Saturday, November 3, 2007

About me, as a reader

Thomas McGuane's The Cadence of Grass taught me something about myself as a reader: I have to be able to either empathize with or laugh at the main character (or one of the main characters) or I can't sustain interest. Which is exactly what happened to this book.

The book opens as Paul Whitelaw walks into his father-in-law's wake. He's estranged from his wife Evelyn, never got along with her family, and immediately gets into a confrontation with his sister-in-law, Natalie. The conversation consists mostly of her baiting him in a very stitled and not-terribly-subtle way ("But all that water under the bridge! The otherwise admirable but nonmeshing complexities of character, the lack of the children, the -- evidently! -- dimming prospects of a nonstarter in the workplace!"). The book started to lose me there. My interest perked up again briefly when the primary driver of the plot was revealed: old man Whitelaw's will. The Whitelaw family owned a bottling plant, and old man Whitelaw made Paul the CEO of it, denied everyone else an income from it except for matriarch Mrs. Whitelaw, and decreed that the plant could be sold only if Paul reconciled with Evelyn.

But I couldn't bring myself to care. Initially, I felt sympathy for Paul. What must it be like to be attacked by page upon page of stilted dialogue at your father-in-law's wake? He was just trying to be nice in that scene. Well, actually, that turned out to be the only time. Paul's an asshole. And not a complex, brilliant-but-troubled asshole like Dr. Gregory House. Not even a spoiled, egomanical, almost comical asshole like the characters in Plum Sykes' novels. Just a garden-variety asshole. He probably does park his car in handicapped spaces while handicapped people make handicapped faces, or use public toilets and piss on the seat and walk around in summertime saying "How 'bout that heat?" He's sleeping with his probation officer (long, boring story) and treating her like shit. He's hitting on Natalie when her husband's not around, despite the evisceration she gave him. His first order of business as CEO is to walk into the bottling plant and start treating everyone like shit. He's just an asshole, and the rest of them weren't sufficiently interesting enough to me to bother.

Before I committed my slamming of this book to the internets, I checked out what others had to say. The book jacket, not that you can trust them, makes McGuane out to be a distinguished writer. I'd never heard of him and wanted to do a bit of research before I sounded like the high-school student complaining in his final paper about what a shitty writer Shakespeare was. I noticed that this book got extremely mixed reviews, in the sense that the reviewer (whether a pro writing for an established magazine or "420lulubelle" writing for Amazon) either loved the book or hated it. There wasn't much middle ground, very few "This one was sort of OK" opinions. You can put me firmly in the "hate" camp.

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