novels

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