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Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller

July 17, 2017 7 comments

Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller (2015) French title: Les infâmes

I have a signed copy of Freedom’s Child by the bubbly Jax Miller who attended Quais du Polar last year. I’m going to reassure non-French speaking readers right away: this book is available in English. It was even written in English! Yay!

Freedom Oliver used to be Vanessa Delaney. She lives in Painter, Oregon and she used to live in Mastic Beach, New York. She used to be the mother of Ethan and Layla. They are now named Mason and Rebekah and were adopted by a preacher and his wife in Goshen, Kentucky. There are a lot of “used to” in Freedom’s life since she’s been living under the Witness Protection program for eighteen years. Her husband, Mark Delaney was murdered. First accused of killing him, Vanessa is later released and her brother-in-law Matthew, Mark’s brother, is convicted of the crime.

Freedom is a waitress in a bar, she tends to drown her sorrows in alcohol and follows her children’s life from afar, thanks to Facebook.  She doesn’t live, she survives.

Two simultaneous events will break her shell of a life. After 18 years in prison, Matthew is released and wants to take revenge. He managed to learn where Vanessa was hidden and with the help of his brother Luke, he intends to kidnap Freedom’s children to get to her. The other event that puts Freedom’s life upside down is that Rebekah goes missing. Now Freedom is on a mission, she’s determined to travel from Oregon to Kentucky to find her daughter. Mason, Rebekah’s brother, is also on his way. He is estranged from his adoptive family because their views on religion differ. As the book progresses, we discover that Virgil and Carol Paul, the adoptive family, have founded a cult and are convinced that God speaks to Virgil and gives him instructions.

And that’s all I’ll say about the plot.

Freedom’s Child follows several subplots and strands and they all join nicely in the end. I enjoyed Miller’s style, her vivid descriptions of places, like here in Kentucky:

About forty minutes after leaving the Bluegrass, Mason and Peter enter the Goshen Police Department, a one-room jail that dates back to the 1800s with a pillory and whipping post on the small patch of grass in front of the building, a reminder that Goshen held fast to outdated diligence and iron-fisted penalties to criminals and sinners alike, as far as modern law would allow.

For a French –and I suspect for a European in general— this is a very American novel. There’s the Witness Protection Program for once but mostly, it’s Goshen, its sheriff and its preacher than seem so outdated that you wonder if they are plausible characters. Jax Miller describes Goshen as…

A place so backward that the pursuit of justice became its own version of injustice, as seen in the occasional lynch mob that seeks their own righteousness by back-alley vigilantism like beatings and chasing out of town. A place where God’s grace became a weapon of suppression and acquiescence used by men in authority, big fish in small ponds who have nothing to do better than sit at home, boost their own egos, and jerk off to their own power trips.

Not where you’d want to go on holiday. Goshen and Virgil Paul reminded me of Hell on Church Street by Jake Hinkson, a very dark novel with a religious serial killer set in Arkansas. I don’t know how Americans see Kentucky, but hick seems to be often associated to its town names. Kentucky is the state that Kingsolver’s character Taylor leaves behind in The Bean Tree. She keeps repeating there’s nothing to do in Kentucky where Kingsolver herself was born and raised. And here Jax Miller doesn’t help Kentucky’s reputation. You sure don’t want to cross path with Virgil Paul, a sociopath that could only be born in the Bible Belt. These preachers are a genuine American species, there’s nothing like this in France or they’re considered as a cult.

I noticed that the Delaney brothers are named after the Evangelists, Luke, Mark, Matthew and the preacher’s last name was Paul. We have the four of them and they are dangerous and unbalanced criminals. The last and disabled Delaney brother is named Peter, and he’s the most humane one, the one who’ll help Freedom and in a sense, he had the keys to her paradise. Some things might be a bit too obvious and after reading Leaving Las Vegas, I’m not sure Freedom is a convincing alcoholic. That said, this is Jax Miller’s debut thriller and I’m sure she’ll polish her skills in the future. I did enjoy the ride and rooted for Freedom all along.

