Childhood

#50 How My Dad’s Mattress Ended Up on Our Front Lawn: Lessons Learned from A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor (1987)

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

We’re about a month removed from the closing ceremonies and I’m sad the Olympics are over, but not necessarily because I want to watch more events. Honestly, it was killing my productivity. And my ability to catch up on other television shows. Or both. Hello Mr. Robot my old friend.

No, the reason I’m sad is that these Olympics will hold a special place in my heart because it was really the first Olympics that we shared with Sam and Lily. They must have watched the 2012 games in London, but at that point Sam was 11 and Lily had just turned 10 and they were still going to bed early enough that they wouldn’t have seen NBC’s ridiculously late night coverage (a topic for another day). But now they’re four years older. Sam is learning to drive, Lily is in high school and they now stay up ridiculously late which is super handy if you want to watch the Olympics.

So this year we spent a lot of time between 8 p.m. and midnight sitting around our bedroom watching Simone Biles, Kerri Walsh Jennings, and Usain Bolt. We discussed green pools, the Zika virus, and the sexism imbedded in this headline.

olympics-article

We lamented the US Women’s Nation Soccer team losing way too early. We laughed at Michael Phelps giving Chad le Clos a pre-race death stare, the diving scores that covered the athlete’s groins so it made them look like porn stars, and Ryan Lochte dying his hair brown again after saying “my bad” for lying about being held up at gunpoint. (That helped for one second.) And we marveled at the athleticism and sportsmanship on display such as Katie Ledeky beating the the silver medalist by nearly 12 seconds in the 800m final, and New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino of the USA helping each other out after colliding in their heat of the women’s 5000m. In hindsight, it was two weeks of together time that was wonderful.

And although I love that I have my nights back, I’m a little melancholy due to the fact that the Olympics only happen every four years, and that time we just spent together may not be replicated with the older two kids (Macy, I realize, is another story). When the Olympics descend on Tokyo in 2020, Sam will be nearly 20 years old and in college (hopefully). Lily will have just turned 18 and be a full-fledged adult and getting ready to go off to college (again, hopefully). Who knows if either will be in the house and even if they are, will we all sit around our bedroom for four hours every night watching synchronized diving? Doubtful.

Am I being overly pessimistic? I don’t think so. I’m dating myself, but the first Olympics I clearly remember were the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games. It was the Olympics of Nadia Comaneci and the first perfect 10. It was Sugar Ray Leonard and Spinks brothers, Michael and Leon, taking gold medals when boxing still mattered. It was the US men’s basketball team winning after the controversial loss four years earlier. It was Caitlin Jenner, then known as Bruce, winning the decathlon, soon to have (at that time) his face all over boxes of Wheaties. Germany was still divided between East and West and everyone thought the East German women’s swim team was doping when they nearly swept all the swimming events. Probably because they were.

And even now, I remember watching with my parents and loving it and being so excited for it to happen again. Except it didn’t. In 1980, the US boycotted the Moscow games for reasons I don’t recall. By the time the 1984 Olympics rolled around in LA, the Russians and most of the Eastern Bloc boycotted in retaliation for the US boycott, and I was entering my senior year of high school. As such, neither the USSR nor I participated. And then I was gone.

But, and this is a big but, having that one Olympics with my parents made a difference. Not only do I still remember much of it to this day, but it also led to one of my top five favorite Dad stories. I was so obsessed with the Olympics that when my birthday came around I wanted to have an Olympics themed party. Most of the events were fairly straightforward. Lots of races (both running and swimming), we had a roughly round-shaped rock that we used as a shot put. There was a diving (read: cannonball) competition. But my favorite event was high jump, but not because I love that event or because I did especially well. No. That event was my favorite because my Dad dragged his mattress from his master bedroom on to our front lawn so that we would have padding when we landed. And he told me not to tell my Mom.

I remember thinking it was so out of character. The whole thing. I’ve spoken at length about my Dad and he had many, many fabulous qualities, but a secretive rule breaker he wasn’t. He was very practical and honest and had I been a betting man at that tender age, I would have said there is a snowball’s chance in hell that he’d drag a mattress – his own mattress – on to our front yard in support of fake Olympic glory. And then I would have double-downed that he would have run this plan by Mom first. Being wrong about your parents, however, is just part of growing up.

And I’m 99% sure that if I could tell him that story today, he would have no recollection of ever doing that and certainly wouldn’t think that it had any impression on me. In fact, there were all sorts of other “lessons” I inadvertently learned from my Dad that I’m sure he never intended. For example, to teach my new puppy, Toby, how to swim, he threw him in the pool. Lesson learned: sink or swim. Literally. When we came across a gruesome car crash in Mexico with a bloody dead guy impaled on the steering wheel, I looked at him and he didn’t flinch. Lesson learned: don’t freak out. When my grades dipped during my sophomore year of high school, he told me not to show him my report card. Lesson learned: when the lesson is learned, the lesson is learned. (Alternate lesson: give ‘em enough rope).

Lessons learned, or scar tissue developed, during childhood is a great intro to Peter Taylor’s A Summons to Memphis, the 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner. Summons tells the story of Phillip, a New York City book editor and the 49-year-old son of imposing Memphis lawyer George Carver. Phillip, who is unmarried, returns home when George, an octogenarian, decides to remarry, a development that Phillip’s two older and also unmarried sisters, Betsy and Josephine, intend to prevent. With gusto.

But it turns out that the crux of the story isn’t the kids’ obsession with thwarting their father’s new love. Instead, it is the family’s history and the kids’ belief that their father totally ruined their lives. Unlike the father in A Thousand Acres, however, whose transgressions were objectively unforgivable, George is guilty of the much more pardonable sin of moving the family from Nashville to Memphis. In their minds, that decision 40 years earlier blighted all of their lives. Seriously, it can’t be fixed.

A little background is in order. Other than George who was born in rural Tennessee, the Carvers are natives of Nashville. And George, despite his upbringings, pulled himself up by his proverbial bootstraps, attended the prestigious Vanderbilt University and became a respected Nashville lawyer. In Nashville, the family leads an ideal life blessed with meaning until George is compelled to uproot the family and move to Memphis in order to protect his reputation due to his association with a former friend, the unsavory Mr. Lewis Shakleford. Tragedy ensues.

