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The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock
The Devil All the Time

OneMansView, July 8, 2011

Surely these characters don’t really exist

The author draws upon his lifelong experience of living in rural Ohio to describe a way of life and construct multiple stories scarcely to be believed, which are defined by grinding poverty; violence invoked at every turn; lawlessness and corruption among even community leaders; dependence on alcohol; mindless religious fervor; and all other manner of sorriness and degeneracy. Set in rural Ohio and West Va., the author, in interleaved chapters, follows the lives of several individuals, most of whom are either related or cross paths at some point, who lead the gritty, grimy lives that are endemic to the area ��" at least in the author’s telling.

The prose is crisp and incisive in its depiction of lives in all their rawness: the perpetual filth both inside and out of dilapidated houses, shacks, trailers, etc; the consumption of literally food scraps for meals; health issues left to fester; indifference towards basic personal hygiene, etc. One can practically feel the grimy, greasy, sweaty people portrayed.

Yet, in some respects, the writing has a matter-of-factness that reduces the impact of the hideousness of these people and what they do. Normality is Carl and Sandy combing the highways in neighboring states to find hitchhikers, or “models,” as Carl would say, to photograph them in compromising positions with Sandy and then discarding them. However, inconsistent with his precise, seeing approach, the author tends to pull away from the details of these chilling scenarios.

There is no doubt that the book is gripping; the reader is drawn in by the sheer spectacle of these damaged and damaging people, although the excessiveness and exaggerations depicted can be a bit off-putting. A question somewhat addressed by the author is, “Is there any escape from this way of life?”. The example of recent high school graduate Arvin Russell provides a mixed answer. It seems as though violence is hard to resist when that is all one knows, but is ironically perhaps necessary if one is to free one’s self from such a culture.

Is the book comedic? Like the Beverly Hillbillies, rural people may be ignorant, but aren’t they funny? The fact is that humor has long been squeezed from these characters lives. Though exaggerated, it is sad, if not frightening, to witness the atrocities that these characters are willing to commit. Perhaps the nonsensical “comedy of horrors” applies.
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1920: The Year of the Six Presidents by David Pietrusza
1920: The Year of the Six Presidents

OneMansView, June 28, 2011

The real stories of 1920 are largely missed (2.75*s)

This rather shallow, miscellaneously detailed - even to the point of tedium - book looks at the many flawed, mediocre individuals who vied, or were otherwise involved, for the 1920 Presidency ��" both Republicans and Democrats. Minimal details of their backgrounds are provided, but most important to the author are their personality quirks and shortcomings, the various antagonisms that existed among them, and, how they did or did not cope with political forces, including the media. The title of the book well overstates the prominence of those involved in the election of 1920. The two actual presidents exerted minimal influence on the process: Theodore Roosevelt died well before the conventions and Woodrow Wilson, after suffering several strokes, was bed-ridden during the entire election cycle. The others, FDR, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Warren Harding were relatively unimportant politicians at the time and were more or less dragged along by the course of events.

Both party nominating conventions and the election are subject to detail overkill by the author: all manner of meetings with every attendee noted, whose standing is now up or down, manipulative strategies and deals of the moment, statistics of trips taken and speeches made, etc. The winners at those conventions, Republican Warren Harding and Democrat James Cox were both second-rate, second-tier candidates. It is only partially clear as to why Republican front-runners Leonard Wood and Frank Lowden and, to some extent, Democratic leaders William McAdoo and A. Mitchell Palmer faded so badly. The author’s supplying of the vote totals of each round of balloting, while unnecessary, does explicitly show the change of fortunes.

The author’s focus on political personalities and considerations relegates the many important issues in the post WWI period to mostly cursory and fragmented treatment, such as the tough economic times with high inflation and unemployment, the flagrant suppression of the labor movement and dissent in general, that is, the Red Scare, and Pres. Woodrow Wilson’s incessant, insistent pushing of the League of Nations ��" part of his plan for the settlement of the War. Also, both prohibition and women’s suffrage, with an emphasis on political maneuvering, receive some attention.

An example of the author’s failure to provide context for issues is his handling of the so-called labor question. While the author does acknowledge Eugene Debs, the imprisoned socialist candidate for president and labor leader, as a champion of the working class, he in no way captures the decades-long labor-capital discord in American industries. Interestingly enough, the Wilson administration’s mandate that employee work councils be established within places of work [not mentioned by the author] to ensure labor peace was consistent with his call for “making the world safe for democracy.” However, after the War employers and government turned on striking workers with a vengeance capped by the excesses of AG Mitchell Palmer in his indiscriminate roundup of militants and the summary deportation of several hundred of them. While acknowledging Palmer’s excesses, the author, ignoring decades-long labor grievances, basically subscribes to the notion of radical, out-of-control workers needing to be curtailed.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the author’s detailing of the strange, obsessive, and contradictory personality of Wilson. He trusted no one and was quick to take offence, cutting off friends at the merest hint of a sleight or differences in policy. His inability to relate to others is seen in his tendency to lecture others in most any gathering. His progressivism was at best a thin veneer scarcely concealing his prejudices over race, labor, women’s rights, etc. His insistence on personally conducting treaty negotiations in France is a perfect example of his compulsiveness. But his most egregious act was to leave the nation essentially leaderless during the last year of his presidency as a result of his medical condition by creating a façade of being alert and in charge.

While the book is a chore to complete and ignores many important topics, it is not without some interest. The process for selecting presidential candidates is on full display and is not particularly encouraging. Harding was a nonentity whose agenda was merely to return the nation to “normalcy” ��" a vague notion at best. Cox never developed a coherent stance concerning Wilson’s policies or on such matters as Prohibition. Unsurprisingly, Harding’s administration was essentially a disaster, with several officials being convicted of crimes of corruption.

The book surely reaches a low point in its considerable discussion of a crackpot professor’s claims that Harding was of mixed race. That subject could have easily been dismissed in a paragraph, not an entire chapter. Another distraction about the book is the author’s tendency to subscribe to jargon of the day, such as “irreconcilables”, “reservationists”, “stand-patters”, and the like, with insufficient explanations provided. At least labeling a candidate as a “wet” or a “dry” is readily understandable.

1920 is not an unimportant year in U.S. history. The unsatisfactory process for selecting a president that year is bothersome, but ranks well below the willingness of the American establishment to stomp all over the rights of those with whom they disagreed or did not like. That is the story of 1920 that the author does not emphasize. The jailing of individuals under the Alien and Seditions Acts enacted after the War started is dreadful commentary on American justice. The incarceration of Debs has to be one of the low points in American jurisprudence. It would take fifteen years and the Great Depression for the labor movement to rebound from its suppression after WWI. And the tolerance for Jim Crow in the South and the evisceration of the rights of a huge group of people is simple unconscionable in a nation that claims to respect freedom. This huge regime of suppression transcends the machinations of elites in selecting uninspiring candidates for president in importance.

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It's All about the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels by Robert Penn
It's All about the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels

OneMansView, June 22, 2011

The Perfect Bike (3.75*s)

The author’s love for all aspects of bicycling is quite evident in this book: the history, its culture, the joy of riding, the challenge of long trips, and the bike itself. But most of all, he is intrigued by “old-school” bicycle craftsmen, who know virtually everything about bicycles, tend to use traditional tools and techniques, and are committed to quality above all else. The basis of this book is the author’s quest to have the perfect ��" for him ��" bike built, utilizing the knowledge of bicycle artisans/experts scattered across Europe and the US, most of whom he spends time with in the book ��" a process that he calls “bespoke,” or one-of-a-kind.

He sees these modern-day craftsmen as following in the footsteps of long forgotten bicycle innovators, who spent nearly a century from the 19th into the 20th centuries reinventing and perfecting the bicycle. He notes the development of the basic diamond bike frame in 1885, followed by the slow perfecting of steel ball bearings, headsets, handlebars, drive trains (chain, bottom bracket, free wheel, and derailleur), saddles, wheels and tires, and light weight, steel-alloy tubing. In his search for quality, he is allowed inside some of the most revered bicycle component manufacturers, such as, Chris King, Cinelli, Campagnola, Brooks, Columbus, and Continental, many being key players in component development over several decades.

Beyond the perfect bike, it is the social implications of bicycling that most interest the author. The production of literally millions of the so-called “safety” bicycle in England in the late 19th century had a significant effect on, not only, expanding distances that could be traveled in a day’s time but also on the emancipation of women, now more able than ever to make trips on their own. The explosion of bicycle ownership, the associated technical skills to build them, and the infrastructure required such as roads and repair centers directly facilitated the rise of the automobile in the next century. The author notes the ebb and flow of bicycle popularity over the 20th century, peaking in the decade following WWII. More recently, it is in some urban areas, such as Portland, OR, where specific planning efforts to accommodate bicyclists have resulted in thriving bicycle communities.

The author’s nostalgic ode to bicycle craftsmanship and quality is perhaps a bit overstated. The idea that a bicycle builder can almost instantly size-up a customer seems rather wishful, although modern, mechanistic “fit-kit” techniques too have their limitations. The author, being European may be unaware that it was the low quality of big-name, Italian bicycles in the 1960’s and 70’s that helped to fuel the growth of American bicycle companies. Evidently, modern, sophisticated, and repeatable manufacturing techniques are considerably more reliable than the ad hoc methods of the masters. Of course, many of them have too changed.

