The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 8

 

The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro

 

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

 

Behind the Moon by Madison Smartt Bell

 

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

 

 

And Wind Will Wash Away by Jordan A. Rothacker


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

 

Something is Rotten in Fettig by Jere Krakoff

 

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

 

Further Problems with Pleasure by Sandra Simonds

 

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

 

Traveling with Ghosts by Shannon Leone Fowler

 

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

 

Kurt Baumeister: The TNB Self-Interview

Kurt Baumeister (KGB) vs. Kurt Baumeister’s Doppelganger (2.0)

 

Kurt Baumeister’s debut novel, a satirical spy thriller entitled Pax Americana (Stalking Horse Press), was released into the wild on March 15. Baumeister took a brief break from his whirlwind world tour to sit down with his double, Kurt Baumeister 2.0, aka The Creature, aka Baumeister’s Monster, aka The Baumonster, aka simply (and, finally, thank fucking god) 2.0. A wide-ranging, revealing, and at times shockingly adversarial discourse followed. Described by onlookers as something between the ravings of a preternaturally linguistic chimp with dual-personality disorder and a peyote-addled William F. Buckley sparring semi-verbally with a lobotomized Gore Vidal, a third, unnamed transcription agent was able to pen these notes prior to apprehension by the Trump Administration. Details of his or her stay at Guantanamo Bay may or may not be forthcoming. Baumeister and his double remain at large.

KGB:  Go on, ask me what the worst thing I’ve ever been called is.

 

2.0:      Fine. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever been called?

KGB:  Well, I don’t know about worst exactly, but one of the strangest was when someone called me a doppelganger.

 

2.O:     Conversationally?

KGB:  Right. Like, “You’re a goddam doppelganger, Kurt.”

 

2.0:      That’s…what that? Some D&D thingy, like a unicorn?

KGB:  The dictionary definition is “an apparition or double of a living person.”

 

2.0:      You are kinda pale. But it’s hard to believe someone actually came out and called you a ghost.

KGB:  They were drunk. I think they were implying I wasn’t a real person in some fundamental moral or ethical way.

 

2.0:      What if it was some sort of Germanic slur? Like, because of your name? Y’know, Kurt Baumeister.

KGB:  I do have a pretty Germanic name, but a xenophobic slur? That’s reading a lot into one word.

 

2.0:      But if he voted for Trump?

KGB:  I don’t think she did.

 

2.0:      Still, you never know, right?

KGB:  If you say so.

 

2.0:      Obviously, it scarred you.

KGB:  A little maybe. Mostly, it just struck me as completely bizarre. Still does. But…

 

2.0:      [raises an eyebrow] But, what? What’s the but?

KGB:  The but is that finally, after all these years, I think it’s working to my benefit.

 

2.0:      Oh?

KGB:  Well, I’m being interviewed by my actual doppelganger, right here, right now, right?

 

2.0:      Oh, I see what you did there. Very clever, Dr. Baumeister, very clever indeed. What if you’re my doppelganger, though? Have you considered that possibility?

KGB:  Not at all.

 

2.0:      You should. This could be a Catch-22 situation.

KGB:  What could be a Catch-22?

 

2.0:      This. Us. You know, like a conundrum: As in, am I the doppelganger, or are you?

KGB:  That’s not what a Catch-22 is. This is more a Chicken-and-Egg type thing.

 

2.0:      It’s confusing, whatever it is.

KGB:  Like a conundrum?

 

2.0:      [purses lips] Enough small talk. Tell me about this debut novel of yours, this so-called Pax Americana.

KGB:  Nice segue.

 

2.0:      Thanks.

KGB:  I was being facetious.

 

2.0:      Just answer the fucking question.

KGB:  Well, Pax Americana is not so-called at all. It’s a real, live, honest-to-goodness novel. I guess it’s a literary thriller of sorts. More specifically, a satirical spy novel.

 

2.0:      So, it’s funny?

KGB:  God, I hope so. But I think it’s serious, too; or, at least, it makes some serious points.

 

2.0:      Such as?

KGB:  Basically, it’s about American excess, the way we allow Christianity, capitalism, and militarism to run amok, imperil the higher ideals that we, at least in our secular “sacred” texts (the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence), aspire to. Freedom, liberty, peace: those sorts of things.

 

2.0:      So, what, you’re like some pacifist-atheist-communist?

KGB:  I’m agnostic with respect to religion. I suppose that’s the one of those I come closest to. Of course, I do feel that America’s become too militaristic. And I feel capitalism doesn’t work everywhere every time. Basically, any -ism doesn’t always work.

 

2.0:      Examples?

KGB:  Healthcare. Education. Prisons. Even the military. Really, anything that’s supposed to serve a public good. Capitalism’s great advantage is that it streamlines interactions, focuses people on the profit motive. But if you’re pursuing ends that aren’t only served by profit—health, the acquisition of knowledge, the dispensation of justice—capitalism can do more harm than good. It can make you focus on profit when you should be focusing on another goal entirely.

 

2.0:      But you said it was funny.

KGB:  What, the book?

 

2.0:      [nods]

KGB:  I said I hoped it was.

 

2.0:      [frowns] Well, this doesn’t sound very…um…

KGB:  OK, look, it’s about a near future in which Christianity and capitalism have gone haywire, completely taken over America. The hero, antihero really, is a young agent with the Internal Defense Bureau named Tuck Squires. He’s rich, handsome, tall, thin. He’s everything you’d want if you were constructing a secret agent in a meth lab. Ultimately, though, he’s a bit of a bumbler. And he’s an evangelical Christian who’s somehow reconciled his faith with uber-Capitalism. Meaning—

 

2.0:      Meaning he’s a perfect symbol for what America could, or maybe already has, become.

KGB:  Right. He’s teamed with a much older former superspy named Ken Clarion. They take off in search of a kidnapped scientist, the developer of a breakthrough personal spirituality program called Symmetra. The kidnapper is an evangelical fast food mogul named Ravelton Parlay, founder of a very large, very Christian chain called Righteous Burger. Heavenly Halfstones with Cheese, Turbo-Cokes, Freedom Fries, Catfish Poppers all of it served up with live, holographic, individualized sermons from Righteous Burger’s celebrity spokescreature, an anthropomorphized lamb named Timmy who wears a cape and Parlay thinks of as a son. Timmy’s catch phrase is “Kingdom Come, yum, yum, yum!”

 

2.0:      OK, that does sound pretty funny.

KGB:  Thanks.

 

2.0:      In a really dark, twisted fucking way.

KGB:  Right, I already said thanks. No need to gush. So, I’m planning on writing two more of these books. The next will most likely be titled Virtual Jerusalem. The third is tentatively called The Gods of Heroes and Villains. I haven’t decided what I’ll call the trilogy, if I’ll even give it a proper trilogy-ish name. Perhaps just Pax Americana.

 

2.0:      So, the other books are already written?

KGB:  Yes and no. I don’t have them assembled in their final form but I initially envisioned Pax Americana as a much longer novel. This was a few years ago when I was first submitting it to agents. So, I have hundreds (well over a thousand) pages of material that will figure in the other two books.

 

2.0:      What are you working on now if not the sequel?

KGB:  I’ve got another novel I’ve been working on, one totally unrelated to Pax Americana. It’s a first person mythocomic crime fantasy I’ve been calling Loki’s Gambit. The narrator is Loki, which is a lot of fun for me. I’ve always had an easier time writing in first person. For some reason, though, that wasn’t quite right for Pax Americana. The twist with Loki’s Gambit, one of them, is that Loki’s good. The book also has something to do with the current state of politics in the West, the way authoritarianism seems to be gunning for a new moment in the sun. There’s history, Nazi gold, a little magic, a Norn named Sunshine, a dog named Fenris, giant kings who’ve become little people, and a cast of characters drawn largely from Norse mythology. Odin, Thor, etc., etc.

 

2.0:      So, like American Gods?

KGB:  Maybe a little, but I hope not too much. It all hinges on the Norse gods having helped Hitler in his plan for world domination. Loki refused to go along and for that he was banished to Midgard (our world). When Hitler killed himself, the rest of the gods lost most of their power and fell to earth. That’s the ground situation. I’m also about halfway done with a poetry collection.

 

2.0:      You enjoy that, working on multiple projects at the same time?

KGB:  Yes. I guess I’m a little scatter-brained. It seems to be how I read as well. Not always, but often. When I’m working up my review column, I read several (or more) books at once.

 

2.0:      Your column here at TNB?

KGB:  Right. And, just FYI for anyone wondering, the only editorial control I exert at TNB is over my own column, Review Microbrew. This interview, for example, will be edited by one of TNB’s fine editors. And I can only hope they’ll find a way to make both me and my doppelganger sound a little less insane.

 

2.0:      Hey, that’s me you’re talking about.

KGB:  Exactly.

 

Kurt Baumeister is not a real doctor. 2.0 is, however, a real doppelgänger.

An Excerpt from Pax Americana (The Nervous Breakdown)

Commercial Wisdom

 

Ravelton Parlay was a wealthy man and a rational, even calculating one. But that didn’t mean he was beyond belief either in theory or in practice. The guy had faith in spades. Not to mention diamonds, clubs, and hearts. The truth was Parlay had an entire deck of faith—not just in God, but in himself, Capitalism, and America—the sort of clean, clear, core belief structure that had propelled him to greatness and promised to keep him going, to keep him growing ever greater, into eternity and beyond. Of course, Parlay prayed. As a creature of belief—not to mention habit—he prayed morning and night, noon and midday. Parlay prayed working in his office and napping in his dayroom, sitting down to meals and standing up to scream. He prayed in the back seats of limos and the staterooms of yachts, as he strolled the grounds of Bayousalem or hustled through a Righteous Burger photo op. Parlay prayed for his employees, his servants, and even his fourth wife, the beautiful, sexually elusive Kelly Anne. He prayed for the smiley little black kids in Africa, the wizened Asian herdsmen in the Himalayas, and the endangered species —including the ones that weren’t even furry or cute. Heck, Parlay even prayed for the entire world once in a while. Most often, though, Parlay prayed for his beloved country. He prayed for America.

It had been two solid years of Raglan’s Reign of Terror. Massive defense cuts and welfare spending, increased taxes on capital dispensers and wealth stewards, wars on Christianity and the Second Amendment. People had even begun to wonder whether Raglan had an agenda beyond the earthly, whether his evil was supernatural. Was he maybe, possibly, the Antichrist? Parlay didn’t exactly subscribe to this theory, but he would never go so far as to rule it out. Even if it wasn’t true the line of thought was useful in mobilizing allies to his cause.

As he looked back on it from the fall of ’34, Parlay wondered if the rumors about Raglan being the Antichrist could have started sooner, maybe during the ’32 campaign, and if they had, maybe the outcome of that campaign would have been different. Maybe if Cherrystone believed he was up against the physical embodiment of evil Parlay would have had better luck convincing him to do something about it.

“You have to embrace your faith, Mr. President. That’s the only way.”

“That’s not what the voters want, Parlay. Not after Iran.”

“But the wars were so good to us. They can’t have forgotten the last thirty years so quickly.”

“Meh,” said the President. He sounded as if he’d already accepted his fate. The apathy practically made Parlay want to scream. This was the President, of course, a real, Traditionalist, Republican President so he wasn’t actually going to scream. But that didn’t mean he was about to accept quitting either.

“Well, what does President Cheney have to say about it?”

“Cheney?” Cherrystone practically snarled. “Don’t talk to me about Cheney. Bastard won’t even do a joint appearance at this point. And he’s the one who started it.”

“Started what?”

“Started Iran.”

“No?”

“Absolutely. Put it in play as he was walking out the door.”

“I had no idea, Mr. President.”

“Oh, what can I say, Parlay? The wars have taken their toll. Even with SDI, muscular foreign policy may just be a thing of the past.”

Parlay gasped.

“What was that?”

“Nothing, Mr. President. A bird flew in the window.”

“A bird?”

“Just…it’s nothing, sir.”

