Month: February 2011

alt.punk

Fair warning: alt.punk opens with the narrator performing a certain act on her soon-to-be-ex boyfriend. If you’re okay with that, then you’re in luck, because Lavinia Ludlow’s debut novel is nothing short of spectacular.

The narrative focuses on a thirty-year-old Safeway manager named Hazel, whose ennui over the dead-end nature of her job is paralleled only by her crippling fear of the contagions, allergens, and carcinogens that constitute her world. On top of that, she comes from a family of weight-obsessed type-A personalities, has a mother who laments that Hazel will never “just be normal,” and she’s just met a would-be rock-star named Otis who spits when he talks and whose biggest dream revolves around doing makeup for low-budget slasher films. The trouble is, Hazel really falls for Otis and all that he represents — namely, a break from the soul-numbing drudgery of working at Safeway. The result is a trainwreck of a relationship that makes for a great read.

More than anything, alt.punk speaks directly to anyone in the twenty- to thirty-something age bracket who feels hoodwinked by western culture’s promise that we can have anything we want as long as we work hard and want it badly enough. Hazel’s desperation to find some modicum of meaning in her otherwise bland existence is palpable throughout the novel; she’s funny, witty, and smart, yet her options are so limited that every decision she makes, no matter how misguided, makes perfect sense. To put it another way, Ludlow clearly understands what it means to have grown up in the last decade or so of the twentieth century only to wake up one day as an alleged adult at the dawn of the twenty-first. At thirty, she’s a lost child, clinging desperately to the ideals of her youth as she struggles to forge a path to adulthood. Her story, in other words, is the story of a generation.

I almost want to say that alt.punk reads like a cross between Jennifer Weiner and Chuck Palahniuk, but that would be doing the novel a grave disservice, for at heart, it’s the ultimate anti chick-lit experience. Gritty and raw as a scratchy seven-inch punk E.P., alt.punk is more closely aligned with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream. In short, alt.punk has all the makings of an underground cult classic.

-Review by Marc Schuster

The Ringer

Jenny Shank is a god. I say this largely because I agree with a sentiment she expresses in the late innings of her debut novel, The Ringer: an understanding of the “hidden connections between everyone” is “knowledge only a god should bear.” Despite this warning, however, Shank attempts throughout her novel to mirror the kind of knowledge that might otherwise be restricted to the divine. What’s especially amazing is that the author succeeds wildly in her attempt, and in so doing, she demonstrates the unique power of the novel to make gods of us all by illuminating the connections our habitual minds tend to miss.

The Ringer is told from the perspectives of two characters: Ed O’Fallon and Patricia Maestas. Their fates become intertwined when Ed, a police officer, kills Patricia’s husband in a botched drug raid. From Ed’s perspective, the shooting was a terrible mistake that places him in the center of a political firestorm, puts his job in jeopardy, and plunges him into a deep depression. For Patricia, the killing means that she’ll not only have to raise her children on her own, but also that she has no choice but to assume the role of a figurehead in a racially charged battle with city hall. To complicate matters, Ed and Patricia both have sons who play in the same baseball league, and when their paths inevitably cross, each can’t help but eye the other with suspicion and dread.

The true miracle of Shank’s novel is that she manages to tell her story from two distinct and very different points of view without ever favoring (or disfavoring) either. Instead, Shank encourages us to sympathize equally with both protagonists and, in so doing, effectively gives us two perfectly interwoven novels of heartache, uncertainty, and a modicum of triumph. Indeed, the exquisite agony of reading the novel is knowing the truth — that both parties are hurting, that both parties are under immense pressure from all sides not to be the first to blink, and that, in a better world, both parties would confront each other directly rather than losing themselves in the machinations of forces beyond their control. This, after all, is the great irony of the human condition in postmodern times: despite all of the means we have of communicating with each other, something always gets in the way. We are, Shank suggests throughout the novel, social animals bereft of true society, yet we do our best to make the kinds of connections — human and personal, if tentative and limited — that make our lives worth living.

An astounding debut.

-Review by Marc Schuster

To Befriend a Fox

Recently, PS Books asked me to edit a collection of poetry by Richard William Pearce and also to provide a foreword for that collection. Since a review would likely be somewhat biased, I will, instead, post the foreword that I wrote. Apologies in advance for the length of this post. The book is called To Befriend a Fox, and the foreword is titled “To Befriend a Poet.”

