Review: Raft of Stars

Raft of Stars, Andrew J. Graff. New York: Ecco, 2021.

Summary: A coming of age adventure story of two friends fleeing down a river after what they think is the murder of the father of one of the boys, and the pursuit to save the boys from certain destruction from a danger unknown to them.

I would not have known of this book apart from an Ohio friend who put me onto this debut novel of Andrew J. Graff, a writing instructor at Wittenberg University. This was a delightful find.

The setting is the north woods of Wisconsin in 1994. It centers around two boys, Breadwin and Fish. Breadwin has a violent father he tries to stay away from as much as possible. Fish lost his father and his mother, Miranda lets him stay summers at her father Ted’s farm. Fish is concerned about the bruises he sees on his friend, and follows him home one night, to discover the father in the act of choking Breadwin. Fish spots a gun as the father spots him, fires, and the man collapses in a pool of blood. They think they’ve killed him and run for it, leaving a note at Ted’s, where they collect supplies. Fish proposes they take the path to the river that runs through the north forest to where it comes out at his father’s military post, not telling Breadwin he no longer has a father. Finding an abandoned shack by the river, they are able to turn it into a raft.

Sheriff Cal came from Texas. This little town was the perfect escape from a situation where he broke procedure in apprehending a bad character. He’s no longer sure about a career in law enforcement and drinks more than is good for him, but this seems to be the perfect place to get some peace and perspective–until he finds Breadwin’s father apparently dead and the boys on the run. He and Ted mount a search on horseback, kind of a series of mishaps for Cal, unused to tracking in a forest.

Then Fish’s mom Miranda decides to follow, along with Tiffany, a gas station attendant who colors her hair, has lived on the edge of poverty, but has come to appreciate the boys, and even the new sheriff. Miranda is a cross between a devout pentecostal and a mamma bear, the latter more urgent yet because she finds out Breadwin’s father had survived and her son was not a murderer.

The pursuit is urgent, not to apprehend the boys but to head them off from destruction from a river gorge they cannot raft through and don’t know is there. Much of the book is an account of how the boys elude capture while being pursued by their rescuers. Perhaps some of the best writing is the storm and tornado sequences, where one experiences the terror of encountering these phenomena unprotected.

What makes this debut novel so good? Is it the deepening relationship and resourcefulness of the boys? Is it the collaboration of people for whom life hasn’t been easy? Is it the lovable but seemingly ineffectual Constable Bobby (who plays an important role toward the end)? Is it the river journey, a literary trope featuring in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? Only here, instead of people becoming stripped of the veneer of civilization, they summons the means to become better versions of themselves. This is an adventure story, a coming of age story, and a love story wrapped into one. And in a rare achievement, the author does it without sex scenes or profanity and through characters with flaws and grit, not plaster saints.

I understand the author has a sequel in the works, set in northern Wisconsin, where he grew up. Sign me up. I look forward to seeing how he develops as a writer. This was a very good debut.

Review: Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles. New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

Summary: The year that changed the life of a young woman in New York, remembered when photographs trigger a flashback twenty-eight years later.

Katey and her husband Val are part of the social elite at an exhibition opening at the Museum of Modern Art in 1966. For the first time, photographs taken by Walker Evans on New York’s subways in the late 1930’s are on exhibit. Among those photos are two of him. One elegantly dressed, a portrait of subdued power. The other, more gaunt in the tattered clothes of a laborer, but with a smile. Tinker Grey. And it brings back the year in between and how Katey’s life changed, beginning her rise from a working class immigrant background.

At the end of 1937, Katey and her roommate Eve decide to do the town for New Years. Eve is from the midwest with high hopes. Katya, now Katey Kontent (accent on the second syllable) is working in a secretarial pool for a New York law firm, living by her wits and struggling to make ends meet, but also enjoying the city. They are in a jazz club and in walks Tinker Grey in a cashmere coat. They end up ringing in the New Year, and Tinker leaves his monogrammed lighter behind, giving them a chance to see him again. A subsequent night on the town ends in an accident leaving Eve with leg injuries and a scar. Tinker offers his home to recover. They fall in love, and Katey is nudged out.

