TNB Book Review: Gabino Iglesias’s Coyote Songs, reviewd by Kurt Baumeister

TNB Book Review: Gabino Iglesias’s Coyote Songs, reviewd by Kurt Baumeister

By Kurt Baumeister

November 13, 2018

Fiction Reviews

America today is more polarized than it’s been at any point in my lifetime. Socially, politically, racially, economically, religiously…in many ways, this division is born of willful ignorance, the result of small minds glorying in hackneyed thoughts and ideas discredited decades, sometimes centuries, before. There is perhaps no one more guilty of this sort of reductive thinking—and of infecting others with itthan Donald Trump, or as Gabino Iglesias refers to him in his dynamic new novelCoyote Songs, President Pendejo.

Constructed as a sort of literary mosaic, Coyote Songs takes place on either side of the US-Mexico border, the frontera in Spanish. Madness, magic, murder, sadness, loss, and love all dwell within the pages of Coyote Songs, forces struggling to reconcile the ugliness and beauty of life. In the opening chapter, a young boy witnesses a murder while on a fishing trip with his father. Later, witches and saints, goddesses and monsters, heroic criminals and villainous victims all play their parts in a story that owes as much to magical realism as noir.

Coyote Songs is smartly-plotted and moves at a pace that can border on frenzy at times. Which is one of its great strengths. This is a lithe volume that doesn’t concern itself with the excessive physical descriptions and cataloging of reality that often bloat contemporary literary fiction. Still, it’s this book’s more subtle, literary qualities I found most appealing. Not only is Coyote Songs elegantly written:

“The coyote knew that, because he was at the edge of adulthood, this one would have a harder time with la migra. The amount of pity you generate in others diminishes with every birthday. People, the coyote knew, are like food: the closer you get to your expiration date, the less others are drawn to you.”

But its penchants for metaphor and even allegory had my mind turning over everything from the natures of good and evil to metaphysics, economics, and the politics of race and class:

“Death. That was the only option. It was everywhere. Death took her husband. Death lived inside her. Death was coming out at night, preying on children throughout the town. The Mother had heard the rumors already. Parents finding their babies dead in their cradles, their tiny bodies devoured by some animal. Blood everywhere. Slithering trails of blood left on floors and windowsills. She felt responsible. Did she have what it took to wait for the monster, to kill it? Maybe. Would she be able to? She didn’t know. The thing was an alien, a parasite, a monster, a nightmare made flesh, but it was still her baby. It was still the last thing that her husband had given her. A baby to take care of. Maybe that’s exactly what she needed. Maybe a brother was what The Boy needed to forget their bad luck, to keep him from realizing just how poor they were.”

The frontera is the central symbol here, serving as the basis for the story’s action but also pointing to the various provocative dualities to be presented over the course of the book. Beyond those already mentioned, Coyote Songs, from early on, seemed to me to be expanding as I read it, growing into a statement on the natures of life and artifice and more than that the way art and commerce seem to be constantly at odds.

Yes, the last century of American letters saw many novels with metafictional conceits and heavy thematics centered on the nature of text, but the most powerful for me have always been those that manage not only to call attention to themselves as pieces of art but to somehow disappear within their own text. This is where more prosaic considerations such as plot, story, and dialogue are so important. For metafictional conceits to work, and not wind up a mass of ideas that become a chore to read, one must deal with the more prosaic aspects of fiction. Here, Iglesias does that brilliantly. The idea that words and thoughts have power, even a sort of magic to them, that they are transmitted into the world where they grow in force is here from early on, underscored by the way Iglesias shifts freely from English to Spanish to hybrid Spanglish, a technique that was commented on quite a bit in reviews of his earlier novel Zero Saints.

While I did not have a problem with the technique in either book, I found its execution more artful in Coyote Songs, that there was more of an effort to bridge the two languages through Spanglish and greater attention to maintaining dramatic context in-scene. Ultimately, though, it is up to the English reader whether to dwell on the Spanish aspect or not. There’s an element of authenticity the setting gains from using both languages and their Spanglish amalgam and it can be fun even for readers not fluent in Spanish to try to figure out what’s being said. It’s easy enough to skip over the Spanish passages if you lack the inclination to figure them out.

The ending of this book is shocking and violent, but understandably and even necessarily so. Here, with the heroic coyote’s fateful meeting with a reformed (?) criminal priest and its bloody aftermath, we can’t help but recall Graham Greene’s whisky priest and the socialist policeman that dogs his steps in The Power and the Glory.

The characters in this book live their lives in a twilight white America often misses and even when it does notice, fails to care much about. But by the ending of Coyote Songs, white America, both inside and outside its fictional world, will care about the people within.

In the America we live in, it’s easy to fall into an us vs. them mentality, even as a critic. It might, as I said earlier, be comforting to draw bright lines between genres or more still between genres and what’s known as serious or “literary” fiction, something Graham Greene was famous for doing with respect to his own work.

Taking Greene’s approach would cause you to conclude that Coyote Songs must be one thing or another: a literary novel, a crime thriller, or a surreal parable about the natures of good and evil, life and death, and even “us” and “them.” But doing this would be a critical failure not only to oneself but to the text and to society. Coyote Songs deserves to be taken seriously as a piece of art and an entertainment. Which, to my mind, has always been the goal every writer should strive for, not to accomplish one thing or the other but to do both, to live that duality through one’s art.

In a language both spare and poetic, within an intellectual superstructure that forces us to piece together truths we might not care to know, there beats the heart of a beast, a creature of blood and magic that stands astride the frontera’s shadowland dispensing violence and death to good and evil, just and unjust alike. But make no mistake, this is a brilliant and, at times, subtle beast, one of the growing stable that is the oeuvre of Gabino Iglesias.

THE ARENA OF LOVE, a short story

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The Arena of Love
by Kurt Baumeister

1

The Little, Blue Gumshoe

Reginald Van Meter wasn’t blue, but he looked it. And not euphemistically, in some down-in-the-mouth, bummed-out-pumpkin sense. Reg didn’t look blue because his wife, kids, and beloved dog, Sinatra, had left him. Though they had.

He didn’t look blue because his brother, Mycroft, Jr., had locked him in a dumbwaiter for an entire weekend nearly a half-century earlier, when he was seven years old, though that too had happened.

Reg didn’t even look blue because the Ruskies had just detonated their first H-bomb; something that had sent much of the Western World (from foggy London to sunny Paris to Reg’s home base of rainy New York City) spiraling into a panmeteorological, multicontinental, geopolitical tizzy.

Reg looked blue (a deep, iridescent indigo to be precise) because of a rare genetic condition known as potassium C-16 hyperabsorption, which caused him to emit a weak electromagnetic field. This field caused his skin to appear blue to the naked eye, even though it wasn’t, a trait that, coupled with his small stature (one foot four inches in height) and profession (world-renowned supersleuth), had caused Reg to be known far and wide as The Little, Blue Gumshoe.

Not to his close associates, of course. To them, he was just Reg. Nor to his wife, who now referred to him simply as That Asshole, his children who still called him Dad, and Sinatra (who while very smart for a dog was still a Chihuahua and could only speak in barks), and thus called him nothing unless you count barks which you can’t. To everyone else, from the guy at the newsstand to the guy at the other newsstand, Reginald Van Meter was The Little, Blue Gumshoe.

 

2

The Riddle of the Missing Siamese

Over his illustrious career, The Little, Blue Gumshoe had divined the truth of many a mystery, cracked every case from The Death of the Mechanical Maiden to The Trail of the Falling Star to The Conundrum of the Disintegrating Inheritance, and many, many (529, in fact) others.

So famous was The Little, Blue Gumshoe that his exploits appeared regularly on the front page of the Gumshoe sections of local, national, and international newspapers. He was the little blue answer to Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple. Except that unlike those legendary detectives, The Little, Blue Gumshoe was real…and little…and blue.

Having recently solved his 533rd consecutive case, The Riddle of the Missing Siamese, in which he had, first, found the last Prince of Siam and, last, found his pet cat, Mephistopheles—the term Siamese in this case being plural—The Little, Blue Gumshoe had received both copious words of gratitude and a large cash payment from the last Prince of Siam’s father, the second-to-last King of Siam.

Though he had not understood the second-to-last King of Siam’s words (as they were spoken in Siamese, which is now known as Thai), The Little, Blue Gumshoe was American and thus understood the payment part perfectly, realizing without even having to employ an adding machine that he’d received enough baht to return to New York and live in superior comfort for quite some time.

 

3

An Air of Cosmopolitan Mystery

Back in The Big Apple a few nights later, The Little, Blue Gumshoe was having dinner at Sardi’s, eating alone as he often did in those days, those days being the days just after his wife and kids and dog had left him.

He was seated at his usual table, having just enjoyed his usual dinner—a one-ounce steak au poivre et champignons along with two grams of pomme puree, a thimbleful of creamed spinach, and a shot glass bubbling over with Dom Perignon ‘29—when the large, white maître d’ appeared.

“Monsieur Reg?” the maître d’ asked Frenchly in his French accent. The large, white maître d’ did this because he was French.

Though The Little, Blue Gumshoe did not speak Siamese (or Thai as we now know it); he did, in fact, speak French (or French as we now know it). As a result, The Little, Blue Gumshoe replied simply, “Oui?”

“Zee mademoiselle,” the maître d’ whispered, smiling mischievously and pointing to The Little, Red Femme Fatale who was sitting at her own table, across the room, and looking, it had to be said, very red indeed.

The large, white maître d’ had been in America since the end of the war, and by that point he only used his French for effect. As a result, once The Little, Blue Gumshoe responded in French, the large, white maître d’ dropped his own, but only partly, retaining enough to add an air of cosmopolitan mystery to the scene.

 

4

The Little, Red Femme Fatale

Here, it must be said that unlike The Little, Blue Gumshoe, The Little, Red Femme Fatale was really, truly red. A small woman of vast means, The Little, Red Femme Fatale took great pains to make certain of her redness, employing a team of pygmy master craftswomen to dye her from top to bottom, head to feet, tip to toes, and tie to tails…every single day. She was, in addition, reputed to be an agent for the Ruskies, red here being interpreted by society as a double entendre or something like it. Despite the time and place, however—the McCarthy Era in America—The Little, Red Femme Fatale’s redness was of no political import. She just liked the color red.

Here, it must also be said that when The Little, Blue Gumshoe saw The Little, Red Femme Fatale, he saw red not only literally but figuratively, getting not mad but excited. Sure, he was still married, but his wife had left him, cleaning out the marital bank accounts (every one of them from passbook savings to jumbo checking to college savings to Christmas club), taking his kids and dog with her. Worse still, she’d employed The Little, Blue Gumshoe’s top competitor and sometimes nemeses, disgraced former cop, Vincent La Stranglia, to help her disappear.

