HTMLGIANT / Dennis James Sweeney

Painted Cities by Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski

painted-citiesPainted Cities
by Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski
McSweeney’s, March 2014
180 pages / $24  Buy from Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Painted Cities is the kind of book that gives me hope. This isn’t the best thing I can say; the best books I read take away my hope altogether, blow me away so thoroughly that I can’t imagine ever writing anything that can even appear in the same medium as them. The best books crush me, leave me in awe.

But hope is not the worst thing I can say, either. The stories in Painted Cities are loose and optimistic. As promised by the sticker plastered to the back of the book, they chart a (usually) first-person narrator’s coming of age in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, where illicit trysts are as likely to happen in the adjacent apartment as shootings are to take place just down the street. The first full story in the collection—it’s preceded by a three-page short, the likes of which are peppered throughout the collection—works in the continuous past, out of scene, for ten pages. The narrator and his sister used to pan for gold in the gutter; they would find 7UP tops and cut their hands on shattered glass. We hear about the neighborhood in an almost endless series of sentences like these, this one describing the parties neighborhood kids had around unscrewed fire hydrants: “From where our pump was, the kids down the block looked like miniature figurines, pet people running about, yapping, like windup toys.” It is only in the final three pages that a nearby apartment building burns down, and the narrator’s family piles into the street to reflect on the ruin that almost seems built in to the tightly-packed Pilsen apartments.

This is what I mean when I say loose. The stories here don’t seem overly concerned about developing a plot. They seem unworkshopped, something that bothered me at first and later, when I thought about it, turned into a virtue. It’s clear that the point of Painted Cities, like its presumable namesake, Calvino’s Invisible Cities, is more the environs than the action that occurs therein. It strikes me as victorious—it gives me hope—that a debut story collection can survive, even thrive, on the sheer, naked power of wonder at the neighborhood the author grew up in.

Some other cases in point. In “Freedom,” the narrator and his newfound friend Buff climb to the top of an old pierogi factory and build a fortress out of scrap wood, imaginatively thriving there until some gangbangers climb up and tear it down. “Maximilian” proposes, “I want to tell you three memories of my cousin Maximilian,” and goes on to do just that. “Blood,” in the guise of a barroom narrator speaking to a second-person listener, riffs on bar etiquette and interpolates events that took place in the bar and the surrounding neighborhood. The five-page “Supernatural” describes the uncanny light that wafts from a polluted river at sundown, and the crowds that are drawn to it.

Even the titles here give off a sort of pleasant naiveté, the possibility that experiences might be reduced to a single salient buzz-word. Of course, the stories’ depiction of a world that is self-consciously less than perfect puts the tongue of titles like “Growing Pains” and “Ice Castles” fairly well in cheek. But still, you see an almost overly earnest impulse in Galaviz-Budziszewski to redeem Pilsen, to make something brighter emerge from its grittiness. At the end of “Blood,” we get:

You got a good friend, that means you do anything for them. That’s being stand-up….A friend’s all you got, they’re family, and once you don’t got family, tell me, motherfucker, what do you got? (128)

At times I’m skeptical. Galaviz-Budziszewski’s biography in the back of the book is self-consciously external not only to the academy many of us are used to but to the publishing world at large. It reads in full:

Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewksi grew up in the Pilsen neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. He has taught in the Chicago public school system and is currently a high school counselor for students with disabilities. In his spare time he builds and repairs motorcycles.

I worry that Galaviz-Budziszewski is trading on his worldliness here, trying too consciously to cultivate a persona that is qualified to speak about the struggles of inner-city life. But when you get the object in your hands, you’ll forgive him quickly. Painted Cities is a beautiful, short book, 180 pages between hardcovers (no dust jacket) that are illustrated wonderfully by Joel Trussel. Galaviz-Budziszewksi is so trusting with his narration, so endearingly willing to pull a thin yarn the length of twelve pages, that you can’t help but like the guy.

And when you get stories like “God’s Country,” the longest in the collection by far at thirty pages, you begin to think that you might be able to do this too. This is where the hope comes in. The story follows a boy who discovers one day that he is able to bring dead creatures back to life. He and his friends spend a summer reviving pigeons, finally bring an OD’d gangbanger back from the beyond.

The end of the story felt like too much to me at first, the kind of sweet wrap-up that a young writer wants to give their stories to cauterize frayed ends. Even today, the retrospective narrator says, when he finds a dead bug in his bathroom he’ll pretend to be his supernaturally powerful friend:

And just for fun I’ll close my eyes, open them, and touch the dead body. I’ll hope that my finger will give life, that I’ll feel again what I felt when I was fourteen, when, in this whole damn neighborhood, among all this concrete, all these apartment buildings, church steeples, and smoke stacks, we were somebody.

But then I let go of my skepticism and let the story be what it is. What is it? A guy remembering what it was like to grow up and wishing, despite the turmoil, that he was still there. That’s something I can appreciate, long string of nostalgic commas or not. And it’s something—this is my favorite part—that I think I might be able to do someday too.

***

Dennis James Sweeney‘s writing appears in recent issues of Word For/Word, Harpur Palate, Unstuck, and Fjords Review‘s Monthly Flash Fiction. He lives in Corvallis, Oregon. Find him at dennisjamessweeney.com.

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May 19th, 2014 / 10:00 am

Short Edited by Alan Ziegler

ShortShort: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms
Edited by Alan Ziegler
Persea Books
354 pages / $16.95  Buy from Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

I realize now that the only thing you can do with any anthology is take issue with it: who was included, who wasn’t, what order they’re in, why there’s more x than y. But before I step into the trenches, I want to note right off the bat that Short is an important and impressive document. It comes at a time when the short form, especially in its incarnation as “hybrid genre,” is gaining traction both in indie and (to a lesser extent) mainstream circles. I need not list presses like Tarpaulin Sky and Rose Metal Press; authors as different as Lydia Davis and Amelia Gray; lit mags like NANO Fiction and Gigantic. And that’s just a very small, very indie cross-section. Hell, Sentence already lived a full life and closed its doors.

Point is, I shouldn’t have to convince you that understanding the evolution of very short prose is an important project for the contemporary literary landscape. And it seems that Alan Ziegler, editor of Short, is the right man for the job. On his resume, besides his own books of “tales” and “takes,” is having taught Short Prose Forms at Columbia since 1989. That’s a long time.

Of course, here’s where the bones-to-pick start coming in. Ziegler’s definition of “short” is a little different from what mine might be: 1,250 words is his limit, which allows writing up to four pages to make it into Short. I can’t help but think that some of the pieces at the upper limit of this mark—Donald Barthelme’s happily tooting “The King of Jazz,” for example—cease to be short a few hundred words before their end.

If I was looking to criticize, I might take issue with the treatment of the pieces too: they’re printed one after another, with almost no whitespace. I understand that this is a logistical measure, and the anthology couldn’t house nearly the number of pieces it does if each piece were given its own page. Still, the purist in me argues that fewer, better-presented pieces would be more effectual than more works, smashed into the same space. Such a large part of reading very short prose is having the visual space to consider it after its textual work is done; reading Short is a little like reading Shakespeare in one of those two-column tiny-print Collected Works volumes.

Then again, such are the casualties of reading an anthology cover-to-cover. Those shorts which originally appeared in a full book of such pieces appear bizarre and sort of hamstrung out of their context. Amelia Gray’s, for example, the last one in the anthology, doesn’t carry nearly the pleasure as when you read it in the context of AM/PM as a whole. “Remain Healthy All Day,” it begins, before its laundry list of odd directives. If we didn’t know better, we might think she was being glib. But in the original, wonderful edition from featherproof, we’ve already begun the everyday tragedies of our friends Terrence and Charles and see, through their eyes, the direness of being asked to “Use a warm towel to dry the cat.”

This strange, decontextualized nature of the anthology might partially be remedied, I thought, by changing the order of the pieces. Ziegler orders them according to the birthdate of their authors; we start at Girolamo Cardano’s “Those Things in Which I Take Pleasure” (1501) and end with Gray. The shorts take on an often similar thrust to those with which they are surrounded, then. The beginning is full of fairly staid ruminations, which pick up speed as we pass through Poe and Baudelaire and reach a cruising altitude more amenable to the contemporary palate with writers born after 1925, to whom the second half of the book is devoted. I appreciated the alternative jaunt through literary history but perhaps, I wondered, the crowdedness of this volume might be better suited to a random sequence—by first initial of last name, for example. Then the close juxtaposition of pieces, instead of being tiresome and chronological, might be fortuitous and on any given page point to a sort of conversation across the ages. What an artistic concept! All of them in a room together!

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February 14th, 2014 / 10:00 am

Because by Joseph Riippi

tumblr_inline_mx2eixgAb01r6esemBecause
by Joseph Riippi
Civil Coping Mechanisms, February 2014
175 pages / $13.95   Book page at CCM / Buy from Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

It only takes about seven pages to begin to feel pained—even offended—by Joseph Riippi’s Because. This is primarily because every single sentence in the book (spoiler alert: except the last) begins with the words “I want.” A structure like this poses serious problems for a reader like me and like most of us, hyper-aware of the sins of heavy-handedness and bared authorial intention as we are. Because’s offenses against a readerly sensibility include:

1) Narcissism. It’s hard to like a book authored by someone who seems to speak only about himself.

Caveat: Riippi knows this. He says:

I want to feel less narcissistic for writing this.

I want to be honest in writing this, even if honesty means narcissistic feelings.

2) Melodrama/naïveté. The battle of the genuine vs. the ironic has been played out on many fields in the last few decades. I’m most acquainted with David Foster Wallace’s part in the battle for a post-postmodern literature that might be honest with the reader without being formally regressive. People mostly cite his “E Unibus Pluram” essay from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again when referring to this tension.[1]

Caveat: Riippi also knows this, and he is willing to own it.

I want you to know I mean this completely and sentimentally but unabashedly and honestly and without shame.

3) The economics. What right does a white American male with the wherewithal to write a book have wanting so many things? It would be easy to tee up Because as a “typically American” book, so focused on personal desires that it fails to consider the actual hardships of the external world.

Caveat: I’m pretty sure Riippi knows this too. Not quite as explicitly, but his desires are so robust, so myriad, that such an acknowledgment often seems implicit in them. In this section, for example:

I want better cellular reception. I want an espresso machine. I want espresso to be good for me. I want health to be delicious. I want all that is delicious to be good for me and all that is disgusting to be good for me…I want a self-filling refrigerator and self-cleaning pans and pots that never stain.

All of which is to say that Because feels to me as if it is kind of supposed to be painful to read. I came in knowing the “I want” premise of the book, expecting Because to be an experimental novel that would be a little difficult to get through. And it is that, but not in the way you think of experimental—distant from the reader, difficult in terms of breaking the code of its linguistic tricks. Instead, it is so open, bleeding, and honest that it is almost impossible to stand. This is its own kind of experimentation, I think, and an extremely valuable one—both in making us examine our readerly biases and in urging us, time after time, to transcend them by sticking with the narrator on a project, he admits, he is so unsure about.

All that said, there’s more to Because than just “its simple mantra-like structure,” as Kevin Sampsell’s blurb calls it. The book is split up into segments that are usually between one and four pages long, titled with the first line of each section. The “wants” often shift dramatically within a given section, from college-ruled paper to grandmother’s grocery lists to bioluminescent flowers, for example. But the book really begins to stride when Riippi stays on a subject for the entirety of a section, or longer. In one segment, he speaks of his friend Jenns; how as the only freshmen on the high school football team he and Jenns had their heads shaved by a guy named Gator; how Jenns took the fall after the team TP’d a cheerleader’s house; how Jenns shot himself, later, leaving an indelible mark on the narrator’s life. The narrative continuity of sections like this is striking in a work that usually shifts desires and subjects rapidly. The Jenns thread and a few others like it almost constitute a sort of home, reminding us, suddenly, how welcome such a narrowed focus can be.

But perhaps the most interesting strand that comes out of Because is a certain kind of “want” peppered across the book, especially in its later pages: the desire to live fully and dangerously in a world where our lives can often feel sanitized and certain.

I want to narrowly escape an explosion. I want to hear the sounds of falling bombs. I want to drop for cover and pray, to dig inside my helmet for a rosary or talisman, to hear over the cataclysm the prayers of all my brothers who surround me.

I want to tie tourniquets and grasp bloody hands. I want to learn the Last Rites by heart.

Passages like these feel odious at first, wildly privileged. They seem to make tragedy into a tourist attraction, commodify suffering instead of rejecting it as those who have experienced it would urge anyone to do. But upon encountering this sentiment again and again, the reader has no choice but to begin to understand it. Riippi’s speaker wants to live—and so might you, if you’re warm and safe somewhere now. It is only that Riippi is not afraid to say so.

This is a sensation that occurs more and more as you enter the book’s later pages: Riippi simply has no fear of how he will be perceived.  Perhaps the most recurring image in Because is the narrator’s grandfather pounding a nail into a cedar tree with his bare hand. It is a fitting metaphor for the work Joseph Riippi has done with this book. It hurts, a lot, to read something so raw, composed with few tools besides human desire. But once you have finished—once the proverbial nail is in the tree—it is even more difficult to get it back out, to forget a book as open and rending as this.

***

[1] In another example from 1997, Wallace called David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress “a magical book, not because it alternates between incredible intellectual stunt-pilotry and pathos but because it manages to marry the two in a way that—I mean, that’s what my dream is, to someday be able to do something like that.” KCRW Bookworm interview, 1997. ~20:30.

***
Dennis James Sweeney is the author of What They Took Away, winner of the 2013 CutBank Chapbook Contest. He lives in Corvallis, Oregon. Find him here.
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January 24th, 2014 / 10:00 am

The Parable of You by Tony Wolk

41MCc5vdKmL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Parable of You
by Tony Wolk
Propeller Books, November 2013
90 pages / $12  Buy from Propeller Books or Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 17 stories in the 90-page The Parable of You feel like vignettes in the true sense of the word.

“The Nameless Ones”: A purposefully obscure Cinderella figure doesn’t wake up one day. The narrator arrives to wake her from her slumber. The story ends.

“The Shipwrecked Sailor”: The story’s namesake finds a house with a small door on an otherwise abandoned island. He enters, and finds that the contents of the room he has stepped into shift and disappear. The story ends.

