In My Time of Dying I Know Where I’m Bound

 As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner

Earlier this year I attended a company-wide event intended to help a geographically dispersed staff function better. Similar events probably take place all over the world daily.

With the best of intentions, the meeting organizer invited all present to introduce themselves, talk about their role and tell everyone what book(s) they were reading. And so just like that, an event meant to engender unity began by dividing those present into two groups.

Sadly, it was the readers who seemed not to notice.

I bring all this up not because in a noble moment I alone noticed the error, but because I failed miserably at trying to fix it. The only thing worse than dividing people is a bad joke and I’m now certain that wordplay with the titles of novels won’t make non-readers feel suddenly well-read. Lesson learned.

If you’re interested, the novels dragooned into the service of failed humor were the Fitzgerald we recently talked about and this short masterpiece. While I am immersed in filling in gaps in my reading, this is a repeat. At some point before I completed college I went on a Faulkner tear, attacking his novels as a plow would the deep rich soil of Yoknapatawpha County

The young man who crafted this novel was not yet the dashing figure he came to be. William Faulkner in the 1920s.

And then I stopped, although that was less about Faulkner and more about fiction.

So here I am, back again with the Bundren family and while I failed to notice a few of their misadventures the first time around, they remain a singular bunch. At the outset, Addie Bundren is on her deathbed, while her oldest son, Cash, works on building her coffin. The rest of the family is caught in the twilight state that marks a death watch.

Although death has been a regular visitor since I was a tot, I had not yet buried a parent when I first read this novel. And so I read without recognizing how uncannily accurate the mood was. The tension, the sadness, the fear, the withdrawal, as if a wholesale retreat into oneself can spare one from the unique pain of a mother’s (and wife’s) departure from this life.

There are lots of Bundrens and the narration shifts between them. All five children–in addition to Cash there are three other boys (Darl , Jewel and Vardaman)  and one girl, Dewey Dell–have their say, as does Anse, the soon-to-be widower. Over the course of the novel a number of secondary players pipe in, but mostly we hear from the Bundrens.

Isn’t that always how it is? The family collapses in on itself but no one notices at first. The distracting urgency of funeral arrangements and funerary rituals consumes everyone’s emotional energy.  Action occurs without thinking, or feeling, until the time for activity has passed and all you are left with is each other, your pain and the hole in your lives. I don’t think it matters whether your family is picture-perfect or a mess the void is the same.

I suspect Addie’s final journey home was on a wagon much like this.

The Bundrens, it’s obvious from the outset, are far from picture-perfect. Jewel is forever on the cusp of disappearing, the un-Bundren who in reality is the bastard offspring of Addie’s affair with Reverend Whitfield, a secret she takes to her grave. Darl is, in the vernacular of the time, crazy and going more insane over the nine days the book describes event though his voice appears most often.

Vardaman is a child (he is the youngest Bundren) trying to make sense of his world and the violent disruption he’s experiencing. Dewey Dell is the remaining source of maternal energy who harbors a terrible secret of her own. Anse presents as a man so single-minded that if the word didn’t already exist they’d invent ‘stubborn’ to describe him. Anse, I’m certain, would prefer dutiful.

The tale itself is concerned more with the aftermath of death than dying. Anse has promised to take Addie home to Jefferson to be buried with her people. What should be a trip of a day or so turns into a mini-Odyssey. Their homeland seems to be actively conspiring to deny the Bundren family their final duty and remaining dignity.

With bridges washed out by flood waters and roads impassable from the same risen waters,  the Bundrens push forward. As they go, they prove impervious to advice and even, at times, hospitality. Horror and high comedy make common cause as the Bundrens ford a flooded river, briefly losing Addie’s coffin and Cash’s tools to the floodwaters. (Those tools mean something I’m certain, but I’m too dim to understand what.) Cash himself ends up riding in the wagon next to and sometimes atop the coffin he’s built for his mother, his leg broken and ultimately cast in concrete.

I suspect Addie’s final journey home was on a wagon much like this.

All this takes time and what should be a relatively quick journey of a day or so ends up taking nine days. Addie’s essence, shall we say, precedes her. In the countryside, that leads to tongue-wagging. By the time they get to Jefferson the perfume makes the rural-urban divide tangible, even if that divide in early 20th century Mississippi constitutes a smaller gap than that between, say, Mississippi and Manhattan.

