GATSBY’S ABANDONED CHILDREN by Jeremiah Walton

Maybe it’s a cliche but it seems to me that today’s young people have a whole lot to deal with.  They have access to things previous generations could never have dreamed of.  On the other hand, the perils that await them (all of us, actually) seem more invincible with each passing day.  What could something as old-hat and seemingly removed from the “real” world as poetry POSSIBLY offer them?  Quite a bit, this amazing collection shows us, starting with hope for the future and faith in their own humanity.

I was deeply impressed by two previous books by Mr. Walton, LSD Giggles and To Your Health: Humanity’s Diagnosis.  You can find my reviews of them on this blog.  To any readers of those books, this one might be rather shocking at first.  I was initially startled to read Walton dealing so openly with emotions.  His other books were startling in their ability to step back from the personal.  That’s not easy for any writer, especially today.  However, once the surprise wears off, it is heartening to see that Walton’s poetic skills can deal expertly with all different kinds of subjects.  “Love Poem,” which opens the book, is not what the title leads you to believe but is still deeply moving and passionate.  Several poems seem to deal with Walton’s own feelings and life experiences.  Whether they are familiar to you or not, any reader can learn from the insights he draws from them and be moved by his sensitive poetic treatment.

Intriguingly, despite the more emotional nature of this book, Mr. Walton has not abandoned the larger themes in his earlier work.  On the contrary, there is an even more urgent edge to them here.  One of the themes of this book is the rejection of intellectual imprisonment.  If we will ourselves to be free, nothing can stop us.  Put that way, it might sound naive but that is not the case reading the poetry.  Walton doesn’t ignore the dangers of freedom (in all its many forms) but he urges us to fight for it anyway.  Without it, or at least the fight for it, what else could there really be?  Of course, freedom can mean many different things.  The poems in this book know that and encourage readers to find what freedom means for them.  In terms of art, Walton’s respectful but non-reverential references to earlier poets is one of the book’s most appealing points.  He reminds me of Walt Whitman in the original preface to Leaves of Grass.  The past must be accepted, but not worshiped.  We learn from it but we shouldn’t let it conquer us.

By far the most powerful theme in this book is the pride it takes in the messiness, the chaos and the vitality of being human.  The final line from the previously published “Pacified America,” maybe the best poem in the book (although that’s a tough choice to make), is the summation of this: “The human condition is re-humanized.”  Readers who pick up this incredible book will find that that line caps a deeply disturbing piece.  However, it still stands as an absolutely necessary cry to rediscover what is innate about ourselves.  Rediscover it and revel in it.

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Let’s Hear a Play!, Part I: A Review of SGANARELLE, OR THE IMAGINARY CUCKOLD by Jean Baptiste Poquelin de Moliere (translated by Richard Wilbur)

This is the first in an ongoing series of reviews of plays from the Western world, written before the Romantic era.  It will include any play from Ancient Greece up to the late eighteenth century.  I passionately love theater.  I am at least interested (usually more) in any theater, regardless of culture, time period or aesthetic movement.  However, my favorites are to be found in the many eras this series will focus on.  Why?  Can’t say!  The heart goes where it goes, in life and in literature.  The title of this series is an adaptation of a line in Shakespeare’s HAMLET.  For me, it has always encapsulated the indefinable aspects I love about this kind of theater.

Like many, I had always heard that Moliere was practically beyond translation.  Except, of course, for Richard Wilbur.  Most experts seem to think the American poet’s skill at least partially breaks through the language barrier when it comes to France’s great comedian and, arguably, greatest dramatist.  Not knowing French, I can’t say for sure.  What I can say is that, when I read Wilbur’s translations of Moliere’s The MisanthropeTartuffe, and Don Juan I immediately came to believe that they were among the greatest plays ever written.  Whatever Wilbur does, he brings something of Moliere to the English speaking world and for that we should all be eternally grateful.  No one should be without Moliere!

So what about this play?  Apparently, it was the biggest success of Moliere’s career.  It’s easy to see why.  Of course, it’s funny but it’s also fast and easy to read and perform.  If you love older styles of comedy, you will have a particularly great time with this play since it includes practically every old comedy leitmotif you can think of.  Even more charming is the way Moliere squeezes them all into a tiny little box, simultaneously demonstrating their utter banality and their immense appeal.

Despite these virtues, I don’t think this play is one of Moliere’s masterpieces.  There are few of the jolting insights into human folly from the other plays of his I’ve read.  The characters are not particularly memorable, except for the humorously annoyed maid.  The finale feels almost absurdly rushed, even for a short play.  While Wilbur’s translation seems rock solid, he resorts to more sing-song verse than he does in the other translations I’ve read.  Since he seems to usually avoid this, I’m guessing it happens more here because of the play itself, although I could be wrong.  In short, a fine, fun play!  Still, if you don’t know other Moliere, don’t stop here!  Intoxicating delights await you!          

AN ORDINARY BOY by Brian Centrone

Coming of age stores can be very tricky.  First off, everyone will have had their own experience.  On the surface, that should only be a minor problem.  However, what REALLY starts to get tricky is that people have a habit of assuming that everyone’s early life is exactly like their own.  Such an attitude is forgivable in the young.  It can become nauseating when people get a bit older.  In writing, I find it almost insufferable.  One of many remarkable things about this fine debut novel, is that it totally avoids the pitfall of assuming all lives are pretty much identical.  Mr. Centrone IS indeed focused on a particular kind of growing up, but he manages to be aware that it is not universal and yet still find the universal qualities about anyone’s coming of age.  The fact that he does all this and keeps the book funny, moving and occasionally exciting, is almost miraculous.

The protagonist, Tom Grove, is gay and from a wealthy family.  A number of readers might assume that one or both of these attributes make him someone they cannot identify with.  They would be dead wrong.  Sure, there are aspects of Tom’s life that are particular to him but Centrone depicts him groping his way to adulthood among others.  Through this, while not ignoring differences, he manages to isolate those things that bring us together when we are growing up, especially in college.  These include, making friends different from those we are used to, maintaining earlier ties, learning about people from diverse backgrounds, communicating our emerging selves to our families, seeing how we might be immature but holding fast to what makes us individuals and, most poignantly, experiencing new freedoms with romance and sexuality.  While we spend most of our time with Tom Grove as he manages these (and other) pitfalls of growing up, we observe his life in context with others and understand all of them better for it.  Even if you’re nothing like Tom Grove, you’re likely to find yourself nodding in familiarity through several scenes of humor, heartbreak or both.

For me, the most uncanny moment came fairly early on when Tom attends a party.  While I don’t want to give too much away, let me talk about the scene’s essence and remarkable insight and power.  There is a moment when Tom is talking to two other young gay men about another pair of young gay men.  Let me explain that I am gay and first came out at college myself.  My experience was nothing like Tom’s or the people he is talking to.  It was somewhat like the people they are talking about.  While I could not identify with the protagonist in that scene, I COULD identify with the scene itself.  In fact, I was almost overwhelmed by several memories that were practically identical (sometimes literally, sometimes in spirit) to what Centrone so sharply describes.  I could not identify with Tom but I recognized him.  I recognized the people he speaks to.  And I both recognized and identified with the people they observe.  For the first time, I started to see some past events from my own life more objectively, rather than just through my own eyes, colored by my own emotions.  What Centrone pulls off here is what great fiction is made of.  Large parts of the novel are, by design, lighter than this and that’s great.  Light does not mean inferior.  However, it will be interesting to see if Mr. Centrone decides to turn his fine observational skills to weightier matters in the future.

Another phenomenal aspect of this novel is its treatment of gay characters.  As a gay man, I often avoid gay themed novels, movies and TV shows.  They frequently insist on portraying gay life in one, media-approved dimension.  Here, we finally get a look at the great diversity and variety among LGBT people.  Tom is as far from a stereotype as you can get and he is vastly different from the other men in the book who share his sexuality.  For young readers in particular, it will be affirming and liberating to read a book that avoids tunnel vision so well.

