They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell : Just barely begun, but the Maxwell touch is already evident in this, his second novel, published 43 years before So Long, See You Tomorrow. Again, the narrative perspective is impossible to define (third person close? retrospective first person with swapped pronouns?) and even seems to break rules, but rendered with such authority that it needs only be defined by the story itself. There is a strange blend of child and adult points-of-view here. Maxwell is not David Gordon Green, making his child characters wise beyond their years. Instead, he shows them following codes, trying to be good, with a sadness and complexity usually reserved for grown-up characters.
Other recent reads:
The Commitments by Roddy Doyle : The thing I admire most about this book, Doyle’s first, is its complete lack of hesitation when attempting to represent the power of music in words. The novel chronicles the career of an 80s era Dublin soul band who mostly play Motown classics, and the lyrics to those songs are sprawled across at least a quarter of the book’s pages with such reckless enthusiasm that the ability of soul music to excite and inspire is always right at the surface. That famous line that says writing about music is like dancing about architecture becomes almost laughable when you see what Doyle can do. Never let anyone tell you music can’t be written about, or that it can’t change lives.
Also admirable is the book’s narrow focus: it moves from the band’s inception to their first practice, rehearsal to rehearsal, gig to gig, with no subplots outside of these distinct scenes. Doyle is a master of what might be called micro-scenes, two or three sentences that accomplish as much as two or three pages by any other writer. For these and other reasons, it might be wrong to call The Commitments a novel (under that category, you might find it “insubstantial”). It doesn’t concern individual characters so much as an entire community (not unlike one of the band’s covers, “Chain Gang,” a song about collective struggle, not any individual man’s). The book is very much about how community grows and how it falls apart, and what’s left behind when it does.
The Commitments’ music might be seen as white appropriation of black culture, but that would be wrong. Instead, it’s a recognition of kinship not previously suspected. There’s a beautiful moment early on when the teenage boys who will soon form The Commitments listen to James Brown’s “Sex Machine” for the first time. There are these white lads listening to the record, and the black lads who sing backup for James, and pretty soon the pronouns start to merge and it becomes one collective musical experience. Black and white disappear; it all takes place via a record player anyway. Then we get this great parenthetical: “The lads (in Jimmy’s bedroom) smiled at each other. This was it.”
By book’s end, The Commitments have dissolved and the remains of the band are looking now to the sound of The Byrds. They’re searching for a new style that can make them famous, sure, but Doyle isn’t being cynical: they really did like soul music, and now they really like jangle rock (notice how the lyrics are represented the same for both styles; that’s the language of love). When Doyle says The Byrds are “the best they’d ever heard,” the boys are simply succumbing to the hyperbole that any music lover who lives in the moment knows.
I could say some of the same things about Mystery Train (which I have finally finished). For one, Greil Marcus often falls victim to the hyperbole of the present moment. There are dozens of songs he believes to be the “most frightening” he’s ever heard. That doesn’t bother me. I do it myself. What does bother me a bit is the way he relies on lines like this, to describe the power in any and every blues vocal: “He sounds as if he has already lost more than anyone can return.” Nobody knows what that means, but it sounds nice, and evokes a tantalizing cult of masculinity that Marcus of course can’t help but get behind in his very masculine book.
But I admire his approach to music writing (like I do Doyle’s). Marcus truly believes that music can tell us what it means to live, and that these meanings can be put into words (only once does he describe a song as “too beautiful for words”). I would happily read his thoughts on anything. Moving through the distinct sections of his book, anticipating what he might say about the next artist—Sly Stone…Randy Newman…Elvis—I had that childhood feeling of playing a video game, progressing through the levels, breathlessly awaiting the next boss. A weird metaphor, I know, but true.
Home Land had many more laughs, some unbelievable carnage, and ended on a cosmic “this is what life means” level, unexpected but satisfying proof that the author was all along aware of the philosophies embedded in his absurd scenes. Hicksville wasn’t as full of laughs or carnage, but while comics tend to be more ambiguous in their meanings, it also reached its own cosmic closure. Hicksville’s library of unpublished comics is one of the great fictional places, like Oz or the Death Star or Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama.
Sam Barry progress: