Crash­ing and burn­ing in U.S. fly­over coun­try

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - PHILIP MARTIN

There’s a game played in print by icon­o­clas­tic Na­tional Re­view film critic and some­times troll Ar­mond White where a widely de­rided or ob­scure movie is com­pared to and found greater than (“>”) a crit­i­cally ac­claimed pic­ture. For in­stance, last year White thought Ang Lee’s crit­i­cally panned Billy Lynn’s Long Half­time Walk > La La Land and the lam­en­ta­ble Bat­man v. Su­per­man > Dead­pool.

I’m not a hot take kind of guy, but I find White en­ter­tain­ing and provoca­tive even if I don’t think what he’s say­ing is true. You can for­give a writer any­thing if he’s a fun read.

And he de­serves a nod here, be­cause af­ter I de­cided to write about Kayla Rae Whitaker’s de­but novel The An­i­ma­tors (Ran­dom House, $27) my first im­pulse was to start with the line The An­i­ma­tors > J.D. Vance’s Hill­billy El­egy: A Mem­oir of a Fam­ily and Cul­ture in Cri­sis.

In some sig­nif­i­cant ways, it is bet­ter than Vance’s earnest and oc­ca­sion­ally in­sight­ful re­count­ing of the so­cioe­co­nomic forces that have cre­ated and main­tain a white Amer­i­can un­der­class that per­pet­u­ally seethes with re­sent­ment and of­ten votes against its own in­ter­ests. Vance told some un­com­fort­able truths, but his “tough love” cri­tique of fly­over Amer­ica feels too much like a repack­ag­ing of anti-big gov­ern­ment bro­mides — his book seems tai­lored to soothe the con­sciences of the bowtied ed­i­tors of Na­tional Re­view. It was Vance’s voice — calm, re­flec­tive, self-crit­i­cal — that ap­pealed to the NPR lis­ten­ers.

Vance’s prag­matic ad­vice to the left-be­hind is sound enough — some­times the only thing for a poor boy to do is join the Marines, build some sweat eq­uity and go to col­lege on the gov­ern­ment. Whether that’s fair is be­side the point; the thing not to do is bury your­self un­der credit card debt by at­tend­ing the siren calls of TV com­mer­cials.

But I never com­pletely con­nected with the mem­oirist, even though his story is not a whole lot dif­fer­ent from that of my own or a lot of peo­ple. I don’t have too many de­grees of sep­a­ra­tion from peo­ple who’ve strug­gled with opi­oid ad­dic­tion or gone bank­rupt with a garage full of jet skis. When I call my mother I ex­pect to hear fan­tas­tic sto­ries about not-so-dis­tant rel­a­tives who live very dif­fer­ently than I do and worry about very dif­fer­ent things. I re­late to Hill­billy El­egy, but Vance’s cool anal­y­sis feels crafted, al­most lawyerly. It isn’t so much vic­tim-blam­ing as a sen­si­ble as­sess­ment of the vic­tim’s par­tial li­a­bil­ity.

On the other hand, Whitaker’s novel, The An­i­ma­tors, is about ob­tain­ing es­cape ve­loc­ity and the some­times painful process of claim­ing own­er­ship of one’s story and con­vert­ing it to art. It tells of two self-de­scribed “white trash” girls, Sharon and Mel, from east­ern Ken­tucky and cen­tral Florida, re­spec­tively, who meet at a lib­eral arts col­lege where nei­ther re­ally be­longs. They bond and be­come artis­tic part­ners, churn­ing out an­i­mated films with a pro­gres­sive fem­i­nist bent from their ratty stu­dio in Bush­wick, Brook­lyn.

Whitaker’s novel is nu­anced and raw and heart­break­ing, true in a way that only the best work of the hu­man imag­i­na­tion can be.

