Kurt Baumeister Interviewed by Tobias Carroll for Vol. 1 Brooklyn

FEATUREDINTERVIEWSLIT.SIX RIDICULOUS QUESTIONS

SIX RIDICULOUS QUESTIONS: KURT BAUMEISTER

AUGUST 31, 2020
by TOBIAS CARROLL

Kurt Baumeister

The guiding principle of Six Ridiculous Questions is that life is filled with ridiculousness. And questions. That only by giving in to these truths may we hope to slip the surly bonds of reality and attain the higher consciousness we all crave. (Eh, not really, but it sounded good there for a minute.) It’s just. Who knows? The ridiculousness and question bits, I guess. Why six? Assonance, baby, assonance. (And in a very special edition of Six Ridiculous Questions, this time around it’s 6RQ creator Kurt Baumeister’s turn to get a host of bizarre questions. One might even call this turn of events “ridiculous.” -ed.)

1. After centuries of isolation, the Most Holy Conclave of Calendar-Bearing Scientists emerge from their secret castle with a bold revelation: months are bullshit. Specifically, the existing 12 months. Total bullshit. And to make matters worse, holding on to the current system of 12 months will hasten the end of the universe. From here on in, each year will last for 5 months, and these months will be significantly longer than the ones we currently have. What would you name these 5 months? And would you prefer a system where all 5 are roughly the same length, or a calendar where there are 4 months of 3 days apiece and then one month lasting 353 days? For extra credit, figure out how leap years factor into this.

I’m glad the truth is out. For years, I’ve dealt with the burden of having this vast, secret knowledge. As an Associate Assistant Vice Prelate of the Most Holy Conclave of Calendar-Bearing Scientists, I’ve known since my induction at the age of…oh, you wouldn’t understand, the calendar is completely different, but I was absolutely younger than I am now. 

At that former, younger age I learned I’d have to say goodbye to the traditional twelve months. No more Christmas in December (or July for that matter), no more 4th of July (even in July!), and absolutely no more Thanksgiving in November (turkeys everywhere would have applauded if they could). It was tough but I managed, and I’m here to say it can be done. I mean, look at our forefathers, the Game of Thrones™ TV show people. They didn’t have months. I’m actually not even sure they had weeks. 

(Contributor’s Note 1: Research tells me humanity’s ancient ancestors on the Game of Thrones™ TV show, used “moons” instead of “months,” but didn’t give them names(?) Or maybe this is something they were still working toward when the Neanderthal hordes came out of nowhere (actually a cross-dimensional tear in the time-space continuum) and took over Westeros renaming it what it really is which is England.)

As far as the new system goes, if you’re asking my opinion, which the Most Holy Conclave did, in fact, not, I’d tell you I’d prefer no system at all. Just let it ride, start counting days, day after day after day. No months, no weeks, no years. How old are you, one might ask conversationally? To which a Trump supporter might be forced to say, “I can’t count that high.” Fun, right?

But if you force me—and being the guest interlocutor of Six Ridiculous Questions™ at Volume 1 Brooklyn™ you do, indeed, have immense power—I’d probably name them after pets I always wanted to have. Maybe everyone should just do that? You know, have their own set of five months named for their own set of five fictional pets. Which, honestly, would achieve my true goal of having people stop using months entirely. 

(Contributor’s Note 2: MenipPUSS!, Madame Rasputin, Van Howl-sing, Count Pugnacious von Countervalence, and Rusty Buzzsaw.) 

(Contributor’s Note 3: Though I admit to membership in the Most Holy Conclave of Calendar-Bearing Scientists, I make no representation as to whether said membership is in “good” standing. Make what you will of my need to put “good” in scare quotes.) 

2. Why aren’t there more cryptids that are clearly inspired by large, ill-tempered ducks? The Jersey Devil doesn’t count.

There aren’t more large, ill-tempered anatine cryptids because people outside New Jersey don’t care enough about them. And it causes pain, I know, great pain not only to the citizens of New Jersey but also the cryptid in question, said Jersey Devil. 

Like any devil, from El Diablo on down, the Jersey Devil is a bit like Tinkerbell. If people don’t believe in it, it becomes less real, closer to not even being a cryptid at all. What should those creatures, of which there must be billions, those former anatine cryptids who no longer live even in myth, be called? Nultids? Niltids? 

Whatever you choose to call them now that you know about them, they live in a pocket dimension unseen by human eyes. A little like old, forgotten gods—a little like El Diablo himself—they sit, lonely, praying for the day when humans will once again believe in them enough to debate their existence. Except, now, we’ve fucked that up. You with your question, me with my answer, we’ve turned these creatures if not into cryptids then certainly not into niltids any longer. Is there some yet to be named shadow-state between cryptid and niltid? 

