NewPages Book Reviews
September 2, 2009
Saint John of the Five Boroughs
Novel by Edward Falco
Unbridled Books, October 2009
Paperback: 432pp; $16.95
Review by Laura Pryor
Falco begins this novel by introducing us, one by one, to the characters: Avery, a rebellious art student at Penn State, Lindsey and Hank, Avery’s aunt and uncle, and Kate, Avery’s widowed mother who is having an affair with Hank, her brother-in-law. The main story involves Avery and Grant, a thirty-something former performance artist from New York she meets at a campus party. Avery runs away to New York with the mysterious Grant after knowing him for less than 24 hours. In New York, Avery is thrown into the heart of the avant-garde art scene; Grant’s friends include a famous artist, a successful TV writer and a restaurateur. Grant himself had early success as a writer, but after he killed a man in self-defense while trucking stolen goods across state lines for his shady uncle Billy, he stopped writing. Now Grant’s only source of income is further work for Billy, who keeps him on the fringes of his criminal enterprises out of respect for his brother, Grant’s father.
The theme of violence is a common thread throughout the story: Grant’s father was abusive, Grant and Avery’s first sexual encounter borders on rape, Lindsey’s brother is killed in Iraq, and Grant is haunted by his memories of killing the man on the highway. Falco explores the idea that we all harbor the capacity for violence, even murder, and the line between murderer and ordinary guy is a finer one than we might imagine. The novel ends on a hopeful note, however, implying that even though we have the capacity for violence, we can still choose to turn away from it.
The strength of Falco’s writing is his pacing and plot; at the risk of sounding cliché, the book truly is hard to put down. Avery and Grant are interesting characters, if not always likeable, and Falco skillfully avoids lulls in the action. The subplots involving Hank’s affair with Kate and the death of Lindsey’s brother are less compelling (the affair almost has a soap-opera quality to it), but they still keep you reading.
Falco’s style is fairly straightforward; his occasional attempts at lyricism sometimes hit, sometimes miss. Oddly worded sentences sometimes stop the flow of reading; in one scene where Lindsey is musing on how losing loved ones affects her own identity, Falco writes, “The her that she was in the mind of her father through which she saw and knew herself was gone. . . The she she was in her mother’s eyes long gone. What was left was who she was to Hank and Keith, and the problem was that that her wasn’t her, not really.” The idea here is insightful, but the wording seems designed to trip up the reader.
Overall, Falco’s novel is a fast-paced read that, with its dramatic, violent climax, is easy to imagine as a movie. If you’re looking for a lyrical, poetic tour de force, you’re in the wrong place. But if you’re up for a good, suspenseful read that’ll keep you turning pages, Falco delivers.
Other Resort Cities
Stories by Tod Goldberg
OV Books, October 2009
Paperback: 232pp; $16.95
Review by J.R. Angelella
In his second collection of short fiction, Tod Goldberg delivers ten seductive stories that target the traumatic reality of failed dreams and the struggle to make amends with the past. Each kinetic story pulses and pops with authenticity. Goldberg has not a word misplaced, often times weaving tragedy and beauty with the result of heartbreaking height, similar in style to Mark Richard or Thom Jones. His characters find themselves trapped, whether literally or figuratively – lost in a world where they cannot connect with the projected image of themselves or attain the goal of a satisfied life. In one of the most moving and powerful stories “Walls,” Goldberg navigates the fractured childhood of an unspecified number of siblings, using We as the narrator, dissecting their Mother’s sexual relationships to ultimate and devastating effects.
Humor plays a big part in Goldberg’s prose too, most effectively in “Mitzvah,” a Distinguished Story in the new Best American Mystery Stories collection, where Las Vegas mobster Sal Cuperine poses as Rabbi David Cohen, man of the cloth and a man of the gun. Goldberg plays well with juxtaposition, pitting his fractured characters against impossible reality, such as in “Living Room,” where a man avoids dealing with the loss of his family by redesigning the living room of his suburban cul-de-sac home to not only look like a Starbucks, but actually be a Starbucks, stocking it with all the authentic amenities – coffee and food, even an a full-time employee; or in “Will” where a prodigal son, in order to receive his inheritance, must set out to meet his dead father’s demands of having his ashes spread along the first base line of the Seattle Kingdom, which was demolished years ago.
