Thursday, July 18, 2013

Driving Me Crazy

Steve McQueen in Bullitt

I can remember first learning to drive, slipping behind the wheel of my dad's sleek, new, charcoal gray Camaro Z28 with its T-tops and fat tires. It was a fast car and I'm pretty sure my little sisters were both in the backseat for that inaugural drive. I can't remember where I drove or for how long that first time. I only remember one thing: it was fast.

I remember being taught to ride a two-wheel bike. It was on the grounds of the Skinner Center at the corner of Central and Tanglewood in Midtown Memphis. We lived in the house across the street, on the opposite corner of that intersection. I don't remember the make of the bike, but there was plenty of high, chopper-style handlebar. And I'm pretty sure the tires were solid rubber.

My oldest son learning to ride a bike set a precedent - he taught himself. Neither of us had the patience for the lessons, we quickly learned. From that point forward, both JP and S have been self-taught on two wheels. GK is still a question mark on that rite of passage.

So far, C has been an eager learner and patient pupil behind the wheel of a car. And I've been uncharacteristically patient myself. We're older, I guess, and there's a lot more at stake. It's still not finished, still five months from his 16th birthday, and he's yet to take a vehicle out on city streets. But in an empty parking lot, he's as smooth a driver as Steve McQueen or Morgan Freeman.

Here's to many more calm lessons, and to many years of safe driving by all of my kids. And here's to the memories such milestones make.

Today's "Because I Said So" column in The Commercial Appeal:

If son's still driving in 30 years, he passed test 
I recently drove my 15-year-old son to a wide open parking lot, parked the car and handed him the keys. It was his first time behind the wheel of a car and my first time in the passenger seat with a teenager behind the wheel of a car since I was a teenager myself. I dialed 911 and let my thumb hover over the send button. 
He did pretty well, though, narrowly avoiding the few obstacles, and I only barked “Brake!” once or twice. 
I learned how to drive through a combined effort of my father and his midlife Camaro Z28 and Memphis City Schools. Despite your experiences on the streets of Memphis, many of us drivers had lessons. And how many Memphians my age were taught to drive by Mr. Rafael? 
After a three-week course of textbook and on-the-road tutelage, Mr. Rafael administered our final exam, a grueling, hourslong written and multiple choice test as I recall, only to tell us when we were finished to hold on to that test and if we were alive to read it in 30 years, then we passed. 
I’ve passed. And here I am trying to pass that knowledge on to my own son. Imploring him to check his mirrors, mind the blind spots and pump the brake pedal. 
When he was 6, I drove him to a wide open field at Tobey Park to teach him to ride a bicycle. It took only about 15 minutes before we were out of patience with each other and I loaded up the bike in the back of my truck and we drove home in silence. It wasn’t long after that when I was down the block talking to a neighbor, and here came Calvin, riding his bike as though he’d been doing so for years — self-taught. 
How much simpler would it be if they were able to teach themselves to drive a car? How much better would it be for our nerves if we could just send our teenagers away and have them return as safe and responsible drivers? 
I told him that day a couple of weeks ago, as we made circle after circle in the vacant lot, that it amazes me that just anyone can drive. That we allow anybody who is of age and able to pass a fairly simple test the opportunity to wrap himself in metal and hurl himself down the interstate at 65 mph. And then I told him to “Brake!” 
He’s a good kid, and I have faith that he’ll be a good, conscientious driver. I’m not sure how I’ll be as the parent of a driver, though. I don’t think there are any lessons for that, none that Mr. Rafael imparted anyway. 
I can’t imagine that first time I’ll stand on the porch and wave my son away as he backs out on his own and heads into traffic. I’ll wish him well. And I’ll wish I could give him just one last word of advice: “Brake!”

Friday, July 12, 2013

Something Pretty, Something Beautiful by Eric Barnes

Two things struck me while reading Something Pretty, Something Beautiful by Eric Barnes (Outpost19, 2013). The first thing is the movement. Not necessarily the way the book flows, though it will keep you interested and curious from start to finish. What I’m talking about is that when Barnes writes movement – a car full of teenagers speeding down the highway, kids running and tumbling downhill into a gulch, fighting and fleeing – it is as though I was right there in the melee covered with mud and booze. The action is swift, it’s breathy, sweaty and, quite often, bloody.

Something Pretty, Something Beautiful is the gripping story of four friends in Tacoma, Washington, and jumps around among moments of childhood until they approach the fringes of adulthood. Brian Porter is the narrator, though Will Wilson is the ringleader, a young man who carries violence and mayhem with him like a flask of whiskey. Teddy and Coe round out the foursome which blows in whichever direction Will Wilson commands. Those winds tend towards fights and break-ins and some arson while always, always moving.

The near-constant movement is what the young men engage in to fill the emptiness, to fight off boredom and, maybe, to keep from thinking of the future and what each might want outside of Tacoma. The book takes place in the 1970s, and if it were today they might all be diagnosed with ADHD. In Eric Barnes’s Tacoma of the 70s, however, teens swallowed a pill of recklessness, violence and peer pressure.

The second thing to strike me didn’t come to me until late in the book, until page 230 to be precise. It is that I hate these people. I don’t hate them for the things they do, although their actions on the whole are awful, but for what they don’t do. No one ever steps in to stop another from doing the awful thing. It is this lack of will, the absence of strength to be decent, that makes them so unlikable as people. This isn't to say I don't like the characters because of a flaw in the writing. Quite the opposite. Barnes paints their personalities and actions so well that I think of them as real, as walking and talking people. And I hope to never come across such in the real world.

The book is dark. Understand that. This is no light beach read. Barnes takes all of the anxiety, frustration, angst, anger, sex and violence that might collectively fill a high school full of adolescents and condenses it down into these four characters. He keeps it simmering on a flame until it's a bubbling roux and then he holds our wrist and forces our hand into the molten mass. The book is raw and touches at something we've all felt, whether it's the hope for something better or the frustration that it might never be.

There is nothing pretty or beautiful in this book unless it is that hope that there might be something better beyond the city limits and the lives these boys are destined to lead. The stories and the writing will keep you involved to find out if it's possible, to know if one or all of them pack up a car at last and find what it is that might save them. As readers, all we can hope to do is grip the roof of that car as it approaches dangerous speeds and hold on for dear life.

Eric Barnes grew up in Tacoma and now lives in Memphis where he is the publisher of The Daily News, The Memphis News, The Nashville Ledger and the host of Behind the Headlines on WKNO.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells: a review

In THE IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF GRETA WELLS (HarperCollins, 2013), Andrew Sean Greer has once again imagined a world for us to inhabit so well that, by the end of reading, we might be able to say, "I've been there." This time, it is the island of Manhattan spread out among three eras. Greer gives us the character of Greta Wells, a woman who becomes unstuck in time just as Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut's SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE or Henry DeTamble in Audrey Niffenegger's THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE.

For Greta Wells, however, the times are predetermined. She will travel to either 1918 or 1941 rather than land in an unknown time, uncertain of who she will meet or how to react. In her present life, in 1985, Greta Wells is suffering from depression brought on by a great loss in her family. She's offered a series of treatments by her doctor, a new form of the antiquated procedure of electrotherapy. Something happens, though, and with each jolt of electricity in the series, Greta Wells is sent to another time for a matter of days until the next procedure is administered. For these days spent in the past, she lives the life of that time's Greta Wells. She is the same woman whose life is altered in various ways, as though she's looking into several different mirrors, each with its own altering fissure.

There are issues that speak to the times that face each Greta Wells: epidemics of influenza and the AIDS virus, world wars, the limitations of women in society, Prohibition and politics. THE IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF GRETA WELLS posits the theory held by physicists and novelists for centuries that we may not live our life on one plane of existence and time. That while we are awakening in our house each morning, making a pot of coffee, checking e-mail, rousing the kids for school, that there is another us in another time living a similar life in his own version of morning. Time is not linear, Greer assumes, but deep. It repeats and folds in upon itself, and while our actions here today have specific consequences, the same actions in another lifetime might have set our lives on an entirely different track. It's a freeing feeling, I think, to know we may have more than one chance at all of this.
Above all, though, the novel is the story of relationships and how the issues remain the same regardless of era or circumstance. Though actions may alter the course of a day or a lifetime, the ways in which we regard and interact with family, friends and lovers are ever present. While Greta Wells bounces from decade to decade and comes to know husbands, aunts, children and lovers from the past, there is no relationship more prevalent than that between her and her twin brother Felix. It is their bond that acts as balast and holds her fast to each time period in which she finds herself. Her determination to hold on to him, to make life better for him and protect him, causes her to question her very place in history.

I found the construction of this book to be a surprise. I'd expected it to be more like Niffenegger's tale with the protagonist flying through time, never knowing just where she might land. Greer's book allows more structure for Greta Wells, and us, by knowing where she's heading. I wasn't disappointed. Quite the opposite, in fact, as reading the novel helped me to better see a way to build a manuscript I'm currently working on (thank you for that!). 

I do wonder why Greer chose the specific times he did, though. The onslaught of AIDS in the 1980s plays heavily into the story and is juxtaposed with an influenza outbreak in 1918, as well as the ending of World War I. The jump to 1941, of course, coincides with the ramping up to America's involvement in World War II. But there are events throughout the 20th century that would have worked as well. This isn't a criticism, but a curiosity. While reading, I imagined Greer sitting at a desk with three calendars opened before him, each to a different year, and he would move back and forth to write what was happening in a particular month of any particular year.

By the end, the Greta Wells we are first introduced to, a woman made small and helpless in grief, is in control of her destiny and has choices to make that will resonate through her life, the lives of those close to her, and history itself. To make such a decision, she calls upon wisdom gained from every plane of her life, from every life lived. Her life may seem impossible to her at times, but time is only an obstacle to be overcome. Once she's made her choice, the pieces seem to fall into place.

Other novels by Andrew Sean Greer:

The Path of Minor Planets (my review)
The Confessions of Max Tivoli
The Story of a Marriage (my review)