Saturday, December 27, 2008

An Opportunity Missed

Thoughts on Robert Mailer Anderson's Boonville...

I picked up Robert Mailer Anderson’s debut novel Boonville at the Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino, California, this past summer. The book caught my eye for two reasons: first, it is a book about place, something I am working on myself; and second, it is about a place I am familiar with, at least in passing. I first became aware of Boonville, a Northern California hamlet that lies between the Sonoma wine country and the Mendocino coast, when I was a boy and saw a news report about Boontling, the strange local language (a somewhat bizarre derivative of American English) that is still spoken by some of the locals there. I became further aware of it when my father, during the post-divorce years that doubled as his midlife crisis, traveled there often to recapture his small-town roots by drinking and partying with newfound friends from the counties to the north. (We live in the South Bay Area.) When I finally went to Boonville myself, it was as a pass-through en route to Mendocino, a coastal town that—with its ocean and its orientation transposed—became the image of the fictitious Cabot Cove of the TV series “Murder, She Wrote.” (Those spectacular helicopter shots that opened each episode, showing a charming village on a rocky coastline, were not taken in Maine, but in Northern California, the camera pointing south, not north.) Little did I know, when my wife and I stopped off in Boonville for lunch or a bit of wine or microbrew shopping, that we were a type that has since been cast. In the novel Boonville, there is a scene where the protagonist, John, begins his stay in town, having traveled from Miami under tremulous circumstances. In this scene, my wife and I are represented by two yuppies seated at the restaurant bar:

The bartender tramped three paces to take a couple’s order, waiting patiently while a bald man in a sports jacket asked about the “nose” and “acidity” of various wines on a wine list. After a litany of questions concerning “harvests,” “fermentation,” and “barrel selection,” he inquired about the house red, asking if it was “full-bodied.” The bartender answered, “Like Liz Taylor on a chocolate binge.” Uncorking a bottle labeled Edmeades, he poured two glasses with the nonchalance of someone who had spent more than their fair share of time behind a slab of mahogany. The bald man shoved his face into the glass, held it up to the light, swirled it, and then took a sip.

“Jammy,” he said, as if he had stomped the grapes himself.

His companion sampled hers, seemingly satisfied. The bartender returned the bottle to its shelf, marked a check with a pencil and set the bill in front of them in a brandy snifter. The two kissed as if the bartender’s tip was to witness their affection. (p. 15)

Now, I’ve got a full head of hair, never wear a sports jacket, and when I kiss my wife in public, it is to express affection, not display it. However, I am interested in harvests, fermentation, and barrel selection (without the quote marks), and I have, as I say, been known to stop into Boonville for a drop en route to Mendocino or back. And herein lies the problem—and conflict—I had with Boonville. To me, Anderson is, not to put too fine a point on it, full of himself. And unfortunately, this ego—or perhaps it’s just a need to come off as a huge ego—casts a dark shadow over what I find to be, in flashes, a pretty fine piece of work.

In one of those preliminary statements ostensibly meant to dispel any parity between fact and fiction, but in fact meant to emphasize such parity, Anderson writes:
As for the hippies in the county who may be upset at the depiction of hippies, I say, “Tough shit, hippie.” Anyone willing to identify themselves as a hippie here in the 21st century has their head up their ass and gets what they deserve. (p. vii – unnumbered)
What is unsettling in that statement is not the attitude of a writer who would wave a dismissive hand over a population, or assume, in advance, that “the hippies of the county” would be the least interested in reading his book, or appoint himself the critic qualified and capable enough to define the 21st century for us. What is unsettling is that those who read the book will find that three of its pivotal characters are not only hippies, but are drawn with a good bit of depth and sensitivity. One of these is the mother of John’s love interest Sarah McKay, who in her final meeting with Sarah says, “It doesn’t seem fair. I’m not that old…My life can’t be coming to a close. I’m not through with it yet.” The passage goes on:
You’re not even 50, Sarah wanted to point out, but instead crossed her arms, trying to guess what Mom had swallowed recently other than a carob-covered raisin. She could hear the fear coupled with the fatigue of being awake too long. But her voice wasn’t racing, her pupils weren’t dilated. It definitely wasn’t dope or wine, unless one or the other had been laced. Mom was riding something unknown to Sarah, something from the medicine chest cut with the stimulus of isolation, old videos, and her daughter’s imminent departure. (p. 245)
The portrayal of an aging, sorrowful hippie in a book that purports to dismiss all hippies with a macho “tough shit” is indicative of a larger dissonance: Boonville is real writing—conflict, characterization, reflection, imagery—interwoven with a coarse and at times slapstick brand of humor that provides the intermittent chuckle and even the occasional out-loud laughter, but does so at too high a cost. The humor, while funny, does not penetrate, and in fact dulls the overall impact of the story. It’s a book that could be a great romp, or a deep exploration of a quirky place and its bizarre inhabitants, but its attempt to be both at once, for me, falls flat.

In the acknowledgments, Anderson thanks such luminaries as Norman Mailer, Isabelle Allende, Carl Hiassen, and Calvin Trillin for their “support and kind words,” but this is one reader who feels that more time could have been spent drawing from such august counsel and crafting a more nuanced Boonville. To me, the book is an opportunity missed.

Buy Boonville now from
San Francisco

Saturday, December 6, 2008

After the Fact II – An Unexpected Prop. 8 Opponent

Will there be enough room in that grave for his 40 wives to roll over with him?

In November, a few days before Californians narrowly approved Proposition 8, the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, a San Francisco Chronicle writer reported seeing a “No on Prop 8” sign on the lawn of Steve Young, who lives not far from my former neighborhood in Palo Alto, California. For the ESPN-weary and -agnostic among us, Young is the former San Francisco 49er quarterback and NFL Hall of Famer who also happens to be a graduate of Brigham Young University and, in fact, the great-great-great-grandson of Brigham Young himself. A bit ironic when you consider that Proposition 8 almost certainly would not have passed in California had it not been for a massive invasion of Mormons and Mormon money from Utah: as Hendrik Hertzberg reports in this week’s New Yorker, “Almost all the early canvassers for the cause were Mormons, …[and of] the forty million dollars spent on behalf of Prop. 8, some twenty million came from members or organs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

Mormon invasion or no, Barb Young, Steve’s wife, declared, “We believe all families matter and we do not believe in discrimination.” Scurrilous words indeed from the wife of a (perhaps former) favorite son.

So I ask you, what is more ironic, the fact that the antecedent followers of Brigham Young, a man who had 40 wives, are now dictating to Californians who they can and cannot marry, or the fact that Young’s most famous antecedent, Steve Young, was against the measure from the start?