Douglas Kennedy – ‘The Moment’, ‘The Great Wide Open’
‘Before Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins there was Douglas Kennedy, the original maestro of of ‘family noir’. For the past two decades Kennedy has been entertaining readers with barrelling novels in which a parent, sibling or spouse is often the devil in disguise.’ (Christian House ‘The Guardian’)
As I scribe this the first steps are being taken to impeach Trump. Towards the end of Kennedy’s ‘The Great Wide Open’ our heroine, Alice Burns, by now building a glittering career in NYC publishing, encounters the 1980’s version of the Great Buffoon. ‘I’m a writer too,’ Trump told Peter, then shifted his gaze toward me, looking me up and down, rating me on his Babe Meter (which I took to be a compliment). ‘In fact I’m writing a book that’s gonna make a ton of money – because everyone’s gonna want to read how I’ve made a ton of money. You should offer me a contract on the spot.’ At the end of the conversation that follows he boasts ‘I’m gonna be president one day.’ Let’s just see how long he lasts in that position now. We can only hope.
‘The Great Wide Open’ is a big canvas, big enough for Trump even. Approaching some 600 pages it sure took some reading. Big doesn’t make for better, but it doesn’t necessarily make for bad either.
Before I tackled this opus, as a prelude I made my way through the author’s 2011 effort, ‘The Moment’. It had been sitting on my shelves for a while. In truth this was better written, albeit a less ambitious product. Instead of family noir here we have a writer receiving a blast from the past in the form of a package arriving at his remote Maine hideaway. This takes Thomas Nesbitt back to his days in Cold War Berlin where, as a journalist, he was attempting to get a handle on life over on the other side of the Wall. Aiding him in this is his mysterious translator Petra, a refugee from the East with a shocking past, trying to rebuild her life in the West. But is she all she seems as Thomas quickly becomes smitten? Soon he’s headlong into the world of the Stasi on one side and his own spooks on the other. Kennedy handles the convoluted events that follow with aplomb, although he’s no Le Carré.
Was DK attempting to write ‘…nothing less than a fictional overview of our times; a statement of what it means to be American in the postwar world’? Alice’s brother, Peter, after his first taste of literary success, offers these pretentious words – they are as bombastic as most of the language in this, well, I guess, sloppy novel from Kennedy. ‘The Great Wide Open’ is a far cry from the tomes that first bought him notice earlier in his career; books I thoroughly enjoyed.
There’s no doubt that this could have been so much better and as it was, I had no problem ploughing through it. I always wanted to see what came next. It remains a readable yarn. But it’s almost wrecked with his breathless, ‘Days of Our Lives’, overheated prose. He’s certainly no TC Boyle in his command of language – he works too hard to impress with his linguistic wordsmithery. The story can speak for itself with a less frenetic, fraught approach. It’s as if he’s trying to win gold at the linguistic Olympics.
Ms Burns takes us, initially, to the coast of Connecticut and her college days, highlighted by homophobia and the disappearance of one of her bosom buddies. That’s followed by some time in Dublin, dodging IRA bombs, not entirely successfully. Meanwhile, her father and two brothers have become involved in the business in Chile, on either side of Augusto Pinochet’s regime, after the coup. Alice, fleeing the trauma of Ireland, spends some time in a backwater teaching. Of course she is fabulous at that – so empowering of her students. Then she falls into publishing in the ‘Greed is Good’ era. Inevitably she’s a godsend with that too. In between there’s several lovers and estrangements with family members, each of whom seem to have a love/hate relationship with the other. There’s always much, much angst. ‘Days of Our Lives’ indeed.
Hopefully the Great American Novel is now out of Douglas’ system and he is in a place where he can go back to a smaller scale, recapturing the tone of earlier successes such as ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’, ‘The Job’ and ‘The Big Picture’, Far, far worthier places to commence for a reader than either of these titles.
More about Douglas Kennedy = https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_Kennedy_(writer)