‘Karoo’ by Steve Tesich

The idea of the ‘Great Amercan Novel’ imagessuggest that each epoch has its own novel. A piece of work so good that it both captures the times and stands as a great work of literature in its own right. The “Grapes of Wrath’ in the 30’s, “Catcher in the Rye” in the 50’s, “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the 60’s; each time seems to have revealed its memoire. I’d suggest we have found our own in “Karoo” by  Steve Tesich.

I am ashamed to say that although this book was published in 1998 I had never heard of it, nor considered it, until a week ago. During a long drive between Wales and Scotland it was discussed on the BBC radio book programme. The enthusiasm of the reviewers was so great that, the minute I got home. I purchased a copy on the kindle. A few days later I had finished it and was awed by the skill of the writer.

A term like “tragi-comedy” might be employed to define it and certainly it manages the rare trick of being at times hilariously funny while at others being heartrendingly sad. The main character, Saul Karoo, is our anti-hero through the book and is our present day version of Sinclair Lewis’s ‘Babbit’ or Updike’s ‘Rabbit’. A man who seems to be able to fail at almost anything and has the reverse Midas touch, and able to destroy just through casual acquaintance. However, sometimes by looking at the grotesque we are able to see out own flaws more clearly. Seeing someone fail on this epic scale it is easier to consider our own, much smaller, foibles and failings.

Steve Tesich was a script writer and this is evident in this book. The reader can visualise every scene in Karoo’s monologue and some of the visual humour will make you laugh outloud (His mother’s shovel dance for example). It is difficult to review this book without giving away and  plot surprises. It would be unfair to do so, as there is great pleasure in the book waiting and anticipating the catastrophy you know is around the corner. If you have not found this book then I’d suggest you start looking.

 

The fury and rage.

The fury and rage.

Before all the dead have been found, before anyone has been buried, and the left has started using them as fodder to make political points. Before we know the facts they are trying to create the narrative – this, in their eyes, was a fire caused by austerity and social inequality. The possibilities of criminal negligence, inadequate building regulations or of materials failure are all put out of mind, while they try and stir the flames for their “Day of Rage”.

I will certainly feel enraged if we discover that malevolence or negligence caused this tragedy. If people were sacrificed for short term gain then the fury will be real and justified. But I will also be enraged if this manipulated political fury allows the guilty to hide from responsibility. I fear the shifting the focus from the real task of finding our the causes of the fire, and the causes of the failure of systems to mitigate against the fire’s deadly effects,  to the task of scoring political points will obscure the truth and allow the guilty to escape.

There are likely to be, at the very least, lessons to be learnt on how to offer help and support to communities in the wake of tragedies like this. Knowing how to do this, and doing it, is more important than scoring a point against a Tory council.

The only bright glimmer of hope so far has been in the response of the local community. Local groups and charities have managed to get assistance to the victims very rapidly and with great skill. They have shown that individuals, working voluntarily, can outperform government agencies. Rather than being ashamed of this, as some commentators have suggested, we should celebrate this and consider how we could support this approach more generally.