I’ve admitted on several different occasions, perhaps even during previous reviews, that I absolutely judge books by their covers. Sure, maybe this is partially because of laziness, but also I believe a journal’s aesthetic comes through not just in its material, but also in its design. It’s not a strategy I swear by, but very often a journal’s look can be telling of the type of material inside.
I had never heard of The Louisville Review and I only vaguely knew of the Spalding University MFA program, so when I first got my hands on my review copy, my initial judgments were based by the cover. It’s nice enough: warm colors, a pleasant font, a framed photograph of water falling from a fountain in autumn. But it’s certainly no indication of the bold and occasionally risky writing inside.
The Louisville Review features poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and drama, as well as a section titled “The Children’s Corner,” which consists of poetry and prose by writers ranging in age from middle schoolers to college freshmen.
The writing I found most bold in this issue is a piece of fiction, Rick DeMarinis’s “Uncle Gamiel.” The story wastes no time in presenting a conflict. In the very first sentence, a male sibling declares Nikki, his fifteen-year-old sister, “the athlete in the family” with “a quick temper,” and it only takes a few paragraphs to see that Uncle Gamiel is the worst kind of uncle—a man who thinks himself “devilishly charming” but is, quite frankly, a bit of a creep. It is implied that Uncle Gamiel has made inappropriately sexual remarks and actions toward his niece in the past.
Uncle Gamiel dives between Nikki’s legs in the pool repeatedly, making what is clearly unwanted physical contact with his niece in his attempt to tease her. After repeatedly warning him to stop, Nikki takes action by locking her uncle’s neck between her thighs “like a nut in a vise.” In any other story, Nikki would have stopped when her uncle began pleading for mercy. A lesson would have been learned, a family dynamic complicated. But instead, the high school water polo and soccer player only tightens her grip until the man stops struggling. Even more shocking, Nikki never faces consequences for her murder: the policeman who comes to the house senses a bit of the family dynamic at play and decides not to investigate the matter any further. The final consensus seems to be that the dirty old man got what he deserved. This unabashed declaration, along with many other elements, makes the story extremely risky, but somehow DeMarinis pulls it off.
The other prose piece that caught my interest was Diane Aprile’s “The Water-Bearer,” a creative nonfiction that is also driven by the implication of sexual abuse. In her essay, Aprile tells the story of her aunt, filtered through segments with titles like “What they told me about her” and “What I notice about her” and “What I heard happened.” The woman is characterized by many neuroses spurring not only from the suggested incident of sexual abuse at a young age, but also by a series of accidents, tragedies, and medical complications, including a lobotomy.
It’s a compelling story well told, but perhaps my favorite part of the piece is when Aprile acknowledges how important it was for her to tell the story in the medium of creative nonfiction as opposed to fiction. Aprile calls the narrative “[t]oo full of grace and amazement to pass for truth in fiction,” and indeed, the story does seem almost too rich for fiction. It’s a strength of the piece that it’s so well suited to its form.
There is, of course, strong work in all genres in this issue. Of particular interest to me was Kristie Kachler’s “sing a happy citizen,” a poem so joyful that it should be sickening, but is instead infectious and sweet. The speaker unabashedly gushes, “whatever i do i do it dotingly / i sit and love to sit / i walk and love to walk,” developing in simple and efficient language the joys of everyday life.
There is plenty of work in The Louisville Review that is quiet and traditional and refined, an aesthetic befitting its overall look, but my fellow cover-judgers should beware: the material inside is anything but predictable.