March 25, 2009

Book review: "Sardinian Silver," by A. Colin Wright

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

Sardinian Silver
By A. Colin Wright
iUniverse / ISBN: 978-0-595-48100-2

The more these days that I'm getting to read the growing amount of self-published and basement-press books out there, the more I'm starting to realize that we are right on the cusp of a new golden age of sorts for literature; that we are right at the start of a hundred million retired baby boomers writing a hundred million pretty decent memoirs and semi-autobiographical novels, most of which will never see much distribution beyond a various few websites and print-on-demand outfits. It's easy to forget in our contemporary times, after all, but the unusually large population that makes up my parents' generation (born in the middle-class boom following World War Two, hence the term 'baby boomers') really did swallow the Kennedy 'social contract' Kool-Aid quite profoundly when they were young; they really did buy into this whole idea of devoting forty years of one's life to a kinda crappy office job, to raising a family and buying a home and perpetuating the military-industrial complex that kept the US and Europe the undisputed financial leaders on the planet for more than half a century, in return for a fabled old age of leisure and wealth and cutting-edge medicine, a time when they can finally sit down and bang out that book they put off writing for decades (or paint those paintings, or grow that garden, or take that globetrotting trip), but in this case with style and financial stability and long-established health insurance to boot. And now here we are, forty years since the Kennedy era, and sure enough millions more of these people are retiring each and every year these days; and sure enough, every single one of them seem to be sitting down and cranking out a book they've been working on in their heads for forty freaking years, providing a deep and wide breadth of new literature that we should all treasure for suddenly now existing.

Sardinian Silver, by A. Colin Wright

Take for example Sardinian Silver, the first novel by retired language professor and playwright A. Colin Wright, which he plainly admits is based on real experiences from his youth; specifically, the short period from his own Kennedy-era days that he spent on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, back in the early 1960s before it had become the middle-class tourist mecca it now is. It's a fantastic short read, to tell you the truth, like discovering a lost Graham Greene story or something; but that of course is the problem with books like these too, that by waiting forty years to write this, it simply will never have the kind of power or impact that Greene himself had when publishing his similar tales back in the actual early '60s. And that's why this growing collection of baby-boomer books are destined to exist mostly at this ghettoized basement-press and self-published level, and why in many ways it's actually your job as a reader to go out and find these kinds of books, if one wishes to have the quietly pleasurable experience of reading them; because books like these are definitely worth your time, but simply aren't worth HarperCollins spending a million bucks on. That's just the drawback of waiting forty years to do a creative project, is that the appropriate zeitgeisty moment for that project has already long passed; and that of course is why we as a society have such radically different views on amateur creativity now, and why people are much more encouraged these days to write such books while holding their crappy day jobs, not to wait until retirement to do so.

Because make no mistake, this slim manuscript is a Mid-Century Modernist wet dream, not only from the aspect of cultural references but even the tone and pacing of it all. Set in 1961, it's the story of young Brit Arthur Fraser, who in a bout of restlessness has recently accepted a slightly disreputable job as a jet-setting tourist-company rep; his job during these "Swinging London" times is essentially to laze around various unknown yet trendy hotspots around the world, so that when customers of his travel agency show up for their vacations, he can help them find the cool unknown neighborhood pubs and whatever other prurient little things they're looking for. This gives Arthur the excuse, then, to spend his days essentially bumming from one local venue to the next, drinking and flirting with the natives, hanging out with his fellow adventure-craving early-twenties rival tour reps; and along the way, he of course falls in love with various women, has sex with various women, breaks up with various women, and all the rest of the drama you would expect from a good-looking 24-year-old suddenly living full-time on a desolated Mediterranean island.

In fact, for those familiar with her, this book actually reminds me a lot of the Modernist-era work of crime novelist Patricia Highsmith (author of The Talented Mr. Ripley among many others), not in content but rather because of what both authors are trying to accomplish with their manuscripts, of the way both paint an indelible portrait of sleepy southern Europe during the height of the continent's postwar economic prosperity and optimism. The fact is that Wright takes his time here with his story, making plot a dim second to the mere establishment of time and place and mood, gently exploring the back alleys and side daytrips of this remarkable island with a kind of grace and ease that only comes with maturity. And in this, astute readers might be reminded as well of the "Alexandria Quartet" by Lawrence Durrell, which once again was written in the same period this book is set; like those four short novels all set in Egypt, this too really relishes the time it spends with eccentric locals, really takes the effort to try to make you feel what it was actually like to be in this particular exotic location at this particular moment in history. And like the author, I too was more entertained than annoyed by all the youthful self-caused mistakes Arthur makes in his love life while there; and this is yet another benefit to Wright penning this at the point in his life when he did, that his age and experience lets him now look back and gently laugh at the indiscretions of his youth, to reflect on them with the emotional distance that makes them truly memorable tales. (And don't get me started on how charmed I was by the book's contemplative epilogue, in which Arthur visits the now unrecognizable island in the post-tourism-boom 2000s, looking back wryly on how different his life would've been if he had only made a couple of different key decisions during his first time there, musing aloud whether such an alternative life would've ultimately been better or worse than the one he did end up living.)

But of course you see the problem here; that nearly every detail I've mentioned, from the books it resembles to the subjects discussed, are nearly half a century old at this point, making Sardinian Silver fine for what it is but simply decades past its cultural prime. And that's been a part as well of me reading a growing amount of these basement-press baby-boomer books, a growing frustration over all these people being taught back then to delay their creative sides for decades to begin with; what a shame, I many times think while reading books like these, that someone like Wright isn't a young hungry creative right this moment, a period of history when such people are encouraged to write these kinds of books when they matter the most, when they can have the absolutely biggest cultural impact they can. That's the thing I want to make most clear today, and is of course the root of the grand irony which is retired-baby-boomer literature; that like I said before, this novel is without a doubt as good as one of Graham Greene's minor works, and in fact could easily be mistaken for some forgotten Greene tale that's been gathering dust in some attic trunk for decades. What a shame, then, that Wright wasn't able to publish this book when Greene was publishing too, and have the kind of impact that Greene originally had when he too was fresh and exciting.

It's for these reasons that a book like Sardinian Silver is such a satisfying read, but also a book that by its nature will simply never become an unexpected hit, will never get picked up by a mainstream press for national distribution. It's yet another reason why smart lovers of books do themselves so much of a favor by sometimes trawling the so-called "gutter" of self-published, print-on-demand literature; as books like these show, millions of retiring baby boomers are rapidly turning this once-derided section of the industry into a legitimate new option for finding brilliant new novels, titles that fall in the weird middle ground between mainstream and experimental. There may never exist a simple guide to such books, and no splashy Hollywood adaptations may come from them; but for those simply interested in reading great books, such unfiltered wading through this print-on-demand world can many times produce surprisingly great results.

Out of 10: 9.0

Read even more about Sardinian Silver: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Enjoy this review? Hate it? Share your thoughts at the CCLAPocracy, the center's new community-driven microblog. Membership is free!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:19 AM, March 25, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |