Here’s a piece of very good news. Long-time Associated Press reporter and book reviewer, Bruce DeSilva, has written an absolutely terrific literary thriller. Right out of the ever-so-hardboiled, ever-so-good-hearted tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, DeSilva’s Rogue Island (Tom Doherty Associates) is the funniest and best-written suspense novel I’ve read in years.
Meet Liam Mulligan, a newspaperman’s newspaperman, who covers the gritty, often-horrifying underside of Providence, Rhode (Rogue) Island. Mulligan’s a wonderful character. He’s on the run from his half-crazed, estranged wife, at odds with his boss (and, come to think of it, just about everyone else), and as anarchical – and ethical – as they come. He’s got a car named Secretariat that barely runs, a girlfriend who won’t sleep with him until he goes for an AIDS test, and a string of unsolved, murderous arson cases to investigate in the neighborhood he grew up in.
Liam Mulligan’s whole life seems to be an illustration of Murphy’s Law writ large. But he is determined to get to the bottom of the fires that are literally burning up his home town before his eyes. Fire, in Mulligan’s beloved Providence, has “become an absolute force of evil. I heard the fire before I felt it, the flames sounding like a thousand flags snapping in the wind. I felt it before I saw it, the heat like a backhand slap from the devil.”
Don’t be fooled, though, by the non-stop drama, horror and black humor of DeSilva’s first novel. For all its merits as a thriller, Rogue Island is a highly serious work of fiction combining a fascinating and authentic evocation of a 21st-century American city with a lyrical tribute to the dying newspaper business.
Up here in my corner of New England, far from the mean streets of Providence, Marion Page’s posthumously published Searching for Hannerester (Radiant Hen Publishing) is the lovely story of a strange and compelling young woman gone missing in the mountainous wilds of Vermont.
One day Hannah Esther Dunney, a hired girl on the remote, backcountry farm where narrator Carrie Stafford lives with her stubborn, silent father, simply seems to disappear right into thin air. When Carrie’s father becomes the target of a local investigation, Page’s story, like DeSilva’s Rogue Island, is impossible to put down. It’s one of those rare novels like To Kill a Mockingbird and A Separate Peace that can be enjoyed on several levels, and with equal pleasure, by both young adults and older readers. Searching for Hannerester is, at once, an authentic account of life on a1950’s hill farm, an exploration of the social mores of small towns, and the story of several of the most touching and honest human relationships in recent fiction, YA or Adult.
Returning to the newspaper business, I want to mention Paul David Pope’s highly readable and informative family memoir, The Deeds of My Fathers. In 1951, Pope’s father, Gene, purchased the fabled National Enquirer, which he proceeded to transform into the quintessential supermarket tabloid. The story of the Enquirer simultaneously chronicles the rise of the celebrity culture and our insatiable greed for sentimental sensationalism, packaged as “journalism,” in twentieth century America. As Dominick Donne points out, The Deeds of My Fathers is also a riveting analysis of the way “money, crime, and power” have shaped the American vision.
My vision of the American West was recently expanded by S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon. This brilliant book by the former editor of Texas Monthly narrates the history of the Comanche Indian nation and its famous, mixed-blood chief, Quanah Parker. It’s the best non-fiction book about the West I’ve read since The Oregon Trail. S.C. Gwynne knows everything there is to know about the fearsome Comanche and their vast territory known as Comencheria, the arrival of the Spanish in the Southwest, the founding of the Republic of Texas and the Texas Rangers, and the natural history of the desert, plains, and southern Rockies. His insights into the culture of the Plains Indians in general are marvelously revealing. I loved everything about Empire of the Summer Moon. For me, it puts all literature of the West, from Little Big Man to Lonesome Dove, in a new perspective. What’s more, Gwynne is a most entertaining writer. His prose has the bite of a Texas sidewinder: “Because the [Comanche] did not have permanent villages, they were virtually impossible to locate; if you located them you were likely to wish you hadn’t.”
Finally, I just reread Oliver Goldsmith’s rollicking novel, The Vicar of Wakefield. This hilarious tale of an unlucky, 18th century English minister and his large family is thought to have been an inspiration to Jane Austen. In fact, there are some interesting similarities between the vicar’s wife and daughters and some of the characters in Pride and Prejudice. While there was only one Jane Austen, and there isn’t ever apt to be another, Goldsmith’s fiction may have paved the way for hers, to some extent, in much the same way Sherwood Anderson’s stories influenced Hemingway’s and Faulkner’s. What’s more, Goldsmith never forgets for a minute that one of the chief purpose of a novel is to entertain. “I don’t read for credit any more,” the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Richard Russo recently remarked. Me, neither. The enduring merit of The Vicar of Wakefield is that it is very, very funny and lively. MFA writing students take note. It’s okay, once in a while, for literature to be fun to read. Dickens understood that, so did Twain and Shakespeare. We 21st- century scribblers would do well to keep that in mind.
The book as we know it isn’t dead yet – see the next essay I’ll be posting later this week on my Kingdom Journal – but the first step in keeping books alive in the electronic era is to make sure that the ones we’re turning out are vital and engaging to read – like Rogue Island and Empire of the Summer Moon.