Friday, July 6, 2012

Down and Out

I enjoy character driven novels, especially when those characters live hardscrabble lives. The more "down and out" a character or situation is, the more involved I become. My interest is always piqued when a character's environment - or even his or her internal makeup - presents barriers to that character's advancement. After all conflict is the fuel for storytelling and, to be honest, fuels this schadenfreude reading tendency of mine. So I present three novels with characters that encounter seemingly insurmountable odds.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is the most engaging of the three. Oscar de Leon takes center stage but the story mostly concerns the lives of the people who surround him: his mother and sister, the woman with whom he falls in love, his college roommate and his very estranged father. The story stretches across time and place - from Oscar's mother's youth in the Dominican Republic to his family's modern day immigrant struggles in New Jersey. Oscar is hapless and, while we may cringe at that, very endearing.

Await Your Reply by Dan Choan starts with a gripping image of a young man sitting in a speeding car holding his maimed hand in a cup between his knees. The book is told through three separate story lines, and those of you who enjoy surprise endings will be delighted by this one. Ryan, a victim of identity theft, is contacted by a man claiming to be his birth father who tricks him into running scams. Miles, clerking in a failing magic store, tries to manage the life of his schizophrenic twin while coming to terms with their upbringing. Lucy elopes with (or is kidnapped by) her former high school teacher and ends up stranded in an abandoned hotel embroiled in an embezzling scheme.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann uses Phillipe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers as the backdrop in its intertwining stories. Linking everything together is Corrigan, a missionary monk, and his brother Carian who joins him in New York City. Other characters include Claire and Solomon mourning for their son killed in Vietnam, artists Blaine and Lara attempting to wean themselves off drugs by escaping to the country and the most harrowing mother-daughter duo I've ever read - Jazzlyn and Tillie, both prostitutes. The story ranges over the topography of these lives and others, and rarely have I enjoyed becoming a part of such tumultuous situations as theirs.


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