“The Jogger”: Abraham Lincoln sets out on a run. He reflects on “The first time ever that he had traded Vulcan’s boots for the moccasins of Mercury and took to the countryside.” The story ends

At first I was a little hard on these stories. I used my newly acquired workshop language to diagnose them: “Not fully realized,” I penned in my notebook. “Linguistically cumbersome.” But the stories toward the end of the collection began to win me over. In “The Minkfarm,” for example, a young narrator visits a fur-coat farm with his reticent father. It is a longer story, relative to the rest of Parable, and by the end the boy watches a horse tied to a series of posts and shot.

I saw the horse shudder and go limp, its head slack. The four ropes kept it from falling. Then, with the shot still reverberating in the nearby trees, I realize that father’s hand was on my shoulder, gripping me tightly, holding me close.

This is good stuff, and fully realized indeed. It is just approached from the side, through the point of view of a man who now has his own children, thinking about his own childhood. A different writer might just tell the story. Tony Wolk doesn’t. He weaves a frame for the nostalgia, a specific man on a specific night—“the half-moon is waxing”—to recall the substance of the story. It is only a paragraph on either side of the piece that provides this frame. Still, such insertions are strange to see. It is not out of necessity that Wolk has written them. It is out of something else.

What I’ve come to understand is that, instead of being not-good, The Parable of You reads like literature in translation. The feeling I had in reading Wolk is similar to how I felt when I read Cortázar’s Hopscotch for the first time, and his Historias de cronopios y famas (the latter of which I made the mistake of trying to read in Spanish): as if I had encountered something very interesting and probably great, but didn’t quite have the tools or cultural logic to appreciate it for what it was.

There even seem to be different conventions here in the choice of subjects. Like Wolk’s three novels in the last ten years about a time-traveling Abraham Lincoln, two stories in the collection take on Abe as their subject. It’s almost like some weird American fetishism, except for the fact that it’s undertaken by an American. It seems wildly uncool to me to write prospectively indie fiction about the namesake of one of Bill O’Reilly’s most recent books, but I can’t imagine that Wolk cares much at all.

Even the title of his collection seems bizarrely straightforward and genuine. This is not what we expect from a young, indie press in Portland. But the story that gives The Parable of You its name is an awesome one, based on the problem of the drunken sailors. It ends with the spatial equivalent of Shakespeare’s typewriting monkey: even if you’re set out, blindfolded, to wonder the universe forever, you will eventually make your way back to the lightpost where you began. The story, and the book, end:

Your hand traces the familiar scoring, the X, the series of grooves, your name. You remove the blindfold. You are on the corner again. The universe is finite. In time, you will always come home. Always.

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December 27th, 2013 / 12:00 pm

The Tales by Jessica Bozek

the_tales_jessica_bozek_front_coverThe Tales
by Jessica Bozek
Les Figues, December 2013
76 pages / $15  Buy from Les Figues Press or SPD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jessica Bozek calls her spurts of narrative in The Tales poems, but they aren’t, quite. Except for the sprawling middle section, Bozek’s short book is made up of justified blocks of prose such as this:

THE SAVING:
A FAIRY TALE

The loon’s lesson.

Now under funerary green, the citizens are cut off from the surrounding lands. A loon teaches them that they can dive down into their own small lake and come up in another lake. The cost of this transport is that all communication must happen underground.

The spurts trace the trajectory of someone called “The Lone Survivor” after a cataclysmic war known by its aggressors as Operation Sleep. The Lone Survivor makes his way into the world of the attacking nation, seeing visions of thriving life as he tries to hold onto his own past. From what I can see, he is eventually banished to a sort of reservation/museum-type installation, where reparations are attempted as time progresses. The political implications here are explicit, and welcome. But the value of the tales is mostly, I think, in their language, the way Bozek tells this story. Not through poems exactly. Nor, though, through fiction.

Of course, Bozek can call her work whatever she wants to call it. Poetry. Prose. Visual art. (The book is, indeed, beautiful, printed with all the white space that such short blocks of writing require, black endpaper, a red and gold Russian starkness on the front and back covers with a typeface of the same ilk.) But The Tales reminds me more of the hybrid work I am used to seeing from Tarpaulin Sky, in books like Kim Gek Lin Short’s China Cowboy and Sarah Goldstein’s Fables. In fact, The Tales earned its publication by winning the 2012 NOS (Not Otherwise Specified) Contest with Les Figues Press.

Bozek’s work here strikes me as one in a string of very compelling books of very short prose that are both language- and narrative- oriented. Such writing, I think, performs its work in a different space than poetry or prose. Where poetry, I would argue, creates much its value in the relationship between words, and more traditional fiction creates value in the relationship between paragraphs and events, Bozek’s hybrid vignettes seems to do their work between sentences, redefining causation, its images evoked with some clarity and yet set beside other images that would not “normally” come after them. The effect is a sort of circling-around, an attempt to penetrate the ineffable that is almost Zen-like. The shorts’ slow spiral tends toward some wordless meaning, I envision, drawing a picture in the readerly mind of a world with qualities so magical as to be literally inexplicable.

Part of this world is what we understand as dystopian, in the tradition suggested by the preface on “Operation Sleep,” by the book design, by words like “reparations” and “the State Museum for the Justification of Military Action.” But there’s something in the prose that is beyond words, too. In this vein—that, perhaps, of poetry—it is important to recognize that priority is given not to the narrative overall but to the effect of individual pieces. Symmetry is not a priority in this volume, and I am glad for it. Each piece stands for itself.

Which may be one reason why Bozek uses the word “poems” to describe what she’s written here. Another reason, I might guess, is her sheer personal investment in each piece, the compression of so much thought and feeling into so little language. The text of the book is followed by a full complement of back matter, sometimes outwording the vignettes themselves, as with one of the many with the title “The Lone Survivor’s Tale”:

I shed clothes in remembrance. The braided cables on my sweater unravel from the neck as I wind through the tree trunks, making a cyan tangle. When there is little left, I bite down to keep the cuffs.

Jessica Bozek explains, in her notes:

“The Lone Survivor’s Tale (I shed clothes…)” is based on a pair of small Francis Alÿs paintings I saw at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. However, the museum must not have these paintings any longer, and I can’t find any evidence that they exist. It seems that Alÿs also enacted the unraveling in a series of public actions called Fairy Tales in the mid-nineties. I do not know whether the paintings of a man in an unraveling sweater precede Alÿs’s unraveling of actual sweaters.

As glad as I was to have these iterations, I was even happier without them, for it is exactly the gaps in The Tales’ information that make it so compelling. The book’s middle third, the only section written in what would seem visually to be more explicitly “poetic,” ensues when the Lone Survivor “unspool[s] the words of those lost.” Across a series of mostly blank pages are scattered fragments of images and speech, remnants of some mostly erased world. The blank, here, is visual. In the rest of The Tales, it is conceptual, a blank in mental imagery, evoked in the way of the koan. So that we simply believe Bozek when she says:

I have begun weaving nests from the fallen hair on the floorboards and furniture. I leave these nests on high things outside. I want to be useful to the birds.

There is something more here, some ache, some weird impulse of energy and sadness toward a relevance that will never be relevant, not even to the few birds that remain to the Lone Survivor as companions. Not to mention the sheer image of a nest of fallen hair, wispy and whisked away in seconds by the wind.

But then, again: it doesn’t sound as good when you try to explain it. Which was why I was so happy to let Bozek’s Tales just breathe.

***

Dennis James Sweeney‘s recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fractured West, Sundog Lit, Whole Beast Rag, and Word For/Word. Find him at dennisjamessweeney.com.

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December 16th, 2013 / 12:00 pm

A Simple Machine, Like the Lever by Evan P. Schneider

41ZzndrEDwL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A Simple Machine, Like the Lever
by Evan P. Schneider
Propeller Books, 2011
179 pages / $14  Buy from Propeller Books or Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m tempted to say all kinds of irresponsible things about Evan P. Schneider’s first novel: that it’s the Catcher in the Rye of our time; that it’s the book that saves leisure-time fiction with an eye to the fact that making money and trying to survive on that money is the primary substance of most of our lives; that “If There’s One Book You Read This Decade, It Should Be This!” If I said these things, I would risk being seen as engaging in the reviewer enthusiasm warned against here and here, which warnings, I would add, I agree with wholeheartedly.

But I loved this book. I think more people need to know about it. So what the hell.

A Simple Machine, Like the Lever is one of the very few novels I’ve sat down and read in a single sitting, not because I was planning to but because I couldn’t not. Catcher in the Rye is the other one. It may not be cool to say you like Salinger anymore, but his seminal novel affected the hell out of me, and probably you, too, back when you read it in high school English. Like Holden Caulfield, A Simple Machine’s Nicholas Allander is earnestly confused about the complexities of the adult world, plying his way through doomed encounters to a bare reconciliation of life’s ridiculousness with his own naïve ideals.

Unlike Holden Caulfield, Nicholas Allander is 31 years old, barely employed at a “fucking sink company,” and digging himself out of a huge hole of credit card debt while trying to retain the minimum amount of respectability necessary to hold a girlfriend. He is on a walk with said girlfriend, Marie, when he finds a paper cylinder of salt on the side of the street and picks it up to take home with him. She says:

“Can I tell you something?” Marie dropped my hand and stopped walking. “When I watched you pick that up I thought to myself, ‘He can’t possibly eat that. There’s no way.’ But I didn’t say anything because I know that’s what you do. That’s how you are choosing to live.”

Nick is nonplussed. The conversation turns to where they’re going, as a couple. How Nick has to start taking better care of himself. But how he lives is not really a choice, he insists.

“I hate being in this position,” I said. “It feels ridiculous and embarrassing. But I am, and I have to make sacrifices. If it makes you feel better, when I get home, if the salt seems bad or whatever, I won’t use it.”

“Jesus,” Marie said softly, “it’s not about the salt.”

This kind of dialogue is what makes the book so compelling. Nick is so consumed with doing what seems right—paying off his debt once and for all, mostly—that he can’t understand the secondary social constructs of a world that has been designed for folks who have moved past that point. The image of the cyclist here an apt one: if you’ve ever commuted by bike on roads thrumming with giant cars, you’ll know the feeling of being left behind by the petroleum winds of an infrastructure that is not built for you.

It’d be easy to get preachy, here. It’d be easy, in a book about being poor and riding a fixed-gear bike around Portland, to make Nick into your proverbial hipster, trying desperately to find meaning in a world that is clearly devoid of it by fitting into a developed “alternative” culture. But Nick doesn’t ride the kind of bike “so many young people ride these days”; as for its fixed gear, it just came that way. He does a circuit of push-ups and sit-ups and desk-chair-curls in his apartment after work, to try to stave off the love handles. He’s not even trying to find meaning, really. He just wants keep up his relationship with Marie and get through every day without staining his work pants with bicycle grease.

This all works through a very particular narrative voice, one of observation and calculation and gentle confusion at the world’s complexity. But this does not mean Nick is cold. His visions of the city in autumn, usually from the saddle of his bike, are stunning.

Why can’t it take longer, the amazing things, such as leaves falling into my path as I ride? Like weightless gold coins, they tumble back and forth, to and fro, down and down, and then somehow land right in my wire basket as I’m on the move. I’d like to stay in these moments. I want to see them all the way through until they’re gone for sure.

There’s something childlike about Nick, something uninitiated that allows us to see the world for as cruel as it is and as beautiful. We need him, accustomed to it all as we are, to remind us of the sense of frustrated wonder we had back when we loved Catcher in the Rye. We need A Simple Machine, Like the Lever, to remember what it feels like to go somewhere, everywhere, only under your own power:

The movement, the shush-SHUSH, shush-SHUSH, shush-SHUSH of my pedaling up and down, pumped blood to parts of my body I swear I hadn’t felt in years.

***

Dennis James Sweeney‘s recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fractured West, Sundog Lit, Whole Beast Rag, and Word For/Word. Find him at dennisjamessweeney.com.

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November 29th, 2013 / 12:00 pm

A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer by Pierre Mac Orlan

handbookforadvenaA Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer
by Pierre Mac Orlan
Trans. by Napoleon Jeffries
Wakefield Press, October 2013
104 pages / $12.95  Buy from Wakefield Press or Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s easy to be intimidated by a dude who has written upwards of 130 books, not counting flagellation erotica. But then you take a look at the sketch of him on A Handbook’s first page, labeled “Private First Class Pierre Mac Orlan, Military Cross,” and (if you are like me) immediately relax:

That’s the story of reading A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer. Peppered with (actual, academic) footnotes, headed by chapter titles like “The Various Categories of Adventurers” and “On the Role of the Imagination,” you get the sense starting out that you’re delving into some serious study of the adventurer’s role in early 20th century French literature.

Part of this weird effect comes from what Wakefield Press does with the book. Design is stark, almost academic—but handbooky, too, with that authoritative streak the pocket-guide folks always mean to bestow. The 13-page introduction (and this is for just over 50 pages of content) has actual history in it, from a brief discourse on the French novel at that time to a contextualization of the book within the aftermath of World War I. Even the translator’s remarks on A Handbook’s inherent, decontextualized value is a sober meditation on its potential synecdochic value with relation to the history of adventure at large.

But once we get into the text, the book turns out to be pretty fucking hilarious. Mac Orlan keeps you on the rocks for a while, taking pains to distinguish the “active” from the “passive” adventurer, the cavorting blockhead from the armchair fiend of imagination. It’s still possible, in these early sections, that he’s entirely serious about the theoretical structure he’s setting out. Until we start getting stuff like the list that accompanies an account of the Active Adventurer’s troubling youth:

The Sad Setting Adopted by the Young Adventurer

The frog inflated by a simple straw.
Goldfish swimming at the surface with the help of corks pinned to their backs.
June bugs pulling a tiny scrap of newspaper through the air from their backside.
The fly without wings.
The ridiculed dog.

It goes on. Details like this end up being a serious redeeming factor of A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer. There’s something about their oddball quality that tingles for having crossed the century in the way it has: slowly, as only three of Mac Orlan’s books had been translated into English before this one. It feels good that there were folks in 1920, too, who prioritized being funny and a pain in the ass, leaving more “serious” tomes to the hand-wringers.

