Tag Archives: american fiction

Savage Lane: Jason Starr

“Fantasies seem great, but they’re just gateway drugs. You need more and more and then, when reality kicks in, you’re totally fucked.”

Various destructive fantasies and desires collide and converge in Jason Starr’s Savage Lane, a maliciously dark look at the lives of a handful of affluent suburbanites. There is a consistent subtext throughout this author’s work: the American Dream is Starr’s American Nightmare. So whether Starr is focusing on stay-at home dads, achieving upward mobility, the vagaries of employment, assertiveness, home defense, or as in the case of Savage Lane, life in the ‘burbs, expect a subversive look at American society and its values. Jason Starr’s novels are classified as crime & suspense, and while there’s no argument there, since Starr’s characters are often supposedly decent upstanding members of society before they go off the rails and slide into criminality, I’ll add the label Transgressive fiction.

Savage Lane, a quiet prestigious neighbourhood in affluent Westchester county is home to the two families who are central to this story. There are the Bermans: husband Mark, his wife Debbie and their two children: Justin and Riley. And across the street is delectable, divorced Karen Daily and her two children Elana and Matthew.  Due to the similarities in status, economics and the children’s ages, the Bermans used to be best friends with Karen and her now-ex Joe, but since the divorce, things have become more awkward. As a divorced woman who dates a lot of men through internet sites, Karen has become, in the eyes of the other women in the community, a suspected husband stealer, a “homewrecker.”

The Bermans’ marriage is on the rocks, and while Deb has some nasty secrets of her own, she suspects that Mark is having an affair with Karen. Mark is certainly feeding the fire by hanging around Karen, jogging with her every day, texting her constantly and grabbing her hand at a party. Karen is so immersed in her own problems, that she fails to see the warning light, and Mark’s relationship as a friend creeps into something else.

Starr’s characters are constrained by societal standards but they long, or are pressured, to bust out and reveal the beast within. So we see Mark’s obsession with Karen growing to dangerous levels, and Deb, who has a problem with alcohol, determined to cast herself in the role of victim so that she can divorce, and loot, Mark. While these two families spiral out of control (and this includes a girl fight at the local prestigious country club), there’s another character here who’s already on the board and is about to change the entire game.

savage laneThat’s as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss.

I loved Savage Lane for its nastiness, its dark, dark humour, and its subversiveness. The story is told from various viewpoints–and I’ll stress not multiple narrators. That leaves Starr always in control of his story. Even though the story unfolds from different characters (including the wildly unreliable) so that we see inside their heads, Starr gives his characters no place to hide. While the characters comfort themselves with justification and excuses, their weaknesses and foibles are glaringly and hilariously on display. One of the techniques Starr employs is to show the way we lies to ourselves in order to slide into certain slippery behaviour. Here’s Karen with her usual liquid breakfast:

She still felt nauseated and her head was killing her. After making sure she’d deleted all the texts she’d sent and received, she switched the phone to silent mode and put it away in her purse. Then she heard Casey clacking away down the stairs and a few moments later he came into the kitchen, panting, and went right toward the sliding screen doors. She let him out and then, watching the happy dog sprint toward the backyard to do his business, the thought, Dog, hair of the dog, that’s it, and she got a glass, went to the liquor cabinet in the dining room, and poured some vodka–not much, just half a glass, enough to get back.

I especially loved the scenes en famille, for Starr is merciless with his portrayal of pathological family life. There’s an irony to the whole set-up. Karen, addicted to exercise and trying to stay marketable, is desperately surfing dating sites to get her new man while Deb, sinking into alcoholism, tells herself she doesn’t need her husband around anymore. Caught in between these two is cologne-soaked, pathetic creeper Mark, who fancies himself as a Javier Bardem look-alike. Here’s a chaotic scene in which a police detective, Piretti, questions Mark about his wife and his relationship with Karen. Mark is trying desperately to downplay any family issues, but his resentful teenage daughter jumps in and reveals the rot. Even the dog gets in on the mayhem.

“Friends don’t text that much, especially grownups who are friends. That’s why Mom wanted a divorce, because she knew what was going on too, she wasn’t a fucking idiot.”

“Riley, that’s enough,” her dad said, raising his voice.

But Riley kept going, saying, “It’s true. That’s why she’d been acting so weird lately.”

“How was she acting weird?” Piretti asked.

“She’s very upset, she doesn’t know what she’s saying,” her dad said to Piretti.

“She was too acting weird,” Riley said.
She was distracted all the time, and she was drinking like crazy. Sometimes I’d come home from school and smell the alcohol on her breath. Saturday morning in the car on the way home from dance class, she was acting really weird.”

“That’s enough Riley.,” her dad said.

“Let her talk,” Piretti said.


Then Justin came into the kitchen, holding an X-Box joystick, and asked, “Is Mom home yet?”

“Is that why Mom wanted a divorce?” Riley said to her dad. “Because you were going to leave her for Karen?”

Now Casey came into the kitchen and was barking.

“Shut up,” Mark said to her, and maybe to the dog too.

Jason Starr is not a stylist, and neither is he interested in in-depth character analysis, so his books tend to look as though they are deceptively easy to write. He is not writing ‘great literature,’ but neither is that his intention; Starr’s novels (he’s also written a number of graphic and comic books) are modern pulp threaded with societal concerns and pressures, so here we see mouthy teenagers who lead lives their parents are unaware of, children who are more worried about the X-Box than a less-than stellar parent, and cell phones as a helluva way to get in trouble. Spearing characters who find themselves in positions in life without quite understanding how they got there, Starr’s strengths are his plotting and his vision of the confinements of the norms of society. Just as you think you have nailed the plot of Savage Lane, Starr barrels in out of left field and delivers surprise after surprise, so be prepared. Savage Lane, fueled by the triple horsepower of urban middle age angst, fantasy and obsession is Starr’s best novel yet.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Starr Jason

Shriver: Chris Belden

Chris Belden’s satiric novel Shriver is set at a writer’s conference at a small mid-western liberal arts college and takes aim at academic pretentiousness. Shriver, who lives alone in an apartment with his cat, Mr Bojangles, receives an invitation to appear as one of the main speakers of  a literary conference, all expenses paid. What’s the problem you ask? Well Shriver isn’t an author–the only thing that Shriver has ever written are letters to his favourite newscaster, but thinking this is some sort of joke, Shriver agrees to attend and finds himself flying to the conference.

