Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Response: The Free

The Free

We hear a lot about American extremes, whether it’s gossip about the extremely wealthy, or reports of violence among the extremely disaffected. But what of those who will never be successful, but are neither on the rampage nor quite on the skids? For that, we once relied on Joe Bageant; but since his untimely death a couple of years ago we have needed to look elsewhere.

One serious contender is Willy Vlautin. Vlautin, who has worked in warehouses and at painting houses, is also a gifted and elegant writer. He writes essays and novels and, as songwriter and vocalist for Richmond Fontaine, songs; and he has just released a novel about ordinary people in the mess that is America.

The Free opens when Leroy, an Iraqi veteran suffering brain injury and posttraumatic stress disorder, wakes in the night. To his astonishment, he is having a rare moment of clarity. It has been so long since he has experienced this, and he is so profoundly grateful for the gift and the beauty he perceives, that he cannot bear to descend again into darkness and confusion. He decides to liberate himself, and attempts suicide. This is a framing device for the character-driven novel which goes on to describe small, good things (as Raymond Carver once put it) done by small, good people who are themselves on the brink of collapse.

Leroy lives in a home for servicemen with acquired brain injuries, and Freddie, the nightwatchman, finds him. Freddie tends his wounds, calls the ambulance and Leroy’s mother, and gently helps the other servicemen back to bed. As the story progresses we learn that Freddie is crippled by medical bills. He works in a paint store by day and in the group home by night; even so, his house is twice mortgaged and his power is about to be cut off. Despite these pressures, he finds kind words for the counterwoman at the donut shop each morning, and drops by the hospital between workplaces each evening to sit with Leroy and leave small gifts on his nightstand.

Coming in and out of Leroy’s room is Pauline, a nurse. Pauline becomes particularly attached to one patient, a young teenage runaway; and she also cares for her mentally ill father who spends his days on the couch watching TV. We also meet Leroy’s mother and ex-girlfriend, and numerous other minor characters.

Their interwoven stories are studded by Leroy’s PTSD-driven nightmares. In his mind, Leroy and his ex-girlfriend are on the run from the super race. Having been marked as cowards, they are being hunted down for slaughter. Images of war – hangings, shootings, bloodbaths – pepper his visions, which gradually reveal his self-understanding as someone who is unable to integrate his experience of war and is permanently damaged as a result.

It is difficult to write about decent people without mawkishness or naïveté, but Vlautin manages it with rare grace. These are no saints, just people getting by – but choosing to get by as well as they can, given their crushing circumstances. His spare style recalls Carver’s lean prose, spliced with Leroy’s Orwellian dystopic dreams.

Although it is a story about individuals, The Free also illuminates the toxic effects of untrammelled capitalism. Leroy joins the National Guard to impress his boss and keep his job, not knowing it could lead to overseas service. Freddie is bankrupted by private healthcare and criminally low wages. Although he flirts with potentially lucrative illegal work, the timing of other events means he is still shunted into sub-standard housing. Pauline’s father lives in cold filth for fear of heating and water bills. Others live on the streets or in squats, or get involved in endeavours that lead to prison. The Free touches on these and many other issues as it describes life in the corporatocracy and ponders where people on the margins find freedom. And while Vlautin has no paradigm-shattering answers, he does offer small and precious glimpses of grace.

The High Country [Digipak]

Friday, June 6, 2014

Response: Eating Heaven

I may be biased, but my friend Simon wrote a terrific book last year, Eating Heaven. And I loved it. I read it very slowly and savoured every bite.

Each chapter focusses on one table: the kitchen table, the backyard table, the café table, the restaurant table, right up to the table of communion. And each chapter has stories, interviews, history and reflections on that table: eating with mum and dad in the kitchen, sharing a meal with marginalised men and women at a free lunch, having a coffee with a chef between shifts, and so on. Each chapter then ends with a recipe reflecting the type of eating that happens at that particular table.

The book is layered and rich, reflecting Simon’s background as trained chef, sociologist, theologian, and Baptist minister. It also reflects his love of Melbourne in the descriptions of laneway cafés and linen-topped restaurant tables; the juxtaposition of social inclusion and fancy pastries at one downtown church; and the transformative power of eating together in a multicultural city. Whether reminiscing over crowded kitchen tables or backyard barbecues, or savouring the perfect café latte or fancy restaurant dinner, Simon is always thoughtful. In a culture of empty food porn, his voice nourishes and refreshes. He not only enjoys the food, but also contemplates how poverty and wealth, hospitality and exclusiveness, celebration and mourning, and many other issues play out when we sit down at the table. His gentle questions and tentative suggestions are always thought-provoking.

More, they have an effect. Eating together is central to being human; and Eating Heaven reminds us of this gift. In my own household, reading it has triggered a couple of changes. For one, we have returned to a more intentional saying of grace. Despite trying various things over the years, grace had become a rushed magic formula that one or another kid would gabble as they reached for the serving spoon. It was worse than if we had not said it at all. But after reading this book, I have asked that we return to saying grace properly. Now we move between a candle and a responsive prayer; a minute’s silence before the meal; or held hands and a song depending on the mood – and we are loving this grateful pause at the end of the day, this moment of being together before we eat our dinner.

Eating Heaven has also recalled us to simple acts of hospitality, which we largely left behind in the maelstrom of having a third child. A few years on, we’re again able to make time for a coffee with friends, or invite others to eat with us in our home; and Eating Heaven has been a catalyst for thinking about why we eat together and how to do it well.

The stories, reflections and very good questions make this a book to savour, and slowly digest. Thank you, Simon.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...