TNB Book Review: The Sarah Book, by Scott McClanahan

“Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain momma

Take me home, country roads”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TNB Book Review: Joseph by Dena Rash Guzman

 

“I Dug the Hole Already, joseph”

 

My beauty a shovel.

A spoon of aconite and arsenic.

In your mouth refusing food.

To beg instead a stylish garter drama.

Prussic acid gimlet.

Open veins bleed hell.

I’ll ring your bell, son.

I will ring your bell.

–Dena Rash Guzman, Joseph

 

The word “revelation” is a popular superlative in literary circles, popular to the point of overuse. It’s not the only one, of course. There’s an element of hyperbole to criticism, one born of multiple impulses: some noble; some less so. Does the critic desire so passionately to illuminate the art before him that he fails it and his audience, falls back on hyperbole because it conveys at least part of what he means to say? Or does he do it for himself, try to prove his own intellect by overstating the success (or failure) of another person’s art?

Whatever the reasons, the field of literary criticism is littered with many a would-be “masterpiece” and misnamed “tour de force”; more questionable “statements” and suspect “wonders” than the dead of Troy and Agincourt, Gettysburg and Moscow combined. Sometimes, though, no matter how super the superlative; the word fits. On those occasions, the critic has every right to use a term such as “revelation.” Perhaps, in some ways, he even has an obligation to do so. But he also has an obligation to justify it.

From the outset of Joseph, Dena Rash Guzman’s second poetry collection, we see a literary superstructure developing before us, an architecture delineated not just in the volume’s titling but in the way each of Guzman’s poems is—in turns lyrical and prosaic, blunt and sophisticated, wildly funny and blithely caustic—directed at a different Joseph. The key question in considering Guzman’s vision for the book is the role of her ever-changing Joseph? Is he protagonist? Antagonist? Oblivious target? All three and then some?

From a symbolic standpoint, it’s possible Guzman’s Joseph is the Joseph of biblical fame, the poet casting her predominately (if not exclusively) female narrators as Mary stand-ins, addressing gender dynamics reinforced by thousands of years of Christianity in the West. As a woman and an artist, it would make perfect sense for Guzman to tweak and even attack the patriarchal power structure in this way. Which she does. But it’s clear to me Guzman is going for more.

Beyond the biblical lies Joseph’s identity as the modern (though not as much as he thinks) Everyman. In one poem, Joseph can be the hipster bro who’s a secret misogynist. In another, the chauvinist cave-dude who longs for a return to the 50’s. Not all Guzman’s Josephs are bad or wrong, though. These are real men, often the average father or friend, husband or lover. They have faults, but many of them also have virtues. And it’s this synthesis of dramatic reality and literary symbolism that helps explain why Joseph is such a powerful collection. That said, we might alternately see the title as ironic, the book not about Guzman’s Josephs at all. Rather, it might be about the impact history’s billions of Josephs have had on women as a group. Not that these interpretations preclude each other. In fact, they work quite effectively together, layered one on the other; another hint that this is indeed a special, clearly and cleverly thought out collection. With unshakeable loyalty to her personal truth, catchy rhythms, and surprising, at times brilliant, wordplay Guzman creates an environment in which Joseph can be both symbol and individual. For me, though, it’s the consistent humor of this collection that most sets it apart.

 

“Fuck it, I’m Going for a Manicure, joseph”

 

Roses r read

Violets r blue

The only cure

Is a few isolated stag colonies

Inhabited by men who have mutated

To survive solely on Doritos.

 

Honesty is often at the heart of humor and it certainly is central to this collection, though not always in the service of comedy. These poems have been lived by their narrators, Guzman the filter. Often, perhaps, they are autobiographical, but who can say how often and when? I suppose Guzman; but she’s not telling. And when you’re as honest as Guzman, it doesn’t matter. You are conveying truth even if it’s not a truth you have physically lived. As at the end of “I Wrote an Open Letter to the Baby Deer I Nearly Hit Tonight, joseph”, when she looks at the world through the eyes of that deer’s mother.

 

“I can say with certitude that I was driving carefully tonight.

When your eyes and fur came before me I did the thing –

I slammed on my brakes. The road lit up bright red in back

of my car, a German number. It handles well under stress

like beasts with four legs just like you still have.

Inches from your shell-shocked little face.

I stopped. Your mother came after you, rearing

As I might have. Her life with us here must be difficult,

all her nights most likely fraught by ancestral memories

of wolf packs hunting her herd. She might be a single mom.”

 

For this critic, when it comes to Dena Rash Guzman’s Joseph, the term revelation is deserved and even essential. Not only for me as a man but in imagining all the other Josephs out there, knowing they’re not necessarily evil, but they’ve got a thing or two hundred wrong, that perhaps the most constructive thing we can do is consider the possibility we’re not the subject at all. Perhaps men need to spend some time not imagining themselves as the hero (or villain) in every story.

Filled with humor and lyricism, wisdom and truth, Joseph is a window into the realities of being a woman, a significant collection that, in early 2017, could not have been released at a more appropriate time. Call it brilliant. Call it impressive. Call it a revelation or come up with your own superlative. Just buy it. And read it. Now.

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.

Largehearted Boy Book Notes – Kurt Baumeister “Pax Americana”

http://www.largeheartedboy.com/blog/archive/2017/04/book_notes_kurt_2.html

April 6, 2017

Book Notes – Kurt Baumeister “Pax Americana”

Pax Americana

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Kurt Baumeister’s literary thriller Pax Americana is a brilliantly imagined satire.

Sean Beaudoin wrote of the book:

“If there is to be an American peace, it’s certainly not going to come on the pages of this lit match of a novel. Kurt Baumeister has fashioned exactly the old school pre-and-post Bond techno X-travaganza everyone bored with explorations of the Louvre has been waiting for. Pax Americana is both dark satire and deeply satisfying, an adrenaline rush that runs through suspect politics, spirituality software, and the sacredly profane.It’s a blast. Buy it now.”


In his own words, here is Kurt Baumeister’s Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Pax Americana:


To people who don’t write satire, it may seem easy. It’s just jokes, right? Or not even that, but painfully dry demi-jokes? Constant irony, mistimed whimsy, humor too smitten with itself to know better. Yeah, yeah, the world is a mess. So, what? Always has been. Always will be. Tell me something new.

The thing people miss is that the satirist must be (or, at least, try to be) funny and serious at the same time. The balancing act can be extremely difficult, difficult enough it usually fails. To do it effectively, you must be willing to look at everything—the world, its things, its creatures, and most of all yourself—with something like love and contempt simultaneously.

Pax Americana is a satirical take on the spy novel. Meaning it’s both a mockery of and an homage to the form. For me, there’s one writer of espionage thrillers, and one hero, who tower above the rest. The writer, Ian Fleming; the hero, James Bond. Now, I’ve read several Bond novels, the first of them in a bunch when I was a kid, then refreshing my memory of a few (notably Goldfinger and From Russia With Love) over the last several years. The most memorable things about the Bond books, other than Bond himself, of course, are the exotic locals, femme fatales, and larger-than-life nemeses that seem to fill his world. These qualities exist across the books and the movies. One that doesn’t, though, is the music. The Bond song has little to do with the Bond books, but it does provide a bridge between Pax Americana and my playlist.
“Live and Let Die” by Wings

Whether this is just an incredibly clever fifty-plus-year marketing campaign or something more, the Bond songs are significant to our culture and, at least for me, “Live and Let Die” is one of, if not the greatest. From the wistful vocals and gentle piano of its beginning to the deadly shamble it reaches and maintains, this is an epic rock song. The first of two classic tracks for which I spent time deciding between the famous original and the only slightly less famous cover that came decades later.

On the face of it, the arrangements seem similar between the Wings version and the cover Guns ‘N Roses did a few decades later, and the overall effect the versions go for, barely controlled musical chaos, is similar. Similar, but not the same. And if I must choose, and, indeed, I must, I’ll take the original.

Listening to the two versions one after the other, you get the feeling Axl scream-singing the words acapella would only marginally add to or take away from the Guns version. McCartney’s version on the other hand is more soulful; ironically, more cohesive and rangier at the same time; vocals and instrumentation both necessary for the overall effect. Comparatively, G N R’s instrumentation sounds simplistic, tinny and thin in a way, for all the growling of Slash’s guitar.

Maybe it’s the fact that Guns were just too far beyond chaos as a musical effect. Maybe they were chaos in a way that leaves someone else’s elegant descent into musical entropy sounding weak in their hands. Or maybe it’s the added poignancy, particularly in the beginning of the McCartney version, his willingness to work with rather than overwhelm the music that make his original shine, still after forty years.

“Price Tag” by Jessie J (featuring B.o.B)

“Price Tag” captures one of the ironies at the heart of Pax Americana, but more importantly America and humanity. Deeply infectious and superficially positive, there’s more beneath the surface of “Price Tag” and a lot of it’s dark.

“It’s not about the money money money / We don’t need your money money money / We just wanna make the world dance / Forget about the price tag / Ain’t about the uh cha-ching cha-ching / Ain’t about the yeah b-bling b-bling”

Jessie J’s delivery of these lines is somewhere between careless and jaded, pointing to a reality that’s confirmed by the video’s dizzying array of costume changes and the ubiquitous “b-bling b-bling” and “cha-ching cha-ching” we’re shown in spite of what we’re told. Ultimately, the protestations are hollow. It really is about the “money money money.” But, what isn’t?

If you’re trying to escape hypocrisy, humanity’s not a good place to do it. And, despite “Price Tag’s” hypocrisy, I guess, or at least I hope, Pax Americana has some of its attributes. I hope readers enjoy it, that they get swept up in the story, enjoy the plot, and find it a fast read. But I also hope they take away a hunger for greater truth, even though that hunger will invariably prove impossible to sate.

“Perfect World” by Liz Phair

Liz Phair’s whitechocolatespaceegg is one of my desert island discs. Though, maybe in these dystopian, Trumpian times it would be better to call it one of my “post-apocalyptic” discs. Call it what you want: There’s not a bad song on whitechocolatespaceegg, from the post-consumerist grandeur of “Polyester Bride,” to the lurching madness of “Johnny Feelgood” and the mysterious, acoustic kookiness of “Uncle Alvarez.” But the track I come back to most often is “Perfect World.”

“No need for Lucifer to fall if he’d learned to keep his mouth shut” is the payoff line. That’s quintessential Liz Phair, conveying a universal truth with sardonic simplicity. But that’s not all there is here. The song’s narrator doesn’t have to be Phair, but it could be, and certainly, if it were, the irony of a woman as beautiful as Liz Phair envying the “girls who live inside your world…just sitting next to mortals makes their skin crawl” is heavy. Ultimately, the song’s narrator, whether it’s Phair herself or a constructed character, feels a kinship with the fallen angel, Lucifer, in her realization of the universality, futility, and inescapability of envy.

“Salvation Serenade’ by Jehovah’s Wishlist (featuring Rake Pennirex)

Pax Americana opens with its antihero, Tuck Squires, on the way to work at the U.S. Internal Defense Bureau (ID). A sunny November morning, and Tuck heads down Constitution Avenue in his green, reptilian, convertible Epiphany, top down, heat cranked, music blaring, the stereo system putting out “Salvation Serenade,” the latest from an entirely fabricated band, Jehovah’s Wishlist. Their lead singer being an equally fabricated figure, The Angelic Assassin, Rake Pennirex.

I love making things up—part to most of the reason I’m a writer no doubt—from car brands to fictionalized movies and band names, actors and TV shows. So, it’s fitting that I start doing that on Page 1 of Pax Americana. I imagine Jehovah’s Wishlist as something like a cross between a Christian version of Arctic Monkeys and Creed’s nihilistic alter-ego. “Crunchy drums and martial guitars” is the way I describe them in Pax Americana—so basically punked-out Dominionist fascism, right? And who is Rake Pennirex? What does he look like? I’m thinking lots of black leather, long hair, and a crazy-thin moustache. And he’s British, definitely British.

“Made to be Remade” by Missionary Situation Reversal

The second of three fictional songs on my playlist, parts of this are sung to Dr. Diana Scorsi, the genius computer scientist who develops the “God software” at the center of Pax Americana. This happens early in the book and it closes a chapter. No doubt there’s a cinematic quality here, the idea that the characters are providing soundtrack to the novel. (See “Live and Let Die” above.)

“And I can still hear that old choir of angels / Singin’ ‘bout the End of Days / And I can still hear my old preacher screamin’ / Screamin’ like the wrath of God / Screamin’ out the wrath of God / Made to be remade, ooh-ooh-ooh…”

As discussed in the book, Missionary Situation Reversal, MSR, is a “God pop” band that Diana mistakes for country. Which horrifies the people she’s with, the men who are singing to her. The song’s significance will become clear later in the book, but in addition to alluding to a certain locale, it touches on the theme of gender imbalance (and even misogyny) in many of history’s great religions.

“The Man Who Sold the World” by Nirvana

Pax Americana’s villain, or antivillain, Ravelton Parlay, may be my favorite character to write. So much of Parlay’s world is either comedy, satire, or both; but when I try to think about him seriously, the refrain from this song comes to mind. At times, I can almost hear it when I’m writing him. It makes me sad. I think that if Parlay could hear it, too, he’d imagine I was likening him to Judas, and I probably am.