Though with the tongue-in-cheek mode, as we know, a whole lot that is of interest can be conveyed anyway. There is certainly something being said about the dreamer here, when Mac Orlan outlines the strict “exercise” regimen the Passive Adventurer must undertake:

If one considers Passive Adventure as an art, some natural gifts have to be allowed for in future initiates. These gifts must be practiced and perfected. It is a question of intellectual gymnastics that include daily exercises and in particular the methodical training of the imagination.

The cool thing here is that he’s not affecting a take-down of anyone in particular. Sure, he’s giving a reasonable amount of hell to the person whose pulse begins to race at the words on a page that represent a steaming sea battle, or a life-altering meeting with the natives of a remote island. But this is more of a poke at the idea of adventure at large. (Ah, Napoleon…the introduction was right!)

While Napoleon Jeffries’ portion of the book remains fairly staid, aiding Mac Orlan’s straight face, even he occasionally jumps in on the fun in the text of a footnote. Eye the prioritizing of information in this one, one of many clarifications of Mac Orlan’s name dropping in the text:

26…Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877) was a politician, historian, and in Karl Marx’s words, a “monstrous gnome”; his best known work is the multivolume History of the French Revolution.

By the end of A Handbook, we’re digging it. Under the heading “Benefits an Adventurer Can Gain from Traveling,” Mac Orlan has included:

Luggage.
Seasickness.
The adventurer is exploited like a milch cow.
The adventurer is too hot.
Tortures pertaining to entomology.
Boredom.
Disgust.

The self-same chapter ends, totally inexplicably, with the single paragraph:

I am not speaking of mud, which in this circumstance is a noble element.

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November 15th, 2013 / 11:00 am

The Kind of Girl by Kim Henderson

Henderson_200The Kind of Girl
by Kim Henderson
Rose Metal Press, August 2013
56 pages / $12  Buy from Rose Metal Press

 

 

 

 

 

 

Things I like about The Kind of Girl #1:

The cover: stylized dandelion in purple and black with a few slight tendrils blowing away. Which, cute as it is, is actually drawn from the book too, a metaphor for the narrator’s movement from “the summer of ugliness” (in the first sentence of the book, lauded in the introduction by Deb Olin Unferth) to the luck and leisure and happiness that came beyond:

I grew up and made my own way in the world—a dandelion among rosy girls who’d come of age in regular houses. Yellow was in that year, and I snagged the best boy.

The dandelion, pressed from a photopolymer plate onto Neenah Classic Linen 80# cover stock in Silverstone at the Museum of Printing in North Andover, Massachusetts. (So the copyright page tells me.) Then a slice of “Jellybean Green” endpaper. Then the book.

Things I like about The Kind of Girl #2:

The lovely thing about Kim Henderson’s chapbook is that it is eminently readable. You get her. It has content value a little like David Foster Wallace’s “Forever Overhead,” parts of Patrick Somerville’s Trouble, any number of coming-of-age type stories that get at the adolescent experience. But with two bonuses: it is more restrained, in both length and tone, and it comes from a female perspective.

My “other book” right now is Lily Hoang’s Changing, which has similar coming-of-age subject matter, but which also (Lily knows, and so do we all) takes a whole lot of effort to read. The Kind of Girl is a pleasant swing to the other side of the spectrum: still small press, still beautiful production value, but amenable, the kind of book that seems like it was made to hold the reader gently. One of the stories (“Muscle Memory”) first came out in Tin House, for goodness’ sake. Rose Metal Press put out a collection here with a similar appeal: spectacularly written, thematically complex, and/but formally comprehensible.

Things I like about The Kind of Girl #3:

Which, though, is not to say that The Kind of Girl is “conventional” or “traditional” in a negative sense. Part of what makes it friendly to the reader is that its stories are so short (by definition: the Rose Metal’s Short Short Chapbook Contest, which The Kind of Girl won, called for stories under 1,000 words). It’s not as if the short-short form is revolutionary by now, but it remains a way of representing the world that has been limited to a comparably small readership; if “no one reads short stories,” much of the crowd who does read short stories still looks at short-shorts askance.

That Kim Henderson chose to make these stories so brief is valuable and renovating, considering their classic subject matter and the relatively plain language in which they are composed. They give new light to the classic crises of body image, disillusionment with idolized teachers, and—this one feels more fresh to me—the slow transference of annoyed love from father to spouse. When even the most archetypal of these are compressed in Henderson’s shorts, they begin to feel more like suggestions, like the jagged fragments that compose our memory and do not “satisfy” the way a longer short story might implicitly claim to.

Part of Kim Henderson’s art is accentuating this feeling, providing a complete story while leaving the reader tense and expectant. Many of the stories’ last lines make me feel hamstrung: they end like We Are the Champions, between breaths, on a note that anticipates ending but does not provide it.

The last line in “The Carousel,” where the cycle of love and annoyance between lovers is established:

He curls against you, and you pet his hair and grind your teeth.

