money, the other gets respect. Why is there a split?  One reason is publishers' infatuation with the products of MFA writing programs, elegant and polished, vetted by academia. Some have okay sales, though not as all-encompassing as Albom's products. Interestingly, both of these books were published by Harper Collins, so the literary and commercial are not really so polarized. Yet, as an itinerant student of lit, I take issue with the current definition of literary based on style. Before the ascension of "creative writing" to academia, prose could be awkward and still be literary.

Take Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel and Dreiser's An American Tragedy, classics whose styles were found wanting by critics. Compare Hemingway's short journalistic sentences with Fitzgerald's gorgeous style. Then consider Hemingway's gripping stories of men at war and Fitzgerald's achingly sensual descriptions of the ultimate flapper and the wet tanned skin of Mrs. Diver, a doomed heroine. In fact, the two writers were in competition, championed by Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach's rival literary salons in Paris. The passion of their supporters and critics had little to do with the polish of the writing or whether the books resembled previous titles. Books were events before they were products.

Wolfe and Dreiser would probably receive rejection slips today. The length of Wolfe's wordy epic would be the kiss of death and Dreiser's stories would be dismissed as wooden melodrama, But a novel is great because of a powerful story and the way it is told. Wolfe's coming of age is symphonic, rolling out settings and characters at a momentous pace. Dreiser's novels, often based on news items, shock now, though less for what happens than how they occur. Violence, poverty or success are Darwinian destinies generated by characters, who interact with their social reality-- class structure and business.

John Dos Passos' USA trilogy is a neglected classic, usurped by a charming descendant, Doctorow's Ragtime. Many people think Doctorow developed the use of the novel form as pageant of American life, mixing real icons and imagined people to show the unfolding of our culture. Yet, though Doctorow occasionally acknowledged the influence of Dos Passos, readers aren't aware of how derivative his novels are.  Dos Passos was the first to use the camera eye in a novel. That viewpoint, like a newsreel, unfurls the evolution of business and culture, mixing Andrew Carnegie and other real people with fictional ones to trace the rise of railroads, oil companies, fashion and even public relations. It's a huge achievement and I hope readers will consider The Big Money and then think of why Ragtime is on high school lists and the other fallen off.

I had never read Mitch Aboum, so I came to THE MAGIC STRINGS OF FRANKIE PRESTO with curiosity. He's a commercially successful writer and that might mean crowd-pleaser. While sex sells, so does sentiment, happy endings. I discovered that while this is no masterpiece of social realism, there is no clear ending. Instead, I found a novel that's a poetic work of magical realism. In case you doubt me, here is Wikipedia's definition:

Magical realism, magic realism, or marvelous realism is literature, painting, and film that, while encompassing a range of subtly different concepts, share in common an acceptance of magic in the rational world. It is also sometimes called fabulism, in reference to the conventions of fables, myths, and allegory. Of the four terms, Magical realism is the most commonly used and refers to literature in particular[1]:1–5 that portrays magical or unreal elements as a natural part in an otherwise realistic or mundane environment.

Think of  Like Water for Chocolate or Marquez's classic 100 Years of Solitude, then consider the THE MAGIC STRINGS OF FRANKIE PRESTO. It begins with the muse of Music, the narrator, paying homage to one of her own. At his funeral she begins the tale of his improbable life. With the romance of Candide or an American TV Western, whose heroes owe much to happenstance, Frankie Presto, comes into a hostile world with his hands out to grab musical genius. He's born in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and how he survives is through chance and the force of his musical genius.

Critics may prefer magical realism in translation to Album's simple English. But he pulls it off because Alboum is a lifelong musician. He has a serious love for guitars and knowledge of their famous masters, Segovia, Django Rhineheart and his invention Frankie Presto. In Presto's life, he gives a history of popular musical. Dizzy Gilespie, Elvis and even Kiss, are fun cameos in Music's story.  It's moving because Presto is not a Zelig character. He's got a haunting otherworldly, yet human sensibility. I began to wish I had a recording of Presto's playing and his singing, which are separate facets of his identity.

The metaphysical elements in THE MAGIC STRINGS OF FRANKIE PRESTO are ongoing like a folktale and could be hokey, But Music's historical framework makes them plausible or not, as you like. By the end. I was convinced of the miraculous in art's transcendent nature. Francesco is born during the Spanish Civil War in a church under attack. His mother gives birth and church bells ring, moments before Franco's soldiers burst into the room and murder her. The infant and a nun flee to extreme deprivation. Later abandoned, Francesco is saved by a mysterious hairless dog, whose master, a sardine merchant, takes the infant home and raises him. The dog, the woman, the senseless violence, and his strange salvation is a pattern that will reappear throughout the book, like a fictional Golden Mean. Another definition:

The Golden Mean (or Golden Section), represented by the Greek letter phi, is one of those mysterious natural numbers, like e or pi, that seem to arise out of the basic structure of our cosmos. Unlike those abstract numbers, however, phi appears clearly and regularly in the realm of things that grow and unfold in steps, and that includes living things.

Frankie Presto does have its sentiment. He has a childhood sweetheart he finds, loses and regains, he has fame, fortune, genius, vision but all have a cost. Like The Monkey's Paw, his fate is entangled with a talisman--guitar strings. But what occurs is in keeping with the mystery of life. It's awesome in the original meaning. This book was unexpected fun, especially the insider's look at Music and musicians, it's inventions and myths. I hope it continues Alboum's bestseller streak.

Charlie Smith's GINNY GAL also features an orphan born into a time of horrific conflict. Devlin Walker is a Black child in the Jim Crow South with a talent for writing. Delvin Walker's mother was a good time gal, living with her children in a small house in Chatanooga. She rented rooms for the town's brothel, and kept her children fed and happy. Devlin, who loves hearing books, teaches himself to read at four. He's also curious by nature and ventures over the bridge that separates him from the prosperous White part of town. When he innocently enters a dress shop and is fascinated by a bead, it leads to a severe beating. This is Devlin's first lesson about being a Black in the Jim Crow South. He's just five, when his mother, accused of killing a white man, flees into the woods. Devlin never recovers from her loss.

GINNY GAL, is a slang term for a Black person's hell and that is what Devlin Walker comes to experience through the 20's and 30's. There are bright spots. He does find a home with the kindly Mr. Oliver, undertaker to the Black community. Devlin is considered fortunate to be Oliver's successor, educated and eventually able to take over the prosperous business. He learns about the business, including the tragedy of untimely deaths, lynching and beatings by vigilantes and the Klan. Devlin never likes the smells of the trade but comes to love Mr. Oliver and admire his mission to provide solace to families, even when barely possible. Here is Smith's description in Devlin's voice:

"The dead boy lay peaceably under a mostly repaired face. The mashed-in parts had been picked out with an awl and the dents filled in with putty but they'd left the makeup  off so you could see where the work was done. The pick holes and the brown putty. The boy now had hands, at least he wore white cotton gloves that looked as though they were filled with palms and gingers. 'Cotton ticking," Oliver said, the gloves tied with white hemp twine to the wrists hidden under the white shirt cuffs and the black broadcloth coat taken from among the pile in a big cabinet out in the corridor."

This is tough material and Smith has a decidedly skilled hand. GINNY GALL is a realistic novel, where you find yourself rooting for the success of this bright, funny, appealing boy. With his uncommon intelligence and understanding, his reading of Shakespeare  and constant note-taking you see his ambition to write novels as a plausible future. But, as Devlin's understanding deepens, so does the inevitability of his fate as an interloper in a world ruled by Whites. When Devlin fears he will be accused of a White's boy's murder, he flees Mr. Oliver's protection for a freight train to places unknown.

As a second-class citizen who must avoid police, Devlin is glad to join a traveling museum of Negro History. He helps the "Professor," who charges a pittance for Black people to see the writings of Black authors and photographs of Black people, executed, drowned and burned. Sometimes a visitor, such as Celia, recognizes a loved one. For Devlin, she's an oasis in his aimless hiding, A young college-going Black woman, who aspires to be a doctor, really likes him. While Devlin knows marriage to Celia is a fantasy, still he writes to her.  Over time, she becomes an ever more distant life raft for his dwindling ambitions.

Separated from the "Professor," Devlin again rides freight trains, his means of escape and chance. He loses big, when along with a group of Black men and boys on his train ,he is falsely accused of raping white girls. Devlin's bright future becomes doing time, which stretches out further, each time he attempts escape. Despite being caged, beaten down, and bitter at the profound injustice, Devlin maintains his unique sense of himself and another life. What happens at the end, as he escapes to the mountains, is both an echo of his mother's flight and his big chance. Devlin's brutalized but not brutal and he has something of hope.

Stories from Black history are increasingly being seen by audiences, Black and White. There's a commercial appeal to GINNY GALL, which brings Jim Crow history alive as an American gulag. The facts are grim, yet there's a vivid sense of beauty in this novel. Smith's prose is so lush, you smell the blossoms, feel how sunlight changes colors, taste the textures of fresh and stale cornbread, hear a voice honeyed with love or see faces distorted by hate.

I would be curious what a Black person, whose family experienced the era, would think of Smith's novel.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Mothers of famous artists are often ignored in the mythmaking process but in THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES, a mother's mythic origins inspire great art

The mothers of famous artists  are often ignored in a myth-making process that assumes artists are completely self-invented creatures. Probably Freud's theories contributed to the infamy of mothers, yet there's evidence women transmit the gene for intelligence to their sons (for daughters it's a split gene). In THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES, Alice Hoffman shows how a son's genius arose from his mother's transformative journey. It is late in this mythic story, when you realize Camille Pissarro is the son most like Rachel, his mother.

