A Chip off the Auld Sod
Off the Bookshelf
Once in a while, though, a musician or writer comes along that I perceive to be so overrated, not only by the mass audience but "experts," that it's obscene -- men and women who win Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, icons whose incomes and positions cannot be affected by a single bad review from any critic. I consider them fair game. So it is that a few years ago I launched a save-the-world-from Thomas Pynchon campaign, an expression of which was my review of his Mason and Dixon, which was published in The Austin Chronicle and Cleveland Downtown Tab. It created a sensation, getting me on a local talk radio show and bringing reactions from as many as seven people. Some acquaintances, after swearing me to secrecy, admitted that they too couldn't abide Pynchon. There were hostile letters as well, one from a writer identifying himself only as Anon E. Moose. Another writer, after admitting that two of Pynchon's books were "inspired but admittedly flawed," and another two were "devoid of passion, purpose and depth," blew his stack because I disliked the remaining one, Gravity's Rainbow, which contains the same flaws as the others. He went so far as to call "much of" James Joyce's Ulysses, which I'd praised, "tedious, self-indulgent crap" and claimed that I envied Pynchon. If I were envious of anyone, it'd be Joyce. Why would this guy think I'm jealous of Pynchon? Maybe he believes I'm not concerned with Joyce, having long ago surpassed him in self-indulgence, but envy Pynchon because he leads the pack in this all-important area. In any event, I want to maintain my position as "America's favorite curmudgeon," and with Andy Rooney closing on me I can't afford to alienate anyone, so let us now praise unsung novelists.
Start with Roger Boylan, author of Killoyle: An Irish Farce (Dalkey Archive Press, $13.95 paper). It ranks among the most impressive novels written by an American in recent years. Set in the Irish resort town of Killoyle, its main characters work at or hang around a local hotel, Spudorgan Hall. "Like Castle Dracula or the Bates mansion in Psycho, Spudorgan Hall stood out in stark relief atop its looming escarpment, lit up in the lightning glare that alternated with the barrel-hollow grumbling and asthmatic throat clearings of distant (but approaching) thunder."
Though Boylan was born in the States and now resides in San Marcos, Texas, he moved around with his family as a kid and spent a good deal of time in Ireland. Consequently his major influences include the early Samuel Beckett and Flann O'Brien. He's 46 now, so it's taken him awhile to get this, his first novel, out. Along the way, our man has been employed as a translator, teacher, computer technician and book editor.
Boylan has a lot going for him. He's a fluid writer, especially in the area of syntax, i.e., he uses long, complex sentences, but you don't notice their length or complexity because they're so solidly put together. Therefore, though Killoyle is a challenging read in some respects, it's a smooth, easy read, or at least not an unnecessarily difficult one. Also notable is the freshness of Boylan's imagery, metaphors, and similes. He doesn't emphasize prose poetry but writes vividly, "The storm spat out its ultimate bile in a choreographed triple assault, comprising a blinding flash of light with God on the kettledrums and a gale force blast of wind off the sea. Trees yawned and shook, telephone lines sagged and soared, rain hissed and spat, micturative drunks huddled in doorways upstream from themselves, newspapers careened through the empty streets like misshapen ghosts...."
Along with its smoothness, Boylan's prose is distinguished by its lilting musicality. His fine ear and aural memory enable him to write excellent phonetic dialogue. Here, for example, is retired priest P. J. McCarthy, a Dubliner who spent many years as a missionary in China, holding forth on the Yangtze Chang river while drinking green tea, "Turty-noine toimes da soize a da Liffey, didcha know dat? No foolin', game ball. Ah, dose were de days, don't you know, ah yiss dey were dat, so dey were, ah yiss. Now, a course in dem days, nobody owned a tellyphone achall, achall, ah shure, God bless ya dey're quare wans, de yeller men, ah yiss, but God bless da lotta dem anyhow and yerself, ay-men. Chroist, dis green tay's afful stuff. Woncha have some daycent Arl Grey?"
Note that in writing the Dublin accent Boylan leaves in "dis" and "dat," and plenty of "youses" can be found in the book as well. Dublin immigrants had a strong influence on the dialects of poor and working class Americans, and if more people reproduced Dublin English the way Boylan does, this might be far better known.
After you get into Killoyle, it becomes obvious that Boylan's a knowledgeable guy, what with his references to books, music, political events and what have you. He integrates these nicely into the text, instead of, like Mr. Pynchon, halting his narrative dead in its tracks to give you a chapterfull of information about the history of Rice Krispies with the intention of making damned sure you realize he's an intellectual heavyweight. The thing is, if you're parading your smarts in a novel, it really helps to be fluent and not too obvious. Technique is not an end in itself; there has been plenty of fine, spare, almost rudimentary fiction written, but if you're a rather clumsy, unsubtle writer like Pynchon, you might wind up turning out pretentious work even while demonstrating a familiarity with rock & roll and the mores of biker gang members.