PS: For the anecdote, I’ll say that describing something as eggshell white doesn’t work at all for a French. Here, eggs don’t have white shells!

The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore

July 6, 2017 6 comments

The Supremes at Earl’s-All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore (2013) French title: Les Suprêmes. Translated by Cloé Tralci

They are three. They are black. They are girlfriends. They live in a small town in the south of Indiana. They were in their twenties in the 1960s. They were a team. They were nicknamed The Supremes. Their names are Odette, Clarice and Barbara Jean. They meet every Sunday after church at Earl’s-All-You-Can-Eat dinner. It’s been their spot for ages, they hung out there as giggling teenagers and kept coming with their husbands along the years.

Odette is not a delicate and flushing cattleya. Physically, she’s a chubby woman with wild hair and  an awkward sense of fashion. Mentally, she’s a strong, opinionated and capable woman. She sounded more like a Denise to me. She doesn’t beat around the bush and while it might irritate others, she’s precious for it. Because Odette takes charge. She calls a spade a spade and makes people talk. She states the obvious, meddles if needed and she exposes things. She’s the one who’ll ask the questions nobody dares to ask but need to be asked. She helps people get and sort things out.

Clarice is a piano teacher, one who had a great talent that went to waste when she abandoned her career to get married to Richmond. He dazzled her. He’s a womanizer, a professional flirt and sometimes a boy in a man’s body. And after decades of marriage with him cheating on her, Clarice is still dazzled. She accepts her fate as a scorned woman and lets it slide, even if it hurts a lot. Her attitude is consistent with her education and her childhood. Her father was the same and her mother taught her that the only respectable attitude was to turn a blind eye to it. Her friends know but won’t talk about it.

To me, Barbara Jean was like a black Norma Jean. Too pretty and attractive for her own good. Struggling with a complicated childhood and raised by a mother who was almost a prostitute. She’s the one who married Lester, a much older man. She went for financial and emotional security and with her past, who could blame her? She made her choice and stood by it. She’s the one who had the most tragedies in her life.

As the book progresses, we learn more about their life, present and past. They are ordinary women, none of them is a Helen of Troy, someone men start wars over. They are us, middle-class people with their small lives. They’re in their fifties now. The children are gone, health issues make appearances. These three working women are in a new chapter of their lives.

Through them, Moore portrays the story of the black middle-class. He doesn’t make it about being black but with details here and there, we see the life of black people in this era. You’re white, you don’t work for a black man. You’re a black girl, dating a white guy is so off-limit that it’s impossible to conceive, even in more advanced cities of the North. You’re the first black baby to be born in a hospital, you make the front page of the newspaper. Some neighborhoods are not for you. You might come from a poor background, your black bourgeois mother-in-law-to-be accepts you immediately because the color of your skin is light brown and that’s the criteria that matters the most. Subtle but telling details.

Moore gives us a vivid picture of this small town and this group of friends. The Supremes is about friendship and the things you say and the things you don’t, to keep the peace. It’s about marriage and the things that happen in a couple that are invisible from outside. It’s about the dramas of life, loosing a child, trusting a spouse and being sick. But it’s also about delighting in small daily pleasures and have your friends around when things get tough. The characters are lovely, I wanted to hear about them, to know what would happen to them. They felt like acquaintances.

The Supremes at Earl’s-All-You-Can-Eat is a great book that celebrate friendship and the warmth and the treasure it is in our lives.

Corrosion by Jon Bassoff – Neo noir fiction

June 26, 2017 8 comments

Corrosion by Jon Bassoff (2013) French title: Corrosion. Translated by Anatole Pons

I bought Corrosion at Quais du Polar in 2016. Jon Bassoff was signing his book, I chatted a bit with him and I took a chance on it. As most writers, he was happy to be in Lyon among other crime fiction writers and to be in contact with enthusiastic crime fiction lovers.

