Numbness & Human Recklessness: Stanley Middleton’s “Holiday” & Jeff Goodell’s “The Heat Will Kill You First”

I have been reading very short books in this heat: anything over 300 pages seems too demanding. A little Barbara Pym here, a little Margery Allingham there. And I reread Cranford, which I cannot revisit too often.

And then I perused two more short books, one a novel, the other a nonfiction book. They do not fall short of excellence, but they made me think, which I had planned to avoid till the temperature drops. I do recommend both of these books, with the following caveat: the former may depress you, the latter will scare the hell out of you.

The English novelist Stanley Middleton’s Holiday won the Booker Prize in 1974.  I am enthusiastic about most of Middleton’s  novels:  oddly, this is the one I like least. The dispassionate protagonist, Edwin Fisher, a keen observer and an intellectual education  professor,  has recently left his wife, Meg, and is on holiday alone.  Out of nostalgia, he visits the seaside town where he vacationed as a child with his family. 

Not much happens in this slight, if beautifully-written, novel about a man benumbed.  We first meet Fisher in a church. He is the last person one expects to find there, but again it is from nostalgia.  He notes humorously that the congregation “were almost all middle-aged or elderly, and the majority women, in flowered hats, bonnets of convoluted ribbon and pale summer coats.”  And though he doesn’t necessarily set out to meet women, his warmest encounters are with women.  He enjoys chatting to three charming sisters on the beach, though it is clear they have no sexual interest in Fisher.  Then he begins going to the pub with two working-class couples he meets at the hotel:  on a walk with the two wives, he feels them up.  One wondered if there would be a menage a trois

His father-in-law repeatedly visits him in the seaside town to persuade him to go back to Meg.  Fisher seems indifferent about the future.  He doesn’t particularly want to return; he and Meg have had some hellish, violent fights. His father-in-law is adamant about saving the marriage, but admits that Meg is ambivalent about the situation.   Perhaps it is Fisher’s encounters with the kind women on holiday that make him consider reuniting with Meg. 

Whatever the future, the marriage or the solitary life, we gather it may be bleak.  Fisher does not seem capable of deep emotions. As for Meg, we don’t know her.  We wish that Fisher had some strong emotions, but he seems to prefer living on the surface.  This could be a fascinating book, and yet I found it irritating.  So is this because I dislike Fisher?  I seldom judge a book because  I dislike a character, but in this case it’s probably true.  The novel is perfect in its way, but should Middleton have won the Booker for Holiday?  I prefer Valley of Decision, a stunning novel about musical careers and a marriage on the rocks.   

Jeff Goodell, an award-winning environmental writer, describes the human recklessness destroying our beleaguered planet in his smart new book,  The Heat Will Kill You First:  Life and Death on a Scorched Planet.  Goodell knows how to shape a story: this dramatic nonfiction narrative about climate change is laced with statistics about the impact of rising temperatures, interviews with survivors of killer heat waves, a report of the death of a young couple and their baby from hyperthermia on a hike on a hot day, the impact of the tragic heat waves in Phoenix, the Pacific Northwest, and Delhi,  and  the limits of technology.

People assume that turning on the air conditioner will solve the problem of rising temperatures on Earth. Ironically, air conditioning warms up the air outdoors. And not everyone can afford air conditioning, though people now die without it in the intense heat. And then some have AC but can’t afford to pay the electricity bill. Even for the middle class and the rich, air conditioning depends on a fragile grid of power lines:  when the grid is overloaded and crashes. there is no air conditioning.

Goodell emphasizes the cause of the rising temperatures:  the human predilection for burning fossil fuels.

The Earth is getting hotter due to the burning of fossil fuels.  This is a simple truth, as clear as the moon in the night sky.  So far, thanks to 250 years of hell-bent fuel consumption, which has filled the atmosphere with heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2), global temperatures have risen by 2.2 degrees since the preindustrial era and are on track to warm up by 6 degrees or more by the end of the century. The more oil, gas, and coal we burn, the hotter it will get.


Every politician should read this lucid, well-organized book.

%d bloggers like this: