NewPages Book Reviews

October 1, 2008

Salvation :: The End of the Straight and Narrow :: Based on a True Story :: The Lost Episodes of Beatie Scareli :: The Waitress Was New :: The Cosmopolitan :: Signs of Life :: Of Kids & Parents :: Waste :: Keep This Forever :: Mind Games

Salvation coverSalvation

Novel by Lucia Nevai

Tin House Books, June 2008

ISBN-10: 0979419832

ISBN-13: 978-0979419836

Paperback: 240pp; $14.95

Review by Laura Di Giovine

Crane Cavanaugh is one of the most endearing, strange and exceptional protagonists I have encountered in recent memory. Take the strong opening of the prologue:

With abject, slavish desire, with offhand, sloppy curiosity, with gratitude, with sedation, I was accidentally engendered. Never say the word rid around me. My mother tried to get rid of me. My face to this day is deformed, my forehead bumpy, puffy, and white as mold. Her attempt was halfhearted; her method unknown. Where do I feel it? In the lungs. It comes back in winter when I wheeze. It comes back when I feel cowardly.

Lucia Nevai's Salvation is a witty, heartbreaking romp of a novel. Crane confronts the reader head-on with unabashed candor. The product of an aborted abortion, Crane is disfigured physically, but intellectually, she’s a genius. Growing up dirt poor in rural Iowa with her beloved siblings Little Duck and Jima, Crane learns to suppress her smarts from the rest of her dysfunctional family, three “preacher-parents” who met on the Missouri revival-circuit and later shacked up together in Iowa. According to Crane, “They were all saved by the same great itinerant healer. Salvation didn’t last. Even we three ignorant kids could see that.” It’s worth noting Crane’s parents, for their names alone: Crane’s mother Tit, a devastatingly beautiful vitamin rep and hooker; Big Duck, a faux-Reverend alcoholic who’s in love with Tit; and Flat, Big Duck’s maniacal, bible-thumping wife, whose “large Irish chin was flat with extra obedience to God.” As a child, Crane is teased mercilessly for her deformity, even by her own parents, but she survives through sheer tenacity and gumption.

Trouble ensues when the community of Lake Mary is built and Crane’s family is forced from their squatters shack. Seized by the county, Crane is separated from her siblings and adopted by Ollie and Ray Hopkins. Ironically, she ends up back in Lake Mary as one of the girls she used to envy as a child. Although a self-described “dead ringer” for Benjamin Franklin, Crane is desperate for love and indulges Ollie’s fervent attempts to transform her into a popular, desirable teenager. Along the way, she discovers her extraordinary aptitude for science and realizes where her heart belongs.

From laugh-out-loud hilarious to searingly poignant, Nevai crafts a powerful story about family, growing up, loss and redemption. Crane never loses sight of her own uncertain place in the world, and this honest book brings to life one of the most fiercely intelligent, delightfully quirky and strangely beautiful protagonists in contemporary fiction. You will reach the last page craving more of Crane Cavanaugh.

 

The End of the Straight and Narrow coverThe End of the
Straight and Narrow

Fiction by David McGlynn

Southern Methodist University Press,
October 2008

ISBN-13: 978-0879745508

Cloth: 256pp; $22.50

Review by Ryan Call

Readers of David McGlynn’s debut collection The End of the Straight and Narrow should put aside any assumptions they may have about religious fiction and its sometimes evangelical qualities. The stories in this book break away from the generic conventions of Christian literature both in form and content. This is due to the often complicated, expansive nature of each story’s unraveling and the many struggles the characters face regarding faith and morality in a secular culture. Reading this book, one gets the sense that these are stories about pathetic people rather than some allegorical world vision. Unfortunately for McGlynn’s characters, there is no clear difference between right and wrong, good and evil, and this confusion often leads them through some of the darkest moments of their lives.

McGlynn has split the book into two parts: Part I consists of four unrelated pieces, the last of which is the story “Seventeen One-Hundredths of a Second,” my favorite of the collection. At fifty pages, it is the longest story in the book and the most intricate, allowing McGlynn to complicate the sacramental act of baptism, to incorporate elements of the Old Testament whale story, and to work in some good, Christian sinning. In the story, Jonah, a pharmaceutical rep and swimming instructor at Vacation Bible Camp, cannot escape the memory of pulling Charlie, his dying buddy, out of the pool after a friendly but competitive swim session. Jonah’s guilt at perhaps causing Charlie’s heart attack sends him to Abby, Charlie’s pregnant widow.