In Killoyle, Boyland deals with several characters, alternating his focus between them. There's Miles Rogers, a headwaiter and aspiring poet; the upstanding Emmet Powers, hotel manager; Wolfetone Grey, head of catering, maker of prank phone calls and proselytizer of a religious creed which holds that our atmosphere is a curtain of marsh gas, beyond which lies the "Near World," populated by "Favourites of God," who offer enlightenment to an elite 104,000 humans whose surnames begin with the letter "G"; Father Phil Doyle, who disapproves of much going on in the modern world but keeps the faith because without it he'd fall apart; rapacious real estate man Thomas "the Greek" Maher; and, Kathy Hickman, journalist and object of many a man's affection.
Boylan frequently uses footnotes in his text, during which an opinionated octogenarian comments on the proceedings in the novel. In fact, the notes conclude the book with, "I've had enough, Cheerio."
Much of Killoyle is farcical and quite humorous, but in it Boyland makes shrewd observations about the human condition. Sometimes the views of his characters are straightforwardly stated, "As much as he loved life's more bearable aspects Father Doyle detested its overall cheapening, and television was the worst cheapener after overt atheism, politiking, money grubbing and the like; it was the very soul of popular culture (or should that be soil, as in night-?) and few things aroused in him a keener sense of disgust and betrayal. Popular culture indeed! When he read the newspapers or... watched the idiot box or listened to the radio... he felt naked and alone in a glaring arena of clamour and harshness and -- worst of all, fashion, all of them enemies of spirituality and art and the eternal...."
Though they aren't major, there are some flaws here. Some of the footnote material meant to be funny is merely obnoxious, and the novel loses steam in its final portion when the fates of the characters are hastily summed up.
Where will Boylan go from here? He has got far more and more varied life experience than most writers have accumulated when their first novels are published. Boylan's working on a second now. Hopefully it'll be at least as good as Killoyle and in it Boylan will reveal even more of the literary skill and knowledge he has accumulated.
-- Harvey Pekar
I once knew someone who worked at the bar where I did. In mid-thought, he would stop and say something like, "at a four-way stop the person on the right always goes first" and then, without hesitation, would return to what he was saying. In The Cocktail: The Influence of Spirits on the American Psyche by Joseph Lanza ($10 paper), its author writes like this man spoke. The Cocktail is a 153-page trip to the bar, with chapter titles like "Blondes in Bottles (Silver Shakers on the Silver Screen)," "It Was a Very Good Year Today" and the simply put "Lounge."
A sampling: "Rat Pack Cabala" starts off with columnist Earl Wilson's famous quote describing then-President JFK as the "sexiest, swingingest President of the century," and only a few paragraphs later, talks about a art gallery showing by French artist Yves Klein (who, two years earlier, gained some notoriety using women, dipped in blue paint, as paintbrushes), who invites guests to view his latest work. When they arrive, all they find hanging on the walls are blank, white canvases. "Feeling bewildered, miffed, and ripped off, the guests did not attain their artistic revelation until they got home and, thanks to a special something in their libations, pissed bleu." The chapter ends with the author recalling Frank Sinatra performing his farewell concert in June of 1971. Not to say that a blitzkrieg-style of writing is bad, but, like the knock-knock book one carried around as a child, it is better read as a reference, rather than straight through. One suggestion for aspiring bartenders -- learn to pour a shot of liquor with this book kept, well-read, behind the bar, as opposed to attending a high-priced bartending academy where Cocktail's Tom Cruise and the Mr. Boston's Official Bartender's & Party Guide are the god and bible.
Holy Smoke by Guillermo Cabrera Infante ($24.95 hard) takes more of a slow smoke look at the cigar. The author steps back to get an entire picture of the product of Havana. He picks of the scent, so clearly, of the cigar factories that populate the city. "Sitting at the tables are, let's say, five hundred torcedores. At one end of the fabrica de tabacos there is a man standing in front of the lectern or sitting at a table. He is the lector. His job is to read aloud while the cigar-rollers roll on." Though the idea got its start in a Havana prison, reading to workers at cigar factories has become a romantic tradition where it is said that Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame in Paris and The Count of Monte Cristo still remain favorites. Infante has an advantage in that he spent many years of his life living in Havana, which makes for some interesting first-person accounts of one famous cigar smoker, Fidel Castro. The color or quality of the ashes has nothing to do with the quality of the cigar, as experts have said, and "no cigars before breakfast -- or after meals for that matter," Infante informs us of cigar etiquette. References to movies are also abundant, and welcomed.
Toward the end of the Holy Smoke, Infante takes a look at the cigar's place in great pieces of literature. More interesting than the references are Infante's description of the author and his relationship to the stogy -- "Fernando Ortiz is how I like my writers: excessive, rhetorical, baroque -- and broke." Of the heralded writer of the Jazz Age, Infante says, "Scott Fitzgerald, a drunk writer for dumb waiters, never new enough about cigars to write about them." Infante, in fact, is such a good writer that his wit sometimes comes ever so close to outweighing his subject, but does not. As you could tell by reading Holy Smoke, Infante has probably lived by the words of Evelyn Waugh -- "Worked quite well. Drank good wine and smoked good cigars."
I like good wine, cocktails, whiskey on ice. Vodka martinis, straight up and cold. Cigars, on the other hand, I never much cared for. What Holy Smoke does is show just how much better The Cocktail could have been. Cigars over cocktails, this is a first....
-- Jeremy Reed
I must confess that I first read this bittersweet first novel in page proofs -- the book world's equivalent of a "sneak preview" -- last fall because a writer friend thought I might enjoy it. I stayed up half the night to finish the book not because I had to find out what happened, but I had to know how. When I turned the last page I felt like a girl myself, the one I'd left behind with her breast size obsession, egg-shell heart, forbidden crushes, misunderstood talents, and deep, unquestioning love of her mother. I slipped into bed next to my husband and slept the tear-stained sleep of the young who feel loss as if it were physical exhaustion, not mere sadness.
What Girls Learn by Karin Cook (Pantheon, $23, hard) is a sharp, clean novel that plays on the familiar themes of family loss, betrayal, and self-discovery with the innocent knowingness of a girl poised towards womanhood. "I grew up on white lies," Tilden, the observant and wise 12-year-old narrator observes. Along with her just-a year-younger sister Elizabeth, a pretty girl who aims to please, and their beautiful and optimistic mother Frances, Tilden moves from the Southern warmth of Atlanta to a strange land called Long Island -- "I had imagined palm trees and shells, and miles of sand and rolling ocean. Like Sea Island, only colder"-- to live with her mother's new beau. I thought this was going to be a familiar tale of a mom who does her daughter wrong -- à la Dorothy Allison or Mona Simpson -- but I was refreshed to discover that Frances, Tilden's mom, is the sort of mother a girl wishes for.
With a toolbox of advice ("A woman's relationship to clutter says something about her character") and the ability to put the best shine on the worst events (turning her daughter's dark ink spelling mistakes into flowers), it seems that there isn't anything Frances can't do for her girls. Nick, the man she drags her daughters halfway across the country to live with, is a decent guy, if a little too eager, causing Tilden to hide her homework assignments to avoid his avid assistance. With a new school, new weather, and new friends, for a brief time Tilden's life buzzes with uncertain hope. That is, until Tilden is flattered by a secret her mother shares, a secret that so sharply avoids the truth that the girl is uncertain what she has just learned.
It wasn't that long ago that silence was the expected way to handle such family events as breast cancer. AIDS has succeeded in teaching most of us that speaking leads to some sort of healing and shame is a waste of energy. But in the 1970s of Charlie's Angels which Cook captures so well, the empowered honesty of Our Bodies, Ourselves has not taken hold in every household. Luckily, Tilden is befriended by Samantha, whose frank and modern mother owns a copy of the book. Within its pages Tilden discovers the truth about girls' bodies even as Frances' unspoken lies conceal her own body's silent deterioration.
Unaware of her mother's condition, Tilden's biggest problem is with her cheerleader-in-training sister. The manipulative, bossy, pretty Elizabeth flourishes among the men who populate their world -- Nick runs a limousine service out of the garage next to their house -- edging near dangers that their mother has warned them of but neither girl believes in. As Elizabeth blooms into the kind of girl that boys like, Tilden struggles to discover her own version of what it is to be a girl. Matters become even more complex with the arrival of Uncle Rand, Frances' brother, a loner prone to spending late nights on the outdoor stairs off Tilden's room enjoying his wine and cigarettes. Uncle Rand teaches the lonely Tilden card games, telling her wild stories, and letting her smoke, but eventually their closeness is undermined by his vague inability to stay within life's boundaries. In the end it is only the sisters, the girls themselves, who can create the right atmosphere for their mother's journey away from them.