Sitting there, looking at how red The Little, Red Femme Fatale was, The Little, Blue Gumshoe considered the idea that maybe, just maybe, he might eventually get over the shock of losing his wife, kids, and dog; that he might start over, might fall in love again. Was it possible he was even hearing happy, uplifting music? Was it possible The Little, Blue Gumshoe was hearing “You Can’t Hurry Love” by The Supremes thirteen years before its release?

Musical Interlude

(with special anachronistic thanks to The Supremes)

“But how many heartaches

Must I stand before I find a love

To let me live again

Right now the only thing

That keeps me hangin’ on

When I feel my strength, yeah

It’s almost gone

I remember mama said:

You can’t hurry love

No, you just have to wait

She said love don’t come easy

It’s a game of give and take

How long must I wait

How much more can I take

Before loneliness will cause my heart

Heart to break?”

 

5

The Secret of the Tanzanite Tarantula

The Little, Blue Gumshoe left his table and began the tedious process of crossing the main dining room of Sardi’s, which, in those days, was carpeted a shade of indigo perilously close to The Little, Blue Gumshoe’s apparent skin color.

As the Little, Blue Gumshoe came towards her, The Little, Red Femme Fatale averted her gaze. She stared out the window, gazed intently at the New York night, ostensibly preparing herself for their imminent meeting which was in fact romantic in design but only partly so. Because The Little, Red Femme Fatale had ulterior motives, as all femme fatales are known to regardless of size or color.

The Little, Red Femme Fatale’s plan was to get The Little, Blue Gumshoe involved in an impossible-to-solve case, The Secret of the Tanzanite Tarantula, one that, of course, only The Little, Blue Gumshoe would have been able to solve. Once he’d solved her case (and even if he hadn’t), The Little, Red Femme Fatale was probably going to marry The Little, Blue Gumshoe, assuming he asked, because she had been watching him from afar for some time (The Little Red, Femme Fatale was a Sardi’s regular herself) and already knew she loved him. The Little, Red Femme Fatale was like that. She was strategic yet also impulsive. She was…quixotic…But The Little, Red Femme Fatale is another story…in spite of the fact that she is also part of this one.

6

Oysters Rockefeller

Being little, appearing blue, and being a gumshoe—which meant there was gum on the bottom of his shoes and he kept getting stuck—The Little, Blue Gumshoe’s progress was slow as he crossed the main dining room at Sardi’s, so slow that the big, white waiter, who worked for the large, white maître d’ would later insist he had not seen The Little, Blue Gumshoe until it was too late.

Only through The Little, Blue Gumshoe’s preternatural agility was he able to avoid being completely squashed by the big, white waiter and his tray full of Oysters Rockefeller, Steak Tartar, and Wedge Salads. Still, there was indeed a collision—the thud and cry, the crack of glass and plop of food, the splintering china and chiming silver—the big, white waiter falling squarely across The Little, Blue Gumshoe’s little legs, which both broke, like twigs, which they were barely larger than to start with.

Simultaneously, an oyster fork flew (apparently from the big, white waiter’s tray), impaling The Little, Blue Gumshoe in one of his little brown eyes, the fork moving with such force that it penetrated eye socket and frontal lobe, leaving The Little, Blue Gumshoe bleeding bright red blood over the indigo blue carpet in the main dining room of Sardi’s.

Also, simultaneously, The Little, Red Femme Fatale’s waiter, another big, white one, arrived bearing the tiny Mai Tai she’d ordered. Meaning The Little, Red Femme Fatale was distracted during The Little, Blue Gumshoe’s accident, so distracted that she did not see the large, white maître d’ and the rest of his cadre of big, white waiters as they hustled The Little, Blue Gumshoe’s body out of Sardi’s by way of the kitchen and the alley beyond. Not that anyone else did. The Little, Blue Gumshoe was so little, the maître d’ and his waiters so big, that it appeared The Little Blue Gumshoe had vanished.

 

7

By Design

The large, white maître d’ who had been French once, who was technically now American, but really still French (because, to a great extent, the place you’re born will remain your home until you die) was also an agent for the Russians, or the Ruskies as they were known, by some, once upon a time. So, in a sense, he was red even though he was white.

Though there had been white Russians once, in a human sense, several decades earlier (Vladimir Nabokov perhaps the most famous) and were still even now White Russians available from the bar area at many restaurants including Sardi’s, the large, white maître d’ wasn’t one of them because he wasn’t really a Russian. He was, however, a bit red and a lot white and certainly in their employ.

The large, white maître d’ had not betrayed The Little, Blue Gumshoe on the orders of any Russians, though. He had done it on the orders of Vincent La Stranglia, who had blackmailed the large, white maître d’ with the truth about his politico-espionage-ical red-ness. Though La Stranglia would insist he’d done this at the behest of his client, The Little, Blue Gumshoe’s wife, this was not the case. La Stranglia had used this pretext to exact revenge on The Little, Blue Gumshoe, a revenge that would include character assassination at the hands (or lips) of The Little, Red Femme Fatale.

“Then he disappeared. Poof,” she’d later tell the various members of her little, red set. “Maybe,” she’d further insist, “The Little, Blue Gumshoe was afraid of love all along.”

The large, white (but partly red) maître d’ and his cadre of big, white waiters would be part not only of the first assassination (via seemingly-accidental oyster fork), but this second as well, claiming around town that The Little, Blue Gumshoe had left an unpaid check at Sardi’s, which was especially vexing from a guy who’d recently come into so many baht.

If by that point in time The Little, Blue Gumshoe had still been around, instead of dead, he might have unraveled all these threads, figured out who’d killed him or, if not him, then some other Little, Blue Gumshoe who’d gotten killed. Or, he might, two or three years later, have taken up the literary case of one Vladimir Nabokov and his creature, Humbert, Humbert, a man who while not real was indeed white, A White Widowed Male who had his own, manifold problems with the workings of love.

 

Literary Interlude

(with special anachronistic thanks to Vladimir Nabokov)

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”

 

8

Detective Stories

Love is a detective story after all, a mystery that can only be solved by being in love or being out of love, a mystery that can only be solved before it exists or after it’s gone.

The Little, Blue Gumshoe’s wife did, in fact, miss him when he was gone. After she and the kids had cried at the funeral, after Sinatra the Chihuahua had bayed at the moon, she realized he wasn’t so bad, couldn’t even bring herself to refer to him as That Asshole anymore. Yes, he’d made his mistakes but he hadn’t deserved death, certainly not death by oyster fork.

Would they have gotten back together, Mr. and Mrs. Van Meter, been able to work things out for the kids and Sinatra the Chihuahua, after perhaps a dalliance between The Little, Blue Gumshoe and The Little, Red Femme Fatale and/or the hitherto unmentioned dalliance between Vincent La Stranglia and The Little, Blue Gumshoe’s estranged wife, Cordelia Van Meter? Maybe, maybe not.

Love is a detective story after all, a mystery that can only be solved by being in love or being out of love, a mystery that can only be solved before it exists or after it’s gone.

 

9

The Perfect Record

Reginald Van Meter, The Little, Blue Gumshoe, was posthumously enshrined in the Gumshoe Hall of Fame, just off the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey. His Solution to Non-Solution record (his SNS, which is the most important statistic when considering things such as Gumshoe Hall of Fame Inductions, Gumshoe All Star Teams, Golden Gun, Silver Magnifying Glass, and Most Valuable Gumshoe Awards) of 533-0, a mark that may, in fact, never be broken, stands as a testament to his prowess as a detective and his lack of same when it came to the arena of love.

 

 

Kurt Baumeister has written for Salon, Electric Literature, Guernica, The Weeklings, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, The Good Men Project, and others. Now a Contributing Editor with The Weeklings, Baumeister’s Review Microbrew column is published by The Nervous Breakdown. His debut novel, a satirical thriller entitled Pax Americana, was published by Stalking Horse Press in 2017. He is currently at work on a novel, The Book of Loki, and a hybrid collection of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry entitled Superman, the Seven Gods of Death, and the Need for Clean, Romantic Poetry. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, or at www.kurtbaumeister.com.

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This was initially published on June 5, 2018 by Volume 1 Brooklyn as part of their Sunday Stories series

http://www.vol1brooklyn.com/2018/06/10/sunday-stories-the-arena-of-love/

THE BOOK OF LOKI, a novel excerpt (published initially by GUERNICA)

Illustration: Ansellia Kulikku. Image source: University of California Libraries.

1. 

Wicked Impulses

A double-steepled, bronze-bricked Gothic at the cross of Warren and Dartmouth, Blessed Savior has been on that corner for more than a hundred years. Through World Wars and Great Depressions, terror scares and countless recessions—through an American Century of money and blood and misbegotten love—Blessed Savior has been there. Or, rather, it’s been here, hawking its wares, doing its do.

Spires climbing into the black satin night, searching for whatever it is spires have always been searching for, the church has taken its age gracefully, façade barely featuring the slower, deeper decay, the architectural osteoporosis lurking beneath its skin. Working that corner—rain or shine, snow or sleet—Blessed Savior has always reminded me a little of a pusher standing his beat, selling the same lies he bought himself once upon a time.

You think that’s wrong, right? Bad? Evil? But you can’t blame the pusher for his lies. Even though he knows they’re lies, on some level he still believes them. Because he’s not just a pusher. He’s an addict, too. That’s the thing. No matter how bad life gets, we cling to what we have. What Blessed Savior has is God, Jesus, the Trinity. And what I have is you. Even though you don’t think I exist.

*

I take the steps two at a time. Sure, they’re iced-over, badly; but they don’t bother me. I’ve still got talents, skills, fucking bona fides. Not that I’d measure up to what you’ve programmed yourselves to think of as a god. None of us would.

Between your comic book heroes barging across the big screens and your American gods clogging up the little ones, you’ve tricked yourselves into believing we don’t exist, that we can’t possibly be real. We’re creatures of special effect and satirical comedy, phantoms of the narrative ether, nothing more. We’re no ghosts, though; not at all, not us. At this point we’re very much flesh and blood, more like you than we’ve ever been. More like you than you could possibly imagine.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I care if you ignore me. Loki’s here if you want him, and if you don’t, you don’t. Odin on the other hand… well, he’s pissed, has been ever since… forever, really. Don’t let the PR fool you. One-Eye’s never been good or noble, just, or honorable. All-father? I mean, I’m his son. I should know, shouldn’t I?

Hanging from some magic tree to gain the Mead of Poetry, to bring wisdom to mankind? Sitting in far Valhalla granting boons to the most valorous of warriors? Magic spears and Mimir’s head? Sorcerous ravens and preternatural wolves? Eight-legged fucking horses? I mean, seriously…

But isn’t that what you’d expect of real evil? Not some obvious, cartoon devil twirling his moustache and muttering “drat,” but a vision of light, a pretense of good and nobility when the truth is the absolute opposite. When Odin is the real reason for all our troubles, yours and mine. If he hadn’t gone meddling in your lives way back when, if he hadn’t cast me out of Asgard time and time and time again, what a wonderful world this would be.

