Posted November 1, 2012
and Other Fictions
Fiction by Fred Arroyo
The University of Arizona Press, April 2012
Paperback: 180pp; $15.95
Review by Sarah Carson
Don’t let the title of Fred Arroyo’s latest collection of short stories, Western Avenue and Other Fictions, fool you. “Fiction” is hardly the right word for what Arroyo has done here. If these insightful, living, breathing stories are fiction, I’d be hard pressed to imagine what reality must look like.
As a Midwest native and Chicago transplant, I can attest firsthand to just how lifelike Arroyo’s descriptions of North Clark Street and the factories along Lake Michigan in Northwest Indiana are. The snapshots of poetry peppered throughout the collection paint a portrait of urban immigrant life even more vividly than a photograph could.
But, of course, it’s not the place that is at the heart of these stories—it’s the people. While the stories contained in Western Avenue feature an ensemble cast of characters, they are all masterfully connected, and each story gives the reader a new perspective into the journey of a family.
Starting with the collection’s first story, “A Case of Consolation,” where aspiring chef Boogaloo makes what could be a love connection with a woman who disappears in an immigration raid, we are introduced to a family of individuals who are real and imperfect, desperately striving to balance the demands of their laborious lives with their relationships with each other.
Many of the stories in the collection center on Ernestito (or Ernesto as a young man, then Ernest as an adult). From “Acceptance,” where Ernestito struggles to balance an overworked mother and an alcoholic father, to “Western Avenue,” where a grown Ernest makes a connection with a Polish immigrant whom he works with and suffers alongside of in the factory, we watch him grow in awareness and strength, and it’s often through his eyes that we see the experience of his family, like in this passage:
My father. Here he is in this photograph, turned to the bone-white light of the moon falling through the window, now arranged alongside others, and then for a moment I make out the outline of my father’s working childhood: the sharp sweat in his eyes, the cutting burn of a rope along his wrist, his heart harvested by those ripening seasons of pineapple, mangoes, cane . . .
As a collection, Western Avenue is a filmic glimpse into the immigrant experience in the Midwest and in America through the eyes of those who have lived it and who continue to live it every day. From its language to its characters to its stories, this collection is an important look at the times in which we live.
Fiction by Pam Durban
Louisiana State University Press, October 2012
Paperback: 200pp; $23.00
Review by Trena Machado
The Tree of Forgetfulness, by Pam Durban, is the winner of the Lillian Smith Book Award. The novel is based on the true event of the lynching of three blacks in Aiken, South Carolina—a town in which forty-one lynchings had been investigated in the eight years prior to the one in 1926. The characters, fictional, are few: Howard and Libba Aimar and their son, daughter and unborn grandchild; Minnie and Zeke Settles, the Aimars’ black help; Aubrey Timmerman, the sheriff, who does the law his way; and Curtis N. R. Barrett, the New York reporter sent to find who really committed the murders, the three bodies so shot up and burned, they were a horror to view. The Confederate flag, bootleg whisky, the Klan, as well as good Southern manners and antebellum descendants whose heritage of “how it used to be” are all here, but the book is a series of levels moving downward from community to the individual, propelled by the interior dialogue of the characters, until we come to the real story.
In the beginning, there is “their-story-for-themselves” about the lynchings. Here is social glue. They are a mass, a crowd, this town. They vouch for one another. They have loyalty and honor, and they keep it in the family, this town. As one black lawyer writes:
When one or two men commit a murder they can as a rule be found and arrested. But when a hundred or more engage in this pastime, it seems impossible to discover a thing about it. . . .
One of the main characters, Howard Aimar, we find through the deathbed accounting of his life that he had lived not for himself, but for others, “Happy to oblige.” He knew the subtleties of knowing what he could and could not say in order to be in the group: “He’d paid, and he was glad to pay; ponying up was part of playing the game square.” And, his “first” story to himself about the lynching, his then unborn grandchild questioned as she sat with him while he was dying:
They were all men of good character, good conscience.
How had they gone to that place and stood in the dark?
How had that happened to any of them?
He tried to convince her of the story, asking her, “Why dredge up that awful time again?” And she answers: “Because it’s part of the silence that was handed down to me. Like the old gun that went to my brother, like our mother’s china came to me. I’m taking an inventory. I want to know what you left me.”
The blight of racism, maintaining all the attitudes that had imbued slavery . . . the Aimars, seemingly more humane than most, kept the leash tight on their help, Minnie and Zeke Settles. Zeke was told not to wear his hat cocked over his right eye, his style to attract the girls. Minnie was expected to brush Libba’s hair one hundred strokes at bed time, while resenting the forced intimacy. As the reporter Barrett came to realize, and returned to the north tainted:
To believe that it was your God-given right to expect a colored man to step off the sidewalk to let you pass. . . . To gauge whether all this was happening as it was supposed to . . . with an instrument so sensitive you were instantly aware when a word or gesture was missing from the sum . . . of respect you were owed. . . . It didn’t take much of this kind of living to make you greedy for more; it was as hard to give up as any other thing that made you a big man in your own eyes.
The characters representing the opposite moral poles of racism are Howard Aimar and Minnie Settles. Howard does come to be able to answer his unborn grandchild—in one word “what” he was and “what” he did. Minnie found the strength to leave the Aimars, unable to digest their silent complicity with the murders, risking her survival. Upon her death, Zeke remembers his mother:
She liked to go out and sit under the crepe myrtle tree in her yard if it was warm or inside by the fire when it got cold. “And do what?” he’d asked.
“Think my own thoughts.”
Minnie is the deepest root, what it means to live true, to live with dignity, and, by the end of her life, she was comfortable inside her own skin. When she had left, she took nothing that had been given to her by the Aimars, left all the cast-off clothing Libba had given her . . . nor did she take an ounce of sentimentality about the good old days.
Durban has given us a book that fully explores the social cohesion of a dominant group (any dominant group, any time and place), being in that murky world of not doing what you believe to be right and/or fooling yourself: “when what a man mistook what he’d meant to do for what he’d actually done”; “that closing the world out was the only way to make it go on being what you wanted it to be. . . .” Durban’s touch point, driving the story, are “the attitudes” found in the subjective fluidity of each character and how attitudes animate the political power of the dominant group, the powerlessness of the oppressed. It’s about implication and complicity, being an onlooker, a silent witness, of not speaking up, and fear not to conform, as Howard was told: “People are talking.” Here is history we all know taken down to the generic structure of power and executed at the level of a morality play. The real story is Howard confronting himself and knowing the truth without excuses and Minnie showing us what our real freedom is . . . to be comfortable with one’s own self. Both these resolutions are cathartic: how we want it to be—an accounting, a truth. The ending is unexpected, and we are delivered to the next generation.
Nonfiction by Anne Bogart
Theatre Communications Group, April 2012
Paperback: 360pp; $22.00
Review by Courtney McDermott
In the opening of an interview with director Elizabeth LeCompte, Anne Bogart asks where LeCompte and her company get the permission to create work so “unlike what you see in most theatre.” She responds: “it comes from having a space that’s mine, that’s ours, our very own. So when I start work, there’s not anything that’s saying to me that you have to do this for somebody else. If it doesn’t work, then I don’t owe anybody anything.” Conversations with Anne, a series of twenty-four interviews conducted by Bogart, the artistic director of the SITI Company and professor of the graduate directing program at Columbia University, could be approached with the same mindset—this is a book about having your own space to voice thoughts: thoughts on art, the theatre, human emotion, fragility, strength of character. These interviews, held within a ten-year period after the 9/11 attacks, are all connected in some way to the theatre and the world of performing arts, though this piece is not restricted to the theatre-loving reader.
Each interview begins with Bogart’s interactions with, knowledge of, or relationship to the person she is about to interview, followed by a brief biography and list of professional achievements. The interviewees are of the theatre and performing arts world, such as choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones, playwright Paula Vogel, and director Robert Woodruff. Often the anecdotes of how Bogart has come to know her interviewees are repeated in the opening of the interview itself, which is redundant and unnecessary. The anecdotes do help to exemplify Bogart’s connections to her guests (whether they have served as her mentors, been her peers in writing workshops, or if Bogart has worked with them as a director), and that’s what conversations do—connect people. Whether the author is relaying her embarrassing story of forming an “I Hate Richard Foreman Club” to introduce the director, or gushing about Meredith Monk’s influence on Bogart in the 1970s, Bogart’s personal stories and connections to these individuals make the interviews that much more intimate and poignant. These interviews are built from the need for connection first motivated by 9/11. Though the conversations people engaged in then discussed the human condition and larger issues of hate and fear, they mostly stemmed from this more crucial human need to connect and empathize, because we are, at our core, social creatures.
All interviews were held in a public forum, providing more truly open dialogue, where audience members occasionally ask questions and further the conversations. By choosing to read this book, we are more passively (but no less importantly) becoming a part of these conversations. Because interviews are public, at times audience members’ questions supplement Bogart’s. They are usually simpler (where do you get your ideas?) but no less important questions, about pleasure from work, literary influences, and the like. The point is that this is a continuing, rich dialogue that everyone is capable of partaking in, and one in which everyone should.
A reader doesn’t have to read the interviews in order, which is liberating and allows you to pick and choose the conversations you want to immerse yourself in. I found it best to read the pieces one at a time, so as not to have voices and ideas blend together. The book opens up with an interview with playwright and director Richard Foreman. He and Bogart begin with the theme of hate, such a prevalent topic in regard to 9/11; hate motivated the act of terror. Foreman takes this as a cue to discuss group human responses and the purpose of art. The answers in these interviews are never simple or straightforward, but full of poignant, wise observations. As Foreman reminds us: “The task of serious art is to make everybody really understand that they don’t belong to a group.” The individual should emerge from art, and it does so onstage through the physical presence of the actor’s body and the impact of the words. The impact of each interview’s words only emphasizes Foreman’s point throughout the rest of the book.
Often, I was expecting stage directions, or cues to the interviewee’s physical and facial responses to questions, since all members of this book are affiliated with the theatrical world in some way. Perhaps that would have been gimmicky, but the very depth of action and physicality of the stage that the various voices discuss seems to be missing in the structure of this stark black and white Q&A format. Director Peter Sellars mentions in his interview that gestures on stage are held high, because these movements make connections with the viewer, so I was hoping for some of these gestures to be described throughout the interviews.
Each interview brings a greater richness and complexity to the conversation about what theatre and art, movement and dialogue can do for our social fabric. Every interviewee’s attitude and personality shine through their responses and the particular questions Bogart has paired with them. For example, one of the most interesting and engaging interviews is with Sellars. His conversation with Bogart is full of passion and feeling, and she reminds us this is indicative of his personality. He mixes politics with passion, confirming that the political is indeed personal, and that art gives breath to the political—so art is always, therefore, personal.
Initially, the book appears to be directed toward a theatre audience, but then you recognize that it is about art more broadly, until finally you acknowledge that even that observation doesn’t fully encompass the scope of the work. Bogart’s book is about larger human connections, which art helps us to understand. It is about emotion (the love as well as the hate). In Foreman’s interview, he reminds us that when relating characters to America, we need to accept ambiguity. Some issues—and most characters, like people—are not on one side of the spectrum or the other, but somewhere in the foggy middle. It is this foggy middle that Bogart so skillfully navigates through her dialogues. Even though the book does not leave one with clear-cut answers, it allows for discussion. And it makes room for analysis and new ideas about the appreciation and necessity of art in these tumultuous and confusing, albeit inspiring, political and social times.
Fiction by Mark Brazaitis
University of Notre Dame Press, August 2012
Paperback: 248pp; $20.00
Review by Ryan Wilson
Thoughts of death, specifically suicide, dominate Mark Brazaitis’s The Incurables, winner of the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction. The collection masterfully adds a spoonful of eccentricity however, as the dour characters seem to shrug off their plight, almost as if their strange adventures were as pedestrian as their hometown of Sherman, Ohio.
Take Drew Drewshevsky, aka “Dickie DeLong,” a recognizable porn star who has returned to Sherman in the title story after a case of herpes has ruined his ability to “perform” professionally. After a half-hearted suicide attempt, most of the tale involves his equally half-hearted treatment at a psychiatric ward where he meets Erica, a woman with severe depression who copes with her condition by using sardonic humor. “How was your treatment?” Drew asks her. “Shocking,” Erica replies. Such exchanges feel like Brazaitis’s reply to what the world makes of us all; as absurdities and tragedies mount, we can either wonder quietly at them or make obvious jokes to cope.
