Kurt Baumeister Interviewed by Bestselling Author Christine Sneed

Q and A with Kurt Baumeister about his new novel PAX AMERICANA

1.  Tell us a little about your new novel.First off, Christine, thank you so much for interviewing me! As a debut author at a new press, it’s not always easy to capture the interest of the media. I appreciate your generosity in giving me this opportunity.

Pax Americana is my first novel, the beginning of a trilogy I’ve been working on for more than a decade. I began the project during the Bush administration as a response to the greed, militarism, and religious extremism I saw growing in America in the wake of 9/11. Those impulses have always been with us, I think, in America and, more broadly, humanity. But the first decade of the 21st century saw them reach what seemed to be an apex—the Great Recession born of the housing crash, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the idea of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West—sadly, that hasn’t been the truth of it.

Turns out after what may well come to seem the idyllic Obama administration, we’ve doubled down on all the things that made his predecessor, Dubya, such a horrible president. The know-nothing-ism, the Christian bigotry, the militarism, the ludicrous tax cuts for the wealthy, the overspending. With Trump, it seems we’re going to get every bit of Dubya’s disastrous policies without the benefit of his “compassionate conservatism” or the experienced advisors he brought to Washington care of his father’s administration. And it’s all going to be delivered to us by a uniquely boorish neo-fascist jackass, one Donald J. Trump. Maybe the only positive I can take from the current environment is that it makes Pax Americana relevant in a way it may not have been had Clinton won.

A literary thriller set in 2034, Pax Americana is a satirical spy novel about an America that’s run wild with Christianity and extreme capitalism; the blending of which (do unto others, turn the other cheek, the bit about the rich man and the camel) would seem impossible in the abstract. Somehow we manage. Pax Americana’s protagonist is a young government agent named Tuck Squires. Tuck’s wealthy and handsome, tall and athletic—everything you’d want if you were creating a secret agent in a lab—but he’s also an evangelical Christian and a bit of a fuck-up. Paired with a much older former super-spy (and semi-former drunk) named Ken Clarion, Tuck takes off to investigate the disappearance of Diana Scorsi, a scientist who’s developed a breakthrough spirituality program, a sort of non-denominational god software. The technology is called Symmetra and it represents an advance so disruptive it has the potential to bring about world peace on one hand, apocalypse on the other.

2.  How did this novel begin, i.e. was there a model for Tuck Squires, for example?

Pax Americana began more than a decade ago with a short story about an inventor of “God” software and an American real estate developer trying to rebuild Jerusalem in the wake of a catastrophic terrorist attack. I won’t get too far into it, because I see a lot of the material as working into the other two books in the trilogy; but, I can say without reservation, it began in a very different place than it ended. I guess anything you work on that long is going to change a lot during construction. As to Tuck, I suppose he’s a fantasy of sorts. From the outside at least, he’s the guy I would have liked to be. But there’s plenty of self-mockery built into the fantasy. While he may seem perfect, Tuck is a victim of his own privilege, his head, like those of many Americans, filled with stereotypes about poor people, women, racial minorities, and non-Christians. He’s a bumbler, too. I mean, Tuck may look like one of those brooding Ralph Lauren models and he may think he’s James Bond; but deep down he’s more like a cross between Mitt Romney and Daffy Duck. For me, perhaps the most interesting thing about Tuck is how unaware of his own flaws he is; not to mention those of America, Christianity, and Capitalism. But that’s all going to change. This trilogy represents a kooky sort of intellectual and spiritual journey for Tuck, his very own Road to Damascus.

3. You name Martin Amis as one of your biggest literary influences – which books of his, specifically? (I’m a huge fan of The Information and his memoir Experience, in particular).

I’m a big believer in the importance of masters to a writer and Amis is chief among mine. I also love The Information. I’ve read that three times. But my favorite book by Amis and I think the one that most influenced me as a writer is London Fields. I’ve read it six times.

I told Amis that once. It was at a reading of his in Boston. The end of the night, the end of a long, long signing line, I finally got to talk to him and my brain froze. All I could spit out was something like “I’m a huge fan” and the bit about having read London Fields an ungodly number of times (perhaps at that point it was three or four). I’ll never forget his response, “What on earth for?”

I did a double take, trying to figure out whether my literary hero was mocking me; but it was a sincere question, the sort that defines a writer with real class. He waved off the Waterstone’s minders who’d swooped in to rescue him from an obvious lunatic and listened as I told him what I thought of his book. I doubt the conversation lasted more than a minute, and I’m sure it didn’t register with Amis, but it was a memorable experience for me.  

4. You write book reviews frequently for The Nervous Breakdown–how do your critical skills influence your fiction writing?  

 Yes, I do a book review column for The Nervous Breakdown. It’s a micro review column so I cover six books each time, three hundred words or so on each. I also do longer form reviews for other outlets, most notably Electric Literature. I need to get back to my column. I’ve let it slide a bit lately, but once this book is released I intend to dive back in.

I spend a lot of time thinking about symbolism and themes when I’m reviewing, and I think that carries over to my fiction. I know there are plenty of writers, professors, and critics who shy away from talking about those things. Maybe they see them as juvenile, but to me, it’s important to think about what’s behind a text. To be clear: While I think themes and symbols are important, I also think they’re malleable in that they can have different, valid meanings for different readers. When I think of symbols in fiction, I come back to Kundera’s philosophy of the novel, “The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything… In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead. The totalitarian world, whether founded on Marx, Islam, or anything else, is a world of answers rather than questions. There, the novel has no place.” I’d simplify this as saying, “The novelist’s job is to ask questions, not to answer them.” To which I’d add, there are many different sorts of questions.

5.  Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, is a character here & is satirized with great wit – aside from the obvious, his political platform, what led you to choose him as one of your emblematic characters of right-wing policy? 

Jindal is uniquely representative of the Bush era for me. More than that, he provides a bridge to the Obama years and understanding what the Republicans took away from Obama’s presidency. The Republicans both hated and admired Obama because of what he achieved despite his race and his youth. Yet, that’s what they boiled him down to: race and youth. And, so, with someone like Jindal, they attempted to find their own Obama, their own youthful minority politician. But the fact that they spent so much time trying to make Jindal into a star points to how little they understood Obama’s appeal. They didn’t get Obama’s intellect or his charm, his charisma, his skill as an orator, or any of his other singular qualities. They only understood he was young and a minority. Jindal failed as a national political figure not because he was young or a minority, but because that’s all he was. In a way, Pax Americana is a send-up of what America might have looked like if the Republicans had gotten everything they’d wanted, and that had just kept going. And so, as part of that, I made Bobby Jindal Governor of Louisiana, basically forever.

6.  Did you ever think about setting this novel in the present?  Or did you know from the beginning that you would set it in 2034 or thereabouts?

I considered making the timing different initially. In the end, divorcing it from present day was important. The alternate history angle of this was central to me, and the geopolitical, social, and technological extrapolations had to work. I spent a lot time charting out political events and life cycles for various characters, making sure they did. Ultimately, 2034 was the year when things came together.

7.  What’s next, if you don’t mind telling us?

Mind? Are you kidding? I’d love to.

Right now, I’m working on a novel called Loki’s Gambit. A mythocomic crime fantasy set (mostly) in the modern world, the book is narrated in first person by the Norse god Loki. In addition to POV, there are a few other twists on the typical rendering of Norse mythology, most important probably that Loki’s “good.” Consequently, the typically “good” gods (Odin, Thor, etc.) are evil. There’s also Nazi gold, modern conservatism and neo-fascism (even a bit about Trump), a little magic, a lot of sex, BMW’s, biker gangs, a coup in Germany, giant little people, a dog named Fenris, a norn named Sunshine, and, of course, a caper or two. As for Pax Americana, this book is indeed the beginning of a trilogy. The other volumes, for which I have plenty of material, are tentatively entitled Virtual Jerusalem and The Gods of Heroes and Villains. I’m also about halfway through a poetry collection, which I don’t expect to make much money but I very much want to see in print.

Kurt Baumeister has written for Salon, Electric Literature, The Weeklings, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, The Good Men Project, and others. An Emerson MFA and Contributing Editor with The Weeklings, his monthly Review Microbrew column is published by The Nervous Breakdown. Baumeister’s debut novel, a satirical thriller entitled Pax Americana, will be published by Stalking Horse Press in early 2017. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, or at www.kurtbaumeister.com.

Caroline Leavitt Interviews Kurt Baumeister + Bonus Excerpt

http://carolineleavittville.blogspot.com/2017/03/kurt-baumeister-talks-about-his-jazzy.html

 

March 11, 2017

Kurt Baumeister talks about his jazzy new political thriller Pax Americana, spirituality, God, gods, writing and so much more. Plus, read an excerpt!

I’m always thrilled when someone I know writes a novel that knocks my socks off–and Kurt Baumeister’s knocked my shoes off, too. It’s a political thriller and trust me, it’s that good.

Kurt Baumeister’s writing has appeared in Salon, Electric Literature, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and The Good Men Project. His debut novel PAX AMERICANA will be published in 2017 by Stalking Horse Press. A graduate of Emerson’s MFA program, Kurt lives in Virginia. Find him at http://www.kurtbaumeister.com. Thanks so much Kurt for being here.

