Tuesday, February 20, 2007

An author's journey to publication; Hamilton's Madeline is a miss

Books now read in ’07: 14
Title: Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties
Author: Robert Stone
Genre: Memoir
Date Completed: 2-13
Pages: 229

Robert Stone’s Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties isn’t simply a memoir of life in the sixties. Stone’s publishers have positioned this book in such a manner that it could be a disappointment to a reader expecting nothing but vast quantities of hippies, free love, weed, acid and rock ‘n roll. Some of that’s here, including Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, but this book is vastly more important as an author’s journey from prayers to publication than as a paean to the sixties.

The book begins with Stone as a lonely Merchant Marine, aboard a naval transport ship in the Southern Ocean, and concludes with the publication of his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors. It is both, a commercial and critical success. Paul Newman lures Stone to Hollywood to make a movie based on the book. Sadly, the film, WUSA, doesn’t match the success of A Hall of Mirrors.

“There are almost enough unintentional laughs in WUSA, the movie to which I allegedly reduced A Hall of Mirrors, to make its history seem funny even to me. Almost but not quite, considering it provided me with enough regrets to fuel one lifetime’s worth of insomnia. Not to mention aggregate hours of boredom and disappointment inflicted as punishment on an innocent audience. All I can say by way of apology is that I suffered too.”

Hollywood has rarely been kind to authors of Stone’s caliber. One suspects that it was as much the movie as it was the Manson Family and other unfortunate events of the summer of 1969 that sent Stone and his family to London for four years. Stone eventually returns to America. He also recovered sufficiently from his experience in Hollywood to write such notable works as Dog Soldiers, Bear and His Daughter: Stories and Damascus Gate.

Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties is an interesting read, and a good one. I recommend it more for its insight into the development of an author, however, then as a memoir of the sixties.

Books now read in ’07: 15
Title: When Madeline Was Young
Author: Jane Hamilton
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 2-20
Pages: 274

There’s a great story lost within the pages of When Madeline Was Young by Jane Hamilton. Madeline, of the title, is the first wife of Aaron Maciver. After Madeline suffers brain damage in a bicycle accident, Aaron eventually divorces her and marries Julia, who is both a friend of Aaron’s sister and, coincidentally, Madeline’s nurse.

We’re OK so far, but here’s where the story quits working for me. Aaron and Julia – she’s the personification of liberal sensibility – decide to “raise” Madeline. The Maciver children, Mac and Louise, regard Madeline as a simply a big sister. It is a preposterous concept. And it doesn’t work on two counts: 1) it is incredibly unlikely and 2) Hamilton suggests that Madeline’s very presence ennobles the entire Maciver clan as well as their black housekeeper in the bargain.

Hamilton’s contention is well intended, but it is ultimately insensitive and demeaning. Whatever choice a family makes regarding a blighted family member – to keep them at home or to institutionalize them – there is a cost and it is a painful one. I do not see that pain in these pages.

Hamilton would have been better served to have abandoned this conceit and focused instead on the Maciver clan and the rift that develops within the family because of the Vietnam War. These Madeline-free sections of the novel are powerful and moving. The rest is just wrong.

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