This is the second track on which I debated between an original and its most famous cover. Yes, Bowie recently died, which makes it sort of sacrilegious to choose Nirvana’s version. But, at least on that score, Kurt Cobain’s life is a tragedy that stacks up to any, even two decades after his suicide.

I like the instrumentation of the Nirvana version better. Which is probably just an example of more organic music catching up with the trippy studio tricks in Bowie’s version. The stripped-down version works for me. No, Cobain’s not nearly the pure singer Bowie is and perhaps this is another example of personal taste trumping good sense. In terms of having a distinctive voice, you really can’t make a case that McCartney measures up to Axl either.

“If God Will Send His Angels” by U2

Listening to this song, I’m struck by how significant the lyrics are to me and how important they’ve wound up being to Pax Americana. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Anyone who knows me well knows that U2 are my favorite band. No, that’s not cool to say these days, and their last album was a bit of a mess. Still, in writing this, I actually found myself pulling the entire sheet of lyrics, then editing down to what seemed a reasonable level; which still amounted to about half the song. Nothing remotely like a reasonable level.

“It’s the blind leading the blond / It’s the stuff, it’s the stuff of country songs”

Pax Americana is based on the premise that America swerved right under George W. Bush (which it did) then just kept going and going and going. And there’s little as generally right—and mainstream white—as country music. Now, I don’t particularly like country music, but I can get into Bono’s lyrics as he simultaneously makes fun of it and himself for going down this road. Yet, somehow, he still manages to touch on the fact that there may be some legitimate soul in country. You have to listen deeper into this song but the country music theme returns—”it’s the stuff, it’s the stuff of country song, yeah but I guess that’s somethin’ to go on”— their expression different, their meaning more profound.

Speaking of profound, this line:

“God’s got his phone off the hook, babe / Would he even pick up if he could?”

Rather than the presumption that U2’s lyrics are overtly Christian, their lyrics have always been about the contradictions of faith, the push and pull between the fraud religion often represents and the idea of actually doing good in the world.

Here, most of a verse:

“It’s the blind leading the blond / It’s the cops collecting for the cons / So where is the hope and / Where is the faith and the love? / What’s that you say to me / Does love light up your Christmas tree? / The next minute you’re blowing a fuse / And the cartoon network turns into the news”

The last line about the cartoon network turning into the news speaks to the absurdity of reality, and the plausibility of surrealism, a notion that seems very important in our current political environment in America, a place where facts, logic, and learning seem now to be under daily assault from the highest, most powerful places in our government.

And finally, this:

“Jesus never let me down / You know Jesus used to show me the score / Then they put Jesus in show business / Now it’s hard to get in the door”

Much of Pax Americana is about separating religious dogma from the values necessary to do good. It’s about the absurdity of religious fundamentalism of any stripe. Though there can be no absolute certainty that one of the extreme fundamentalist interpretations of religion isn’t correct, the preponderance of evidence suggests that no fundamentalist view can be true since that would preclude every other religion being even a little bit right.
The notion of an omnipotent, benevolent God that so many religions posit would seem to be at odds with the idea that God is some glorified accountant, keeping score, consigning the spiritual failures—which let’s be honest, is most of us—to an eternity of torment. If anything is true about religion or spirituality, logic dictates that beliefs can only be true in their commonalities (e.g. The Golden Rule). This is what’s at the heart of Diana Scorsi’s software, Symmetra.

“Lambs to the Lord” by Tabby Arnesse

Tabby Arnesse is the last recording star I made up for Pax Americana. The prototypical young, American pop chanteuse, Tabby’s one of those gratingly ubiquitous kids who seem to pop up (pun unintended, but accepted) from time to time. Here, though, I’ve layered on America’s mélange of Christianity and capitalism gone nuts; and, voila, a uniquely annoying girlchild you don’t even have to see to believe. This, from Tabby’s latest #1 “Lambs to the Lord”:

“Oh, God is love, can’t you see / He rains blessings down on me / Like lambs to the Lord / With fleece as white as snow / Someday God will call us home / Someday God will call us home.”

“Lambs to the Lord” is set to the tune of “Knick Knack Paddy Whack” (aka “This Old Man”), and shows up at a gallingly inappropriate time in the text, bedeviling an already bedeviled Dr. Diana Scorsi and resulting in pained singing and lumbering dancing from a certain gigantic, evangelical henchman.

“Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen

Perhaps the most misunderstood song in the history of rock ‘n roll—so misunderstood the very misunderstanding is famous—”Born in the USA” may be the best example in this whole playlist of the duality of intent that goes with satire. “Born in the USA” has to be anthemic. It has to sound like a sort of love letter to America, a chest-thumping, fist-bumping apple-pie buy- Chevrolet barbecued chicken of a song, and it even is on some level. Its true meaning, though, as a song of men who gave themselves to their country and were reviled in return is inescapable if you spend more than a second thinking about the lyrics.

“It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M.

In Melbourne, Victoria, a little more than a week before 9/11, I saw an Australian thrash band play a sped-up version of this. It may have been the most exciting (musical) two minutes of my life. Blundering around Oz, smoking and drinking and, at times, playing the stupid American, I had no idea what the U.S. and the world were in for in a few days’ time.

The events of 9/11/01 are certainly significant to Pax Americana, just as they are to history. But for that attack, America would have gone on believing itself immune to the terrorism of religious extremists. That didn’t happen of course.

I came into Boston’s Logan Airport on one of the planes that would, a week later, be used in the 9/11 attacks. I lived in Boston, so there was no chance I would have been heading to New York on one of those fateful trips, even if I’d returned a week later. Still, the proximity, remote though it is, shakes me to this day.

There’s a character who goes by the alias of The Angel in Pax Americana, one whose memories of 9/11 are my own. I still see those planes hitting the towers when I close my eyes. Maybe I shouldn’t be proud of this writing, but I am:

“Placid sky and reflective glass. Airplanes trapped in pitiless slow-mo hurtling again and again into those stoic towers of steel. Balls of fire flowering like midair cancers. Plumes of thick black gashing the sky. Broken buildings become the ruins of a once-great civilization. People, too, fall. Unable to bear the flames or the fear, they know they’re going to their deaths, but take that last step just the same. The lower air soon fills with smoke and debris, screams and dust and death. All of it the work of religion, the fantasy known as God…”

“Redemption Song” by Bob Marley

Hope doesn’t necessarily make sense, but I’ve still got it. And I…well, hope…that comes through in Pax Americana. Despite all the darkness, not only in our world, but in my novel, there’s no choice but to have hope. Nor is there any choice but to laugh at reality’s rules, things like mortality, the mystery of life after death, our dubious reliance on gods, and all the other uncertainties we live our lives around.

