Tag Archives: american fiction

The Wicked Stepmother:Michael McDowell & Dennis Schuetz (writing as Axel Young)

“I’m thinking of murdering him in front of a large crowd of strangers. I have to do it myself,” Verity explained, “because hit men don’t take plastic.”

Authors Michael McDowell (1950-1999) known primarily for horror fiction and Dennis Schuetz, published the campy, over-the-top The Wicked Stepmother in 1983, and thanks to Valancourt books, this title is back in print. It’s full of spiteful, grasping people behaving badly, and I don’t know if it was the author’s intention for readers to find this entertaining book funny in a nasty sort of way, but that’s exactly what it is.

The book opens with spoiled trust fund brat Verity Hawke Larner, the eldest of the three Hawke children still asleep in bed at noon when she’s woken by Louise Larner, her mother-in-law calling from Boston. Verity is married, but separated from Louise’s ne’er-do-well son, the good looking, sleazy low-life drug dealer Eric, but to complicate matters, Louise is also a partner of the real estate company owned by Verity’s father, Richard Hawke, which “handled some of the most exclusive properties in Boston.”

wicked stepmother

This first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book. As Verity struggles from sleep, she tries to remember the name of the man in bed next to her (“It starts with a B,”) and claims she quit her most recent job due to “burnout,” which is a euphemism for too many nights partying on cocaine. Louise insists that Verity drive from Kansas City where she settled two years earlier (as that’s “where the car broke down,”) and return to Boston for a family party.

Verity doesn’t make the party but shows up a few days later at the family mansion in Boston to discover that her father is dead. He collapsed in Atlantic City “slumped across a Blackjack table” just a few days after marrying Louise, and as Louise sniffingly explains to her new step-children, “We only had four days together–but they were perfect days.”

So that leaves Louise as the “wicked stepmother” of the title inheriting, what she imagines, is all of Richard’s estate. At the reading of the will, Louise is stunned by the revelation that although she inherits a decent amount, she doesn’t get everything, and that includes the Hawke mansion, and the eight million dollar trust fund to be divided between Verity and her siblings Jonathan and Cassandra. Louise, who is driven by avarice, then reasons that her stepchildren must die… one by one…

The private lives of the Hawke siblings are explored as part of the plot, so we see promiscuous Verity downing screwdrivers for breakfast and snorting cocaine every chance she gets while Jonathan follows his punk rock band girlfriend, and Cassandra moves on from being a magazine editor.  The lives of these three siblings who never have to worry about a paycheck or having a place to live are in direct contrast to Louise and her son who are both rotten, but also dangerously rapacious, to the core. There are a couple of scenes which are shocking in their complete heartlessness when these two loot the belongings of the dead.

Wicked Stepmother smacks of the 70s with its references to a Lime green Toronado and a yellow Cadillac, and the plot has the feel of a fictionalized tacky ‘true crime’ novel, with the bones of the novel being the lurid crimes fleshed out by the authors’ imagination. Some of the scenes and the dialogue are completely over-the-top, but in spite of the lack of subtlety in characterizations which feeds the novel’s theatricality, the violence, when it occurs is unexpected, shocking and chilling. Living under the protection of money, high society and the looming trust fund fails to prepare the Hawke siblings from the determined greed of Louise whose desire for the Hawke mansion has no moral bounds.

If this were made into a film, I’d place it in the very capable hands of one of my cultural icons, John Waters. He’d be the right person for the job–an assault of the rapacious, murderous self-made on the unprepared, upper classes of Boston.

Review copy.

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The Nest: Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

“How had they raised children who were so impractical and yet so entitled?”

When “self-made” Leonard Plumb created a trust fund for his four children, he knew, from his own bitter family history, that “abundance proffered too soon led to lassitude and indolence, a wandering dissatisfaction.” He didn’t intend to leave his children rolling in money, so he delayed the disbursement until the youngest, Melody, was 40 years old. He wanted his children to make their own way in life and not count on a cushy payout, and reasoned that a lump sum coming in their 40s would be:

“a little something to sit atop their own, inevitable financial achievements […] and pad their retirement a bit, maybe help fund a college tuition or two. Nothing so vast as to be truly significant”

Unfortunately, Leonard’s well-intentioned plans didn’t work out the way he reasoned. He could not have predicted that “as the fund grew so, too, would his children’s tolerance for risk.” Leo, the eldest, at forty-six, has made and wasted millions and is about to be cleaned out by his avaricious soon-to-be ex-wife, Victoria, a “world-class spendthrift.” Jack, a gay antique dealer, has secretly been paying his bills by using a line of credit against a vacation home he owns with his husband. Bea, a “formerly talented” writer can’t finish a novel and now works for a literary magazine called Paper Fibres which may appear to be keeping afloat but is really financed by the owner, Paul’s elderly maiden aunts. After years of scrimping but still living beyond their means, Melody whose “fortieth birthday glowed like a distant lighthouse, flashing its beam of rescue” plans to use her money to send her twins to expensive schools and pay off her house loans. All of the siblings, with the exception of Bea, have counted on “the Nest” to bail them out of their self-created financial woes.

the nest

A few months before Melody’s 4oth, a drunk and wasted Leo, a “narcissistic sociopath” (according to Victoria) ditches his wife at a wedding and causes an accident which leads to a permanent disability for the 19 year old waitress who is the passenger in his careening Porsche. Terrified of scandal, and wanting to avoid any financial involvement, Leo’s mother, the widow Plumb, always remote, “disengaged” and now remarried, but with power of attorney over the trust account, decimates “the Nest” by paying off the waitress and her family. After all, Leo, she reasons, is “the least needy and therefore, the one she thought of with the most fondness.” Leo, who’s been holed up in rehab, returns to New York, to the remains of his ruined life and to face his angry siblings. All that remains of “The Nest” is a fraction of the amount the four Plumb siblings expected. This is a disaster that everyone must face and one that has lasting repercussions for all involved.

Set in New York, the literal ‘nest’ for the siblings, the novel manages to capture the nuances and recent history of the city–the incredibly high cost of housing, the aftermath of 9-11, and the impact of AIDS on the gay community.

The Nest, a debut novel from Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney is caustically funny, and most of the humour comes from the self-destructive behaviours of the Plumb family–most notably Leo who is a charming philanderer always managing to step away from disaster while others mop-up. Sweeeny has a sharp eye which focuses on the subtleties of sibling relationships, and how dynamics established in childhood never really alter with the passage of time. While the tale’s focus is humour, there are a lot of painful truths here. The promise of a generous mid-life inheritance has done little for the Plumb siblings other than cause them to plan for the big payday, and as a result of the money they think is headed their way, they’ve all (with the exception of Bea) made horrible financial moves, delayed maturity, and have refused to face some realities.

The book’s humor keeps up a good pace throughout the novel, which, given the content– squabbling, desperate siblings and a depleted inheritance, is no small feat. I particularly loved the scenes of the Plumb parents–long deceased patriarch, Leonard Plumb and his inappropriate enthusiasms for his work, and his widow Francie who can’t keep her children’s birthdays straight, thinks Melody needs Botox, and when it comes to the matter of using “The Nest” to bail out Leo has to “contend with this execution squad of her own children.” The scene in which Melody recalls her only childhood party is priceless. It’s lamely organized by her mother, Francie, who’s furiously downing martinis wearing a silk kimono which “this early in the day was a very bad sign.”

But then Francie started singing “Over the Rainbow” and only a few verses in she started to weep. “Mom?” Melody said, weakly.

“It’s just so, so sad,” Francie said. She turned to them. “The studios killed Judy Garland. They killed her. That voice and what a tragedy. They made her and then they killed her.”

The girls were sitting quietly, nervously giggling. “Uppers to work all day. Downers to sleep at night. She was just a kid.” Francie stood now, facing them, her robe gaping a little in front. “I wanted to be an actress. I could have gone to Hollywood.”

One of the criticisms I read about the novel is that while readers enjoyed it, they considered ‘light.’ I recently read Tessa Hadley’s The Past, another novel about siblings and inheritance, and while The Past is a deeper novel with stronger characterizations and a gorgeous sense of the passage of time, The Nest‘s delightful humorous approach should not eradicate the serious messages here regarding our frequently unhealthy relationships with money.

Review copy

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All Things Cease to Appear: Elizabeth Brundage

The thing about houses: they chose their owners, not the other way around. And this house had chosen them.”

Elizabeth Brundage’s fourth novel All Things Cease to Appear begins with a horrendous murder that takes place in the 70s. Catherine Clare, the wife of an art history professor, is found murdered in her Upper New York remote countryside family home. She’s been killed with an axe, and her husband, George, who soon becomes the main suspect, claims she was still alive when he left that morning. Did he murder his wife? If not, who committed this crime? What did the child, Franny, left alone with the corpse of her mother for the entire day, witness? In some ways the locals aren’t surprised that something awful happened in the remote farmhouse once owned by the ill-fated Hale family. The house, still full of the belongings of the previous owners, was neglected for years until George bought it at auction for a rock-bottom price. This is a house full of the echoes of tragedy, and according to Catherine, it’s haunted by the presence of Elly, a woman who died there.

There was something odd about the house. A chill flourished in some rooms and an odor seeped up from the cellar, the rotting carcasses of trapped mice. Even in gentle summer, when the world outside was singing its bright song, an oppressive gloom prevailed, as if the whole house had been covered, like a birdcage, with velvet cloth.

The book’s first chapter is simply amazing, and then the novel shifts focus from George and the crime back to the past as Brundage introduces various characters who all have some part to play in this cerebral tale of murder, adultery, lies and deceit. Each character is part of Brundage’s mosaic, so we see Justine, a woman who works with George, George’s boss,  a man who’s fascinated by the work of Swedenborg, Mary Lawton, the real estate agent who sold the farm to the Clares, her husband, the local sheriff who struggles to solve the murder, Willis, a young unstable woman whose presence triggers tragedy, and the three Hale boys who find excuses to hang around the Clare home.

all things cease to appear

Even though we know almost immediately that Catherine has been murdered, the step back in time moving forwards towards her death is fraught with tension and eerie suspense. There’s a poignancy as the days draw closer to the date of Catherine’s murder, accompanied by a sense of powerlessness that we cannot prevent the crime.

The day was overcast, the field thick with fog. She stepped outside and walked out into the field, and the humid air clung to her. She stood there alone in the middle of it. She could feel her outlines blurring, as if she could fade into the opaque landscape and disappear.

While this is the story of a murder, it’s also the story of how a community failed to help Catherine and the impact of the murder on various characters. This is an impoverished area, a farming community hit hard by economic realities.  The Clares are outsiders who don’t fit in with the locals, and this seals Catherine’s tragic isolation.

Elizabeth Brundage weaves a well-crafted and credible story around a murder while boldly defying genre expectations. Her interest here is the moral complexities of the situation, how violence impacts a community, a family, an individual, and in this tale we have two families damaged by violence: the Hales and the Clares. The novel’s length allows a satisfactory exploration of all the characters involved and the roles they play in Catherine’s murder, so we see the impact of the crime on the sheriff:

Over the years he’s seen just about everything–every twisted machination, most ill-conceived or plain stupid–but you get to the point, you get to the fucking point where you don’t want to see it any more.

And Willis trained to detect sociopaths, but who is nonetheless vulnerable to one. Her moral compass is scrambled thanks to her father’s career as a top defense attorney in New York:

In his boxy suit and shined shoes he meandered over to the stand like a man approaching a slutty woman in a bar, but he’s ask his questions with the voice of a priest. It didn’t matter what they were thinking now, because he knew the defendant and eventually the jury would too.

Her father could make you think he understood you, even if you’d done things that bordered on the surreal. Somehow, he justified it in his mind that, under certain circumstances, you could be driven to do anything.

If you take a look at Goodreads, you will see that readers are sharply divided. Some people loved the book and others found it meandering. Some of the reason for the diverse opinions may reside in readers’ expectations. This is not a past-paced crime book–rather this is literature that wraps itself around a murder. I’ve read Elizabeth Brundage’s other novels:  The Doctor’s Wife, Someone Else’s Child (I didn’t care for A Stranger Like You) so I knew that this wasn’t going to be just a crime novel. This is a complex novel centered on a crime, heavy on character, an exploration of the sociopathic mind and with hints of the supernatural. I have a few minor quibbles with some details of the ending, but overall, I really enjoyed this.

(there is one scene of animal cruelty but it is portrayed as such)

Review copy.

 

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Stripper Lessons: John O’Brien

“he likes not knowing until the last minute where he’ll be sitting, sizing up the room like James Bond entering a casino”

Stripper Lessons, a cleverly constructed look at male loneliness from author John O’Brien, is a portrait of an unattached law clerk who works in a dead-end job for a large law firm, drives a beat up Vega, and lives in a small apartment in Hollywood. By day, he searches for an important, ever-elusive missing file, but by night, Carroll heads to the seedy strip club, Indiscretions, pays the cover fee and steps inside.

Dark, but not really. In fact when you come in night after night your eyes adjust before the velvet curtain swings almost-closed at your heels, parting into a vertical peephole and making you feel more INside than if six inches of oak had slammed shut tight at your back. It’s when the exit in the rear-EXIT ONLY-NO IN AND OUT PRIVILEGES-is pushed open and the security lights of the parking lot flood the room like sunshine, washing out the red  and blue spotlights that some of the girls are partial to, that you realize, or remember, just how dark it really is.

He knows all the “girls by sight if not by name,” knows their dance routines (3 in a row), can predict the DJ script, knows the “average stay for a dancer” (two months) and fantasizes about a private table dance. Unable to connect with women, he buys a VHS tape, “The Shy Man’s Guide to Meeting Women,” –a tape that’s largely useless and, if anything, reinforces his inability to talk to women.

stripper lessons

Carroll’s worklife is dominated by the thought of nights spent at Indiscretions. When he leaves the club, he feels “separation anxiety,” but then there’s the “anticipatory thrill” for the next night that feels like a promise of what could happen.

Already his mind is at work, confidence building and plans being laid. He need only complete another day of work and he will be right back in the music. Sparkling apple cider, things to be said, and perhaps even the will to say them. Yes, tomorrow could be the night that everything comes together.

Carroll’s world changes with the arrival of Stevie, a new dancer with a messy private life, who wears a revealing camisole and whose pubic area is naked. The other men “look disappointed about something they haven’t yet identified and uncertain about why they should be,” but not Carroll; he’s smitten.

There’s an unspoken competiveness between the male customers who place dollar bills over the rail waiting for the stripper to dance her way over and pick them up. Leaving a five (or larger) brings the hope that the dancer may linger tantalizingly close for an extra second. Melissa, whose routine is predictable, a “one trick pony,” dances with disdain and “narrows her eyes in antipathy at each new bill placed on the rail, looking then to the man behind it as if to catalog the perpetrator.”

A guy in a three-piece suit and no tie puts a twenty on the rail, but she just turns away, eyelids drooping. ThreePieceNoTie looks around and laughs: he wants us all to know that this is exactly the reaction that he wanted; he got what he paid for and then some; he’s nobody’s fool. The guy thinks she loves him, thinks he loves himself.

The novel takes place over a handful of days and nights with Carroll becoming increasingly fixated with Stevie. Carroll is intelligent, and detached enough to realize that a “cool move” made by a dancer, spinning “low on her heel, simultaneously bending forward in a tricky twist and giving a full view of her backside to the men seated along the rail,” is made not so much for effect but for the dancer to make a “quick tally of the bills hanging on the top of the rails.” But in spite of this clarity of vision, he still projects his feelings onto the dancers and makes it personal when these performances are anything but. He’s excited that he placed TWO dollar bills on the rail, and when the stripper doesn’t acknowledge the double up, he doesn’t admit disappointment and instead decides she doesn’t want to be “unprofessional” and can’t “openly express the gratitude that she must be feeling.”

