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Time Between

Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel (Harper; $24.99; 320 pages)

“It was so easy, I understood now, to take a wrong turn…”

“All the days have turned to years…”   Chris Hillman (“Time Between,” The Byrds)

This is a novel that finishes well.   This being said, the first half of the novel is a muddy bog.   I often felt as if I was reading the diary of an obsessive person who notices every detail but has no idea as to what meaning to attach to the aggregation.   Here is a sampling:

Paul stopped walking and I almost bumped into him.   I could see the pink of his skin through the translucent white of his T-shirt, the short hairs on the back of his neck.   “Look,” he said, pointing at the water.   By his foot, a blue crab skittered across the sand, then slipped underneath a rock.   …He offered me his hand and I took it, but only until I’d stepped over a wide stretch of coral.   We walked for an hour.   Paul spoke only to point out a creature or plant, and I spoke only to acknowledge him.   The flats surrounded our stilt home on three sides, and I’d never before walked to their far edges.

This is not quite scintillating reading, and there are 150 or so pages like this before the plotline begins to come together.   This is the story of a Miami couple and the events that happen to them and their daughter between the years of 1969 and 1993.   It seems to take forever to get to the 90s.

The future married couple at the center of this tale initially meet as young college students playing in a community of homes built on pilings in the waters of Biscayne Bay, Florida.   The collection of homes is known as Stiltsville.   It’s a community that will not last, one of the many things revealed to the reader before he/she actually needs to know it.   Susanna Daniel has the frustrating habit of setting a scene, the events involving the main characters, in current time before skipping forward to tell you what will happen later.   For example, her female protagonist’s first impressions of Miami are that, “…the city (Miami) seemed large to me…  though it would double in breadth and height and population during the time I lived there.”

This needless plot device is used far too many times.   In one odd instance, the lead character is telling us about today before she jumps to “nearly a year later.”   Contra, another time we suddenly shift from today to the events of the preceding day.   Later on, we’re reading about what’s happening to the family one evening before we’re abruptly shifted back to the supposedly related events that occurred eight months earlier.   All of this is far too clever to be interesting.

There’s also the problem of stilted language in Stiltsville.   Early on our female lead tells us that, “…after meeting Dennis, I saw in my own future bright, unknowable, possibilities.   I’m a bit ashamed to have been a person without much agency in life…”   Agency?   What reader knows a person who would use that word today…  and in Miami?   Her future husband Dennis, by the way, works for a successful law firm in Miami but seems to know little about law.   In one scene, he worries that he’ll be arrested by the Coast Guard (and quite possibly disbarred) for buying a boat from a person who may not have had clear title to it.   Any first year law student would tell him not to worry, but then this is fiction.

Stiltsville also includes some paths that lead nowhere.   At one point Daniel includes a thinly disguised take-off on the Rodney King case, except that it’s set in Miami rather than Los Angeles.   The reader is meant to get somewhat worked up about riots and the prospect of better communities being invaded before this side-story disappears.   It has nothing to do with the main story, so why was it included?

In the latter part of the novel, Daniel does create some quotable statements such as, “The cement of a marriage never dries.”   She also displays her cleverness in dropping a near tragedy into our laps before sidestepping it.   And, finally, there’s the point at which someone is affected by a devastating illness.   If Daniel had begun at this point she might have crafted a tight, compelling and fascinating debut.   Instead, Stiltsville exposes us to a writer of some potential who failed to put much of it down on the written page this time around.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

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When I Paint My Masterpiece

When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison by Greil Marcus (PublicAffairs, $22.95, 208 pages)

“Music can take us beyond literate sequence and consequence.”   Wilfred Mellers

“If you didn’t hear from him, that just means he didn’t call.”   Van Morrison

Sometimes a complete portrait of a person, or an artist, requires that one explain and explore both their positives and their negatives.   Although rock-critic-writer Greil Marcus is clearly infatuated with Van Morrison and his music, he decided to write this profile – in a sense, a collection of essays about the subject – in an honest fashion.   On the one hand, we see Morrison as a musical genius who can sing songs without a musical arrangement, leading and requiring his backing musicians to follow him.   He’s been a musician who can recruit a record producer by simply singing a new song to him one-on-one, like an actor seducing a director by reading from a promising script.

Then there’s the difficult Morrison, the singer who often avoids looking at his audience; a performer who can storm off of the stage when he’s angry; a singer who sometimes hates being bothered by the joyful participation of those in his audience.   As noted in this account, one night Van was performing for a San Francisco audience when he got tired of their clapping and yelling.   He yelled out, “Just shut up.   Just shut up!   We do the work here on stage, not you.”