It’s a story that traces Katey’s year of 1938 in her voice, one that is whip-smart and shrewd. Both her external and internal dialogue make this book, a feat for a male writer. We see her rise from the secretarial pool to editorial assistant for a new magazine launched by the publisher of Conde’ Nast. She recounts the nights at the clubs, the jazz of the Thirties, and her relationships with Wallace Wolcott and Dicky Vanderwhile, the latter on the rebound from one with Tinker Grey after Eve refused to marry him and went to Hollywood. One of the most interesting characters is Anne Grandyn, whose wealth helped make Tinker. She made him in other ways, and unbeknownst to Katey, helps make her as well. Instead of being a rival for Tinker, in an odd way, she is an ally.

Meanwhile Tinker’s life unravels. From Central Park, he moves to a flop house, in some ways following his late artist brother–and hence that second picture in the gallery. And yet the move in his life is from a learned upper crust civility, schooled by George Washington’s The Rules of Civility to rediscovery of the New York he loved best.

Not only does Towles do a masterful job at writing in a woman’s voice, he captures the resurgence of New York on the eve of World War Two as the country climbed out of the Depression. He explores questions of class and upward mobility. Both Tinker and Katey rise from modest beginnings on their wits, yet come to different ends. We wonder if the 1966 Katey, confronted with the images of Tinker, wonders about the life she’s embraced. Or perhaps she was reminded of the year in which her life turned, the gains and the losses, and the course that was set.

I went back to read this after reading Towles’s masterful A Gentleman in Moscow earlier this year. It is hard to believe this is a first novel. So often, we just live our lives. In both of Towles’s works, we see characters who not only live their lives, but, through circumstances, are brought to reflect upon their course and what they’ve meant, inviting the reader to do the same.

Review: The End of the Affair

The End of the Affair, Graham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (originally published in 1951).

Summary: A writer struggles to understand why the woman he has had an affair with broke it off, discovering who ultimately came between them.

Maurice Bendrix, a rising writer, encounters Henry Miles, the successful but dull civil servant Bendrix had cuckolded by having a five year affair with Sarah Miles, his attractive wife. The affair, hidden from Henry had ended nearly two years earlier. All that Henry knew (or claimed to know) was that Bendrix had been a great friend. Now he comes to Bendrix with a problem. He is concerned that Sarah may be seeing someone else and wonders about hiring a private detective.

Bendrix discourages this plan, but ends up hiring the detective himself. He’s never understood why Sarah broke off their affair, although at some level, he knows his jealousy of Henry, who she will not leave, had been driving them apart. But they had a powerful love that drew them together. They were parted toward the end of the war when a German V-1 struck the building they were in, leaving him apparently dead underneath some debris. But in fact, he survived. Their affair did not.

Only when the private detective purloins a journal does Bendrix discover the truth. Sarah had found him under the debris, apparently lifeless and made a plea, a promise to God for his life. If he lived, she would not see him again. And the others Sarah was seeing? An atheist and a priest helping her sort out the question of belief. In the end, Bendrix finds out it is not Henry or any of these rivals who came between him and Sarah. It was God. The God he hated who did not exist.

He discovers something else as he reads the journal, and talks with Henry, the atheist, the priest, and the detective. There had been a saintly goodness about Sarah that Bendrix hadn’t seen amid their torrid affair. Even that affair was a longing for passionate love, a love she hadn’t found with Henry. There was more–Henry’s life given back, a disfigurement that disappeared, a sickly child healed. I’m intrigued that Greene includes this “miraculous” element in the story.

We discover that neither Henry Miles nor Maurice Bendrix truly took the measure of Sarah during her life. There was a higher love in her life unsatisfied by being the trophy wife of a civil servant or the possessive passion of Bendrix’s love. The question we are left with is whether Bendrix will respond with love or with hate both to Sarah and Sarah’s God.

Greene, who wrote several novels touching on religious themes raises a searching question: can God call for ultimate love and loyalty? Even when it means the end of the affair? It may be one of the marks of modernity that this is even a question.

