novels

Back in the Game

Despite F. Scott Fitzgerald’s protests to the contrary, there are plenty of second acts in American lives, and Charles Holdefer’s Back in the Game offers a case in point. The novel follows former AAA and European League baseball player Stanley Mercer as he struggles to make a life for himself as a schoolteacher in the small town of Legion, Iowa. That Stanley has never graduated from college is the least of his worries as he falls for a married woman who also happens to be the mother of one of his worst students.

Throughout the novel, Holdefer develops a perfect level of synergy between setting and character. Like any small town, Legion is home to a wide range of endearing individuals, not the least of which are a pair of misfit siblings named the Snows, who ride the school bus with Stanley amid a constant barrage of verbal slings and arrows from their classmates. Yet while the people of Legion may fit the traditional profile in many ways, Holdefer offers a complex vision of Small Town America that firmly resists cliché. Indeed, while the townspeople cheer their high-school football team by donning rubber pig noses and squealing from the sidelines, methamphetamine abuse runs rampant behind closed doors and environmental disaster looms on the horizon in the form of a massive sewage lagoon. To put it mildly, the simple life has never been so complicated.

Back in the Game explores the changing face of Middle America in a moving and nuanced way. Quirky as they are heartbreaking, Holdefer’s characters come across as nothing less than fully human in this loving study of the relationship between people and the places we call home.

Related: A Conversation with Charles Holdefer.

Minus One: A Twelve Step Journey – Review by Cindy Zelman

It’s not often that I continue reading a book when, at first, I don’t like the lead character. For quite a few pages, this was the case with protagonist, Terry Manescu, in Bridget Bufford’s novel, Minus One: A Twelve-Step Journey. My dislike was due to her attitude: I found the twenty-something Terry to be grating, self-absorbed, and annoyingly angry.  Normally, such derisive feelings toward a protagonist spell disaster in terms of continuing to read a book, but something kept me moving forward, and that was simply the author’s superb writing.

Not far into the book, Bufford managed to deftly convert me into a Terry-loving cheerleader. The author transformed Terry into a multi-dimensional, open, and sympathetic character in a powerful and pivotal scene involving sex and pain and mental anguish.  I was stunned and breathless throughout the violently sexual episode between Terry and Pat, a woman she meets at a diner and with whom she has a one night stand. The scene turns out to be Terry’s low point, and from there, she works her way up to sobriety and emotional health.  She’s still a hot head at times, but now she has self-awareness – and that’s the key. Now I, as reader, like her and root for her.

Bufford has a way of teaching us about the 12-Steps that is fascinating, beginning with some laconic and often humorous quotes overheard at AA meetings. One of my favorites: “Getting lost in my head is like talking to an asshole in a bad neighborhood.” Bufford also is expert at having characters dialogue in meaningful ways about the Twelve Steps and what they mean and how to use them in one’s life.  Terry’s attitude is one of both resistance and embrace.

Just for the ability to engage us in such a topic that could have been deadly boring, I designate Bufford a word-wielding, character-building, story-telling magician. Bufford infuses humor and self-deprecation in throughout the book, which helps to lighten a very serious story of overcoming alcohol abuse.  I learned a lot about the 12-Step Program, and I found it applicable to my life, too, even though I’m not in recovery from drugs or alcohol. Perhaps we are all in recovery from something.

For example, I found myself making amends this week to someone I felt I had wronged months ago, and I don’t believe I would have done this – the act itself or the labeling of it as “amends” – if not for Bufford’s book. It’s a powerful story and a powerful author who can actually affect my behavior.

I need to mention that Bufford writes fabulous sex scenes between women. Her scenes are natural, smooth, emotional, suspenseful,  and passionate. Yet, she avoids any blushing moments and doesn’t need to use any “dirty” words. As a lesbian and a writer, too, I admire what she does with her sex scenes. The ones I write are sometimes embarrassing in their rawness, often sadly humorous, and full of bad words and bad sex. I see Bufford’s work as a lesson in how to write such scenes with perfect pacing, tone, mood, and emotion.

Here is a short excerpt:  “Her hands on my shoulders betray a fine tremor. I grip her hips,lean my forehead against her, knead the muscles of her hamstrings, her calves, pull every part of her close…”

Bufford’s novel reads like the finest creative nonfiction memoir, and for saying that, I suspect the author would like to clobber me over the head, so I will acknowledge this book as a work of fiction.For anyone interested in alcoholism, in the way gay women interact with one another, or just in a very human story of triumph over adversity, this is a great read by a very talented author. I look forward to reading her second book, Cemetery Bird.

The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door

A shark attack, a starlet in hiding, a mysterious black box. The opening pages of Stephen Stark’s The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door have all the makings of a Hollywood page turner, but the novel’s style places the author in a far more literary league.

