Britisher's 'Travels with Arthur' - Great book! Highly recommended.,
This review is from: Love and Fatigue in America (Hardcover)
British-born author Roger King's take on America of the past twenty years is nothing if not revealing. In LOVE AND FATIGUE IN AMERICA, which he calls an "autobiographical novel," here, for example, are his thoughts on the First Gulf War, a time when he was living in Spokane, where a large part of the population belonged to, or had ties to, the army reserves.
"They agree, the reservists, in television interviews, that it is their duty to go and fight the Iraqis, though their knowledge of where Kuwait is, or who the Iraqis are, is shaky. They appear to have no sense of what I know firsthand to be true, that the American government is widely loathed in poor countries around the world, nor do they seem to have any knowledge of the ruthless instances that have made this so. They know themselves to be nice."
King, who worked in several very poor countries in Africa, knows, I assume, what he's talking about in regard to how poor countries feel about America. (Although the narrator in this 'novel' is never
named, for brevity's sake, I'm going to just call him by the author's name, since King.)
King contracted CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) just a couple months after his arrival in Spokane to teach at "Inland University," has been battling this little-understood disease ever since. Having grown up with the free medical care of socialized medicine, he is incredulous at the mess that the American health care system has become.
"In Britain there had been no paperwork, no dealing with money, no maze ... You remember visits to the doctor as blithe affairs. The burden of management customary to Americans strikes you as astonishing - staggering - in its complexity, trickery, and venality. You wonder that such a situation could ever be taken as normal."
King's descriptions of the horrendously crippling, often totally disabling effects of CFS are scattered throughout the narrative, and give added weight to the "Fatigue" of the book's title. There is little pity or sympathy to be found for sufferers of this mysterious ailment, which has no real treatment, and is often regarded as psychosomatic, imaginary, or fake, and not just by regular people, but also by medical practitioners and especially by insurance companies.
King is no luckier in his continuing search for a real and lasting love. In fact, the CFS often makes relationships and sexual activity nearly impossible. King spends many of his waking hours lying down in an attempt to conserve energy.
After leaving Spokane he spends a couple years in New Mexico trying to cope with his CFS, and there he enters into a loving if complicated affair with a married woman who has a little girl that King becomes very much attached to. This affair is over when he takes another university teaching job in San Francisco, where he marvels at the strange diversity of California culture and its separation of sex and love, describing encounters with waitresses, massage parlors, sex workers, lingerie models and more, which he calls the "long division of body and soul." These encounters never seem prurient or salacious, but instead swing somewhere between silly and sad, which attests, I think, to King's skills as a story teller. Unable finally to complete his teaching duties in San Francisco due to the CFS, he takes "catastrophic medical leave" and sets off to travel up and down across the U.S. in search of a place he can settle, with multiple visits along the way to doctors, alternative medicine types, quacks, etc.
I know this sounds like a pretty grim story, but the truth is it's not. There were many dry observations on the American way of life that left me wincing, or chuckling, in recognition.
And there's this great dog, King's best friend, really. A big dog, his name is Arthur, a Golden Retriever-Great Pyrenees mix. Arthur is nearly all that's left from the New Mexico love affair, and travels everywhere with King for nearly eleven years. So we've got LOVE, we've got FATIGUE (chronic, in fact), and we've got a good dog, eulogized thusly -
"He was an animal who gave humans permission to be more human ... He was born, made happiness without meaning to, died."
King does not say that he is living "happily ever after," but he does seem to be working at it. His story covers more than twenty years of living in America, from the First Gulf War well into the Iraq War that recently ended. As an outsider, King sees the irreparable damage that war brings, to the soldiers and their families, noting "The damage of violence will be lodged in them and will reach down through the generations."
There are many incisive and insightful comments about America and how we live. King sees - feels - a kind of incipient decay at large in America.
"... there is a scent of something familiar to me in the air, cozy almost, of a grandeur no longer affordable, of inevitable, natural decline. It's exactly the scent I grew up with in postwar England. It's not unpromising."
I have just begun to read another book, George Packer's book about America called THE UNWINDING. King, in his meandering journey across America - his "travels with Arthur" - has obviously been a quiet witness to that same 'unwinding.'
The title is a good one. It's all in there: love, fatigue, America - and don't forget that great dog, Arthur. This is just such a great book! Highly recommended.
- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER