Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Paul Harding Paul Harding Paul Harding Paul Harding Paul Harding Paul Harding. A LIttle Overboard in the enthusiasm? Well, "Enon" is Out Today and Paul Harding is Coming to Boswell on September 25, 7 pm, and I'm Excited. Who Wouldn't Be?

As I've been mentioning for a while now, September 10 is a crazy week for books. I know that there are probably weeks to come when there are more high-profile books coming out, but for the sheer number of books that I've been anxiously awaiting since publishers started tantalizing us with fall lists back in April, nothing beats this week for releases.

I'm so overwhelmed, in fact, that I'm going to do my routine when I have too many deadlines and projects and things going wrong--I focus on getting one thing done. Yesterday, for example, I told myself I would get around to writing up a number of consignment agreements for a number of contract published and micro-press author events, and yes, it got done. And now I'm going to use that same technique to not get overwhelmed by all the new releases. I'm going to focus on one book today, and that is going to be one of my favorites by one of my favorite authors, Paul Harding's Enon.

If you're new to the blog, you'll might not know that we were lucky enough to host Paul Harding (photo credit Ekko von Schwichow) for Tinkers after it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the first small-press title to win that honor in I have no idea how long. Bellevue Literary Press came to us after hearing of our interest in a visit and said (paraphrasing) Harding is going to Minneapolis, and if you can figure out how to come up the money for the extra flight and the hotel, he can come to Milwaukee too. It turned out that we were able to work with the UWM Creative Writing department and make it happen. (Can I say "thank you" one more time for that?)

Now there are award-winning authors and there are blow-you-away award winning authors. We got a really great crowd for the event, but I don't think anyone was prepared for how wonderful Harding was as a presenter. I know there are lots of attendees who list our Tinkers event in their top five of all time. Aside #35: I am shocked by how many folks informally rate how good the events are. It warms the heart of a compulsive ranker like me.

Paul Harding's next book went to Random House. And the first time I saw Enon scheduled, I already got anxious. The truth is that every publisher has its own marketing rhythm. The DNA of the RHPG (Random House Publishing Group, as opposed to the larger Random House entity, which is now Penguin Random House) tends to favor multiple Chicago events over adding Milwaukee. It's not that they won't do an event here, it's just that we have to work extra hard and do an extra amazing job to make it happen. Hey, keeps me on my toes, right?

But to make a long story short, Harding thought that his Milwaukee stop was a highlight of his Tinkers promotion, and as a result, we made it onto the tour. Milwaukee, you should be proud! And you better make me proud again, because the last thing we need is a dud appearance.

So the new novel, Enon (UK jacket at left, the US one was shown first) is out, and you're probably wondering what it's like. Let me tell you what I thought about it.

"If Charlie Crosby’s life hasn’t exactly fallen into place, it’s certainly in gear, at least until the horrible accident that claims the life of his daughter Kate, hit by a car while riding her bicycle. After that, it’s a gritty spiral into grief, losing his wife, and slowly drifting into a drug-created, zombie-like paralysis. His memories are still there, and the story swirls with images of his young adulthood, his childhood with his grandfather and of course, life with Kate, set amidst his wanderings. There’s a nightmarish beauty to Enon (and some breathtakingly funny passages too, cue coworker Gus’s “I’ll kill you right now” monologue*), but isn’t that really what grief is like? And though some of us don’t hit “Breaking Bad” depths, we all feel like we might. Paul Harding captures all those feelings, and more, in this worthy companion (in a Home/Gilead kind of way) to Tinkers."

Yes, it's not hard to spot that Marilynne Robinson was quite the inspiration to Harding. I think his musical career as a drummer for the band Cold Water Flat also had a great influence. There's a rhythm to Harding's novels, the way they sort of have a theme and variation, that reminds me of a musical piece, much the way I have thought about Alice McDermott's early work. Actually there's more similarity than you'd expect. I don't want to give anything away, but Alice McDermott's Somone and Paul Hardin'g Enon share some themes, and I wouldn't be surprised if someone decided to review them together.