Corrosion is published in the NeoNoir collection by Gallmeister. Frequent readers of this blog know it by now: if a book is published by Gallmeister, it’s good. It might not suit you but not for lacking in the literature department. Corrosion is not an exception.

It starts like classic noir. We’re in 2010, an Irak war veteran with a scarred face has a breakdown on a country road. He walks to the closest bar where a woman gets beaten up by her husband in front of him. He interferes and they leave together. The man, Joseph Downs, stays in this little town, Stratton. The woman, Lilith, convinces him that they should kill her husband to pocket his life insurance money. She just made a colossal mistake.

Who is really Joseph Dowes and what’s his story? Bassoff takes the reader on a very dark and abrasive road. I can’t tell much about Corrosion without spoiling the plot but Ken Bruen gives an accurate description of it:

Imagine Chuck Palahniuk filtered through Tarantino speak, blended with an acidic Jim Thompson and a book that cries out to be filmed by David Lynch, then you have a flavor of Corrosion. The debut novel from the unique Jon Bassoff begins a whole new genre: Corrosive Noir.

I checked out other covers for this disturbing crime fiction novel. The French one is Gallmeister’s signature for their NeoNoir collection. This very sober cover is typical from French publishers. The American one reflects the darkness of the story and projects its horror.

Corrosion is dark, violent and uncomfortable. I found it too violent for me and it’s definitely a book I’d never want to see on screen. I couldn’t bear it but I’m a bit too sensitive about violence in films. It’s horrific at times and yet extremely well written. I have Corrosion in French, so I can’t really share quotes but trust me, the writing is good. There are allusions to Jim Thompson and the style betrays a skilled and literate writer. He knows his classics, he has internalized them, made them his and used them to our benefit in a well-constructed and terribly efficient book. Bassoff created a deeply disturbed character and the plot leads the reader towards an implacable ending.

Masterfully done. An excellent novel but for the strong hearted.

Caribou Island by David Vann

June 5, 2017 21 comments

Caribou Island by David Vann (2011) French title : Désolations. Translated by Laura Derajinski.

My mother was not real. She was an early dream, a hope. She was a place. Snowy, like here, and cold. A wooden house on a hill above a river. An overcast day, the old white paint of the buildings made brighter somehow by the trapped light, and I was coming home from school. Ten years old, walking by myself, walking through dirty patches of snow in the yard, walking up to the narrow porch. I can’t remember how my thoughts went then, can’t remember who I was or what I felt like. All of that is gone, erased. I opened our front door and found my mother hanging from the rafters. I’m sorry, I said, and I stepped back and closed the door. I was outside on the porch again.

You said that? Rhoda asked. You said you were sorry?

Yes

Oh, Mom.

It was long ago, Irene said. And it was something I couldn’t see even at the time, so I can’t see it now. I don’t know what she looked like, hanging there. I don’t remember any of it, only that it was.

This is the first page of Caribou Island by David Vann. We jump in tragedy right from the start, without any time to test the literary waters of the novel. Irene is Rhoda’s mother. She’s been married to Gary for thirty years. They met in California where Gary was working on a thesis about Anglo-Saxon early literature. They went to Alaska for a summer and never left. They built their life there, Irene as a kindergarten teacher and Gary working the odd jobs here and there while leaping from one failing project to the other. Living in Alaska was Gary’s dream, his vision of living in nature, like the sentimental version of the Vikings in the Anglo-Saxon literature he used to study. Their house in on a lake, rather far from the closest town. It takes forty minutes to Rhoda, who works in town as a veterinarian’s assistant, to come and visit her parents.

Irene and Gary are retired now and Gary’s new project is to build a cabin on Caribou Island, an island on the lake near their house. He intends to move out of their cozy home to live in this cabin. Irene doesn’t approve of this project but she thinks that if she opposes to it, Gary will leave her. And that’s unacceptable to her. Her mother committed suicide after her husband left her and Irene never saw her father again. She won’t stand to be abandoned again. She’s ready to endure anything to keep Gary.

This project becomes a battle of will between the two. Irene’s body rejects her submission to it by inflicting her blinding headaches. Gary won’t exempt her from working on the cabin and she keeps nailing wood, pulling and carrying logs and sawing woods. All this in atrocious weather because of Gary’s lack of planning. He started to build a cabin for the winter in Alaska, in mid-August, without any blueprints or schedule. You just need to read Maria Chapdelaine to know that starting such a project in Alaska so late in the summer is plain stupid.

We follow Irene and Gary’s crazy project but we also hear about their children, Rhoda and Mark. Rhoda lives with Jim, a dentist who is ten years older than her and who loves pancakes with peaches for dinner. She craves for security and is ready to settle for Jim as long as he seems reliable. Mark looks like a loser. He lives in his unfinished house by the lake, not far from his parents. His girlfriend Karen and him love pot, they live on the edge of society and Mark makes a living on fishing ships. In the end, I wondered which one of them was the most adjusted. Rhoda is ready to accept a lot for material security and her dreams of a normal life. Mark just does as he pleases but seems reliable at work and supports himself and Karen. Mark and Karen don’t need much and have chosen their lives. Between Rhoda and Mark, who’s the happiest of the two?

The main characters and the main plot thread of the novel remains Irene and Gary battling with the elements and their logs to build a lopsided cabin that Gary dreams of and that Irene dreads. Landscapes and the weather are key characters in Vann’s novel. It reminded me of Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson. Caribou Island is sad but less bleak and depressing than Housekeeping. The books have the dreadful weather in common. Wind, rain, cold. More wind, more rain and more cold.

David Vann gave a one hour long interview at Quais du Polar this year. I attended his talk with a French journalist. He mentioned landscapes as an important literary tradition in American literature. He also said that he shared details of his life because they have a direct link with his writing. David Vann was born on an island in Alaska in 1966. He said it was a dark island, with one hundred miles per hour winds, six meters of rain per year. He explained that it was overcast and rainy all the time, that they saw the sun two weeks per year. It was isolated and his main activities where fishing and hunting. His personal knowledge of the Alaska landscape and weather is obvious in Caribou Island. It feels real, coming from experience, from the guts.

He also said that he grew up among eleven women of different generations who all had horrible dating experiences. Their vision of men was not stellar and he explained that it feels natural to him to write from a female point of view. I thought that the men in Caribou Island were pathetic and childish. Gary is cruel to Irene and dreams irrealistic dreams. He’s selfish and totally unprepared for his new venture and he dares to complain about Irene’s lack of enthusiasm. Mark distances himself from his family, he doesn’t want to get involved and would rather flee than fight for anything. Jim is like a kid in a grownup body, taking advantage of Rhoda’s kindness and practicing evasive behavior at Olympic level. Who would like to be saddled with any of them?

David Vann also explained that his books are based upon Greek tragedy canvasses. They are set in one place, in a limited period of time and with one major plot thread. This is why he works with a close-knit set of characters. Family is the most important thing in life and the closest people are the ones we love the most and the ones that can hurt us the most. We only need one person to break us and this is why side characters are nice but not necessary. To move the plot forward, a taboo needs to be broken or something life changing is about to happen and they’ll have to deal with the consequences. Here, Irene and Gary are supposed to move out to the cabin on Caribou Island. These elements are enough to cook an explosive drama, which is exactly the case in Caribou Island.

I think that the French cover of the book is excellent: Irene and Gary are like a pair of cissors. They face each other, they are attached forever and spend their time going away from each other and coming close again. This is a typically American novel with its character attracted to life as a pioneer, life in the woods, facing nature on their own. I’ve never encounted anything like this is a European novel.

Caribou Island is a powerful novel, one that will move you and irritate you. Everything is well designed, the setting, the plot, the style. And yet it feels natural. David Vann is an inspired writer, not one who prepared his first novel in creative writing class. There’s a force in his prose and in his characters that comes from deep inside him and the reader can feel it.

Impressive and highly recommended. I read this along with Guy and I’ve been a bad reading partner. I was supposed to publish this billet on May 31st but real life went in the way. Sorry again, Guy.

Heed the Thunder by Jim Thompson. The billet

March 10, 2017 18 comments

Heed the Thunder by Jim Thompson (1946) French title: Avant l’orage.

That was all there was to life: a gift that was slowly taken away from you. An Indian gift. You started out with a handful of something and ended up with a handful of nothing. The best things were taken away from you last when you needed them worst. When you were at the bottom of the pot, where there was no longer reason for life, then you died. It was probably a good thing.

Heed the Thunder takes us Verdon, Nebraska at the turning of the 20th century in a valley beautifully described by Jim Thompson as mentioned in my previous billet.

The book opens on Mrs Dillon coming back to Verdon with her seven-year old son Bobbie. Her husband in gone but we don’t know how. Did he die? Did he leave her? Mrs Dillon’s maiden name is Edie Fargo and she’s back in her hometown where the Fargo clan is influential. The head of the family is old Lincoln Fargo. He’s married to Pearl, a churchy person, someone who blindly follows her clergyman. Lincoln is a disillusioned old man with not much trust in life or appetite for it anymore. He can be brutal but he’s not that bad. And to live his whole life with his wife mustn’t have been easy.

The Fargos have four children, Edie, Myrtle, Grant and Sherman. The father was a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War and his sons have inherited names from generals.

Edie is back in town after her marriage collapsed. She has lost her husband, in a literal sense. She doesn’t know where he is. But life goes on and she has a mischievous and clumsy boy to raise. After staying a bit with her parents, she runs a hotel and tries to make a living for her and her son.

Myrtle is married to Alfred Courtland, an Englishman who ended up in Verdon. She’s proud of her husband’s refined accent and loves sipping five-o’clock tea. Her marriage gives her a feeling of superiority even if Courtland has a mediocre job at the local bank owned and run by Philo Barkley, Lincoln’s brother-in-law.

Grant is dressed like a dandy. He used to work for a newspaper in town but lost his job. He’s now living off his parents. He’s idle, he begs for drink money and he’s in serious lust with his cousin Bella Barkley. They have a torrid and illicit affair behind their parents’ back. Bella is beautiful and demanding, she’s the femme fatale of the novel.

Sherman is a farmer married to Josephine. They have six children. Josephine is far from the clichéd farmer’s wife who helps with chores, handles the kids and takes care of the house and of everyone’s stomach with fantastic cooking. No. Josephine is obese, unkind and almost useless in the kitchen.

An engaging crowd, aren’t they? Well, you’re in a novel by Jim Thompson, which means that you are as far from a book by Willa Cather as Little House on the Prairie is from a film by Quentin Tarentino.

We’ll follow the Fargos’ fate in the span of seven years, up til 1914. Heed the Thunder refers to WWI and probably the Great Depression. Thompson shows how all the signs of the changes that will lead to the Great Depression are already there. Sherman is experiencing the changes in agriculture. A salesman from a big firm goes from farm to farm to sell agricultural machines. This is the turning point towards mechanization of agriculture. Sherman buys machines through a credit purchase. He starts feeling obliged to use the machine he’s bought and secure revenues to pay back his loans. He gets credits on his future crop and this forces him to keep cultivating wheat when he would have liked to promote variety to let the land rest. Sherman is the symbol of farmers who enter into a deadly cycle.

Thompson also shows the slow switch from carriages to cars and trucks. A local orphan who was the target of mockeries became a lawyer and a politician. Through his rise, we see the corruption of local politicians who are sold to railroad companies. He will be the one to promote the construction of new roads. In Paul Claudel’s analysis about the Great Depression, he mentions the huge crisis in the railroad industry. A lot of companies are not profitable because they can’t make a good return on investments and they have a hard time improving the efficiency of the service.

Heed the Thunder shows the life of the Fargo family members during seven years. And life is not kind to them. Thompson distances himself from any postcard vision of life in the countryside. None of the Fargos are likeable. They’re rude, stingy and uneducated. Grant is borderline crazy. Sherman does his best but fails as a father and as a farmer. Edie tries to sort herself out but is a bit overwhelmed with Bobbie’s energy. And Myrtle drapes herself is her husband’s aura of higher civilization, until he proves to be as bestial as the others.

Verdon is a closed community, not a close-knit one. It’s a dark novel that only makes you want to go to Verdon for the landscape, certainly not for its human clan. This book resonates with The Duck Hunt by Hugo Claus. I’ve read it earlier and my billet will come soon.

Heed the Thunder also describes the interaction between the immigrant communities. The Germans are well appreciated but the people from Eastern Europe are to be avoided. Religion separates the groups and Catholics are not as welcome. The pot has not quite melted to fabricate Americans yet.

Thompson’s style is sumptuous, proving he’s so much more than a banal crime fiction writer. He uses a lot of slang words from the countryside and purposely makes a lot of grammar “mistakes”. It gives a feel of the place, of the time and of the lack of education in this village. It was a bit difficult for me to follow at times but I managed.

Heed the Thunder is different from other books by Jim Thompson like The Killer Inside Me. But the dark side of humanity is there too, just as the stifling atmosphere of rural life. It seems to produce monsters, not rosy-cheeked plump matrons who shower kids and neighbors with cheerfulness and warmth.

Highly recommended.

Landscapes in Heed the Thunder by Jim Thompson

March 5, 2017 21 comments

I’ve just finished Heed the Thunder by Jim Thompson and I will write a billet about the book later. I already know that I won’t have anywhere to include Thompson’s descriptions of landscapes and seasons in this billet. So, here are three quotes, just for the pleasure of sharing a good piece of literature and a few thoughts about these descriptions.

Here’s the opening paragraph of the book, as we arrive to Verdon, Nebraska along with Mrs Dillon, one of the characters of the novel:

It was five o’clock when the train stopped at Verdon, and the town and the valley still lay under the gray dark of pre-dawn. Along the crest of the sand-hills, a few snaky fingers of sunligt had edged down through the hayflats, dipping shiveringly into the icy Calamus, darting back through driftfence, scurrying past soddy and dugout; but the rich valley rested undisturbed, darkly, luxuriously. Like some benevolent giant resting until the last possible moment for the day’s prodigious labors, it clung to the darkness; and the dimmed light of the train stood back against the night, satisfied with their own dominion. The long station platform was a brown field of plank, harrowed with age and drought and rain.

Time goes by and winter comes:

Winter fell like a harlot upon the valley. One day there was only the musky odor of her, the rustle of her skirts; the next, she lay sprawled across the land in all her white and undulant opulence, and the valley groaned and shivered uxoriously.

When I read this, I couldn’t help thinking about this painting by Alexandre Hogue, even if Thompson evokes a snowy landscape and Hogue is more about showing a bare land during the Great Depression:

Erosion n2 Mother Earth Laid Bare by Alexander Hogue. 1936

Erosion n2 Mother Earth Laid Bare by Alexander Hogue. 1936

Thompson continues in the same fashion a few chapters later, when spring comes:

Spring slipped like a virgin into the bed of the valley. Now cloying, now rebellious, she struggled and wept against the brown giant. She touched him with fearful fingers that lingered more and more with each touching; she stroked him, brazenly. She gasped, then panted against him, and at last she sighed and her breath came warm and even. And the harlot winter slunk from the couch, jeering.