One sister had to give up an engagement; Philip was forever torn from an adolescent love; and the children’s mother, who has been dead for a few years before the book begins, had to leave all that she knew behind and start anew. And in Memphis the hardships continue. The teenage daughters are not allowed to be presented in Memphis and are thus denied the opportunity to find acceptable suitors; the other brother Georgie eventually runs off to fight in the war; the mother declines physically and mentally; and Philip moves to New York City to get away from it all. On the surface that is pretty much it to the story (I’ll leave you in suspense as to the success or failure of their thwarting attempts).

But really, A Summons to Memphis is about whether we ever get over the pain and betrayals – or what we remember as the pain and betrayals – from childhood. Granted, it is hard to get too worked up over the kids’ pain and betrayals in this story. It seems silly to blame a move of 200 miles as the determining factor for the rest of your life. But in retrospect, maybe the seeming triviality of the father’s actions in this book force us to take a closer look at the question. In other words, some people experience such horrible childhoods that the fact those experiences affect them throughout life seems a foregone conclusion. For most, however, those supposed wrongs might appear innocuous when viewed through the eyes of an objective outsider. In any case, A Summons to Memphis is a fine reminder that forgetting the injustices and seeming injustices which one suffered from one’s parents during childhood and youth must be the major part of any maturing process. The Carver children haven’t done so well on that front.

Bottom line, A Summons to Memphis is a finely written novel — as most of the books on the countdown from here on out will be — that tells a semi-interesting story. And for parents such as myself, it is a somewhat troubling reminder that all of your actions, intentional or not, will make an impression on your children, but a select few will change who they are as adults. And the kicker is you won’t know which actions those are until it is too late. (So maybe the really important lesson that we should teach our kids is that if you’re dropped into a swimming pool, you should swim.) All you can do is try your best, and drag your own mattress onto the front lawn once in a while. And by all means, spend time with your kids, even if it means nobody goes to bed before midnight. It might just be the thing they remember decades later. Lesson learned.

#52 Independence Day by Richard Ford (1996): Mid-life, Motorcycles & Motorhead (but no aliens)

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

You know I’m born to lose and gambling’s for fools
But that’s the way I like it, baby
I don’t wanna live forever
And don’t forget the joker

– “Ace of Spades” by Motörhead

I know, I know. It’s been months since my last Pulitzer Schmultizer! column. I feel bad about that. And, honestly, I have no excuses. In fact, I have less than no excuses because I actually left my last job in October and didn’t start my new one until January. I had grand visions of knocking out a bunch of Pulitzer reviews during my break. I was going to knock out so many that I’d have them backed up just waiting for the perfect time to post them. But alas, I filled up my time with other activities and before you know it three months passed and I’m already in a new year. Viva la 2016.

But although unintentional, regret over things unfinished is a very apropos theme given the story I’m about to tell that I started to write back in the fall. You see, there was a Saturday in October when I found myself in a deserted parking lot, slightly hung over at 6:30am, next to the aircraft carrier USS Hornet with 20 total strangers. And again, although I have no excuses, I do slightly blame Lemmy Kilmister.

There is a good chance you don’t know Lemmy. He was the front man for Motörhead, a metal band that played music most people don’t listen to, and played it long enough ago that many more people have either forgotten or are too young to remember. But when I was 12, my friend Drew went to London with his parents on vacation and came back with Motörhead’s Ace of Spades album. When he put in on, I stared at the album cover, half of me wanting to be in the band and the other half wanting to get into a fetal position and hug my Snoopy doll.

On stage, Lemmy was all bronchial rasp, singing into a microphone stand that towered above him, tilting down to his weather beaten face with his mutton chops and oh so present warts. And off stage, he was exactly the same. Lemmy didn’t have a stage persona. As Dave Grohl once said: “Fuck Elvis and Keith Richards, Lemmy’s the king of rock ‘n’ roll. Lemmy’s a living, breathing, drinking and snorting fucking legend.” And like with many things in life, Dave was right. A kid once asked him if he got hangovers, to which he answered: “To get hangovers you have to stop drinking.”

It seems silly now, but to a 12 year-old in suburban Phoenix, Lemmy was the coolest guy that ever lived. Lemmy drank a bottle of Jack Daniels per day and slept with 2,000 women. And I was convinced – even though now I’m not sure where I got the idea – that Lemmy rode a motorcycle. Hence, someday I would ride a motorcycle. Key word: “someday.”

But life is life and a thousand other things happened. I grew up, went to college and then law school, got a job, fell in love, got married, went to more school, had two kids and adopted a third, and got five more jobs (not necessarily in that order). And that’s just the big stuff. I also (not necessarily in this order) visited 23 countries, bungee jumped, scuba dived, took salsa, guitar and swing dance lessons (twice), got stranded in Tijuana (once), lived with at least 7 pets (not including fish), climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, ate rotting shark in Iceland, did a triathlon, threw up in at least three public restrooms (and at least one of which was a women’s room), earned a brown belt in a Vietnamese martial art called Cuong Nhu, and was nearly arrested at least 5 times. To be clear, I was innocent in each instance. In my free time, I also read every single Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. And that still isn’t even scratching the surface. The good news is that I didn’t drink a bottle of Jack Daniels per day OR sleep with 2,000 women. The bad news is that is also never learned to ride a motorcycle. And then, snap, I was middle-aged.

A few posts ago I discussed my mid-life crisis and how it has spurred me to try new things. Turns out, it also spurs you to try old things. Go figure.

I guess that isn’t that surprising, as mid-life brings about the discomfiting realization that your remaining time on earth is less than what you’ve already lived. Sounds a little morbid, but you realize that death is now clearly on this side of one’s narrative rather than some faraway, remote, abstract endpoint. And so it makes perfect sense that it is during this time that people pause and reflect on where they have been and where they are going. Or, put another way, it triggers two related but distinct realizations: “I’m not young anymore” and “I won’t live forever.”

For the most part, “I won’t live forever” is motivating. Granted, it is motivation by the fear you aren’t going to live forever, but taking stock of where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’d like to go is helpful in making thoughtful decisions about your future. This thinking, as I’ve mentioned, leads to saying “yes” more often, as well as some unfortunate yet inspirational coffee mugs and posters of soaring seagulls that say things like “this is the first day of the rest of your life.” That’s growth. Sort of.

The “I’m not young anymore” can be a little trickier. Despite all of the things that you absolutely can do when you hit mid-life, you realize there are absolutely things that would aren’t going to do. Like win Wimbledon, fly a fighter plane, or be President. When you focus on what you haven’t done, you tend to make impulsive decisions designed to make one last mad dash to recapture youth. Like learning to ride a motorcycle.

So somewhere in my middle-aged brain remained the acorn of an idea planted all those years ago while listening to Motörhead and looking at a picture of Lemmy: I needed to know how to ride a motorcycle. I’m the first to admit, it makes little sense for a middle-aged man with three kids. Regardless, the desire was there and it continued to gnaw at me until I found myself, hungover, in the deserted parking lot at 6:30 am next to an aircraft carrier with 20 total strangers (the hangover part was pure coincidence). Believe me, people have had worse ideas in their mid-life crises.

Which leads us to Independence Day by Richard Ford, winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize, and a tale of mid-life crisis poster child Frank Bascombe. Sadly, this is not the book the movie Independence Day was based on. If you’re expecting aliens, explosions and rousing speeches, you won’t get them here. Instead, you get Frank. Like John Updike’s Rabbit, this is not Frank’s first appearance in print as he debuted as the angst-ridden antihero of Ford’s highly praised 1986 novel, “The Sportswriter.” Frank, who was 38 when we first met him, is now 44 years old and has abandoned sports-writing and returned to conservative Haddam, New Jersey, to live in the home of his ex-wife, Ann, and work as a realtor.

Frank is not in a good space and is exhibiting some textbook mid-life crisis thinking: he believes that life’s choices are limited, that getting old is humiliating, and that the nearness of death is downright terrifying. He has entered what he calls his “Existence Period,” “the part that comes after the big struggle which led to the big blowup,” a sort of holding pattern characterized by “the condition of honest independence.” He’s drifting through his forties, and throw in a few non-trivial bumps in the road — a deceased child, the divorce he hasn’t been able to recover from, and a brutally murdered ex-girlfriend – and Frank is the definition of a hot mess.

But despite his hot-messness, Frank has some goals. First off, he’d like his son Paul to come live with him so he can straighten some things out. Much, much easier said than done. To say Paul’s got some issues is an insult to issues. Paul has never recovered from the death of his brother; occasionally barks like a dog; and has been labeled by a team of therapists as intellectually beyond his years yet emotionally underdeveloped. He has recently been arrested for shoplifting three boxes of Magnum XL condoms (so he’s also either set in that department or delusional) and is being taken to court by the female security guard who captured him, who is accusing him of assault and battery.

His two other goals seem somewhat mutually exclusive. On one hand, he wants a second chance with his ex-wife Ann, which seems highly unlikely since she feels that he “may be the most cynical man in the world.” And there’s also the small matter of her remarriage. On the other hand, Frank also wants to form a “more serious attachment” to his girlfriend, Sally, but here too there are problems as evidenced by Sally’s confession: “Something’s crying out to be noticed, I just don’t know what it is. But it must have to do with you and I. Don’t you agree?”

Amidst all this, Frank is also tackling two more minor problems. First, he’s trying to collect rent from Larry McLeod, a black former Green Beret, and his white wife, Betty, who live in one of two houses Frank owns in Haddam’s solitary black neighborhood. At the same time, he’s been shepherding two “donkeyish clients,” Joe and Phyllis Markham, through 45 houses and is urging them to close on a place located next to a minimum-security prison. These story lines are so boring I almost fell asleep writing the summary.

So with all this going on, you would expect more to be going on. But there is only the thinnest of story lines in the 451 pages of Independence Day. As we’ve seen with some of the other Pulitzer winners toward the bottom of the countdown, the novel often bogs down in the repetitive description of place and setting. The majority of the book is Frank driving around the Northeast in his Crown Vic and having conversations with various characters, with whom he generally tries to share moments of meaningful human connection, with varying degrees of failure. Some events, such as Frank’s effort to collect rent from the McLeods, or the mysterious murder of his realtor/girlfriend, lead oddly nowhere. Others, such as Frank’s meeting with Sally, are at best inconclusive (Sally hopes someday he’ll “get around to doing something memorable”), or at worst, depressing in their inconclusiveness (the Markhams lose the house they were looking at to a Korean family and Frank’s effort to help his troubled son veers toward tragedy and irreparable loss).

But maybe that’s the point. A good plot as we traditionally think of it will take us for a ride through a series of events. But this would violate Frank’s basic belief that “you can rave, break furniture, get drunk, crack up your Nova and beat your knuckles bloody on the glass bricks of the exterior wall of whatever dismal room you’re temporarily housed in, but in the end you won’t have changed the basic situation and you’ll still have to make the decision you didn’t want to make before, and probably you’ll make it in the very way you’d resented and that brought on all the raving and psychic fireworks.”

This isn’t a novel about conflict or rupture or surprising and unexpected turns of events. It’s certainly not about the invasion of aliens on the 4th of July. It’s really just about living inside someone else’s mind while he goes about a fairly dull weekend, and Ford somehow does a surprisingly entertaining job of capturing the banality and desperation of mid-life suburban self-creation. Moreover, it isn’t entirely depressing. By they novel’s final scenes, Frank has managed to take his first tentative steps from the Existence Period toward a sense of community and the possibilities of the “Permanent Period,” which he defines as “that long, stretching-out time when my dreams would have mystery like any ordinary person’s; when whatever I do or say, who I marry, how my kids turn out, becomes what the world — if it makes note at all — knows of me.”

Frank Bascombe is like the anti-Lemmy Kilmister. Lemmy, for better or for worse, was a living, breathing, drinking and snorting fucking legend until the day he died, which anecdotally happened in December, while I was on my work break, not writing my blog posts. Such self-realization is rare, but it is hard to imagine that Lemmy had any self-doubts as he made his way through middle age. In contrast, Frank was full of self-doubt, and spent his days wanting life to mean just a little something more than existence. Maybe he should have tried motorcycle lessons.

Speaking of which, I loved my motorcycle lessons. As the day wore on and my hangover wore off, I couldn’t help but smile as I wove through cones or learned how to shift. It was fun. But maybe more importantly, I put Lemmy’s ghost to rest and realized that I’m not going to buy a motorcycle. I just wanted to know that I could ride one. In case aliens invade us. On Independence Day.

#53 How Shakespeare, Baby Names, and the Tower of Terror Provided Proper Perspective on A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (1992)

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

My daughter Lily was almost named Cordelia. Well, “almost” may be an exaggeration, but it was certainly in the consideration set. A little over thirteen years ago we were expecting the birth of our second child and going through typical baby-naming negotiations. We knew we were having a girl, so at least that narrowed the choices down a bit. Some names Gigi liked but I didn’t (Scout) and vice versa (Claire). And some we both liked but were summarily dismissed if it was determined I dated anyone with that name (Iris).

But one of my favorites was Cordelia. Honestly, given the passage of time I’m not entirely sure why I was fixated on Cordelia, but I was, and so it was on the list. To me, she was the youngest daughter – and most favorite daughter – of King Lear. Very much a Cinderella character in contrast to her two older evil sisters. To my wife Gigi, however, Cordelia was a truck stop on the way to Tahoe and there was really no getting around that.

So Lily it was. And Lily, and the whole naming thing, was top of mind recently as I watched my now 13 year-old scale a climbing structure affectionately known as the Tower of Terror. Actually, calling the Tower of Terror a climbing structure is like calling Stalin a bit of a grump. The Tower of Terror is the tallest climbing structure suspended between two trees in the United States. At the top – 100 feet above the ground – is a bench where you can enjoy amazing views, but to get there you need to navigate a series of supremely difficult climbing elements.

How do I know it is difficult? Because I’ve tried it. The Tower of Terror lives at Camp Augusta, a camp in the Sierra Nevada Mountains where my kids have gone for summer camp for years. And every so often we attend a “family camp” weekend where parents are allowed to join. So over the years I’ve attempted to tackle the Tower of Terror with little success. Some might say no success as I can’t even navigate up the first element called the Giant’s Ladder, which is a series of “rungs” made from logs that get progressively farther and farther apart.

So I was somewhat surprised (but pleasantly surprised to be sure) when my 13-year-old and her 13-year-old friend signed up to try their luck. As with any parent, you want your children to succeed, but the Tower of Terror was so hard that I was proud that they were even going to attempt to climb it. I either significantly underestimated both their ability and resolve or overestimated my own, or both.

I wouldn’t say Lily and her friend Kaelin raced up the Tower of Terror, but I would say that they handled it with relative ease. It is intended to be a team building activity, but the girls ignored that advice and each tackled it on their own, albeit at the same time. Friendship be damned. And although they approached each of the elements in a different way, they both ended their climbs victorious, sitting on the bench at the very top.

Lily and Kaelin attacking the Tower of Terror.

Lily and Kaelin attacking the Tower of Terror.

And as I stood on the ground far below trying to take pictures on my iPhone of Lily so very far away, I had one of those moments where I realized that my kids have and will continue to quickly surpass my skills in many different ways. And I’m not talking about the fact that they’re better than me at Minecraft, aerial silks, SnapChat or other things that they spend an inordinate amount of time on that I don’t. No, I’m talking about things that I can do. Maybe not well, but I can do them. Sam, for example, can beat me at both chess and tennis, and, embarrassingly, taught me how to make pancakes the other day. And now Lily can say without hesitation, that she is a far better climber than I am. Although these moments may bruise the ego a little, they provoke undoubtedly positive feelings of pride and joy.

So its on the back of that parental pride for my nearly King Lear-named daughter that we tackle A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, the 1992 Pulitzer Prize winner, and a fine example of how things can go incredibly wrong in a family dynamic. A Thousand Acres tells the story of Larry Cook, the aging patriarch of a rich, thriving farm in Iowa, and his three daughters: Ginny, Rose and Caroline. Larry decides, somewhat unexpectedly and hastily, to retire and turn the farm over to his three daughters. For Ginny and Rose, who live on the farm with their husbands, the gift makes sense–a reward for years of hard work, a challenge to make the farm even more successful. But the youngest, Caroline, a Des Moines lawyer, flatly rejects the idea, and in anger her father cuts her out–setting off an explosive series of events that will leave none of them unchanged.

Sound familiar? It should because coincidentally (or not), Smiley uses King Lear as her framework for the novel. We have the ailing patriarch, a kingdom in decline and his three contesting daughters. In fact, as I was reading the novel I was wondering how far Smiley is going to mirror the Shakespeare plot. It turns out, pretty far.

The novel is narrated by Ginny (Goneril in Lear), the eldest of the daughters. On the surface she is self-effacing, obedient, submissive to both her father and husband. She is childless, the victim of several miscarriages and thus jealous of her sister Rose (Regan) who has two girls. She is also jealous of her younger sister Caroline (Cordelia) who has escaped the farm and rural life to become a lawyer in the city.

But here is where the book starts to veer from its inspiration. What Smiley tries to do with A Thousand Acres is to re-tell Lear from the viewpoint of the daughters. In other words, why did Lear’s daughters act the way they acted? Was Lear less of a tragic character than a fallen one? And once armed with the backstory lacking in Lear, Ginny and Rose absolutely become more sympathetic (although you will still roll your eyes at some of their behavior), and Caroline becomes a little less sweet than her Shakespearean counterpart. They all become a little more real.

And like many of Shakespeare’s plays — and unlike many of the other Pulitzer Prize winners — A Thousand Acres has no shortage of plot twists. The story moves at a fairly rapid clip (one exception below) and should hold your interest. I won’t spoil the specifics of them for you here, but rest assured battles are engaged, abuse (both physical and sexual) is done, finances are ruined, plots are hatched (and tilled), backs are stabbed, poison is prepared, estrangements abound, truths are told, cars are crashed and lightening bolts flash. Plowshares are literally beaten into swords, and honestly no character ends up happy (which I guess may be somewhat of a spoiler except that it would be expected knowing that the story is based on Lear).

