A Quiet Ending to a Loud Story: Sam Friedman on Prescription for a Superior Existence by Josh Emmons


prescription-for-a-superior-existence

Prescription for a Superior Existence, Josh Emmons, Scribner

The title Prescription for a Superior Existence calls to mind some archetypal self-help book that one might be better off avoiding. In fact, it is the uninventive name of the cult in the novel and feels like a place-holder lying in wait for the author to select something more edgy. The novel’s cover is equally uninteresting: a nicely-made bed in a rather picture-perfect bedroom. And frankly, upon completion of reading the book the relevance of the image to the story is indiscernible. However, it is only here where Emmons seems to have any dearth of creativity. PASE is a thought-out, well-orchestrated adventure of seemingly random and out-of-control events that consistently hide the truth, which is part of what seems to make the novel so universally true. One must return to the old adage of judging books by their cover, because the contents of this seemingly obtuse jacket are vibrant.

The opening two pages of Josh Emmons’s Prescription for a Superior Existence contain all of the pieces of an introductory paragraph to a well-thought-out academic argumentation essay: reference to the ensuing themes, citation of a few important facts, a summation of some points, and, of course, a hook. The hook is a simple one, but its simplicity is no detriment to its size: “…at midnight on Sunday I will, after delivering a euology that is both inspirational and absolute, with a solemnity great enough for the occasion, conduct and preside over – I am choosing my words carefully and none other will do – the end of the world.” Even the first paragraph betrays themes important to the life of main character Jack Smith: “In this part of the world it is light for half the year and dark the other half. Sometimes at night I look at the halos around the window blinds and breathe in salty air redolent of afternoon trips to the beach I took as a boy, my hands enclosed in my parents’, my feet leaving collapsed imprints in the sand, my mind a whirl of whitewashed images. I remember how the shaded bodies lying under candy-cane umbrellas groped for one another, and how I pulled my mother and father toward the ice-cream vendors, and how I fell in love with the girls who slouched beside their crumbling sandcastles. The sun an unblinking eye on our actions. The waves forever trying to reach us. From the beginning there was so much longing, and from the beginning I could hardly bear it.

Immediately this paragraph touches on the issues of parentage, romance, and a crushing reality that seems at times to be inescapable. To the book’s advantage, in particular, is the staggering relevance of its placement in time; global warming and the financial recession are both present in the novel’s diegesis. It is this devilish presentation of temporal relevance that allows Emmons to illicit all of the questions he does with the introduction of the cult, “Prescription for a Superior Existence.” Is the world really coming to an end, if this cult is referencing a real scientific truth? Is religion the answer? What will happen if I don’t make the right choice? The relevance of the story’s setting forces the reader into a temporary mania that makes Jack Smith’s own mania more tangible.

PASE is, in part, a thinly-veiled criticism of contemporary culture and its excesses: the workaholic, alcoholic, substance abuser; the normal member of society with nothing to look forward to but the “next thing.” Emmons accurately diagnoses contemporary American society’s ailment. Upon Jack Smith’s admission into PASE, he goes to see Ms. Anderson, the center’s director. She tells him: “‘Like most people, you are unhappy because you aren’t fulfilled by what you have. You always want more, and that more is never enough. Throughout your life you’ve desired things, only to find after getting them that contentment lies in the next thing. And the next and the next and the next. Sadly but predictably, the result of all this deferred satisfaction for you and others has been the same: anxiety and depression. And if allowed to continue it will lead finally to the crowning tragedy, ambivalence.’”

This presentation of terrifying truths out of the mouth of someone one might fear, an administrative figure in a cult, feeds into one of the things that Emmons and Prescription do so well: to accurately and viscerally create the feeling of being trapped in the PASE center, as well as the complete process of being brainwashed or converted. Jack Smith describes his mental processes, and the reader is able to watch his thoughts and opinions transform: first insisting not to take part in the center whatsoever, then in pretending to take part while secretly mocking the whole process, deciding to just take part because it’s really not so bad and what else is he going to do, and finally being completely devoted to the entire religion.

The perception of cults in general gets addressed thoroughly and seamlessly in the novel: “‘You’re trying to kill me.’ ‘No.” She smiled beatifically. ‘We are trying to save you.’” A cult, in general, presents itself as the entity – the thing that will save mankind from himself and return him to God – that would abduct people for “their [own] sake,” and brainwash them into following their ways. What PASE does in such an exciting way is it clashes these two things, the “outside” versus the “inside,” and the way they are both flawed. The solution is not so polarized as people perpetually look for. Emmons presents, in his fanatical characters and storylines, the underlying lesson of balance: balance between excess and asceticism, balance between complete reproach of cults/religion as false and misleading, and complete acceptance and total support. At the end of the novel, PASE is not abolished, but there is no final Synergy (death of the entire cult). Likewise, Jack and his love-interest Mary Shoale return to San Francisco but he continues to be a Paser, ostensibly. Compromise. Balance. This is mirrored in his writing style: balance between tons of literary device and straight dialog. Prescription is the story of a man in flux, flailing between extremes until the answers come to him. It is neither admonition of religion nor of the normal life. The solution, perhaps, is that there is no solution. Although he seems to suggest that love is all you can truly find to make life bearable, to make it even wonderful.