*

Minty linoleum floors and walls of lemon-yellow cinderblock, Blessed Savior’s basement is a decorator’s acid trip gone to shit. Dazzling fluorescents loom overhead, emitting a low-grade buzz, like giant bug traps waiting to go zippety-zap. Citrus perfumes and boozehound colognes linger from the Americans Against Tyranny meeting that broke an hour ago. I know these guys, these AAT’s. They’re hell on two legs, Odin’s own.

They meet just before my 9 p.m. AA meetings, Tuesdays in Cambridge. And that group is even worse than this one. Hooting about the taxes they don’t pay, and the welfare other people shouldn’t get, howling about their inalienable rights to Social Security, Medicare, and a Christian America.

Something about being in the People’s Republic of Taxachusetts, maybe, that makes the right-wingers veer even farther right. That’s how it is, though. Back in the deep past, back in Valhalla, I always felt a little queasy, a little like I was out of my element. And I was. But even I didn’t realize quite how bad the old man had gotten until Adolf came along…

*

A paper cup of coffee in my left hand, a red, plastic stir in my right, I watch the pebbles of un-dissolved creamer bob and weave across the caramel-colored whirlpool I’ve just raised to life. Forget about reality for a second, forget about everything you’ve ever known, and this cup of coffee could almost be magic. The way the liquid becomes a tiny vortex, the way it beckons, seems to promise eternal sleep, it’s almost enough to make you dive right in…

I set down the stir, bring the cup to my lips and sip. The coffee tastes like it always does at these basement shindigs, the same as it did at the Gambler’s Anonymous meeting I just left in Brookline. Mildly toxic and burnt, Blessed Savior’s coffee tastes of irony dulled by repetition. It tastes of America.

“All right, Gustav, why don’t you kick us off?” says our facilitator, Ted, as he turns to me. Ted’s my boy, by the way, my latest in a long line of reclamation projects. Of course, he has no idea who I really am. That would completely spoil the fun.

“Happy to, Ted. My name is Gustav, and I’m a sexaholic,” I offer with all the shyness I can muster.

“Hello, Gustav,” they respond as one.

“Hi.” I cut my gaze as though about to divulge something I’d rather not. “I had a situation this week.”

“Yes,” say various audience members. Others nod, smile, and/or avert their gazes. All, I’ve learned, standard responses at twelve-steppers. We’re embarrassed to know the truth about each other, that much is true. But we’re even more embarrassed to know it about ourselves.

“I was on my stepfather’s compound, and I started having urges,” I continue.

“What brought on these urges, as you call them?” Ted asks.

“It was the valks.”

“What’s that, a new dick pill?” offers a guy in a white oxford. The sleeves of his once-immaculately-starched, now-immaculately-wrinkled shirt rolled up, jacket and tie dispensed with somewhere between work and Blessed Savior’s basement, he looks distressed, even vexed. He looks like a politician surveying a disaster site he’s about to get blamed for. “Like bicockatrix?”

Ted cuts in, “No, no, no… Come on, gang, it’s an indigenous tribe, like the aborigines, but… but from Europe.” He looks to me for confirmation.

I don’t correct Ted even though he’s wrong. How could I? I’m the one who dished him this aboriginal fib a few weeks back.

“Valkyries?” he asked at the intake. “You mean like Wagner? Those operas?”

I laughed. “Nah. Totally different spelling. And we usually just call them valks. It’s easier. It may sound like a v but it’s really something more like an fsth when it’s spelled.”

“That doesn’t…”

“In their language,” I added authoritatively, “Trust me, Ted, I’m just trying to make this as easy as possible.”

He nodded and, of course, bought it. Yeah, I know I’m a Dickens, but what can I say? I may not be “evil” anymore, I may be unapologetically good, but I still have a few tricks up my sleeves. Fore- and first-most, I am indeed one hell of a liar.

“Somewhere in the Carpathians,” Ted adds confidently. “No value judgments here, Gustav, but you’ve talked about these valks before. Does it occur to you that this isn’t just a simple indiscretion, that it’s more like an abuse of power?”

“They don’t work for me.”

“They work for your stepfather, though. You can’t get around the fact that you’re having sex with the help.”

“What are they? Maids, cooks, charwomen?” asks the politician.

“Charwomen?”

He raises his palms, nods noncommittally.

“They’re imported… I mean, guest workers… Like I said. Low cost of labor. Economic decision.”

“You mean like slaves?”

“Slaves? God, no, they’re like, they’re…more like nannies,” I add, smiling wide and white as punctuation.

“And you turn them out?” asks a woman with a buzz cut. Dressed in a red plaid shirt and a black, polythene vest, she looks like so many of you do these days. Woodsy and cityish all at once, she looks as if she can’t decide whether to blow up a tree or hug one.

“He’s a pimp,” says the politician, smiling now, an understanding finally reached.

“No, I told you, I don’t turn anyone out. I just had a threesome. If anyone’s a pimp it’s my stepfather.”

“Sounds like control is one of your issues,” says the politician.

“Dealing with authority figures,” offers the woman.

“Wicked impulses,” adds someone else.

“Envy,” says Ted, grouping the barrage of accusations into one manageable charge.

There’s a hush, as though maybe Ted has crossed a line, but the group isn’t quite sure what line it is he crossed. What Ted said doesn’t bother me, mind you. How could it? He’s responding to pure fabrication. But it seems accusing a fellow groupie of one of the seven deadly sins may have rubbed a few people the wrong way. (Which, obviously, implies a fair amount of guilt circulating through our little group.)

The silence is broken by a woman’s voice. “If you ask me, your stepfather sounds like an asshole.” The voice is smooth, light even. But the tone is matter of fact. “Asshole” somehow winds up sounding like it has a long z in the middle, almost like a lullaby.

I turn to three o’clock and the voice’s owner. A stunning, reed-thin redhead, she wears knee-high boots and jeans just this side of melodramatic. Long, straight hair, eyes of frosty midnight, breasts I can only guess at by the heave of her fuzzy lavender sweater… She looks like she could be in the industry, and I’m not talking about clean energy. Honestly, she looks like a Valkyriea real one, I mean, not the semi-invented version that have so recently run amok. That’s not all of it with the redhead, though. I get this feeling looking at her, this feeling of progressive déjà vu, as though I’ve seen her many times before even though I’m sure I haven’t. Yes, I realize that makes no sense. Still, I get this feeling.

“It’s not like you forced them to do anything, right?” she continues.

“Of course not.”

“So?”

“Exactly. Thank you.”

“All right, all right,” says Ted, busting in. “That’s a good start, Gustav. Sunshine, why don’t we move on to you?”

“Sure, Ted.” She surveys the crowd. “My name is Sunshine, and I’m a sexaholic.”

“Hi, Sunshine,” they say.

“Hi, Sunshine,” I whisper, a second too late. She’s beautiful, yes. And now she’s smiling, smiling at me.

You wouldn’t think I’d still be attracted to you guys after all the millennia, all these millions of couplings. There’s just something about the human form, male and female both—the combination of energy and fragility, frailty and optimism—that I can’t get over; something about a pretty girl or boy that can still turn my head and heart to mush. I’m smitten with you guys, always have been.

“Why don’t you give us a little backstory, Sunshine?”

“Well, I used to be a therapist.”

Politician: “Massage?”

Sunshine: “Sex.”

Gulps all around.

“And?” someone asks.

“And I got busted for fucking my patients.”

More gulps.

“What do you do now?” the politician asks.

“I dance.”

“Dance as in tap?” I ask.

“Dance as in strip,” she says.

“Where?”

“The Genetic Impossibility.”

*

After the meeting breaks, I’m eyeing Sunshine, still trying to figure out who she is and where I know her from. I mean, it’s not The Genetic Impossibility. Support groups, my writing workshop, the other odds and ends… I scan my life in my mind, searching for the connection, looking for Sunshine. But I guess I lose focus, start to drift. Anyway, before I know it Sunshine’s up on me, lovely, electric, and standing way too close.

“Look, let’s not play any games,” she says.

“I’m sorry?”

“I need…” She slits her eyes, scans the room, a spy at a meet making sure she hasn’t been tailed.

“Yes?”

“I need…” More eye-slitting and side-glancing. More spy at meet-making-tail-checking.

Yes?”

“I need to talk to you.”

“What about? Ted’s sponsoring you himself, isn’t he?”

She glances at Ted, who waves a little too gregariously. Oh, poor Ted. He needs more help than I could have possibly imagined. I’m getting it done, though, don’t worry. Ted’s my latest and greatest, and I shall not fail him.

“Umm, sure, but it’s not about that.”

“Well, what?”

“I know who you are.”

“Yeah, I know who you are, too. Don’t worry, though, it’s cool. Outside these doors, mum’s the word.”

“I mean it… Trickster,” she whispers.

“Ehh?” I grunt in subhuman double-take. I remind myself of that misogynistic chimp-impersonator from Home Improvement. Honestly, it’s embarrassing. I’m not sure how that guy, whatever his name is, has managed to spend his entire adult life doing that chimp sound and making money at it.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I’m lying through my teeth at this point, doing a pretty good job of it at that. Sure, I may not be a full-on god anymore but there are a few things I’m still good at—deception, disguise, mischief, intrigue… But not evil, not anymore, no sir-ree.

“Look, I have to talk to you about something.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. The fate of the world could depend on it.”

“Fate of the world? That sounds like a pretty tall order for a guy who can’t even control himself around the help.”

She nods, but only slightly. She squints.

“Can’t help you, though. I’m just an average dude.”

“I’m serious,” she says, gazing at me intently, searching my eyes. She looks… Well, she looks serious, and by serious what I mean is crazy.

“Fine, I’ll see what I can do,” I lie, scanning for exits.

“I’m serious,” she adds again.

“Yeah, I think we established that.”

“I’ll be at the Irish place a couple blocks back toward Boylston.”

“Which one?”

“The one you go to almost every night, McMurtry’s.”

“How did…?”

“I told you, I’m a Norn.” She glares at me. “So, you’d better show.”

2.

Bending Fate

Owned by a Ukrainian with ties to the Russian mob, managed by a Polish ex-bodybuilder named Israel, McMurtry’s is your typical slice of Americana: a place where languages, religions, and races collide; money acting as expert simultaneous interpreter. It’s the sort of place where once you’re a regular (which I am), they’ll let you do pretty much whatever the fuck you want (which I do). I go there to write and drink (mostly to write). Oh, who am I kidding? I go there mostly to drink.

