In many ways, Joshua Isard’s Conquistador of the Useless offers the perfect counterpoint to Spencer Dew’s Here Is How it Happens (reviewed here two weeks ago). Where Dew’s protagonists are college-aged rebels doing their best to avoid making the leap to post-college mainstream society, Isard’s novel finds a somewhat similar similar pair of lovers adjusting, at times uncomfortably, to a bourgeois suburban lifestyle about a decade after graduation.
The novel begins with narrator Nathan Wavelsky and his wife Lisa moving into a new home and learning upon meeting their new neighbors that the beloved music of their youth has been reduced to the status of a glorified tchotchke in the form of a Fender Jaguar signed by the members of Nirvana and mounted behind a thick pane of glass. That Nathan makes a good living as a corporate hatchet man only adds to his growing sense of ennui, and Lisa’s sudden desire to start a family makes matters worse.
The problem isn’t necessarily that he ever saw himself as a rebel, nor is it that he sees settling down in suburbia as a sign of giving up on his dreams. The problem, as far as he can tell, is that he never really had any big dreams to begin with — so he does what any red-blooded American would do. He goes out and gets one. Or at least he stumbles upon one when his old college buddy shows up with a scheme to climb Mount Everest. What follows is a journey of self-discovery that allows Nathan to recognize that what matters most in his life. (Hint: It has nothing to do with the mountain.)
In terms of style, Isard’s writing reminds me of Shaun Haurin and Curt Smith. Like Haurin, Isard places the musical tastes of his characters front and center through much of the narrative while, like Smith, he demonstrates a firm understanding of the compromises we all make on the long, winding path to adulthood. I’d mention that Nathan’s relative lack of direction and ambition echo the same traits in Charley Schwartz, the beleaguered narrator of my own novel, The Grievers, but that would be self-serving, so I’ll just say that on nearly every page of Conquistador of the Useless I found something that struck a chord. I’d even be willing to bet that anyone who grew up at the tail-end of Generation X will find something to love in this book — the protagonist’s angst over drifting, however late, into adulthood, his taste in music, or even his fraught-if-only-because-it’s-so-damn-pleasant relationship with his parents. All told, a fine novel about settling down without settling.
Consisting solely of dialogue, Sumanth Prabhaker’s A Mere Pittance is a subtle yet moving meditation on the transient and fragile nature of life and the relationships that make it meaningful. The novella follows a telephone conversation between a woman who’s lying injured–and possibly dying–in a hospital in an undisclosed country and her lover in the United States. As the pair talk to each other, at each other, across each other, and in each other’s general direction, what emerges is a tale of loneliness imbued with self-discovery. Ostensibly, the woman’s misery is a direct result of an accident involving a poison caterpillar, but her true despair stems from being an outsider not only as a member of her brother’s wedding party, but as a member of the human race. Her lover, meanwhile, obsesses somewhat selfishly over the meanings of words while taking occasional breaks to eat, drink, and be witty. His modus-operandi, it seems, is to keep the conversation light in order to avoid getting too deep with his wayward lover. Aesthetically, the result is a narrative that reads very much like a one-act play cast in the prose style of Don DeLillo or William Gaddis. Insightful as it is charming and bordering on the sublime, A Mere Pittance is anything but.
For those ensconced in the relative safety of campus life, there’s arguably nothing more daunting than the prospect of entering the so-called “real world.” Yet for the college students who populate Spencer Dew’s Here Is How It Happens, the real world rears its ugly head in ways large and small as they struggle to come to grips with the relationships in their lives and the future that lies ahead for all of them. At the heart of the novel is the (largely) unrequited love of the narrator, Martin, for his best friend, Courtney. Complicating matters is the fact that both parties are trapped in dead-end relationships that offer nothing but comfortable tedium. Meanwhile, a host of bizarre goings-on further thwart their efforts at getting together — chief among them being Martin’s efforts at delivering a drug-addled lumberjack of a classmate home to his parents’ house for safekeeping.
