Reckonings, Documents and Peculiar Disorders

Here are three books I’ve recently enjoyed. I’m saving my favorite of the three for last.

1. Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

Winter’s Bone is the straightforward saga of a brave teenage girl trying to hunt down her Meth-cooking father before she and her kid brothers lose their home to the bail bondsman. The book’s most unique feature is its setting, a downtrodden Appalachian mountain community. I like Woodrell’s minimalist pacing and deadpan storytelling, although by the book’s end I wasn’t sure if I’d missed a big emotional climax or if there just wasn’t one at all (I suspect it’s the latter). This novel strives for a flat tone, but it displays hidden depths — for instance, this blogger finds references to ancient religious strains in some of the passages.

More than anything else, Winter’s Bone reads like a template for a good movie, and somehow I have a feeling Sean Penn will be involved if this ever happens.

2. Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta

I wasn’t sure what to think when I first heard of this novel, a rumination upon 60’s-era and 90’s-era political idealism that follows two fugitives from a hippie terrorist group now living as mature adults and interacting surreptitiously with a younger generation of “radicals” in Seattle. At first I decided not to read it because the cover blurbs compare Spiotta to Don DeLillo and Joan Didion (two writers I’m not always crazy about), and also because I know of “Eat the Document” as an obscure Bob Dylan film and I’m sick of writers borrowing titles from Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello (seriously now, people, think up your own titles). However, I was then persuaded to give the book a try after reading a recommendation from Champion, and I’m glad I did.

Luckily, Spiotta’s prose is breezier than either Don DeLillo’s or Joan Didion’s, and I got quickly caught up in the fugitive intrique and the Seattle slacker/hipster/intellectual satire. We switch between several tableaus: a pack of hyper-ironic politically conscious bookstore rats gathers to plan meaningless protest events, while a Mom tries to communicate with her teenage kid who only appreciates the music of Brian Wilson, and then we cut to various communal farms and urban hideaways during the 1960’s/70’s flashback scenes. It all adds up to some kind of theory, which is roughly this: both the creators of corporate culture product and the rebels who reject it are locked together into a sinister and co-dependent dance. Starbucks is Big Brother, and Apple Computer and Gap Jeans are all in on the conspiracy too. I’m not sure if I’ve got this message right, and I’m not sure whether or not I agree with it, but I enjoyed the book enough that I don’t mind puzzling over what it all means.

3. A Disorder Peculiar to the Country by Ken Kalfus

I’m surprised there isn’t more buzz about this book (which was nominated for a National Book Award, yet nobody seems to have heard of it). This is a wonderfully dark, bitterly delicious book about two New Yorkers going through the shock of divorce in the age of terrorism. It’s hard to describe Kalfus’s odd cocktail, except to say that it mixes the violent societal satire of Chuck Palahniuk, the witty urbanity of Jay McInerney and the way-out-there strangeness of Richard Brautigan, and that it swirls global and psychological traumas together in a way that feels revelatory.

The book is often summarized by its back-cover punchline — both Joyce and Marshall believe the other one has died in the September 11 attacks, and both are disappointed to find themselves back together in the Brooklyn apartment they are fighting over. Their ridiculous and ruinous battle over the expensive Brooklyn apartment evokes the battle between Israel and Palestine, and this is only one of several powerful connections that energize this rich book. Joyce and Marshall agonize with their lawyers (who are bleeding both of them dry) as they deal with anthrax scares and family weddings, and they fail to notice that their children are suffering badly. In one scene, Joyce and Marshall meet in a pizzeria just after hearing a news story in which a Palestinian bomber walked into a Jerusalem pizzeria, said “God is great”, and blew the place up. A few pages later, Marshall shows up in their kitchen with dynamite wrapped around his belt.

“God is great,” he announced. He took a moment to inhale and brought the clips together.

She looked up, annoyed that he had spoken to her, apparently without necessity. It was against their ground rules.

“Since when?” she snapped.

“God is great,” he repeated, again touching the clips. He opened one and clipped it around the other, but it slipped off. He then squeezed both clips and snagged one in the other, jaw to jaw. They held.

“What are you doing? What is that?”

“A suicide bomb.”

His bathrobe had opened and the explosives wrapped around his midsection were visible. She raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“I made it myself. I have enough dynamite to blow up half the block. God is great.”

He put the two clips between his thumb and forefinger, squeezing hard. He imagined, for a moment at least, that he could feel a tickle of a shock.

“Why doesn’t it work then?”

“I don’t know,” he said, irritated. “The wiring is tricky.”

“Did you follow the instructions?”

By this point, the narrative has become completely unhinged. And so has the world, so this feels just right.

I strongly recommend that you read A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, if you haven’t already. Eat the Document gets a qualified “buy” from me, and so does Winter’s Bone.

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