Nothing but Blue Skies
The Art of Hunger
Jim Crace is a British writer who has just published his third work of fiction without having made much impression in his first two. This seems likely to change soon. Born in London in 1946 but resident in Birmingham, Crace is apparently tied to no literary group of academic or political influence. Although our real business here is with his third work of fiction, Arcadia, a preliminary account of the first two, Continent and The Gift of Stones, may give some notion of where Jim Crace is coming from.
Continent contains seven short stories, all with a flavor of fantastic Africa. It doesn’t have any big-game herds or very many naked jungle tribesmen. No geographical realities. Much of the African atmosphere is conveyed by names and titles, such as Corporal Beyat, ‘Isra-kone, a district known as Ibela-hoy, a man called Warden Awni. Several of the stories describe the tragicomedies of semicivilization, as when a minor official in an obscure village aspires to modernize his visitors’ lodge, and installs a much too powerful electric fan. There is an almost clinical report on a tribe where all the women become pregnant, and therefore give birth, simultaneously. There is a family that specializes in rearing a mutant version of the cattle called Belted Aurochs; the freemartins (neutrals) of this species are particularly prized because their milk, though scanty, is reputed to be powerfully aphrodisiac. The owner of the herd, who has used his splendid wealth to study some elementary biology, is embarrassed at the source of his money, but adjusts to it.
Other stories are simply episodes: a race is arranged and run between a horseman and a foot runner; the agent for a mining company, between solitude and frustration, goes quietly mad. They are deft stories, taut but not contrived. Commentators have proposed parallels with Borges and Coetzee, to whom I would add an overtone from V. S. Naipaul. Crace’s narratives don’t exploit current headlines, but slide into and out of fantasies in a way that leaves the imagination exercised and invigorated.
A second book but first novel, The Gift of Stones, is set in familiar British surroundings, but toward the end of the Stone Age, among prehistoric and preliterate people. The setting is by the seashore in a community of stone huts whose residents specialize in shaping flints into knives, axes, and arrowheads. Being single-minded in their pursuit of their occupation—not unlike the later inhabitants of Birmingham, one might think—they are very successful commercially. But an accident has separated the hero (who is nameless, like practically everyone else in his village) from the community of “stoneys.” During the visit of marauding traders, he is struck on the right elbow by a bowman of the enemy gang, and, because the arrow is poisoned, has to have that forearm amputated. Nowhere in the world is there a better supply of stone knives for the operation, but the supplies of anesthesia are limited, and the operation, described in gruesome detail, is as horrible as one could want. But when the young man starts to recover, what place can be found for him in a society wholly devoted to chipping flints? At seven years old, the little cripple becomes an outcast in his own village, a scavenger, a collector and inventor of stories. He is a liar, he is an artist; he knows how to string out a story and tickle the libidinous fancies of the flint-chippers. But that’s about it. While wandering aimlessly in another district, he comes across a woman named Doe who comforts his body and stimulates his imagination, without much improving his social condition.
She is in fact a scrawny, derelict, widowed prostitute, but she and her daughter (who partially succeeds her crippled stepfather as narrator) settle down and form a kind of tiny alliance against the brutal world outside. There is plenty to be wary of in the world of men no less than of animals. The little family survives by Doe’s daily prostitution, while keeping out of sight of clubmen and spearwielders—until at last they and their entire district find the market for flint implements has suddenly dried up. The age of copper and bronze is upon the flint-chippers, and the tale ends with the demoralized village straggling away under the uncertain leadership of the story-teller toward a dim future. Indeed, he does not know where to lead them, but he has been, at least occasionally, outside the native village and has glimpsed, as from Pisgah, the chance of a better world.
The last years of the Stone Age, as Crace imagines them, were gritty and nasty for everyone, particularly for an outcast cripple. We know of course nothing first-hand of those hard-bitten survivors. But modern times as he renders them in his latest and largest novel, Arcadia, are far from idyllic or arcadian. Though it has plenty of thoroughly knowable characters, some with pronounceable names, Arcadia is centrally about a vegetable market in a composite midlands city similar to Birmingham. The time is the present, though the book’s memory extends a full eighty years into the past. But the market itself is unchanging, or nearly so; and what a market it is! Mr. Crace can only have learned what he knows about the wholesale greengrocery business by getting his feet in the mud and his fingers in the leafage. His senses are tuned to the snap of a good bean, the fingernail tests for the ripeness of a peach. The market with its piles of vegetables is a very old one, not much less than medieval in its origins and wrinkled with ancient tradition. It is called the “Soap Market” because years ago the market workers used to wash their hands after work at the public pumps—now, years later, inevitably and forever residents of the district are still known as “soapies.” The “boss” of the market, though his title is unofficial and mostly tacit, is an eighty-year-old celibate named simply Victor. His entire existence has been passed in, around, and ultimately as possessor of the market. An emblem of his control is the twenty-seven-story “modernistic” skyscraper in the market square, of which he occupies the top stories. As owner of the project, Victor has been collecting rents from the two hundred–odd tenants, protecting them from architects, municipal authorities, and rival bosses who might, for instance, want to modernize the market and (inevitable consequence) raise the rents.
