From the Harlem Renaissance to the Overlook Hotel: Short book notes

From the Harlem Renaissance to the Overlook Hotel: Short book notes July 17, 2019

Dorothy West, The Living Is Easy: The reductive way to describe this soapy tale of a woman whose contradictory desires destroy her family is, “What if Scarlett O’Hara were a black woman living in Boston on the eve of the first World War?” West, who was one of the youngest figures of the Harlem Renaissance, makes Cleo Jericho Judson into a fabulous woman-monster out of legend. Cleo trains her daughter in Boston respectability while longing for “the amoral South,” the sultry deadly South of her childhood; she destroys her family by scheming to keep them nestled close around her.

Living is a portrait of children, and a woman who consumes her daughter’s childhood because she’s been bereaved of her own. It’s a scalpel-portrait of prejudices and passions within the black community–you have to know everybody’s exact gradation of color and class to understand where they’re protected and where they’re exposed. Politics emerges in the narrative because, in spite of the characters’ scramble for safety, they are not safe; the central scene of the book’s politics (arguably its central scene, period) seems at first to be about the personal passions exploiting and subverting black politics, but then the twist comes and the scene becomes an absolutely heartbreaking portrayal of devastation, salvage, and complicity. The book occasionally slides into melodrama, especially in its discussion of sex, but I’m not sure that’s a criticism. There’s even a Catholic angle!–and it is the actual most stereotypical and pleasurable angle, too, the disgraced and sexually-sinful Catholic whose heart yet longs for the convent and the Cross. Yes, thanks, I’ll take twelve! (Unfortunately toward the very end this wandering soul gets the novel’s clunkiest, most melodramatic prose: “And Simeon’s hatred grew into the gross shape of fear, which expressed itself in his belief that in revengeful spite Lenore would leave her fortune to her Church. The degradation of this thinking was part of his punishment.” Still, Lenore’s great, what a creation.)

Some better (and more representative) quotations: “The things that Cleo never had to be taught were how to hold her head high, how to scorn sin with men, and how to keep her left hand from knowing what her right hand was doing.”

“If he ever came hankering after her, she’d stab him dead with an ice-pick. And no man on earth, let alone a white man, was worth going to hell for.”

“Boston whites of the better classes were never upset nor dismayed by the sight of one or two Negroes exercising equal rights. …To them the minor phenomenon of a colored face was a reminder of the proud role their forebears played in the freeing of the human spirit for aspirations beyond the badge of house slave.”

“Mr. Hartnett failed in business, and blew his brains out just like a white man. Everybody was a little proud of his suicide.”

“Judy [Cleo’s daughter] was beginning to see that Cleo was the boss of nothing but the young, the weak, the frightened. She ruled a pygmy kingdom.”

Graham Greene, The Lawless Roads: This is a travel book about Mexico during the anti-Catholic repression of the ’30s; it’s the precursor to The Power and the Glory. It’s an easy read, an adventure-tale in the Land of Cynicism; it’s a little too chop-licking about how nothing’s better than anything, and there are the usual generalizations about The Mexican Soul (does he intend these as double-edged generalizations about The English Soul in Mexico? He might…), but I’ll always enjoy that Graham Greene voice, the helpless voice of amoral piety. I like how he tells you how scared he was.

The passage on the “revolutionary” Virgin of Guadalupe and why Our Lady appeared to someone who probably wouldn’t be believed is excellent: “It was only ten years since Mexico City had fallen finally to Cortes, the country was not yet subdued, and it is doubtful what kind of greeting the average Spanish adventurer would have given an Indian who claimed to have been addressed as ‘my son’ by the Mother of God.” This short passage is at once criticism of the Church hierarchy and defense of the Church; it draws a bright line from the conquest to Greene’s present day; it’s the kind of thing he was paid to do, and it’s done well. There are moments where we see how persecution distorts the Church–not everybody rises to the occasion. Persecution makes some men martyrs, and others simonists, or sentimentalists and idolaters who prefer the altars to the Host. I loved Greene’s glancing attention to the pride with which one woman hosted a secret Mass: “One person at least would feel regret and disappointment if the Mass were ever celebrated again in the churches.” Vanity even in our sacrifices–yes, that’s the characteristic Greene note. And as much as I thought some of the cynicism became heavyhanded or reflexive, he will show you where it comes from: “There would be pickings for everyone except the workers,” that refrain of modern history.

