Month: January 2010

Truth or Something Like It

Like the truth itself, Truth or Something Like It by Curtis Smith is layered, complex, and frequently subtle. Ostensibly, the narrative revolves around a cover-up that begins when protagonist Glen Tate accepts a bribe to keep his mouth shut about some dirt he’s inadvertently uncovered regarding a politician’s recently deceased son. Evoking shades of the recent John Edwards paternity scandal, politician Arthur Lyndon is running a campaign based on a promise of high moral standards that certain of his son’s lifestyle choices threatened to undercut. This element of the story, however, is only one of several that fit comfortably within each other like a series of Russian nesting dolls.

In addition to dealing with the moral ambiguity inherent in accepting hush money, Glen also needs to deal with a perpetual flow of personal crises. In his work as a special-ed teacher, Glen walks a fine line between friendship with and professional distance from the students whom many of his fellow teachers have dismissed as “freaks and geeks.” His only adult friends consist of a sullen cadre of outsiders who work in a used book store, and his girlfriend has just announced that she’s pregnant with his child. As if this weren’t enough, Glen learns from his mother that a former girlfriend of his is about to be married to one of his old rivals from high school. Embarking on a quest to throw a monkey wrench into the impending nuptials, Glen and his best friend Charlie get caught up in a mission to help an erstwhile stripper get out of the business. Given the number of balls he’s juggling, it would be perfectly understandable if Smith flinched or faltered on occasion. What makes this novel so impressive, however, is that he never does.

What ties all of the largely disparate elements together is the concept of truth (and its shady twin, deception). Even when Lyndon’s spectral agents aren’t spying on Glen to make sure he’s keeping his mouth shut, his buttons and bumper stickers are everywhere, claiming that he, unlike other politicians, is a force of truth. The fact that he isn’t only underscores the unsure moral footing that Glen finds himself treading throughout the novel and points to the undeniable fact that he needs to recognize: his own life, like Lyndon’s campaign, is a house of cards built on a foundation of lies (to put it bluntly). Thus, even as he tries to uphold his nice-guy image, Glen struggles with the very contradictions that define his true identity.

Fans of Smith will find a lot to enjoy in his latest novel. As with Sound and Noise, he explores the culture peculiar to the small college towns of central Pennsylvania, and as with all of his fiction, he proves himself a master of fleshing out his characters and studying the human condition. Yet the complexity of Truth or Something Like It also takes Smith into new territory that’s bound to win him more followers.

Unico Collections

As someone who’s had occasion to dabble in the sequential graphic arts (a.k.a. comic books), I really appreciate what Unico Comics, in conjunction with the  Amateur Comics Guild, was doing when they published their Collections series: providing a venue for aspiring comic book artists and writers in a world where bigger publishers wouldn’t normally give a newcomer the time of day. Though the series ceased publication after three issues, a good deal of the work that Unico published under the Collections moniker bears a second look, which is why I’m glad they’ve decided to anthologize all three issues in a single volume due early this year.

Take, for example, “Cobweb the Pig,” a short piece by writer/artist Ben Edge that was featured in the first issue of Collections. Here, a series of childlike drawings reminiscent of Matt Groening’s work on Life in Hell nicely complements an allegedly true tale about a boy, his pig, and the tattoo gun that brings them together. By way of contrast, “A Day in September,” featured in issue two and sensitively illustrated by Mark Bell, offers a somber take on the events and significance of September 11, 2001. Finally, two pieces in issue three stand out for their color and energy. The first, “The Son” looks and reads like an installment of Bill Amend’s Foxtrot on crack; imagine Jason Fox growing up to be an assassin who can stop a limousine in its tracks by stabbing it with a hunting knife, and you’ll have a good idea of what this one’s about. Then there’s “The Exile’s Daughter” by Caroline Parkinson, who is perhaps the only comic book artist I’m aware of whose use of Japanese imagery is not limited to reproducing manga-style cartoon characters. In this piece, Parkinson uses a style that is more akin to Meiji art than to its latter-day cousin to deliver a story of myth and magic set “over a thousand years ago.”

"Foxtrot" on crack? A page from "The Son."

Scattered among all of these pieces are new interpretations and reinventions of the standard fare we tend to associate with the comics genre as a whole: superhero origins, crime stories, science fiction adventures, and tales of horror. In some ways, I’m reminded by the old Tales to Astonish comic books from Marvel, but the fact that all of the work in Collections is produced by newcomers gives the series a sense of jouissance that the former may have lacked. These are comics written and drawn for the sheer love of the form–a fact that shows on every page.

Soul Runner

Two things become abundantly clear just pages into Jon Guenther’s latest novel, Soul Runner. One: the author is a man of faith. Two: he’s an expert at crafting edge-of-your-seat tales of high adventure.

The first point should come as no shock, as the plot of Soul Runner revolves around a mission to rescue a Christian dissident from her Communist oppressors in Romania, circa 1988. Its hero, Dr. Abram Aronsfeld, is a former Hasidic Jew and current member of ARK, a covert organization that exists to rescue persecuted Christians worldwide. Aronsfeld can quote scripture like nobody’s business (to prove it, Guenther provides a list of scriptural end notes in the novel’s back pages), and he also believes in miracles. Not that he’s necessarily expecting the parting of the Red Sea or a plague of locusts to beset his enemies, but the occasional Deus Ex Machina in the form of a colleague getting him out of a jam at just the right moment is certainly enough to justify Aronsfeld’s faith in divine intercession.

