FINE REWARDS: John Domini on Paul Harding’s Tinkers


tinkers

Tinkers, Paul Harding, Bellevue Literary Press

Any new novel worth thinking about raises old questions, and in the case of Paul Harding’s often-impressive Tinkers, the question is—how much ecstasy can a person stand? A first novel of admirable risk and unconventionality, it begins in a kind of ecstasy with the deathbed hallucinations of George Washington Crosby. These visions by Authorial magic swiftly carry George back into the perspective of his own runaway father Howard.

George was still a boy when the father disappeared, at the turn of the previous century. That simpler America provides the setting for what action the story offers, a world of woods and farms and solitude, and the season is nearly always unstable, fall or spring. Howard gees his mule down rutted roads, now in Canada and now upstate New York, trundling through a sales route but never turning a profit. Howard struggles with a hardhearted country wife, Kathleen, and falters as a family man, never connecting with young George. The father’s core problem, we discover, isn’t his heart or his psyche but his nervous system. He suffers epilepsy, and he knows his Kathleen could never stand the shame should his children or his neighbors see him struck down by a fit.

That’s about it, for plot and tension. Of course I’m keeping my reviewer’s hand over twist or two, but I doubt the suspense in Tinkers could be spoiled. More than event, what matters is ecstasy:

Summer would anneal the chilled earth, but for now the water was so mineral and hard that it seemed to ring. Howard heard the water reverberating through the soil and around the roots. Water lay ankle-deep…. Puddles shimmered and… looked like tin cymbals. They looked as if they would ring if tapped with a stick. The puddles rang. The water rang. [64]

The ringing doesn’t stop, either; the next three lines repeat the verb twice more. Throughout, Harding’s performative prose tends to similar baroque iteration, no matter that the landscape may be wilderness. Transcendent states of mind—a few of them, like the passage above, on the verge of epileptic seizure—take the form of the winter sky-sheen behind barren trees, or of wind and insects in chorus as evening comes on. A defining forebear for this novel would be Walden, which likewise made poetry, usually affirming poetry, of woodsy detail. Tinkers at its best pulls off a re-entry into the Thoreauvian mindset, with both hunter-gatherer turmoil and horse-and-buggy challenges. It includes a spooky round of anecdotes about a mythic Indian guide.

However, the novel also whips up its rhetoric when the subject is clocks. In one list of clockmakers:

…we find a humble and motley, if determined and patient, parade…, all bent at their worktables, filing brass and calibrating gears and sketching ideas until their pencils dissolve into lead dust…, all to more perfectly transform and translate Universal Energy by perfecting the beat of the… wheel. Listen, horologist, to the names of their devices: verge, dead-beat, tic-tac… [163]

Now, this second example of Harding’s rococo doesn’t depend on repeated words, but parallel syntax. Indeed, in these pages the novel considers a different subject, not Howard but his now-dying son. George had a passion for antique clocks, and just about the only time we see the adult character in action (as opposed to the boy, defined against his troubled father), he’s repairing clocks. Then too, the lines above purport to be not George’s own but a section from an 18th-Century treatise on clocks. Tinkers interpolates a few such passages, as well as a few imitation-scientific enumerations (“Crepescule Borealis: 1. The bark of birches glows silver and white… 2. Fireflies blink in the thick grass…” [55]).

The pervading effect is contrapuntal. At one point everything’s in smithereens, a victim of family dysfunction and brain seizures, so that Howard sits helpless, “baffled by his diet of lightning,” [47] and at the next these lives are blessed by odd yet perfect assertions of wholeness, the clock in one case, the bird’s nest in another. The latter image may provide the climax, and something of a happy ending: “one’s whole countryside might be fitted out with a constellation of such nests, each holding its own special treasure.” [171] The imagistic seesaw between utter breakdown and unlikely reconstruction is impressive, and central to the mission of the Bellevue Press, which combines medical and literary exploration.

All well and good—but insofar as Harding intends a psychological drama, he disappoints. For all its verbal acrobatics, Tinkers isn’t some Oulipo exercise, in which plausible character and relationships don’t matter. So Howard and George frustrate, as father and son protagonists. They come across as little more than twinned pastiches of intense moments. The problem isn’t that such moments occur in a language far above either man’s head, a stretch that many authors bring off, but how it can bulldoze the passions under agglomerations of metaphor. Both men are unbelievable especially for their lack of anger. Howard’s affliction doesn’t appear to have left him with a mean bone in his body, nor with any drive to excel (though those traits defined history’s most famous epileptic, Julius Caesar). George, so far as we can see, grows up into an eccentric but beloved paterfamilias, entirely unscarred by a father’s abandonment and a mother’s neglect. Indeed, Kathleen’s relative nastiness comes as a relief, when she asserts herself about halfway through the narrative. At last we whiff the bracing stink of inadequacy and low motives.

Which returns us to the initial conundrum, ecstasy all the time. Do Harding’s hosannas sometime sink to preciousness? My answer would be, regrettably, yes: “and each little bee settled in a yellow cup and took suck like a newborn.” [60] Do his recurrent images ever smack of redundancy? Yes again—and yet I see no point in getting redundant myself, lowering one blow after another on so gifted, ambitious, and free-thinking a debut. The turns of phrase in Tinkers often had me whistling in envy, and overall the project blazes a new approach to historical fiction. These are fine rewards for any book, even one whose flaws demand a bit of patience.

Purchase Tinkers

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John Domini’s latest novel is A Tomb on the Periphery. His translation of Tullio Pironti’s memoir Books and Rough Business is now in print, and next will come a selection of essays and reviews, The Sea-God’s Herb.

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Compelling Clarity of Insight: John Domini on DeWitt Henry’s Safe Suicide


Safe Suicide, DeWitt Henry, Red Hen Press

safe-suicide 

 

It’s called creative non-fiction, and these days there’s just no stopping it. More and more commercial publishing depends on the memoir, ostensibly non-fiction and most, at least, remain reasonably true to the facts. Meanwhile, at universities all over the country a fledgling writer can earn multiple degrees in the genre, though it seems just recently hatched. Truman Capote could claim to have invented the approach in 1965 when he published his “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood.  Another originator could be Tom Wolfe with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in 1968 or when Norman Mailer bulled onto the scene with The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago (both also ’68). All fine work, no denying, and all apply the intimacy, subtlety, and significant shape of a made-up story to a real one. They take the moil of experience and recompose it with a beginning, middle, and end; they excavate character, establish metaphors, and identify watersheds.  

 

DeWitt Henry in his new collection of “narratives, essays, and meditations”—the subtitle for his quiet yet stinging Safe Suicide—doesn’t take his subjects from the headlines, as Capote did with his Kansas murders or Wolfe with the Merry Pranksters (Mailer, typically, leapt up on to some of the biggest stages in the nation). Rather, Henry works with the sort of materials that engage your average MFA-candidate namely, the tensions, changes, and illuminations that occur around a largely unremarkable family and home. His opening piece bears the humble title Memoir of My Father, and its subject is an absence, a deed never witnessed:

Also, as far back as I can remember Dad, there was the oddness — long before I had any explanation for it — and tension that he couldn’t drink anything alcoholic, even desserts that had a mint liqueur, but that on special occasions Mom, and then later my brothers, could. Out for dinner or at another grownups’ party, there would be, when he was offered cocktails or whatever, a stiffened refusal, almost angry, and right there, a sense of odd and shameful difference….(1)

As the child grows, he picks up details of his father’s struggle with alcohol, over and done with before little DeWitt was old enough to notice. Still, throughout, the essay emphasizes impressions like that “stiffened refusal” and its effect.  “Memoir” ends with a close description of the father’s sleeping face, in a later photo.

 

In that photo, Henry detects memento mori: “The mouth is darkly gaping, slack.” (6) The essay concludes with the chilling touch of the nullity his father sought in booze, rather than the noisy business of how he acted out his self-destructive impulses. There’s no Million Little Pieces here, no broken crockery or broken bones—which makes a reader trust this writer a lot more than anyone should ever have trusted James Frey. To put the point another way, Safe Suicide offers creative non-fiction in the classic vein, the kind sometimes still called “the personal essay.” Such work tends to be less flashy than the examples I’ve cited. In sensitive hands like Henry’s, however, it allows for compelling intensity and clarifying insight.  

 

With this aim in mind, Henry’s best essays are those with a smaller scope. A few concern his childhood in and around Philadephia, and a number of others grow out of his Boston-based adult life as a writer (he has an award-winning novel, The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts) and editor (he was the founder and longtime director of Ploughshares).  For instance Odd, a reminiscence of pre-teen days, smartly inverts the coming-of-age meditation, since the emphasis is never on the young storyteller but rather on a local celebrity, a retired boxer. Via this swaggering, damaged man, there dawns the awareness of how the years demand their pound after pound of flesh. 

 

Another essay, Bungee, presents a success of a very different sort and provides the title phrase, “We live and trust in our safe suicides.” (73) Henry’s own first bungee jump came when he was an adult, esteemed as an editor, author, and prof, not to mention a husband and father deep into middle age. Thus, his take on this more-than-half-crazy form of recreation allows room for the full range of his learning and experience. The essay’s no ordinary recollection, but rather constructed in a series of blackout-brief thoughts, and these range from a fire-and-brimstone passage of the late-Puritan Jonathan Edwards (the famous warning that God dangles our souls “much as one holds… some loathsome insect over the fire”) to a businesslike self-assurance that, should something happen to him, his wife and children would be taken care of.  The whole comes together wittily and movingly by essay’s end as its final musing pivots around that key oxymoron. 

 

A number of Henry’s best meditations are similarly laid out like prose mosaics in which the final piece has the stuff of poetry. Gravity skillfully juggles memory, scholarship, and dream looping back and forth across the subject of evanescence, and in the end this becomes a potent fragmentary metaphor for literary art: “The yearning of these words, tethered to their vanishing.” (81) So too, Beautiful Flower ascends from thoughts of self-immolation in particular the Buddhist monks who set themselves afire to protest the Vietnam war to a remarkable affirmation of faith. So too, Arias sings a penny-pincher’s ode to love, and Returnables takes dumpster-divers as avatars of the imagination.

 

If the lovely phrase “quiet fire” weren’t forever linked to early-‘60s Miles Davis (I believe Bob Dylan in the poems on the back of The Times They Are A-Changin’, was the first to describe Davis that way), it would serve well for Henry at his finest. With restraint, he reduces his materials to their core heat and illumination.  The weaker essays here emphasize political struggles over lyric association. The re-hash of in-house squabbles at Ploughshares, for instance, seem to me notable mostly for their honesty. I wish all literary magazines were so forthcoming about money (I should mention, too, that I knew DeWitt Henry slightly in the mid-‘70s serving as a low-level editor for at least one issue of the magazine, but he and I lost touch when I left Boston). 

 

By and large, however, Safe Suicide stands as a example of why creative non-fiction currently takes up such space on our bookshelves. It calls to mind the marvelous anthology The Art of the Personal Essay assembled by Philip Lopate.  Himself a sharp-eyed non-fiction writer, Lopate demonstrates by his choices that such work had a distinguished roster of practitioners long before Capote et al made their noisy, albeit splendid, contributions. Art of the Personal Essay reaches back as far as Seneca including such essential figures as Montaigne, Thoreau, Woolf, and many more. To me it seems like suicide, quite unsafe, to suggest that one or two of Henry’s exercises haven’t earned a place among that number.

 

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John Domini’s current novel is A Tomb on the Periphery.  In 2009 he’ll publish a selection of his essays and reviews, The Sea-God’s Herb. See www.johndomini.com.

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

“Bite the Bullet,” John Domini reviews Kevin Sampsell’s Creamy Bullets


 

Creamy Bullets by Kevin Sampsell, Chiasmus Press, www.chiasmuspress.com

 

 

“My penis had sabotaged my life” (248), so claims the narrator of the final story in Kevin Sampsell’s Creamy Bullets, and it’s a resonant bit of bitching. The title recycles a ‘80s euphemism for ejaculation, and there’s another penile implication, more subtle, in the three divisions set up for this assortment: “Small,” “Medium,” and “Large.” Throughout, unruly lusts define the fictions. In the smallest of the Small, 1000 words, promptings out of the groin are all our sole instruments for erecting (two can play at this game, Sampsell) a character.

