Don’t Look at Me, by Charles Holdefer

Go big or go home. In his new novel Don’t Look at Me (Sagging Meniscus Press, 282 Pages), author Charles Holdefer chooses to go big.

At the center of Don’t Look at Me is a young woman sidelined from a promising college basketball career by a nasty leg injury. Her name is Holly Winegarten, and she is six-foot-nine inches tall. Holly is never described as a giant and doesn’t suffer from the deadly ills immense size brings. Still, her height makes her unusual, painfully so.

After casting around for a personal direction post-accident, Holly discovers solace in an unexpected place, literature. Great language offers the self-conscious woman a much-longed-for way to diminish the isolation that accompanies her physical stature.

Giants are the stuff of legend, and there are few novels that feature a physical giant as a major character and are not pure fantasy. The only one I can think of is The Giant O’Brien by Hillary Mantel, which liberally and comically interprets the biography of eighteenth-century Irish giant Charles Bryne. It’s hard to escape the mythic element when writing about giants, or a near-giant. Holdefer incorporates the fantastic subtly, a point I’ll get to shortly.

First, an observation about style. Holdefer’s prose is consummately delivered. One trait of excellent fiction is that every word, sentence, paragraph, and chapter, builds on the achievement of the last. In part, this is a function of aesthetic efficiency: the design should be controlled, with each piece doing its part to make the story work. The reader is not plied with distracting information. On the other hand, the grace of beautiful language resides in richness and flourish; the bloom of words that presents existence in the fullest light. Good prose is always a little wasteful.

Maintaining the balance between economy and extravagance is where art resides. We can see Holdefer’s mastery of balance in Holly’s reaction to a glib comment by a university employee about her height:

Fact was: things did look different from her perspective, though not in the way he meant. One of the things she’d absorbed since leaving home and running the gauntlet of the eyes of others was a keener awareness of a contradiction, a realization that however much people stared, they couldn’t see her. Not the real her. They saw a long sinuous figure to which they attached their own agenda, while Holly became persuaded that she possessed an invisible and resolute self that was independent of anyone’s gaze and, in fact, beyond anything they might fathom. This self exists of its own accord. It was the main feature of her life. The rest was dross.

It is hard to build so much into a paragraph, and then the summary of the last three sentences shows talent at its finest.

Now, for the note of subtle fantasy Holdefer strikes. Holly comes out of her emotional funk when she discovers a “lost” trove of love letters by Emily Dickinson in the university library. She wrangles with academics vying for professional recognition for the discovery. Holly attends an MLA conference and finds partial vindication, but also a personal boundary. In the end, Holly gives over the credit for the discovery to a senior woman professor more prepared to give the lost poems their scholarly due.

There are delicate negotiations in the narrative at this point that make the trope outrageous yet still plausible. While I didn’t “believe” for one minute that lost love letters of Emily Dickinson would show up in a state school archive, still, stranger things have happened. Little known fact: Samuel Becket befriended the teenage giant who shared the same home village in France, Andre Renee Roussimov. Later, Roussimov forged a career as wrestler-celebrity Andre, The Giant.

Perhaps a near-giantess discovering a rare manuscript in a provincial university archive is likely enough for me to tuck away doubts. I am all about compounding weirdness when weirdness pays off.

Holdefer has a princely academic background, having received an MFA from Iowa and a PhD. from the Sorbonne. One might suppose a nosebleed of preciousness in his worldview. Yet there is an eminently “practical” aspect to what one suspects is his literary philosophy put in the head of Holly reflecting on the meaning of her literary discovery:

…it had become a phenomenon as impersonal as the melting temperature of platinum or the rings of Saturn, available to anyone to observe. Language–and consciousness itself–were part of the natural grain of things, available for scrutiny.

That was the beautiful thing, the honorable thing, the reason Holly kept coming back [to literature]. Because in the end, it had absolutely nothing to do with her. In a sense she had disappeared: not into a void, but into something larger, something shared.

The criticism of academia is apt yet never bitter, the snarkiest comments allocated to a cranky failed professor. Although the forces of jargon and the academic herd prevail, Holly finds redemption by teaching English abroad. A consolation prize? It doesn’t feel like it; rather, a narrative turn that won’t rip the value of Holly’s journey of self-discovery from her.

Don’t Look at Me is a satire as generous as it is sharp. Focused on a person who is dealt a strange hand by fate, the book is quirky, and the characters are odd, and it works because the balance is absolutely sure. This is the secret of its enchantment. Catastrophe leads to quiescence, and quiescence to risk-taking. The pattern is shot through the novel, and it is lovely to experience.

Vic Peterson, author of The Berserkers, 2022.

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