Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

"The Flying Troutmans" by Miriam Toews (faber and faber, 2009)

"Troutman" is the family name. They're in flight rather than fighting, but "Flying" is also a euphemism for f***ing - as a family they're a bit of a pain. The main character, Hattie, has problems that she summarises on p.25- "I was so tired. I'd been dumped for Buddha. I had jet lag. I'd just put my sister into a psych ward. I was suddenly responsible for two kids, one who hardly talked and one who couldn't stop, with no clue how to take care of either of them". Her solution is take the kids on the road, justifying it by a lie.

One of those children is Thebes, an 11 year old girl who says things like "We're all mostly white nerds ... with minor physical and emotional flaws that do not require medication but do brand us as losers in the bigger picture" (p.21), and hands Hattie pieces of paper with stuff on it like "In Scrabble you've got a certain amount of time to make sense of your randomly picked letters, to make words, not necessarily to know what they mean, but to score points, to bluff, to bingo, to win./ What is this? I asked her./ Grandma's last words, she said. I write them down at least once a week so I don't forget them." (p.63). When Thebes is silent for a while, Hattie waits for her "to talk, to spring into action, to illuminate the room with some Theban fact or question or comment or pronouncement or definition or something" (p.199).

Logan, the son, is 15. He carves words into dashboards, etc, wanders from one basketball court to another. On p.242 there's a "Zen and the art of basketball" moment - he focuses entirely on the shot, always expects the next one to go in. When Logan's headphones break, it's a disaster

Thebes popped her head out of the van and said that if he wanted to have a funeral for them in the field, she could lead it, no charge, "Amazing Grace," the works. I yanked her back inside and told her to leave him alone. She took a picture of him, boy grieving, with her disposable underwater camera. She and I gave him some time along with his headphones (p.108)

Hattie's 6 years younger than her sister, Min, and rather too friendly with male loners that they meet. The kids keep her out of trouble. She is missing a boyfriend she'd left in Paris.

It was my turn for a CD. I put in some Lucinda Williams and Logan said nooooooooooooooo. He covered his face with his hands. Please, no, please, he said. I'm begging you.
C'mon, I said, it's not country. Check out the lyrics. I tossed the CD case into his lap. He screamed and tossed it back at me like it was a shitty diaper. Just put on your headphones then. I said. I'm playing it. I might play it on my next turn too. I've got a broken heart

They're in search of Cherkis, Min's ex-husband, the father of the 2 children - " Min had once told me that Cherkis's life's work had been, maybe still was, to create the perfect level of pixel breakdown without compromising the essence of the image" (p.67). On p.251 Hattie easily finds a lost child's parent. She finds Cherkis nearly as easily in the end.

Throughout the book there are many entertaining flashbacks about the looney things Min did. Just about everybody runs away some time, and the book ends as Min might be running away again because of Hattie's lies.

Thebes is unbelievable, but once one accepts that the author will do anything for a good story, the book's entertaining. As an example of the intrusions, on p.258 Logan suddenly gets permission to sledgehammer a sidewalk, as if to give Hattie the chance to think "Smashing the obvious and well-worn paths that lead us from one place to another"

Other reviews

  • Jane Shilling (Telegraph) (this tiresome and manipulative novel)
  • Tom de Haven (New York Times) (Improbable characters flash in and flash out, signifying nothing ... Caricatures are bad enough, but most of the ones drawn here seem to be out of date by 40 or 50 years. ... The vernacular narrative, which had spark, specificity and rueful wit throughout the novel’s opening chapters, becomes sloppy and gabbling, like a blog hastily banged out. ... nothing about “The Flying Troutmans” feels authentic, not the characters and not their psychology, and certainly not the American landscape they blast through, leaving dust in the slipstream, but very little else.)
  • Emily Donaldson (Quill and Quire) (This is a book that builds its complexity so subtly and imperceptibly that the inevitable sense of deep engagement feels almost like sleight of hand.)
  • Beth Daley (The Manchester Review) (It’s a very nice read – witty, lively, full of intriguing characters – but the end is just too, well, too convenient, too forgiving.)
  • Lee Thomas (Toews draws her four central characters ... with brilliant dialogue, spare description, and a vibrant humor that makes the horrifying somehow bearable. ... a book so enchanting it’s hard to tear your eyes away from the page)

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