Andrew Ervin

New York Times Book Review // Closed Doors by Lisa O’Donnell

July 26, 2014

My review of Lisa O’Donnell’s terrific new novel is published in the 7/27/14 issue of the New York Times Book Review.

Lisa O’Donnell’s dazzling new novel transports us to small-town Scotland and into the increasingly volatile mind of an 11-year-old boy. Michael Murray, who narrates the book, lives with his parents and grandmother in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. As in most small towns, everybody seems to know everybody else’s business. Here gossip is something more than a spectator sport.

O’Donnell won the prestigious Commonwealth Book Prize last year with “The Death of Bees,” a first novel that deftly balanced the morbid with the mundane, a talent that remains on full display here. “Closed Doors” begins in early 1982, the time of Margaret Thatcher’s reign and of Britain’s undeclared war over some other remote islands. Like Roddy Doyle’s “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha” and “Black Swan Green,” by David Mitchell, O’Donnell’s novel effectively evokes the carefree joys of adolescence as well as all of its terrors, real and imagined.

When Michael’s mother comes home crying one night, the rest of the family attempts to shield him from the awful truth of what has happened, telling him that a flasher has harassed her in the local park. Michael doesn’t understand what that means: “In the morning I am full of questions. Granny folds laundry and Da looks tired. I ask him about flashing. He doesn’t want to tell me. Neither does Granny. They want me to disappear with my soccer ball, but I don’t. My ma has been flashed at and I want to know what it means. She’s in the hospital with a sore face and a limp. She fell hard because of this flasher. I have a right to know what’s going on and why I’m to tell everyone she fell on the stairs.”

O’Donnell perfectly navigates the distance between what Michael understands and what her readers do. The boy soon overhears some conversations he’s not meant to and comes to suspect that his mother was subjected to something much worse than the bad behavior of an exhibitionist. Since, out of anxiety or humiliation, she has refused to go to the police, the neighbors assume she’s been battered by her husband. Although Michael knows it’s not true, he’s forbidden to tell anyone.

The whirlpool of secrets within secrets and lies within lies comes close to tearing Michael’s family apart, especially after the attacker strikes again and more of the awful truth emerges. Had the Murrays gone to the police in the first place, they might have saved a neighbor from harm. Michael, pulled in many directions at once, carries the burden of witnessing his mother’s anxiety attacks, hearing his parents arguing and protecting what remains of his family’s reputation — all while dealing with the ordinary challenges that go with turning 12 and starting to take an interest in girls. His confusion is palpable, even tragic. “It’s terrible to know too many things about people,” he realizes. “It makes you feel like a liar because you have to act like you know nothing at all when the truth is you know everything there is to know.”

O’Donnell’s great talent is most apparent in her depiction of the gap between Michael’s thoughts and his actions. He gets in fights and acts up at school, but never comes to see that throwing tantrums is his response to the tensions he can’t deal with at home. It’s not revealing too much to say that O’Donnell wraps up “Closed Doors” in a way that feels both unpredictable and inevitable. It’s a fitting end to a moving story that stakes a lasting, and disturbing, emotional claim on her readers.

Philadelphia Inquirer // All At Once by C.K. Williams

June 29, 2014

My review ran in the Inquirer on 6/29/14.

C.K. Williams stands out as one of the most active – and lauded – poets in contemporary American letters. Born in 1936 in Newark, N.J., he has published 20 or so collections of poems, a critical study of Walt Whitman, two books of essays, a memoir, some translations, and a number of children’s stories. Along the way he has won nearly every poetry prize out there, including the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Ruth Lilly poetry prize. His latest collection, All at Once, defies easy categorization.

All at Once is most likely to reward readers who don’t get hung up on superficial definitions of what constitutes a poem. The book is divided into three sections of what appear on the surface to be autobiographical prose poems. Because there are no line breaks, many of these resemble some of Baudelaire’s prose works or, every so often, Nietzschean aphorisms. What Williams has written here definitely are poems, but they’re also simultaneously mini-memoirs or even flash fiction. It ultimately doesn’t matter how we define them.

Generally speaking, the first section of this triptych deals with meditations on the poet’s life and his physical and domestic worlds, the second with his marriage to a woman named Catherine, and the third tends toward witty observations about the everyday world we all inhabit.

Sex and death get a great deal of attention throughout. In the case of the former, maybe it gets too much attention. More on that in a moment. The strongest parts of the book are those that look mortality in the eye, as in “Shock”:

“And I thought, This is how it is when someone dies, someone you love, how you stand still in your mind, your heart, you can’t move, nothing can move, and then, as time rushes over you like the wild wind of the veldt, you come to yourself, though something within you is still fleeing, still rushing forever away, you just don’t know what it is, in time’s tempestuous wind it’s gone, like the light in the eyes of a fawn, the light of life that doesn’t easily go out but does.”

