The Last Time I Saw You
City Lights, $12.95, paper
Rebecca Brown is one of the best-kept secrets of short fiction. A San Diego native who now lives in Seattle, she made her literary debut in the mid-'80s with The Evolution of Darkness, and she recently published The End of Youth. These titles are appropriate bookends for her work. To read Brown's fiction for literal meaning or autobiography is like trying to follow a musical note from the moment it twangs off an antique slide guitar to its last mechanic warble. Listen closely and you're not always sure when the sound has stopped—or if it stops at all.
In this fashion, Brown's work often feels like a memoir without ever having the responsibilities of factualness, a trick she accomplishes devilishly well in The Last Time I Saw You. The word "I" recurs throughout this strange and beautiful book, but in the end the distinction between fiction or memoir feels moot, since the book is clearly a work about fracturing. The title piece atomizes an encounter with an old lover down to the second. The more the speaker studies her memories the more vivid and less certain they become. Did they meet in a café, or was it a bar? Was there really an old alcoholic sucking down shots, or is that an invention? Did the author in fact meet anyone at all, or was she simply at a bar talking to herself?
Lydia Davis performed this kind of experiment in her debut collection, Break It Down, and it is to Brown's credit that she performs it repeatedly here without deadening the effect. Each story begins with a surety and then proceeds to smash it to smithereens, leaving us with a thousand tiny shards of brilliance. Occasionally, Brown falters, beginning with too little and departing with too many airy flourishes. But for the most part these stories do something thrillingly fresh. They teach us how to read backwards; how to understand that what we see on the page is just a beginning, never the end.
Thunder's Mouth Press, hardcover, $18
By 1957, the year he published On the Road, Jack Kerouac was at the end of his rope. He had written 11 books in six years, and gotten just one of them published. In order to buy Christmas presents for his family, he borrowed $40 from his agent, Sterling Lord, and needed another loan—this one from his mother—so he could take a bus to New York and deliver the final manuscript of On the Road to Viking Press (which he did after chugging a bottle of bourbon in the elevator). The King of the Beats was a mess.
It is in this frenetic context that we should read Beat Generation, a rather sloppy and formless play Kerouac wrote in the fall of 1957. When On the Road was published in September of that year, Kerouac "lay down obscure for the last time in his life," as Joyce Johnson wrote in her memoir about him. Kerouac awoke the voice of a generation, and he was besieged with requests to explain his people to the squares. It appears Beat Generation originated as one of those requests. "I'm back home and have already written that 3-act play they wanted on Broadway," he wrote in October to his Viking publicist, Pat MacManus, going on to brag, "I wrote my play in 24 hours, no less, couldn't sleep until it was done, there."
Even though Kerouac wrote to his pal Neal Cassady that "only grayfaces won't like it," even hipsters might have trouble with the babble of Buddhist brakemen here. The play opens in a Bowery apartment, with two characters drinking wine, proceeds to a race track for more Beat discussions, conversational be-bop, and finishes with its characters veritably passing out with exhaustion from their all-day toot. Kerouac was a master of capturing the frenzy of all-night chatter, but here it sounds a bit too realistic, as if perhaps we might enjoy the conversations better after a jug of Tokay wine. "We gotta sleep sometime," says the hero, collapsing at the end of it all. It's a lesson Kerouac often parroted but never quite learned. Along the way some cool embers flew off his Catherine Wheel, and this happens to be one of them.
Generation Debt: Why Now is a Terrible Time to be Young
Riverhead, hardcover, $23.95
Last year, Time magazine ran a cover story about a new group of Americans it called the "twixters." Though old enough to be adults, twixters behave more like adolescents. They change jobs frequently and eschew marriage in favor of serial dating. When they don't have the cash for something, twixters simply put it on plastic.
In Generation Debt, Anya Kamenetz makes a compelling case that there is a lot more to this picture than fiscal irresponsibility. In fact, she argues, today's youth graduate from high school with a future full of red ink. Higher education is more expensive, and so students graduate with record amounts of debt, some of it on credit cards. And what does this money buy?
Not much, Kamenetz argues, and the trend looks even worse for those who don't attend college. "In 1970," she writes, "high school graduates entered the world of GM and $17.50 an hour" in today's dollars. Now Wal-Mart is the nation's largest employer and their average wage is $8 an hour. Many of those workers don't get health care or can't afford it. And as Kamenetz points out, women still earn 78 cents for every dollar their male counterparts take home.
Compiling statistics like these, Kamenetz reveals how American society has undergone a radical "risk shift" over the past decades, from the old to the young, and from companies to individuals. As a result, young people must now take care of their own health care, their own retirement funds and, in all likelihood, the health care bill of their aging parents, too.
Kamenetz is right to find this alarming. She even has some good suggestions about how to address the problems she raises. But the one thing Kamenetz can't do—even by publishing this thoughtful and rigorous book—is force her young comrades to do something that might actually make politicians listen: vote.
What Happened Here
New Directions, paper, $13.95
Eliot Weinberger has spent 30 years translating the work of authors like Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges and Chinese dissident Bei Dao. But starting in early 2001, he began his most ambitious translation project yet: interpreting the Bush administration to the rest of the world. The essays collected in What Happened Here—most of them originally published in non-U.S. publications—put forth such a wise indictment of the current president that reading it is like being punched in the solar plexus.
By Weinberger's estimate, things went south before George W. Bush's inaugural day. Drawing on evidence that Gore would have won the recount, he argues that the 2000 vote amounted to "corporate hostile takeover of the U.S. government," and that what's happened since has been engineered for the benefit of the oligarchs of the oil, gas and pharmaceutical industries. These are not new arguments. But like Joan Didion, Weinberger is a master of distilling massive amounts of information into a compelling takedown, and even readers who are already on his progressive wavelength will feel roused by how well he articulates his anger.
Weinberger really hits his stride when he gets to 9/11. In the days after the terrorist attacks, critics opined that the hijackers had murdered irony in America. What this book shows is that it is not irony but memory that died a sudden death. Because its essays were written in the heat of the moment, What Happened Here returns us to the chaos and rage of the immediate aftermath. Its analytical insights also bring into high relief facts that have been lost in the media shuffle. To give just one example, Weinberger reminds us that the biological weapons labs Colin Powell cited in his case for war against Iraq were found to be helium machines for hot-air balloons, not WMDs. What's more, he dwells at length on what this and other misrepresentations mean—or should mean—to American citizens today.