Friday, February 15, 2008

the last book I read

Bluesman by Andre Dubus III.

It's 1967, and 17-year-old Leo Suther lives in the backwoods of Massachusetts with his widowed father. Over the course of the summer he learns to play the blues harmonica, falls in love with local girl Allie Donovan, works as a building contractor for Allie's father and learns about his mother (who died when he was very young).

So it's your bog-standard coming-of-age novel then. Well, yes, pretty much, but with some interesting twists. The 1967 setting means that the Vietnam war is a constant backdrop, both in terms of Allie's father Chick Donovan's radicalism and the constant insecurity among men of eligible age over the draft. And the author's obvious knowledge of and enthusiasm for the blues music that Leo and his father Jim play brings those passages to life.

Therein lies one of the oddities though - 1967 was a seminal year for popular music, the year of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Are You Experienced?, Disraeli Gears, Forever Changes and The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. There's no sense of this rock revolution impinging on Leo & Jim's blues purism at all; I suspect a real-life 17-year-old would have been out buying Hendrix albums on the quiet along with the Big Bill Broonzy albums, even in rural Massachusetts.

Leo and Allie's relationship seems implausibly adult for a pair of 17-year olds as well - their courtship (which I define as the period between their first conversation and their first act of penetrative sex) seems more than a little compressed. To illustrate this, and for a bit of prurient fun, here's the timeline as portrayed in the book:
  • page 14: first exchange of words
  • page 25: some dry humping in the woods
  • page 37: full sex in Leo's bedroom
  • page 42: some fingering action in the truck
  • page 57: full sex in the truck
  • page 73: full sex in Leo's bedroom
  • page 74: full sex in Leo's bedroom
  • page 128: full sex on Allie's parents' sofa
  • page 183: full sex in the truck
No doubt this is to facilitate getting on to the bits of the story the author wanted to concentrate on, but it didn't quite ring true for a pair of 17-year-old kids in 1967, Summer Of Love or not. Full marks to Dubus for a sane and sympathetic portrayal of an abortion, though: one neither carried out by slavering coat-hanger-wielding monsters nor causing of lasting injury or mental trauma to the recipient. When a Hollywood movie dares to portray something similar we'll know we're getting somewhere: for all the undoubted merits of Knocked Up and Juno their worldview, in this respect at least, is still a deeply conservative one.

There were just a couple of moments, also, (the more flowery descriptions of house-building or harmonica-playing especially) where the prose threatened to tip over into something resembling Eli Cash's novel extract in The Royal Tenenbaums (which I suspect was intended as a parody of Cormac McCarthy in particular):
The crickets and the rust-beetles scuttled among the nettles of the sage thicket. "VĂ¡monos, amigos", he whispered, and threw the busted leather flintcraw over the loose weave of the saddlecock. And they rode on in the friscalating dusklight.
While we're on the subject of films: Dubus' father, Andre Dubus (you've got to keep your wits about you here) was also a novelist whose short story Killings was later adapted into the acclaimed film In The Bedroom. Dubus III himself is better known for his later novel House Of Sand And Fog, adapted into a film in 2003.

Finally - my copy of the novel has pages 187 and 188 missing. Hard to tell if this is a printing/binding error or whether it just got torn out at some point. I don't think anything pivotal to the plot happens on those two pages, but if anyone thinks there's anything I need to know, let me know.

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