She's an old lady in 1807 in Paris, when she begins her narrative about her life on the island of St. Thomas. Her family came to the island, as did their small Jewish community, because the King of Denmark proclaimed freedom of religion for all on St, Thomas and gave Jews civil rights. After 300 years of his family's expulsions from countries, her father finally found a haven. The story Rachel learned, was that he owed his life to his Black servant, now an invaluable employee, who carried him to the dock in a wicker basket. The servant, who became his best friend, was freed by Rachel's father for having saved his life.

Interestingly, the Danish king had also proclaimed no "new" slaves. Of course, the Jews, like other Europeans, existed apart from the native Black communities. Former slaves lived with Europeans as paid servants and sometimes secret mistresses. But no questions were asked, unless the unthinkable happened and they married, and became outcasts. Yet separatism was another myth, since in actuality the lives of  Blacks were completely entwined with Whites.

Rachel's inseparable best friend, the same age, was Jestine, their cook's daughter. They shared the desire to go to Paris, books, dreams and adventure in the wild. Their natural world was magical. They befriended feral donkeys, beautiful orange parrots, salamanders, even the sultry air and tumultuous ocean. Every year, on a special night, they lay on the beach to watch hordes of turtles leave the water to lay eggs on the beach.

In her notebooks, Rachel captured all the old stories; the sadness of the turtle girl, who wanted to be completely human, the werewolf descendants of the old Danish slave-owning families, who prowled the night. Memory and folklore merged, when Rachel's hands sparked in the presence of spirits, three blackbirds prefigured three deaths and the native "haint blue"warded off ill luck. There was also the surprising smell of molasses permeating buildings, especially her father's store and the synagogue.

Though Rachel largely does what she wants and enjoys her father's love and respect for her "head for figures," she can never escape her mother's disapproval. Her mother dislikes Rachel, educated over her objections in a time when women couldn't inherit or run a family business. She criticized her willful, outspoken personality. She pointed out that her plainness, combined with those traits, made  her unmarriagable. Rachel was fine with that but wished Jestine's kind patient mother, a source of treats and wisdom, was her own.

Though others might disapprove of the girls 'close friendship, what mattered to Rachel's father was less convention than what he thought right. He appreciated that Rachel could keep his books. Though her mother accepted that women were entirely at the will of husbands and fathers, Rachel's father wanted her to be independent. So Rachel grew up with a mother who didn't like her and a father who treated her like a son. She was very surprised, when Adelle told her fortune, that she would raise many children. When that suddenly came to pass at age 20, when Rachel is married in a business arrangement to a man her father's age with young children, she bowed to his necessity. The marriage would stabilize business. Yet, Rachel yearned for love and Adelle delivered. Eventually, she was to recognize a great love.

Her independent life was lost to the management of a household and children. But Rachel found help in the graveyard from the spirit of her husband's first wife. Rachel's fate seemed as unlikely as that of Jestine, the most beautiful girl on the island. Rachel's handsome cousin had been in love with Jestine since their childhood, a union that seemed destined in the stars. But this interracial union was thwarted and Jestine had a child and lived without love.

In the THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES, the natural world and mythic reality clash with society's man-made rules, tradition and history. Yet myth has its own primal logic. Though Rachel had to conform to society, she also had to defy it to unite with her destined lover. Because of a legal technicality, he and Rachel lived as outcast with their children for years, before her marriage was accepted by her community, Her family's suffering made her appreciate the value of conforming to society. By the time Camille came along, the willful girl, keeper of the fantastic stories of her beautiful island, was submerged in the respectable mother.

Like many myths, there is also a curse. The witch, Rachel's mother, said that she should experience the sorrow of a child's willfulness.Though Rachel raised many children, Camille, the most like her,was the most difficult. When Camille was an infant and would not sleep, Rachel took him to the old herb man, who said the boy could not help what he saw. So dazzled and excited was Camille by the world, he didn't want to shut his eyes. He gave her a potion. Camille slept but never lost that sight. As he grew older, Rachel feared for her wayward son. He could not stop drawing or painting the white light and vivid colors of his island. Camille could not work in school or the business Rachel's efforts to force and direct him came to no good.

Parallel to Rachel's story was that of Jestine, whose daughter by Rachel's cousin is abducted. She mourned for twenty years. When Camille was finally sent to Paris to study art, he found Jestine's daughter for her, which brought the friendship into the next generation. Later, after his father's death,he returned to the island and tried to conform to help his mother. But Rachel had a revelation of the rightness of Camille going his way, as she had once desired. When she accepted nature's law of change, a solution offered itself.

As an old lady, Rachel thought of her notebooks and the time, before modernization, when the veil between spirits and humans was thin. Her hands no longer sparked but she respected the two worlds. Though in the physical one, she still had trouble accepting Camille's wife. Opposites were married in Rachel's life. Magical and historical reality, youth and age, art and commerce merged in this fantastic novel.

I found this novel transformative. The reader travels from youth's rebellion and inspiration to maturity's illusion of security. There's the bittersweet experience of old age, when time brings change that can sweep away what's familiar--what was once believed to be true. At its core, THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES is a love story to the island of old St. Thomas, created anew in an artist's eye and the heart of his mother.