Tuesday, April 21, 2015

John Renehan

John Renehan was born in Boston and raised in California. He worked as an attorney for the City and State of New York, and was a field artillery officer in the Army. He lives in Virginia with his wife and children. The Valley is his first novel.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Renehan's reply:
For Homework: Lord of the Flies, Peter Pan

When I’m sketching a new project (he says with exactly one book under his belt), I end up assigning myself a lot of background reading. Sometimes it’s simple research, and sometimes I can’t really articulate why a book wants to be read. Usually it ends up being fruitful, though I’m not sure which is the cart and which is the horse there. Right now I’m re-reading these two classics while I’m working on a second war book. (Don’t ask; it makes sense to me.) I last read Lord of the Flies in middle school. Turns out it’s a grown-up book. I know it’s still taught in middle/high schools, and at the time I thought I understood its symbols and themes, but reading it now at 42, and as the parent of a son, I see that I wasn’t really equipped as a teenager to appreciate it. I got the boys wrong, too. Ralph is not the self-possessed, tough-but-comfortable-in-his-humane-rationality, Christian-Bale-in-Reign-of-Fire leader I remembered him being. He’s a scared kid who’s in over his head, and he’s got a cruel edge to him that I’d forgotten. And Jack is not the simple malevolence I remembered him as. He’s not a sociopathic personality (though there’s one of those on the island, which I’d also forgotten about). Each boy is an outlier in his own way, but each falls within the range of normal humanity, which of course was Golding’s point.

I last read Peter Pan in the fifth grade, but by then cartoons and the early-’80s Broadway run with Sandy Duncan had already corrupted my perceptions. Boy is it darker (and naughtier!) than I remembered. In most tellings nowadays Peter is a basically positive force who rules through the power of his sheer exuberance and self-confidence; he’s simply the most boy of all the Boys. J. M. Barrie’s original Peter is something else – a violent and efficient killer, irredeemable narcissist, and consummate manipulator (and possibly a sociopath, speaking of) whose power over the children of “the Neverland” is drawn in no small part from his tangible and total lack of interest in or concern for any of them. (He can’t even be bothered to remember Wendy’s name.) To the extent he has a conscience it is largely a voice that tells him his current course of action will fail to get him exactly what he wants at that moment. (Oh, and note to the Disney Junior channel: the imposterous “Peter” who pays the occasional visit to one Jake and his so-called Neverland Pirates needs to watch out, because the real Peter is going to show up and kick his ... anyway.)

And Wendy! Well.

For History: Hobey Baker, American Legend (Emil R. Salvini)

Few who aren’t associated with Princeton University know much anymore about Hobey Baker, the impossibly gifted young man who utterly, effortlessly dominated two sports (hockey and football) at the dawn of the era of mass interest in intercollegiate athletics, later serving – and dying – as a fighter pilot in the First World War. The centenary of that war is a fine time to read about Baker and the world that the Great War shattered, for he stood as the unquestioned paragon of that world’s masculine ideal, the gentleman-scholar-athlete. Abandoned by his mother and raised on the edges of Philadelphia Main Line society, Baker rose to become “first man” of Princeton society through a combination of unmatched physical prowess, supreme self-confidence wedded to social humility, utter devotion to sportsmanship and honor, and boyish naivete. He was Peter Pan, Ferris Bueller, John F. Kennedy, and Jim Thorpe at once.

Then, unable to reconcile himself to office life on Wall Street, he joined the civilian air corps and found his way ultimately to the skies above France, dying under permanently mysterious circumstances on a training flight a few weeks after the war’s end. As Gilded Age optimism gave way after the war to Jazz Age newness and decadence, Baker remained a fixed ideal in the imaginations of his contemporaries, who seemed universally to regard him as the most fascinating and inspirational, as simply the best, human being they’d ever encountered. His memory lived for generations among that set. Classmates named sons after him; F. Scott Fitzgerald, who met him once when he was a Princeton freshman and Baker a senior, idolized Baker and remained haunted all his life by what Baker was and he was not. (Baker appeared under another name in This Side of Paradise.) It is difficult today to conceive of a single individual carrying such deep and long-lived influence over his own segment of society, his own world, if only because the sort of world that could be so influenced by a person such as Baker is itself so difficult to conceive of, a hundred years later.

For Fun: I Am Sorry To Think I Have Raised a Timid Son (Kent Russell)

There’s a lot more than fun in this virtuosic collection of essays, reportage, and self-reflection, but boy is some of it funny – like its author. I met Kent last week at the Oxford Conference for the Book (at Ole Miss, not in England), where he was called before a raucous and demanding crowd of inebriated book nerds at The Lyric Oxford to do a reading for Mississippi Public Radio . . . profanity-free. It’s one thing to write an essay as funny as “American Juggalo” (in which Russell goes undercover, sort of, at the 11th annual gathering of the human turbulence that churns in the wake of the hip hop duo Insane Clown Posse); it’s another to do it radio-clean and somehow make it even funnier. He killed it.
Visit John Renehan's website.

--Marshal Zeringue