It would be too easy, and wrong I think, to assign roles, motivations and significance to every narrator. I think the art here lies in telling this story from so many angles, from leaving in the ambiguities, from the very idea that there isn’t just a story but that there are multiple stories and these stories intersect with even more stories and so on.

As a younger reader, I recognized what made this novel different. Some decades on I recognize its quiet power and artistic mastery.  And that is a lesson worth learning.

READER BONUS: The Vintage paperback edition contains the corrected text found in the Library of America edition.







I Might Like You Better if We Slept Together

Professor Romeo
Ann Bernays

Do you remember the last time the world was falling apart? I mean the time before right now. When men in powerful positions were having their least noteworthy behaviors dragged out into the cold hard light of day?

You’d be forgiven for thinking that civilization had reached a moment of great reckoning. While the occasional legal settlement still makes news, the sense of peril has passed and we’ve all moved on to more engaging topics.

Somehow, I don’t recall this late 1980s novel enjoying a “Me, Too” resurrection, which is odd because it could easily be seen as an opening shot in the war against male workplace misbehavior. And while it may have resurfaced commercially without my noticing it, I don’t notice a lot of things. For instance, I evidently carried this book through three moves before ever opening it. The only reason I can be certain of the number is the business card of a literary agent–a neighbor from long ago–was stuck in the pages.

The poster boy of the “Me, Too” movement meets NY’s hometown newspaper.

At the outset, we meet Jacob Barker, professor of  Psychology at Harvard University. Barker is in mid-career, having had the right mentor and having published experimentally-based, well-received often-cited papers on the developmental differences between males and females. He has accumulated all the accouterments of academic prestige. Top university: check.  Tenure: check. Academic renown: check. A suitably prestigious office locale: check. And yet like any other schoolboy, our leading man works himself into quite a lather when he receives a summons to the Dean’s office.

The Dean would like to address a complaint with Barker. There are, it seems, some rumours. Well, not so much rumours as accusations. Not really a formal complaint, mind you, but there is this new process and administrative machinery and, anyway, it must all be a mistake and so do come over Tuesday next and we’ll hash this all out. The Dean is about as unctuous a figure as you’ll ever encounter; he put me in mind of a career diplomat I once met who oozed insincerity by the barrel.

Our, dare I say, hero spends upwards of the next hundred pages thinking back over his, ahem, career. A well-established professional, he understands exactly what’s at risk, he just doesn’t see his own hand in having created what could be, if you think about it, an ambiguous situation. I mean, as my dad the philosopher king, once said, “It takes two to bang-o.” It wasn’t … rape. It was seduction, a game between men and women as old as time itself. At least that’s what Jake would say.

The locus of our tale. Cambridge as seen from Boston.

And so he reminisces. There’s his first wife, with whom he has a son. There are three students who stand out in his memory. There’s his second wife an Asian-American woman much younger than he, who he met at his publisher.  And there’s the woman who made him, a colleague and long-time lover who is a fellow faculty member. Importantly, she’s everything our man isn’t. Strategic, calculating, ruthless.

It’s her idea to repackage his academic writing for a broader audience inclined to a life of the mind–the types of people who read The Atlantic and The New Yorker and, well, books like this one. In so doing she turns him into sort of the un-Camille Paglia lending a contemporary, cultural gloss to his more lab-bound experimental work.

The result is every academician’s dream, a bestseller, turning the meager salary of an Ivy League academic (honestly, they’ve got big brains; shouldn’t their pay exceed that of an established but still junior associate at a white shoe law firm or top-tier investment bank?) into the grocery money while the book’s sales pay for the house near Harvard Yard and the other appurtenances of life in the higher-altitude reaches of the income distribution.

Harvard Yard in winter. You can see how easy it is to romanticize the place.

By the time of his financial success, whatever relationship Barker and his packager had has withered to the courtesies of work life. Or has it? She has a new, administrative position, with an impressive-sounding yet undefined title. As she sees it, she’s been empowered by their common employer to search out and address sexual misadventures between faculty and students.

As they say in the procedurals, there is now both opportunity and motive and  although she never appears to act in anything other than a professional, although admittedly moralistic, manner, one shouldn’t rule out payback. Jake sort of has it coming even if he’s unaware students refer to him as Professor Romeo–a moniker uttered more in derision than admiration.

I’m a little unclear what Bernays really wants us to think about all this. I admit, I read Aesop‘s fables at too young an age. I’m always looking for lessons and resolution. That’s not the way of the modern novel, though, it’s job is not to instruct. Still, Barker’s behavior is such that one can’t help wondering if there is a larger authorial motive.

Ther is another university in Cambridge: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. You may have even heard of it.

A blurb on the cover suggests the author brings some insight to the Lothario mind. The thrill of the chase aside, the novel doesn’t seem to pay that out. Jake has one close friend, Bennie, whom he’s known since his own undergraduate days. Bennie is a mathematician who holds a faculty position a bit down the river at MIT.

Bennie serves as the voice of reason. He’s forever pointing out how much good there is in Barker’s life. And on the subject of faculty/student extracurricular activities, he’s a near-Puritan. ” You didn’t actually do that?,”  he asks when told of the accusations against his friend.  He goes on to render advice that is well-known, and more bluntly stated, in coarser precincts: you don’t crap where you eat.

I won’t spoil the end but I’ll tease it. There’s a dramatic near trial. Enough humiliation is served up so that everyone can have second helpings. Bystanders suffer as much or more than principals.

And the wheel turns, as it always does, leaving only the lingering question of what constitutes justice behind.





I Have a Special Job

The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground
James Fennimore Cooper

Until I encountered this book containing two novels I was unaware either existed.

I suspect that, except for Cooper scholars and obsessives fixated on early 19th century American literature, such ignorance is a common state. For most people, knowledge of Cooper probably begins and ends with The Last of the Mohicans. After all, it’s been turned into a film multiple times, most recently starring Daniel Day Lewis.

That title is the second in the five-volume series that’s come to be known as The Leatherstocking Tales. Its chronological predecessor, The Deerslayer, which Cooper penned last, was quite the rage among my eighth-grade classmates. The present tale was written much earlier than Cooper’s best-known novels.

In a way, it’s a calculated commercial venture by a man who, deciding he’d try to make a living as a writer, hadn’t had much success. As the golden jubilee of American independence approached, he set pen to paper fleshing out an audacious tale he evidently heard at the home of, if not from the lips of, John Jay. (I’m indebted to Alan Taylor‘s notes for the details of Cooper’s writing life.)

For many children of the Cold War, MAD Magazine‘s “Spy vs Spy” introduced the whole idea.

I may have avoided Cooper until now, but I have not avoided the study of America’s independence and national formation. My passion has always been the intellectual side of the story, but it’s hard to live in any of the original 13 colonies and not cross its warpath. In the northeast, the scenes of consequential battles and acts are closer than anything that happened during the Civil War and, so, have always seemed much more real to me.

This novel upped the ante in the reality department. The setting, the so-called neutral ground of the subtitle, is, mostly, Westchester County, New York. Westchester is not just nearby. It sits atop The Bronx, the borough in which I spent my earliest years. It’s the county in which I went to college, the county in which I co-operated a small business while still in college and the county in which I first held a non-sales job and in which I currently work. There’s even a regional high school named after John Jay in the county’s northern reaches.

The action in The Spy occurs during the War for Independence, closer to the end than the beginning. It involves, initially, the Wharton family, a clan whose sympathies might be expected to lie on the Tory side. The Whartons, when we meet them, are ensconced in their country seat, the Locusts, having moved out from their urban townhouse in the scrum of the war.

Early on, a visitor appears at the estate, a visitor who turns out to be young Henry Wharton, a Captain in His Majesty’s army who has slipped past the official holding line north of Kings Bridge (roughly the northern boundary of today’s Fordham neighborhood in the Bronx) to visit his family: father, two sisters and an aunt.  The American forces are encamped further north, closer to Peekskill and the Hudson River, leaving the area in between under undetermined control. A second mysterious guest known only as Harper also appears

If I am any judge of Westchester geography, the Locusts lies somewhere in the neighborhood of Pepsico‘s present-day headquarters location. And that presents the main problem of this tale.