From “Wind”:

“There’s something disconsolate about them – the desiccated leaves of autumn always appear to have found the place to which they’ve been destined, but these don’t seem to grasp what’s happened to them: they lie on the ground at awkward angles, like things wounded that haven’t completely given in to death and don’t know yet they must.”

The similes often pop from the page. In “Silence,” a heron paces “like an old-time librarian” and a few lines later sits awkwardly in a tree “like a still Adam’s-appled adolescent.” The regression from old age to youth is fascinating.

Some poems – “Old” and “Child’s Mind” and “Temptation” – may very well stand among the most rewarding of Williams’ tremendous career. My personal favorite is probably “Cattle,” about the “need to rest from the exertion of existing.”

If the occasional poem here comes across as a bit self-indulgent, so be it. Williams has earned that right. Many contain simple, sometimes mundane, observations about the little embarrassments and victories of daily life. To that extent, reading All at Once is a bit like reading the Facebook page of someone extremely insightful and clever, and occasionally someone lacking in discretion about his personal life. I’m not apt to continue reading any poem that begins, “Maybe it’s just my age, but sometimes these days when I’m making love to Catherine it feels as though . . . .”

Every poem here is artfully formed, of course, even if many mimic the spontaneity of social-media status updates. “Flexible Tubing” begins:

“To take my mind off the fact that I’m waiting for my doctor to call to let me know if I have lung cancer or not – Christ! – when the plumber comes today to run new water lines into the apartment we’ve rented and I’ve been renovating, I spend the day working with him, nine till five, ten minutes for lunch, exhausting, absorbing; I need the distraction.”

The only thing missing here is an Instagram pic of their sandwiches.

And here’s a particularly short one called “Apollo or Dionysus” verbatim and in its entirety: “Which? Quick! Which? Too late . . . Too late again.” I can’t help thinking that would have made a tremendous tweet.

We live in an age when every thought – however tedious or inconsequential or personal – finds public expression online. And it’s little wonder that our greatest artists would incorporate this newfound sensibility into their writing. A decade ago, perhaps Williams’ observations in All at Once might have taken a different shape, but he’s such a keen observer of our world – of our rhythms and our rhetorics. Given all of the chameleonic things he has achieved, perhaps it should come as no surprise to see Williams reinvent himself yet again as our elder statesman of TMI-overload and still continue to demonstrate why he’s considered a national treasure.

Some thoughts on James Joyce

June 23, 2014

Last weekend, I was quoted in this Philadelphia Inquirer article about James Joyce.

Ervin teaches a master class on the famous first sentence – “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet” – which he thinks “may very well be the greatest opening line in literary history.” Lily’s name has overtones of purity. “So there’s a moral system put in place with the very first word.” Her father’s a caretaker, which suggests a social hierarchy of rich and poor. In the father and daughter we have overtones of family and gender.

“Then there’s the ‘literally run off her feet.’ Of course, she’s not literally run off her feet, otherwise she’d be on the floor, but the third-person narration comes from within her point of view, like she’s thinking that she’s run off her feet from working too hard. Those 10 words accomplish more than most novels. And then the story only gets better.”

Then I got this amazing copy of Finnegans Wake in the mail, and it bought me back to a particular time early in my writing life, which I wrote about briefly for Philadelphia Review of Books.

Finnegans Wake ($195, with glorious illustrations by John Vernan Lord) is a feast for the senses. Pulling it from its slipcover transported me right back to that bridge and that tram, to those days when I was just starting to think about writing the book that would become my first. Until I got my hands on this stunning new copy, I had all but forgotten how important Finnegans Wake was to me back then. That tram stop is vital to the world of my first book, Extraordinary Renditions. It’s where one character makes the biggest decision of his life. The pub where some others hang out, just at the base of the Pest side, is called Eve and Adam’s.

Joyce has been so central to my thinking–about literature, about writing, about just about everything–that I sometimes forget how about him entirely.

ACM: Another Chicago Magazine 52 // “The Jailer Has Learned that the Prisoners Can Hear Him Weeping in the Nights”

April 29, 2014

My new short story “The Jailer Has Learned that the Prisoners Can Hear Him Weeping in the Nights” appears in the new issue of ACM: Another Chicago Magazine. I wrote the first draft of this story on index cards during my train commute to Temple University during the Fall 2013 semester.


The issue also contains an excellent excerpt from Kyle Minor‘s novel in progress and many other treats. Please buy a copy here if you’re so inclined.