I am not a book reviewer, but I am an addicted reader, especially when it seems to be raining here almost nonstop. So I wanted to write briefly about three of my most recent reads, as they say. My favorite books are mysteries and thrillers that have strong senses of place and really juicy characters. But guilt sets in. I decide I have to read more serious stuff. So I did.
Colum McCann's Let the Whole Earth Spin and Philipp Meyer's American Rust are literary fiction. Jo Nesbo's The Redeemer is a thriller. It is The Redeemer which absolutely is the best of the three in what I would consider literary thriller terms: the main characters are vivid and very touching. I could feel my own feet crunching in the icy snow in Oslo. The plot, since it is a thriller, is much mor gripping than the first two books' plots are. And there are themes of the deepest sort: of what corruption is, who deserves mercy, the pain in the human heart, what charity and, yes, redemption, might be; and who true redeemers are.
McCann's novel is set in 1974 New York City on the day that Philippe Petit made his way dancing and sliding and skipping and walking on a tightrope slung between the Twin Towers. He threads the stories of a disparate group of people through the eye of this event. Some of the characters he does well with: Corrigan and Ciaran, Irish brothers who find themselves in the South Bronx; oddly, the upper class, Upper East Side matron. To me, his efforts at writing the thoughts and dialogue of black hookers, a Guatemalan women, and an educated black woman seemed stilted and slide into stereotyping though he tries hard to show he had mastered the women's vernaculars. New York City came through pretty well. But it was a long and drifty novel, not taut at all.
American Rust is a first novel. It is set in the rust belt of western Pennsylvania in the 1980s. Philipp Meyer, the author, spends way, way too much time inside his characters' heads. NOBODY is that interesting, and these characters certainly aren't although they are likeable and are good characters for hanging a shorter version of this novel on. I do think Meyer must have caught the desperation of being adrift on the street without money or a place to go. Interestingly, Nesbitt does, too, in his thriller.
I read American Rust because I was particularly interested in what has happened to people left without factories to work in in the Northeast. I'm trying to think of how Meyer could have done it better. Maybe if he didn't spend so much time in his characters' heads and had them be a little less I don't know drifting off into strangeness.
I think there are millions of American stories to be written about ordinary people in all the different patches that make up the country. And more to be written about their struggles with their real lives. There's a lot of room for current writers. The country has a good sturdy tradition to follow in this regard, from Theodore Dreiser to William Kennedy and Richard Russo, among others.
AND for glimpses into other countries and cultures as well as our own,´people shouldn't shrug off thriller and mystery writers who often convey place and character better than anyone.