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No Tears for Old Scratch – Review by Lavinia Ludlow

“Remember, my dear, religion makes murderers of saints.” – excerpt from Ken Wohlrob’s No Tears for Old Scratch

Ken WohlrobKen Wohlrob’s writing has matured since Songs of Vagabonds, Misfits, and Sinners. The narrative voice in No Tears for Old Scratch is not only grittier with hard-hitting one liners, but the novel itself is laden with tension and conflict. Quirky is how one might describe his beautiful contemporary narratives with bouts of smart-ass dark humor. He sets each scene by trying to stimulate multiple senses at a time, depicting everything from the the scent and humidity of the atmosphere to the taste and grit in the air. All in all, he has great function in his form:

“A solitary woman sat in 9B…Yellow stains on the tips of her fingernails. Her salt-and-pepper hair was strung up in a wretched concoction that left strands hanging around her face like tentacles. Round glasses covered her eyes as she read an old book, scratching nervously at each page six times before she turned it with a single finger. OCD. A Catholic school graduate, no doubt. They did a hell of a job on this one.”

In No Tears for Old Scratch, we follow Biff, a melodramatic fedora-sporting Briton—with all his mentions of “wankers” and “bloody hells” and “piss offs” and “cunts,” he’s from across the pond—on his (homeless) holiday through Upstate New York. There, he stumbles upon a quaint community of people struggling with the usual stuff: poverty, divorce, and boredom, only they inhabit what they refer to as “the Holiest Town in America.” (The town is home to The Graveyard of the Innocent, which is a “monument to the unborn babies killed by abortions performed on teenage mothers in New York State every day.”)

Wohlrob’s developed the feel of small community well by illustrating a claustrophobic atmosphere where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and people bump into each other at the library by day and strip club by night. Though the dichotomies are sometimes puzzling—Biff is well-spoken and mannered (in most ways), but is a thief, accomplice to abduction and murder (somewhat), and spouts existential ramblings and antagonizing insults—they work well for the storyline. While referring to someone as “madam,” he might rattle off a slew of offenses:

“Your child was trying to reorganize the very molecules of my seat by beating them into a pulp with his sneakers, I’d assumed that the Neanderthal who had squirted his seed inside you had long since jumped ship and left you a Miss with a pair of bastards.”

The middle section of Biff’s adventures is a tad dry, and there are times when I have no idea what the hell is going on. Random personalities are always coming and going, saying and doing nothing particularly interesting, and he frequently makes random mentions of an old man with rabbit teeth and the lifecycle of earthworms.

In the end though, he ties off most hanging ends, and stepping back, we see that Biff is a vagabond who blows into town looking for absolution in this small community, but disrupts the balance with his sociopathic demeanor, and ultimately gets what’s coming to him: a violent demise similar to The Lottery (sans the actual lotto), and after being such a haughty dick—accomplice to murder, stealing from a collection plate, punching a priest—I was almost rooting for the angry mob. As he goes down against the pavement, a few of Biff’s words sear in mind:

“I take no issue with the dead. It is the living whom I find so irksome.”

Suitably titled, No Tears for Old Scratch is a great read for this summer.

Want, Wound

Want, WoundI’ve admired the work of Nicole Monaghan for a long time, so I was very excited when she asked me to provide a blurb for her first collection of fiction, Want, Wound. The blurb I provided reads, “A loving exploration of the tender corners of the human heart and the empty spaces we all long to fill.” While this blurb does a decent job of capturing what Nicole does so well in all of her work, I’m not sure it does her book justice. Throughout the volume, she takes every opportunity she can to inhabit the skin of “the other.” Sometimes this involves imagining what it must be like to be a man. Other times, she explores the inner world of children yearning to impress their parents or insecure teens trying to make sense of the world or adult women struggling with addictions. In every instance, Nicole come across as a true empath, an author with a preternatural ability to feel the pain and love and longing of every character she imagines. As a result, Want, Wound is a moving, touching, tiny wonder of a book.