Well, whatever they are, these critters (can I even call them that?) have got people thinking about them, which means they’ve become a little more real, even if they’re not really real. They remind me a little of anti-Trump Republicans. I think they might be out there because I hear much talk of them. But I can’t be certain until I see whether they vote to save us from what some might call…a demon messiah…

3. The demon messiah crept from his tomb, his eye glowing a bright green and his single fang beginning to smoke. Honest Walt Dingo, interplanetary trader, had only one shot with his trusty LaserKite. Yet instead of ending the demon messiah’s newfound reign of terror, Honest Walt Dingo chose instead to destroy the world’s supply of monster trucks. Just before the demon ate him, Walt Dingo called his shot “perfect.” What did he mean?

Aside from imagining Trump as a political demon messiah which seems appropriate for many reasons…the term makes me think of Ziggy Stardust’s “leper messiah,” which I have for fun occasionally pronounced “leopard messiah.” And let’s be honest: wouldn’t you really rather have a leopard messiah than just about any other sort of messiah? I know I would. 

Anyway, back to Honest Walt and his perfect shot: I don’t know if perfect is accurate in terms of assessing the success of his shot—and, to be clear, anyone who assesses their own anything as “perfect” has a suspect opinion—but let’s say Walt’s shot was “really, incredibly great.” And destroying all the world’s monster trucks in one shot would be quite impressive. But, what else must Walt have achieved with that shot to think it perfect? More to the point, what else might Walt have achieved had he focused his energies in a more productive direction? 

To answer the former, I suppose Walt may have been dying of a terrible disease which means that this whole scenario, in which he was able to skirt his last twelve agonizing months and, in turn, destroy all the world’s monster trucks (hideous creations not un-akin to an automotive cryptid) then was killed by, of all things, something as cool as a messiah, let alone a demon messiah, may have been just what he was after. To answer the latter: Walt could have cured cancer or, more apropos, his own hideous disease, whatever it was. He could have been President of Westeros or even America. He could have created a whole new cryptid named Honest Walt Dingo, which would have been a nice trick, right? 

(Contributor’s Note 4: A dingo is a type of wild dog indigenous to Australia, land of more than a few cryptids. See giant saber-toothed kangaroo, etc. (Of which you can see a facsimile at the Natural History Museum in Hobarton, Tasmania!))

4. Would you rather pilot a giant robot or have the power to psychically control a kaiju from miles away? What if there were too many voles in the city?

No. But what I would like to discuss is society’s general opinion of rodents. By the slant of your second question, I infer you to infer voles to be not good, as in bad. This is a common perception, so don’t feel bad about thinking ill of them. 

For my part, and maybe it has to do with the fact that I had a hamster and a gerbil as childhood pets, but I’ve always found rodents pretty cute. Yes, even rats. True, I don’t live in New York City where I’m told rats grow as high as an elephant’s eye, where rats, I’m also told, will slink off with an unattended pizza slice, toy poodle, or small child. That said, I had an ex-wife once—

actually, I still do as far as I know—who hated squirrels, going so far as to call them “yard rats.” 

While I found the phrasing pithy, and still do, I never agreed with the characterization. Accepting my general pro-rodent stance, I’ve always seen squirrels as far above rats in the rodential hierarchy. Is this why my wife became ex-, this affinity I seem to have for rodents in general and yard rats in particular? Who can say? What I can say is that I resent your implication as to there ever been “too many voles” in any city.

5. “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” as the saying goes. But why would someone want to live in a glass house to begin with? 

Only in post-postmodern America is this question trenchant, for a land must indeed be rich and careless for its citizens to contemplate living in houses made of glass. I imagine it would be nice to be able to look out into the world from any point in one’s own house. The light in a glass house must be pretty phenomenal. Of course, unless we’re talking about some specially treated sort of glass, which we could be, people can see in, too. Which would, I suppose appeal to an exhibitionist.

(Contributor’s Note 5: Is there a point at which a glass house would become problematic in and of itself? Are you, definitionally, enticing people to look in and see…whatever? And what if they see something they don’t like? Which seems quite possible. You were in your house doing whatever, which whatever was presumably legal, so…is it on you or on them that they looked?)

(Contributor’s Note 6: Once upon a time, an old-timey musician named Billy Joel put out an album called Glass Houses. Perhaps the true solution to this important question lies within?)

6. Who taught you to juggle?

I cannot juggle, Toby, but it’s something I’d like to be able to do. Other things I can’t do but would like to: ride a unicycle, hula dance (though I can hula hoop), and walk on stilts. 

