Monday, May 25, 2009

An Englishman in Dixie

I love the books of William Boyd. His Any Human Heart is one of my top favorite novels, up there with Kavalier and Clay, Atonement and Cloud Atlas. His Ice Cream War, set in the little known African theater of World War One, is among the finest of the war/imperial novels, right up there with anything by JG Farrell. A Good Man in Africa is right up there with Graham Greene's great ones. Armadillo is a well constructed examination of identity and the idea of Englishness.

Stars and Bars, which I just read, is not as good as those books. It has Boyd's trademark wit, but it lacks the deeper understanding of people that enrich his other books. The book is the closest thing to pure slapstick that I have yet encountered among his works. Henderson Dores is an Englishmen who longs to be American. The novel opens with him at work at an art house in NYC. He is sent into wildest Georgia to evaluate the collection of an elderly man.

Upon his arrival, he finds that most of the family is none too happy to see him. One son threatens to beat his ass with his head and one daughter is given to candid Anglophobia. He makes matters worse by trying to juggle two women, one of whose daughters travels with him to Georgia.

There are many funny moments, but the book just feels insubtantial when compared to the others. If this were one of his others, he might try to explore more of how Americans and the English interact. Here, it is mostly, if not entirely played for laughs. It isn't a bad book by any means, but don't expect something like his others.


Citizen Reader said...

Oh, this is very timely. I'm engaged in a reference book project right now wherein I try to list books that are similar to other books--and I just got to William Boyd's "Any Human Heart." 30 pages in and I can tell it's NOT going to be for me. Any suggestions on books that a reader who, like you, loves this book, might also like? Thanks!!

(Yes, this is me being kind of lazy. But I'd also like to suggest books that readers of "Any Human Heart" might also enjoy.)

Tripp said...

Ooo, interesting question CR. Very interesting indeed. Here are some initial thoughts.

The Rabbit books by Updike - thanks to the survey of the 20th century feel.

Maybe Of Human Bondage thanks to the lives of artists aspect.

I will keep thinking.

Citizen Reader said...

Wild suggestions. It's so interesting to think about what my pair with a book you don't like (not as fun as a book you DO like, but interesting). I find your suggestions fascinating, as the Updike books are some of my most hated fiction titles evah, while Of Human Bondage is one of my all-time faves. Thank you for the suggestions!! (And the food for thought--as well as the justifications; the "20th century feel" of the Rabbit books is a great descriptor.)

Brack said...

CR - Sorry to hear the first 30 pages haven't gone down well. Like Tripp, I loved this book. Probably my favorite of Boyd's, followed by Ice Cream War and Armadillo. One of the things I enjoyed the most about Any Human Heart was seeing how the narrative voice evolved over the course of Logan Montstuart's life, so I'd encourage urge you to give it a few more chapters. As for your reference book project, suggestions may depend on what the reader liked about AAH.

W'm Boyd, The New Confessions - This is on my to-be-read pile. I've suggested it because (i) other Boyd fans seem to love it, and (ii) although (as I understand it) its protagonist is a filmaker instead of an author, the narrative arcs of TNC and AHH follow similar pan-historic paths.

Joyce, Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man - Heavy on the writer as a writer and development of aesthetic sensibilty; light on just about everything else that made AHH so enjoyable for me (development of Logan's relationships with others, impact of historical events and circumstances on him).

Paul Theroux, My Secret History - Another bildungsroman that follows the development of a writer from adolescence to adulthood. Like Boyd (and Robertson Davies), Theroux revels in the complexities of the relationships among the characters in his work. However, while Theroux's penchant for self-analysis can be one of his great strengths as a writer, it can also be exhausting after a while, so I generally prefer his travel writing.


Citizen Reader said...

Tripp, Brack,
You are the bestest. Thank you for all the help. And when I'm through pushing to get done on a couple of projects, I'll go back to Any Human Heart and give it a more leisurely try.

Tripp said...

Along the lines of PotA, I think Richard Russo's Straight Man has some thematic similarities. Namely, writers dealing with unfulfilled promise and disappointment.