Saturday, August 1, 2015

Finding Pluck (Peter Difatta)

Peter Difatta's Finding Pluck is a throwback in more senses than one. It's a period novel with more than one period - half this university-based story is set during the 1995-1996 school year, and the other half is a parallel action set during the 1927-1928 school year. But it's also a throwback because it seems more akin to the popular fiction of earlier generations than to most of what gets published today. The tone, the stately march of the sentences, is dignified, even dare I say genteel, and one might say the same of the characters. This is a very nice book, even though the core topics are controversy-baiting - gay rights and religious intolerance.

It's a neat trick, and the book is a smooth, professional performance. Finding Pluck will charm plenty of readers, and is about as reading-group-friendly a title as I have come across lately. It won the William Faulkner Literary Award given by Faulkner's home town of New Albany, Mississippi. The judges of that book described Finding Pluck as "pleasing," which indeed it is, and further noted that it "handles well a sophisticated narrative structure," also basically true.

You undoubtedly feel a "But..." coming up, and I can't say you're wrong. Finding Pluck has considerable merit, yet it left me a little cool in the final analysis.

There is a lot going on in Finding Pluck, which in addition to the double-period structure and shifts between third and first person, is structured as an earnest social agenda novel AND a pop supernatural novel. It is hard to discuss all those aspects of the performance simultaneously, so let me try to do so separately, without giving away too much of the plot.

The 1927-1928 chapters, focused on a budding friendship between University of North Carolina students Bernard Pembroke and Damien Holdrich, come across as more convincing than the 1995-1996 chapters, which center on the life of UNC freshman Taylor Hanes, a boy from a fading mill-town who has committed a subterfuge in order to receive a full scholarship.

I think this contrast in effectiveness is based on the relative distances in time more than anything else. We know 1995, and Difatta's version of it seemed off to me. We don't know 1927 directly, and therefore Difatta's F. Scott Fitzgerald Lite take on it seems passable enough.

The relationship between Bernard (shy, stuttering) and Damien (bold, confident) is very akin to that between Gene and Finny in John Knowles' classic prep school novel A Separate Peace, but with the homo-eroticism less sub-textual than in the earlier book.

In the modern chapters, Taylor Hanes is a likeable protagonist, but it could be that his creator likes him a bit too much, because he keeps letting him off the hook. Taylor is punished in due course for his subterfuge, but is then eventually re-rewarded for it. He initially gets a B minus on a paper-and-project that really deserves a B minus (the teacher in me notes), but then the grade is adjusted upward to an A because Taylor's heart is in the right place.

These chapters depend on Taylor's making friends, among both fellow students and adults, who will assist him in figuring out a mystery with a paranormal component. Assist him they do - they all come on board very swiftly, and barely pause over questions of belief in ghosts or other manifestations of the beyond - but the overall effect is too much like that of Hardy Boys and Friends. Let's get to the bottom of this, guys!

As a supernatural novel, Finding Pluck plugs into the standard narrative of ghosts having unfinished business that prevents them from going over to the "other side." This material is distinctly second-hand, by way of Hollywood and earlier popular novels.

As a social agenda novel - and I quite share its mission of respect for gay rights - Finding Pluck overloads its case by setting up straw men such as a Fred Phelps-esque crazy-Christian church that figures in both time-frames. The sense of homosexuality in the story is extremely attenuated and disembodied, and could barely give offense to your conservative grandmother. When Bernard and Damien start sleeping together, it happens so much "in between chapters" that it may take you a while to figure it out. The joys of the erotic do not put in an on-stage appearance here.

Popular narratives are often, let's face it, somewhat fantastic in effect, because the "reality" they put into play is idealized and glamorized. Damien, like any fictional romantic object, is a shade too perfectly what Bernard needs to pull him out of his shell. Taylor and his friends are just slightly too concerned and noble and right-thinking. The Christians are caricatures - not one without some basis in reality, I'll readily admit, but awfully convenient for the story. (They go completely batshit at the climax of the 1920s chapters, and the denouement of a well-known British cult horror movie of the 1970s puts in an unexpected WTF guest appearance.)

The rigging of the game shows up most clearly, however, in the chronology. We are told that Bernard Pembroke inherited the family business and "got very involved with minority groups to help their cause, particularly speaking out on equal rights for gays and lesbians" - this would have been in the 1950s - and before his death circa 1970 set up a UNC scholarship for self-avowed gay and lesbian students.

Now this is fantastical. No industrialists anywhere in the world were speaking up on behalf of gays and lesbians in the 1950s. No one was endowing full scholarships for gay and lesbian students in the late 1960s, nor would an institution such as UNC have agreed to administer one for at least another 20, probably 30 years. The timing is all off, yet the reader's suspension of disbelief depends on it.

Difatta mentions in an afterword that "Several of my beta readers asked me if all the historical and background information in Finding Pluck was true," and goes on to state that all the historical examples given of mistreatment of gays and lesbians are factual, as indeed they are. But he doesn't address the issue of whether the events in his narrative would have been possible in the real world. They would not. That's damning.

Another example: A key thematic event in the 1920s chapters is Damien's taking Bernard to hear an on-campus concert of Mahler's Second Symphony, which affects them both greatly. Difatta uses a quotation from the text of the vocal fifth movement as a closing epigram.

I hate to rain on this parade, BUT: Mahler was in eclipse in the United States (and most everywhere) from his death in 1911 until the 1960s. During the 1920s, the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg performed a few Mahler works with the New York Philharmonic; otherwise his music was scarcely known in America.

And the Second is one of the largest of Mahler's works: it lasts 90 minutes, calls for a huge orchestra and chorus and soloists, and is one of the most challenging works to play in the entire classical repertoire. It would not have been played by a student orchestra in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1927-1928.

These facts are easily checked, and if you are going to use Mahler as a linchpin in your story, you should take care that readers familiar with Mahler are not going to automatically balk at your ahistoricity. This is not just niggling on my part - it speaks to a cavalier handling of reality that I started to feel on almost every page of Finding Pluck.

Another example: The handling of Taylor Hanes' collegiate financial aid situation is factually unsatisfactory - his father would have had to be involved at every stage, filling out forms and submitting documents; student loans would necessarily have been discussed at an early stage. None of that happens.

There is a story about the young John Gunther, Jr., in his father's famous memoir of him, Death Be Not Proud, that the lad is offered one of Upton Sinclair's Lanny Budd novels about a globe-trotting adventurer, and replies, "I prefer my Superman straight." That's what I feel about Finding Pluck - that if an author is going to make such a hash of the real world, it would be better to make the setting fantastic altogether, or go alternate-reality or something, to cut gripers like me off.

The novel is a pleasant read but only if one does not ask questions of the text, and that's simply not my favorite sort of novel.

Finding Pluck

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