In “The Bridge,” a dark masterpiece, Sherman’s new sheriff opts to wonder as residents keep jumping from the town’s major overpass. The number of jumpers soon becomes an epidemic, attracting local, state, and national media, which only contributes to more jumpers. Unable to cope with the problem himself, the sheriff eventually accepts help from a local sorority offering to monitor the bridge at all hours. Big mistake. Yet the tale isn’t just ironically amusing. As the body count rises, we, along with the sheriff, begin to fear for absolutely everyone, even the sheriff, confirming how fragile and susceptible all can be. When eventually the town bridge becomes a Mecca for national madness, Brazaitis dips into magical realism, making the bridge a war zone for the desperate and determined.
Full-bore magical realism occurs in “I Return,” the hilarious account of a husband haunting his family who has contentedly moved on without him. Rejected, he seeks out his high school girlfriend, not for solace, but quite simply “to connect with someone who had once loved [him].” Yet the complication comes when the ghost finally admits that he really wants to haunt her for much more personal reasons: “She was kinder than I was, more compassionate, and I resented the feelings of selfishness, even meanness, this engendered in me. So I had despised her for what I lacked.”
Comparable depression motivates the second-person narrator in “Classmates,” as a man gives false pretense to interview the widow of a former classmate. He’s desperate not to know what was wrong with his former friend, but how alike they were/are. When he meets with the widow, several honest admissions occur as to how one guards and ignores depression.
Yet, hope endures in “Afterwards,” which deals with friendship in the aftermath of a brutal killing. When a man massacres his family after having apocalyptic visions about their future, his childhood friend sacrifices everything after accepting that the actions were simply an act of insanity. He never thinks otherwise, and eventually rebuilds his own life in the process.
Brazaitis’s tales never offer closure in the traditional sense, but The Incurables does offer comfort, as the title suggests, in the unfinished business of enduring what’s left after life and death have stripped everything else way. These stories, much like their characters, will surely carry on.
Fiction by Dylan Hicks
Coffee House Press, April 2012
Paperback: 240pp; $16.00
Review by David Breithaupt
I always judge a book by its cover, and then I check the blurbs. I know, there’s a behind-the-scenes history of blurbing books, friends helping friends, paying back owed favors, etc. But still, the marketing world seems to have zeroed in on what and whom I like. When I saw a turntable on the cover of Dylan Hick’s debut novel, Boarded Windows—well, being of the turntable generation, I was intrigued. Then I checked out the blurbs (Sam Lipsyte, Dana Spiotta, Greil Marcus), and I was hooked. I went home and digested the book.
Boarded Windows is the story of a somewhat detached young man (perhaps on the far end of the spectrum?) who works in a record store and lives with his girlfriend. His life is simple and packs no punches until the appearance of Wade Salem, the narrator’s sort-of stepfather, maybe father, and definite game-changer. Wade disrupts the time continuum alpha-rhythms that are the narrator’s life. There is a suspicion that Wade might be sleeping with his (maybe) stepson’s girlfriend. Then there is the revelation that everything our hero thought he knew about his family history is not true. It is hard to gauge Wade’s affection for his understudy. He is like one of those guests who run up your phone bill and leave your gas tank on empty, but buys you a toaster or something you never wanted or asked for to make up for it. He’s that kind of guy, likable yet annoying. His come-and-go antics leave the narrator revising his own life’s history in a way that keeps the reader motivated. Dylan’s writing contains gems; you’ll want to read slowly so you don’t miss them.
Hicks is also an accomplished musician and has created a companion CD (also available on LP) titled Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene to accompany the book. Bolling Greene is a fictional character in the novel, a subterranean musician whose songs Hicks performs on the CD. Fictional songs made real, life imitating art. I read the book while listening to the CD and found the two complemented each other very well. Having finished the book, I find myself remembering certain scenes when I replay the CD. The combination makes for a unique reading experience. A free download code is available for all who purchase the book. Hicks has produced previous albums which you may want to investigate, one of which a fanzine described as a “combination of Richard Hell and Jim Croce.”
Did you notice I didn’t call Boarded Windows a coming-of-age novel? I hate that phrase but someone, somewhere is going to say it. I prefer to think of this novel as a “whispered intimacy,” a phrase I somewhat sampled from the Greil Marcus blurb. However you describe the book, I believe it is one you will enjoy. Read the words, listen to the music; you have good things waiting for you.
Poetry by Mathias Nelson
NYQ Books, August 2012
Paperback: 164pp; $16.95
Review by Aimee Nicole
When my copy of Dip My Pacifier in Whiskey arrived in the mail, I could not wait to get reading. I don’t tend to judge a book by its cover, but rather by its title. To me, it seemed like a play on the adult child, and it had been awhile since a title instantly hooked me. The book cover is black with red brush strokes, simple but still interesting. Unfortunately, I really struggled to find a solid sample of writing to lure readers to this book of poetry.
One poem that I enjoyed from the collection is “My Mother.” Ranging from two to four lines, each stanza acts as a description of the narrator’s mother. Though each stanza stands alone, they add to each other, building our image of this woman:
makeup smeared telephone
in the vents.
I thought that most of the descriptions were interesting and that it was a fresh approach to a descriptive poem. There are no other characters, no other distractions. I enjoyed getting to know the mother in this poem. No person or character is perfect, but their imperfections are what make them unique and individual.
However, I struggled with making sense out of the rest of the collection. A lot of passages were condescending to both family and strangers. There are great writers out there whose abrasiveness and cockiness stun the reader and manage to win them over (for example, Dave Eggers); however, Nelson failed to hit that mark for me. In his poem “Thin Sliced, Moist Ham,” the descriptions and events didn’t read as reliable. I did not trust the lines; I felt like they were trying to deceive me, trick me. The poem details the narrator’s interactions with a homeless person, or “bum” as Nelson writes. The narrator admits that he gives money to this man when he goes drinking in the city. They are shown outside of a sandwich shop, waiting for scraps. The homeless person tells the narrator not to look at the bite marks because he will imagine the “fat fingers, dirty nails, bad breath, yellow teeth.” It doesn’t seem entirely realistic to me that someone who is literally starving would be concerned with the “fat fingers” of the person who had originally purchased the sandwich. The homeless person tells the narrator to instead
picture a beautiful blonde college girl,
tongue pink as her innards,
lips juicy as the tomato, then
it’s not so bad
being a bum it’s beautiful!
Being a bum is not beautiful. If the writer was trying to create a play on beauty, it did not succeed for me. If you are going to poke fun at something as serious as being homeless, you need to commit 100% and make it so effective that the reader cannot fault you for being insensitive. The description of a tongue being pink like someone’s innards is awkward and takes away from the image of beauty. The last two lines ending in an exclamation point seemed kind of ludicrous. I cannot think of one instance or hypothetical situation where being homeless is beautiful.
Several themes ran through the book during my reading. The writer clearly struggles with his identity in the family and how his writing will affect his relationships after it is published; he frequently addressed this concern in his poetry. The book read like an autobiography, but it wasn’t about someone well-known or unique. The narrator is a middle-aged boy/man who lives with his parents and has yet to find his place in the world. His brother went through a divorce and has a son with autism—the reader cannot forget this fact as the writer reminds us every single time the son is brought up. I can’t even remember his name because with every mention, the reader is reminded, writer’s brother’s son = autism. As a reader, this seems like an interesting and small detail; I wanted to get to know this family. I wanted to get to know his brother outside of his broken marriage and pain, and I wanted to get to know his son outside of his diagnosis. Writing a book of poems about your family is such an interesting concept, as so much poetry is autobiographical about the writer, specifically. But including all these other people would have been very interesting, had I gotten to know them better.
Fiction by Ladislav Klíma
Translated from the Czech by Marek Tomin
Twisted Spoon Press, November 2011
Hardcover: 128pp; $15.80
Review by Holly Zemsta
The turbulent life of Czech writer Ladislav Klíma is echoed in one of his works of fiction, Glorious Nemesis. Born in 1878 in Bohemia (today the Czech Republic), Klíma was expelled from school in 1895 after ostensibly insulting the ruling Hapsburgs. From then on, he rejected most aspects of a traditional life, shunning regular employment to live off of inheritance money and publishing royalties. Before he died of tuberculosis in 1928, he destroyed a reputed 90% of his own manuscripts. A great deal of what he wrote was published posthumously.
