Friday, August 29, 2014

The High Divide - Lin Enger

I'm the youngest of four who had the unfortunate role of being the caboose on a string of dazzlingly brilliant and very good looking siblings. Me? I read the encyclopedia, and spent hours upon hours copying names out of the phone book, writing them all in cursive. (Remember cursive?)  I have no doubt that my parents fretted over me, and it is entirely possible that if I were growing up now I would have a legitimate shot at being found to be on the autism scale somewhere.

As much as I adored and idolized my older brothers and sister, I hated the first day of school every year. I dreaded I'd get a teacher who loved loved loved one of them. I couldn't hold a candle to any of them in any area--except penmanship (see above)--and I knew it, and it didn't take long for my teachers to know it, too.

To this day I believe I passed from grade to grade on the Bless Her Heart grading scale.

All this has a point, I swear.

One of my all-time favorite novels is Leif Enger's luminous Peace Like a River.  His second novel, So Brave, Young and Handsome, didn't do much for me but I still watched publisher notices every season, patiently waiting for something - anything - else from him.

And then came the announcement that his brother Lin had a novel on the horizon and I just got giddy. Surely these two would have some of the same stuff, and they had even written a series of mysteries together some years back. I could scarcely contain myself, casting aside any idea at all that people raised in the same house don't always get the same goods.

From the get go, something about The High Divide bothered me. The year is 1886, and Ulysses Pope's family is on the brink of financial disaster. It was not unusual at that time for heads of household to leave their families to take a chance on some prospect for financial gain, but I just didn't and couldn't buy in to Ulysses leaving his family with nothing but a note reading, "A chance for work, hard cash," with nary a word about where he was headed, or how long he expected to be gone.

It doesn't take long for his sons to light out after him, riding the rails to where they believe he may have gone, based on a letter Eli, the older son, had found.  They don't tell their mother they are leaving, so now you have this woman with a missing husband and two missing sons, who is fixin' to lose the home they lived in together, with no hope of raising money to keep a lecherous landlord wolf at bay.

I don't mind a dose of improbable in my fiction, understand that, but it's just a whole lot easier to overlook if there is something in the narrative that makes you glad the author took the leap.

I am well and truly sorry that I did not like this novel. I finished it, but I'm not sure why. After that leap Enger asked me to take at the opening, he then throws in a couple more implausible plot developments, peppered with stilted dialog and so many wasted opportunities to let the reader in.

And ultimately, that's the thing:  I never felt like I'd been invited into the story. There was no character with whom I could form even the most tenuous bond, or in whom I developed any interest.

The High Divide has gotten buzz out the wahoo, but I'll be darned if I can figure out why.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Drop - Dennis Lehane

Here's something on which I usually don't bite: repackaging of a short fiction first published in a collection, particularly when the reason for the repackaging is to coincide with the release of a motion picture based on that short fiction. 

But The Drop was by DENNIS LEHANE, one of a handful of authors in whom I have never, ever been disappointed. Ever. It also didn't hurt that I've been on another run of novels that just refused to engage my heart or my imagination, and which, therefore, I did not finish. 

Bob is, by all appearances, a feckless bartender with little going for him. When he finds a puppy abandoned in a trash can, and then meets a young woman with plenty of bad decisions in her resume, Bob begins to find himself in unfamiliar emotional territory. A cast of treacherous friends, the Chechen mafia, and the godless man who dumped that puppy in the garbage provide plenty of windmills against which this modern day Don Quixote must tilt. 

Dennis Lehane clearly has a heart wide open for folks who live around all the dark corners, the ones you'd feel safer crossing the street than encountering on a public sidewalk at dusk. He knows what we all know, of course: there's a story and a tragedy and a triumph somewhere in every one of them. That he consistently invites us into something like communion with them through his novels is a wonderment. 

Highly, highly recommended.  

Publication date: September 2, 2014
William Morrow
An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers