AGAINST LOVE: A POLEMIC
The title of the latest from cultural critic Laura Kipnis’s seems tactically misleading. Romantic love makes a juicy target for a would-be enfant terrible–the apparent ambition of a writer who opens her book with a “Reader’s Advisory” that warns us to “Please fasten your seatbelts: we are about to encounter contradictions” and explains that “A polemic is designed to be the prose equivalent of a small explosive device placed under your E-Z-Boy lounger.” But Kipnis isn’t so much against love as against that easy chair–and the complacency, hypocrisy, and oppressiveness of till-death-do-us-part monogamy.
The heart of the book is a pummeling eight-page enumeration of the interdictions that siphon off libido: “You can’t be a slob. You can’t do less than 50 percent around the house. . . . You can’t leave the dishes for later, wash the dishes badly, not use soap, drink straight from the container. . . . You can’t use dishes directly from the washer without unloading the whole thing.” Like schools, prisons, or asylums, Kipnis tells us, domesticity is an institution that modern power has invented to control individuals and limit their freedom–“What offers greater regulation of movement and time, or more precise surveillance of body and thought to a greater number of individuals” than marriage? she asks. But a trickier question, one she doesn’t dwell on, is why people choose to give up so much for a false sense of security and fidelity. –Ulysses Smith
At the beginning of this fine first novel from Sharon Solwitz, former editor of Another Chicago Magazine, we find the Wingers doing quite nicely, thank you, in their Lakeview loft. Leo is an eye doctor, Claire is a pediatric nurse, and their two daughters, Hadley and Nora, are popular and talented. But everything changes when Claire has an epileptic seizure. Formerly predictable and dedicated to the “duties for which your choices obligate you,” Claire begins to find herself irritated, impatient, and bored with the everyday self-indulgences of her family and friends. She giggles uncontrollably, she smells strange odors, she’s unable to manage a smile even for a terminally ill boy in her care. She also begins to deceive everyone around her, concealing her condition and, perhaps inevitably, having an affair with an unsuitable man.
In less capable hands, Claire’s deep shame and concealment of her illness would be implausible–is epilepsy really so stigmatizing? But Solwitz has the restraint and artfulness to craft melodramatic staples–dark secrets, terrifying disease–into nuanced and compelling psychological suspense. As Claire draws further away from her family and Hadley looks to other, more dangerous places for the support she no longer gets from her mother, the novel’s final scenes gain a page-turning urgency.
Shoemaker & Hoard
In the first essay in Citizenship Papers, a damning parsing of the Bush administration’s post-September 11 “National Security Strategy,” Wendell Berry hammers away at the document’s internal contradictions and absurdities until the foundations of Bush’s foreign policy lie in shambles. By the end of the book, so do many of America’s economic and political ideas, replaced by Berry’s vision of a new society rising from a radical re-thinking of the relationship between people and the land.
Berry cherishes liberty, fears power, and loves his country–but not as manifested in the flag and the army. Instead, he loves the physical land and its people. No matter how separated from the land and farming we become in our daily lives, he repeatedly reminds us, we still depend on them for survival. But Berry, a farmer himself, goes farther, arguing that the development of a sustainable relationship to the land is integral to the necessary reinvention of consumer society. His thoughts on farming lead him to consider the role of urban consumers, the destructiveness of corporations, and the possibilities inherent in localized approaches to farming and living.
Berry is conservative and religious, but his views are antithe-tical to the greed and hatred frequently associated with those labels. His position, he says, is better captured by Thomas Jefferson’s statement on the duty of citizens to be critical of government, “for nothing can keep it right but their own vigilant and distrustful superintendence.” With this book, Berry both fills that role and extends a hand to others who might wish to join him. –Levi Stahl
Veteran journalist and novelist William Heffernan turns his eye on the medical and newspaper professions in a thrilling, lucid tale filled with compassion for messy human motives in a corrupt world. That’s not to mention humor–the novel hooks you with portraits of the adrenaline-addicted disasters who tend to fester in urban newsrooms.
