Tag Archives: american fiction

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase

I’d never heard of Joan Chase’s novel: During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, and while the title caught my eye, I wasn’t sure if I’d like the content. This was a case of trying the book simply because of the publisher, New York Review Books, and after ending this magnificent tale, I can easily predict that it’ll make it to my best-of-2014 list.

during the reign of the queen of persiaDuring the Reign of the Queen of Persia is set in the 50s and concerns the lives of a three-generational matriarchy with Gram at the top, her 5 daughters and 4 female cousins: Celia, Jenny, Annie and Katie. The title has an edge of irony, as the ‘Queen’ is a not an exotic figure, but a tough Ohio woman who in one scene throws a tin can at her retreating husband while yelling “horse-piss. shit-face.” Still, Gram, a woman whose early life was miserable until she inherited money, in definitely in charge, and she does what she wants:

“The way Gram told it was that all she had ever had in life was kids and work and useless men and what she wanted, and had earned besides, was to be left alone.”

The story, divided into 5 very specific chunks of history, is told collectively by the 4 young cousins. It’s impossible to tell which girl is the narrator, and identification defies logic. I tried to narrow the choice in the first section, and thought I’d nailed it, only to be trumped in the other sections. The result of this unusual, superb narrative style is that the reader intuits that the thread of the story is childhood, and its fluid narration transcends a specific character or a single version of events. Instead we have the collective experience of four young girls as they witness, respond to, and try to make sense of the tumultuous lives and the messy world of adults. The collective narrative occasionally acts as a chorus of experience as in this section which follows an episode with one of Gram’s son-in-laws, ne’er-do-well Neil, as he symbolically reestablishes his male dominance over females through a strange, sadistic ‘game’ that takes place with his two daughters (Annie and Katie), and two nieces (Celia and Jenny):

We four climb up into the haymow, up to the rafter window. We vow we will never forgive him. We swear to avenge ourselves, even if we have to pay with our lives. We tell each other how he’d feel if we died. Dry-eyed, exhausted at last, we lie in the sun-shot darkness of the barn, and the soft cries of the doves seem to be the sound of Neil’s grief when he knows that he has lost us, when he views us, innocent girls, cold and still in death.

We are released then, forget again, and begin to descend the levels of the barn, down through the shafts of sunlight, and then we run off down the pasture lane into the woods, walking by the stony shallow stream until it is deeper and runs clean. We slide into the water; our dresses fill and float about us as though we have been altered into water lilies. after our dip, cool, absolved, we lie upon the bank, brushed dry by the coarse grasses, which hold a mosaic of daisies and Queen Anne’s lace.

While each of the sections covers some specific, non-sequential events in the history of the family, common threads appear throughout the book: the unreliability of men, the treachery of sexuality, and the importance of the female hive. Women dominate the story, and most of the men in the story are feral–either on the periphery or drifting in and out periodically, causing trouble. The book’s first section, appropriately called Celia introduces the multi-generational family as it describes Celia’s explosive entrance into puberty which begins with the appearance of a “pack of boys” who hang around “with a patient wistfulness.” Celia’s burgeoning sexuality sprouts a series of inappropriate lectures from her mother, Libby.

“Don’t think I don’t know the charms of young men,” Aunt Libby said, and we knew she did; beautiful again, a trace of blood spurting from her cold heart, illuminating the texture of her skin, warming yellow to gold. And her eyes softening like a melting amber. They hardened again. We trembled to hear her. In Aunt Libby there was none of Gram’s flip “You may as well fall for rich as poor.” For Aunt Libby it was a matter of outrage and contest.

She spoke incessantly of love. Endless betrayal, maidens forsaken, drowned or turned slut, or engulfed by madness. Most chilling were the innocent babies–stabbed with scissors and stuffed into garbage cans, aborted with knitting needles. In all this, love was a blind for something else. For sex. Sex was trouble and when a girl was in trouble, sex was the trouble.

Nor would Aunt Libby allow us the miscalculation that marriage put an end to trouble. Men were only after what they could get. When they got it they didn’t want it anymore. Or wanted what someone else had. The same as the cars they bought and used. It was their nature. Some got nasty about it. That she attributed to liquor–which men turned to out of self-pity and petty vengeance.

Even Rossie, a young male cousin, is a destructive, disruptive presence for the duration of his unsettling visits, and significantly he never integrates with his female cousins. Rossie, as a male child, cannot penetrate the world of his female cousins, and after the death of one of Gram’s daughters (in spite of the best efforts at intervention by a Christian Science sibling) we see that according to Uncle Dan, the exclusion of males continues beyond the grave:

Gram had refused to pay for that kind of burial. She had said she wasn’t going to get mixed up in any heathen ways when not a bit of it meant anything anyhow. “She’ll lay up there aside of me, where she belongs,” Gram said then. granddad was already there, on top of the hill at the cemetery, and Gram had bought plots for herself and her five children. “I don’t know what the rest of us are supposed to do,” Uncle Dan had said. “Just wander, I guess. Outside paradise.”

For most of the book, two men are residents at Gram’s Ohio farm; there’s Gram’s husband, Granddad, a surly man who takes care of the cows, and whose relationship with the rest of the family is restricted by his own resentful, anti-social behaviour, and Dan, the husband of Gram’s daughter, Libby. Dan, a butcher, the father of Celia and Jenny, and one of the book’s most stabilizing forces, who never meant to stay at the farm for long, appears to have made some sort of pact with his wife which included the return to the farm and leaving California behind. Dan, “the surviving male figure” for part of the novel, surrounded by women, is affable and easy-going–although he does have a brief rebellion through the purchase of an outdoor swing which represents his longing for California.

There was one memorable fight; it lasted two days. Uncle Dan came home with groceries and a flowered lounge for the yard or porch and Aunt Libby hit the roof the second she saw him unloading it, yelling from the window, “we can’t afford that kind of thing. you have no business. What would we do anyway with a thing like that?” Going on to tell Uncle Dan that he was forever needing some new trinket for amusement. When would he ever grow up? And when had he ever had a spare minute to lay in the sun?

“In California,” he said, as he worked to adjust the mattress, “they’re set up for this kind of thing. They don’t mind a little fun. A fellow works all his life. What’s the harm?” His face looked as though it had rained all his summers, his eyes gray from clouds that had passed over his heart.

Aunt Libby’s voice spurted anger and something of alarm too. “You! You have an uncontrollable notion to lay in the sun. What are you, a beach boy/ Use a blanket. a towel, for god’s sake. I don’t live at home with my mother, scrimping and saving, to look out the window and see you snoozing on a bed of roses–orange roses at that. The thing reminds me of an orgy, just looking at it.”

“That thing reminds me of everything I’ll never have,” Uncle Dan said.

It would be easy to say that not a great deal happens in the book–people die, fall in and out of love, one girl becomes engaged, one gets married and a baby is expected, but in this rich story of life with all of its messy complications, the focus is on the details of these tribal relationships. Gram, a wise, solid life force, has experienced and endured a great deal, and “fed up with cooking” and work, she spends her evenings at “bingo parties, horse racing, roulette at a private club” opting to stay out of her children’s lives, except for the occasional battle with her husband or one of her sons-in-law. Now her children are adults, she mostly ignores them even though her large home is a refuge from trauma for her daughters. With just one daughter, Libby, there permanently, the other daughters come and go, particularly at times of crisis, gathering strength from each other even as they acknowledge differences and weaknesses. Interestingly, apart from the occasional neighbor, we don’t see much of life beyond the farm, but it simply doesn’t matter in this wonderful, timeless tale of family, childhood, love and loss.



Filed under Chase Joan, Fiction

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

“For years, I worked so hard to hold my tongue, I nearly swallowed it. For years, I had slid around the dining room table in various costumes of the bright, eccentric variety, opposite the Klee, directing traffic with deft signals and smiling, always smiling.”

The Blazing World, and it’s no coincidence that the title is the same as a largely forgotten work from 17 th century female author Margaret Cavendish, is a complex look at Perception, Identity, and Gender politics in the art world. In this challenging intelligent novel, author Siri Hustvedt presents a fragmented, troubled portrait of a now deceased woman, artist Harriet Burden. Harriet, or Harry, as she was known, was at one time a young artist in New York with a few shows to her credit in the 70s and 80s. Then she met and married the phenomenally wealthy art dealer, Felix Lord, and for years lived in the background as his wife, a mother to two children and as a “chic” hostess to various, critics, dealers, and artists involved in the art scene. In her fifties and widowed Harriet is a deeply unhappy woman, a rejected daughter, a forgotten artist and once the wife of a prominent wealthy man. But these were all unsatisfactory roles for Harriet who is left, after the death of Felix, with a lingering feeling that life has passed her by and that the overwhelming bias of the art world ignored her talents.