I always want to know what was haunting the author enough to write a particular book—so, what was haunting you?

Religion, philosophy, spirituality, God, gods, the concept of the metaphysical—those are some of the things that animated my thinking about PAX AMERICANA. Over time, I’ve come to see these sorts of issues as simultaneously significant and absurd. Which probably explains why this book is satirical. I don’t see the metaphysical world as non-existent necessarily—though I am a skeptic—but to the extent that world does exist, I see it largely as unknowable. As far as religion itself goes, my feeling is you should go with whatever gets you through the night.  If believing in a God (or Goddess or gods or goddesses) makes your life easier, that’s a good thing. As long as your belief doesn’t impose itself on the reality of others. Which, I think, is where the trouble usually starts. That’s the line we walk in America. How do you allow people to believe what they want without burdening others as a result of those beliefs? I think America’s founders were mostly inclined to favor religion, to see it as a good (even necessary) thing in and of itself. I also think they would have very different opinions today, knowing all we know. That’s not to say that a constitution written today would not have freedom of religion as a guaranteed right, but the ability to proselytize, to control the public square with your religion, the tax exemptions for simply being churches (rather than doing material good) would probably be curtailed. Other book-related hauntings: America, the corporate state, fast food, theocracies, advertising, the conservative bubble, nuclear war, New Orleans, Ian Fleming’s James Bond, animals, sports cars, silly names for products, people, and just about everything else. Man, Caroline, I am haunted by a lot.

Writing a novel is like trying to get your way out of jungle with only a dull-edged butter knife instead of a machete. But there are surprises along the way. What were yours? And what kind of writer are you?

Well, based on this example, I’d say I’m clearly the sort of writer who’d bring a butter knife to a machete fight. And I did. My god, did this book take me a long time. I wrote PAX AMERICANA as a more experimental novel first (though, it wasn’t called PAX AMERICANA then). By the time I was done with that draft, I had 130K words, 111 chapters, and seven narrators. So, basically, a pretentious mess. I cut the manuscript without much mercy, got it down to the 50K range then built it back up into something I hoped would be a bit more commercial but still retain some of the spoofy, satirical, metafictional feel I wanted.  I suppose the most surprising thing about the book is how much of a transformation Diana Scorsi underwent from the first version to the final. Besides having a different name and a much more elaborate back story in earlier drafts, she was one of the book’s villains. Though, in my (fictional) world I try to muck around with concepts of heroism and villainy. And regardless of where I personally come down on each character, I try to give them enough autonomy to see themselves as the hero of their own story, even if they might not be the hero of mine.

Your political thriller is so innovative, so fresh, that I’d love it if you’d talk about what is wrong with the traditional thriller (and what might be right.) And did you ever feel like you were breaking rules (and did you take great glee in that)?

Thank you so much for saying that. Words like ‘innovative’ do my dark little heart good. I have a difficult time categorizing this book: lurching from literary fiction to slipstream, spy novel to satire, thriller to science fiction when I do try. I guess the best thing to say is that it’s a combination of all these; though that doesn’t make for a very concise pitch. To the extent this is a political thriller, I see it as a sort of anti-thriller. It’s not that I dislike the genre. I grew up watching James Bond save the world, and reading about it, too. This is more an anti-thriller in that many of the genre conventions serve satirical purposes and also in that the tropes of the hero serving God and country are very much in doubt. One of my great interests is politics. I suppose on some level this is an attempt to create a real political back story for a thriller, to fully engage with the politics that are usually held at arm’s length. Even though, ultimately, the politics here are satirical, too. The things I think the thriller genre does absolutely get right are its pacing, attention to plot, story, and dialogue. I think these more “mundane” literary virtues are often completely forgotten in “literary” fiction. A lot of people can write great sentences. (By a lot of people, I mean a lot of serious, professional writers.) But, can you do that, make the machine move, and still make people feel something (even if that something is only laughter)? That’s the real trick.

What advice do you give other writers?

I love giving advice to people. When they ask for it.  But, as far as writing is concerned, I’ve come to believe the best thing we can do is accept that each person must walk their own path. This doesn’t mean you refrain from giving writing advice (and especially for teachers, this would be silly), but it does mean accepting your rules or precepts, or whatever you call them, may not work at all for someone else. For me, this particularly applies to art and craft (prose style, artistic vision, use of symbolism, etc.) as opposed to the business side of things (how to deal with submissions, agents, publishers, and booksellers, etc.). In my experience, the worst writing teachers are, unfortunately, also the most dogmatic. Like tourists lost in a foreign land, they shout the same words louder and louder in the careless certainty everyone will eventually understand. And they may, in fact, have cracked the code for themselves. Which is something to applaud. But the truly universal in the teaching of art? The inviolable, infallible truth? To me, that doesn’t exist. Except for one thing: “Does it work?” This makes for a lot of trial and error, but for me, it’s the only way to go.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The election, no question. It’s miraculous how every four years we forget everything we’d learned four years before. During primary season, we spend so much time fighting over relatively small differences, making them out to be far greater than they are. Then, during the general election every candidate heads for the middle at light speed. Probably the most interesting part is how obvious things seem in retrospect and how unobvious they are as they happen. Obama didn’t beat Romney by a lot. He didn’t beat McCain by a lot. The country is fairly evenly divided. So, even though a candidate like Trump or Clinton may seem so absolutely ridiculous, so unsupportable, to those of us on the other side, it doesn’t necessarily seem that way to the small group of people in the middle, the ones who actually decide our elections. Even landslide elections (Nixon-McGovern, Reagan-Mondale, Bush-Dukakis), results that seem so certain in retrospect, really weren’t. If we accelerate the timetable for something like Watergate or Iran-Contra, those elections’ results might have been starkly different. The idea of alternate histories fascinates me and no doubt an alternate reality in which the George W. Bush Administration was a complete success (for all the most horrible reasons) is central to PAX AMERICANA.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

KGB (as CL): Are there more where this came from?

KGB (as KGB): More books, you mean? Please mean more books.

KGB (as CL): Sure, OK…

KGB (as KGB): Definitely. Right now I’m working on a mythocomic crime fantasy called LOKI’S GAMBIT. You’d rightly draw the conclusion that it has something to do with Norse mythology, that the god Loki is, in fact, the narrator and protagonist, though it’s set in the modern world and there are a few twists (most important Loki’s “good,” sort of). The challenge has been to write away from AMERICAN GODS, a book I hadn’t read until long after I started working on LOKI’S GAMBIT. I do think I’m accomplishing that—writing away from Gaiman’s book—though to make that work I’ve had to move most of the story to Europe. Which makes sense since the story was always about World War II, Nazi gold, modern conservatism, and the evolution of the Norse gods. As for PAX AMERICANA, this book is indeed the beginning of a trilogy. The other volumes, for which I have plenty of material, are tentatively entitled VIRTUAL JERUSALEM and THE GODS OF HEROES AND VILLAINS. I’m also about halfway through a poetry collection.

EXCERPT FROM PAX AMERICANA
(c) by Kurt Baumeister

Hunter’s office was its usual seventy-two degrees, arid, and suffused with the same bronzed mixture of subterranean darkness and simulated daylight, the artificial shadows, that permeated HQ. Tuck sat in one of Hunter’s rust-hued, industrially-upholstered, government guest chairs staring across a desk arrayed with official gifts, piles of paper, and—he knew—more than a few camouflaged weapons. One in particular had caught his eye—a brass chimp just a little taller than the Captain Christianity action figures he’d played with as a boy.

Armed with a scimitar in one hand and an American flag in the other, the little guy looked fully capable of striking with either mitt. Gas might pour out of his mouth, a poisoned dart shoot from his belly button…You never knew, and that was the point. Abu Yashid was always trying to take out Hunter, and there were security features everywhere. It made sense to stay alert, to make sure one of those security features didn’t go off in your frickin’ face.

Still, Tuck couldn’t help feeling a little wistful as he looked at the chimp, as he remembered that grand, old Captain Christianity set-up he’d had in his second playroom at Black Briars—the dark castle of Christo Antares, the mountain fortress of Diabolus, and the sparkling citadel of the Captain himself. He thought of the tiny wars of good and evil he’d waged in that room, preparing for the day when he’d be able to begin the real war of good and evil, his crusade to reclaim his father’s memory from the jihadis who’d murdered it.

“Again?” Hunter scowled as she looked up from her tablet.

Even though she was in her late fifties, Tuck had always found Hunter compelling. She radiated power, raw strength and the will to control it. What might once have been the face of a cheerleader was scored with lines now, the only thing you might still call pretty Hunter’s blue eyes. Like a deep sea somehow brimming with light, they always distracted Tuck, left him thinking of America and feeling as though Hunter was special. And she was. Even though Hunter wasn’t a true Traditionalist, she’d survived and kept her power through many administrations. Tuck was sure she knew where plenty of skeletons were buried. He was also sure that Raglan and Thunder Vance, his Secretary of Homeland Security, wanted Hunter out. They just hadn’t figured how to do it yet.

“Again?” Tuck parroted, careful to keep the chimp in his field of vision.

“As in: what have we spoken about, Squires?”