The setting is a tabloid in 1975 New York; the hero is Billy Burke, a dedicated reporter and sometime lush surrounded by raging alcoholics, bitter failures, screaming lunatics, and a short bastard of an assistant city editor named Frankie Fabio, who takes no shit from the cops but loves his “troops” on the city desk like a father. Fabio bails Burke out when he’s arrested as a result of, natch, getting mixed up with a bird, but the only way Burke can regain favor with Fabio’s Pulitzer-obsessed boss, Lenny Twist, is to take on a story that stands a chance to snag the prize. Equally natch, there’s a catch: the story’s about a cute, sick little boy who’s being denied a life-saving operation because his single mom’s uninsured; Burke has an estranged wife and a hopelessly ill child of his own, and Twist knows it.
What begins as a power-and-fame-maddened editor’s vendetta against a troublesome employee winds up in a maze of hypocrisy, with the child’s life put in danger as much by his advocates in the fourth estate as by the greedy and callous reps of Hippocrates. And the mire elucidates every reporter’s conflict: to what does he owe more–the story or the human beings he uses as material? –Ann Sterzinger
EVERYTHING AND MORE: A COMPACT HISTORY OF INFINITY
David Foster Wallace
W.W. Norton/Atlas Books
(“Great Discoveries” series)
Here David Foster Wallace–novelist, essayist, and self-proclaimed amateur mathematician–tries his hand at the history of the concept of 8, aka infinity. Beginning with Zeno’s paradox, he interprets centuries of mathematical inquiry as a function of high math’s inability to deal with inconcievably small and large quantities.
Wallace is a master of rendering the closed system–whether it be the social mechanics of a cruise ship, a tennis tournament, or the development of mathematical-philosophical thought–in vivid, digestible detail for the outsider. In Everything and More he manages to lead the reader–even one who’s had little college math–through the evolution of a mind-bendingly abstract idea with relative grace. In inventing calculus, for instance, both Newton and Leibniz were forced to treat an infinitely small quantity t as both something (>0) and nothing (=0). Despite the complexity of the discussion leading up to this development, Wallace hails its importance–high math’s first apparent use of infini-tesimals in theorem-proving calculations–with all the subtlety of a gong clang. By the time he gets to Georg Cantor, who in the late 19th century developed a solid method for handling infinite numbers, the momentum of the history has the narrative power of the best of his other work. But here, as in the gyroscopic novel Infinite Jest, Wallace portrays a world without, as he says, “finite circumference.” The process of discovery is never ending, he notes, so at the end of the long, long night, “Mathematics continues to get out of bed.” –Todd Dills
A FAKER’S DOZEN
Melvin Jules Bukiet
If you could clone Melvin Jules Bukiet and force all his duplicates to write short stories, I’d never leave my house. An optimist wouldn’t call his work uplifting, but if you get a jolt watching an artist wrestle the horrors of life into beautiful forms animated by unsettling humor, you might call it edifying.
The 11 stories in A Faker’s Dozen are linked by the fact that their narrators are all more or less charming mon-sters of fraudulence, but it’s easy to forget it’s a concept collection–Bukiet’s tactics are so multifarious and unpredictable you can’t even rely on an unhappy ending. A Jewish guy who parlayed his youthful love of sci-fi into a fortune as a New Age writer tries to buy all known pieces of Jesus’s cross though he knows most of the bits of wood are fakes; a young Franz Kafka plays Cyrano to his vampiric mentor; the rising “it” boy of murder photography gets what he’s asking for. And hidden midvolume, under the title “The Suburbiad” and despite a chorus of venal brats, lies a myth with a crushing ending: I had to stare at it, then close the book. –Ann Sterzinger
THE FIRST TIME I MET FRANK O’HARA: READING GAY AMERICAN WRITERS
Four Walls Eight Windows
Rick Whitaker gained a degree of notoriety four years ago with Assuming the Position, a memoir of his days as a New York hustler. In The First Time I Met Frank O’Hara, he reflects on his favorite gay and les-bian writers in a series of fluid essays that meld literary criticism and biography. Whitaker argues that the alienation that springs from both having unusual artistic abilities and living in the shadow of overt prejudice allowed gay writers to create works marked by a depth of expression “that is probably accessible only to the sexual outsider.” In defending his thesis he considers the work of famous artists like Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, and Emily Dickinson–who sent over 250 love letters packed with passion and subtlety to the woman who became her sister-in-law–and others less remembered like poet Hart Crane, who agonized over his sexuality, wrote dark, powerful poetry during the 1920s and ’30s, and committed suicide at 32.
