Yellowstone River (National Park Service)

The other day, I came upon this passage from Alice McDermott’s 1992 novel At Weddings and Wakes: “The air at her back felt damp, although when she moved closer to the window she realized it was only the unaccustomed coolness. When had summer become fall?” It’s not yet fall, and, sitting in my un-air-conditioned apartment, it’s certainly not yet cool. Still, upon reading these sentences, I felt a shiver go through me. When had June become August? Where had my summer gone?

Like most of my summers, this one largely went into books. With no teaching or commuting, with the Celtics bowing out in late May and the Red Sox frittering away much of the season, I caught up on some older novels (Robert Stone’s A Hall of Mirrors is a masterpiece; Ward Just’s Forgetfulness was a bit of a disappointment) as well as some newer poetry (Saskia Hamilton’s forthcoming All Souls is excellent).

Here are some notes from a summer’s worth of reading.

Much of my July was spent rereading John McPhee: the don of American nonfiction, the GOAT of the New Yorker profile, the writer whose enthusiasms—for tennis and lacrosse, oranges and the Pine Barrens—are contagious. In high school, earth science was my least favorite subject. I didn’t get plate tectonics; I was uninterested in meteorology; the flame in my Bunsen burner turned purple when it was supposed to be green. Yet, in adulthood, I’ve read, and loved, McPhee’s geological history of North America, Annals of the Former World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $29, 720 pp.): four books’ worth of material on rocks, glaciers, fault lines, and deep time. In it, we meet the Princeton geology professor Kenneth Deffeyes, “a big man with a tenured waistline.” We spend time in Wyoming and the Midwest. We learn about igneous and metamorphic petrology, Precambrian pebbles, and Silurian rock. There’s a humility to McPhee’s writing, a sense that what matters isn’t him but his subject, and he makes you believe that what interests him would interest you, too, if only you’d look with as much patience and creativity as he does.

In Draft No. 4, McPhee remembers his editor at the New Yorker, Robert Bingham, complaining when he described a subject as having a “sincere” mustache. In response, McPhee doubled down and became, as he puts it, the magazine’s “nonfiction mustache specialist.” Here are some mustache descriptions I noted over the summer. From Annals of the Former World: “His mustache was an airfoil with a fineness ratio that must have impressed the Wright brothers.” From Heirs of General Practice: “His mustache seems medical, in that it spreads flat beyond the corners of his mouth and suggests no prognosis, positive or negative.” From The Ransom of Russian Art: “With his grand odobene mustache, he had everything but the tusks.” In the first, a mustache is a feat of engineering. In the second, it’s revelatory of character and profession. In the third, it’s the occasion to use, or learn, a new word. (“Odobene” means walrus-like.) At ninety-two, McPhee remains a treasure.

Reading so much McPhee primed me for Jonathan Slaght’s Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl (Picador, $18, 368 pp.). The book has a positively McPhee-like premise: Slaght’s search for, and PhD research on, the rare Blakiston’s fish owl in the remote region of Russia bordering the Sea of Japan. Slaght meets outrageous characters, including a hermit named Anatoily who, upon Slaght’s first night spent in his cabin, asks if gnomes tickled his feet while he slept. The fish owl is itself a memorable, if only fleetingly glimpsed, creature. Huge, strangely anthropomorphic, the birds look, Slaght writes, “like one of Jim Hensen’s darker creations…a goblin bird with mottled brown feathers puffed out, back hunched, and ear tufts erect and menacing.” Too many pages are devoted to fieldwork: Slaght’s attempts to trap and track the elusive birds; his many journeys through, and occasional strandings within, the Russian winterscape. A friend of mine summarized John McPhee’s genius like this: he learns everything about a subject and then only gives you the interesting bits. That’s true, and it’s a challenge for academics to recognize when research, so important to them, might lose the reader. But McPhee also can make details interesting because he’s a first-rate stylist. Slaght’s writing is solid but unspectacular. Our response to any single book is often shaped by context: not just the setting in which we’re reading but the other books we’ve recently read. Pity the writer who comes right after McPhee.

A friend of mine summarized John McPhee’s genius like this: he learns everything about a subject and then only gives you the interesting bits.

