BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO -- If you use books to go somewhere you know practically nothing about, and meet someone you might not ordinarily get a chance to know, here are three that will transport you to interesting places you may (or may not) want to visit in real life.
“Townie: A Memoir” is written by Andre Dubus III, who has garnered critical acclaim for his novel “House of Sand and Fog” and his most recent, “Dirty Love.”
“Townie” takes you into the jaws of white poverty. And though this is a memoir and not fiction, the plain telling of a hardscrabble single-parent upbringing through a series of small Massachusetts mill towns makes this a literary text.
That as a teen, our subject, the son of an award-winning novelist in his own right, did not know where Manhattan was and had never attended a baseball game speaks to the drama of a rise from practically nothing to a successful writerly existence. Yet even after his first few book deals, the adult author worked construction to help his family.
“Townie” delivers a compelling story, but it’s Dubus’ sparse prose that makes it sing:
“I was back from Texas living in a third-floor walk-up in Lynn, Massachusetts. It was a town southeast of Haverhill, a town of welfare projects and brick tenements, Cambodian and Latino street gangs, the smell of the ocean blowing in over the barrooms and alleyways and strip malls. ... I was 22 years old and I’d become a Marxist. That’s what Texas did to me, took my hatred of bullies and bullying and institutionalized it.”
Derek B. Miller’s novel “Norwegian by Night” is about Sheldon Horowitz, an 82-year-old widower who finds himself emotionally reliving his dead son’s childhood after he saves a toddler from the hands of a Serbian killer who offed the kid’s mother.
The story alone is engaging enough, but the twist is that Horowitz, a New Yorker through and through, plays hero after moving in with his granddaughter and her Norwegian husband, in Oslo.
In addition to a quick-moving mystery, we get to experience Norway through the eyes of a decorated Navy man who saw action in Korea and can hardly believe he ended up in the expensive “Land of the Midnight Sun” with its postcard-perfect fjords and eye-popping socialism.
Miller writes: “It irritates Sheldon to no end that movie theaters in Oslo assign seating to its patrons. ‘You think we can’t sort it out for ourselves? We need supervision? Direction?’ He says this to the innocent girl behind the ticket counter. ... ‘In the Land of the Free, we sit where we like. We sit where we can.’”
Lastly, travel to the American Southwest and parts thereabout with Luis Alberto Urrea, 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction and best-selling novelist, in his new short-story collection, “The Water Museum.”
Throughout 13 stories, Urrea introduces us to a wide cast of sad, desperate, yet familiar characters who are so real and alive you wonder why you’ve never read about them before.
Every one of these stories is a work of art, and what unifies them is that whether we’re inside the getaway car of a pair of brothers looting foreclosed homes, in a narco helicopter flying above Mexico’s drug corridors, or on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation, the protagonists surprise you. They are human with flaws and beauty, and their lives’ tensions seem to flow from being uniquely out of place in their surroundings.
In the story “The Sous Chefs of Iogua,” Urrea lets us peep in on a painfully awkward and hilarious Thanksgiving feast in small-town Iowa between new Mexican immigrants and an old codger just looking for comfort food.
A strange white sauce elicits a tirade from the crotchety old-timer: “Is it too ... much to ask that somebody pay the slightest ... attention to our traditions and history and stop wrecking everything? Could you learn the language? Could you cook a simple meal that anybody from here would recognize as real food? Am I asking too much?”
Urrea’s Juan, who didn’t want to eat runny mashed potatoes either, retorts: “Yeah, jefe. That’s what Geronimo said.”
As the summer wanes, explore a foreign place through literature. As Stephen King’s young Jake Chambers said to the time-traveling, world-shuffling eponymous character of “The Gunslinger”: “Go then. There are other worlds than these.”
Esther J. Cepeda is a Nationally Syndicated Columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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