Ultimately, Whitaker gives readers a comprehensive alternative perspective through which to evaluate classic works. For him, Moby Dick, written by a closeted and emotionally tortured Herman Melville, is “surely about nothing if not exile and aparthood . . . what Ahab and Ishmael and Queequeg and, in a way, even the whale itself, are all suffering from in Melville’s seemingly endless story is the never-closed distance between them and every other thing, every form of real contact, glory, or redemption.”
Publicity for Nic Kelman’s Girls assures you that “you’ve never read a book like Girls before,” so why does it give you such a strong sense of deja lu? It’s because 16 years ago you read Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. Maybe at the time you mistook Bright Lights for a work of substance, but you’re older now and can no longer invest significance in short, racy novels written in the second person, present tense.
Bright Lights cast you as a young Manhattan writer with a coke prob-lem. In Girls you’re a powerful middle-aged executive with a sex problem. Your life is an international blur of kinky encounters with beautiful women whose erotic skills belie their extreme youth. Nailing these sweeties requires little effort on your part. “Maybe,” for example, “when you go to get another bottle of red from the kitchen, when your best friend’s daughter or your daughter’s best friend corners you, when she surprises the hell out of you by pressing her body up against yours as you turn around with the bottleneck in one hand and the corkscrew in the other, maybe when that happens, you ask her what she is doing.” Maybe. But more typically you use her in some sick but mutually thrilling way, then throw her away like a paper towel. You’re driven to do this by terrible feelings of emptiness, and any man in your place would do the same. Your only breaks from the grind of serial seduction are the long quotations from Homer and Virgil that Kelman scatters throughout the book to lend it some gravity. You finally get your comeuppance when you’re finally busted romping with a friend’s underage daughter, but you barely even care, so monstrous and cold is your universal masculine heart. –Cliff Doerksen
I SAILED WITH MAGELLAN
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
This lyrical novel in 11 stories is a quintessential Chicago book: a gritty paean to working-class life on the south side during the 1950s and ’60s. As sordid and unflinching as The Man With the Golden Arm, as romantic and promiscuous as The Adventures of Augie March, I Sailed With Magellan looks to the city’s side streets and back alleys for inspiration–where crooked schemes are hatched, where women put out, where lives are sometimes taken, and where people are generally up to no good.
For a book so obsessed with stark urban life, this is a work of unexpected humor and boundless vitality. Hapless hucksters and murderous gangsters commingle with mischievous scamps at every step. The men in Dybek’s stories are still boys–secretly afraid of commitment, slaves to their own desires, forever in search of some-thing bigger. The actual boys are more imaginative but just as rest-less, yearning to leave the neighbor-hood and find a better way of life. Like Magellan, Dybek’s characters navigate their world in search of a new one. And in the end, it’s not the destination that compels them, but the promise of the voyage out.
JESUS SOUND EXPLOSION
Mark Curtis Anderson
University of Georgia Press
The 2003 winner of the Associated Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction is a fresh, beguiling examination of the tangled trails between one’s inner beliefs and the larger secular culture. Son of a frazzled minister, Mark Curtis Anderson came of age in the early 70s just as the Jesus move-ment diluted evangelical Baptism with countercultural elements to create phenomena like Explo ’72, Billy Graham’s “religious Woodstock” (which spawned the album from which Anderson poaches his title), and the wandering hippies-turned-Jesus freaks who addled Anderson’s church group with tales of rock ‘n’ roll-spiked Christianity.
Anderson, a Twin Cities-based drummer and former record store clerk, soon discovered that his genuine religious fervor shielded him from neither marijuana and make-out sessions nor the seductions of prog rock and Bruce Springsteen. But rather than produce another narrative of burnout surrender to temptation, Anderson goes after subtler stuff: how childhood faith and adolescent transgressions ultimately combine to produce young adults. Anderson and his friends found the earthly pleasures embodied by the urban rock scene irresistible, but he can still offer a nuanced counterpoint to the denunciations they received from true believers for forsaking the primacy of Christ and the Gospels in every aspect of their lives. Some may find that Anderson grapples with these issues too sedately, but he deserves credit for evoking a gently entropied 70s that actually feels like a lived era rather than a chain of hipster signifiers. Much like Anna Funder’s recent Stasiland, Jesus Sound Explosion ironically succeeds as a memoir by sketching the social structures that once exercised dominance over the private self.
THE LONG HAUL
Soft Skull Press
Greenwich Village native Amanda Stern’s debut novel seems an exercise in elements offering only repulsive possibilities. It’s a relationship story that begins in art school; it’s a dispossessed-rich-girl-dates-poor-boy tale; it’s told in first person; it’s “honest” and angst filled; the male lead is referred to as the Alcoholic–how grottily stylish; for God’s sake, the feller’s even a musician. The acknowledgements at the front of the book are dominated by a groveling thank-you to Stern’s agent for his yearlong quest to get a publisher to take her on–which makes it seem a shame that this 142-page volume can be sucked down in a short day. Still, while nothing here will change your life, the story moves with grace within its parameters. True to the hipsters she’s modeled on, the poor-little-rich-girl narrator, whether modestly or cagily, “forgets” to remind the reader of her privileged roots until they’re unavoidable, instead going on about the impending loss of her scholarship and what a loser she is. During the obligatory boyfriend-meets-mom scenario, the mater–with politely nonconfrontational tactics such as sticking notes reading “Garbage?” to the dirty clothes the couple leaves around her house–makes her low opinion of the Alcoholic known despite the fact that, currently manless, she’s constantly soused on good hooch herself.
After this scene, the rift between the two leads’ fixed ideas of morality begins to yawn like the crack of doom, and one feels little sympathy for either brat by the time their six-year affair staggers to its end. But though the Alcoholic’s eventual unmasking as a completely hollow cipher is a bit hard to swallow, the narrator’s ritual self-absorption-through-self-sacrifice isn’t–and what their early interactions say about the drive to find lasting love makes this a worthwhile lunch-hour page-turner.
J. Robert Lennon
From its opening panoramics, J. Robert Lennon’s fourth novel seems set to tell the story of Nestor, a college town in upstate New York–“both the center of the universe and its armpit, depending on whom you talk to”–through the vessel of Alfred Lippincott, who’s been secretly reading the town’s mail for decades. But aside from some funny insights into contemporary banality, Mailman doesn’t deliver. Thirty years of purloined letters and in 500 pages all we get to see are two?
Instead Lennon breaks down Lippincott’s compartmentalized life, putting him through the paces with a routineness you’d want in a letter carrier, not a novelist. First there’s a crisis of conscience (a delayed missive might have caused a suicide), then a string of indignities inflicted by mildly comic characters who seem to exist only to vex Lippincott, then a retreat into his psychologi-cally transparent childhood. Finally it all comes to an insipid close when figures from the mailman’s past show up at his deathbed and explain everything. The vision of his ex-shrink tells him, “There are people who are broken by the absence of love. You were broken by an excess of it.” That’s when I got a little disgruntled. –Ryan Brooks
THE MAN WHO TRIED TO BUY THE WORLD: JEAN-MARIE MESSIER AND VIVENDI UNIVERSAL
Jo Johnson and Martine Orange
If you remember when New Economy megamergers like the one behind Vivendi Universal were all the rage, you’ll probably enjoy this juicy elegy to that particular megamisstep. The book’s grandi-loquent title aside, former Vivendi head Jean-Marie Messier is perhaps best remembered as the man who humbled the Bronfman family, owners of Seagram and Universal: within two years of the 2000 merger, the value of the Bronfmans’ shares in the new company had dropped from an estimated $7 billion to $1 billion. The enmity Messier aroused among his contemporaries (last year he published a smarting memoir to combat his critics) was surprising given his modest beginnings. Messier started out as a French inspecteur des finances and an early endorser of Thatcher-style privatization; after gaining control of Vivendi, then an obscure water/sewer utility, he became con-vinced that the future lay in an inte-grated wire-less universe where media and cultural properties trumped archaic industrial investments.
Messier’s blend of Gallic per-spective and what the authors tag as an adopted flair for the extrava-gance of American CEOs took him far, but his much ballyhooed attempt to infuse the U.S.-based entertainment conglomerate with a European management philosophy failed miserably–rebellions among the subsidiaries began quickly. The extent of Messier’s self-indulgence (exemplified by his private Airbus) came out while he moved against his longtime associates at the Vivendi-owned, state-subsidized French film concern Canal Plus; his own ouster was soon inevitable. The authors, veteran business writers for Le Monde and the Financial Times, pay close attention to the mechanics of multinational mergers without really delving into the day-to-day toll of Messier’s shenanigans. Even so, a strangely compelling narrative develops as Messier overindulges in luxury, betrays his lieutenants, and mounts serial deceptions. While this book may lose those without a fondness for the rigors of business history, it still provides an instructive warning against globalization and free-market cults of personality.
