The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living
Alfred A. Knopf
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
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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Alfred A. Knopf
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.
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Bodies in Motion and at Rest
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
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
Back to Archived Short
The View from a Monastery
Brother Benet Tvedten
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
Back to Archived Short
A Degree of Mastery: A Journey Through Book
Annie Tremmel Wilcox
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
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
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