Wednesday, June 30, 2021

the last book I read

World's End by TC Boyle.

It's 1968 and Walter van Brunt is doing some standard carefree hippy shit: caning a few beers at a local bar, smoking some weed, going skinny-dipping with a girl he's just met, doing some ill-advised acrobatics on some old shipwrecks out in the river and then hopping on his Norton Commando to head off home. So far so Easy Rider, except for the next bit where he misjudges a turn, skids off the road, whacks into a metal sign and ends up in hospital having his right foot amputated. That never happened to Peter Fonda, although he did end up getting shot and killed, so swings and roundabouts I suppose. 

Hang on, though, it's also 1949 and a group of civil rights activists are organising a concert featuring various luminaries of the movement including Paul Robeson. Certain segments of the local community, notably the van Wart family who own the land on which it's taking place, aren't terribly happy about this but given the secretive nature of the arrangements there isn't much they can do about it - unless someone were to traitorously reveal the details, of course.

Wait a minute, though, because it's also the 1660s and some of Walter's van Brunt ancestors are scratching out a meagre living on land owned by some of the van Wart ancestors. "Owned" is a troublesome word here, of course, as it wouldn't have been so long before that the land was largely inhabited by the natives who'd been there for centuries, and the Europeans' acquisition of it and subsequent treatment of the Kitchawank (all right, stop sniggering at the back there) and Wecquaesgeek Indians were dubious to say the least.

What links these three narratives is not only that many of the people bear the same names (van Wart and van Brunt, primarily) but also that the action described takes place in broadly the same place: the valley of the Hudson River in the modern-day state of New York. So we've travelled in time, but not in space

Life was tough for most people in the 17th century, and the van Brunts are no exception - their starting situation is tough enough, being obliged to work their asses off just to pay the rent to the van Warts whose land they farm, but on top of that they seem to be afflicted with some extraordinary bad luck. Son Jeremias has a close encounter with a snapping turtle at the river's edge which results in gangrene and the loss of a leg. Family patriarch Hermanus succumbs to, and barely survives, a bout of some unexplained eating disease that makes him devour entire oxen at a single sitting only to then be scalded half to death by his daughter Katrinchee and finish the job himself by running from the house in agony and falling off a cliff. Katrinchee herself brings shame on the family by running off with, and getting pregnant by, a Kitchawank called Mohonk, a union which eventually (after she's returned to the van Brunt household) produces a son, Jeremy Mohonk. As if all that were not enough, the van Brunt house is then struck by lightning and burns down, taking Hermanus' wife Agatha and son Wouter with it.

We stay with the van Brunts through the next couple of generations: it falls to Jeremias, as the only remaining male family member, not only to keep the line going, which he does, but to continue the family's tenancy of the van Warts' land, which he does, but in as surly and unhelpful a way as possible, which gets him, his son Wouter, and his strange, near-mute nephew Jeremy Mohonk (the first of a long line of Jeremy Mohonks spread throughout the book's three timelines) into a whole heap of trouble. What we learn, following the family through the generations like this, is that there seems to be a fatal flaw running through the male line which makes them which makes them betray family, friends and everything they stand for in unforgivable ways at moments of crisis. First Jeremias, having implicitly whipped up his son and nephew into a state of indignant rage at their treatment by the patroon, caves in and begs his mercy when Wouter and Jeremy get themselves captured and put in the stocks. Then, once Wouter has become the van Brunt family patriarch and further rebellions against the patroon's rule occur, Wouter sells everyone out (thus ensuring their summary public hanging) to secure his own release.

Fast-forward to the 1940s (the least-explored of the three timelines, mainly referred to in flashbacks by characters in 1968) and Truman van Brunt, Walter's father, is ratting out his concert-organising activist friends to the van Warts, an action which causes a riot and various injuries, though miraculously no lives are lost. 

And then here we are in the book's nominal "now", 1968, and Walter van Brunt is trying to decide what to make of his life. Reduced to one foot in the opening pages of the book, he drifts around, casually banging Mardi van Wart, daughter of the current patriarch, Depeyster (and cheating on his wife Jessica into the bargain), obsessed by his father's actions, and seemingly unable to escape the self-destructive instincts of his forbears. Eventually, after Jessica leaves him for his close friend Tom Crane and he contrives to have another motorcycle accident which costs him his other foot, he tracks down his father - who had basically disappeared after the riot of 1949, leaving his mother to slowly starve herself to death - in the remote northern reaches of Alaska and asks him to explain his actions back in 1949, whereupon he learns a bit more about the van Brunt family history, something Truman has obviously been investing the long winter nights studying.

Back in New York state, Jeremy Mohonk, the last of the Kitchawanks (no, stop it), has found a way of simultaneously revenging himself upon the van Warts for generations of mistreatment and perpetuating his line (basically by impregnating the current Mrs. van Wart). Meanwhile Walter, returned from Alaska, has to ask himself a question: can he transcend his family's past and his own apparent destiny, which would have him perpetrate some terrible act of treachery and betrayal upon his friends at around this point in his life, or should he just bow to the inevitability of it all?

This is the sixth TC Boyle novel to appear on this blog (bringing him level with Ian McEwan and Russell Hoban, but still two behind Iain Banks), and it is the earliest in his oeuvre to appear here, having been published in 1987 (the previous oldest, The Tortilla Curtain, was published in 1995). I'm not sure whether it's because of that that it seems a bit less focused than some of the later ones, by which I mean that there's just a sense that Boyle was revelling in the creation of his imagined world and the brilliance of the language he was using to describe it so much that he forgot to make the central plot plank that supposedly attaches the three timelines to each other make much sense. What are we to make of the supposed van Brunt curse that runs through the generations and makes the men do inexplicable things? Walter's Alaskan confrontation with Truman, though it is framed as the moment where some serious TRUTH BOMBS get DROPPED on Walter's ASS, doesn't actually tell the reader much they didn't already know. Is it some genetic thing, maybe related to Hermanus' bizarre eating compulsion that Walter briefly has a milder version of towards the end of the book, a bit like a messier version of fatal familial insomnia? And Walter's climactic succumbing to the curse, while dramatic, actually only results in some damage to a boat; no-one dies or anything, well, except Walter himself. None of the central characters has many redeeming features either, least of all Walter himself who is an unfocused, selfish, intermittently vindictive drifter. 

I'm never going to use the phrase "minor quibbles" in a book review again after this incident, but all I would say instead is: once it becomes obvious that a wholly satisfying tying-up of this plot point isn't going to be forthcoming you can just sit back and revel in the delights of the writing, which are considerable. It's not the best example of his work - Drop City is my favourite, closely followed by The Tortilla Curtain - but it's more engaging, thought-provoking, funny and subversive than at least 90% of fiction nonetheless, so still well worth a go. The judging committee of the 1988 PEN/Faulkner Award evidently agreed with me; other winners to appear on this list are Independence Day, The Human Stain and Bel Canto.

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