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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

February Reads

A list of the books I read and what I thought of them.

Ohio by Stephen Markley

This 2018 debut novel by American journalist and author Stephen Markley tracks, over the course of a single summer night in 2013, the entangled trajectories of four former high school friends/acquaintances who, a decade after graduation, have all been drawn back to their hometown of New Canaan, Ohio. The novel’s first section is dedicated to Bill Ashcraft, an outspoken, politically engaged, former basketball star, who after high school pursued a career in activism but, struggling with addiction and destitution, was forced to take the odd job, now playing pack mule transporting a package of an unknown substance from Nola to New Canaan for an old friend. Part Two follows Stacey Moore, the bibliophile and worldly wanderer, currently pursuing a Ph.D. in literature, who has reluctantly returned to her hometown at the behest of the mother of her former lover, Lisa Han, whom no one has heard from in years. Third goes to Dan Eaton, a veteran marred by the horrors of war, whose memories of high school and beyond are tarnished with the heartache of his first failed relationship with the now-married Hailey Kowalczyk, a girl with whom he’s come home to reconnect. Fourth follows Tina Ross, whose reunion with her former abusive boyfriend, the high school football star, foments the novel’s shocking denouement. Moving like passing ships in the night, each of the characters’ paths cross, recross, and converge over the terrain of their hometown whose raw Rust Belt veneer, as revealed in the fifth and final section, belies secrets too sinister to imagine.

With the buzz that his latest second novel The Deluge (a 900-page dystopian tome published just last month)has stirred up across book blogs and the online reading community at large, I was eager to get introduced to this new name permeating contemporary literary fiction. Well, Ohio was one hell of an introduction. Spanning nearly 500 pages, Ohio is a searing portrait of a small midwestern town, which, though fictional, feels as though it not only could exist but actually does, all the characters real natives of the Rust Belt with their own lives that extend beyond the pages of the book. It’s surely a testament to both Markley’s grand vision and meticulous attention to detail, characterization, and virtuosic craft at exposition, as well as the research, knowledge, and keen insight into the political and social issues pervasive across contemporary culture today, big city and small town alike. At the heart of this plotless novel lies the confluence of lives ravaged by the opioid crisis, economic downturn, environmental devastation, extended periods of war, physical and psychological trauma, and the near-universal sense of existential disillusionment which, at this point, seems almost inherent to the American millennial experience. But regarding the form of the novel, Ohio blurs the lines of grit lit and social realism, Markley’s imagination and prose style invoking Jonathan Franzen’s counterpointed characterization and trademark exhaustive detail, though tinged with the bleak nihilism pervasive across Michel Houellebecq’s work. Blending narrative and commentary, satire and sincerity, humor and grave terror, the result is a story of contemporary America injected with a torpid acedia plaguing the masses of gen y and beyond, which, in turn, propels all details, characters, dialogue, and subtextual ideations into a dual-edged painfully nostalgic and depressingly prescient light. All this to say, this novel was uncomfortably real and immaculately done, and I could not put it down. Markley is certainly a name to watch going forward, and now I cannot wait to get my hands on The Deluge.

Also, I should add, reading this novel when an actual environmental disaster was and still is unfolding in Ohio was an experience more poignant and eerie than I could have possibly been prepared for. “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” - Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying.

Blood on the Forge by William Attaway

This 1941 second and final novel by American author William Attaway portrays and confronts the harsh realities that Black Americans faced during the Great Migration towards the beginning of the twentieth century. Set in the year 1919, the novel follows the Moss brothers–Big Mat, Chinatown, and Melody–living and working as sharecroppers in Kentucky at the start of the novel, barely scraping by. But after a day with dual incidents–Big Mat retaliating against his abusive boss, possibly killing the white man, and his brothers being visited by a wealthy white businessman promising work for better wages working in the steel mills up north–the Moss brothers decide to leave that night and hop the midnight train which drives them into the heart of steel valley, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Immediately, the men are thrust into an industrial inferno, forced to work long shifts of backbreaking labor tending to the fiery furnaces amid scorching temperatures, dodging liquid fire and leaping flames from the spark-spitting pits and massive vats of molten ore. To stave off the harsh working conditions, the steel men find their respite in gambling, dogfights, brothels, and green corn whiskey, but even those prove insufficient in thwarting the effects of the work. After an accident at the mill leaves fourteen dead and one of the Moss brothers permanently injured, the growing tension between the workers and the bosses reaches its apex. As Attaway writes, “Steel would not bend, and the men who made steel became as hard as that metal.” What ensues is a confrontation with explosive consequences, a clash of the classes, in the midst of which stand the three Moss brothers, caught in the hellish brawl within whose violence and bloodshed resides a powerful critique of industrialization, capitalism, and the monstrosity of men at the dawn of modernity.