So why not a higher ranking? First off (and the exception noted above), the book did get a little overly descriptive and tedious at some points. Seriously, it is about a farm in Iowa. There are only so many descriptions of soil that I can handle. But it isn’t just soil. Smiley describes every covered dish at the social, every vegetable in the garden. I appreciate a detailed pot-luck casserole depiction as much as the next guy, but we could have lost a fifth of this book with no harm done.

Second, and more substantively, as Smiley makes the daughters more real by providing motivation, she subtracts from the realism of Larry (Lear) simply by overloading the father with culpability. You can tell fairly quickly that Larry is enough of a douche to engender adequate rage. But instead of leaving well enough alone, Smiley turns him into Satan incarnate by introducing multiple additional motives for the two oldest daughters to hate their father. Not only did this seem unnecessary, but it also actually took away from his daughters’ newfound depth because their behavior seems much less complex given the introduction of the additional bad deeds.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, I simply did not feel good after closing the book. Obviously, there is an awful lot of misery in this tale. It was emotionally draining. It was dark. That being said, I’m not usually one to be that bothered by depressing stories. This one may have gotten to me because the bad stuff is never balanced out with any character redemption. Unlike Lear who at least gains a modicum of compassion and humility from his excesses, Larry learns nothing from his actions. Alternatively, and probably, I’m sure my reaction has a lot to do with being a father of three and reading a story that punctuates the power that parents have over their children — a power that can become lethal and suffocating when abused. But the fact that I recognize that rationalization doesn’t make the book any easier to read or take the stress out of parenting.

So how do you cope? Change the perspective. I recently read an article after Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Beau, died over the summer at the age of 46. In 2008, Beau, who was also a politician, had introduced Joe at the Democratic National Convention when Joe agreed to be Obama’s running mate. During his acceptance speech, Joe said: “A father knows he’s a success when he turns and looks at his son or daughter and knows that they turned out better than he did. I’m a success; I’m a hell of a success. Beau, I love you. I’m so proud of you.”

So next time I’m looking up at my kids (literally) as I did with Lily and the Tower of Terror, I’ll try to remember that even if there is a little ego bruising as they continue to surpass me, their successes are really my successes. Because really, it’s all about me.

#54 The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1990): Summer of Love II or The Summer of Acronyms – SCOTUS and USWNT Let Love (and Equality) Rule

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

Could the summer of 2015 be the Summer of Love II?

There are a couple of indicators leading me to the conclusion that this might be the case. First, back during New York Fashion Week last fall, several top designers such as Tommy Hilfiger, Zimmerman and Vera Wang all paid homage to the 1960s and the Summer of Love. Turns out they may have been on to something more than just an affection of floral patterns, ruffles and maxi dresses.

Then, on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, guaranteeing a right to same-sex marriage. I could try to summarize the majority opinion, but Justice Kennedy’s final paragraph is one of the most beautiful you will ever read in a court case so I’ll defer:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.

It is so ordered.

Or, as distilled into Haiku by McSweeney’s:

Hark! Love is love, and
love is love is love is love.
It is so ordered.

That day of elation was based on decades of awareness, activism and perseverance, and as soon as the decision was announced, Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets quickly began to fill with rainbow-themed images. And one of those was a precursor to the third indicator that the summer of 2015 may indeed be the Summer of Love II.

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You see, on that very same June 26th in Ottawa, Canada, the U.S. Women’s National Team was preparing to face China in the quarterfinal matchup of the Women’s World Cup. This was already a special World Cup for me as I had taken my daughter Lily up to Vancouver a week prior to watch the U.S. play Nigeria in the group play round. When Lily was eight, we diligently watched the USWNT play in the 2011 World Cup in Germany, and were heartbroken when they lost in the final to Japan on penalty kicks. But Lily knew then that the next World Cup was going to be closer to home in Canada, and asked if we could go. I can think of few better role models for my daughter – and also I figured she’d forget over the next four years – so I said yes. She never forgot.

Women's World Cup

By June 26th, however, the women of the USWNT had become not only solid role models for girls, but also had become the most prominent sporting symbol of the United States during 2015. This, I might add, occurred without a ton of support. First, all the stadiums hosting World Cup games had artificial turf, a feature that many complained about loudly. Putting aside the arguments in favor of turf fields, there is no disputing that FIFA would have never ever in a million years forced the men to play on anything other than grass. Why? Maybe it’s because sometimes artificial turf gets so hot that it melts shoes. There’s that.

But it wasn’t just the turf issue. Sports Illustrated writer Andy Benoit tweeted that women’s sports in general – not just soccer – are not worth watching. It was such a stupid tweet that you would have thought he was being sarcastic if he tried to defend his statement by pointing at TV ratings.

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The reaction to this tweet was fast and furious from both men and women with my favorite being Amy Poeler and Seth Meyers reuniting for a segment of Really.

Unfortunately, his opinion, although not usually expressed so publicly, is more widespread than is should be. For winning the World Cup, for example, the USWNT received $2 million. Seems like a fine sum until you realize that the US Men’s Team got $8 million just for reaching the round of 16. How much did the winning German team get? I’m glad you asked. That would be $35 million.

So it was great to watch the naysayers proved wrong as the World Cup progressed. The popularity of the team – of women – swelled in unison with their victories, culminating in a 5-2 victory over Japan in which we scored a ridiculous four goals in 16 minutes.

The final game averaged a stunning 25.4 million viewers, making it the most-viewed soccer game ever in the United States–men’s or women’s–by a giant margin. How does that compare to men’s sports Andy Benoit? Game 7 of the San Francisco Giants/Kansas City World Series game drew 23.5 million viewers. Game 6 of the Golden State Warriors/Cleveland Cavaliers NBA Finals – a Finals series that drew more viewers than any series since the Michael Jordan era – had only 13.9 million viewers. And don’t even try to compare to the Stanley Cup Final. That came in at 7.6 million.

