It’s pretty depressing to think that Wallace was hacking away at this thing the last 10 years of his life, without success. Granted, there are some pretty impressive sections here (POV tales of oddball characters, ending up as tax processors in Peoria, IL), and hints of a cohesive whole (semi-sinister plots of shadowy bureaucratic overlords revamping the inner workings of the IRS…) But Wallace was never good at novelistic plotting – it always came off as cheesy and surreal (the wheelchair terrorist in Infinite Jest, etc). The best part of his writing is when he’s deep within the psyche of a character, usually on the verge of some sort of depressive breakdown. In this book, he’s seeking some sort of spiritual solace amidst all the paper-shuffling boredom. It’s tough to say if he ever found it, but there are glimpses of salvation hidden away, like a needle of meaning in the monumental haystack that is the US Tax Code.
This book was a monster, and I barely finished it before my maximum number of renewals was exhausted at the library. Michener was a beast with a pen. The book is less of a novel then a compendium of loosely connected short stories that are set along the Chesapeake Bay, spanning hundreds of years. Each story is wonderful on its own, but the real standouts are the tale of an American Privateer who battles English warships but eventually becomes a slaver for financial reasons; the tale of a slave kidnapped from the Congo, brought aboard the holds of that very ship, who organizes a revolt; and then a hundred years later, the descendants of those grand characters, hatching schemes to hunt geese and crabs on the quiet banks of the bay. I have family from the area, and every summer I’d spend some time on those waters, out on boats or lounging on docks. That juxtaposition is still there today – pulling in a muddy crab pot, watching the pelicans skim over the glistening water, as an aircraft carrier leaves its berth at Little Creek, bound for some grand conflict of our own age.