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Ordinary Wizardry
A review of Anne Tyler's Back When We Were Grownups

In the opening scene of Anne Tyler's 15th novel, Back When We Were Grownups, the book's central character, Rebecca, saves the life of a shy boy by pulling his slippery body out of a river.

Rebecca is a 53-year-old grandmother, "wide and soft and dimpled," who, we soon find out, is the organizer and head cheerleader of a large, complicated family made up of three grown stepdaughters and a daughter; their husbands and various children; a single, middle-aged brother-in-law, Zeb; and a nearly 100-year-old uncle, Poppy. When Rebecca's husband Joe died, just six years after they were married, she inherited his family and took on the tasks of keeping family rituals and the family business going, roles she has recently come to question.

"How on earth did I get like this? How? How did I ever become this person who's not really me?" Rebecca asks herself the day of the picnic and the drowning boy. And for the rest of this deceptively quiet and endearing book, we watch intently as she finds the answers to those questions.

Tyler is a wizard of the ordinary, a writer who can wring poignant truths out of a morning at the breakfast table or a conversation with the plumber. The unexpected joys of domestic life fascinate her, and she, more than any author of her generation, tackles the day-to-day subtleties of what it takes to be fully human in the midst of an ordinary life.

How do we learn to love? What does it take to find something we really care about? Why do we need one another? Am I the person I think I am? Where does the truth hide among all our masks and disguises? These are questions asked by a novelist clearly comfortable in her own skin. Tyler gives us the gift of ourselves through her books, allowing us to live intimately with her characters for a few weeks or months, and then to keep a small part of them with us for a long time afterward.

When Rebecca hooks up with her recently divorced high-school sweetheart, Will, she believes she is journeying back to her authentic self -- a quiet, thoughtful girl not given to playfulness. But what she remembers about herself at 17 and what Will claims he loved about her then (and still loves about her) are characteristics directly at odds. Tyler is wonderfully skillful at evoking a pivotal point in any middle-aged person's litany of experience. What 45-year-old hasn't listened to a brother, a sister, an old friend describe an unrecognizable person only to realize it is she or he who is being described?

Gradually, as Rebecca flounders through an attempt at romance with a sad, ruined man, she realizes that the essence of growing up is accepting who you've become and finding value in what your life has brought to others. Back When We Were Grownups ends with Poppy's much anticipated 100th birthday, celebrated in the family's usually festive but chaotic fashion, while Rebecca looks on in a state of detached wonder. This may sound simple but it is not. Writing a vivid scene, keeping the central character set apart from the action and filtering the whole thing through her altered perception is something only the most sophisticated novelists attempt -- Updike comes to mind. Tyler is a master at rendering this internal/external duality of experience, and she does it with such a deft, light hand and with such glee that we completely forget where we are being led; we surrender with relief.

Being in Rebecca's house is like discovering a new neighbor you love on first meeting -- you simply don't want to leave. Like the little boy who slips under the water, only to be pulled out by her loving, competent hands, we are glad she's there, if only for our own good.


Aloha Moi
A review of Paul Theroux's Hotel Honolulu

"All happy families are alike. But every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
-- Tolstoy

If you were expecting platitudes, pleasantries and a lazy summer read from Hotel Honolulu, renowned travel writer Paul Theroux's newest novel, know that Mr. Theroux's unconventional book falls somewhere between Anna Karenina and the Lonely Planet series.

Your Hawaiian vocabulary may increase by a few dozen words, and you will hear mentions of Jack Lord, Waikiki, Don Ho, coral reefs, cane fields, Pearl Harbor, King Kamehameha and "Tiny Hula Hands."

But only mentions.

Hotel Honolulu is a different book, a self-aware book.

The unnamed narrator, who at times sounds and acts much like Mr. Theroux, is a writer who leaves his wife and London home, quits writing, and escapes to Hawaii to start over. He takes an inconspicuous job managing the 80-room Hotel Honolulu two blocks from the beach at Waikiki. Unlike the larger Hiltonesque tourist traps, the Hotel Honolulu is full of color, character and kitsch, slightly seedy and endearing: "We got more local business because we had more scandals," the narrator explains.

