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The Bookshelf Diaries (An Occasional Series): Rachman, King, Hill

The Bookshelf Diaries (An Occasional Series): Rachman, King, Hill

This one didn’t come easy, in part because it doesn’t hew to our normal format of four discrete book reviews. Instead it only covers three, and two of them are closely related—not in style or subject matter, but, well, you’ll see.

I’ve often admired the discipline of short story writing, despite the fact that, dating back to my first attempts at fiction in high school, I’ve written exactly two of them, neither one particularly satisfying. This made me that much more curious to dive into Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, a novel in the form of a series of short stories, tracing the trajectory—upward and downward—of a fictional English-language newspaper based in Rome. Each chapter is a self-contained story told from the point of view of a different character involved with the newspaper—a correspondent, a business writer, the editor-in-chief, a reader, the chief financial officer, a copyeditor, the publisher, and so on. Each of these sketches is rich with character detail and clever twists, and together they form a patchwork saga that is both sprawling in scope and keenly observant of human foibles, the hundred decisions large and small that lead us to our fates. I can’t say that I loved this book—it’s ultimately a bit dour in outlook, and I’m not—but I definitely found much to both like and admire about it.

As a teenager, Stephen King was the first writer whose work made me want to write. I devoured Salem’s Lot and The Shining when they first came out, and have been a fan ever since, though I did skip a few books in his less interesting middle years. The point being, when it came to my attention that not one, but two of King’s children had penned novels, I was eager to give each a try. What I hadn’t really planned, but which turned out to be an interesting experiment, was to read them one after the other. First in the dock was Double Feature, by younger brother Owen King; then came Heart-Shaped Box by older brother Joe Hill, born Joseph Hillstrom King.

As a fellow second-generation writer, I wanted to see both men assert their unique creative identity, separate from that of their well-known father (and just to add to the Oedipal froth, their mother Tabitha King is also a novelist). The thing is, though, we are all, in the end, creatures of our parents in one way or another. It’s literally in our blood, as inescapable as the color of our hair or eyes. And so it seems less than coincidental that, in each of these two very different tales, the massive shadow cast by the male lead’s father looms large over the life and mind of his son.

In the case of Double Feature, the male lead is budding filmmaker Sam Dolan, and his father is the larger-than-life, mostly well-intentioned but perpetually self-involved B-movie actor Booth Dolan. King’s novel has an epic sweep and structure, hopscotching back and forth through the years between 1969 and 2011, but is ultimately an intimate, sometimes hilarious meditation on the futility of ambition, the flukiness of fame, and the impossible dance of affection and competition, resentment and loyalty that has captured fathers and sons since the dawn of time. King writes beautifully, and one late scene in particular made me laugh out loud at the way he pulled several plot threads together onto a farcically disastrous collision course. That said, I strained to maintain interest through the middle part of the book; it seems I don’t have a lot of patience for characters who repeat their mistakes and then mope about it.

Joe Hill has made the interesting choice to jettison the family name while diving headlong into the very same horror-fantasy realm that made his father one of the most successful authors of the past century. Heart-Shaped Box is an intense ride that begins with the aging, rather Alice Cooper-esque shock-metal singer Judas (Jude) Coyne buying a ghost on eBay. Hill ratchets up the tension steadily as layer upon layer of Coyne’s life and past misdeeds are exposed and called to account. The narrative grows quite dark and spooky in places, but much as it does with his father, Hill’s underlying fondness for his characters shines through again and again. At the core of this novel lies an oddly compelling love story between Coyne and the latest in a long string of live-in girlfriends; the repeated tests of loyalty between these two damaged characters, who could easily turn on one another, instead only seems to fuel their connection’s transformation into something lasting and real. As for Coyne’s father, in a word: terrifying.

Musicians and writers, fathers and sons. I’m sensing a theme here…

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