Despite how outlandish some of its unpredictable revelations may be, somehow they seem to stick the moment they hit. They even seem to register beforehand, if subconsciously. Facts as inconceivable in the beginning as the fact that Montgomery Shoale, the leader and founder of PASE, turns out to be the main character’s rapist biological father seem to be presciently revealed and undeniably true despite a superficial implausibility. This seems to adhere to the Buddhist-like phrase that ends the novel: “…this is all there was, is, and ever will be.” There is comfort to be found in the novel’s devil-may-care sense of narrative flow.

Emmons writes very similarly to Chuck Palahniuk in his use of the anti-heroic main character whose vices play a heavy role in his life and whose slightly unsavory sexual habits are a point of contention. This comparison is by no means a rebuke or insult, either. Like Palahniuk, Emmons controls pace and rhythm deftly while never letting the story drag and consistently evading predictability. He manages to cherry-pick the kinds of events that lie on the fringe of believability, but never meander outside of realism.

Indeed, the structure of PASE’s narrative itself calls to mind Palahniuk’s Survivor, beginning with the End and retelling what came before, what led to this character’s final ostensible moment of demise. Emmons even calls to mind the metaphor, “I may be as confused as a pilot with spatial disorientation, in danger of mistaking a graveyard spiral for a safe landing, when up is really down, sky is earth, and life – suddenly and irreversibly – is really death,” where Palahniuk’s main character is on a plane plummeting to Earth. Further comparisons can be drawn in that Survivor, too, is about a fictional pleasure-avoidant cult, and the perceived imminence of death. Perhaps Emmons’s key distinction from Palahniuk, however, is his language style; where Palahniuk swears by a rugged, fleshy tone, Emmons employs slightly more romanticized flourishes of language.

Everything is in its right place in PASE, even when it might seem to the contrary at first. The pendulum may swing wildly, but it always returns to center. And the story serves as a firm reminder that no matter how great the diversion from the straight line from A to B, there can always be a quiet ending to a loud story. To quote Bjorn Bjornson, a villager in the Scandanavian village in which Jack Smith finds himself for the beginning-slash-end of the book:
“In religion, in the end, the new is neither better nor worse than the old; beliefs and insights swirl and constellate over time without shedding any greater light than what has pulsed weakly throughout the ages. Reason and passion enact a tortoise and hare race in our hearts, and what seems true and beautiful today may seem false and hideous tomorrow.”

More Schizophrenic than Southern: Ashly Hood on Katie Crouch’s novel Girls in Trucks


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Girls in Trucks, Katie Crouch, Back Bay Books

Katie Crouch’s debut novel, Girls in Trucks, is a story that spans twenty years in the life of a South Carolina debutante, but the voice throughout the text is uneven, pithy at times, and ultimately leaves one wondering, “how many mint juleps did this woman have while she wrote this?” The narrative begins with a background on our protagonist Sarah Walter’s Southern upbringing and opens at “dancing school,”(or debutante society in a group dubbed The Camellia’s,) establishing place, time, and a murky motive for the rest of the story. The Ted Wheeler episode is, however, just odd, and doesn’t really set up with the rest of the story, nor does it really come back in any form later in the novel. The radical shift between chapters One and Two seems, in retrospect, a harbinger of the schizophrenic voice that dominates the rest of the narrative.

Sarah Walters is a Southern debutante who flees the South for college up North, presumably in search of herself. Brief vignettes of different men, drinking, and drugs make for a patchwork of chapters and information, skipping forward at annoyingly random intervals and occasionally describing the lives of some of Sarah’s friends, having nothing to do with Sarah’s own destructive path. The power of some of the narration and realness of the dialogue in places is not, unfortunately, enough to keep the reader from feeling as though the rug is constantly being pulled from under her. The drinking is brought up casually, discarded, and comes back later, used almost as a conversation piece; granted, drinking is a fairly central activity for those of us lucky enough to live in the South, but it seems to lurk dangerously in the background before being forgotten altogether. Likewise, the references to pot are annoying and have little to do with anything, other than typical teenage/young adult experimentation.

There are several places where Crouch’s intention does seem to shine through, however; “Snow in Bangladesh,” while tonally bitter, resigned and sarcastic, ends with a bit of hope, and sounds also much more adult than many of the previous chapters. In the chapter where Sarah and her current boy toy travel to Vermont to visit fellow Camellia Bitsy and her husband John, the narration and dialogic exchange ring very true and the interaction between John and Sarah leaves us wondering if she will ever find a good man. In the chapter where Sarah, old friend (and recovering drug addict) Charlotte, and Bitsy lunch together in Manhattan (where, apparently, most Southern girls end up), the exchanges are biting, resentful, and somewhat Sex and the City-ish, but nonetheless more real than much of the first half of the book; it is in this chapter that we find out Bitsy has cancer, and not long to live. Therefore, in Bitsy’s chapter of post-mortem observation over her husband’s new girl, the prose is finally, truly beautiful, and may be what Crouch struggled find throughout the entire novel.

I found myself unable to stick with this novel for long, and felt it to be more of a series of essays than a cohesive narrative; that said, however, the end of the novel—the last 3 chapters or so–were far more compelling and mature than the rest of the story. It felt as though both Crouch and her protagonist finally reached adulthood, a time to put away childish things and realize that, no matter how we start our lives, there is hope, after all.

A Warmhearted Journey: Amy Schrader on Stefan Merrill Block’s The Story of Forgetting


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The Story of Forgetting, Stefan Merrill Block, Random House

I’ve been reading poetry almost exclusively for about three years running, so I was both excited and a little wary upon picking up The Story of Forgetting, Stefan Merrill Block’s debut novel. It had been so long since I’d read so many words at one go…I guess I’d forgotten how one can become immersed in a story, carried effortlessly along by fictional devices. Luckily, Block’s novel provided an immediate reminder of such pleasures.

The novel’s strength lies in the clear, compelling voices of the two main characters, Abel Haggard and Seth Waller. Block moves seamlessly between these two narrative threads. Abel Haggard, a 68-year old hunchbacked hermit, is constantly haunted by memories of his now-absent family. Seth Waller is an awkward adolescent who strives for what he hopes will be an impenetrable protective wall, or “Mastery of Nothingness,” but actually manifests more as “weirdness with nothing to compensate for it…nothing greater or more profound than its zit-encrusted, slouching, skittish, Too-Smart surface.” (225) These two characters are simultaneously repulsive and endearing, and my fondness for them kept me reading.

The plot is relatively simple: Seth embarks on a research project to uncover his mother’s mysterious family history in order to fully understand her familial curse of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The plot also captured my interest for most of the book—a genetic mystery novel!—although the final discovery is not particularly surprising or unexpected, which was a little disappointing. The main storyline intercuts two different threads: textbook-ish and scientific information about Alzheimer’s disease, and a fable about Isidora, a mythical land of forgetting. I enjoyed the science more than the myth; the Isidora chapters come across as too broad, and a little heavy-handed in terms of the allegory and “memory loss” symbolism.

Perhaps my poetry bias caused me to be particularly charmed by the novel’s sharp and well-defined details. Block is deft at setting a scene, fleshing out even the most minor characters: Abel’s horse (Iona); Abel’s truck (humorously named The Horseless Iona); and Seth’s classmate Victoria Bennett, nicknamed The Sloth “slouching and sluggish…her hair was a long brown tangle…whenever possible, she avoided predators by disappearing into the trees.” (79) Block certainly knows his social outcasts presenting them with humor as well as unflinching honesty.

The author also offers many lovely—almost lyrical—moments, such as the description of the game Seth plays with his mother before her illness takes over: “My mom and I also had another game…one of us would start to pretend to be the other…” (125) The novel was the most interesting and original in these moments, and the interactions that Abel and Seth have with the more minor characters best reveal their foundational human-ness. In the end, I wanted a little more of these elements—and less of high-concept historical mystery and science—but enjoyed the warmhearted journey nonetheless.

Unified Fragmentation: Alonzo McBride on John Barth’s The Development


The Development, John Barth, Houghton Mifflin

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John Barth seemingly vanished for a few orbits of the earth but he has popped up again with an interiorly-crossed, densely constructed set of short stories, The Development. And as he has popped up, he brings with him his continual sense of his own act of writing. Barth writes with a strong and clear sense that he is in the act of writing a narrative, but these nine stories must also be seen as an act of writing by the reader. John Barth wants his readers to pay attention to the artifice in the technology of bookish art (some call this “literature”) because that is how he hurrahs for laughter at the world developing around him and within him. We know that John Barth (b. 1930) is getting older, so readers know that the narrative voice(s) in the stories of The Development is obviously meant to reflect an older person’s attention to the world around him vis-à-vis the neighborhood featured and skewered in the collection.

There are elements of brilliant, deliberate disjunction built into these tales. Barth sets these stories in a set of neighborhoods run by Tidewater Communities, Inc. on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland making a point of continually coming back to this area with community names such as Dorchester, Avon, Kent, Oxford, and Cambridge. He draws relationships between these neighborhoods and that distant inspiration for their naming across the Atlantic. At first glance, this action seems to embrace the threads of time between points of great culture and refinement held from England carried forth to America the New World. However, all that nice rumination ends with the simple phrase on Cambridge and Oxford, “pleasant small towns both, but absent anything remotely like Brit counterparts’ venerable universities.” (74) Whish! There goes the beauty of English tradition, and John Barth replaces it with a simulacrum of townships with cool sounding names exhibiting little or no meaningful or long lasting value. That simple phrase is so deftly handled by Barth that with it he suggests a large, open, connected world only to clip off those connections at the first chance he gets (or makes for himself), leaving a string with little origin floating in space.

