Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Crashing and burning in U.S. flyover country
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.