Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Young men and their disappointments

After reading the Keats Brothers biography I looked around for something different, maybe a little lighter. I've read three books since then, all of them loosely dealing with young men confronting some live-altering challenges.

The first is a book that I borrowed from my Mom -- an Ivan Doig novel called The Whistling Season, set in Maria's Coulee, Montana (near Great Falls) in the year 1910. Doig is a well-known Montana writer that I've been meaning to read for years. His best known novels are Dancing at the Rascal Fair and Ride with Me, Mariah Montana, covering the years when Montana first became a state.

Young Paul Milliron is 14 with two younger brothers, the sons of a dry-dirt farmer who is recently widowed. When Mr. Milliron answers a newspaper ad for a Minnesota woman advertising herself as a housekeeper, he engages her to come West, and that is where the story really starts. It's a charming novel, nostalgic in tone, as it is an older Paul who tells the story of his coming-of-age during this time. Much of the story centers around the mysterious, widowed Rose who comes to keep house for them with her dandified brother, Morrie, in tow. Morrie stumbles into the post of teacher for the one-room schoolhouse -- a little community in itself, divided by age and the immigrant backgrounds of the children, as well as schoolyard rivalries. As is usual in the bildungsroman, Paul is beginning to mature, to enter into the world of adults with its full range of intricacies, secrets, and consequences. He has to shoulder new responsibilities, forge new relationships, and make difficult decisions. The "secret" at the heart of the story is discovered in the end, and it is primarily Paul who decides how it will play out in the lives of the other characters.

Next, was Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, which definitely seemed like a precursor to The Heart of Darkness -- it introduces Marlowe, the story-telling narrator who pops up again in HofD. There is also a remote and mysterious foreign world, reached by traveling down a river beset with dangers, a white man who enters and who does not leave. Sound familiar?

Here the young man is Jim, the son of an English country clergyman, who goes to sea. Embarking on his career, Jim has romantic ideals about how he will respond in circumstances where heroics are called for, but in one of his first posts, having worked up to chief-mate on board a poorly crewed and led ship called the Patna, everything goes disastrously wrong. The ship is carrying hundreds of Muslim pilgrim families bound from an Asian port to the Middle East. Somewhere in the middle of the night, the ship hits an unseen object that severely damages it, and Jim and the rest of the crew believe they are doomed to sink and drown. The captain and crew clearly intend to abandon the ship in a lifeboat, saving themselves and leaving the rest to their fates. Jim, in the confusion, makes the dishonorable decision to flee as well, but the ship does not sink and the tale of the crew's infamy spreads everywhere. While the rest slink away, only Jim remains to face the formal inquiry that strips him of his reputation and former career. This is where Marlowe meets Jim and tells the story of his subsequent struggle to live down his shame. Let's just say, it doesn't end well.

The thing I like about Conrad is his beautiful language, but even though his stories are compelling, I always feel like I'm kept at such a remove from his protagonists that it is hard to really feel an emotional interest in them. Jim's struggle is the center of the novel, but everything about him is filtered through Marlowe's limited knowledge of Jim's thoughts and history -- sometimes the gaps are filled in by random people that he meets who know only small parts of Jim's story, some bits are told by snippets of letters, but Jim himself remains a cipher, and perhaps a symbol -- the issue of personal honor and what it means to lose it. It's hard to get cozy with ciphers and symbols, as much as I might admire the art.

 I've gone skipping through the genres from coming-of-age, to seafaring adventure, now to science fiction and alternate history. Matthew Flaming's The Kingdom of Ohio follows the story of the young Peter Force, arriving in New York City in 1900 to find work digging the tunnels that will become the subway system. As young men will do, he meets a beautiful and mysterious woman who may or may not be crazy. She claims to have traveled in time, seven years into the future -- but a future that doesn't seemed linked to her past, as a princess of sorts, belonging to the royal house of Toledo in the Kingdom of Ohio, which has remained a separate principality within the United States. Alrighty then, young Peter thinks, falling under the "crazy" woman's spell, even as he doesn't believe a word she says. What ensues is part thriller, part historical fiction (John Pierpont Morgan, Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla are some of the main characters), and part alternate-history mind-bender. It even pulls in the lore of the Lost Colony for good measure. All in all, it was a very entertaining story that will have you Googling everything from Tesla, to the history of the NYC subway, to Croatoan -- trying to sort out the author's tricky allusions and figuring out which pieces are fact, myth, or just pure fantasy that Flaming made up himself. Good fun.