Tuck scanned his memory for anything important that had happened lately. All there’d been was Brussels—a flight there, a flight back, and a lot of babysitting in between. He raised his eyebrows, smiled a little more fully, and waited.

When Hunter didn’t add anything, Tuck considered the possibility that she was messing with him. Maybe her scowl was just a trick to cover the fact that she was going to give him his promotion. He decided to take a chance, backing his chair out of the chimp’s line of sight just in case.

“You mean my promotion, ma’am?”
“Promotion?” Hunter took off her glasses, angling her gaze away from Tuck. Her eyes scanned the walls of her office—the watercolors and oils, the flag, the antique sidearms, and gleaming blades. She nodded slightly, as if arriving at a decision. When she turned back to him, her expression lay somewhere between disbelief and bemusement. All things considered, Tuck felt like it could have been a lot worse. Still, the pitch of her voice rose,

“Which promotion was that?”

Tuck fought the urge to scoot again, eyed Hunter warily. “Senior Special Agent.”

“Normally, you have to make Special Agent first.”

“Yes, but I thought—”

“You thought?”

He nodded.

She smirked. “You thought what you’ve thought all along. That because your last name is Squires, you might get a bit of special treatment, a little boost.”

“No, ma’am.”

“Honestly, Squires, you’re lucky I don’t suspend your ass.”

“Suspend? I’m still not following you, ma’am. But may I say you’re looking particularly youthful today?” He eyed the lapel of her suit. “Red really is your color.”

“Save it.”

“Save what?”

“Whatever part of your dignity you haven’t squandered already.” Hunter said, depositing her glasses on the desk. “I’m talking about the fucking Mossad agent on your last assignment.”

Tuck cringed. He hated it when people cursed around him, especially people he couldn’t call on it like Hunter. “That’s not ringing any bells, ma’am.”

Hunter glanced at her screen. “The name, Hadara Telka, doesn’t mean anything to you?” She slid her hand across the desk, rested it near the chimp’s base, and smiled.

Tuck’s gaze fell back to the monkey. Had one of his eyes just opened? “Oh, OK, yeah, I think I remember someone with a name like that. She didn’t say she was Mossad though.” When Hunter didn’t add any more details Tuck asked, “What’d she do?”

Hunter snorted. “They say you asked her if she was ready to meet Jesus.”

“I asked her if she knew Jesus.”

“Either way, they’re construing your comments as a threat to her person.”

“She’s a Jew.”

“She’s still got a soul, doesn’t she?”

“I just got off the phone with Thunder. She was not amused by any of this.”

“I don’t know what to say, ma’am. I was just exercising my Constitutional rights. What are we fighting for if not religious freedom?”

“We’re not fighting for anything anymore, Squires. I guess you didn’t get the livelink, but we’re not at war for the first time in thirty years.”

“Unfortunately,” Tuck said, nodding sadly.

“Unfortunately what?”

“Nothing.”

Hunter sneered and tapped the voice button on her tablet. Her assistant, Lexus, picked up.

“Ma’am.”

“Send in Clarion.”

“Clarion?” Tuck watched as former top agent and current disgraced desk jockey, Ken Clarion, entered the room.

Well into his fifties, Clarion was several inches shorter than Tuck. Good looking in a menacing way, he reminded Tuck of a seventh banana from one of those 90s gangster comedies, the vaguely charismatic one who winds up being a secret psychopath. Salt and pepper hair, at least a day of beard; black, rack suit—Brooks Brothers at best—and gas station Wayfarers. His look might have been right for the manager of a nightclub in the 1980s, but it was all wrong for a representative of the greatest nation on the face of the Earth.

“Director,” Clarion said. He crossed the room, gave a curt nod as he took the seat next to Tuck.

Tuck and Clarion had met before. First, in an Advanced Procedures seminar at the Academy when Clarion had given Tuck a B- on his final, left him sweating for days about being thrown out. Next, they’d crossed paths in the cafeteria; Tuck nodding coolly, Clarion with that bemused expression on his face, as if he was surprised Tuck was still with the Bureau.

Still, Tuck knew enough not to discount Clarion. He’d been good, maybe more than good, once upon a time. But a series of divorces, wrecked cars, and drunk tanks had killed his career as a field agent. Clarion was tight with Hunter, and had been for decades—they’d gone to the Academy together in their twenties—that was the only reason he’d managed to stay with the Bureau.

“Clarion’s your new partner,” she said.

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 6

By Kurt Baumeister

January 12, 2017

 

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

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

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

 

United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas

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

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 3

Peter Tieryas on The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu:

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

 

A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell

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

–My review for Electric Literature

 

Matt Bell on The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder:

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

 

Dating Tips for the Unemployed by Iris Smyles

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

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 3

 

Iris Smyles on The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova:

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

 

Welcome Thieves by Sean Beaudoin

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

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 2

 

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

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

 

The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks

unfinishedworld

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

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 1

 

Amber Sparks on Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott:

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

 

Perfectly Broken by Robert Burke Warren

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

–My review at TNB

 

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

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

 

The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky

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

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 4

 

Marcy Dermansky on Dear Fang With Love by Rufi Thorpe:

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

 

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

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

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 3

 

Rebecca Makkai on Man and Wife by Katie Chase:

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

 

Intimations by Alexandra Kleeman

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

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 5

 

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

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

 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 4

 

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

if there were

Published in the Winter ’17 issue of The Oddville Review

by Kurt Baumeister

 

I remember being five or four or three

Asking my mother if there was a Hell

And if I was going. I never got

A good answer. Never got

The one I needed. Though I know

She gave me the one I wanted.

 

I remember dreaming about nuclear war

Running and hiding in my mind’s eye

Knowing the world was about to end

Two days two minutes two ticks

To midnight. Hoping it wouldn’t

Still thinking maybe there was a chance.

 

To be a child was to cry and be confused

To laugh little, to dream of other lives

That might have been better still

To be a man is to put away the child

To know that Hell and nuclear war

Are only as real as we make them.

 

But you will never stop asking your mother

For the answers. Even after you realize,

She never had them, and she never could.

Still you will call, “Mom?” long after

She is gone. Still you will wonder about Hell

And nuclear war.

 

Click to access The-Oddville-Press-Winter-2017.pdf

 

Mansion

by Kurt Baumeister (published in Literary Orphans #27)

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This mansion

is lonely, unlovely

filled with drafts and cries

weak fires in our nights

the burning face of the present

consumes memories

rules my thoughts.

 

We have come to know

this melancholy too well

have come to love

lacking anything else.

 

I know sadness could be broken

by the gentlest breeze

but I fear any wind

would stoke these flames

until nothing would remain

but a skeleton of embers

to bear our love’s weight.

 

–Art by Ashley Holloway

 

 

http://www.literaryorphans.org/playdb/mansion-kurt-baumeister/

 

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 3

By Kurt Baumeister for The Nervous Breakdown

August 31, 2016

Fiction Reviews

 

Whether we’re talking about simple book reviews, hardcore literary criticism, or even the deathsport-cum-puffery that goes with writing workshops, it’s easy to make literary opinions about yourself rather than the work at hand. There are a lot of different ways this can happen in reviewing. Some of the more common:

1.  The dispensation of ham-fisted writing truisms (show, don’t tell; adverbs must die; etc.)

2.  The shared personal anecdote, loosely related at best (My word-slinging panda Grimwald brings me a sonnet every night. But youdidn’t. And that’s why this is the most horrible dreck I’ve ever read.); and

3.  Conscious mockery, the review designed (through wit, derision, and pithy prose) to show how much better you are than the foolish mortal whose book you’ve deigned to review. (There’s this guy on Goodreads…Actually, there are like three hundred of this guy on Goodreads, but you get the idea…)

I suppose I have a little luxury in the books I review. No one at TNB tells me what to cover, when to read them or where. I just do then say what I think. Simple, right? But not so, not really.

So many of the most famous examples of criticism come from hating a book or an author with a passion, from using that passion and what skill you may have to pen a take-down readers will remember. The goal is perhaps not always to make oneself sound good, but certainly, at the very least, to make the writer or work under discussion sound very bad.

For me, today, book reviewing has less to do with put-downs, more to do with empathy. As a critic, I think you need to be a bit of a chameleon, able to envision each book not just from your own perspective (the white tower of your five-star, ten-point, or four-heart rating scale) but from the standpoint of that book’s bestreader, the person the book is intended for even though neither they nor the author have any idea they exist. Rather than the infallibility we sometimes pretend to, book reviewing seems to me a matter of art and hope, maybe even something a little like a prayer. A wish, at least, that the books we’ve chosen will find their best readers, whoever and wherever they are.

 

Dating Tips for the Unemployed by Iris Smyles

 

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

Reading Smyles it almost seems impossible that someone could pack this much goodness into one book. Never giving up intelligence for readability, or wit for cheap laughs, this is a slim volume I had to struggle to put down. Perhaps it’s the narrator’s youth, perhaps her emotional and intellectual honesty (cut as it is with humor); whatever the case, these pages race by, their words nonetheless filling your thoughts long after you’ve set aside Dating Tips for the Unemployed.

