One of the debits of my “afterlife” as a new Euromensch (now into my twelfth year) is being out of the loop. Barbara Who? Googled, she’s celebrated as the founder of the Bellwether Prize? The What? Webster helped this city boy with “bellwether”: a ram castrated before sexually maturity and fitted with a bell around his neck to better lead his flock. Hmmm.
Google the Prize part: Every two years since 2000, a writer is awarded $25,000 (presumably from her own royalties)and a publishing contract for a novel “that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.” Finalists for 2010 award just announced. (See her website for the titles. No author names!)
BK says it even better: “Fiction has a unique capacity to bring difficult issues to a broad readership on a personal level, creating empathy in a reader’s heart for the theoretical stranger. Its capacity for invoking moral and social responsibility is enormous. Throughout history, every movement toward a moral peaceful and humane world has begun with those who imagined the possibilities. The Bellwether Prize seeks to support the imagination of humane possibilities.” WOW! My steadily bleeding heart could not have expressed it better.
Her funky bio soon moved me closer to this total stranger. Daughter of a Carolina doctor who took her as a youngster (1955- ) to Africa for several years. Aspired first to be a classical pianist at Arizona State. Moved over to biology. Didn’t finish degree but ex-temped a life as a journalist. Now she spends the teaching year in an Arizona adobe with her mate and summer vacations in her log cabin in a Carolina hollow.
My God, “The Lacuna” (Harper Collins, 2009), which I will now begin to review, is her 13th book. But my first expatriate inkling of her. Personally, very simpatico to me. Erratic, idealistic, demotic, preaching what she has reputedly practiced so well. My kind of person.
The title not only alludes to the multiform gaps in her hero’s (not so)upbringing. He mother is a friendly Mexican tramp nailing any available American man with cash enough to fund her likes, seriatim. But there are also plenty of “lacunae” in the future novelists obsessive note taking about the Mayan civilization that will become his career. Also don’t miss the “lacuna” that is an idiosyncratic geological feature in the Yucatan which has no rivers that run to the sea, but only these deep water caves where Harrison Shepherd spent his most glorious moments as an abandoned boy.
(It knocked me out that when curious Gringos asked Mayans what a local place was called, they invariably responded “Yucatan”, Mayan for “I don’t understand you.”) He dies in his mid 30’s as a successful author, a suicide in his beloved Caribbean, after the Aware, Inc. weasels accuse him of Communism before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, where Joseph McCarthy and the fledgling Richard Nixon are trying out their detestable Shticks.
But the heart of the story is his serendipitously getting a job as a plaster mixer for Diego Rivera’s Mexico City murals. Thanks to my first art history teacher at the University of Detroit, he steered me to the recent Rivera murals of the Ford River Rogue complex in Dearborn, thanks to Edsel Ford’s inspired philanthropy. Just as your first successful kiss is unforgettable, so is your first masterpiece confronted with understanding.
(I’ve never forgiven Nelson Rockefeller for not having the balls to protect the Rockefeller Center Rivera just because it had a Lenin portrait.)
The “central action” of this novel is Shep’s interaction with Diego and Frida, especially in their brave defense of Trotsky as he tried to elude Stalin’s assassins. It’s the fallout from this history after he settles in Asheville, North Carolina and hires the widow Violet Brown to be his amanuensis (and defender). His very straitlaced life there as a very inactive gay man is contrasted with Zelda Fitzgerald’s rotting away in the local sanitarium and long absent Thomas Wolfe’s rep as an embarrassment to local straights.
A plethora of book reviews and feature stories about his idiosyncratic life from fabulous success to his destruction as an alleged Communist. The leitmotif is the unworthy “patriotism” of the American 30’s and 40’s. It forced me to face again my first political mistake, voting for Dewey instead of Truman, in my first election. My pal Henry Maloney and I went to Olympia for some Wallace hoopla and I was so turned off by the faux pop of Wallace Veep candidate Senator Glenn Taylor that I over-reacted and pushed my first lever for Tom.
Mea Culpa. I’m now in the middle of a Depression Buzz, what with Morris Dickstein just behind me and Penn’s polymath Peter Conn’s 1930’s Am Lit my next assignment, it makes a more and more complicated assessment of our Great Depression irresistible. I feel like I have a bell around my neck, urging the flock behind me to forswear snap judgments. Kingsolver would not approve.