- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
I don’t know why George Bishop’s books — including his latest novel “The Night of the Comet” (Ballantine Books, 336 pages, $25.00) — don’t seem to make any bestseller lists I’m familiar with. His debut short novel, “Letter to My Daughter” (see my review below) was outstanding and “Comet” combines the best writing I’ve seen in a long time of coming of age, midlife crises and the “quiet” — or not so quiet — desperation that Thoreau wrote of. Bishop’s prose is good writing, serious but liberally seasoned with a sense of humor. He’s a Louisiana native and they know seasoning in the state!
Maybe it’s because Bishop’s books are often classified as “literary” — the bookstore kiss of death. Both of Bishop’s novels could be called literary, but they’re very accessible, too — the best of both worlds.
I think most people can identify with Alan Broussard Sr.; his 14-year-old son Alan Jr., AKA Junior; his 17-year-old daughter Megan; his wife, Lydia; the Martellos: Frank, Barbara and Gabriella; Junior’s best friend Pete and his dad, owner of the Conoco station — the whole galaxy of characters in this wonderful book. If you’re not like these people, chances are you know someone like Alan Sr., the bespectacled uber-geek high school teacher who rides his bike to school, or the wannabe hippie rebellious daughter Megan.
The novel is narrated by the almost-40-year-old Alan Jr., now living in Baton Rouge, LA in the year 2000. It’s a look back at a year when Comet Kohoutek — a comet, perhaps infected with Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” — ended up disappointing almost everybody. The comet was discovered in March 1973 by Dr. Lobos Kohoutek, a Czech astronomer working at the Hamburg, Germany Observatory (comets are named after their discoverers), and was expected to be at its greatest viewing around Christmastime or in early January 1974 in Terrebonne, Louisiana, the setting of the novel.
(You won’t find it on the road map: There’s a Terrebonne parish, but no town of that name; other towns mentioned in the novel, Napoleonville and Thibodaux, are real places, as, of course are Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where the young Lydia spoke briefly to actress Ava Gardner, in town to film a movie. The film is not identified in the novel, but it’s a 1951 release, “My Forbidden Past,” starring Gardner, Robert Mitchum and Melvyn Douglas.
(More from a 2005 article on Kohoutek and comet research: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/ames/multimedia/images/2005/comets1_prt.htm. The photo of Kohoutek in that article looks pretty impressive to me!)
Alan Sr. is a science teacher in Terrebonne, Louisiana in 1973. He personifies Thoreau’s famous saying: a scientist manqué, teaching science to kids who would rather be doing something else, anything else. In 1973, he’s using the coming of Comet Kohoutek to try to ignite an interest in science to his students.
Lydia Broussard, who met Alan when he arrived in Terrebonne to teach science and she was a teen-age clerk in the drugstore, is just as frustrated as her husband. She’s attracted to the Martellos and is envious of their lifestyle, with her basic Rambler sedan a pale shadow of their Cadillac. The culmination of this fascination is a Comet Party in the Martello home, organized by Lydia and Barbara, to raise money for the cash-starved science laboratories at the high school.
For his fourteenth birthday, Alan Broussard, Jr., receives an expensive Celestron telescope from his father, a gift Alan Sr. hopes will inspire his son to love the stars as much as he does. Instead, Junior, as everybody calls him, uses the high-powered scope to spy on his pretty new neighbor, Gabriella Martello, a high school classmate who’s just moved into a big house in the exclusive subdivision across the bayou. She’s the daughter of Frank, an oil company executive and his social-climbing wife Barbara, who resents being stuck in plain-as-dirt Terrebonne.
At the beginning of the novel there’s a teaser, explained at the end. Everything is not what it seems in the novel — like life itself. “The Night of the Comet” is about disappointment, but it’s at heart an optimistic book that readers looking for something meatier than the latest formulaic best-seller will embrace. I hope so.
A personal note: I was kind of a geek myself in high school in the mid 1950s, playing trombone (all trombone players are geeks at heart!) and tuba in the concert and marching bands and orchestra, setting up audio-visual equipment for ham-handed teachers as a member of the Projectionist Club, being a socially inept bookworm like Junior. There was no problem injecting myself into the life of Terrebonne (“Good Earth” in French) set two decades after I began high school and feeling right at home.
Background on George Bishop and how he came to write the book: http://www.wordsandmusic.org/George%20Bishop.html * * *
My March 3, 2010 review of “Letter to My Daughter”
BOOK REVIEW: ‘Letter to My Daughter’ Resonates: Male Reviewer Thinks Women Will Enjoy Male’s Debut Novel
Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
Theoretically at least, I should be as unqualified to review a book about mother-daughter relationships as George Bishop was to write one, “Letter to My Daughter” (Ballantine Books, 160 pages, $20.00).
I have no daughter and neither does Bishop. I’m a guy and so is Bishop, so where does he get off writing about a mother and her daughter, who goes missing — and what kind of nerve do I have reviewing it? As I write this, they’ve discovered the body of 17-year-old honor student and athlete Chelsea King in northern San Diego County, who went missing after a solo run. I can only imagine the grief her parents are going through.
Imagination is what fiction — good fiction like George Bishop’s debut novel — is all about. Anybody can write about what they know firsthand; it takes imagination of a superior kind to put yourself into a different gender and push the imagination button.
Count Leo Tolstoy demonstrated a wonderful understanding of women in both “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace.” So did Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in plays like “Hedda Gabler” and “A Doll’s House” and French novelist Balzac in “Madam Bovary.” Similarly, Agatha Christie and other women writers created wonderful male characters. To pick just one contemporary writer, think about English novelist Ruth Rendell’s fully realized Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford. Joyce Carol Oates’ characters — male and female alike — are wonderfully drawn.
As the novel opens, Laura tries to calm herself by writing a letter to her missing 15-year-old daughter Elizabeth, who stormed out of their Baton Rouge, Louisiana home after an argument. Laura writes, not knowing if and when Elizabeth will return: “Think of my letter as my birthday present to you. Something which my mother never told me, but which I’ll endeavor now with all my heart to tell you: the truth about how a girl grows up. The truth about life.”
Laura writes about growing up in a small town in Louisiana and falling in love with a poor Cajun boy who doesn’t meet the rigid requirements of a proper boyfriend to Laura’s upwardly mobile parents. Laura persists in the relationship and for her efforts is shipped off to a Catholic girls school in Baton Rouge. It’s really the female equivalent of a military academy, the kind where “problem” boys are sent to after everything else fails.
In the letter to her daughter, Laura unburdens herself, telling about things that she never revealed before. She obviously doesn’t want to become her own uncommunicative mother — an all-to-often “inevitable” result.
So, if you’re a woman, or a man, looking for insights into parenting by a man who isn’t a parent, pick up “Letter to My Daughter.” You’ll be charmed by Bishop’s writing.
About the Author:
George Bishop holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He’s an actor and a world traveler, having lived ant taught in Slovakia, Turkey, India, Azerbaijan, India and Japan. His writing has appeared in The Oxford American, The Third Coast Press and American Writing. He lives in New Orleans.