Sunday, November 09, 2008

Books Wormed: "A Garden Of Sand" by Earl Thompson

Owing to my recent deployment at a locale where there's more time to do it in than actual work to do while there, I'm back on a reading kick in a really big way. I figured I might as well put all that bookworming to good use - while it lasts - by adding to one of those features which has been much-neglected of late, namely Books Wormed... ~ MSM

When Earl Thompson's novel A Garden of Sand first appeared in 1970 the 1930s was still, for a lot of people, within living memory. Yet human nature seems fixated on the idea that the past was some G-rated paradise, so there seems to have been no shortage of shock at the contents of this novel, which is almost entirely shocking even today. Epic, yet intimate, lurid, yet honestly so, A Garden of Sand blows the lid off a seemingly lid-proof Depression-era America - a time when even good people, it seems, were forced to resort to their most craven impulses every minute of the day just to survive.

Ever since they occurred, the Thirties has served as a pretty convenient shorthand for artists everywhere; when times are bad, it seems, storytellers of all kinds - be they novelists or film-makers - like to turn to those hardscrabble days for perspective, especially when a contemporary setting would seem to be lacking in the necessary gravity to convey whatever threat or privation needs conveying.

There are enough hard-luck losers in A Garden of Sand to populate a dozen Tom Waits albums, with enough left over to keep him busy telling their myriad stories until he's a hundred; in following Odd 'Jack' Andersen almost from the moment of his birth Thompson has fashioned a story which contains not only all of those lives which intersect his, but a powerful morality tale as rich in philosophy as it is in imagery.

Amazingly, A Garden of Sand was Earl Thompson's first novel, yet it's no typically tepid freshman effort. Thompson's masterful handling of prose - laced with equal parts dynamite and poetry - suggests bullying, sweet-talking, and in general a situationally ethical approach to getting the story told; it's a surprisingly muscular way of handling the despair, apathy, and inevitable ruin to which many of his characters find themselves inexorably drawn. If this were journalism (which, in a way, it is) his every subject would leave their author's presence in either tears or handcuffs and often enough both.

Having extensively perused numerous works either from or about the Thirties (as research for my own novel, set in 1934-5) I can safely say that A Garden of Sand reads as brutally true as any I've read; if God is in the details then Earl Thompson is God... His evocation of time and place teems with finely-observed insight. So completely realized is his universe - centred on Wichita, Kansas - that upon closing the back cover I wanted to re-open the front cover and experience it all over again.

Now that's what I call a good book...
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