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The Rainbow Roll at the Flying J
A Book Review
Any fool can learn from his own mistakes, a truly wise man learns from the mistakes of others. In the interest of wisdom, I offer three of my blunders to you as a gift. So for the love of Mike, please take heed. Never eat gas station sushi. Never fry bacon in your birthday suit. And never read a Civil War novel longer than Shiloh.
I read a lot of books. Sometimes for pure pleasure, sometimes due to necessity, and sometimes out of a sense of obligation. That third category follows directly from the second but usually bears no relation to the first. Books that I am paid to read and review usually fall into the third category, as do books given to me as gifts by friends.
A dear, elderly lady from my church recently gave me a copy of a novel that she “just knew I would love.” Now, I don’t want to wade out too deeply into strange epistemological headwaters, but our dear sister did, in fact, know a thing that wasn’t so. But I read it because it was given to me as a gift from someone who genuinely loves me. Or hates me. It is hard to say at this point.
The book was called High Hearts, by one Rita Mae Brown. Mrs. Brown is a novelist who, until that moment, was hitherto unknown to me. A felicitous ignorance to be sure. I have since learned that she was a half-Amish, half Southern founder of the radical feminist movement who once served on the Literature Panel for the National Endowment for the Arts. Though it should be noted that unlike most of her fellow (or whatever the feminist equivalent of “fellow” is–mea culpa) bra-burners, she is on the record as liking men.
The premise of High Hearts is predictable in a self-parodying sort of way: Geneva, the heroine, cuts her hair and enlists in the Confederate cavalry as a man so that she can be near her husband, who turns out not to be her equal as a warrior. Why I did not swoon over her she-woman manifesto centered around an intra-bellum transvestite will forever remain one of life’s great mysteries.
There are some books that you can’t help but read quickly because you are engrossed. This is not that kind of book. You will want to read it fast, but because you just want the madness to end. I found myself reading faster and faster, swerving to miss the reckless prose coming at me head-on, pausing only to note that at three different points in the first eighty-one pages someone was described as not having the sense God gave a goose. It’s a good expression, but sometimes two birds in the bush is better than one in the hand. Especially if all you’re gonna do is squeeze it to death.
The rhetorical quality only deteriorates as it moves from the narrator to the characters. The dialogue is enough to bring tears to a glass eye. One belle to another: “Sin-Sin was impressed when Evangelista guided her through your labyrinthine closets and showed her every gown for which you’ve marked a card stating when you wore it, where you wore it, and what shoes, hat, gloves and parasol you wore with it.”
One of the more courageous features of the novel is its antipathy towards grammatical convention. Modifiers are left dangling overhead like the Sword of Damocles, but in this case it just isn’t clear upon who’s noggin it's going to fall. Take the following: “Steam moistened Geneva’s nostrils as she gulped her hot chocolate. Expensive and delicious, Geneva preferred this luxury to jewelry, but Lutie assured her as she grew older, she’d develop a taste for stones.” Ok, that is quite funny. But it was written to be funny. It is funny the way that someone falling down is funny.
Then there’s my favorite example: “Shod a week ago, these shoes fit him perfectly.” I doubt any other former member of the Literature Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts has shod shoes before. Brown is likely the first. And a woman to boot! Among the things that dangling modifiers can do, who knew that shattering glass ceilings was among them?!
Masquerading as a soldier, Geneva gets to do a lot of neat stuff she would never do tied up in an aristocratic corset: engage in fist fights, dodge Yankee bullets, chop down telegraph poles, obey a man. But the whole thing is tedious and overwrought. The action scenes are only slightly more sophisticated than Ned in the First Grade Reader. And the romance? Oy vey! You have heard about the influence of movies on the novel. This is an example of the influence of the miniseries.
At least the novel did succeed at two novelties. It is the first novel I ever read in whose acknowledgments cats are thanked (“To my mews), and it is the first I’ve read wherein a mother, unhinged by grief, seizes her son’s severed head and tries to eat it. The Late Unpleasantness indeed.
I am older and wiser now. I have lived through 464 pages of the past and the past perfect, indiscriminately mixed. Please learn from my mistakes. If you’re fool enough to read a Civil War novel longer than Shiloh then you might as well order the Rainbow Roll down at the Flying J.
Last week, the transmission went out on my truck. This means I am currently without my vehicle. It costs just over $2,500 to replace it. Frankly, I don’t have the funds. Friends have told me that I shouldn’t let pride prevent me from letting you know when there is a real need. So there it is. If you value my work and would like to help with this expense by way of a donation, please feel free to do so.