Far Bright Star by Robert Olmstead

Readers unfamiliar with Robert Olmstead’s lyrical style will be delighted to discover this prolific and productive midwesterner’s work. In Far Bright Star (Thorndike Press, 279 pages ) the newest tale of the West, Olmstead weaves a minimalistic account of one man’s confrontation with his mortality and the deeper reaches of the human psyche.

Napoleon Childs is a noncommissioned officer in the U. S. Expeditionary Force sent into Mexico to get the sometimes bandit, sometimes revolutionary Pancho Villa. Detailed to scout for signs of the elusive Villistas, Napoleon leads a squad of green recruits and seasoned soldiers into the trackless Sonoran desert, where they are ambushed by a strange and savage band of independent outlaws. Led by a mysterious woman, the renegades are principally interested in Palmer, a trooper who has maimed a prostitute in the village where the army is bivouacked.
Napoleon, captured and tortured, is the lone survivor of the attack, left to make his way back to tell his story. Continue reading

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

“All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be.” (Roger Bevins III, p. 304)

Okay, so what happens when we die? Writers of fiction have been peering across into that unfathomable abyss from time out of mind. You might even say that this is what great fiction writers do: they look at the grand questions, and especially at immortality, or the lack thereof.

George Saunders’ rather ironic take on the afterlife (Lincoln in the Bardo, Random House, 343 pages) goes roughly like this: after death some of us get caught up in the fulgurant thing called “the bone-chilling firesound” of the “matterlightblooming phenomenon.” Amidst lots of explosions and smashing to smithereens—imagine something like the shoot-em-up-blow-em-up special effects of Hollywood—this phenomenon transports us off to . . . well, the author never tells us exactly where. Is it a nice place? That’s a good question. At times there are suggestions that it might be fine, but only for the better-behaved of human beings in their fleshy existence, and not even for all of them.

Some of the deceased, so we’re told, resist the matterlightblooming, preferring to hang around in a limbo, neither fish nor fowl. Saunders uses the term “bardo” (borrowed, apparently, from Tibetan religious tradition) for that liminal state, although a better title for this book might be something like Lincoln in Liminality. Why? Because the novel is eminently American, it is anchored in American history; therefore, it might be better not to bring in an obscure term from an alien tradition. Sometimes it seems, at any rate, as if we were looking at some standard purgatory, as in the passage where a former hunter is forced to sit before an enormous heap of the animals he had killed over a lifetime, “each of which he must briefly hold, with loving attention, for a period ranging from several hours to several months.” Continue reading

Andrew’s Brain by E. L. Doctorow


Andrew’s Brain (Random House, 244 pages), by E. L. Doctorow, is the narrative of a brain whose content has been digitized, whose DNA code has been cracked, and which now resides in a vat or has been uploaded to a computer at some Bush-era detention or torture site, unaware that he is no longer embodied, believing himself to be telling his story to a therapist (who, Andrew suspects, may be CIA), sometimes imagining himself to be elsewhere, writing to or phoning his therapist, sometimes visiting his office, but never realizing that he, like any human perhaps, has no true self-awareness because a brain cannot objectively know itself. Continue reading

The Pilgrim of Love: a ludibrium by Charles Davis

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“I was pleased to discover in myself an uncanny knack for interpreting the hermetic language of alchemy, as if my book learning had been but a preparation for decrypting enigmatic texts, reading meaning into that which, on the surface, seemed meaningless.”

So says the unnamed narrator of Charles Davis’ The Pilgrim of Love: a ludibrium, an obsessively researched and elaborately plotted parody of an historical romance. (Parody, as I understand the term, is best written by an author who actually loves his target, but who can put some ironic distance between himself and his subject.) The story is set in the abbey of the legendary Mont Michel in 1621, when the absence of roadway access meant visiting pilgrims had to make their way around quicksand between dangerously unpredictable tides. The landscape always plays an important and often symbolic role in Davis’ novels. The pilgrims must interpret the patterns in the sand to avoid sinking in the lise. Continue reading

Norwich 1144 – A Jew’s Tale by Bill Albert

jews-tale-front-coverIn the preface to his latest novel, Norwich 1144 – A Jew’s Tale (Mousehold Press, 256 pages), Bill Albert recalls the encounter that inspired his story:

“I was in a sixteenth century synagogue in Safed, a town 1000 metres above the Sea of Galilee. The rabbi, who looked as if he had been with the building since it was built, asked me where I lived. I told him I lived in Norwich, England. He looked alarmed, and then without missing a beat he turned and spat dryly over his shoulder three times. Having thereby ensured that the Evil Eye was placated, he told me the story of William of Norwich.
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Road to Nowhere by Józef Mackiewicz

mackiewiczEzra Pound’s observation that “literature is news that STAYS news” certainly applies to Road to Nowhere (Henry Regnery Company, 382 pages). This excellent novel, first published by a Polish exile in 1955, is consistently engaging and, for its aching, visceral power, still feels fresh. Given the unfortunate fact that Józef Mackiewicz is generally unknown in the U.S. and most of his work is untranslated or out of print, he might as well be seen as a new writer, as far as Americans are concerned. Considered in this light, he is quite simply the most intriguing new writer I have encountered in years. Continue reading