The novel is a hefty one in terms of content as well as form. Weighing in at well over 600 pages (in 12 pt. Garamond, no less!), The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door touches on a wide range of topics — show business, fame, predestination, love, reality, lucid dreaming, and standup comedy, to name just a few. To tackle these subjects, Stark offers the reader Ellen Gregory, a thirty-something standup comic turned TV superstar whose recent run-in with a murderous stalker leaves her questioning everything about the world she’s grown used to. That her world consists largely of hype and rumors only complicates matters for the increasingly cagey celebrity.

Ellen’s Hollywood narrative alone would certainly provide enough material for a provocative examination of fame and its trappings, but Stark sweetens the deal by adding virtual reality to the mix. Shortly after escaping from the confines of her successful sitcom, Ellen falls for a computer programmer whose experiments have opened a doorway into a mysterious dimension that isn’t quite real but is, in some ways, more real than real. When Michael falls prey to a vicious attack, Ellen’s world turns upside down, and her entire world — not to mention her sense of self — goes up for grabs.

Stylistically, Stark’s writing evokes a diverse range of contemporary authors. From the more “literary” camp, there’s Jennifer Egan and Don DeLillo, while the elements of science-fiction present in the novel call to mind William Gibson’s interest in virtual reality and Jamil Nasir’s examination of lucid dreaming in The Houses of Time. Complex, ambitious, and genre-bending, The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door is a philosophical page turner that dares to ask what it means to really know someone.

-Review by Marc Schuster

Rust

In Rust, Julie Mars disproves F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that there are no second acts in American lives. The plot revolves around a long-orphaned painter named Margaret Shaw who, on a whim, abandons her life in New York City to learn to take up welding in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Sparks literally fly when Margaret meets Rico Garcia, the proprietor of an auto body shop whose passionless marriage also makes him a prime candidate for a second act. Yet even as both characters strive to create new lives in the present, they find themselves haunted by ghosts of the past. In Rico’s case, the past is personified by his self-destructive late brother Fernando, while Margaret lives with the gnawing mystery behind the disappearance of her parents decades earlier. That Mars breaks up the main narrative with glimpses of the harrowing tale of Margaret’s father — himself struggling to find a new life in the wake of personal tragedy and grave misfortune — adds texture to an already rich tapestry.

The novel’s title offers a hint regarding the controlling metaphor of the narrative. Margaret is not simply fascinated with welding or with metal work. She’s specifically interested in rust, “old metal that slowly transforms itself into dust after going through a long redheaded phase.” This long redheaded phase is exactly where Margaret finds herself at the beginning of the novel (despite being described as a raven-haired beauty) — not quite as young as she used to be, eyeing the future, and wondering along with Rico what she’ll do with the remainder of the time allotted to her.

More than anything else, Rust is a novel about the slow passage of time, and Mars has an unparallelled gift for drawing out a moment, for filling a moment with meaning and poetry, for making room within a moment for what TS Eliot once called time for a hundred indecisions, a hundred visions and revisions. In the end, it’s humanity’s capacity for revision that makes Rust so moving, so true to life, for the parallel narratives of Margaret, Rico, and Margaret’s father suggest that while time moves forever forward — and while everything eventually turns to dust — the time we have, though certainly limited, is always ripe with potential. An excellent novel.

-Review by Marc Schuster

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

alt.punk

Fair warning: alt.punk opens with the narrator performing a certain act on her soon-to-be-ex boyfriend. If you’re okay with that, then you’re in luck, because Lavinia Ludlow’s debut novel is nothing short of spectacular.

The narrative focuses on a thirty-year-old Safeway manager named Hazel, whose ennui over the dead-end nature of her job is paralleled only by her crippling fear of the contagions, allergens, and carcinogens that constitute her world. On top of that, she comes from a family of weight-obsessed type-A personalities, has a mother who laments that Hazel will never “just be normal,” and she’s just met a would-be rock-star named Otis who spits when he talks and whose biggest dream revolves around doing makeup for low-budget slasher films. The trouble is, Hazel really falls for Otis and all that he represents — namely, a break from the soul-numbing drudgery of working at Safeway. The result is a trainwreck of a relationship that makes for a great read.

More than anything, alt.punk speaks directly to anyone in the twenty- to thirty-something age bracket who feels hoodwinked by western culture’s promise that we can have anything we want as long as we work hard and want it badly enough. Hazel’s desperation to find some modicum of meaning in her otherwise bland existence is palpable throughout the novel; she’s funny, witty, and smart, yet her options are so limited that every decision she makes, no matter how misguided, makes perfect sense. To put it another way, Ludlow clearly understands what it means to have grown up in the last decade or so of the twentieth century only to wake up one day as an alleged adult at the dawn of the twenty-first. At thirty, she’s a lost child, clinging desperately to the ideals of her youth as she struggles to forge a path to adulthood. Her story, in other words, is the story of a generation.

I almost want to say that alt.punk reads like a cross between Jennifer Weiner and Chuck Palahniuk, but that would be doing the novel a grave disservice, for at heart, it’s the ultimate anti chick-lit experience. Gritty and raw as a scratchy seven-inch punk E.P., alt.punk is more closely aligned with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream. In short, alt.punk has all the makings of an underground cult classic.

-Review by Marc Schuster