Make Each Word Count: An Interview with Marcus Pactor

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of seeing Marcus Pactor read from his short fiction collection Vs. Death Noises as part of the TireFire fiction series in Philadelphia. Shortly thereafter, he sent me a copy of the collection, and I enjoyed it immensely, so I was doubly excited to get a chance to ask him a few questions about writing and how he fits it into his busy schedule.

You came from Florida up to my hometown of Philadelphia to do a reading for the TireFire fiction series. That’s dedication! What motivated you to make the trip? Was it worth your while?

I read Christian TeBordo’s The Awful Possibilities last year and dug it so much. I did what I previously considered a junior high stalker thing by asking this total stranger to be my Facebook friend. He agreed. He found out about my book that way, liked it, and invited me up. I have never been a junior high stalker, but I imagine this was like the junior high stalker’s dream. Besides that, I think it’s important to read wherever people are interested in my stuff. You never know who you’re going to meet.

It was entirely worth the trip. Christian and his family are great, warm people. Philadelphia’s downtown is a beautiful, large and cared for in a particular way that I have rarely seen. That art museum is a treasury. In addition, I reunited with an old, old friend.

Note: I have since learned that what I did on Facebook was pretty standard practice and not widely considered stalkerish.

Along similar lines, what motivates you to write? I ask because I know firsthand how difficult it can be to fit writing into a busy schedule, but just keep doing it anyway, and I’m trying to figure out why.

If I didn’t write, I’d probably be talking to myself all the time. I’ve got all kinds of ideas and people in my head trying to get out. Writing is about the healthiest way to get them out. It’s purgation, I guess.

I’m also motivated by the date August 30. Some time on or around that date, my wife and I will welcome a little son to the world. I have to write as much as I can before then, because my schedule will probably become more crowded afterward.

You teach at University of North Florida, and Rate My Professors reports that your students love your classes. What, specifically, do you teach, and how do your teaching and writing inform each other?

It’s strange to think that they love them. I mean, I love my kids, but we spend about a third of the semester explaining why certain kinds of sentences don’t work and why “he ejaculated” is no longer an acceptable dialogue tag. Maybe they love it because it’s a public place in which they feel free to discuss ejaculation.

This semester I’m teaching four fiction workshops. By the end of this week, I’ll have read 130 or so stories by students. Two weeks from now, I’ll have read 65 revisions. By the end of the semester, I’ll have read close to 2000 pages of my students’ fiction.

The pleasures of teaching mostly involve seeing the students improve from one piece to the next. Most of them really do work hard. It’s great to see when it pays off, especially when they get published.

Teaching has also helped me become a much better reader of fiction and practitioner of language. A lot of people can feel that something has gone wrong in a story, but a teacher has to recognize what that something is, where that something is located, and how to fix it. I mean, he has to say more than that “these sentences don’t work.” He has to be able to explain why they don’t work, especially when the grammar is impeccable. He has to point the way. He has to make recommendations that a student can respect.

Reading their stories has forced me to think hard, much harder than I ever had before, about what makes fiction work. A lot of what I figured out went into this book.

Your book is called Vs. Death Noises. Can you explain the title and any principles that guide your writing?

The book’s title comes from the first story, “The Archived Steve.” Steve had this awful emphysemic voice. He slurped from electronic cigarettes. The narrator said the sounds were death noises. Noise isn’t an element common to every story in the book, but it’s in enough of them for the title to work. Plus, tons of people seem to dig it.

I don’t know if I want to use the word “principles.” It’s a much better word for critics to use about a writer’s work than it is for a writer to use about his own stuff. My principles shift all the time, which might be why I don’t want to call them principles. Right now, I like these: –Make each word count. –Form is content. Content is form. -Tell a couple of jokes, but be serious. Seriously tell a joke. A purely sad story is not my kind of beer.

The book’s publisher is Subito Press. If I remember my Latin correctly, that means “suddenly.” Was there anything “sudden” about the writing or publishing of this book? How did you find them–or did they find you?

It was both sudden and not sudden. First, the not so sudden: the stories themselves were written over the course of two-plus years. Then, suddenly, it was summer. I was 35. My girlfriend, now my wife, and I were getting serious. I needed a freaking book. I found Subito’s contest on Duotrope and entered. Everything worked out.

And, finally, what’s on the horizon for you?

I mentioned the baby. Mostly, he is on the horizon. I’ve also got a short novel in the hands of several independent presses and contests as we speak, so I spend a lot of time knocking wood, etc. I’m working on another book too. I’m about to learn how to put up a fence in my backyard. That should be painful.

Thanks, Marcus, for taking the time to chat with me!


Nothing Serious

imagesIn Nothing Serious, Daniel Klein presents the love song of Digby Maxwell, former pop-culture editor of New York Magazine and one-time darling of the Big Apple’s social scene. Divorced, jobless, and crashing on a friend’s couch, Digby lands an unexpected job as the editor of Cogito, a stodgy philosophy journal whose late publisher has left instructions from beyond the grave for his widow to jazz the publication up a bit. Desperately in need of a second act in his capacity as a self-proclaimed “professional bullshitter,” Digby jumps at the opportunity he’s been offered. Indeed, he sees his editorship of Cogito as one last chance at realizing his lifelong aspiration to do something useful. Upon accepting the job, however, he immediately finds himself embroiled in the petty politics of the small-town college that hosts the philosophy journal, and in love, somewhat unexpectedly, with a Unitarian minister whose personal life is nearly as complicated as Digby’s.

Needless to say, Nothing Serious has all the makings of a zany yet compelling novel of ideas. Throughout the narrative, Klein expertly balances the elements of a good page turner (plot, character development, intrigue) with thoughtful and witty commentary on the collective efforts of our species to make sense of the world. There’s Digby, whose firm belief that “sometimes the best course of action is just to toss a wrench into the works and see what kinds of havoc it wreaks” keeps the novel percolating at a healthy pace, and then there are the philosophers whose names and theories lend the book depth while, ironically, also leavening the proceedings. The “flinty optimism” of Leibnitz’s theory that we live in the best of all possible worlds, for example (and echoing Voltaire’s Candide), boils down to the old truism that things could always be worse, while Jean-Paul Sartre’s thoughts on love reduce the philosopher, in Digby’s eyes, to “a scumbag justifying his pigatude with some existential bafflegab.”

All told, Nothing Serious is an amusing and intelligent novel whose title and beguiling narrative belie the depth of the ideas that Klein is working with. Humanity, the novel ultimately suggests, will never figure it all out, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we keep trying.

To read an except from Nothing Serious, visit 2Paragraphs.

Wally – Review by Lavinia Ludlow

Wally is a chemically imbalanced playwright in his late twenties who claims he is a part of a generation who has “lost the ability to be inventive,” and rather than wallow in “nothingness” and career ambivalence, he embarks on a mission of self-discovery in hopes of pulling himself from his troubled state of mind.

“I plan to communicate with you the old-fashioned way: through hand-written letters,” Wally writes to his wife, Elizabeth. “I’ll send the entire bundle once my therapeutic journey is complete…I realize that this is one-sided and inconsiderate; I’d certainly be a better husband if I updated you in real-time, but…I cannot experience a psychic transformation if you’re making me feel guilty about it.”

Don Peteroy presents Wally through a series of borderline-neurotic letters dated over the course of ten days as Wally treks across the United States and north through Canada. While stopping at random coffee houses, bagel shops, Denny’s restaurants, gas stations, campsites, and cheap motels, he reveals the painful memories of his childhood, his struggles as an adult to maintain a stable job, and the events leading up to the moment he first abused his wife by slamming a piano guard down on her hands, breaking two of her fingers.