The kinds of life Barth portrays in these neighborhoods and towns walled by gates of metal and 24 Hr guards are steeped in love, family deaths, and toga parties. Their conversations are traced deliberately through following them looking for peeping toms over hedges and fences, waiting in lines at their gated communities for the 24 Hr guards to wave them in, and debating whether to rebuild their hurricane destroyed landscape with green-friendly roofs. These are lives lived at the end of suburban streets and inside brightly lit perfectly decorated living rooms, and Barth does a fine job at showing these lives lived in jokes, pain, and jobs.

Barth’s skill in fabricating these lives presents Readers (as he likes to capitalize in direct address) a gift of dialectic thinking through his act of chopping every scene up into aspects for direct consideration. This is unified fragmentation if there is such a thing, and John Barth like his (yeah, I will do it) precursors Jorge Luis Borges and particularly William S Burroughs have done so well in the past. John Barth has created nine pieces of fabulist work for today’s culture and today’s politics.

The Scraps for Forgotten Cities: Matt DeBenedictis on Noah Cicero’s Treatise


Treatise, Noah Cicero, A-Head Publishing

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Let’s deal with this elephant in the room; I’m just going throw it into a lake so we can be done with it and move on with a steady momentum. There is just no way around it. You see you can’t talk about Noah Cicero and his writing without talking about his city of residence Youngstown, Ohio. I’ve tried to just write about the characters Noah creates and the story he builds upon, but then it comes rushing in—that damned elephant. Where do they struggle? What former manufacturing Mecca of the Midwest? That’s right Youngstown. But let me be clear this topic that must be addressed is not a bad thing, this is actually one of Noah’s toppling the mountain strengths.

Youngstown screams its own existence out in Noah Cicero’s stories and words. Now when I say obvious it’s not because he throws cheap city references into the faces of readers like he’s taking everyone on a sight seeing tour making sure to make note of a famous hot dog stand or something of that nature. The strife and anger that resides and breeds like a mutated rabbit in such an unsettling city as Youngstown is found in all of Noah’s words. Noah’s words hold harshness and quickness to them, and with most stories being built on character’s thoughts rather than long drawn out dialog the true presence of Youngstown is always felt in how characters tend to abide in a vulgar anger reaction to the hopelessness of their situation. All this creates a trademark that always points back to Youngstown, just like how the echo of doom sound Tony Iommi made in Black Sabbath always harked back to life in the unemployed city of Birmingham, England no matter what pile of apocalyptic visions Ozzy sang about.

The first thing I ever read by Noah Cicero was a short story published online by Bear Parade called ‘The Living And The Dead.’ Its opening grabbed me and shook me all while reminding me to be happy I never went back the city I grew up in—Youngstown. The short story opens with:
3am. A young man throws a body into the river. The body splashes. The man looks at the sinking body. It sinks. The river he threw the body in is the Mahoning River. One of the most toxic rivers in the world.
Right there are two of the most striking things about Noah Cicero’s work. You can’t escape them. One is the quick Hemmingway-like sentences and the other is his assertion of Youngstown being the crux of the death. The Mahoning River is pure pollution with a hint of water in it, there is no doubt about that, but by saying such a thing here, right at the beginning of the story, Youngstown is being called the true pollution that stands out when compared to the world.

In Treatise, Noah Cicero address the toxicity of Youngstown by pointing out what the city has to be proud of, muck and filth, and if that is what the city can give the world than nothing more than that should be expected:
Youngstown did produce some good businessmen who are all in prison now for bribery and racketeering. Our most famous millionaires were Debartlo who owned the San Francisco 49ers who is in prison, Micky Monus who owned Phar More who is in prison. We had a famous lawyer named Goldberg who is in prison. And we had a famous congressman named Jim Traficant who was in a prison mental ward. Our four most famous citizens, the leaders and representatives to the world of our community have all been sent to prison.

Treatise is a different book for Noah Cicero. Its length is much longer than either of his books (The Condemned, a collection of short stories, and The Human War, a novella) and most importantly in Treatise Noah takes the cycle of comfort he’s created in his books and burns it, buries it, and then salts the earth just for a good measure. Treatise is a stepping out. Generally Noah’s characters live in their thoughts, were they usually spend much of the story sorting out strife and trying to be happy while having no hope of things getting overall any better for themselves. In the end they just settle for a quick fix. But not in Treatise, in Treatise the main character Masil seeks to change his life no matter how drastically he has to lower himself and loose himself to do so, and he doesn’t care what anyone has to voice up about his decisions. This is not the normal highlighted person in a Noah Cicero book.

Now from what I understand the actual form, structure, and even characters in Treatise are “modern remixes” of My Life by Anton Chekhov. To be honest I had never heard of Anton Chekhov until I read Treatise, but from what I have gathered in a quick search sponsored by google I should read some of his work and I should have known of that work was earlier in my life, but what should I expect. My lackluster literary education took place in Youngstown.

In The Human War (Fugue State Press, 2003) Noah’s main character writhes through the city’s bars, diners, and strip clubs were his thoughts all wrestle around trying to figure out life on the eve of the second war with Iraq. The character never gets a real answer or a sense of happiness that will actually last, but in Treatise Masil gets the answers and the new life he is searching for. Masil’s journey to “not end up like his father” (as one character describes it) begins with telling his father about downgrading from the upper-middle class that his father lied, cheated, and sold any decency left to be in so he can go work in a factory.
Standing there, my balls grew large and brave, “Fuck your money.” My father grew angry with this. To deny his money, meant that I denied his whole being, his whole sense of self-worth, his identity, his world view, the very rocks, pillars, shingles and aluminum siding that made him who he was. Even though who he was, was a collection of television sitcoms spanning from the seventies to the present.
I’m not going to lead out anymore of the actual story from here because every story ever written seems rather flat and almost vapid when you explain it out; there is nothing to grab onto and enjoy that way. It’s like trying to recreate what made a stand up comic magical to see. You can’t do it. What I will say is what makes Treatise such a stand out book for Noah Cicero. Treatise is the only literary book that has been able to fully capture the struggle and voices that exist in the cities that were left for dead when the companies that feed the community left for cheaper labor overseas. In a town where there is nothing to hope for in personal progress, just being happy to be alive is the only American dream left, that is the scraps off the table left for the forgotten cities.

A Much, Much Darker Palette: Zinta Aistars on Temporary People by Steve Gillis


Temporary People, Steve Gillis, Black Lawrence Press

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Years ago, I saw the Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show about a man whose entire life, unbeknownst to him, played out on a movie stage while the rest of the world watched. Steven Gillis’s novel, Temporary People, reminded me of that movie only with a much, much darker palette of colors. Add a touch of the surreal and you have Gillis, aptly likened to Kurt Vonnegut.

Temporary People is called a fable by the author in the first pages of his story. In this tale, the island of Bamerita, floating unattached some 2,000 miles south of Iceland, has become a movie set directed by the madman, Teddy Lamb (aka the General):
The scenes for Teddy’s movie are shot out of sequence and no one can say for certain what the film’s about. Even when the soldiers come and order us into our costumes, we’re not shown a script. At best, we hear rumors that the movie’s a multi-generational saga weaved through the telling and retelling of a 3,000 year old fable. The focus of the fable changes, however, each time the rumor’s repeated. Teddy reviews all the daily rushes, assesses the caliber of our performance. Everyone’s uneasy about how they appear. The perception we give is not always intended. Our fear isn’t artistic but rather a concern for our safety. In evaluating the scenes, Teddy’s impatient with people who disappoint him. Those found deficient are removed from the film and rarely heard from again. ‘That,’ Teddy says, ‘is show biz.’
Under this guise of movie making, Teddy rules as a slaughtering dictator would, doing so with a perverted sense of humor. Madness, if you will. The previous government officials are filmed as they are tied to logs, and then pulled in two, set to float on the ocean waves. The population of Bamerita falls quietly into place after that until, of course, they rise to revolt as any population given time and wearing away of patience with brutality will. A crew of “actors” (i.e. citizens) takes the lead with characters such as Andre Mafante, an insurance salesman who tries to promote non-violent means of revolt, and his friend, Emilo, whose rebelliousness culminates in sewing his own ears, eyes, and mouth shut. One of Gillis’s most disturbing scenes is when Teddy torments Emilo into unwilling laughter and pained screams, effectively tearing up his stitched mouth into meaty shreds.

The satire is effective. Gillis is successful in painting madness—the irrational behavior of an oppressive government, the mass fear in response, and the distortion of reality that taking away basic liberties must involve when one manipulates many. If this echoes current political scenarios, it should. In his characters, Gillis illustrates different forms of resistance and rebellion—indifference, self-serving cowardice, passive and active resistance, heroic if perhaps misguided protest and bloody coups—with of all of it done with a touch of Hollywood.

An Underlying Sadness: Mary C. Johansen on City of Refuge by Tom Piazza


City of Refuge, Tom Piazza, Harper

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The two families at the heart of Tom Piazza’s novel, City of Refuge, reflect the racial and economic diversity of most American cities. What separates them from other Americans is the city they live in. New Orleans, in all its beauty—and devastation after Hurricane Katrina struck—is the soul of the story. Anyone who has read Why New Orleans Matters, a book length essay that Tom Piazza wrote a few months after the hurricane, knows that Piazza loves the Big Easy. Although his love is not blind, it is in evidence from the first pages of City of Refuge, which describe a spontaneous parade marching through the Lower Ninth Ward, to the last pages depicting the first straggly Mardi Gras celebrated after the levees broke and the city was flooded. In comparison to the detail and emotional tenor that Tom Piazza gives to New Orleans in the novel, the story of the Williams’ and Donaldson’s and their separate sagas before, during and after the storm seems almost incidental.

The story begins on the Friday before the hurricane hit. We first meet SJ Williams, a black, working class carpenter living in the Lower Ninth Ward; his sister Lucy, an on-again, off-again drug user and Lucy’s son, Wesley who is on the brink of becoming a criminal. We catch a glimpse the of Williams’s life during the weekend that precedes the storm. It is a fairly typical life, touched by drugs and crime, of many in the poorer areas of the city.

