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The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living
Martin Clark
Alfred A. Knopf
279 pp.


Martin Clark's novel The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living might be subtitled "When Smart People Do Stupid Things." It's a detective novel of sorts, and most of the characters are as clever and as tough-talking as anybody you'll see in Raymond Chandler. The hero, Evers Wheeling, is a pot-smoking North Carolina judge who allows a gorgeous car saleswoman to sweep him into a search for treasure. Of course, the woman has more secrets than an enchilada has layers, and the judge is pulled along in a plot with more twists than the King Cobra roller coaster. A secondary plot unfurls alongside it as the judge's marriage cracks under the strain of too much dope and booze and too many infidelities, and there's a murder that may or may not have something to do with the treasure hunt.

This book is marvelous fun. Clark's ear for terse dialogue never fails him. "Romance is a book, Mr. Wheeling. Only so many pages," a character says at one point. At another, when the judge tells his girlfriend, "I can't believe how cynical you are about romance," she retorts, "I can't believe how romantic you are about cynicism." What better description for a hard-bitten film-noir style hero?

Clark also displays a lurid visual sense that compliments his characters' lurid behavior ("She had long, red fingernails, like ten iguana tongues, Evers thought."). He's a keen observer of the way people act when they are drunk or stoned. When the judge is getting ready to make a sloppy-drunk phone call to his estranged wife in the middle of the night, Clark observes, "Alcohol incites small passions, makes tiny ideas flourish, transforms tatters of sentiment into grand, full emotions, and sometimes causes stale reminiscences to spring to life with an almost supernatural vitality."

Now that I've finished the book, I can say that I loved it. But for at least half the time I was reading it, it exasperated me. Why do the characters behave as they do? Clark's characters are brimming with the love of life, and they are smart and knowledgeable about the ways of the world. But when it comes to motivation, they seem to be running on empty. Judge Wheeling gets involved in an obviously illegal scheme not because he needs the money but, apparently, because he is bored and tired. Why does he risk jail and financial ruin to satisfy his curiosity?

This is a 345-page novel, and this question bothered me all the way to page 302, when I came across this passage: "It's a wonderful story, especially when you're expecting...the sort of run-down, inevitable trailer-trash coda that should come from all of us fatalistic dope smokers who've made giving up an art form." This is said just before his characters begin to stumble, through all that funny blue smoke and those empty tequila bottles, toward redemption. Evers Wheeling and the other characters heedlessly throw themselves into crazy situations not because they are dumb or have any real expectation of gain, but because they are looking for a way out of who they are. That's my guess, anyway. As one of the characters in the novel likes to say, "Whatever." I loved the book.

--Arthur Alexander Parker

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American Rhapsody
Joe Eszterhas
Alfred A. Knopf
444 pp.



Offhand, it's hard to imagine many Americans would feel a need to hear more about Bill Clinton and his done-to-death 'affair' ("which word wrongs her," as John Donne might say) with Monica Lewinsky. After being carpet-bombed with relentless, wall-to-wall, tabloid-level coverage of the finger-jabbing denials, the videotaped deconstruction of the word 'is' and the seemingly endless quandary over the mysterious blue dress (did it exist or not? ABC News said yes...and then no...and then, triumphantly, yes), polls were showing we all just wanted it to stop. So Joe Eszterhas's American Rhapsody comes as something of a Johnny-come-lately surprise. A year and a half after Bill Clinton survived impeachment, Eszterhas wants to talk about it all over again, in greater detail than the networks thought fit. And, as impossible as it might seem, at greater length.

Eszterhas is best-known today as a screenwriter (Basic Instinct and Showgirls would probably show up in most pop-cultural literacy lists). But he actually started his professional writing career as a newspaper journalist before moving on to work as a senior editor for Rolling Stone in the Seventies, and he approaches his subject here with the sort of long-winded, free-ranging, obsessive abandon you'd expect of someone who cut their creative teeth with Rolling Stone. As it turns out, the rambling style makes for amiably fun reading of a gossipy sort (particularly since Eszterhas seems willing to dish the dirtiest dirt on everyone from Hollywood producers to Farrah Fawcett), but its chief drawback seems to be a lack of strong narrative structure. Individually, Eszterhas's chapters entertain; taken together, they often don't seem to cohere. Towards the end, his text devolves into a series of profiles (James Carville, Larry Flynt, Vernon Jordan, Matt Drudge and Warren Beatty) that fail to hold up the book as a whole.

But the material that really misses its mark is Eszterhas's attempt to write imaginary monologues for the likes of John McCain, Kenneth Starr, Monica Lewinsky and...yes, Bill Clinton's penis. Tolstoy may have pulled off a scene in War and Peace where we hear a horse's thoughts, but Eszterhas isn't in that league when it comes to talking penises.

