Huckleberry Minh: A Walk Through Dreamland
by Glen Alyn
Pecan Grove Press, $15 paper
It's been almost 25 years since the fall of Saigon, yet for many it's still a deep and unhealing wound in the American psyche. By taking on Vietnam in a book-length poetry project, Austin poet Glen Alyn happens upon the tragic and literary qualities that many before him have found. Whether it's wrapping Conrad's Heart of Darkness within the setting of the war, or exploring the lives of individual soldiers caught in both literal and metaphorical crossfire, it's a rich vein for tragedy because still, 25 years later, there are no easy answers to explain away what happened.
In Huckleberry Minh: A Walk Through Dreamland, Alyn walks the reader through a chronology that starts with quintessential American themes like Christianity, hamburgers, baseball, and, finally, the Mississippi River, a symbol of both American virtue and American expansionism. By taking the reader through this prelude to Vietnam, Alyn positions himself as red-blooded an American as you could possibly want, albeit one trying to make sense of what happened, both while in Vietnam, and, at the end of the book, on his return home, when he is met by anti-war protesters his own age.
As a project that seeks to explain what can't be explained, Alyn is most buoyed and best served by his earnest approach. Amidst typical descriptions of war horrors, Alyn sometimes happens on surreal and transcendent moments, as in "Buddha," a poem about a U.S. Army major who has converted to Buddhism and sits cross-legged in his office surrounded by untouched official Army documents. Although there is some emotional shading to Alyn's reportage, Huckleberry Minh is largely narrative, with only loosely applied (and even haphazardly applied) poetics to give the pieces shape. Only some of the more esoteric poems, contained in the more reflective final sections of the book, truly hold together as self-contained works. The rest of the poems here depend on each other to create a larger story that keeps getting told, because there are still those out there who rightfully, and thankfully, can't let go of it.
-- Phil West
Glen Alyn will read from and sign Huckleberry Minh at Barnes & Noble Arboretum on Saturday, May 29 at 2pm.
Roundup: An Anthology of Texas Poets From 1973 until 1998
edited by Dave Oliphant
Prickly Pear Press, $15 paper
On Roxy Music's "Prairie Rose," when Englishman and lyric poet Bryan Ferry purrs the word "Texas," he transports the listener to a fabulous land of love and adventure where anything is possible. I have yet to hear anyone speak the word with more potency or understanding of what the myth of Texas is all about than the ultra-romantic Mr. Ferry.
Of course, he was dating Jerry Hall at the time. Ms. Hall, as you may recall, subsequently left Mr. Ferry for a Rolling Stone. Since that time, Mr. Ferry has not revisited, to my knowledge, the subject of Texas. I imagine his view of the "lonesome star" would be considerably altered. As many poets have discovered, he might find the shadow side of a myth to be even more potent and revealing than the popular and all-too-easy standardized version.
Editor and poet Dave Oliphant, founder of the well-respected Prickly Pear Press, has produced a stunning anthology of Texas poets that simultaneously celebrates and deconstructs the myth of Texas. This "best of" the Prickly Pear goldmine features Texas poets who in the world of Texas letters are mythic themselves: Stephen Harrigan, Naomi Shihab Nye, Susan Bright, Rosemary Catacalos, Betty Adcock, R. G. Vliet, William Burford, Vassar Miller, Walter McDonald, Joseph Colin Murphey, Charles Behlen, Thomas Whitbread, Tomas Rivera, and Ray Gonzalez. Though the youngest poet in this collection was born in 1954 (the eldest was born in 1915), and many of the poets are or were academics, each is or was an accomplished, serious poet whose work deserves and will undoubtedly receive thoughtful consideration and respect from even the most renegade of younger Texas poets.
The images and philosophies expressed range from romantic magical realism to the Bukowskian confessional, from traditional rhymed to street-smart kickass, from New Yorker dry to Paris Review experimental. But for all that cultural catholicism these works are thoroughly, unequivocally Texan even down to the oddly utilitarian Nabokovian commentary most of the poets provided on their featured works.
They speak of the writing of poetry like a wizened cowhand might tell a greenhorn how to pull a breeched calf from its mama or how sad, but necessary, it is to shoot your best friend 'cause he done come up lame. So matter-of-fact, so wonderfully full of it, so goddamned gorgeous even when they cry.
Texas.-- Ric Williams
A Return to Modesty
by Wendy Shalit
Free Press, $24 hard
The first sentence of Ms. Shalit's musings on modesty has to be a lie: "My father is an economist of the Chicago-school variety, so my earliest memories concern Coase's theorem, Stigler's laws, and the importance of buying and selling rights to pollute." To say this is a lie, however, is to miss the point -- it is of the kind of lies Mark Twain called "stretchers," and calls less for our belief than our indulgence. The point of the first sentence, indeed the point throughout the book, is to give us a sense of the author: an artless young woman, prone to let the truth or falsity of a claim depend more on her perspective than some external test of it. That artlessness is of a certain, recognizable type -- Ms. Shalit presents herself predominantly as a daughter. As a sort of everydaughter, in fact, because, after lauding her father in her introduction, she rather drops him in the rest of the book. It is just another one of Shalit's incoherencies, this father of hers. She describes him as a reassuring, booming voice on the other end of the phone line, but that voice never resolves itself into words.
While it is an abundantly reiterated point in her program that young women should take the advice of their papas, in her own case she never gives us a hint as to what that advice would be. Ms. Shalit, in an ironic twist she sometimes recognizes, is not herself a very modest person, and to show herself taking advice would seem, somehow, lesé majesté, a lowering of herself to the level of the sexually driven hoi polloi; yet her spotty account of her boyfriends implies either that she ignored her father's advice as to their suitability (for, one by one, they naughtily wind up pressuring Ms. Shalit for her pearl of great price) or she never asked for it.
Ah, but the critical sense can but wither the flavor of this odd little text, less a coherent tract than a very smart career move. It reads, in part, like a self-help book, pitched to teenage girls, although it is hard to imagine anyone coming to it and identifying with the highly privileged Wendy Shalit. It also expounds a quasi-philosophy, but Ms. Shalit's powers of reasoning are circumscribed by an almost preternatural inability to construct a believable argument. She casts the issue of sexual behavior into this form: Either you follow an ethos of modesty, which signifies, pretty much, no sex for gals until marriage, or you follow an ethos of casual sex, which means orgies every night, even with the gross boy down the dorm hall. This delight in unreal choices is so pervasive that it is almost a talent.
Let it be said from the outset that hers is, at least initially, a clever strategy. It has operated like an aphrodisiac on a host of conservative commentators, such as George Will and David Gelernter, and even garnered praises in less predictable venues, such as the Village Voice's outlet in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Weekly. Stripped to the essentials, this is essentially a casebook of paleo-conservative points. It plays over, once again, a very familiar list. Sex education is bad. Contraception is bad. Premarital sex is bad. Religion, of the fundamentalist kind (Jewish, Christian, Islamic, it doesn't matter) is good. If the ideology is familiar, however, it is also rather hidden beneath the person, for instead of making a case grounded in some relation to fact, Ms. Shalit's case is all grounded in her impression of the facts. Or rather, her impression of the impressions of others. There is something infinitely misty about Ms. Shalit's hook-up with reality. If you didn't have some grip on what America is like in the Nineties, Ms. Shalit might convince you that it is a Sadean nightmare, and she some Juliette lost within it. Outside of her book, America is still the most marrying country in the world, teenage pregnancy has dropped about 8% from its peak (after a generally unbroken 50-year rise) in 1991, and the majority of sex education programs in this country teach abstinence. Inside her book, America is a vast 1-900 number, populated entirely by an elite circle of highly compensated young professionals looking for dates.
The first public policy issue Ms. Shalit tackles is sex education. She begins with an account of the sex education she received in the fourth grade. Or rather, an account of the sex education she did not receive, since her mother pulled her out. This chapter, "The War on Embarrassment," is typical of Shalit's method. It flurries between herself as a fourth-grader (Shalit finds herself to have been an adorable fourth-grader -- she relishes her own cuteness in much the way Henry Miller used to relish his cocksmanship;it is her pride and joy). and her file of clippings from various agony columns in various magazines. Basically, Shalit's account is that the Happy Hooker's aunt (oops -- telling a stretcher myself. She just seems like the Happy Hooker's aunt.) came to her fourth-grade math class and told the giggling pupils about 69-ing. I could only open my eyes very wide when I read this -- in Georgia, where I was taught, we received our news about sex through Coach Chonko, a man who choked up when pronouncing the word "sperm," which we then found ways of introducing into the classroom discussion. Shalit's anecdote carries all those signature features which make her such an untrustworthy guide to our sexual mores. She didn't actually attend the classes, for starters. She never refers to any other classes on the subject she might have attended. She never seems to have talked with anyone who has taught or designed a sex education class. As in sexual matters, so in sexual education: Shalit believes her inexperience is a special form of expertise.
For her readers, though, especially those of us raised in the South, the idea that Wisconsin public money is going into the teaching of ars amore instead of the boring mechanics of reproduction seems implausible. Nor does Shalit ever discuss one of the basic purposes of sex ed, the prevention of teenage pregnancy. Incidentally, Texas, in which sex ed is oriented entirely toward abstinence, has a rate of teenage pregnancy twice Wisconsin's. In fact, in those Sunbelt states where Shalit's modesty has merged with public policy, the teen pregnancy rates are routinely twice as high as the shameless, progressive states in the North. Since a large percentage of teenage pregnancies result from sex between teenage girls and older men, we would expect this topic to especially interest Shalit. Her modesty agenda seems to aggravate that mindset which would encourage teen girls to yield to older men in matters of sexual conduct. Doesn't this strike her as dubious?
Mind you, this isn't saying that the modesty agenda is wrong, although I suspect that it is; the problem is, in Ms. Shalit's hands, it isn't serious.
Yes, seriousness is a problem. Her methodology consists of clipping out and pasting together an enormous fund of clippings from and the advice columns in Cosmopolitan, Mademoiselle, Glamour, Ladies Home Journal, Mirabella, and others of that ilk, as well as stories from newspapers. Of course, since she is dealing with family, sex, and feminist issues, she has to rely heavily on anecdotes, but we expect from her some concern with separating the typical from the unusual, some description of that touchstone she uses to cull her materials, other of course than her intuition. Lawrence Stone, in his introduction to Family, Sex and Marriage: 1500-1800, proposes that anecdotes can be controlled for one's biases if one follows three guidelines:
• That one recognize differences in family type, according to class, race, and other socially marking factors;
• That one use a data base large enough, if possible, to make a fair sample of a larger whole; and
• That one admit that the uniformities implied in one's anecdotes are always to a certain extent ideal extrapolations from specific situations.
This is not Ms. Shalit's way. In fact, it wasn't until I was nearly through with the book that I understood what was going on. I finally snapped when I read her story about the one time she was tempted to stoop to sexual congress, which was in high school, when she was at debater's camp. I realized, then, that the oddities of this book -- the ingenue persona she crafted for herself, the unevenness of tone, the unreal caricature of the current American sexual ethos, the laborious cut and paste of detritus from the popular press -- corresponds exactly to the specifications of high school debate. I was in high school debate, too, and it all came flooding back to me: the goal of finding a quantity of citations, no matter where they came from; the ploy of reducing your opponent's argument to its most extreme terms, the better to savage it; the breathless thus-es and then-s, punctuating each separate statement. I could never quite get mad at Ms. Shalit, even when, in the end, she overreaches and briefly sympathizes with the law of the veil in countries like Iran and Afghanistan, because by then I began to see this as an automatic process -- since she had her citation, she had to use it. It wasn't Ms. Shalit speaking, at this point, it was her shoe box, filled with those cards. Maybe the last one is the killer, who knows? So out it comes, and we move further into an unreal world. Since she had her program and points written out, she had to carry each one, naturally. Even if that means celebrating the dreaded burqua, which is that veil the Taliban has forced women in Afghanistan to wear. The one where there is a little slit to look out of. This might be going overboard for a woman who has appeared with legs visible on several television talk shows, but it is all part of the game.