Be warned, there are characters you are going to want to smack throughout the course of this book!  That’s part of youth and Centrone pulls no punches in that regard.  I would urge readers who feel this way to keep going.  A whole lot gets learned and a great deal of growing occurs.  There are a few characters you never stop wanting to smack (Tom’s mother, for one) but isn’t that true in real life?  Not everyone learns their lesson but most of us do, more or less, over the course of our lives.  Mr. Centrone gives us a clear-eyed but never less than heartfelt look at one young man’s journey to the beginning of maturity.

Literature, Sex, and Me, or A Review of THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY by Thornton Wilder

“This character,” Williams reflected of his colleague at the time, “has never had a good lay.” With the perspicacity that would lead him to become, arguably, our greatest postwar playwright, Williams had pretty much hit the nail on the head.

The lines above come from a review by Blake Bailey of Thornton Wilder: A Life by Penelope Niven.  The review appeared in The New York Times Book Review on December 28th, 2012.  Bailey did not think very highly of Niven’s book which I haven’t read.  The smirking tone in Bailey’s comments was nothing new to me and I was aware of the encounter between Wilder and Williams.  However, I had never read or heard Williams’ specific comments.  When I read Bailey’s lines, and the Williams quote in his review, a whole lot suddenly snapped into place for me.  I actually don’t know that many of Thornton Wilder’s works but what I do know, I’ve really admired.  One of his books I love as much as one can love a book.  These feelings have long put me in a literary minority.  I used to think there were a variety of fairly unimportant reasons for this.  Now, after reading Bailey and Williams in that review, I know there is one primary reason and it is DEEPLY important.  That reason, put very simply, is sex.  First, some background.

When I was a junior in high school, we were given an “independent” reading assignment in English class.  The quotation marks are because it was not truly independent.  We had to pick from a list of novels.  You could not use a book that was not on the list.  For most of my life, I’ve been a slow reader so my primary factor in choosing a book from that list was that it be short.  By far the shortest turned out to be The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder.  The title was familiar to me and I knew of Wilder’s fame as a dramatist.  Beyond this, I was ignorant of the book.  However, it was short and that was what mattered to me.  Several pages in and I was totally entranced.  I finished the The Bridge of San Luis Rey in record time, for me anyway.  In the back of my copy, Wilder was described as having been a closeted homosexual.  That fascinated me since I was then one myself.  There was also mention of another novel, The Cabala, written shortly before The Bridge of San Luis Rey and long out of print.  The title intrigued me.  A month or so later, I was at the Bruised Apple, in my opinion the world’s greatest bookstore.  To my delight, they had an old copy of The Cabala.  I bought it and it has become one of my literary north stars.  It cannot be overstated how much I love that book.  Perhaps readers will understand when I say that I was restored to happiness by Thornton Wilder’s The Cabala.  Much of what contentment and faith I have still comes from what I learned from The Cabala.  I actually wrote a review of it for amazon a year or so after reading it which can be found on this blog.  It is immature and overheated but I preserve it for sentimental reasons.  Amid all this love, The Bridge of San Luis Rey receded somewhat in my mind.  I don’t think it is as insightful or powerful as The Cabala.  However, I still have a great deal of affection for it on its own and as the book that led me to a greater book.

The funny thing was, when I was first enjoying The Bridge of San Luis Rey, I seemed to be irking several people.  Nearly every time I mentioned the book to a teacher, I’d get a roll of the eyes.  There would be comments like “Oh, THAT book!  Why is it still on the list?”  If I tried to explain why I loved it so much, I’d be greeted with polite, tight little smiles and shakes of the head.  Words like “artificial” and “overwritten” turned up a lot, neither of which struck me as having any connection to the book I was reading.  In college, I heard much sharper comments on Wilder, by professors and fellow students.  Much of the vitriol seemed to focus on Wilder’s blasphemous, unforgivable dislike of Tennessee Williams.  I might as well be honest and admit that I’ve never really liked Williams all that much myself but that’s neither here nor there, is it?

