Does a Bad Ending Ruin a Good Book?

Eldorado 1  What if it’s great up till the last ten pages, and then goes totally corny? Do you figure that ninety percent good is good enough for a reading group choice? Or does that total misstep at the end invalidate all the excellence that’s gone before?

It certainly sours the experience.

Endings are the hardest part of storytelling. Notice how horribly, horribly wrong as great a novel as Huckleberry Finn can go. Wrapping up the narrative so that it’s satisfying, so that it feels earned, not forced, is an art in itself. An old professor of mine used to refer to bad endings and last-minute fudges as the Siberia Clause because of the famous ending of Crime and Punishment, where Dostoevsky loves his murderer Raskolnikov so much that he’s willing to wreck the entire book to save the character’s soul in a last chapter redemption scene in Siberia.  Eldorado 2

I’ve just finished the new French novel, Eldorado by Laurent Gaude. Up until the last five pages I thought I’d found the July selection for our book club. It takes place in Sicily, Libya and Morocco, and is a sometimes heartbreaking, often surprising short novel about illegal immigration. It begins with a mysteriously familiar woman tracking Captain Salvatore Piracci through his Sicilian hometown of Catania until finally he recognizes her – she’s a woman he rescued from a boatload of dying immigrants at sea. Until now, the Captain has led a life of sea patrols and escorting terrified immigrants to detention centers. She sets him straight, tells him how her baby died in her arms, and asks him for a gun to have her revenge on the captain who abandoned them.

With that as its gripping beginning, the narrative switches track to an alternating plot, that of young Suleiman and his brother Jamal leaving behind everything they know in their poverty-stricken home to gamble on reaching Europe. When they’ve gone too far to go back, Jamal reveals he has AIDS and isn’t really going, he’s just making sure his kid brother gets on that truck and takes a chance on life.

By now I’m crying.

Two strong storylines that will somehow converge. I’m intrigued.

But as everyone knows who reads a novel with two alternating plot threads that are destined to somehow converge, the value of the novel often becomes synonymous with how well that convergence occurs. (Stop reading here if you don’t want to know the ending.) Gaude’s convergence is a lame one, but it is cleverly plotted, so that when it’s finally revealed in the last chapter, you realize that it’s actually already occurred and you just didn’t know it. It’s a far-fetched coming together of the two plots – in a small town marketplace, Suleiman mistakes the haggard, speechless, homeless Captain for Massambalo, the god of immigrants, and when the Captain nods, Suleiman is encouraged on his journey. Weak, forced, but it sorta kinda works at least emotionally.

And then Gaude ruins it. He has the Captain 1. somehow realize that he has just changed someone’s life, 2. conclude that the whole point of his journey was just to be there at that moment and give encouragement, and 3. decide he’s going to continue to encourage other immigrants from now on in the same way. It’s such a leap of understanding and self-congratulation that it takes the breath away. Besides way overrating his effect on the plot. The Suleiman story continues to be thrilling and brave, regardless of the Captain’s encouragement. Suleiman has discovered what brotherhood really means. He would have made it anyway. The Captain’s part of the story, on the other hand, has been pointless. His burning his identification card and aimlessly setting out to be homeless and beaten and suicidal hardly makes him a figure to be encouraging others as the god of immigration. He conveniently steps in front of a truck two pages from the end, and is smashed into a painless other place where he continues his melancholy philosophizing until he dies.

Half a dozen powerful scenes and a provocative look at immigration argue for sharing the book with my reading group, letting them decide for themselves. On the other hand, my job as group chooser is not only to provide the foundation for a provocative literary discussion, but to give members a satisfying literary experience as well. Provocative and occasionally very moving this novel certainly is. Satisfying it is not.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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