Kurt Baumeister is an American novelist, essayist, critic, and poet. His debut novel, a satirical thriller entitled Pax Americana (Stalking Horse Press, 2017) was selected as a Best Book of 2017 by [PANK] Magazine. Baumeister has written for Salon, Electric Literature, Guernica, Rain Taxi, The Brooklyn Rail, The Nervous Breakdown, and others.

3 Poems: Mecca, Tsarist Pop Star, and God and Judy Garland

THREE POEMS BY KURT BAUMEISTER

Publishing initially by Five:2:One on September 23, 2018

 

MECCA

 

She dances death magic in white linen dress, careless eyes, sad, blue fire, her speech the slow, easy prose of alleyways and lost marks slain, she thinks in poetry, dreams of songs, forgotten bodies that bore them to silence, till now they rest in the manifest depths of her conquering heart. Cracked brickwork walks and writhing iron trellises, sleazy bars and decadent eateries, never slowing, never closing, comes our royal line in perpetual stream: teamsters and legionnaires, artists and lunatics, actuaries, newlyweds, angels, and devils, not so accidental pilgrims any of them, all her lovers just the same. Gawking at two-bit sins, screaming in consumptive joy, praising dead gods, we order another round, another tray of aperitifs of the apocalypse: Hurricanes and Mudslides, Tornados and Tsunamis. But never Famine. Never Pestilence, War, or Death. Staring, consuming, gazes naked, spent desire and spare change, creased bills and idiot leers. All dance to the bayou city beat, the zydeco slave haze heat, all sing to the sound, play to the backbeat of her synthetic heart. Sipping drowning sleeping dreaming, all come to be made and remade in the image of capital and Christ, magic and money, all come to darkest beginning and brightest end, all come to American Mecca.

 

 

TSARIST POP STAR

 

Signet Classic, blurred sketch, ill-set, black/white, tiny type, skewed, weathered pages, a conjury of dust into a tiny suburban storm. Cough and read. Cough and read. Yosnaya Polyana was his pad, it says. Mad count, mad writer, War and Peace, that twofer was the greatest ever, it says. Look at all these pages, all that bearded genius. He was big, it says, until he wasn’t. That beard, she still is. Big. Tolstoy’s memory must have seemed worthy of history once-upon-a-Signet-Classic-time, deserving of odes or at least reprises, some summary poet’s lyric soulship to carry the spirit of genius ‘cross ruined land, ruined world, ruined history, a chariot littéraire, to bear solace grace witness, comfort the ears of the god’s true believers, candles slim, bottles fat, raising fire in drunken November night. Morning come someday sometime, the future would sow their seeds again, cloak their fields in carpets of blazing dawn, no more to bear the litter of lost lives, misremembered loves. Fin de siècle close at hand and where to turn for an image to take the place of their beloved Czar, beloved count, their god literary, their Tsarist pop star, where to cling but paper icons cast in black and white. Fearing to lose a ready truth they must trust they can pray, pray they can sleep.

 

 

GOD AND JUDY GARLAND

 

God started thinking about the end the day Paris fell to Hitler. He knew the Nazis were killers, that they would destroy everything He loved. Art and Hope, Peace and Charity, and so on and so on. For better or worse, God knew on that day that his time with man was coming to an end. Still, it took God almost a decade to accept his fate, self-imposed though it was, because, after all, he’d been God for quite a while and as we all know, it’s hard to give up something you’re used to. It’s hard to give up something you love.

Kurt Baumeister's God and Judy Garland poem on Five2One


Kurt Baumeister has written for Salon, Electric Literature, Guernica, The Weeklings, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, The Good Men Project, and others. An Emerson MFA, his debut novel, a satirical thriller entitled Pax Americana, was published by Stalking Horse Press in 2017. He is currently a Contributing Editor with The Weeklings. His Review Microbrew column is published by The Nervous Breakdown. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, or at https://kurtbaumeister.com/.

PAX AMERICANA Review/Author Interview at RAIN TAXI

Published initially by Rain Taxi

ROCK STARS, SECRET AGENTS,
AND AMERICAN MYTHS:
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN
CONSTANCE SQUIRES
AND KURT BAUMEISTER

Pax Americana
Kurt Baumeister

Stalking Horse Press ($19.99)

Live from Medicine Park
Constance Squires

Univ. of Oklahoma Press ($19.95)

Live from Medicine Park is a pure distillation of the dream that is America, one with little time to waste on the clichéd façade of hard work and success we so often associate with that dream. A tale of anonymity, fame, redemption, and remembrance that rises like myth from the sweltering heartland itself this is, nonetheless, a deeply realistic story of postmodern America, of disappeared rock goddesses, space-suited guitar wizards, Toyota dealerships, documentary filmmakers, and last gasps at fame. Filled with characters struggling more than they know, Live from Medicine Park is an unflinching portrait of America’s realities, Constance Squires just the sort of clear-eyed stylist to steer her characters and America towards the truth about themselves.
—Kurt Baumeister

Constance Squires is the award-winning author of Live from Medicine ParkAlong the Watchtower: A Novel and the forthcoming story collection, Hit Your Brights. Her numerous short stories have appeared in GuernicaShenandoahAtlantic Monthly, and other magazines. She teaches creative writing at the University of Central Oklahoma.

Brilliantly plotted and linguistically nimble, Kurt Baumeister’s Pax America is a high-flying book as arch as it is deft. The spy thriller plot, particularly as we know it from James Bond films, serves as a surprisingly flexible skeleton for Baumeister to tell a dystopic tale of a not-too-distant American future after thirty plus years of right wing control. Part satire, part homage to the form, Pax Americanaalso resonates with other parodies like Archer and the Austin Powers movies—there’s an unabashed glee in playing with the loopier elements of the genre—hidden islands rigged out with nuclear devices, sharks, henchmen, allegorical names, and a suitably oh-no-whoever-controls-it-controls-the-world Maguffin in the form of a technology, called Symmetra, with vast, cryptic spiritual power. Beneath all the fun, there’s a serious critique of tendencies in our culture that are scary, but in a way that makes considering them go down as easily as a Righteous Burger. James Bond for the #MeToo moment.
—Constance Squires

Kurt Baumeister has written for SalonElectric LiteratureThe Rumpus, and others. His debut novel, Pax Americana, was published 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.


Kurt Baumeister: Connie, I’ve been eager to talk to you about Live from Medicine Park. First off, let’s cover the fact that this is a Rock n’ Roll Novel. More specifically, this is a book with a certain kinship to Great Jones Street, one of our mutual hero Don DeLillo’s earliest books. The books seem like mirror images in a way; in Great Jones Street, rock star Bucky Wunderlick is trying to escape fame. In yours, you’ve also got a rock star at the center of things, Lena Wells, but Lena’s trying to regain the fame she lost decades earlier. Do you think this is a fair comparison?

Constance Squires: I love Great Jones Street and definitely wanted to tip my hat to it in the media kit section of Live from Medicine Park. There’s always a question of how to represent the music on the page in a book that deals with music, and of course you always want whatever you do to deepen character, so I wrote a media kit inspired by Great Jones Street that contained Lena’s lyrics and some reviews. I wanted the lyrics to show sides of her that she wouldn’t show Ray in person. I don’t go so far as to think of my story as a reversal of Great Jones Street, though, mainly because Lena’s not the main character and her ideas about her career and music aren’t what drive the story. Lena is sort of a Gatsby figure, someone who the main character, Ray, thinks a lot about, but she probably changes less than anyone of the other key characters. She’s at the heart of the book, but she’s not the engine.

KGB: The idea of Lena as a Gatsby figure is an interesting one. DeLillo and Fitzgerald share an iciness in tone, a detachment critics have commented on. I don’t notice that with your work. In fact, the balance you show in developing and presenting emotional conflict is striking. Live from Medicine Park is no tear-jerker, but you take quite a few characters here and give them meaningful inner lives, even the minor ones. Is there a sort of North Star you look to as you develop characters, something that helps you succeed in developing their interiority?

CS: Thank you! I know what you mean about DeLillo’s iciness, and I’m glad to have a warmer book. I think we’re all trying to write the kind of book we’d like to read, and everybody has a different set point for what they want in an emotional conflict. I’m bored and sickened by sheer melodrama, but stuff that’s too ironic and glib feels almost like cowardice to me, like a writer not wanting to go there. I think in life I try to notice this tendency in myself when it comes up and then to make myself think about or feel or act on whatever it is that’s uncomfortable, so maybe I just extend that expectation to my characters. I do know that my favorite kind of characters are very flawed—I always feel grateful to writers that give me a flawed character I can relate to at the same time I get to watch her figure things out. It’s no different than life; a person that will say, “Hey, you know what, I was such an asshole and I’m sorry,” is a thousand times more compelling and admirable than someone who shirks and blames and avoids.

