He always seems to be on to something of literary merit, so I asked him what he has been reading. His reply:
I increasingly find myself drawn, in both my reading and my own writing, to fictional lives which are completely unlike my own. Not that I don't enjoy reading about middle-aged white males (or awkward teenagers) from the Midwest every now and then, of course. But I most enjoy reading about people in completely different circumstances than me, and still finding, despite our surface differences, basic commonalities between our lives. Three excellent but very different novels I've recently read illustrate this point quite nicely. (In discussing these novels, however, I won't discuss their commonalities with my own life, because this piece is about the books, and not me. Suffice it to say that I saw a bit of myself in each novel.)Pete Anderson's short stories include "Ectoplasm," "Immortality," and "Guaranteed." Find more stories at Pete Lit.
Bayo Ojikutu's Free Burning is set in my hometown of Chicago, but his city could scarcely be different than mine. Tommie Simms moves gingerly through a bleak, desolate, all-but-hopeless corner of the South Side, where one seemingly only has a choice between selling out for a corporate job in the distant downtown or dealing drugs on the local street corner. Tommie experiences both, as he loses his downtown insurance job in the fallout of 9/11 and, in a desperate bid to keep supporting his wife and infant daughter, turns to dealing pot, a tough business to which he couldn't be any less suited. Despite confronting an endless string of obstacles, from the greed of crooked cops to the violence of rival dealers, the book's open-ended conclusion gives a slight bit of hope for Tommie's survival. He still could go either way, good or bad, but there's just enough of a chance for good to give the reader some optimism for his future. During its best moments, Free Burning echoes the dizzying and (yes) fiery prose of Ralph Ellison's masterpiece Invisible Man.
Ward Just's Forgetfulness is an elegant and beautifully written narrative about Thomas Railles, an expatriate American painter living in the shadow of the Pyrenees in rural France. When his wife is found dead on a mountain trail under very suspicious circumstances, Railles simultaneously confronts grief (the "forgetfulness" of the title being one elusive method of dealing with loss) and the basic human urge for revenge. Railles finds himself drawn into the realm of two of his boyhood friends, who have had long careers in the CIA and give Railles a rare opportunity to avenge his wife's death. Just shows admirable restraint in having Railles come perilously close to enacting revenge, nearly succumbing to the eye-for-an-eye futility which is the root of much of mankind's ethnic strife, before pulling back from temptation. Railles ultimately abandons France, the memory of his wife being too painful there, and retreats to a remote island in Maine to pick up the shattered pieces of his life.
Ojikutu and Just's books are written as traditional novels, while Laila Lalami's very fine debut Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits is more of a novel-in-stories. The book opens with a group of Moroccans crossing the Strait of Gibraltar in an undersized boat, risking their lives in pursuit of better circumstances in Spain -- despite knowing they'll be, at best, second-class citizens there. This introductory passage illustrates the only significant bond between the four main characters, as the author goes on to tell their stories separately, studying each of their lives prior to the attempted crossing, followed by the post-crossing aftermath for each. Her choice of presenting four distinct short stories makes perfect sense, as the protagonists come from such disparate walks of life that, even within the small world of Morocco, it would have been unlikely for the four people to encounter each other in their daily lives. Intertwining their stories in a more traditional narrative structure would have seemed forced and artificial. But although the four characters have little direct interaction, the book draws its considerable narrative cohesion from their shared quest for a better life. Lalami's understated prose and writerly compassion provide an emotionally compelling look into the lives of these courageous, everyday people.
The common thread of all three novels is hope and guarded optimism, with the protagonists of each staring into the void and yet still being able to turn away. Defying their unfortunate circumstances, from what little the bitter world has given them, they manage to carve out for themselves the best life they can. Which is something all of us should strive for.