So what is The Bridge of San Luis Rey and why all the contempt?  It is probably clear by now that this is not a conventional review but I should say a few words about the book in question.  It takes place in colonial Peru, in the early eighteenth century and concerns the collapse of a bridge that kills five people.  A monk attempts to prove that God had a solid reason to kill those five particular people but his inquiries are deemed heretical.  An omniscient narrator then gives us in depth, personal background on the victims.  There is plenty of philosophizing but it never interested me all that much.  Honestly, there are some aspects of the plot that I don’t remember particularly well, unlike The Cabala which is burned into my memory.  What I DO remember well about The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and what I think irked all those other people I talked to, is the style.  Wilder carefully crafted his sentences, clearly working hard to make his words flow like music.  Everything is chiseled like the work of a master jeweler.  Wilder doesn’t aim for the stars, nor does he seek to jolt or shatter.  His goal is to beguile and move quietly and softly, with grace and delicacy.  Praising the book, a contemporary reviewer said it was “like some faultless temple erected to a minor deity.”  In short, Wilder wrote the way decades of critics and creative writing teachers have railed against.  We live in an age when fragmentation, brutality and crudeness are the only ways an author proves he or she is honest and realistic.  Also, The Bridge of San Luis Rey spent years being assigned in high schools.  This rarely does any good for a work of literature.  In fact, it often causes it to be resented by students and strategically loathed by teachers who wish to prove their street cred with reluctant pupils.  As an English teacher, I’ve done this numerous times myself but I always feel bad about it.  I long thought these were the reasons why Wilder was out of favor.  Maybe they play minor roles but, as I said, I now believe the central reason has to do with sex.

Actually, the REAL reason is the absence of sex as a controlling factor.  In the two Wilder novels I have read, sexuality does appear but it is deeply muted.  It becomes quickly apparent that, while acknowledging sex, Wilder is not primarily concerned with it.  His characters’ animating passions are over other matters.  I strongly believe it is this that keeps Wilder scorned and (in my opinion) underrated.  People today are baffled, angry and, strangely, a bit alarmed when sexuality moves to the background.  If it is not the ONLY factor, it must AT LEAST be one of the primary factors in a work of art.  When it isn’t, critics and readers often resort to sarcastic put downs to avoid considering the possible virtues of a sexless piece.  Witness the comments of Blake Bailey and Tennessee Williams.   I also bear witness myself.  As a gay man, I’ve been tremendously lucky to have experienced little homophobia in my life.  I have, however, had my friendships dismissed as unimportant, life-altering events derided as “in my head,” and my somewhat quiet lifestyle viciously attacked as somehow unnatural, all because sexuality is not THAT important to me.  My relationships with family and close friends and my ideological concerns bulk far larger in my life than my brief romantic and sexual experiences.  Contrary to received wisdom, there ARE people for whom sexuality is less central in their lives.  Thornton Wilder was one.  I am another.

There is a great deal of noise, much of it justified, over representation in literature.  People rightly want themselves and their experiences reflected in art.  I ask now, what about those of us who don’t care about sex as much as the average person?  Are we to go ignored in art?  Are our passions, and we do have them, irrelevant?  Do we have no wisdom to offer?  Wilder writes about the desperate desire of a mother for her daughter’s love.  He writes about the fiery, destructive but life-affirming love between friends.  He writes about how blind devotion to principal can drive a person to a kind of madness.  Maybe, since he was less focused on sexuality, Wilder was able to get to the heart of these matters better than most other writers.  Perhaps his calm, pristine style was a reflection of the absence of sexuality’s trademark illogical and messy nature.  Rather than being an artificial affectation, maybe Wilder’s style was a conscious path to some insight he found lacking elsewhere.  Possibly, there are things everyone can learn from such insights, just as we can all learn from writing about sexuality and its impact.  Understand I do not turn away from art that is primarily focused on sexuality nor do I disdain the kinds of styles that most critics and educators favor.  I simply assert there is more.  There are other experiences and other modes of creative expression and they all have something to say.  To Blake Bailey and Tennessee Williams, I say that there is more than a good lay.  To everyone who would say Thornton Wilder didn’t write about real life, I say my life is real, there are insights to be drawn from it and I want it reflected in art.  Thornton Wilder wrote for me and I am not alone.