Knee-deep into the novel, Wally admits how his grandfather, Marvin, would sprinkle Wally’s sandwiches with Ajax and kitty litter, stab him with safety pins, and line his soup with tinfoil: “He’d jab my leg with a safety pin he always carried. ‘That’s for safety, he’d say. ‘Always be alert. You never know what’s going to happen next.’ I endured the poking for years. By sixth grade, my legs and thighs were an astrological map of the universe’s reddest stars, a constellation of just how unsafe I was. Sometimes I wished he wouldn’t be so subtle, that he’d use a knife and just stab me in the thigh. Get it over with––one massive red supernova.”

Though the horrific abuse leads Wally to exhibit core emotions and behaviors of an extremely disturbed man, he never lapses into a “woe is me” point of view; he conveys the facts of his grandfather’s abuse with control and humility, and often uses dark humor, as if to distance himself from the reality of what happened: “I recall a book report I wrote that year. It was about child abuse. I got a C…Granted, it was horribly written, but I’m shocked that my teacher failed to recognize it as a cry for help… As an assurance, I wrote: You cannot be sued for reporting abuse. The kicker: at the end of the essay, I included the 800-number for the National Child Abuse Hotline.”

Peteroy has an amazing writing style, and his ability to convey an emotion or explore an image is breathtaking: “Shafts of sunlight shine through the tree branches, intersecting in a vast, golden cobweb. I can see the lake from my campsite if I stand on top of a rock. It’s like an iridescent silver coin bashed into the ground. When I stand, I see the sky’s blue refection on the water. When I sit, I see the inverted image of green trees. Had I not known any better, I’d be under the illusion that my positioning can change the properties of the lake’s surface.” At times, the narration feels a bit self-absorbed, as if I was reading the diary of an ADHD depressed and entitled Generation Xer; however, the stream of consciousness delivery effectively allows Wally to reveal details of his traumatic past with effortless transition.

Wally eventually reaches his destination in northwest Canada where he has a mundane exchange of dialogue with a stranger about a Soundwave Transformer he never received as a child (a toy he coveted so much, even into adulthood, that he put it on his wedding registry). This fizzling scene contrasts the book’s climax; at which point, in a guilt-ridden admission, Wally answers one of the book’s major questions: what atrocious thing did he do to his wife that caused him to flee town for the utmost northern region of Canada? [spoiler alert: that <insert explicit noun here> stooped just as low if not lower than Marvin by poisoning her with Ajax]

An epic emotional journey, Wally is more than a slew of diary entries and letters home. This novel uncovers a man’s psychological transformation as his medications leach from his system, and he travels the distance of nearly two countries. Wally exposes how his dysfunctional and abusive upbringing has left him a shattered man who passes his childhood horrors onto the only person who has ever truly loved and trusted him. A hard-hitting and beautifully written book, Don Peteroy takes readers on a gravely emotional and thought-provoking journey, one that resonates long after Wally reaches his destination. Available for purchase at Burrow Press:

Into This World – Review by Lavinia Ludlow

Sybil Baker is the author of comical book The Life Plan, the dramatic novella Talismans, and recently, she’s released a third novel titled Into This World through Engine Books.

Into This World opens with a detail-packed introduction of the protagonist, Allison, a thirty-something divorcee who recently moved back in with her parents and is unsatisfied with the the state of her current life. She’s childless and still pining (fourteen years) over her married and womanizing asshole of a boss. The stress of her failed marriage and the distance of her lover infects her mind and body, resulting in heartbreaking consequences like repeated miscarriages and nightmares.