Having listened to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” hundreds of times, my main takeaway is that you can’t fully control your reality, much as you might try. Maybe this desire to control, to make the world in one’s own image is at the heart of the philosophy held by various villains in Pax Americana, and maybe that philosophy more than anything else is what we have to fight against. There may not be a god—there almost certainly isn’t—but to the extent one exists, there’s no reason to believe it’s anything but good. I don’t mean there’s no logic in it. I mean that as Marley says, there’s no purpose in it.

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our minds / Have no fear for atomic energy / ‘Cause none of them can stop the time”

We make our own prisons. We put ourselves in them. These are horrible truths. The corollary truth is that we can free ourselves from our prisons. Even those of the horrible, hateful gods some of us create. In the end, we’re the only ones who can.
Kurt Baumeister and Pax Americana links:

the author’s website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Caroline Leavitt interview with the author
Christine Sneed interview with the author

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

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

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

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

“Must be. That’s the address.”

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

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

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

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

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

“In fact, it looks sort of like a—”

“Dump?” Tuck finished.

“Not exact—”

“Pit?”

Clarion laughed. “Not that either.”

“Haunted factory?”

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

“Guys?”

“Christians.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All of it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Make up your mind, Squires.”

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

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

Tuck nodded. For now, he thought.


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

An Excerpt from PAX AMERICANA (The Weeklings)

CHAPTER 7

KIDSFUNZONE

 

By the third term of the Bush Presidency, America was practically floating on all the cheap oil Saddam’s defeat had brought in. Afghanistan and Bin Laden ten years gone, the War in Syria only in its planning stages, the country was anxious to celebrate victory, peace, and most of all itself. America was ready to revel in its very Americana.

“And what’s more American,” asked President Bush in his 2009 State of the Union, “What better way is there to celebrate victory than by convocalating the very traits that made this great success for democracicity plausible? What I’m talking about here is heroishness and valor, honorability and glorifiction. But I’m also talking about the other things that make America great. I mean our faith. The fact that we have core principles, unshakeable beliefs in things greater than ourselves. That’s our beliefs in God, democracy, and the blessed alchemy of free, unfettered markets.”

Over the next several months, a broad legislative agenda was rolled out, its centerpiece The Homeward, Heroes! Mainstreaming Act. Initially, the HHMA was about giving tax breaks, health and education benefits, and other incentives to combat troops returning from overseas. It was lauded as a G.I. Bill for the twenty-first century.

As the HHMA built steam, though, rapidly moving towards passage in the House and Senate, enterprising politicians began attaching additional legislation to it, amendments covering everything from Mardi Gras—too long—and lightbulbs—too dim—to otters—to be protected— and bears—to be shot from hot air balloons.

Buried amongst these amendments was The Faith Protection Act of 2009, a bill to recognize the special place Christianity held in the hearts of Americans, most notably the incredibly popular, President Bush, or the Dubya as he’d come to be known.

Championed jointly by Minnesota’s Congresswoman Backlash and Senator Pyle of North Carolina, the FPA represented the beginning of a process that would ultimately result in the codification of Christian Consumerism in America, an impulse that had, after all, been around since the country’s inception.

Righteous Burger Corporation had been in its infancy when the FPA went into effect. But even with only four restaurants—two of them drive-thrus—the company was still well placed to benefit from the new legislation. With the push the new legislation provided for Christians to buy and sell primarily with other Christians, four restaurants soon became eight, eight sixteen, and on and on. Nor did it hurt that a few years later, while campaigning for his fourth term, President Dubya became a big Righteous Burger fan.

The President had been touring the Gulf Coast, shoring up support in advance of the coming general against former President Clinton. The Democrats were pulling out all the stops by that point, hoping that Slick Willie would be able to succeed where his wife—’08—and the Kenyan—’12—had failed. Since Clinton was a son of the south himself, newly devout, and from neighboring Arkansas, the Dubya wasn’t taking any chances. The Righteous Burger event had been arranged to give him a chance to show-off his down-home cred, but also to try RB’s famed Heavenly Halfstone, a burger Ravelton Parlay knew more than lived up to its name.

Operating in a state of near-exponential growth, RB was doing fantastically, Parlay wealthier than he’d ever dreamed. That didn’t mean he was satisfied. The great thing about money—and Parlay had known this from his earliest days as a lemonade entrepreneur back in Vermont—was that there was always more of it to be had.

Though this wasn’t true in a physical sense. There was in fact a definite, determinable amount of scrip in actual, verifiable existence. But wealth had a way of bobbing and weaving of its own volition, keeping the game interesting by turning itself into a constantly moving target.

Take the impact of the FPA for example. By that point, the courts had interpreted the FPA as exempting individual earnings of all types—wages, bonuses, stock options, investment income, passive activities, etc.—from taxation if they were derived primarily from religious operations.

In line with the ruling, Parlay had been ordained a minister just after the FPA passed—his title Doctor, Reverend, Reverend Doctor, or just plain Rev as the occasion demanded. Since he was primarily concerned with RB’s marketing and since that marketing was so concerned with Christianity— there was Scripture everywhere from wallpaper to burger wrappers—never mind the obvious spiritual devotion that had gone into creating a character like Timmy, the case that his earnings were derived primarily from his faith was an easy one to make. In line with this, Parlay’s personal tax bill had plummeted to nearly nothing by 2012. One problem remained: Righteous Burger’s massive, and growing, corporate earnings. Of course, Parlay wasn’t the only Christian Capitalist with this sort of problem.

The two great men met at Righteous Burger #22, a full-service store located just outside Baton Rouge. By that point Parlay had thirty-two restaurants sprinkled along the Gulf Coast, from Pensacola to East Texas.

“Mr. President, I can’t tell you what a big fan I am of yours. This…this is just incredible, meeting you and all,” Parlay gushed, greeting the Dubya beneath the inflatable Timmy that dangled from the ceiling like a vertical, seven-foot piñata.

“Speak nothing of it, Reverend, the Dubya always has time to break bread with a man of God. Now, why don’t we see if we can get us a couple of them Heavenly Halfstones, maybe a side of catfish poppers?”

“Absolutely Mr. President, if you’ll just have a seat in one of our booths, I’ll have that brought over to you directly.”

“I was thinking we might break bread together, Reverend.”

“Really, sir? I’m flattered.”

“I understand you’ve made some sizable contributions to our reelection campaign.”

“You’re doing the Lord’s work, Mr. President. The least I can do is help.”

“Mighty selfless of you, Parlay. Mighty selfless.”