The novel’s strength lies in its descriptions of Carroll’s deluded thoughts, and the imaginative leap we make that many of the other leering male customers think along the same lines. Here are these young women dancing in front of customers who imagine that because they go to the club frequently and leave dollar bills on the rails, that they have some sort of relationship with the strippers. A customer/business relationship is all too often misconstrued, and how much more fraught with landmines is that relationship when fantasy, nudity and erotic dancing is added to the mix?  At one point for example, Carroll decides to ask Stevie about what happened to another dancer. He thinks “such are the benefits of being well-connected.”

Of all the girls dancing, the one that sticks out is Tasha, a girl “who dances with her pussy. Way more than any of the other girls, like in a different league, this being largely a breast place.”

He watches her saunter directly to a corner, put one leg up on the brass rail and part her thighs for the benefit of the two or three men who are favored with a propitious angle. She puts down her open hands, one on each inner thigh, squeezing her own tender flesh, stretching what she can out of the club rules, inspecting herself right along with her audience, a gynecological flair. Satisfied with the state of things, she looks to the men, studies their faces as if to say; Have you seen this? Take a look-see down there. Snap shut the thighs …maybe not that quickly. In any event she is off, a moment spent center stage in an obligatory tit twirl-heel down and the stage is her compass–before strolling off to another corner.

Tasha makes the men feel uncomfortable. Perhaps because she’s so bold and aggressive, removing any playfulness or naughtiness from her routine or perhaps it’s because by stripping away the fantasy of what the men are here to see, she controls the power.

While the book’s title and cover may sound titillating, this is not a book about sex (although there’s a lot to be said about how the power of sexuality)–rather it’s a very poignant look at how a very lonely man tries to connect with females, and how, after two years at the club, the dancers’ routines substitute for a meaningful relationship. Author John O’ Brien makes us feel how Carroll’s real life fades in comparison. At one point, Carroll, whose ultimate fantasy is to bring a girl from the club home, looks around his apartment and the excitement exits his fantasy just like air out of a popped balloon.

I came across Stripper Lessons by accident and took a chance. It’s a remarkable novel for its portrayal of male loneliness, sexuality and fantasy. The ending, unfortunately, IMO, undermined the novel’s main thrust, but still, well worth reading.

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Executive Suite: Cameron Hawley (1952)

Competence is a whip in the hands of a taskmaster,  and the lash cuts all the deeper when the whip is held by a perfectionist.”

Cameron Hawley’s novel, Executive Suite, a story of ambition and workplace politics opens in New York with the unexpected sudden death of 56 year old Avery Bullard. Bullard, who’s in New York to eliminate a man as a prospective executive vice president for the Tredwell Furntiure Corporation, suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and dies in the street as he is about to enter a cab. The man who was interviewed for the job witnesses the death and immediately dumps his stock in the Tredwell Corporation, and at the same time a woman passer by picks up and steals Bullard’s wallet. Bullard’s last act was to wire his secretary and order an emergency meeting of his five vice presidents so while the police in New York try to discover the identify of the dead man, back in Millburgh, Pennsylvania, at the Tredway Tower, the corporation’s company headquarters, the five vice presidents are supposed to dump their plans and prepare to gather together.  Everyone involved knows the meeting is to announce the new executive vice president, so no one can refuse. The last Executive VP died of a heart attack a few months before and the seat has been naggingly vacant ever since. The question on everyone’s mind is : who will Avery Bullard select? While the five men mull over their positions, we readers know that Bullard is dead and the bigger question is who will take over as the new president?

Loren P. Shaw: Vice president and Comptroller-ruthlessly ambitious, and of all the five vice presidents, his mask “was the best.”

Jesse Grimm: Vice President for Manufacturing: “his one weakness … demanding perfection from his machines but too quick to excuse the lack if it in his people.”

Fred Alderson: Vice President and Treasurer. The oldest of the vice presidents, he’s due to retire in 4 years.