About the novel, renowned author Richard Wright wrote, “William Attaway presents with skill the impact of industrial life on the simple black folk who fled the plantations of the South…It will add a new and better knowledge of American civilization. The reality that Attaway depicts is not beautiful, but it is none the less moving and human for that.” And Ralph Ellison wrote, “Attaway’s characters are caught in the force of a struggle which, like the steel furnace, roars throughout its pages.” Both Wright and Ellison were contemporaries of Attaway’s, and it’s in the tradition of their respective works which Blood on the Forge finds its place in American literature. This novel was an absolute rampage, with an ending that left me thinking for hours, perhaps even days. Attaway’s imagination and craft at fiction are masterful; I found it damn near impossible to put down. Each of Attaway’s characters–first only a few, then quite many–finds and maintains their own unique voice, motivations, convictions, intent, and personalities; it was impossible not to think them as real people. And beyond the commentary on industrialization echoing in the narrative overture, in itself a violent exploration into how the exploitation and dehumanization of menial and migrant workers fomented the boom of modernity, narratives wind and weave into other areas outside the horrors of the steel mill. Conflicts of romance, fidelity, fraternity, identity, and faith work to both complicate the overarching issues at hand, as well as add depth to the characters involved, as if to re-humanize the characters whose humanity the world has so eroded. I loved, too, the subtle but significant role that music plays throughout the novel; small moments when a character would begin singing, another humming lyrics in his head, Melody strumming his guitar idly–each instant harkens Attaway’s love and talent for music (he famously co-wrote the lyrics for Harry Belafonte’s popular tune “Day-O” back in the mid 1950’s). I read the book over the course of three days; a powerful, gripping tale with themes that still resonate today.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

This 1970 debut novel by American novelist Toni Morrison is one of the most powerful, and masterfully written first novels that I’ve possibly ever encountered. Set in 1941, the novel follows Pecola Breedlove, an eleven-year-old African American girl living and coming of age in Lorain, Ohio. Pecola, at the beginning of the novel, has come into the care of the MacTeer family, whose two little girls Claudia and Frieda befriend, defend, and protect her from boys and bullies at school. While the novel is mostly narrated through Claudia’s first-person point of view, various flashbacks dive into Pecola’s childhood, revealing the violence, abuse, and abandonment of her broken former home: how her alcoholic father Cholly used to get into fights which her mother, Pauline, whose religious self-righteousness fueled the fire of their mutual fury; how her older brother Sammy attempted to run away an amount nearly double his age; and how Pecola herself, used to live in a constant state of alertness and anxiety, yet always holding out on her one wish: to have blue eyes. The interweaving narratives of past and present swirl into a frenzy, at the heart of which stands little Pecola, whose trauma, findings its roots in the pain of her parents and their parents before, blends with the cruelty of an unforgiving world, fomenting a fate from which she never had a chance to escape.