I stroll in about twenty minutes after that discussion at Blessed Savior. Sure, I’m game. This Sunshine chick has something, and I need to know exactly what it is. Is she a full-on Norn?  It’s possible. Not likely, but possible. When the Norns left, they said they’d be back, but only once; only when it was time for Ragnarok. And like I said before, none of us are in any shape to put on a legitimate apocalypse at this point.

Still, it’s technically possible Sunshine’s who she says she is. I need more details to be sure. Either way, the fact that she thinks I’m the Norse god, Loki, is a bit troubling. Primarily because I am the Norse god, Loki, and that’s not something I’ve been looking to feature here on Earth. I’ve been trying to blend in, not subjugate the masses. I told you: I’m not what you think, not the horn-helmed lunatic popularized in comic books, film, and even the basic, half-baked mythology Odin’s been pushing since he could get anyone to listen. I’m good. I’m here to help.

The place is dark (as usual), a weak, molasses hue fallen across the entire scene. The scents of spilled beer, illicit cigarettes, and fried cod permeate the place—stale and sugary, smoky and sulfurous, burnt and oily. To tell you the truth, it smells a little like Valhalla in the old days. A frowning Sunshine waves me over.

“Some place,” she offers.

“You picked it.”

“I was starting to think you wouldn’t show.”

“Then this must be a pleasant surprise.” I plant myself in the captain’s chair across from her. Its frame squawks in something like protest.

“You want one?” she asks.

“A pleasant surprise?”

“A drink.” She nods toward the flute on the table in front of her. Half full of a pale, gold liquid, bubbles bunch at the bottom of the glass. Every now and then one shakes free from the group, floats upward for a few milliseconds and explodes.

“What is that?”

“Champagne spritzer.”

“Cham-what?” I cut my gaze. “They actually let you order that shit?”

McMurtry’s is no joke: a Jameson’s and Guinness joint all the way. Still, I guess if you look like Sunshine you can get whatever you want wherever you go. I should know that already, though, shouldn’t I? Come to think of it, so should you.

“Meaning?”

“Nothing,” I say, nodding to the bartender Yuri, mouthing ‘usual.’” Let’s get back to the reason you brought me here.”

“I already told you, Loki. I know who you are. That’s why I brought you here.”

“Fine, I’m not disputing that my name may or may not be Loki. It’s the rest of this tale I’ve got a real problem with. For example, you say you’re a Norn?”

She nods.

“Who or what is a Norn?”

Sunshine’s lids drop just a little. Her baby blues focus as in epiphany. “Oh, I see… This is all a veneer.”

“This place?” I ask, looking around. “A veneer of what, shit?”

“Not this. You. Trying to fly under the radar until you’re ready to start your war and destroy the planet?  How can you be so callous, so cruel?  There are billions of souls at stake.”  She looks down, continues speaking in a softer voice, “There’s no hope. They’re all evil now.”

“You realize you’re talking to the table, right?”

“I’m not talking to the table.”

“No, I’m pretty sure that’s a table.”

“I am speaking to my mistress.”

“Mistress?”

“Fate.”

“All right let’s not go getting all metaphorical here.”

“What am I supposed to do with this?” She shakes her head, gaze still directed downward. “Why couldn’t we just stay with the plants?”

“Plants?”

“Oh, now he wants to talk?”

When I don’t respond, she continues. No surprise there. That’s the way these planned revelations usually work, isn’t it?

“We wandered after we left Asgard, moved from plane to plane, looking for a spot in the space-time continuum where we might make a difference, where we could serve Fate again.”

“And did you?”

“Sure, after a few centuries.”

“Really.”

“Yeah, we were aimless at first, depressed, dispossessed.”

“Depressed? I’d say escaping One-Eye was the smartest thing you ever did.”

“It’s not as easy as you’re making it sound. What do you think it’s like playing twenty-ninth fiddle in a religion only to see it go belly-up?”

“You could have stayed.”

“No, we couldn’t. It was obvious Odin was taking the whole thing down the tubes. It would have been a waste of time to stick around.”

“Why’d you even come back? We lost our powers when Hitler killed himself. We’re probably not even capable of a decent Ragnarok at this point.”

“I’m getting to that.”

I glance over at Yuri, catch his eye, and mouth “double.”

“We wandered a long time, finally wound up in this pocket dimension that… y’know, felt right. A place we thought we could be happy, make ourselves useful.”

“Pocket dimension?”

“Like a parallel dimension, just smaller.”

“If you say so.”

“It was dreamy there, low stress. The entire dimension was populated by sentient, bisexual plants.”

“The plants you were talking about?”

“Right. They were like, ‘Do whatever. Just don’t hurt anyone.’”

“But what did they want in return?”

“Nothing.”

“Seriously?”

“They just let us hang out. Said we could stay as long as we wanted.”

“So, why leave?”

“No idea.”

“You don’t know why you left?”

“I thought things were going great, then all of a sudden one day my sisters disappeared… Poof!”

“Poof?”

“Poof!”

“So they’re dead?”

“I didn’t say dead. I said, ‘Poof!’ They disappeared. You know, into the cosmos,” she says, waving her hands as though preparing to break into some serious kung fu. “I had no choice but to follow.”

“We always have a choice.”

“Ha. Maybe you do, Trickster. You’re a unitarily integral being. I’m one of three, though. I have to be on the same plane of existence as my sisters. That’s that. If I don’t go willingly I’ll be drawn and being drawn really fucking hurts.”

“Yeah, yeah, Odin’s got something like that on me.”

“He can draw you?”

“Not draw, command, thrice a century. But if you’re a Norn, you’d already know this.”

“I guess I forgot. It’s been a while.”

I shrug, wishing I could order another-nother drink.

“Command you to do what?” she continues.

“Command me to go see him.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“When did all that start?”

“First time he launched me from Asgard. Said he wanted to be sure he could keep an eye on me. No pun intended.”

“So you understand?”

I wonder where my drink is.

Sunshine keeps going, “And that’s why I came back here, to Midgard.”

“They call it Earth now.”

“What sort of a name is that?”

“I don’t know. It’s just what they call it. If you go around saying ‘Midgard-this’ and ‘Jotunheim-that’ somebody’s going to rat you out to Homeland Security.”

She squints. “Don’t,” she says.

“Don’t what?”

“I know what you’re going to ask, so don’t ask it.”

“How could you?”

“Because I do.”

“OK, what was it?”

“You were going to ask, ‘What does this have to do with me?’”

“Fine.”

“And I’m getting to that, so cool your jets.”

Jenni, the waitress, arrives with my Jameson. Yuri must have picked up on my situation. The thing’s a triple, maybe even a quadruple, amber liquid sloshing over the edge of the glass. I slurp at the rim, bring the contents to a reasonable level before setting down the glass. Sunshine brings the flute to her lips and drains it.

“You want another?” Jenni asks.

Sunshine shakes her head. “I shouldn’t. Champagne gives me headaches.”

Jenni smirks, heads for another table.

Sunshine continues, “My sisters are with Odin.”

“Well, if you know where your sisters are, why don’t you just rejoin them? I mean, that seems to be what you want if you ask me.”

“You don’t understand. I ran away.”

“What about unitary integrity?”

“I said I had to be in the same dimension, not the same room. And I had to.”

“Had to what?”

“Run away.”

“Why?”

“He wants us to help him bend fate, to get you your powers back.”

“Me?”

“Not just you. All of you.”

“All of who?”

“All of the gods.”

“But the only way he could possibly do that would be… Oh, no way.”

“Yes, way.”

“But that would change history.”

“Exactly. And changing history would change the present.”

“And the future.”

She nods. “Yeah, well, that’s the most obvious part; but sure.”

“So, what is it you want from me?”

“Odin’s going to invite you to a meeting on neutral ground. He wants to involve you in his plan. He wants you to help him.”

“Help him do what?”

“Find me, among other things.”

“Fat chance of that.”

“Of what, finding me? I’m right here.”

“No, of him asking me for help. More than that, even thinking I’d go along. After the history, we’ve had… you’ve got to be kidding. Not even Odin could be arrogant enough to think I’d do it.”

“Look, Loki, I’m telling you the way it is. He’s probably already contacted you. He has to figure out where I am. That’s essential to his plan.”

“And what exactly is his plan?”

“I’m not sure what all of it is. That’s the other part of what you need to figure out.”

“And how am I supposed to do that?”

“Get yourself invited to Germany, New Valhalla. See if you can find my sisters and convince them not to help Odin. If you can’t do that, at least figure out what Odin’s planning so we can do something about it.”

“Honestly, I don’t understand why you can’t do any of this stuff yourself.”

“Because I’m not positive yet.”

“Like so much of what you say, that makes no sense.”

“I told you I’m one portion of a three-part being. If I was sure of what my sisters wanted—if I was in contact with them and they expressed their wishes—I’d have to go along. Majority rules.”

“So, if you come back in contact with your sisters, you’ll no longer have free will?”

“Close enough.”

“I have to think about this. This is all… I don’t know. You guys roll out of here a thousand years ago, now you’re back with some kooky story about changing fate.”

“Bending fate.”

“Same difference.”

“We told you we’d be back. You remember, don’t you?”

“Yes, I remember. But I like being human. Close to human, at least.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. It’s like what you said about Plantworld or the Arboreal Dimension or whatever it’s called. It’s relaxing. All that cosmic destiny, gotta-do-this-gotta-do-that stuff is a bad trip. You know that.”

“Fine, you can have a little time.”

“Thank you.”

“And you might as well contact the giants. You’ll probably need their help.”

“Yeah, well… Hey, wait, how’d you know about the giants?”

She nods and opens her purse, pulls out a piece of paper and a pen, scribbles for a few seconds, then hands it to me.

“What is this?”

I look down. “Tonight, midnight,” is written on the paper.

“I’ll call you tonight at midnight.”

“Yes, I can see that. Why didn’t you just say it?”

“I don’t want you to forget.” She rises.

I take a slug of my Jameson.

“Start thinking now,” she says, staring down at me.

“Why?”

“You don’t have long. Odin’s probably going to want to see you right away.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. You have to decide.”

“And where are you going, off to dance at The Genetic Impossibility?”

“Are you kidding?”

“No. Why?”

“I’m a Norn, not some pole-spinning bimbo.”

“But?”

“Oh, don’t be absurd. That was just part of my cover.”

With that, Sunshine crosses the room and leaves, a gentle breeze in her wake. I catch Yuri’s eye.

“Another?” he asks.

“Just a check.”

*

The sidewalks are nearly empty by the time I leave, the streets clear but for the lazy, late-night parade of cabbies and cops, the odd whoosh and whirl of civilian glass and chrome that accompanies them. With the reduced foot and car traffic the city seems lonely, peaceful maybe, deceptively so.

Illusory or not, this is why I like the city at night. It seems pristine in a way, shiny lights freely reflected in the black glaze that covers its streets. So quiet maybe it makes me think of my family, of what I’ve lost, of what I keep losing again and again.

