Literature

Dick Cheney in Shorts

Screen Shot 2017-09-05 at 12.54.49 PMMaybe it’s because he’s working with a new, more progressive press, but Dick Cheney in Shorts finds author Charles Holdefer in a puckish, experimental mood a few beats off from the more realist tone and style of his previous works like The Contractor and Back in the Game.  As the title suggests, the specter of former US Vice President Dick Cheney playfully drifts through this collection of short works and takes a variety of forms including (but not limited to) a curious if somewhat prudish customer in a “luxury pet shoppe,” a little boy with butterscotch hair who taunts his father’s demons, a figure very much like the historical Dick Cheney who shows up in short pants at a cookout attended by a man with a pair of horns protruding from his forehead, and — in the biggest stretch of the collection — admitting that he misled Americans about weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the war in Iraq. In addition to Cheney, the figures who populate Holdefer’s imaginative landscapes include a man haunted by a phantom penis (a Dick of sorts, one is forced to wonder?), a syphilitic Bavarian baker who invents the fruitcake, and Leo the Lion of MGM films fame. Marked by a combination of repressed desire and existential angst, the characters all search for meaning against a backdrop of blabbering televisions and endless stretches of highway. In other words, these characters, as bizarre as they may seem, essentially inhabit the “real” world that you and I call home. This juxtaposition gives Holdefer’s fiction a dreamlike quality akin a David Lynch film in which identity is a fluid concept and the bizarre sits neatly and without comment next to the quotidian. Indeed, if the “Book Club Questions” that accompany Dick Cheney in Shorts (e.g., “Do you think enhanced interrogation would improve the honesty of your group?”) were ever actually used to guide a book discussion, Holdefer’s miracle would be complete as such an act would allow his fictive vision to bleed over into reality. Who knows, dear reader? Maybe you’ll be the one to make it happen.

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One More Day

In her third novel, One More Day, Kelly Simmons deftly demonstrates that she is an author who is not afraid to take risks when it comes to the art of storytelling. The novel centers on a young mother whose child is snatched from his car seat while she’s tending to a particularly onerous parking meter. Roughly a year later, however, the child reappears for (as the title suggests) a single day before disappearing again. His reappearance and subsequent disappearance opens old wounds and forces the young mother to reflect on her marriage, her culpability in the disappearance of her child, and to come to grips with distant memories that continue to haunt her. In this respect, One More Day is similar to the author’s previous novels, Standing Still and The Bird House, both of which take memory and the tendency of the past to haunt the present as major themes. With One More Day, however, Simmons pushes into new territory, experimenting with unreliable narration and a healthy dose of magic realism. One also catches a very slight hint of Christian allegory a la William P. Young’s The Shack, particularly given the protagonist’s occasional reflections on faith in general and her relationship to her church in particular. Overall, One More Day is not only a mystery but an existential reflection on the frequently fraught relationships between the past and the present, not to mention the living and the dead.

PS: Shout out to FP Dorchak: This one is right up your alley!

Single Stroke Seven

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 11.31.21 AMIf gross-out humor has a tragic cousin, then Lavinia Ludlow is a master of the form.

Her new novel, Single Stroke Seven, begins with the protagonist, Lillith, castrating a drug-crazed former coworker in self-defense and then blasts off into a stratospheric series of riffs on trying, failing, and trying again to follow one’s passion in a world dulled in equal measure by the nine-to-five demands of corporate adulthood and the empty nihilism of prolonged adolescence.

At twenty-seven years old, Lillith is staring the future in the face, and her encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture and music history won’t let her forget that all of the musicians she admires had made their marks by the time they were her age. That they died before turning twenty-eight, moreover, is of little consequence to her since she sees little difference between dying and reaching the milestone of her next birthday.

Adding to the drama is the fact that Lillith’s main band, Dissonanz, includes three man-children who can’t get their act together long enough to rehearse so much as a single song, let alone get a gig. That they’ve been together for over a decade only adds to her ennui, and even side gigs — like playing for a post-Riot Grrrl punk band fronted by a psychopath who’s sleeping with the man for whom Lillith secretly pines — complicate her life exponentially.

As Lillith struggles to balance her musical aspiration against the real-world need to hold down a job and pay bills, her life increasingly turns to shit — quite often literally. At one point, for example, a porta-potty explodes on the front lawn of the dilapidated home she rents with her band mates. Throughout the rest of the novel, other forms of excrement, bodily fluids, and organic matter splatter across every surface imaginable, so much so that I’m comfortable reporting that Chuck Palahniuk has nothing on Lavinia Ludlow.