To Befriend A Poet

Richard Pearce hid his depression in plain view. On good days, his dreams and ambitions had no bounds. He’d dive headfirst into whatever captured his imagination: painting, boxing, strong man competitions, and, of course, poetry. His ambition with respect to the latter was to be anthologized, to have his work discussed and debated among poets and scholars, yet it was his interest in other fields that turned his public readings into events not to be missed.

In bookstores and art galleries throughout the Philadelphia area, a Richard Pearce reading meant a gathering of the most disparate elements of the poet’s life: his mother (a nursery school teacher) seated next to a body-builder seated next to the editor of Weird Tales, one of many journals that published his wide range of work. At these events, Rich would make us laugh not only with the content of his poetry (“The Frog” and “Repo Man,” reproduced in this volume, are shining examples of how whimsical he could be at the best of times) but also with his ebullient presence. That the man could work an audience with the ease of a standup comic concealed, or at least mitigated, the pain inherent in much of his work. He was a performer, but, more than that, he was a poet—one who loved his audience and wanted nothing more than to connect on the most human of levels.

One thing that always mystified Rich was the publishing industry. The decisions of editors to accept or reject his work never made sense to him. The first of his poems ever to reach a wide audience was the aforementioned “Repo Man,” and it was published in what was, at the time, a pretty big journal. Yet while “Repo Man” was a favorite for both Rich and his loyal coterie of fans, the poet in him knew that it wasn’t his “best” work. When he submitted subsequent, “better” poems to the journal in question, however, they were rejected outright. Pressed for an explanation, the editor simply replied that Rich’s later work didn’t rise to the quality of “Repo Man.” This, in Rich’s opinion, was idiotic, and he was quick to let the editor know it—and, over time, antagonizing those who held his poetic fate in their hands became one of his lesser hobbies.

In a letter dated June 2, 2003, Rich writes, Speaking of f—ing with people, another editor TOTALLY trashed some poems I sent her. She sent them back with red pen marks all over them, telling me how this was no good and that was no good… She also went to the trouble of schooling me on grammar and generally how to get the “meaning” of the poem across to the reader without the reader having to struggle to discern it for herself. I took the letter, wrote, “Jean, are you retarded?” then sent it back to her… Shortly thereafter, I sent her six absolutely RIDICULOUS poems (which I’ve included herein). Among the poems was one that opened with the couplet Stevie Wonder cannot see/Cannot see, oh me, oh me! Another consisted only of the word tuna centered on the page. And when Rich returned his attention to the editor who published “Repo Man,” he went so far as to tell her that he was dying, and sent along a somber poem, “Green Hillsides in Winter.” Again, Rich’s words say it best: All an attempt to make her feel like shit for writing what she wrote, but I think I actually managed to produce a halfway decent poem as a result.

As an editor, I can appreciate how aggravating Rich’s shenanigans may have been to his victims, but as a writer, I sympathize with his impulse to antagonize. He said the things I always wanted to say when, through gritted teeth and a forced smile, I would thank editors for taking the time to consider my work. But although Rich was a mercurial trickster, he was also plagued with second thoughts. At one point, he went so far as to wonder whether a harsh rejection from one editor was a form of cosmic payback for the hard time he’d given to another. I probably wouldn’t have given the letter I sent a second thought, wouldn’t have bothered wondering how badly I (possibly) hurt [the first editor’s] feelings, if my own feelings hadn’t been hurt by the [second editor], he writes in one of the last letters I received from him, underscoring the fact that beneath his devil-may-care attitude, Rich was, at heart, a sensitive soul.

Shortly before he took his own life, Rich called me to talk about—of all things—Son of Godzilla. What bothered him about the movie wasn’t so much that Godzilla had a son or even that the son knew how to speak, but that when the tropical island where Godzilla lived froze over at the end of the movie, the radioactive lizard went into hibernation. Lizards don’t hibernate, Rich insisted. If the weather gets too cold, they die.

In some ways, it was just like all of the other conversations we’d had over the years—part humorous, part serious, largely inconsequential. But when I learned some days later that he had died, the whole conversation, like everything else I knew about Rich, took on a whole new meaning: his jokes, his poetry, his love the first line of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground—“I am a sick man.”  All of these things suddenly and in hindsight revealed my friend to be far more sensitive, far more delicate than I ever imagined. Yet it’s Rich’s very sensitivity that makes the poems that follow so meaningful, so moving. Throughout this collection, my friend, the poet, bares his soul in ways that are sometimes playful, sometimes painful, and frequently both at once. He was a rare talent, a dedicated artist, and a caring friend. I only wish I’d known him better.

Howie Action Comix

I hardly ever laugh out loud at anything I read, but a few nights ago, Howie Action Comix by Howard Chackowicz made me do just that. The culprit in this case was a single-panel cartoon in which a man stands on the ledge of a building contemplating suicide while a police officer shouts up at him, “Don’t jump, you piece of shit loser… We can talk!” If, like me, this kind of thing makes you laugh (or, in my case, cackle), then you’ll love this bizarre collection of comic strips, line drawings, and gag panels. If not, then you might want to forgo this one in favor of the latest Foxtrot collection.

The range of subjects Chackowicz covers in his collection is as wide as it is bizarre. In one strip, a man gets into an argument with his erect member while a commentator in a parallel strip tries to figure out exactly what’s going on. In another, a squirrel lover dons a suit made of bread and lies out in a park to commune with nature. And in a series of recurring strips, Chackowicz turns somewhat autobiographical, depicting himself as a maladjusted overweight ten-year-old who parades around town in his birthday suit.

Beyond being weird for the sake of weird, however, Chackowicz also explores some deeper themes throughout Howie Action Comix. Loneliness is an obvious one in that all of his characters are searching in vain for some way to connect with the world at large. Yet the biggest theme Chackowicz tackles (for my money, anyway) is the meaning of life, a mystery he explores in a vertical strip titled “Sam and Tuna in: Bottomless Pit.”

In this strip, a pair of characters are seen falling, as the title suggests, down a bottomless pit, and Chackowicz depicts them at various points along the fall: two hours, two days, a week, four months, and forty years. Throughout most of the journey, Sam and Tuna are scared speechless, and it isn’t until the last panel that one finally attempts to open up to the other. By then, however, it’s too late: the other has passed away.

The strip, in my humble opinion, is a metaphor for life itself: we’re always in some form of free-fall, trying to make sense of the world around us, and afraid or otherwise unable to communicate with each other until it’s too late. To put it another way, we’re all falling through the bottomless pit that is life — our journey through time and space, through the sliver of eternity that we get to experience — yet we’re so busy chasing our tails (or anything else that the world tells us is important) that we never take the time to appreciate each other’s company.

In many ways, I have to confess that I like Howie Action Comix because it resonates with some of my own work in terms of tone if not style. In relation to more prominent cartoonists, though, I’d say that Howie Action Comix reads like something New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast might write after a night of heavy drinking — or, more accurately, over the course of a month-long binge. It’s fun and weird and crazy and sick, but it also says something about the human condition. All of this is to say that Howie Action Comix is everything an underground comic should be.

-Review by Marc Schuster

The Severance – Review by Janice Rodriguez

The edges of my snow shovel are rounded and raggedy, and there’s another winter storm or three in the forecast, so what a pleasure it was to escape into a fast-paced caper/thriller this week.

In Elliott Sawyer’s The Severance, Captain Jake Roberts leads the misfits of Kodiak platoon, a rehabilitation unit, during their last days in Afghanistan. The Army has promised the men—screw-ups, insubordinates, and drug users—honorable discharges as a reward for the dirty missions they’re sent on. Jake learns that the promise is an empty one, but he has a better reward for his men, a multi-million dollar severance package, the result of a fortuitous run-in with a corrupt contractor. Smuggling that much cash out of Afghanistan won’t be easy, and Jake’s careful plan starts to go awry at just the wrong time.

For all that he chafes at regulations and the wrong-headed rigidity of his superiors, Jake proves to be a fine captain, loyal to his men and effective in the field. A fan of James Patterson and police procedurals, he’s up to the task of solving the mystery of who’s trying to redirect the shipment of the severance package. But Jake didn’t get command of a rehabilitation platoon because he’s a paragon of virtue, and he keeps the past that haunts him buried. Sawyer gives us an antihero in the tradition of cynical private eyes and burned-out police detectives, a man you don’t always like but are glad to have on your side.

The author, a decorated veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, brings authenticity and detail to the setting, characters, and dialogue. For a wartime novel, the gore is at a respectable level; it is never gratuitous. Sawyer guides his readers deftly through military jargon, even those of us who can’t tell a PFC from an MRE, and takes us on a brisk and engaging ride that lets us forget about dreary winter days.

- Review by Janice Rodriguez