Month: May 2009

Love Park

LOVE_Park_CoverAt a recent reading, Jim Zervanos explained that his debut novel, Love Park, was written in part as a response to  John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, which itself had been written as a response to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. In short, Updike loved the premise of a novel written from the point of view of a young drifter, but he wanted the story to include a wife, child, and mortgage. The result: not as much drifting, but plenty of angst. Continuing on this path, Zervanos envisioned Peter Pappas, Love Park‘s beleaguered protagonist, as a spiritual cousin to Sal Paradise and Rabbit Angstrom. Like Angstrom, Pappas is 26 years old and dealing with all the issues inherent in that fragile age. Yet the issues that Pappas must deal with are a lot different from those of his predecessors. Unlike Angstrom (and even On the Road‘s Dean Moriarty), Pappas has never been with a woman in the Biblical sense–let alone been married. Instead he lives in his parents’ basement where he laments that life is passing him by. Hence the update to which Zervanos referred: as with previous generations, “kids today” face the age-old problem of watching the promise of youth vanish, but in increasing numbers, they’re seeing it happen from the sheltered vantage point of their parents’ basements. For Peter Pappas, the journey from basement to real life takes on epic proportions.

As the novel opens, Peter is pining away for his college girlfriend, with whom he always intended to write a book on Philadelphia’s public works of art. The only problem is that he hasn’t seen her since college–a good four years earlier. Now he’s living in his parents’ basement and painting other people’s apartments for a living. (That he’s invariably painting them white only underscores the void that his life has become.) Adrift in a relatively pointless existence, he meets a middle-aged widow named Daisy Diamond, whose mysterious relationship with Peter’s father pierces the bubble the protagonist has been living in for so long and thus forces him to take his first tentative steps into the world at large. That Peter is completely smitten with Daisy only complicates matters, but complication is exactly what Peter’s life needs. After all, he’s been avoiding entangling relationships for all of his life, sidestepping various forms of commitment, and, in general, refusing to take risks–refusing, that is, to live. And while living may be painful, it ultimately, Peter begins to realize, beats the hell out of the subterranean existence he’s been calling a life for so long.

In addition to the influences that Zervanos has cited, Love Park boasts a number of other literary forebears as well. The forbidden relationship with Daisy Diamond (and the ugly truth it obscures) clearly echoes Oedipus Rex. The same relationship is also reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby–only it isn’t Daisy who carries the tattered love letter through her life this time around; it’s Peter. Likewise, a passage near the end of the novel in which Peter observes that “we keep crawling, clawing our way back into the current, back toward our place of origin” offers a poignant twist on the final line of Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Yet if there’s a single touchstone for Love Park, it has to be Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, as both works read with a high degree of confessional zeal, particularly when it comes to their protagonists’ issues with family and sex.

Overall, Love Park represents an excellent debut. Throughout the novel, Zervanos demonstrates that he is steeped in literary, artistic, and cultural traditions, yet that he is also in touch with the real world. A sensitive, intelligent novel, Love Park provides a compelling, excellent read.

Snapshots of Life

SnapshotsOfLifePerhaps best known as the editor of the free online literary jounral, Short Story Library, Casey Quinn has come out with his first full volume of poetry, Snapshots of Life. Throughout this volume, Quinn joyfully charts the borderlands that lie between the mundane and the transcendent while training a sharp eye on the ironies of life. In “my enlightenment,” for example, Quinn communes with the divine while washing his car, and in “i picked at a scab today,” he meditates on the circle of life while, as the title implies, picking at a scab. The verse that appears throughout this collection is neither dense nor especially verbose. Wielding images like blunt objects — the car, the bird, the niece, the scab — Quinn creates poetry that reads like the verbal equivalent of an expressionist painting or a punch to the gut. You read it and get it immediately. Though I wouldn’t quite call this a book of inspirational verse, it does, in fact, tend to inspire even as it draws attention to the less inspirational elements of life. To borrow a metaphor the poet uses in “reality hold ’em,” we can only play the cards we’re dealt, and Quinn never shies away from this fact. A fine collection of poetry from an insightful poet.

The Yoke of the Horde

Yoke of the HordeWhen David Prior‘s The Yoke of the Horde came across my desk, I thought, “Great. Yet another novel about a man who believes he’s the reincarnation of Genghis Khan and who returns home from his efforts at freeing Tibet only to find that his wife has shacked up with a man who probably believes that pro-wrestling is real and which (the novel, I mean) features a cast of characters including a disgruntled weather man, a CEO obsessed with building the perfect putting green in his office, and a chef living in exile due to the economic and gustatory perversions of Jacques Chirac.” Talk about obvious! Talk about cliche! Talk about retreading ground that’s been trodden upon dozens and dozens of times already. But I’m a bit of a softy, so I gave the book a shot, and… I was pleasantly surprised. The Yoke of the Horde, it turns out, is not just another in a long line of books featuring the reincarnation of the founder of the Mongol empire. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is the definitive book on the subject!

Throughout the novel, Prior introduces us to a host of memorable (if somewhat bizarre) characters. Chief among these is Rosco Rochlitz, the aforementioned reincarnation of Genghis Kahn. After a failed attempt at freeing Tibet, Rosco returns home to find his wife in love with another man. With nowhere else to go, Rosco moves back into the one-room apartment he used to share with his wife, who enlists the aid of a largely silent neighbor known only as Tom to settle the dispute over who gets to sleep where in the apartment (among other things). Complicating matters is the fact that Tom has just been promoted from a number-cruncher to a greens keeper of an indoor golf course in his boss’s office, and the local weatherman is predicting the storm of the millennium. And when a wayward boyscout troop and a lost cache of illicit pornography get thrown into the mix, things really start to get interesting.

Overall, Prior’s novel is very funny, even if the prose is somewhat dense at times. Throughout the proceedings, the author takes aim at everything from Kantian philosophy to reality television (and everything in between). His writing style is somewhat of an amalgam of Thomas Pynchon and George Saunders, though his heavy reliance on chunks of dialogue to move the narrative forward also suggests William Gaddis. Ultimately, The Yoke of the Horde is a diamond in the rough. Complete with typos and minor inconsistencies, the novel reads like a true underground masterpiece–written on the fly, off the cuff, and in close proximity to any other parts of his trousers the author could find. Worth a read if you’re into any of the writers I mention above, The Yoke of the Horde is a wild, funny novel.

Meeks Nominated for O’Connor Award

monthsnseasonsChristopher Meeks, a wonderful author whose books I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing twice on this blog, has just been nominated for the prestigious Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Leading names on this year’s list include Booker winner Kazuo Ishiguro, Orange Prize winner Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, winner of the (British) National Short Story Award and former judge for the Frank O’Connor Award James Lasdun, multiple prize-winning poet Sean O’Brien and previously short-listed authors Philip O Ceallaigh and Charlotte Grimshaw. The collection for which Meeks is nominated, Months and Seasons, contains a dozen stories. With a combination of main characters from young to old and with drama and humor, the tales pursue such people as a supermodel who awakens after open-heart surgery, a famous playwright who faces a firestorm consuming the landscape, a reluctant man who attends a Halloween party as Dracula, and a New Yorker who thinks she’s a chicken.

Click here to read a review of Christopher’s short story collection, Months and Seasons, and here to read a reivew of his novel, Brightest Moon of the Century. Or click here to read a selection from Months and Seasons.

Congratulations, Chris! To think — we knew you when!