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.