With a brown and pink cover reminiscent of a 1960s health class textbook,What Girls Learn is a girl's love poem to her mother, a sister's tally of daily fights won and lost, and a list of what girls must learn: to depend on each other, to forgive the world its weaknesses, and to tell the truth as best you can. -- Robin Bradford
When my wife and I lived in Los Angeles for seven years, we had a favorite Indian restaurant in Studio City. This place had killer vindaloo, and almost everything about the place was consistently outstanding. Once in a while, though, we got a bad waiter. But we kept going back, because it was that good.
Stonekiller, by J. Robert Janes (Soho Press, Inc., $22, hard) is a mystery novel that reminds me of that restaurant. It has so many special charms and quirks that a few serious flaws here and there can be forgiven. Set in occupied France in 1942, readers are introduced to a mystery setting that is refreshingly different and vividly drawn. The story opens with a bang: a woman has been butchered with a prehistoric flint axe, and she was apparently preparing to meet someone for an elaborate gourmet picnic out in the country. The detective team of Jean-Louis St.-Cyr, a French inspector with the Sûreté Nationale, and Hermann Kohler, a German Gestapo officer, prove to be the most lovable odd couple from the wrong side of World War II since Hogan's Heroes. St.-Cyr and Kohler face the daunting task of solving "ordinary" crimes in a world gone crazy.
Take my word for it, this pair is charming, funny, honorable and sympathetic and, like most working stiffs, they rightfully believe their bosses are evil idiots. The mystery is dense, psychological, and layered with history. Was the victim carrying poisonous mushrooms in her picnic basket? Did she actually intend to murder her murderer? There's a cave near the murder site, full of prehistoric paintings, which soon takes center stage in the story. As it turns out, one of the images depicted in the cave paintings is a swastika, so a Franco-German team of filmmakers is making a little documentary film for Hitler, so he can show the world that, yes, after all, this Third Reich thing has been in the cards for tens of thousands of years, it was fate.
Janes deftly describes the aching melancholy felt by the protagonists because of shortages of tobacco, good wine and cheese and Greek olives, and writes of landscape and scenery and people in a way that calls to mind the best quirky travel writers. One of the flaws of Janes' writing, however, is the ambiguous way he shifts from the viewpoint of one character to the next. I was frequently confused as to which character's thoughts I was supposed to be eavesdropping on. Another problem is the handling of action -- not one of the author's strong points. But there's cause for hope. There are other novels in this series; Sandman is slated for release in November. I'll be reading it, and most likely any others that follow. After all, perfection is over-rated, in writing as well as restaurants.
-- Jesse Sublett
"Today," Dewy says, "we snagging Leslie Britton's shit." He clasps his enormous chalky hands together and, like an aristocrat, cracks his knuckles. "Boondog that white bitch. How's she gonna play me?"
Dewy Bishop and Gunnar Lund are the self-proclaimed Regents of Repo, the Sultans of Snag, the Bishops of Back Rent, professional assholes putting in time for the Crown Rental outlet that is raping the hood in Columbus, Ohio, leasing used appliances and cheap furniture to the dispossessed in the city's north end.
They are the scarred heroes of a brawny and impressive first novel, The Right Man for the Job by Mike Magnuson (HarperCollins, $23 hard). Dewy Bishop is a 340-pound black man, a good-natured shitgiver and courtly sideseat king wise in the ways of the hood. His driver and understudy is Gunnar "Cheese" Lund, a dolorously homesick and tavern-pale white boy from backwoods Wisconsin, stuck in the city and tied to a faded love.
Ah, love. While the irrepressible Dewy and his candid observations provide a lot of raucous fun in The Right Man for the Job, Lund and the vagaries of love are the emotional focus of the novel. Lund watches with a fatalist's eye as his life with dope-dealer turned feminist scholar Margaret Hathaway crumbles into a mockery of domestic bliss. Already paid to forget his kinder instincts, Lund turns from Hathaway and towards Dewy and the lesser pleasures of the hood, finding beauty in the tough face of a white trash client ("the kind that might spit in a lover's face at the point of climax, those lingering bloodshot eyes all scorn and misery"), solace in a forty of Red Bull, and revelation in a $30 blow job. Lund calls the projects a "great carnival of misery," a phrase that might apply to his own life, with cheap and tinny amusements failing to mask the despair at its core. As events spiral further out of his control, even the ever-sanguine Dewy frets: "My guy Cheese is falling apart." Watching the Cheese fall apart, and struggle to save a scrap of his own burnt soul, is the crux of Magnuson's gritty novel.
"We're all fucked up, each in our own lovely and brutal way," opines Lund, and Magnuson has spared no soul in drawing this out. With pale emotion, instinctive dialogue, and streetwise social insight, Magnuson has written an honest and human portrait of working class life and its discontents. -- Jay Hardwig