The blazing worldHarriet devises a master plan, Maskings–an “experiment that took her five years to complete,” that was “meant to not only expose the antifemale bias of the art world, but to uncover complex workings of human perception.” Maskings was a series of three arts shows, The History of Western Art, The Suffocation Rooms and Beneath in which she masked her female identity by exhibiting her art under the names of male artists who colluded with her ‘experiment.’ According to Harriet, this project Maskings, would not only reveal the bias and hypocrisy of the art world but also yield a sort of gender and personal triumph.

The Blazing World appears to be a non-fiction book in which Harriet’s story unfolds through multiple narratives pieced together through Harriet’s labyrinth layers of deceit by an editor, a professor, who takes extracts from Harriet’s many cryptic journals as well as interviews with various people including her two children, filmmaker Maisie and writer Ethan, the artist Phineas Q. Eldridge, a friend, art critics, one of those “New Age fruitcakes,” and a final lover. A complex fragmented portrait of Harriet emerges, and as we see though her journals, she’s an angry woman intent on revenge. But revenge against whom? Against what?

After a meltdown, Harriet sought therapy which according to her daughter “unleashed a Harriet Burden none of us had ever seen before, as well as a number of other characters or personas she had been sitting on for quite some time. … protean artist selves that needed bodies.” Seeking to renter the art world using a succession of male names, Harriet selected three male artists as three successive beards or “masks,” who “acted as fronts for her own creative work.” While Harriet created the art for display and sale under the names of the three male artists, Harriet argued that an intriguing transaction occurred in each masking. She “insisted that the pseudonym she adopted changed the character of the art she made. In other words, the man she used as a mask played a role in the kind of art she produced: each artist mask became for Burden a ‘poetized personality,’ a visual elaboration of a hermaphroditic self which cannot be said to belong to either her or to the mask, but to a mingled reality created between the two of them.”

The three male artists Harriet chooses are all very different types; the first man, young, naïve Anton Tish, is a blank slate whose interactions with Harriet destroy his already fragile persona. The second artist (and one of my favorite voices) whose professional name is Phineas Q Eldridge, a black gay man who defends Harriet’s arguments of sex bias and who has already struggled with identity, is perhaps the most savvy and understanding of the voices when it comes to his relationship with Harriet. The third artist is Rune, a cultural icon, a virile blond, blue-eyed hunk of an artist who knew what it meant to be a celebrity. Rune’s show The Banality of Glamour which ensured his place as a rockstar in the art world included film footage of “facial morphing technology,” and “plastic surgery patients under the knife.” Rune offers various versions of his own elusive life, constructing fable upon fable, but according to one source, that’s just Rune:

Those stories he told to journalists were part of his shtick, a kind of tongue-in-cheek self-promotion, making a mystery of himself.

It’s with Rune that things really begin to go wrong. Rune’s dealer cannot answer whether Rune’s show Beneath was out of context for Rune and he admits that he “could tell you what was in or out of character for Rune,” a man who continually re-invented himself, using “maskings” of his own and whose previous great triumph of Art was vinyl crosses–a yellow cross, sold for 3 million dollars because “he had only made one.”

Of course, there’s a paradox to Harriet’s theory. If the art world is indeed hypocritical and disinterested in the work of an overweight, unattractive middle-aged woman, yet ready to worship the work of three male artists–no matter how moronic (Tish) or slick (Rune) they are, why would those who hold the reins of power–the critics and the dealers–care or even believe her when she reveals how she duped them all? Will they believe she was the “virago mastermind” behind the three art shows or will they see her as just another bitter, deranged, disappointed and talentless woman? Through the voices of the critics, in which fame and perception are locked together, we see absolute, blind adulation directed to the famous artists whose work fetches millions. According to one critic, Harriet’s early work was not ignored when she first appeared on the art scene; she simply opted out to be a wife and mother, yet another critic who profoundly disliked Harriet, insists that she  was “so obscure she wasn’t even a has-been.”

One of the interesting aspects of the book is its structure. It’s written as though ‘edited’ by a professor of aesthetics who is trying to reach the ‘true’ story about Harriet Burden, now dead, so we get multiple perspectives about Harriet and her actions. I was intrigued by the author’s approach. How much easier to have written a straight fiction book–let’s say, for example, a book that was written chronologically starting with Harriet married to wealthy art dealer Felix Lord and watching any hopes of her career crumble away as she recedes into the roles of betrayed wife and ignored hostess to various luminaries in the art world.  Instead this fictional work is presented as a faux non-fiction book. This construct is more complex and also takes a much more scholarly tone with many footnotes referencing the very real people mentioned throughout. While this approach doesn’t make an easier read (the footnotes can be distracting at times–I launched off on a whole tangent concerning James Tiptree Jr. at one point), Siri Hustvedt certainly creates a much more intriguing, in-depth and complex read by her bold approach to the topic. While this is the story of Harriet, her rage at a “phallocentric world,” and her attempt to unmask the hypocrisy of the art scene, this story is just one layer on the deeper questions: who decides what is great Art? Why is something Art while something else is trash? How much are critics and then by the trickle-down effect the audience swayed by image and celebrity? These questions are addressed in the multiple narratives within the novel–in particular through the voice of Case, an acidic art critic, one of the influential gatekeepers of the art scene, a man who decides what is great art and what is tired and boring. Throughout the book, the image of Harriet remains with some disturbing questions–how greatly was she tainted and damaged by her early perceptions of herself? How much was self-sabotage, lack of confidence, or simple life choices?

Thanks to both Caroline and Emma for pointing me to this author.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Hustvedt Siri

Six Figures by Fred G. Leebron

In Fred G. Leebron’s novel, Six Figures, Warner Lutz is the newly-appointed director of  MORE, a third-rate charity in Charlotte, North Carolina, with a very small budget. There’s BIG money to be made working for high-profile charities, but Warner certainly isn’t getting rich at a salary of $35,000 a year while his wife, Megan makes $25,000 a year working at an art gallery. With a combined income of $50,000, the Lutzs are just over double the poverty level for a family of 4, so we can’t exactly feel sorry for Warner. That’s ok, he’s busy feeling sorry for himself, and even Megan, who’s continually put in the position of finding the so-called silver lining, admits that Warner is the “most negative person” she knows.

six figuresWarner is full of bitterness, anger and resentment about all the things he doesn’t have. They live in a tiny townhouse and drive a beat-up Honda that’s clocked over 100,000 miles. It doesn’t help that Warner mingles with the wealthy or drives by their mansions, and while he knows that life could be worse, he could fall through the “trapdoor” and join “the working poor, the criminal poor,” he can still barely contain his resentment at being treated second class.

Yet he still wanted more. Every morning when he drove Sophie in their shitcan hundred-thousand-plus-mile Honda with the guardrail crease down one side to the private but only $175-a-month preschool and he saw the other parents in the new Volvos and minivans and Suburbans, he wanted more. Every noon when he stood in line at the vegetarian take-out for his cup of soup and can of diet cola while in a nearby café the gray suits and sleek dresses milled between garden salads and poached salmon, he wanted more. And in the evenings when he drew up to the cramped, redbrick town-house apartments of Crape-Myrtle Hill, having passed the magic dust mansions of the growing rank-and-file rich with their screened-in porches and their two-story great rooms sand their eat-in kitchens and their master bedroom baths and built-in saunas, he wanted more.

Warner deeply regrets going into charity work, but it’s too difficult to change careers, and so he spends his days bitterly comparing his lot in life with those who ooze money; he “failed to swallow Megan’s relativity argument,” and finds it impossible to curb his anger and resentment.  Megan becomes the centre of much of Warner’s anger, and when Warner’s job performance comes under scrutiny, pressure mounts to boiling point. Then something terrible happens.

Six Figures is a novel seeped in psychological suspense in a domestic setting, and in this examination of a marriage, we see the simple day-to-day demands of a family. Megan has put her career on hold in order to follow her husband, and yet he secretly resents her and the children. Everything seems to be a choice for the Lutzs as they juggle careers, car repairs and daycare with strained financial realities. Warner is stretched to breaking point by the immense pressures of his job, and his constant envy of the ever-elusive affluent lifestyle. While a crime takes place, this is not primarily a crime novel. Instead this is the story of a marriage, the assignment of blame, and the limits of trust.