Cherrystone paused, chewed on the answer for a few seconds. “Listen, Parlay, I appreciate your support. I mean, let’s make sure we keep those checks coming.” He laughed. “Who knows? We may still pull this one out.”

“That’s the spirit, sir.”

“But I’ve got a tee time at Congressional in forty-two minutes. I really should be going.”

“Goodbye, Mr. President.”

Rather than the sort of fond, fawning farewell he was used to, all Parlay got was dead air. He pulled the antique, red receiver from his ear, turned to glare at the thing, the priceless nuclear hotline Reagan had once used to stare down the Russians —metaphorically at least.

Parlay wanted his money back, every darned cent he’d wasted on that feckless fool, this supposed President, Jackson Cherrystone. He wanted a new candidate, someone he could believe in like Reagan or W or Cheney, someone who’d do right by God and America. And he knew that wasn’t about to happen. It was too late.

His blood pressure rising even as darkness seemed to gather around him, the room practically swam with heat. Parlay’s mind filling with a mix of rage and hate and fear of loss, his thoughts turned to the rasping, armored visage of Darth Vader. Which made Parlay even angrier because he absolutely hated Star Wars, let alone the thought of himself in association with its asthmatic symbol of ultimate evil. He slammed down the receiver, instantly regretting the damage he might have done to the priceless, plastic artifact. At that moment, Ravelton Parlay wanted to cry.

The rest of the fall saw the gap between Raglan and Cherrystone widen, Parlay’s ability to contact the President diminishing so much that in the campaign’s final days his sole alternative became prayer, his only hope that God would dispense a mighty miracle to save America, the world and even Parlay’s erstwhile ally, Jackson Cherrystone.

That didn’t happen. Cherrystone lost the Presidency in one horrible, blinding night of racing vote counts, 3-D maps, and crowing heads; took the sort of cross-demographical thunder dumping that left Parlay considering drink for the first time in many moons. Fortunately for Parlay, that wasn’t the end of things. God had other plans for him, and they didn’t include OD-ing on Old Grandad.

When Parlay looked back on things, from the fast-approaching future, he would wonder at the Lord’s power and grace, the fact that God’s elegant plan to save America had already been in motion the night Cherrystone lost the Presidency. More than that, he would smile at the poetry of the new President, Raglan’s, demise, the fact that it would come from within his own Administration.

 

 

Besides its role as a monument to God, Parlay saw his estate, Bayousalem, as a sort of temple to America. Set on land that had once been part of a great national forest, Parlay’s home was modeled on the White House—the lawns, the wings, the general shape; not to mention all the marble and security. There were, however, significant differences. Besides having a completely different interior floorplan and being approximately three times the square footage as the shack at 1620 Pennsylvania Avenue, Bayousalem’s main house was gray, not white; a shade that managed somehow to seem sooty and pearly, dirty and luxurious, all at the same time.

Inside, Bayousalem was stuffed with Americana—fabulous “lost” oil paintings and framed parchments, gleaming medals and ornate uniforms, military maps, ceremonial swords, stovepipe hats, corncob pipes, stuffed animal heads, and even the odd cigar store Indian—nowhere more so than at its cool, shadowy center, the Inner Sanctum. This was Parlay’s command post, the place from which he ran the day-to-day of his vast, ever-growing Righteous Burger empire; where he also oversaw, as of late, a little operation he’d decided to codename Virtual Jerusalem.

“I told you we’d be in contact when there was something to discuss, Brother Ali, not before,” Parlay said this in a sugary half-whisper, one that effectively masked his real annoyance.

While fielding surprise calls about top secret plots wasn’t something he relished, the fact that the other party was Abdul Karim Ali, Security Counsel to the Supreme Leader of the Pan-Islamic Federation—thus, the primary go-between to one of his principal clients—meant Parlay needed to remain cordial, if only to lower the boom that much harder later.

“I understand that, Presence. What you don’t seem to understand is that His Holiness wants fresh details, and I have none to give him. He grows more anxious by the hour.”

“And?” Parlay snapped, still speaking in that same sweet voice as he edged forward in his chair.

This was something Parlay was particularly good at: conveying multiple verbal messages simultaneously, messages that would often bounce around in the head of the intended for hours—at times even days—before they were decoded, often subconsciously. As far as the current conversation went, the messages were these: I love you. I’m Muslim. I hate you. I’m Christian. I’ll ruin you. I’ll make you rich. You’re doing the right thing. And you are going to Hell.

“And?” continued Ali, no doubt conscious of only the first two. “And…you have never

seen His Holiness anxious, Presence. Broken furniture, shattered dishes, wives beaten within an inch of death.”

“Literally?” Parlay replied, shocked at the specifics. Sure, he might have imagined His Holiness lacked self-control. He was a heathen, wasn’t he? But the details were amazing in their violence, their barbarism.

“What?”

“The wives?”

“This is in keeping with the Law of Allah, is it not?”

“Right, yes, of course, brother. I must admit to practicing a little softer approach with my own wives.”

“As do I, of course,” Ali replied.

“But one can understand how the Supreme Leader could grow frustrated with so many of them to deal with. All that talking. All that nonsense.”

Ali chuckled. “Twenty-three is quite a few.”

“Seven is enough for me.”

“I have eleven but believe you me, Presence, I understand your economy. To see the Supreme Leader discipline his women is not a pretty sight.”

“Hmm. Well, we certainly don’t want His Holiness to feel inconvenienced by any of this.” God help the damage he’d do.

“Precisely! You understand!” Ali sighed, pleased with his apparent accomplishment. He had an ally, a champion, someone he could believe in. “Now, why don’t we start with your name? His Holiness is particularly keen on fleshing that out.”

“My name?” Parlay feigned shock, flashed a genuine smile as his gaze settled back on the one-way TeleView screen routed through the red phone. There, Ali’s beardy, shemaghed visage hovered beneath a several-inch-long chain of numbers and letters, the readout from Parlay’s scrambler, ending in the amusing abbreviation, AKA.