Craig Donaldson lives in a leafy suburb near the Tulane University campus with his wife, Alice and their two young children, Annie and Malcolm. He is the editor of Gumbo, an alternative city newspaper, and he makes enough money for Alice to be a stay-at-home mom. Craig and Alice are planning Malcolm’s birthday party when we meet them. Alice is the epitome of white middle class urban angst. She complains about raising her children in the heart of New Orleans. The school system is hobbled by crumbling buildings and lack of adequate funding. The whole city is hobbled by an antiquated infrastructure. Crime is rampant. Craig, originally from the mid West, is passionate about New Orleans, its culture, its music, its food. The last thing on his mind is leaving. Yet, Alice’s discomfort is an almost constant background noise in their marriage. And in the background of these first chapters, like white noise, are the weather reports which become more and more dire as the weekend wears on.

Hurricane Katrina seems like it will pose no more of a problem than some of the bigger hurricanes that have struck New Orleans in the recent past—some flooding, loss of electricity, damaged homes and a few days of disruption in normal activity. But, as the storm gathers strength during the weekend, evacuation becomes less and less of an option and more of a necessity. Unfortunately, evacuation is feasible only for those who have both the financial resources and a car. Craig and Alice wait until it becomes clear that the storm will cause major damage before they evacuate with tens of thousands of others. The Donaldson’s can’t.

What follows are the divergent paths that each family takes in order to regain some semblance of normalcy. Craig and his family endure ten hours of traffic jams only to find gasoline supplies drying up along the major routes and motels hopelessly overcrowded. They end up in Elkton, a suburb of Chicago, staying with Alice’s aunt and uncle. A far worse fate befalls SJ and his family. They experience Hurricane Katrina in all its wrath. The major breach of the levees occurred along the Lower Ninth Ward. Over ten feet of water flooded SJ’s house. Like so many other nameless heroes, SJ spends the day after the storm rescuing people who are trapped in a river filled with dangerous debris. His family is scattered after the hurricane. Wesley ends up in Albany, a place that might as well be another planet to him, with a couple of empty nesters who have volunteered to take displaced hurricane victims in. Wesley’s attempt to understand and communicate with the elderly couple creates the most emotionally charged interactions of the book. In comparison, the description of Lucy’s stay in one of many camps set up by volunteer organizations is stilted. SJ finds himself in Houston staying with his cousins, in shock and suffering from severe depression. The family is reunited in the suburbs of Houston feeling out-of-place and lonely in this land of cars and malls.

As each family grapples with long-term relocation and whether to return to the crippled city, we learn, through Craig’s and SJ’s trips back to New Orleans, of the damage that brought the city to its knees. Piazza’s prose comes alive in his descriptions of the horror and devastation in the city he loves. The work “toxic” appears routinely. The devastated city is a place of sour smells, sickening mold growing profusely on indoor walls, decaying bodies and a brownish sludge that covers everything the flood waters touched.

As everyone begins to adapt to their new lives, there is an underlying sadness in the realization that many families will not return to New Orleans, and those that do return will find a city that remains dysfunctional in so many ways. Tom Piazza has written a touching narrative steeped in the history of what has to be some of the darkest days America will ever encounter. It is fitting that we are left wondering whether the Williams’ and the Donaldson’s will find happiness in their new lives. After all, three years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans still remains on it knees. And the rest of the world is wondering too.

If it starts crooked, it’ll end up straight: Linda Lappin on John Domini’s A Tomb on the Periphery


A Tomb on the Periphery, John Domini, Gival Press

 

 

A Neapolitan proverb runs: “See Naples, then die,” suggesting that life is incomplete without a glimpse of Naples, while hinting that the experience may be overwhelming. Thus was it to eighteenth-century travelers who described the place as “a paradise inhabited by devils,” blaming the exhalations of Vesuvius for the city’s turbulence and torpor.  Not much has changed since then as we may gather from A Tomb on the Periphery, the second volume in his Naples trilogy.

 

The action opens in a newly excavated tomb where young Fabbrizio has come on his motorino with Shanti, a sexy American hippy-tourist who wants to worship the Great Mother in an unspoiled shrine. Fabbrizio, drop-out from archeological studies and expert forger of artifacts, has the right connections to slip her over the fence at midnight. But nothing is what it seems in Naples. Shanti is a jewel thief come to plunder grave goods. From a teenage mummy, Fabbrizio plucks a necklace triggering a series of transformative events bringing tragedy to some and redemption to others.

 

An African immigrant hiding in the tomb witnesses the robbery. Survivor of a sea- journey in which his daughter drowned, both the cops and camorra for the theft will blame him. For N’mbor lava, recovering the necklace is his only chance to avoid deportation. Meanwhile, Fabbrizio who had expected an easy conquest of “l’Americana,” will have initiations of a different order: he witnesses a murder and suffers hallucinations with the dead owner of the necklace speaking to him across the dark abyss of time, foretelling imminent danger.  

