I’m willing to put down books before I reach the end. I used to suffer from a “finish what you start” syndrome, and I would keep hoping the book would turn the corner and start to captivate me. It rarely did.
One reason I’m quicker to move on to a different book is a few years back I calculated how many more books I might read in my lifetime, factoring in average male longevity and my reading rate. It was a depressing number and I regretted calculating it. So don’t do it.
We all put books down without finishing them. Some readers have even put my books down (not realizing at the time they will someday look back on this act as one of their life’s great regrets).
Lessons in Chemistry
I put down the wildly popular current bestseller Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus, about Elizabeth Zott, a 1960s female chemist turned television star chef. The book perfectly conforms to its genre conventions—heartfelt novels written by women for women readers.
I don’t disparage women authors. Some of my favorite authors are women: Edith Wharton, Emily St. John Mandel, Jennifer Eagan, Margaret Atwood—although none of these authors write what the market classifies as “women’s fiction.”
It’s a lucrative market with a huge target audience and Lessons in Chemistry hits the mark with an intelligent, headstrong female protagonist who must overcome all kinds of obstacles facing women in science.
It’s a fine book and a peppy story. What bothered me was the narrative voice: a friendly, omniscient, cheery voice that somehow made even scenes of rape and death seem like minor inconveniences to Elizabeth. When the pet dog got a point of view (worldly, witty, heartfelt), I gave up, about one hundred pages into the four-hundred-page novel. There was not much here for me, although there is a lot for other readers. I’m just not the target audience, but I delved in because I’m compelled by novels that everyone is raving about.
I’m more the target audience of Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger, which I was dismayed to put down.
McCarthy, now in his eighties, holds an esteemed place in the canon of American literature. I was in awe of his novels All The Pretty Horses and especially The Road (Pulitzer Prize 2006). McCarthy has a distinct writing style, combining clipped, staccato dialog with run-on descriptive sentences that creates and releases tension as you read.
The Passenger is mostly about Bobby Western, a salvage diver who makes a suspicious discovery when investigating a plane that plunged into the Gulf of Mexico. He’s a rough and masculine southern Marlboro-man type.
There is a second story embedded in the novel about Bobby’s sister, who suffers from severe, crippling hallucinations. Her chapters read like an incomprehensible stream of consciousness which I found incredibly frustrating and dull, to the point where I looked ahead and saw there were too many of these chapters, all written in italics. I didn’t want to read those chapters, so I put the book down.
American literary lion Russell Banks recently died, and I immediately picked up his novel Affliction which has been sitting unread on my bookshelf for a number of years. It ended up being the most powerful book I’ve read in a while.
Affliction features Wade Whitehouse, a well-digger and part-time policeman in a bleak New Hampshire town. His hard luck story—severely beaten by his father as a boy, divorced twice from the same woman, isolated and confused as the parent to a seven-year-old girl, suffering economic and emotional hardship, and both a victim and perpetrator of traditional values. Wade is a distressed, violent man heading toward disaster.
The story is narrated by Wade’s younger brother, Rolfe, in a brilliant narrative scheme in which Rolfe appears and disappears from the story itself and allows the characters to take over. Rolfe is the only Whitehouse child to escape to college. He also escaped the violence ingrained in the lives of men.
Rolfe was able to do what Wade and many other men could not: manage or compartmentalize the ever-present despair, the depression, the anger, the self-doubt, the unfounded confidence, the uncalled-for righteousness, the inability to understand emotions or express feelings, and the lack of significance and meaning in their lives. Violence was the go-to outlet when these afflictions piled up. It’s what limited, unlucky men with limited options and little imagination resort to—wife-beating, kid-beating, fight-picking, cold-cocking, grievance-settling, and misguided-honor-defending.
If this sounds bleak, if this sounds like the kind of thing you want less of in your life because you’re leaning into sunshine and happiness, then this book isn’t for you. But for me, Affliction was about as real as a work of fiction can be, shedding light on the misery and fate facing many poor, rural men in America. And while it’s not a page-turner, it’s completely engrossing, with passage after passage of rich, stellar, insightful writing that bores into the depths of character and motivation.