McEwan, Rash off their game
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The mid-career slump can afflict any profession, from baseball players to fiction writers. The creative juices dry up, the energy of youth dissipates on long book tours or, in the cases of Hemingway and Mailer, the weight of celebrity can interfere with messages from the muse.
This year, Ian McEwan and Ron Rash, two middle-aged writers with past successes, released new books that fell short of their previous accomplishments.
Mr. McEwan, 61, has been the darling of British novelists since he won the Man Booker Prize in 1998 for "Amsterdam," then followed with the compelling "Atonement" in 2002, the major novel that vaulted his trademark plot twist into a powerful observation on the art of fiction itself.
Two subsequent works -- "Saturday" and "On Chesil Beach" -- showed the signs of strain, the former with an unbelievable denouement and the latter, thin and uninteresting.
Now in "Solar" (Nan Talese/Doubleday, $26.95), Mr. McEwan's interest has turned to global warming, as evidenced by the acknowledgements citing his discussions with scientists. The novelist said he warmed up to the subject after a 2005 trip to Spitzbergen, re-created in the novel, right down to a description of Mr. McEwan -- "a crop-haired fellow with rimless glasses."
Right there, readers should sense that this book is in trouble. It's a clumsy tactic that indicates a lack of seriousness from the author, not a good approach when you are writing satire, a serious pursuit.
The real misstep, though, is Mr. McEwan's hero, Michael Beard, a portly, slovenly British physicist with a distant Nobel Prize and five ex-wives, thanks to a never-ending stream of affairs. Yet this slob, whose waist expands in the course of the story, manages to attract lovely women while scamming scientific organizations with energy-saving projects.
Mr. McEwan remains a polished stylist and effective plotter, and his foray into the comic novel draws a handful of chuckles from Beard's ineptitude, including trying to urinate in subzero temperatures.
But there is such an opera bouffe quality to this important and complicated subject that even the trademark McEwan pivotal incident lacks much punch because it's improbable. Beard not only eliminates two of his ex-wife's lovers, but steals an inventive system for producing alternative fuel, claiming it as his own.
Even the novelist loses enthusiasm for his bouncy voyage into climate change and slaps on a convenient ending.
Hard cheese, old boy.
Ron Rash's day job is teaching in the Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University (is there a course titled Sittin,' Spittin' and Whittlin'?).
He's also an accomplished novelist, the latest of which, 2008's "Serena," hit the best-seller list with its powerful tale of forest despoliation in North Carolina.
Mr. Rash continues the Carolina locale with a new collection of short stories, "Burning Bright" (Ecco, $22.99). His characters are mostly ordinary folk -- widows, war wives, businessmen -- encountering hard truths about the supposedly sylvan settings of their lives, then making the wrong choices.
The title story finds farm widow Marcie marrying Carl, a handyman with a fondness for cigarette lighters. There's a drought on and someone who drives a black pickup like Carl's has been setting the dry woods on fire.
Her decision is not the best, but circumstances require it.
Most of Mr. Rash's stories follow a similar track, so much so that there's a predictability to them. His writing, too, varies little from a flat, almost affectless course.
All add up to an unchallenging diversion into a land that, despite its mountains, has few highs or lows.
First Published April 11, 2010 12:00 am