Saturday, November 29, 2008

Blast Off: My First Early Review

I mentioned earlier this week that I had been sent a copy of William Elliott Hazelgrove's new novel, Rocket Man. Hazelgrove wrote the book with the support of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park (Illinois), and got to work on the book in the house in which Hemingway was born. This is his fourth novel, and will be out from Pantonne Press later this month.

A week ago, the Booking Through Thursday question was related to these early review books, and whether or not reviewers should feel obligated to review them positively. Now that I've received one, I understand the dilemma a bit better. Getting a review copy, with a letter from the publisher, makes the endeavor much more personal. It's not some random book you happened to pluck off the shelves, written years ago by someone who's moved on to other projects by now, or maybe even moved on from this mortal coil altogether. It represents the hopes and dreams of a real person, and your response to it may help determine whether said real person will get to keep his or her home or not.

Even without all of this, Rocket Man probably would have been a challenge to write about. Picking up an independently published novel like this is a little like going to that sketchy dive in your neighborhood and ordering the food. Things in there are not quite what a diner who sticks mostly to known local places and/or chain restaurants has come to expect. There may be burned out light bulbs, battered carpeting, grotty restrooms, ass grooves in all of the chairs, and people smoking despite the fact that it's been illegal in the state for over five years. In some of those places, the food is in keeping with the decor. In others, it's much more delectable than at the four-star restaurant with the wait list down the street.

Rocket Man had its share of cosmetic problems: misspelled words, AWOL punctuation, continuity errors, and in at least one case, a word used incorrectly. But it turned out to be a decent book, that got better as it went along. If you pick this one up, you need to give it a chance.

It's hard to write about a character who is having an existential crisis, because such crises are always in one's head. In a sense, both G of Citizen Girl and Nathan of Summer People were in the grips of existential crises, but they just came off as whiny assholes, and at first, Dale Hammer comes off exactly the same way. His major damage seems to be that he and his family have moved out of a trendy city neighborhood to a wealthy suburban subdivision. Dale, a novelist, feels that he has sold out. He hates the community and the people in it, and misses no opportunity to sneer at their materialism, their shallowness, and their fidelity to law and order. The first scene of the book is about his decision to drive over an undeveloped lot to ferry a group of Cub Scouts from Dairy Queen to McDonald's, rather than use the roads like a normal person.

This scene gets five full pages, and is painted as a triumph of individual freedom over fascist repression (due to the fact that another adult is in the car and freaks out the entire time). I was starting to think that Hazelgrove could have used a good editor, and I guess this would be my main criticism of the book. Someone needed to put a stopper in sentences like: "The party around our marble bar on the patio was dried up salsa and obelisks of salted rims that had dashed many a margarita the night before." But fortunately, these ramblings got scaled back quickly in favor of more dialogue.

Dale is facing an uncertain future. He and his wife have been having problems ever since they moved to the suburbs. His writing is not going well, so he's taken up mortgage brokering, which is also not going well. He somehow got conned into being the "Rocket Man" for his son's Cub scout troop Rocket Day, and the higher-ups in the troop do not appreciate his laid-back attitude towards the particulars of Rocket Day (minor things like making sure the rockets are ordered, and learning how to launch them). His traveling salesman father appears on his doorstep, fired from another job and kicked out of the house by another wife, to sleep over his garage and meddle in his life.

It takes a while for all of these issues to fully emerge and settle on the reader's impression of Dale. I thought he was just an asshole at first. I especially disliked him after a scene between him and the man who started Rocket Day. Dale has never met this man before, as the man's son is several years over, but he goes to his house to obtain the launchers and learn how to operate them. He takes two cell phone calls during the course of his demonstration. At the end, the conversation takes a surprising turn as the man revealed how much being Rocket Man had meant to him, how much he was going to miss it, how difficult it was for him to watch his son get older, and what a noble and beautiful event he felt it was. The man's soliloquy actually made me cry when I read it, but Dale blows it off with a flip comment about how he was unsure whether to shake the man's hand or get the net. After bitching for nearly 100 pages about the phoniness, boredom, and materialism of everyone around him, when he actually is confronted with something real, he responds exactly the way the rest of the cyborgs would.

But I kept going with the book after that, and it did get better. Dale's dislike of everything around him is just a symptom of his real problems, and by the end of the book, he has made headway on them, even if they haven't all gone away. While I wouldn't describe this as a funny book, there are some genuinely funny scenes, such as when he drops in on a tenant to collect rent, who staggers out shirtless from behind the couch into a pile of dirty laundry to give an eloquent take on racism in America. Dale's father also provides constant comic relief, as he tries his gentlemanly southern charm routine on everyone he meets, sometimes to great effect, and sometimes not so much.

The publisher told me that this was a book for the times. I'm not sure if I'd go quite that far, but it's an excellent read. Whatever the final verdict on this book winds up being, it was nice to read something with so much heart. A lot of the books out there are very formulaic. You know what's going to happen in them just from reading the back. No one involved in its production ever loved for itself, just for its ability to move lots of units and hopefully become optioned as a movie or television show. The reason Rocket Man was published was because people believed in it, and wanted to share it with you and me. I'm glad for the opportunity to read something like that. Here's hoping it goes as far as it can.

No comments: