Haven’t done this for a while. Seems indicated: recommendations for summer beach reading. In the past few months I have happened upon three extraordinarily excellent novels I’d like to share with any dear and constant readers out there. I am hardly the first to note these. All three have been around for three to seven years.
About the third book on my list, Kai Maristed of the L.A. Times suggested, “[I]f you have recently stood in line for Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, read Forever.” That’s the title of Pete Hamill’s masterpiece, which is saying much after work such as Snow in August and Flesh and Blood. As to the story of Cormac O’Connor, the protagonist of Forever (who begins life as Robert Carson in early 18th-century Ireland), he is given the gift of longevity — possibly immortality — by an African slave, a babalawo or shaman. He migrates to Manhattan island in the years preceding the American Revolution. The book is “old fashioned storytelling at a gallop,” says The Washington Post. This makes it a natural for the beach; and with its highly literary prose, its stylistically balanced sentences, it is perfect, as well, to take to bed on winter weekends with mugs of tea (or laudanum).
Much of the story is exquisitely painful. I defy anyone to take long to read it, however; it moves too swiftly. In fact, the novel’s paradoxical drawback is that the story is too compelling for the slow reading that masterful prose deserves. Hamill guides you through some 300 years of New York City’s history, introduces you to George Washington, “Boss” Tweed, et al., while enthralling you with vengeful duels, Yeatsean mysticism, and the killing ironies of extended human life. If you can find an equally sublime work of contemporary fiction at this length, for the love of Dickens, let me know.
Oprah Winfrey took notice of my second recommendation early on: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. She then proceeded to conduct the most lame-brained interview in television history with the reclusive author. The Road, a lapidary examination of a nameless father and son moving through a post-apocalyptic America, is remarkable for several reasons. One of them, Bookforum mentions, “[I]t is as if you must keep reading in order for the characters to stay alive.…” Even Oprah flashed on another: that upon finishing the thing, your first instinct is to return to page one. You do this in order to pinpoint where “[n]ights dark beyond darkness,” becomes “the autistic dark” or “the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world” becomes “the iron dark.” This book has become a film, most certainly with good intentions, but the road to cinematic blunder likely. Spectacle is the last thing this book is about.
My first selection. If, indeed, you stood in line for Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, you might want to seek atonement in a novel by that name by Ian McEwan. It’s now a film I haven’t seen; I can’t imagine it would even begin to do justice to the novel’s intimate, psychological poetry.
Atonement is one of the best novels I have ever read. Possibly the best. McEwan’s book is suited for those who (rightly) would feel guilty about feeding the mind empty calories at the beach. Hollywood has filmed the novel, and again I have no idea what they’ve done with it on the screen. But how on Earth could they get a camera inside the brain matter of Briony as a child and then an old woman, her sister Cecelia, and Cee’s love Robert (especially as he straggles back from the bullet-riddled French countryside to Dunkirk in 1940), while still rendering transcendent language onto celluloid or digital frames?
Among my dozens of copied-out phrases and favorite sentences along the way is a reference to the feeble utterance, “I love you,” which McEwan reminds us is “three simple words that no amount of bad art or bad faith can ever quite cheapen.” But to categorize Atonement as a love story would be to say that Lawrence of Arabia is about sand. Reminiscent of Graham Greene’s short story “The Innocent,” here is the plot device of ostensible obscenity included in a draft of a love letter that causes several hundred pages of human misery when mistakenly delivered. If I can cast a pall on a single sunbather this summer, I will be gratified.