Month: July 2011

The Snow Whale

The blurb on the back cover touts The Snow Whale as a modern retelling of Moby Dick, but to limit John Minichillo’s debut novel to this description would be somewhat of a disservice. While a white whale is, indeed, at the heart of much action throughout the narrative, Minichillo also draws on the ethos of other classic works of American literature. Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” spring immediately to mind, for the novel is as much about survival — both physical and spiritual –as it is about whaling.

The novel centers on John Jacobs, a middle-class salesman whose world-weary sense of malaise begins to fall away when a DNA test suggests that he’s part Inuit. Inspired to get in touch with his ancestral roots, he stocks up on camping gear and heads to Alaska for a whale hunt, leaving behind his wife and their safe suburban home. Although John’s initial goal to “escape the plastic and plenty” of life in the lower 48 comes across as highly romanticized, the novel eventually and thrillingly shifts into high gear as relentless pursuit of his quarry leads the protagonist to experience a “dread only overpowered by the will to live and the fear of death.”

Nearness to death not only makes John feel fully alive, but also gives him a true understanding of the difference between wants and needs, thus underscoring one of the novel’s biggest themes: so inured are we in the trappings of contemporary existence that we’ve forgotten what it means means to live, to laugh, to love, to care. That John initally makes a living selling “desk doodles,” useless paperweights imprinted with inspirational quotations whose lack of context renders them completely meaningless, points up the vapid nature of the life he’s left behind, as does the eerily goofy tone Minichillo employs to describe this life. Yet as the threat of death draws near, the author gradually and expertly leaves the goofiness behind, and the novel evolves into something entirely different: a genuine page turner.

Juxtaposing goofiness and grit, The Snow Whale gets at the heart of all that’s amiss in our hyper-plastic consumer culture even as it proves that, beneath it all, we can still find signs of life.

–Review by Marc Schuster

Tongue Party

Weighing in at just under 80 pages, Sarah Rose Etter’s Tongue Party is nothing short of amazing. Focusing mainly on the theme of hunger, this debut collection showcases the talents of an author whose imagination is matched only by her economy and precision with language. Take, for example, the opening story in the collection: with a few deft strokes, Etter carries her reader from the ingenious if seemingly outlandish premise of a beach awash in koala bears to an all-too-human (and thus oh-so-painful) portrait of the alienation and disappointment inherent in all great coming of age stories; think, if you will, of a bizarro version of James Joyce’s “Araby” (substituting koalas for sexual yearning — work with me on this one) and you’ll be well on your way to picking up the vibe of “Koala Tide.”

Elsewhere in the collection, Etter offers us “Cake,” in which a wife lies beholden to her husband’s desire to watch her gorge on baked goods. Reversing the scenario in “The Husband Feeder,” the author depicts a man whose insatiable appetite leads him on a gustatory rampage that his wife can only grin and bear in the name of love. And in perhaps the most delectable of Etter’s tales, a grown man dons a chicken mask in an effort to deal with his wife’s passing — much to his daughter’s chagrin.

Needless to say, while hunger is at the heart of Etter’s strange yet captivating tales, the insatiable appetites of her characters speak volumes to the myriad conflicting and often unrequited desires that drive us all. We want love, we want sex, we want so badly to please, the stories collected in Tongue Party seem to say, but no matter how close we come to satiating our demons, something about the human condition always leaves us wanting more. Indeed, like the protagonists in the majority of Etter’s stories, I, too, was left with a desire for more — more quirky characters, more weird scenarios, more of the author’s spectacular, delicious writing. Truly a wonderful debut.

-Review by Marc Schuster

Love in the City of Grudges: Poems by Will Nixon

I know better to conflate the poet and the poem, the writer and his creations, but I want to believe that the “I” of the poetry collected in Will Nixon’s Love in the City of Grudges is, indeed, the poet, for his “I” is honest and forthright about a time in his life that was, in retrospect, magical but which appeared, in the heat of the long summer moment, to be the deadest of ends. I could be friends with that “I,” in that time and place.

The collection is about being young and poor and in love and wanting to be a writer and not knowing what to say because you don’t yet realize that all that lies before you is plenty to say. It’s about promise. It’s about potential. It’s about living in Hoboken and naming your cats Sid and Nancy because you wish you were more of a punk. It’s about dreams. It’s about fitting in. It’s about cockroaches and survival. And, towards the end, it’s about zombies.

Throughout the volume, Nixon dazzles with his attention to detail, bringing the worlds of his squandered youth to life with images as precise as they are telling: the hapless brother who “unscrews Oreos for the cream,” the unfinished copy of Gravity’s Rainbow (“All summer, I couldn’t get past his octopus/with Pavlovian training”), the rubber masks of Nixon and Reagan, the Hefty bag of laundry, the chocolate syrup masquerading as blood in Night of the Living Dead.

 All told, it’s a strong and moving collection that bespeaks the myriad ways in which the past and the present, not to mention the living and the dead, are always closer to each other than we might care to admit.

-Review by Marc Schuster

The Mimic’s Own Voice

In The Mimic’s Own Voice, Tom Williams offers a charming and intelligent meditation on, among other things, identity, the anxiety of influence, and the vagaries of fortune and fame in our postmodern world. The mimic in question, at least as far as the narrative is concerned, is Douglas Myles, a man of a thousand voices who ascends almost accidentally to international acclaim when his preternatural ability to imitate the voice of anyone he meets first lands him a series of gigs at local comedy hot spots and then, in classic showbiz style, leads him to a career-making appearance on national television and a slew of subsequent live shows and tours in increasingly larger venues.

Yet this vividly imagined and meticulously wrought novella isn’t merely a chronicle of the spectacular rise and tragic fall of a media superstar. In many ways, The Mimic’s Own Voice is a mystery, for Douglas Myles is a cipher on par with Melville’s Bartleby or Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. Indeed, if personality, as Fitzgerald speculates in The Great Gatsby, is “an unbroken series of successful gestures,” then Myles is personality personified — a floating signifier whose substance remains at best unknown and at worst nonexistent.

To put it another way, Myles easily serves as a stand-in for every pretty face in our media-saturated galaxy of stars, and Williams’ nuanced treatment of the character (or, perhaps more accurately, absence of such) offers telling commentary on our culture’s relationship with the celebrities we worship: we can laud, we can decry, we can observe, and we can speculate, but we can never really know them. That the same can be said of our relationships with even our most intimate of friends only deepens the import of the novella.

In terms of style, Williams himself becomes a bit of mimic by employing the pitch-perfect tone of a scholarly monograph. This strategy benefits the narrative in many ways, not the least of which is that it allows the humor to remain mercilessly dry a la the best moments of Monty Python’s Flying Circus while the narrator observes the mimic from an objective distance. Additionally, the tone of the novella places it in good company by calling to mind Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, arguably the most studied paradigm of imaginary scholarship ever produced.

Engaging, intelligent, humorous, and moving, The Mimic’s Own Voice is the work of a master storyteller and meticulous wordsmith — a great read in every sense.

– Review by Marc Schuster