Thomas McGuane has never received anything less than the highest praise as a novelist, short story writer and essayist. I’ve read him since his first novel, picked up at a remainder bin. For me, his essays shine brightest. With an essay, you can’t leave the writer’s side. In a novel or story, you trail along with the characters with an ear cocked for the pyrotechnics of the writer’s voice. The essays spotlight McGuane’s unique voice, his sensibility, in a way fiction cannot allow. A Sporting Chance, his first collection, and his other nonfiction books The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing and Some Horses are examples of the most personal art. My hand reaches out for them often.
An essay in Some Horses, titled On The Road Again, takes on one of the most anti-intuitive subjects imaginable for a first-class writer who has been called an heir to Hemingway. The topic? A long drive with his wife in a pickup truck, pulling a just-bought 38-foot horse trailer with special built-in, mini-living quarters, around a great circle of the West. In this quintessential American home-on-wheels, christened a “Horseabago,” he writes, “We simply pictured ourselves at one end, and Delta, Sassy, Zip and Lena, in the other, and wheels underneath.” After a few pages, you’re assured of his mastery to take on this tale, and carry it to sublime heights. His sensibility, or whatever it is that frees words to rise above themselves into something approximating quotidian reality, is on full display.
A Girl In Winter is British poet Philip Larkin’s second novel. The book is the story of a 16-year-old European girl, her country is never named, who is prematurely mature and intellectual. She accepts an invitation to visit a young English boy and his family. She falls in love with the boy, but they lose touch. Six years later, she returns to Britain as a war refugee.
It’s a remarkable psychological portrait, in the vein of Larkin’s poetry, which is nihilistic, in almost stoic celebration of the ordinary, unexceptional, ultimately disappointing bits that give life its bitter taste.
What’s most interesting to me is Larkin’s very deep minutia describing the meeting of Katherine and Robin, in which he uses the sort of details that belie someone – meaning Larkin – who runs away from life, from the desire to understand others’ in hope to better understand themselves. Larkin’s austere poetry, even in its most gorgeous sensibility, keeps life at bay, at a safe distance that cannot disappoint, while this novel shows Katherine as a person who is probing and open to understanding, or trying to understand, the complexities of other souls. That she and Robin are ultimately unable to capture any of the romantic shavings that surround all lives, even if ungrasped, is all the more tragic. Larkin’s poems couldn’t display such depth of tragedy because he wrapped them in a polished shell of art, singular gems that, no matter their content, bespoke excellence even in the face of tragedy. The novel shows whereof the poems arose.
Bangkok Days by Lawrence Osborne is the best novel about Bangkok ever written. But, for clarification, it’s written and marketed as a nonfiction account of the author’s life in the city. The book reeks of novelization with the first-person author surrounded by a cast of fiction-like foils (and at least one real person) who capture the spirit and ambiance of the most sensuous, textured, layered city in the world.
Osborn, the author of the recent Ballad of a Small Player, which is set in the casinos of Macau, excels at romantic, slightly desperate characters and settings full of people who recognize each other for their individual élan in the face of life’s fragility. They are people who are unwilling to give up the fight for life and feeling. That such people in unusual numbers are drawn to Bangkok is no accident. Osborn’s tale of living in Bangkok displays a colorful subset of people of the city who refuse to forsake the quixotic in return for sleek, cosmetic urban wallpaper. The book serves equally well as a novel or one man’s guide to Bangkok, suggesting how to absorb and live within its refreshing disparities.
The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Early Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China by E. Zurcher.
This work of high scholarship looks at the social and cultural factors that led to the eventual adoption of Buddhist principles and practice in Chinese culture. It brilliantly captures the chaotic nature of how Buddhist principles were scattered piecemeal over two centuries by Buddhist monks and lay parties that included foreigners, the Chinese gentry, the court, and the intelligentsia. The beauty is the thousands of details it shares about monks and others from late 300AD through the fourth century. It was a perilous time of ferment, and it would be 200 years, in the Tang Dynasty, before Buddhism took on a more recognisable, coherent form eventually leading to the distinct Chinese Buddhist doctrine that we know today. It underscores the cultural fragmentation and difficulties a foreign doctrine of religion has in finding a place in a totally separate and distinct culture, with a different language and already established theories of religion, cosmology and metaphysics. Not surprisingly, the difficulty of transplanting a “foreign” religion, even one with obvious parallels in Chinese religious writings, is manifest throughout this work. It helps put in context the subsequent official elimination of Buddhist temples and practice in revolutionary China, when viewed from the rocky path that Buddhism walked in medieval times.
For a PDF copy of Zurcher’s book, go here.