At the onset of winter, I crested a classic. It took me four days to finish the main text of Cat’s Cradle. I’ve had this book for a while now and I loved Vonnegut’s originality. I followed this up with Grisham’s latest: Sooley. The novel focuses on the exploits of the eponymous protagonist. A refugee from South Sudan, he needs to accomplish something that hasn’t been done before. Sooley must become a basketball titan in twelve short months. Finally, Nomadland by Jessica Bruder rounds out the trio of reads. The nonfiction title has been adapted into an award-winning film starring Frances McDormand. The production shone at the last Oscars.
Cat’s Cradle (Vonnegut). Upon taking in Slaughterhouse Five, I yearned to read more of the author’s work. Vonnegut is one of the postmodern pillars, a writer well ahead of his time. This work did not disappoint. Originally released in 1963, Cradle was another anti-war novel. This is done on a much-lesser scale than Five. The writer’s creativity is on full display in this text. He invents a flawed Caribbean island (San Lorenzo) and conjures up its history. He devises a new religion (Bokononism) and utilises its tenets as guiding lights for Jonah, the protagonist. The novel is peppered with poetry, adages, and excerpts from the Books of Bokonon.
The characters themselves are not without flavour. There is a midget, Newt. He is one of three children of Dr Hoenikker, father of the atom bomb. His sister, Angela, is six feet tall. The house sitter story was particularly amusing. Jonah came home to find his cat dead, with the word ‘miaow’ attached on a note. Another comic scene was when Newt was painting on a cantilever. A character flings the sketch over the edge. Apparently, a net was set up underneath to ‘catch’ any fallen objects. Jonah, a journalist, goes to San Lorenzo fishing for big stories. The American ambassador to the island accompanies him, as does another couple; Newt and Angela.
Along the way, Jonah learns that Dr Hoenikker had been working on a lethal weapon called ice-nine. He also finds out that Frank, Hoenikker’s other son, is now in charge of San Lorenzo’s armed force. When the ill President is on his deathbed, Jonah is thrust into the spotlight. He learns that no one on the island wants to lead. San Lorenzo is a Bokononist stronghold and yet appears to fight that label. A select few rule the country. As expected, the world crumbles and only five humans pull through. How a car survived the tornadoes – with the whole planet decimated – was textbook Vonnegut.
If you’re dedicated enough, you could conquer this one in two days. At 206 pages and with fairly straightforward prose, this is definitely a light read. The book was written at the height of the Cold War, where tensions between the two superpowers were at its peak. The narrator mentions that the Soviets had access to ice-nine, aside from the Hoenikker children. Indeed, the whole republic could be an allegory of the hopes, dreams, and shortcomings of post-war America.
Sooley (Grisham). I only heard about this gem after it was released. The bestselling author takes a different turn. The title character grew up in Lotta, a remote village in South Sudan. A third of the new country’s population are refugees. Basketball is his way out. Blessed with blazing speed and a mind-boggling vertical, the six-two guard participates in a youth camp that tours the US. In a tournament pitting them against other youngsters, Sooley was the last pick on the team. Initially thin with an ugly jump shot, Sooley is hell-bent on becoming the best. When his whole village goes down, Sooley is granted asylum in the States. He is given a full scholarship to study at North Carolina Central.
He settles in with Murray, also on the squad. The latter’s family welcomes him. In case you’re wondering, the football team’s star player gave him the nickname. The plot oscillates between Sooley’s new life and the plight of his mother and two brothers. The three are in Rhino, a Ugandan refugee camp. Meanwhile, the team is already stacked, and they decide on Sooley redshirting his freshman year. However, the losses pile up and rotation players get injured. Sooley, now six-eight, is then tabbed to resurrect their drowning season. I liked this angle. It reminded me of Fukuda, in Slam Dunk. Sooley becomes the secret weapon. The man came prepared. Every day, he would practice his shooting for hours and his work ethic impressed even his coach, Lonnie Britt. The latter secretly dreamed of helming an elite program.
Sooley’s game leads them to the play-in tournament, where they shock Florida. By then, Sooley is routinely dropping forty a game. Nothing but net. In the history of college ball, there has never been a more accurate long-range shooter. With his big smile and infectious love of the game, he becomes the poster boy of March Madness. He would lead them to the last dance aka the Final Four, though they were perennial underdogs. Along the way, hitting ten threes and notching up triple doubles would become old fare. He decides to go one-and-done and is drafted in the NBA.
Everything seems bright for the young star, until carelessness becomes his downfall. We later learn that he has been finding ways to bring his family to the US. Murray then unearths Gaston, an ‘extricator.’ This makes for a very unreal subplot in the finale. Sooley’s impact on those around him was incalculable. His coach gets his wish. His teammates were in the national spotlight. His school became the talk of the town. His family couldn’t have been prouder. This is more than just a basketball book. Grisham did his research: on South Sudan, their people, and college basketball. The author is also an avid sports fan, which becomes clear. Sooley is a riveting tale of excess, wanting, and loss. While there are limos, private jets, and banquets, there are also camps, the third world, and civil war. Through the eyes of a young but courageous cager, Grisham puts forward the American dream. So far, this title is my favourite of the year.
Murray: ‘I guess so. He was a smart guy.’
Gaston: ‘Very smart, and very determined.’
Nomadland (Jessica Bruder). This is a travelogue as the author hopscotches around America. Her mission: to tell the story of a new kind of identity: the nomad living in vehicles. The recent proliferation of campervan and RV (recreational vehicle) dwellers can be traced back to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC). House prices went into free fall; businesses went bankrupt; savings disappeared; jobs vanished. Bruder was treated with similar stories of once-busy bees getting their hives smashed. While the writer deals with many accounts, she foregrounds Linda May. The latter is a mother and grandmother, then in her sixties. She calls a Jeep Grand Cherokee home, together with Coco, her dog. Starting from California, she moves through various states to gain employment. She battles injuries as she tries to save for her dream home, an earthship.
The author introduces us to various nomad gatherings. These include Quartzsite, Arizona and the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. Here, there are seminars on a motley of topics. Recruiters from the big companies try to pitch their workplaces. Crowds gather round bonfires as they share the tales of the trade. I learned that this kind of community is not new. In the 30s, the aftermath of the Great Depression saw people taking to caravans. While this numbered in the millions, they ultimately went back to living in traditional housing. However, this exodus is more permanent. The revolution is not just physical, but also online: in social media and forums.
Through three years of reporting, Bruder embraces the itinerant lifestyle, even buying Halen, her own RV. She travels 16,000 miles, befriends the drifters, thus getting an insider’s look. She brings us to overwhelming warehouses and incredible working conditions. We are there at the sugar beets harvest, where she doesn’t last long. Racism and homosexuality are likewise navigated. She purports that this way of life is still very much a white phenomenon. The journey is depicted, through scorching summers and shivering winters. Bruder reveals that there has been literature dedicated to them, including one by Steinbeck. First released in 2017, there are only twelve chapters. While clearly well-researched, they are not the easiest to read.