It is a very sensuous way of imagining the passing of seasons and of picturing the land embracing a new lover every three months. What I find fascinating is that for me the genders are all wrong. Winter and spring are both masculine names in French while valley is feminine. I have a hard time picturing winter and spring as women and the valley as a man. I just wonder: do the genders used for these personnification come from Thompson’s writing or are they commonly used? Out of curiosity, how do you pick genders for personnifications in English?

PS: I checked on Wikipedia, Verdon really exists. I wonder if it was founded by French or French Canadian settlers, because for me, the Verdon is a river in Provence, famous for its splendid gorges.

A Cool Million by Nathanael West

February 5, 2017 28 comments

A Cool Million by Nathanael West (1934) French title: Un bon million ! Translated by Catherine Delavallade.

west_englishA Cool Million by Nathanael West relates the trials and tribulations of young Lemuel Pitkin in America and in 1934. Lemuel Pitkin lives peacefully in a village in Vermont with his mother when their landlord threatens to evict them from their cottage unless they can buy their mortgage out. Lemuel decides to consult with Mr Shagpoke Whipple, former president of the USA and current owner of the local bank.

Mr Whipple talks Lemuel into going to New York to get rich. He’s a firm believer of the American Dream and he’s certain that Pitkin will succeed if he works hard enough. He’s even ready to give him the starting capital for this venture, 30 dollars with a 12% interest rate and guaranteed by a collateral on the Pitkin cow. Generosity and faith have a cost.

Lemuel leaves Vermont but not before saving Miss Prail from a rabid dog and fighting with the local bully. Lemuel is naïve and he’s soon the prey of thieves and con men who frame him. He spends time to prison while being innocent and eventually arrives to New York.

I’m not going to retell all his ups and downs and will forward to the moment he is reunited with Shagpoke Whipple in New York. Indeed, Whipple’s bank went bankrupt and he’s as poor as Pitkin now. But he still has faith in the grand American dream and he’s certain his luck will come and that he can count on his reputation as a former president and former banker to turn things around.

Lemuel trusts in Whipple and attaches his fate to his. Follows a journey where the two of them show us New York during the Great Depression, meet with a frustrated poet who turns to trashy entertainment, go West to find gold, come in contact with Native Americans…

west_frenchNathanael West mocks and knocks over pillars of America’s history. He’s like a kid engaged in a tin throwing game where great founding myths of America are the tins. Pitkin and Whipple come from New England. Business comes first and everything can be monetized. Fortune belongs to daring people and exploiting others through prostitution or some muddy business schemes is part of the game as long as it brings in money. The myth of the West with the gold rush, battles with Indians and its itinerant shows is taken to pieces.

I mentioned a tin throwing game because West is playful. A Cool Million is a satire, not a pamphlet. He puts forward his ideas through the ridiculous and yet appalling destiny of Lemuel Pitkin. In that respect, A Cool Million is a lot like Candide by Voltaire. (A tall order, I know. Here’s my billet about Candide, to refresh your memory about it if need be.)

Lemuel is as naïve and trusting as Candide. He looks up to Wipple just as Candide looks up to Pangloss. They both believe in their mentor’s vision of life. While Candide has faith in Pangloss’s famous dogma “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Lemuel blindly believe Whipple’s vision of the American Dream, that a pauper can become a millionaire thanks to hard work combined with luck. Here’s Wipple’s profession of faith:

“America,” he said with great seriousness, “is the land of opportunity. She takes care of the honest and industrious and never fails them as long as they are both. This is not a matter of opinion, it is one of faith. On the day that Americans stop believing it, on that day will America be lost.

Whipple genuinely believes in it himself despite how poorly America treats Pitkin. Like Candide, Lemuel’s journey will show him the troubles of the world. He was sheltered in his village, he’s now exposed to the consequences of the Great Depression. A Cool Million was written in 1934 and it is a testimony of the atmosphere of the time. Through Lemuel, we’ll see poverty in New York, the consequences of the economic crisis and the political trends of the time.

