Under the Influence #11

written by Kurt Baumeister June 13, 2019

Intro

Wherein Constance Squires shares how Iris Murdoch taught her not to be afraid of plot, Michael Gillan Maxwell discusses how Gary Snyder’s writing turned him on to philosophy, Sean Beaudoin lauds the life and work of cultural icon Jim Carroll, and Dr. Nancy Hightower explains how Kafka taught her about “the elasticity of truth.” There’s no outro this month, or, rather, there’s a different type: I will be back at the end with my own submission on the great Martin Amis. Please read and enjoy.


Franz Kafka

by Nancy Hightower

I had always appreciated Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and The Trial, but I could not escape the nightmare world of his short story “A Country Doctor.” Kafka has an uncanny ability to collapse landscapes and rooms, but the concrete details of unearthly horses, supernatural groom, and eerie village are what shows the power of the surreal, which can infiltrate reality to the point where the reader becomes destabilized and cannot argue against the logic of the text, no matter how illogical. The boundaries we try to draw around “truth” or “reality” become frighteningly elastic in Kafka’s world, and we see just how fragile our own narratives are. In my flash fiction, I want readers to get lost in this tangle of the familiar and the strange; I want them to experience the most fantastical parts of the story as the most true.

Nancy Hightower‘s work has been published in JoylandEntropyGargoyleSundog LitSojournersFlapperhouseVol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. She is the author of Elementari Rising (2013) and The Acolyte (2015), and currently teaches at Hunter College.


Jim Carroll

by Sean Beaudoin

When I was 13 I wanted to be a power forward for the Knicks. Then I found The Basketball Diaries under my sister’s mattress and wanted to be a power forward for the Knicks who did lots of heroin. What was it like being a tough street kid from the Bronx in the late 60s? Fortunately, there’s a record so vivid it’s almost Studs Terkel. I spent years stealing from Jim Carroll, and then years trying to write sentences half as hilarious and vivid. Oh, yeah, he also sang in a great art-rock band, wrote one of the best dead-buddy homages of all time, appeared in Tuff Turf with James Spader, penned a lot of pretty crap poetry, and for a while was Mr. Patti Smith. Now that’s a life. The Catcher in the Rye gets all the bluster, but for the hip set, everyone knows Basketball Diaries is the best book about disaffected youth ever written.

Sean Beaudoin is the author of The InfectsWise Young Fool, and the short story collection Welcome Thieves. His latest novel, This Unlovely Monster, is due imminently from Algonquin Books.


Gary Snyder

by Michael Gillan Maxwell

I’ve been under the influence of Gary Snyder since the early 70’s. I was obsessed by the Beat writers and infatuated with the colorful portrayal of him as “Japhy Ryder,” a central figure in Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Snyder’s seminal collections Rip Rap and Cold Mountain Poems, The Back Country and Regarding Wave cast a life-long shadow along my own path as a potter, visual artist, musician, writer, educator, environmental activist, student of Eastern philosophy and as a seeker questioning our purpose and role in the universe. “Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” – Gary Snyder

Michael Gillan Maxwell roams the Finger Lakes Region of New York state. Maxwell is a visual artist and a writer of short fiction, poetry, songs, reviews, essays, lists, recipes and irate letters to his legislators. A teller of tales and singer of songs, he’s prone to random outbursts and may spontaneously combust or break into song at any moment. His hybrid collection of visual art and prose, The Part Time Shaman Handbook: An Introduction For Beginners, was published by Unknown Press. Maxwell’s art and intermittent ranting and raving can be found on social media and Your Own Backyard http://michaelgillanmaxwell.com.


Iris Murdoch

by Constance Squires

Iris Murdoch came into my life in a lit class in which ten 20th century novels were assigned. We only had time for nine, and for whatever reason, Under the Net was the one cut. I kept it, despite being willing to sell just about anything else for beer money. When I read it, she showed me a way out of my deepest insecurity about being a fiction writer: I didn’t think I could write plot. I’d been trained as a poet, so I was good with language, image, and psychology. But, plot? That was too much like math. Murdoch’s novels, though, are suffused with the patterns of the Greeks and Shakespeare that she recombines, modernizes, and redeploys with total freedom. I didn’t have to invent plots, I only had to know how to work with the deep structures of storytelling that have always been there. And that did it for me.

Constance Squires is the author of the novels Along the WatchtowerLive from Medicine Park, and the forthcoming short story collection, Hit Your Brights. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in GuernicaThe AtlanticShenandoahThe New York Times and others.


Martin Amis

by Kurt Baumeister

The son of a famous novelist who became, himself, a famous novelist, Martin Amis writes black-comic fiction heady with language; multi-layered, often nihilistic symbolism; and subtle metafictional conceits. A dark moralist, Amis’s work focuses on the class system and mass culture and is filled with acid wit and unlikable, sometimes grotesque characters. For me, his magnum opus is his sixth novel, London Fields, a book which I have, coincidentally, read six times.

An apocalyptic murder mystery narrated by a dying writer, London Fields brims with unforgettable scenes and characters, erudition, comedy high- and low-, and countless turns of linguistic brilliance; perhaps the book’s most perfect line coming as it ends with the confession of a literary killer Nabokov would surely have appreciated, “So if you ever felt something behind you, when you weren’t even one, like welcome heat, like a bulb, like a sun, trying to shine right across the universe – it was me. Always me. It was me. It was me.”

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 6

By Kurt Baumeister

January 12, 2017

 

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

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

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

 

United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas

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

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 3

Peter Tieryas on The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu:

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

 

A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell

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

–My review for Electric Literature

 

Matt Bell on The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder:

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

 

Dating Tips for the Unemployed by Iris Smyles

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

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 3

 

Iris Smyles on The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova:

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

 

Welcome Thieves by Sean Beaudoin

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

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 2

 

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

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

 

The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks

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

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 1

 

Amber Sparks on Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott:

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

 

Perfectly Broken by Robert Burke Warren

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

–My review at TNB

 

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

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

 

The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky

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

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 4

 

Marcy Dermansky on Dear Fang With Love by Rufi Thorpe:

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

 

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

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

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 3

 

Rebecca Makkai on Man and Wife by Katie Chase:

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

 

Intimations by Alexandra Kleeman

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

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 5

 

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

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

 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 4

 

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

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 2

By Kurt Baumeister for The Nervous Breakdown

July 19, 2016

Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Zero K by Don DeLillo

 

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

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

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

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

 

The Telling by Zoe Zolbrod

 

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

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

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

 

Mortal Trash by Kim Addonizio

 

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

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

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

 

Daredevils by Shawn Vestal

 

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

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

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

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

 

After the Parade by Lori Ostlund

 

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

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

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

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

 

Welcome Thieves by Sean Beaudoin

 

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

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

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

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