A Home at the
End of the World

Michael Cunningham
We used to call it "a three way thing," as in two men and a woman getting together, and, presumably, doing things together, at night, in bed. All of them. So here we have two men --- Jonathan (gay) and Bobby, (probably not gay) with Clare (who has done everything with everyone, male and female and already at thirty-seven or so, has seen it all).

Bobby and Jonathan met in school, were lovers, briefly. Then Jonathan went off to New York and met Clare and they decided to live together while he went out and found a perfect partner for love-fests named Erich. Clare is dying for a baby.

Spacey Bobby arrives. Clare spruces him up Greenwich Village style, seduces him, and together they produce Rebecca. Bobby loves Rebecca and, presumably, Clare and Jonathan. Jonathan loves Clare and Bobby and, apparently, Rebecca most of all. Clare is gaga over Rebecca; after all, she's Mother, reveling in the baby's moves and gurgles and diapers.

They move to an old farmhouse near Woodstock and set up this three-way thing I told you about earlier but if you are looking for fireworks on the attic stairs or romps between the hay-stacks, forget it. They all seem quite virginal though Clare does have a thing for Bobby's bod. And his soul.

§     §     §

It must have been Faulkner who invented the give-each-character-a-chapter novel. The form has been taken up by too many imitators. Most authors don't know squat about how to put themselves in all those different heads with all those different words and thoughts.

The only exception I've run into in the last five years was Getting Mother's Body by Suzan-Lori Parks --- a masterpiece of its genre. The form does, however, give even a gorgon author the chance of doing a fair amount of intercharacter gossip and back-and-forth.

For example, as they plan a trip to Grand Canyon, Clare can say that, "despite the glossy Italian hair and the earring," Bobby has a face "as innocent as an empty bowl." She also can and does say that Jonathan "clatters along like an eggbeater." This would make it seem that Jonathan and Bobby were meant for each other. For mayonnaise perhaps? The last time I looked into an empty bowl I found myself not so much contemplating its innocence as wondering who was going to be doing dinner.

Clare then says, again on the subject of Bobby, that he had

    the face of a man who believed human differences could be resolved by a pilgrimage to famous geological phenomena.

As you can guess, Clare doesn't have much to do besides observing her friends in terms of geology or utensils and getting a baby in the oven so that when she turns forty she'll have someone to share her million from the family trust. Jonathan even opines that Bobby was like a "bride" for Clare, arriving "so young and unformed that she appears to absorb the union in her skin."

Jonathan ultimately opts out of the triangle because he runs across a gay bartender named Erich who makes love like a rabbit. Unfortunately, Erich has an undefined disease but the wasting symptoms leave little to the imagination.

Clare runs off to Seattle or San Francisco taking the kid, leaving Bobby and Jonathan to nurse Erich. Considering that Jonathan was bonkers about Rebecca, he seems to take the departure of "his" baby with aplomb, embracing the care of Erich with equal aplomb.

§     §     §

I'm not so sure about this one. Cunningham tells us it took six years to write it but when the characters meander into southern Arizona I get the distinct feeling that it might take me six years to make it to the end. A Home at the End of the World does have its moments though, like Jonathan defining the earliest foolishness that you and I went through so many years ago: "Perhaps we don't fully recover from our first loves," he observes:

    Perhaps, in the extravagance of youth, we give away our devotions easily and all but arbitrarily, on the mistaken assumption that we'll always have more to give.

But then a few pages later we find ourselves in a graveyard, and Jonathan thinks, "the dead are difficult subjects." Why?

    What is remarkable about them is their constancy.

--- Lolita Lark

The Best American
Nonrequired Reading

Dave Eggers, Editor
(Houghton Mifflin)
Four or five years ago, we wrote a kindly review of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. Our reviewer reported,"We have here something quite strange: a kid writing about living in the 1990's United States without drugs, without much show-off sex, and with a fair degree of frenetic, insightful wonder."The review continued,

    The focus is on Egger's younger brother and how, when the family was devastated, in a single year, by the demise of alcoholic father and cancerous mother, Eggers picks up eleven-year-old Toph and they move to Berkeley.

    Thus, we have set-up, early on, a familiar literary dynamic --- two compeers of different ages thrown together: Huck Finn and Nigger Jim, Holden Caufield and sister Phoebe, hell --- maybe even Dmitri Karamazov and Alyosha (or, if we stretch it far enough, Falstaff and Prince Hal).

"Having said that," we concluded, "we have to point out that Dave Eggers is a kid himself, writing in a breathless Salinger/Tom Wolfe style that is funny, winsome, gripping, and full of fireworks. We are in the head of a young man who is filled with the fantasies and vocabulary of the juvenile set in America --- but carries along with a strange load, one that is, forsooth, quite rare. For Eggers is, for lack of a better phrase, a 21st century intellectual neo-Puritan."

§     §     §

Because of our fondness for Eggers and his writing, we are willing to pick up anything that has his name on it. But, woe ... we find from The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2004 that a writer who is a fine stylist may turn out to be a lousy editor. He claims in his introduction that the stories and the non-fiction were chosen by a bunch of juveniles but his name is on the cover, so we suspect he was the final judge.

