Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Roddy Doyle, James Frey, and a biography of Malcolm X.

Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle

Gerard Woodward reviews Roddy Doyle's new short story collection in the Guardian, and is overcome by Doyle's portrayal of a middle-aged malaise in which "everyone in the whole world is 48. That's what it can feel like, after reading these tightly themed stories of mid-life angst." Even so, the book refrains from heavy-handedness: "Scenes are conjured from a few dabs, narratives held together with invisible thread. It is a technique he has been honing since his earliest books, and one that is particularly suited to the short story. The tone of the collection is far from bleak."

Jane Clinton, writing in the Express, concedes that "a collection of short stories on the theme of male loss may not seem that appealing", though finds Doyles' collection one of "rare and beautiful mid-life meditations". Tonally, his writing is enough to persuade Clinton that she is "eavesdropping on each of these men's forbidden thoughts and fears"; though the book "is not all doom" thanks to "flashes of morbid, and sometimes crude, humour". Generally, "the preoccupations of a gender and generation perhaps not known for emotional outpourings is surprisingly uplifting."

The Final Testament of the Holy Bible by James Frey

Mark Lawson's Guardian review of James Frey's novel acknowledges that "the fate that would await a contemporary messiah ... is ... regularly attempted in fiction." However, "the novel itself is compelling as both a thriller and a provocative riposte to religious orthodoxies". Yet this "riposte" might go too far for "fervent believers", for whom "the problem with this novel will be blasphemy." Despite that, Lawson notes that "there's also a secular literary objection. The book creates a Jesus who conveniently preaches the values of liberal America - pro-gay marriage, pro-abortion, anti-churchgoing - but there's no reason why this figure should have more validity than the historical one being dismissed." Even so, Frey's fiction is "impressively done", "the alternating testimonies distinctively voiced and the twists on the gospel versions nicely judged."

Peter Conrad writes less charitably in the Observer, finding the novel an "unmoving tale", and warning that Frey, not only "isn't fooling anyone", but "happens to be a shameless faker, who manufactures mishaps to embellish his personal mystique". His latest novel is "artlessly crass in its retelling of what's meant to be the greatest story ever told"; his protagonistic messiah figure is "a semi-articulate hippy"; his prose "lumpenly prosaic, unable to conceive of or communicate rapture". Ultimately, Frey's work "makes Jesus Christ Superstar sound like Handel's Messiah."

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

A review published by Wilbert Rideau in the Financial Times praises Marable's work as "encyclopaedic in its approach", with a "staggering breadth and depth of scholarship" and "much to recommend it for its history of orthodox Islam, the perspective it offers on the black political movements of the 1950s and 1960s that changed America, and its insights into the development and inner workings of the Nation of Islam". However, "Marable the academic historian is sometimes at odds with Marable the biographer", and though this book is "indispensable as a reference for scholars", such detail might also prove "an impediment for the general reader". Rideau suggests that "too much detail about Islamic history ... interrupts the narrative about Malcolm X's development". Moreover, the account lacks "a sense of the man as a fully rounded human being: a friend, father, lover or husband." Marable fails to wholly capture this "elusive and enigmatic public figure whose politically incorrect speech gave voice to the dark and angry thoughts of an oppressed people."

Andrew Anthony, writing in the Observer, heralds Marable's biography as the aptly "meticulous portrait" that Malcolm X "deserves" - a "comprehensive and fair-minded portrait of both Malcolm and the turbulent period of American history in which he lived and died". Marable details the extent to which Malcolm was "adept at tailoring his message to different audiences", though finds that ultimately, "the man who emerges from this book is in many respects admirable: brave, loyal, self-disciplined, quick-witted, charismatic, acutely intelligent and a public speaker of quite awesome power". Despite this, Marable also traces Malcolm's flaws: chiefly his "attitude to women", and successfully places Malcolm's personal life alongside "his unique role in black and global resistance culture".

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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times