My favorite line is this: “Then everyone stood to attention as if a national anthem had been played, and up the stairs from the dusty yard came the General–the only man without a gun–looking except for the Indian face like any farmer, a good and well-worn suit and coarse shirt and no tie, an old soft hat perched back from the damp bull’s forehead, and one gold tooth like a flaw in character.”

Stephen King, The Shining: The first time I read this, I think I started around noon and ended at dawn. Maybe paused to eat some food, I don’t remember. What I remembered from that reading were the hallucinatory moments, the ways the hotel’s past broke through to the present and punctuated the scenes (the plants are moving under the rug) with phantasmagoria. Later, when I’d quit drinking, I remembered what a ferocious portrait this is of denial, of lying to yourself. It’s actually several different kinds of portrait of self-deception: We see Hallorann mislead Danny very early, with the story about the plane that didn’t crash, a story whose real moral Hallorann must surely have spotted. We see Jack Torrance glance at the truth about the student he attacked–this happens a lot earlier than I remembered, it’s in the first chapter after they’re all alone in the hotel–he lets himself see the truth, as a couple of wasps crawl dozily out of their paper nest, and then he looks away again.

And the hotel itself is obviously an image of secrecy, horrors hidden behind fancy closed doors. In Room 217 King emphasizes all the layers of secrecy, not just the room door but the door to the bathroom and then the shower curtain around the bathtub, which moves on its own. The theme of honesty vs. careful, optimistic untruths comes at you very clearly. Not only Jack but Wendy and Danny all spray a protective coating over what they know to be true. Sometimes they’re protecting one another and sometimes they’re protecting themselves, but the protective coating eats away at them, corrodes their integrity and keeps them trapped in the status quo.

This time around, okay, I definitely noticed that the prose is usually workaday and sometimes clunky. There’s one terrific bit of Writing toward the end, when Jack is dancing with a ghost:

“I like you,” she whispered, and he thought that her scent was like lilies, secret and hidden in cracks furred with green moss–places where sunshine is short and shadows long.

That’s so good–intensely sexual, but not crude the way King often gets around sex; there’s a hint of decomposition, the corpse discolored green; the secrets, the woman with a haunted hotel between her legs; and then he takes you from the secret garden and the shaded summer grove to winter, when night falls fast. But anyway, that stuff isn’t what you read The Shining for.

What I loved about it this time, even when I was overprepared for some of the horrors: * the characters. You feel for them so intensely. King tells you from the very beginning that they will be destroyed and you just read the whole book thinking, I really hope this family won’t be destroyed! This time around it stood out to me that King gives Jack so many chances to turn it around–and so much real desire to do so. When we meet Wendy she’s pretty broken-down by the anxieties of her marriage, the hopes fractured and splinted so many times, but in flashback we see how Jack helped build her confidence, how he helped her stand on her own feet against her mother–because he loved her and he knew she could be strong. Ah, they try so hard with one another. And Jack’s final scene is masterful and harrowing.

* the financial desperation. It permeates the book from the beginning, but there’s a standout passage toward the end, when things are clearly very wrong in the hotel and Jack knows that they have to leave, and he talks himself out of it because what will they do for money? And everything he says to himself is transparently true. It might be the voice of the hotel, but it doesn’t even need to be.

* the anger. Like John Darnielle, Stephen King is terrific at writing rage–or even just frustration. He can write biblical-scale judgment or the petty judgments that we sharpen against our fellow human beings every day. My only slight dissatisfaction with Danny as a character is that he doesn’t have the undercurrent of anger that might strengthen the hints we get that he resembles his daddy. Rebellion, yes; foolhardiness, sure; rage, no.

This time around I read The Shining in sane amounts; I went to bed in between and had normal dreams. I still loved it. It’s a truly gripping portrayal of crisis of conscience: Every member of this little family endures a long, grueling (arguably the parents’ crises are both years-long) battle to be completely honest, against all the very good reasons to paint a little sunshine on the truth. It doesn’t have a wasted scene. While the scares I remembered sometimes didn’t hit as hard once I was braced for them, all the ones I’d forgotten (the return of the roque mallet after its set-piece scene!!!) made me gasp in horror. It closes on a quiet note, the exact right way for it to end: a reminder that there’s salvage after wreckage.

Rachel Manija Brown, somewhere or other, put her finger on one thing I love about Stephen King: His characters might lose everything they fought for, their own lives and the lives of their children, their self-control and their hope, but he never makes you feel that their desperate battle was worthless. The novel itself will always honor the decision to fight, even if nobody in the novel’s world ever finds out that you tried.

Photo of Dorothy West via Wikimedia Commons.

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