Victor’s indispensable and in his own way unscrupulous assistant is a younger and much tougher orphan of the market, named simply Rook. He acts as Victor’s eyes and ears, legs and hands; he is also valuable to the tenants of the market, whose special interests and concerns he communicates to the almost invisible and motionless old man who sits at the center of things. It is by no means an unsavory relationship but it is a dangerous one. Rook serves the tenants, and he serves their boss. Unfortunately for everybody, Rook has an itchy palm; he collects, on his own initiative and for his own advantage, a silent second rent, which the more truculent and hardheaded tenants naturally resent.
Into this unstable situation intrudes a muscular, aggressive, semi-literate bumpkin from the farm country that supplies Victor’s market; his name, minimal like most of Mr. Crace’s names, is Joseph, and he hopes to atone with muscle for a plentiful lack of brains and other advantages. His adventures are consistently unfortunate. While picking the pocket of Con, a burly vegetable dealer, he is caught in the act, and allowed by way of atonement to hold up Rook, who has been out that morning collecting his own private rents. Rook is a much older man, but he has the street smarts, and he smashes Joseph’s face, kicks him into flight, and recovers his own ill-gotten money along with evidence that Joseph had been incited to attack him.
Meanwhile Victor, having attained his eightieth birthday, resolves to reconstruct the market so that it will be a more presentable and profitable memorial to his career. But while he is preparing to announce the transformation, one of his old tenants, overcome by champagne and senility, lets fall a word about Rook’s system of secondary, extortionate rentals. The old man is furious, and abruptly fires Rook, whose downfall opens the way to an interpolated story of how Victor became the person he now is—or more specifically, how the market made him the person it wanted him to be. The Old Soap Market as Crace depicts it was by no means a collection of Zolaesque or Gorkyesque horrors—a basic difference is that the soapies did not look on themselves as unredeemable degenerates. A much more cheerful category, which many accepted, was that of the Undeserving Poor. In this murky milieu Victor put down his first roots. He was fatherless from the start, and shortly motherless as well; he had no home other than the streets; by accident he fell into the care of a tough, careless slattern known simply as “Aunt.” She may have been Victor’s actual aunt, but the bond uniting them was economic; Victor, being small and pathetic, provided an ideal prop for a beggar girl, and not only Aunt but a number of her friends took turns playing his mother. Starting with Aunt, Mr. Crace describes the tawdry freedoms of their society:
There were a dozen country girls like her who worked the same neighborhood of the city and who shared a two-room attic in a tenement near the Soap Market, in the Woodgate district. The Princesses they were called, sardonically, by the poor families and the laborers who inhabited the lower floors. They’d all lost jobs as maids or kitchen girls and had finished on the streets. Some stole. Some sold themselves to men. Some earned a little from the sale of matches or doing fetch-and-carry for the posh, frail ladies who took strong waters in the smart salons. Aunt stuck to begging. She was good at it. And soon she had enough each day to pay the pittance rent for a small corner in the Princesses’ attic rooms. There was no proper light or water there, or any stove for cooking. But there was camaraderie and candles. We know that poverty’s not fun, but if you are young and poor in company then shame, and lack of hope, and loneliness do not increase the burdens on your back. Sharing nothing or not much is easier than sharing wealth.
So Aunt was happy with her life. There was no washing up. No slops. No punctilious, grumpy cook. No silver breakfast forks. They shared—like only women will—their daily gains, their city spoils, their swag. The only privacy they had—if, say, they wished to sit unnoticed on the pot—was to hide behind the lines of washing, strung across the rooms, or to wait for darkness. But why hide away to pee, when peeing in full view of all your friends can cause such mirth and raucous joviality? “Hats off,” they used to say to Aunt, whose cloche would rarely leave her head. “It’s impolite to pee like that in the presence of Princesses.” They’d wait until they heard the spurt of urine in the bowl and then they’d say, “Hats off. Stand up…and take a bow!” Or “Sing, sing! And show your ring.” The communal laughter of these Princesses was laughter with no victim and no spite.