What are the most impressive, and certainly an indication of a new creative direction for Goldberg, are the stories “Palms Spring” and the title story “Other Resort Cities.” In these, we meet Tania, a Las Vegas cocktail waitress, painfully reliving and retelling the story of adopting a Russian child, Natalya, as a means to drastically create a new life for herself. What makes these two stories tent poles of the collection is that they are the first time we see Goldberg explore a single female point-of-view. The storytelling and pacing of these is firmly the work of a mature writer breaking into new and uncharted territory. Goldberg’s love for Tania is so palpable that she nearly walks off the page to take our drink order.
Other Resort Cities is home to a tragic population: children and police, drug dealers and teachers, baristas and lawyers, rabbis and gangsters, fuck-ups and failures. Goldberg continues his examination of the human condition, detailing the struggle between a corporeal existence versus an ethereal wane, with each character asking the questions: is this really my reality or have I simply dreamed the whole damn thing? Sadly, though, in “Walls” Goldberg gives us the answer – “there isn’t a way for memory to freeze the body like it freezes trauma in place.”
One of These Things
Is Not Like the Others
Stories by Stephanie Johnson
Keyhole Press, July 2009
Paperback: 170pp; $13.95
Review by John Madera
“I try to name the thing we never missed until it was lost, all the things that never stood a chance in this beautiful world.” So ends “My Neighbor Doesn’t Remember Everything She Forgets” from Stephanie Johnson’s debut One of These Things Is Not Like the Others, and it may well serve as a capsule of its concerns: to carefully observe life’s vicissitudes, to spotlight minutiae, to bear witness. The book is filled with internal squalls and domestic squabbles. In story after story, scene after scene, there is Johnson’s unwavering focus, and you can almost see her sharpening her senses.
These are abandoned characters, who often turn the radio dial for some solace, some escape. We find one “singing along with country heartbreak songs” needing “ten more years of haphazardly packed baggage to know he was too afraid of loneliness to ever go for good,” doing whatever he or she can to just hold on. They are caught in between like the “other woman” who doesn’t “know which one of [them] has fallen in the water, which one of [them] is struggling to shore.” In “My Cousin Billy Is Dismantled,” Billy returns from Vietnam “disguised in darkness. Home in one piece but no longer at home anywhere.” Billy avoids his family and they give him the space he needs while they hope for some restoration. Rhoda, a friend, arriving “like an uninvited Godsend,” takes apart his truck’s engine until he rushes outside. Reading this story, I was reminded of Ben Harper’s song “Keep It Together (So I Can Fall Apart)” especially reading how Billy handed Rhoda “fallen pieces, the broken things he desperately needed her to put back together.” This climactic moment is almost literally wrenching.
One of Johnson’s most powerful stories is “Thesmophoria.” As one of the collection’s longer stories it makes me wonder what Johnson would do in a novel. Here she builds a whole world filled with physicality, sensual detail, and emotional grit. Besides the title (referring to the festival honoring the goddesses Demeter and Persephone), the story has other Greek references including a character’s name, “Lex,” meaning word, law, and reading, as well as various myths like Pandora’s Box, and the narrator, once she’s lost Lex—her word, as it were—finds solace in words, and especially in reading “Greek Philosophy and Classical Mythology.” Other references strikingly abound, all without distracting the reader, or disturbing the story’s onward flow.
It begins with Lex questioning “whether the world continued once his eyes closed,” asking the narrator to imagine “‘you’re like a TV. When I close my eyes, it’s like pushing the power button. Your programming might still be there, but it doesn’t really exist unless I’m watching it.” It’s a variation of the familiar question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?” This theme of immateriality is carried throughout the story as Lex, who, after an initial infatuation, sees “through the woman he invented . . . and never seemed to like who these woman were when they were out of his sight.” Later, discovering that Lex is leaving for good, the narrator feels (echoing this out of sight, out of mind idea) “like a television with a blown picture tube.” And when he returns, she “felt as if [she] were everywhere and nowhere, as though with a sudden pop and fizz a picture had filled a dark television screen.” Meditating on this idea once again, she “believed there was a world outside what [she’d] seen because Lex was now out of sight, yet still existing someplace I couldn’t touch because I hadn’t been there.”
But “Thesmophoria” isn’t merely a vehicle for philosophical inquiry but an emotionally moving story with stunning passages like this one:
Many times, I would lie in bed at night and think about where Lex had gone. I’d imagine the frame of his bones, each one a line on a map taking him closer towards what he was looking for and farther away from the land I knew instinctively and never needed a map to guide me through. I imagined it would have been the same way with Lex. Had we been lovers, I would have instinctively known his twists and turns and the little bumps of his spine, small foothills off the flat lands of his flesh. At that time, I believed a person could walk forever on those railroad tie bumps, a cross-country journey from the base of his neck to the small of his back, and just like America, no matter how much you traveled, you could never see all there was to see.
Later, she realizes that “heartbreak could be written across one’s face like footprints in fresh snow” and then “how disappointment could be telegraphed through wrinkled lines on a face.” And while a woman in “Dirty Laundromat” “memorized” her mother’s unpainted face: “[w]rinkles and dots, a map leading nowhere,” these twenty-one stories lead to a number of somewheres; they are a kind of cartography of human frailty, of abandonment and duplicity, of yearning and desperation, of hope and joy. Like the narrator in “Thesmophoria,” these stories are “built of hard work and wisdom that comes from seeing things as they are and seeing things how they could be if everything turned out all right.” Open this book and find a guide for unforgettable journeys.
Van Gogh in Poems
Poetry by Carol Dine
The Bitter Oleander Press, July 2009
Paperback: 103pp; $21.00
Review by Cynthia Reeser
In the introduction to her most recent book of poetry, Van Gogh in Poems, Carol Dine writes of the research she undertook to pen her artist-inspired poems. Her book, she writes, led her to Amsterdam three times, where she visited the Van Gogh Museum to study the artist's original work – up close. Dine describes how she was allowed to sit in a room while an attendant brought her requested works on paper. She studied them for inspiration, and deemed them holy. Her viewing of the artist's sketchbook brought her to tears. Van Gogh in Poems contains 18 plates of the artist's works on paper.
Writing these poems, Dine attempts a translation in words of a visual inspiration. Having written essays and poetry on other artists – Mary Cassatt and Frida Kahlo among them – the poet notes that her "relationship to Van Gogh was different from the beginning." In a sort of attempt at poetic channeling, she images that she is writing in the voice of the artist. The poems that result are somehow inspired by the artist's letters, sometimes by his art. Dine divides the resulting poetry into subject headings: Family, Religion, Love, Descent, and Nature.
The poems of "Family" attempt to place Van Gogh within his own family. His relationship with his patron brother surfaces most often. In "The Vicarage Garden," Dine writes,
Named for Mother's
I draw a nest
in the wound of the bark.
My pen blackens the pollard roots.
Younger brother, Theo,
pays for the ink.
Often, Dine places Van Gogh as a subject of painted elements that represent his family; "Avenue of Poplars at Sunset" contains an epigraph presumably from one of the artist's letters to his brother: "Dear Theo: You think that when the shadows are dark, ay, black, it is all wrong." The artist's words become these from Dine at the end of the poem:
Consider this: the sunset cannot be beautiful
without the hooded figure that wrestles it,
the figure darker than itself,
darker than the night.
Van Gogh's world is often dark, often spare. Poems like "Study of a Cottage" and others from "Family," "The Prisoners' Round" from "Religion," and "Stooks and a Mill" from "Nature" are sparse; but they are spare like the artist's life must have been. Dine communicates her interpretation of Van Gogh's experience in her words, which are image-heavy and often evocative of emotion without ever falling into the trap of being heavy-handed, which is a certain danger a lesser poet may have fallen prey to writing in a subject such as this.
Dine evokes the artist in images, sometimes through his own words, sometimes through an interpretation of his words, and often through his paintings and drawings. The poet uses color often and with purpose. In "The Prisoners' Round," it is green and blue; in "Portrait of Eugene Boch," it is velvet blue and pink; sometimes, as with "Landscape with Couple Walking and Crescent Moon" from "Love," the colors are menacing, sinister, reflecting, perhaps, Van Gogh's own loneliness and lost chances at finding a partner. This section is prefaced with the artist's own words; he writes, "As for ever having a wife of my own, I have no great faith in that. I am too old to go back on my steps. That desire has left me, though the mental suffering from it still remains." In "Landscape with Couple...," Dine's use of color reflects Van Gogh's suffering and loss of romantic hope:
At first there was only the cold purple mountain,
high above it, a sinister yellow moon uncurling.