Review: 40 Patchtown

40 Patchtown, Damian Dressick. Huron, Ohio: Bottom Dog Press, 2020.

Summary: Set during a coal strike in Windber, Pennsylvania in 1922, captures the hardship striking miners faced in their resistance to mine owners, their efforts to form unions and gain better wages for dangerous work.

My family and that of my wife traces its history to towns between Johnstown, Pennsylvania and Youngstown, Ohio. Many had associations with either the coal or steel industries. I was reminded in reading 40 Patchtown of the stories we heard at family gatherings of mine and mill owners, strikes and strike-breakers, Pinkerton’s, the hardships and the violence that came with encounters between powerful corporations and workers who risk their lives to dig coal out of the earth and to forge the steel that built the nation. There were the ethnic rivalries between eastern Europeans who arrived earlier, and Italians who came later. Company housing, rooming houses, and camps for evicted strikers. Finally, I encountered words I used to hear as a kid, but rarely since like studda-bubba (old woman) and dupa (your butt).

Damian Dressick, a writing professor at Clarion College (Pa.), grew up in coal country and through interviews with retired miners and their families and archival research, captures the hardships, the dangers, the family bonds, and the struggles to maintain worker solidarity during a grinding strike. His novel is set in Windber, Pennsylvania, a small mining town three miles south of Johnstown, in Somerset County during a coal miner strike in 1922. The novel opens with main character Chet Pistakowski joining his older brother Buzzy and a friend to go after “scabs” being brought in to take over the jobs of strikers. Buzzy ends up killing one of the men. The death of this replacement worker intensifies the conflict between the strikers seeking recognition for their union and the company. A train with more replacement workers is surrounded by armed guards who violently suppress and disperse the workers. Meanwhile, Chet struggles in his conscience over the killing of the Italian “scab,” who didn’t know he was taking the job of another.

After Buzzy is apprehended and killed, Chet’s family faces eviction. Dressick takes us into the worker camps and the efforts of union organizers to support the workers and the grinding poverty into which they descended. Chet takes over Buzzy’s job hauling bootlegged alcohol, running risks both with law enforcement and the bootlegging gangs themselves. The job brings in a lot of money, but the illicit activity, what his family and girl friend think of what he is doing, and the time it takes away from the union creates tension within Chet. This all comes to head with the death of a union organizer, confronting him with choices that could change his life or end it.

Dressick tells a riveting story that evokes the conditions of this era without becoming a documentary. The novel raises questions about the moral choices facing those subject to the overwhelming use of power and violence. Do oppressive conditions justify violence? Is violence folly when the oppressor has overwhelmingly superior force? Our understanding of how terrible the conditions these miners faced is intensified when we realize that it is a fourteen year old Chet who must wrestle with questions like these.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles. New York: Penguin, 2019.

Summary: Count Rostov has been sentenced to house arrest in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol for life during Stalin’s regime and must find purpose for life within its confines.

Count Alexander Rostov, born to nobility and refinement, has become the enemy in Stalinist Russia. On the pretense of a few lines in a poem, he is tried for his life in 1922, but spared death for a life of house arrest in the place he has made his home, the Hotel Metropol. Not entirely a bad fate. At least he has his luxury suite and all his books and the refinements of life. Not so, he learns, for this, too, has been appropriated by the State. He is confined to a top floor garret, little more than a closet. His life becomes forfeit the day he steps beyond the Metropol’s confines.

How will he face a life confined within the walls of this hotel, the tiny confines of a room? How far will the equanimity and cultured refinement take him when his life is a round of meals, conversations with hotel staff, and long hours in his room? Will he go crazy, or suicidal, or attempt escape? It matters little to Mother Russia, for whom he has become a non-person.