So, Kurt, to bat one back at you here: On the subject of iciness, I admire the way you manage to warm up Tuck Squires in Pax Americana so that he is so much more than just a type. I’ve read a lot of stuff in which it’s clear where the writer’s sympathies lie, and so often it means that the character representing the values the writer disagrees with is not given much humanity. Satire can be especially cold, because the conceit often trumps the characterization, but you really surprised me in how reasonable and even admirable Tuck was in certain moments. Again and again we see that he is loyal and determined; that you let those traits coexist with his less likeable ones took this book to another level for me. Tell me about writing Tuck—where did that character come from and how did you feel your way into his voice?

KGB: Tuck is a fantasy/anti-fantasy persona. Speaking superficially, he’s everything one could ever want to be—young, rich, handsome, athletic, sure of his place in the world, confident—but he’s also a complete fucking mess. To the extent Tuck is successful as a protagonist, I think the thing that makes him work is his conviction that he’s doing right even when he’s not. Like so many of the characters in this book, Tuck is, on some level, a failed Christ figure. He wants to save the day and I do think there’s nobility in that. Sure, he wants all the accolades that might go with it, but even if you’re the worst person in the world, if you want to save the world, there’s something good about you. And I think this is applicable to all the characters, including the villains. The funny thing about villains is very few people or even characters would cop to being one. With few exceptions, each of us is the hero of our own story. When people talk about heroes and villains, antiheroes and antivillains, my ears always perk up, because our perceptions of heroism or villainy, good or evil, are subjective. One woman’s hero is another’s villain.

As far as Tuck’s voice goes, I hear him as someone who’s developed a veneer of confidence, someone who conveys the conviction he’s doing right, no matter how wrong he obviously is. Because he’s so convinced of how right he is, Tuck can say and do things that are awful and funny all at once. He’s not politically correct. In this way, he’s the voice of the far, religious right in America, the part of it that seemed to be ascendant under W. Bush.

CS: I adore unreliable narrators and love Tuck for that reason, but Diana is another key voice. The alternating chapter structure, Tuck and Diana, really works; did you conceive the book that way or did you find you needed Diana for certain things?

KGB: This book was a lot longer at one point, perhaps up to 130,000 words, and there were more points of view. As I trimmed the word count, one of the obvious (though not easy) things to do was get rid of POV characters. I knew I needed Diana and Parlay; they are the drivers for the story, so I had to be able to get inside their heads directly. Tuck and Clarion drive the plot, so I had to keep them as well. I toyed with Jack Justice as a POV character and he was fun to write but ultimately superfluous. Beyond all this, if there’s one thing I absolutely needed Diana for it was her goodness, her heroism. She’s the best of these characters, the most admirable and the most intelligent. I think she understands the limits of human knowledge, the fact that we’re constantly evolving our understanding of the world.

Thinking now about heroism, and, also, failure—Diana’s, Tuck’s, Clarion’s, but also your main character, Ray’s—Ray is the protagonist in Live from Medicine Park, the hero in a way, and he’d understand that about himself, auteur that he is. He’s also a realistic character, and though ultimately successful on some level, he spends a lot of time failing.

CS: Right. Ray believes he is a cool, objective filmmaker who never gets involved or steps from behind the camera. His mantra from Star Trek about the prime objective—never interfere with the fate of a civilization you’re visiting—articulates this position. He fails utterly at this, and so the crisis of the novel involves a moment when someone he cares about on the Medicine Park set is gravely hurt because he’s practicing the same character flaws that got someone shot on his last set—he’s finally having to get real with himself about that.

KGB: Coming to terms with the truth about themselves, the realities of their lives . . . there are a lot of characters doing that in this book. What is Live from Medicine Park saying about truth?

CS: This space is also filled with the family story around Lena—her son, Gram’s search for his father, Gram and Jettie’s band, the Black Sheep, and their approaching make-or-break moment, the mystery of Lena’s relationship with Cy, and the further question of Lena’s heritage embodied in her claim to be Geronimo’s great-granddaughter. The place—the Native American history, the military-industrial history of the base, the buffaloes and the trashy bars, the prohibition-era myths of the old hotel and the rock myths walking around in silver lamé spacesuits—is important to me. It’s not a part of the world most people have their own experience with, so it felt important to show it.

KGB: Poetry and lyrics, fiction and music reviews—your book has just about everything stylistically, something few writers can pull off. Do you feel confined by form? Is the variation of form in Live from Medicine Park an attempt to move past the novel’s traditional boundaries, or are you simply doing what your material demands?

CS: I loved writing those lyrics and reviews—it was tons of fun, and there’s actually more that the editors talked me into cutting, with good reason. I felt like I had to do it. I’ve read a lot of rock novels, and it’s so important to try to find an equivalency on the page for the experience of hearing live music and watching someone in concert. You really can’t do it, but it’s important to try, because I’m not too interested in Lena as a public figure, I’m interested in her as an artist. So, I have to show her art, at least what I can. And I tried to make Lena’s lyrics and Jettie’s lyrics different—I used different models and went for different effects. I wanted them to be of equal quality but distinct stylistic variations.

