Sunday, December 2, 2012

If Pat Conroy Likes It, I Should Read It

The last two books I have read had one thing in common: a blurb on the back cover by Pat Conroy. And since I liked these books, and have always enjoyed Pat Conroy's books, I suppose that in the future when considering a book, I should first check and see if Pat has a quote on the back cover.

First I read Rick Bragg's memoir, "All Over but the Shoutin'".  In the blurb, Conroy calls it one of the best books he's read, a work of art. If "art" is that which reflects to us our lives but in a way which makes sense our of the chaos, I would agree that it is a work of art.

Rick is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist. His writing style is beautiful, and his stories moving. In the second paragraph he claims, "This is not an important book. It is only the story of a strong woman, a tortured man and three sons..."  later he states that he had "put off" telling this story for ten years, because "dreaming backwards can carry a man through some dark rooms where the walls seem lined with razor blades."

And so Bragg begins to delineate the story of his family, about a beautiful woman who loved a man damaged in the Korean conflict and went down the the self-destructive path of alcoholism. How the man abandoned his family, and the woman picked cotton to clothe and fed her three sons.

Rick Bragg is not a Depression-era child. We are used to hearing these stories from that time period. But to read about someone my younger brother's age growing up in poverty rearranges my view of the world.

Bragg calls himself lucky, just a guy in the right place at the right time. His climb up the ranks, from writing sports stories for the local paper to feature writing at the New York Times is presented without bravado, not a jot of egoism sneaking through the words.

Bragg's descriptions of life in Haiti are chilling. While on the staff of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, my husband had visited Haiti several times between 1985 and 1989. Bragg's first trip was in 1991. Bragg writes, " I had come to believe that I was good at one thing, writing about people in trouble. As it turned out, I was a rank amateur  I didn't know what misery was, but I would learn." Bragg was over-whelmed by the poverty and garbage, death and despair around him. Three years latter he returned to find "not much had changed." Political upheaval and deadly repercussions still ruled the lives of  the citizens. The poor were still maimed-- or killed, their bodies stolen and held for ransom.

Real Life rarely has happy endings tied up nice and neat. So it was sweet to read about how Bragg repaid his mother's sacrifice by purchasing her a home of her own. "And I am grateful I could give her this much, before more time tumbled by lost. There ain't no way to make it perfect. You do the best you can for the people left..."

Bragg's father, on his death bed,  asked his sons to see him, and he tries to make amends for years of abandonment. He tells his son, "It's all over but the shoutin'."

The second book I read last month was "America, America" by Ethan Canin.  I bought the book for 50 cents at Big Lots. It sat on my shelf for at least a year. I picked it up and fell in love. I did not want to read it too fast, yet did not want to put it down.  In his blurb, Pat Conroy confesses  "I love this book." Well, Pat, I do too. I finished it over a week ago, and the characters and images live in my mind's eye as if I had lived the story myself.

Corey, the son of a blue-collar, working class man,  shares his father's high standards of careful workmanship. While helping his father replace a drain, and saving the roots of an aged oak tree, he is noticed by Liam Metery, who has inherited the wealth accumulated by his Gilded Age grandfather. Corey is asked to help around the Metarey estate, and as Liam Metary and his family come to respect Corey, he is invited into their lives.  Liam himself is a man who loves workmanship, and the simple pleasure of hands-on industry. He is also a progressive liberal who decides to back the great Liberal senator from New York State, Henry Bonwiller, in his run for the presidency in 1972.

As Corey becomes involved with the behind-the-scene machinations of politics, his world widens. Corey is especially taken by a journalist, who becomes his role model, leading him to his life's work in journalist. Corey is also affected by Liam's dreams of a better country, the end of the war in Viet Nam, and a government that aligns itself with the common man's good. Liam recognizes the boy's potential, and assists him with a scholarship to a private school, and later leaves him money for a Harvard education.

The fairy tale unravels, dragging Liam and Corey into the ambiguous black hole created by Bonwiller, and their loss of innocence reflects the national loss of idealism in the 1970s.

What would you do to protect your most sacred dream? How reliable are the human vessels in whom you place your dreams? Can you live with the knowledge that you have compromised yourself?

One reviewer I read thought that the title "America, America" should be heard like a sigh for what might have been, knowledge of what has been lost.