One evening, while Allison is sitting at the dinner table being mini-lectured by her parents about inexplicably giving up the stability of her job, her half sister Mina calls and quickly hangs up. The familial bitterness between the children and the parents is revealed early, and it’s easy to guess that Mina, the “adopted” daughter is actually Allison’s half sister, fathered when her dad did a tour in Korea. With some pressure from her parents, Allison decides to embark on an international excursion to reconnect with her half sister. Though a seemingly stereotypical tale of female suburban adversity, Allison uses the trip to rediscover who she is underneath all the layers of “coveting,” heartache, and misery, and also to find a connection with her distant sister.

At times, the story does come off soap opera-ish, the opening is burdened with an information overload of character facts and histories. However, as the text continues, Baker presents the flashbacks through a succession of well-crafted chapters which jump between Allison’s present and her father’s life when he was stationed in Korea. During this time, he had an affair with a Korean woman and fathered a baby girl whom he eventually “adopts” and brings back to the US. Fast-forward through some family drama, interactions with a few secondary characters, ones I felt needed a bit more build and personality, and in the end, Allison forces the two lying men in her life (her boss and father) to face the consequences of their actions.

Baker definitely presents the “stranger in a strange land” storyline well as exhibited in Allison’s culture shock of Seoul’s city life, the language barrier, and differences in things as simple as the local stores and housing accommodations. On the flip side, Baker also hit the mark with Mina’s cultural and ethnic identity crisis of growing up half Korean with no real tie to her roots in Seoul.

Baker’s writing has definitely matured throughout the years which she exhibits in this finely crafted piece of literary fiction. Into This World was truly enjoyable to experience, its prose so engaging and polished that the pages turned themselves. Pick up a copy over at Engine Books and definitely check out Baker’s past novels The Life Plan and Talismans.

J.A. Tyler’s A Shiny Unused Heart – Review by Lavinia Ludlow

To me, J.A. Tyler’s novella A Shiny Unused Heart is an in-depth depiction of a man who loses his sanity the moment he hears he is a father to be. This book is hardly an easy read as it contains the incessant despair and hopelessness of a man who sees the conception and birth of his child as a death sentence. At times, his madness runs so deep, I swear I’m reading bits of Scott Peterson’s journal entries, as if a Chappaquiddick Incident is lurking right around the corner.

The novella opens with an unnamed protagonist in the heart of his conflict, teetering on the edge of suicide, or maybe psychosis. One page later, the book flashes to the beginning of this man’s journey where he appears to be quivering like a fifteen year old girl with a pee stick’s plus sign in hand: “Her, pregnant. Him, seeing himself falling away. Seeing himself falling down. Seeing himself tumbling. He sees it as a film reeling in his mind, a stumbling bouncing fall. Head. Knee. Ankle. Arm. He hears his bones breaking. He hears his bones crunch. He sees the world in trip, trip, fall. He flips and cartwheels, lands, splashing like dimes. His body shatters. Pieces swim in the tile and the perfect lines of grout. He is screaming and pushing. A body flies from his body.”

Though Tyler writes in poetic prose, at times, the melodrama (images of a horrific crash, being held hostage, suffocating in a coffin) becomes a bit overwhelming and takes away from the severity of what he’s trying to convey. “Ramming, running, he pushes off, trying to close an unclose-able door. He turns a key and an engine again. Towing his own heart behind him with a chain the size of the world. With a chain that fits in the palm of her hands. Straining against the friction of their bodies. Thighs on thighs. The asphalt black in his pupils, the way lust hovers, heatstroke waves riding the surface, surfing. Rolling. Surfacing only now and again. Surfacing, fireworks outside a tepid window. Chimes, bells, bliss, glory. A sun sized universe, lowering itself onto their backs, making them glow.”

Seasoned with the dark essence of Bukowski, J.A. Tyler harbors a dismal narrative voice all his own.  His prose is rich with analogies and raw emotion, his underlying motive laid out in a series of short chapters, think Ben Tanzer’s short and impactful style. A Shiny Unused Heart is an imaginative novella with a unique and contemporary perspective. It is currently available for purchase over at Black Coffee Press