 

In this crime story, it’s the reader who does the detecting, all the while soaking in the atmosphere, as scattered clues are unearthed and reassembled—like the link between the drowned girl and the mummy. In each fragment is a flash of authentic Naples—vividly drawn with its colors, dirt, and slums; its thugs and bureaucrats; its joy, sensuality, and corruption. As we zip along with Fabbrizio on his motorino through streets redolent of garlic, sewers, and garbage; trilling with cell phones, glittering with knives, and tinkling with charms against the evil-eye, we are worlds away from what Domini has described as the “chianti-dazed Anglo-American romance of Italy.” What carries this book through occasional roughness of plot is the extraordinary energy and plasticity of its language. Rich, jaunty, and cocky like Fabbrizio himself, Domini’s language startles, stabs, tickles and at times dazzles delighting us from the first page. As in this discovery of the mummy:

Most of the corpse remained under the dirt, since for a discovery like this the dig crew worked with teaspoons, with watercolor brushes. But the visible bits might’ve been some subterranean neon, more tawny than white, its electricity uncovered while still abuzz. Also you could just make out a wink of tomb jewelry. Or you could so long as the moon hung postcard-full. Already however Fabbrizio understood he’d made a terrible mistake.

 

A quote from Shakespeare’s Tempest serves as an incipit. In that play, crime and corruption are merely momentary but necessary phases in a greater design of healing harmony. So it is for most of the characters in this novel, proving another bit of Neapolitan wisdom—storto viene, dritto va, or “If it starts crooked, it’ll end up straight,” which is exactly what happens to Fabbrizio in more ways than one.

 

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Linda Lappin,  poet, novelist, and translator lives in Rome where she directs the Centro Pokkoli. www.pokkoli.org  She is the author of The Etruscan ( Wynkin deWorde,  2004)  and Katherine’s Wish (Wordcraft of Oregon, 2008).  Her websites are www.lindalappin.net and www.theetruscan.com

In Memoriam, David Foster Wallace 1962-2008


from the New York Times

Writer Mapped the Mythic and the Mundane

 

David Foster Wallace used his prodigious gifts as a writer — his manic, exuberant prose, his ferocious powers of observation, his ability to fuse avant-garde techniques with old-fashioned moral seriousness — to create a series of strobe-lit portraits of a millennial America overdosing on the drugs of entertainment and self-gratification, and to capture, in the words of the musician Robert Plant, the myriad “deep and meaningless” facets of contemporary life.

A prose magician, Mr. Wallace was capable of writing — in his fiction and nonfiction — about subjects from tennis to politics to lobsters, from the horrors of drug withdrawal to the small terrors of life aboard a luxury cruise ship, with humor and fervor and verve. At his best he could write funny, write sad, write sardonic and write serious. He could map the infinite and infinitesimal, the mythic and mundane. He could conjure up an absurd future — an America in which herds of feral hamsters roam the land — while conveying the inroads the absurd has already made in a country where old television shows are a national touchstone and asinine advertisements wallpaper our lives. He could make the reader see state-fair pigs that are so fat they resemble small Volkswagens; communicate the weirdness of growing up in Tornado Alley, in the mathematically flat Midwest; capture the mood of Senator John McCain’s old ”straight talk” campaign of 2000.

Mr. Wallace, who died Friday night at his home in Claremont, Calif., at 46, an apparent suicide, belonged to a generation of writers who grew up on the work of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and Robert Coover, a generation that came of age in the ’60s and ’70s and took discontinuity for granted. But while his own fiction often showcased his mastery of postmodern pyrotechnics — a cold but glittering arsenal of irony, self-consciousness and clever narrative high jinks — he was also capable of creating profoundly human flesh-and-blood characters with three-dimensional emotional lives. In a kind of aesthetic manifesto, he once wrote that irony and ridicule had become “agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture” and mourned the loss of engagement with deep moral issues that animated the work of the great 19th-century novelists.

For that matter, much of Mr. Wallace’s work, from his gargantuan 1996 novel “Infinite Jest” to his excursions into journalism, felt like outtakes from a continuing debate inside his head about the state of the world and the role of the writer in it, and the chasm between idealism and cynicism, aspirations and reality. The reader could not help but feel that Mr. Wallace had inhaled the muchness of contemporary America — a place besieged by too much data, too many video images, too many high-decibel sales pitches and disingenuous political ads — and had so many contradictory thoughts about it that he could only expel them in fat, prolix narratives filled with Möbius strip-like digressions, copious footnotes and looping philosophical asides. If this led to self-indulgent books badly in need of editing — “Infinite Jest” clocked in at an unnecessarily long 1,079 pages — it also resulted in some wonderfully powerful writing.

He could riff ingeniously about jailhouse tattoos, videophonic stress and men’s movement meetings. A review of a memoir by the tennis player Tracy Austin became a meditation on art and athletics and the mastery of one’s craft. A review of a John Updike novel became an essay on how the “brave new individualism and sexual freedom” of the 1960s had devolved into “the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the Me Generation.”

Although his books can be uproariously, laugh-out-loud funny, a dark threnody of sadness and despair also runs through Mr. Wallace’s work. He said in one interview that he set out with “Infinite Jest” “to do something sad,” and that novel not only paints a blackly comic portrait of an America run amok, but also features a tormented hero, who is reeling from his discovery of his father’s bloody suicide — his head found splattered inside a microwave oven. Other books too depict characters grappling with depression, free-floating anxiety and plain old unhappiness. One of the stories in “Oblivion” revolved around a cable TV startup called “the Suffering Channel,” which presented “still and moving images of the most intense available moments of human anguish.”

Like Mr. DeLillo and Salman Rushdie, and like Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith and other younger authors, Mr. Wallace transcended Philip Rahv’s famous division of writers into “palefaces” (like Henry James and T. S. Eliot, who specialized in heady, cultivated works rich in symbolism and allegory) and “redskins” (like Whitman and Dreiser, who embraced an earthier, more emotional naturalism). He also transcended Cyril Connolly’s division of writers into “mandarins” (like Proust, who favored ornate, even byzantine prose) and “vernacular” stylists (like Hemingway, who leaned toward more conversational tropes). An ardent magpie, Mr. Wallace tossed together the literary and the colloquial with hyperventilated glee, using an encyclopedia of styles and techniques to try to capture the cacophony of contemporary America. As a result his writing could be both brainy and visceral, fecund with ideas and rich with zeitgeisty buzz.

Over the years he threw off the heavy influence of Mr. Pynchon that was all too apparent in “The Broom of the System” (1987) — which, like “The Crying of Lot 49,” used Joycean word games and literary parody to recount the story of a woman’s quest for knowledge and identity — to find a more elastic voice of his own in “Infinite Jest.” That novel used three story lines — involving a tortured tennis prodigy, a former Demerol addict and Canadian terrorists who want to get their hands on a movie reputed to be so entertaining it causes anyone who sees it to die of pleasure — to depict a depressing, toxic and completely commercialized America. Although that novel suffered from a lack of discipline and a willful repudiation of closure, it showcased Mr. Wallace’s virtuosity and announced his arrival as one of his generation’s pre-eminent talents.

Two later collections of stories — “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” (1999) and “Oblivion” (2004), which both featured whiny, narcissistic characters — suggested a falling off of ambition and a claustrophobic solipsism of the sort Mr. Wallace himself once decried. But his ventures into nonfiction, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (1997) and “Consider the Lobster” (2005), grounded his proclivity for meandering, stream-of-consciousness musings in sharp magazine assignments and reportorial subjects, and they evinced the same sort of weird telling details and philosophical depth of field as his most powerful fiction. They reminded the reader of Mr. Wallace’s copious gifts as a writer and his keen sense of the metastasizing absurdities of life in America at a precarious hinge moment in time.

Jeffrey Weaver gives a micro-review appraising Uwem Akpan’s short story collection Say You’re One of Them


Say You’re One of Them, Uwem Akpan, Little Brown & Co.

 

 

 

Tragic, frustrating, majestic, bewildering can all describe Say You’re One of Them, a Uwem Akpan’s short story collection. I have never read so many sad tales that did not come out of Russian literature. A Jesuit priest, Uwem Akpan is an obvious observer of the conflicts that ensnare his country (Nigeria) and continent. Akpan is a true artist painting with words a world so tragic it shakes you to your core leaving you ashamed to know that such a world may exist. Yet the stories of Say You’re One of Them are filled with many deeply good characters allowing a reader to come away from the collection with hope and the desire Akpan writes even more such tales.

 

What Language is That demonstrates the depth of this collection opening with two little girls in Ethiopia, best friends that argue a lot as small children seem to do. Their differences are those of children, yet we learn that faith separates their families with one being Christian, the other Muslim. The faiths of the elders are what tear these two girls from one another, and this tale acts as a microcosm of our larger world. What begins as a small disagreement between the children over outside friends is soon smoothed over by the pleading of parents. Their relationship is strong, but there are definite areas of trouble. If left alone, the narrative suggests, it seems the children will have a life-long friendship to enrich their lives and as the two fall asleep all is well between the young girls. The world is far different the next morning, and the young girls pay the price for the actions of others in their town. We learn that some violence and destruction has occurred in the night and the buildings of both girls have been damaged. The parents tell the girls that she is no longer able to play with her best friend; their faith differences have put an end to their relationship. They will no longer be best friends nor are they allowed to speak to each other ever again. Their only time together now will be in the glances on their respective balconies.

 

This story and the rest of the collection are windows to our world. The overall tone is light, but belied by the subject matter hidden in each story. Uwem Akpan has created art out of the misery that surrounds everyday life in modern Africa. The abject poverty, the lack of future, and the evil of man is all found in Say You’re One of Them, the best written collection to come around in quite a while. Although the subjects appear off-putting at first blush, the finished tales just leave you in wonder.

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Jeffrey Weaver is a graduate of the University of Georgia with a BA in English Lit and History. He resides in the Atlanta area.