Sunday, October 3, 2010

Just Jennifer

Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez (Riverhead Books, October 5, 2010)

Thirteen-year-old Cole knows his mother is planning on leaving his father.  An only child, Cole and his parents have just moved from Chicago to a small town in Indiana just as a flu epidemic hits the mid-west.  The epidemic becomes a pandemic; Cole’s father dies first, then Cole’s mother.  Cole is near death twice, but survives, only to find himself an orphan, and thinking his mother’s twin sister is also dead, alone in the world.  After being in an orphanage, Cole is taken in by an evangelical pastor, Pastor Wyatt (PW) and his wife Tracy, who live in an enclave known as Salvation City where PW and his followers are awaiting the Rapture.   Cole’s parents stressed education and were not religious, and now Cole finds himself learning from the Bible and being home-schooled by Tracy whom he knows is not well-educated herself.  Cole uses his new religious knowledge to grapple with the deaths’ of his parents and his survival.  He never questions his new family and is almost humbled by the new life he has been given.  But, he is still a thirteen-year-old boy and finds himself with a very big crush on Tracy’s sixteen-year-old niece who is considered special by the community, especially the older and inappropriate Mason.  Once settled in comfortably in his new situation, Cole is confronted with news that will force him to make a decision about his future, one he is not ready to make at this time.  Tracy and Mason vanish, apparently taken by the Rapture, Cole is bright enough to realize what has happened, and knows that he will be able to make his own decisions about his future.

Deceptively simple, Nunez’s elegant prose presents a problem that is not hard to imagine in today’s world.  She quietly reveals Cole’s story, and gently and believably presents his dilemmas, learning to live with his new family now that he is orphaned, living in a different environment than he has been used to being brought up in, one stressing religion rather than education.  Cole, on the surface, is very adaptable, and willing to give things a good try, until Tracy and Mason vanish, apparently taken by the Rapture. Cole is bright enough to realize what has happened, and knows that he will be able to make his own decisions about his future. 

Friday, October 1, 2010

Just Jennifer

 Exley by Brock Clarke (Algonquin Books, October 5, 2010)

Nine-year-old Miller Le Ray lives in Watertown, NY, where Frederick Exley’s cult novel A Fan’s Note (a fictional memoir) is set.  Miller witnessed an argument his parents had, ending with his father driving off shouting back “Maybe I should go to Iraq too.”  Miller hasn’t heard from his father since and becomes convinced that Tom has returned from Iraq and is lying in the local VA hospital in a coma.  Miller is also certain that if he is able to bring the author of Tom’s favorite book, Exley, to the VA that Tom will wake up from his coma and be well again.  Carrie, Miller’s mother, an attorney, thinks Miller, a precocious, inventive and imaginative child, has created a world where his father has returned and has turned Miller’s mental health over to a doctor whose mental health is also questionable.  The narrative is told from Miller’s point of view and from the doctor’s notes from his sessions with Miller and his observations.  There is no question that Miller is a smart, intelligent child, but also a deeply disturbed one and it soon becomes clear that Miller’s version of the truth and reality may not necessarily be so.  The story is touching as it unfolds, but Miller’s voice and his actions are a bit too grown up for a nine-year-old child and the doctor’s voice too pedantic and downright odd, and it’s curious how Carrie doesn’t pick up on doctor’s shortcomings.  As Miller’s story unfolds and the truth comes into focus, it becomes clearer where Miller’s reality lies and where Carrie’s lies as well.  Part social commentary, literary criticism and part memoir, the carefully constructive narrative will require close reading, but the payoff will be rewarding as Clarke’s satire and humor slowly emerge.