 

Consider “Bubbles,” a superb Small, set in a stuck elevator. The narrator finds himself trapped with a woman who “hands him a big cube of purple gum, the kind that junior high school girls chew.” He blows a bubble, and:

She chews slowly, her lovely lips curling, her jaw moving in a smooth little dance. Her bubble comes out confidently, without fear. It grows bigger like a puff of smoke. She pauses for a moment and says, “Mine’s strawberry.” It’s bright red. She stares into my eyes. “What’s next?“ I ask her. “Bubble fight,” she says. We stand close… (10-11)

The sexual tension is undeniable, and the drama is in the shivery junior-high displacement of that tension. When Sampsell’s people hook up, they always shrug off some other urgency—something that could like a plummeting elevator do harm. To put it another way, in Creamy Bullets size doesn’t matter: at any length stories go dark and downbeat, despite the comedy and bubble-gum in their setup. When folks aren’t left weirdly frustrated, their orgasms tend towards catastrophe—exemplified best or most disturbingly by the anonymous man-on-man encounters in “The Layover,” the rawest of the Large (man-on-man, yes: Sampsell gets graphic but to his credit avoids the laddie-mag stuff). By and large, the gloom and priapism recall the Grim Reaper porn of Michel Houellebecq.

 

On the other hand, this fiction has nothing of Houellebecq’s encyclopedic worldliness. Quite the opposite, the ambience and range of reference make one think of Raymond Carver. Hookups tend to be scuffed-up and the mode of speech bubble-gum. Work is drudgery, days off never take us far (the strongest of the Medium, “The Mermaid,” depends on having to share a vacation place with the parents), and a number of storylines feature voices that come through cheap apartment walls. Altogether, Creamy Bullets presents a splatter-portrait of those who might be called Carver’s offspring: the contemporary 20-and-30-somethings laboring to accept their limited horizons and achieve a private grace. Only one story makes mention of professional ambition (the breakup fantasy “Cat in Residence”) and only one enters the political arena (“Songs for Water Buffalo,” a winner, with what might actually be a happy ending), in both the essential questions are things like how the characters dress for bed or how their dreadlocks smell.

 

As such a portrait, these selected shorts make their greatest contribution, full of feeling though scattershot. The best swatches of low realism even include two or three driven by impulses from above the beltline. “Don’t Eat Paper,” for instance, shines a brilliant pin-light on the secret communications between father and son. But Sampsell clearly doesn’t cotton to limits on his sensibility. He’s a tyro: a performer and editor-in-chief at Future Tense Press, he lists over thirty publication credits for this book alone. What’s more, depending on what you count, it’s his sixth or seventh book over the last 15 years. Anyone visiting literary websites like the Emerging Writers Network will find many a Sampsell reference, also mentioning his important work with Powell’s Books. All well and good—let a hundred flowers bloom—but the man’s latest fiction, as fiction, satisfies less when it trucks in fantasy and alternative narrative forms.

 

Granted, the small pieces can’t help coming across as alternative. But the most effective miniatures sketch a discernible plot against a recognizable drabness, and among the Large, the drop-off in affect when Sampsell eschews causal reality can’t be missed. The ever more depressed and distant couple, in “Cat in Residence,” generate far richer excitement than the talking cat.

 

Part of the problem is style. Unsophisticated Americanese like this is a perfectly viable aesthetic choice, and has been since a hundred years before Carver, but when an author seeks to experiment, control of rhetoric becomes paramount. Were I in Sampsell’s writing group, I’d risk losing his friendship by pointing out how careless he can be; he imagines well, then summarizes flatly. In six lines he’ll use “even” three times (151-152), and he’s likewise profligate with emphatic business like the “little” in the “smooth little dance” of the gum-chewer’s jaw (I mean, of course it’s little). It’s authors like this, after all, who profit most from a good editor. Chiasmus Press, while an admirable startup in many ways, has compounded the problem by letting several egregious errors slip through—gaffe like “no drinking aloud” [149] reflects badly on everyone.

 

To judge Creamy Bullets solely on such details, however, would be to miss the firing squad that’s blowing you away for the tarnish on one barrel. It would be to overlook the delights of a good dozen stories here, including at least a couple of each length. If I were to nominate a better fit for Sampsell’s forebear, it wouldn’t be the poet Carver but rather the meat-and-potatoes John O’Hara. Underappreciated these days, O’Hara was nonetheless a natural and still has the most published short stories ever in The New Yorker. Was he sloppy on details? To be sure—but he nearly always delivered a heartbreak, in circumstances unapologetically earthbound, haunted by economics and sex. Were I in Sampsell’s circle, I’d say, “Skip the cream, bite the bullet.”

 

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John Domini’s (john@johndomini.com) current novel is A Tomb on the Periphery. In 2009, he’ll publish a selection of his essays and reviews, The Sea-God’s Herb.