From summering in Greece to being busted flat in wintry Manhattan, Smyles somehow punctuates the troubles of youth with a philosophy that mixes sarcasm and nihilism but does it in a way that never gets too heavy. Constructed as an expression of polar opposites, Dating Tips for the Unemployed is an attempt to explore the world that is Iris Smyles and perhaps, in its finely chiseled structure, even an attempt to understand it. Whether this story amounts to fiction, nonfiction, or something in between ultimately doesn’t matter. The key point is engagement: the fact that you’re sure to be smitten as I was with the work of this wildly funny literary misanthrope.

 

United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas

 

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Peter Tieryas’s third book, United States of Japan (USJ) is an homage to the work of Philip K. Dick, a fact Tieryas freely admits. Primarily concerned with reimagining the core conceit of The Man in the High Castle—the Axis having emerged victorious in World War II, America has become a partitioned land, one divided between Japanese and Nazi rule—Tieryas has created a broader tribute to Dick by sprinkling elemnets of his most famous conceits throughout. Still, to label USJ a PKD knock-off would be grossly unfair. Tieryas’s novel stands on its own as a fast-paced, whimsical, disturbing, reflective, and at times even poignant trip through a world very different from our own, one nonetheless similar enough to be terrifying in its implications.

In USJ, Tieryas brings us a broad temporal picture of what the post-American world might have looked like. Spanning the Pacific War’s end in 1948 through the 60’s and on to the late 80’s, USJ is the story of game developer and censor, Beniko “Ben” Ishimura, once a resident of an American concentration camp, now a captain in the Japanese army. Central to the book as a whole, and certainly to Ben’s character, is the issue of loyalty, not only to his divine emperor, but to the people around him and even the lost United States of America.

The book is driven primarily by Ben’s interactions with Tokko agent, Akiko Tsukino. Seemingly ruthless, intent on service to emperor and empire (and perhaps above all things her sense of personal honor) Akiko is sometimes foil, sometimes ally, always unpredictable. As Ben and she delve into the conspiracy surounding a treasonous underground game sweeping the USJ, the body count inexorably rises (a la many a first-person shooter); new revelations made not only concerning this conspiracy, but the world Tieryas has created.

Featuring porticals (multipurpose personal devices with capabilities and applications far beyond those of today’s smartphones), mechas (giant battlebots capable of leveling cities), and computer games used as everything from a method of execution to active counter-intelligence—never mind robotic limbs (with firearm attachments), packs of genetically-engineered killer pomeranians, and murder clubs—Tieryas developes a world that is fascinating and engrossing. One that, in perhaps his greatest tribute to Philip K. Dick, you feel you haven’t fully explored even at the book’s end.

 

The Clever Dream of Man by Lynn Houston

 

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I review books of poetry for, I think, many of the reasons people continue to write them. Poetry is important and challenging, one of (if not) the most difficult forms of literary art. While bad poetry is fairly easy to produce, good poetry can take a long time to write, not so much in that one poem can consume days or weeks or months (though it can) but in that a poet can spend years getting to the point at which they’re actually writing quality poems (one of which may, in fact, take days or weeks or months of work). After many years spent thinking about poetry and several more seriously writing it, this is the stage of artistic maturity at which we find Lynn Houston. Houston’s time has been well spent, a fact demonstrated by the spare, immediate reflections contained in her first collection,The Clever Dream of Man.

Houston’s book is clearly a very personal one, focused on the development of self-knowledge, the search for love (not only erotic and romantic but love of self), and the competition between these various forms of love. Over the course of the collection, this competition plays out in the hearts and minds, bodies and souls of its characters, most centrally Houston’s poetic self. Whether basking in the reality of love, lamenting its loss, or dreaming the possibility of its transcendence, The Clever Dream of Man’sstrongest poems brim with an acceptance of the power of nature and wonder at the reality of life.

Wise enough to be daunted by the world, brave enough not to let that fear control her, Houston’s poetry often reads very close to prose, not because she lacks feeling for language but because the thoughts expressed are so precise. For me, the most memorable poems in this collection are the ones that combine heart with a tinge of irony, pieces like “I Believe in Floating Grandfathers”, “Tomcat in Love”, “Jackpot Modern”, “Dreamhouse”, “The Grave Tree” and “Reincarnation as Someone with a Love Life”. The Clever Dream of Man is a short collection, but also a strong one—a volume that will leave readers anxious to see Houston flesh out her poetic vision.

 

Movieola! by John Domini


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Reading John Domini’s work, whether it be fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, you get the feeling you’re in the presence of someone a little smarter than you, someone who understands life and literature a little bit better. Having sped through Domini’s latest, a collection of short fiction entitled Movieola!, I can add cinema to the list of Domini’s areas of expertise—and thank him for shedding new light (and a few welcome shadows) on a form I love.

Cast in the tradition of masters like Barth and Coover, the loosely linked cinematic tales contained in Movieola! showcase the development of the metafictional form, an overall arc that has classic experiments such as John Barth’s masterful short story collection, Lost in the Funhouse, at one end, the now-fairly-common, fully-integrated intrusive narrator at the other. Movieola! rests near the midpoint of this continuum, a point from which Domini is able to provide both sly critique and dramatic effect.

Its overall conceit a subversion of the usual novel to film progression, Movieola! is film become literature. Never what you expect, the book expands on its intellectual heft with titillation (“Blinded by Paparazzi” and “Wrap Rap Two-Step”) and prose that recalls Nabokov at his Americanized best, Domini’s words at times practically tap dancing and somersaulting across the page. Held together by the bonds of cinema, threads at once gossamer and steely, nuanced and blatant, Domini’s success is in mingling the inner workings of Hollywood with the craft of filmmaking, creating for us a parallel universe in which we experience cinema as art and industry, question and answer.

 

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

 

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

Chicago’s Rebecca Makkai is an exceptional writer, one able to move seamlessly between not just cultures of Old World and New, but registers as diverse as faerie tale and contemporary comedy. Possibly the most stunning attribute of Makkai’s work, though, is its consistent humanity, the clarity with which she sees the hybrid of joy and sadness that is human life.

Given that Makkai was featured in Best American Short Stories four years running (2008-2011), and that the selected stories (“The Worst You Ever Feel,” “The Briefcase,” “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship,” and “Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart”) are all included here, you might expect Music for Wartime to feel a little like a greatest hits album, a collections of classics mixed with a few relatively weak, newer pieces, the whole fitted uneasily into a book.

This isn’t the case. Makkai’s newer material is every bit the equal of her BASS stories. More than that (or, perhaps, again, in concert with it) Music for Wartime does indeed feel musical (a la Kundera), a symphony of past and present, light and dark, tiny fables intermingled with the sort of longer stories we traditionally think of in connection with the short story form. Though this is neither a linked collection nor a novel-in-stories, somehow Music for Wartime feels incredibly cohesive, a piece of art beyond the sum of its parts. The obvious conclusion being that this alchemy is just another byproduct of Makkai’s immense talent.

 

Falter Kingdom by Michael J. Seidlinger

 

seidlingerAlready at the age of thirty, Michael J. Seidlinger is the author of nine literary novels, books he produces at what can seem to other writers (myself included) as a dizzying pace. With his latest,Falter Kingdom, Seidlinger slows down just long enough to give us a jaw dropping, cleverly paced tale of demonic possession and addiction, social media and fundamental truth.

Though Falter Kingdom (with its teenage protagonist) may qualify as YA in the strictest sense, the book’s subject matter should tip potential readers that this is no jaunt through Narnia or Wonderland. Evincing neither the British manners nor the broad, whimsical world building of old-school YA, Falter Kingdom is alternative YA, the sort parents might want to keep Suzy and Jimmy from reading, something young adults will find nonetheless. Instead of fantasy, Seidlinger gives his readers contemporary hyper-realism with one major change: Demonic possession is not just a possibility but a reality, one that dominates the book’s narrative arc and produces a truly terrifying climax.

Protagonist Hunter Warden is a high school senior struggling with the usual problems of the high school senior: popularity (or the lack thereof), romance (or the lack thereof), and moods dominated by anomie, confusion, and self-loathing. Hunter’s parents don’t have time for him, his girlfriend is clueless, and his friends all seem frenemies in disguise. Along comes a demon named H. and Hunter may have found his new best friend. That, or a fiend ready to possess and destroy him.

Falter Kingdom is a tale very much about our modern world, the ennui that goes with information overload and sensory excess, and the opportunities for sadness and addiction that seem to lurk in so many hidden corners. This is not a happy novel, but a smart, enthralling one, a book that’s sure to gain Seidlinger fans among teens and twenties, readers who will, no doubt, be following his work for years to come.

Deaths of Distant Friends (or, John Updike F#cking Rocks)

By Kurt Baumeister for The Weeklings

Published August 29, 2016

 

I.

 

My relationship with John Updike was a complicated one in that it didn’t really exist. Or did it? With writers, it’s tough to say.

We can have connections, important ones, without ever meeting. They can be solitary admiration societies, one-way friendships of sorts. Or, they can be more conventional, involve shared human interaction, whether written, spoken, or (rarer still) the social graces required of real physical proximity. To be clear, though, John Updike and I were not friends, one-way or otherwise. But we did meet, once upon a time…

“John Updike fucking rocks,” I shouted at the darkened sky, doing my best impression of a nineteen-year old in the parking lot at a hair-metal concert. Honestly, that was the effect I was going for. And I’m positive I achieved it.

My friends Tom and Maria, and I had just gotten off the T at Government Center. It was cold and drizzly. The sky full dark, the lower air bright with lights from small storefronts and the blocky government buildings. There were people everywhere, some on their ways home, others headed out to eat or drink. We were on our way to Faneuil Hall for a reading, John Updike’s reading.

A little man in a fedora and trench coat scurried past, shifting his gaze for a quick appraisal of the caterwauling lunatic to his right. (That would have been me.) A glance and the little man was gone, a retreating shape against the night.

Some bean counter out to kill my fun, I probably thought. Which would have seemed a reasonable enough conclusion, I guess, for a bean counter like me, given a one-night-only furlough from his corporate prison on the sixtieth floor of the Hancock Tower.

“John Updike fucking rocks,” I said again, perhaps not as loud, still largely undaunted by my own stupidity. I was practically daring the little man to respond even as he faded into the distance. And he did, with the slightest nod, a sign of resignation, an acceptance that my lunacy would continue whether he wanted it to or not.

“Kurt, that was him,” Tom said, with a chuckle.

“What? Who?”

“Updike. That was him.”

“No.”

“Yes,” Maria agreed.

You may wonder how old was I then? Late twenties, something like that. I could probably figure it out if I had to. I was married (or close to it), living in Salem, home of fake witches and nightmare traffic. My future former wife, Sara, where was she that night? Somewhere, yes, definitely, obviously. But somewhere else, somewhere not with me. By that point, Sara had tired of literary events. She’d had enough of writers talking about writing as they went to see writers read their writing, as they sometimes got drunk and acted undignified in public. The whole scene was a real fucking drag for Sara, this writing hobby of mine. She had referred to it as that years before; something I was destined to never let her forget, something in the years since I’ve never let myself forget.

The marriage ended not so many years later. Two? Three? Five? I could figure it out, but would I sound horrible if I said it didn’t matter at this point? Even worse if I said I was glad she’s gone? Would I sound ridiculous, then, if I copped to still missing her once in a while? Or would that all simply sound human?

I’m not sure what I was thinking about at that moment, that night near Faneuil Hall, almost certainly not Sara. Maybe I was wondering whether that had really been John Updike, inventing scenarios in my head, one-way conversations as to what the great man had been thinking as he scurried away…

So this is what Rushdie was talking about? The fucking lunatics and their fatwas? This is what it’s all about, the fucking fatwas, and now they’ve come to America, to Boston? How I long for a simpler time, the years of my youth, the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s, before the world was broken, when all was still new and good, when liquor was cheap and we didn’t know smoking killed us.

I’ll need to call the police, of course, once I get to Faneuil Hall. And my agent to harangue her for not sending a car. The T? Riding the fucking subway at my age? God, and now I have to read. Okay, I can do that. But then the questions? And some asshole grad student (or two or six) trying to impress me, take me down a peg, or both? Or, what about this would-be executive over here? Maybe he’ll rush the stage. What if he’s armed? God, I hope they have security at Faneuil Hall. I really may need to call the cops. And after all that I’ll have to sign books. This is no way to spend a winter’s eve, not when you’re John Updike, icon of American literature, that’s for sure.

This wasn’t the real John Updike, though. This was a character, built of facts and rumors, biases and opinions. I still hadn’t met the real Updike yet. Rather, I’d glimpsed a little man scurrying away in the night, been told that was Updike, and created a backstory for him. I would meet the real Updike, though, a little later.

 

II.

 

I’ve only read one book by John Updike. Perhaps his most famous, the first in what eventually became the tetralogy of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, that book is Rabbit, Run, and I’ve actually read it twice, once for kicks, once for class. In my unscholarly opinion, Updike was a very talented stylist who wrote about topics I found (and find) uninteresting. Even the best attribute of Updike’s work, his prose, doesn’t always do it for me. At times, there’s no edge to Updike, almost as if he doesn’t care, as if writing is more a job than anything else.

Still, the man was incredibly successful as serious writers go. A major literary figure before I was born, he remained one until his death, and probably will long after mine. In this sense, there is some connection between us, tenuous and common as it may be. There were other connections, though, important if only for idiosyncratic reasons; connections that fleshed out the opinions I had of Updike, the constructed character I carried in my head as I approached Faneuil Hall.

There was the sage input I’d received from a grad school professor in the late nineties who told me to “Quit trying to write like Updike,” a goal (writing like Updike) that couldn’t have been further from my mind. In fairness to the instructor in question, he seemed fairly obsessed with the great man, not as an admirer of Updike’s work so much as his fame. The professor in question would pepper us with mentions of golfing with Updike, a veritable duffing bromance I expect amounted to one trip around the links many years before. This professor wrote page turners and screenplays, screenplays turned into page turners and page turners become screenplays. The entirety of his writing advice had to do with fame and monetary gain, the trappings of being a successful “author”, a word poisoned for me by its connection to this professor. In retrospect, he reminds me a bit of Donald Trump, if Donald Trump were a writing professor. This guy talked about stakes a lot, about always raising them in fiction. He made the same joke about grilling steaks again and again.

Then there were the days my wife and I spent with her friend up the coast in Ipswich, a place Updike had lived as a younger man. By that point he’d moved along the North Shore to Beverly Farms (and a mansion, I’m sure). And why not? All those books, many of them best sellers. The film options (The Witches of Eastwick, for example). After many years, Ipswich gossip still teemed with stories about John Updike, stories relayed by my wife’s friend, a life-long resident. She’d played with Updike’s children, looked on from a distance as he philandered around that small town, watched him eventually leave his young family and move, literally, down the street. So went the stories from my wife’s friend, so grew the legend of John Updike in my mind, a man who by circumstance and hearsay I became inclined to dislike, or at least to dismiss as boring and bourgeois, not worth my interest. Hence, my mock hysteria at the prospect of seeing him read. Sure, I was going. He was John Updike. But I was going with a chip on my shoulder, a little bit of insurance against disappointment.

The funny thing about Updike being bourgeois is that’s what I was becoming more and more myself, my career in finance advancing with those many halcyon midnights spent at that office in the Hancock Tower, my bank accounts getting fatter, writing time thinner, the act of writing itself growing more difficult until I stopped completely after I finished my MFA.

 

III.

 

There used to be a Waterstone’s by Faneuil Hall. The floors and floors of books and books, now all gone I think, turned into a food court or a fitness club, a Bloomie’s or a Macy’s. At that point, it was still a book store. That was where Updike went after the reading, to Waterstone’s to sign books.

The line for Updike was the longest I’d ever seen at a signing. It still is. The queue snaked from floor to floor of the store, through Science and Religion, Fiction and Children’s, doubling back on itself time and again. We’d been near the end of the line, but Tom and I had decided to stay, to wait. And eventually we’d gotten our chance, nearing the table where John Updike sat.

By the end of the evening, the Waterstone’s employees were imploring customers not to talk to Mr. Updike or make him sign too many books. The facts that should have been obvious: It was late at night, long after closing time. John Updike was nearing seventy. He was tired. People were imposing on him. And I watched as people continued to empty out their duffel bags and approach with their stacks of ten or fifteen books, watched as Updike signed them all without complaint, answered their questions about working at The New Yorker, whether he knew Cher and Jack Nicholson, the same questions he’d probably heard a dozen times just that night. Apparently, the Waterstone’s staffers were good at making blanket requests, bad at actually seeing them fulfilled. And Updike wasn’t going to do that. These were his fans. He was going to sit and sign.

We finally made it to the table, first Tom then me. I set the book I’d just purchased, In the Beauty of the Lilies, on the table before him. He took it in both hands, turned it and opened it, flipped to the title page. His pen descended, made its marks, as it had perhaps a thousand times that night, possibly millions in his life.

“Thank you, Mr. Updike, it’s an honor,” I said, star-struck, reclaiming my book, by that point feeling more than a little self-conscious about my bad manners earlier.

After all that waiting, after the liquor had worn off, I’d been forced to consider the reality of Updike rather than the abstraction of the character I had invented. He was an elderly man out on a cold night, sitting there, signing books. I hoped he wouldn’t recognize me. All I wanted was to get out of there.

“Well, I do fucking rock, don’t I?” he said, winking as Tom circled back, laughing, amazed.

And we stood there, the three of us, just three guys, three fellow dudes, as the rest of the world faded, as the last few people waiting in line disappeared, the store around us vanished, and all that was left were three writer dudes, laughing and laughing.

“I fucking rock, too,” said Tom.

“Well, you can goddam bet I rock, that’s for sure,” I added.

“Fucking rock,” said John Updike, “You guys fucking rock.”

 

IV.

 

Now that Updike is gone, dead nearly a decade, his fictional lilies wilted, swept away. Now that the rabbit has run and reduxed, been rich and at rest, we must reassess. We must deal with the reality of John Updike rather than the character constructed of myth and innuendo, the fiction that is fame, even such little fame as accrues to writers.

There are actually two things I remember about Updike’s work, two things that have stayed with me, and probably will until my death, I hope many years in the future. I think that’s all we can ask of most writers, as writers ourselves; or not ask really, but hope for, that some small bit of their work will stay with us in a meaningful way. For me, with Updike, the first is the beginning of Rabbit, Run.

“Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires.”

The rhythms, they’re what get me. “…Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap…” returns to me from time to time. No, it’s not the beginning of Lolita (though Updike clearly learned something from Nabokov). Still, it’s pretty good. It’s poetry, yes? Poetry become fiction.

The second thing that stays with me is the title of a later story of Updike’s, “Deaths of Distant Friends”. The lyrical beauty of that title—and more the truth of it—grows in my mind. The connections between people, the unavoidable loss of those connections, the sadness and joy that come with their memory.

I haven’t seen Tom and Maria in nearly a decade. It’s been even longer since Sara and I parted ways. As for John Updike, there was never a connection really, the end of the signing story an obvious fabrication. Admit it, though, you wanted that as much as I did.

Yes, I did meet Updike. And, yes, just as I said, I didn’t really know him. We weren’t friends. Except for the way certain people and events can fill our memories, can seem insignificant at first, then grow as the present retreats into the past.

I think of John Updike from time to time, of that night I met him, now years ago. More than Updike, I think of the people I’ve mentioned here and so many others, realities gone to the place all realities must, the shadow land of memory.

Beyond the veil, beyond our spent efforts and other, mortal failings, there can come visions, recognitions bright enough to change the way we see the world. These realizations are made still more magical by the fact that we had no cause for marking their consequence, nor that of the memories that spawned them, no obvious reason to do so when once we lived them, many years before.

Donald Trump’s America

By  for The Weeklings

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The time for joking about Donald Trump is over. In spite of the failed crash landing of a convention the Republicans just executed in Cleveland, Trump means to be the 45th President of the United States. And the odds are even he’ll succeed. There’s no need to let that become a reality, though, America, no percentage in giving Trump a chance, or waiting to see “what it looks like”. We already know what Donald Trump’s America will look like.

Blatant racism and coarse sexism will be the new norms. Tests of religion will govern immigration and citizenship. And then there’s the maniacal whimsy of this man’s foreign policy: friendly with Putin one day, his supposed enemy the next; the suggested use of nuclear weapons; decades-old alliances treated with the reverence of a dirty joke on a cocktail napkin; war crimes that make waterboarding seem quaint an ever-ready option in Trump’s dubious bag of tricks.

You’ve seen Donald Trump’s America reflected back in the steely imperium of his gaze, heard it in the way he can talk about himself in glowing terms for hours, felt its chill in the way he strips credentials from journalists who disagree with him and threatens uncooperative “Mexican” judges with reprisals should he win the presidency, the way he embraces violence against protesters and reduces his political enemies to figures fit only for jail, makes anyone who disagrees with him into a liar, a crook, or worse, the way he’s spent his life using lawsuits to abuse our judicial system, throwing frivolous actions against his fellow citizens for no reason greater than that he can, no nobler goal than to win at all costs.

In this coming nation built on lies and ego, in Donald Trump’s America, there is one man with our country’s best interests at heart, one man good and just enough for his word to be law. In Third World countries, he might be known as The Colonel or The General, El Jefe or Dear Leader. And, in America, if we’re not careful, he might be as well. For now, America’s Dear Leader answers to Mr. Trump, the odd insistence that others treat him with respectful formality doubly disturbing when read against the blithe disrespect with which he treats the rest of us.

Don’t fool yourselves, Republicans. Don’t think for a second you need to support the team on this, that once Trump is in power the apparatus of government will rein him in. For once, Ted Cruz has actually shown you the way. Did Cruz himself have the best intentions in making that petulant convention speech? Of course not. He acted out of pique. But who can blame him after Trump gave him the sobriquet Lyin’ Ted, after he mocked Cruz’s wife’s looks, and suggested Cruz’s father had somehow been involved with the JFK assassination? And the truth of Cruz’s assessment of his party’s candidate is undeniable: Donald Trump is not a man who will defend the American Constitution. This is a man who will accumulate as much power as he can. And who knows what means he might employ to do that once he’s president? If character is destiny, and past prologue, we’ve already seen the means he’ll employ: hatred, violence, lies, and the corruption of our judicial system.

Don’t fool yourselves, Democrats. Don’t tell yourselves that no one in their right mind could possibly support Trump, that at any rate, there’s no way enough people will vote for Trump to elect him president. Didn’t you feel that way about George W. Bush? Things were good, you thought, back in 2000. Al Gore was obviously way better qualified than Bush. And you thought if W. did win, how much harm could he possibly do? He seemed nice enough, right; a compassionate conservative and all that? But W. did untold damage. In many ways, he laid the groundwork for so many of today’s troubles, from our fiscal mess and our endless entanglements in the Middle East, to the rise of a would-be despot like Donald Trump.

Don’t fool yourselves, Independents, into thinking there will be any liberty once you’re under Trump’s thumb. You will live at the caprice of our Dear Leader. Can loyalty oaths be far off? What about religious questionnaires for all to fill out, just to make sure you’re not one of “them”, you know, a Muslim? And as we know from history, once there’s a perceived, state-sanctioned “them”, it’s easy for that group to expand. Maybe someday soon atheists and Jews will join that select group? Perhaps Marxists and social democrats? Maybe even liberals?

Don’t fool yourselves, America, into thinking there are any “safe” or “uncontested” states. Wasn’t it Bernie Sanders who won the Michigan primary even though all the polls agreed he wouldn’t? Don’t listen to the people who voted for Nader in 2000 and still haven’t learned their lesson. Bush and Gore were the same, they said, back then. But they weren’t, were they? Not even close. We can’t afford to take a chance again with our country and our lives. Yet still, they make the same old arguments, trying to fool people into going along with their “statement” vote. But to what end? Do these people want to see our form of government strengthened, our country improved, or do they see America as so flawed that real political unrest (read, violent revolution) is a worthy alternative? Do they see fascism as a painful necessary step on the way to something better? And what would that something better be? Totalitarian Marxism? Anarchy?

Donald Trump recently signaled that his first act as President would be to request special powers from Congress, to make it easier for him to fire civil servants, particularly anyone hired during the Obama Administration. He wants to get rid of those whose loyalty he questions, simple as that. And where did Trump get this idea? It was the first thing Adolf Hitler did when he took power in Germany, a way to cinch an iron grip on the levers of government, a way to make the entire German state beholden to him. Nor is this the first time we’ve heard of Trump pulling a move or two from the Fuhrer’s playbook. Remember, this guy spent twenty years with Hitler’s speeches at his bedside, dipping in from time to time, reading, studying. And now he accepts the support of Klansmen and Nazis with a wink and a nod. (Hoping to capitalize on the current wave of Trumpian racism, KKK Grand Dragon David Duke has reemerged, declaring his candidacy for the United States Senate.) It’s time to stand up, America. It’s time to refuse to give any more comfort to Donald Trump, those who follow him, and those who can’t be bothered to oppose him.

I see people cheering Trump on Facebook, even a few liberals saying, “Well, thank God someone is going to bring all the troops home. Enough of America being involved in far-flung conflicts and wars of empire.” And what do you think Herr Trump, this man who proudly describes himself as “militaristic”, will do with these hundreds of thousands of troops once he brings them home? Do you think he will simply dismiss them, swell the ranks of America’s unemployed? Or, will he use them to tamp down unrest at home, to deport eleven (or twelve, or thirteen) million “illegal” immigrants? And who else might Trump deport? Who else might become a member of his unholy “them”? Just recently, we’ve heard reports that Rudy Giuliani (tipped as Trump’s Anti-Terrorism Czar) has suggested an additional 800,000 anti-terrorism police and that Trump has agreed. Could these initiatives be linked? Could all our returning service-men and -women be employed by America’s Dear Leader as his special anti-terrorism (and anti-unrest and anti-dissent) police force?

The time for debate is over—the time for boutique issues, pet positions, and fringe candidates; the time for putting your mythical, intellectual integrity above the real danger America faces. The time is over for considerations of conscience with a small c. Let’s think about conscience with a big C. Let’s think about the country as a whole, try to imagine the dangers in putting a would-be strongman like Donald Trump in power. Now that the Republican Party has nominated Donald Trump for President we, the voters, are the only thing left between him and power. If we fail now, who knows when we might get another chance? Who knows just how much blood and treasure that chance might cost?

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 2

By Kurt Baumeister for The Nervous Breakdown

July 19, 2016

Uncategorized

Galley fever. That was the diagnosis Michael J. Seidlinger gave me a few months after I started reviewing books at Electric Literature. In all fairness to Seidlinger, it’s possible I’d just given him a list of four books I was going to review (that month? that week? that day?), two of which were (again, possibly) by Salman Rushdie and Milan Kundera. No pressure, no worries.

“Textbook case,” Seidlinger added. “Trust me, man. I’ve seen it before.”

Turned out Seidlinger was right. I did have a case of galley fever. And I still do. In fact, it’s starting to look like this galley fever thing is more or less permanent.

Galley fever: n. The pathological desire to review books. Said desire may conflict with eating, sleeping, and other activities once thought necessary. (In spite of common usage, has nothing to do with viruses, physical temperature, rowboats, or micro-kitchens.)