And so we see that Van Morrison is a musician-artist of both sequence and consequence.   As Marcus writes, “What defines great singing in the rock and soul era is some underlying tension in the space between singer and song.”

Van Morrison did not start out great.   With the band known as Them he released the notable single “Gloria” (first released as a 45 in a rather weak 2 minute and 35 second cover version by Shadows of Knight of Seattle) and also “Here Comes the Night,” and the much lesser known “Mystic Eyes.”   But the band members did not click as a group, and the newly-freed artist went on to write and record what is today his most played song, “Brown Eyed Girl.”   Yet, there was something about his rock and soul voice that was not totally distinct; he tended to be confused in people’s minds with Eric Burdon of The Animals (it didn’t help that both Morrison and Burdon covered Sam Cooke’s classic “Bring It On Home to Me.”)

Morrison’s solo career went on to be a steadily successful one, but Marcus elects to place the focus here on Van’s masterpiece, Astral Weeks.   Greil, who owns thousands of recordings, confesses to us that, “I’ve played Astral Weeks more than I’ve played any other record I own.”   The tale of how the album came to be created is worth the price of admission, for this was not a tightly structured creation.   Instead, it was the product of near-magical jazz-like improvisation.   The record’s producer, Lewis Merenstein of Chicago (who didn’t know who Morrison was before the recording began) was to say:  “I don’t want to sound existential, but there was Van and that was it; there was no band, there were no arrangements.   The direction was him singing and playing – that was where I followed.   That’s why it came out the way it did…  There obviously was a direction from somewhere in the sky.”

Marcus makes clear in Rough God that Morrison himself does not know the intended meanings of many of the songs he writes, one such song being “Madame George.”   That’s alright, such is the nature of genius.   Vincent Van Gogh would likely not be able to produce a scholarly treatise on each of his paintings.   But Morrison – like his female counterpart Joni Mitchell, is one of those artists who has demonstrated for us lesser mortals that, “There’s more to life than you thought.   Life can be lived more deeply.”

Thank you, both Van and Greil.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Greil Marcus is also the author of Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (Public Affairs, 304 pages, 2006).

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A Painful Read

“Though it makes no sense, I’d like to get on the court again.   I want the pain that only tennis can provide.”   – Andre Agassi

Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.   – C. S. Lewis

“(Brooke’s) concerned.   She hates I was so upset…   that I’m in pain.”   – Andre Agassi

“This is why we’re here.   To fight through the pain…”   – Andre Agassi

“…seek the pain, woo the pain, recognize that pain is life.”   – Gil Reyes

‘Cause feeling pain’s a hard way/To know you’re still alive   – Barry Manilow

“…let’s go put some pain on your opponents.”   – Brad Gilbert

This one is about pain, as reflected in the selected quotes – all taken from Open: An Autobiography – listed above.   One would think that the autobiography of a glamorous tennis star, one who ranked at the top of his profession, who owned his own jet, and dated and married famous actresses and tennis stars, would be a fun read.   Open is anything but, it’s a morose slog though a life of torture and misery.   It seems like Agassi tells us a million times in the book that he hates tennis:   “I hate tennis more than ever – but I hate myself more.”   And the point of this is?

Of course, this book was not actually written by Mr. Agassi.   It was dictated to a ghostwriter whose name won’t be used here to protect his ghostly status.   This is an “as told to…” tale in which the Agassi-ghost pair appear to emphasize every painful moment in their character’s life, while minimizing the positive.   But then Agassi, clearly, loves his stays in the state of misery:   “Rock bottom can be very cozy, because at least you’re at rest.   You know you’re not going anywhere for a while.”

It’s not as if Agassi is unaware that he’s a lucky man, “I tell myself you can’t be unhappy when you have money in the bank and own your own plane.   But…   I feel listless, hopeless, trapped in a life I didn’t choose…”   Yes, all of this misery comes from playing a sport of the leisured class.   “I’ve played this game for a lot of reasons…   and it seems like none of them has ever been my own.”   Perhaps he thinks that we’ve all been in complete control of our lives from the moment of birth on, ignoring the comment of John Lennon, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.”

Lennon also wrote about pain:   “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.”   But it never seemed like his music was overtaken by the need to paint his life as a prison of pain.   Agassi’s book does so, over and over again.   Because Agassi does not like himself much, he can hardly be expected to have nice things to say about his former competitors in the sport.   After he said some not-so-nice things about Wimbledon champion Jim Courier, Courier responded, “I’m insecure?”   Indeed.

Of course, by the time the reader finally reaches page 384 there’s the to-be-expected happy ending, with marriage and beautiful children and the founding of the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy charter school.   But what an exhausting march to get there…   filled with too much pain and too little hope.   Tiring.

This work is the opposite of a life affirming one.

Joseph Arellano

Note:   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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