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Austin Chronicle Book Reviews

AUGUST 16, 1999: 

Hangover Soup by Louise Redd (Little, Brown & Company), $23 hard

Louise Redd's second novel, Hangover Soup, bears a certain resemblance to Playing the Bones, its successful predecessor. Lacey, the central figure in Playing the Bones, is a smart, well-bred woman with beautiful red hair who strives valiantly to overcome a dismal past. Hangover Soup's main character, Faith Evers, is an intelligent, well-bred woman with beautiful blond hair who strives mightily to overcome a dismal present. Both novels are set in Texas: the first in Houston and the second here in Austin. In each book, Redd alternates the sharpest and most wicked Texan wit with passages of tender lyricism. And both novels feature the same nervy mixture of the humorous and the dire.

But where Playing the Bones was a wild ride, Hangover Soup is a decidedly bumpy one. None of which makes it any less fun, mind you. The flaws in Hangover are less sins of commission than they are sins of omission.

As the book begins, Faith Evers has realized that Jay, her husband of five years, is a hopeless drunk who loves her deeply but loves alcohol and drugs more. Possessed by an epiphany that occurs one morning while she is trying to sexually arouse her unconscious and oblivious husband, Faith throws the good china and Jay's love letters into the car and moves out. Her departure inspires Jay, a disc jockey, to begin an on-air marathon of sobriety. The "High on Wife" pledge of 26 consecutive sober days temporarily restores Faith's hopes of having a normal marriage, but these hopes are demolished when Jay kills a woman while driving drunk.

"I looked back almost fondly at those angry versions of myself, at that woman snapping down a dish towel and flinging down the sponge, as if she were a little girl staging a temper tantrum over nothing, over a spilled ice cream cone or a broken toy, as if her anger shone as beautifully as her most spectacular smile," Faith muses after her husband has turned himself in to the police. Writing like this is what lifts up Hangover Soup. Redd doesn't do it all the time, and it isn't always perfect when she does. Nevertheless, it's a pleasure to read it, almost as much a pleasure as when she puts her gift for writing howling one-liners into action. The resulting combination of wit and poignance makes Faith, who as the narrator naturally has the best lines, a likable, eloquent character.

Not all Redd's characters receive the benefit of that combination, however. Some significant characters are not fully fleshed out. This omission is most glaring in the case of Jay, Faith's husband. He's missing for large portions of the book, being either unconscious, on the air, or in prison. He's on Faith's mind quite a bit, of course, and some of the loveliest passages in the book portray Faith's memories, good and bad, of their relationship. When he appears in the flesh, however, he tends to inspire somewhat uncharitable feelings -- more often than not, he seems surly, maudlin, or mainc. This omission makes it difficult to root for Faith and Jay's marriage.

Hangover Soup by Louise Redd

At times, Redd evokes very well the small tendernesses of marriage. But largely she ignores the daily minutiae of Faith and Jay's life together, focusing instead on moments of high drama or grand passion. These moments become a kind of shorthand for portraying intimacy, rather than allowing readers to see the details of the relationship themselves. Redd relies on a similar shorthand in her portrayal of Austin, reducing the city to a series of place names and images. Redd's characters walk down the Drag and hang out on the South Mall, but Redd never pauses long enough in her story to tell her readers what those places are like. Faith stops to speak to a professor who wears Birkenstocks and has a coffee stain on his shirt, and the implication seems clear: Oh, an Austin professor! These are missed chances, and they are disappointing.

It's tempting to make reference to that phenomenon known as the "sophomore slump," when a second book doesn't quite meet the standards set by the first. But let's avoid that and refer instead to a "sophomore lull." There's more than enough here to like. And Redd comes through where it counts, having created a central character capable of carrying this somewhat lopsided novel on her slender but tough shoulders. It's virtually impossible to dislike Faith as a character, even when her steadfastness approaches co-dependence. She's funny, resourceful, moral, and passionate.

If the whole book were as likable as its main character, then this would be a top-notch reading experience. As it is, it's still highly enjoyable. --Barbara Strickland


The Spell by Alan Hollinghurst (Viking), $24.95 hard

What would English literature be like without the English country house? Indeed, that ideal and idyll has cast its shadow in this country, not only in the suburban stories of Cheever and Updike but even in the layout of suburbs, the mania for lawns, and the decorating tips so profusely bestowed in such venues as Southern Living and the "Sunday Living" sections of any big-name paper. Yet while Marvell was celebrating Appleton house, with its "fragrant Gardens, shaddy Woods/Deep Meadows, and transparent Floods," his contemporary, John Aubrey, was recording this anecdote, of the Countess of Pembroke, that captures quite another aspect of country living:

She was very salacious, and she had a Contrivance that in the Spring of the yeare, when the Stallions were to leape the Mares, they were to be brought before such a part of the house, where she had a vidette (a hole to peepe out at) to looke on them and please herselfe with their Sport; and then she would act the like sport herselfe with her stallions. One of her great Gallants was Crooke-back't Cecill, Earl of Salisbury.