Parlay loved it when the heathens got cocky. The fact that he could make them feel good, string them along only to rub their noses in their lack of negotiating power, was one of his very favorite things about Virtual Jerusalem. The amount of freedom Parlay felt in this—well, it was like taking down a company you didn’t even want. To recall a pithy bit of commercial wisdom from his fifties, the feeling was priceless.

“You know you can’t have that, Ali.”

“The Angel then, or these operatives you keep referring to, the Natural, the Viking, the Zulu. Just give me something to go on, something to give His Holiness.”

“And what would the Supreme Leader do with this information?”

“Do? He would do nothing of course.”

“Then why does he need it?”

Ali’s breath caught, his voice descending conspiratorially, “One does not ask the Supreme Leader such questions. He wants to know what he wants to know, not what you or I want him to know.”

“Listen, Ali, you may be my brother in Allah…” Parlay paused to shake his head at the repetition, and even more at the meaning of the statement. The things he did for the Lord. “But you’re not going to get any more information out of me.”

“But Pres—”

“Except for one thing.” Parlay turned from the TeleView, focused on the giant wall screen at the other end of the Sanctum. There, he found his trump, Diana Scorsi.

She lay sleeping, Parlay’s #1, the Natural, Jack Justice, sitting in a chair by her bedside, intent on the pages of his simple study Bible. The lights low, a fireplace just beyond, lit and flickering, the scene might almost have seemed romantic had Justice not been armed with a high caliber handgun and wearing a George W. Bush mask.

“The question isn’t how anymore, Ali. It’s whether you’re in or out?”

Ali clucked his tongue and paused, perhaps unsure of where things were going, except that the destination was not a friendly one. “Presence, we are in of course. How much longer will it be? The Supreme Leader is anxious to test the technology.”

“Not long now. There’s still the matter of coming to terms, though.”

“I thought we had.”

“Refresh my memory.”

Ali paused. For a few seconds, all Parlay heard was his breathing, heavy and quick. Obviously, Ali was surprised by this latest twist, perhaps even dismayed. Which was a fair reaction since the two men had agreed on a final number less than two weeks before. None of which meant Parlay was going to let up on him.

Parlay stayed quiet, careful to preserve his power over the conversation. Thirty seconds later, Ali continued as Parlay had known he would, “The figure was one half trillion U.S., in ragged numbers, routed, sub-routed, and split between the million accounts. Do you not remember?”

“Ah, no, I do…it’s just that…well, how to put this? The Angel wants more.”

“More?”

Parlay waited. The Angel was Dr. Morton School, Deputy Director of the National Science Federation. School was the disgruntled egghead who’d brought Parlay the Symmetra deal two years earlier, but he didn’t want more money. He just wanted to hurt Raglan. Parlay was the one who wanted more money, among other things.

“How much more?” Ali continued.

“Your best offer should be sufficient.”

“We already gave you our best offer.”

“A better best offer then.”

“Better best? I don’t even know what that means.”

“It means surprise me.”

“Surprise…This is a betrayal, Presence. The Supreme Leader will have my head.”

“Oh, please. We both know you’re safe, brother. Just convince him to improve the offer. No doubt, there will be a special bonus for you when he does.”

“From the Supreme Leader? I think not. Unless you count keeping my head.”

Parlay laughed. “I was speaking of something in my sphere of influence. Call it a finder’s fee.”

Ali lowered his voice again, but this time Parlay could almost hear the smile. “How much of a finder’s fee would we be talking about?”

“Mmm…” Parlay paused. He reached down, brushed invisible lint from his spotless, white lapel. By the time he looked back at the TeleView, Parlay barely noticed Ali.

Sure, his partner was still there, waiting. Parlay could make out his silhouette clearly enough. His focus wasn’t on it though. Another image had attracted Parlay’s gaze…

The white hair, the deep tan, the face that barely looked sixty—all of it the result of the hours a day spent with various trainers, aestheticians, and other handlers. Parlay was still incredibly handsome, and he knew it. In fact, sitting there, staring at himself, Parlay couldn’t help thinking he looked just a little like an angel looming over Ali’s shoulder.

“Presence, are you still there?”

“More money than you’ve ever dreamed of,” Parlay added nonchalantly. He’d learned long ago that the most important thing to remember when you were negotiating a deal was to act like you believed what you said, especially when you didn’t.

“Ah…Now, I begin to understand the contingencies of which you speak. I will do my best, Presence.”

“Don’t take too long, Ali. You know, tick tock, tick tock.”

“As you say, brother. As-Salāmu `alaykumu.”

“Wa `alaykumu s-salāmu wa rahmatu l-lāhi wa barakātuh, brother.”

The TeleView flashed to black. Parlay returned the red phone to its cradle. He nodded and smiled, satisfied with how the call had gone, particularly the way it had ended. He leaned back in his desk chair and put up his feet, ran his hand across the surface of his desk, the beloved battlefield secretary that had been Andrew Jackson’s. As he did, Parlay imagined the battles that went with each bullet hole or sword nick, the knocks and gouges acquired carting it from one field of carnage to the next. He imagined it all as a sort of tactile tapestry, a record of one small part of American history.

Parlay’s grin soon faded though. He’d found the v-shaped gash that had been his favorite detail once upon a time. He’d constructed an entire story around it, one of a Seminole brave attempting to assassinate Old Hickory, but dying instead on the end of his saber. Lately, however, the spot seemed only to remind him of something completely different.

Kelly Anne had become too comfortable with her position. She’d begun to think that Parlay needed her, that she couldn’t be replaced. She was withholding herself, had been for months now. And even at his advanced age, Parlay had needs. He had desires. Desires that had a lot more to do with availability than consummation.

Kelly Anne had seemed so perfect once upon a time. That first night he’d seen her gyrating on the sidelines at the Saints game. That tight little black and gold number. Her body round and lean in just the right places. All that beautiful auburn hair shaking behind her like a fox’s foxy little tail. Pretty soon, Parlay was telling Martha to get out of Bayousalem, screaming at her to never come back. And she never did. Parlay’s lawyers were too good, their prenup too sound for Martha to be able to make any real trouble. But it wasn’t working out with Kelly Anne either. And Parlay was growing restless, beginning to look for the woman who would replace his fourth wife. Which brought his thoughts back to Diana Scorsi. He hit the preset for the cell chip in Justice’s ear, rose and walked towards the wall screen.

“Presence?” Justice responded with a start.

“How’s the interrogation going, son?”

“I was waiting for you.”

“Why?”

“What?”

“It’s a simple question, Natural. I asked why.”

“You said you wanted to run the questioning.”

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly have said that.”

“Really?”

“You’ve got the experience, don’t you?”

Justice’s experience amounted to six hours in the Iraq War, at the end of which the wrong imam lay dead and Corporal Jack Justice was well on his way to being Former Corporal Jack Justice. Still, that was way more interrogation experience than Parlay himself had—unless you counted board meetings, and you really couldn’t. At least not for these purposes.

“I guess. I just…I’m sure you said you wanted to be involved.”

“Never mind, Natural. Just wake her.”

“Yes, Presence.”

Parlay watched as Justice stood, W’s decisive grin trembling with the effort. He claimed a hypo from the nightstand, tapped the plunger, and slipped the silver tip into Scorsi’s beautiful, lithe arm.

Seconds passed then her eyelids began to flutter. A few more and her eyes came alive like the work of God they were. Light blue and icy, they gave her face an alien, angelic quality, one that was only augmented by the prominence of her cheekbones, the way they swept up and outwards, almost like a dual staircase in some fine, Antebellum mansion. The overall effect was to make Scorsi seem both more and less than human—not just otherworldly but ethereal or spectral, untouchable, insubstantial. With her brilliance and her will, she would be a prize, no question; something far beyond Kelly Anne. First things first, though.

“Miss Scorsi,” Parlay said.

“Mister…”

“Presence. Just Presence will be fine.”

“You’re in charge.”

“In charge? Oh, you need to put that contentiousness completely out of your mind, Miss Scorsi. We’re here to work together, to be friends.”

“This is about Symmetra?”

“Of course.”

She rubbed her temples. “Look, we’ve got a massive mistake here. You guys think Symmetra’s something it’s not. It’s a research program, nothing more.”

“Research into religion?”

“Metaphysics, whatever you want to call it.”

“How about if I want to call it religion?”

She worried the inside of her lip, waited.

“The point, Miss Scorsi, is that we know all about your technology. We know that if you reversed a few things, if you restricted the database to say, one religion’s teachings, you’d have a pretty effective evangelism program.”

“Hallelujah,” Justice sang.

She looked at him and sneered, an entirely appropriate reaction since Justice did, in that moment, look a lot like a nitwit. “You might think you know.”

Justice nodded.

“But you don’t,” she added.

Justice shook his head.

Before Justice could make himself look like any more of a dolt, Parlay broke back in, “Oh, but we do know. We’ve done our research. We have our sources.”

“Who? What sources?”

Parlay heard something in her voice, something inside her beginning to give, to break. “So you admit I’m right? Symmetra can be changed? It can be turned to the service of the Lord?”

“I’m not admitting anything. Except one thing.” She continued, “Even if that were possible, I’d never be involved in it. It would be brainwashing.”

Parlay smiled. He knew he had her, knew he’d walked her at least that far down the road she needed to travel. He could ease up for a little while, try to lull her into the illusion that control, for her, was still a possibility. He wagged his finger at the screen. “Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong, Miss Scorsi. It only counts as brainwashing if it’s not the truth.”

 

Adapted from Pax Americana, by Kurt Baumeister, Copyright © 2017 by Kurt Baumeister. With the permission of the publisher, Stalking Horse Press.

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 7

By Kurt Baumeister for The Nervous Breakdown

May 01, 2017

Fiction Reviews

 

The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi

 

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One part poetry, one part meditation on memory, Chiwan Choi’s third collection, The Yellow House, is a collage of captured instances, a tale of remembrances fragmented by time. A haunting, semi-hallucinatory trip through the immigrant’s perpetual no-man’s land—that zone between old home and new where people and places, love and death, happiness and sadness mingle—The Yellow House is about the struggle to belong, to reconcile the land of the past with that of the present. Seeing that reconciliation as a fundamentally impossible endeavor, the poet’s thoughts turn to forgetting one set of memories or the other, ultimately failing in this as anyone must.

Born as it is of a multitude of recollections, The Yellow House is not so cerebral as to be inaccessible. Far from it. This collection feels immediate, reads very much as the story of Choi’s life, often flirting with the mode of lyric memoir. There’s an acceptance of paradoxes here, the sort of contradictions that define everyone’s relationships with their parents. At once somehow god-like, everything to us, all parents ultimately fail us both while they are alive and in the fact that they do not live forever, leaving us assured only of our own mortality.

Choi’s parents figure prominently in these poems, many of the pieces referencing his father, more still his mother. His family having emigrated from Korea when he was very small, Choi seems constantly at cross purposes with himself, struggling to feel at home in the new land and the forgotten one, never completely achieving the sort of idyllic existence he longs for in either. There’s a glorification of both old and new homes here, and, thus, a devaluation of them as well. In this, Choi captures and rarefies the immigrant’s experience—the lure of the perfect future that never comes to pass, the love for a past made grander by the fact that it never was.

 

 

The Gargoyle Hunters by John Freeman Gill

 


GillLongtime New York Times contributor John Freeman Gill’s first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, falls in the category of the New York novel, the city on some level not just setting but character. In this instance, that character is portrayed largely through its buildings—the architecture that seems at once to be the city’s spine and muscle, skin and limbs; an unlikely web of iron and stone through which the narrator, Griffin, recalls his youth. This metaphor, and its juxtaposition of human and artificial, will become central to the book.

On the most basic level, Griffin’s thirteen-year old self seeks to connect with his divorcing parents, particularly his father who now interacts with Griffin, his mother, and sister as little more than a cranky landlord. The only way for Griffin to bridge the emotional distance seems his father’s work as an antique restorer and dealer, a profession which has become something like an obsession, a fixation on the glory of the city’s past.

