This weekend was the Autumn Equinox and I managed to contract a lovely little cold, both of which facts seem determined to convince me that summer is gone. And what do you do when summer is gone? You reminisce about it, of course. So here I go in the first of what I presume will be 3 installments chronicling my summer reading (since I didn't do much else this summer I'd care to talk about). I actually read much more than can be covered by 3 installments, but, what the hell, that's all I'm up to at present, though there may be reversions to "things I read" at any point in the future.
Barry McCrea's The First Verse
The world of the protagonist, Niall Lenihan, is not only full of names of places and pubs, it's also awash with text messages and the occult world of cellphone habitués. The novel's feel also seems to engage with one of Barry's other infatuations: Sherlock Holmes and tales of mystery. There is a mystery at the heart of this book, having to do with addiction to literature of a very uncanny kind, or with the whole notion of secretive activities that remind me of drug culture, though not-yet-out-of-the-closet gay culture is what's really the analogous experience for Niall. It's also a unique coming of age story that will resonate with anyone who bombed or nearly bombed in their first year of college (in this case Trinity) -- which is another exclusive society in and of itself, especially for those of us not preppy enough to be to the manor (or mannerisms) born. So there's a large learning curve for this protagonist, some nice work with literary allusions, and a few weird scenes of magical occurrence, for instance, walking on water -- a bit Peter Pan-esque that, now I come to think of it. Strikingly original, extremely readable, and I loved the use of the song that Orwell used in 1984 about the bells and what they say because it just seemed so damned cryptic!
Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude
I wish though that he'd spent more time with the parents -- Dylan's absconded mother is kind of a cipher (no female characters in the book, really; Dylan's girlfriend, later, is a lit-crit-happy harpy -- who does actually get some good lines and knows just which CDs to throw at her slacker boyfriend), but the father working on his meticulous hand-painted film strip is an interesting subplot that brings in the more modernist avant-garde pretensions that comics and animation maybe have in certain quarters (and that maybe Lethem wants to take a pot-shot at, re: literary forebears). Lethem's also very good with a whole '70s dynamic of, at first, kid stuff like superhero comics and street games, then later drugs and music and graffitti art (as social ritual and competition), and shifts in sensibility as the kids age and the world gets uglier.
But the 'pay-off' of the 'magical realism' of this novel (in quotations because it isn't really that and I'm not sure Lethem's trying for it -- I hope not) makes for a final third that just goes wrong. Lethem is a very readable meister of the contemporary novel, fully informed about the world he (re)creates (except he does use a Talking Heads line anachronistically, nyah nyah), but he seems determined, in middle-brow novelist fashion, to "create excitement" -- which means: give us an ending that will make our hearts pound a bit before we leave the theater content with some kind of post-cathartic restoration of order. It feels like movieland to me, whereas the glimmering prose in the early going made me think maybe this guy was beyond all that. Maybe later.