Peculiar things begin to happen to Shriver the minute he leaves his apartment. He doesn’t recognize the lobby in his own apartment building, and then when he’s actually on the plane, he grasps that the invitation is not a practical joke. A very real writer named Shriver exists. The real Shriver is a recluse who disappeared from public life upon the publication of his only book twenty years before. Looking at a blurry photo on the book jacket of the real Shriver’s book, Goat Time, Shriver, the imposter, realizes that he bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Shriver. Goat Time is a book that everyone in academia seems to have started but never finished, and although the book’s meaning seems murky at best, for some reason, it has an established, much-coveted place in that ever-prestigious literary canon.

shriverOnce at the conference, titled Reality/Illusion, strangely enough, Shriver manages to fool academics, readers and adoring fans alike. Everyone expects enigmatic comments from Shriver, and since the imposter Shriver doesn’t have a clue as to what anyone is going on about, his murky comments only serve to endorse his reputation as a canny cultural observer. Plus then there’s the short story he penned, “The Watermark,” (inspired by the watermark on his ceiling) which convinces Shriver’s rapt audience of his complete genius. Shriver argues that academia embraces, worships and perpetuates the careers of those already crowned by gatekeepers in an emperor’s-new-clothes fashion.

While one of  Shriver‘s themes, the authenticity and merit of literary academia is subtle, the execution is not, and that includes the names of some of the characters: Delta Malarkey-Jones, a morbidly obese author whose titles include: Harem Girl: My Life as a Sex Slave, boozy professor Watzczesnam (pronounced Whatsisname), Lena Brazir (“a busty redhead,”) Gonquin Smithee (whose bio “broadcast the information that she had been sexually abused by her father,”) and the radical Zebra Amphetamine. The author takes some risks when he skewers these characters, but he succeeds and shows how in the world of academia, epic experience somehow is equated with talent:

Ms Smithee was now reading from her epic poem Menstrual Show: 

” ‘You have finally killed me, I thought

when you pulled out your blood-drenched sword

but then disgust spread across your face like a shadow

and I knew it was I who had somehow done wrong.'”

Shriver wondered if perhaps he should compliment her vivid imagery but worried that this was not original enough for a writer as sophisticated as the real Shriver seemed to be. He rehearsed to himself various comments–“I particularly enjoyed your comparison of semen to wood glue,” or “How did you come up with some many striking rape metaphors?” –as Gonquin Smithee brought her performance to a well-received climax.

“‘Remember this,'” she read. ” ‘ Though I cannot murder you

though I cannot yank the ragged fingernails from your hands

though I dare not take a razor to your dangling scrotum

my words will tear you limb from limb

and I

and thousands of readers

will applaud that some sort of justice has been served.'”

The novel’s tone is gentle (in spite of the above quote,) quirky, and overall the tone is reminiscent of Jonathan Coe’s The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. The plot thickens when one of the conference attendees goes missing, Shriver becomes aware that he has a stalker, and then a man who claims to be the real Shriver appears.

A certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required from the reader to swallow that anyone would accept, and then attend, a conference, knowing that the invitation is meant for someone else–a published author, no less. Once you get over that hump, then the mis-adventures of Shriver assume a pleasant, humorous tone, but satire seems difficult to maintain at a consistent level. The novel wobbles around the halfway point, loses momentum and turns farcical. I have a fondness for books with an academic setting, but I prefer biting satire, not farce.

Review copy


Filed under Belden Chris, Fiction

The Last September: Nina de Gramont

“I remember turning-the sunlight so much flatter, in that direction, pixels from staring at the water still dancing in front of my eyes.”

Nina de Gramont’s novel The Last September is described as a murder mystery, and while a murder occurs soon after the book opens, this is essentially the story of how love corrodes into a troubled marriage.  The story is narrated by Brett, who when the novel opens, is struggling to finish her PhD thesis (after 8 years) on Emily Dickinson. Brett, her husband, Charlie and their 15 month old daughter are staying in Charlie’s father’s rundown beach house in Cape Cod Bay. This could be a romantic setting, but romance isn’t part of the equation. Simmering resentments linger under the surface of the marriage as Brett struggles to write while Charlie abandons his share of child care seemingly oblivious to Brett’s need to work. This unsettling tableaux unfolds into a picture of a marriage that is falling apart at the seams.

I’m not giving anything away to say that Charlie is brutally murdered, and that Brett assumes the killer is Charlie’s schizophrenic brother Eli who has a history of violence when he goes off his meds. As Brett struggles with guilt and might-have-beens in the aftermath of the murder, slowly, the story of Brett and Charlie’s marriage unfolds.

The Last SeptemberAt university, Brett was best friends with pre-med student Eli, and through Eli, she met Charlie, the much more charming, live-lightly brother. A one-night stand later finds Brett wondering how she could have misinterpreted Charlie’s intentions, but she picks up the pieces of her shattered ego and carries on with her studies. Meanwhile Eli descends into schizophrenia, and eventually his illness brings Brett back into Charlie’s orbit.

The eventual solution to the murder comes as an understated event–far from the usual settings of police interviews and line-ups. Instead the story is solidly on the tragedy of Brett’s marriage and the many mistakes made along the way. The story is beautifully written, and yet I’ll admit no small frustration with Brett–a woman who seems to be moved along more than once by those with much stronger characters. Like many other women before her, Brett has multiple warnings that Charlie is an irresponsible womanizer, and yet she can’t resist that excessive charm and attention. Once again, the very traits that attract become the nails in the coffin of a dying marriage.

Woven into Brett’s tale is her love of Emily Dickinson, and while these passages seemed occasionally over applied to the love story of Brett and Charlie, the Dickinson thread also underscored the overall problem of having a romantic nature to begin with. Brett had ample warning about Charlie but nonetheless plunged ahead into marriage with a man who’d already shown his true nature.

Ultimately this is a story of regret & loss: Brett’s lost relationship with Eli, Eli’s loss of mental stability, Brett’s lost marriage to Charlie. Here’s Brett reacting to Eli’s absence and building a future that never happened for Eli:

For a while I tried to e-mail Eli, to update him on Tab [the cat] and find out if he was ever coming back to school. But he never answered. After a month or so went by, I helped his roommates pack up his things to ship back to his parents’ winter house in New York.

“He’s in some swanky hospital outside Boston,” one of the roommates told me. “It’s called Maclean.”

I knew about Maclean from studying poets and listening to James Taylor. In my mind, it was like a boarding school with rolling green lawns and maybe a swimming pool and tennis courts. I imagined Eli lying on a grassy hillside under a broad, blue sky, writing poetry in a spiral notebook. That image comforted me, even as the years unfolded without ever hearing from him. Eli went away. He had treatment. He was cured. Maybe when he got out he enrolled in a different college, went on to med school, got married.

Life is seen as a series of damaging incidents, and yet at the same time, Charlie, who’s gone not long after the novel begins, is one of those people who’s made of different, impervious material. Sailing through life with few cares, Charlie never realises how much he hurts people simply because he never sustains damage. The two brothers present an interesting contrast. While Eli is definitely mentally ill and is expected to cause problems , Charlie is deemed  “normal” by societal standards, and yet Charlie damages those who love him. A highly readable novel, the emphasis here is on a troubled marriage and not the murder mystery.

Review copy


Filed under de Gramont Nina, Fiction

The Invaders: Karolina Waclawiak

“We were far away enough from New York to feel like we were in a different world, but close enough to have successful commuter husbands. In the evenings, I’d see a row of pursed-lipped wives idling their cars in the parking lot of the commuter rail station, watching their bar-car-riding husbands stagger off the train.”

I am fascinated by housing estates, preferably gated communities, for the conformity, and equally bizarre behaviour environment seems to imprint on residents, and this explains my decision to read The Invaders, a second novel from Karolina Waclawiak. The novel is set in an exclusive Connecticut housing community, and unfolds over the course of a summer through two narrative voices–the 40-something once trophy wife, Cheryl and her troubled stepson, Teddy. Through these two voices, we see Little Neck Cove, a paranoid, affluent community which on the surface appears to be sedate, orderly, and enviable, but underneath the parties and the fashions shows runs fear of aging, affairs to establish continued desirability, backstabbing, and various addictions–all against the threat of invasion from the dreaded plebs.

The novel begins intriguingly with Cheryl’s abashed confession that “when Jeffrey’s first wife told me he had a voracious appetite for women, I assumed she was just trying to be vindictive.” That’s a natural enough conclusion, but it’s a statement that comes back to haunt Cheryl. Married to Jeffrey for almost ten years, Cheryl still walks in the shadow of his first, now dead wife, Joanne, and Cheryl has every reason to find herself thinking about Joanne–the woman she replaced. Cheryl and Jeffrey once had a passionate relationship, but now they exist in a “state of indifference.” They no longer have sex, and Jeffrey, with long unexplained absences from home, sees Cheryl as an irritating presence more than anything else. Cheryl, now 44,  senses that the marriage is over and that her status as trophy wife has morphed into an imminent expiration date. Suffering from insomnia, Cheryl has taken to long solitary walks along the private beaches or the community nature trail.

the invadersIn spite of the fact that Cheryl has tried to conform to the standards of behaviour and dress set by the other wives of Little Neck Cove, she’s never quite belonged. We see her at the Little Neck Cove fashion show which is attended by the wives of the community, women who shop for sherbet-coloured clothing they don’t need in desperate attempts to retain their youth. The older the women become, the more chunky jewelry they wear to hide their wrinkled skin and blemishes.

We were now transitioning between desirable and undesirable–that sad moment when a woman realizes that absolutely no man is looking at her, not even a passing glance. It made us all paralyzed with fear.

We battled the decline with bright, exotic colors and bold prints–anything to draw that attention back to the curves of our bodies. Even if various parts had begun to hang or droop, at least men were looking. Men were easy after all, weren’t they?

Possibly the other wives resent that Cheryl replaced one of their own or possibly they sniff that Cheryl comes from a hardscrabble background. Affairs are a common occurrence that wives chose to ignore; that’s just one of the silent ‘rules.’

Christine found what she was looking for at the bottom of her purse. Her husband was a doctor who medicated her so she’d turn a blind eye to his side projects. We all knew it but didn’t say anything. No one took Christine’s hand and asked her if she was okay, we always just smiled politely and ignored her confused ramblings when we realized the dose for the day was too high. Although we were complicit in her humiliation, we were all concerned with ignoring our own.

Cheryl’s voice alternates with her stepson Teddy who arrives on the scene after being kicked out of college. Rather refreshingly, he likes his stepmother–although he notices her absorption into the community standard:

You’re looking more and more like the rest of them. All you’re missing is that leathery tan and a fluorescent onesie like old Elaine.

As the summer wears on, Teddy, who takes certain privileges for granted, is expected to begin a job that his father arranges. Cheryl keeps avoiding the subject of divorce, and ultimately both Teddy and Cheryl sink into self-destructive spirals. Teddy’s rebellion takes the form of a drug habit and chasing after one of the young mothers while Cheryl begins making anonymous dirty phone calls to various male neighbours. Meanwhile when a stray Mexican fisherman wanders onto the private beach, all hell breaks loose in the neighbourhood as paranoia reigns. Ironically, of course, while the residents see “being poor meant desperation, it meant being a criminal,” the threat against the community comes from somewhere else entirely.

Author Karolina Waclawiak creates a portrait of an affluent, conformist community, where women’s self-worth is rooted in their ability to attract, and hold, men. Cheryl, who was an assistant manager of the men’s department of an outlet store before she met Jeffrey, gave up her job, and even her family, in order to marry ‘up.’ Now at 44, that decision isn’t looking so good to Cheryl. The words of advice her mother, an expert on the subject, gave her regarding the fickleness of men float back into her consciousness at crucial moments.

The character of Jeffrey never came alive–even though he moved in and out of the novel, and his actions towards the end didn’t seem to mesh with his earlier stance. While I disliked the ending which was too surreal for my tastes, I appreciated what the author is doing. There’s so much going on in the book–including tantalizing unexplored information about Joanne, a young Mexican girl, and Cheryl’s rogue mother, I asked myself if the book could possibly have been stronger if just written solely from Cheryl’s perspective. At times I had very little sympathy for her and at other times, I liked what I saw when she broke out with some aberrant behaviour.

“Here was me, wanting it everywhere.”

Review copy/own a copy


Filed under Fiction, Waclawiak Karolina

The Fall of Princes: Robert Goolrick

I couldn’t pass up Robert Goolrick’s The Fall of Princes, the story of a former BSD (“big, swinging dick“) trader from Wall Street who soared the heights in the 80s only to plummet to the lows of working in Barnes and Noble. This is his story, and this long, detailed mea culpa AA/NA style confession of a louse’s fall from the pinnacle of success, a story of excess, sex, and drugs, is morbidly fascinating. And I’ll note here that Goolrick, to his credit, approaches his material with restraint, not crudity, unlike The Wolf of Wall Street, so while we read about lines of cocaine and hordes of bedmates, throughout the tale there’s the sense that these young traders, running out of speed, are damaging themselves more than anyone else. The mayhem carries a heavy cost from the outset and doesn’t look like a great deal of decadent fun.

fall of princesThe chapters alternate between the narrator, using the collective ‘we,’ who tells the story of the aggressive, young bull trader lifestyle and the first person narrator who recalls specific incidents.  The narrator lands a job at ‘the Firm,’ where clients “had to have $20 million” in their accounts “at all times. That’s a lot of toys to play with,” and these young traders repeat the words “forty or forty.”

That’s when you retire, they reply with that bland smile. When you reach the age of forty, or your portfolio reaches forty million. That’s when you can get away clean and get your life back. What’s left of it

It’s an adrenaline-fueled life where sleep is a low priority, and rowdy nights are spent drinking, taking drugs, and bedding nameless women. Then when the narrator runs out of steam, he periodically boomerangs to rehab. There’s also a brutal competitiveness amongst the traders which begins with the bodies most of them develop.

Thousands of hours in the world’s most expensive gym, with the world’s most skilled trainers, had brought my body to such a state of perfection that the women who rushed to take off their clothes in my bedroom could only gasp at the luck that had put them into my line of sight, that had made them, even for one night, the most beautiful creatures on earth, with their lithe arms and their skin like chamois and their scents.

The narrator, occasionally referred to by the name Rooney, started out his trader life after various failures as a bad artist and a bad writer, but then turns to trading when he decides that he does not want to end up as one of the “gray masses.”

the place they would end up, neither richer or wiser, filled only with regret and second-tier liquor and the shreds of the dreams they no longer remembered, surprised to wake up one day and be shown the door with a tepid handshake and a future on the edge of old age and death that held only pictures of the kids and grandkids, a cruise to some out-of-season destination every three years, and the notion, which they somehow managed to believe, that this was comfort, that this was all the splendor they got for forty years of relentless drudgery and obsequiousness.

And to all this we said fuck you, we want it all, we want it now, you can drain us of our blood for all we care, but we want impossible things of impossible vintage and provenance. We want salaries equivalent to our ages multiplied by 100,000. We want to live life in a rush of fury and light, to rampage, to pillage our neighbourhoods and rape and demolish our best and closest friends

The collective ‘we’ sections, which at times felt like a Greek chorus describing the ebb and flow of money easily gained and easily lost, are not as powerful as the details of Rooney’s golden life before he ran out of steam just as AIDS swept through his world. There’s a no expense spared summer in the Hamptons … $200,000, a weekend in L.A. … $50,000, and, of course, a bachelor weekend in Vegas. While Rooney bedded and dumped countless women, he finally marries one very high-maintenance woman named Carmela, and he describes their turbulent, short relationship not “so much a marriage as it was like a long, drunken date.”

At times Rooney apologizes for the person he used to be. Sometimes the apology sounds sincere and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s impossible to tell where the remorse ends and the self-pity begins;

Forgive me for thinking that I was better than you will ever be. Forgive me for thinking that money equaled a kind of moral superiority

Rooney picks at the most shameful moments in his life–scabs that won’t heal. There’s one moment when he recalls a game he used to play with his hard-drinking workmates called “To Have and To have Not.”

The idea was you had to think of something you had done that nobody else at the table had done, or something you had never done that everybody else had done.

As the evenings wear on, “the vagaries of human behaviour” are revealed and then Rooney reveals that a girl killed herself when he dumped her. While he mulls over how heartlessly he treated her, a great deal of the regret seems to dwell in the self-pity Rooney wallows in. There’s also the sense that he’d be the same person again in a heartbeat if he got the chance, and we see that aspect of his character in the way Rooney, now in his 50s, dresses in the last of his expensive clothing and spends his days off using  a false name and address and masquerading as a high-flying apartment seeker.

People’s relationship with money is fascinating. Note the films stars who’ve earned millions only to declare bankruptcy, lose homes, or commit suicide when faced with financial disaster and a late life lack of earning power. Money works most of us, not the other way around, and people go the grave never understanding just how finances, and such tedious but necessary things as budgets, work. Of course I was fascinated to read this ‘rise and fall’ tale of a trader–surely, you’d think, someone who would understand money but who ultimately didn’t. All those millions that passed through his hands must have given him some sort of contact high. No authors handle the subject of excess better than Americans, IMO, and it shows here. Yet Goolrick takes the high road when describing the high roller lifestyle rather than sinking to titillation.

(Finally,  I couldn’t help wondering if anyone could survive in NY on Barnes and Nobles wages and save for a foreign trip every year.)

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Filed under Fiction, Woolrick Robert

Eileen: Ottessa Moshfegh

“That is what I imagined life to be–one long sentence of waiting out the clock.”

Eileen, from author Ottessa Moshfegh is a novel that could described in many ways, yet I doubt if any single description would give a potential reader an accurate impression of this book. It’s a crime novel, a bildungsroman, a character study, a story of a dysfunctional family–all these things wrapped into a dark tale of how Eileen, a complicated, repressed young woman, locked into a pathological home life and employed in a job she dislikes, breaks free. After reading about Eileen’s miserable home life, within a few pages she tells us:

In a week, I would run away from home and never go back. This is the story of how I disappeared.