A subplot of sorts appears when Jonah, at his pastor’s urging, finds himself the reluctant mentor of a fatherless, prescription drug-addicted kid named Titus. The two storylines collide when Jonah can no longer control his guilt-turned-hatred for Charlie, which manifests as a disturbing sexual act and then a questionable incident of child abuse. As the story ends, Jonah returns to the same pool in which Charlie died to work as a high school swim coach, hoping to somehow make up for his past actions. What he finds isn’t “grace” or “forgiveness either, but it was something close to both, an echo from long ago.”

Part II opens with “The Eyes to See,” a story that both introduces the remainder of the collection’s characters, all members of a dysfunctional family, and dramatizes how the wife’s blindness works literally and figuratively in their lives. The following four stories carry on with the family, trace its slow disintegration, and end at the “brown and frothy surf” of the Gulf of Mexico, into which the mother disappears, probably of her own volition. Ultimately, this family’s story is not a happy one, at least not in the traditional sense of the word: the father finds God after having an affair with his wife’s caretaker; the daughter Jill, because of the affair, suspects she is not her mother’s biological daughter; and Rowdy, the son and nearly constant narrator, looks on in wonder. Of his father’s conversion, he says:

A testimony is a story that relies upon an awful past. At the very least the arrangement of past events in an awful way. If Jesus is to rescue us from ourselves, and heal our necrotic hearts, we must leave behind who we were. Burn every bridge between now and then. In Christ’s mercy our sins are forgotten, but so is the person who committed them. In Christ’s mercy my father tries to forget that for fifteen years he was happy – that despite my mother’s blindness, and her silences, and every bold plan that drifted away, he had all he wanted and hadn’t wanted any more. Every time my mother laid her hand against his chest he felt located in the world. It was this kind of touch Jesus could never give, and had my mother given it again, Jesus wouldn’t have stood a chance. My father would have spat the name of God from his mouth. Shaken the dusk of Jesus from his feet.

In telling us about the father, McGlynn, through Rowdy, also tells us a little bit about how these stories, or testimonies, work to explore the struggles his characters face in their yearning to achieve both human and spiritual connection. Although Rowdy seems to suggest that his father could not have both, I suspect McGlynn believes otherwise. Rowdy says that in order to be rescued from our sins, we must forget the person who committed those sins. But isn't the act of story-telling a way of recording that very same person in the moments before he or she changes? Isn’t a testimony an historical account of how one became a Christian, of one’s maturing as time passes? This, to me, seems the most moving aspect of these stories: the tension between forgetting and remembering, between emphasizing that human contact and erasing it from our minds.

 

Based on a True Story coverBased on a True Story

Novellas by Hesh Kestin

Dzanc Books, September, 2008

ISBN-10: 0979312353

ISBN-13: 978-0979312359

Paperback: 182pp; $13.95

Review by Laura Di Giovine

In Hesh Kestin’s Based on a True Story, three novellas set during the World War II era take readers on a journey from East Africa to the South Seas to Hollywood. A former foreign correspondent, Kestin peppers his tales with exotic plots and resilient characters.

In “The Merchant of Mombasa,” Sergeant Joan Ferrin is a code-breaker in the Royal Canadian Air Force on loan to the British Navy in Kenya. Singled out by the Vice Admiral for being Jewish, she’s promptly promoted and sent to acquire purebred Marwari horses from Abraham Talal, a wealthy Indian (and Jewish) businessman in Mombasa who shrewdly observes, “Ah . . . Send a Jew to deal with a Jew.” The Indian community controlled most of the commerce in East Africa during this period and Ferrin’s superiors seek Talal’s favor, but do not want to associate with merchants, “Indian merchants especially, and Jews so much the less.” Thus, Ferrin takes on the role of negotiator and she and Talal engage in a brief but doomed affair. The devastation lies in what is not said between them. Both Talal and Ferrin are marginalized figures in society based on their gender, religion or race, and Kestin explores their sorrow with understated depth.

While “The Man Who Kissed Stalin’s Wife” is a gripping Tahitian tale filled with war, greed and romance with the natives – not to mention missionaries and Marxist idealism – the main highlight is the third novella, “Based on a True Story.” Laurence “Larry” Bellringer is a gay black scriptwriter in Hollywood in 1939, an anomaly in itself. He works for EZ Shelupsky, the Jewish producer and head of Racetrack Films, the movie studio that caters to “Negro America.” He is the only one making black pictures in America, and he is fiercely proud of his niche in the market. Larry’s description of the infamous EZ matches his bulldog personality: “Everything about EZ was rounded; though his 5-foot-8-inch frame didn’t carry an ounce of fat, he seemed to be composed of a complete set of fully integrated knobs . . . his shoulders were like volleyballs . . . if he’d worn anything but the best custom-made suits, he might have looked like a stack of bowling balls.”

When Larry pitches making a film about Jews (“Wha-at?” I spelled it out. “J-E-W-S.”), EZ thinks he’s off his rocker. He makes films about black people, not white people. But Larry knows a war is coming and doesn’t think race films have a future. Ever the shrewd businessman and “an equal opportunity son of a bitch,” EZ gives it a shot.

“Based on a True Story” dives convincingly into the Golden Age of Hollywood, complete with the wisecracking, slick dialogue of feisty media moguls, the glamour of gambling and horse betting and the glitzy depiction of 1940s L.A. One particularly memorable character is Fritz von Blum, a German screenwriter hired to help Larry pen the infamous script. The following excerpt reveals Kestin’s skill with dialogue as Larry and Fritz quarrel over the script:

“You’re saying a story without a villain? The whole idea is Father Antonio breaks away from the conquistadors, or maybe defends them, or maybe he’s challenged by the Spaniards as an Indian-lover, or maybe–”
“We should leave room for . . . uncertainty, no? Clarity in logic, yes, but in art–”
“You know what, Fritz? You ought to know this. Wasn’t it Goering who said every time he hears the word culture he reaches for his gun . . .”
“Hanns Johst. Many people think Hermann Goering, but Goering was quoting Johst. Wenn ich ‘Kultur’ höre . . . entsichere ich meinen Browning. It was in Johst’s play ‘Shlageter.’ Terrible work. Not Goering, but a playwright.” He smiled. “Like us.”
“Well, every time you say art I break out in hives.”

Kestin’s clear knack for clever banter shines throughout the piece. What could have been stock characters in a classically clichéd Hollywood plot are rendered genuine, fleshed-out individuals through Kestin’s skill with language. These characters have gumption, they have heart, they have panache. And they’re not afraid to talk back. Another bonus: “Based on a True Story” is frequently hilarious. This gem in Kestin’s collection makes Based on a True Story worth checking out.

 

The Lost Episodes of Beatie Scareli coverThe Lost Episodes of Beatie Scareli

Novel by Ginnetta Correli

Marshmallow Press, September 2008

ISBN-10: 0615213847

ISBN: 978-0615213842

Paperback: 238pp; $15.95

Review by Cynthia Reeser

In Ginnetta Correli’s debut novel, The Lost Episodes of Beatie Scareli, the reader, cast as an audience member, is no less a part of the script than the other offbeat characters. The only stipulation is that our participation is limited solely to watching the scenes play out from Beatie Scareli’s unfortunate life. Written as a pseudo-screenplay, the “cast” includes Beatie’s father, a neglectful man with a strong potential for danger; Beatie’s mother Frata, a schizophrenic who believes she is Lucy Ricardo; Beatie at age 12; Beatie as an adult commenting on scenes from her troubled youth; and the reader, identified simply as “You.”

The reader’s frustration in being unable to help Beatie is nothing compared to Beatie’s powerlessness in her own life, which is an all-around catch-22. In episodes where Frata is in the early stages of madness, Beatie grasps onto scenes that can be loosely defined as normal, but that inevitably turn into something sordid. She imagines her parents as a happy couple, a Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, on a beach trip where her father and Frata are, for a moment, still in love. But the happy-couple act disappears as quickly as it comes, and a damaging fight ensues on the way home. Beatie is the inevitable witness, and all she can do is invite the reader to witness with her.

Petey, Beatie’s stuffed bunny, is her only confidante. Their “conversations” are therapy sessions that carry Beatie through her mother’s escalating psychotic episodes and her father’s ensuing abuse and neglect. When Frata becomes institutionalized, Beatie’s father no longer speaks to her. Scenes at the dinner table typically go like this:

Father and me sit at the skinny bar table. Father sips soup.
“Did you have a good day at work, Dad?” Silence.
“Do you like peas, Dad?” Silence.
“I like tater tots, Dad, you know, the kind we deep fry in oil …” Silence. “Dad, are you mad at me?” More silence.

Beatie retains a child’s hope that somehow, some way, things will work out and she will have a normal family again. Instead, the episodes from the life of the Scareli family become something of a horror show, with Frata’s frequent courting of the institution, refusal to take her medicine and subsequent marriage to a very creepy fellow hospital inmate. When Beatie’s father throws her to these wolves, it is just another situation where the reader, as a non-participating viewer, feels as powerless as Beatie to change her life. As if to drive this point home, Beatie sometimes sees her life as if it is someone else’s: “I watch another girl who sits in a Datsun. She sits in the car with a man. The car drives to a mental hospital.” This method of escapism is also one of evaluation. It is one way Beatie tries to sort things out by looking at things objectively.