After her story of being called a “bad girl” all the time she grew up (“Bad Girl”):

But I wish I could go back and give little Marie some new adjectives.

Following news accounts of a naked woman getting thrown off a bridge (“The Bridge”):

My father switched the TV off and left for a four-wheeler ride.

I went to my room and colored.

This all leaves you feeling unsatisfied, but unsatisfied in a good way, as if the imperfections and loose ends do not in fact need to be reconciled. As if they can be told, and let be. And though it does not feel quite right, that wrongness is the refuse of life.

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October 7th, 2013 / 11:00 am

This Darksome Burn by Nick Ripatrazone

thisdarksomeburn_coverThis Darksome Burn
by Nick Ripatrazone
firthFORTH, Forthcoming October 2013
66 pages / More Information

 

 

 

 

 

 

Myth:This Darksome Burn is a fierce rendition of nature’s obstinate force. Indeed, for one man, toughness and tenacity provide no match for the unpredictable wilderness of the shadowing Siskiyou mountain or his own bereft emotional frontier.” [1]

It’s partially true: Nick Ripatrazone’s new novella begins with Luke camped out in the woods, hunted by a pack of wolves. He has to let his horse free so the wolves will follow it instead of him. When he gets home, tragedy has occurred. He traipses through wailing snow to find the man that raped his daughter, shotgun in hand. Even the cover of the book is a great volcano-like mountain, rising foreboding and dark against the night sky. The wilderness is This Darksome Burn’s setting, as billed. But the really valuable work of the novella is in the juxtaposition between Luke’s “toughness and tenacity” and something less wild: not “his own bereft emotional frontier,” exactly, but the demands of a modern world on a man who has most of his life relied on reticence and grit, virtues of a time that has gone.

It becomes clear, as the novella goes on, that Luke’s wife has died, leaving him in charge of his teenage daughter Aurea and his younger son Ford. Luke knows that he is unequipped. When his daughter is sexually assaulted, all he can think to do is nearly kill the man who has done it, then keep Aurea on house arrest indefinitely. Her concerns are more complicated:

Luke tells Aurea that she still has time. “To tell the police everything.”

“I’m not going to.”

“You protect that bastard. Do you love him?”

“I hate him.”

“Then do it.”

“I’m trying to forget about him.” Aurea closes her hand around Luke’s and looks to the porch. “Can we not do this here?”

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September 23rd, 2013 / 11:05 am

Tampa by Alissa Nutting

9780062280541Tampa
by Alissa Nutting
Ecco, July 2013
263 pages / $25.99 Buy from Amazon or IndieBound

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Page 0

Tampa is covered in fur. Cheap fur. Velour almost, but even cheaper. Even though Tampa, amazingly, is a hardback book. It’s the dust jacket that is covered in rough-to-the-touch synthetic fuzz.

Except for the title, which is scrawled into it in white like chalk scratched across a blackboard. A fantastical blackboard. A sexy blackboard.

Page 2

We all know what Tampa is about. There have been reviews. (A lot of them, encouragingly, for a younger writer whose first collection came out from Starcherone.) And if we didn’t read those or the flap, the narrator tells us right away: in marrying her husband,

I hoped his wealth might provide me with a distraction, but this backfired—it left me with no unfulfilled urges except the sexual. I could feel my screaming libido clawing at the ornately papered walls of our gated suburban home.

Celeste’s sole sexual urge is for teenage boys, a crystallization of her first sexual experience and the immortality it implied. We find out immediately that her entire career path—middle school teacher—has been focused around fulfilling that urge.

There is no coquettishness here. No clever lead-up to the announcement of her particular obsession. The book is about one thing and one thing only: the wholehearted pursuit of sex with 14 year-old boys.

Page 28

Celeste is as systematic as she is direct. This grates, at first. Her character appears one-dimensional. The plot appears to mine for shock value without much at all to say. I wondered, after a bit of this, how closely this depiction came to Nutting’s real-life inspiration for the story (and Nutting’s high school classmate) Debra LaFave, or any of the other cases that came out around the same time across the country. Did these sex offenders set out so consciously and feverishly to do what they did? Does any mind work so singularly?

Page 80

But the readerly experience subsumes all of this. By page 40 I had found myself entering into an almost meditative state: Celeste masturbates furiously on her classroom desk; Celeste stalks her ideal student; Celeste keeps Jack after class and interrogates him about his sexual history. The book begins to feel like a thought-experiment in how long narrative can run on the fuel of a single motivation. And it works: the smut of it runs together into a bizarre, relieving, single-minded stream. Once we become sure we will have no last-minute changes of intention, no inward ethical dilemmas, we can sit on Celeste’s shoulder as she describes in exacting detail the steps through which she goes to secure Jack’s compliance in an affair. By page 80 I was so fully in Celeste’s mind that I wrote in the margins: “Am I crazy? Obsessive? Unfit for the world?”

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August 19th, 2013 / 11:00 am

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