Shagpoke Whipple is a former president of the USA, a former banker and a firm believer that one’s fate can take a turn for the best as he explains it to Lemuel here:

“You expect to keep a bank again?” asked Lem, making a brave attempt not to think of his own troubles. “Why, certainly,” replied Shagpoke. “My friends will have me out of here shortly. Then I will run for political office, and after I have shown the American people that Shagpoke is still Shagpoke, I will retire from politics and open another bank. In fact, I am even considering opening the Rat River National [bank] a second time. I should be able to buy it in for a few cents on the dollar.” “Do you really think you can do it?” asked our hero with wonder and admiration. “Why, of course I can,” answered Mr. Whipple. “I am an American businessman, and this place is just an incident in my career.

Mixing business and politics, now where have we heard of that again? And true to his word, Shagpoke Whipple turns to politics, using the trends of the time to his benefit. And what’s trending in politics in the 1930s? Antisemitism and the fear of communism. Whipple ends up founding a new party, the National Revolutionary Party, a party that is openly anti-Semite and anti-communist and that uses unemployment of workers and the struggles of the middle class in general to gain audience.

When a large group had gathered, Shagpoke began his harangue. “I’m a simple man,” he said with great simplicity, “and I want to talk to you about simple things. You’ll get no highfalutin talk from me. “First of all, you people want jobs. Isn’t that so?” An ominous rumble of assent came from the throats of the poorly dressed gathering. “Well, that’s the only and prime purpose of the National Revolutionary Party–to get jobs for everyone. There was enough work to go around in 1927, why isn’t there enough now? I’ll tell you; because of the Jewish international bankers and the Bolshevik labor unions, that’s why. It was those two agents that did the most to hinder American business and to destroy its glorious expansion. The former because of their hatred of America and love for Europe and the latter because of their greed for higher and still higher wages.

I swear I’m not making this up. I wonder if we shall be terrified of the parallel we can make with present times because all this led to WWII. West describes the temptation of fascism, how easy it is to convince the masses in times of economic depression and how ready people are to blame a scapegoat for their troubles. Reading this in February 2017 is chilling. Despite West’s light tone, I wasn’t laughing anymore. As I said in my previous billet about Claudel’s reports on the Great Depression, comparing is not reasoning. But still, it’s hard not to, especially when I read this passage, where Whipple’s talking to the crowd:

“This is our country and we must fight to keep it so. If America is ever again to be great, it can only be through the triumph of the revolutionary middle class. “We must drive the Jewish international bankers out of Wall Street! We must destroy the Bolshevik labor unions! We must purge our country of all the alien elements and ideas that now infest her! “America for Americans! Back to the principles of Andy Jackson and Abe Lincoln!”

Any resemblance with a Dutch-cheese faced president is purely accidental. And bloody frightening because the 1930s was the decade of totalitarianism.

The conclusion of the book was like receiving a bucket of cold water straight in the face:

Through his martyrdom the National Revolutionary Party triumphed, and by that triumph this country was delivered from sophistication, Marxism and International Capitalism. Through the National Revolution its people were purged of alien diseases and America became again American.”

The country was delivered from sophistication. I suppose we must hear that the country was free of intellectuals, journalists, and all the thinking class, the one that won’t buy anything not based on facts or that values free thinking and the right to contractict. A Cool Million is a satire turning to dystopian fiction. Usually, when you read dystopian fiction, you have the comfort to think it’s still fiction. Here, you’re not that comfortable. In French, we say rire jaune (to laugh a yellow laugh) when we laugh hollowly. In other words, the way things are said are funny, but the substance is not funny at all. According to the events of the last couple of weeks, I’m afraid we’ve entered a four-year time of orange laugh, that I’ll also call a Beaumarchais laugh: I hasten to laugh at everything, for fear of being obliged to weep.

I think A Cool Million should join 1984 on the best selling lists. Highly recommended.

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