Reading Around

A Hoboken murder, an e-book revolution, and a challenge to re-conceive the economy

One of the few happy developments here at the end of all book culture has been the vigorous re-publication of out-of-print marvels by the New York Review crowd under the imprint NYRB Classics. Among the midcentury delights they've restored in sturdy, handsome paperbacks are titles always at the top of my list when any conversation turns to book recs: Oakley Hall's majestic western Warlock, Elaine Dundy's brisk and heartbroke comedy The Dud Avocado, Elizabeth Hardwick's sharp-elbowed stories of boho New York, and Frans G. Bengtsson's grandly aimless Viking saga The Long Ships, whose lead rover must set the record for the literary character most often converted to new religions of convenience.

The NYRB books division is itself undergoing a conversion, one that—like that pillager's religious ones—is equal parts hopeful and pragmatic. With Lindsay Clarke's excellent novel The Water Theatre ($9.99), the first book from the NYRB Lit line of contemporary originals, these most ink-stained of publishers are leaving print behind altogether. The Water Theatre is only available as an e-book. It's an auspicious start, a novel steeped in international politics and tense, memory-haunted adult relationships, one that opens in a first-person present whose mysteries are then filled in in rich third-person flashbacks.

At first, it reads like an uncommonly well-written thriller. War correspondent Martin Crowther, shaken by what he's seen in an Africa that he and some high-minded Brits have helped to liberate, slinks off to Italy tasked with delivering an important message to a woman he hasn't seen in years—and who likely wants nothing to do with him. From there, Clarke's story laps across continents and decades and genres. It's a love story, a global tragedy, a fathers-and-sons drama, and an apologia for all the ways that flawed yet well-meaning people fail to save the world. It's frankly a better book than you're likely used to e-reading, and exulting about it led me into some holes in our existing language. “You'll be hooked as soon as you hit the passage about the lightning between zero and one percent,” I said, five minutes in. The bedroom scene at 17 percent is better, but neither has stuck with me as much as the grieving at 74.

The NYRB flat-out calls its Lit line e-books “non-commercial.” Since her rousing history Killing the Poormaster (Lawrence Hill Books, 256 pp., $26.95) has made it all the way to actual hardcover, Holly Metz is obliged to open with a quick, brutal murder: the poormaster of Hoboken, in 1938, stabbed through the chest with one of those pointy old office tools for spearing paper scraps. A better-than-average trial of the century follows, with hard-luck mason/family man Joe Scutellaro the accused, the crusading Samuel Leibowitz—who won headlines defending the Scottsboro Boys—his attorney, and epic s.o.b. “Boss” McFeely the machine-politics heavy working to preserve the patronage system the deceased had mastered. It's a fine potboiler, but Metz is at her best when revealing what lives were then like, especially the pitilessness with which Hoboken's poor had been treated. Harry Barck, that slain poormaster, harassed women relief applicants, funneled money to the swells, and did everything in his power to stop “chiselers” from accessing government largesse. Of course, to Barck, “chiselers” meant pretty much anyone who asked for aid but wasn't a political connection. One month, at the height of the Depression, he slashed the relief rolls to just 90 families. The unemployed were shamed and blamed for their need, and Metz adeptly sketches their wretched circumstances. Through Leibowitz she demonstrates the timelessness of this story—“Good God,” he marvels to the jury, “how can such things exist among us when we pride ourselves as being the best nation in the world?”

Speaking of the economic travails of a nation that fancies itself the globe's most best-est, the Bay Area's Anat Shenker-Osorio offers in Don't Buy It: The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About the Economy (Public Affairs Books, 256 pp., $24.99 ) one choice bit of invaluable advice: Stop talking about the economy like it's a tide that lifts, a body that ails, or an invisible hand that guides our collective fortune like whatever it is that moves the Ouija thing. It's the Lakoff and Johnson Metaphors We Live By argument—the one that goes that saying “time is money” conditions us to conceive of time as something that must be shrewdly spent or hoarded—smartly applied to the failure of progressive writers and policy-makers to make a broad, compelling case against Tea Party deficit hawks. Shenker-Osorio's prescription is to stop thinking of the economy as some organic and independent system that we can only affect by prescriptions—or bloodletting. Instead, she contends, we should consider it a construction that we can control, something concrete and knowable that works for us rather than vice versa. The book, while slender, is thick with bloggy asides and pop-culture examples, some of which feel like padding, but there's no escaping the sharp critique at the center. Here's how powerful metaphor can be: The book improves greatly if you think of that padding as the bubblewrap you'd tape up around a knife before mailing.

Metaphor is a hell of a weapon in Dan Josefson's debut, That's Not a Feeling (Soho, 368 pp., $15.95), a troubled-young-folks-away-at-school novel more bright, dark, and hilarious than any half-dozen first novels all smooshed together. A likable monster named Aubrey rules over Roaring Orchards, a “therapeutic” boarding school in upstate New York. There, in batshit monologues, he convinces parents that their children are something like wily ol' Zeus in a myth of the book's own invention: Zeus came down to Earth, bursting with lusts, and tried to seduce a nymph, Aubrey says. The nymph's dad, knowing the score, did the Ovid thing and transformed the nymph into a turtle, so that she can retreat into her shell at Zeus's approach. Zeus than transforms himself into a toddler, approaches the turtle, convinces her he's harmless, and then has a go at her swan-on-Leda style—except this time it's infant-on-turtle, a coupling Aubrey has commemorated in statue form right there on the Roaring Orchards campus as a reminder: “Inside each of your children is a god,” he says. “It means we must be more vigilant, not less!”

The school, then, is the strangest of inventions. Josefson's kids, though, are all-too real: cutters and runaways and addicts and suicides, presented with dry comedy and deep—if sometimes suppressed—feeling. Of poor Tidbit, a lost girl who seeks refuge in smokes and meth, our narrator (a student/patient named Benjamin) notes, “She had no idea what was wrong with her. Sometimes she felt whatever it must be was so large and diffuse she couldn't get her head around it; other times it seemed it was some tart, nasty thing right at the center of her. Or not quite the center. Just off enough that she was always twisted and sweating and stumbling off in the wrong direction.”

Josefson applies that empathy to the school's students, staff, and parents, all of whom come under Aubrey's mad sway, and any of whose lives can become the focus of the novel—and of Benjamin, our sublimated narrator—at any time. The result is a funny, humane, egalitarian, and gently challenging book, one to quote and roar over, and one that gets better and stranger as it goes.

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