All posts tagged: Julia Lichtblau

Review: Some Go Home by Odie Lindsey

Book by ODIE LINDSEY

Review by JULIA LICHTBLAU

Reading the three-page first chapter of Some Go Home, Odie Lindsey’s first novel and second book of fiction, I had the “hell, yeah” feeling I usually get after hearing a killer guitar solo. 

Colleen, a traumatized veteran of the Iraq war, freshly “classified as pregnant” by the Memphis VA hospital and deeply ambivalent, decides to climb on her roof to clear off tornado-blown branches. She will smoke, get stung by a yellowjacket, slip and fall on what turns out to be a nest of crushed baby squirrels, stomp the lone, doomed squirrel survivor, and finish clearing the roof, all while her mind fights the preposterous novelty of motherhood. 

The opening chapter’s funny-sad-tough portrait of no-kind-of lady morphs into an evocation of place—and the problem with this particular place, Pitchlynn, Mississippi:

She shut her eyes and listened to the tamped thump of hip-hop in the distance, and knew that just across the county road a group of boys communed around an old car with a new stereo… Black or White boys, or maybe both, cutting up and ditching school, doing the same thing their fathers had done, beneath the same scab of sun, a different soundtrack on the radio. So went the narrative in rural north Mississippi. For them, for her, for everyone, forever.  

Pitchlynn is Colleen’s hometown, a place she left as a veteran and returned to, emotionally scarred from sexual assault, a past that gets its full due in the short story “Colleen,” from Lindsey’s collection, We Come to Our Senses. For readers like myself, whose mental map of the South is non-granular, the Mississippi state line is about fifteen miles south of Memphis.  

In Some Go Home, Lindsey, a Southerner and veteran, tackles the South and PTSD, two themes of We Come to Our Senses, in which race wasn’t a major focus. But here the South or Southern-ness encompasses White supremacy and PTSD harkens back to slavery. The novel is a complex orchestration of three non-chronological narratives told from multiple points of view. They don’t converge on a singular plot resolution. But they do sum up Pitchlynn. One rich family hanging onto most of the cards. Blacks and whites barely interacting, except via the prison system. Family ties that are, if anything, terrifying. 

Colleen’s narrative takes us through pregnancy and birth; detours back to her return from Iraq; self-medication; recovery; a raucous stint as a local beauty queen—the Strawberry Maiden; and the dogged, funny courtship of Derby, Colleen’s husband. Colleen’s antics and debates with herself over gender roles—though she’d never use such a fancy-ass professor term for headbutting—make her the most endearing character of the novel and the one I voted most likely to beat the past at its nasty game of holding a person down till they give up.

More witness than actor in the novel—and his life—Derby connects Colleen’s narrative to the other two. He wants to be a good husband and father to his twins, which is more ambitious than it sounds, given his heritage. His estranged father, Hare, an embittered veteran and sharecropper, is being re-tried for the murder of Gabe, a Black man, in 1964. Hare had earlier escaped conviction thanks to a hung jury and a passive prosecutor. 

Zig-zagging through time, the Gabe/Hare story takes us from Gabe’s grandfather, who bought his land after Reconstruction, to Gabe’s refusal to follow his wife and daughter north out of devotion to the land. We see the town gentry enlist Hare in a plot to take Gabe’s land for a country club with instructions to “do whatever it takes”; we see the run-up to the new trial through Doc, Gabe’s son-in-law and Hare’s prison guard, a role that torments Doc, as he tries to reconcile his function and his wife’s craving for justice for her father. Doc’s wife, too, suffers from PTSD. 

Although Hare claims to the end that he wasn’t the murderer, there’s no shortage of motive. 

Hare’s reward is his own land. 

After the first trial, Hare devoted himself to harassing Black neighbors and spurring drunk White men to a racist frenzy in front of a cinder block wall he and supporters constructed behind his house, making his backyard into a meeting ground, which he called a “Platz,” inspired by Nazi monuments he saw during his wartime service in Germany. This scene was Derby’s childhood. 