The story is told by a now elderly Eileen who relates a week in her life 50 years earlier in 1964. And here is how this extraordinary book begins right before Christmas in a “brutal cold town” Eileen masks as X-ville:

I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair. You might take me for a nursing student or a typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip. I looked like nothing special. It’s easy for me to imagine this girl, a strange and mousy version of me, carrying an anonymous leather purse, or eating from a small package of peanuts, rolling each one between her gloved fingers, sucking in her cheeks, staring anxiously out the window.

Right away one of the book’s themes creeps in: appearances vs reality, and 24-year-old Eileen is quite aware that she’s frumpy, painfully thin, and extremely unattractive. Yet Eileen, who describes herself as “ugly, disgusting, unfit for the world” courts this look by wearing her dead mother’s far-too big clothing. She lives with her cruel alcoholic, widowed ex-cop father–a man plagued with booze-fueled paranoias, in a filthy three-storey colonial, and she sleeps on a cot up in the unfinished attic. With a poor diet, and obsessed with her body functions and their associated odours, she’s become addicted to laxatives in order to produce regular bowel movements.  There are hints that Eileen may be anorexic, chewing sweets to get the flavor before spitting them out as she curls up on a mattress in the squalor of her attic room.

Within a few pages we know that sexually repressed, “always furious,” Eileen toys with fantasies of death and suicide. She imagines stepping out of her house and one of the large icicles “plummeting through the hollow” of her collarbone or even entering “the vacuous center” of her body “like a glass dagger.” But there are other fantasies too–fantasies of escaping her horrible, suffocating home life in the small Massachusetts town.  Perhaps if you saw frumpily dressed Eileen, you’d think, as she suggests, that she’s a “shy and gentle soul for afar,” but that impression would be wrong. Eileen is a hard drinker and a chronic shoplifter. Her father’s constant cruel barbs bounce off her armour and fail to penetrate. She likes books about “awful things–murder, illness, death,” and she keeps a dead mouse in the glove box of the old Dodge Cornet she drives.



There’s also what Eileen calls the “death mask,” the expression she wears to hide how she really feels, and it’s also what she recognizes in other people–especially the young offenders at the juvenile correctional facility for boys where she is employed as a secretary of sorts. The prison is run with a religious bent, so the boys, many of whom look like sad angels, are forced to read the bible and are punished for masturbating by being thrown in “the cave.” Just as Eileen moves through the motions at home, she goes through the motions at work, noting the broken-hearted mothers who visit, and the damaged boys, the youngest is 9, who shuffle through the system. Some of the young prisoners are guilty of horrendous crimes against family members, yet Eileen acknowledging, in retrospect, that she was too self-focused for empathy, mostly likes the inmates. In spite of her inexperience, she understands that many of the boys wear the same “death mask” as she does; that they too have perfected the art of hiding their thoughts, their feelings, their real selves. One prisoner in particular, Leonard Polk, a boy who murdered his cop father, catches Eileen’s attention:

There was a strange bounce in his step. His face was bright and relaxed, and serene in a way that no other boy’s face had ever seemed, a loose reservedness which I found myself admiring. He looked pleased, impenetrable, and cold as though nothing could ever disturb him, and yet still as innocent as the silent creature I’d seen earlier touching himself absentmindedly on his cot in the cave. I searched for something in his face, anything his mask of contentment might betray, but there was nothing. He was a genius in that sense–a master. His was the best mask I’d ever seen.

Eileen’s main interest at work is a former inmate, the brawny guard, Randy, and while Randy seems oblivious to this mousy girl, she sneaks peeks at his crotch, tries to catch a whiff of his sweat, and spends nights and weekends stalking him, parked outside of his apartment.

In spite of Eileen’s measured, calm voice, this tale is tension packed. We know that something bad happens; we’re just waiting for that catalyst, “her destiny” to appear. …

What’s so beautiful about Eileen’s story–a story about escape, crime and survival are the moments when she injects comments into the narrative as she looks back on her old life, says goodbye to characters in the story she never saw again, and mulls over the person she used to be.

Funny the things one remembers. I spent most Sundays holed up at home or driving to and from Randy’s house while my father was out communing with god or whatever he thought he was doing at church.

What happened in X-ville was just the beginning of Eileen’s journey and that experience was often bitter:

So you seem what came after this story ends was not a direct line to paradise, but I believe I got on the right road, with all the appropriate trips and kinks

Eileen seems to be a book that divides opinion. Many reviews on goodreads state that readers never liked or felt close to Eileen. While for me, this was never the point, I have to say that I felt the opposite. Ottessa Moshfegh’s skillfully woven narrative takes us into Eileen’s intriguing, dark, complex mind, and Eileen doesn’t spare or excuse herself while categorically refusing victim status. As a character, shaped by her environment, she makes sense, and in a ‘what if’ sort of way, it’s easy to predict what Eileen would have become if she’s stayed trapped in X-ville.

You know you really love a book when you create reading opportunities. I’m still thinking about this book which will end up on my best-of-year list, so it’s highly recommended if you like an extremely dark read full of twisted and unpleasant characters. Eileen has been compared, justifiably, to Alfred Hitchcock, and I’ll go one further and say that Eileen should appeal to fans of Patricia Highsmith. In Eileen, crime isn’t seen as a prelude to punishment, or a tool in the battle between good and evil; it’s seen as a liberating event. And that’s wonderfully, remarkably twisted.

Review copy/own a copy


Filed under Fiction, Moshfegh Eileen

Among the Ten Thousand Things: Julia Pierpoint

“He hummed to himself, to the night. Things would turn out okay. For him, somehow, they always had, and so they always would.”

Among the Ten Thousand Things, a debut novel from American author Julia Pierpoint, is the story of the disintegration of a family after infidelity is revealed. The ugly revelation sets the marriage and family into freefall, but in reality decay was already set in place–the big difference is that the acknowledgement of infidelity forces the lid off this fractured marriage.

Deb has been married to successful New York artist Jack Shanley for years. They have two children: Simon, 15 and Kay 11. Deb was once a ballet dancer, but now she teaches ballet. She finds that she can’t encourage her pupils to sacrifice all for a career in ballet as to do so “would feel like a lie.”

At twenty-two and twenty-three, at parties with regular people, nondancers–they’ll coo over you like a rare bird. Which you are, to them. You are sinewy grace and bone, everywhere tight, from your tied hair to your pointed toes. And you’ll feel yourself a liar there too, because in the corps you are one of so many. Your own mother needing binoculars to pick you out.

Jack arrived on the scene at the time when Deb, in her mid twenties, was finally accepting that she was stuck in the corps and didn’t have the presence to rise to stardom, unlike her friend, Isabel who is about to publish her memoirs. So marrying Jack and taking the route of marriage and family was a way of saving face rather than acknowledging that she was giving up.  Now Deb is 41, and Jack, who has just trashed his second marriage, is 55.

among the ten thousand thingsWhile it’s easy to like Deb, a woman who’s learned to compromise, it’s also easy to really dislike Jack. He’s had many affairs, and his fame in the art world yields the usual fans, wannabes and groupies. His latest affair is with a much younger unstable woman–someone who unpredictably decided to strike back against Jack by sending all their correspondence to his home:

 In some other context, he could have gotten hard, reading it all over. He thought if she had only sent the letters straight to him, he might even have fucked her again. But that wasn’t what the girl wanted, sex. Probably it wasn’t ever what she wanted. Women were always deceiving him about that. He was always lowballing their demands.

The novel follows the fallout of the affair, and author Julia Pierpoint creates an interesting structure within the novel when the couple part, possibly temporarily, by including a segment that gives a synopsis of the future, and then the novel segues back to the present before adding another segment in the future. This eloquently adds a poignant historical dimension to the destroyed family, and we see their home left empty in their absence, gathering dust and crumbling like some lost, ancient civilization–a sign of things to come:

For eighteen days the apartment sat empty. Fine dusts and pollen collected on the windowpanes, and the mirrors stood with no one in them. Nothing in or out of the closed-circuit space. Only the wireless went on invisibly complicating the air.

Deb and the children depart to a vacation home in Jamestown while a glum Jack dumps the family cat at his mother-in law’s and heads, in some sort of primeval move to his mother’s home in Houston where his step-father sniffs that there’s something wrong. The novel follows Jack in Houston and then Arizona while other sections follow Deb and her children in Jamestown.

This is a promising debut novel, an age-old story of adultery and break-up with some modern angles to the tale. Simon for example retreats into a problematic relationship of his own, and Deb, who has absorbed the emotional impact of the affair alone, feels that she has to ask her children’s opinions on the subject of where their father should be allowed to sleep.

As a reader, I’m not keen on tales of teens or children, so the parts of the novel which followed Simon and Kay was less interesting to me than the sections which focused on the adults: Deb’s tricky compromises, and Jack’s slippery, destructive morality. These are two individuals who live in the same home but have very distinctly separate worlds. Deb is a believable character–a disappointed woman who is trying ignore Jack’s behaviour and make the best of a fractured marriage, but self-focused Jack, whose career is in freefall, doesn’t make it easy:

Jack liked to hammer a lot of thoughts out on the train. The hardest part of a marriage–of living with anyone–was those first ten minutes after walking through the door. Questions about his work, his lunch, his trip home, which in his mind had barely ended, and answers to questions he’d not asked, so many words flooded him

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Pierpoint Julia

Wylding Hall: Elizabeth Hand

“The house was a glorious wreck. Like some drunken grande dame who’s lost everything except the clothes and the jewels she’s wearing and refuses to leave the after-party. I’ve known a few of those girls.”

Point me in the direction of a novel about a rock band and chances are I’ll want to read it, so the blurb from Elizabeth Hand’s novel Wylding Hall caught my attention. This is the story of an “acid-folk” band (not quite sure what that is) who, after their first album and the firing and subsequent suicide of their former lead female singer, were persuaded by their manager to hole up in an ancient country mansion and record their next album. It’s the album (named Wylding Hall) that makes the band soar to fame, but during its creation, some unexplained events occur which result in the disappearance of the band’s 18-year-old enigmatic singer/songwriter/lead guitarist, Julian. The novel begins years later, and the narrative takes the form of one-sided interviews with band members, friends, lovers and the former manager as they each relate the events of that summer.

Sounds fascinating, and I couldn’t help remembering the mystery surrounding the death of Brian Jones. But of course, in the case of Wylding Hall, there’s no body floating in the pool.

Wylding HallWhen the band arrives at Wylding Hall, there’s already an aura of tragedy. The band’s singer, Arianna was replaced with an American, named Les Stansall, and Arianna didn’t take the news well. Her death lingers over the band members and petty rivalries threaten to splinter the group further. The new singer Les has hooked up with Julian, arguably the more intelligent member of the band. Les and Julian break up however when a new, strange woman comes on the scene.

That’s about as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss. The novel’s format–the transcripts of several one-sided interviews, sometimes just a few lines in length, is interesting and feels authentic. We don’t know the questions being asked, and all we get are the responses, so, for example, various interviewees give their opinions of Arianna:

He never talked about what happened with Arianna. The police report said she fell from a third floor window to the pavement. There were no bars across the window in Julian’s flat; I do know that. She was depressive–that’s what they’d say now–her and Julian both.

Suicide? How could it possible matter all these years later, whether I think she killed herself?

When the band arrive at Wylding Hall, their presence sets yet another tragedy in motion. Julian, already into “magick” and alchemy wants the album to be “a kind of spell.”  He seems to already be familiar with the house–or perhaps the house is familiar with him…

As for the plot, I’d say this book, with its emphasis on the occult, ancient rituals, and creepy villagers who know more than they’re saying, may appeal to fans of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service . While I enjoy a good ghost story or even a plunge into the supernatural (thinking of Frank Tallis’s The Sleep Room), Wylding Hall pushed credulity too far, and its emphasis on a period spent in an old house bypasses any deeper analysis. Perhaps if the band members had been a little wilder, more stoned, let’s say, the almost blasé acceptance of events at the time would have been more believable. There’s one point when one of the band member’s girlfriends, Nancy, comes to visit. She’s sensitive to atmosphere and at the point of the interviews, she’s become a psychic.

Wylding Hall was a bad scene. Or, no, scratch that. “Bad” isn’t the right word. We’re not talking good or evil, Christian morality, sort of thing. This went much deeper than that. There was a sense of wrongness of things being out of balance–again, not something you would necessarily be aware of if you were just to walk into the house.