Nonetheless, Eszterhas's central argument--that Bill Clinton was our first rock and roll president and his tragic flaws are traceable to the very movement that spawned so much hope for peace and love in the late 1960s--seems strong. A lot of the idealistic gestures of the 1960s, Eszterhas argues, were really nothing more than empty gestures made on the surface while the real subtext--sex--was advanced relentlessly just barely beneath the surface. Thus, a duplicity developed early in the sixties generation: talk about ideals, think (and have a lot of) sex. And that, Eszterhas suggests, is Bill Clinton in a nutshell: Clinton may have let his generation down, but his generation (of which he may simply be its best example) equally let the country down. It's a damning portrait, but even liberal readers can't help thinking Eszterhas has nailed it on the head.

--Woody Arbunkle

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Bodies in Motion and at Rest
Thomas Lynch
W.W. Norton
192 pp.



"There is nothing like the sight of a dead human body to assist the living in separating the good days from the bad ones," writes Thomas Lynch. Spending a lot of time with such bodies, Lynch should know. Like his father before him, he is funeral director in the family business, Lynch & Sons Funeral Directors, in the town of Milford, Michigan.

He is also a poet and essayist, and in Bodies in Motion and at Rest (his second collection of essays), he notes of the juxtaposition of his two careers, "my publishers have made some hay off this, to their advantage and mine. An 'undertaker / poet,' like a cop who sings opera or a wrestler turned governor, makes for good copy and easy interviews." But funerals and poetry, he writes, have much in common: "an effort at meaning and metaphor, an exercise in symbol and ritualized speech, the heightened acoustics of language raised against what is reckoned unspeakable...." Also, "we poets and funeral directors have a fondness for black, the keening of pipers, irregular hours, free drink, and horizontal bodies."

What is wonderful about Lynch's essays is that they almost never take you where you think you're headed. They are full of switchbacks and unforeseen redirections, sudden intrusions of wry humor, and unlikely parallels that in Lynch's hands manage to make perfect sense. In one four-page selection, "The Blindness of Love," for example, he brings in God, Bill Gates, a visiting Irish poet, Brad Pitt, and the unfathomable mystery and blessing that united Lynch with his second wife. For the first six paragraphs of the piece he argues against the notion of a "Personal Savior," then in the seventh he writes,


Still, the way it happened to me, when I was up against it, you know, hapless, damaged, looking into the void, it was as if Whoever Is in Charge Here said, 'This man needs that good woman in his life.' Not 'a good woman'--of which there has never been a shortage. But 'that good woman'--of whom there is only one.

That's what made it seem, well, personal--a personal save--the one with my name on it since the beginning of time just waiting for me to walk in out of the blue and say I'm ready now.


And from there we go, of course, to Brad Pitt.

In this collection, Lynch takes on some painfully personal topics only alluded to in his first collection, The Undertaking: his first wife's unfaithfulness and their subsequent divorce (about both of which he seems still palpably bitter), his son's losing battle with alcoholism, and his own more successful outcome in the same war. He also addresses the sins of what he calls "the McFuneral Crowd," the large corporate conglomerates "buying up funeral homes and cemeteries and crematories around the world," and defends the virtues of small, family-owned funeral homes like his own, "locally well known and admired for their compassion and capabilities."

In one of the most intriguing of the essays, he writes of Jessica Mitford, famous for The American Way of Death, her venomous indictment of the funeral industry. What Mitford never mentioned in any of her writing, including two volumes of autobiography, Lynch points out, is the death of two of her own children--a daughter of measles as an infant, a son hit by a bus when he was ten.

"We never talked about it again," Mitford's surviving children tell Lynch, of their brother's death. "It was as if Nicky was eradicated from the family."

That death is mystery and pain and loss, Lynch never denies. But it is what gives the meaning to living he argues; it is the necessary period that punctuates the sentence. "Morior (more than Cogito) ergo sum is primal among the proofs of our being," he writes. "I die, therefore I am."

--Caroline Kettlewell

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The View from a Monastery
Brother Benet Tvedten
Riverhead Books
193 pp.



The tiny town of Marvin (population less than fifty today), in the northeastern corner of South Dakota, doesn't spring to most minds as a fertile place to found a Benedictine monastery. In fact, as Brother Benet Tvedten points out in The View from a Monastery, the area was so remote--and lacking in potential converts--that when the Blue Cloud Abbey was founded in 1949, monks from the founding monastery in Indiana were brought in to fill the seats and (more importantly) help convert the site's farm buildings to monastic buildings. (Having the monks do their own work also helped avoid "strikes and other labor problems," according to the abbot of the Indiana monastery.)

