Book Reviews

The Race – Review by Marc Schuster

RaceCoverJacke Wilson’s The Race is an incredibly astute novella about ego and politics that attempts to explain why anyone in their right mind might run for political office. The answer, it turns out, is that they wouldn’t, as the political arena is reserved for the eternally deluded and arguably insane.

The narrative focuses on Tom Olson, a fictional disgraced former Governor of Wisconsin who is attempting to revive his career by running for Congress. In a “ripped from the headlines” kind of way, Olson’s fall from grace is highly reminiscent of former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s. Yet while Olson and Sanford both mysteriously vanished from their offices only to turn up at later dates in foreign love nests, there are hints of other political figures wrapped up in the novella’s central figure as well. Echoing Bill Clinton’s 1992 remark that Hillary would be so central to his presidency that he might as well adopt “buy one, get one free” as his campaign slogan, a common refrain surrounding Olson’s first bid for governor was “Vote for him and get the pair.” Likewise, something about Olson also harkens to Mitt Romney. He’s relatively handsome in the way many career politicians aspire to be, he’s idealistic in his own way, and he’s optimistic to a fault — so much so that his grand vision of the world completely eclipses reality.

There’s certainly plenty of dry humor to be had in the proceedings — particularly as Olson does his best to turn the rancid lemons of his tattered political career into saccharine-sweet lemonade — but the real strength of Wilson’s writing is in its Marxian critique of American politics. Early on, Olson’s biographer notes a key difference between himself and the politician: “He was bourgeois and I was proletariat.” He then goes on to muse, “Why don’t we use those words anymore? Too loaded with history?” Yes and no. The real problem isn’t history so much as substance in general. As Wilson depicts it, our political system is largely a popularity contest, and political platforms offer little more than trite platitudes and vitriol against the other side. As such, Olson is especially popular “with a certain kind of pundit who has overcome his or her natural ability to say anything interesting or accurate, or to have any personally appealing qualities, by instinctively taking the contrarian’s view of any issue.” Most of all, however, Olson demonstrates that what truly drives politicians is a desire to control the narratives of their own lives, as his tragically optimistic efforts at running for office are forever haunted by the specter of the good man he was before throwing his hat into the political arena.

Smart, well-written, and frequently funny, The Race offers some interesting speculation into the mind of the American politician.

Shoplandia – Review by Marc Schuster

shoplandiabookcover5_5x8_5_cream_290-copyWith a tone and style reminiscent of George Saunders and situations that would feel right at home in a Don DeLillo novel, the stories collected in Jim Breslin’s Shoplandia offer an engaging and informed behind-the-scenes look at the home shopping industry. Drawing on seventeen years of experience as a producer at QVC, Breslin gives readers an intimate view of everything that goes into producing a live television broadcast day in and day out, and he excels at bringing the lives behind the endeavor to life. Indeed, while the stories in Shoplandia are all ostensibly about home shopping, they’re also about humanity’s search for meaning in a consumer-driven world that’s more interested in appearances than substance.

Many of Breslin’s characters are jaded with respect to their jobs, but they still go about them with workmanlike dignity. The sense is that if they believe in the work they do, the viewers at home will buy into the illusion that what Shoplandia has to offer will make a difference in their lives. As one character remarks, “The secret? Run away from the pain and toward the pleasure. Make them feel like if they don’t have the next great thing, their lives will be hell and they will be ostracized, their lives meaningless… But if they attain it, if they purchase it, if they part with their hard earned money for a chunk of metal in some fancy design, then they will become a god. They will be desired, they will be loooooved. If you own this, you will be worthy!” That the rant is delivered by a disgraced show host only adds to its import, for here is a man who’s peeked behind the curtain and has realized the true logic behind the system.

Ultimately, it’s the author’s talent for using intimate portraits of his characters to interrogate contemporary values that makes Shoplandia so engaging. As in life, meaning emerges — often unexpectedly — in the minutia of the little picture even as the chaos of the big picture threatens to overwhelm Breslin’s characters with its apparent emptiness. To put it another way, Shoplandia insists that there’s a point to it all, even if it’s a different point than the one we’ve been sold.

Don’t Start Me Talkin’ – Review by Lavinia Ludlow

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Told through the eyes of young harpest Silent Sam Stamps, Don’t Start Me Talkin’ is a fanatical tale about the spirit of Delta blues, and what it takes to stay true to the music in a modern society plagued with a short attention span and a lust for mainstream pop.

Together, Brother Ben—the Last Delta Bluesman—and his protégé Silent Sam Stamps climb into an old Caddy Brougham and tour the nation performing songs off their chart-topping album. Hardly a stereotypical tale of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, the duo upholds a strict respect for themselves, each other, and their art. They live modestly, doing coin laundry, sharing hotel rooms to reduce costs, and shrugging off scene temptations, commercial exploitation, and crass audiences who pressure them to perform songs like “Soul Man.”

The story bursts with eccentric and original character. Williams sets his tale in contemporary society where grande coffees and Kinkos exist, “jooks” have high-priced paraphernalia on the walls, and the duo pays their bills with a gold Corporate Amex. Brother Ben, real name Wilton Mabry, tries up uphold his image of “smoking dynamite and drinking TNT” by leaning on a stage dialect and a stage cough, and habitually swigging from a flask. In reality, he’s an articulate health nut who eats well, exercises, maintains an intense vitamin regiment, and keeps his flask brimming with caffeine-free Diet Dr. Pepper.

As the tour wears on, Silent Sam finds himself increasingly conflicted by the style of music he’s performing alongside The Last Delta Bluesman:

“I’m pretty sure the only recording we’d make would be for a commercial. Maybe even under Kent Bollinger’s direction. For the United Negro College Fund, perhaps. Or a fried chicken franchise.”

The quieter of the two—think neutral narrator Nick Carraway-ish—Sam keeps his head to the ground and his mouth shut, and focuses on perfecting his craft, playing with heart, grit, groin, and gut, and searching for the right audience that would truly understand his music. The duo’s fan base often consists of college professors, health-food storeowners, and “all others who graduated but never found reason to leave Missoula, Ithaca or Athens, GA.”

“I look out in the crowd every night and never see just what I’m looking for,” Silent Sam says. “What we’ve got tonight are young, Soloflex types, tanned and dressed in bright colors and eager to toss each other around a dance floor. The blues faithful come to exalt in the presence of an authentic artifact of some quasi-southern, quasi-African past. Tonight’s crowd would make Jimmy Buffet happy… a payphone is getting as rare as black blues fans.”

It’s easy to get lost in Williams’ crisp narrative, and burn through the novel from cover to cover. Details unfold naturally, and I never found myself straining to re-read a sentence, cringing at an awkward passage, or cutting around fat to get to the meat of his message. Take the opening line:

“It’s said that when Robert Johnson arrived in a new town, the first thing he looked for was an ugly woman who owned her own house. That way, Bob could depend upon a place to sleep, food on the table—he’d supply the liquor—and a bed partner likely as starved for affection as he was.”

Williams lays the story to rest with one of the most extraordinary and well-written conclusions. Never cliché or predictable, we come to learn how powerful and unbreakable the bond is between the two bluesmen, and how it perseveres in the face of tour stressors, musical infidelity, and even retirement. The curtain will rise again for Silent Sam Stamps and Brother Ben in one form or another, and together, they’ll fight to keep Delta blues alive and authentic in an ever-changing contemporary society.

Released in February of 2014, this title is available for purchase over at Curbside Splendor.

The Last Policeman

250px-The_Last_Policeman_book_coverSet in a world painfully aware of its own impending demise, The Last Policeman, a novel by Ben H. Winters, is a philosophically astute page-turner that interrogates the most basic assumptions undergirding civil society. As an asteroid hurtles toward Earth, Detective Hank Palace does his best to maintain law and order in Cocord, New Hampshire, despite the fact that news of the impending apocalypse has triggered unparalleled social upheaval. When an apparent suicide turns up in a public restroom, common sense tells him to chalk it up to end-times hysteria, but—per the genre’s dictates—something about the case doesn’t sit right with Palace. Soon, he’s off on an investigation that pits him against survivalists, unscrupulous opportunists, and a wide range of conspiracy theories. Yet while the murder investigation provides the narrative with something of a MacGuffin, the real mystery at the heart of The Last Policeman is existential: What’s the point solving murders—or being good, or doing anything for that matter—when death is imminent? It’s the kind of question that can’t help leading to a slew of others, and one that Winters explores from multiple angles throughout this intelligent, suspenseful novel as the world he imagines spirals into chaos and all forms of human decency suddenly go up for grabs.

Review of Ben Tanzer’s Orphans – by Lavinia Ludlow

695-2In Ben Tanzer’s novella, Orphans, the world is a violent dystopia beyond salvation. Natural resources have dissolved, homeless encampments flood the shores, and the planet is an industrial wasteland. Laborers are no longer essential to the workforce–they’ve been replaced by hot and sassy robots that can even satisfy one sexually, think the embodiment of Samantha from Spike Jonze’ “Her.” Human clones known as “Terraxes” tend to household duties when the breadwinners leave on business. “The Corporation,” a merciless version of “the man,” has eyes on everyone, and if civilians loiter too long on the sidewalk to beg for a job or protest government fascism, helicopters gun them down like enemy soldiers trying to cross no man’s land.

In the old city of Chicago renamed Sector Six, Norrin Radd embarks on the hopeless and self-defeating search for financial security, identity, and the ever-elusive American Dream. With a wife and son to support, he mans up and takes a job with Joyful Future Real Estate as a salesman who dupes the rich “1-percenters” into relocating to a planet with questionable potential and an unknown future.

Tanzer sets the mood well for his flawed protagonist, Norrin. He is haunted by mysterious traumas of his childhood–as a kid, he saw his father “snatched” by “The Corporation” and found his mother dead after she allegedly committed suicide. He’s treading through an economic recession–“I am tired of sitting down at the kitchen table every night and talking about which bill should be paid this week, and how that will be possible when there is no money,” and trying to stay alive in a merciless civilization that guns down civilians in cold blood and creates human clones for temp work and organs.

Like most of Tanzer’s work, chapters are fast-paced, succinct, and contain no fat, dead ends, or draggy dialogue. Background details unfold naturally through flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness inner monologue, and paint a vivid image of Norrin’s internal struggles:

“I should know what to say, loving someone means knowing what to say, or at least knowing how to fix something after you’ve broken it…Instead I am about to break something and I know it, but feel powerless to prevent it…because it’s easier to leave when you’ve fucked things up…I hate myself and my inability to express my fears to her, and this self-hatred quickly mutates into rage, and the rage needs an outlet, and she looks up at me, so sad and vulnerable, which makes me hate her more, and I suddenly want to punch her in her beautiful face, break it and break her…”

For the most part, Tanzer respects the sci-fi element by not overdosing on the bizarre. He writes about conflicts and struggles consistent with those that many deal with today: unemployment, poverty, marital strain, soul-sucking jobs, and personality disorders induced by early traumas. Tanzer also recognizes the social implications of introducing advanced technologies into a culture hardly mature enough for radical change, such as the distress and heartbreak that Norrin feels when he sees a Terrax acting as the husband and father figure in his own household. At times though, the story’s naming conventions come off as senseless and unintelligible. Titles like the “Joyful Future Real Estate” and the “Happiness Sector” make me question why a sophisticated society with commercial space travel and “Terraxes” would elect such asinine titles for its businesses and districts. If Tanzer was trying to mock society’s fall from grace, the inconsistent attempt falls flat.

Scene transitions are often disorienting (but unavoidable with flash-like chapters), and the ending feels like an anecdotal obligation jammed in a single wide-margin page. The stunted closing does no justice to the overall story given the futuristic setting and Norrin’s emotional state of mind, which Tanzer did such a phenomenal job developing throughout the novel.

All in all, Orphans is an imaginative and sobering tale of one man’s final attempt to rise above his inner demons, an economic collapse, and a floundering society. Highly recommended.

Check it out over at Switchgrass Books.