There has got to be something seriously wrong with you for liking this character as much as you're going to. Bunny Munro is as offensive as they come -- he's a sorry, crude traveling salesman who cannot think about anything but women's vaginas. It's as if he's OD'd on Viagra. " 'I am damned,' thinks Bunny Munro in a sudden moment of self-awareness reserved for those who are soon to die." Sure, he loves his wife, but when he comes home from whoring one night to find she's hung herself in their bedroom, he proceeds, once the body has been taken away, to watch porn and get blind drunk, leaving 9-year-old Bunny Jr. to fend for himself. Next day, the two hit the road, Bunny giving his son tips on salesmanship. There's no redemption in sight; no revelations, no turning points, no dramatic arc. It's a straight line to hell, and if there's no hell, then someone, a greater salesman than Bunny Munro, has sold us all a bill of goods.
Sometimes a reader gets the feeling that writers live in a parallel universe, where emotions are amplified and some form of literary morality exists -- if not religion or God then something else. You put the book down and wonder where that world is. Then there are writers who seem to write it like it is -- the quietness of their characters is not exaggerated, nor is their drama. They could live down the street or in the next apartment. Jayne Anne Phillips, Antonia Nelson -- these are writers whose characters have no special aura, no golden ticket. Jill McCorkle's characters are like this; not special or blessed or cursed, just limping through life in a desperate culture. They make small, repetitive efforts to save their souls, probably without result.
Almost all of these 11 stories describe families that are broken in some way; expectations are not being met. A mother is aging, watched over by the dutiful oldest daughter; a single mom tries to pull off Christmas for her sons; a woman cares for her emotionally damaged granddaughter after her son has died an untimely death. Limping along. Just when you think it might be better to accept a life alone, that all attempts at a "normal" family only lead to pain, the hopeful single woman in "Me and Big Foot" builds a fantasy based on a note left on the windshield of a truck that has been left in her driveway for the winter by a stranger. All winter her hopes build and distort reality. In the hands of another writer, she might have been redeemed, given what she wants. But McCorkle is stern. Life is hard. You can't make it right. You can't make it otherwise. Stop your magical thinking.
Across the Endless River A Novel Thad Carhart Doubleday: 308 pp., $26.95
Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau is the son of Sacagawea and the French trader, three times her age, who bought her. She is 15 when she has Jean-Baptiste and 23 when she dies. The boy cherishes the memory of his mother, known as Bird-woman. He is raised by Capt. William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition at Clark's home in St. Louis. When he is 19, well-educated and torn between cultures, he travels with Paul Wilhelm, a naturalist from Germany, back to Europe to help Wilhelm identify artifacts and plant samples retrieved from expeditions.
Thad Carhart constructs Jean-Baptiste's story from a third-person narrative, letters from Jean-Baptiste to Clark and to his dead mother and journals kept by Wilhelm. In doing this, he behaves much like a historian, who must construct a story from bits left behind, a conglomeration of points of view. As with history, this method betrays a story that will never really be known and is, as such, always and forever fiction. Still, Jean-Baptiste is made whole for us; he falls in love, he feels apart from all cultures -- the native or the American or the European. What's true is his aloneness, because that is always true.