Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
I had to wait for weeks for my hold to drift to the top of the queue on this one. Then, halfway through its almost 600 pages, someone else recalled it, and I had to finish it in 3 days. I didn’t have a problem doing that.
I found this book every bit as good as The Corrections, which I loved, but less grim. Franzen has his characters down, as usual, but their foibles are funnier, heartbreaking less of the time, in this one. Or maybe they’re just younger, and quarter- and mid-life crises are easier to laugh at than Alzheimer’s disease at 80.
Franzen is no stranger to controversy — read about his disagreement/ongoing discussion/discomfort with Oprah Winfrey here, if you’re interested — but I care less about him as a public figure than I do as a wonderful writer. There’s a reason that he gets the attention: it’s the writing.
Franzen follows Walter, Patty, and their friend Richard from college through middle age. And he also fully fleshes out the characters of Walter and Patty’s two children, whose personalities are shaped by their reactions to their parents’ quirks. We see Patty go from a lonely, feet-of-clay college jock to an wholehearted, if misguided mother. Walter progresses from Richard’s nerdy yet caring best friend, to a committed husband and father, to a cranky, compromised man, deeply disappointed in himself and those around him. Richard drifts from a seemingly principled bohemian to an scheming opportunist, and back again. It’s absorbing to watch them progress, fail, and try again.
Here’s a sample of the cranky, self-righteous side of Walter:
Although Lalitha was a fast and somewhat reckless driver, Walter had come to prefer the anxiety of being her passenger to the judgmental anger that consumed him when he was at the wheel — the seemingly inescapable sense that, of all the drivers on the road, only he was traveling at exactly the right speed, only he was striking an appropriate balance between too punctiliously obeying traffic rules and too dangerously flouting them. In the last two years, he’d spent a lot of angry hours on the roads of West Virginia, tailgating the idiotic slowpokes and then slowing down himself to punish the rude tailgaters, ruthlessly defending the inner lane of interstates from assholes trying to pass him on the right, passing the the right himself when some fool or cellphone yakker or sanctimonious speed-limit enforcer clogged the inter lane, obsessively profiling and psychoanalyzing the drivers who refused to use their turn signals (almost always youngish men for whom the use of blinkers was apparently an affront to their masculinity, the compromised state of which was already manifest in the compensatory gigantism of their pickups and SUVs), experiencing murderous hatred of the lane-violating coal-truck drivers who caused fatal accidents literally once a week in West Virginia, impotently blaming the corrupt state legislators who refused to lower the coal-truck weight limit below 110,000 pounds despite bounteous evidence of the havoc they wreaked, muttering “Unbelievable! Unbelievable!” when a driver ahead of him braked for a green light and then accelerated through yellow and left him stranded at red, boiling while he waited a full minute at intersections with no cross traffic visible for miles, and painfully swallowing, for Lalitha’s sake, the invective he yearned to vent when stymied by a driver refusing to make a legal right turn on red: “Hello? Get a clue? The world consists of more than just you! Other people have reality! Learn to drive! Hello!”
This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, probably in several years: I gave it to two different people for Christmas. I don’t own many books, but I think I need a copy of this so I can force it on others.
author photo: Chris Buck