novel

Conquistador of the Useless

Conquistador of the UselessIn 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.

Familiar

J. Robert Lennon’s Familiar opens with an intriguing hook: A woman driving home from an annual visit to her son’s grave notices that a crack in her windshield has vanished and suddenly finds herself in an alternate reality where her son never died. Complications, however, ensue when it becomes clear that this single, albeit major, change in the protagonist’s past has had a massive ripple effect on her entire life: she now has an unfamiliar job, she’s in therapy with her husband to save their faltering marriage, and her relationship with her other son is strained almost beyond repair. Unable to explain this strange turn of events, the novel’s protagonist embarks upon a lonely, maddening quest of self-discovery that threatens to undermine everything she believes not only about herself but about the universe as well.

Intriguing though the novel’s premise is, the novel’s real strength is its attention to the inner working of the human heart and the complications inherent in all adult relationships. Most prominent among these is the protagonist’s ambivalence toward motherhood. The shock that results from the news that her son is alive is only initially due to the fact that it runs counter to everything she knows about the world she inhabits. True terror dawns when she begins to remember that the child was on his way to becoming a monster, that his earliest attitudes and actions suggested that he was well on his way to becoming a sociopath.

Along similar lines, her failing marital relationship raises many discomforting yet significant questions about the limits of love. Must a woman  always place her children above all else? Where does the husband fit in? And, more to the point, what about her own happiness and fulfillment? By raising these issues, Familiar puts pressure on many of the myths assumptions that contemporary culture places on motherhood. In this sense, the novel serves as a fictional companion to works like Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother.

As the novel careens toward its (perhaps inevitable) conclusion, it also threatens to go off the tracks in places — but this is to be expected. After all, confronting the kinds of issues that Familiar examines isn’t easy, and to wrap the emotionally fraught proceedings up in a neat, sensible package would undercut the complexity of the foregoing narrative.

All told, Familiar is an emotionally gripping and intellectually stimulating page turner, a dark meditation on relationships, motherhood, and the fragile nature of reality.

A Few Men Faithful

In A Few Men Faithful, Jim Wills introduces the Kavanagh family, the focus of a four-volume saga that spans oceans and centuries to paint a portrait of Irish culture that is as vivid as it is gritty. This volume follows the life of Danny Kavanagh and opens during Ireland’s Easter Rising of 1916. Throughout the novel, the author’s research into the events he depicts bolsters a narrative that is engaging in its own right as Danny struggles to fight for his country’s independence even as he falls in love and marries. The prose throughout is clear and reminiscent of Hemingway, particularly in instances where Wills describes battle: “Stationed twenty yards apart, the brothers watched as the four men advanced toward the old, empty stone tower two hundred yards in front of their position. Cover was not good; progress slow. Lee-Enfield rounds whipped by them, kicking up clouds of rank coal dust, chipping off brick.” By way of a foreword, Wills also provides a brief but helpful primer on events leading up to the Easter Rising of 1916 for those who, like myself, are well aware of the centuries-long tension between Ireland and England but are not clear on the details.

If I have a complaint about this book, it has less to do with the author’s sense of craft than with the overall appearance of the book. The type is set in what appears to be Arial or Helvetica, the text is left-justified (as opposed to full), and the margins at the top and bottom of the page are extremely wide. Combined, these details make the experience of reading the book feel more like reading a manuscript or a Word document. Overall, however, clear writing and strong characters make this a novel (and, presumably, series) worth reading, especially for those interested in the last century of Irish diaspora history.

- Review by Marc Schuster

Fight for Your Long Day

Do we have to follow protagonist Cyrus Duffleman into a grimy restroom at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station and bear witness to his efforts at relieving himself? Yes, we do, because Alex Kudera’s examination of the life of an itinerant adjunct professor in his debut novel Fight for Your Long Day is as unflinching as it is exhaustive. To put it another way, Kudera takes us into the restroom with Duffleman because that’s how the life of an adjunct works — and trying to make ends meet by rushing from a gig teaching Technical Writing at one college to a separate gig teaching Freshman Composition at a school across town lends itself to a life largely spent relieving oneself wherever one can find even a moment of privacy.

Needless to say, Kudera’s novel is about much more than unpleasantness in public restrooms. Indeed, as debates over higher education heat up across the country, the role of adjunct or part-time instructors is coming under increasing scrutiny. A June 2008 article in The Atlantic titled “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” has, for example, recently metastasized into a book bearing the same name, and a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that unions are stressing the correlation between better faculty conditions — particularly for adjunct professors — and student success. What Fight for Your Long Day adds to the conversation is a play-by-play depiction of a single “long” day in the life of an adjunct, which involves working at no fewer than four institutions, witnessing a political assassination, getting roped into a poorly-thought-out sexual escapade involving a student, and arguing endlessly with himself over a slew of intellectual and cultural issues revolving around race, class, and gender.

Adjunct instructors from the Philadelphia area will find this novel particularly interesting, as much of it is set in thinly-veiled versions of Temple University, Drexel University, and University of Pennsylvania. Having worked at both Drexel and Temple myself, I’d even go so far as to call the novel haunting. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Kudera and I walked the same halls and taught concurrently in adjacent classrooms. As Fight for Your Long Day makes especially clear, the life of the adjunct can be a solitary one — and one rife with all manner of drama and intrigue.

- Review by Marc Schuster

The Dissemblers

Given my recent forays in the fine(-ish) arts, I found Liza Campbell’s The Dissemblers to be doubly intriguing. Not only is the novel beautifully written, but it also offers a loving meditation on (among other things) the nature of art and its place in our world.

