Three Summer Books: "Digging to America," "Everyman," and "Terrorist"
Here’s my take on three of this summer’s blockbuster books: “Everyman” by Philip Roth, “Digging to America” by Anne Tyler and “Terrorist” by John Updike.
Let me start by saying I’m fans of all three authors, but if I had to put them in order of knowledge and admiration, I’d go Updike, Tyler, Roth. I absolutely adored the Rabbit series, and Updike’s short stories are amazing. I even like some of his poems. Anne Tyler I enjoy about half the time. “The Accidental Tourist” is sublime, and so is “The Amateur Marriage,” but “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” and “Saint Maybe” both let me down a bit – let’s assume her skills we’re the same and that they were the wrong books at the wrong times for me. I’ve only read two Roth books “Everyman” and “Paternity” and I really need to read “American Pastoral,” "Portnoy's Complaint" and "The Plot Against America" soon. But, I like what I’ve read so far.
My mini-reviews in order of preference:
“Everyman” by Philip Roth
Like all three books, this is a quick read. Roth examines the life of a deeply imperfect man and presents a powerful discussion of the human inability to overcome our tragic character flaws, and what it is like to look back on a life as we prepare for the transition to…what exactly? The book starts with the protagonist’s funeral, and after I read the book, I went back and reread the funeral scene to see how those other characters whom we come to know later, take on the reactions to the protagonist that they offer at the cemetery. Roth is a wonderful story teller for those who can tolerate heaping amounts of machismo in their prose. “Everyman” is tightly crafted by a master. Not his best book I imagine, but a fine example of his ample skills.
“Digging to America” by Anne Tyler
My love of fiction is a bit hard to nail down. I love the he-man authors something fierce* (Updike, Roth, Richard Ford, Martin Amis, etc.), but I also like fiction that is marketed to women more than to men (Toni Morrison, Jane Austen, Willa Cather and Edith Wharton are on my list of favorites). “Digging to America” is the story of two different families (in Baltimore natch) who adopt girls from Korea – the girls arrive at the airport on the same flight and the two families greet them at the same gate. They go on to celebrate “Arrival Day” each year (and go on to become friends), and the story considers how an Iranian family, an immediate part of the immigrant tradition gets along, connects, fails to connect, with an “American” family. Through the conversation, I spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be American. Tyler, in this work, seems to add careful research to her knack for the story. For a whith woman born in Minneapolis, she emphathizes well with what it must be like to be a foreigner in your adopted homeland. The family adopts girls, American adopts families, all of it is thought through very carefully. The book is not flawless, but the ending is well earned by both the reader and the writer. It is a payoff that makes the ride worthwhile.
“Terrorist” by John Updike (contains a spoiler, implied, but a bit of a spoiler nonetheless)
Ahmad is a recent grad from a horrible high school in New Jersey, and he is a devout Muslim. He hates infidels. He dislikes America, and he tolerates his mother (his father left when he was too young to really remember him) who loves him. I admire Updike primarily for his skill (but also for his style), but I must confess that sometimes, his creation of despicable characters to present loathsome ideas, tires me out a bit. Ahmad, in his characterization of African-Americans, Updike, in his chosen plot line and in his treatment of the book’s hero, a Jewish guidance counselor at the high school, alienated me here. In the middle of the book, two of Ahmad’s acquaintances from school are brought back to the story. We learn that since graduation, things have not gone well for them. In order to know their fate, we’re asked to suspend our disbelief (New Jersey becomes a small place where coincidences happen quite easily – lives intersect a bit too neatly (a sure sign of an author who's not willing to do the work - plot manipulation - right up there with resort to clichés for authorial offenses)). The African-Americans are despicable, the protagonist is not easy to like, the Jewish hero is stereotyped into the ground. Arabs, blacks, Jews: at some point they have to exist beyond central casting. The book is written well, and the story is engaging, but in order to enjoy it on its face, you have to brush aside a lot of stereotyping and clichés. Frankly, I expected more from Updike – while it’s evident that he spent a lot of time researching Islam, and especially the Koran, this effort still feels lazy. The effort he’s shown in the past, is not evident here.
All three brush up against the attacks of September 11th. Updike does it directly, but the characters in “Digging to America” and “Everyman” are shaped by them. Talking about the tragedy indirectly has a way of making its direct power more real for me. Here’s a look at how we’re doing five years later. We’re still struggling to understand it. We’re still trying to express how it makes us feel.
*All three books discuss relationships involving men who are in their 60’s. Allow me to say that Updike and Roth maintain a healthy and youthful regard for coitus as central to any romantic liaison – if what they’re saying is true, a man can expect to be a hound well into his 70’s. By contrast, Tyler goes a very long way with very little flesh. Are these books representative of how genders regard the larger enterprise? I hope so, and I hope not!