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Short Takes

'Fiction Ruined My Family,' 'American Nations,' 'Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes'

By Kate Tuttle
October 2, 2011

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“My mother was a stay-in-bed mother and my father was a stay-at-home writer,’’ writes Jeanne Darst, which made it hard at times for her and her sisters to understand why they should work very hard at anything. There’s nothing rare these days about a memoir of unconventional parents and a difficult childhood, but Darst brings freshness and often startling humor to her own story - which helps balance its more serious second half, in which alcoholism (parental and not) is decreasingly hidden behind charm. One of four daughters of an unsuccessful writer and a former debutante, Darst knows what’s funny about her family, and she writes with almost savage glee about their foibles. Her mother “had a light cry going most of the time,’’ and her father was “like the Great Santini of the Strand,’’ gentle at heart but dead serious about the importance of reading well: “[S]howing up to meet him for lunch with a John Grisham book under your arm would have been like showing up with no pants on, you know, get yourself together, for God’s sake.’’

Growing up poor in a genteel suburb, Darst knew what each of her parents expected of her - “to have the manners of Tracy Lord from ‘The Philadelphia Story’ and the mind of Murray Kempton’’ - but no idea how to please them, or even herself. As the memoir follows her to college and beyond, its humor grows darker. Concerning her own alcoholism and hard-won career as a writer, she realizes that “[t]he things that are wrong with me, the things I struggle with, are the things that define me.’’

We constantly hear about how America is divided - Red versus Blue states, North versus South, people who say “soda’’ and people who say “pop.’’ But these facile distinctions, according to author Colin Woodard, underestimate both the number and the historical depth of the differences among Americans. There are, in Woodard’s estimation, 11 American nations, each with its own story, values, goals, and character. And despite subsequent centuries of migration and immigration, he argues, these nations retain much of their foundational identities.

For instance, although many current members of what they call the Tea Party proclaim their admiration for New England’s early inhabitants, they would hate much of what made the nation Woodard calls Yankeedom, including the way they formed towns, “happily impos[ing] taxes on themselves to fund the construction and operation of a school, church, and library.’’ Contrast that to the Appalachian settlers, who “formed towns almost as an afterthought,’’ and in whose territory “local taxes were low, schools and libraries rare.’’ Some of the most fascinating parts of this very engrossing book detail just how much these nations hated one another, up to and during the Revolution (which, as Woodard describes it, comprised a series of very different wars, including a bloody civil war in the Borderlands of the present-day South).

A book like this invites nitpicking, and depending on where you’re from you may reject the nation into which Woodard places you. In the end, though, this is a smart read that feels particularly timely now, when so many would claim a mythically unified “Founding Fathers’’ as their political ancestors.

Kennedy’s latest novel blends historical figures - Ernest Hemingway, Fidel Castro - with various familiar and new members of the author’s venerable fictional version of Albany, N.Y. Taking place over a 30-year period, skipping from Albany to Havana and back again, “Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes’’ concerns Daniel Quinn, whose grandfather starred in Kennedy’s eponymous 1988 “Quinn’s Book,’’ itself a kind of progenitor of this book - both deal in collisions of private and public revolutions. In Cuba, Daniel meets Renata, a world-class seductress and aspirant radical, and their romance sits at the center of a swirling collage of action and flashback, much of it taking place over one day, the day Robert Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles in 1968. One of William Kennedy’s persistent themes is, as Daniel puts it, “the link between politics and gangsterism,’’ and there’s an almost deliriously rich cast of lowlifes here: gun runners, politicians on the make, street-corner agitators, prostitutes, winos.

The problem with this sort of thing is, of course, that it’s easy for the writing to lapse into exoticism or cartoonishness or even self-parody. Kennedy mostly avoids these perils - his characters’ ability to temper their wordiness with plain old common sense had to come from somewhere, after all - but not always. There are long passages that feel indulgent, even stale. Perhaps this is intentional on Kennedy’s part - after all, much of the book concerns generational misunderstandings, particularly the difficulty the young have in finding anything of value in the ramblings of their elders. And there is brilliance, too. Kennedy’s humor is sly and wonderful, as when Hemingway gives Quinn writing advice on their first meeting: “Shun adverbs, strenuously.’’ And his description of Hemingway himself as a “maestro of the word, the hunt, the deep sea, the saloon, the bull-ring, the wars, the self’’ is well-nigh perfect.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.

FICTION RUINED MY FAMILY By Jeanne Darst

Riverhead, 320 pages, $25.95

AMERICAN NATIONS A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America By Colin Woodard

Viking, 371 pp., $30

CHANGÓ’S BEADS AND TWO-TONE SHOES By William Kennedy

Viking, 328 pp., $26.95