The Subtle Traitor

Back-stabbingI’m about to describe a character. He doesn’t exist everywhere, nor is he a threat to everyone. But it’s important to sketch out his profile, because he’s hardly ever seen for what he is, and because his brotherly embraces can end with a knife between your ribs.

To be even halfway familiar with him, you have to be from a place, or of a group, that has a “checkered past”—a group whose forebears transgressed against the modern orthodoxies in a big time way. I’m talking “Mark of Cain” stuff that gets you centuries of bad PR. These forebears are often losers in the wars, both military and cultural, so their sins get chiseled into marble.

Being a white (rumor of a Choctaw somewhere won’t cut it), Christian, Southern, heterosexual male, in good health and with no certifiable mental deficits (damn it), I’m in pretty bad standing. My immediate family didn’t even have the decency to be poor. So I’m everybody’s worst nightmare—on the wrong side of all government quotas. Worse, if you dig around in my family magnolia tree, you’ll find the reason those quotas got instituted in the first place.

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Breaking the Fall in Alice McDermott’s Someone

SomeoneAt the beginning of Alice McDermott’s latest novel, Someone, an unattractive but good-natured girl divulges her deepest desire. One day, coming home on the subway, she fell against a man—someone who managed to catch her—an event that was memorable because he was kind in the way that he did it. It’s clear that in that short moment she comes to love him, as we are fully capable of doing with strangers—even those who will always remain strangers.

She does not see the man again, but that does not stop her from looking. Laughing at her own foolishness, she says that she finds herself watching for him—subway ride after ride—in hopes of another such encounter. If it ever happened again, this time she would fall against him on purpose, to be caught by design. Because the best thing she has known in life so far has been the very fact that she was caught, and that someone was kind to her in the act of doing so.

This character, richly drawn, makes her appearance early in the novel, and like the man she hopes to encounter but never will, evanesces from the story within a few short pages. But the impression that she makes upon the narrator, Mary—a child when she first hears the story—lasts throughout the balance of the work. The rest of Mary’s life is marked by the relation of this yearning—that there be someone there when she, and those she loves, invariably, ineluctably, inescapably, fall.

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The Saints of Mount Midoriyama

7268364-0-4Loving my fellow man has never come easy. Candidly speaking, I love a small contingency of folks, am fond of a goodly portion of others, indifferent to the vast majority, with the trailing remainder either disliked or outright despised.

That doesn’t bode well for me in the long-range view of my religion, I admit. I read Dante’s Purgatorio—which is what I’m shooting for, purgatory, for starters—and got a little squeamish when I saw the mountain was only seven stories high. I’m hoping they’ve added a few more since Dante got the grand tour, because I’m not sure seven levels of purification will do the job.

However, by way of divine grace, I’ve been provided with something that should help. I’ve discovered a means by which I can learn to love my fellow man. And it all has to do with a reality show called American Ninja Warrior. [Read more...]

We All Have a Place on the Great Chain of Being

XJF347996Somewhere along the Great Chain of Being, we all have our place. That’s an old concept, and perhaps one that doesn’t fit our times as easily as it did in the past, but there’s much of it that still holds true.

From the ancients comes the idea that all things in reality can be located along a continuum—a “Great Chain,” as it were—hierarchized so that each thing possesses an attribute in addition to those that rest immediately below it, and lack an attribute possessed by those immediately above. Plants have life, so are above sand, which has only existence; but plants cannot move, so they are below animals.

Likewise, each entrant within a category can be hierarchized: The lion is the king of the beasts, because it possesses all of the prized attributes of creatures—strength, courage, beauty, etc. But because it lacks a soul, the prophets would rate even the most glorious of the leonine family below the most inglorious of the human. [Read more...]

Lessons of The Giver

Mphoto-1-2emory, of both the best and the worst, is central to guidance. Without it, we forego paths that have led to prosperity, take paths that have led to ruin.

Further, memory is extremely personal, while at the same time supremely collective. We all have our own particular catalog of recollections, which we consult, as need be. But we are all also part of a greater story, and our lives intersect with each other in such complex and dangerous ways that the shared memory of what we have been to each other, and done to each other, must be sounded to direct how we are to live with each other. This we call history, and its caretaking is a solemn affair.

In Lois Lowry’s classic young adult novel, The Giver, brought to the screen August 15 in a very fine film version (with Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, and Brenton Thwaites), memory is not allowed to the individual members of the state. It is the repository of only one, who retains the past in case it’s ever needed. As he ages, he must pass—“give”—his storehouse to another.

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