Parlay had made a surprise appearance at RB #22 early that morning. He knew he needed to terrify the staff in advance, to make sure there were no muck ups when it came to the President’s chow. To the relief of all, lunch service went smoothly. Both men ordered the same thing: Super-sized Heavenly Half Stone with cheese meals, Super-sized Turbo-Coke to drink, and sides of catfish poppers and Cajun hushpuppies.

“Can I get you anything else, sir?” Parlay said.

“No, Reverend, the real question is what I, the Dubya, can do for thee?”

“Sir?”

“I’ve heard a lot from religious business leaders about expanding the FPA, maybe finding a way to tie it into corporate earnings. How would you feel about that? You think maybe that would be taking it too far, injecting too much business into religion?”

“No…What?”

By 2014, the Christian Commerce Encouragement and Protection Act passed Congress. In addition to offering subsidies for disadvantaged Christians looking to start Christian businesses, the CCEPA reduced the tax rate on “Christian Corporations” to 8%.

 

 

Righteous Burger’s celebrity spokescreature Timmy the Lamb was Parlay’s grand invention, a genius advertising stunt that had turned into much more. A little bit Jesus, a little bit Lassie’s boy, a little bit of an homage to the consumer-industrial complex, Timmy was the closest thing Parlay had to a son. And at the age of eighty-nine, the closest thing he ever would have.

Sure, Parlay’d had his sperm frozen. What scheming billionaire doesn’t? But saving his jizz for a rainy day had nothing to do with raising a kid himself. Problems with Kelly Anne aside, if the storm came, Parlay was sure it would be after he was gone, his seed nothing more than an insurance policy that his genes would survive. But as far as a testament to his life on earth, a record of the way Ravelton Parlay saw the world, Timmy the Lamb was it.

As a result, every half- or full-spot, every print ad, every voice-over, special-run toy, or in-store mock-up—basically, anything involving Timmy or his image—had to be approved personally by Parlay. Even during something as important as Virtual Jerusalem there were no exceptions. Which was why, later that afternoon, Parlay was back in his Inner Sanctum, staring at the video screen recessed into his desktop, watching Timmy’s latest adventures.

“What troubles you, little ones?” Timmy asked the flock of crying children, his face grown suddenly grave. Kneeling for their response, he listened, ears quivering with the effort, his crimson cape scraping the sun-soaked earth.

“Them,” whined the kids, accusatory forefingers darting in the direction of the Righteous Burger across the way.

There, in the RB KidsFunZone, sat six Muslim clerics. Wearing robes, beards, and sunglasses, the imams howled and cackled, jabbering at each other in an odd, throaty tongue, devouring their ill-gotten Righteous Burgers as they did.

Timmy turned to survey the evil-doers, his expression one of concern, even confusion. Timmy was too good for this world, it was true. An ovine man-child innocent to his core, one as virtuous as Timmy always had a hard time understanding evil.

As Timmy focused on the imams, a little blond girl, the smallest of the children, began to cry. The camera cut to big, salty tears streaming down her chubby cheeks, the tears that would make everything clear to Timmy.

“I wamff my Righteous Burger,” she said in an endearing lisp.

Timmy stood. Bringing his palms together—Timmy’s front legs ended in hands, not hooves he cracked his knuckles. He knew what he had to do. So did Parlay. He signed with his LightPen and hit send, returning to the other matters at hand: Virtual Jerusalem and a late lunch.

“What about my cross-licensing agreement?” he shouted towards the TeleView, as he claimed his spoon, made ready to dip it into the dish of velvety, copper-colored gator étouffée house boy, Wilhelm, had just dropped off.

“We have discussed nothing of the kind,” responded the person at the other end of the red phone, France’s UN Ambassador, Jean-Francois Arnaut.

Parlay dropped his spoon. It hit the desk top with a shrill tink, far less impressive than he’d imagined. It would have to do, though. He waited.

“What was that noise?”

“I could ask you the same thing, Arnaut. You know full well we’ve discussed the cross-licensing. The Angel’s been clear with me, and I’ve been very clear with you. There’ll be no deal without it, six hundred billion or not.”

“Clear about what, Presence? I still don’t understand what you’re asking.” This was a lie. But like any other heathen, Arnaut played his little games.

Parlay responded, “The Angel wants to use the technology in America without any outside interference.”

“That’s four hundred million customers worth of interference you’re talking about,” Arnaut replied.

“Which still leaves you with nine billion, Arnaut. Four hundred million seems a small price to pay.”

“True.” Parlay could hear it in Arnaut’s voice. He thought he retained some sort of control over the situation. Parlay was going to leave him that illusion for now. “I will take this to the President,” Arnaut continued. “He should have no problem with it. Assuming, that is, you’re ready to give us your identity.”

Parlay hated the French, especially now that they were mobbed up with all those other crazy Catholics in their loony little Southern European Union. They were all horrible—the Italians, the Spanish, the Portuguese—but the French were, without a doubt, the worst. So pompous, so effeminate, always making their pipsqueaky demands, trying to force the rest of the world to go along.

“Listen, Arnaut, I’ve told you a thousand times. You’re not getting my name.”

“Not even when we’ve come to an agreement?”

“Not even. All you’ll ever know about me is that I’m American and my sole interest, like yours, is in spreading the true faith.”

“Neo-Catholicism, you mean?”

Parlay winced. “Of course, brother, the Lord willing.”

“The meeting is going well then?”

“The final adjustments are being prepared as we speak. Soon, the Angel will approve distribution.”

This wasn’t true, not by a long shot. Besides the fact that Parlay was the one who would ultimately approve delivery, Scorsi had been too tough-minded for the dosages of biostatin they’d used. The toxicity possibilities on higher ones too great—they needed her mind to remain intact—the entire process had come to a halt. But Parlay had learned long ago never to let the facts get in the way of negotiations.

He’d also learned not to let agreements get in the way of success. True, the numbers were astronomical even for someone as rich as Parlay. But the most important thing was getting Diana Scorsi and Symmetra to do what he wanted, getting them to serve God. The money was secondary. Well, sort of. That part was complicated. “I hope you can also see that it’s time for the French government to put its very best offer on the table.”

“I thought I just did.”

“What was that?”

“Six hundred billion and the cross-licensing agreement.”

“Six hundred and the cross-licensing? Right, right, now I remember—that’s where we were. But there’s some trouble with that.”

“What? What is the trouble?”

“I’m not sure how to break this to you, brother, but the Angel has decided he wants more.”

“Sounds like you just decided that, Presence. I’m beginning to wonder whether there even is an Angel.”

“Oh, there’s an Angel, Arnaut. I’d bet your last croissant on that one.”

Parlay could almost hear Arnaut scowling on the other end. “And the cross-licensing?” he continued.