The narrative focuses on a young artist named Ivy Wilkes who ditches her past to seek her true path in Georgia O’Keefe’s New Mexico. Here, she takes a job in a museum gift shop, falls in love, and eventually becomes embroiled in a scheme to sell forgeries of O’Keefe’s work on the black market. Subsequently, Ivy’s work as a forger forces her to ask herself why humans as a species value art so highly. Is it simply for the beauty of artifact? And, if so, then why should an original O’Keefe fetch a higher price at auction than an exact replica painted by a skilled artisan? The answer, it turns out, is as complicated as Ivy’s relationships with the men (and woman) in her life. Hint: It has everything to do with love.

Fittingly, Campbell proves herself an adept word-artist throughout the novel. In some instances, this artistry takes the form of simple yet evocative declarative sentences that say so much about the characters she’s describing: “She laughed like bells,” Campbell writes of one character. Elsewhere, she demonstrates her mastery of narrative technique as well, as when she teases the reader with lines like, “If I’d known what was going to happen, would I have done everything the same?”

One other thing that Campbell does especially well in The Dissemblers is capture the ambivalent relationship between the artist and the art she produces: “[W]hen you finish the painting, there is a period of glowing adoration for what you’ve done. You think, this is exactly what I meant to say… But one day, inexplicably, you’ll see the painting from a different angle, or in different lighting, and suddenly it is a trite and talentless painting.” The author, of course, is discussing a visual medium here, but the same can easily be said for the written word. How many authors, I wonder, feel the same way about their work? And, more to the point, how many have the guts to admit it?

The Dissemblers is a beautiful novel in so many ways, and Campbell’s prose shines throughout. Whether describing the sweeping vistas of New Mexico or the longing of the human heart, she paints with words what pigments and brushstrokes might not so readily capture.

How to Survive a Natural Disaster

Fans of Margaret Hawkins’ first novel, A Year of Cats and Dogs, will find that she’s exploring some familiar ground in her sophomore effort, How to Survive a Natural Disaster, but they’ll also see that she’s progressed immensely in terms of both technique and emotional depth. As with A Year of Cats and Dogs, Hawkins exhibits a soft spot for animals throughout her latest novel. Indeed, a three-legged dog named Mr. Cosmo narrates portions of the book a la such contemporary pet-centered works as Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain. How to Survive a Natural Disaster, however, sees Hawkins expanding her character palate to include a mismatched and largely dysfunctional family whose ups and downs become especially pronounced when the mother decides to adopt a Peruvian child in a misguided attempt at infusing more love into her life. The result is a heart-wrenching tale not so much of the things we do for love, but the things we do when love runs dry.

One thing that makes How to Survive a Natural Disaster so compelling is that Hawkins allows each of her major characters to shoulder the burden of narration. As a result, readers come at the truth (or “truths”) behind the events depicted in the novel from a number of different perspectives. In this respect, How to Survive a Natural Disaster is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, though a contemporary setting and more conventional use of language lend themselves to greater emotional resonance in Hawkins’ book. Another way to say this might be that Hawkins can be artistic without going over the heads of most readers, for How to Survive a Natural Disaster does a wonderful job of walking the fine line between high art and entertainment in that it appeals to the heart as well as the mind.

How to Survive a Natural Disaster is nothing short of excellent. Throughout the novel, Hawkins demonstrates a gift not only for creating strong characters, but for speaking in distinct tongues for each of those characters as well. Though dark at times, the world she envisions is ultimately a hopeful one—a world where sorrow and forgiveness have no choice but to walk hand in hand. With any luck, the fact that Hawkins envisions her world so clearly and vividly means that our own world might also follow suit.

All told, an expertly crafted and emotionally gripping read.

Snaketown

The short chapters of Kathleen Wakefield’s Snaketown read like a series of microscope slides. Ostensibly the story of a family’s search for a missing child, the novella also serves as a naturalist study of life in off-the-grid rural America. On every page, the author examines the relationship between setting and character, between the barren landscape of a largely abandoned mining town and its denizens, and, ultimately, between the world and humanity.

Snaketown begins with the disappearance of Caytas Buck, the youngest child of the Sibel clan, an allegedly inbred family scraping by on government handouts and odd jobs in their own little closed-in corner of the universe. “They seem confined within boundaries,” Wakefield writes of the Sibels in the precise diction of a sociologist or anthropologist, “as if on an island where only certain things grow, other things three-toed instead of five, winged instead of gilled, the Sibels moving within a range of their own isolation, their own limitations, the roads narrowing, the slant of the sun, their valley, their bend of the river, hogbacks, Mingus Mountain.” Even the disappearance of Caytas does little to bring the family out of their isolation as a mix of destitution, alcoholism, religion, and (curiously) pride keeps them from interacting with the outside world. Indeed, one thing that makes Snaketown so enchanting is Wakefield’s uncanny ability to move seamlessly from the perspective of the Sibels to that of outsiders, thus giving her readers a complex, layered vision of the family and its tragic relationship with the world at large.

To describe the novella solely as a naturalist study, however, is to do it somewhat of an injustice. While the first two-thirds of the book linger largely (and poetically) on the Sibels and their history in relation to Snaketown, the last third of the book sees the narrative morph into something of a page-turner, with the Sibels and the local sheriff racing against the clock and each other to discover what really happened to the missing Caytas. Blending hints of John Steinbeck and Deliverance, Snaketown is that rare gem of a book that is both poetic and gripping — not necessarily a “fun” read, but certainly thought-provoking, heart-felt, and compelling.