In turns quirky and cunning, naïve and knowing, achingly sad and subtly comic Gill conjures visuals that will fill your mind and family drama that will haunt you, a combination that leaves you longing to experience Griffin’s lost New York. This is a mystery about the ways in which infatuation with artifice can become such an obsession that we stop caring about things like love and family, ways in which if we’re not careful, we can become more like the stone artifacts Griffin and his father hunt than human beings.

 

Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard

 

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Sunshine State, Gerard’s follow-up to her debut novel, Binary Star, is an impressive, albeit uneven collection of writing. Though the book initially purports to be nonfiction, there are enough cautions scattered throughout to make us question that status, perhaps most notably the beginning of the piece “Sunshine State,” where Gerard states, “Characters in the following story are presenting their own versions of events and do not necessarily reflect the truth, which we may never know.” While these recurring cautions may leave you to question the book’s relationship with the truth, they’re not enough to keep you from continuing a generally engaging collection.

Conscious as we are of Gerard’s talent and the resulting successes, it would be wrong to suggest this collection is without flaws. In addition to Sunshine State’s slipperiness in coming down on one side of the fiction/nonfiction divide, the final piece feels throwaway, disconnected from the rest of the book, its use of italicization drawing attention to what seemed to me a lack of real, fully-considered content. More even, the book’s dizzying reliance on footnotes was just too much for this sort of non-scholarly work.

All that said, in Sunshine State’s best work—the opening essay, “BFF”, the title piece, and its follow-on, “Rabbit”—Gerard effortlessly covers vast amounts of emotional and intellectual terrain, doing so in a voice that’s smart and powerful overall, streetwise when necessary. Truly, few writers can manage to be this profound without becoming self-conscious or this affective without becoming overwrought. To accomplish both, with this much style, is indeed rare. Perhaps it’s just that Gerard sets such a high standard with her hits, that her misses are made even more obvious.

 

Ill Will by Dan Chaon

 

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Dan Chaon’s latest novel isn’t a prototypical member of the “serial thriller” subgenre, a form made famous by Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter books (and the critically acclaimed movies and television show they spawned). Far more adventurous in spirit, Ill Will combines elegant prose, manifold points of view, and contemporary family drama with the life-or-death tension, mystery, and suspense essential to serial thrillers. The result is a hybrid that succeeds not only as entertainment, but serious fiction.

Satanism and sexual abuse, an unexplained killing in the past and an active serial killer (or killers) in the present: All these elements are at play, making Ill Will’s ground situation textbook in its topicality. Once engaged, though, the story flows more loosely than genre conventions normally demand, its movements guided by the thoughts of its narrators, main character Dustin Tillman and the people whose lives orbit his own. A poor man’s version of the brilliant criminologist archetype, Tillman is an idiosyncratic middle class character with a dark past, a historic debt (or, perhaps, debts) for which payment seems about to come due.

Looking past Chaon’s brilliant sense of story and the narrative fragmentation he uses to bring it to fruition, the most important questions asked by this narrative are philosophical, born of its title. Is there a sense, perhaps even a force, of malice ordering our world, robbing us of agency?  Or do we reap the effects of our intentions, subconscious and inscrutable as they may be? These questions aren’t easy to answer nor are they mutually exclusive within the confines of the book, but they will determine whether readers see Ill Will as simply good or, in fact, transcendent. More than that, they will determine whether Chaon’s latest can reach beyond commercial and even mainstream literary success to contend for prizes with names such as Booker and Pulitzer.

 

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

 

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Humor and intelligence, postmodern attitude and radical candor—these qualities live, each of them, in Jami Attenberg’s writing. In concert, they create a distinctively enchanting literary voice, one Attenberg uses to lure her reader in, to keep him believing in the potential of a tale that seems comprised of slices from a pretty ordinary life. The contents of All Grown Up are deceptive though, even a tad magical in their cumulative effect; which is to leave the reader feeling wiser, somehow more in tune with the world, able to laugh at all but the most profound sadnesses, just as Attenberg does.

Attenberg’s narrator is a semi-former artist named Andrea Bern. A New Yorker approaching middle age, Andrea looks back on the first half or so of her life, on her relationships with her parents, family, and friends. Anecdotes are the currency here, the chapters episodic, structurally reminiscent of short stories or even sitcoms. All Grown Up isn’t your average Thursday night in the drivel pen, though. Anything it gives up structurally is made up for with voice, insight, and a brilliant, darkly glittering conclusion that will leave most people near tears.

Cutting and witty in its observations, provocative in its tone, All Grown Up reads like a dream. The writing itself is succinct, eloquent but never ostentatious, never taking away from the power of its voice. This was the first book I read by Jami Attenberg, but it won’t be the last. A polished, gifted writer Attenberg combines comedy, pathos, and incredible voice to create a tonic for readers weary both of literary pretensions and vapid escapism. Too accomplished to be simply upmarket, too enjoyable to be just literary, All Grown Up is its own near-perfect hybrid.

 

The Summer She Was Under Water by Jen Michalski

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Michalski’s second novel is a crisply written, emotionally taut study of a family reunited at their lake cabin after many years apart. Children grown, parents dealing with late-life health issues, memories haunt the novel’s narrator, Sam, alternately flaring and smoldering like her parents’ ubiquitous cigarettes. From the beginning, a family history of addiction, abuse, and darker things still dominates the book, creating a depressed mood despite bright surroundings.

Arriving with her first, metaphorical novel in tow, both literally and figuratively—The Summer She Was Under Water alternates between Michalski’s narration of Sam’s lived reality and excerpts from Sam’s own novel—Sam hopes a reunion with her musician-junky brother will prompt a confrontation over the book’s contents, which include thinly veiled allusions to a sexual history they share.

The Summer She Was Under Water is a quick, dark book, one in which life offers many questions, few answers. Lurking always are Sam’s memories of her brother Steve, memories that have come to dominate every aspect of her life, from her work to her relationship with her boyfriend, Michael. Both in terms of prose and dialogue, Michalski’s writing is vivid and true to life, perfect for a world in which connections to other humans seem tenuous, always one wrong word or action from being cut, perhaps forever.