“That, too.”

“Well, Presence, I’ll see what I can do. The President will not be pleased with this.”

Parlay knew he had him. Time to sink in the hook. “Did I mention, Mr. Ambassador, how pleased the Angel has been with your work on this?”

“No, I don’t think you have.”

“Well, he most certainly is. He sees you as a real warrior for Christ.”

“Thank you, Presence.”

“That’s why he’s authorized me to negotiate a special payment to you, a sort of finder’s fee. Five hundred million.”

“That doesn’t seem like much compared to six hundred billion.”

“The amount is negotiable, Mr. Ambassador, assuming you can convince President Mirrage to do what’s right.”

“It will be the President’s decision of course.”

“Of course.”

“But I will see what I can do, Presence.”

“Excellent. May the peace of Christ be with you always, brother.”

“And also with you.”

Parlay hung up the red phone. He glared at the bowl of étouffée, touched the side hoping for warmth. But all he found was a tepid smoothness that reminded him of how much he disliked the French.

 

This excerpt initially ran at The Weeklings:

http://www.theweeklings.com/kbaumeister/2017/03/09/an-excerpt-from-pax-americana/

 

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

 

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 4

 

“To be without a feeling for art is no disgrace. A person can live in peace without reading [novels] or listening to [music]. But the misomusist does not live in peace. He feels humiliated by the existence of something that is beyond him, and he hates it. There is a popular misomusy… The fascists and Communist regimes made use of it… But there is an intellectual, sophisticated misomusy as well: it takes revenge on art by forcing it to a purpose beyond the aesthetic… The apocalypse of art: the misomusists will themselves take on the making of art; thus will their historic vengeance be done.”

–Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel

 

“Misomusist: n. rare A person who hates learning (also, in recent use: art).”    

–Dictionary

 

With Kundera’s strong opinions and talent for rhetoric come a penchant for overstatement, even hyperbole; an inclination that causes him to contradict himself from time to time. This is the problem with broad pronouncements—statements of absolutes, even from a master like Kundera—there is almost always an exception to the rule, whatever the rule. In this instance, Kundera’s work, and its focus on the political, provides the exception.

Kundera’s concept of the novelist as someone who poses questions (rather than answering them) is a notion I return to often, and his idea on the misomusist’s hatred of learning and art seems linked to that, even though it might not initially appear so. When Kundera speaks of misomusy, he’s speaking metaphorically, not issuing a metal-clad prohibition against “any vestige of the political in art,” even though it sounds as though he’s suggesting just that—that if we want to save poor, little Art from the encroaching idiot hordes we’d better stuff it in a covered wagon and get the fuck out of Dodge.

If we peel back Kundera’s hyperbole, he’s speaking of a problem of degrees, the way too much focus on politics, religion, or commerce (as examples) might negatively impact art. Though Kundera almost certainly wouldn’t approve, you might even extend the point to include too much “artistry,” suggesting that if you are too concerned with pursuing beauty as you see it, whether out of some overly idiosyncratic aesthetic or a lack of more visceral narrative elements like plot and story, you could damage your own art, create something unrecognizable to anyone but yourself.

Set deep in literature’s make-up—perhaps essential enough even to qualify as its DNA—are the ideas of knowledge and progress as identifiable, worthy concepts. We read not only for aesthetics and entertainment, but to expand the scope of our worlds. We read to engage with other cultures and people, to live other lives. And, to some extent, what I want from a writer is their unvarnished perspective on the world. If that view is heavily informed by politics (whether they be governmental or those of race or gender), so be it.

Several of the books I’m covering this month could be considered political, though some are certainly more overt in their politics than others. As someone who writes about politics at times, who has his own strong opinions, I’d say the challenge is (as Kundera has suggested elsewhere) to avoid absolute certainty in your fiction, to maintain some level of impartiality, even though as human beings demanding perfect political neutrality of ourselves is a doomed proposition. Ultimately, you must do what makes sense to you, regardless of what the great Milan Kundera or little, old me say. The only test of success is the reader’s response, the impartial (though always partial) answer to the question, “Does it work?”

 Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

 

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In her eleventh novel, Cruel Beautiful World, Leavitt takes on the Sixties, blending heart, mystery, and the politics of an era in a slow-burner about a girl who disappears with her high school English teacher, leaving behind the two women who have raised her, setting in motion a search that will have profound consequences for all three women.

The story centers on sixteen-year old Lucy, a beautiful misfit who feels abandoned by her older sister, Charlotte, and ambivalent towards her guardian, Iris. In her teenage ennui, confusion, and naivete she sets off for rural Pennsylvania with William. But William isn’t what he appears and as their relationship becomes more secretive, less what she’d dreamed, Lucy realizes her young life has spun out of control. Her last chance to save herself seems contacting Charlotte several states away and hoping she can arrive in time to help Lucy escape William’s controlling presence.

Cruel Beautiful World is about America in 1969, a time in which the nation was forced to come to terms with the dark impulses lurking beneath its apparent innocence. With the Vietnam War and the Manson Family looming as sinister signposts, Leavitt gives us these two sisters, Lucy and Charlotte, as proxies for what America had and might become. But she gives us much more than the political and sociological. This is a compelling, deeply felt novel that ends far from where it began, one that showcases the elegance of Leavitt’s prose, the propulsive force of her narrative, and most of all her deft, soulful chronicling of the human spirit.

 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

 

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Recently short-listed for the National Book Award for Fiction, 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.

Whitehead’s genius here is in creating a tale of real historical, sociological, and political import that never descends into polemic. Rather, The Underground Railroad moves like its namesake and more than that the cause of racial justice in America—at times hurtling towards apparent success, at others stopped cold, perhaps forever. There’s no denying the strength of character escaping slavery demands of Cora (and must have demanded of everyone subjected to it). But Whitehead takes us deep into all of the people who orbit Cora, exposing the secret costs slavery exacted of them and America as a whole. Costs America pays to this day.

In The Underground Railroad, there are no pointless “villains.” Characters that might, in a different writer’s hands, so easily become two-dimensional are given their dues. From rich whites bred to and utterly corrupted by their “mastery,” to the economically disadvantaged slave catchers that draw identity from hunting and tormenting other human beings, to the current and former slaves convinced out of fear, selfishness, or any number of other motivations to betray the people they might so easily have become there are no antagonists stripped of their humanity.

Through this vast cast of characters, Cora must make her way, trusting only in her overwhelming desire to be free. Trusting in a destination she can never be sure of, a destination (in a dramatic masterstroke) readers can never be sure of until the book’s final pages.

