McIlvain, 35, is an English professor at the University of Tampa who received his MFA degree from Rutgers-Newark University and was awarded the Stegner Fellowship in Fiction at Stanford University. In his new novel, The Radicals, McIlvain gives us two men, a bookish, socially conscious New York graduate student named Eli who hits the road with Sam, a wild socialist. It may be fictional, but the world in The Radicals deftly mirrors ours, with political upheaval, corporate excess and suspicious, frustrated citizens. A book launch will be held at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Inkwood Books, 1809 N Tampa St., Tampa.
What’s on your nightstand?
Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. It’s about a Kansas City housewife in the 1950s. I read it years ago, but my wife was talking about it, and I decided to read it again. She thought it was kind of funny and sad, and I remembered it that way, too. One scene that stuck with me was that (Mrs. Bridge) had three kids and they were driving around at Christmastime. The scene involves a birthday cake and a sign that says "Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus," and Mrs. Bridge was scandalized at how forthright that was. So, there was a very quiet, subtle sense of humor. You never have a sense the narrator is making fun of Mrs. Bridge. There is a sense of generosity and affection for the character. I think that’s why it holds up.
So is this proof that there’s value in reading mid-20th century novels?
Here we are in the enlightened present, but when you read a document from 60 years ago, the people are more like us than they are different.
I also am reading The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, a collection of short stories by Hilary Mantel. It has a radical edge to it, as you can tell. Whenever you are writing a book, say, about radicals, you have one eye out on what artists you admire are doing. Mantel’s book came out in 2014. I have a literary crush on this writer at this moment.
What is your favorite story or favorite radical in that book?
I will talk about two stories. One is about winter break. It’s about a couple on holiday. They are an English couple. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it is a dark vision of a couple that becomes complicit in a death. I shouldn’t say more than that because I will give it away. There is a spooky twist. As you are aware, Hilary Mantel is the only woman who has won the Booker Prize twice, so someone with that literary pedigree telling spooky stories is radical in itself. She’s sort of carving out space for herself to do whatever she wants. She hasn’t painted herself in a kind of hyperliterary corner. It’s a beautiful story and a shocking one. Part of the tension is they are childless. They are in middle age. That ship has probably sailed and, well, I should just say that some students have been so shocked by it they actually have gotten mad at me for telling them to read it.
And then there is the title story, concerning Margaret Thatcher. It is about what happens if a terrorist knocks on a house in London and poses as a plumber, but once he takes out his tools and starts assembling a rifle, well, he really wants to take aim at Thatcher. So Hilary is not afraid to shock and go after people and where they live. You won’t be able to put it down.
What do you think is Mantel’s strongest quality?
The way she combines the lyrical with the plot, the old-fashioned pleasures of a page-turning plot, which you don’t always have with the most beautiful sentence makers. If she reads this column, tell her to get on with her third book already. She has been keeping us in suspense.
Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected]tampabay.com. Follow @Florida_PBJC.