I started this column so I could put my fever to use; so I could cover more books in less time. It’s working, too. At least I think it is. But there are still issues, laws of time and space to be dealt with. By which I mean reading time and editorial space. The greater problem, to put it bluntly, is that there’s too damn much talent out there in the literary world.

In addition to the latest from one of my writing heroes, Don Delillo, this month’s Microbrew features National Book Award-nominee and literary triple-threat (poetry, fiction, nonfiction), Kim Addonizio, Shawn Vestal, Lori Ostlund, Zoe Zolbrod, and Sean Beaudoin. Obviously, our line-up’s pretty heavy. And that’s a good thing. It’s just that there’s so much more out there. So many books that deserve coverage, so little time. So, get out there and review a book or two. But don’t forget to buy these…

 

Zero K by Don DeLillo

 

26154389Don Delillo is a writer who’s always seemed intensely concerned with symbolism; but in a strange, quasi-adversarial way. I’ve read The Names and White Noise a few times each (in addition to several of his other novels), wound up convinced that there is potent symbolism in his work but that its end result, the solution of the equation (So much of Delillo feels mathematical, doesn’t it?), is a zero, an intentional nod to nihilism. Which, if you think about it, is a fairly bracing postmodern trick.
For me, Delillo’s strengths as a writer are this philosophy (the fact that it so underpins his authorial view of the world), his writing voice which manages to be undeniably wise yet still conveys awe at the complexities of reality, and the line-to-line beauty of his prose. Though these qualities are all on display in Zero K, I’d be lying if I said this book measures up to his masterpieces. Rather than a shot at Zero K, I see this more as indicative of a problem common to living legends.

With so much received acclaim and so many conceded masterpieces, chances are that Delillo’s best work is behind him. And, however you dice up his career, Delillo’s been in that situation well over a decade, perhaps much, much longer. I remember when Underworld came out—Finally, the long Delillo novel we’d been waiting for(!)—when it failed to win the National Book Award (Cold Mountain did.). I suppose at that point, we all expected more of the same—Underworld 2, Son of Underworld(?)—but that’s proven to be wishful thinking. In all fairness, how many masterpieces can one writer be expected to come up with?

For fans, or those fascinated by the concept and societal implications of cryogenesis, Zero K is still a solid choice, repaying the reader’s investment with nuggets like this, “In the end I followed the course that suited me. Cross-stream pricing consultant. Implementation analyst—clustered and nonclustered environments. These jobs were swallowed up by the words that described them.”

Zero K is another graceful trip through Don Delillo’s post-postmodern reality, one in which symbols—and that greatest symbol of all, language—fail in their ascendancy, leave us ultimately confounded by the reality those symbols sought to define. For people looking to study Delillo’s best work, I’d recommend The Names, White Noise, Underworld, and his underrated debut, Americana.

 

The Telling by Zoe Zolbrod

 

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The experiences forgotten, locked in our minds. The weight of what we owe those who come after us. More than that, the weight of what we owe the world and ourselves. These are the considerations at the heart of Zoe Zolbrod’s second book, the memoir, The Telling.

A return home with a new baby, her first, leads Zolbrod to the realization the cousin who lived with her family (and sexually abused her as a five-year old) has been charged with multiple counts of pedophilia. Fraught with emotion and filled with energy over the new life in her arms, there is the crushing reminder someone in Zolbrod’s family is capable of such crimes and the torrent of memories attached to their precursors, the experiences of a small girl, silent to the world until now.

If you’re looking for narrative that manages to seem somehow lush and controlled simultaneously—jagged with feeling and revelation yet told in a voice that compel your attention, forces you to engage not only with the world in the pages before you, but the reality all around, this is a book for you. Reading a fine memoir like Zoe Zolbrod’s, The Telling, reminds us of the debt we owe our best memoirists. It reminds us of the trials they endure and the monsters they slay not only for themselves but for their readers as well.

 

Mortal Trash by Kim Addonizio

 

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It may seem a gaudy move, but Kim Addonizio’s release of a memoir and poetry collection within mere days of each other isn’t that surprising. In fact, when you consider the awards Addonizio’s won, the variety of different forms she’s worked in, and her longevity as an artist, this release two-fer feels practically de rigueur, just another milestone in a brilliant career.

Though this review primarily concerns Mortal Trash, Addonizio’s latest poetry collection, I should say that I found the portion I read of her memoir, Bukowski in a Sundress, to be highly enjoyable. A compelling, crisply written book, Bukowski in a Sundress is bound to sell more than a few copies. And in its accessibility it provides an interesting counterpoint to the poems of Mortal Trash, poems that sometimes share this accessibility, sometimes seem to purposefully reject it.

The strongest poems in Mortal Trash are the ones that are the most concrete, the most steeped in reality. And there are plenty of them. “Lives of the Poets”, “Ways To Go”, “Review of Possible Signs and Symptoms”, and “Florida” are filled with nifty linguistic twists, provocative imagery, and cunning observation. Another high point is Addonizio’s sonnet sequence, which is brimming with trashy beauty and startling wisdom. As for the other extreme, the re-castings contained in the section entitled, “Over the Bright and Darkened Lands”, I find the experiment impressive but can’t say I felt the same level of connection I had with other parts of the book. On balance, Mortal Trash is a laudable collection of poems, the best of which can only enhance Kim Addonizio’s legacy.

 

Daredevils by Shawn Vestal

 

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A long-time columnist and reporter in Spokane, Washington, Shawn Vestal has (mostly, over the last few years) begun to make a name for himself as an author of fiction, first with his Pen Bingham Prize winner, the story collection Godforsaken Idaho, now with his debut novel, the Mormon coming-of-age/road novel (words I thought could never possibly go together), Daredevils.

The focal point of Vestal’s story is Loretta, a rebellious teenager from a fundamentalist Mormon family. As a proposed curative for her bad behavior, Loretta is married off as second sister-wife to fellow fundamentalist, Dean Harder (a name worthy, indeed, of masters like Hawthorne and Dickens).

Soon, Dean moves his entire clan, including Loretta, to his family’s land in Idaho, far from her parents’ home. Once in Idaho, Loretta finds common ground with Dean’s teen nephew Jason; that common ground being escape from the oppression of family and religion, escape to an outside world that may seem freer than it is.

Daredevils is a trip through time and space, a portrait of a mid-century America (the 1950’s through the 1970’s) that’s breathtaking in scope. But perhaps the most winning part of the book is the way this lost history comes to feel at once familiar and deeply engrossing. From Tolkien to Zeppelin to narration from Jason’s hero, Evel Knievel, pop culture references abound, presenting a counterpoint to the constrictive fundamentalism at the story’s core. This is the good and bad of our American mythology—even more so that of the American West—a land where freedom and madness seem so often to run hand in hand.

 

After the Parade by Lori Ostlund

 

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An object lesson in how to make ordinary life matter to a reader, Lori Ostlund’s first novel, After the Parade, is a symphony of realism, one that turns in movements dramatic and comic, touching and wistful.

Constructed as a vast network of flashbacks, the novel opens with forty-one-year-old ESL teacher Aaron Englund’s departure from New Mexico and the home he has shared with his partner, Walter. Though Aaron’s nominal destination is San Francisco, even before he arrives, we realize his understanding of himself is tenuous, evolving, that this understanding is his real destination.

As Aaron begins his new life, Ostlund flashes back to all that has come before, no event more significant than the day Aaron’s father, a policeman, fell from a parade float and died, leaving Aaron and his mother all alone. In coming to terms with the events of his deep past, Aaron begins to grapple with and understand his recent past with Walter, to lay claim to a better present and future.

One of the most honest, insightful writers you’ll find, there’s never a false sentence in Ostlund’s work, never a reliance on tricks or tropes. Ostlund imbues her characters, especially Aaron, with humanity, humor, and grace, showing us how people really live and grow, day-to-day and year-to-year.

 

Welcome Thieves by Sean Beaudoin

 

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

Plumbing the quest for sensory experience at the heart of youth, Beaudoin’s style recalls T.C. Boyle’s, a flash of formal experimentalism (Coover? Celine?) thrown in to keep the reader off-kilter. The mix is a highly enjoyable, stone-cold literary endeavor that manages to succeed on a commercial level as well. These aren’t “New Yorker stories” per se—you’re not going to find some middle-aged dentist bitching about his Mercedes in Beaudoin’s pages—but they’re so polished you can’t help but see the potential for them to reach (and please) a mass audience.

From Beaudoin’s fearless use (and purposeful misuse) of pop culture, particularly the fight game in “And Now Let’s Have Some Fun”, to the macabre, apocalyptic satire of “Base Omega Has Twelve Dictates”, his spin on a sort of creation myth in the title story, “Welcome Thieves”, and the failed Americana at the heart of the entire collection, perhaps most notably in “The Rescues”, these stories succeed without exception.

On the off chance that Beaudoin’s six previous books and his massive output of quality nonfiction (Salon, The Nervous Breakdown, The Weeklings) hadn’t confirmed his talent, Welcome Thieves is sure to. Sure, likewise, to prove attempts at comparison must in the end fall short. There’s just no other writer quite like Sean Beaudoin. Read him and be glad you did.

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 1

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 1

By Kurt Baumeister

June 13, 2016

Fiction Reviews

In many ways, the greatest praise we can bestow on a piece of art is to say it inhabits its world so fully as to define it. Whether we’re talking about Flannery O’Connor or Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemingway, the writers we come back to, the ones who maintain readership and critical attention, often capture their environments to such an extent that their claim on the territory comes to supplant the reality they once sought to depict.

What would 19th century England mean to us without David Copperfield and Oliver Twist? What would 20th century Paris be without The Sun Also Rises? Even though film’s more overt, incandescent iconography has overtaken the literary in the popular consciousness, one of the written word’s chief uses remains its role as historical document and anthropological source, a record of the things that animate geographies and eras, nations and civilizations. And let’s be clear: Even today, there would be no cinema without writing. Whether in the form of novels and stories that provide jumping-off points for screenwriting or the scripts themselves, the production of the images that become our shared memories could never happen without the written word.

The Nervous Breakdown’s inaugural Microbrew showcases the diversity of American letters. Realist and fabulist, lyrical and metafictional, novels and stories, novellas and poetry. Drawn from small and big presses alike, this is a group of writers engaged in the work of claiming their territory, defining their worlds with such linguistic precision and clarity of vision that those worlds, if we’re lucky, begin to feel like our own.

 

Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones

 

mongrelsIf you think the literary genera lupus literarus has been done, and done, and done into the ground it’s only because you haven’t seen what Stephen Graham Jones’s has to say about lycanthropy. Part fable, part coming-of-age story, his new novel, Mongrels, brings grim humor and a violent beauty to the semi-hallucinatory terrain occupied by America’s transitory underclass.

Always on the outside, constantly on the run, Jones’s “mongrels” dwell in a sort of socioeconomic half-light. Their lives spent in the shadows cast by low-rent shanties and broken down cars, their identities informed by war between day and night, civilization and nature; this is the mythology of the werewolf twisted, reformed to become more modern, more relatable as both myth and metaphor. In muscular prose that seems always to be thinking ahead, searching for more, Jones explores America’s relationship with its poor like he’s dissecting a predatory brotherhood between hunter and hunted.

There’s long been an idea that true magical realism can only be born of the economic hardships and totalitarian governments masters like Garcia Marquez and Kundera endured in the less-developed world. The concept has been “the First World” doesn’t know enough pain to write honest magical realism. Jones stands that theory on its head, at least as it relates to America’s oppressed. In Mongrels you hear the echoes of Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. You see the desperate magic of a world constructed as an antidote to this one.

 

Witch Hunt by Juliet Escoria

 

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Juliet Escoria’s first poetry collection, Witch Hunt, picks up where her first book, the story collection Black Cloud left off. That is, in a semi-autobiographical universe in which the author’s humanity is constantly on display. This isn’t woman magically ennobled, a made-up version of Juliet Escoria, heroine, but a largely unadorned testament that puts Escoria at the center of her own experiences without spending too much time moralizing on where she finds herself, what she does, or what’s done to her.

Witch Hunt’s presentation is fresh, the book’s architecture and delivery blurring the lines between poetry and short fiction, nonfiction and novel. From section titles like “Bipolar National Anthem” to poem cycles like “Haikus for Horse Haters” you get that there’s an air of comedy here, or if not comedy a sort of bemused acceptance of life’s insanity. Though many of these poems are delivered in blunt language that defies you to find much beauty in the world it presents, that’s by design. This is a collection that eschews “prettiness” in favor of truth. Perhaps this is a statement on gender, the title evocative of the stalked woman pursued for her innate beauty, her very femininity. In the face of that continuing hunt, these poems respond with brutal honesty.

The quality that sets this above other similarly confessional collections is its voice—infectious, reflective, and matter-of-fact—a voice that grows in power with re-readings, suggesting not only that the collection holds multiple layers of meaning beyond the superficial, but that this is a writer with a lot more to say. From semi-madness (medicated and not-so) through substance abuse, physical abuse, suicidal episodes, and the overarching struggle to simply fit into the world, Escoria displays a shocking lack of self-pity, the rare, fundamental truthfulness that assures you this is not a slick piece of personal advertising designed to make her look or feel better than she is. This is Juliet Escoria’s reality—her truth—on the page.

 

Tyler’s Last by David Winner

 

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Fans of Patricia Highsmith and her literary creature “Talented” Tom Ripley will recognize this as an homage of sorts. A metafictional duet between a semi-closeted author and the semi-closeted character she’s made her career on—refereed with icy detachment by Winner’s narrator—Tyler’s Last is a literary thriller that hits on both counts.

Tyler (not his real name) is a semi-retired bad guy who’s spent his life defrauding people (and much, much worse; up to and including a string of murders). His toney wife having left him (maybe for good) to gallivant across North Africa with her girlfriend, Tyler is already reeling emotionally when he receives a series of ominous phone calls that send him winging off for New York.

Part of Tyler’s mission is a secret known only to his criminal sensei, Delauney, the rest is Tyler’s daring (read, insane) plan to impersonate his first murder victim, the long-dead Cal Thornton, whom Tyler’s mysterious caller claims to be. Once in New York, events take a Nabokovian turn, a series of violent episodes, Tyler’s growing black-comic sense of detachment (from his actions and his reality), and an impromptu trip with an emotionally volatile teen recalling the sort of erudition and (almost) innocent evil of Lolita’s Humbert Humbert.

Juxtaposed with Tyler’s narrative, Winner tells the tale of Tyler’s creator, the Highsmith-esque surly “old woman”, making it quite clear that the old woman’s refracted view of her own life has a habit of materializing on the page, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. This convention dominates the book from a literary standpoint, ensuring that readers not only experience the excitement of Tyler’s unraveling criminal lifestyle (a lifestyle his author ultimately seeks to emulate) but the author’s love for her character, the fact that in many ways he is her, a literary fact that will be in some ways proven, some ways contradicted, as the story unfolds.

 

The Nethers: Frontiers of Hinterland by M.E. Parker

 

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M.E. Parker’s The Nethers: Frontiers of Hinterland follows his 2015 novel, Jonesbridge: Echoes of Hinterland. A literate (though still taut) series, Parker’s Hinterland trilogy is slated to end next year with Bora Bora: Escape from Hinterland.

Known to the literary community as former editor and publisher of the esteemed journal Camera Obscura, Parker brings the same sharp editorial eye to his own work. Refusing to settle for simple genre content, this is sci-cli-fi at its best, literary quality balanced meticulously with dramatic tension. Though there is a substantial amount of worldbuilding here, it’s not done with the same leisure you often find in genre work, which makes for a much more exciting, immediate read.

At the heart of Parker’s drama sit Myron and Sindra, lovers desperate to be together, destined perhaps to survive apart (if at all). The primary tension of The Nethers and Hinterland as a whole being whether Myron and Sindra can thrive against the machinery arrayed against them, a sort of amalgam of limited remaining technology and the humanity it has largely destroyed, a humanity that nevertheless remains unable to see that technology for the danger it is.

 

Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh

 

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While Jennifer Haigh is still early enough in her career that lauding a book as her masterpiece comes with a lot of risk, her fifth novel, Heat & Light, may just deserve it. A return to the geography of her previous novel, Baker Towers, Haigh sets Heat & Light in Western Pennsylvania, in what was once deep coal country. Still feeling the collapse of its primary industry years earlier, the recent discovery of the Marcellus Shale natural gas deposit means the town of Bakerton may have a second chance economically. But at what cost?

Haigh’s strengths as a writer are the beauty and uncanny seamlessness of her prose, her ability to see her characters as they are rather than as she wants them to be, and the topography she chooses, the fact that she writes “what she knows” in a very real sense, focusing on the area of Western Pennsylvania she once called home. This is the truth of Western Pennsylvania’s coal country, every sentence tinged with a mixture of fond remembrance and the desire for escape; a quality that turns Heat & Light into a perfect example of how a writer can claim a literary geography as her own.

Complex and multi-tiered, Haigh’s narrative brings together socio-economic issues, concern for the planet, and the dramatic emotional lives of her characters into a mix that may leave readers saddened not just by the fact that it’s over, but by the realization that the ease with which Haigh pulls it all off stands in stark contrast to the difficulty with which we handle so many competing priorities as a species. All you have to do is look at the stripped, blighted land of Western Pennsylvania to know that as the truth.

 

The Unfinished World and Other Stories by Amber Sparks

 

unfinishedworld

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

With conceits that range from custodial sci-fi (“The Janitor in Space”) to an evil, time-travelling “art critic” (“Thirteen Ways of Destroying a Painting”), a reverie for World War I’s Lost Generation (the beautifully desolate “The Fires of Western Heaven”) to a modern faerie tale about the confusing, even maddening, sexualization women experience moving from childhood to adulthood (“The Lizzie Borden Jazz Babies”), Sparks delivers fresh ideas in tellings that are likewise indelibly her own. Her abilities to compress narrative and to weave significant detail into an often poetic prose are impressive, qualities you don’t see in many writers.

Readers of Sparks’s earlier collection May We Shed These Human Bodies, won’t be surprised at how well The Unfinished World succeeds. They will be pleased, though, that her art continues to develop. In that sense, it’s her engagement with the greater world that most impresses, the way her miniatures serve as an examination of the human condition, of our need to connect with the cosmic, to understand our place in the unfinished worlds we must all invariably leave behind.