Aunt learned the tricks of begging from their attic talk at night, as each described the day they’d had; how men’s brains were unfastened with their braces; how careless waiters were with tips; which restaurant chefs would give a back-step meal to any girl who’d volunteer to mop the floor. You’d eat the meal—then run; what places were the worst and best for palming cash from strangers. She learned how just a dab of zinc and vinegar could make a girl look feverish. It didn’t work with men, but women—older ones—would pay to make you go away. She learned a gallery of beggars’ faces, how to slide her tongue between her teeth and lips to look the simpleton, how to fake the single floating eye of the insane, how picking noses is just as good as picking pockets for getting cash if it is done on restaurant terraces and in a childish, not a vulgar way.
So she did well on city streets. She begged and importuned enough to count herself—by country standards—well set up. She was much plumper than the girl who’d skivvied in the kitchen. She had her hat as talisman and her Princesses for family. She did not think about the coming day—or much about the day just passed. She liked to place her hat upon her head and wander streets as if they were country lanes and she was simply searching for free fruit. She never tired of putting out her hand or challenging—this was her favorite trick—the drinking men in bars to toss and land a coin in the canyon brim of her straw hat.
Despite the drama of the hat, she was an ill-built, scruffy girl. The pits and craters on her face were blessings in disguise. They kept the men at bay. She did not have her sister’s looks. But what she had was something better, rarer in those days than mere good looks. She had a sense of unembarrassed self-esteem. She liked the way she was.
It’s a tough, petty, snatch-and-grab world around the old Soap Market—as much so at the end of Victor’s long life as at the beginning. Jim Crace has loaded it with details and incidents: There is a cab driver who adjusts his rear-view mirror so he can glimpse in the back seat a politician feeling up the leg of a woman who is not his wife. For the cabbie it’s a few shillings of blackmail; for the novel it’s a morsel of life—savory and disgusting. The novelist must strike a delicate balance to keep the disgust poised against the lyricism, the solidity of his town against the fields and flowers that permeate it. Mr. Crace writes in a grainy prose that is a pleasure to read; and he brings the story of his market to a remorselessly logical conclusion in which people are scattered and the market itself destroyed in a wild riot and a deadly fire. Crace has observed his town in all its petty meannesses, and at the end reckoned up its values to the last scruple. His next novel should be eagerly anticipated.
Thomas McGuane is mainly from Montana and has written, over the last twenty years, more than seven novels and several books of short stories set against this background. These are not cowboy-and-Indian novels, nor are they set in the familiar mean streets of the desert metropolis. The center of McGuane’s universe is the good-sized town or small city of Deadrock, Montana, and his theme is the aching problem of the American male, what to do with himself. Perhaps it is McGuane’s misfortune that he has written so many books, because after four or five the generic familiarity of the plots and the similarities of the heroes become very evident. McGuane’s prose is swift and sharp, often belligerent. He can be very funny and also deeply disgusting. But he does write in a recognizable manner of speech.
McGuane’s hero tends to be a self-conscious actor and rather proud of his reputation as a bad boy. The first novel, which set a pattern for many of the later ones, was titled The Bushwhacked Piano. It followed the adventures of one Nicholas Payne, whose devotion to Ann Fitzgerald led him to break into her parents’ house, and then to put forward a scheme for building outsized beehives that no one wanted. (A major aim of the people who invested in it was to get rid of the troublesome builder as quickly as possible.) These hilarious activities are interrupted by a major operation for hemorrhoids, described in painful detail. The novel Something to be Desired is similarly slam-bang, with the main character, Lucien Taylor, hung up between two girls, one with powerful impulses to homicide. He solves his problems by getting rid of both—which leaves the reader in doubt about his attachment in the first place to either. What they think of him as they depart we are not given to know. I have not found McGuane’s tales various enough to be particularly memorable. Very often his narrative dashes from episode to episode, and the reader is as likely to wince at the end as to laugh.
The latest volume, Nothing but Blue Skies, deals with an older but still unsettled version of Nicholas Payne or Lucien Taylor. Frank Copenhaver rattles in much the same way as his predecessors around the dusty streets of Deadrock, Montana. He is a man of miscellaneous business interests, who has acquired by his middle years a string of assorted enterprises, such as a hotel, a medical clinic, a ranch and some cattle, as well as a mixed bag of stock-market holdings. He has a grown daughter in the state university at Missoula and a wife, Gracie, who, as the story opens, has just left him. This recent breakup of his marriage has left Frank in a particularly truculent and touchy, as well as a randy, mood. He picks fights with cowboys and gets thrown for a time into jail. He drinks to excess; he smashes up a lot of earth-moving equipment in a midnight fight on a back-country road. He also manages to copulate with a goodly number of women he picks up, near and around Deadrock, Montana. The more of these diversions he indulges in, the more deeply his business affairs sink into disorder.
In other words, Frank Copenhaver appears to be suffering from a standard case of middle-aged jealousy based largely on a standard case of middle-class egocentricity. None of the people of Deadrock is particularly complex psychologically, but as the story works out, it appears that Frank had been using his multiple business interests to hold off his wife’s efforts at intimacy. Meanwhile their daughter, sensing her parents’ growing estrangement, had feigned interest in a loathsome suitor whom she knew her parents would unite in despising. Her calculations prove exactly right. The suitor is dispatched, her parents clinch. Too bad if it sounds like a plot put together with an Erector Set, but that’s what it reads like.
Paul Auster’s Leviathan is also a seventh novel, set like some of its predecessors in a generally New York milieu. It lays no particular emphasis on the implications of its title, which might be those of a domineering, tyrannical society, or those of the great Biblical sea beast. The central figure of the action is a novelist-journalist named Benjamin Sachs who impressed just about “everyone” as brilliant, witty, and talented. At the beginning of the novel he is blown to scraps while attempting to manufacture a bomb by the side of a snowy winter road in Wisconsin. How he came to this abrupt, untimely end is the ostensible topic being investigated by the imaginary author of the present novel, one Peter Aaron, who had known Sachs intimately for some fifteen years.
Aaron, it seems, is particularly concerned to recount the life of Sachs because he is afraid lest the authorities—police of some sort, probably the FBI (who shortly make an appearance)—will misrepresent the career of Benjamin Sachs. A sinister circumstance is that someone or other has been busy for some time blowing up replicas of the Statue of Liberty throughout the United States. Could Benjamin Sachs have been one of this malignant, secret, politically quite ineffectual group? But his link to the group, if it ever existed, is quite unknown. Nobody recalls a word of Sachs’s speaking or a deed of his doing that would imply terrorist sympathies. He never so much as wrote graffiti in the subway; accordingly there is not much for Peter Aaron, in his biographical study, to lay out or cover up.
To be sure, an actual crime lurks in the background, though its relation to the narrative is obscured by a confusion of times and a multiplicity of narrators. Several years ago Sachs had got lost while hiking in the Vermont woods. A young fellow in a pickup gave him a lift; deep in the forest they were stopped by a surly stranger, who for unexplained reasons shot the young fellow. Sachs, acting on impulse, used a convenient baseball bat to kill the stranger. Later, looking over the luggage of the murdered stranger, Sachs found he was carrying a lot of money, a passport identifying him as Reed N. DiMaggio, and a bag of tools and materials for making a bomb. This sort of confirms the conspiracy theory, except that there are only two conspirators, and neither of them knows the other. Later investigation reveals that DiMaggio was the ex-husband of one of Sachs’s girlfriends, but she didn’t know that he was a conspirator, or what he had against the Statue of Liberty, or what he was doing in Vermont getting himself killed by a complete unknown in a backwoods scuffle. This makes a thoroughly confused and confusing story. A reader is free to invent any sort of explanatory story to hide behind the ostensible story, but of such extrapolations there’s no end.
Besides his work in fiction, Paul Auster is also a poet and writer of literary and art criticism, a student of French and Anglo-American culture, an anthologist, an author of critical introductions and numerous short reviews. His work in these fields is represented in a current volume, The Art of Hunger. The title suggests that of a novel by Knut Hamsun, which is the topic of Auster’s first essay, as well as that of a short story by Kafka; it seems to have little relevance to the abundance of literary fare provided in the volume. Auster is a man of many stylistic hats. For the loftier critical occasions, such as the history of Dada or the linguistic adventures of Laura Riding, he frequently assumes an orphic-oracular tone which verged, for this reader, on the impenetrable. An account of the poetry of André du Bouchet, by largely forgoing verbs, gives the impression of a hushed presence which only an oaf would sully by trying to describe or define it. On the other hand, there’s a good deal of clear, unmannered exposition of such topics as Mallarmé’s second son Anatole (who died, age eight), and the art of Philippe Petit, the high-wire walker. This is quiet, unpretentious, entertaining prose. Without trying to assert a categorical preference, I’m inclined to keep the vaudeville aspects of literary discussion in their own closet.