Rebecca Makkai’s “The Great Believers”

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai is shortlisted for the National Book Award for fiction.

This old-fashioned realistic novel is solid and remarkably well-researched.  Shifting back and forth in time between 1985 and 2005, it focuses on the  AIDS epidemic in Chicago and its impact on two characters, Yale Tishman, a gay man who works as the development director for an art gallery at Northwestern, and Fiona, whose brother Nico dies of AIDS.  Yale was a friend of Niko and Fiona.

In the mid-1980s, Yale is watching his friends die, terrified of the virus to which he has been exposed, and also attempting to procure an art collection for the gallery. Fiona’s aunt, whose late husband was a Northwestern alumnus,  wants to donate the art to the gallery, but her family tries to prevent her.  In 2005, Fiona, who never recovered from the loss of her brother,  is searching for her daughter, Claire, who  disappeared first into a cult, and then left for Paris.

This book  is well-written, moving, and craftsmanlike. That said,  I stopped on page 234.    Perhaps it’s just November, but I didn’t want to see one more man die.  I did read two brilliant AIDS novels in the ’90s, Alan Gurganus’s Plays Well with Others and Christopher Coe’s Such Times.  (Coe died of AIDS.)  But even though I didn’t finish this, I wouldn’t be unhappy if it won.  It is a noble book.

Lucia Berlin’s “Evening in Paradise”

This fall I planned to catch up with 21st-century fiction, but  I quickly hit a reality check: (a) I prefer classics, and (b) only a few new books are worth reading.

Take Lucia Berlin (1936-2004).  I adore Berlin’s fiction but of course it was written in the 20th century.  Her witty, buoyant, autobiographical short stories  were out-of-print  until Farrar Straus Giroux published  A Manual for Cleaning Women in 2015.  And now FSG has published another superb collection, Evening in Paradise:  More Stories.

Berlin is noted for her dark humor and sharp observations of down-and-out middle-class women. Many of the stories portray witty, smart heroines who share Berlin’s history.  She herself struggled with alcoholism and was in and out of rehab programs.   After marrying  a sculptor and then a musician, she raised four sons on her own and worked  as a cleaning woman, hospital clerk, high school teacher, college writing teacher, and physician’s assistant.

In one of my favorite stories, “The Wives,” Laura and Decca have little in common, except for being the alcoholic ex-wives of Max.  When they get together for drinks one night–and Decca is so drunk she can’t even remember inviting Laura over–they humorously mourn the fact that Max is about to marry either a car hop or a Clinique salesgirl, depending on which you believe.  The dialogue is so sharp and witty Dorothy Parker could have written it.   A brilliant and funny story, also terribly sad.

In”Noel, 1974,” Maggie, a teacher, has an unwanted guest for Christmas, Aunt Zelda, who tries desperately to fit in by saying “Far out” all the time.    The house is already crowded with Maggie’s four sons, one sleeping in the garage, their 17-year-old pothead friend, Jesse, in a sleeping bag in the living room, and Maggie gives her room to Zelda.  Over the holiday, they do normal family things:  they attend Maggie’s son’s school Christmas pageant, quarrel over decorating the tree, and have a huge, chaotic dinner.  And then Aunt Zelda becomes frantic when she learns her daughter Mabel is gay.  These family scenes are right out of a comic movie, but Maggie’s exhaustion takes her in an  unexpectedly dark direction.  (There is a similar story in A Manual for Cleaning Women.)

In “My Life Is an Open Book,” Claire Bellamy teaches Spanish at the university and lives happily but chaotically with her sons in a farmhouse.  When she gets involved with 19-year-old Mike Casey, a drug-using guitar player, a neighbor starts to gossip.  After they break up, oblivious of the neighbor’s gossip, he babysits for her sons so she can go to a party.  While she is out, the youngest son disappears. But let me reassure you:  life is hard for Claire, but nothing terrible happens.

The title story, “Evening in Paradise,” is not my favorite, but it has its points:  The Night of the Iguana is being filmed in Mexico, and the bartender observes Liz Taylor, Richard Burton (not drinking at the time), Ava Gardner, and various tourists and male prostitutes drinking nightly at the hotel.  Much of this is very witty, but I am not a movie buff.

Lucia Berlin is a great American writer!  Astonishing her work was lost for so long.