 

There Should be Flowers by Joshua Jennifer Espinosa

 

31434719This poetry collection turns on the physical and, even more so, the emotional challenges of being transsexual in post-post-modern America. The canvas it presents is one dominated by reds, blacks, and grays and there’s no easy way around that; not that Espinosa is looking for one. If this collection has one overarching theme it’s that the way forward almost always comes through pain. And a great deal of it. The corollary to this is that the author, one who has experienced so much pain, must fight to move beyond that pain; the fear that if she doesn’t, no one else will help her.

The world Espinosa describes is familiar of course, the challenges of fitting in and finding oneself easily relatable when we strip away the overwhelming issues of physical transformation. The freedom that goes with accepting who we are, the challenges of convincing the rest of society to treat us with respect and, more than that, to treat us not as they see us but as we see ourselves—these are the obstacles There Should Be Flowers confronts.

This is a raw, jarring volume, a collection made up of blunt statements, largely devoid of innuendo. Civility here has been stripped away by the challenges of life, challenges far beyond what most of us can imagine. This is a deeply personal collection; one with the capacity to bring us all closer to seeing the spirits not just of transsexuals but of so many who struggle with their bodies.  In perhaps the greatest praise I can give, There Should Be Flowers is a book that will transform the way you see transsexuality.

 

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. The car itself is the book’s symbolic centerpiece, part of an inheritance a New York writer (thirtysomething Leah) must travel to San Francisco to claim. The inheritance comes from Leah’s former boss, a sort of big sister/mother figure from whom Leah had become estranged.

The story’s real center is Leah herself. In addition to her inheritance and the funeral for her friend Judy, Leah has just finished a draft of her first novel, and been assaulted (choked) by her husband, fellow writer and self-absorbed semi-lunatic Hans.  It’s obvious early on that Leah’s life is set to change drastically, if not completely implode.

Benevolently haunted by the voice of Judy, a friend willing to give her advice on everything from the spiritual to the mundane, Leah sets off on a Californian fortnight of drinking, light drug use, reunions with old friends, and random hook-ups. All the while, Leah makes you care about her as she blends her trip into the adult world with deeper, lingering needs of her childhood and young adulthood, goals as simple as wanting people to like her.

Told in a quirky, matter-of-fact voice, there is, nonetheless, an ironic thread of magical realism woven into this story, from the random way the plot comes together to the book’s key conflict, the way Leah makes peace with her own needs and the fate of her marriage. These magical elements aren’t significant enough to leave you doubting Leah as a narrator, but they do open the text up to additional interpretations, from the feminist to the psychoanalytical.

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 Shooting by James Boice

 

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Fragmented in structure and varied in tone—as though a metaphorical representation of America’s fractious gun debate; or, worse still, that of a society ripped apart by the physical, psychological, and political effects of gun violence—The Shooting is a book that insists you care for its characters despite the obvious nature of its politics. And, let’s be clear, this is by far the most overtly political book I’m covering in a column dominated by political books.

Though in some ways as close to nonfiction as fiction can come, this is no simple sermon on gun control. Somewhere between a novel and a linked collection, framed with a sort of beguilingly poetic architecture formalists will appreciate, The Shooting is a drama about a poor, young, black child in the wrong place (with the wrong rich, troubled, gun-obsessed, white man) at the wrong time. In a sense, it’s like Boice is bringing the news to us. Rather than the clipped, colorized two-dimensionality of television or the Internet’s whirling game show of half-lies, this is the news we need to understand our world, a rich, parallel reality rendered with nuanced backstories.

In these pages, you can almost hear the tears of children like Trayvon Martin, the screams of parents mourning massacres from Connecticut to California. But rather than an indictment of all guns everywhere, this is a portrait of the many costs that come with our love of guns, the way a broken system can so easily result in mistakes that seem insignificant if you are untouched by them, but truly do have the capacity to shatter lives. Readers of The Shooting will feel their hearts fill with empathy for everyone from shooters and activists to victims and families. This is an inventive, pointed, at times even majestic book, one that showcases James Boice’s considerable literary gifts.

The Virginity of Famous Men by Christine Sneed

 

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In a short fiction scene currently smitten with flash, Christine Sneed’s The Virginity of Famous Men is something of an outlier. A collection of longer stories cast in the classic, American tradition, this is a carefully balanced, fully realized set of several-thousand-word pieces, any number of which you might come across in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, or some year’s edition of Best American Short Stories.

Filled with interesting content about the film business (at various points from the industry’s chilly periphery to its steamy superstar center), smart humor, and realistic characters, these stories are light on experimentation, though Sneed does make a few interesting formal choices. In addition to an entire story constructed as a curriculum vitae(“The New, All-True CV”), Sneed uses one recurring device I enjoyed quite a bit, “the time-stop ending.” A story with a “time-stop ending” concludes unexpectedly, avoiding the usual, extended denouement. The reader is left to construct the ending herself, suggesting there are, in fact, no easy, moral answers to Sneed’s stories, that reality could work out any number of ways.

The Virginity of Famous Men is about patriarchy, the pitfalls and pratfalls of a societal structure that leaves older, successful men as its silent beneficiaries, women and (to a lesser extent) younger men as its victims. But this isn’t a political book. This is about real people, living real lives, many struggling with romantic relationships or the lack thereof. In The Virginity of Famous Men, Sneed gives readers a heady display of literary talent—skill broad enough to pull off drama and comedy in equal turns, deep enough to do so with seemingly effortless style and grace.

Beware the Ides of Trump

By Kurt Baumeister for The Weeklings (September 26, 2016) 

I.

 

As we close in on tonight’s first forensic cage match between “Imaginary She-Devil” Hillary Clinton and Donald “the Human Dumpster Fire” Trump, I’ve been (completely coincidentally) brushing up on my Roman history, reading Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. And let me tell you, Plutarch has me worried.

The trouble is the more I learn about Julius Caesar and the rest of that era’s brave little gang of generals, plutocrats, and dictators-in-waiting, the more I see America’s present, the more I fear that much as we want or even pretend to learn something from history, we never, ever (or “ever, ever, ever, ever, ever” to wax Trumpian) do.

I know it’s a cliché, a terrible cliché, but the phrase, “Those who fail to learn history’s lessons are doomed to repeat them,” has been rattling around in my head, costing me sleep. The other thing that’s been knocking around up there—the necessary, unwelcome corollary—is that you can never completely discount clichés. You can never discount them because clichés are born of truth.

 

II.

 

Across the slate-blue Atlantic, thousands of miles and a score of centuries in history’s hazy distance, there was a republic, the greatest the world had ever known, the Republic of Rome. Founded on a contradictory mix of freedom and slavery, myth and memory, the Roman Republic was the precursor to the Roman Empire, a historical force for progress and order, oppression and conquest, that shapes our world to this very day.

