I’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.
In many ways, Joshua Isard’s Conquistador of the Useless offers the perfect counterpoint to Spencer Dew’s Here Is How it Happens (reviewed here two weeks ago). Where Dew’s protagonists are college-aged rebels doing their best to avoid making the leap to post-college mainstream society, Isard’s novel finds a somewhat similar similar pair of lovers adjusting, at times uncomfortably, to a bourgeois suburban lifestyle about a decade after graduation.
The novel begins with narrator Nathan Wavelsky and his wife Lisa moving into a new home and learning upon meeting their new neighbors that the beloved music of their youth has been reduced to the status of a glorified tchotchke in the form of a Fender Jaguar signed by the members of Nirvana and mounted behind a thick pane of glass. That Nathan makes a good living as a corporate hatchet man only adds to his growing sense of ennui, and Lisa’s sudden desire to start a family makes matters worse.
The problem isn’t necessarily that he ever saw himself as a rebel, nor is it that he sees settling down in suburbia as a sign of giving up on his dreams. The problem, as far as he can tell, is that he never really had any big dreams to begin with — so he does what any red-blooded American would do. He goes out and gets one. Or at least he stumbles upon one when his old college buddy shows up with a scheme to climb Mount Everest. What follows is a journey of self-discovery that allows Nathan to recognize that what matters most in his life. (Hint: It has nothing to do with the mountain.)
In terms of style, Isard’s writing reminds me of Shaun Haurin and Curt Smith. Like Haurin, Isard places the musical tastes of his characters front and center through much of the narrative while, like Smith, he demonstrates a firm understanding of the compromises we all make on the long, winding path to adulthood. I’d mention that Nathan’s relative lack of direction and ambition echo the same traits in Charley Schwartz, the beleaguered narrator of my own novel, The Grievers, but that would be self-serving, so I’ll just say that on nearly every page of Conquistador of the Useless I found something that struck a chord. I’d even be willing to bet that anyone who grew up at the tail-end of Generation X will find something to love in this book — the protagonist’s angst over drifting, however late, into adulthood, his taste in music, or even his fraught-if-only-because-it’s-so-damn-pleasant relationship with his parents. All told, a fine novel about settling down without settling.
Consisting solely of dialogue, Sumanth Prabhaker’s A Mere Pittance is a subtle yet moving meditation on the transient and fragile nature of life and the relationships that make it meaningful. The novella follows a telephone conversation between a woman who’s lying injured–and possibly dying–in a hospital in an undisclosed country and her lover in the United States. As the pair talk to each other, at each other, across each other, and in each other’s general direction, what emerges is a tale of loneliness imbued with self-discovery. Ostensibly, the woman’s misery is a direct result of an accident involving a poison caterpillar, but her true despair stems from being an outsider not only as a member of her brother’s wedding party, but as a member of the human race. Her lover, meanwhile, obsesses somewhat selfishly over the meanings of words while taking occasional breaks to eat, drink, and be witty. His modus-operandi, it seems, is to keep the conversation light in order to avoid getting too deep with his wayward lover. Aesthetically, the result is a narrative that reads very much like a one-act play cast in the prose style of Don DeLillo or William Gaddis. Insightful as it is charming and bordering on the sublime, A Mere Pittance is anything but.
All proceeds from sales of A Mere Pittance benefit Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled.
In 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.
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: http://burrowpress.com/wally/
This week’s review appears in The Conium Review, where I am serving as a guest editor.
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.