Everyone watched the USWNT finals match! Everyone loves women’s soccer! Everyone can get married! Which made me wonder, can you have too much love? I assumed that since the Beatles said “All You Need Is Love” the answer was no, until I read The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos, the 1990 winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

The first novel by a United-States born Hispanic to win, Mambo Kings is the story of two Cuban brothers and musicians, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, who immigrate to the United States from Cuba and settle in New York City in the early 1950s. Like The Tinkers and The Stone Diaries, the story takes place at the very end of the protagonist’s life. Told from the perspective of the older brother Cesar, it chronicles his last hours as he sits in a seedy hotel room, drinking and listening to recordings made by his band, the Mambo Kings.

Cesar, the Mambo King himself, is an old man, and the book describes his memories of his life (and loves) in Cuba and New York. Cesar and Nestor arrive in New York full of ambition and desire to be musicians. Other than their love of music and shared DNA, however, the brothers are complete opposites. Nestor is an incredibly talented trumpet player and songwriter, but he forever mourns the loss of his first love, a woman named Maria. His demeanor is sad, soulful and tormented. Cesar, on the other hand, is a handsome, macho, player. For Cesar, everything in his life is indulgence: playing music, dancing, eating, drinking, and having sex. In fact, as we’ll get to shortly, Cesar measures his life by his many sexual escapades.

The brothers are talented and willing to work hard, and with some luck put together an orchestra they call The Mambo Kings. The mambo craze of the late 1940s is still in full swing, and the band grows in popularity. They even get a guest appearance on I Love Lucy after Desi Arnaz catches their nightclub act one evening. This appearance gives them a measure of celebrity and helps them to sell some records, but true fame remains just beyond their reach.

As the mambo craze begins to fade, the fortunes of Cesar, Nestor, and the The Mambo Kings decline as well. Although Nestor marries a lovely woman and starts a family, he still pines for Maria and spends his life constantly re-writing one song about his lost love, “Beautiful Maria of My Soul.” His deep melancholy ends only when the car he is driving skids off the road in a snowstorm, killing him.

Cesar has always been the driving force for the Mambo Kings, and, as alluded to above, is a favorite with the ladies. He’s a handsome, suave, baritone who naturally charms the audience and spreads his love among many women. But not in a totally dickish way (there’s a pun here, but you’re not going to get it until later). He’s generous to a fault, freely bestowing gifts and money on those he befriends, as well as supporting his family members still in Cuba. But after Nestor dies, he simply cannot continue to be the leader he once was. He descends into a depression that begins slowly to eat at him, fueled by drinking and excess. Pretty much, the end.

For me, The Mambo Kings is a tale of two books. Sixty percent of this book is really great. It is a melancholy story for sure, but lyrically told and in a style that evokes the rhythms of Cuban music. Does that last sentence sound too pretentious? Lets just say I like the writing style. I also like the general theme of immigrants coming to the U.S. and how they see themselves in relation to their new culture in contrast to the culture of their birth. It’s like Scarface without the blow and chainsaws.

And compared to some of the other novels that sit in this area of the countdown because their stories are rather dull (e.g., The Stone Diaries and Breathing Lessons), the subject matter of The Mambo Kings is inherently interesting, at least for me. It’s an immigrant story set in 1950s and 60s New York with Spanish music, a Fidel Castro-led revolution, dancing, and unexpected cameos from real-life mambo dudes Desi Arnaz and Tito Puente. It also has a ton of sex. And that, I can’t believe I’m going to say this, may actually be the problem.

You see, the other 40% of this is really, really bad. Thirty percent of the book is comprised of sex scenes. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good soft-porn novel as much as the next guy, but these were more monotonous than provocative. But it was the final 10% that really got me because that part contains Hijuelos’ weird and disturbing fixation on Cesar’s penis. Seriously, if you’re the kind of reader who really likes to know how the protagonist’s dick is doing, this book will be great for you because there’s a dick status update on just about every page. If that isn’t your cup of tea, then this is a tough 10% to get through.

So it turns out you actually can have too much love. At least in Pulitzer Prize winning novels. But the good news is that won’t affect the summer of 2015 (possibly) going down in history as the Summer of Love II. My four year wait to attend a Women’s World Cup match with Lily seems insignificant when compared to length of time same-sex couples have waited for the right to get married, but on a personal level are both are hugely meaningful. Lily will always remember this as the summer the rainbows took over Instagram as she watched the USWNT advance in the World Cup. She turned 13 this summer, and her entire adult life will be in a world where love is love is love is love. And after watching the USWNT kick ass in the finals, her love for soccer is now cemented. You want proof, and another dick status update? Well here is what Lily re-tweeted the other morning while watching the opening weekend of the English Premier League:

Lily's Tweet

I love her.

Thanks for everything, Dad. Especially listening to AC/DC.

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[NOTE: The Pulitzer Schmulitzer! countdown is taking a pause to honor a man who was better than me in many ways. OK, all ways.]

Joe Horton, my dad, passed away early Saturday morning in his sleep. It was expected and it was peaceful and it was painless and I was there. In other words, he died in the easiest way possible for everyone else, which was certainly consistent with the rest of his life. (If you want to know why he’s a “Horton” and I’m an “Orta,” buy me a drink and I’ll tell you the story. I promise it will be worth your while.)

A little bit about my dad. He was selfless. Certainly more selfless than I am, albeit a low bar. I’m sure part of this had to do with the fact that he grew up poor in Los Angeles during the Depression, which is like being really super über poor during any other time during the last century. He once told me a story about how he and his twin brother Sam cried one Christmas morning when they didn’t get a new bicycle they were expecting. His father, my grandfather, went out and sold the one piece of jewelry he owned of any value, his watch, and bought the bicycle. My dad never stopped feeling bad about that, and never asked for much after that. I, on the other hand, once pouted because I had to share a birthday cake on my birthday. I was 35, and the other person on my cake was my 1-year-old daughter. Selflessness counter: +1 to Joe; -1 to John.

But it wasn’t just that he didn’t need at lot. It was that he also gave a lot. My mother died when I was 12 and my brother was 10. A single father, he got us to school, doctor appointments, sports practices, piano lessons, play dates and birthday parties, all the while somehow feeding us and working full-time. But it was more than his ability to complete parental mechanics. On top of the driving/cleaning/cooking/everything-else-kids-need, he always made time to pay attention to us whenever we asked.