Our spy, the hero Nathan Hale.
Photo by Christopher De Coro

Mark Twain famously went to town on the implausibilities written into Cooper’s more famous works. Here, we have characters, often on horseback but as likely to be on foot, floating around a 450-square mile area as though they had automobiles. In a critical scene, two characters transit, on foot in the dead of night, a series of hills that in light of day with a marked trail are not a stroll in the park. Somehow, they alight on the Albany Post Road closer to Tarrytown than Peekskill. Traversing the Hudson is rendered as if it was as easy as crossing the Bear Moutain Bridge.

I know, I’m nitpicking. Allowing for how our sense of pace has evolved this novel is, in its own way, a rollicking tale. Repeatedly I found myself thinking that particular scenes seemed like early talking movies when the camera didn’t move so characters spent a lot of time telling each other what was going on. The cast of characters is made for motion pictures. The two sisters support opposite sides in the war. There’s a love story and tale of unrequited love. There’s a pair–a combat surgeon, Dr. Archibald Sitgreaves,  and an infantry officer, Captain John Lawton–engaged in what now would be called a bromance.

Their spy, The Unfortunate Death of Major André

And there’s Harvey Birch who may or may not be a spy. Birch claims to be a simple peddler–a man who manages to wander easily across armed frontiers seemingly engaged in commerce.  If he is a spy, it’s unclear just which side Birch is spying for. Captured more than once, Birch slips out of captivity as easily as some climb out of bed.

I won’t ruin the tale–it is, after all, a thriller–but I’ll note some things that might go unnoticed by audiences who feel the tale drags and who are disinclined to question beyond the text at hand.

The first is that despite the way we tell the story–in both fiction and history books–the War for American Independence was a civil war. The Wharton family presages the family divisions of the 1860s (or the 2020s if you’re feeling apocalyptic about the present).

Another is that the whole idea of spies intrigues people. A war that threw up both Nathan Hale and Major André (executed less than five miles from where I sit typing) was sure to get people thinking. Still more vexing was learning that Washington’s visage, which stares at us from every greenback dollar bill and quarter dollar, was not widely recognized and that his reputation developed after the war. Finally, Cooper realized that the story of America itself offered great literary material, a realization he went on to capitalize from.

A friend who is a literature professor described Cooper as a “good bad writer.” That, I think, is as apt a description as any. Even if the cost of entry is suspending reasonable notions of time and distance.



Shot Through the Heart

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
J.K. Rowling

My long personal nightmare is over. A few weeks ago, after almost a year, my son and I finished our journey through the last of the original Harry Potter novels. I’m not sad to put it behind me.

When the whole Potter phenomena emerged I was clueless. My friends and colleagues who had kids around Harry’s age–Harry is, I believe, 11 at the start of the series–were sucked in. Because Mrs. AHC wound up teaching fourth grade the books soon enough found their way into my house, too.

Still, I resisted. Then I picked up the first book. And I engaged, once again, with fiction, though surprisingly through a genre that had never done much for me. Yes, I had completed the obligatory high school nerd trek through Middle Earth. Even then, though, I recognized it as a work of Catholic allegory. It was never a bridge to Dungeons & Dragons for me.

I had, though, fallen into a fiction-free existence. That itself was odd. There was a time when I’d discover a writer, fall in love and tear through volume after volume. Then I just stopped. I made excuses. I read lots of non-fiction. But the fiction well went dry to the despair of my friends who kept reading.

Whatever dress your Potter comes arrayed in, it’s lot of shelf space, paper and words.

Rowling reawakened my interest in story-telling. For that I’m grateful. But the evolution of the series (and if you’ve read my reflections on these books as Mr. D and I have made our way through the novels you’ve heard this before) highlights everything wrong with the modern publishing business.

I won’t recount all of that here. But the end result is, too often, bloat. When page count helps drive pricing and profitability there’s no incentive to be true to the tenets of good storytelling or respectful of the reader’s time. With the exception of crime fiction writers, many of whom turn out 250 taut pages annually, best-selling authors are allowed to ramble on and on. It’s as though there were a tape loop of cash register bells playing in the editorial offices.

The Deathly Hallows marks the culmination of the Potter saga and, there’s no polite way to say this, it’s a hard slog. At this point, we’re seven years into this neutered, multivolume Britsh-boarding-school bildungsroman and I found my interest flagging. If adolescence is the time during which we start to figure out how to live in the world, I’m not quite sure what our hero, Harry, has learned.

In my faith tradition, hallows are saints.
The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs
By Fra Angelico

Harry has always been a hard nut, a British version of the man whose certainty is a function of his circumstance. He can act courageously, and recklessly. He can protect and nurture others. But the loss that defines his childhood is so enormous he’s forever at some remove from almost everyone else. Perhaps that’s why I originally had so much sympathy for him.

That certainty, those virtues and his loss, though, have locked him In adolescent amber. Over the course of a series that must span close to 3,000 pages, Harry’s emotional and moral growth can be measured in picas.

Maybe I’m wrong about this. Maybe the answer lies in the structure of this final volume. It does, after all, start out with a sort of wizardly Fast and Furious meets Black Hawk Down broom-borne firefight and end in the final pitched battle of a magical civil war. What if all the mucking about in forests, at lakesides, on hilltops and moors and clifftops is meant to establish tedium? It surely can’t be to ratchet up the tension; it persists far too long.

Whatever the reasons for the length and structure of the novel, the simple secret of the plot (to nick a line from a song) is that Harry Potter will prevail. It’s one thing to kill off surrogate parents, classmates and other magical beings. Killing off one’s hero just isn’t done in popular fiction.

Sometimes, total victory leaves the world forever changed.

Don’t take my word for it.  For the six previous volumes in the series my son hung on every word. He can tell me facts buried in subplots that I seem never to have encountered before. Here, though, the pace was dictated, in large part, by his avoidance. Tying up all those loose ends might have seemed a good idea for the writer, but it was hell on the reader.

There’s no point going into great detail about the plot because how we get to Harry’s triumph (and I’ll leave it to you, gentle reader, to decide if the denouement qualifies as our hero’s triumph) is all there is to this volume. There may be no mystery involved, but I can at least avoid ruining the unfolding,

Here’s perhaps the greatest irony of revisiting the books that rekindled my reading of fiction: I’ve run out of words to spend on this subject.

But I’m not going to stop reading.





He’s My Brother

Linda Barnes

It’s a dead certainty that more than once I’ve sworn to read more “real” books and less, well, fluff.

Fluff keeps winning.

My hairshirt is at the cleaners so for now I’ll confine myself to the story at hand. Once again we find ourselves Continue reading

Tell Me a Story

Floating Off the Page: The Best Stories from the Wall Street Journal’s
“Middle Column”

Ken Wells, ed.

By the time I found my first job in an advertising agency I knew I had to play catch-up. Fast.

Until then, I’d been treading water. A sales job. A low-level client-side job. Never really sure if I was making my way in the world or if anything I was doing was ever Continue reading

The Rage of Man and Beast

Unknown, trans. by David Wright

As a good example of a Myers-Briggs NTP, I’m forever conceiving grand projects, the greatest number of which fail to come to fruition.

Close readers will note my attempt to sidestep the responsibilities of agency through use of the passive voice. I suppose that makes me a sometimes scoundrel. This Continue reading

Give the Piano Player a Drink

Down There
David Goodis

Vanity act that this space is, I do like to keep the reader in mind. Arguably, I fail miserably at that task for a simple reason that also explains my academic and career paths: I lack the ability to focus.

Oh, I can complete tasks, but in a world of enticing choices, I like to keep my options open. So, while I could Continue reading

He Rode the Depth and the Breadth of China

The Man Who Loved China
Simon Winchester

My gift this fine February morning, is sparing you the three-line subtitle that reads like pre-DDB body copy. Editors, it seems, have decided such copy makes the sale.

I have no idea whether that is actually true. In a category other than publishing, I’d utter my favorite “let’s-not- Continue reading

It’s Just a Theory

The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and
the Birth of the People’s Economy

Stephanie Kelton

The only social science that sees its contributions recognized with a Nobel Prize, is economics. So you can forgive the practitioners for mistaking their field of study with chemistry and physics.

If you pause for a moment, though, and consider that the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, is not, in fact, one of the prizes established by the inventor of TNT despite all the energy Continue reading