Jeffrey Westbrook/Studio D
By Benjamin Alsup
Everybody says men don't read novels anymore. I tell them that's why so many men are asses. Good novels don't just describe the lives of men; they make arguments about the kind of men we ought to be. They inspire improvement. Would anyone still subject themselves to the embarrassments of fly-fishing if it weren't for Hemingway? Read enough Steinbeck before a certain age and you're unlikely to vote Republican. I've seen functionally illiterate undergrads read themselves right out of college. (Parents: Keep the kids far away from anything by Wendell Berry. Or worse — William Burroughs.)
The same still holds true today. Read Ron Carlson's latest, The Signal (Viking, $24), and you'll be convinced that the answer to your worries resides in the woods, in getting back to the basics: cooking over a fire, sleeping under stars, working with your hands. It's a sweet, tidy little book about a broken rancher. And yet it won't just help you pass the time; it will help you out. These three will help you out even more.
Road Dogs, by Elmore Leonard (William Morrow, $27)
The chief pleasure of Leonard is that the line between the good life — money, women, drink, food —and the bad life — prison, poverty, pain — is so clearly and sharply drawn. As in Out of Sight, the hero here is Jack Foley, who has no equal when it comes to robbing banks. He walks in and asks the teller politely for cash. That's it. His success (127 banks and counting) stands as a testament to the simple power of a guy who knows how to smile and remembers his p's and q's.
Nothing in Road Dogs is going to make you reexamine your existential underpinnings. Leonard's more interested in sprucing up your conduct. And like all good advice, his book ultimately tells us what we already know: The world may be a cosmic joke, but that doesn't mean it's without meaningful pleasures. A good hot shower, a new white T-shirt, a rib-eye steak, a fifth of Jack Daniels — these are things for which one should be profoundly grateful. And if this seems too easy, just remember that "thinking too much can fuck you up."
How to Sell, by Clancy Martin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24)
In some ways, the first novel from Martin is standard coming-of-age fare. Bobby Clark moves to Fort Worth, Texas, to join the retail jewelry racket. He meets a girl. He loses a girl. He makes some money. He loses some money. But where Martin's novel departs is that once Bobby's learned how to sell, there's not much else worth learning. Martin is less interested in telling us who we ought to be than he is in showing us who we've become: men (and women) ruled by wealth and the desire for wealth, sex and the desire for sex, drugs and the desire for more drugs. This is "Morning in America" as apocalyptic hangover.
It's a lean and mean book, perfect for those who distrust all this recent talk about change. The kind of novel — cool and dark — that goes with you to the beach and then keeps you thinking at night. Plus it offers a handy litmus test: If its characters seem familiar, you ought to be afraid. Better still, you might consider a move to the country.
Waveland, by Frederick Barthelme (Doubleday, $25)
Vaughn Williams will be familiar to fans of aging-white-guy ennui. His marriage has gone bust. His career isn't what he thought it would be, and his parents have recently died. He takes up with a woman who may have shot her husband. The two move in with his ex-wife. But these plot points aren't played for drama. Rather they are presented as sad inevitabilities. Like hurricanes. Vaughn responds to events around him the way many of us do — by thinking lots and doing little. Then something interesting happens: The old guy changes. He does the kind of simple things that we ought to do and too often do not. He stops searching for new tragedies on the Internet. He sells the big house in town. He becomes, just as old Leonard would have us be, a "sampler of ordinary pleasures."
The pleasures of reading Barthelme are small. They come at the sentence level, but they are sublime. There are no grand gestures here. No profundity of insight or heroic speeches. It's too late for these things. In Waveland, things are broken nearly beyond repair. And yet the operative word here is nearly. Amid the rubble, Barthelme seems to argue, we might still find a separate peace from the terrors of the wider world. We might carve out our own thin slice of sanity. We might turn our cruel selves kinder. We might be mostly lousy, but we can improve.