by Margaret Atwood
Nan A. TaleseBuy at Powell’s »
April 2, 2010
I will always root for the underdog, the upstart, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is anything but. I mean, come onthe Booker Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, now the longlist for the Orange Prizeit’s like the team everyone loves to hate. Who wants to throw Mantel yet another bone? Historical fiction isn’t really my thing, besides, and the cover art screams desperation airport read. Whereas Bill Cotter’s Fever Chart comes swathed in bright colors and the edgily designed pop McSweeney’s brings to everything it touches, promising crazy hijinx withinit’s a cartoon! He’s bleeding! Fun! Fever Chart is like the Saintswho doesn’t want to see it win?
The book shares with that scrappy team a hometown. As the young Jerome Coe wanders the streets of New Orleans, falling in love, getting in trouble and trying to hold onto his tattered sanity, there are undeniably echoes of John Kennedy Tooleit’s a sort of Confederacy of Dunces-Lite. But instead of the quixotic delusions and crusading of Ignatius J. Reilly, we get in Jerome a hapless loser and helpless romantic, a guilty masturbator and foul-mouthed screw-up who can make a mean grilled-cheese sandwich and not much else. There is, at times, a shambling beauty to Cotter’s prose, as when our boy first encounters the eventual girl of his dreams having a nosebleed in a thrift store. And Jerome is a genial enough companion. But the story, such as it is, relies almost entirely on his inability to take action or care of himself, which is not much to hang a narrative on. It’s a fun and easy and occasionally lovely read, yet I left Fever Chart, which at 305 pages feels like it could use a snipping, feeling both unfulfilled and over-full.
At first glance, Wolf Hall is the polar opposite of Fever Chart. Where Cotter’s prose is, well, fevered, and sometimes so frantic you want to throw a bottle of Ritalin at his head, Wolf Hall’s poetry is, for all the book’s length, one of calm economy. You may get mired down in the historical detail, the parade of characters that keeps you turning always to the character list at the front of the book, but never will you question Mantel’s choice of word or telegraphed image. Where Cotter shocks with bloody detailat one point Jerome shaves his face, badly, with a shard of glass while watching his girlfriend receive oral sex from a murderer on the stage of strip clubMantel gets her terrors in aslant. The loss of three members of one family to the plague in a matter of days horrifies not with its gore, but with its speed.
But the two stories are alike in one respect: They are each in the hands, indubitably and solely, of a single man. One, Jerome, is sweet and self-centered and frustratingly ineffectual. The other, Thomas Cromwell, could not be more different. A man of action, charm, warmth, and extraordinary intelligence, Cromwell is someone whose machinations we find we are happy to watch, sympathetically, from right at his shoulder. (Mantel writes in the third person, but so intimately and sparely that we feel as if we’ve slipped right into his head.) To Jerome’s man-child, Mantel counters with Cromwell’s man, and for me the choice couldn’t be clearer. Perhaps this is unfair; maybe I just have too many man-children in my life. Maybe a lot of us do. But in Wolf Hall I got to spend time with an actual adult; and at the end of its 532 pages, I’d not have snipped anything at all.
I love the upstart. But this time I’m going Establishmentall the way, baby!
Julie Powell is the author of Julie & Julia and Cleaving. Known connections to this year’s contenders: None.