Sunday, November 18, 2012

Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality by Bill Peters

Aaron and I had a vision a couple of years back when we first discussed writing a blog by the name of The Literate Man: to ferret out the best works of modern literary fiction from among the unknown masses, which we were (and are) certain are all too often overlooked by the commercial establishment.  We continue to seek out works that not only entertain but challenge us as readers and break new creative ground in the process.  Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality is precisely what we had in mind.  We give it our highest recommendation.

A few disclaimers are necessary here: I grew up in Western New York, in farm country about 60 miles southwest of Rochester, the self-proclaimed "City of Quality," and the setting for Bill Peters' debut novel.  And like Bill Peters, my appreciation for Western New York and my own formative years, has grown with age and perspective.  We both seem to have great, vivid memories of the Golden Age of the Buffalo Bills, who made it to (and lost) four straight Super Bowls from 1991-1994.  The entire region's preoccupation with that brief glimpse of respectability on the national sports page is reflected again and again in the pages of Maverick Jetpants, not in references to American football per se, but in the holdover Bills-themed clothing worn by Nate and his cohorts.  It is one detail among many that depicts the slow, creeping desperation of daily life in a region in perpetual economic decline since the 1970's.  And Bill Peters captures it with art and precision.

By way of overview, Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality is the entertaining portrait of Nathan Gray, an aimless but sympathetic young man, just a few unproductive years out of high school, as he and his small group of friends grasp about awkwardly (and, perhaps, violently) for what is to become the next stage of their lives.  Nate seems particularly unsuited to make the jump into adulthood, as evidenced by his near obsession with his group's past collective experience and an irrational fear that his best friend, Necro, is poised to leave him behind.  It is a novel that speaks to our common experience in coming of age and our common fears of being left behind by those closest to us.

The most impressive aspect of the novel, however, is Bill Peters' innovative use of dialogue.  The characters speak to one another (and Nate occasionally speaks to the reader) in a lexicon largely unique to his small group of friends--a series of humorous names and labels affixed to their common history.  It is a habit in which we all engage, but rarely notice, and beyond glimpses of the technique in Thomas Pynchon and the writings of David Foster Wallace, it is the first time that I have seen such a device become the centerpiece of a work of fiction.  It makes for a seemingly disjointed (but extremely enjoyable) tale that is woven together by the reader's intuitive understanding of the relationships and events described.  The novel becomes a post-adolescent version of Gravity's Rainbow, where Pirate Prentice is not a delusional American mercenary, but a retiring Generation X slacker, and post-World War II Europe becomes the post-industrial decline of the American rust belt.

Reportedly ten years in the making, Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality announces the arrival of a powerful and innovative young voice in American fiction.  

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A River Runs Through It : Man, Nature and the Art of Fly Fishing

Editors Warning: This is one of the manlier books we’ve ever reviewed at The Literate Man so if you’re not ready for a blast of testosterone handle with care; side effects may include a sprouting of chest hair, deepening of voice and referring to women as subordinate and marginal plot devices.  But if you’re not the type of reader frightened off by such things, a beautiful story and some mesmerizing writing lays ahead.

A River Runs through It is a haunting tale of sorrow and regret as the author, at the age of 71, attempts to make sense of the painful and complex relationship with his gifted, but troubled, brother.  He begins with the opening sentence, “In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing” and he ends with this: “I am haunted by waters.”  In between these two poetic bookends lies a treasure of manly and moving prose.  There’s nothing sentimental in his powerful words and the poignancy of the writing is delicately and expertly balanced against the ruggedness of the characters.
Set in Northwestern Montana during the early decades of the 20th century, when the Wild West was still alive, and bold and cavalier men carved their existence out of the mountains around them, Maclean and his brother grow up Presbyterians and fisherman; not necessarily in that order.  Their relationship was a volatile one, as brotherhood can be, and there’s an incurable lament in the author’s tone as he re-examines their relationship, their adventures, and the unspoken words between them.
A River Runs Through It is also a love letter to the art of fly fishing.  If you’re an aficionado of the sport, Maclean’s ode to his family’s pastime and passion will hypnotize you.  There may be no more beautiful writing about fishing anywhere in literature.  The care he takes to describe the detail and joy of the sport, and above all, the reverence, seemingly explains man and nature in such pure and simple terms, that if Maclean was even half as good a fisherman as he was a writer, than he was truly a master of the fly-rod.  His skillful words tease out the artistry of everyday life and the in-the-moment perfections of an imperfect world.  And he makes you feel like life is a bit fuller with a fly-rod in your hand.
The obvious comparison to Hemmingway is unavoidable.  From the onset, the economic and minimalistic writing style, as well as the subject matter, and aforementioned chauvinistic tones are abundantly evident.  But Maclean, using the same methods and tools, achieves an intimacy that we rarely, if ever, find in Hemmingway’s writing.  And this is no small feat.  The writing is Spartan at times but rings with a clarity and poignancy that is rarely achieved in this –or any- genre of novel.
Originally published as part of a three story collection, and spanning 161(tiny) pages, A River Runs Through It is a novella of extraordinary quality.  For the book collector/fishing enthusiast, we suggest the Pennyroyal Press hardcover edition with wood carved lithographs by Barry Moser. It’s a handsome book that includes a dozen exquisite imprints of flies, fishing scenes and the author.  This book is one of our favorites, and certainly one that every literate man should have on his bookshelf.