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Maureen Howard

Natural History

Maureen Howard Natural History
$3.99 Pre-owned
 
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Maureen Howard is a writer who matters, whose every novel is anticipated as a passionately intelligent inquiry into the state of the American soul, and as an addition to the literature of our time. Now, in Natural History, she gives us her masterwork, a gorgeous display of storytelling - enchanting, bawdy, and profound. A society vamp kills a soldier toward the end of World War II. The murder is investigated by Billy Bray, a swaggering detective, lord of the county courthouse. The opening scenes are pure film noir, set in Maureen Howard's own city of Bridgeport, Connecticut, when that industrial town was sound as its munitions factories, safe as the Brays' Irish Catholic parish and their sturdy stucco home. Seemingly safe, for the murder reveals an undertow of sex, crime, and moral confusion that sweeps the detective's family into an uncertain future. James, the gifted son, an amateur illusionist, achieves success as a second-rate movie star. Catherine, Billy's good girl, endures a series of affairs with married men before retreating from the harmful world to become, literally, a spinster. In a stunning performance piece, James, burned out, middle-aged, but none the wiser, unearths the old murder, a ready-made script. In his Hollywood view, myth begets a reality that casts the warm glow of nostalgia over the lost city. James figures he'll transform his cynical craft to art by playing his father, Billy Bray. But the actor's fantasy cannot hold the stage: in tough, heartbreaking arias, his wife and daughter claim their share of the story. The beautiful Lilah Bray, one-time rodeo queen; Jen, the brilliant neglected child; even Morty Ziff, the foul-mouthed producer; all "chance the onewrenching move beyond caricature", hoping to gain their humanity in the real, unscripted present. Natural History is rich and various in its design. By sleight of hand worthy of James's magic shows or Catherine's miraculous weaving, Maureen Howard opens the novel to deft Chekhovian stories of peripheral lives - "The Witness", "The Music Man" - and the tale of Peaches, wonder child, project foundling, abandoned to the chaos of Father Panik Village. Most arresting is the high-wire, breathtaking "Double Entry", in which the playful accretion of history, passionate commentary, facts, and photos - actual pictures of P. T. Barnum, Pogo, Robert Mitchum, and the work of Joseph Cornell - appear in an album set beside the equal claims of story. As though documentary will unravel the romanticized past - as though truth might balance the fictions that protect Catherine, James, and the reader of Natural History from the harsh blight upon our cities and from our disillusion toward the end of this hapless century. A presiding spirit is Bridgeport's most famous resident, Phineas Taylor Barnum, the impresario who grasped America's need for spectacle, to see life as always larger than life - the prophet of the age we live in now: "the Age of the Envy of Movies". It is Catherine Bray's searing confessional, a woman's story told with wit and unrelenting honesty, which in the end rejects fraud and flim flam, grants her a generosity of vision shared by her brother. Natural History is a novel of resurrection from the ashes of memory, a daring and accomplished work of American fiction. It is a bright and bold book of life.
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