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The New, the Old and the Obscure

Capsule book reviews of work by Richard Ford, Frederick Exley and Leslie Marmon Silko.


The New

“Sorry For Your Trouble” (2020)
by Richard Ford

An ageless storyteller, Ford has the rare ability to make simple moments brim with clarity and wisdom. Best-known for the Bascombe novels, which include the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Independence Day,” Ford’s story collections showcase his many gifts as an artist.

From Maine to Paris to Ireland, the stories in “Sorry For Your Trouble” capture this moment of uncertainty in Americans’ lives, both between lovers and friends and the self, alike.

For this reader, at least, Ford seems to speak to some part of life that’s often impossible to describe, his character’s complexities distilled into a single emotion – pain, envy, love – and the hope each offers for a new start. Ford’s people are unique microcosms of the American experiment. They hope, dream and fail. The task Ford gives himself here is to see the world from the vantage point of someone about to leave it. He does so in these short stories with both wit and brevity. In the story, “Happy,” Ford relates the mood of this past year with great simplicity: “Life – and it seemed very suddenly – was this now. And little more.”

The Old

“A Fan’s Notes” (1968)
by Frederick Exley

I first read Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes” during a weeklong stay to visit my girlfriend while she was abroad in Spain. During her classes, I would sit in a cafe and drink and read. It was one of a handful of books that made me think it was possible to write smartly, humorously and truthfully about sports, addiction and love.

With lofty dreams of being a writer, Exley’s fictional self goes from city to city, job to job, grinding away at his work and drinking himself to sleep. Eventually, he ends up institutionalized, spellbound by love and failure, as well as a thirst for something strong and brave, the symbol of American exceptionalism: the Polo Grounds of Upper Manhattan and the New York Giants.

The strange power of the book, and its allure, is that Exley describes the novel as a fictional memoir. The narrator is full of humility and regret, even as he confesses his series of humiliations and mistakes he’s made with family, friends and strangers. As a reader, you’re not necessarily rooting for Exley’s hero so much as you’re observing the slow, destructive, yet edifying journey that results from his addiction.

In talking about his love for the simplicity of football, Exley writes, “[Football] had that kind of power over me, drawing me back with the force of something known, scarcely remembered, elusive as integrity – perhaps it was no more than the force of a forgotten childhood.”

The Obscure

“Almanac of the Dead” (1991)
by Leslie Marmon Silko

A big, deep novel that operates as an historical reference of the Southwest and how the memory of indigenous peoples is created, distorted and re-imagined.

Throughout the novel, drug dealers, runaways and holistic healers take equal stake in the tapestry of the Arizona desert’s evolution as a place, home and community. Centered around the story of a popular psychic’s extended family, Silko’s characters represent what grows when the land has been poisoned. The author’s language is rhythmic and blunt. Her characters speak with force and certainty, even as they traverse the world without a net. While one character seeks refuge in returning home, another is on the run from their own memory.

Silko writes, “A slave was the first thing any man thought of; someone to do the dirty work.” Perhaps Silko’s opus, “Almanac of the Dead,” follows a bloodline burrowed deep in this land.