For example, when I was 12 or 13, I loved music and felt that certain songs were SO BRILLIANT that I needed to share these wise words with my dad. So nearly every day, I would make him come to my room to listen to Zeppelin, Hendrix, Floyd, the Stones, Bowie, Queen, or whatever else I happened to think was SO BRILLIANT at that very second. And he would. He’d stop what he was doing, come and stand in the doorway of my room, nodding his head to the beat. He’d stay until the end of the song, say “that’s great,” and go back to whatever task was at hand (which in all likelihood was something for my brother or me). Knowing his musical tastes now, and knowing how hard it is to get everything done in a day, I’m pretty sure he didn’t love the songs I played for him, and I’m positive he didn’t have the time to stop what he was doing to listen to them. And yet, I remember hearing him, on Sunday mornings in particular, while making French toast, singing AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap).” I can’t even make French toast. Selflessness counter: +1 to Joe.

It wasn’t just selflessness that he bested me at. He was also nicer, braver, and more handsome. He fought in a war. Listening to his stories about going out in LA in the mid-1940s, I’m pretty sure he was also a better dancer. And I’m absolutely sure he was a better athlete. Despite throwing me endless grounders and tight spirals, there was no way I could match his natural ability. My dad played football for UCLA under Harry “Red” Saunders. I regularly smoked cigarettes while playing rec basketball in high school. Like during the games. Another +1 to Joe.

Although playing football was his passion, my dad was a true fan of all sports so even though I never excelled at sports, I do excel at watching sports on TV. He let me, at 7-years-old, stay up to watch Gar Heard in the famous triple OT Suns-Celtics game in the NBA finals. We watched Nadia Comanici get a perfect 10 at the Montreal Olympics. We witnessed the Immaculate Reception, Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in three swings in the ’77 World Series, Leon Spinks upset Ali for the heavyweight crown, Bird’s Indiana State v. Magic’s Michigan State NCAA Championship Game, the Miracle on Ice, Borg-McEnroe, The Catch and the last two Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Affirmed. I’d give Joe a point for this, but allowing me to watch this much television, mostly past my bedtime, was questionable parenting.

As kids are prone to do, I grew up, moved to San Francisco, became a lawyer and started a family. We spoke less, not because anything came between us, but because life is busy. Then, a few years ago, he was diagnosed with colon cancer.

He battled the cancer – and battled it well – for a long time. True to form, he didn’t talk about it much, didn’t ask for much, choosing to battle it on his own. But cancer plays the long con and last summer, I got a call in the middle of the night from my brother. “Dad’s not doing well. You should come home.” I told him I was in London. “Am I going to make it?” “Not sure,” was his response.

So I got on the first flight I could get the next day and flew from London to San Francisco, took a cab home, unpacked and repacked (there isn’t a ton of overlap in summer UK and summer Phoenix wardrobes), went back to the airport and flew to Phoenix, the entire time wondering if I was going to make it on time and trying to figure out the last conversation we had and whether I told him I loved him. I needed to tell him what a great dad he was. When I arrived in Phoenix, I grabbed my rental car and drove straight to the hospital, raced up to his room and found….

…him sitting in a chair watching the Diamondbacks game and having lunch. “What the fuck?” That may have either been thought or spoken but in either case my brother gave me the “dude-sorry-but-seriously-he-was-on-his-death-bed-last-night” look. It wasn’t his fault. Turns out the cancer had shut down one of his kidneys and was wreaking havoc on the other. The doctors said that despite his recovery from the brink, the end was near and sent us home with hospice and a hospital bed.

Now I had the chance to give something back to him: I could be with him at the end. I flew my wife and kids in to say goodbye. We told stories and went through photo albums and laughed a lot (most significantly about my apparently very poor grades in Religious Studies, which my kids discovered in reading my old report cards that my dad had saved). At the end of the weekend, my wife and the kids said goodbye and headed back home. I stayed to wait for the end. Selflessness counter: +1 to John.

But it turns out the end wasn’t near. After about a week of watching my dad watch the Diamondbacks and eat lunch, I finally had to address the elephant in the room. “Dad,” I said. “I don’t think you’re going to die anytime soon.” “How long is this going to take do you think?” he asked. “I have no idea. How do you feel?” “I feel pretty good.” I said, “Pops, I love you, but I need to get back home. Call me if you think you’re dying and I’ll come back.” Selflessness counter: -1 to John

But THAT call never came. Instead, I got a call that they kicked him out of hospice, which is like getting kicked out of the Hotel California. And we took advantage of it. We met in San Luis Obispo for a weekend. He threw himself an 86th birthday party, and we went to it. My daughter Lily and I met him in LA when he went to his UCLA football reunion in November. My son Sam and I flew to Phoenix over MLK weekend. Six weeks ago my dad went to Barcelona because he had never been. I’m not kidding. +1 to Joe.

But the doctors had said that at some point he would begin to feel bad. And eventually they were right. About a week after coming back from Barcelona he went to the hospital and the doctors told him that the cancer had spread. It was a matter of weeks, not months.

So for the last five weeks I’ve been flying back and forth to Phoenix on the weekends and we did what we’ve always done best: watch sports. I rooted for the Warriors and he rooted for the Clippers (he won). I rooted for the Diamondbacks and he rooted for the Dodgers (I won). We watched Seung-yul Noh win the Zurich Classic, J.B. Holmes win the Wells Fargo, and Brendan Todd win the Byron Nelson. We even watched old guys play tennis on the ATP Champions Tour.

But by far the most fun the last few weeks has been watching California Chrome win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. My dad loved this horse. He loved him because he cost $8,000. He loved him because his owners were first time horse owners and called themselves Dumb Ass Partners. He loved him because his 77-year-old trainer had never had a horse in the Kentucky Derby. And he loved him most of all because he was from California, and a California horse hadn’t won the Derby since 1962.

Thursday night I got a call from my brother that was very similar to the one I received 10 months before when I was in London. “You need to come home.” So I took the first flight home in the morning, again wondering if I had told my dad I loved him when I left the weekend before.

My brother had warned me that he really wasn’t responding, but when I arrived early the next morning, he recognized me immediately. We hugged and I quickly told him that I loved him and that he was a great father. He told me I was a great son. I told him he was a better dad than I was a son and thanked him for listening to all the songs I made him listen to.