Warner is an unlikeable, alienating character with a nasty temper, and while that’s not a problem in itself, nearly everyone in this slightly depressing book is unpleasant, including Warner’s parents who arrive on the scene from Pennsylvania. There are a few scenes in which Warner rubs up against those wealthier than him and while his resentments and observations are directed towards showing the superficiality of status markers, we see that he wants the very things he supposedly despises.  There will always to be people who have more than us, but you can bet that there are also people who have less. Warner and Megan’s social position puts them outside of the window of the wealthy looking in, and that’s an interesting but uncomfortable place to be. While it’s easy to have sympathy for Megan, it’s not easy to have sympathy for Warner, yet they are, after all, in the same boat.

I loved the book’s title–after all that six figure income is a term that’s bandied about and seems to mean that the recipient has passed some magical status marker to a point of arrival. It’s a bit odd though when you think about it as 101,000 is a lot different from 999,000 but those two numbers both qualify as ‘six figures.’ It was interesting to see how the Lutzs decided to spend $150 on carpet cleaning on a regular basis when they are supposedly squeezing every penny to buy a house, but that’s society for you. I’m always amazed at how many people who claim to be ‘broke’ have regular lawn service, or cleaners, or who take their pets to be washed when they could do it their damn selves.

The biggest problem I had with the novel is characterisation. Initially this seemed to be a character-driven novel focusing on the dynamics of a marriage, but for this reader, the crime aspect worked against the character development. For the first part of the novel, Warner is a time bomb waiting to explode and then later, he remains in control until one big outburst which is intended as a defense. Somehow this didn’t quite gel. There’s a big build up and then a dispersal of all that anger and rage as it disappears … puff… into the ozone. Perhaps people would act this way in this horrible situation, but character seemed secondary to the plot.  A couple of the plot twists strained credulity, and readers should be prepared for the ambiguity of the ending.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Leebron Fred G.

What We’ve Lost is Nothing by Rachel Louise Synder

Apart from gangster lore, I know very little about Chicago, but I wasn’t far into Rachel Louise Synder’s debut novel What We’ve Lost is Nothing, when I realized that the action is set in a real community. Oak Park has its very own Wikipedia page, and according to the book’s intro (which I didn’t read immediately in case it contained spoilers–it didn’t), “Oak Park is  a suburb in flux. To the west, theaters and shops frame posh homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. To the east lies a neighborhood trying desperately to recover from urban decline. Although the community’s Diversity Assurance program has curbed the destructive racial housing practices that migrated from Chicago’s notorious west side over the past decades, cultural and racial integration has been tenuous at best.” I’m including that entire quote because I can’t do better. The name “Austin Boulevard” also crops up in the novel, and I discovered that this road is the border between the crime-ridden community of Austin (termed Chicago’s deadliest neighbourhood) and the community of Oak Park. So who wants to live in Oak Park, the neighbourhood which boasts the largest number of Frank Lloyd Wright designed residences? Come on raise your hands….

what we've lost is nothingWhat We’ve Lost is Nothing focuses on a neighbourhood mass burglary that takes place one afternoon in Oak Park’s fictional Ilios Lane, a cul-de-sac of eight houses–all of which are burglarized. The incident challenges the lives and beliefs of the residents as shock waves from the burglary wash through the neighbourhood and issues of race and class float to the surface.

The premise of the novel sounded … well… interesting.  Burglaries are traumatic events for anyone, and that trauma goes far beyond the loss of stuff that can be replaced. Sometimes items that are worth next to nothing, but hold immense sentimental value, are taken, and then there’s the sense of violation that remains long after the event. For the residents of Ilios Lane, however, the burglary has even deeper ramifications as the residents begin to question whether or not they can live a safe middle-class existence right next to the crime-ridden community of Austin, located on the borders of Oak Park.  This is especially true for Susan McPherson who’s an agent at a housing office and who believes wholeheartedly in “diversity assurance.” She spends her days showing apartments to young couples, proud of her “progressivism,” assuring them that the neighbourhoods are safe.  She believes in her sales pitch until the burglary tells her otherwise. Meanwhile, her husband, Michael, begins to feel that he has to ‘do something,’ and his inner fascist awakes.

The novel begins the day after the burglaries and then follows various characters for the 24-hour fallout after the event. Mary McPherson, a cheerleader, was cutting school with Sofia, a Cambodian friend, and the two girls were high on Ecstasy, under the dining room table during the course of the burglary. Another couple, the Kowalskis, were on holiday, others were at work, and one man, Arthur Gardenia, the novel’s most sympathetic character, who suffers from Hemeralopia, was at his usual daytime post– upstairs in the dark. He heard noises downstairs but was too afraid to investigate. The items stolen from his house are without value to the thieves, but the loss crushes Arthur and tests the limits of his already-fragile existence.

Who goes into a pawnshop in search of used notebooks? What was the street value for such a personal thing? Arthur fought waves of nausea and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He couldn’t even search for them himself, his vision was too poor. They were simply gone. He sat on his bed, fighting a growing sense of helplessness, waiting, it might seem, until the sanctity of his haven was restored, the one place he felt he could emerge from his own helplessness. This, too, he had to admit, was what had been invaded. Not his home, but his sense of security.

Meanwhile Mary finds that Caz, the school lothario, is attracted by her new-found notoriety and increased “social capital.” Understanding that the burglary “catapulted her into Caz’s periphery,” she’s desperate to hang on to that attention.

While the novel, with its emphasis on class and race has a very interesting premise, I wish the plot had spent more time on some of the other residents; additional development with some of the more neglected characters would have produced a more even story. We see that for some residents of Oak Park, life there is an arrival, a step up into the middle-class, but for others, it’s a daily fight to keep their heads above water. While the burglary realistically brought some issues between the neighbours to the surface, the whole diversity issue was hammered too heavily. It was there front and central immediately through geography and Mrs McPherson’s employment, and the additional elements (particularly her run) moved the story from incident to cliché. The portrayal of the Cambodian family was also weak.

Unfortunately, there seemed to be a little too much emphasis on Mary and Caz, and aren’t cheerleaders, by their very role, popular? At least that was my impression, but here Mary is painted as a bit of a wall flower who’s desperate for Caz’s attention. The final scene between Caz and Mary was far too extended and resulted in an unfortunate and not entirely believable conclusion.  On the positive side, I liked the way the novel showed that the residents all led fairly fragile existences for one reason or another, and that these lives were shattered by the burglaries. If you’re on the bottom levels of society, suburbia may seem enviable, an impossible dream, but middle-class life brings its own nightmares, and the author explored that aspect of the story well. Also of note are the fast-forward moments which give us glimpses into the futures of some of the characters, and the insertion of the listserv comments where various paranoias and beliefs emerge, and everyone unleashes an opinion they might not express face-to-face.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction

A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor

Peter Taylor (1917-1994) was born in Trenton, a city in Tennessee that appears in A Summons To Memphis, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel for 1987. There are a few autobiographical features to this story, but they are just trimmings in a slow-moving, eloquent novel about family dynamics and a crisis bad enough for siblings to gather to take action. There’s always a division of opinion when it comes to prize winners, and this also applies to Taylor’s novel, but for anyone out there who’d like to try some Southern American Literature (which is its own sub-genre), this is a great place to start, for while the ‘Southernness’ of the novel may seem foreign or even quaint, most of us will be able to identify with the toxic family dynamic, and perhaps, most importantly, there’s no Southern dialect to wrestle with.

a summons to memphisOur narrator is 49 year-old Phillip Carver, a man who escaped from his Memphis family years before and is now living in New York as a book editor. He was living with a much younger woman, but something has gone wrong with the relationship–nothing easily identifiable, but they’ve separated. Phillip was originally one of four children, but his older brother was killed in WWII–there’s the sense that at worst he got himself killed on purpose, and at best, threw his life away. Now there are the three siblings left–all unmarried, and that’s enough to make the reader sit up and take notice. Phillip keeps in contact with his family mainly through the newsy letters written by his two middle-aged, spinster sisters. Their mother died two years before, and that leaves their geriatric father on his own. Thanks to the letters, Phillip is aware that many elderly widows have been inviting the elderly Mr. Carver for dinner, but things have taken a more serious turn; he’s been seen at local night spots with much younger women, and now, he’s announced his imminent marriage:

The courtship and remarriage of an old widower is always made more difficult when middle-aged children are involved–especially when there are unmarried daughters. This seemed particularly true in the landlocked backwater city of Memphis some forty-odd years ago. At least it is a certainty that remarriage was more difficult for old widowers in Memphis than it was over in Nashville, say, or in Knoxville–or even in Chattanooga, for that matter.

That opening paragraph sets the scene and the tone of the book–along with the theme that life in Memphis is different from life in Nashville–a most important factor once we uncover the Carver family history. Phillip receives two separate phone calls–one from each sister, Betsy and Jo, demanding that he come back home (his summons to Memphis) and assist in thwarting their father’s plans for matrimony.  As Phillip sits in his Manhattan apartment he recalls various similar case histories in which family members banded together and had their elderly parents hauled off into hospitals, dragged into court, or held prisoner on their own plantations away from “any female predator in Memphis.”  All these stories caused Phillip discomfort and embarrassment when he first heard them, and he never expected this to occur in his own family.  Of course, these situations do occur frequently, and then many questions erupt regarding inheritance, mental competence and whether or not the bride to be is a gold-digger. The sense we get from Phillip is an overwhelming embarrassment and shame that his father’s nocturnal activities with a much younger woman have become the source of jokes in the community–mainly thanks to his sisters who hold court at various social events while they recall their father’s attempts to dance and how foolish he looks trying to keep up with people young enough to be his grandchildren.

At this point, A Summons to Memphis may sound like an old familiar story as the adult children gather for an ‘intervention,’ but here’s where the story is different–Phillip goes back into the family’s past, and a complex set of familial relationships are uncovered which reveal exactly why those sisters are unmarried. At one time the Carvers lived in a mansion in Nashville but the father was ruined by a Mr. Lewis Shackleford, who was also, unfortunately, their neighbour. More than forty years earlier, the family moved to Memphis in 1931 for a fresh start, and while the father’s law practice was successful, Phillip’s mother sank into “nearly thirty years of real or imagined invalidism,” and the scars from the Nashville move remained permanently damaging. Now the plump middle-aged sisters run a successful real estate company, and according to Alex Mercer, Phillip’s best friend and a professor at Memphis State University, they are “the laughingstock of Memphis.”

The awful fact was that with figures by no means any longer youthful they often got themselves up in the most extreme fashions that only the most sylphlike and dashing young girls should have worn in any given year–even the most daring fashions, one might say. If, for instance, low backs were favored for evening gowns, their backs would be bare down to the divide in their rather sizable buttocks. Or if particularly low necklines were in vogue, then theirs would plunge between mountainous breasts practically to the navel. If slit skirts were the fashion, then my sisters’ would be vented well above the knees, exposing fleshy thighs which by this time in my sisters’ lives were indeed of no inconsiderable size. Whenever I was at home I had ample opportunity to observe all Alex told me about them was true. They would sometimes come by father’s house before they went out of an evening to ask Father and me to inspect their ridiculous getups. If we were shocked, then they would laugh uproariously. Sometimes I felt their appearance was as big a joke to themselves as to everyone else. But laughingstock or not, I could seldom manage a smile even at the grotesquery of my sisters’ costumes or the awful incongruity of their figures with the alluring postures they assumed. Because I would always see in them still vestiges of the beautiful older sisters of my Nashville boyhood.

That quote gives a strong sense of the author’s languid style. This is a very slow-moving, eloquently constructed novel, and while the title, A Summons to Memphis may indicate that much of the tale takes place there, it’s more a signifier of a family in crisis, and most of the novel is devoted to Phillip’s memories and the telling of his family’s history. This really is a wonderful book, an exquisite example of Southern Literature, with its unhurried, placid style, and exposition of Memphis society. But even more than that, there’s the sense that the Carver family would seem quite strange to an outsider, but Phillip’s narration makes sense of it all, exposing the central paradox at the heart of the family dynamic. The lines of familial responsibility and intervention shift and alter with time. Some family wounds take a long time to heal, and in order for us to mature, we need to forgive, or at the very least, forget:

Forgetting the injustices and seeming injustices which one suffered from one’s parents during childhood and youth must be the major part of any maturing process. I kept repeating this to myself, as though it were a lesson I would at some future time be accountable for. A certain oblivion was what we must undergo in order to become adults and live peacefully with ourselves. Suddenly my sisters seemed no longer a mystery to me. I understood much of their past conduct as never before. They were still, while actually in their mid-fifties, two teenaged girls dressed up and playing roles. It was their way of not facing or accepting the facts of their adult life. They could not forget the old injuries. They wished to keep them alive. They were frozen forever in their roles as injured adolescents.


Filed under Fiction, Taylor Peter

T.C. Boyle Stories II: The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle

At 945 pages, T.C. Boyle Stories II: The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle, follows volume 1 which was a mere 708 pages. If you’re a TC Boyle fan, then you really can’t go wrong with this collection, and if you’ve never read this author but like short stories, then there’s something here for you. The first volume was published in 1998, so here we are 15 years later with volume 2, and T.C. Boyle’s been busy. The stories are a combination of various short story collections: After the Plague (15 of the 16 stories), Tooth and Claw (15), Wild Child (14), and 14 uncollected stories which appear in the final section of the book under the title: A Death in Kitchawank.

TC Boyle StoriesAs with any collection, there are some stories that hit a nerve and stay with you. This is such a large collection, it’s impossible to discuss all my favourites, but Boyle got my attention right away with the first story in the collection: Termination Dust. This story is set in Alaska–a place I’ve never visited, but a state that holds a fascination for me. The story is about a ‘event’–I don’t know what else to call it–which involves 107 single, all-too available women who arrive from the lower 48 to meet Alaskan bachelors:

There were a hundred and seven of them, of all ages, shapes and sizes, from twenty-five-  and thirty-year-olds in dresses that looked like they were made of saran wrap to a couple of big-beamed older types in pantsuits who could have been somebody’s mother–and I mean somebody grown, with a goatee beard and a job at McDonald’s.

Our narrator is Ned, a man who’s there to greet the mostly “hard-looking” women as they arrive at a hotel for the Labor Day Weekend event which includes a buffet, a “Malibu Beach Party,” and an auction. See in a town like Boynton, population 170, there are just 32 women, “all of them married and all of them invisible.” Women are in short supply, and there are reasons for that. English teacher, Jordy seems to stand out from the rest of the women at the auction, so after the meet-and-greet it’s probably not surprising that bidding for a date with Jordy is hot and heavy. Local bad boy Bud Withers, who now has plastic feet after his real ones were badly frostbitten following a night of boozing, bids against Ned. The proceeds from the auction are for charity, but charity is far from the minds of the men as they bid, furiously, for the women.

Nobody talked about sex–that would demean the spirit of the thing–but it was there, under the surface, like a burning promise.

Killing Babies is another favourite and this story shows how TC Boyle can take a controversial subject and weave it into fiction but this is not a ‘statement’ story, so the characters feel very real . This is the story of Rick, a young addict, just out of rehab, who moves in with his brother, sister-in-law and their children as part of his court-dictated release agreement.

When I got out of rehab for the second time, there were some legal complications, and the judge–an old jerk who looked like they’d just kicked him out of the Politburo–decided I needed a sponsor. There was a problem with some checks I’d been writing for a while there when my resources were going up the glass tube.

Rick leaves sunny California and lands in Detroit in the middle of the long winter–a place where “the only palm trees are under glass in the botanical gardens.” Rick is one of those people who doesn’t take life too seriously:

I wasn’t stupid. Not particularly–no stupider than anybody else, anyway–and I was no criminal, either. I’d just drifted into a kind of thick sludge of hopelessness after I dropped out of school for a band I put my whole being into, a band that disintegrated within the year, and one thing led to another. Jobs came and went. I spent a lot of time on the couch, channel-surfing and thumbing through books that used to mean something to me. I found women and lost them. And I learned that a line up your nose is a dilettante’s thing, wasteful and extravagant. I started smoking, two or three nights a week, and then it was every day, all day, and why not?

Rick hasn’t seen Philip in six years, and Philip hasn’t aged well:

So Philip. He met me at the airport, his thirty-eight year face as trenched with anal-retentive misery as our father’s was in the year before he died.