Some people have complained about Wes Anderson’s new film, Asteroid City, grumbling that it takes all of Anderson’s characteristic formal features (symmetrical framing and intense stylization, deadpan deliveries and precocious children) and exaggerates them. What had been a distinctive manner has become pure mannerism. I think this is a misreading of the movie. An interest in surfaces isn’t always antithetical to emotion, and it isn’t in Asteroid City. Such criticisms also, in a way that is symptomatic of much critical conversation, erroneously consider aesthetic novelty a good in and of itself, privileging reinvention over a deepening and amplification of an artist’s sensibility. I enjoy artists who try new things (David Lynch in his 1999 film The Straight Story; Zadie Smith and Percival Everett in almost every novel they write), but I also admire artists who find their one thing and do it again and again, working not through constant change but through iteration and elaboration. Tom Cruise is a great actor not because he’s particularly malleable but because he’s perfected, and subtly changed and raised the stakes of, the typical Tom Cruise role. I’m not just talking about the comfort of the familiar. There’s something difficult, and admirable, about honing a style and returning to it in different forms.

I had such thoughts as I read Lorrie Moore’s new novel, I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home (Knopf, $27, 208 pp.). For years, in her many stories and three previous novels, Moore has been interested in how comedy pushes back against morality, though it knows it can never finally defeat it. In her new novel, we again have death (the suicide of a woman named Lily), we again have jokes (“When not paying attention in life he assumed you could end up in Ohio”), and we again have self-consciousness about said jokes (“A joke had to be revised, polished, rubbed until the genie got out, ran off, and it just wasn’t funny anymore”). Moore’s writing often begins in the realm of apparent realism before lighting out for more absurdist territory. In I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home, Lily’s corpse is reanimated, and her one-time-lover takes it on a road trip. Moore treads some new ground here—this contemporary corpse-on-the-highway story is intercut with a series of letters from one nineteenth-century woman to her sister—but mainly we’re in a recognizable locale: Mooreland. Writing for the New Yorker, Parul Sehgal put it nicely: in Moore’s novels, “it’s not growth we observe but rotation, reshuffling, a kaleidoscopic movement of elements—teachers, opera, Brahms, New Yorkers exiled to the Midwest, sick children—clicking into different arrangements.” In I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home, the elements are familiar, the different arrangements are surprising, and the reading experience is a delight.

When it comes to music, my tastes run more to The National than to Cannibal Corpse, so I approached John Wray’s heavy-metal novel, Gone to the Wolves (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28, 400 pp.), with some wariness. The book opens with three high schoolers living in Venice, Florida. They’re all outcasts of one kind or another—one has fits of rage, another is Black and bisexual, the third has a tortured home life—and they all lose themselves, and find themselves, and lose themselves again, in the nascent death-metal scene of the 1980s and 1990s. Wray is terrific on the somatic effects of music: ”Distorted guitar had always had a certain temperature to him: it had always, no matter how vicious the music, been a sound he understood in terms of heat.” He’s even better on how style, in both music (“it sounded like someone trying to sing a nursery rhyme while being burned at the stake”) and dress (faded band t-shirts and shark-tooth necklaces), can take on existential importance. I was reminded of Mary Gaitskill’s 2005 novel Veronica, in which characters want to “live like music” and adopt what the narrator calls the “style suit” of their time and place: “a set of postures and expressions that give the right shape to what they had inside them, so that even naked, they felt clothed.”

Gone to the Wolves goes a little gonzo in its final third, moving the action from the United States to Norway, leaving behind songs that play at death and Satanic worship for people who want to bring metal’s postures and expressions into violent actuality. I have no idea if the novel captures the scene with historical accuracy. I still prefer my music melancholic, not rage-filled; I won’t be listening to Deicide any time soon. But, after reading Wray’s novel, I get why one might love metal, where destruction becomes a kind of sublimity, an embrace of nothingness opening up into something: “He was being offered the same purifying fear, the same catharsis, the same revelation midnight slasher movies gave: that everything wasn’t going to be all right. Not now and not ever. And that made perfect sense to him.” That’s what art at its best offers us: the right shape to what we have inside us; a form that makes sense of an experience that so often feels senseless.

Anthony Domestico is chair of the English and Global Literatures Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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