The women at the story’s cen­ter are com­ple­men­tary types. Sharon, the pro­tag­o­nist, is curvy and in­se­cure, un­able to sus­tain a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship, the plot­ter and plan­ner who main­tains cal­en­dars and en­forces a mod­icum of dis­ci­pline. Mel is thin, dra­matic and gay, a party girl given to work­ing in in­spired flur­ries, the spark to Sharon’s pow­der. Af­ter work­ing away for a decade, they’ve fi­nally had a mi­nor hit, a fea­ture-length car­toon that can­ni­bal­izes Mel’s tem­pes­tu­ous child­hood and her re­la­tion­ship with her crack-ad­dict mother.

Just as the film is draw­ing at­ten­tion of the crit­ics and con­nois­seurs, the mother is shiv­ved in prison, which sets in mo­tion a chain of events which has the women trav­el­ing first to Mel’s Florida to deal with the af­ter­math of the at­tack, then on to Sharon’s fam­ily home in Ken­tucky where she re-en­gages with her fam­ily. These scenes are cringe-in­duc­ing and hi­lar­i­ous, and might be fa­mil­iar to any­one who ever had a teacher or guid­ance coun­selor take them aside to breathe the words “get out” in their ear.

But Sharon’s fam­ily aren’t re­ally mon­sters; they just lived next door to one. They’re the sort of ca­su­ally big­oted folk who imag­ine them­selves salt of the earth and who are dis­mis­sive of op­por­tu­ni­ties with­held from them. Sharon’s work means noth­ing to them, though they can get be­hind Mel’s in­cli­na­tion to make the world a party.

There is a lot more to The An­i­ma­tors, an un­sen­ti­men­tal novel stuffed with in­ci­dent and tragedy, and it would be re­duc­tive to try to syn­op­size it. Whitaker knows some­thing about draw­ing, about an­i­mat­ing, about par­ties with cheap beer and in­terns, about chas­ing grants. Maybe she knows a lit­tle bit about pris­ons and the yearn­ing hip­ster com­mu­ni­ties of comic book mavens and craft beer devo­tees that spring up ev­ery­where a crit­i­cal mass of pop­u­la­tion is reached.

In a way, the novel fol­lows a fa­mil­iar pat­tern — it fol­lows the core cou­ple as they re­trace their steps, trav­el­ing back through time. Sharon and Mel in­tro­duce each other to their past lives, which are, like it or not, the fuel for their art. In a way, it’s rem­i­nis­cent of Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, although in­stead of en­coun­ter­ing wrath and in­dig­na­tion from the home folks, Sharon is re­ceived with in­dif­fer­ence, by peo­ple too self-ab­sorbed to ap­pre­ci­ate or even no­tice what she has made of her­self.

“I be­came an artist,” Sharon says, “be­cause I wanted to make a world in which I was not the pur­sued but the pur­suer; be­cause I needed to dis­cor­po­rate. I strug­gled. I was afraid I wasn’t very good. I was jeal­ous and lonely. I was fre­quently sad.”

Aren’t we all? And who’s to say one’s own sad­ness is in any way special, that the sad­ness of the would-be artist ought to be priv­i­leged over that of the sin­gle mother work­ing two jobs to make the rent? Not Whitaker, who loads in a kind of clear-eyed em­pa­thy and the un­der­stand­ing that be­com­ing your­self is all about rec­on­cil­ing ac­counts. About know­ing to whom you are be­holden and who may be be­holden to you. It’s about learn­ing to love the dead­beats even as you keep your dis­tance.

The rea­son you can’t go home again is be­cause you aren’t you any­more. You made some­thing out of your­self, you au­thored a new iden­tity. Good on you, girl.

...

Chris Sta­ple­ton’s highly an­tic­i­pated new al­bum From a Room: Vol­ume 1 (Mer­cury) has been out a few weeks now, long enough to set­tle in. It’s a cave­man soul al­bum dressed up as a trad coun­try throw­back that is far more about the emo­tive flow of Sta­ple­ton’s re­mark­ably ex­pres­sive, brawny voice than the sur­pris­ingly thin ma­te­rial. I know the guy’s got quite the rep­u­ta­tion as a song­writer — hav­ing placed hits with Adele and Ali­son Krauss (among many oth­ers) — but that seems more a quirk of the mar­ket. Sta­ple­ton is an all-right crafts­man with gui­tar and pen but it’s his pipes that re­ally mat­ter. Even when his ma­te­rial feels generic (as it of­ten does here), his singing is con­vinc­ing.

