Curtain Call: Shaun Randol on Tim Brown’s Second Acts


Second Acts, Tim W. Brown, Gival Press, 2010

“There are no second acts in American lives,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald. Tim W. Brown’s highly engaging, informative, and often humorous story claims otherwise. Second Acts, Brown’s fourth novel, follows Dan Connor, a man on a time-traveling mission to win back his adulteress wife, Rachel. In 1833 America, Connor and his newfound partner, Bunny, a transvestite Potawatomi Indian, negotiate the bustling sites of Chicago, Buffalo, and New York on the trail of his cheating wife and Bruce, her eminent, scientific co-conspirator. At first blush, Second Acts could be mistaken for an amalgam of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and anything by Jules Verne. The assumption is not unfounded, but Brown’s imagining of a time-traveling romance peppered with comedy and glazed in historical details stands on its own merits.

Second Acts leaps out of the starting gate so quickly that the reader must accept the story as given. There is no time to ask questions that might bog down the action. For instance, when Connor jumps into his time machine, he is careful to bring along the currency of 1833 (gold coins), but we are left to wonder: was he also wearing a pair of Nikes? Or was Connor also careful enough to strap on some period boots? Because Brown refuses to slow down the story by carefully addressing the minutiae of time travel logic, Second Acts easily and quickly slides into the realms of fantasy, science fiction, and escapism. In other words, we are free to enjoy the ride.

Not everything in Brown’s tale can be easily forgiven, however. A glaring oversight of the novel is that from cover to cover it remains unclear for whom or what the narrator is writing. Second Acts is told in first person, as if Connor is recalling the story of his time travels fireside, or is conveying his thoughts in a diary for some historical record. Clearly the tale is meant for Connor’s mid-19th century contemporaries, for throughout the story anachronistic references are explained parenthetically. For example, recalling a moment in 2015 (from whence the story begins), the narrator speaks of “heating foods in the microwave oven (a miraculous invention that cooks meals in mere seconds without fire).” Or late in the novel, a hair permanent is described as “a hairdresser’s technique used in the modern world to curl hair chemically.” For whose benefit are these references made? In The Time Machine, it is clear that the narrator recounts his time travels to dinner guests, and in A Connecticut Yankee, the story is first told to the narrator by a stranger (before turning into a first-person recollection). Brown’s narrative device remains unexplained.

Further, there is a lack of the “wow factor” one might expect of time travelers, or “time pilots” as they are called in the book. In both Connor’s recounting and in Rachel’s diary (through which we are able to follow her journey) there is an apparent lack of fascination with a) the act of time travel itself, and b) how people actually live in 1833, compared to our own expectations. Admissions along the lines of “I can’t believe they actually do/wear/believe this, when our history books teach us Americans of the 1830s do/wear/believe that” are minimal, to say the least. Instead, Rachel and Connor seem to accept their circumstances with a shrug, as if they went out for milk one day and were taken on an unexpected, but not out of the ordinary, detour.
Despite these shortcomings, Second Acts remains an engrossing read. Brown’s research really shines through in the many pockets where details are richly brought to life. While Brown glances over the specifics of Chicago 1833, the year of its founding, Buffalo and New York City are colorfully depicted. As to the latter:

Next, I turned my attention to the surrounding neighborhood, the city’s main commercial district straddling Broadway. I walked past dressmakers’ shops, food emporiums, furniture makers’ workshops, and sundry other stores that sold every imaginable trinket and gewgaw. In their display windows I saw stylishly dressed mannequins, skinned rabbits and sausages hanging from strings, cherry-wood cabinets emblazoned with flags and eagles, silk scarves and stockings, gold rings and pocket watches, silver and tin cutlery, china plates and crystal goblets, linens for bed and table, wooden animal pull toys, pipes and cigars, spectacles, and, everywhere, false teeth carved from wood or ivory.

With such vivid description, the reader can’t help but feel transported to another time. Genuine historical figures, too, like once-presidential candidate Samuel Tilden and New York University founder Albert E. Gallatin, make their appearances.

The punctuation of historical personages and events in Second Acts becomes a game for the reader: was there really an annual pig hunt in Central Park in the mid-19th century? Is Bunny based on an actual, historical person? Did a small, upstate New York town actually burn down in the 1830s? Time and again I found myself taking notes in order to conduct queries on these references. And in an especially inspired twist, one of the novels historical figures also turns out also to be a “time pilot.” Brown smartly introduces this fanciful turn by forcing the reader to simply accept the fact, rather than bog down the action with a possibly circular—albeit fascinating—discussion on the implications of multiple time pilots existing and acting in history simultaneously toward different ends. What effect would this possibility have on history? On the future? On the re-telling of history in the future? What scientific, philosophical, moral, and ethical wrinkles would such a possibility introduce? There’s no time to get into it—a romantic chase is afoot! The story moves along. Such are the treats of the seamless weaving of historical encounters through the plot that make this story an easy and tasty pill to swallow. Second Acts will be a hard one for Brown to follow.

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Shaun Randol is the founder and editor in chief of The Mantle (www.mantlethought.org), an Associate Fellow at the World Policy Institute, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He has written critical essays on film, literature, and international affairs for numerous online and print publications.  If you are interested, a selection of work can be found here: http://mantlethought.org/content/shaun-randol and some older stuff here: http://www.worldpolicy.org/shaun-randol.

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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