Wednesday, October 9, 2013

One Serious Classroom Novel

Yesterday, as you may know, I reviewed John Charles Lawrence's novel Never, Ever Land in tribute to the fifth anniversary of his passing. I'm happy today to present another review of this novel on the actual anniversary date.

I hope you enjoy Professor Barry A. Morris's review below and that you're moved to read Lawrence's novel.

To Sir With WTF!
John Charles Lawrence, Never, Ever Land
(Bloomington, Indiana: Xlibris, 2011).
Available in hardback, paperback, and e-book.
There aren’t many serious classroom novels in any given generation. The location stales quickly. The points of conflict become rigid overnight — teacher vs. student, teacher vs. system, teacher vs. student vs. parent become so played out so quickly that a fresh noun can become cliché before it hits the verb. The ones that leap out at you — A Separate Peace, To Sir With Love, Blackboard Jungle, Up the Down Staircase — work not because they illuminate the conditions of education, but because they illuminate the conditions of life from within the halls of education. Lesser efforts style themselves as indictments of the institutions of learning, mockeries of the motives of educators, or maudlin caricatures of children as dead souls or pubescent time bombs. The best are not about school children; they are about children who happen to go to school.

In Never, Ever Land, John Charles Lawrence has written more book than he thinks he has, and in so doing places himself among the masters listed above and in opposition to their pretenders. He sets out to chronicle in fiction his real if brief career as a teacher in a tony private Long Island school — to satirize the pretensions and foibles of rich kids, their richer parents and the necessarily sycophantic administrators who accommodate to them. Lawrence makes a big mistake, though, that lifts his work to a higher level than that to which he aspired. He fails to realize the deep and honest affection he has for his subjects. He displays the requisite impatience, ironic detachment and self-deprecation, but it doesn’t wash. These people and those times defined his trajectory more than he’d like to admit.

This is why Never, Ever Land doesn’t reduce itself to the banalities so constant in the genre. It is terse without being mean. It is critical without being judgmental. It is insistent without being strident. This man loves learning and those who learn so deeply that he can try with all his might to seem otherwise and brilliantly, tenderly fail. Never, Ever Land is like one of those ridiculously expensive dinners you rarely have occasion to sit down to. How can such small portions make you feel so full? It’s all in the technique. And just like the students, parents and teachers in this book — not to mention the author — the reader will be nourished by the experience.                                                                                      
                                                                                                                   Barry A. Morris
Pace University

Thanks, Barry. Such an insightful review. You rock, ol' buddy.

Friends, I have known Barry for over thirty years, since we were graduate students together at Indiana University, and I'm pleased to be able to present his work in this way.

Buy the book, friends. You'll enjoy it . . . I guarantee. Also, as I wrote yesterday, if you have "pull" at a major press or if you are a literary agent, I hope you will help get Never, Ever Land picked up by a large commercial press.

Won't you please comment to Barry or to me? Look for a blue link below that says “Post a comment”; if you don’t see that, look in the red line that says “Posted by” and click on the word “comments.”

Take care, friends — ingat. I hope you're having a wonderful week. Please come back to the blog and read more!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Wonderland of a Novel

Seems like I’m always apologizing on the blog. Well, not always. It’s just that I often have big gaps of time in my blogging. Life gets in the way, you know? So after each long gap, I re-start the blog and find myself apologizing.

Well . . . this time, no apology. Instead, I’ll tell you that I’m reviving the blog to give you a review of a novel. The occasion of this review is that tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of the author’s passing. He died young of cancer in 2008 and his book was published posthumously by Xlibris.

I am certain John Charles Lawrence would have been a major American writer. A major writer, period. Never, Ever Land, is his first and last book. And actually Lawrence is a major writer already but only a handful of people know it.

I hope a major commercial press will pick up this fine literary novel and give it a wider publication and audience. Never, Ever Land and John Charles Lawrence deserve nothing less.

John Charles Lawrence, Never, Ever Land
(Bloomington, Indiana: Xlibris, 2011).

 in hardcover, paperback, and e-book.

Never, Ever Land by John Charles Lawrence is one of those books you call up friends in the middle of the night about: “You have got to read this novel, really. Best thing I’ve read in years!” You know those books? The people you call up about them are often underwhelmed and then you think, They just don’t know what they’re missing.

The only Amazon reviewer of this novel was one of those underwhelmed friends, whose opinion did a 180: “This book kicks ass. I started reading it somewhat reluctantly because I knew John and have always been squeamish about reading stuff by people that I actually know. When a friend called to say ‘you gotta read this, it’s awesome . . .’ I picked it up, held my nose and dove in, and am thrilled to have done so.” This reader, who goes by the handle “bookie,” compares Lawrence to David Foster Wallace and Tom Perrotta, calling Never, Ever Land “a closely observed, hilarious tale of a place (the north shore of Long Island) and a time in a young man's life. Its so vibrant and full of life.”

I couldn’t agree more. This book does kick ass. DFL and Perrotta, yup.

The Xlibris press release about Never, Ever Land says, in part, “It is Bright Lights, Big City mixed with Dead Poets’ Society with a smack of Lolita and Vox, set in the land of The Great Gatsby.” The novel weaves together “gossip and hearsay, text messages and police reports, poems and stories, newspaper clippings and whispered conversations — the gathered evidence that forms the mystery and wonder of Never, Ever Land.” While this is obviously marketing schtuff, it does a marvelous job of capturing the allure and joy of Lawrence’s novel.

A brief review in the Rochester, New York, Democrat and Chronicle suggests my approach to this novel: “Prep school English teacher and Harvard graduate Benjamin Goodspeed mimics the language and manners of his literary heroes.” These heroes are not just literary characters, like Holden Caulfield or Billy Pilgrim, but also literary authors: Lawrence writes with the panache of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the smarts of Toni Morrison, the toughness of Chuck Pahlaniuk and the sensitivity of Sandra Cisneros.

Lawrence explores the inner lives and minds of not just the cynical protagonist Ben Goodspeed but also other characters, esp. his student (Wendy) Love, who is cast by the community as nymphet but refuses to be a mere Lolita. Through the (mis)adventures of his fascinating and often funny characters, Lawrence satirizes and sends up the social order whose privilege and hypocrisy both make and menace these anti-heroes. Lawrence has a sharp eye for culture and society like both Margaret Atwood and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Besides such literariness, Lawrence just plain can write. Check out Love’s first appearance in the novel: “She wore lambskin jodhpurs, knee-high black leather riding boots and carried a horsewhip. . . . A white blouse appeared on two fingers as if it were a laboratory specimen and then fell to the floor. A bouquet of red roses and a gold trophy landed next to the blouse. The trophy struck the metal locker door, which rang like a concierge’s bell. One crystalline chime. Perfectly pitched. Fading off in ripples.” What a poetic and clear portrayal. Love’s powerful yet brittle personality is hinted at amazingly by such sharp phrasing as “lambskin jodhpurs” and “crystalline chime.”

Never, Ever Land is full of all sorts of accurate descriptions and riffs on our everyday lives and heartaches; like Flannery O’Connor or Kurt Vonnegut, Lawrence never caves or takes the easy way out — he doesn’t flinch and he’s not afraid to tell the tough truth. For example, Ben Goodspeed is a high school teacher and this is what he says about the daily nitty-gritty of his job: “My school day equaled five 50-minute improvisational theater pieces, usually put on solo — using a variety of voices and the occasional disguise. I am a troupe of one. . . . Fear drove this performance model of teaching. Fear of being shown for what I am: a fraud, a dolt, a sap, a weakling, someone who can’t cut the mustard, walk the line, hold his smoke.” I was a high school English teacher like Ben Goodspeed three and a half decades back, and this description is precisely and painfully on target.

But then Goodspeed goes on, and this is Lawrence’s unflinching part: “Fear bred fear. Insofar as I was afraid to be exposed, my students too would be afraid. Everyone dragged a knapsack filled with fears, insecurities, desires, expectations, needs, resentments — the list could go on forever — into the classroom. But the main component was fear.” So tough and so true. And of course this is reminiscent of all of our lives, all our endeavors, all of our everyday fear. Genius.

I hope you will get John Charles Lawrence’s Never, Ever Land and give it a chance. It’s available online and in bookstores — you’ll need to special-order — in cloth, paper, and e-book. If you have an in at a nationally ranked commercial press or if you are a literary agent, I hope you will help to get this book picked up. In any case, I bet you’ll be calling up pals at night and reading bits to them to try to convince them to read it too. And you'll be buying copies of Never, Ever Land as gifts for friends and relatives on their birthdays, for housewarmings, and for the holidays. Most of all, I know you will enjoy this book. It’s a wonderland of a novel.                                                                                      
                                                                                                                   Vince Gotera, Editor
North American Review

Okay, that’s all for today’s return to the blogosphere.

Won’t you comment, please? Look for a blue link below that says “Post a comment”; if you don’t see that, look in the red line that says “Posted by” and click on the word “comments.”

Ingat — take care, friends — and peace out.

Added 9 October 2013: The day after this post, I hosted a review of Never, Ever Land by a friend, Barry A. Morris, a scholar from Pace University. Click here to read it.

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