Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Wolf Pit

I'm doing Asian now -- and haven't read an American novel since"House of Seven Gables" about 5 years ago -- but stumbling accross the unique opportunity to know and correspond with the author I'm reading -- I took a path closer to home -- and read one of the books by Marly Youmans who's been an enthusiastic reader of my sculpture/painting blog over the past month.

As readers of my book blog (if there ever are any) will quickly conclude --- I read for what might be called the exotic --- the places far, far from home -- to experience not just fantasies -- but the fantasies of people who lived in very different real worlds. I've spent over 50 years surrounded by conntemporary American minds -- I'm ready to travel somewhere else.

But when I travel -- whether it's to ancient Rome or Medieval Japan -- it's always over the bumpy road of translation -- i.e. I can follow a sequence of images and events -- but the cadence of speech is , at best, perfunctory --- and that cadence is the special pleasure I've found reading Marly Youmans -- espeically when the action picks up -- and things are happening rat-tat-tat.

Unfortunately, the book I chose was very unpleasant for me. Just like every painting has a certain decorative color scheme -- her novel was painted in certain colors -- which I'd identify as black-red-brown. Though as one of the characters might have said -- "it's my own damn fault" -- since the ugly title, "The Wolf Pit" should have been sufficient warning --- and just like when little Virginia (a character in the story) is offered a choice of stories to hear "All blood and guts, or sugar and sap and a good little princess" -- she picked "All blood and guts" -- and so did I --- and believe me -- that's what I got.

And so -- I struggled -- and it was really tough going for me until about Chapter 11 -- when I finally became engaged in story -- and couldn't put it down the rest of the way.

What it's got --- is Americana -- with all the loving details of home and field -- and minor characters - and scenes -- that seem pulled from American movies and painting -- like the opening scene, for example, pulled straight from a Brady photograph of a Civil War battlefield -- and I often felt rushed back to the very first illustrated books I read in grade school - depicting the cheerful but serious life of families on the frontier.

And it's got that innocence, bone-headed idealism, and consequent melodrama that just seems so tragically American. (well--- I'm sincerely doing my best --- the body language, boyish face of G.W. Bush seems to say)

Plenty of melodrama --- incredibly innocent, helpless victims -- and incredibly competent, vicious villians --- which I think makes the book so authentic to the psychology of is period -- but also very unreal.

When the victim-heroine starts writing her story --- I just don't buy it -- I hear the author's melifluent voice -- not a home-educated slave girl of 1860 --- and when the victim-hero delivers his heroic speech and prophetic dream as he reaches the end of his path ("Never, never will the land, the soil, the earth be divided again. Never will civil strife soak the fields and meadows...") -- there is no way that I can imagine this profundity coming from the mind of that day-dreaming-boy -- and when his cousin Nash pronouces "Of all my family, he is the best, the one who thinks and plans, who could be something" - I jump up from my desk in amazement. Were we reading the same book ? This boy's a sweet dreamer -- not a thinker and planner !

But still --- I have to admit -- despite the rocky beginning -- I loved the book -- as a fantastic quilt -- just like the one that Agate is making at the end -- full of colorful threads -- patterns -- images --metaphors-- something of a jumble perhaps -- not like a tight French painting -- not like a designer town home in Manhattan -- but like a comfortable, rambling southern home -- full of folksy treasures.

There's an interweaving of things -- of chapters -- voices -- images -- metaphors -- and it's very, very feminine.

And -- of course -- I have to mention -- full of reference to the visual arts -- because --- rather obviously, the author loves them -- and they are always popping into her mind --no matter how well -- or not well - they seem to fit into the story --- like the statue that gets (I think comically) hauled around and buried a few times near the end of the book. Or -- like the introductory sentance of the final, magnificent chapter "like a scene from a medieval engraving of two skeletons carrying a third between them..."

"It is my grave, he tried and failed to whisper, while the soul went out of his body like a sigh"

That's the final line of text -- and I doubt that any translation could do it justice.