It is not just bicycle aficionados who can appreciate the author’s enthusiasm for bicycling and his many experiences both in the past and in his perfect-bike endeavor. He is surely correct to emphasize that a quality, good-fitting bike is an indispensable part of enjoyable biking. The fact that few have the same access as the author to master bicycle craftsmen is not terribly important. There is no availability shortage of technically advanced, high quality bicycles in the US, which bring every bit as much enjoyment as the author’s “perfect bike.” The book is a succinct look at the technical development of bicycles and as well touches on many areas of bicycle lore. Finally, the “perfect bike” turned out perfectly.
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Reservation Road by John Burnh Schwartz
Reservation Road

OneMansView, June 20, 2011

One heedless moment

This novel is a potent story of grief experienced when tragedy strikes a family, though it is somewhat drawn-out. It is hard to understand the pain and disruption that can permeate a family, especially parents, when a beloved child is abruptly taken away by a senseless accident. The Learner family goes into a deep tailspin when 10-year-old Josh is struck by a hit-and-run driver while carelessly standing on the side of dark, curvy Reservation Rd, where his father Ethan has stopped at an out-of-the way service station. But little do they know the tremendous impact that this accident has on the driver Dwight, who had his sleeping son Sam in the car and has led a hard-luck, troubled life, leading up to this exact place in time.

Throughout the story, the author shifts perspectives among Dwight, Ethan, and his wife Grace. Attempts at regaining any sort of normalcy in family life, relationships, work, etc are mostly futile with Dwight and Ethan making some ineffectual efforts, while Grace is virtually totally dysfunctional. The emotions and reactions range from rage, frustration, desires for revenge, listlessness, and depression to above all: guilt.

“What-if” thinking dominates. What if Ethan had been stronger in ignoring the over-sensitivity of Josh when told to do something ��" like not stand at the edge of the road? What if Dwight was not worried sick about getting Sam back to his ex-wife on time after a weekend excursion? It is extremely interesting to contemplate the ramifications of psychological compromises that maintain harmony in the near term but can have unfortunate consequences.

The book is also about to what extent revenge and punishment can bring closure to such a scenario. Will more violence; will placing someone in a jail cell bring satisfaction? Ethan and Dwight have to contend with these huge issues on a personal level: what actions and demands will yield justice for them?

Perhaps the story has its exaggerated aspects. The characters, all college-educated, may have been expected to have better personal coping mechanisms, as well as access to support. Their dealings with the police were strangely ineffective. The accident-scene evidence ��" speech remembered ��" is doubtful. Nonetheless, the story does capture the profound devastation that can be injected into people’s lives from essentially one heedless moment.
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Long Drive Home by Will Allison
Long Drive Home

OneMansView, June 16, 2011

A cautionary tale (3.75*s)

This cautionary tale, while somewhat melodramatic, will hit a nerve with anyone who has by choice used bad judgment in a dangerous situation and has either luckily escaped unscathed or, as in this case, has suffered adverse consequences that have rippled throughout his or her life. If only that first moment could be replayed ��" a futile thought.

Glen Bauer, on the way home from picking up his first-grade daughter Sara from school, becomes perturbed by a cop following too closely ��" enough so that he gestures out the window as the cop passes him and not with the peace sign. With that on his mind, when he turns onto his home street he makes a split-second decision to scare a teen speeding towards him in an expensive, over-powered car with a provocative move. The teen overreacts and slams into a tree across from Glen’s house; worse, his precocious daughter has absorbed everything that has occurred since leaving her school.

As neighbors, the police, news-crews, and medical personnel descend on the scene, Glen is uneasy: who has seen what; what can be reconstructed; what is his culpability? That last thing that Glen wants is a persistent police investigation. But Det. Rizzo presents puzzling accident-scene photos and wants to talk to Sara. When a lawyer representing the teen’s mom requests to interview Glen, his human resources manager wife Liz, already suspicious about what occurred, rather quickly decides that Glen must move away to preserve her and Sara’s assets and future.

Their lives become very difficult ��" the uncertainty of the future, the loss of trust, the shifting truth of what happened, the physical separation and the emotional distance, the tough approach of Rizzo, etc. In the midst of this damage to their lives, Glen writes a lengthy revealing, emotional letter, interleaved into the story, which is to be opened by Sara at age eighteen. He ultimately desires understanding, if not forgiveness, yet the effort seems meandering and lacking and way too late.

Glen, a self-employed CPA, is not the most sympathetic character, repeatedly exhibiting a great deal of poor judgment and even immaturity, allowing himself to be bullied at almost every turn ��" by his wife, Rizzo, and others. The author’s approach to Glen’s judgment is also a little ambiguous. He seems to be suggesting that a full truth approach should always be taken, yet it is clear that if Glen had not panicked, he probably could have steered a middle ground and avoided the devastation to his life. Given the entirety of the situation, would such saving of his family’s life be morally indefensible?

The story does have some weaknesses, but is short and easily read. Despite some quibbles, it is thought provoking, leaving readers to ponder what the final resolution will be concerning Glen’s wife and daughter and possibly to review or relive similar occurrences in their own lives.

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