Few writers floor me the way Toni Morrison floors me; writers whose work unerringly seize but seem to squeeze the air out of me, forcing me, after certain passages, to stop and catch my breath. The Bluest Eye–her debut, I must underscore–is not only such a work, but one whose “flooring” force and frequency finds no parallel in the repertoire of reads remembered. So much exists in this novel of just over 200 pages; so much in the “said” and “unsaid” that it seems almost overflowing with meaning. Abundant in the “said” are themes of family, friendship, endurance, self-love, but also racism, sexism, impoverishment, violence, trauma; however, the thematic force which struck me most was rejection. Rejection remains at the aching heart of this tragic tale, and not the coping with, enduring of, and eventual triumphing over rejection; no; but the slow surrender, the prolonged acquiescence, the crushing toll of which ushers forth vile and violent ends. Rejection, here, contains a multitude of meaning: rejection by a person, by people, by society; rejection for reasons outside one’s control; rejection of one’s individuality, freedom, agency, self-love; rejection of faith, joy, hope. The nuances of the word exist in the “unsaid,” drifting about the characters, casting shade to all interactions and lilting the scenes with a dark solemnity, before emerging from the text and into the world beyond the book. With rejection come greater implications; since the source of rejection is founded in the higher, grander, master narratives which govern the lives of so many people, the questions which looms over the novel, never overtly harped upon but so inventively alluded throughout, is, who writes these narratives? In her foreword to the novel, Toni Morrison admits how she believed the novel fell short, writing, “it didn’t work: many readers remain touched but not moved.” It’s frustrating to imagine that those readers who were merely touched outweigh the ones, like myself, who were so moved. And the “moving” was a constant throughout the novel; scene after scene, passage after passage, line after line–there was always something that would shock or seize or stop me in my reading tracks and make me think. And nowhere is this more evident than in the novel’s explosive ending: it ends on a metaphor so powerful, so visceral, so painful and evocative, that I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days afterward. And I know it’ll linger over the course of days, months, years to come, just one of those rarities of the novel that remain embedded within a reader’s mind forever. This was truly a masterful work, one with that unique, prevailing power that makes me grateful to exist to read and experience.

Native Son by Richard Wright

This 1940 second book, first novel by American author, short story writer, and poet Richard Wright captures a vicious crime, its vicious consequences, and the vicious reverberations caused in its wake. Set in Chicago during the 1930’s, the novel follows Bigger Thomas, an awkward twenty-year-old black youth who lives with his mother and two younger siblings in a small, impoverished apartment in the Black Belt. Dejected, desperate, and skirting a life of crime, Bigger takes a job out in the suburbs as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family, the Daltons: Mr. Dalton, the philanthropist and real estate magnate, his blind wife Mrs. Dalton, and their daughter Mary, whose political leanings and capricious nature are a source of concern to her parents. The very night he’s hired, Bigger is instructed to drive Mary to the university downtown, but quickly, plans go off the rails. Mary’s lover Jan joins in, there’s heavy drinking involved, with Bigger being forced to partake, and the night of debauchery ends in Mary’s accidental death and Bigger is the culprit. As shock turns to fear which soon turns to paranoia, Bigger begins covering his tracks with a series of schemes which, inevitably, work to dig himself deeper and deeper into a world of trouble. And when Bigger begins to run, all hell breaks loose, and the world which he once knew and the world which he sought to attain both fall to the wayside, replaced with a world in which he exists as a condemned man staring down the death penalty.

The novel remains cemented in the American canon, a work whose renown is recognized across readership surely as much today as it was when it debuted and sold a quarter-million copies within three weeks of publication. Modern Library lists it number 20 on its list of 100 best novels of the twentieth century. And in his compelling essay “Black Boys Native Sons,” prominent American literary critic Irving Howe wrote, “The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever…In all its crudeness, melodrama and claustrophobia of vision, Richard Wright’s novel brought out into the open, as no one had before, the hatred, fear and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture.” Readers will unerringly find tinges of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, as well as scenes and motifs that seep into Ellison’s Invisible Man, published eleven years later–chauffeuring, rooftop chasing, speeches, blindness and invisibility, etc. The novel, like the particularly American branded “social novels” to come after, strays from the detachment and objectivity which trademarks its naturalistic tradition, and inches closer and closer before diving headfirst into the unrestrained, unadulterated violence borne of the bloody battle between the brutal and the brutalized, a struggle within which Bigger Thomas stands, trapped. This book is violent, but it's no mere obsession on Wright’s part. Violence is not simply sewn into the story, violence is the story, and with all its frightening, cringe-inducing, sorrowful, graphic, grotesque details, it reflects what many refuse to acknowledge, that violence is not simply sewn into the fabric of our nation, violence is the fabric of our nation. This is one reason among many that the novel has spurred such contention among readers and literary circles alike; James Baldwin famously excoriated the novel in his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” calling it a “continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy,” citing how Bigger Thomas’s tragedy is that he “has accepted a theology that denies him life, that he admits the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth.” Like the story of Morrison’s Pecola in The Bluest Eye, the story of Bigger Thomas is one of resignation, of subjugation, of subalternity; in other words, an inherently American story. It is a truly powerful novel; it reaches, seizes, and holds the reader in its unrelenting grip to the very end. The last fifty pages are among some of the finest I have ever read, and this is a novel that I will surely return to again and again.

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