The novel-as-script acknowledges that it contains no form of comedy – not even so much as a speck of black humor is to be found. Beatie’s mother, in the midst of one of her own “episodes,” says:

“Octavious, please keep an eye out for the director or camera person. We need to go over this script. I’m not sure it’s funny, and I don’t know if people are going to laugh…”
Mother is right. This is not a funny script, is it?

If I Love Lucy is intended to make light of life’s situations, then The Lost Episodes of Beatie Scareli is, as the anti-Lucy, intended to examine those quandaries more closely, no matter how difficult the answers might be. Rather than providing material that helps us laugh at ourselves and our situations, this novel is about honestly revealing what has happened, about laying a life out on the table in all its yard-sale shabbiness so that the reader can finally determine its worth.

 

The Waitress Was New coverThe Waitress Was New

Novel by Dominique Fabre

Translated by Jordan Stump

Archipelago Books, February 2008

ISBN-10: 0977857697

ISBN-13: 978-0977857692

Paperback: 160pp; $15.00

Review by Laura Di Giovine

In Dominique Fabre’s The Waitress Was New, the narrator Pierre, affectionately known as Pierrounet, is a veteran bartender in the Parisian suburb of Asnières. He is fifty-six and has worked at Le Cercle bistro for 30 years. He spends his days watching people rush to and from the train station, serving his customers, empathizing with them and even, at times, emulating them – a young man in black broods over a beer and Primo Levi and Pierre attempts to read If This Is a Man at home just “to keep up on things.”

Fabre, a prolific author in his native France, makes his U.S. debut with this brief, beguiling tale about the life of an ordinary bartender. Yet, as Pierre slowly tells his own story in between shifts at the bar, spats with his moody boss, and dealings with new hires and café regulars, the simple, intimate details assume true significance.

Pierre interacts with a bevy of fluid characters, authentic for their universality. They experience the same daily routines as everyone else, peppered with moments of triumph, disappointment, and unforeseen strength: the new waitress Madeleine learns the ropes of Le Cercle, the talented Senegalese cook Amédée is frustrated with the café’s inadequate facilities, the disgruntled boss Henri is dallying with one of the waitresses, and the boss’s wife Isabelle turns to Pierre for solace. In turn, Pierre grapples with getting older and the fact that he may never date again, having been married for eight years but divorced for even longer. The narrative appears simplistic on the surface, but a closer reading unravels the fragile essence of humanity with its unending complexities of love and friendship and the bittersweet realities of aging and loneliness. Fabre’s spare, measured prose (translated by Jordan Stump) paints a vivid portrait of everyday life.

Toward the novel’s close, Pierre reflects on his encounters with the young man in black:

What was he going to make of his life? Would he have the strength for it all? Or maybe he’d quietly while it away reading hundreds of books in a bunch of different bars, and he’d be happy that way. I would have liked to tell him that, but it had come to me too late, obviously. In all this time he’d been coming to waste his days at Le Cercle, I’d never once found a chance for a real conversation with him. Although. Obviously, I’m no Monsieur Primo Levi.

Throughout this lyrical, elegant slice of life, Pierre’s astute, poignant voice strikes the heart again and again. The beauty is truly rendered in the details.

 

The Cosmopolitan coverThe Cosmopolitan

Poetry by Donna Stonecipher

Coffee House Press, September 2008

ISBN-10: 156689221X

ISBN-13: 978-1566892216

Paperback: 88pp; $16.00

Review by Rachel Harkai

Thimbles, nosegays, daguerreotypes, Baudelaire – only the most precious and precocious of objects are presumed to hold value in the culturally saturated world of Donna Stonecipher’s The Cosmopolitan. Borne of an interest in the found-object shadow boxes of artist Joseph Cornell, and built around isolated quotations of renowned poets, writers, and scholars, this 2007 National Poetry Series Winner ponders the reduction of existence to a collection of novelties showcased behind glass.

Much like the contents of Cornell’s boxes, Stonecipher’s poems are compartmentalized, each containing between eight and fourteen short, numbered stanzas of prose poetry. Curious and enticing, The Cosmopolitan assembles tales of myriad nameless personae as they move nonchalantly through the newest museums and oldest churches of the world’s most famous cities. These are world travelers, self-proclaimed global citizens, so-called “voluptés of the clouds” – those who flaunt “an accent in every language: A Russian accent speaking German, a German accent speaking Russian, an indeterminate accent speaking English, and [of course] an English accent when speaking indeterminately.” These personae are the embodiment of the book’s title.