How else, after all, do you win the trophy?
-- Roger Gathman
by Gerald Duff
Salvo Press, $12.95 paper
There are a lot of ways Memphis homicide detective J.W. Ragsdale would rather spend his time than trying to solve two murders -- one being a tourist and the other a local VIP, none other than the daddy of the Maid of Cotton -- like listening to some good Delta blues or getting better acquainted with Diane Edge, a tall, sophisticated lady attorney with a gutter mouth. Ragsdale wants to know if she counts him among those men she calls "needle-dicked." But duty calls, as the murders threaten to scare all the tourist trade out of town right on the eve of the May International Barbecue Contest and the Cotton Carnival. These two events are more or less the centerpiece of the hilarious, gripping, tough, and original new novel Memphis Ribs, by Gerald Duff.
Barbecue and blues flavor this off-center police procedural/hard-boiled Southern Gothic, but the real meat is in the classic clash between upper-class Southerners and crack dealers, barbecue fiends and just plain folks. Duff spins this hard-boiled tale with an unerring ear for Southern dialect and the best, most off-center, and twisted profanity I've come across since my band's van broke down at a gas station run by hillbilly speed dealers. Seizing upon Duff's facility with unsavory characters and seedy situations, critics have compared him to Elmore Leonard, but I'm more reminded of Carl Hiaasen at his peak (Skin Tight, Double Whammy). The scenarios have a spicy spike of originality, or at least fresh energy: A wicked crack dealer has a near-religious experience when his pilot flies him over the Mississippi crossroads where blues legend Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. Then there's the St. Louis team competing in the barbecue contest, who will parachute two hog carcasses in from a light plane. "Back-up hogs, they called them, and the crowd had come to see the annual pork drop as a highlight of the festival." Me, too! A native of the Texas Gulf Coast, Gerald Duff's previous novels include That's All Right, Mama: The Unauthorized Life of Elvis's Twin. Somehow I missed that one, but I know it must be good.
-- Jesse Sublett
We've Got Spirit: The Life and Times of America's Greatest Cheerleading Team
by James McElroy
Simon & Schuster, $24 hard
We've Got Spirit, a straight-faced chronicle of an eastern Kentucky girls' varsity cheerleading squad, bills itself as the Friday Night Lights of cheerleading; it's actually a highly readable but long-winded magazine article on steroids. Like Friday Night Lights, however, We've Got Spirit takes an intriguing snapshot of rural America using high school sports as a backdrop.
The Greenup County High School girls' varsity cheerleading squad has won eight ESPN national championships in two decades, an astonishing success rate for any competition. Former Charlotte Leader reporter James McElroy, whose wife is a former cheerleader and cheerleading coach, examines the reasons for this small town team's success in the face of some mighty odds.
Set against the economic uncertainty of Greenup County, We've Got Spirit looks at the lives and achievements of the squad's teen athletes, their determined, volunteer coach, and the universal struggles all adolescents face -- whether they grow up in Kentucky or New York. Readers will find themselves taking cheerleading seriously for a change, no small feat considering how conditioned we've become to envision the goofy duo from Saturday Night Live, the valley-girl squad of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, or the brazen ambition of everybody in The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom.
-- Stuart Wade