As for the second point, Guenther proves throughout Soul Runner that he’s mastered the juggling act of keeping a story moving forward at full-steam while simultaneously fleshing out his characters and placing them in expertly wrought, highly credible settings. That is, Guenther is not just an expert at plotting out stories; he’s also quite the universe builder, breathing life into his characters and giving them free reign over their destinies. Thus, while the plot of Soul Runner is clearly mapped, it never seems contrived. Rather, it stems naturally from the wishes and desires of its characters. Again, not that this should come as any surprise, as Guenther is the author of over 30 novels (mostly pseudonymous), which is to say that he’s had a lot of practice.

Given all of this, it’s a safe bet that Soul Runner will appeal to anyone who’s looking for a literary thrill ride with a distinctly Christian bent.

For a free sample, prospective readers can download the first chapter at his website.

Everything is Everything

Throughout Everything is Everything, poet Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz demonstrates that she is a master of juxtaposition. Take, for example, “L’Chaim,” in which Aptowicz seamlessly blends images of David Foster Wallace’s suicide, dancing the Hora at a Jewish wedding, and attempting to recall how to do an Irish jig. The effect of this commingling is nothing short of astounding: after the narrator of the poem learns of the author’s suicide, she is summoned to represent her Irish heritage by performing a jig she doesn’t exactly know how to do. The result, of course, is a dance that bears a striking similarity to that of the hanged author–bottom half whipping the floor, “furious as a seizure,” while the top half remains “frozen, immobile, paralyzed.” But the parallel demands further examination, as it implies that we are all, in some way, dying as we appear to celebrate, committing small suicides as we force ourselves to go through the received motions of daily life. Is there anything more than preserving the culture of our ancestors, the poem all but demands?

As it turns out, there is, as Aptowicz also proves throughout the volume that she has a sterling sense of humor. Among the subjects she touches on in her poetry are crack-addicted squirrels, her fascination with dachshunds, the Loch Ness Monster, and insults that only work if you are a presidential trivia buff. The poem that really got me, however, is titled “Every Winter, People Think My Boyfriend is Elvis Costello.” Here, Aptowicz ponders the essence of identity, the fecklessness of celebrity, and the age-old question: “Would Elvis Costello really be wearing an Elvis Costello t-shirt?”

As strong as Aptowicz’s poems are on the printed page, she is first and foremost a performance poet, so the best way to get a sense of what she’s up to is to see her live. If this isn’t a possibility, there’s always catching her performances online at http://www.aptowicz.com/poet.htm (be sure to scroll down!). Funny, smart, and a little macabre, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz speaks eloquently and expertly for a generation raised on trivia, tabloid journalism, and black coffee.

The Chester Chronicles

It’s no surprise that Michael Cunningham offers high praise for Kermit Moyer’s The Chester Chronicles on the book’s dust jacket—Moyer’s precise prose and eye for historical detail place it naturally alongside such works as Cunningham’s Flesh and Blood and his Pulitzer Prize winning The Hours. Yet Cunningham isn’t the only author Moyer’s coming-of-age novel-in-stories evokes. The style of The Chester Chronicles is reminiscent of authors as diverse as Tim O’Brien and Don DeLillo, while the subject matter hearkens to Stephen King’s The Body, Christopher Meeks’ The Brighest Moon of the Century, and Heather Sellers’ Georgia Underwater. Needless to say, I liked this book a lot.

The Chester Chronicles follows a young boy named Chester Patterson as he struggles through his early childhood and into his teens during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Along the way, he grapples with all of the big issues that were coming to a head during those times (and, it seems, are always coming to a head in one way or another): sex, race, and religion, chief among them. Thus, The Chester Chronicles isn’t just the story of a boy but the story of an era. It’s Leave it to Beaver if television knew how to tell the truth, Happy Days without the saccharine veneer of nostalgia.

By giving us the character of Chester Patterson, Moyer gives a set of innocent eyes that are growing less innocent by the minute through which to watch the evolution of American culture on the smallest and most personal of scales. The author brings the era to life not by offering sweeping generalizations about the time, but by focusing on the minutia of his life: the cowboy hat, the life jacket, the first beer, the first kiss, the first (and, okay, only) lunch with Ralph Ellison. As Chester comes of age, so too does America and, in a way, so too do we.

Publisher Wants South Philly Stories

This just in from Don Ron Books:

Don Ron Books (publisher of Philly Fiction & Philly Fiction 2) is seeking submissions for a new book titled South Philly Fiction, a collection of stories highlighting South Philadelphia as a source of literary inspiration. All stories must be written by authors who are from, have lived in, or currently live in the Philadelphia area. Submitted stories must be substantially set in South Philadelphia. (Boundaries: South Street and south, the Schuylkill , and the Delaware.) We’re not just looking for Italian Market tales; we want to hear about life in Gray’s Ferry, Passyunk Ave hipsters, Laotian immigrants, etc. Stories cannot exceed 7,500 words; there is no lower word limit. Unpublished and unknown writers welcome; any genre, no language restrictions. Fiction only, no poetry. Previously published stories are okay with permission to republish. There is no fee for submission. Stories must be received by April 15, 2010.

Send submissions to: phillyfiction@yahoo.com.

Write: “SPF, your last name, story name” in the subject line (e.g., “SPF, Franklin, Poor Richards Almanac”). Provide your name, address, phone number, and email, and enclose a brief bio that includes your affiliation with the city of brotherly love. Authors whose stories are selected will be expected to work with editors to fine tune their submissions. Selected authors will receive $20 and a copy of the published book. Don Ron Books reserves the rights to republish the stories in subsequent reprints, authors otherwise retain rights to their works. Email phillyfiction@yahoo.com with any questions. We look forward to reading your stuff!

For more info go to www.phillyfiction.com