In the epoch of Roman history that centers on the transition from republic to empire, there were plenty of outsize historical figures. Not just Caesar and his heir, Octavian (the first, true, titular “Caesar,” known later as Augustus); but Mark Antony and Pompey Magnus; Cato and Cicero; Cassius, Crassus, Brutus, and last but in no way least, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the dictator who first gained control of the Republic through force of arms, the man who, in many ways, made Julius Caesar’s ascension not just possible, but perhaps inevitable.

To liken Donald Trump to Caesar or George W. Bush to Sulla may seem simplistic, even unfair. The temporal depth and factual shallows of history mean that we see the figures who presided over the death of the Roman Republic as epic, larger than life, at this point more fictional characters than anything else. Trump and Bush, on the other hand, may seem all too human. They may seem like buffoons. The trouble is that buffoons can be just as dangerous as legends, if not more so; that the buffoon and the legend may be more alike than we realize when their common denominator is power, their common catalyst an ambition for war.

 

III.

 

A president barely elected by a nation apathetic at the extent of its own good fortune—interest rates and unemployment historically low, the stock market soaring; budget deficits seemingly a thing of the past—George W. Bush did much to dismantle America’s power and prestige even as he purported to enhance them. A real war of choice, a phony war on terror, reckless deregulation, vast damage to the American and world economies, a blind eye to the withering environment–by the end of his second term, not even Bush’s own party wanted him on the campaign trail or at the party convention.

There can be little doubt Dubya’s was a failed presidency, perhaps our worst ever. Still, there is one consequence of the Bush years that remains in doubt. Perhaps, all things considered, we will look back and see it as the very worst outgrowth of our 43rd President’s disastrous tenure—the fact that he made the idea of a know-nothing president somehow acceptable.

I remember the run-up to the 2000 election, how the contest centered on various canards about Republicans and Democrats, more specifically Bush and Gore, being the same. There was a third party candidate running from the left, Ralph Nader. Though Nader wasn’t a threat to win, he pulled 3 percent of the national vote—this time, in 2016, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein have anywhere from 5 to 15 percent—a margin that in two states (Florida and New Hampshire) vastly outstripped the additional votes Gore would have needed to win. So, even though Gore did, in fact, win the national popular vote in 2000, he lost in the Electoral College, Dubya inaugurated as our 43rd President.

Perhaps more than anything else about that election, I remember Dubya’s appearance on a local TV station in Boston, where I lived at the time, an interview with a reporter named Andy Hiller. The interview consisted of Hiller asking Dubya various questions about foreign affairs. A sample:

Hiller: “Can you name the general who is in charge of Pakistan?” (Referring to Pervez Musharraf who had seized power by military coup in 1999 and would in the not-too-distant future become central to Bush’s War on Terror)

Dubya: “Wait, wait, is this 50 questions?”

Hiller: “No, it’s four questions of four leaders of four hot spots.”

Dubya: “The new Pakistani general, he’s just been elected ­ he’s, he’s, not elected, this guy took over office. He appears he’s gonna bring stability to the country and I think that’s good news for the subcontinent.”

Hiller: “And you can name him?”

Dubya: “General. I can name the general.”

Hiller: “And it’s…”

Dubya: “General.”

Hiller: “Prime minister of India?”

Dubya: “Uh, the new prime minister of India is, uh … no.”

Bush continued, speaking in vagaries about Taiwan, Chechnya, and foreign affairs in general. He neither had the requisite knowledge, nor even seemed to care that he didn’t.

(Does that remind you of a certain orange-hued, complexly-coiffured advocate for nuclear proliferation in Southeast Asia, nuking Europe, and attacking Iran over rude gestures?)

Bush seemed, at least in my eyes, to disqualify himself, completely and utterly. The man was so clearly out of his depth; so obviously a lesser figure than his opponent, Vice President Al Gore. There was no way America could possibly elect George W. Bush. And, yet, we did.

 

IV.

 

Regardless of whether we want to argue about the Florida recount, the Supreme Court’s partisan decision in Bush v. Gore, Gore’s poor campaign, President Clinton’s lies and dalliances, or the impact of Ralph Nader’s third party candidacy, the fact is that Bush became president. As the years went by, we’d realize just how unready George W. Bush had been for the presidency, and how much that lack of readiness mattered, so much it seemed obvious we’d never do something like that again. All that said, eight years after throwing that bum out, we’ve got a new bum we’re courting. We’re listening to the same tired lines of logic once again, too.

“The Democrats and the Republicans are all the same.”

“We need to shake up Washington.”

“What have we got to lose?”

“Safe states and swing states.”

“Votes of protest and conscience.”

“The lesser of two evils is still evil.”

“Deeply flawed candidates.”

“Broken politics.”

“We need a strong leader.”

To paraphrase: We need Donald Trump even if he has no idea what the realities of NATO are, speaks blithely of using nuclear weapons on our allies, and refers warmly to America’s chief geopolitical antagonist, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond,” Trump said in a statement in December of 2015. “I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect.”

Ironically (or not), this is how Dubya described Former KGB Chief Putin in 2001, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.”

Since Dubya’s statement, and prior to Trump’s, Putin’s Russia has pursued aggressive military activity against its neighbors Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine, invaded Syria, and continues to conduct a vast cyberwarfare campaign against America and its western allies, going so far as to harbor fugitive data-thief Edward Snowden and to work with Julian Assange (of WikiLeaks fame) in an attempt to influence the outcome of our election.

 

V.

 

There’s a debate tonight. Did I mention that?

In one corner: Lifetime public servant and noted policy wonk, former First Lady, former Senator, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. In the other corner: sexist, racist, religious bigot, xenophobe, bellicose nationalist offend-a-tron, and Vladimir Putin-adoring policy neophyte Donald Trump.

If Dubya made it acceptable to become President without much conception of the greater world, Trump has raised that to an art form, made crudeness and ignorance into virtues. (“I love the poorly educated.” “I love the deplorable.”) More than this, Trump has made being a jerk cool. That’s his contribution to what comes next. Whereas Dubya seemed like a nice enough guy, willing to speak up in defense of other faiths and races, Trump clearly is not. At worst he’s a white supremacist thug, at best someone willing to traffic in such beliefs in order to gain political power.

The question I come to, in the end, as I consider this all in light of Plutarch, isn’t whether Trump is dangerous. That question has been answered again and again by the candidate himself, and proven in spades by the tenure of George W. Bush. No, the question is just how dangerous Donald Trump can become. Whether his arrogance, ignorance, and militarism have the potential to do to America what Julius Caesar did to Rome. More than that, the question is whether we’re going to sit by and watch as history repeats itself once again.

 

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.