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Book critic Maureen Corrigan

Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews Century's Son (Knopf) by Robert Boswell.

04:51

Other segments from the episode on April 12, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 12, 2002: Interview with Keith Hernandez; Review of Robert Boswell's novel "Century's son;" Interview with Tiny Tim; Review of television miniseries "Almost…

Transcript

DATE April 12, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Review: Robert Boswell's new book "Century's Son"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

What do a trash collector, a college professor, a cop, a Russian intellectual
con man and a young Midwestern single mother have in common? Finding the
answer to that riddle is one of the reasons to read Robert Boswell's
"Century's Son." Book critic Maureen Corrigan says it's one of this spring's
most compelling novels.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:

Oprah pulled the plug on her book club last week, explaining that it's getting
harder and harder to find good, new books to recommend to her viewers. This
is bad news. Oprah's pronouncement on contemporary literature is not only
dopey--if anything, there are too many good books being published each year,
too dizzying an array to choose from--but it's also a blow to literature
because Oprah liked to discover and champion mid-list authors. Granted, lots
of times her mid-list picks were also middle-brow, but when she used her
powers for good, Oprah could transform a dependable literary dray horse like
Jane Hamilton into a household name, or confer a reader-friendly aura of
accessibility on a Jonathan Franzen.

Now that Oprah's book club is no more, the mid-list is a grayer, damper
publishing limbo. Ironically, Oprah has canceled her book club a week or so
before Robert Boswell's new novel, "Century's Son," hits bookstores. Oprah
would probably have liked this book a lot. Boswell dwells in the high end of
the mid-list, hovering around respected literary novelists like Scott Spencer
and a notch or two below Richard Russo, who just won the Pulitzer Prize for
last year's wonder of a working-class epic "Empire Falls."

"Century's Son" is about a family marked by tragedy, a subject dear to Oprah's
reading tastes. But, oh, what inspired changes Boswell rings on that
overworked theme. The family at the center of "Century's Son" is composed of
such disparate characters, they don't even seem like they have enough in
common to share a ZIP code, let alone a bathroom. This is a familiar enough
situation in life, but not so much in fiction.

Morgan, the father, is a garbage man, a sad, thoughtful guy who mentors a
succession of stoned younger partners on his truck. Boswell says of Morgan
that `He was the kind of man who could not hold a grudge against the people he
loved, and he was too shallow to see this as a failing.'

Morgan's wife, Zhenya, is a professor of political science at the college
that's the hub of their small Midwestern city. She met Morgan years ago when
he was leading a strike. She thought she was falling in love with a union
organizer who happened to be a garbage man. In fact, it was the other way
around. Zhenya is about to leave Morgan when the novel opens. The couple
probably would have been long divorced, but they're soldered together by
tragedy.

Their then 12-year-old son Philip killed himself over a decade ago, caught up
in what should have been a passing cloudburst of adolescent fury at being
disciplined during a ball game. Daughter, Emma, now in college, became
pregnant at 14. She won't divulge the identity of her son's father, although
early on we readers know who the guy is.

And then there's Zhenya's globe-trotting, Zelig-like father, the famous
Russian writer Peter Ivanovich Kamenev, as entertaining and predatory a
literary deus ex machina as was ever invented. Peter Ivanovich's big claim to
fame is that in his youth he almost assassinated Stalin, and he's been dining
off this crucial failure of will for decades.

This collection of characters and life situations sounds contrived, but it
isn't. A quirky creation like Peter Ivanovich could twinkle with
preciousness, but he doesn't. That's because the humor, the gentle melancholy
of "Century's Son," is shot through with a bitter awareness of, as Morgan
says, what little foolishness it took to ruin a life.

Boswell is one of the most lyrically concise writers I've ever read. He
shifts perspective and emotional tone in the space between sentences, nails
epiphanies in a phrase or two, gives us a universe in a grain of sand. What
more could Oprah, or any of us, ask of art?

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Century's Son," by Robert Boswell.

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Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Review: BBC America's miniseries "Almost Strangers"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This weekend a cable and satellite network known as BBC America presents a
three-part miniseries called "Almost Strangers," starring Michael Gambon of
"The Singing Detective" as a man who reluctantly takes his wife and grown son
to a lavish family reunion. TV critic David Bianculli has a review.

DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:

There is always a chicken-and-egg battle when it comes to reviewing things
that most people can't see. On the one hand, that's the best part of being a
critic: sorting through the stifling mass of stuff that heads your way and
digging out the biggest treasures no matter where you find them. On the other
hand, you risk irritating people by getting all enthusiastic about things they
have little chance of seeking out.

But on this program, over the years, I've been encouraged to pursue my
passions. This meant raving about Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective" as
the best drama I'd ever seen written expressly for television at a time when
only a handful of public television stations bothered to import it from the
BBC.

It meant my doing a giddy appreciation of the Japanese TV show "Iron Chef,"
which I had seen on bootleg tapes made by fans years before the Food Network
picked it up and made that bizarre cooking contest show one of their most
popular series.

And it meant I could go wild, over the years, about the launch of obscure new
cable networks like TV Land and BBC America, even though at the time I might
have been one-fifth of the total audience. So basically my approach has been
that unless I seek out and point out TV treasures wherever I find them, you
may never know what you're missing. And once you know, you can start
complaining to your cable or satellite company, or tuning to the proper
obscure channel to see for yourself whether this stuff is anywhere near as
worth watching as I say it is, which brings us to "Almost Strangers."

This is a BBC drama that, when it was shown in Great Britain, was called
"Perfect Strangers." The title was changed as it crossed the Atlantic so that
viewers here wouldn't think it was a rerun of that similarly titled sitcom
starring Bronson Pinchot.

"Almost Strangers" is written and directed by a man named Steven Poliakoff.
He's written and/or directed about a dozen TV projects in England over the
years, but this is the first that's come over here so prominently, and it's
the first I've seen. It's brilliant.

Michael Gambon, who gave an astounding lead performance in "The Singing
Detective," gives another one here. As a somewhat bitter man who attends the
reunion of his more successful relatives, he's every bit as mercurial and
inscrutable as anyone who has lived a long and often painful life. Gambon
telling a story is totally mesmerizing, as in this intimate scene when he
repays the civility shown him by an attractive well-to-do relative, played by
Lindsay Duncan, by letting his guard down.

(Soundbite of "Almost Strangers")

Ms. LINDSAY DUNCAN: Do you think it's terrible, this weekend? Do you think
it's a big mistake?

Mr. MICHAEL GAMBON: No. Not terrible. But for me...

Ms. DUNCAN: Yes?

Mr. GAMBON: You know, people keep asking for news. You have. Everyone else
has.

Ms. DUNCAN: And that's difficult?

Mr. GAMBON: You don't know?

Ms. DUNCAN: No.

Mr. GAMBON: I have a little business difficulty. My father had this
furniture business. Surely you remember that, my rebel father setting it up
in Hillingdon of all places, a utopian firm, stylish office furniture for the
masses. When he died, I had some very good offers. I refused. In the middle
of the recession I poured in all the money he left me. Moreover I insisted on
only having workers over 50 because of long-term unemployment. In the teeth
of all prevailing fashion, I was determined to make it work. We went bust.
We lost everything. They all lost their jobs. Some of them are worse off
than before because they'd taken out mortgages again. Some marriages broke
up. It was purely and simply a disaster.

Ms. DUNCAN: But did you find one, a gesture against the times?

Mr. GAMBON: Yes.

Ms. DUNCAN: Something your father would have understood?

Mr. GAMBON: Maybe.

BIANCULLI: Even though Gambon is that strong throughout "Almost Strangers,"
he doesn't dominate, an amazing indication of both the talent of the entire
cast and the complexity of the script. Matthew Macfadyen is Gambon's son,
Claire Skinner and Timothy Spall his eccentric relatives. And so many others
are absolutely outstanding.

And the stories spun here, the family portrait slowly and shockingly revealed,
are haunting. The three elderly ladies with their childhood secret, the
puzzling candid photos that neither father nor son can place, the seemingly
carefree cousins with their hidden tragedy and shame. I know these are just
made-up stories, inspired by Poliakoff's visit to his own family reunion.
Even so, I doubt I'll ever forget them.

And as a director, Poliakoff is just as patient, assured and daring as he is
as a writer. The images, too, are beautiful and startling. If I have to
compare "Almost Strangers" to anything, it is indeed to "The Singing
Detective," which took many hours and lots of unflinching attention to absorb,
but was worth every second of it.

The first two parts of "Almost Strangers" are shown tomorrow night on BBC
America, and the concluding portion follows on Sunday. If you don't have
access to BBC America, find someone who does and wangle an invitation. In
other words, now that you know what you might be missing, find a way not to
miss it.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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