In the last several years I have developed a steep impatience with contemporary fiction. Before I opened M. Conway Dorsey’s debut novel, Lower Reaches of the River (Adelaide Books, 172 pages), it had been quite some time since I had even finished a novel without putting it down in a fit of mistrust and frustration. After I read the last sentence, I thought hard about why Lower Reaches had not incited me; why it kept my attention. I decided, finally, that there were two cardinal reasons.
Before I get to these, let me first open a brief parenthesis to summarize the story. Dorsey’s novel opens deep in the marshlands of the Southern US, where a lost people live, a population of dislocated souls dwelling on a floating village of lashed-together boats and rafts, an almost organic construct, mazed with passageways. This ad hoc archipelago, Camptown, is a secret waystation for the forgotten and disconsolate, run jointly by three people: the local sheriff, barroom owner Early Watts, and oilman Nolan Flynn. Camptown is, on the surface, a charitable organization that helps the wayward start new lives. Continue reading
“Once after dinner, as we sat in front of the television watching an Adventures of Superman rerun, I asked, ‘Was my father handsome?’
She replied, ‘Some might say yes.’
‘Was he smart?’ I asked.
She stared at the television. ‘Why is it that after all the bullets have bounced off Superman’s chest, he then ducks when the villain throws the empty gun at him?’
I looked at the television and wondered, knowing also that my quest for some detail about my history had been again thwarted, albeit with a very good question. I never pressed terribly hard, thinking that someday the story would surface, but then she died.”
I’ve quoted this out-of-context gem to give you a taste and because it made me laugh the first time I read this brilliant book about a boy who is named “Not Sidney Poitier” although he is the spitting image of a young Poitier. I laughed while I moaned. This is serious and hilarious stuff.
However a year after my first reading, when I read this book for a second time, I had a different experience. I hardly laughed at all for the first half (second half is funnier). Instead I was moved by the pain. Continue reading
I read Douglas Glover’s novel Elle (Goose Lane Editions, 226 pages) when it came out in 2003, and over the years I’ve continued, now and again, to read a few pages at random. It’s an excellent book – it won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award – with a remarkable narrator heroine and a curious plot, but I go back to it simply because I enjoy the story teller’s voice. The novel is based on an actual event in Canada’s history when a French noblewoman was abandoned on the Isle of Demons in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1542.
The history is simple. In 1541 Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval, a nobleman privateer, was made Lieutenant General of New France. He set sail from the old to the New France that same year and along with him and the other colonists in his charge he had his cousin, or maybe it was his niece or his sister – the record is confused – but in any case she was Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval. For some unknown reason Lieutenant General Roberval became infuriated with Marguerite and as the ship entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence he had Marguerite, plus her lover and her maidservant, put ashore on a small unpopulated island, providing them with scant hunting and fishing gear. A few years later Marguerite was rescued by Basque fishermen and by then her lover and an infant whom Marguerite had given birth to had died, as had the maidservant. Continue reading
Anyone familiar with the inventions and predictions of Ray Kurtzweil might think of the Singularity he has discussed as they enter the scenes of Kiran Bhat’s we, of the forsaken world (Iguana Books, 216 pages). In other words, either the human race is on the brink of extinction, or we are on the verge of a physical, technological, even spiritual lift-off that will mark our history as indelibly as the invention of the longbow, the steam engine, or the computer….are you ready to be experienced?
In Bhat’s novel, we see the birth of a new world consciousness, a singularity not of human and machine, but human and earth, “a full actualization of consciousness,” out of the very familiar world we live in: one of inequality, mistrust and conflict. Therefore, if to imagine is to make so, Bhat’s novel is a step in the right direction. Continue reading
Three Dialogs about Ron Maclean’s Three-Part Short Story Collection, We Might as Well Light Something on Fire (Braddock Avenue Books, 179 pages):
I. goats, rabbits, etc.
We’re going to talk about we might as well light something on fire .
Right. You know the writer?
Is he brave?
I was never in combat with him. Why do you ask?
Guy writes a really far out book called we might as well light something on fire, some smartass will say, right, let’s start with this book.
That would be an incendiary insult to one of the most original collections I have ever read. How do you want to proceed?