Don’t let anyone tell you that being on the outs with your family, even your foster family, is a good time. For most people, most humans at least, family is the last thing you can count on, the last thing you can possibly lose. I mean, I still have Hel and the giants, but I miss Odin and all the rest of them. It’s true. What can I say?

Don’t get me wrong. I know it can’t be better. I’ve come to terms with the separation, the fact that this can’t be fixed. But you still think about it. Even as a god, or whatever I am, how could you not?

*

Eleven-thirty by the time I get back to Chateau Loki. I find the giants already there, racked-out on my living room sectional watching TV. Their stubby, blue-jeaned legs and pudgy, work-booted feet up on the coffee table, the guys are drinking martinis (Bombay Sapphire) and smoking cigars (Don Carlos #4s). They look like a pair of construction workers who just won the lottery.

(A word on the giants before we go any further. They’re not. Giants, I mean, not anymore.  Sure, I still call them “the giants” out of deference—those guys were kings once upon a time, they’re owed some respect—but when they fell they changed. We all did, but the giants got it worse than most. They shrunk…a lot, so much that they became, well…little people. You know, dwarves.)

“Loki,” I hear, in near chorus.

Fenrir perks his head up, peers over the back of the couch. Sighting me, he rushes up for a quick game of sniff and slobber, collar jangling as he moves.

“I see you let yourselves in,” I say, giving Fen a couple pats and moving toward the sofa. “Do I even need to ask whether you used your keys?”

Rueful smiles from the pair of them.

“You guys realize every time you do that there’s a chance someone will see you, that they’ll call the cops?”

“Yeah, but then you’d just get us sprung.”

“Oh?”

“Or we’d get ourselves sprung. Same difference.”

Not that I care per se. It’s good for the giants to keep their skills fresh. After all, you never know what’s going to happen and when. That was true when I was a god, and it’s true now that I’m semi- or demi- or whatever-I-am.

I plunk myself down in the couch’s big middle section. Fen follows, settles in next to me. As he does, I realize what the giants have been watching, and I want to get up, walk back out the door, and keep going until I hit, oh, Tahiti or so.

That’s right: It’s MSNBC International. The Germanic babble submerged beneath simultaneous interpretation and studio talking heads can mean only one thing: Wolfgang Bruder, bellicose right-wing poster boy and wannabe Chancellor is at it again.

“What’s the Neo-Fuhrer on about today?”

“What’s he ever on about? Immigrants,” Surtur replies.

“Stealing jobs from Germans,” Thyrm adds.

“Doesn’t hate ‘them’.”

“Just wants ‘them’ to leave.”

“So, the usual assholery? Just turn him off, can you?”

“Sure,” Surt says, grabbing the remote, tapping Power with something approaching ceremony. “We’ve just been waiting for you to get home anyways.”

“Guys, I’m tired. I’m not up for a night out.”

Thyrm smiles. “Ha, no, it’s not that. You’re never gonna believe who called.”

“A Norn?”

“A whatsit?”

“Never mind.”

“OK—”

“Shh,” Surt says, hitting the remote’s message button. I’m starting to worry. “Let him listen for himself. Go ahead, Loki. Listen, listen.”

“How about one of those for me?” I ask, nodding at Thyrm as the messages cue up.

“Which?” Thyrm asks, gaze sliding from cigar to martini.

“Right,” I reply.

Which is when I hear this, “Loki, son, how’ve you been?” It’s Odin, and he’s loaded, slurring liberally.

“Son?” Thyrm chuckles as he hands me a drink.

Caught in mid-puff, Surt coughs, pulls the Fuentes from his lips. “How long’s it been since he called you that?” he barks between hacks.

“I know, right?” I drain the glass, hand it back to Thyrm. “Another, barkeep.”

“Coming up.”

I take a Fuentes from the humidor in the center of the table, guillotine the tip, toss it in the tray.

“Wait, though, it gets even better.” This is Thyrm.

“We need to meet,” Odin adds, sniffling a little near the end.

“We?”

“Just wait,” says Thyrm as he reaches over to pat Fen’s flank.

“By we, I mean the whole family: Frigga, Thor, Heimdall, Baldur…”

“Baldur,” Surtur says, practically spitting this time. “That prancing prick’s got a lot of nerve showing his face.”

“Least he didn’t mention Tyr.”

Fen raises his snout, grumbles. Thyrm pats him again. Fen relaxes, drops his chin back onto the sofa.

From here Odin descends quickly and only quasi-comprehensibly into a tearful, maudlin state. There’s talk of Valkyries, blood oaths, and maybe even a reindeer or something. None of us are sure what all he’s saying, but it’s easy enough to tell when it’s over. Once he hits click so do I.

“He’s a mess,” Thyrm offers.

“More or less,” I reply.

Surt: “So, what’re you gonna do?”

“What should I do?”

I already know, of course. I want to see what they say, though. A good leader always tests his subordinates. He always develops succession plans. Old One-Eye taught me that the hard way.

“You have to go see him obviously.”

“Obviously. But I haven’t given you guys the kicker yet.”

“Kicker?”

There’s a knock at the door.

“Right. And unless I miss my guess, that’ll be her right now.”

 

This ran initially at Guernica Magazine on March 12, 2018 https://www.guernicamag.com/the-book-of-loki/

 

 

Pax Americana Reviewed at The Brooklyn Rail

Kurt Baumeister’s Pax Americana

The current political panorama will undoubtedly produce some outstanding critical fiction. Thankfully, we don’t have to wait long because some of it is already here. Kurt Baumeister’s Pax Americana, his first novel, is a strange hybrid narrative that weaves together a science fiction drama with a hilarious thriller and sprinkles the mixture with heavy doses of literary fiction, sociopolitical commentary, and satire. The result is an ambitious novel that somehow pulls it all off while demonstrating a level of creativity that can rarely be found in debuts.

The year is 2034, and Dr. Diana Scorsi, a brilliant tech developer, has developed a program called Symmetra, with the capacity to synthesize all the world’s religious knowledge into a single spirituality. The benefits of this, especially in a world racked by religious divisions, are boundless, so she plans to give the program away for free. Unfortunately, before she can do it, Scorsi is kidnapped by Ravelton Parlay, an unscrupulous rich man moved by the money that lands in his pockets thanks to the reigning mix of Christian extremism and capitalistic opportunism, which is known as “Christian Consumerism.” Parlay has hired Internal Defense agent and Christian fanatic Tuck Squires to find Scorsi, and he succeeds, but when so much is at play, every situation is a power struggle, and hidden agendas constantly threaten every plan set in motion.

The above synopsis barely scratches the surface of Pax Americana. The world created by Baumeister is large and complex. Geopolitical realities have shifted into a maelstrom of bizarre alliances after a war with Iran and the sudden end of the Republican political dominance of three decades. Symmetra is at the center of everything because, while it was designed with one thing in mind, it has the potential to become the most powerful and effective propaganda instrument in history, and the results of that would clearly benefit whoever is controlling the program. The result is a threat of another world war. Mixed in with this mayhem are a plethora of characters, healthy doses of humor, plenty of tension, and a sprawling narrative rich in political and religious undertones:

If Symmetra was real, it would compete with God for man’s worship, and why would the Lord allow a thing like that to enter the world? Unless, of course, He hadn’t or had, rather, against His own will, as part of the End Times, as part of teaching man his final lesson, giving him over to Satan so that he might see where the path of evil would invariably lead. Which meant that if the Symmetra was real, and it did what the specs said, it might not actually be the work of man at all. It might be part and parcel of the powers of darkness.

Despite the heavy ideas and touchy themes Baumeister juggles in Pax Americana, and the fact that it comes in at almost 400 pages, the narrative moves forward at breakneck speed and is as readable as a novella thanks mainly to two elements. The first is the author’s knack for dialogue, which helps carry a lot of the action and allows him to steer clear of heavy explanatory passages that would have bogged down the story. The second is the diversity, humor, plausibility, and depth of backstories, which include that of almost every character in the book as well as the nation itself:

By 2034, Bobby Jindal had spent twenty-two years as Governor of Louisiana. In that time Jindal had presided over six Category 5 hurricanes—Biffy, Poffy, Tippy, Albertine, Screwy, and Lu-Lu—the repeal of gubernatorial term limits, and a Golden Age of Christian Capitalism. Headquarters to Righteous Cheeseburger along with numerous Christian oil companies and the burgeoning Christian high-protein gator-farming industry, Louisiana’s coffers filled in the Jindal years, not just because of reductions in social spending but long-sought tax breaks that incentivized wealthy individuals, religious entities, corporations, and admixtures they’re off to relocate to the Bayou State.

While there is plenty of humor, action, and science fiction, what ultimately makes Pax Americana feel timely and necessary is that it reflects an augmented, somewhat cartoonish version of the current political panorama while simultaneously playing with the possibilities of a parallel political history that might have stemmed from the real/fictional George W. Bush administration. Furthermore, this intricate text of hidden agendas, evil wishes, violence, and religion does a superb job of exploring the flaws of religious devotion, uncontrolled consumerism, and patriotic ardor, especially the impossibly dark and scary part of the Venn diagram where all three meet.

Pax Americana is an absurd book, but not too absurd. In fact, the preposterousness found in its pages reverberates with warnings about the possible outcomes of some of the tendencies we’re reading about in news websites every day. This is a book that imagines the future of America based on a different past, but which shows things that our future might push out of the realm of fiction into that of reality, and that makes every laugh produced by its pages a true triumph.

CONTRIBUTOR

Gabino IglesiasGABINO IGLESIAS is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail

 

http://brooklynrail.org/2017/09/books/Kurt-Baumeisters-Pax-Americana

 

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 8

 

The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro

 

Powered by prose at once enchanting and colloquial, true, vividly-realized characters, and a literary voice that practically reverberates with authority, Fierro’s The Gypsy Moth Summer may not only be this year’s best second novel, but its best book period. Featuring a complex plot, a many-faceted story brimming with insights into people and families at all stages of the life cycle, zoology, myth, and allegory this is the rare beach read that doubles as a novel of ideas.

 

Behind the Moon by Madison Smartt Bell

 

An early personal favorite, Bell is one of those writers who defies categorization and at times even description, his work somehow managing to track the borderland between experimental mind games and the solid characterization and description of mainstream literary fiction. A synthesis of mind and heart told in a language that matches the subtle virtuosity we’ve come to associate with his work, Bell’s thirteenth novel, Behind the Moon, does nothing to diminish his legacy.

 

 

And Wind Will Wash Away by Jordan A. Rothacker


Part crime novel, part philosophical treatise, And Wind Will Wash Away is a book of difficult truths seemingly drawn from the ether. Rothacker is a deep thinker to be sure; but he never lets his intellectual musings steal too much light from the propulsive story of Detective Mike Wind. Waxing Nabokovian in its literary subversion of the detective genre, And Wind Will Wash Away is the sort of smart take on genre fans of slipstream will truly appreciate. Highly recommended.

 

Something is Rotten in Fettig by Jere Krakoff

 

The law receives justice of a literary sort in this satirical tale by attorney-novelist Krakoff. Unlike the typical, fat, legal thriller—a glossy fantasy of wealth and power filled with the noble and the devilish—Krakoff’s canvas is absurdist comedy, his goal edification rather than escapism. Something is Rotten in Fettig is a funny book, that’s the main thing; but behind the comedy, which ranges from dry to zany and even black, there’s an air of surrealism, a sense in which we see society devolving before our eyes.

 

Further Problems with Pleasure by Sandra Simonds

 

There is a measure of brilliance to this poetry, both in terms of language and thought; an intellectualization that, at times, doesn’t seem too concerned with the reader and whether they’re being left behind. That said, Simonds’s genius itself is undeniable and, I would guess, not terribly concerned with who or what it’s leaving behind. This is work that will most appeal to readers who like their poetry served with a heavy dose of politics, particularly those concerned with feminism’s remaining work and forceful critiques of capitalism.

 

Traveling with Ghosts by Shannon Leone Fowler

 

Traveling with Ghosts is Fowler’s soulful tale of her fiancé’s sudden death and her subsequent attempts to come to terms with the loss through travel and writing. In this, we see a disappeared relationship reconstructed and celebrated, Fowler coming to do the same with the life that remains to her. This is fine travel writing and in that sense it will appeal to those looking for a slice of the life unlived, but there’s also true poignancy and insight into self and relationships here and enough clever linguistic turns to satisfy the most literary of readers.

 

TNB Book Review: The Sarah Book, by Scott McClanahan

“Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain momma

Take me home, country roads”

-John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

 

If I were partial to the Denver School of Criticism, I might spend hours coming up with pithy sobriquets for Scott McClanahan. I’d call him the Chaucer of Coal Country, Mountain Bukowski, or some other such shite. I’d focus on the stereotyped version of West Virginia many of us carry in our heads, turn McClanahan’s story into a combo of The Outsiders sacking the Sam’s Club snack aisle and life in the U.S.S.R. circa 1983, a place that really wasn’t that bad compared to the coal-dusted, oxy-encrusted, Trumpist mayhem of today’s West Virginia.

But why go to all that trouble when it’s already been done ad nauseam to McClanahan and just about every other writer remotely connected with Appalachia? In their general, genial devotion to the Denver School, many critics have done a double-edged disservice to Appalachia’s writers, made it easier for readers to pretend to take them seriously, harder to do so. So, in the interest of fairness, let’s leave John Denver and his country roads deep in the rearview. (See the bowl cut and wire-rimmed glasses, smell the stewing possum as we drive away?) Let’s forget The Sarah Book has anything to do with West Virginia, or Appalachia for that matter. It’s not hard. Take McClanahan’s stunning opening paragraph (which doubles as his stunning opening chapter):

“There is only one thing I know about life. If you live long enough you start losing things. Things get stolen from you. First you lose your youth, and then your parents, and then you lose your friends, and finally you end up losing yourself.”

Something between a novel and McClanahan’s memoir of his first marriage, The Sarah Book is so universal in themes, so relatable in voice and eloquent in its realizations, that you never doubt its authority. Which is precisely the way to deliver material that straddles the line between fiction and nonfiction. Rather than constantly pulling the reader aside, winking and nodding and fretfully suggesting, “maybe this is true, maybe it isn’t, I’m not sure,” McClanahan lets the story stand on its own merits. Its merits as a story, that is; not as empirical truth. Which frees him from the constant back-and-forth writers dealing with similarly slippery material can fall prey to.

From the beginning and a morning drunk-driving escapade, McClanahan’s struggles with substance abuse are at the center of The Sarah Book. Yet he never relies on his drinking and drug use as excuses for sloppy writing—for the confused thoughts and wild narrative leaps that doom so much “drunk fiction.” Instead, McClanahan uses his altered states and their attendant problems to build suspense, as in that first scene when the reader realizes all too late McClanahan’s small children are in the car with him. Or, a few pages later when he’s pulled over by a state trooper. Convinced he’s finally been caught, McClanahan brilliantly convinces his reader of the same, only to escape with a warning. As he drives off, giddy with adrenaline, McClanahan revels in his self-destructiveness, the addict’s fundamental narcissism and the evil it can lead to, “The children were still crying, but I didn’t care now. I was free and I wasn’t caught and I was driving our death car so fast and unafraid. I was destroying our lives now and it felt so fucking wonderful.”

There’s a strange, foundational honesty to The Sarah Book; not simply truthfulness, but a willingness by McClanahan to be caught in his own, obvious lies, the delusions and flights of mania the addict uses to justify his behavior. But beyond even its fundamental honesty, I come back to the intellectual and philosophical depth of McClanahan’s work. Though the book’s beginning is truly memorable, it’s just one example of the depth of human experience McClanahan’s able to convey in his writing. Another:

“Sarah thought of all the true tattoos we never get. She wondered why people didn’t tattoo themselves with the truth like I am not a butterfly. I am not a unicorn. I am not a snake. I’m afraid. I’m dead inside.”

And another, as he eulogizes his dead dog, Mr. King:

“I told him that our suffering is a hug from god and one day we would understand, but then I stopped and told him I was sorry because I didn’t believe in God.”

I could keep quoting McClanahan for pages and pages, but that would give you an excuse not to read the book. Which I can’t bring myself to do. Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book is just so damn good—so funny and honest and wise, so shocking, soulful and, at times, depraved—you must experience it for yourself. Once you have, you’ll realize this is one West Virginia writer who has gone beyond regionalism and the need for literary head pats. Scott McClanahan has charted his own path, down out of the mountains, away from the clichés so many of us take for fact.

Kurt Baumeister Interviewed by Tobias Carroll for Vol. 1 Brooklyn

 

Kurt Baumeister’s new novel Pax Americana is a tale of espionage, politics, and technology that could alter human society forever. It’s set in the near future–but this is also the near future of an alternate timeline, where an end to term limits caused the office of the President in the 21st century to be utterly dominated by Republicans. The end result is a story that plays out like a funhouse mirror for contemporary politics and debates over foreign policy and religion, with Baumeister’s plot shifting from the comic to the nerve-wracking at the drop of a hat. I talked with him about the making of the book, the creation of this fictional timeline, and much more.

Pax Americana isn’t just set in the near future–it’s set in the near future of an alternate timeline. What led you to go with that approach, rather than a more standard-issue authoritarian future?

I try not to do anything “standard-issue.” Sometimes that’s a vice, sometimes a virtue, but I never want to make anything too easy on myself. There were things I wanted to say about our world, the real world, that were best done via an alternate history, one that nonetheless maps back easily to where we are. I see Pax Americana as a warning of sorts. While it focuses on the Bush 43 administration and setting up an alternate timeline based on that, the message is that evil intent leads to an evil outcome regardless of how well you manage, or transact, your evil; that as much as we’d like to change history, to imagine it might have been different, we never can. But not necessarily because fate, destiny, or anything so omnipotent and gooey as God is calling the shots, rather that we carry our demise in our original intent. We impose our fate on ourselves. I think this makes Pax Americana timely in the Trump era. Somehow, someway, despite all the havoc Dubya wrought, we wound up, less than a decade later, electing a president who’s similar to him in a lot of ways, and certainly seems poised to enact a similar set of policies. So, clearly, we didn’t learn our lesson as a nation. Maybe, in a way, Trump is a product of America’s bad national karma with respect to the Iraq War, our full due for electing Dubya in the first place.

How much work did you need to do as far as figuring out how the sociopolitical timeline of your novel came to be? 

A lot. An embarrassing amount. Lots of needling things, mulling them over, changing back and forth. And the fact that I worked on this for so long means the timelines had to change many times, to evolve. When I started this project, I was looking at something around 2020 as ground zero for the present tense action. But the longer it took, the less that interested me. The future was always shrinking, encroaching, becoming the present. So, I had to keep pushing out, expanding the timeline. Linking back to your question above, I’m sure I could have set the technological premise anywhere from another twenty-five years to several more centuries in the future; but there were things I wanted to say about our current time and, beyond that, our fundamental relationship with the metaphysical that were best said using a canvas that was easily recognizable.

Given that Pax Americana has entered the world in the first year of the Trump administration, has that timing changed how you view anything in the novel? 

That’s a good question. I guess the biggest change has been to make the book’s premise of a hyper-conservative America seem more dangerous, more immediate than it would have under Clinton. To me, Trump seems very much like an echo of Dubya, but worse. There’s the same sort of dim-witted, know-it-all-but-really-know-nothing cockiness but it’s not even tempered with Dubya’s “compassionate conservatism,” Dubya’s seemingly-genuine belief in Christianity.

Tuck Squires, the secret agent at the center of the book, comes off as a fairly odious character for a number of reasons. What led you to place him as the central character, as opposed to someone more sympathetic?

Yeah, I guess Tuck’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea and he certainly has some problems, but I don’t know I’d go so far as to describe him as odious or patently unsympathetic. Some readers really like Tuck and I think that when I write these other two books in the trilogy, there’ll be a lot of change for Tuck, a lot of growth. Which you need in a main character to carry a trilogy, especially a trilogy like this, one that I hope will have some scale, not just dramatically but thematically. The other point I’d make is that I think Tuck is funny and not always from the standpoint of someone you’re laughing with. There are a lot of times he’s someone you’re laughing at. At least I hope people are. And I don’t have any problem with that. I welcome that. I’m doing it myself. Perhaps there’ll even come a day when Tuck, looking back on his life, looking back on some of the traits you see as odious, will laugh at himself.

Your novel juxtaposes artificial intelligence, questions of religion, and conflicting political ideologies. Did working on the book change how you perceived any of these things over the course of time? 

I think this final version of the book made me seek a little more intellectual balance within the text. I’ve tried to look at the possibility of anti-religious extremism as a real danger and, in some ways, that seems like the boldest, scariest part of the book. As much as religion can be a danger to us, perhaps going too far in one’s dismissal of it can be a danger, too. In fact, I’m sure it can. I hope people will see that in the book, not become too convinced it’s just a critique of religion. Even to the extent it’s a critique of religion, it’s not that per se, but rather a critique of humanity’s attempts to understand the metaphysical world.

Late in the book, there’s a reference to the 1960’s film adaptation of Casino Royale, which satirized the genre and took a very different tone from other cinematic takes on James Bond. Was that an influence on Pax Americana at all? 

Absolutely. I think I talked about that a bit in my Largehearted Boy playlist. I love the 007 movies, even the parody you mentioned, Casino Royale. Much of Pax Americana is a send-up of the spy genre, Bond specifically. I see Tuck as a sort of 21st century American James Bond (which, I think, is how Tuck sees himself, or at least wishes he could), though any assessment of Bond, especially the cinematic version we’re most steeped in, must take into account how ludicrous his world is. Anyone who tries to read Pax Americana as a straight spy novel—that is, stripped of notions of satire and the absurd—would be making a big mistake and probably come away hugely disappointed.

 

http://www.vol1brooklyn.com/2017/06/20/we-carry-our-demise-in-our-original-intent-kurt-baumeister-on-pax-americana/

PAX AMERICANA Selected by LitReactor as One of the Best of 2017…So Far…

Halfway There: The Best Books of 2017…So Far
By Gabino Iglesias for LitReactor June 14, 2017

At the start of every year, I take a look at what books will be published and think “Man, it’s gonna be a great year to be a reader.” Then, every single year, I’m blown away by the quality of the books I read. This year has been no different, and despite having half of 2017 to go, there has been more than enough outstanding literature to make a decent list. Keep in mind that I read crime, horror, bizarro, poetry, nonfiction, and literary fiction, so what you’re about to read brings together a plethora of genres. Let’s get started.


‘The Weight of This World’ by David Joy (March 2017)

This is a gritty, violent, nasty, sad, heartbreaking, and absolutely beautiful novel. David Joy is at the top of the heap and occupies a special table where only folks like him, Benjamin Whitmer, and Daniel Woodrell get to sit. Appalachian noir is an amazing thing, but only when treated with the respect and authenticity that Joy brings to the table.

Buy The Weight of This World from Amazon here.

‘The Ridge’ by John Rector (April 2017)

One of the things I love about Rector’s work is that you never know what to expect from him, and The Ridge is yet more proof. The best way to describe this would be a cross between classic noir, a creepy science fiction thriller, and Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. I hate to use the term “readable” because I can’t explain it in a couple of sentences, but trust me when I tell you this is one of the fastest 300 page novels you’ll read this year.

Buy The Ridge from Amazon here.

‘Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country’ by Chavisa Woods (May 2017)

This one was one of those rare books that I learn about from a PR person, request a review copy, and immediately know I’ve found a gem. The title, the cover, the stories, the atmosphere…everything here works together to deliver a superb collection. Funny, sad, gritty, human, and dark, this is one of those books that you simply have to read before the year is out.

Buy Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country from Amazon here.

‘She Rides Shotgun’ by Jordan Harper (June 2017)

You’ll hear more about this one as the year goes on. It’s an impeccable crime novel with a giant heart, massive doses of hatred, vengeance, pain, and violence, and some of the sharpest, tightest prose you’ll encounter in 2017. Jordan Harper has written the kind of novel that makes me want to walk out of the house and punch my neighbor in the face because I know I’ll never write like that.

Buy She Rides Shotgun from Amazon here.

‘Beneath’ by Kristi Demeester (April 2017)

Confession: I have a soft spot for novels that feature fellow journalists. Truth: that has nothing to do with how good this book is. Word Horde is one of my favorite indie presses because they consistently publish unique books, and this one is a superb addition to their impressive catalog. Packed with dark memories and strange happenings, this is a tense, atmospheric novel you don’t want to skip.

Buy Beneath from Amazon here.

‘Black Mad Wheel’ by Josh Malerman (May 2017)

Saying “This new author knocked it outta the park!” is something that brings me joy. However, consistency is difficult, so in this case, saying “Damn, Josh did it again!” brought much happiness. This is weird and fantastic and tight and weird and scary and, perhaps more importantly, a bizarre love letter to friendship, music, and The High Strung. Pick it up today.

Buy Black Mad Wheel from Amazon here.

‘Pax Americana’ by Kurt Baumeister (March 2017)

If this wasn’t so well crafted, which is an obvious sign of the amount of time the author spent writing it, I would have guessed this was an outstanding narrative crafter with only one goal in mind: to show us a bizarre-yet-plausible religious/political future. As a bonus, Baumeister throws in plenty of humor and crackling dialogue to go along with the kindapping/religious/scientific mayhem. Another great novel from Skyhorse Publishing, who seem to be incapable of publishing a disappointing book.

Buy Pax Americana from Amazon here.

‘Borne’ by Jeff VanderMeer (April 2017)

The Southern Reach Trilogy was amazing, right? That thing blew up. There was no way VanderMeer was going to top himself. He was already too good, too big, too strange. Well, this is his literary “hold my beer.” I won’t go on and on about it because every other venue has already done so (and I have a full review coming). In any case, get with the flying bear before it makes all the best of 2017 lists out there.

Buy Borne from Amazon here.

’13 Views of the Suicide Woods’ by Bracken MacLeod (April 2017)

I read the first story and couldn’t put the book down. MacLeod writes short fiction with the same powerful voice he uses for longer work, and the result is commanding literature that dances between genres and can go from poetic to sad to creepy to bizarre in just a couple of lines. Like other books on this list, I’m working on a full review of this collection, and finding words to describe the variety present here is proving to be a challenge.

Buy 13 Views of the Suicide Woods from Amazon here.

‘Heathenish’ by Kelby Losack (April 2017)

This is one of those books that crack your chest open and squeeze your heart. Even better, Losack does it while telling a real, depressive story full of hope, desperation, booze, rage, and drugs. The passages dealing with kids? Those will stay with you for the rest of your life.

Buy Heathenish from Amazon.com

‘The Twenty Days of Turin’ by Giorgio De Maria (February 2017)

This one is a true cult classic that’s been translated and released for a new generation of readers. Atmospheric, tense, paranoid, and extremely dark with a few touches of cosmic horror and insanity, this one stuck with me despite being one of the first books I read this year.

Buy The Twenty Days of Turin from Amazon here.

‘Exit West’ by Mohsin Hamid (March 2017)

Very few narratives offer such an honest, magical, brutal look at both the immigrant experience and the inevitable spiral into entropy that all relationships go through. Hamid is a gifted writer with a knack for crucial details and for giving readers access to his characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings.

Buy Exit West from Amazon here.

‘Entropy in Bloom’ by Jeremy Robert Johnson (April 2017)

Of all the books on this list, this is perhaps the one I most wanted to read at the beginning of 2017. Johnson is a gigantic figure in bizarro and indie lit in general because he can deliver outstanding short stories in whatever genre he wants. With this collection, he’s breaking out into larger markets and telling the world that one of the best in indie lit is also one of the best wherever he goes. I guarantee you will be seeing this on best of 2017 lists, so get on it.

Buy Entropy in Bloom from Amazon here.

‘Tell Me How It Ends’ by Valeria Luiselli (April 2017)

Luiselli produced a short book that manages to explain the immigration crisis while simultaneously giving it a face and shining a light of its most horrifying aspects. Emotionally devastating and well researched, this is a necessary book, especially given the current political panorama. Read it now.

Buy Tell Me How It Ends from Amazon here.

‘The Rebellion’s Last Traitor’ by Nik Korpon (June 2017)

If you tell me a crime author is going to switch to science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction, I’ll probably shake my head. If you tell me that author is Nik Korpon, I’ll drop a “Hell yeah!” Why? Because he has been bringing together the best elements of whatever the hell he pleases for years with stellar results. This book is no different, and it signals the arrival of a commanding new voice in science fiction.

By The Rebellion’s Last Traitor from Amazon here.

‘There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé’ by Morgan Parker (February 2017)

Funny and touching and sarcastic and feminine and strong and wildly entertaining and unapologetic about race and messed up things and pop culture, this is one of the best poetry collections I’ve read this year, and one you should definitely check out.

Buy There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé from Amazon here.


The scariest thing about this list? Well, it’s actually two things. The first is that I am somewhat human and thus have been unable to read everything that’s been published, so I’m sure there are many books missing. The second is the novels I’ve read/am reading for review that haven’t come out yet are just as strong as these. The second half of 2017 promises to be amazing as well. What will you be reading and what have you loved so far? Let me know in the comments so I can keep adding books to my long, long wish list.

Gabino Iglesias

Column by Gabino Iglesias

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of ZERO SAINTS, HUNGRY DARKNESS, and GUTMOUTH. His reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, 3AM Magazine, Marginalia, The Collagist, Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, Out of the Gutter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, HorrorTalk, Verbicide, and many other print and online venues.

An Excerpt from Pax Americana (Literary Orphans/The Tavern Lantern)

http://literaryorphans.org/ttl/pax-americana-kurt-baumeister/

Cambridge, Boston’s cross-river sister, home to Harvard, MIT, and the vast, resulting acreage of rundown real estate. Behind the wheel of a rented, blue Epic, Tuck was angling for the last space on the block, one directly in front of what looked like an old foundry. Built of red brick and ashen mortar, this was Symmetra HQ.

“That’s it?” asked Clarion, looking up from his nap.

“Must be. That’s the address.”

Darkened with pollution and faded with age the resulting shade of a building rose in four, thick, Dickensian stories. Taking up at least half its block, it dominated the squat Fifties brownstones that surrounded it. Their basements turned into Guitar Shacks, Koko Curry’s, and thrift stores masquerading as boutiques, who knew what lurked above? People? Squalor? Nothing? Whatever it was, the reality lay in the signs that defined it.

This was what had become of the post-war building boom and its architecture of triumph, and it was a sad thing to look at. Tuck never understood why they kept this stuff around, why they didn’t just tear it down and build something else. History was about preserving the past’s beauty, not maintaining some tired record of what had really happened. If he’d been running things, the entire block would have been bulldozed and rebuilt in glass—made into something shiny and splendid, something worth remembering.

“Doesn’t look much like a cutting-edge research facility.”

“Guess not,” Tuck responded, shaking the ice in his Mega-Sized Turbo-Coke from Righteous Burger.

He’d been surprised when he’d seen an RB along the highway—Here, in liberal Taxachusetts!—amazed when Clarion said they could stop and get something. Sure, Tuck hadn’t liked the fact that Clarion had refused to go in, that they’d missed out on sitting in a booth and getting an actual sermon from Timmy; but just getting to go to RB still felt like a little bit of heaven. It always did.

“In fact, it looks sort of like a—”

“Dump?” Tuck finished.

“Not exact—”

“Pit?”

Clarion laughed. “Not that either.”

“Haunted factory?”

“I thought you guys didn’t believe in ghosts.”

“Guys?”

“Christians.”

“Of course I don’t believe in ghosts, Clarion. What the flip?”

Clarion quirked another smile. “I was thinking it looks like a war zone but I guess haunted factory will do, sport.”

Tuck smiled, too. He knew he was wearing Clarion down by that point. That was how Tuck’s charm worked with atheists. His good humor and jokes always got to them eventually. That was his gift. But he would have been a poor Christian to court favor and use it for nothing but personal gain.

“If you ask me, Clarion, this only points out how bogus these corporate corruption claims are. Look at how bad business has gotten it in America. It’s like Christian Consumerism never even happened.” Tuck shook his cup as punctuation, took another long drag on the soda—the gravel and shake, the slurp, slurp, slurp.

He was speaking specifically of the House Commerce committee hearings, their time-wasting witch hunt against simple salt-of-the-Earth job creators who longed only to do their jobs, creating jobs. His Uncle Wadsworth, for example, DamberCorp’s COO, had been hauled up in the net of supposed corrupticans and abusicrats. He’d been exonerated of course. But poor, nervous Wadsworth was so shaken by the whole affair he’d fled to his island in the Maldives. No one had heard from him in weeks.

“If you say so, Squires. Just remember to let me do the talking once we get inside,” Clarion offered as they got out of the car.

“All of it?”

“Not all of it, kid. Just at first. I know these people, how they think.” He tapped his temple.

“You make them sound like some sort of mutant subspecies.”

“Have you been listening to my stories at all?”

“I’m trying not to,” Tuck said, though the truth was he had been listening the whole time—from the plane to the Quickie Rental counter to the hour-long traffic-intensive drive—his interest increasing as the day wore on.

Post So-Zu, Clarion had spent a year up in Boston trying to figure out what had happened. He’d been back many times since—some on business, some for murkier personal reasons. Tuck suspected this was code for a geriatric bimbo or two he had stashed in the liberal hinterlands. By that point, Tuck was convinced Clarion was a serious player. The way the flight attendants had catered to him, fawned over him. Tuck had wanted to say, “But look at him: he’s old!” more than once.

From Romney-Logan to the Ted Williams Tunnel to instructing Tuck on how to skirt some seemingly endless construction project Clarion kept referring to as the Big Shit, he obviously knew his way around the city. Worse than all that, Tuck was getting used to his cursing. Sure, the first few times Tuck had corrected him, but Clarion had just laughed and kept cussing. Ultimately after a couple “shits,” several “fucks” and countless “pussies,” “tits,” and “dicks” Tuck had given up, counted himself lucky that Clarion was, at least for now, avoiding taking the Lord’s name in vain.

“Place looks like a reform school,” Tuck said, looking up as he stepped onto the cracked concrete walk.

“Make up your mind, Squires.”

With Tuck a couple of feet back, Clarion moved towards the high, smoked doubles that made up the lobby entrance. They parted with a thwuck-ing sound as he drew close, echoed the thwuck as seconds later they closed behind Tuck. Inside, the ceilings were high, the walls painted a yolky yellow that had been big a few years earlier. Across the ceiling lay a spider-webbed network of wires and spotlights, the kind you’d expect in an InterTel studio. In the center of it all sat a little man at a low, octagonal desk. With clean-cut, graying hair and a jaw that was too big for the rest of his face, he looked like the sort of size-complex sufferer/faux do-gooder who’d take a job as a keeper of wayward boys, then beat up the kids when no one was looking.

“Guess you finally hit it on the head, Squires. It does look like a reform school in here,” Clarion said, adding, “But remember. I lead, you follow.”

Tuck nodded. For now, he thought.


Kurt Baumeister’s Pax Americana is available from Stalking Horse Press. Pick up your copy today!

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 6

By Kurt Baumeister

January 12, 2017

 

Mircobrew will return in its usual form in early February with 2017’s first batch of new books. For now, here are my ten favorites from 2016, in no particular order, along with a favorite chosen by each of the authors I selected.

I have to admit, looking at this list gives me a feeling of accomplishment. I read a lot of great books in 2016, many of which I wasn’t able to include in this top 10. More than that, I’m amazed at the variety of contemporary American fiction, a range I think is well represented in this list.

Though some people suggest American fiction is cookie-cutter–especially that produced by MFA programs–I just don’t see it. From the experimental to the starkly realistic, from ornate prose to the sparest of minimalism, from comedy to drama, this list is a representation of what I wanted to do with this column. I wanted Microbrew to demonstrate the incredible range of contemporary American literature, and I like to think the column and this list both serve that end.

 

United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas

tieryas

“Still, to label USJ a PKD knock-off would be grossly unfair. Tieryas’s novel stands on its own as a fast-paced, whimsical, disturbing, reflective, and at times even poignant trip through a world very different from our own, one nonetheless similar enough to be terrifying in its implications.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 3

Peter Tieryas on The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu:

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The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu is one of the best books I’ve read, an epic fantasy that is as entertaining as it is enlightening, a perfect storm of literary awesomeness.”

 

A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell

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A Tree or a Person or a Wall is one of the best books I’ve read this year. From prose that is simultaneously elegant and muscular to its hybrid of mystery, wisdom, and earned emotion, from its notes of slipstream and fabulism to those of outright fable, this volume does indeed answer the literary question I posed earlier. This is a justified, even necessary collection…”

–My review for Electric Literature

 

Matt Bell on The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder:

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“And I’d love to add a book to the list: Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special was the funniest, saddest, wisest novel I read (and reread) this year.”

 

Dating Tips for the Unemployed by Iris Smyles

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“Powered by failures real and imagined, copious amounts of pot and booze, the seemingly ever-present threat of masturbation, and topics way more outré than these, Dating Tips for the Unemployed is a charming (yes, charming!), bravura performance by a writer whose comic chops, literary inventiveness, and crisp prose produce the smoothest of literary smoothies, something like a cocktail of Dorothy Parker, James Joyce, and Philip Roth iced, sweetened, and blended.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 3

 

Iris Smyles on The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova:

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“Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game, about the psychology of the con, is a fantastic book that is close to my heart. We fool others the same way we fool ourselves is the crux of it–a theme I’ve pursued in both my own books, Iris Has Free Time and its companion Dating Tips for the Unemployed.”

 

Welcome Thieves by Sean Beaudoin

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“From the beginning of Welcome Thieves, Sean Beaudoin’s first story collection, you realize you’re in rare literary territory, the text before you built not only on erudition and propulsive (at times near breathless) prose but drugs and crime, rock n’ roll and philosophy. Above all else, though, there’s humor. Beaudoin is, no question, one of the funniest, hippest writers out there.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 2

 

Sean Beaudoin on Valiant Gentlemen: A Novel by Sabina Murray:

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“My vote for best book of 2016 goes to Valiant Gentlemen: A Novel by Sabina Murray (Grove Press). Hooray for a return to the pleasure of straight storytelling, and ruminations on what it means to be human.”

 

The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks

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“Amber Sparks is an artist of the impossible, a sort of science fictional sorceress who pursues her unique visions with the mind of a philosopher and the relentless determination of a (pleasantly) monomaniacal miniaturist. In a time in which many short story writers (both inside and outside MFA programs) are unrecognizable from each other, Sparks stands apart. Having published much of her early work online and in journals, she’s now beginning to find a larger audience with her second collection, The Unfinished World and Other Stories.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 1

 

Amber Sparks on Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott:

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“That’s a tough call. I’m going to say Rion Amilcar Scott’s Insurrections. I’ve been a fan of Rion’s for a while, and I waited a long time for this short story collection, all set in a fictional town in Maryland. It’s beautiful, honest, heartbreaking, funny as hell, and almost perfect.”

 

Perfectly Broken by Robert Burke Warren

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“Overall, Robert Burke Warren’s Perfectly Broken is an exceptional debut novel that points to greater things in its author’s future. Through its precise prose, the alchemical composition of its story, and the honest emotion that pervades its pages this book is a study in how to make realistic minimalism work, one that never puts the appearance of truth above the reality of it. One that never forgets fiction at its best is a little like magic.”

–My review at TNB

 

Robert Burke Warren on The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr:

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“I am late to The Liars’ Club (published 1995), but it was pressed into my hand by a trusted friend who knew I was working on some memoir in which I was trying to portray in a loving light self-absorbed folks who make awful parenting choices. Mary Karr makes the trick of creating sympathetic-yet-deeply-flawed characters look easy. There is no plot, per se, yet the book has real velocity; you want to read another exquisitely described moment or emotion, you want to follow Karr through another emotional maze to see how she makes it through, as both character and author.”

 

The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky

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The Red Car is an existential mystery, one that hinges on humor, voice, and the way these two narrative qualities can work together to create real suspense…Bottom line: this is a book you’ll breeze through and be happy you did, except perhaps in seeing Leah go. She’s a character who, despite her extreme anxiety and the resulting raft of suspect life choices, you can’t help but like.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 4

 

Marcy Dermansky on Dear Fang With Love by Rufi Thorpe:

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“I read a lot of the big books this year, so I feel sort of bad picking one. Here is a favorite book of 2016: Dear Fang With Love, by Rufi Thorpe. I am still a big lover of coming-of-age books and this strange novel is set in Lithuania. It has a complicated father/ daughter relationship, love and fighting, sex and group tours, memories of the Holocaust.”

 

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

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“A literary symphony of history and fable, loss and remembrance, Music for Wartime echoes the work of magical realism’s Eastern European masters even as it creates a milieu all its own, one in which both the European and American experiences are featured, at times separately, at others in various levels of concert.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 3

 

Rebecca Makkai on Man and Wife by Katie Chase:

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“Katie Chase’s debut, the collection Man and Wife, is among the best collections I read this year. I’d been waiting for it ever since I read the wonderfully unsettling title story eight years ago.”

 

Intimations by Alexandra Kleeman

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“Kleeman’s follow-up to You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is an odd and wondrous creation—an experimental novella (or two) wrapped in a thematically-linked story collection (or two), Intimations is a literary pilgrimage through philosophy and language, realism and surrealism, loneliness and the limits of self-knowledge. At its core this is a book about life, the energy that creates and sustains it, disassembles, reconfigures, and even destroys it; from the sparest of molecules through the human and on to the intellectual limits of physics. But, in a way, it’s also a book about courage; the defiance it takes to live and thrive in a world none of us fully understand. Beyond physical or emotional strength, this is a book about artistic courage, the fact that Alexandra Kleeman the writer so clearly refuses to be anyone but herself.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 5

 

Alexandra Kleeman on Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada:

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“My favorite book of the year may have been Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear—I’ve never before read a book that toed the line between fantasy and social commentary, human and hybrid, with so much grace.”

 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora and her dream of freedom, a foundational American aspiration that endures in spite of everything America herself does to undermine it. From the institutionalized barbarism of slave-catchers and regulators, overseers and masters, to the more subtle though no less daunting challenges posed by dissension among the oppressed and indifference among the free, this is one woman’s odyssey of hope and fear, the dangerous seduction of motion juxtaposed with the lure of stasis.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 4

 

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get through to Colson Whitehead, which is no one’s fault but mine. I decided to put this list together very late in the year and, as a result, I was making requests of people over the holidays. I’m lucky—and grateful—that many of the writers I selected were able to come through on short notice.