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This is my favorite book since "A Little Life". I'm not huge on magical realism but this book did it right! This book packs a powerful punch and it is literary fiction at it's finest. The narrator, Mark Bramhall, was amazing! Read it!
7 of 10 people found this review helpful
A debut author I know is writing a novel set in Boston and its courtrooms. He's not visited Boston, but he watched "Good Will Hunting" six times and all Cheers episodes. All his Boston characters under 40 are much like Will Hunting's pals; the older ones like Clifford Clavin. The Boston lawyers have southie accents, grew up poor and drunk, cuss at judges and each other, frequently settle matters via fists and say things like "how you like them apples?" They hang out at a bar in Cambridge (near Hahvahd), telling dirty jokes and trying to pick up wicked smaht women whom they may impregnate and then, of course, abuse.
The lawsuit involves disputes among Boston mobs (most Bostonians are Red Sox fans and connected in some way to organized crime). The Russian mobsters are scary evil, drink vodka all day and run whores; Italian guidos are chatterboxes who love coffee with pizza and spaghetti and say "mamma mia" in every conversation.
Irish goons are red-headed local hotheads, who are all alcoholic and beat up their wives. He's creative too, with a French and a German mob: the former are arrogant, rude assholes with berets, riding bicycles full of baguettes, and repeating only two words, "oui, oui," to English speaking Bostonians; the Germans are stiff, humorless men who wear lederhosen and speak of cars all day.
For females, he's chosen Moldovan & Czech women, all of whom are beautiful and poor; and, for a supernatural element, two Romanian women who only speak Russian and closely resemble Dracula's Mina.
Coming in near the end is a group of London barristers, who are stiff, prudish, unemotional men obsessed with class and status, while their lower paid female assistants all binge drink at night and possess bad teeth from eating bad food.
The problem with stereotyping, in addition to being lazy practice that makes for shallow characters, is that it takes all the negatives of an area (here, the South) and casts a black net over the entire population. Life is not at all that simple, or that absurd.
This book might have been great had I not been born and raised in the South and thus found nearly every character except the narrator to be, separately and severally, the largest collection ever assembled of offensive, stereotyped Southerners dressed up in cardboard cutouts of the absolutely most backwards, prejudiced, silly, uneducated, idiotic, ridiculous, slow-witted, racist, simple, homophobic, childish, uber-religious, alcoholic, xenophobic, child-beating and/or gullible hillbillies, gumpbubbas, rednecks, hicks, yucks and/or suckers who have lived in the South (or anywhere, for that matter) since the late 1960s (since I've been alive), OR to my recollection, who have walked and talked "in sentences" inside a work of fiction or nonfiction that I've ever read
Let me say here that I agree with the quote I saw from "The Library Journal" about this book: "At its highest points, this debut novel shines with beauty and lyricism." I concur wholeheartedly.
Yet, I must give this book no better than 3 stars, though I'd prefer to give it just 2. Seeing this across-the-board treatment of characters from the South nauseated me and colored my view of the dialogue, descriptors, actions and prose as cloying, saccharine, childish, laughable and bordering on the absurd. [Note: the narrator was a sufficiently drawn and adequately developed character, but he was the only one].
Just as someone from north Wisconsin has expert knowledge on her neighbor's attitudes, accents character traits and tics, anyone who has lived in the deep South for 50 years is qualified and can readily see the stereotypes.* As for me personally, I was born in Dallas, TX, grew up mostly in a small town in the southern part of Miss. and have lived in south Alabama for over 25 yrs now. In my teens and twenties, I had a chip on my shoulder about being stereotyped as a redneck southerner the moment I begin to talk with a drawl (which I've tried to mask, but is obvious). This doesn't bother me nearly as much as it did 25 years ago.* Indeed, I've found it to be a decided advantage in litigation battles, particularly with northeasterners (and especially Ivy League-educated pompous ass attorneys) who assume they are smarter just because they talk faster, or conversely, that I lack intelligence simply because I talk slower and flatten my i's (unintentionally). These supercilious pricks tend to let down their guard and get what's coming to them, but good. Boy howdy.
I've had more than my fair share of dealing with some of the most backwards, ignorant, overly zealous, in-your-face, country-boy-can-survive Southerners you'd ever see in the South. Of these several people, most would generally the stereotype you see on made for TV movies. Most people I knew and grew up around though, don't at all fit the stereotype factors, the sole exception being the Southern drawl.
Considering all this, my opinions vary considerably from those of the readers who loved this novel. As I've said though, I haven't seen a 5 star rating from a Southerner. I'll be interested in the thoughts of any goodreads friends from the South who read this book.
I don't blame or quibble with those who've loved this book, and who see it altogether normal that the narrator and other characters repeatedly use, in conveying a "country" thinking, what I consider to be mawkish metaphors, syrupy similes, maudlin prose, hokey analogies and effusive euphemisms.
Insofar as the story, I'll limit my comments to noting that the effect of the story's laudable messages was considerably diluted by the surfeit of social themes stuffed like sardines into this novel: racism, teen suicide, homophobia, short person phobia, depression, animal cruelty, cuckoldry, psychological fears, religious bigotry, alcohol abuse, child abuse, AIDS, mass suicide and a mob mentality ala the Ku Klux Klan. Also as a result of this overflow, the novel at many points turns overly didactic and pedantic.
*This book is set in southern Ohio, in the Appalachians. Whether this fictional area could be considered as having residents with traditional Southern traits and accents, there's no doubt the author intended this to be the case.
11 of 20 people found this review helpful