Thursday, March 10, 2005

50 in 05: A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries

#8: A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, by Kaylie Jones. Kaylie Jones (I'm gritting my teeth and shaking my fist in the air as I say it)! If I was the kind of man I wish I was, I would challenge her to a duel. No pistols or anything pussy like that--well, maybe knives--but I was thinking a bare-knuckle knock-down fist fight. On the one hand, she writes a novel--and when I say novel I'm thinking "novel," because she might as well have just written a damn fine "creative memoir," and in the process justified her father's mixing of fact and fiction (that's novelist James Jones, he of the Thin Red Line and From Here to Eternity)--and in fact, add that to the list of reasons I want to fight her--but anyway, she wrote a novel that features one of the most honest and American of American families I've ever seen in fiction. Thank god she added a new chapter in "Mother's Day," as it's the only thing that redeems her mother from the last third of the book, and also serves to foreshadow the inherent forgiveness Channe feels for her mother in "Citizenship."

The awkwardness of pre-sex in "The House in the Tree" is a mate for "Human Development," in which we meet Francis, the perfect boy at the perfect time for Channe. And "Diary," though at first it feels like an awkward way to end a novel, explains a few things, biologically speaking, about the emotional capacity of the Billy formerly known as Benoit. And, for the record, I actually like the ending a lot, awkwardness and all.

Now, on the other hand: if Bill Willis, he-man tough guy writer, shed one more single, solitary tear--staring straight ahead, his face otherwise emotionless--I would have grown a beard and moved into the mountains, never to read another word again. My companions would have been the wolves, who have no word for "melodrama" in their language.

I ask you to consider: the same pen that wrote, "I sat at the edge of the his bed in darkness as I had so many nights as a child. I tried to start out calmly but no words would comoe, just tears, hot ones smelling like vodka," also wrote, as Bill Willis discusses a broken Roman amorhpa, "'Those worms are so old the sea turned them into part of the clay.' He said this without emotion, although a tear, which he ignored, dropped out of his eye." I ask myself why Kaylie Jones, who is surely my arch-foe, and who displays such wonderful instincts elsewhere in the novel, makes this choice. Another scene like this, where Bill sheds a solitary tear over the memory of a Japanese soldier he murdered, turns what is a fascinating and real portrayal of a lost father inot a caricature of a tough guy with a tender guy inside.

Another affront: bubbling below the surface of this novel is the idea of a girl and her adopted brother, a girl who readily admits to being flirtatious and sexually curious--yet this taboo of incest is skirted around, ignored as easily as a giant, man-eating bear in the living room. Channe and her brother "had never even kissed," Kaylie tells us. Janet No. One, a schoolmate of Channe's, spreads rumors that Channe and Billy slept together. Channe encounters a surrogate boy Billy's age in a treehouse to experiment with, explore, and eventually despise. Billy might as well be asexual for the lack of development he displays as the novel charts Channe's progress from childhood to her late-20's. But what is most interesting is this--Billy's biological mother, according to her diary, is impregnated by her cousin (by marriage), even though they never had sex. They laid down together and she felt a hot spurt on her thigh. Channe and Billy shared a bed many times but never, as my memory serves, is there a mention of them touching, in any way. It's a decidedly absent detail. The whole matter is this gian LUMP under the carpet, talked around and occasionally glanced at uncomfortably.

If Kaylie Jones was my friend, I would ask her: How? Why? How can you dance what could be a beautiful, uncomfortable, dramatic moment when this subject is broached? And if she couldn't answer, if she didn't answer, that is when Kaylie Jones would become my enemy.

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