For this reader, Wylding Hall with its lack of character development and a reliance on the supernatural seemed more for the Young Adult age group, so that counts me out. And if I’d known the band was called Windhollow Faire, I’d have passed, but in all fairness, there are plenty of glowing reviews on Amazon and Goodreads from people who enjoyed this story.

Review copy.


Filed under Fiction, Hand Elizabeth

The New Neighbor: Leah Stewart

“I can’t believe in heaven. Even now, as death grows ever harder to unimagine.”

In Leah Stewart’s novel, The New Neighbor, Margaret Riley, a ninety-year-old retired nurse whose only hobby is reading mystery novels lives in a remote area outside of a small town in Tennessee. She is fiercely independent, has no relatives nearby, no friends, and is not exactly the easiest person to get along with. One day, while out reading on her deck, she notices she has a new neighbor. Snooping through the mailboxes, Margaret discovers her new neighbour’s name and curious, she soon creates a way to invite this stranger into her life.

the new neighbourWhile Margaret’s antisocial personality certainly explains her choice of location, just what masseuse Jennifer Young and her 4 year old son are doing living in the middle of nowhere can’t really be explained. In Jennifer, Margaret “recognized a mystery” and encouraged by the reading of crime novels, she is driven to solve the puzzle. Yet “Jennifer is a cave that blocks the entrance,” to the solution. Margaret recognizes that she and Jennifer have much in common: the desire for isolation, the deliberate avoidance of society, and yet Margaret refuses to respect Jennifer’s privacy.

She is so careful, so guarded. There are locked doors in conversation  with her, and no way to tell when you’re approaching one.

The story is told in alternating chapters from Jennifer and Margaret (with a few chapters from a third character right at the end of the book). This format, as I noted in an earlier post, seems to be a popular trend these days. But whereas the format annoyed me in Disclaimer for the way in which the reader is thrown red herrings, here, author Leah Stewart uses the dual chapters to move the story forward but also allows Margaret and Jennifer to speculate about each other. Gradually we learn what Jennifer is running away from, and also through Margaret’s narrative, we see her horrendous WWII experiences.

Without a doubt, Margaret is the marvelous character who claims and dominates this novel. She recognizes that as a ninety-year-old woman, she has a certain invisibility and that she’s marginalized into a stereotype, so she can be grumpy and rude to people and in return they basically pat her on the head, treat her with false gaiety, and chuckle. No one ever calls her to account for her churlish behaviour and any kindness directed her way isn’t personal–it’s a generic act based on:  ‘be nice to the old lady who may croak any day.’ Margaret is drawn in such a way that we see a woman who was shaped by her WWII experiences, trapped inside her body, and yearning to tell someone her story. While Margaret intrudes into Jennifer’s life in order to discover her neighbour’s secrets, instead she finds herself discussing her own.

I picked up The New Neighbor expecting a crime novel, and while crimes take place, this is much more the story of two women at different stages of their lives whose paths cross and connect. Jennifer and Margaret have a great deal in common for they both have secrets, and that’s what Margaret recognizes in Jennifer.

There’s a lot going on in The New Neighbor and it’s a much more complex novel than it at first appears. While I have to tread carefully around the issue of secret pasts and plot spoilers, I will mention Jennifer’s complicated relationship with university lecturer, Megan and her husband Sebastian. Jennifer begins taking her son, Milo to preschool and Milo’s friendship with a boy named Ben places Jennifer in the position of having to befriend Ben’s parents. At first her relationship is with Megan and through her, Jennifer gains a rather negative impression of Sebastian, and yet later, in a very cleverly constructed fashion, Jennifer has reason to reevaluate her impression of Sebastian and Megan’s position in the marriage. It’s one of those moments when we see Jennifer’s maturity, fed by bitter experience, of just how one spouse always generates a surge of sympathy from society while the ‘killjoy’ does not.

The fact that Margaret is a very well drawn character both works for and against the book as Jennifer and her story pale in comparison, and here are a few tart, choice quotes that bring Margaret to life:

What a pleasure it would be to really piss somebody off, just to see my existence fully register on someone else’s face.


You might imagine that being an old lady I like the cozy mysteries, but you’d be wrong. Spare me the cats and the knitting. It was Sue’s idea to start picking out books for me–perhaps she gets bored–and the first stack she presented me, two or three years ago, was full of such nonsense. I don’t need my murders made adorable. Death in a book is still only death in a book, but give me an author who doesn’t flinch. If a mystery doesn’t walk you up to the abyss before it rescues you, it’s a shallow form of comfort.

Here she’s referring to the Wordsworth poem:

The world I can more or less get away from, as I think I’ve proven, and there’s so much of nature around me I’d be hard pressed to long for more. Sometimes I wish the birds would shut the hell up. It’s not the world I can’t escape but my body. Not its demands so much at this stage, but its complaints and limitations. It’s resistance and pain.

The New Neighbor argues that, as outsiders, even living in the same house, we can never fully grasp the inner politics of a marriage, and we can never understand what it’s like to be another human being. In the Acknowledgements, the author notes that she wanted to write a novel based in the WWII experiences of her grandmother. And that’s the feeling I had when I read this novel–that the author had tapped some powerful real life experiences and that ultimately, this is Margaret’s story and not Jennifer’s. While this is not a perfect novel as its ending felt a little forced, I’ll check this author’s backlist.

I thought I had seen some things. I’d never seen anything like this. Our next patient required an amputation. The strangest part was not the cutting through but the moment when the limb actually came off. That first day I carried a whole arm away from the table. I held it by the elbow. The fingers on the hand were still flexed as though reaching for me, saying, Hold on a minute, wait, wait. The arm was surprisingly heavy. You don’t think about what an arm weighs when it’s still a part of the body. And then when it’s cut off, it’s waste. It gets burned with the rest of the waste.

Parts of your body can come off. Jennifer. You can have a hole in your back so big a man can out his fist inside it.

I hadn’t seen anything.

Later I’d see all of this, do all of this, many times, without sparing a thought to the oddity of it all. The time I’d moved into the extraordinary but hadn’t learned to live there. This wasn’t even a hospital as I’d ever known one, with hallways and wards and nurses in white, but a tent full of blood and guts and screaming. There should have been some other name for it, but we didn’t have one and so we applied the old one, and after a while when I thought “hospital” what I pictured was a tent or an abandoned schoolhouse, sawhorses for the stretchers and  patients boys.

review copy


Filed under Fiction, Stewart Leah

Hill Girl: Charles Williams (1951)

As a fan of the crime novels of Charles Williams, I’ve reviewed a few for this site, and here they are, so far, in order of preference for anyone interested:

River Girl (1951)

Hell Hath No Fury (The Hot Spot) (1953)

Big City Girl (1951)

River Girl is the story of a corrupt, married small-town deputy sheriff who gets in over his head with a woman he meets in a remote cabin. This is a tense, desperate noir novel that somehow managed to beat out Hell Hath No Fury as my favourite Williams novel so far. Hell Hath no Fury is the story a criminal who drifts into a small town, takes a job as a car salesman and cases out the local bank with plans to steal the cash and split. The main character here makes the mistake of getting mixed up with not one–but two women: Gloria Harper, the boss’s bookkeeper and Dolly, the boss’s trashy wife. Big City Girl is the story of a family of poor sharecroppers. One of the sons is in prison and Joy, his trashy wife who’s addicted to the attention of men decides to leave the city and join the family on the cotton farm. Bad idea…

With these three books, there’s a common theme: women are trouble–even if they don’t mean to be which is certainly true in the case of Doris, the woman hiding in the cabin discovered by deputy sheriff Marshall. Big City Girl and Hell Hath No Fury feature femme fatales who use men and sex to further their aims–although Hell Hath No Fury’s Dolly (played by a sultry, very naughty Virginia Madsen in the 1990 film version) wins hands down in the Evil department.  And that brings me back to Hill Girl (1951) the first novel Charles Williams published. Williams saw three of his novels published that year: Hill Girl, Big City Girl, and River Girl so I’m wondering if he had a backlog of manuscripts when he was finally picked up by Gold Medal.

Then take a look at these vintage covers which certainly reinforce the idea that women are evil seductresses, but Williams is a much more sophisticated thinker than that. In his world, women, some women, use their looks and sex to move ahead in society–men after all, have the power, the wealth, and the career choices, so women use other means to gain control.

Hill Girlvintage big city girlriver girlhell

The Hill Girl of the title is a bootlegger’s daughter named Angelina, and that name seems a little ironic the first few times we see Angelina with her long honey-coloured blonde hair, more or less dressed in rags that do little to cover her figure. She’s bad-tempered, unhappy and more importantly, as we see as the plot plays out, she’s jail-bait or even worse … shotgun bait. But let’s back up a little. Hill Girl is the story of sexual obsession, two very different brothers, Lee and Bob, and the woman who comes between them. Yes, you guessed it … Angelina.

Bob, the younger son, moves back to his family’s hometown to take over and run his deceased grandfather’s farm. You’d think, initially, at least, that Bob is the black sheep of the family since the eldest son, Lee, who’s married and lives in the family home, inherited everything from his father who was known somewhat dauntingly as The Major. As the story unfolds, the ‘good son’ and the ‘bad son’ designations shift around, and we see that Bob, the younger brother, although he fought with his father and was persona non gratis in his father’s home, is actually the ‘good’ son while Lee, who inherited his entire father’s estate worth around $30,000 (Bob was left $1) and married a wonderful, kind woman named Mary, is the bad seed. He’s just smooth enough to hide his rottenness.

The book opens with Bob’s return and his auspicious, as it turns out, meeting with bootlegger Sam Harley who lives along Black Creek bottom. Then failed pro-boxer Bob returns to the family home which is now owned by Lee. Brief homecoming over, Lee drags Bob out to get some moonshine from Sam, but his real reason for going to Sam’s is Angelina. Lee lusts after the bootlegger’s daughter and there is a very tense scene with Lee bound and determined to have Angelina in spite of the threat of Sam’s shotgun. The roles of the brothers are very quickly delineated. Lee is hellbent on pursing Angelina and Bob, the only brother with a conscience, is determined to save him from being shot….

Lee, of course eventually gets his way with Angelina, and in some rather crude descriptions reveals how little he values Angelina, and as it turns out, how little he understands her. While Williams creates some fascinating female characters in his books, Angelina is the weakest-drawn character here, first she’s bad, bad, bad, and then she turns into a completely different person. Angelina first appears to be a savage, surly, empty-headed teen nymphet who is Trouble, “a sex crime looking for somebody to happen to,”  but later Williams moves in on this character with generous sympathy, so we that we are now supposed to see Angelina as kind and naïve. Cooped up on the farm and kept as unpaid labour she longed for simple items such as shoes or a dress that fits, and her rebellious, self-destructive behaviour is aimed at her father and loathing of her life more than anything else. So Angelina as ‘bad,’ vanishes. While the character shift isn’t convincing, Williams shows how women are forced to operate in a world dominated by men, so there are some interesting observations on the subject of how men treat women as though they’re owned like any other possession. Here’s a scene in which Angelina wants to get her hair bobbed–something forbidden by her father:

You’ll like hell do what you please,” I started, and then caught myself and shut up. After all, it was her hair, and Sam Harley had been telling her she couldn’t cut it all these years and trying to browbeat her, and look where he had wound up in her eyes. You couldn’t get anywhere by trying to bully her. She didn’t bully worth a damn. You might get your way if you overpowered her, but it wouldn’t be worth what you lost in the process.

This is a remarkably sensual novel with descriptions of physicality–the nature of uncontrollable sexual desire but also the joy of working hard and enjoying nature.

The days are long in April, longer in May, and longer still in June, but they are never long enough. They begin with dew on the grass and the long-legged shadows of sunrise and end with whipoorwills calling in the darkening bottoms and swallows circling and diving at dusk. And all day long, through the hot sweaty  hours, the work goes on.

With Lee’s crude descriptions of Angelina’s sexual appetites, the book was no doubt ahead of its time, but now it seems dated. Stylistically, Hill Girl seems a lot less smooth than River Girl; it seems to be a much earlier novel even though they were both published in 1951. Back to that question of manuscript backlog. Definitely not the author’s best work, but fans will want to read this–although copies are not cheap.


Filed under Fiction, Williams Charles