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Short takes

By Barbara Fisher
January 18, 2009
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SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END
By Diana Athill
Norton, 182 pp., $24.95

Diana Athill's memoir, written in her 89th year, tackles the little-documented subject of "falling away." As she is well advanced in the process, she is up to the task. She considers the subject from many angles - philosophical, religious, romantic, personal. As an editor of many great writers, Athill writes on this potentially grim subject with clarity, calm, and common sense.

On the subject of belief, she remembers a friend who rejected the idea of a first cause by saying "Might it not be that beginnings and endings are things we think in terms of simply because our minds are too primitive to conceive of anything else?" She enjoys the company of young people without imagining that they relish hers. She recognizes that we all will probably be in the position of caring for or being cared for by someone. And then she candidly describes the selfish compromises she arrived at to care for her dying mother, and the unexpected compensations she received from caring for her ailing lover. Here is part of her wonderful conclusion: "Human life . . . is amazingly capacious so that it can contain many opposites. . . . Serenity and tumult, heartbreak and happiness, coldness and warmth, grabbing and giving - and also more particular opposites such as a neurotic conviction that one is a flop and a consciousness of success amounting to smugness. . . . Most lives are a matter of ups and downs rather than of a conclusive plunge into an extreme."

WATER DOGS
By Lewis Robinson
Random House, 256 pp., $25

Guys who play war games, drink beer, smoke weed, drive trucks, and in general act like kids are forced to grow up in this novel set in small-town Maine. Brothers Bennie and Littlefield, fierce competitors for their father's approval, become allies after his early death. Along with Bennie's twin sister, Gwen, the brothers were raised in the family's formerly elegant and impressive house, called with irony the "manse." Now falling to ruin, the manse continues to provide a base for the three adult children.

Bennie, in his late 20s, continues to enjoy the thrill and camaraderie of paintball, a game he plays following the credo "to kick ass. To blast hard and fast and to kill indiscriminately, to model yourself after soldiers or Indians or gangbangers." Despite a massive snowstorm, the brothers engage in a paintball contest against a team of rugged and ruthless opponents. The tense but scoreless game lands Bennie at the bottom of a granite quarry, severely injured, leaves an opponent mysteriously missing, and casts suspicion on Littlefield. Bennie, recovering in the hospital with his head bandaged and his leg in a cast, has time to consider his life - especially his new affection for his girlfriend and his longstanding faith in his brother.

At the end of the novel, the mystery of the missing paintballer is solved and the reluctant children move into maturity. But by far the liveliest and sharpest scenes are the descriptions of the paintball battle with its possibility of "the shockingly sharp sting of humiliation and loss." The plot moves toward stability and responsibility, but these feel like bland alternatives to the unpredictable exhilaration of paintball.

LOSING EVERYTHING
By David Lozell Martin
Simon & Schuster, 201 pp., $24

David Lozell Martin really did lose everything: his health, his writing career, his wife, and finally his mind. He was "living in [his] son's attic room. $60,000 in debt. No job. No prospects." He was also suffering from suicidal depression (what he calls clinical anguish) and paranoia. What is surprising is not that he lost all this but that he ever had any of it to lose. His father, a man of explosive rage, regularly humiliated, threatened, bullied, baited, and beat him. His mother, a certified lunatic who dared her husband to kill her and her son to have sex with her, regularly chattered on about God, Satan, and hell.

Powered by arrogance, ambition, and rage, Martin managed to get through college, write well-received novels and money-making thrillers, fall in love, marry, buy a house, a farm, land, horses, trucks, cars. He self-destructed from drinking too much gin and saving too little cash. Martin conceives of his divided mind as a conflict between the "Guys in the Back Row," the self-destructive impulses, and the "External Reality Team," the sane voices. This extended metaphor provides a nice structure to this unique tale. But I could do without the generic lessons Martin draws out of private history in his concluding chapters.

Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.

SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END By Diana Athill

Norton, 182 pp., $24.95

LOSING EVERYTHING By David Lozell Martin

Simon & Schuster, 201 pp., $24

WATER DOGS By Lewis Robinson

Random House, 256 pp., $25

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