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

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

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 1

 

Amber Sparks on Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott:

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

 

Perfectly Broken by Robert Burke Warren

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

–My review at TNB

 

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

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

 

The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky

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

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 4

 

Marcy Dermansky on Dear Fang With Love by Rufi Thorpe:

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

 

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

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

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 3

 

Rebecca Makkai on Man and Wife by Katie Chase:

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

 

Intimations by Alexandra Kleeman

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

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 5

 

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

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

 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 4

 

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

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 5

By Kurt Baumeister for The Nervous Breakdown

December 21, 2016

Fiction Reviews

December, the end of the Julian calendar year. For critics, it’s time to get listy, to go all effusive, doe-eyed, and misty over what we’ve read during the prior three-hundred-and-something days. For authors, it’s time to hunker down in our metaphorical emotional foxholes, to employ one of four battle-proven strategies:

1.  Get depressed, drink heavily, get more depressed, and jag-cry. (You were left off the holy lists but can’t for the life of you figure out why.);

2.  Get pissed, drink heavily, scream, and stamp your feet. (You know exactly why you were left off the holy lists. A vast right-, left-, and middle-wing conspiracy against your genius, obvis.);

3.  Get deliriously happy, drink slightly less heavily, and do freestyle “ballet” moves in the living room (You made it for once!); or

4.  As in 3, but let it go to your head. And for God’s sake, make sure you slop that confidence all over Facebook before sobering up. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to remember.

I thought about doing some sort of list here—longest books of the year starring an author’s ego in a supporting role, best works of Middle High German-to-English translation my cat vomited on, worst sestina collections I feel uncomfortable criticizing. But for obvious reasons (see above), we’re going with the uzhe, a Microbrewed literary six-pack of new books.

P.S. I may still do a list. Or two. Or six. Stay tuned.

 

Loner by Teddy Wayne

 

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In Loner, Teddy Wayne sends the campus novel through the most misanthropic of literary sieves—the skulking, sulky voice of shy psychopath, David Federman, a narrator Lolita’s white, widowed male, Humbert Humbert, would certainly recognize as a kindred spirit. Intellectually gifted in the extreme, David has sailed through high school and landed as a freshman at Harvard where his narcissistic personality disorder soon finds its objet d’obsession in Manhattanite Veronica Morgan Wells.

Smooth, sophisticated, and strikingly beautiful Veronica is superficially nothing like David. They do, however, share one significant trait, a backwards, egocentric way of seeing the world. Perhaps most starkly characterized in David’s innate ability to reverse-engineer the English language (yourself becomes flesruoy; erotic record, citore drocer) and Veronica’s decision to use David’s psychoses as term-paper material, this shared, predatory worldview provides the novel’s thematic and dramatic centers.

Written as an extended missive to Veronica’s “you,” Loner’s tale of America’s sinister, present truths (out-of-control entitlement and a social-media-fed need for instant gratification) ostensibly focuses on the relationship between David and Veronica. In truth, this book is about only one person, and that’s David Federman.

The question of character likability is one readers, writers, and critics have wrestled with quite a bit recently. And, for those who demand characters be paragons of ethical, moral, or psychiatric virtue—the best friends we never had—this book isn’t for you. For me, aside from the fact that there is a gender disparity in many of these concerns—an exaggerated expectation that female writers will produce likable (particularly female) characters—they’re not something I particularly care about. The qualities I prize in a literary novel like Loner are voice, pacing, social criticism, and humor, regardless how dark. Quality prose doesn’t hurt either. Wayne delivers on all these counts, invoking, at his lyrical heights and depraved depths, the maestro of literary monsters himself, Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov.

Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce

 

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In her first novel, Kelly Luce (Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail) again delves into Japanese culture, the ways it mirrors and contrasts with that of America. Leveraging precise prose, a taste for darkness, and a trippy, slightly elliptical voice, Luce gives us the story of Rio Silvestri, the hafu (half-Japanese) daughter of a famed violinist, now estranged from her father and living in her mother’s native America.

A creature of the ‘burbs, Rio has a husband, a child, and a lurking past. In the wake of her mother’s suicide years earlier, Rio lashed out, killing another child. The impulses that drove her to this she attributes to a para-sentient blackness inside, a force she lives in fear of ever seeing again. Having spent her teen years in a Japanese asylum as a result of the murder, Rio has ample reason to fear what she’s capable of. Nonetheless, when her famous father dies (and leaves behind a missive she finds herself unable to read), Rio’s only choice seems to be a return to Japan.

Pull Me Under tells the story of Rio’s childhood and her relationship with her father, setting this against the backdrop of a seemingly chance encounter and the sidetrip it spawns. The people she meets on this trip and the very different translations they offer of her father’s letter will alter her understanding of her childhood and her relationship with the family she has waiting for her in America. The looming question for Rio is whether the darkness that pushed her to murder once will reemerge only to pull her under yet again.

 

Legend Volume 1: Defend the Grounds by Samuel Sattin and Chris Koehler

 

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Since the May 4 release of its first issue, the comic Legend has built a substantial following. With Chris Koehler’s art (noirish realism tinged with the primitive) and narrative from novelist/essayist Samuel Sattin (League of Somebodies, The Silent End), Legend presents a post-apocalyptic vision of humanity’s house pets struggling to survive a world once-humanized, now wild and growing wilder by the day.

To discuss the graphic novel born of the comic’s first six issues, Legend Volume 1: Defend the Grounds, in the company of classics like Animal Farm and Watership Down isn’t a stretch. Rather than pat jokes about dogs and cats, there’s true poignancy to the way Koehler’s images and Sattin’s prose work together. Legend’s characters, from the titular canine on down, are fully realized, lovingly rendered. Sattin explained why in a brief interview:

KB: “I think the ‘humanity’ you and Chris bring to the characters in Legend is one of its most powerful traits. So much so that I’m left wondering whether there are real-life analogs to any of them?”

