Thursday 27 April 2017

You Don't Have To Live Like This - a novel look at modern America

You Don't Have To Live Like This, Benjamin Markovits, Faber & Faber, €20.99

President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama return to the White House in Washington from Charleston, where they attended services for one of the nine people shot dead at an African Methodist Episcopal Church.
President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama return to the White House in Washington from Charleston, where they attended services for one of the nine people shot dead at an African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Hilary A White

It is one of the great sorrows of modern America that at its most culturally diverse incarnation it can finally elect an African-American figurehead yet seem never more racially divided. From the outside, that historic night in Chicago should have sounded the end of centuries of hurt, and yet the Fergusons and Baltimores and Charlestons keep coming.

You Don't Have To Live Like This does not put itself in the shop window as a novel about racial unrest, but it winds its way firmly into the fold with a crushing sense of inevitability. Benjamin Markovits sets this tale of do-gooders causing community discontent in Obama-era Detroit (the President even makes a cameo for one bemusing axis chapter), a place wracked with unemployment and population decline since the collapse of manufacturing.

Imbued with the accented spirits of a Holden Caulfield or Sal Paradise, Greg "Marny" Marnier is our looking-glass. Ten years on from a Yale education, Marny is somewhat ignominiously teaching in rural Wales. So when he meets old mucker and now enigmatic dot-com gazillionaire Robert James at his college reunion, a proposal is made that Marny, in his own mopey way, leaps upon as a possible avenue to life meaning. Robert intends to buy up swathes of down-and-out neighbourhoods in Detroit with a view to an ambitious privately funded urban-renewal scheme.

For someone of such lofty schooling and overseas experience, Marny is callow to the point of slappable. He naval-gazes his way into the complex fabric of this "New Jamestown". He is Baton Rouge whitebait, brought up on a steady diet of middle-class, apple-pie American attitudes towards the black community. He purchases two handguns for his new posting and has to check himself as his work for Robert brings him into the sphere of cagey and tetchy locals who are holding up the "progress". He struggles to navigate a romance with a community teacher and friendship with a local tearaway.

He cannot laugh at himself, but quite often we can. Marny "spends a lot of time in his head", poring over his very waspish feelings of inadequacy about everything, and is wholly unprepared as simmering waters are brought to the boil.

It is a remarkable novel, more for what it is not than what it is. Lesser writers would struggle to make such an idea catch fire, especially one as tied up in a social realism so endemic to that degraded part of the Rust Belt. This is fiction writing that is alive in your hand despite its meandering rhythms and heavily biographing tendencies. Markovits' is a voice as attuned to the soul as it is to the barrios and hoods, the kind that forms synaptic connections without ever seeming to try.

@HAWhiteK

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