All that said, From a Room: Vol­ume 1 (Vol­ume 2 is ex­pected later this year) is a brief (nine songs, 33 min­utes) record that fits right in with (an­noy­ing) Nashville tra­di­tion while mak­ing few con­ces­sions to com­mer­cial vi­a­bil­ity. There’s noth­ing that sub­verts ex­pec­ta­tions un­less it’s the way Sta­ple­ton em­braces the Gary P. Nunn chestnut “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morn­ing,” with a ruler-straight in­ter­pre­ta­tion that at times mim­ics the phras­ing of the fa­mous Wil­lie Nel­son ver­sion. It’s not bad, just a su­per­flu­ous cover that sug­gests af­fec­tion for its model. It might have been more ex­cit­ing if Sta­ple­ton had been a lit­tle ruder and de­cided to try to rip the track away from Dear Ole Wil­lie.

And does any­one else hear a For­eigner in­flu­ence in the tepid rocker “Sec­ond One to Know?” Or thinks “Them Stems” a slight and un­wor­thy nov­elty? (It’s the kind of track that Spring­steen would hand off to Gary “U.S.” Bonds.) Even the al­bum’s best track, the poignant “Ei­ther Way,” is marred by a pull-out-the-emo­tional-stops cho­rus that’s closer to Meat Loaf than Otis Red­ding.

Maybe I should just move on — I like Sta­ple­ton bet­ter as a singer than as a song­writer, but most peo­ple don’t lis­ten to lyrics, and he’s had quite a run lately with some un­de­ni­ably elec­tric live per­for­mances. But at this point he’s a voice in search of ideas, a cut be­neath Amer­i­cana dar­lings like Ja­son Isbell, Sturgill Simp­son and James McMurtry.

Sta­ple­ton might have the best tools of the bunch, but he has yet to make a gen­uinely sat­is­fy­ing solo al­bum.

...

And there’s a new Haruki Mu­rakami book, a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries called Men With­out Women (Knopf, $25.95). Like the 1927 Hem­ing­way col­lec­tion with which it shares a ti­tle, the book con­cerns it­self with the lone­li­ness of men who have lost women they could ill af­ford to lose. In “Drive My Car,” the key­note story, an ag­ing char­ac­ter ac­tor named Ka­fuku mourns the wife with whom he had an open re­la­tion­ship, un­spool­ing his story to his young fe­male chauf­feur dur­ing ther­a­peu­tic car rides.

In “Kino,” a man re­treats em­bar­rassed af­ter walk­ing in on his wife hav­ing sex with an­other man, set­ting up a shadow ex­is­tence as a jazz bar owner in an­other part of town. “Samsa in Love” turns Kafka’s Meta­mor­pho­sis around, with the in­sect one morn­ing wak­ing up as a man, feel­ing his way into hu­man life. And in the fi­nal, ti­tle, story, a man re­ceives a call from his ex-lover’s hus­band, in­form­ing him that she has com­mit­ted sui­cide.

Mu­rakami fans will find these seven sto­ries of a piece with his other work; the same ob­ses­sions — The Bea­tles, jazz, sur­re­al­ism — make ap­pear­ances. But what’s im­pres­sive is what we might call Mu­rakami’s tone, an al­most in­de­scrib­able com­bi­na­tion of pre­cise de­tach­ment and gen­tle un­der­state­ment. He is like a mu­si­cian, en­cod­ing his work with an in­ef­fa­ble yet sig­na­ture qual­ity, a re­as­sur­ing, soft hov­er­ing in­tel­li­gence by the reader’s side.

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