SS: “There are. Elsa (the beagle) is based on my late beagle Dolly (who belonged to my mom before she passed away). Atticus is based on my cat, Inigo Montoya. Baghera is based on my cat, Leeloo. Herman and Legend have real-life counterparts, belonging to friends of mine.”

Whether a function of dramatic momentum, emotional heft, intellectual considerations, or a combination thereof, suspension of disbelief is, perhaps, the single most important element of successful fiction—especially fantastical, animal-centric fiction like Legend. These characters may not be human, but they become human to the extent they live on the page. Packing haunting artwork and true soul in a tale of survival and transcendence, Legend questions what humanity has given the world and juxtaposes this with the simple beauty of creatures we often see as less-than ourselves. Through it all, the title character, Legend, must rise to lead his pack in alliance with potentially untrustworthy cats and stranger creatures still; their opponent a murderous monster that has risen from humanity’s ashes, the creature known only as Endark.

 

We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman

 

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In a year of charged political rhetoric, often contrasting monochromatic life in the Heartland with the diversity of the coasts, We’re All Damaged comes as a wry, literary statement on the magnitude and nuances of that divide. Pitch perfect in voice, funny enough to leave you snort-laughing in a Starbucks (Yes, it happened.), Norman’s second novel proves his successful debut, Domestic Violets, was no fluke. Yes, Matthew Norman is one of the funniest writers going, but there’s more here than just laughs. Norman gives his readers social commentary and surprisingly elegant story, wrapping it all in the voice of a character you can’t help rooting for, Andy Carter.

After an ugly divorce, once-steady thirtysomething Andy flees his hometown of Omaha, destination NYC. Once there, he works as a bartender, drinks heavily, and licks his wounds, the city’s scale affording him anonymity. But as Andy’s grandfather’s life nears its end, he’s forced to return to Omaha and the raft of problems he thought he’d escaped, everything from his ex-wife’s affair and his conservative, talk-show-hosting mom to his conventionally successful brother and the best friend whose wedding he wrecked. Soon, though, there’s one more complication; a tattooed amateur life coach named Daisy, a nod to The Great Gatsby in more ways than one.

Norman’s topic is the everyman, the realities of chasing the sort of “successful” life that, in many ways, is still the American Dream. Though the economic scale isn’t so grand as that of Gatsby, Andy’s dreams and the pitfalls that come with them are still recognizable as foundational to our culture. As are the novel’s quintessentially American obsessions with identity and personal reinvention, considerations that require us to see We’re All Damaged very much as an ironic, postmodern counterpoint to Fitzgerald (by way of Vonnegut). This book’s success isn’t simply as comedy—or even cultural, literary, and political criticism—but in the surprising humanity of its ending, a quality that more than any other points to why we’ll be reading Matthew Norman for years to come.

Intimations: Stories 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.

As with two other literary collections I reviewed this year, Matt Bell’s A Tree or a Person or a Wall and The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks, the essential question with Intimations seems to me one of experimental necessity. Of course, there’s much to admire here—as there is in the books by Sparks and Bell—from formal inventiveness and eloquence to a gift for the poetry of observation, the way simple physical details can bloom into realizations far beyond the material. But is Kleeman’s display of formal genius just a clever out, a substitute for conventions of plot and story, dialogue and denouement, to name a few? Your answer to this question will determine your feelings on Intimations.

There’s isolation in this book, a great deal of it. Multiple stories are about the awkward self, the sort of person who rarely fits in, who even when they find connections seems fated to watch them disintegrate, a type Kleeman seems to know very well. There’s real sadness, here, too—a shocking amount of feeling given the level of intellectualization that goes into writing structurally-complex literary fiction—particularly in the middle section with its cycle of stories about a woman (or women) named Karen and in the pieces with animal motifs (“Lobster Dinner”, “I May Not Be the One You Want,”, “Jellyfish,” and “Rabbit Starvation”). This is fiction with a meditative quality, fiction that’s linked by its ideas, and in that it shares something with essay and memoir.

For me, Kleeman’s formal choices are not only justified but integral to her work, perhaps its most important element. Yes, language is our fundamental (albeit imperfect) mode of communication, but form can add to language, elevate it into something greater still. Perhaps the link is akin to that between algebra and geometry, that the geometry of form can expand the way we see the algebra of prose. This literary geometry is the way of Intimations, and if you can accept that, it may just change the way you see the world.

 

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

 

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In 2014, the Booker Prize (formerly a Commonwealth-only award) expanded its scope to include all books originally published in English. On the plus-side, this was a chance to increase the prize’s already-enviable stature by incorporating the world’s single largest English-language market, the US. Critics feared the Booker would lose its Commonwealth (read, British) flare, become just another accolade given by Americans to Americans.

In the two years since the rules change, the Booker has gone to a Jamaican residing in the U.S. (Marlon James for 2015’s A Brief History of Seven Killings), and an American this year, Paul Beatty, for The Sellout. Despite the obvious, superficial “Americanness” of its last two winners, the Booker can hardly be accused of becoming too American in any sort of significant way. Like A Brief History… before it, The Sellout eschews the middle class, middle-brow, Middle-American sensibilities the Booker’s critics feared it would fall prey to. Neither the faltering swan song of some wizened giant of American letters nor an over-hyped, faux-challenging Big Book of the Now, The Sellout is a blistering satire about race. And if we’re going to discuss race in the 21stcentury, America’s juxtaposition of Trumpist Nuremburg rallies and Black Lives Matter protests is as significant a place to do it as any.

A Supreme Court case; a crazed sociologist for a father, one whose memoir may mean financial salvation; a life spent in Dickens (paging Chuck?), an agrarian anomaly hidden amid urban Los Angeles; and to top it off there’s the way our narrator, Me, finds himself conspiring with former Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins, to reinstitute slavery and segregation (in LA), the genesis for the court case around which the book centers. No one can deny the pieces are here for an epic satire about race in America. Aside from that most essential ingredient of literary fiction—this book is about something—Beatty marries his undeniable comic prowess with intelligence, realism, and restraint in voice and prose, creating a blend to make literary legends as aesthetically different as Richard Wright and Kurt Vonnegut (their ghosts, at least) nod and smile.

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.