The Gabe/Hare saga is the most complex and fraught thread, by virtue of its dissection of racial brutality. It’s also the most beautifully written. In prose that reminded me of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, Lindsey deploys the nuances of dialect—poor white, rich white, poor black—to reveal the depravity of rich whites and the desperation of poor ones. Here’s Mr. Wallis, the town’s big man, needling Hare with the skill of a practiced torturer: 

“How’s that feel, Harold? Your dear wife, Syl, is still dressed in feed sack, like her mama would’ve worn? You boy startin’ the county school, instead of bein’ up to the new Christian academy with his own kind? My Susan George is in class there.” 

He moves on to flattery, before dangling the bait: “I’m suggesting you be awarded a bit more stake, for a bit more work. For instance, the ability to obtain some of your own land?”

Land is security, food, honor, pride. Gabe, a Black man, has all of that. Worse, Hare knows that his wife admires the man. 

Hare speaks in a humble, somewhat schooled way to his social betters. At home, he sounds like this: “They say, and I do. Then I say, and you do. Ain’t no way around it, lest you want to move again… Cause they ain’t but a handful of farms still left to work on shares.”

In a surreal side plot, Sonny, Hare’s son with Sylvia—aka Syl, his then-wife—flies down in a small plane from Chicago hoping to exculpate his father, but he crashes and slowly dies, hallucinating about his childhood. Sonny never talks, but we are privy to his memories, which reveal that in her desperation to leave Hare, Sylvia asked Gabe to drive her and Sonny to the train to Chicago, knowing her departure would give Hare a pretext to kill Gabe. 

The third thread centers on Derby’s boss, JP, who has moved with his infant daughter from Chicago to take over his late wife’s property, a mansion featuring a colossal magnolia with which the town hopes to brand itself as a destination. The mansion was moved from the old Wallis farm to make way for the country club after Gabe’s land was taken. JP’s provocative renovation plans pit him against his wife’s aunt Susan George Wallis—daughter of the odious Mr. Wallis—who drove her niece to suicidal depression by blaming her for the accidental death of her cousin. Susan has set herself up as the preserver of the town’s Southern charm. She is domineering, petty, short on self-knowledge, long on self-pity, and unable to empathize with her late niece or JP. JP’s need for retribution against Susan for her cruelty to his wife eventually drives him and Derby, who is committed to staying in the town, apart.                  

Some Go Home is a deep and complex book. The fractured structure makes it easy to miss clues. On first reading, the narratives seemed too condensed to me. I felt as if I were trying to piece together each character’s truth from incomplete impressions. But on re-reading, the missing pieces often turned up in unexpected places. A rich reward for an inattentive first reading, perhaps. 

Lindsey is in the scrum with the major Southern writers—from Faulkner on—seeking to understand the region’s pathologies and strengths. At the same time, this book feels very much of the moment in its frank depiction of poor whites (Hare is a proto-Trumpist, if there ever was one), as well as its treatment of woman veterans. Lindsey doesn’t paste a happy ending on any of his characters’ lives. But he does grant them moments of grace. Colleen, incurably restless soldier/mother, finds a way to leave without abandonment, and Derby, living “different, only in the exact same place, rehabbing family,” finds a non-toxic way of being Southern.

The book’s title is borrowed from a song by Jerry Jeff Walker, in which a singer who “can’t go home” observes, pities, and envies other people on a train who are going home. That train’s just movin’ on down the line/Leavin’ people who ever did fall behind/And I wanna begin somewhere/But for me there’s nothing true out there/So I go down the line.”

Pitchlynn is full of people like the ones in Walker’s song, falling behind, beginning again, doubting everything they do. Some leave, and some, like Colleen, make it home, for a while, anyway. 

