Among the Thugs – 5/5
This book is so great. Bill Buford goes to write about soccer hooligans in England in the 1980s and gets accepted into their core. He doesn’t write in a sympathetic or like he’s “gone native” but he definitely clearly seeks to understand and explain. He also clearly has an affection for various individuals he meets along the way, lies in approval of white supremacy England National Fronters, and finds himself glad to see his “friends” when he gets separated in one of the worst soccer riots in the decade.
This book is also a hilarious study in understatement. Buford has a hilarious conversation with a British soccer official who can’t begin to fathom how America has dozens of football games in dozens of cities every weekend, has almost no violence, everybody has a seat, and no one really ever gets hurt. Or when he tries to imagine if what he is seeing is simply a more aggressive form of what every young man goes through emotionally.
Ultimately there’s a lot of interesting, funny, and familiar things going on in this book. There’s a lot of overlap between white entitled disaffection and a violence tied to sport and resent of immigrants and people of color. The book never tries to explain it away morally, but he does want people to understand that the death of the working class and the disaffection of whiteness has consequences that is embodied in the violence of this 1980s generation. Where it all goes now, who knows….except well Brexit and Donad Trump, so that’s a clue I guess.
The Violins of Saint Jacques – Patrick Leigh Fermor 3/5 stars
A much different story for sure. In this short short novel an unnamed narrator is talking to an older French woman who reminisces on a dark night in her youth as both she and the English narrator look at a painting of a port town on a Caribbean Island. The novel then goes into long detail of a final party, a horrifying fire, and a servant class that has had enough.
The books is interesting but it’s not that much of a book. An exploration of a theme and an interesting set of narrative layering that puts at a distance from the action in the novel.
What’s also really interesting to me is that the Caribbean is just not the place where I tend to think of recent kinds of narratives in British literature. There’s a kind of layer of artifice between the reader and the novel and narrative that is the result of this knowledge. For how alienated but familiar JR Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday felt or any novel that takes place in British North Africa or Hong Kong or any of the other familiar haunts, the Caribbean just feels strange. In addition, this novel has a kind central European/Western Europran sensibility to it. Patrick Leigh Fermor was an incredibly continental figure, so this makes sense, and the general possessiveness over narrative that British figures in novels often take are absent here. I did like this novel, but it was slight and small, and as Patrick Leigh Fermor didn’t write a whole lot of other fiction you can feel that experimentation working throughout.
Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It – 4/5 stars
This is a solid collection of stories to be sure. I am not sure which story I liked the best, but I really liked the opening two a lot. I will talk about them together because they don’t share something that many of the other stories do. The first story in the collection is about a young Native American man putzing around a Montana town when he stumbles (literally as he’s been injured in a horse accident) into a night class, where he meets a young lawyer teaching a Law in Education class to teachers. (Side note: teachers are the WORST students/crowd unless you’re also a teacher….we are a tough crowd) He immediately takes a liking to her and her youth and inexperience at 25 seems sage to his 22 year old eyes. His innocent but adamant desperation spooks her and he has a small heartbreak.
The next story is about two rival brothers on a ski trip. One brother has a more “successful” life as a doctor, but his brother, the ski instructor, has more to say and more on his mind.
The rest of the stories deal with one of two major issues: marriage and infidelity and then the banal evils of child sexual abuse. They’re a tough lot to deal with, especially if you’re in a relationship because it begins to feel like you are drenched in the same temptation and guilt as the characters or if you’re not, like there’s nothing out there that speaks to honesty and fidelity.
Maile Meloy is a funny and infectious writer. Her prose is neither stark nor dreamy, but it’s very effective.