Alive and Kicking

book by Michael Levin (out of print)

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Michael Levin has written an engaging farce drawing on his legal expertise as an attorney to tell the story of a contested will. The Gaines family has been suing each other for decades with the help of two contentious law firms, Shapolsky & Shapolsky versus Shapolsky and Shapolsky. The character names are provided in charts at the beginning of the book which is one of the first problems with the novel. While the charts are helpful, they would not have been necessary in a 347 page book had the author not resorted to cute and redundant names. There are several Sam Gaines and other characters have combinations like Woodrow Wilson Gaines and Charlie Chaplin Gaines that are more silly than useful. To add to the confusion are inconsistent abbreviations such as Sam C, Grover Sam and so on.

The prose itself is average and workmanlike, and although Levin knows how to ratchet up tension within a scene, he does not do so consistently and often undercuts his efforts with look-at-me cleverness. He has no consistent POV character or group of characters who might serve to ground the narrative. The result is that the reader is not aligned with any one particular person in each moment of the text and the narrative takes on the quality of forgettable pop music. The closest character to a grounding presence is Amelia Vanderbilt, the trust officer at the bank that oversees the case at the heart of the book, the $60 million estate of former vaudeville star 92 year old Harry Gaines. Harry left a will with the provision that his family will only inherit his $60 million fortune if they can get along for one month. This situation is full of opportunities for great dialogue, for characters saying no to each other until that no is final, but these opportunities are squandered for the most part. Amelia is not a fully realized female character, reacting out of character and superficially to cheating on her fiancé so that the act becomes just one more plot point rather than fully formed scene.

An authoritative narrator begins the book, but fades in and out of the narrative, mostly out. But the first paragraph is promising:

It is bad form to come right out and express one’s desire than an elderly relative should stop wasting everyone’s time already and pack it in. Those favored with elderly, wealthy relatives, especially if those relatives are perceived in the family as difficult or uncaring, might confess, if they were thoroughly honest, that such uncharitable thoughts have crossed their minds more than once….

Levin comes right out with what’s been going on in the minds of Gaines family members for generations, but his failure to use this voice regularly throughout or as bookends misses another opportunity for a cohesive and powerful story that makes the most of its farcical elements.

Levin’s other big problem is dialogue tags. He not only tells rather than shows throughout, he hits the reader over the head with such tags as ‘he told her matter-of-factly,’ ‘Morris exclaimed,’ and ‘Harry retorted.’

Levin structured the book into thirty-seven chapters in four sections. The sections are titled, Intimate Relations, Undue Influence, Lucid Intervals, and Absolute Dominion. Here again he misses an opportunity to either use consistent probate terms, legal jargon or most appropriately, vaudeville cards as a nod to his opening character and leading decedent. However, he does use a number of old Gaines family letters and many legal documents from decades of lawsuits as his device to reconstruct the family feuds and these are effective tools.

Reading “Alive and Kicking” helped with my current novel in that the legal approach is not appropriate to my material. There is the additional benefit of learning from negative example to beware of excesses in characters names, dialogue tags, and a thick underbrush of modifiers. Despite its flaws, the book has a breezy charm. It is fun and most of the humor comes out of long-standing family feuds and misunderstandings. The other valuable lesson here is that Levin knows when to retreat from acrimony and bitterness in order to allow the reader to enjoy his spoof in which the lawyers, refreshingly (to use one of his numerous adverbs), do not come out ahead.

Housekeeping


book by Marylynne Robinson

annotation by Philip Barragan

Marilynne Robinson created a unique, magical and somber world in Housekeeping. Unique for her story about three independent women with no significant male characters. And in spite of this, Robinson’s story stands strong as a novel for everyone. Magical for blending together the empirical, physical world with the ethereal world of ghosts and the imagination. And somber for the storyline about loss, abandonment, and the different steps we take in order to survive.

Throughout the book, there were many moments of lyrical writing. Robinson has a strong command of poetry and her prose is filled with lyricism. On page 92, Robinson glides effortlessly into her poetic hand:

It was perhaps only from watching gulls fly like sparks up the face of clouds that dragged rain the length of the lake that I imagined such an enterprise might succeed. Or from watching some discarded leaf gleaming at the top of the wind. Ascension seemed at such times a natural law…For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when we are asleep, and even when we are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?

The New York Times Book Review described Robinson’s novel as “So precise, so distilled, so beautiful,” that I wanted to know how Robinson utilized her words. Among the many examples, this line seemed to make the case for me: “And we glided across the ice toward Fingerbone, we would become aware of the darkness, too close to us, like a presence in a dream.” This simple foreshadowing paints the background for the story. The reader is advised to hold on for the bumpy ride.

Robinson’s executed great skill in describing her world. Her attention to detail was a fine example of how to bring the reader into your story: “…and never since then had she been so aware of the smell of their hair, their softness, breathiness, abruptness. It filled her with a strange elation, the same pleasure she has felt when any one of them, as a sucking child, had fastened her eyes on her face and reached for her other breasts, her hair, her lips, hungry to touch, eager to be filled for a while and sleep.”

Housekeeping is a fine example of a polished work filled with beautiful descriptions and lyrical prose. The story is simple and shows how good writing can bring the story to life, brilliantly, and let it shine.