You’d think there would be some catching up to do, but the relationship slides back into its old grooves. At first, Rick thinks that Philip has an enviable life, but there’s something wrong, and Rick, who’s hired as “an entry-level drudge” at his brother’s clinic, soon finds out what the problem is. Rick’s never taken anything in life, even his rehab, his check-bouncing, and his court appearances to heart, but now here suddenly he finds himself in the middle of a situation fraught with tension and controversy. Will this be a maturing experience or an explosive one?

Boyle shows his incredible range in these stories, always hitting an authentic voice–no matter the subject, the character, or the situation. In Achates McNeil, a young college student who was abandoned by his famous, hip author father, is confronted by the very man he loathes in his Contemporary American Literature class when he sees two of his father’s novels on the syllabus. Achates find out the hard way that having a famous father has its benefits and its drawbacks, and even the benefits seem to morph into drawbacks somehow. Achates finds himself publicly confronted with his father’s impossible ego, stripped of any privacy he may have had when his father decides, once again, to use real life as the raw material for a novel.

After the Plague takes a look at a post-apocalyptic America, and I loved this story for its unique take on a clichéd much-overused scenario. In Peep Hall, a story in which reality and fantasy collide, a under-employed middle-aged man who works on his Master’s thesis (eleven years behind schedule) in his spare time, becomes addicted to “Peep Hall,” a subscription website in which six college girls “going about their business” are monitored by strategically placed cameras as they shower, gossip, and exercise (in the nude). In  Jubiliation, a great favourite, no matter which author or story collection under consideration, concerns an affluent man who decides to buy a home in a popular Florida theme park. In this “dream community,” houses are in demand and are sold by lottery. Jackson Peters Reilly considers himself lucky to ‘win’ and he moves into the community–only to find that things can still go south.

I’ve been living in Jubilation for almost two years now. There’s been a lot of change in that time, both for the better and the worse, as you might expect in any real and authentic town composed of real and authentic people with their iron-clad personalities and various personal agendas, but overall I’d say I chose the Contosh Corp’s vision of community living. I’ve got friends here, neighbors, people who care about me the way I care about them. We’ve had our crises–no question about it–Mother Nature has been pretty erratic these past two years–and there isn’t a man, woman or child in Jubilation who isn’t worried about maintain property values in the face of all the naysaying and criticism that’s come our way. Still, it’s the people this whole thing is about, and the people I know are as determined and forward-looking a bunch as any you’d ever hope to find. We’ve built something here, something I think we can all be proud of.

With some exceptions, this bulk of this collection explores many aspects of contemporary American life–the controversial, the mundane, life as we experience it in its many manifestations. As fans of Boyle’s work know, one of this author’s favourite themes is the conflict between civilisation and the wilderness, so that theme also appears frequently here in many of the stories. From the back story of the underground gardens of Fresno, a case of plane rage, and the voice of a middle-aged woman who believes that “cleanliness … is what separates us from the animals,” Boyle shows compassion, insight and a remarkable ability to create authentic voices.  This is a huge collection, and it serves to showcase Boyle’s incredible talent.
Review copy


Filed under Boyle T. C., Fiction

The Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt

“It’s always the memories you comb through the most avidly that fade the fastest, that are eclipsed  by–what to call it–? a sort of memory-fiction. Like a dream. Whereas the things we forget totally, the things that sneak up on us in the middle of the night, after thirty years–they’re so uncannily fresh.”

Sometimes reading choices are serendipitous, and that is definitely the case with David Leavitt’s excellent novel The Two Hotel Francforts as it turned out to be a perfect companion piece to a novel I read earlier this year: Transit. While Transit (which is highly recommended, by the way) depicts desperate Jewish refugees trying to exit Marseille, The Two Hotel Francforts depicts two affluent couples–one American, the other Anglo-American–in Lisbon in no particular hurry to embark on the SS Manhattan for New York.    

We met the Frelengs in Lisbon, at the Café Suiça. This was in June 1940, when we were all in Lisbon waiting for the ship that was coming to rescue us and take us to New York. By us, I mean, of course, us Americans, expatriates of long standing mostly, for whom the prospect of returning home was a bitter one.

The narrator is Pete Winters, a General Motors executive stationed in Paris, who is married to the very high-maintenance, temperamental and neurotic Julia. Being married to Julia is like devoting oneself to a cause, but since Pete acknowledges that “she was never satisfied, my Julia,” it’s a thankless, wearying task. When pursuing Julia, he “disregard[ded] every warning sign” which included Julia’s own mother who told Pete “I beg you to reconsider” when he indicate his desire to marry her daughter. Now, the marriage isn’t about passion, love or even friendship–it’s about one person absorbing the other’s demands, neediness and neuroticism:

All my life, I saw, I had been looking, in the absence of any pressing desire of goal, for a purposefulness outside myself on which I might, as it were, ride piggyback. It could have been a religion, it could have been a political party, it could have been a collection of musical instruments made from shoeshine boxes. Instead it was Julia.

As the background of this couple is teased out, we learn that Julia and Pete have lived in Paris for 15 years now in a mausoleum of a showcase apartment. They moved to Paris at her insistence, and “she had sworn” that she would never return to America. Julia intended to be a writer, but “she could only write first chapters. The middle, the vast middle, defeated her.” Instead, she’s become an empty woman who shops and decorates endlessly and is terrified that her many relatives will swoop into her home. She claims to see various relatives in various places and these sightings cause her to panic & run into hiding. Pete, who is used to dealing with Julia’s hysteria, isn’t convinced that these sightings are legitimate.  It’s with a sense of defeat and a low-grade panic that Julia counts the days until the SS Manhattan arrives. Julia schemes to stay in Portugal, and there’s the hint, from this story that’s narrated about the long-ago past, that something goes terribly wrong:

And how funny to think that when all is said and done, she was right and I was wrong! For we would have been perfectly safe in Portugal. Well it is too late for her to lord that over me now.

With money and the appropriate papers, Lisbon is a decent place to wait for a ship sailing for America. After all, “everything that was scarce in France and Spain was plentiful here: meat, cigarettes, gin. The only trouble was overcrowding.” As the refugees pour in, “hotel rooms were nearly impossible to come by.” As a consequence, there’s a desperate end-of-the-world air to Lisbon, with some people staying up all night long at the casino. The Winters are the lucky ones. They have somewhere to go and the papers to ensure they get there.  They are also lucky enough to secure an excellent room at the Hotel Francfort, but with Julia insisting that she doesn’t want to leave, there’s a great deal of tension between Pete and Julia. Then the Winters meet Iris and Edward Freleng and their elderly dog, Daisy. Meeting the Frelengs is a welcome distraction for Pete Winters, but Julia dislikes them. Iris begins to absorb some of Julia’s demanding fitfulness, and this gives Pete a little respite from Julia’s 24-7 care. The meeting seems fortuitous, and the Frelengs offer Pete, at least, interesting intelligent company for the week or so before their ship arrives. But just what is the Frelengs’ game? ….

the two hotel francfortsStrong on characterization, the novel sets the scene by showing how Pete feeling “almost giddy with relief and gratitude,” leaps at the apparent lifeline thrown to him by the Frelengs. Pete is mentally exhausted by herding the unwilling Julia to Lisbon, and the Frelengs, who are peers in the same socioeconomic status, appear to absorb some of Julia’s neediness. Julia’s impossible personality does not deter the Frelengs who seem determined to ‘buddy up,’ and the very first time the Winters meet the Frelengs, Iris drags an unwilling Julia off to see the vet blatantly ignoring Julia’s protests and disgust with Daisy.

It seems natural, at first, that the Frelengs, who write detective novels under the name Xavier Legrand, should want to spend the next 7-10 days in the company of the Winters, but then again, Julia doesn’t exactly attract friends. Her petulant self-focus is expressed almost the moment she meets the Frelengs and the two couples exchange thoughts about the war that has ripped their life plans apart:

“Us?” I said. “Oh we’ve been lucky.”

“And just how is that, pray tell?” Julia said.

“Well, we’ve made it this far without getting killed, haven’t we? A ship’s coming to rescue us. And when you think what some of these poor devils wouldn’t give to have a ticket on that ship–”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t see why their having to leave their homes is any worse than our having to leave our homes,” Julia said.

“Oh, but it is,” Iris said. “Because we’ve got somewhere to flee to, haven’t we? Whereas all they have to look forward to is exile–that is, if they find a country willing to accept them.”

“But it’s exile for us, too,” Julia said. “France was our home, too.”

It’s impossible not to draw parallels between The Two Hotel Francforts and Ford Madox Ford’s excellent novel The Good Soldier, for while the setting is different, both novels examine two marriages and the problematic relationships sparked between the two couples years after the events take place. Leavitt’s intriguing title, The Two Hotel Francforts hints at the duplicity at play in the novel, and that duplicity exists on several levels. No one is quite what they seem and everyone reveals what they want people to see–no more than that.

For Edward, his broad shoulders notwithstanding, was mercurial. You could reach for him, and sometimes you would grab hold of him. But sometimes all you would grab hold of was a reflection of a reflection in a revolving door.

The ‘rules’ and dynamics of any marriage are impenetrable to outsiders, and both the Winters and the Freleng’s marriages are pathological, but in very different ways. While we know almost immediately how toxic the Winters’ marriage is, just what keeps the Freleng’s marriage together isn’t apparent at first–although the dog Daisy is arguably part of the visible gel that bonds Iris and Edward. Their lives appear to coalesce around Daisy, and it’s because of her they declined to take a ship to England. As these two couples wait for the ship that will take them to New York, the foundation of European civilization is in a state of upheaval; people are running for their lives, and here, just as the Winters and the Frelengs appear to have reached safety, their lives are ripped apart by duplicity and will never be the same. The four main characters, whose actions are clouded with desire, desperation and selfishness, are thrown together by circumstance as the world spins from unbridled fascism. They all lie to each other and to themselves, and as Iris tells Pete:

Poor thing, you’re such an innocent in some ways. Such a novice. You think there’s a protocol to all this … But there are no rules here. We’re beyond rules.

While the narrator of Ford Madox Ford’s novel, The Good Soldier, is classically unreliable, the narrator of The Two Hotel Francforts appears to be reliable. But after I put the book down, I chewed that decision over, and concluded that Pete Winters, in the depths of the lies he contrives, could possibly be unreliable in his version of events. Was his marriage to Julia quite how he portrayed it with him as the unhappy factotum for his wife’s neurotic demands? After all, we only have his version of things decades later. If you can’t already tell, I loved this novel for the way in which Leavitt depicted the complexities of these two toxic, brittle marriages–both kept together by a set of unspoken rules.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Leavitt, David

Happyland by J. Robert Lennon

 Author J.Robert Lennon struggled to get Happyland published–astonishing really when you consider just how good an author he is, but apparently publishers feared lawsuits for implied connections between the very fictional Happyland and the real life story of Pleasant Rowland and the town of Aurora, in New York state. In the introduction, Lennon explains his multiple thwarted attempts to get this novel published adding that “if you’d told me in 2003 that this novel wouldn’t be read in its entirety until 2013, I would probably have stopped writing it–and if you’d told me why, I might have sought out, at least for a while, a less heartbreaking profession than novel writing.”

This is clearly a satire, a work of fiction, and yes inspired by an idea. The author states that he didn’t intend to “write anything remotely controversial,” but he got an idea from real life and ran with it. Unfortunately, publishers were worried about “unthreatened lawsuits,” and when the author refused to change some of the story basics, the book was shelved, appearing only in serial form in Harper’s in 2006. What a great shame that a writer of Lennon’s calibre had to wait so long for the novel to make it to readers, but here it is at last, and it’s well worth the wait….

happylandThe main character of Happyland is middle-aged Happy Masters, married to millionaire mogul James Masters, and while the marriage “dulled by familiarity” isn’t love-y in any sort of traditional sense, it’s successful mainly due to the fact that Happy and James lead their own lives and their meetings are infrequent, “explosive collisions, cataclysmic unleashings of pent-up emotion. Where once they argued, they now fought, open-handed and filthy-mouthed.” 

Happy “founder, CEO and creative mastermind of Happy Girls, Inc” formed the doll company 25 years earlier when “weary of her duties as a bride of privilege,” she found a broken antique doll and began a collection. Happy’s sad childhood never included a doll, and this one precious doll grew to a large, expensive collection, and then she formed Happy Dolls–a company which eventually included an entire line of historic dolls “decked out in period clothes,” and included storybooks with cheesy, abbreviated versions of history. No one could have predicted Happy’s phenomenal success. She intuited what children wanted–probably because her own childhood was spent in longing. Some of her dolls are so popular that “near riots” occur when stock runs low.

There were ninety-two different dolls currently in production, and one hundred fifty-six discontinued models, which had their own separate category on e-Bay. There were websites conferences, clubs. There was fan fiction. There for full-size clothes for real girls to wear, There was an animated cartoon and a live-action dramatic series. There had been one movie Lily and Sally, critically panned but big box office.

Some people overcome horrendous childhood experiences to become almost inhuman, and that’s Happy Masters in a word. Happy was an orphan, “raised by a bitter, alcoholic aunt,” and she learned to “[endure] the inventive maliciousness of two older cousins.” This rags-to-riches story may sound a bit like Cinderella, and we’d expect a happy ending. In a way, Happy has that happy ending. When the novel opens, she’s attended the funeral of one of the cousins. Now they are both dead and Happy has lived to see her 2 of her 3 worst enemies placed 6 feet under. Aunt Missy, however, is still alive, as garrulous as ever, and a meeting at the graveside comes dangerously close to violence.

After the ugly, vicious scene with her aunt at the funeral, Happy drives around for a few hours to cool off. Her journey takes her to the small college town of Equinox, population 410,  sleepy, pretty and quaint in its genteel decay and with a dark bizarre history. To Happy, it’s a “forlorn town, a dilapidated town: barely a town at all, just a few blocks clustered around a handful of cracked and dirty streets.” And it’s here as Happy looks around the town and its disinterested service population, that an idea takes root in her “toxic heart.” Equinox will become her next triumph, her “Jerusalem.”

She learned long ago that there was no point in looking for the thing you wanted; only the weak wanted things that could be found. The greatest desires could only be fulfilled by creating their object: a toy, a man, a state of mind.

She begins by bossing around the local real estate agent and handing the astonished woman a check for a neglected mansion with a beautiful lake view. Then slowly and strategically, Happy approaches various business owners in Equinox.  She begins by buying key operations–the inn, the beauty salon, the dusty corner market–initially offering overly generous sums of money, but then she starts to play dirty. Soon the town becomes divided over Happy’s plan to renovate Equinox making it some sort of glitzy tourist destination which will include a Happy Girl Museum. Most people who lived there were perfectly happy with the town the way it was, but a few people are thrilled to grab the money Happy offers for their anemic businesses.

And people in the  bar had started taking sides. By and large the locals liked the idea–rumor had it Ken Pell had gotten more than a hundred grand for the market, which was probably three times what it was worth, and there were plenty of Equinoxians who would stab their own sisters for that kind of money. College people, on the other hand–professors–said they’d never sell. They liked Equinox because it was quaint and cheap and on the lake. They liked authenticity, which evidently meant hicks and greasers, and they disliked the rich, a category they apparently excused themselves from.

Locals, though: they liked the idea of some bigwig moving into town. They liked somebody spreading money around. They thought it would help.

Even the people who dislike and distrust Happy have no idea of the sort of person they are dealing with. Underneath the public persona of sweetness and a great understanding of children, the real Happy is a hard, driven and canny millionairess who will do whatever it takes to ‘own’ Equinox. That includes lying, cheating, and breaking the law–it’s all on the table over the battle for Equinox. Happy feels renewed by her new plan, and that makes her a very dangerous adversary. Anyone who has the guts or the lack of imagination to stand in Happy’s way discovers the hard way that this woman plays dirty. Happy’s plan of attack when it comes to her play to take over Equinox College–a small private institution for women is simply hilarious.

Here’s Happy in a long quote that gives a sense of the author’s style, Happy’s character and merciless MO as she’s about to take over the general store:

From inside, a rustling, a scraping, a heavy tread. The door swung open. As soon as Happy saw the owner, she knew the battle was won. A shame, really, she’d hoped for a fight. It hardly seemed worth going through the motions now. The man who stood before her was little taller than she was, and half again as heavy; he had the blockish body that results from a five-coke-a-day habit and a lifetime of indolence. His coarse gray hair drooped over a pitted forehead, and the eyes were brown and dull as bark. They regarded her from behind thick curtains of tired flesh, and thick black eyebrows–dyed? she wondered, and is so, why?–dove into the furrows between them, in hostile curiosity. Happy said. “Mister …?”


“Mr. Pell, so pleased to meet you. I’m Happy Masters.”

The steel door snicked shut behind her, and a switch was flipped in her head. She was different now: relentless, glib, incontrovertible. Homo hardsellius.

“Mr. Pell, let me get straight to the point. I want to buy your store. Today.”

“Not for sale,” he said, but a hint of life crept into those hooded eyes.

“You could be on your way home, right now, with a check in your hand. You could, in fact, be on your way out of town. Winter will be here soon, Mr. Pell. You could be on Maui by the end of the week.”

“Where?” he muttered.

“Hawaii, sir. or wherever you like” Finland, maybe, or Canada. Gotta hurry this up–it was like doing business in a doghouse.

“Mr. Pell, I would like you to retire today. I would like these to be the last moments you spend in this store. I would like to remove the burden of this property from your hands, right now. What would it take to make this happen?”

While Happyland has a delightful, wonderful plot, it’s also full of some great characters, including laconic, easy-going Bud and his tenacious wife, Jennifer who own the rundown gas station/ice cream kiosk. Jennifer makes a decent adversary for Happy as she’s every bit as mean and merciless but, unfortunately, lacks deep pockets. There’s also David who owns the local bar who would like to have principles if he could afford them, and  “middle-aged and languishing,” Reeve Tennyson, the college president who landed in this third-rate school after an embarrassing scandal that he walked into through his own ineptness. Aware that Equinox college really wanted to employ a woman, he’s a bit ashamed of working at Equinox College with its all female enrollment and the large percentage of lesbian students. He mostly hides out in his office, waits for his life to pass and thinks he’s hit rock bottom. It’s probably a good thing that he has no idea of the fate Happy Masters has in store for him.

Poor fella. He was doomed to lose. She could have told him this back in the day. The wandering eye, the nervous hands–it was a wonder he managed to get as far as he did before he fell. And the saddest part of all was that he thought he had landed. he thought this was the bottom.

Well, far be it from her to disabuse him of that notion. There was nothing quite so useful as someone who think she has nothing to lose. Indeed, there were, as life had demonstrated to Happy time and time again, treasures at the dump.

 Happyland  with its dark, satiric humour is very different from the other two Lennon novels I’ve read Castle and Familiar. But even though Happyland is meant to be taken as a very funny story, there’s no shortage of moral questions raised in this quintessential American novel in which money and power trumps all other considerations. Does anyone as filthy rich as Happy Masters have the moral right to convert and co-opt an entire town to their own purpose? And then there’s the response of the townspeople–some business owners would really like to sell to Happy but they’re affronted by her attitude that everything and everyone is for sale, so they don’t immediately sell. This results in a war between locals and Happy, who’s a) determined to get her way and b) ready to bury her enemies in financial disaster. Happyland looks at the reaction of the average Citizen when he’s faced with being either figuratively bulldozed into oblivion by a multi-million dollar corporation or starved off the face of the earth by someone with near-endless financial resources.  Taking a moral stand or arguing principles is a very expensive position to maintain as several townspeople find out the hard way. Then there’s Happy–a woman who possesses many admirable character traits but they’ve been trumped by her own moral corrosion and steady diet of endless power and money. Finally on the meta-level, there’s author J. Robert Lennon  who refused to compromise his principles when it came to altering some of the story basics, and he had to wait ten years for this book to appear in novel form…. I thoroughly enjoyed  Happyland  for its complete change of pace, its even, funny narrative and its underlying moral questions. This book (and its author) comes highly recommended.

review copy


Filed under Fiction, Lennon J. Robert

Others of My Kind by James Sallis

“The past is what we are, even as we’re constantly leaving it.”

After The Killer is Dying, Drive and Driven, James Sallis returns with a complete change of pace with Others of My Kind, a thoughtful, deeply troubling look at the long-term effects of a heinous crime. Following the phenomenal success of the film Drive, Hollywood must have its eye on this author’s work, but I’m not sure if anyone will touch Others of My Kind without significant revision due to its controversial elements.

others of my kindSet in the not too-distant future, we find a troubled America in turmoil. Jenny Rowan, a single woman who works as a video editor for a Washington DC television station returns home one day to find Jack Collins, a young detective from Violent Crimes waiting for her. Collins is there for help.

Look, I’m just gonna say this. I spent the last few hours up at the county hospital, Maricopa. Young woman by the name of Cheryl got brought in there last night. Twenty years old going on twelve. Way it came about was, the neighbors got  a new dog that wouldn’t stop barking. They didn’t have a clue, tried everything. Then, first chance the dog had, it shot out the door, parked itself outside the adjoining apartment and wouldn’t be drawn away. Finally they called nine-one-one. Couple of officers responded, got no answer at the door, had the super key them in.

Inside the apartment was a young girl stuffed in a closet, obviously the victim of some sexual sadist.  Now in hospital, Cheryl, damaged and traumatized has simply stopped talking. No one knows who she is, where she came from, or how long she’s been kept a prisoner. Perhaps she’s suffered from “sensory deprivation,”  and someone else speculates that she’s “retarded.” According to Collins, she just stares  “like she was behind thick glass looking out.” Jenny understands Cheryl’s reaction because when she was eight years old she was kidnapped by a child molester, and kept imprisoned in a box under his bed for two years.

I’m not sure I was much more than a doll for him. Something he took out to play with.

Jenny Rowan has reinvented herself from a past in which she has only a few fractured childhood memories before she was taken from the Westwood Mall. later, known as the “mall girl,” she grows up in the child-care system.  How does anyone ‘recover’ or deal with a past like this? Jenny never sees herself as a victim, and instead she builds an independent life, but she’s always a little ‘different.’ Valuing her privacy and finding comfort from isolation, Jenny is still, according to one friend, in a “box.” Several things change that–Jenny’s relationship with Cheryl, a relationship with a group of squatters, and even a relationship that reaches into the White House. Perhaps part of Jenny’s growth comes from the knowledge that other people reached out and gave help to her, and now it’s time for her to do the same.

In Days in the History of Silence, a book I read recently, the main characters opt for silence rather than discuss some of the more painful incidents in their lives. That novel asks how we cope with the negative, the darkness in our lives. Do we pretend it never happened or do we allow it to consume us? In Others of My Kind, Jenny has taken a very different approach to her darkest experiences. She understands that they are part of the mosaic which forms her character. Those years are not shoved out of her memory; they’re part of who she is. It’s ironic, really, that Jenny’s work life is spent editing video down to form a desirable narrative. Life isn’t that easy–although we typically shed memories we’re rather forget and shape others in our favour.

Jenny is an unusual combination of characteristics. She doesn’t need people around and enjoys distance in her relationships, and yet she’s not afraid to let people in her life. Her initial reaction to Jack Collins was to invite him in and offer him half of her dinner. How many of us could be that unwary, that generous? Then add Jenny’s past to the equation, and we see a rare young woman who has reached some sort of acceptance about what happened to her. Here she is with Jack Collins:

There’s no anger in you, is there, Jenny? None at all. I don’t understand that.”

“Who would you have me be angry with?”

“Your parents?”

“I never knew them.”

“The man who abducted you.”

“Danny? He was just being true to what he was, being Danny. He couldn’t help himself. And that was many and many a year ago–”

“In a kingdom by the sea.”

“Exactly. There’s nothing I can do to change any of it.”

“Society, then–for allowing this to happen.”

“Way too big a bag to haul around, on such a short trip.”

According to Jenny, Jack wants answers and everything black and white.

“You want it all to make sense, don’t you?” I said. “Our lives, the world. Clear reasons. Explanations. Even when you know better than most how untidy the world and all our lives are.”

What makes some people survive and others crumble with despair? To Jenny, it’s a decision. As she tells Cheryl:

At some point, we realize that it’s not just going to happen, that we’re going to have to make the decision to become human and out some effort into it. Most start young as a matter of course. Others, people like you and me, we have good reason for being late starters. But the struggle’s the same. We work at making a self for most of a lifetime. only to find that the self we’ve created is inseparable from the struggle.

At 128 pages, Others of My Kind is a novella which explores isolation and includes some big questions and covers some disturbing territory. This is a not a traditional story, and instead Sallis opts for an unusual narrative trajectory which as the story winds down, swallows up the passage of time in just a few pages. For this reader, the strength of the novella is rooted in Jenny’s character, her damage and her strength. As Jenny’s life expands beyond herself and Cheryl, the novella lost some momentum even as time sped up, and the story shifted from an intensely interesting character study to something, for this reader, slightly less successful and much more allegorical in meaning.

One problem I had with the book is a minor point, but one which niggled nonetheless. Jenny is introduced almost immediately as a vegetarian but then shortly thereafter, she’s eating salmon.

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Filed under Fiction, Sallis James

The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei

“I’m an asshole and not loyal to anyone, not even myself.”

Just what makes people laugh is hard to predict, and although I’m always on a quest to read something comic, it’s rare that a book is so funny that I laugh out loud. For sheer unadulterated cheek, The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei is going to make my best of the year list. It’s not a perfect book, and it wobbled on the ending, but I loved this book for its no-holds barred, outrageously nasty narrator.  For anyone who’s read and enjoyed early Max Barry (Syrup, Company), you should know what I’m talking about when I say that The Deep Whatsis, set in the cutthroat corporate world intent on downsizing, could be written by Max Barry’s evil twin brother. If he had one that is. As much as I enjoyed this book, my wholehearted recommendation comes with a Black Box Warning: if you’ve recently been the victim of downsizing or termination, or if the prospect looms in the near future, then you probably shouldn’t read The Deep Whatsis as it might send you spiraling into the abyss.

The Deep WhatsisSo let’s get beyond the cover, and sink into the nastiness I so enjoyed….

Our pathological liar narrator, Eric Nye is thirty-three, a right piece of work who’s hired at an indecently huge salary by Tate, a worldwide ad agency as “Executive Creative Director slash Chief Idea Officer.” Nye’s job is to move into the New York offices and “clean house,”–a euphemism for firing people. According to Nye he was “brought in to create a culture of innovation and creativity, meaning get rid of the dead wood, shitcan the old and the slow and the weak.” Nye is already horribly overpaid, but he’s also slated to get a big fat bonus if he meets his goal to fire 50% of the staff. Those targeted for termination are in their late 40s and over–those about to qualify for  a small pension. Together with the anorexic  “HR lady,” Nye “creates a dynamic of fear,” as he selects one person after another for firing and then begins his “danse macabre” with his “prey.” Nye compares the way he has developed of “ritualizing” his elaborate methods of firing employees to bullfighting, and of course, he’s the armed matador. It’s a well-drawn comparison, for Nye ruthlessly plays with his victims, letting them know that his attention is on them which sparks a frantic range of paranoid reactions in those about to be fired.

So while Nye spends his days at work (when he bothers to show up) either firing his next victim or playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the next candidate for downsizing, he spends his nights in a hazy drunken state. And it’s this sort of soulless behaviour that leads to Nye’s “meta-doom” when he takes a girl he cavalierly calls “Intern” back to his swanky pad full of expensive designer items–including his eight-hundred-dollar Dalai Lama Edition Tibetan throw rug. There’s something about this girl he just can’t shake, and when she joins the Tate office, Nye begins to get the uncomfortable feeling that he has a stalker.

The story careens between Nye’s heavily medicated days at the office and his drunken and chemically wrecked nights–some of which are spent with Nye’s only friend (and I’m using that term loosely), Seth Krallman “playwright turned pot dealer turned yoga guru,” who hopes that Nye will get him a job and purchase his expensive car. Nye,  a would be-playwright stuck on page two, and Seth secretly despise one another. Here’s Nye on the subject of Seth:

He’s a pretentious idiot, a so-called avant garde playwright who had twelve or thirteen seconds of notoriety in the east Village in the late ’90s when he chained himself to the stage of a tiny theater for a month as some kind of protest slash performance, peeing in a crystal bowl and mixing it with champagne and drinking it every night at precisely midnight, while reciting some poetry.

In a world obsessed with the getting and spending of money, the morally reprehensible Nye is aware that there’s no meaning to life. Even art is served up as some sort of tasteless parody of itself, and in one section Nye attends an art show called, “Show Us Your Tits!” While Nye claims to “feel fine” about cutting employee after employee loose, and outwardly appears to enjoy the massacre he’s conducting at the office, there are indications that at least on some level, he’s paying a price for his cutthroat behaviour. Perhaps it’s his conscience that causes his insomnia and lack of appetite. With his life in a downward spiral, Nye still manages to operate on two levels–on one level he’s slick, hip and conscienceless, but there’s also a sly self-awareness.

Here’s Nye lying to a therapist:

“I’ve never really had a relationship with anyone and I’m thirty-three. I guess that’s not so weird since the advent of video games and reality television, not to mention that new porno app everybody is talking about, thirty-three is the new nine.”

Then I put an unexpected twist into the story, a MacGuffin.

“I guess it all goes back to my mom,” I say and then without thinking what’s coming up next, there it is sliding out of my mouth. “She died in a car accident when I was ten years old. I saw the whole thing.”

The rest of it writes itself. “I was standing in our front yard and my mom was driving down the street. In my mental re-creation of that day I surmise that she was drunk because when she got to our house instead of slowing down to let a garbage truck pass she must have hit the gas instead of the brake. She lurched forward right into the front of the truck as it was zooming by.”

I figure this would be an excellent place for a pause and so I put one there. I look up at him and waited, wondering why I am making up all these tales when there are perfectly valid truths I could be telling him.

The Deep Whatsis is hilariously, savagely funny, and so of course, while Nye’s victims pile up, we can’t wait for him to get his comeuppance. Even Nye, who is unleashed at Tate, has to answer to someone, and in one wonderful scene, he’s called in to get chewed out by his boss.

What a disgusting man, I think, how many awful chemicals there must be lodged in every crevice of every tissue of his body, which may be why at sixty-whatever he’s still working here, still alive preserved in chemicals, he’ll never die because technically he’s already dead, he’s undead, he’s pickled by fear, lies, and nicotine.

“I gotta get off the goddamn phone,” he says to whoever he’s talking to and tosses the thing away. “Nye,” he says to no one in particular but since that is my name I know he must mean me, “get your hipster ass in here.” Then he stuffs his breakfast sandwich into the fleshy maw located in the center of his colorless face and keeps pushing until most of it is jammed in there and then he begins chewing, bent over the desk so that the egg yolk drips out and runs down over his chin like yellow chicken cum onto the crumpled tin foil in front of him. “Where’s your cohort?”

“I wanted to talk to you first, just the two of us,” I explain.

“Fine, good, now I can chew your ass out in private.”

“That’s what I figured, sir.”

“Close the door and don’t call me sir. I know you hate my guts.” Barry is worth at least fifty or sixty million since the agency was sold to La Groupe S. A, the holding company that owns the holding company owned by M. J-C.

“I don’t hate your guts, Bar,” I say, “I love you,” and at the moment this is basically true. He puts down the last bit of his egg-and-sausage, sucks at the ends of his fingers, and reaches for the smoldering Newport sitting in the battery-operated vacuum-action ashtray that sits next to the Smoke Eater. He takes a long drag on the butt and leans over toward the machine and exhales into it again like it’s some girl or cat he’s trying to get high. I almost expect him to tongue the thing.

“I assume you don’t mind if I smoke,” he says, probably reading from a script he wrote for legal reasons; but sitting here I’ve clearly given up my right to take action. “They don’t even let me smoke outside this building any more, can you believe that? Somebody complained about the secondhand smoke out on the sidewalk. It’s New York Fucking City, it’s Tenth Fucking Avenue.”

“Times change, I guess.”

“Oh shut the fuck up you asshole,” he says to me.

The Deep Whatsis is a very funny novel, but there are some ugly truths here as we see Nye trying to grab that bonus. In order to succeed, he’s supposed to leave every shred of humanity behind, and he does this quite successfully, refusing to “sugar-coat” the firing process or pretty it up as something that it clearly isn’t. In Nye’s world, empathy is seen as weakness while sociopathic tendencies almost guarantee success in the corporate world in which savagery, self-centeredness and self-promotion trump all other human qualities. Nye fires people with gusto, those with new babies, those with disabled relatives, and even one man for wearing pleated Dockers–no one is spared. And while he appears to take glee in his work and his well-honed psychological warfare, he despises himself for what he has become–a cog in the corporate machine, gradually losing his grip on reality. Original, subversive and savagely funny (loved the Wikipedia page) this book, replete with Nye’s various theories of life, offers a dark portrait of the cutthroat nature of the corporate world and the vapidity of our consumerist society in which the void left by a lack of humanity is filled with meaningless objects.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Mattei Peter