 

Julia Lichtblau’s essays, criticism, and fiction have appeared in American Fiction, The American Scholar, Commonweal, The Common, Blackbird, Narrative, The Florida Review, and elsewhere. She was book review editor of The Common for seven years, taught writing about business and the economy at Drew University, and was a reporter and editor in New York and Paris for BusinessWeek and Dow Jones. She has an MFA in Fiction from Bennington College.

Review: Some Go Home by Odie Lindsey
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Honoring Amherst Writers

For Amherst College’s fourth annual LitFest, The Common put together a Literary Landmarks tour of Amherst College, highlighting locations on campus with special connections to literary figures affiliated with the college, from Robert Frost to Lauren Groff. Building on that effort, we’ve compiled these highlights from The Common that were written either by or about Amherst professors, alums, and even current students.


The Poet in Rome: Richard Wilbur in Postwar Italy by Robert Bagg

Richard Wilbur circa 1944, standing near the 6 X 6 truck that transported gear for the 36th Texans Division during World War II.

Richard Wilbur graduated from Amherst College in 1942, and returned to Amherst to teach towards the end of his life, from 2008 to 2014.

“Richard Wilbur first visited Rome with the American Fifth Army that liberated the city, just behind the fleeing Germans, on 5 June 1944. By 10:00 p.m., his division, the 36th Texans, in trucks, in jeeps, and on mobile artillery, followed the tanks of the First Armored Division into the southern outskirts of Rome, where it paused, expecting to camp and rest within Cinecittà—then, as now, the sprawling center of Italy’s movie industry. Ever the explorer, Wilbur wandered into an abandoned viewing room and found, already loaded into an editing machine, a costume drama set in the Roman Empire. He turned the hand crank and watched a Fascist version of ancient history until his disgust overcame his curiosity.”

Honoring Amherst Writers
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Bella Figura

By JULIA LICHTBLAUA green garden viewed through a fence

The best garden in Brooklyn is like Fred Astaire
Charming but inaccessible.
A private creation for public viewing.
I look down into it from my living room,
Its spilling vines and spruce hedge-tops lend cachet to my garden.
Yet a high fence keeps us
Properly separate.
As does the rusty chain link gate on the street side,
which is only opened for
Tree-trimming and the like.

Bella Figura
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Review: Wonder Valley

Book by IVY POCHODA

Reviewed by LISA ALEXANDER and JULIA LICHTBLAU

In Ivy Pochoda’s latest novel, Wonder Valley, we find ourselves amidst a scruffy, largely invisible subset of Los Angelenos: drifters, con artists, criminals, quack healers, the homeless. The few in their orbit who have money or a measure of success are in danger of losing their souls. Everyone is close to the edge, all the time. Yearning. Longing. Trying to get someplace. Anywhere but here.

Review: Wonder Valley
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Review: Outside Is the Ocean

Book by MATTHEW LANSBURGH

Reviewed by JULIA LICHTBLAU

Outside Is the Ocean book cover

Outside Is the Ocean, Matthew Lansburgh’s debut short story collection, is a particularly complete and satisfying example of the linked genre. The stories reveal a long, novelistic arc, while the broken chronology captures the fragmented personality of the central character, Heike, and the chaos she sows.

A gentile, post-war German immigrant to California, Heike speaks and thinks in a German-inflected English that’s full of mangled idioms—as in the opening line of the book: “Al gives me zero.” Or: “She thinks the world will give her French toast on a silver platter.” Heike disappoints and infuriates everyone, but is perversely optimistic, which gives many of the stories a certain hilarity, even the saddest ones. Humor enables Heike’s gay son, Stewart, a literature professor, and her adopted, one-armed Russian daughter, Galina, to survive her boundless narcissism and neediness.

Review: Outside Is the Ocean
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Reading Gabriel García Márquez in the Age of Trump: The Autumn of the Patriarch

By JULIA LICHTBLAU

Donald Trump

I think we can agree that Donald Trump has been bad for literary fiction. Many people, myself included, have turned to non-fiction (not to mention gorging on news) to understand how the U.S. elected an authoritarian who orders bombings while eating chocolate cake, calls the army “my military,” lies compulsively, and spends half his time golfing. I, for one, am reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. And it doesn’t make me feel a bit better. 

Reading Gabriel García Márquez in the Age of Trump: The Autumn of the Patriarch
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Reading in Public: An Elegy

By JULIA LICHTBLAU

I was riding the F train home the other day reading Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. The local went express at Jay Street in Brooklyn, and I exchanged an exasperated smile with a woman on the platform. “Is that good?” she asked, pointing to the book. “I’ve been meaning to read it.” I called Whitehead’s disturbing way of mixing history and invention in his novel about slavery, “steampunk abolitionist” and she liked that. Manners obliging, I asked what she was reading. “Something with Ove in the title.” It was funny in surprising ways, but she couldn’t remember the name. We agreed nothing induces amnesia like being asked what you’re reading. The name and author came to her on the local. A Man Called Ove by Frederik Bachman. I promised to look it up. I got off at the next stop feeling rich for our impromptu book club, and grateful for a moment of literary communion that’s all but disappeared.

Reading in Public: An Elegy
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An Ivoirian Writer Takes on Genital Excision: An Interview with Fatou Keïta

JULIA LICHTBLAU interviews FATOU KEÏTA

On a recent trip to Côte d’Ivoire, I walked into the Librairie de France, the crowded, chaotic bookstore on the Plateau, the downtown business district of Abidjan, and asked for books by Fatou KeÏta. They directed me upstairs, where I found most of a bookcase filled by the popular Ivoirian writer’s works. Fatou Keita has written 25 books for children and two novels, including Rebelle (Rebel), about a young West African woman who escapes genital excision, which remains common, despite efforts to eradicate the practice. According to a 2013 World Bank report, “To Be a Woman in Côte d’Ivoire,” 14% percentage of Ivoirian girls under 14 have experienced infibulation, the most traumatizing form of genital excision.

An Ivoirian Writer Takes on Genital Excision: An Interview with Fatou Keïta
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Ivoirians Dream of America, Undeterred by Trump

In Abidjan, the principal city of Côte d’Ivoire, Africa’s fastest-growing economy, the air is black and nauseating on the Boulevard des Martyrs in the upscale Deux-Plateaux neighborhood at morning rush hour. My mouth tastes of diesel already. The light changes. Orange taxis, yellow taxis, trucks, busses, vans belch exhaust in unison. Traffic surges; two lanes fracture into four as drivers maneuver anarchically to break through, and the jam gets worse. When the cab I’m in reaches the chokepoint, I see a man lying on his back on the pavement, head to one side, the wheels of a stopped car inches away. His overturned motorcycle blocks a lane. When I pass a half an hour later, he’s still there, and traffic is backed up to the Boulevard François Mitterrand.

Ivoirians Dream of America, Undeterred by Trump
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Place Love

This is a falling-out-of-love story and an old boyfriend story, though I was never in love with him, but that’s another story. I was in love with a place and an idea of where I could live that was incompatible with who I was becoming, though it took a long time for me to accept it.

The place was Maine, and the love wasn’t a mad passion but an achy, nostalgic, security-blanket attachment. I’d spent my early childhood summers on one of Maine’s most remote islands in the Penobscot Bay, and had idyllic memories of kerosene-lit cottages, beach-combing, berry-picking, and unsupervised roaming with other children for hours. The sight of granite cliffs, shingled houses, lobster boats, and pine trees brought forth a powerful rush of dopamine and nostalgia. When my family moved to Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa, we put island rocks in our sea freight. I reconnected with Maine after we returned to Washington, D.C. Once I started college, my parents moved overseas, and Maine became a touchstone, a place I returned to as often as possible, an imaginary home.

Place Love
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