October 24, 2011

Book Review: The Crossroads Cafe

I have read thousands of books, maybe tens of thousands. Books from every genre, every style, and dozens of cultures have passed through my hands. There are probably a few librarians and editors who have read more books than I have, but not many. Reviewers in magazines and newspapers don't even come close. At one point in my life I was reading a new book every single day. For a very short time, two books a day. And not speed reading, either. I've never studied it and never wanted to.

Because I have been an avid reader my entire life, I'm also hard to please. Over the last couple of years finding a book worth reading has become a painful experience. I have reference books a plenty, but most modern novels bore me to tears within the first few pages. There have been far too many occasions in recent years where I spent hours prowling the aisles of a bookstore only to finally walk away without spending a dime. I have over three hundred books on my Kindle, but most of them are merely replacements for favorite hard copy books lost by the U.S. Customs service when I moved from Japan to Ohio. Some of these books (like Heinlein's "Glory Road" or Gaiman's "Stardust") I've read a dozen times over the past couple years just because nothing else has interested me.

Awhile back, I was browsing through Amazon.com's "Recommended" list. For some reason a book called "The Crossroads Cafe" had wound up on my personalized recommendations list and it was available for free (or nearly free) because the writer was about to come out with a new novel. Amazon reviews written by readers were mostly positive, so I took a chance and downloaded the book. It sat in my Kindle for almost a year before I opened it. I read the first five chapters or so, got bored, and put it aside.

The characters kept haunting me. I'd find myself thinking of them as I was reading something completely unrelated. The ambience of Crossroads Cove and Wild Woman Ridge lingered in my subconscious and popped up during political discussions, while watching news reports, or when reading sociological and anthropologic works that were attempting to "define" modern American culture. I'd see Jennifer Lopez advertising her fashion line or Lindsay Lohan back in court and find myself wondering what had happened to Cathy (a movie star main character who I'd left in the burn ward of an L.A. hospital when I put the book aside). This constant bubbling up from my subconscious fascinated me and took me completely by surprise. Very few modern writers have had the skill to create characters that could catch my attention so completely. Even some of the minor characters. For example, Alberta and Macy (lesbians whose berry farm is also a halfway house for battered women) would march out from time to time to compare themselves to Ellen Degeneres or Janeane Garofalo before finally marching off again satisfied that sane women do not belittle people and political movements they disagree with.

There was one scene in particular that simply would not leave me alone: Thomas (one of the main characters) coaxing a suicidal local off of a ridge. Thomas is so hung over he can barely see straight. The only thing on his mind is getting off that ridge so he can get back to the Cafe and have a cup of coffee, or better yet, back to his truck for another dose of vodka. And yet, he has the presence of mind to actually listen to the suicidal man's words, reply in a constructive way that shows he is listening, and by doing so, allow the fellow to convince himself that jumping is maybe not the best solution to his problems after all. There is nothing therapuetic or formulaic about the dialogue that passes between the two men. There is nothing shallow or unnecessary in Deborah Smith's descriptions of their emotional state, their body language, and their expressions. The passage is not only technically perfect, it is emotionally charged, suspenseful, and demonstrates with calm casualness the normal, everyday use of strong, positive communication skills that I get paid top money to teach to weary, burnt-out business managers who are struggling to understand and motivate much younger workers with whom they have nothing in common. This brief scene, barely two dozen pages, is one of the most powerful literary passages I have ever read.

"The Crossroads Cafe" unfolds with deliberate, measured slowness. The characters are in no hurry to go about their daily lives and the writer is in no hurry to get to the meat of her story. There is a powerful poetry in the slow, casual, and skillfully drawn-out prose. True, it bored me at first, but even after I put it down it would not leave me. Since at the moment I'm in Japan and I have nothing to do, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to pull up "The Crossroads Cafe" and finish it. To my pleasant surprise, I picked up right where I left off over six months ago and did not have to spend a single minute reviewing the material. I opened to the page where I had stopped, started reading, and was instantly back into the story. It was like I'd never stopped reading. That takes a powerful writer to pull off, so powerful that almost no writer in the past century has achieved it. This is the magic of a Charles Dickens or Louisa May Alcott. Ever since Hemmingway's journalistic terseness swept over the field of modern writing, this ability to capture the essence of a story on every page has been lost. It is beyond refreshing to see it revived. It approaches the miraculous.

Consider this scene: Cathy, a starlet who has been disfigured from massive burns suffered in a car crash, is now paranoid of flame. She finally gets up the courage to visit her cousin Delta, the owner of the Crossroads Cafe. As they are renewing their acquaintance, one of the employees lights the gas fireplace that heats and decorates the main dining room.

The entire herd surrounded Cathy with kindly but obsessive scrutiny. She plastered a smile on her ashen face as Delta introduced each family member in colorful detail. Cathy's anxious gaze went to me. Sign language. They're staring at my face.

All I could do was nod. So let them.

"Thomas, people will remember this day a hundred years from now," Delta whispered to me. "The legend of Cathy Deen has begun."

"Lord, thank you for bringing Cathy to be with us," Cleo announced, looking heavenward. "But excuse me while I get this room warmed up for the dinner crowd." She hurried to a hearth on one wall, squatted on the heels of her running shoes, pulled a long-handled butane lighter from her jeans' pocket, fiddled with a control for the fireplace's pilot light, then clicked the lighter.

The logs ignited with a loud whoosh of orange-and-blue flames.

Cathy bolted out the front doors and staggered to a porch rail. She vomited over the side with ragged, humiliating force, splattering a neat coil of garland on the ground below, waiting to be stapled along the balustrades.

"Somebody get a wet dishcloth," Delta ordered, then went to Cathy and held her forehead while she vomited again.

I grabbed a pile of paper napkins off a serving table and started out the porch doors, but both Becka and Cleo stopped me.

"What's worse than puking all over the Christmas garland in front a bunch of strangers," Becka asked.

"Having your new boyfriend wipe the puke off your face," Cleo answered. "Amen."

"I'm not---" I began.

"Like hell you aren't," Becka said drolly.

They took the napkins from me and I let them.

The whole book is like this. Intimate details woven seamlessly into a narrative that is essentially a romance between two broken people. Characters are writ large with nothing more than a few lines of dialogue or a carefully placed bit of body language, and often both. The world of English novel writing has not seen this kind of artistry in over a century. There are many passages where my breath catches and tears well up in my eyes. Nothing affects me this deeply anymore. I have not experienced this kind of visceral emotional reaction to a story in so long I cannot even remember the last time it happened.

In reading "The Crossroads Cafe" I have had to go back and relearn how to read a novel. I am exercising critical facilities that have grown rusted over from lack of use. Walls of cynicism and disappointment are melting before the warmth of characters drawn so realistically it shames me to think that so very few of us in the real world still display this level of humanity. Deborah Smith has captured something that I have not seen from a novel since I was a teenager: real human emotion. Modern novels have become too fantastic to interest me (The Twilight Saga), too dreary to bother with (Einstein's Shutter), or too depressing to recommend even to an enemy (Fated).

I don't know why the "Recommendations" algorithm put "The Crossroads Cafe" onto my list, but I am very glad it did.