Philosophically, Klíma adhered to the precept of subjective idealism, the idea that any external reality is dependent upon the mind of the person apprehending it. Klíma took this idea further to state that man is the creator of his own divinity, an idea that he referred to as “deoessence.” Though influenced by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others, Klíma rejected all cultural and moral norms and schools of thought.
These philosophies result in a novella characterized by chaos and drama. Set in the Dolomite Alps of the Tyrol (northern Italy), Glorious Nemesis focuses on Sider, a 28-year-old whose worldview and experience echo Klíma’s. Out hiking one day, Sider runs into two women, dressed in blue and red, respectively. He does not speak to the women, but within a week he has a disturbing encounter with them at the top of Stag’s Head, the mountain at the edge of town. There, the woman in red flees down the mountain in a fright, urging him to come after her, but he climbs further to find the woman in blue. She taunts him, apparently wanting him to leap to his death in a crevasse. Sider flees and leaves the town, not returning for another twelve years; he then picks up the trail of the two women and finds himself entangled in their lives again.
Though the narrative is straightforward, the reader is kept guessing right along with Sider. Is the woman in red, Errata, correct when she characterizes the other woman, Orea, as a jealous phantom? Is Orea the “ghost of Stag’s Head”? What happened at the foreboding black cottage under a hanging rock, as well as at its doppelgänger in another town he visits—and why does the 137-year-old woman who lives in (one version of) the house call him a murderer?
The book resolves these questions with an ending that is surprisingly satisfactory, given the slightly surreal nature of the events throughout. But to reach this explanation, the reader will have to be comfortable with Klíma’s style, which resembles that of Edgar Allen Poe or Poe’s Gothic contemporaries: the narrator’s emotions run continually high, as if every moment contains an epiphany of some sort, and the exclamation point key on the author’s typewriter no doubt took a beating. For example, when the narrator finds a portrait of Orea in his billfold (ellipses in the quotes below are the author’s):
I still have it! — And having it means I’m richer than all the kings in the world! Oh, with this picture and this handwriting I’ll be happy forever! . . . She lives! And She loves me . . . All the horrid strangeness of this my tale of romance makes it all the more beautiful and beguiling. Who can boast of such a fantastical, poetic Romance as mine?
The giddy nature of his feelings is more striking by his description of Orea just a few pages before: “This was not the sweet face of a lover, but the transcendentally terrible visage of a dragon. And almost every night She visited his dreams, hideous, stifling, chaotically maniacal dreams, a diabolical gorgon forever sharing his bed.” This back-and-forth continues, highlighting the feeling of dread that pervades the narrative.
Though the tone and style are similar to Poe, Klíma’s ultimate goal seems to be conveying his philosophical concepts. At times, his characters’ thoughts are simply direct expressions of these beliefs, as when Sider contemplates death:
“To die, to die . . .” he whispered to himself after a moment. “How beautiful and heroic . . . and how repulsive and trivial and low it is to live . . . Every measly insect is alive. To have the power by Divine Free Will to die at any time in glory—that is the greatest gift of the gods to humanity.”
As he says this, a voice nearby urges him to “Be God!” Here we have Klíma’s deoessence—he who takes control of his actual being, his death, forms his own divinity. Or, as the author writes, “Whoever is capable of Will is capable of every act and all things.”
These sometimes haphazard musings elevate the book beyond a simple Gothic tale, and understanding Klíma’s philosophical leanings does offer a more layered reading of the text. Conversely, however, it’s a treat to have concepts like these wrapped in such an entertaining package. The book, like most translations, does have an occasional hiccup in terms of phrasing (one characters sputters, “you—you unsavoury person!”), but for the most part, Marek Tomin deftly translates the tone and mood of the novella as well as its language. Between the somewhat mystical narrative itself and the ideological doctrine underlying it, Glorious Nemesis lends itself to multiple readings—luckily, an enjoyable proposition.