J. Walter Dudley: Vice President for Sales–“practiced master of the art of winning quick friendships.”

Don Walling: Vice President for Design and Development. The newest of the five vice presidents. A self-made man ‘discovered’ by Bullard

The story goes into the minds of each of these men as they contemplate who will be selected as executive vice president, little knowing that with Bullard’s death, the stakes have drastically changed. Through these different minds, author Cameron Hawley explores just what work means to each man. Jesse Grimm, for example, no longer feels any satisfaction from his job and he has plans to retire imminently. J. Walter Dudley has recently found new zest in life through a no-strings relationship with a furniture shop owner, and Alderson thinks he deserves the executive VP spot since he’s been there the longest. Of course, the great irony is while the 5 VPs scramble around in various power plays assuming that the stake is the Executive VP spot, with Bullard’s death, the stakes have suddenly become much greater.

executive suiteAvery Bullard is, of course, absent after page one, but his presence dominates the lives of everyone who knew him. Originally a furniture salesman, he salvaged the Tredway Furniture Company from bankruptcy after the suicide of its founder and eventually merged seven other furniture companies which then formed the Tredway Corporation. He was a remarkable man who spent an energetic lifetime building his corporation while discovering and mentoring people. VP Don Walling was ‘discovered’ by Bullard, and it’s a debt Walling thinks he can never repay. Even Tredway’s largest stockholder, Julia Tredway Prince owes a tremendous debt to Bullard’s willpower and generosity. A few minor characters also exist to show what a powerful personality Bullard had–there’s loyal secretary, Erica Martin–“always in the bufferland between Avery Bullard and his vice-presidents,” and even an elevator man who’s devoted to the company president. But while Bullard demanded total and complete loyalty from his employees, some people–usually the wives, resent Bullard and his domineering presence in their lives. Mrs Alderson, for example, dreads the idea that her husband may become executive VP as she feels that she has already ‘lost’ her husband to the company. They live in the old Bullard home, a house she hates, because, according to her husband, “Mr. Bullard thinks it’s what we should do.”

But even the house, bad as it was, had not been the worst thing that Avery Bullard had done to her. Put in its simplest terms–and all of the years of loneliness had given Edith Alderson plenty of time to reduce everything to the simplest of terms–Avery Bullard had taken her husband away from her. He had turned her life into a meaningless sham of being married to a man whose first loyalty she could not claim.

This is very much a novel about American business. In some sense, Executive Suite reminded me of John O’ Hara’s Ten North Frederick–the story of Joe Chapin, a lawyer who is already dead when the novel begins, but whereas Joe Chapin was ‘steered’ through mediocre life by class, Bullard, a titan of industry, definitely created his own fate.

In its depiction of ambition, back stabbing office politics, and the issue of balancing home life with career, the book is relevant today. The novel can be faulted for its depiction of the female characters, but this is inevitable since this is a book about men and their careers while the wives linger in the sidelines. At one point, Walling praises another woman, glowingly to his wife, saying that she ‘thinks like a man,’ while another wife remembers only those people who’ve come to dinner, and she can recall the menu served down to minute detail. In this novel, Hawley asks some big questions: what do men ‘get’ from their careers, is it possible to balance work and home and still be successful, and what exactly brings job satisfaction? One character discusses compartmentalizing work and home and there’s the idea that one of the reasons the divorced Bullard was so admired was because he seemed to have achieved something with his life that other men envied. Ultimately, the novel argues that emotional choices in the workplace must be overridden by rational decisions; we don’t necessarily have to ‘like’ those we pick for the job.

I read some descriptions of this book as a page-turner. I found the book slow-going and it seems best read in big chunks rather than picking it up and putting it down as there are a lot of characters to keep track of here. One final thought–books written today about career and the workplace environment seem much more cynical. We see workers, anonymous and replaceable in a large corporate setting, doing anything but work. Thinking here of Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan.

Cameron Hawley (1905-1969) also wrote the novel Cash McCall which was also made into a film.

Review copy

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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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