DAN ELDON: THE ART OF LIFE
(Chronicle Books) $27.50
The publication of Eldon's journals, after he was killed at the tender age of 22 while photographing the war in Somalia, vaulted him into a kind of cult Valhalla. The journals themselves are a wonder: a vibrant blast of photography, writing, art, and collage; a coming-of-age story, a testament to the ambivalence of a white family living in Africa.
But now, there's a biography, Dan Eldon: The Art of Life, and it reads like a eulogy, like something commissioned by a well-meaning and still grieving family. Author Jennifer New has clearly interviewed Eldon's friends and family, but somehow his story has been distilled into the worst kind of pap: "Many people sensed, both during and after his life, that he had a clearer vision than most of us. Perhaps it was his impish, mischievous grin."
New writes as if she's inside Eldon's head--a device which quickly grows tiring and unbelievable ("He took solace in her gentle spirit")--and in a voice that fairly resounds with NPR-narrative inflections ("As Lengai drove through the dark night... Dan felt the rhythm of the road underneath them"). To her credit, she pulls back in the paragraph about his death--he was stoned by an angry crowd--to stark and unforgettable effect. But the worst misstep is the way she writes about his art, as if it were only there to be plumbed for clues to his person.
What's happening here--the biography, the cottage industry springing up around Eldon's life and death--is akin to what happened after the (relatively) early death of Bruce Chatwin, another young white man given to exploring the farther reaches. It's not enough, it seems, to read his clear, strong prose and view the world through his uncondescending eyes; there is a misguided impulse to have more. Dan Eldon was on his way to becoming a real artist, and it's tragic that his full potential will never be realized. A bio that fails to give a sense of his real work should be skipped. EMILY HALL
(Verse Chorus Press) $16.95
Los Angeles' cheesy world of promotions and public relations forms the setting for this novel. Author Compo, a contributor to notable Portland-based mag Puncture as well as Spin, depicts and parodies the life of talent agent Giselle Entwistle and her agency, Crazing. But the most notable thing about this book is that it contains another book, 80 pages long, within its narrative.
The book inside the book, "Charm School Dropout," is a memoir penned by one of Giselle's prospective clients, Pandra Walker, and it's more catchy and less well-assembled than the outer novel. Pandra tells her story in a rather flat, shell-shocked third person, describing her semi-pathetic experience in the 1970s L.A. glitter rock scene. Pandra's story is chock full of period detail nostalgia buffs will love: layered platform boots, sequined tube tops, old L.A. nightclubs, and clubbers talking endlessly about Bowie. Pandra's life takes a turn for the worse after she meets a guy with pimpy tendencies, and her book becomes a page-turner.
Pretty Things, however, sticks to Giselle's relationship concerns (she is dealing with her distant boyfriend, country singer Len Tingle), and avoids the temptation to get kooky and metafictional with the novel's two separate texts. That suited me fine, though the resonances or symbolic links between the two books are somewhat unclear, if they exist. In any case, Compo's line-by-line writing is a bit of a stumbling block, full of clumsy descriptions and gawky prose.
Pretty Things' best qualities are its quirky parody of L.A.'s culture industry, and the character Pandra. Seen through the lens of her own memoir, this fashion-obsessed club girl is haunting and empty, keening for attention, distant from much of the world, but "close to--right up against--music." STACEY LEVINE
While many memoirs map out the pain of family life, New York Times journalist Rick Bragg has chosen instead to celebrate his family's hardships. In his previous book All Over but the Shoutin', he paid tribute to his mother's struggle to raise a family on her own. With Ava's Man he continues his personal history of the Deep South with an evocation of his mother's childhood in the Appalachian foothills during the Great Depression, and the magnificent story of the man who raised her. Bragg employs his spare eloquence to recapture his long-dead grandfather Charlie, who worked as a roofer, liked to fish, made good whiskey in the pines, and liked the taste of his own stills. Like Mary Karr and Dorothy Allison, Bragg writes with a powerfully centered lyricism that refuses to whitewash the bootleggers, violence, and poverty of the rural South. In the decade of the Great Depression, Charlie Bundrum moved his family 21 times, keeping seven children one step ahead of poverty and starvation. He worked at the steel mill when the steel was rolling, or labored for a side of bacon or a bushel of peaches when it wasn't. He paid the doctor who delivered his fourth daughter, Margaret--Bragg's mother--with a jar of whiskey. He was a banjo player and a buck dancer who worked off fines when he got on the wrong side of the law, and he sang when he was drunk. His children and friends revered him. When he died, cars lined the blacktop for more than a mile. Ava's Man blazes with Charlie's fierce love for his family, and the handed-down power of storytelling that is his greatest legacy. NATE LIPPENS