Set for the most part at a run-down liberal arts college in a run-down college town in Ohio, the novel is nothing if not gritty. The smell of mold, stale smoke, and cat fur clings to everything and will likely stick with readers long after they’ve put the book down. What’s more, Dew perfectly captures the desperation of his characters to stay true to their ideal selves even as they realize that they’re all doomed to become echoes of their parents. In one particularly telling passage, Courtney laments the inevitable passing of all the relationships she holds dear: “Martin, we’re sophomores in college. This is the end of philosophy. From this point on, everyone we know will get old. We’ll all take jobs involving impatient commutes and pink while-you-were-away memos. The skin under our chins will go soft and droop. Money will crush us. There will never be time or humor enough. Our hairstyles will look stupid in old photographs, and we’ll be ashamed of our spinning dances, the lyrics of punk songs, that we ever drank wine with screw tops or did homework high on diet pills or shoplifted at K-Mart.”
Uplifting? Perhaps not. But certainly true, and certainly moving. In the tradition of other coming of age novels focusing on campus life like Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me and James Wronoski’s Knaves In Boyland, Here Is How It Happens perfectly captures the nebulous gray zone between adolescence and adulthood that is college life.
I first read about the Sips Card in the pages of The Writer and learned shortly thereafter that one of my favorite artists, Kristen Solecki, is on the team behind this ingenious new way of sharing fiction. (Kristen’s art, by the way, graces the cover of To Be Friend a Fox, a volume of poetry by the late Richard Pearce, which I edited in 2010.) Given my interest in spreading the word about new sources of fiction and in Kristen’s work, I was happy to have the chance to chat with the artist about her latest endeavor.
What is the Sips Card, and where is it available?
Sips Card is a writing publication that shares the work of independent writers with independent coffee shops. A Sips Card is a business card with a QR Code, that when scanned, downloads a short story or poem onto your cellphone/smart device that is meant to last as long as your cup of coffee. They are available in participating coffee shops around the country, and in Scotland. You can see our current locations at http://www.sipscard.com/venues. If you are interested in becoming a venue or would like to recommend one, please email us at email@example.com.
How did you come up with the idea?
It was a cold day in December and we were reading on a couch, trying to stay warm. Tim was explaining to me the idea of using QR Codes to market my artwork. We then were talking about sharing other media through the codes and we somehow connected the thought of reading, QR Codes, and coffee shops and spent the next two months developing the idea into what it is today.
Is there a way for readers to ask their favorite coffee shops to carry the Sips Card? In other words, how can we help spread the word?
Most definitely. We love hearing about favorite coffee shops from our readers and writers and want to support venues who support their community. There is no cost to the coffee shops or the customers. Once a shop is on board, we ship them the current issue with a compact display stand they can use as they wish. We create a page for them on our website and then ship each new issue as it is published.
Can you tell me a little bit about the works you’ve published in your first year? What was it about these stories that jumped out at you and made you want to publish them? Along similar lines, do you have any advice for writers who might want to submit their work for publication?
We’ve published a wide variety of stories and poems in our first year. We are open to all types of general fiction that has strong characters and appeals to a variety of people. We look for work that breathes with a life of its own and prefer narrative poems because we feel they compliment short fiction best. However, we don’t only publish narrative poetry.
A well crafted story, with great character tension, along with a professional looking submission will grab our attention. We want to know that the submitting writers and poets care as much about their work they are submitting as we do about the work we publish.
Thanks, Kristen for the opportunity to chat about the Sips Card. It’s a great idea, and I hope it continues to gain in popularity!