Aubrey's anecdote points to the other side of the country house myth, one of lust rampant in a discreet location. As a distant descendant we get the hermetic adulteries of Henry James' country house novel, The Sacred Fount, and the ruder unrobings and gropings of that Ur-sixties artifact, Updike's Couples.

The country house, suburbanized a bit, was a theme that Alan Hollinghurst was naturally going to find, sooner or later. Hollinghurst is a writer of vast pictorial skills. In his first novel, The Swimming Pool Library, he made a quick suck in a grungy porn cinema seem lit as though it were the central motif in a Georges de la Tour painting - except that, at the last minute, one is always aware here that the lighting is the flickering shadow play thrown off by a typical farm-boy-meets-well-endowed-farm-boy fantasy up on the screen, playing to a dark bunch of masturbating businessmen. Hollinghurst's big fan in this country is Nicholson Baker, and it is easy to see why: Both men have a draftsman's sense of the value and odd interiority of the described object, even if, in Baker's case, it is an object from a favorite catalog, while in Hollinghurst's case it is a big black dildo.

Of course, Baker is straight, Hollinghurst isn't, and he very much isn't in The Spell. As in previous of his novels, the plot is an erotic criss-cross. At the beginning of the novel, Robin, an architect, has stolen Justin from Alex. Justin, at 34, is younger than both his lovers. Robin lives in the country, and Justin is pretty much the "kept" man of the house. Bored, he persuades Robin to invite Alex down from London for the weekend. Alex is an upper-class English bureaucrat, very nice, very much inclined to go into soft focus when it comes to the harder edges of life. Robin is in his 50s, and he is just beginning to question his sexual attractiveness. While down in the country, Alex meets Robin's son, Danny, who is also gay. Back in London, Alex and Danny become lovers.

The plot simply follows these couples, like a game that has to be played until the last couple is on the board. The last couple standing is Robin and Justin, but Alex, visiting again, is now resignedly happy with an older lover. All ends well, although we have gone through a meditation on love and death which invests that state of well-being with a heightened precariousness. Especially with Robin, Hollinghurst is very good at tracking the decay of a self-image that is enamored of its own attractiveness. Here's a passage of typical Hollinghurst close reading on the subject. Robin cheating on Justin with a local boy, Terry:

His hands rubbed across the skin and joints and smooth transitions of a body that hadn't yet dreamt of the changes Robin had studied earlier in the mirror. It was interesting -- like an eerily privileged visit to his younger self, or to some aspect of it. But he wouldn't want to make the journey often. How could all the ageing lovers of boys bear it, the distance growing longer and lonelier year by year?

Narcissism is something we all abhor in our daylight lives, but great lovers live, of course, for the night. Hollinghurst is very unsentimental about this: The rules of sexual attraction, unlike the beatitudes, aren't kind to the meek. It is nice that, for a while, Alex gets to enjoy drugs and sex with Danny, but we know he isn't made for it. Meanwhile, Robin is suddenly feeling autumnal, and he isn't equipped for it. Neither the reader nor, probably, Robin will ever know what the "privileged visit" in the above passage is all about -- Robin's nostalgia, or Terry's body.

Oddly, this summer has seen some controversy over John Updike's review of this novel in The New Yorker, in which Updike, in that Christian satyr mode he has perfected, speculated about homosexual lifestyles. In particular, in this book, he missed "the chirp and swing and animation of a female character." I don't think this remark is unjust -- sometimes Hollinghurst is too locker-room-ish for my taste. Updike's review was followed by Larry Kramer, the playwright and ACT-UP founder, and Tony Kushner theatening some kind of letter-writing campaign to The New Yorker. This only proves that those two have overabundant amounts of time on their hands. It's beach time, boys. This is Updike we are talking about, who, in his reviews, is practically leashed. There are more pressing causes.

I must add that this third novel is not as good as Hollinghurst's two previous ones. It is an entertainment, an interlude in his work, another way it is reminiscent of The Sacred Fount. It has the fun, and sometimes the longeurs, of a farewell party, as if Hollinghurst is concentrating his tics (his architecturally aware protagonists, his older/younger lover obsession, even his glimpse of London porn shops, as dear to Hollinghurst as inns used to be to Fielding and Dickens) into one final, dense instance. --Roger Gathman


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