Nine years later, when Brother Benet arrived fresh out of college, construction was still underway, and he found himself (a bookish lad who'd been drawn to monastic life by Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain) alarmed at the prospect of actually doing hard physical labor. Lacking construction skills, he was assigned to wash windows and promptly fell out the first window he washed and broke five bones in his left foot. After he returned from the hospital, he was assigned to clerical work, and he's been at the abbey ever since.

Monasteries aren't little heavens on Earth; as Brother Benet writes, "The first reality a person faces upon entering a monastic community is an awareness that these are not the people with whom one would choose to live under normal circumstances." And the things a monk is forced to relinquish can be difficult to lose. The novels Brother Benet brought with him were consigned to 'the devil's closet,' for example (as a well-read, liberal sort of guy, he is "not the kind of monk," he tells us, "who would dispose of a novel by Philip Roth"), and he writes that giving up movies was "the one great sacrifice I'd made in entering the monastery." (The advent of videotape has eased this sacrifice a bit.)

Brother Benet has published short fiction in literary magazines and had a novella published in 1985, and his storytelling skills are certainly strong enough to make his account of his forty-some years at the Blue Cloud Abbey effortlessly entertaining. His narrative voice is casual and often wryly funny, and his narrative roams through a variety of subjects--contemporary notions of a monk's vow of poverty, discipline, a monk's attire in public, and the like--in short chapters that never wear out their welcome with extended doctrinal examinations. But Brother Benet's strongest accomplishment may be his depictions of his fellow monks: they are colorful, often laugh-out-loud funny, and drawn with crystal-sharp clarity.

--Woody Arbunkle

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A Degree of Mastery: A Journey Through Book Arts Apprenticeship
Annie Tremmel Wilcox
Penguin Books
212 pp.



Annie Tremmel Wilcox was a graduate student at the University of Iowa, setting type at Windhover Press (the university's letterpress) and hoping to become the press's top assistant when she attended a slide presentation about book conservation. It was given by Bill Anthony, a bookbinder and conservator from Chicago. She was, she writes in A Degree of Mastery, fascinated. "I was only familiar with putting together new books. How did he get the pages apart? How was it possible to wash and dry a book? How did he ever get all the pages together again, in the right order, and bound? I was enthralled."

As it happened, the man in charge of Windhover Press was trying to convince the university to hire Anthony (considered among the best conservators in the country) as the head of a conservation department in the Main Library--and perhaps even teach bookbinding class. The university accepted the proposal, and in the spring of 1985, Wilcox participated in Anthony's first bookbinding class. Soon, Wilcox formed a companionship with Anthony that she says she never had previously had with a teacher: "For me, it was like being in a room with a chocolate cake: I always wanted more. Late that spring I also discovered the great talent of this craftsman."

At the end of the semester, she signed up for Anthony's next class--and the next. Eventually, she was hooked. Even though she had become the printing assistant at Windhover Press, she decided that "I preferred restoring books one at a time to printing them in batches of two hundred and fifty." But if she wanted to accelerate her studies while remaining at the university, she'd have to become Anthony's apprentice. The drawback: he'd never had a female apprentice.


The tradition under which he had trained in Ireland was male dominated. Women only worked in the shops sewing books. Men trained as apprentices with a master and moved on in the profession, often serving as journeymen, until they were masters themselves. This was the course Bill had followed.


Bucking tradition, Anthony eventually offered Wilcox a position as his apprentice--and even agreed to wait a year while she fulfilled her obligation to Windhover Press. But her apprenticeship under Anthony--which would normally have run for five to seven years--ended prematurely when Anthony was diagnosed with liver cancer. He died on February 8, 1989. Wilcox writes that she clipped Anthony's obituaries from the state's various newspapers:


Each obituary noted in some form: "Anthony is survived by his wife, Bernadette, four children, four grandchildren, one brother and two sisters." Although I fully realized that the brunt of this great loss was borne by Bill's family, I couldn't help but wish that each one of those obituaries had added to the list of those left behind: "and four apprentices."


Having spent considerable time trying to understand what being an apprentice meant, she now had to figure out how to serve as her own apprentice.

Wilcox tells her story in an understated voice that nicely fits the quiet, patient art of book conservation. Indeed, the passages in which she describes in detail the steps she takes to preserve a single book (A Circumstantial Narrative of the Campaign in Russia) and, later, the processes involved in making her own tools, are an intriguing mix of mesmerism and (unexpectedly) eroticism, tinted with the intuitive stroke of Zen mind. But it's the enduring relationship shared by master and apprentice that lingers after the book is finished, I think.

Highly recommended for those seeking quiet, introspective reading.

--Daphne Frostchild

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