As far as moving past the novel’s traditional boundaries, I don’t feel like I did that much with this novel. Aside from the lyrics, this is a very linear narrative with quite a traditional structure, really. My first novel was much more modular, not plot-driven, and the one I’m working on now is very definitely pushing against the restrictions of the form, but Live from Medicine Park felt like it needed a strong, recognizable structure. I thought of it like a song—a listener will tolerate a lot of harmonic weirdness and cryptic lyrics and what-have-you if the rhythm section keeps driving hard, pulling you forward.

Kurt, speaking of cryptic . . . I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that your initials are KGB, but I’m enough of a dork to want to try to make something of that and the fact that you’ve written in a form that reached its pinnacle during the Cold War. I guess I’m curious about your relationship to the spy thriller genre and how you chose it. Are there certain books or movies that imprinted on you? Do you want to talk about any deliberate homages, like the way my media kit is a direct homage to DeLillo?

KGB: I think my parents were trying to be funny. Maybe? Those are just my initials, though. Certainly, the Bond books (and movies) are key. You’ve very astutely homed in on my writing relationship with the genre, at least with this book. Tuck Squires sees himself as an American Bond. And his partner, Ken Clarion, I mean, he’s only fifty-something but I’ve joked about him being a geriatric Bond. To a certain extent, I think I’m also satirizing a lot of “Christian” fiction a la the Left Behind books, other spy thrillers, and to some extent perhaps something like The Da Vinci Code.

CS: Your fictional computer program Symmetra, with its genuine spiritual potential, as well as your examples of a power-mad Christianity that resonate powerfully with our own America (like “Righteous Burger,” which is so great), suggest you have something to say about the distinction between spirituality and religion. Do you, or what concerns about religion are you manifesting in these story elements?

KGB: Absolutely. I draw a distinction between spirituality and religion. I hold out a little hope for some sort of metaphysical world beyond, though I’m fairly convinced this is it. When we die, the game stops. No second chances, no bonus rounds. One never knows, though. I think what I was trying to get at with Symmetra (or maybe better to say what its inventor, Diana Scorsi, is trying to get at) is that the chances of one of the many thousands of religions being right—or really billions, if you consider that even people who accept the same dogma interpret it differently in their heads—that in the face of all that, the idea of one religion, any religion, being right, (Christianity, say, or Islam), well, it is sort of ridiculous. If any fundamentalist interpretation of one religion is correct, it voids all the others. So, it’s just sort of funny that everyone’s running around convinced they’ve got the secret sauce and everyone else is doomed. Now, what Diana’s tried to envision, which seems more likely to me, is that if religions en masse are right, it’s in their commonalities. So, she builds a database of religions and uses this as the genesis for her technology.

CS: In their commonalities—I couldn’t agree more. Onto your dialogue: it’s snappy and smart and it veers away from anything that felt expected or formulaic. You’re great with indirection and with attitude too. How do you write dialogue? Does it come easily or have you had any embarrassing experiments as you learned your craft?

KGB: What a great thing to hear. I love writing dialogue. Honestly, it’s the easiest thing for me. The conversations just sort of come to me as I sit thinking about them. I don’t use many tags when I’m drafting, just write stuff down as it drops into my mind. My editor had to convince me to put more tags in so that readers could keep track of who’s saying what.

I just try to imagine the conversation going back and forth and write it down, then go back over it again and again until it sounds true and says everything that needs to be said. Dialogue is an easy way to provide key details—I mean, it can be a trap, too, if you go too far with it—but, used correctly, it’s an easy way to accomplish just about everything from characterization to exposition, story, and plot without being too clunky about it.

THE ARENA OF LOVE, a short story

hat_

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.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.

 

 

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 Selected to Best of 2017 List (PANK Magazine)

Best Books of 2017

The year is almost over and it’s time to revisit some of my favorite reads of the year. As with any list, this is not as extensive/inclusive/comprehensive as I’d like it to be, but having to do other things besides reading severely cuts into the amount of time I can spend inside books (if you have any leads on a gig that pays you to read whatever you want, get at me). In any case, this was a fantastic year. I made a list of best crime reads and one of best horror books, but some of the best books were in the enormous interstitial space between genres. Anyway, here are some books I hope didn’t fly under your radar:

Where the Sun Shines Out by Kevin Catalano. I was ready for this to be great, and it was, but the pain and violence in its pages blew me away. This is a narrative about loss, guilt, and surviving, but the way Catalano builds his vignettes allows him to show the minutiae of everyday living and the sharp edges of every failure.

Absolutely Golden by D. Foy. Funny, satirical, smart, and packed with snappy dialogue and characters that are at once cartoonish and too real, this is a book that, much like Patricide did last year, proves that Foy is one of the best in the business and perhaps one of the most electric voices in contemporary literary fiction.

I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) by Tatiana Ryckman. I met Tatiana when we read together at Malvern Books in Austin in late 2017. She read a chunk of this and it blew me away. I got the book that same night. Imagine your favorite philosopher deconstructing weird relationships while trying to simultaneously make you cringe in recognition and laugh at yourself. Well, this is what that philosopher would write. A short, powerful read that I will soon be reviewing here in its entirety, this was a blast of fresh air.

Itzá by Rios de la Luz. This short book destroys patriarchal notions of silence, abuse, and growth. Rios de la Luz wrote about a family of water brujas and in the process redefined bilingual bruja literature. This is a timely, heartfelt book that celebrates womanhood in a way that makes it necessary reading for every gender.

Pax Americana by Kurt Baumeister. With Trump in the White House, this novel is more than an entertaining look at the dangers of unchecked religion and politics. Yeah, call this one a warning that should be read by all. It’s also very entertaining and a superb addition to the impressive Stalking Horse Press catalog.

The River of Kings by Taylor Brown. I don’t want to imagine the amount of research that went into this book. However, I’m really happy that Brown did it, and that he turned everything he learned into a novel of interwoven narratives that is a celebration of a river, of people, and of language. This was so stunning that Brown immediately joined the ranks of “buy everything he publishes authors” before I’d reach the tenth chapter.

Human Trees by Matthew Revert. If Nicolas Winding Refn, Quentin Tarantino, and David Lynch collaborated on a film, the resulting piece of cinema would probably approximate the style of Revert’s prose. Weird? Yup. Smart? Very. Beautiful? Without a doubt. It seems Revert can do it all, and this is his best so far.

In The River by Jeremy Robert Johnson. The simple story of a father and son going fishing somehow morphs into a soul-shattering tale of anxiety, loss, and vengeance wrapped in a surreal narrative about the things that can keep a person between this world and the next. Johnson is a maestro of the weird and one of the best writers in bizarro, crime, and horror, but this one erases all of those genres and makes him simply one of the best.

The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan. A slice of Americana through the McClanahan lens. Devastating and hilarious. Too real to be fiction and too well written to be true. Original, raw, and honest. Every new McClanahan books offers something special, and this one might be his best yet.

In the Distance by Hernán Díaz. This is the perfect marriage of adventure and literary fiction. The sprawling narrative covers an entire lifetime of traveling and growing, and it always stays fresh and exciting. At times cruel and depressing, but always a pleasure to read. I hope we see much more Díaz in translation soon.

Beneath the Spanish by Victor Hernández Cruz. Read the introduction and you’ll be sold on the entire book. Multiculturalism is fertile ground for poetry, and Hernández Cruz is an expert at feeding that space with his biography and knowledge and then extracting touching, rich poems and short pieces that dance between poetry, flash fiction, and memoir.

Some other outstanding books I read this year:

Dumbheart / Stupidface by Cooper Wilhelm

Inside My Pencil: Teaching Poetry in Detroit Public Schools by Peter Markus

Something to Do With Self-Hate by Brian Alan Ellis

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi

 

PAX AMERICANA: Coverage on National Book Critics Circle Blog by Daisy Fried

Nov. 8 NBCC/Lit Mixer, plus new bios of Vladimir Lenin, James Wright, Alexander Calder and More

by daisy fried | Nov-06-2017


NBCC and Lambda are hosting a literary mixer next Wednesday, November 8th at Folksbier in Brooklyn. Details are available here.

John Domini interviews Jenny Erpebeck for Bookforum, and praises her novel Go, Went, Gone as “a fresh career benchmark.” In Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Domini reviews Kurt Baumeister’s Pax Americana, which he enjoyed for its “whack-a-mole action and rabbit-hole getaways.” Of Salman Rushdie’s The Golden House, Domini wrote, in The Brooklyn Rail, “For hours on end, I wanted no other company.”