Section by section, one of the three sections for each meeting, and concentrate on one story. Continue reading
As a reader, my career has fallen off precipitously since my eyes went bad during a misspent late-innings career in adversarial journalism, peering directly into the radioactive maw of a circa 1998 Gateway CRT monitor for 18 hours a night, four nights a week. Much earlier, back when I was a long-distance commuter slouching daily into servitude in downtown Manhattan from various exurban hellholes, I would devour up to four novels a week on the train, trying to avoid conversation and making friends. Over the past few years, striving to get a handle on thriller plotting and structure, I listened to various incarnations of the ubiquitous “Homeland Security porn” genre (Alex Berenson, Vince Flynn, Lee Child, etc.) in the car, until the CD player went south. Now it’s podcasts and, with a new pair of reading glasses, the occasional book. Short stories, however, have almost never been on the menu. I am naturally attracted to long-form entertainment; the longer and more involved and loaded with digressions, the better. My brain does not like to stop and start, and instinctively resists efforts to reset for the next tale in a chain of literary non-sequiturs. I’m pretty sure the only compendiums of short stories I ever got through from start to finish were Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House and the five collections put out by Charles Bukowski, each segment of which was pretty much like every other piece of stream-of-consciousness lyrical rambling he ever wrote, including his “poetry.” I might have read a book of Poe’s stories back in elementary school, but that experience has been lost to the mists of approaching dementia, and is no help at all.
Thus I was under-prepared and nervously anticipating a case of low-attention-span anhedonia when I was asked to read and review the thirteen stories in Brent Robison’s The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility: A Web of Stories (Bliss Pot Press, 194 pages). Continue reading
Though I spent a not inconsequential portion of my early-twenties leisure time at Bay Street in Sag Harbor, where such reggae luminaries as Steel Pulse, Black Uhuru, Burning Spear, and Lucky Dube frequently performed, I did not know that not far from the concert venue was a neighborhood that had been built by African-American families after World War II. That neighborhood, made up of Azurest, Sag Harbor Hills, and Nineveh, is geographically and existentially at the center of Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor (Penguin/Random House, 352 pages).
Early in the novel, the now grown-up narrator Benji recalls his fifteen-year-old self settling into Sag Harbor for the summer of 1985 and contemplates the mythical aura that surrounded some of the people who came before him:
“What I did know about DuBois was that he fell into the category of Famous Black Folk—there was a way people said certain names so that they had an emanation or halo. The respectful way my mother pronounced DuBois told me that the man had uplifted the race.”
Three Explorations of Michael Joyce’s Novel Remedia, A Picaresque (Steerage Press 306 pages).
This review takes the form of three colloquies between two readers who seek to understand the multiple meanings of this enormously rich novel.
I. Scenes and Adventures
You finished Remedia.
Terrific novel—characters, places, drama, linguistic acrobatics, mystery. But I would’ve read it just to get to that great ending.
Very elegiac. The whole book resonates in it. Made me think of those last minutes of Mahler’s Ninth.
I need to talk about this book. Continue reading
Deep oppression pervades Brian Booker’s collection of seven stories Are You Here for What I’m Here For? (Bellevue Literary Press, 256 pages). The mood is confining, suffocating, maddening, the writing evocative of a heart pulsing beneath the floorboards of a cabin far from anywhere. Booker awakens—allays—awakens—allays—and awakens again profound tensions: Something is wrong. Everything is ok. But something is wrong.
Prepare to contend with psychic turmoil, ordinary figures sick in unusual ways: “…The bus didn’t come and Francie caught a chill. Then she got sick, lost her legs; they burned her toys in the backyard. She ended up in that school for damaged children, sweet Francie among the mongoloids and midgets…” Continue reading
In Brother Carnival (Red Hen Press, 209 pages), a fiercely engaging literary work, Dennis Must plays with time and character, leading the reader into a special world of space and time, almost a quantum universe, where characters can be in two places at the same time–or can they? Laced with an intense investigation into the nature of divinity and deities, Brother Carnival weaves an impressive litany of human weakness into the warp-quest for the divine. These lines point to the nature of Our Problem: Continue reading