More witness than protagonist, the hotel manager has given up writing, but by novel's end he has collected scads of short stories, "dozens of them, 50 or 60, maybe more," which appear to be headed between the covers of a book. Not coincidentally, Hotel Honolulu is a novel told as a collection of stories -- vignettes, actually -- presented in 80 snippets of just a few pages each.

The structure is at times tedious. There is no central plot. Sequential chapters rarely follow the same characters, but instead bounce to and fro. Many characters appear only for the apparent twin purposes of 1) committing suicide, and 2) allowing the author to make an ironic, zinger-style ending in the chapter's closing lines. How many haoles (white mainlanders) need to go mucky (die) with a "gotcha" ending anyway?

Mr. Theroux guides us through an amputation, the sex trade in the Philippines, beekeeping, incest, video-order brides, a dominatrix, internet dating, lung surgery and miscellaneous sexcapades. One guest even buys his wife sex with a younger man as her 40th birthday present. (What for the 50th?)

For all that, the book maintains a certain buoyancy, largely because of characterizations of the hotel staff, a tropical mix of Fellini cast and Love Boat crew.

Most of the stories, staff and guests orbit around the hotel's owner, Buddy Hamstra, a Nevada native and multi-millionaire. Coarse and hedonistic, Buddy's a satyr, which makes him strangely endearing and genuine.

Mr. Theroux writes about Hawaii because no one writes about the real Hawaii, his chosen home. Far from palm trees and poi, today's Hawaii is messy and complicated, morally and literally. Theroux's Hawaii maintains a well-worn beauty and a genuinely diverse culture that can perhaps only be appreciated by someone who has seen so much of the world and appreciates the complexities of change. The hotel bar, Paradise Lost, refers to the simpler, more pristine Hawaii known before World War II.

Unhappy human stories stare the narrator in the face at every turn. In some of the novel's most compelling segments, he discusses what he witnesses with Leon Edel, the old writer and Honolulu resident who wrote the definitive biography of Henry James, and in doing so is slowly led back to writing.

Hotel Honolulu then becomes a self-conscious book: a writer writing about a writer, who after contemplation finds in the sad stories of the characters around him a suitable subject for fiction.

"A happy man cannot be the subject of a story," Mr. Theroux relates. "Happiness is hardly a subject -- Tolstoy said as much ... ."

Mr. Theroux's travels lend great authority to his narrative voice. Several of the characters are strikingly original. At the same time, the vignette style lends itself to sentimentality and clich because little time is available for meaningful character development. Despite these distractions, Hotel Honolulu remains vivid and enjoyable enough, in its own way.


Pleasure's Last Stand
A review of Phillip Roth's The Dying Animal

Michiko Kakutani, who won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for criticism, loathes The Dying Animal, the new short novel by Philip Roth.

Read it anyway.

Kakutani, the powerful 20-year book reviewer for the New York Times, indicted Mr. Roth ("The Dying Animal: A Man Adrift, Living on Sexual Memories," May 8) with a well-reasoned barrage of negatives, calling the novel "cursory," "curiously flimsy and synthetic," and "slight and disappointing."

Mr. Roth's books are not for everyone. He is a lightning rod for critics like Ms. Kakutani, disappointed by what she considers wasted effort. Did the same man, she might ask, who wrote the so-called American trilogy -- three powerful books in which Mr. Roth chronicles the political and moral climate in post-World War II America -- write this?

Mr. Roth's vivid depictions of dominant sex, menstruation and female anatomy in the novel will shock some readers. And the central female character, Consuela Castillo, will incense some feminists as a weak, thinly drawn objectification.

Finally, the novel could be attacked as Mr. Roth's turn at the old clich of an aging man's sexual obsessions over a younger woman. The characters are familiar. He's a professor; she's his student. At the time of the affair, he's 62; she's 24. Professor sleeps -- and then some -- with student. And a nudie picture on the dust jacket to boot.

Draw your own conclusions, however, and don't be fooled into a too-easy reading of this novel as a thin, dirty-minded, May-December love story. Roth has surpassed this sort of criticism for years.

On one level, The Dying Animal is an expos of America's hypocrisy over the sex question. Mr. Roth traces our national sexual schizophrenia -- self-righteous morality that denies the co-existence of a healthy prurience -- straight back to Plymouth Rock.

On another, it is simply about the passage of time exemplified by the dilemma facing Professor David Kepesh, who tells us what it's like to have a body that is 70 years old but a sexual desire that hasn't changed much since his 20s and 30s.

Using his massive facility with English prose, comic timing and wit, Roth explores the interplay between sex, art and aging. True, this is not his best, or even among his best novels. The Dying Animal is more of an attempt to close the circle on a recurring character and only incidentally to address higher themes.

Kepesh reappears in Mr. Roth's fiction after a 24-year absence and might be called Mr. Roth's second-favorite narrator and alter ego. The favorite, of course, is Nathan Zuckerman, used to great success in eight different Roth novels including the Pulitzer Prize--winning American Pastoral (1997).

Kepesh has appeared only twice before. In The Breast (1972), an unsatisfying version of Kafka's Metamorphosis, young Kepesh is transformed not into a giant bug, but into a giant female breast. Then, in The Professor of Desire (1977), Kepesh narrates his life's quest for sexual self-discovery and intimacy. As the latter book ends, we find Kepesh with plenty of sexual information and experience but without a lasting, intimate connection to the woman who loves him deeply.

Now in The Dying Animal, Kepesh has 24 more years of experiences that make for great stories, but his condition hasn't changed much. He candidly admits that pleasure remains central to his identity, pondering "how to be serious over a lifetime about one's modest, private pleasures."

Kepesh finds himself living out the lines of William Butler Yeats' poem "Sailing to Byzantium," from which the novel takes its title and central theme, his carnal desire, alive and well, "fastened to a dying animal," trapped by the inevitability of aging.

"Don't misunderstand me," says Kepesh. "It isn't that, through a Consuela, you can delude yourself into thinking that you have a last shot at your youth. ... Here's what happens: you feel excruciatingly how old you are, but in a new way."

When his retreat into a sexual liaison over which he appears to have little or no control fails, Kepesh seeks solace in his memories, smothering himself in art and classical music as a sort of spiritual salve.

The novel broadens from Kepesh's sexual escapades to discuss America's sexual hang-ups.

Thomas Morton is a character in American history we rarely hear about. We know William Bradford and the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. But Morton, Mr. Roth reminds, was there too, not at Plymouth, but at a nearby settlement known as Merry Mount. The Pilgrims were focused on religious strictures, the Merry Mount crowd on pleasure.

To Mr. Roth, Morton is the embodiment of personal liberty and the symbol of a legitimate, parallel American history. But the candor required in seeking pleasure for pleasure's sake is rejected full force by the other America. "Merry Mount's been expunged from the official version because it's the story not of a virtuous utopia, but of a utopia of candor," Mr. Roth writes. "Yet it's Morton whose face should be carved in Mt. Rushmore."

Our cultural discomfort with the unexpurgated pursuit of sexual pleasure is a sort of schizophrenic condition that survives to this day. Through Kepesh and other characters, Mr. Roth seeks emancipation from these cultural constraints.

In Kepesh's pursuit of pleasure, Mr. Roth suggests, there is a price tag. Kepesh is alone and seemingly out-of-control. But in the end, he has lived his life as he wanted and not as society has dictated.

Andrew Gorgey is a local attorney and writer. He has published reviews of Philip Roth's last three novels and a reader's guide to Mr. Roth's works.

  • Lose yourself in new novels by Anne Tyler, Paul Theroux and Philip Roth.

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