In Nothing Serious, Daniel Klein presents the love song of Digby Maxwell, former pop-culture editor of New York Magazine and one-time darling of the Big Apple’s social scene. Divorced, jobless, and crashing on a friend’s couch, Digby lands an unexpected job as the editor of Cogito, a stodgy philosophy journal whose late publisher has left instructions from beyond the grave for his widow to jazz the publication up a bit. Desperately in need of a second act in his capacity as a self-proclaimed “professional bullshitter,” Digby jumps at the opportunity he’s been offered. Indeed, he sees his editorship of Cogito as one last chance at realizing his lifelong aspiration to do something useful. Upon accepting the job, however, he immediately finds himself embroiled in the petty politics of the small-town college that hosts the philosophy journal, and in love, somewhat unexpectedly, with a Unitarian minister whose personal life is nearly as complicated as Digby’s.
Needless to say, Nothing Serious has all the makings of a zany yet compelling novel of ideas. Throughout the narrative, Klein expertly balances the elements of a good page turner (plot, character development, intrigue) with thoughtful and witty commentary on the collective efforts of our species to make sense of the world. There’s Digby, whose firm belief that “sometimes the best course of action is just to toss a wrench into the works and see what kinds of havoc it wreaks” keeps the novel percolating at a healthy pace, and then there are the philosophers whose names and theories lend the book depth while, ironically, also leavening the proceedings. The “flinty optimism” of Leibnitz’s theory that we live in the best of all possible worlds, for example (and echoing Voltaire’s Candide), boils down to the old truism that things could always be worse, while Jean-Paul Sartre’s thoughts on love reduce the philosopher, in Digby’s eyes, to “a scumbag justifying his pigatude with some existential bafflegab.”
All told, Nothing Serious is an amusing and intelligent novel whose title and beguiling narrative belie the depth of the ideas that Klein is working with. Humanity, the novel ultimately suggests, will never figure it all out, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we keep trying.
I’m always excited when Curtis Smith comes out with a new collection of short fiction. I’ve been a fan of his for years now, and his ability to tell a story with wit, wry humor, a good turn of phrase, and, most of all, human kindness, makes Curt’s stories a joy to read. His latest collection, Beasts and Men, is no exception.
Most of the stories in Beasts and Men take place in rural America, and Smith’s characters tend to be outsiders struggling, frequently with heartbreaking yet hopeful results, to find a place in the world. There’s the pair of adulterers who strike a dog with their car only to discover the true nature of their relationship. There’s the high-school outcast trying to carve some modicum of self-possession through prolonged silences and incessant sketching. There’s the young man standing in the backyard of the woman who used to love him, drunk and howling for the love he’s lost. There are winners and losers of all stripes in this collection — all struggling to make sense of the world, all searching for meaning, all intensely and utterly human. Indeed, Smith’s gift for depicting the private moment of spiritual and emotional crisis is on full display throughout Beasts and Men. That he does it so lovingly and with such great care for his characters marks him not only as an author of great skill, but also as one of great compassion.
Stone Animals is at once haunting, bizarre, whimsical, and oddly realistic in its depiction of adult relationships. What starts off as a fairly typical story about a family moving out of the city and into a quiet country home quickly transmogrifies into a tale of paranoia, suspicion, and betrayal as Henry and his pregnant wife Catherine (along with their children Tilly and Carleton) realize that their home is under constant surveillance by a large warren of rabbits. Continually called back to the city by his manipulative boss, Henry can only watch helplessly as his wife dons a gas mask every day and goes about painting the rooms of their house one curiously-named color after another. Meanwhile, the children are becoming increasingly convinced that while their new home may not be haunted, everything within it is: a toothbrush, the television, an alarm clock, the cat. Evoking the magic realism of works like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Eva Is Inside Her Cat,” the story’s tension mounts as its hallucinatory qualities multiply, and it isn’t long before the fabric of reality (for both the characters and, potentially, readers) starts to unravel. Beautifully illustrated by, among others, Lisa Brown, Anthony Doerr, Ursula K. Le Guinn, and Audrey Niffenegger, Stone Animals is a quirky, haunting gem of a book.