Month: August 2011

Nothing or Next to Nothing

Early in Barry Graham’s Nothing or Next to Nothing, narrator Derek Kehoe notes that minimal goals are much easier to achieve than are grand objectives. This attitude, it turns out, is his Achilles heel, for while he’s well equipped to handle the quotidian challenges of day-to-day life — scoring dope, booze, and women — the prospect of a major challenge leaves him entirely stymied. This major challenge occurs when the sister with whom he’s locked into an abusive, incestuous relationship disappears from his life, and he decides to go off in search of her. But The Searchers this ain’t, as Derek’s main assets in this mission are several sheets of blotter acid and a penchant for picking his nose. As a result, Derek’s search for his sister quickly transmogrifies into a soul-searching journey into every wrong road he’s ever taken, a retrospective of bad breaks and worse decisions.  Throughout, Graham uses his immense talent for depicting the grim, gritty details of life in middle America to great effect and in such a way that calls to mind some of the best hopeless writing of the last century — most notably that of Selby and Bukowski. A stark study of the American dream, warts (literally) and all.

-Review by Marc Schuster

This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey

This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey distills in its purest form author Steve Almond’s literary aesthetic by collecting a series of micro-essays on the ins and outs of writing and then exemplifying those ins and out with a brief selection of flash fiction. The result is what may be the most concise and helpful book on how to write fiction ever published — a pocket-sized catechism for writers at every stage of the game.

Early on, Almond offers a definition of writing that calls to mind the advice Grady Tripp offers his students in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. According to Almond, “Writing is decision making. Nothing more and nothing less. Where to place the comma? How to shape the paragraph? Which characters to undress and in what manner? It’s relentless.” From here he goes on to discuss the various decisions that writers need to make with respect to plot, style, point of view and a host of other issues.

In the shortest of his “essays,” Almond offers a one-sentence definition of plot: “Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires.” In the event that this definition needs further elucidation, he goes on to offer a supplemental essay on the subject titled “A Quick Survey of Where Your Plot Went Wrong.” (Hint: it probably has something to do with your characters and how you treat them.)

Elsewhere, Almond proffers such invaluable pieces of advice as “Metaphors Almost Always Suck,” “Excessive Emotional Involvement Is the Whole Point,” and “Slow Down Where It Hurts.” He also asks a pointed question: “Who Wants to Play with a Headless Doll?” As these titles suggest, the author pulls no punches when describing the difference between good writing and bad, yet he’s also quick to admit in a piece titled “This Is Just My Bullshit” that the dicta he has on offer are purely subjective.

As with all books on writing, the best the author can do is provide guidelines for writing the kind of fiction he likes to read. Fortunately, Almond’s tastes run a fairly wide gamut, and his talent as a fiction writer — as evidenced not only by the flash fiction included in this brief volume but also by his excellent short story collections My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil BB Chow — renders his an opinion worth considering.

If you’re a writer, buy this book. If you’re a reader, buy this book. If you have either writers or readers in your life, buy all of them this book.

- Review by Marc Schuster

Daddy’s

In Daddy’s, Lindsay Hunter writes beautifully about ugliness, lovingly about the seemingly unlovable. The subjects in this unique collection of short fiction run the gamut of all that frequently goes unspoken or unexamined, it is a catalog of hidden, desperate lives and quiet cries for help. Among the most memorable of these cries is a short piece titled “The Fence” in which a lonely woman discovers that the only way she can make herself feel anything is to wear her dog’s shock collar as she nears the boundary between her property and the world beyond. Elsewhere, Hunter’s characters struggle in similar ways — with creepy older brothers, abusive fathers, and a host of hidden dangers that lurk like rusty fishhooks in every corner of this engaging if frequently disturbing collection.

The Redemption of George Baxter Henry

The eponymous narrator of The Redemption of George Baxter Henry may be the least noble of protagonists you’re bound to meet on the printed page this summer, but he’s also quite likely among the most colorful. In the words of Henry’s incessantly griping mother-in-law, “Family? What would you know about family? Your son is a cocaine addict, your daughter hardly knows you, and your wife wants a divorce. Family? Don’t make me laugh.”

Yet in his own way–and for his own reasons–Henry wants more than anything to keep his family together, so he books a trip to the South of France where his son can dry out, his daughter can get to know him, and his wife can fall in love again — that is, if Henry can manage to keep it all together, no mean feat given his proclivity for extramarital affairs.

Fans of Connor Bowman’s previous novel, The Last Estate, will be delighted to see the author returning to the South of France for his latest literary outing. Indeed, The Redemption of George Baxter Henry works in an odd way as a kind of sequel to The Last Estate, or at least a literary cousin; as with Bowman’s earlier novel, geography and local color become characters in their own right as the story unfolds.

Yet Bowman’s greatest talent is likely his penchant for making readers care about characters who are, for the most part, unlikable. While George Baxter Henry may well be a lout, he’s a lout with a lot at stake, and as the title of this novel suggests, his concerns aren’t merely financial. Arguably, it’s Henry’s soul that’s up for grabs in this tale. As such, his journey toward redemption is one that many (if not most) readers will find familiar at least in some way.

Like Henry, we’re all flawed in some way, and we’ve all been in need of redemption at one time or another. In this sense, Bowman has created something of a literary everyman — a character whose sins are so sweeping and egregious that he eclipses us all. As such, his redemption is our redemption. To put it another way, if Bowman’s protagonist can be saved, then there’s hope for the rest of us!