Reviews

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 Laborers are no longer essential to the workforce–they’ve been replaced by hot and sassy robots that can even satisfy one sexually, think the embodiment of Samantha from Spike Jonze’ “Her.”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.

Mr. Boardwalk, by Louis Greenstein

3016943Louis Greenstein’s debut novel, Mr. Boardwalk (New Door Books), captures an essential Philadelphia experience—going down the shore. Day trips and long weekends in Atlantic City are a large part of the city’s identity, and while this novel will conjure up any local’s finest memories of walking along the boards with a funnel cake, Greenstein goes beyond the summer phenomenon and delves deep into an essential turning point in Atlantic City’s history.

The novel begins with a middle aged Jason Benson walking down the boardwalk with his wife and daughter in the present day, telling them about his teenage years in Atlantic City. This frames the main narrative: flashbacks of Jason’s summers on the Atlantic City boardwalk, working at his father’s soft pretzel factory, and also learning to juggle and becoming a successful street performer. We learn about Jason’s love of performing, his financial success from it, and how it affects his relationships as a high schooler.

Mr. Boardwalk’s central concern, however, is Jason’s love for Atlantic City in the mid-70s, and his nostalgia for it in the present day. Jason’s teenage years down the shore were those immediately preceding legalized gambling, when Atlantic city wasn’t exactly a more innocent place (Greenstein deals honestly with the drug and sex culture of the era), but a more honest one. Before the huge casinos with faux themes and the false hope of winning big, the city was full of local seasonal businesses which, in the novel, seem to act more like family than competitors.

Greenstein brings us vividly back to that time, while also reminding us that it was not without its consequences on the individuals who lived it, and that nostalgia can have a bit of a dark side as well. Through the novel, Jason’s love of Atlantic City begins to border on an obsession, which affects not only his life in the 70s, but also his adult life. This connection between the two narratives is one one of the real strengths of the novel, and leads to a tight, satisfying ending.

I read this book in front of a fire in the middle of winter, and it gave me visions of my own trips down to the boardwalk, but also an insight into the Atlantic City before my time. Now that the weather is turning, I think it’ll make anyone ready for a trip down the shore.

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Joshua Isard is the director of Arcadia University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, and the author of the novel Conquistador of the Useless. You can find him at his home page, or on Twitter.

Sick Justice: Inside the American Gulag

Sick JusticeAn eye-opening and compelling critique of the American criminal justice system, Ivan Goldman’s Sick Justice examines the political, social, and economic forces that have increased the per capita number of federal and state prison inmates by well over 250% since 1980. Working under that assumption that the criminal justice system should create a safer, more humane society, Goldman argues that shortsightedness with respect to the problem of crime has done the opposite. We have become, in Goldman’s words, a society, “more concerned with punishment than with truth.” As a result, any semblance of order afforded by the so-called war on drugs, mandatory minimum sentences, and draconian policies like California’s “three strikes” law is ultimately illusory.

Frequently, Goldman demonstrates throughout his study, criminals who know how to play the game tend to stay out of jail—either by eluding capture, informing on other criminals for reduced sentences, or by simply slipping through the cracks. Indeed, the sheer number of prisoners, parolees, and probationers clogging the system (estimated at over seven million) makes it nearly impossible for authorities to keep track of their charges, thus providing greater opportunities for the most dangerous criminals to commit acts of violence. Meanwhile, many people who find themselves on the wrong side of the law do so unwittingly. Sick Justice offers a wide range of anecdotes regarding naïve first-time offenders who, in some instances, happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or, in others, committed crimes so petty as to be otherwise laughable. Due to their inexperience with the system—not to mention a distinct lack of criminal connections on whom to inform—these offenders often end up serving sentences incommensurate with the crimes of which they’ve been accused.

Goldman also examines a number of adjacent issues that have hastened the breakdown of the criminal justice system. The closing of mental health institutions across the country led many former patients to spend the rest of their lives, in Goldman’s words, “bouncing from homelessness on the street to homelessness in jail.” Additionally, the rise of corporate-owned for-profit prisons has led, in turn, to intense lobbying for harsh laws and strict sentencing guidelines: “The Gulag industry can always justify putting more people in prison and imposing longer sentences, no matter what’s going on outside the walls: if crime rises, we must need more people behind bars. If crime goes down, wholesale imprisonment must be succeeding.” Finally, the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, have left in their wake a culture less invested in attempting to balance freedom and security—erring, it goes without saying, almost invariably on the side of security.

Ultimately, Goldman’s point is that the American criminal justice system has sacrificed long-term effectiveness for short-term gains. Promising to get tough on crime always plays well for politicians in election years but does little to address such underlying causes of crime as poverty, hunger, mental illness, and inadequate education. Yet by focusing almost solely on punishment, Goldman demonstrates time and again, we have, in more ways than one, become a nation of criminals.

Sound Off

sound-off-cover-imageI’m not sure I buy the claim on the back cover of Stephen Bett’s latest collection of poetry: “This is a book of poems celebrating music, but essentially the poems are for readers — no jazz experience required.” Certainly, there are aspects of the poems collected in Sound Off that will appeal to aficionados and non-aficionados of jazz alike — naming a dog after a favorite performer (as in a poem titled “Avishai Cohen (bassist, composer not trumpeter)”), for example, or imagining the soundtrack to one’s own funeral (as in “Keith Jarrett”). Yet my own appreciation for the majority of the poems collected in this volume increased significantly when I knew the performer Bett was writing about. I got the poems about Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter, but not the poems about more obscure (at least to me) figures like Omer Klein, Jan Garbarek, and Lenny Breau. Even so, the poet’s love for jazz shines through in all of the poems in Sound Off, and fans of the genre who are better informed than I am will find much to appreciate (and likely debate) in this collection.