A Gentleman in Moscow traces the next 32 years of his life. We see him in the depths and at his most unpretentious, romping with nine year-old Nina of the yellow outfits, exploring the hidden corridors of the hotels, splitting out the seat of his pants to be repaired over and over by the seamstress, Marina. He becomes the trusted friend to whom she entrusts her daughter Sophia, supposedly for a few weeks which turn into forever. By then he has taken a position as waiter at the Boyarsky, rising to headwaiter, with Andrey the maitre d’ and Emile the chef, the triumvirate of the Boyarsky. He coaches a rising Russian party figure on the ins and outs of western culture, a man whose business is to know everything about people like Rostov. He encounters an American operative at the bar. He lives under the jealous eye of the Bishop (Leplevsky) who has it out for him.

He is the gentleman whose grace wins him the friendship of all, save the Bishop, and the love of his adoptive daughter Sophia, a budding piano prodigy. He discovers that his life is not merely the inner life of equanimity characterized in Montaigne’s words, “The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.” He also learns what it means to belong to his friends, who enrich and guard his life. He remains loyal to his writer friend Mishka, and experiences unexpected loyalty from Osip, the Russian party man, at a moment of extreme need. He lives a life in full in within the confines of his house arrest, exchanging the grand life in society for the pleasures of food well prepared and well served to guests well seated.

It seems that many have been drawn to this book in pandemic times, under the conditions of our own house arrests. We’ve struggled to live and found new ways of living under stay at home orders. Or we’ve chafed at them and put our lives at risk, as the Count would have in departing the Hotel Metropol. As we consider the ways the Count copes and thrives in his house arrest, we’re invited to consider how well we have coped, and how then will we live in the months that remain until our return to whatever new normal follows.

Review: The Four Winds

The Four Winds, Kristen Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2021

Summary: Set in the Dust Bowl depression era, Elsa Martinelli grows from a timid girl to a mother whose fight for her children fulfills her grandfather’s exhortation to “be brave.”

Kristin Hannah has done it again. Written a book that gets inside your head, grips your heart and does not let go. In my mind, this one holds its own with The Grapes of Wrath (review), both in capturing the conditions of the Dust Bowl and the migrant camps in California, and in its lead character, Elsa Martinelli, who holds her own with Tom Joad.

Elsa was the sickly sister of two beautiful girls, taken out of school and confined to her home after contracting rheumatic fever. Suppressed by her successful father and overbearing mother, she takes refuge in her books–and dreams of someone who will love her. She also hears the words of her grandfather, a former Texas Ranger: “Be brave.” The rest of this book is Elsa’s struggle against the verdict that she is weak, unloved, and undesirable to be brave.

It begins with sewing and an alluring dress, and setting out to find love–and she does, with Rafe Martinelli, who she ends up having to marry, abandoned by her own family. The Martinellis are farmers in the Texas panhandle. She embraces their way of life, the hard manual labor of a farm, and discovers herself embraced by Rafe’s parents, if not so much by Rafe.

Then comes the drought and the dust storms. The reader feels oneself living through the storms, breathing in the dust, developing hacking coughs, and watching one’s livelihood blown away. We watch the land die, the animals die, and Elsa’s young son, Ant, nearly die of dust pneumonia. Elsa fights for their survival, and that of her in-laws. She fights to hold onto her daughter Loreda, who blames her for Rafe’s abandonment of the family.

Against all that holds her to this family, she reluctantly leaves with her children to save Ant’s health. She calls them the Martinelli Explorers Club, as they drive west, risking the dangers of the road only to find the desperate conditions of the migrant camps, the disdain with which they are all viewed by Californians, and the heartless corruption of growers who use force, credit slavery, and desperation to keep them laboring for ever decreasing wages.

So many see Elsa’s beauty and spirit even when Elsa does not. The Martinelli’s. Eventually Loreda. Jean in the migrant camp. John the Communist. The story centers around Elsa’s awakening to who she really is–her beauty, her voice, and her bravery. We see her struggle against the message that she was unloved and unlovely and what it takes to awaken her to who she is and the lie she had accepted for so many years.

Like the other Hannah works I’ve read, The Nightingale (review) and The Great Alone (review), we observe the development of a strong female character who faces harrowing circumstances, often at the hands of men, with courage and character. Here we have men both abusive, and of great honor. Each of the latter, Elsa’s grandfather, Mr. Martinelli, and John Valen, see and affirm in Elsa far more than a sickly girl, an unchosen daughter-in-law, and a careworn mother. They point us to relationships between men and women that do not require one to be weak for the other to be strong. The strength of these men enable this woman to flourish in her own strength, the strength and the voice of a warrior.

Review: McGowan’s Call

McGowan’s Call, Rob Smith. Huron, OH: Drinian Press, 2007.

Summary: A collection of short stories and a novella tracing the ministry of a pastor from a small Ohio river town to a suburb of Dayton.

The life of a minister is probably one of the least understood of any occupation, or, in the language of this book, a call. The author was a minister for thirty-one years in the southern Ohio settings of this book. One has a sense of an inside glimpse into the life of a minister–sought in spiritual crises, often triangulated in church governance fights, always struggling with the congruence between the face he must present in public and his private life.

The book consists of several short stories set in an early ministerial assignment in Hatteras, a small industrial town on the Ohio River. The novella at the center of the book and concluding stories are set in a Dayton suburb and a much larger church–a typical career arc of an effective pastor.

The book opens with Davis McGowan’s arrival in Hatteras, and encounters with a homeless man in “a game of mutual respect between a local and an import.” Another story describes the loss of daughter who looked much like his own daughter in a tornado, and the small comfort he could offer with his presence and prayers. That weekend he goes to find his own solace on his boat.

The guy at the bait shop seemed truly disgusted that I would come to play on my boat when lives had been lost. I couldn’t argue. It was on my mind, too.

Rob Smith, p. 24

This tension between public and private, who McGowan is and who he is expected to be runs through these stories.

“False Witness” is the novella at the center of this book. It centers around the death of Angie Fornesby, wife of Barker Fornesby, a rising executive. She was undergoing cancer treatments, promising at least a number of years where she would enjoy a quality of life. It was a bit tricky because she was also diabetic. In fact, that is what killed her, an overdose of insulin. Since both Barker and son Matt were trained and skilled in administering doses, this ruled out an accident. Barker’s not exactly forthcoming. He doesn’t readily produce an insulin log. An alert prosecutor also has picked up on a number of interactions between Barker and a hospital nurse. Davis had given an initial statement to investigators right after Angie’s death. Slater, the prosecutor, thinks he has enough to take a murder case to the grand jury. They subpoena McGowan, asking about his interactions with Angie. Not sure of what really happened but seeing where this was going, and the impact it could have on Matt, he gives false testimony that gets Barker Fornesby off. He discovers in the concluding story that he has made a lasting enemy in Slater.

In the same concluding story is one of the most finely written passages in the book, a description of a pastor living the call. McGowan has been called to be with a couple whose unborn child has died in utero. After a stillbirth is induced, McGowan holds the dead child, named Joshua, and speaks of how much his parents would have loved him. Then he goes to them.

“I held Joshua and called him by name,” he said.

Becky looked to Chad and then back to McGowan. “Was it awful.”

“He was beautiful,” said Davis.

“Am I silly, Dr. McGowan, to want to see him?” Davis glanced at Chad.

. . .

“You felt Joshua inside, and that little kick made you both think about the future in another way. Now that he’s gone, none of that will happen in quite the same way. You’ve lost a lot.”

Rob Smith, pp. 161-162.

This is the noble, heart-wrenching work pastors around the world pursue daily, unappreciated until one is on the receiving end of that care. Much of it is unseen by most congregants, who are critical of sermon styles and have unreal expectations of the spirituality of these very human people, while also expecting them to fix the toilets in the building.

McGowan is neither unworldly saint nor worldly hypocrite. He loves to sail, loves his wife, and pursues his call with integrity while struggling with the tensions between public expectations and his sense of self. He is one who’d rather dress up in old jeans and hang around with the youth group than hob-nob with socialites. He wrestles with the ambiguities of doing what is right and merciful when it isn’t strictly the letter of the law. He incurs enmity when he does so.