Yet for all of its — grit, for lack of a better word — Single Stroke Seven is a novel with heart. The title refers to a basic drum pattern, but it’s also a metaphor for everything Lillith is searching for. Teaching percussion to earn extra money, she transcribes the pattern onto a sheet of manuscript paper for a young student who responds to the image with pleasure. “I like this one,” he says. “They’re all holding onto each other so no one’s lonely.”

Ultimately, this is what Single Stroke Seven is all about — searching for meaning in a soul-sucking world and hanging onto friends (even if they’re losers) because the alternative is unbearable.

The Race – Review by Marc Schuster

RaceCoverJacke Wilson’s The Race is an incredibly astute novella about ego and politics that attempts to explain why anyone in their right mind might run for political office. The answer, it turns out, is that they wouldn’t, as the political arena is reserved for the eternally deluded and arguably insane.

The narrative focuses on Tom Olson, a fictional disgraced former Governor of Wisconsin who is attempting to revive his career by running for Congress. In a “ripped from the headlines” kind of way, Olson’s fall from grace is highly reminiscent of former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s. Yet while Olson and Sanford both mysteriously vanished from their offices only to turn up at later dates in foreign love nests, there are hints of other political figures wrapped up in the novella’s central figure as well. Echoing Bill Clinton’s 1992 remark that Hillary would be so central to his presidency that he might as well adopt “buy one, get one free” as his campaign slogan, a common refrain surrounding Olson’s first bid for governor was “Vote for him and get the pair.” Likewise, something about Olson also harkens to Mitt Romney. He’s relatively handsome in the way many career politicians aspire to be, he’s idealistic in his own way, and he’s optimistic to a fault — so much so that his grand vision of the world completely eclipses reality.

There’s certainly plenty of dry humor to be had in the proceedings — particularly as Olson does his best to turn the rancid lemons of his tattered political career into saccharine-sweet lemonade — but the real strength of Wilson’s writing is in its Marxian critique of American politics. Early on, Olson’s biographer notes a key difference between himself and the politician: “He was bourgeois and I was proletariat.” He then goes on to muse, “Why don’t we use those words anymore? Too loaded with history?” Yes and no. The real problem isn’t history so much as substance in general. As Wilson depicts it, our political system is largely a popularity contest, and political platforms offer little more than trite platitudes and vitriol against the other side. As such, Olson is especially popular “with a certain kind of pundit who has overcome his or her natural ability to say anything interesting or accurate, or to have any personally appealing qualities, by instinctively taking the contrarian’s view of any issue.” Most of all, however, Olson demonstrates that what truly drives politicians is a desire to control the narratives of their own lives, as his tragically optimistic efforts at running for office are forever haunted by the specter of the good man he was before throwing his hat into the political arena.

Smart, well-written, and frequently funny, The Race offers some interesting speculation into the mind of the American politician.

Shoplandia – Review by Marc Schuster

shoplandiabookcover5_5x8_5_cream_290-copyWith a tone and style reminiscent of George Saunders and situations that would feel right at home in a Don DeLillo novel, the stories collected in Jim Breslin’s Shoplandia offer an engaging and informed behind-the-scenes look at the home shopping industry. Drawing on seventeen years of experience as a producer at QVC, Breslin gives readers an intimate view of everything that goes into producing a live television broadcast day in and day out, and he excels at bringing the lives behind the endeavor to life. Indeed, while the stories in Shoplandia are all ostensibly about home shopping, they’re also about humanity’s search for meaning in a consumer-driven world that’s more interested in appearances than substance.

Many of Breslin’s characters are jaded with respect to their jobs, but they still go about them with workmanlike dignity. The sense is that if they believe in the work they do, the viewers at home will buy into the illusion that what Shoplandia has to offer will make a difference in their lives. As one character remarks, “The secret? Run away from the pain and toward the pleasure. Make them feel like if they don’t have the next great thing, their lives will be hell and they will be ostracized, their lives meaningless… But if they attain it, if they purchase it, if they part with their hard earned money for a chunk of metal in some fancy design, then they will become a god. They will be desired, they will be loooooved. If you own this, you will be worthy!” That the rant is delivered by a disgraced show host only adds to its import, for here is a man who’s peeked behind the curtain and has realized the true logic behind the system.

Ultimately, it’s the author’s talent for using intimate portraits of his characters to interrogate contemporary values that makes Shoplandia so engaging. As in life, meaning emerges — often unexpectedly — in the minutia of the little picture even as the chaos of the big picture threatens to overwhelm Breslin’s characters with its apparent emptiness. To put it another way, Shoplandia insists that there’s a point to it all, even if it’s a different point than the one we’ve been sold.