September 2011

Barbara J. King

features

Books of Escape: Springsteen as Jesus, Murder in Italy, and a Unique-Voiced Pigman

For August, I craved to fly away from a series of colliding and onerous demands. These rutted me in place, preventing me from departing a 20-mile radius of home and smacking of a non-carefree summer. In choosing the next book to read, most often I stand before my sun-room bookshelf and gust to right or left by the moment’s mood. This time, though, I set a reading agenda for the month that included three books meant to offer mental egress in restorative directions.

Finding Grace in the Concert Hall by Linda K. Randall took me to the first place I wished I could go: a lengthy, energy-spiked and transcendence-making Bruce Springsteen concert. Adapted from Randall’s Master’s thesis in Anthropology, this volume is a vehicle for Randall’s exploration of the spiritual community inhabited by many Springsteen fans, both during live performances and in cyberspace communities. Deploying some anthropology jargon (welcome to these eyes), Randall calls her work an ethnography, a text that results from observations of a subset of people and their customs, and offers it from the emic perspective, that of an insider who shares the culture under study.  

In 2009, Randall attended a Springsteen concert alone. She’d been to one before, years back. This time she found herself on thunder road. “To feel a part -- me, a 53-year-old middle-aged woman -- of this joyous, raucous celebration of life, love, friendship and music was an extraordinary encounter. I experienced transcendence, inclusion, redemption, and felt a part of the performance. I felt the grace of the universe.”

With this point of entry, Randall fell deeper and deeper into the Springsteen community of fans. That Springsteen fans treat each other as “fictive kin,” another pleasing import from anthropology meaning the family we choose rather than family via blood, is the most convincing point made in the book. The details related by Randall of the lengths fan go to help each other, indeed to trust each other sight unseen simply because they are bonded in Bruce, are fascinating. (And to this New Jersey-born, decades-long Springsteen fan, they ring true.)   

But trust was my stumbling point with Randall. It’s fine to suggest that the tie binding together Springsteen fans is spiritual, and to equate the fan community with a religious community. This is a familiar theme in writing about Springsteen. Vaulting into new (to me at least) territory, Randall made leaps that left me uneasy. After quoting Springsteen about goals of his music, Randall notes, “This is, after all, the desire of all great teachers -- whether Buddha, Krishna, or Christ -- to have their teachings remembered, valued, and heeded.” Describing pilgrimages made by fans to Springsteen’s New Jersey, Randall suggests they are “not unlike the Holy Land tours I observed when in Israel, with pilgrims eager to walk the same ground that Jesus, Mohammed, and Moses all walked.” Conversely, the comparsions I did seek, to answer the question of whether and how Springsteen fans differ from those of, say, Mick Jagger or the band Phish, are explicitly rejected as not the subject of the book.

Minor claims go awry. From Asbury Park, Randall writes, she “ventured further down the beach, south to Freehold” to visit Springsteen’s home town. This error is repeated one other place; Freehold is no beach town. Minor grammatical mistakes, the kind undergraduates don’t get away with, jar the writing more than once. “A thoughtful and deliberate writer,” notes Randall, “Springsteen’s early lyrics center around themes that are familiar and of concern to many people -- belonging, inclusion, freedom, future.”

In sum, to read Randall’s book as a fan is fun; to read it as a work of scholarship is less satisfying.

Genni Gunn’s Solitaria is a novel that sent me to Italy, where I also longed to be. Opening in 2002 with a fresh relevation in a decades-old family mystery, the action shifts between that present-day plot and its backstory from the 1940s. The family in question is swollen with siblings (a Russian-novel-style list of characters would have helped the reader) and complicated cross-cutting connections among them.

The mystery centers around Vito, one of the siblings. How can his murdered body have been discovered in Italy when he was supposedly living abroad in Argentina? Secrets, emerging reluctantly from their well-guarded hiding places, haunt the extended family. And in the matter of secrets, the 1940s chapters are even more compelling. The desperately poor family is headed by Papa who works on the Italian railway and who, when safely out of the range of strange and potentially dangerous ears, delivers tirades against Mussolini. Mamma cares for the children: Vito, Aldo, Renato, Mimi, and Daniela, and Piera who narrates this part of the story.

At six, already working in the fields beside his father, Vito is sent away to help an ailing uncle. As his Papa imparts this news, Vito sits quietly and picks a scab. “Vito nodded,” Gunn writes with stabbing understatement, “as if he understood. A tear of blood formed on his arm.” What happens to Vito over the ensuing years is told with many examples of this same quietly elegant language.

Gunn effectively uses features of the Italian landscape to highlight the fractured chronology and the deceptive nature of her characters. Just as the narrative stretches across time periods, the ubiquitous railway tracks, beside which the family lives, in different places at different years in small dwellings called caselli, stretch in both directions as if into the past and the future. The terra rossa, subterranean caverns of limestone, echo in their invisible chambers the family’s secrets so big yet so invisible, churning away to alter the family’s dynamics: “This limestone landscape -- this rock beneath our feet -- is actually an underground filigree of grottos, crevices, and streams, of stalactites and stalagmites, the earth in constant formation.”      

Occasionally a simile of Gunn’s goes wrong -- I flinched at Gunn’s comparing the hail-pocked and bouncing ground to a bed of lice -- but the story’s suspense builds nicely. Its conclusion, if too abruptly rendered, did not disappoint.  

Least easy to pigeonhole is Kitty Fitzgerald’s novel Pigtopia, which quenched my desire for a wild ride into an animal universe. Jack Plum, a disfigured, mocked, and isolated man in his 30s, who resembles nothing so much as a pig, lives with his monstrous mother. He speaks in a voice that takes some getting used to: “I believe there is prospects in Mam’s words of my pigness because my head is fat and squashed, with a snout, and heavy as a pig’s must be, with eyes as gobbets of coal. Though there isn’t trotters or a curlicue tail, I some times splat down to run free with piggywigs what I love, as they is brothers and sisters in my tribe, and because they love me full on.”

I fell into compatible cadence with Jack’s voice, though admit to feeling some relief at the chapters narrated by Holly Lock, a young teenager who gradually befriends Jack. The two bond in the Palace, the pig haven Jack has created beneath his home. Through his mutually kind interactions with the sow Freya and her piglets, Jack showcases pigs’ intelligence and empathy.

We readers know from the beginning that the Palace, a dual-species safe haven, will be breached. Jack knows too, deep inside. “My dreamworld is full brimming of red flowers and garlic smells and vanilla, and there is distance noises what comes nearer in a regular time, as a drum beat would, and when I gasp awake in dreadful fear and sweating I understand the drum is my hammerful heart pumped about on worries and frighteners waiting on the edges of things.”

Fitzgerald builds the story to a dark crescendo, and the ending, death-besotted and bloody, rivals one from the early black novels of Ian McEwan. The escape denied to Jack Plum was gifted to me by Pigtopia, which sent me into a fully realized world populated by humans and other animals who together create something far from routine.