Rob Smith has truly created an interesting character in a profession we often discount. He no doubt draws upon his own experiences to explore what it looks like to care faithfully for a group to which one is called, the beauty and the pain that goes along with this. There is an understated beauty in this writing that doesn’t overwhelm with spiritual profundity but draws one through the unpretentious decency of McGowan. And if you haven’t gotten enough of McGowan in this volume, there are three more: McGowan’s Retreat, McGowan’s Return, and McGowan’s Pass.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout. New York: Random House, 2008.

Summary: A collection of short stories set in a small coastal village in Maine, centering around an aging and abrasive middle school teacher, Olive Kitteridge.

Olive Kitteridge is characterized at one point in this book as having “a way about her that was absolutely without apology.” Her son at one point described her moods as capricious and that she never accepted responsibility for the ways she affected others. She was tall and imposing, irascible and difficult. And yet. She could cut through niceties to help a young man ready to take his life, or truly sympathize with a widow while her own husband was a vegetable. What you saw was what you got, and yet there were hidden depths to her that could catch you by surprise.

Olive Kitteridge and her husband Henry live in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Olive is a middle school math teacher and Henry a pharmacist. Elizabeth Strout develops Olive’s character through a series of chronologically arranged short stories featuring different people in the town. Olive is not in every one of them but recurs throughout the book, intersecting with a number of the characters as she retires from teaching, sharing life with Henry, a most accommodating husband, as they go through life’s changes and grief’s, including a son for whom they built a house, only for him to move across country at his wife’s behest, only for her to divorce him, and then for him to return to New York and a new marriage. Olive grieves so much she won’t drive past the house, leading to an improbable adventure at the local ER.

The stories explore the challenges and comforts of marital love, the infidelities of mind and body of different villagers, including Henry at one point for his pharmacist assistant Denise. There are heartbreaks and verbal wounds that are not easily healed. But one thing you will never find is hypocrisy from Olive. One of the highlights was when Olive overhears her new daughter-in-law making fun of her clothes. Most of us would fume and pretend we had not heard. Olive goes into the daughter-in-law’s closet and deviously ruins several articles of clothing. She can be maddeningly matter-of-fact in her acceptance of life’s hardships. What else ought one expect of life?

Despite all the flaws and foibles and failures of individuals, Strout portrays a community that somehow coheres, that is there for each other in the hardest moments. She creates a place and a character rooted in that place in Olive–the houses she builds, the tulips she plants, the donut shop she and Henry loved to get donuts from. Olive and the others endure loss and glimpse their mortality, making there way through life and finding what comfort they can in each other.

In the end, we see a character who seemed utterly certain of herself, who does not change, but turns her honesty upon herself and comes to more settled terms with the person she is, and the possibilities of her remaining life. There is both fine writing and fine insight into the human condition here.

Review: Somebody Else’s Troubles

Somebody Elses Troubles

Somebody Else’s Troubles, J.A. English. Union Lake, MI: Zimbell House Publishing, 2020.

Summary: Several troubled individuals find their way to Mabuhay, a tiny Caribbean Island, and find in the troubles of others the possibility of the redemption of their own.

Five individual stories intersect on the tiny Caribbean island of Mabuhay. They come from Chicago, New York, and Athens, Ohio.

Travers Landeman inherited a family business, in a gradual declined propped up by government subsidies and transformed by the extra personnel these subsidies require. He is married to a shrew, Corinne, who shrewdly recognized that he’d be able to fund the lifestyle she coveted. Things come to a head when a nephew, sexually abused by a priest, commits suicide after reaching out in vain for help from Travers. A night with a prostitute leads to extortion, the decision to take flight to Mabuhay, and then to faking his own death. Albert Sidney McNab is a plodding but relentless insurance/private investigator who is convinced that Landeman never really died and is determined to find him. Apart from his sleuthing, he lives a lonely life.

The others in this tale are: Joe Rogers, whose best friend is a Vodka bottle. His former wife sets him up in a bookstore, complete with live-in help, Zero. The Yellow Harp gets off to a rocky start as a women’s group remembering the women’s history of the place (a former brothel) ends up starting a small fire, the damages from which turn out to be uninsured. A chance to fill in for an archaeologist on a dig in Mabuhay offers respite from it all. An accidental fall results in a near fatal ankle break, and the discovery of a singular ritual mask. Father Chester O’Reilly started out as a parish priest in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago where he grew up under a power-grasping monsignor. The parish is declining due to white flight, and Father Chester is too honest about issues of race and justice to be farmed out to the suburbs. A bequest providing for an Austin priest to provide spiritual care to the natives of Mabuhay offers a way out, and as he embraces the ways of the island, they embrace him. Marguerite departs from her love, Schugay, to pursue nursing studies in Chicago, being connected to hosts in the Austin neighborhood by Father Chester. She’s mugged, and then after pursuing charges, raped by her mugger. Chicago is nothing but a series of losses for Marguerite, including the loss of Schugay. Heartbroken, Marguerite returns to Mabuhay.

The narrative moves back and forth between the individuals, tracing their paths to Mabuhay. Along the way, they become voices for the corruption and sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic Church, the dynamics of white flight to the suburbs in Chicago, the war on drugs that made the careers of politicians and made neighborhoods like Austin the targets of drug busts, and the weasly practices of insurance companies and government funding programs. The story of Travers’ nephew is one of homosexual attraction when it couldn’t be spoken of, the intensity of his sexual experiences alternating with struggles with shame, compounded by a predatory priest. The confluence of these characters on Mabuhay opens up new choices for them in a new culture, for how they will live, and whether they will engage the troubles of “somebody else.”

It is interesting that the discussion guide for this novel raises the question of an authorial voice that editorializes at various places. I personally felt that the plot and characters were interesting enough and got at the issues explored in the editorial passages of the novel. I suspect the author, who continues to reside at least part of the time in the Austin neighborhood that is one of the settings of this novel, has strongly formed and important opinions for which this novel serves as a vehicle. I personally felt that he could have trusted the story to say these things for him. It did for me.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Our Man in Havana

our man in havana

Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (originally published in 1958).

Summary: A struggling Englishman in 1950’s Cuba is recruited to be a secret agent for MI6 and ends up deceiving the service only to find his fabrications becoming all too real.

James Wormold is a struggling proprietor of a vacuum cleaner business in 1950’s Cuba. His wife has left him and their teenage daughter Milly. He struggles to sell vacuum cleaners named “the Atomic Pile,” a real loser, and come up with enough money to support his daughter’s expensive interests while guarding her against the romantic interests of police Captain Segura, known for his ruthless investigative techniques. At first, this appears to be another one of Graham Greene’s middle-aged men struggling to make some sense of their existence in a far-off foreign land. And it is, with a difference. Comedy. Dark comedy.

Then Hawthorne, an MI6 agent walks into his life and tries to recruit him as an agent. Cuba is a hotbed of competing interests under the Batista regime of the mid-1950’s. Wormold finally realizes that the money he will be paid is the answer to his financial woes. Except he has to become an agent, recruit sub-agents, and send “reports” via code. He confides in his one friend, Dr Hasselbacher, his dilemma and Hasselbacher suggest that he could invent them. He does, a mix of fictional and actual figures who don’t really work for him. He creates reports from newspapers, and sends drawings of an “installation” based on blown up drawings of vacuum parts.

Everyone back at MI6 believes they’ve found a “natural” and his reports create quite a stir. Hawthorne has his doubts, but as the lone doubter in a company of believers, he keeps silent. The do arrange a secretary, Beatrice, to keep an eye on him and his agents. The game appears to be up when a man who has the name of one of his fictional agents turns up dead, and another is shot at. It appears that someone close to him has discovered his “reports” and that the English aren’t the only ones who believe Wormold’s reports. He faces an assassination threat of his own, and has to figure out how to extract himself from Cuba. But first he wants to get a list of agents Segura has, and avenge a murder, leading to a most unusual game of checkers.

Even if he can escape danger from Segura and foreign operatives he (and Beatrice) have to face the music with MI6. All I will say is that the ending is Greene’s “last laugh” at MI6, and all the government experts who are too clever for their own good.