April 1, 2018
THE FIGHTER By Michael Farris Smith
Little, Brown and Company $26
When someone says a book is great because it’s “gritty” I have a few questions. Books that are dark — meaning there’s some blood, everyone smells really bad because they’re on the run and can’t bathe, there’s usually a drunk guy, and, my favorite, a dead guy — are always given the grit-lit label. But what is that, really? Isn’t it just a book that keeps you reading all night long, and later, makes you feel better about yourself when you wake up with a hangover after a night of too much bourbon?
Yes. And every time I read a Michael Farris Smith book, I think, “This is SO GRITTY.” His writing is Southern Gothic and Larry Brown/Flannery O’Connor/William Gay/Barry Hannah-esque (often replicated, but rarely executed well), and the man can flat-ass tell a story. He’s like finding water in a desert and the water has sand in it, but it’s the best thing you’ve ever tasted. The Fighter is his third novel, and he keeps getting better. (Seriously, who does that? Larry Brown, Flannery O’Connor, William Gay, and Barry Hannah.)
We’re introduced to Jack Boucher (the “Butcher”), a hardscrabble, bare-knuckle fighter who has lost everything, except for his addiction to prescription painkillers to help two decades worth of concussions, and must fight one last time as a matter of life and death. We’re not talking a pay-per-view fight here, aw naw. This is “illegal gambling hole in the deep pits of the Mississippi Delta run by a lady named Big Momma Sweet” kind of fighting. (She ain’t sweet.) My only complaint is that the book isn’t long enough. Those 256 pages fly.
HEATING AND COOLING: 52 MICRO MEMOIRS By Beth Ann Fennelly
W. W. Norton and Company, $23
Beth Ann Fennelly is that great American rarity, a poet who sells books. Even more rarely, she is a great poet, whose language means something and moves you seismically, as opposed to the empty and too often precious and pretentious drivel that commonly passes as poetry (Exhibit A, any poem in the The New Yorker). Fennelly is a glorious, breathtaking artist with words. But this slim book isn’t conventional poetry, it’s an abstract memoir told in a series of moments and memories, some only a paragraph or less long.
It won’t do any good to quote examples because the tightness of the prose works in context, a great, honest life story is told in linked fragments, like a sculpture made of matches. Her chapters remind me of the interstitials between stories in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast — tiny, complete tales that say everything they need to.
Having said I shouldn’t excerpt anything, I can’t resist. Here’s one titled MARRIED LOVE, IV: Morning: bought a bag of frozen peas to numb my husband’s sore testicles after his vasectomy. Evening: added thawed peas to our Carbonara.
—Bob Guccione, Jr.
CIRCE By Madeline Miller
Lee Boudreaux Books (April 10th), $27
Miller’s follow-up to her award-winning smash The Song of Achilles is nothing short of perfect. In Greek mythology, Circe was banished to a deserted island by Zeus, who was threatened by her powers of witchcraft and ability to turn her rivals into world famous monsters. We know the end of her story from Homer’s Odyssey, which you no doubt read in high school, but Miller gives us the big picture from Circe’s eyes. She paints one of the most dangerous women in history bright gold, and even if tales of ancient gods and goddesses isn’t your cup of tea, you’ll enjoy it.
HAPPINESS IS A CHOICE YOU MAKE: LESSONS FROM A YEAR AMONG THE OLDEST OLD By John Leland
Sarah Crichton Books, $26
We all have a few preconceived notions about getting older — really older. One is, it’s not likely to happen. Two, if we find ourselves on the outskirts of the town of our lives, we’re going to be lonely, scared, despondent, probably crumbling, add your own miserable guess here. Three, getting old sucks. This last one is less of a thought formulated by us, it’s one hammered into us by everyone who is a little older than us and has a toothache.
John, who I’ve known since we started SPIN together in 1985, has written a wonderful book, based on a year-long series he did for The New York Times, that not so much shatters as gently puts aside that pessimism and hollow stoicism. The six people he focuses on are all over 85 (the oldest old), all realistic, and all happy — actually, more precisely, content. And they are wise, not in the way the practised and keen philosopher is, but in the way that only people who have lived the fullness of life can be. This is a lovely book, that celebrates the imperfect journey taken and endured and survived and enjoyed. These are mostly simple, not dramatic lives. But they have so, so much to teach us, and the sooner the better.
— Bob Guccione, Jr