So you must understand how the stories connect--Charlie Crosby is the grandson of George of Tinkers, and if his first novel approached the protagonist from his deathbed, Enon follows the breakdown of Charlie after the death of his child. This story swirls around in a drug and alcohol haze as Charlie first severs the relationship with his wife, and slowly declines into a painkiller fueled addiction as his memories jump from life with his daughter, his wife, his childhood with his grandfather, and the walks he takes to dull the pain of loss.

Alice McDermott’s Someone centers on Marie Corrigan, a plain Brooklyn girl called “the little pagan” by her parents, at least compared to her brother Gabe, born to the priesthood. Whereas Enon is told in flashbacks, Someone reveals much in its flash forwards, as the episodic narrative takes jagged breaks into the future, seeing the widowed Marie before she marries, her life in a nursing home before we know she has kids.

Marie’s journey is one of encounters with death, but unlike with Charlie, where we are confronted with devastation head on, we side step into Marie’s, starting with her neighbor Pegeen, and slowly confront her other losses—her best friend’s mother, her own father, a blind neighbor. While she doesn’t drug herself to cope, the folks around her certainly do. And by the end, you’ll understand why I think these books need to be read together.

There are things dramatically different about the two stories. Charlie’s Protestant New England town is light years away from Marie's Catholic neighborhood in Brooklyn, but perhaps not so different from the suburban town on Long Island where she eventually settles. The oddballs in Crosby’s life are left to their sometimes amusing monologues. In Marie’s life, an earlier time, they are mocked and ostracized. And if there’s a humor to McDermott’s writing, it’s certainly more gentle than the sometimes outrageousness of Harding’s.

Hey, let's round up some reviews for Enon! There are a good number right out of the gate, due to its pedigree as a prize-winning follow up.

Collette Shade in The New York Daily News writes "Paul Harding’s excellent second novel, about a grieving father, picks up where his first left off. Like his Pulitzer Prize-winning debut Tinkers, Enon deals with themes of family history, relationships and loss.

Brigitte Frase in the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) comments that "Like Tinkers, this is a realistic novel pushed to an extreme of yearning and feeling. Where in the first book, characters try to pass through a seam of reality to rejoin some primal energy pulse of the universe, sensing 'a secret door that opened on its own to an electric storm spinning somewhere on the edges of the solar system,' here Charlie, a hapless Orpheus, cannot stop himself “from stepping over the same dark threshold, night after night, trying to follow her into the country of the dead in order to fetch her back."

While Jeff Giles notes in Entertainment Weekly that the first half of the book is more stately than stunning, "The second half finds our antihero in a shame spiral so wild and riveting it's practically an aria."

The Wall Street Journal (I can't figure out the reviewer) not only links Enon and Someone, but Jonathan Lethem's Dissident Gardens (another September 10 review, and it takes the coveted front-page New York Times Book Review spot two days before on-sale date and a major Terry Gross interview on Fresh Air on Monday, as being a priority Knopf book always gives you a leg up, right?) as well. The critic observes "The journey to the depths of his grief is unforgettably stark and sad. But that sadness, shaped by a gifted writer's caressing attention, can also bring about moments of what Charlie calls 'brokenhearted joy.'"

Let's be blunt. These are not the kind of novels to read when you are in the throes of despair. In the last few months, I read a book, I don’t remember which one, which said pessimists are the true realists, and that optimism is a drug that keeps us going in the faith of setbacks. So when Charlie goes on his drug-and-alcohol-fueled binge, one might just say he reached for the wrong medicine.

Paul Harding is appearing at Boswell on Wednesday, September 25,  7 pm, and of course Alice McDermott comes to Boswell on Saturday, September 28, 11 am. And tomorrow? It's time to discuss Hannah Kent's Burial Rites.

*Seriously, you really have to read Gus’s “I’ll kill you now” monologue, one of the funniest crazed-but-authentic hate rants I’ve read in a long time.

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