NBCC VP/Online Chair Jane Ciabattari‘s Literary Hub column this week includes new biographies of Oriana Fallaci, Vladimir Lenin and poet James Wright, a surprising look at the Ku Klux Klan, and James McBride’s new story collection. Her BBC Culture column features a new novel from NBCC fiction awardee Louise Erdrich, a two-century look at hoaxing ending with “fake news” by NBCC finalist Kevin Young, and an anthology of translated poems edited by NBCC honored poet Martha Collins and former NBCC board member Kevin Prufer:

Jenny Yacovissi ​reviewed Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Schieffer and Schwartz’s Overload: Finding the Truth in Today’s Deluge of News, Katy Tur’s Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, John Haskell’s The Complete Ballet: A Fictional Essay in Five Acts and Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour, all for the for Washington Independent Review of Books.

Rebecca Kightlinger reviews Kim Michele Richardson’s The Sisters of Glass Ferry, in the November 2017 Historical Novels Review.

Cliff Garstang reviews Jia Pingwa’s Happy Dreams, translated by Nicky Harman, for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Frank Freeman reviews three books about Henry David Thoreau (Robert M. Thorson’s The Boatman: Henry David Thoreau’s River Years, Richard Higgins’ Thoreau and the Language of Trees, and Laura Dassow Walls’ Henry David Thoreau: A Life) for America Magazine.

Julia M. Klein reviews Pete Souza’s Obama: An Intimate Portrait for the Chicago Tribune and Thomas Childers’s The Third Reich for the Pennsylvania Gazette. She also reviews Masha Gessen’s https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2017/10/26/lessons-for-american-putin-rise/GzM9xcKPHk1YyW5eOhc50M/story.html”>The Future is History for the Boston Globe.

Karl Wolff reviews John Ashbery’s final book of poetry, Commotion of the Birds, for the New York Journal of Books

Steve Kellman, former board member and Balakian recipient, ​reviews Bill Mckibben’s novel ​Radio Free Vermont for the Texas Observer.

​David Nilsen reviews David Brazil’s poetry collection Holy Ghost from City Lights Books. novels

Hamilton Cain ​reviews Jed Perl’s biography of Alexander Calder: The Conquest of Time; The Early Years, 1898−1940 for the Barnes & Noble Review.

Balakian Finalist ​Roxana Robinson writes about teaching Madame Bovary for the New Yorker.

For the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, NBCC Board Member Katharine A. Powers reviews novels by Arundhati Roy, Gabriel Tallent and Margaret Wilkerson Sexton.

Past NBCC President and current board member Tom Beer‘s​ picks ​for the Times Herald-Record are, in honor of Veterans Day, all about war this week. And here’s his What’s New column for Newsday.

NBCC members note: Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including news about your new publications and recent honors, to NBCCCritics@gmail.com. With reviews, please include title of book and author, as well as name of publication. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.​ We love dedicated URLs. We do not love hyperlinks.

Pax Americana Reviewed by Critic John Domini for Vol. 1 Brooklyn

 pax-americana

These are dark times for black comedy, especially if a humorist takes on American politics. A mere novel, it would seem, can never match the Real World. The problem clearly occurred to Kurt Baumeister, because he took his nasty jibes to another world. The title of his bleak yet bubbly Pax Americana smacks of satire, but also sketches a power structure that doesn’t quite match up with our own. Obama never happened, in Americana; rather, 2009 saw the Third Inaugural of W. Bush, who soon took his Iraq war across the Middle East, all while various FOX-Newsy dreams came true. Baumeister’s US has a secret police, known as “Internal Defense,” and ultra-rich Evangelicals, something like Joel Osteen, who work in close collusion with the US government. But Nirvana for the One Percent has come under threat, as the novel opens. A left-winger has taken the White House, rules are getting rewritten, and worse yet, a new computer program named Symmetra seems to remove the human need for God. The chemistry whiz who cooked up the stuff is of course beautiful (with a mythic name, Diana) and the Internal D duo sent after her (seeking information, too, on other Threats to the Republic) are a buddy-movie odd couple: one so Christian he won’t use obscenities and the other a connoisseur of both dirty words and what they represent. There are whack-a-mole captures and rabbit-hole getaways, and both hunters and prey are forced to see that they’re merely the pawns of faux-Christian fat-cats tucked away in bunkers like “Bayousalem.” Could Diana or her work tear down the whole crooked charade? Could one of pursuers turn from the Dark Side? As the novel works out its answers, it relies a bit much on dialogue, sometimes getting redundant when it strives to be snappy, and it falters a couple of times in its attempts to deepen character. By and large, however, Baumeister succeeds in delivering the deep chill he intends: that of a world in which “evil and… good… were just as passé as faith.”

***

Pax Americana
by Kurt Baumester

Stalking Horse Press; 375 p.

John Domini’s latest book is MOVIEOLA!, linked stories, on Dzanc. In early 2019, Dzanc will publish his fourth novel, The Color Inside a Melon.

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.