The trees came next, low and billowed like clouds.
I took a step back. Then I painted myself into the landscape,
my pants, my smock, violet as the mountain.
I was cold and lonely. Loneliness does not have form.
Art, through color, is a language. In "The Bedroom" from "Descent," the artist's dreams are a certain color: vermilion. "Two Cut Sunflowers" is written in homage to the artist's suicide, and his death is the green and yellow of sunflowers.
Dine's poetry constitutes a verdant transliteration of the life and work of a vibrant, tortured artist whose decade-long progress from self-taught artist to brilliant, broken genius marks a creative flowering nearly as rapid and intense as that of John Keats, who also died a very untimely death. Dine's work is remarkable in that it evokes what we know today as some of the most pivotal undercurrents, emotions, and events of the artist's life. She often uses the first person "I" to speak for Van Gogh, and manages to stay well above any sort of contrived effects. Her language is spare, and it is just enough to speak to, and for, the artist's life and heart.
After the Honeymoon
Poetry by Nathan Graziano
sunnyoutside, September 2009
Paperback: 96pp; $15.00
Review by Joseph P. Wood
The characters that populate Nathan Graziano’s new book of poetry, After the Honeymoon, remind me of my neighbors and friends growing up in working class Philadelphia: many of these folks had rough, troubled lives, and more often than not happiness was squelched by substance abuse, poverty, poor education, and unemployment. It was the rare exception that someone had the self-reflection and self-discipline to ascend the neighborhood’s social pitfalls. While Graziano’s book could be set in almost any working poor urban area in our country, its depictions of hard-scrabbled living – and the desire to rise above it – is utterly familiar to my autobiography and is refreshing to see in contemporary poetry.
Most of the poems are located within chaotic and troubled existences – lives of alienation, alcoholism and recovery, spousal violence, etc. I have a large amount of admiration for Graziano and his speakers who are determined to find meaning and beauty in the many faces of social dysfunction. However, the predominate voice in the book is one of hindsight, and since the voice has already overcome his demons and has found an implied remedy, the poems lose any sense of urgency and instead are replaced by a conventional wisdom. The poet often outright moralizes to the reader, as if, now in the present, a lesson on human frailty is needed. This framework ostensibly renders the reader passive, like a new member of AA listening to the wiser leader. A prime example resides in the sad, quiet narrative poem of post-Christmas, “The Onset of Dark”:
The Christmas tree is bagged in plastic,
a corpse tossed beside the curb,
its stiff needles splayed in dirt and snow.
The eggnog in the fridge has spoiled
beside six headless gingerbread men,
one pardoned by the dog on New Year’s Day.
I could walk to the liquor store
with my eyes closed, sniffing out patches
of black ice that threaten to snap my neck.
The poem, by all accounts, is put together well. There’s an attention to line and music. The narrative is economical and in the second stanza, there’s good humor. Moreover, the third stanza sets up the revelation through the natural image of winter –a return to the opening three lines. In terms of craft, this poem works. However, this poem – like so many in the book – rarely illustrate any struggle and ambiguity, rarely bares a soul. Given that this kind of poem dominates the book, one begins to feel bored by all the previously arrived self-realizations.
And while the poems do pay an assiduous attention to stanzaic movement and rhetorical and narrative arcs, I often thought that the language and syntax came up flat on occasion – particularly in those flash fiction/prose poems such as “Road Side Ballet” or “Sweet Dreams.” Specifically, many of the poems in the manuscript – lineated or otherwise – have a strong reliance on subject verb prepositional chain syntactical constructions, and at times, I thought that this brought a flabbiness to the writing, such as the last stanza/paragraph of “Percocets”:
Then R reaches in his pocket and pulls out a fistful of Percocets. The three men grin. And despite the fact that they’ve downed many beers and now have families who love them, as husbands and fathers, they pop the pills in their mouths. Because they used to be immortal, don’t forget that. And tell it to the paramedics when they arrive for the man who stopped breathing.
In the desire to dramatically drive home the point, Graziano relies on numerous prepositional and conjunctive phrases: At some point, not only is this tic overly-conscious, but there’s simply no musicality or economy, a staple of resonant poetry. This scene could be leaner, less reliant on conditional limiters, and in excision the scene would be more open and the language would truly sing.
When I think of writers who’re writing about gritty living – Carver or Denis Johnson come immediately to mind – they often show men and women still struggling in some way – not so much with substances or jobs but who they are as people. I feel like the narrative of struggle exists in the poems, but often there isn’t the emotional heft or internal contradiction that infuses the narrator of Jesus Son, for instance. Rather, the speaker maintains a controlled distance time and again, and at some point, I want something raw and unrestrained to come boiling over. Otherwise, the book reads like a speech using the conventions of poetry, as opposed to the difficult and complicated struggles of hard living.
Beats at Naropa: An Anthology
Edited by Anne Waldman, Laura Wright
Coffee House Press, June 2009
Paperback: 234pp; $15.95
Review by Vince Corvaia
In a 1948 conversation with John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac said, “Ah, this is nothing but a beat generation.” The phrase, like Gertrude Stein’s “lost generation,” soon became emblematic of its time, though not all of its adherents approve of the label (Diane di Prima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gary Snyder are just three of its detractors). What most of the “Beats” found in Beats at Naropa have in common is their connection with Kerouac himself. The book contains mostly transcripts of speeches and conversations held at what is now called Naropa University but what was originally known as the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado. It’s a compulsively readable volume, full of facts and opinions.
We learn from Michael McClure, for instance, that “the evening . . . sometimes called the first reading of the Beat Generation” took place in San Francisco on October 7, 1955. It was the night Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl.”
Ginsberg himself, in a talk given April 19, 1991, details the importance of punctuation in poetry (which belies the myth that Beat poems were spontaneous to the point of recklessness): “Consciousness of punctuation is one of the bardic attributes, because consciousness of punctuation is consciousness of breath, and consciousness of breath is the substrate of poetry.”
A sampling of the chapter headings gives us an idea of the range of topics found here: “Women and the Beats,” “Kerouac, Catholicism, Buddhism,” “Allen Ginsburg’s Language Games: A Wittgensteinian Perspective,” “Bob Kaufman: Beat, Surreal, Buddhist, and Black,” and “You Can’t Win: An Interview with William Burroughs.”
One of the most instructive chapters is a talk by Diane di Prima on getting one’s work into circulation, called “By Any Means Necessary.” She says that “it’s really important to think about just using whatever you’ve got, whatever comes to hand, to get your work out.” It’s a good lecture that should be read by all aspiring creative writers.
Perhaps the most eclectic entry is “‘Frightened Chrysanthemums’: Poets’ Colloquium.” The participants, including Ginsberg, Burroughs, W.S. Merwin, and Anne Waldman, cover everything from poetry to astral projection to meditation to enlightenment. Oh, and typewriters.
If you have any interest at all in the Beat movement and its participants, Beats at Naropa is an invaluable keepsake.
Life Goes to the Movies
Novel by Peter Selgin
Dzanc Books, May 2009
Paperback: 252; $16.95
Review by Elizabeth Townsend
Life Goes to the Movies tells of the uncanny friendship of two men growing up in the 1970s. Both men struggle to define who they are in a world where they don’t seem to fit in. Nigel DePoli, son of Italian immigrants, wants desperately to be someone with a sense of belonging. Dwaine Fitzgibbon is looking for a way to be separate from society while still intermingling enough to show others the parts of life that they don't normally see. Their bond begins in a mutual love of movies and only grows stronger as they start making short films that show “true life” rather than losing “themselves in some totally made up bullshit that has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with real life.” However, things change as Dwaine becomes more passionate about his movies and Nigel desires more and more the ‘normal’ life that Dwaine diverted him from. The reader will find themselves laughing at some of Dwaine’s outrageous ideas and rooting for the friends when things seem to be at their lowest point. An enjoyable read from the beginning, Selgin grabs the reader’s interest and drags them along for all of Nigel and Dwaine’s fascinating adventures in life and film.
Rupert: A Confession
Novel by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer
Translated from the Dutch by Michelle Hutchison
Open Letter Press, June 2009
Hardcover: 131pp; $14.95
Review by Joseph Wood
Even for a novella (though the publishers call it a novel) of slightly over one hundred and thirty pages, there is not a lot of plot movement in Rupert: A Confession. The story is basic: the protagonist, Rupert, gives a three-art confession to a jury about a crime he was alleged to commit. In the process, we discover he has a vast array of pornography meticulously cataloged, has been thrown out of massage parlor for ejaculating on the proprietor, and conceives of his own life as either a stage production or an offspring of Japanese warriors. Otherwise, the book centers on the rise and fall of his idealized girlfriend Mira, who at turns is taciturn, cranky, or sexually insatiable.
However, the novel is written in first person subjective (a series of long, rambling speeches), and Rupert can be described as a self-loving, socially-maladjusted, borderline predator with a talent for talking – however intellectually masterful/incoherent his speeches might be. A reader might conclude that the author, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, is creating a Dutch variation of Lolita, but Nobokov’s novel allowed for a greater depth of characters beyond the narrator’s own eyes. Rather, I think Rupert has more in common with the nearly forgotten Frederick Exley masterpiece A Fan’s Notes who sported a protagonist at once so immensely brilliant and so out of touch with any surface reality. His world was funny, violent, disturbed, and completely believable; it was, however, not the planet most human beings inhabit.
Thus, in Rupert’s Netherlands, we see the cafes, squares, and houses one might actually find in the country. However, Rupert’s descriptions and ruminations on their social functions and their philosophical and emotional import are outright strange. Rupert is a mix of high philosophy and aesthetics as well as sex-obsessed pervert Romantic. Thus we get the narrator giving us his architectural treatise about squares in the world:
Of course, it is of great importance that the square is located in the right place in the city…The square should be the mouth in which all rivers lead. The streams of walking, working, and window-shopping people must all end up there…there have to be shopping streets nearby, small and big cafes, museums and churches, side streets and alleyways, cheap and expensive restaurants, cinema and theaters.
Versus this rendering of place, the venerable and often mentioned “Sexyland”:
As you know, that’s where, for a modest fee, you can get a look at a naked girl for five minutes. You go down a steep, dark staircase, then you’re in the basement, where it’s warm and damp and the deforming acoustics transform hard dance music into hellish, other-worldly sounds.
In the beginnings of the novel, we see Rupert able to keep these two distinct worlds separate, but as his story unravels (and it is a story of his unraveling), these worlds become confused, conflated, and ultimately base. To my mind, this progression was the most fascinating part of the manuscript: to observe the disintegration of sanity, which often puts things nicely in compartments.
Of course, the unraveling parallels the story of Mira – a Mira of Rupert’s romanticizing, objectifying, and sexualizing – an unattainable Mira due to Rupert’s inability to achieve erection. For the life of me, I couldn’t tell you who Mira is beyond the OCD mind of Rupert, and this grew tiring. Even in Exley’s novel, there are moments where the writer places the character directly within the line of fire of other characters – even if for a glimpse – and readers are able to step outside the dominant voice of the narrator and see what might be a moment of truth. One would assume that moment would come when Mira describes the moment she cheated on Rupert with his friend, but instead, it reads like badly scripted porn.
Ultimately, Rupert melts down and brings us to his crime – or his version of it – and since it is the book’s climax, I will only say there are two crimes – one of Rupert’s imagination and one which the prosecution presents. Both are meant to be highly disturbing, and yet, by the end of the book, these things feel rather expected. That doesn’t take away from their grotesque natures, but its grotesqueness that offers no new insights into Rupert, no way to glean a sense of his humanity.
I suppose one could argue that the situation that grounds the story – a defendant who has not one scintilla on how to sway a jury – should make the character a sympathetic figure, a term not meant to be confused with likeable. But neither happens here. Rupert ends as Rupert begins: as a spectator to his own dysfunction and to the circumstances of normal life – only at the end, Rupert can not compartmentalize. In this way, the book is truly a chronicle of Rupert more than a story that could intersect a reader emotionally and even intellectually. Readers are meant to observe passively – to be an audience for the narrator – and by the end, the audience, like Rupert, is unchanged if not just a little bit cheapened.