Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Erica Heller, Christine Dwyer Hickey and Adam Levin.

Yossarian Slept Here by Erica Heller

In the Independent, Emma Hagestadt writes that "Erica Heller, daughter of Catch-22 author Joseph Heller, seems to have weathered her girlhood better than most daughters of celebrated literary lions. [Her] book shows a robust acceptance of her father's overbearing personality and Don Draperesque approach to marriage and fatherhood."

Carolyn Kellogg opines in the Los Angeles Times that this is a "vital read ... [Erica] didn't idolise her father, but she portrays his complexities with sympathy." "Dominating the memoir is the story of Erica's parents' marriage ... Erica believes that her wise-cracking, charismatic father was still deeply tied to her mother," writes Hagestadt.

Kellogg notes that, "While writing Catch-22, Heller worked as a copywriter for Time, Look and McCall's magazines and for Remington Rand Corporation ... The New York of the period leaps off the page. Heller's cronies included Mel Brooks, Mario Puzo and Speed Vogel, and Erica captures their 'food orgies' in Chinatown."

Ian Sansom, in the Guardian, writes that, according to Erica, Heller "'took his meat, and his meals, unabashedly seriously'; everything else he treated as a joke. He had everything, but it wasn't enough ... Erica concludes simply that Heller was 'indecipherable.'"

The Cold Eye of Heaven by Christine Dwyer Hickey

Leyla Sanai writes in the Independent that the novel begins with "an old man who lives alone, Farley ... lying on his bathroom floor having suffered a stroke. His probable fate is made horribly real to us in achingly lyrical prose." The book spans "time to create a hauntingly poignant portrait of a Dublin existence, rendered, as is every life in close-up, extraordinary." Sara Keating, writing in the Irish Times, comments that "Dywer Hickey's skill is like that of a painter, slowly layering detail to provide a composite view... there are no clever tricks with hindsight or irony. There are no surprise revelations. There is just the measured pleasure of intimacy with Farley."

Keating describes the book as "a moving portrayal of elderly loneliness and regret. However, as Dwyer Hickey reveals through a clever reverse chronology, Farley has not always been a curmudgeon. He once had dreams and passions of his own." Sanai finds that "Dwyer Hickey's writing is acutely insightful and perfectly balances sorrow, joy and humour. Weepingly moving passages are juxtaposed with hilariously irreverent dialogue worthy of Roddy Doyle."

In the Guardian, Stevie Davies concludes that this is "the most profound novel I have read for years ... Farley's life story is told in reverse chronology, 2010 to 1940 - a technique capable of ingenious satiric force ... [the novel] slips back decade by decade, questing for origins and causes."

The Instructions by Adam Levin

Joshua Cohen, in the New York Times, writes that "this fat tablet is partly a theologico-political tract, and mostly a chronicle of four days in the life of a junior high schooler in suburban Illinois ... Gurion's your typical Midwestern prodigy... yet one of the most promising students ever to grace an Illinois Solomon Schechter School can't keep from fighting others." Tim Martin writes in the Telegraph that "we encounter [Gurion] in ... a high-security education experiment known as The Cage, which is attempting to tutor a gang of behaviourally disordered unteachables."

Martin comments that "Levin has put a lot of effort into Gurion's vernacular, which crawls with sticky idioms and madcap coinages" which will "either enthral you with its playfulness and experimentation or leave you grinding your teeth and howling."

"The reader of The Instructions is pinioned by Gurion's madly chatty first-person for the book's entire length ... an exercise in extreme observation that makes a bare four days of narrative time feel like years of chest-crushing reading", points out Martin. "Rarely has a first novel so cried out for a good editor." Cohen is also disappointed by the novel, which "ultimately devolves not into commentaries and interpretive apparatuses but into a vague ending ... This all makes for a very long joke: a setup that lacks a punch line."

According to Michael Sayeau in the New Statesman: "The faux artlessness of Levin's digressions, the posed credulity of seeming not to understand that he is asking his readers for something they wouldn't want to give, seem to serve as a screening veil for an author clearly smart enough to write a taut and economical work of fiction instead of this."

Getty
Show Hide image

How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism