Books: Independent choice - American fiction

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Be wary of novelists whose characters say "would of" for "would have". As often as not, it's a condescending nudge to demonstrate how poor and ignorant the speaker is. Oddly, the narrator of Stewart O'Nan's The Speed Queen (Viking, pounds 9.99) begins by saying "would've" and "would have", but by the end of the novel she is reduced to "would of". A subtle register of growing alienation and despair, or inattention?

There's more than a little condescension about the way O'Nan writes his character. On Death Row waiting to hear whether her final appeal is to be upheld, she spends her time answering questions posed by a novelist (one Stephen King) who has bought the rights to her life story. The text is presented as a transcript of her replies, spoken into a tape recorder.

Although I doubt if King gave his blessing to this project, O'Nan's narrator is a connoisseur of his fiction, able to relate incidents in her own bloody life to this or that King novel. Her narrative voice is deadpan, only revealing passion as she runs through the various modes of capital punishment available around the world. If she's going to die in prison, she wants a death that will make a good story.

O'Nan's take on the desire for celebrity has the cold mortician's touch familiar from Warhol to Mapplethorpe, and his numbing lack of passion induces its own tension. Yet it's hard not to feel his disdain for his narrator. No law says that authors have to like their characters, but it's not a good idea to sneer at their lumpen efforts to get by.

By contrast, James Wilcox's Sort of Rich (Fourth Estate, pounds 6.99) seems quite cosy. In Tula Springs, deep in Louisiana, comfort and wealth lend life a distracted air. Nothing much happens, slowly and agreeably. Frank Dambar has married Gretchen, a New York socialite who never manages to make sense of Louisiana. Bemused, she tries to fill her days with meaningful events. When unexpected death intervenes, Gretchen briefly manages to focus but soon loses the thread in alcohol's pleasant blur. There's a matter here for savage anger, but Wilcox likes his characters too well. He has a canny ear for conversations built on misheard hearsay and innuendo, so we're never quite sure how weird these people are. That's by no means a negligible achievement, akin to what Ruth Rendell achieves in a different register, in a different country.

Tula Springs would find no room for the desperadoes who people the pages of Bear and his Daughter (Bloomsbury, pounds 15.99), a collection of seven stories written by Robert Stone over the past 30 years. Here be bug-eyed drug runners, washed-up poets and stoned Yanks confronting their dark souls in some foreign hellhole. If it all sounds rather 1970s, no doubt that's because some stories date from that bug-eyed, washed-up, stoned era.

The title story is typical. It starts off droll as a celebrated but mediocre poet makes his way through a fabulously well-paid reading tour (only in America...). He stops en route to visit his daughter, bastard offspring of some radical hippy romance. Suddenly things turn very sour indeed, no doubt echoing Stone's own feelings about what went wrong with hippy radicalism. Stone's prose can become ponderous, even pompous, but here, and in the other stories, there's a succinctness that is valuable at a time when being taken seriously means writing big and long.

Comments