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.

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 5

By Kurt Baumeister for The Nervous Breakdown

December 21, 2016

Fiction Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Loner by Teddy Wayne

 

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

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

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

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

Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman

 

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

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

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

Intimations: Stories by Alexandra Kleeman

 

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

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

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

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

 

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

 

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

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

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

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 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.