The Cosmopolitan, we learn, sees everything as conquerable: “She hung up the world map on her wall and considered the conquerable entity. Next to it, / she placed colored pushpins in a box.” Elsewhere, the Cosmopolitan desires to qualify his or her own intellect and wit through the pageantry of semi-ridiculous name-dropping, as in: “The girl with the titian hair wearing a Botticelli pink Delacroix jacket was said to have / rubenesque curves.”

Despite these oh-so deliberate attempts at opacity, The Cosmopolitan – though at the furthest reaches of both Occident and Orient – often seeks only the most obvious: the panda bears in China, the surfers in California, the existentialists in France. In the eyes of The Cosmopolitan, the world is akin to a glass-cased exhibit at which one marvels, while always exhibiting a certain sense of detachment (and perhaps even an air of nostalgia), as though life were an endeavor in which one was no longer taking part:

How many stacked-up peacock feathers does it take for the feeling of weightlessness to
be overestimated? She kept one peacock feather in a drawer. We knew they were dynamiting
mountaintops in West Virginia, but still we were two flâneurs in the city, pointing out things we
liked in shop windows.

With precision and delicacy, Stonecipher repeatedly evokes this feeling of weightlessness that blooms from experiencing the exotic:

You like to go from room to room drowning yourself in dahlias. You like to stand in a
crowd and implode and implode till all your individuality melts. You like to be underneath, on
top, afloat. But it thrills you to hear your name in a stranger’s mouth.

Yet as the personae that comprise The Cosmopolitan continue journeying, their attempts to define themselves in relation to their foreign surroundings grow more urgent and, ultimately, their aforementioned enamorment begins to wane. Time itself seems to become a space that one can move through, and as Stonecipher’s personae become more deeply and perplexingly embedded within history, her stanzas concurrently question their relative place among embedded quotations by Kafka, Sontag, Levi-Strauss, and others. As if searching for a permanent home in time, for history without allegory, The Cosmopolitan subtly enacts a palindromic movement that carries the past into the present and then pulls the present back again. “Memorials began moving into more and more of the area presumably meant for the / living,” writes Stonecipher. “The city was slowly turning into a city of the past.” If existence is comprised entirely of referentiality, she seems to ask, where exactly does one stand?

Artfully, charmingly, Donna Stonecipher’s The Cosmopolitan juxtaposes the allure of the exotic with the comfort of the familiar, examining the dynamics of inverses – of insiders and outsiders, of ingress and egress, of departure and return.

 

Signs of Life coverSigns of Life

Short Stories by Norman Waksler

Black Lawrence Press, August 2008

ISBN-10: 0981589928

ISBN-13: 978-0981589923

Paperback: 132pp; $16.00

Review by Laura Di Giovine

Norman Waksler’s second short story collection Signs of Life reveals just that. Throughout these colorful vignettes, the reader detects signs of life, a glimpse of those small elements that illustrate humanity’s solidarity. The six stories tumble through our consciousness, some unearthing a longing for the past or the sweet innocence of first love, others revealing the inevitable regret that stems from apathy and the dull disappointment of the typical workday.

Shifting between Providence, Rhode Island and the fictional Carbury, Massachusetts, the six stories explore the lives of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations. Their fears and desires are commonplace but nonetheless powerful. In the collection’s opening story “Ruthie,” the title character Ruthie is an object of adoration for young Daniel, but it’s immediately clear that this love will not play out in a traditional way:

Really, it should have been one of those forgivable serio-comic love affairs, with the two women sharing amusement at my infatuation, but it turned out there was too much at stake, and, of course, in the traditional manner of blinkered and desperate lovers, I carried things to their unfortunate logical conclusion. But not to be coy about this, I was only seven, and the woman I loved was thirty-two, so it was unlikely to have worked out very well in any case.

An older, wiser Daniel narrates, reflecting back on that innocent summer of first love. The story line is straightforward: Daniel is infatuated with Ruthie, he fantasizes about moving to Chicago with her and so runs away to Ruthie’s briefly (“no more than twelve or fourteen minutes could have elapsed”), invoking the wrath of his mother. The radiance lies in Daniel’s retelling of the story, as he marvels at Ruthie anew, even all these years later. His thoughts on beauty are basic, but they resonate:

Drinking in beauty: one of your more common clichés. Yet in all my years since then of encounters with painting and sculpture and flowers and women comparable to Ruthie, I’ve never come across a more apt phrase to describe how beauty relieves the dryness inside you, refreshes your arid spirit.

In “Snerk,” Paul Chase hates everything about his job at the convenience store, including:

The ‘who me?’ shoplifters.
The constant elevator music.
Late night drunks, hostile or convivial.
Mopping the floor, the gray/brown scum of water in the iron bucket.
Street people.
The cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep of the cash register.
Lighthearted Carbury University students stopping for snacks on their way to their dorms.
The ugly light of the fluorescents, like working inside a microwave oven.
Teen-aged girls.
The overheated oversweet smell of the pastry case.
The hot dogs glistening on the perpetual grill.
Couples unable to unhand each other, giggling as the guy bought condoms (“Two boxes.”).
The powder blue on-duty smocks.
Teen-aged boys.
The video camera that recorded every move of everyone, including the clerks.
Some, not all of those he worked with, just those who came late, left early, palmed off jobs; the petty cash drawer thieves (always caught on tape, the dopes); the ones who couldn’t make change, figure out the lottery, the coffee, slush, or nacho machines.
Everything else.

I wanted to quote the opening in its entirety because the voice is so strong and deliciously acerbic. While not everyone has worked in a convenience store, most people have had an unfulfilling job and can relate to Paul. Paul’s scathing commentary and self-loathing is a binding agent throughout the piece, allowing the reader to feel the weight of the sullen, uneventful days rolling by, punctuated by surly customers and overfriendly regulars.

One afternoon, a homeless woman hobbles into the store who “was the kind of fat that suggested tumbling mounds of graying mashed potatoes . . . her face-outsize lips, pop-eyes, dripping flesh – seemed held together by the grossly green kerchief knotted under her chin.” Repulsed, Paul refuses her demand for a free muffin, and the woman places a curse on him. He’s disturbed by the events that follow and tracks her down. His penance? A daily delivery of coffee and a muffin. Each time, the woman contemplates lifting the curse, but always finds something wrong with the delivery. The adage “what goes around comes around” accelerates into a Dante-esque tailspin and Waksler adds a comedic twist to the conclusion.

Other highlights include “Hugh’s Tattoo,” about a 61-year old man who gets an eye tattooed at the base of his throat only to discover that it changes his life more than he ever anticipated, and “Lewis Goes to the Library” where a librarian clashes against the local mafia over reading material. Signs of Life injects everyday encounters with a twist of the extraordinary, and Waksler’s simple yet impactful style of writing gives the reader a satisfying glimpse into the minds of these characters and the arc of their lives.

 

Of Kids and Parents coverOf Kids and Parents

Novel by Emil Hakl

Translated by Marek Tomin

Twisted Spoon Press, September 2008

ISBN-10: 8086264300

ISBN-13: 978-8086264301

Paperback: 154pp; $14.50

Review by Cynthia Reeser

Translated from Czechoslovakian by the noted curator, producer and journalist Marek Tomin, Emil Hakl’s Of Kids and Parents received a Magnesia Litera Book of the Year award in 2003 and has been made into a feature film. With the English version debuting this year from the Prague-based publisher Twisted Spoon Press, this engrossing book is worth checking out.

Hakl’s book itself is a walking tour of Prague, the story not so much one single cohesive story or narration so much as a conglomeration of stories shared between father and son as they walk familiar roads and visit random visit bars to reminisce on the past and ponder the present. Hakl immediately immerses the reader in a steady stream of dialogue that continues throughout most of the book, a format that has garnered comparisons with Joyce’s Ulysses. Touching on topics of war and politics, love, poverty, travel and nearly everything in between, the book’s true theme has to do with the nature of existence, the world and humanity’s place in it. But it’s not presented as anything as lofty as that.

This 71-year-old father and his 42-year-old son have a relationship that many people can relate to. Sometimes they don’t like each other, sometimes they quibble, and sometimes they laugh. The son, Honza, harbors a decades-old irritation with his father that often leads him to sulk rather than communicate, but it’s all part of their story.

The stories they tell are the novel’s real draw. Tales of war and survival during Hitler’s regime lead Honza to conclusions like, “We are forever enclosed in a grey, impenetrable sphere of smoke, excrement and laughter. People, the earth, the universe and us, the kids.” The 20th century European experience, while vastly different from the American one, is still similar on some levels. Hakl delineates a commonality of experience that links everyone on earth in the sense that we are kids to a certain extent; we all have parents, whether we relate to them or not; we’re still kids, even if we’re grown, since, to a point, we’re products of the cultural and political environment that surrounds us. But again, the message comes through not in any lofty terms, but simply in the stories and tales exchanged between a father and his son.

At one point, Honza asks his father, “So what’s new?” to which he receives the reply, “Nothing’s been new in this world for more than two billion years, it’s all just variations on the same theme of carbon, hydrogen, helium and nitrogen.”

At another point, the book turns to metacommentary, as Honza’s father shares a story about a woman he met, quipping, “It’s a bit sad in terms of reality, but it would make a fine short story.” To which Honza replies, “Except there’s no climax whatsoever.”

“As with everything that actually happens! You only get a climax in films and stupid books…”

While a good part of their conversation should be taken with a grain of salt, Of Kids and Parents is one of those unique books that does not really contain a climax, nor does it need one. That’s not its purpose. If it is true, as Honza’s father muses, that “beginnings never tell you anything about endings,” then perhaps Of Kids and Parents is just a sampling of what happens in the middle of things, offering the sheer entertainment value of its stories in place of any more definitive statement.

 

Waste coverWaste

Novel by Eugene Marten

Ellipsis Press, September 2008

ISBN-10: 0963753614

ISBN-13: 978-0963753618

Hardcover: 132pp; $10.00

Review by Matt Bell

Eugene Marten's second novel Waste will entrance you from the very first page, drawing you in with its tight, evocative language and magnificent pacing. For the first third of the book, you'd be excused if you thought that all you were getting was a wonderfully written but generally quiet book about a creepy janitor working late nights in a high-rise office building. You'd be wrong, but your mistake would be understandable, and quickly rectified: What follows is one of the most disturbing stories I've read.

Sloper, the aforementioned janitor, is a hard worker who brings certain obsessive-compulsive tendencies to work, refusing to "do favors" but otherwise doing an apparently good job. He also has the occasional unsavory habit, starting with eating out of the trashcans he empties. Sloper stuffs the found food into the pouches of his cart's yellow apron, noting at one point that "people never finish their potato salad." He also becomes obsessed with a certain woman who works in the building:

The girl who was nice to him on 24 smiled and said hello. She told him how much she appreciated what he did. She had a regular voice and straight hair, but Sloper sometimes wondered a little about her, about if maybe she was passing for something she wasn't if there was something in her blood that was darker than her skin. But of course you couldn't just ask, and he liked her thick muscular calves and watching them walk away from him when he knelt before the lobby doors . . . When she was gone, he jerked off in her shoes and cleaned them out with germicidal foam. You could use it on anything but woodwork.

After work, Sloper goes home to the basement apartment in his mother's boarding house, where his only point of contacts are with his mother's voice, yelled through the vents, and with a wheelchair-bound woman and her caretaker who live nearby. Sloper slowly befriends these neighbors, establishing his only point of contact with normality, a link that becomes as important as it is tenuous as the book proceeds.

As the book burrows deeper into the dark hole it aims to explore, Sloper's actions make clear his claim on whatever he finds in the trash, repurposing the leftover food and personal possessions of the building's tenants to his own ends. It's hard to say more about the plot without ruining the shocking twists the book takes, but it's worth pointing out that what follows is not for the faint of heart. Like Brian Evenson (who blurbed the book), Eugene Marten is writing literary horror at its finest, tearing down his characters with a combination of personal destruction and decay. Waste is a novel that will stay with even after you've finished its slim pages, its powerful stench sticking to you long after you've put it aside.

 

Keep This Forever coverKeep This Forever

Poetry by Mark Halliday

Tupelo Press, September 2008

ISBN-10: 1932195726

ISBN-13: 978-1932195729

Paperback; 83pp; $16.95

Review by Roy Wang

From the beginning epigraphs to the last grasping on the final page, the sanity-bending, necessarily inadequate search for permanence is clearly foremost in Mark Halliday’s mind. With its nuanced, multi-faceted meditations on those things that matter most, Keep This Forever moves naturally through three sections from the question of mortality, brought on by turning over the death of his father in his mind; to the primary solace for most people, love and passion; until we are finally left with what the blessed few cling to in the end: their art.

The first section actually starts off a bit rocky, with poems displaying many interesting and technical accomplishments marred by some sentimental overreaching. For example, in “Chicken Salad” we reach an emotional climax with:

the solitary dignity of
the totality of his knowing
how far beyond the pleasure of chicken salad
he had gone already and would go.

Already begging our indulgence, we are hurtled off the edge with, “Everybody’s father dies; but / when my father died, it was my father.”

However, we certainly feel his earnestness, and by “Walking the Ashes” Halliday has settled into a consistent performance, drawing us in to his creative approaches with remarkable intimacy. He even makes a very honest list that gets beyond the pretention most fall prey to:

· To be serious is very tiring
· But it can also be rather calming, and makes me kind of noble…
· Instead of being so damned serious I want thirty more years
to worry about what it means and doesn’t mean

The second section of the book explores not only love but attention seeking and the hilarious situations and thoughts that Halliday encounters along the way. A question the reader may want to ponder is whether he knows he should be beyond this, or if the point is that we never get beyond it. The very first poem, “Google me soon” lets us know that he is very much in this century, and introduces us to the neurotic, hyper-kinetic thoughts spinning him through these scenes with lines such as, “I do a Cockney accent and martial arts, / I have walked out on the pier straight into the Devil’s Throat.”

The self-deprecating mock-epic often finds expression in this collection and Halliday also uses archaic words and grammar to generate the impression of a forlorn amateur poet, just barely pulling up in time, winking like an acrobatic pilot. Consider the whimsical, searching, half-serious conversations of the up-all-nighters in “Shmedlo Talk”:

More can happen in certain moments of eye contact
than in a whole night of shmedlo.
Wow, you must have had some bad shmedlo;
or some great eye contact.

This second section is the strongest of the collection, and drives us forward to the eclectic third one that features meditations on art and why he does it. It is appropriate that in the final section on art itself, he opens up to more experimentation, with third-person narratives, epistles, ekphrasis, and poems with apparent self-edits left in; these also serve as a subtle gesture mimicking the last flailing for notice and recognition.

The wry mood is maintained, as when he contemplates the possibility of being a major, “my letters, my notebooks – every letter; every notebook / all preserved, all kept – hence not absurd – / my boxes and files not absurd!”

Halliday’s ear is deceptively precise – how else could he pull off those interjections with such comedy? Even better evidence is the constructed blurt, where the speaker accidentally gets on a train of thought that runs on and on, taking him to unexpected places and ending either with a witty aphorism or burst of surprise. Take for example, “Guidebook Embarrassment,” where he details looking at paintings while on the wrong page of his guide:

Standing in the sweaty piazza I just hated that whole Italian circus
for being nothing but a cornucopia of gaudy noise
without a good guidebook, and hated myself for believing
the guidebook could make it all Marvelous and Inspiring
if you just found the correct page –

This technique is used throughout the book, keeping things fresh and allowing him to be thoughtful, distracted, and most of all, funny. Not only admitting, but flaunting the fact that a 60-year old poet still thinks in untidy, self-absorbed blocks rather than the steady, dignified elegies we may hope for is perhaps the key point of this book: that after all our futile searching for immortality and meaning, it’s often only our honest, self-aware blunders that are worth keeping forever.

 

Mind Games coverMind Games

Stories by David Gianatasio

Word Riot Press, October 2008

ISBN-10: 0977934314

ISBN-13: 978-0977934314

Paperback: 95pp; $10.00

Review by Laura Di Giovine

David Gianatasio’s Mind Games messes with your head, but in the best way possible. A follow-up to 2006’s Swift Kicks, this brief collection of stories grabs you by the jugular. A mutiny of fervent voices bursts from the page, and each story is clever, bold, and off-the-charts surreal.

In “You Want a Piece of Me?,” the strangely endearing narrator gives body parts to those in need, his limbs existing as “spiritual” donations of sorts (not to mention that they regenerate immediately). He rips off his hand as a “comforting” gift to a mugged woman and he gives her stunned mugger his foot so that next time he can “outrun the cops.” After giving his eye to his troubled neighbor Cliff, he’s weakened and his limbs aren’t growing back properly. The tension between reality and fantasy is palpable in the Twilight-Zone ending: “I thought I heard [Cliff] say something about a heart . . . as he smiled and lifted his hands. Then he cracked his knuckles and flexed his fingers, leaning in close as he reached for the buttons of his shirt. Or was he reaching out for mine?”

Gianatasio experiments with technique to the point of creating literary vertigo, and he has fun doing it. He also delves deep into the human psyche: “The Insider” is a disturbing look at a man who fears an intruder is stealing from his apartment although he’s clearly the one losing his mind; “Waiting Room” explores why therapists should never share office space; and “Cage” brings a whole new meaning to paranoid dreaming.

Hilarious, irreverent, anxious, and at times unexpectedly poignant, Mind Games is full of compelling characters and outrageous contradictions. It also has something for everyone – sexed-up infomercials, sci-fi plot lines, stalker romance, and indecipherable riddles. Fans of witty experimental fiction will eagerly await Gianatasio’s next installment.