Of the twenty-three items in The Best, six we marked as "good," two as "wow!" and the rest as "yawn," or "oh, no," or "ugg." For some reason, the goodies are located mostly towards the tail-end

The "uggs" appeared in the usual trivial-lit magazines, although Paula Peterson's bittersweet soulful story of the meeting of a bony 19-year-old honky and a middle-aged lady ---- both with AIDS --- appeared, to our surprise, in the venerable Iowa Review. What must they be thinking in Sioux City.

A fine Jewish coming-of-age tale, "The Smoothest Way is Full of Stones" first appeared in Zoetrope. And an absolutely charming science-fiction story --- "They Took My Body Apart and Made Another Me" --- appeared in Conjunctions.

This last one goes like this: a teen-aged kid falls into the hands of Smarakd and Kavdil, two geologists from a far-off planet. They painstakingly cut him apart with their exotic tools, all the while arguing with him about the exact location of the soul. Meanwhile, in place of his lungs they stuff in two squirrels, "his pancreas they replaced with a pink rubber tobacco pouch still half full of Red Rapparee," and for his bladder, an alarm clock ("what a life, tick" he thinks). It's a tale so nicely done that you want to turn around and read it again, to find out how author Robert Kelly managed to pull it off.

§     §     §

Because these three stories are as good as it gets, we are wondering how Eggers (or his alter-ego, his juvenile board) could have ever picked Christopher Buckley's nit-wit tale, "We Have a Pope!" from Atlantic Monthly (of course) or "The Minor Wars" from Story (naturally).

Maybe it's the fault of deadline, for Eggers admits that no sooner did they cram together The Best of 2003 it was time for The Best of 2004. What, we wonder, would it be like if this year they came up with The Worst of 2005.

--- Lolita Lark

Caesar's Column
Ignatius Donnelly
The year is 1988. In Manhattan, the very rich live in palatial houses. They have collected the great art of the years in their mansions (they also collect books, servants, and mistresses).

They band together to run the world. The government is in their back pockets, legislators and judges are bought and sold like pork-bellies. These "Plutocrats" also own the military, the local police, and most of the land.

The poor are crowded together in their wretched homes. They work intolerable hours for little pay. Their entertainments are few: community meetings where they rail against the rich until arrested by the police, or music halls where they drink, watch people perform, jeer and shout and pass out.

This is Donnelly's world view of America of fifteen years ago --- only the novel was written and published a hundred-and-fifteen years ago. There are some prescient details: streets are well lighted by "magnetic" rays. The rich have magic boxes in their homes to send messages back and forth. There are airships floating about on Northern Lights. They are called "demons" because they carry a poison to quell rebellions by the poor.

Our hero is Gabriel Weltstein who visits New York from the paradise colony of Uganda --- owned by Switzerland. He stumbles across Maximilion Petion, a lawyer and one of the leaders of "The Brotherhood" which is planning to rise up and slay "The Oligarchy."

Except for the ubiquitous horse-and-buggies and the nicely chaste women, this is not a bad bit of futuristic writing. The main problem is not with the predictions, certainly not the adventures, the spying, the uprisings, the secret meetings, the unsavory characters.

Rather, it lies with the long-winded didactic asides. Max and Gabriel and whoever else is hanging around launch into long speeches about the injustice of society, the evils of the capitalists, the suffering of the poor, and --- evidently Donnelly's big bug-a-boo --- the decimating effect of interest paid on accumulated capital, and how it corrupts routine justice.

It's all meted out in lorky speeches: "The few prey on the many; and in turn a few of the many prey upon all. These are the brutal violators of justice, who go to prison, or to the scaffold, for breaking through a code of laws under which peaceful but universal injustice is wrought."

    If there were enough of these outlaws they might establish a system of jurisprudence for the world under which it would be lawful to rob and murder by the rule of the strong right hand, but criminal to reduce millions to wretchedness by subtle and cunning arts; and, hoity-toity, [sic] the prisons would change their tenants, and the brutal plunderers of the few would give place to the cultural spoilers of the many.

§     §     §

Ignatius Donnelly was a very popular writer of his age, but we have to remember this was a time before radio and television --- not foreseen in Caesar's Column. Readers were more willing to move far afield from the adventures of the protagonists into extensive commentary on politics and philosophy of life and the world of wealth and poverty. Those of us who are not social historians will find ourselves skipping over the debates to get on with the action which ends in the creation of a utopian society in Uganda, of all places.

Still, we should praise Wesleyan University Press for resuscitating these artifacts of early science fiction, even if they are as wheezy and lecture-filled as this one. Two years ago, we gave high praise to Wesleyan's Deluge from 1920, authored by Sydney Fowler Wright. We praised the style, stated that

    this is high adventure, where our worthy storyteller makes it so that one near disaster is quickly followed by another, keeping us constantly on edge.

Not only has Wesleyan University Press dug up these ancient adventures, their editions are rich with footnotes to explain words and ideas used by the author which may, in this benighted age, escape us: quotes from Shakespeare and Goethe down to Lord Macaulay and the now forgotten journalist W. T. Stead.

The wonderful phrase "hoity-toity," noted above, is defined not as what you and I think of today (the effete manners of the rich) but, rather, "so quickly as to cause giddiness."

--- Lucy Skilling
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