Then I asked, “Dad, do you remember the AC/DC song you used to sing when making French toast?” And without missing a beat, he busted into his best Bon Scott imitation and started singing the chorus: “Dirty deeds and they’re done dirt cheap.” “Yes!” I said, and together we sang a few verses. +1 to Joe.

It turned out to be his final point. When our singing stopped, he closed his eyes and fell asleep. That was really the last actual conversation we had. By the end of day, I’m not sure he recognized me anymore and he passed that night.

And if I was looking for some sort of sign, which I wasn’t, I was given one by 97.9 KUPD, the classic rock station that existed when I was a boy and continues to this day. On my way to the airport as I left Phoenix, they played, back to back, “Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix and “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult. The only thing weirder would have been if they’d played “Stairway to Heaven” next, and although tempted, I didn’t wait for the commercial break to end and gave the keys back to Thrifty Rental Cars. I had a year to say goodbye to the most selfless man I’ll ever know, and I think I did it well. And if you’re still keeping score (and I am, but remember I’m not that selfless), I’ll take this as my final +1.

Saying goodbye was a dirty deed, but it was done dirt cheap. So don’t fear the reaper, Joe. Climb the stairway to heaven. And if California Chrome wins the Belmont Stakes, I’ll know you made it.

#63 – Nostalgia Bites: Why KFC Is Way Better Than Guard of Honor (1949)

Nostalgia is a funny by-product of age. From time to time and more and more often as I get older, something will unexpectedly remind me of things – mostly nice things – from the past. Sometimes it’s a KFC. Image

I was in my hometown of Phoenix this past weekend and happened to go past this KFC, continued driving for a block or two, made a U-turn, pulled into the parking lot and shot this picture. Why? Nostalgia, of course. And not nostalgia for KFC in general – although I’ve been secretly craving the new Double Down and don’t understand why the twitterverse isn’t up in arms that it’s back for a limited time only – but nostalgia for this KFC in particular because when I was fifteen-ish, I spent a lot of time inside this KFC. Why? A girl, of course.

Nostalgia is fuzzier than memories and the details now elude me. Her name was Cathy although I can’t remember if it started with a “C” or a “K.” I for sure have no idea what her last name was. She could drive and I couldn’t, so she was older than me but not by much. I can’t remember how we met either. She was poor and didn’t go to my high school. We didn’t have any friends in common. I don’t recall ever meeting her parents or whether they were married or divorced. But she worked at the KFC so maybe I went in one day and ordered a three-piece meal, original recipe not extra crispy, and we hit it off. It doesn’t matter.

Whatever the impetus, for a year (or maybe it was just a summer) back in the ‘80s, we were inseparable although the particulars of what we did are as unclear as the details of how we met. She had a boyfriend who was senior at her high school, so we never dated although I’m sure we made out once or twice. I vaguely remember listening to a lot of Billy Squier and clearly remember sitting on the roof of my dad’s 1967 Buick late one summer night looking for shooting stars.  I know I loved that moment and I wish I had a recording of the conversation.

As with most relationships at that age, we drifted apart as high school rolled on. I think she dropped out and had her own apartment by the time she was 17. The last time I saw her was at her wedding when I was 19 or 20. I remember Italian food, getting to dance with her briefly and her looking very happy. I never saw her again.

Until I drove by the KFC the other day, I hadn’t really thought about Cathy (or Kathy) in over 20 years. Nonetheless, dipping my toe in the ’80s end of the pool was a happy trip down memory lane to visit fifteen year old me. One of the mixed blessings of being fifteen is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has every happened to anyone before. The passage of time may have changed my perspective, but at least in this case looking back was all good.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Guard of Honor by James Cozzens, the Pulitzer Prize winner from 1949.  When I originally went to Amazon to buy this book, it was out of print. I was more than a little puzzled as to how a once-critically-acclaimed novel, if not a popular one, could fall so out of disfavor that it wasn’t even worth printing. Then I read it.

If you’re a person that likes to skip to the chase, there were about 10 pages in this 600-plus page book that I didn’t hate. And I was probably in an Ambien haze when I read those. Skip Chasers (or Chase Skippers?) can stop reading.

For those looking for a little more snarkiness, I’m glad you’re still with me. The entire story is set on a fictional United States Army base in central Florida and takes place over a three-day period during World War II. There are no chapters. Instead, the novel is divided into three large sections aptly named: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Judging from the memorandums that appear throughout the story, the days in question are September 2nd, 3rd, and 4th of 1943. It doesn’t matter.

Despite its significant size, only three things happen in this book. The first involves a white officer punching an African-American pilot. This sets up event two, where other African-American pilots protest the use of segregated officer clubs, and the leadership debates appropriate action. Finally, during day three, there is a mass training exercise in which seven equipment-laden soldiers accidentally parachute into a lake, sink to the bottom, and drown. The last incident, incidentally, has nothing to do with anything, and the total pages used to actually tell those stories was less than ten percent of the book.

The other ninety percent was mindless description of life on the base using military terms that I was completely unfamiliar with and inane dialogue (e.g., “’Oh, Judge!’ General Beal said. ‘That boy is a honey! You can believe me. Because we have a few more like him we’re going to win the war.'”). But maybe the most annoying thing about the novel was Cozzens’ decision to further confuse the reader by introducing at least twenty characters, none of which could be considered the main character, and all of which were referred to only by rank and last name which made it virtually impossible to keep them straight. I spent most of this book trying to figure out which character committed suicide, an event that took place in the first forty pages. I never did figure it out.

I’m almost done. But if you need any more, it’s not only boring, it is hard to read. Cozzens’ writing is filled with rhetorical questions, double negatives, disorientating descriptions, esoteric words, and equivocal pronouns. I had to constantly re-read sentences to ascertain, for example, what part of which abstract idea the pronoun “this” referred to. I found myself constantly drifting, which required me to re-read paragraphs, if not pages.

In short, I’ve got two words for Guard of Honor. Pain. Ful. Sometimes, nostalgia gives you the warm fuzzies. But other times, you look back and realize you simply made a mistake and cringe a little. This book falls in the latter category.

Ok, now I’m done.