ONE PILL MAKES YOU SMALLER
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Lisa Dierbeck’s icily confident first novel reworks the callous haute psychedelia of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a perilous coming-of-age story set in the grubbier world of mid-70s art freaks. Eleven-year-old Alice has the stacked and leggy figure of a woman and the curious innocence of a child. Abandoned to the haphazard care of her stoned 16-year-old stepsister, Esme, by her artist father, she’s left to navigate on her own. Men on the street hoot at her breasts and Esme’s boyfriend, Rabbit, feels her up on a regular basis, but she observes their odd behavior with detachment, channeling her confusion into making collages and shooting Polaroids. When Esme ships her off to a derelict art camp in North Carolina for the summer, she’s thrown into a dizzying spiral of curiouser and curiouser misadventures.
The third act of the novel unfolds as an epic, monstrous set piece, in which Alice–who’s been lying about her age to anyone who asks–falls under the spell of a seductive drug dealer named J.D. and leaves childhood behind in one harrowing, hallucinatory 72-hour ordeal. She’s no victim, though: Alice emerges from her rabbit hole shaky yet ultimately triumphant. Dierbeck clearly has no interest in constructing a facile morality play. Her Alice may face adulthood damaged, but through her adventures she’s also found what she desperately needs–her own identity as an artist.
POLITICALLY INSPIRED: AN ANTHOLOGY OF FICTION FOR OUR TIME
Edited by Stephen Elliott
When Stephen Elliott writes in his introduction that “fiction can go further than nonfiction. . . . Fiction can teach,” it’s intriguing but worrisome, suggesting a collec-tion that’s more didactic than stirring. As it turns out, Politically Inspired is at times inspiring, depressing, and even surprisingly funny; very rarely is it dogmatic or doctrinaire.
The book is broken up into sections called “The Politics of Children,” “Culture,” “Fear,” “Desire,” “Destruction,” and “War”; the authors range from Stewart O’Nan and Charles Baxter to Z.Z. Packer, which adds to the vibrancy of the collection. Standouts include Elizabeth Tallent’s “Eight Hundred Pages,” which delves into politics of gender and lust among the literati, and Paul LaFarge’s “Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur,” in which an ESL instructor wrestles with a conversation class that he has misguidedly let become a virtual battlefield during an actual war. Occasionally the political element seems tacked on at the end of a story, as in Ben Greenman’s otherwise wonderfully clever Barthelme-like tale “Mr. Mxyzptlk’s Opus.” But all in all, Elliott’s collection is not only worth reading–it’s worthy of a sequel.
THE SADDEST LITTLE ROBOT
Red Rattle Press
Brian Gage already has a pretty good shtick going in the lefty adult-book market: he writes Dr. Seuss-style political poems with creepy endings and gets them gorgeously illustrated to produce big board-back picture books for grown-ups. Now, with the help of illustrator Kathryn Otoshi, he’s done a number for Soft Skull’s fledgling children’s imprint, Red Rattle Press. Ironically, Gage’s “real” children’s book seems a much more satisfying read for all ages, its characters and plot both more complex and more heroic than the hapless drones and hopeless quagmires of his earlier books.
It’s a sci-fi allegory for late capitalism: hero Snoot is one of many Drudgebots, an inferior robot race much of whose labor goes to keep the leisure-class Halobots in dandy getups and the lap of android luxury. Since most Drudgebots can afford something nice once in a while, they’re pretty accepting of their lot, but Snoot–a stunted freak made of leftover parts–has a bad attitude and never contributes enough to the economy to improve his situation by even the piddling amount he could manage. Fortunately, Snoot’s dissatisfaction leads him to do some investigative reporting–and, just in time, he discovers that the Halobot leader-ship has concocted a plot to scrap all the Drudgebots once they’ve served their purpose.
As usual, Gage has paired with an illustrator who’s big on beauty and right in tune with his vision. And Snoot’s a great character, grumpy but good-hearted and brave in the face of perils, the worst being the temptation to get revenge on the other Drudgebots–who’ve made no bones about what a loser he is–by taking power himself. Coot that I am, I found myself yelling “Go, Snoot, go!” and digging my nails into the underside of my chair all the way to the end.
SINGING THE BONES TOGETHER
History is never far from Angela Shannon’s thoughts, but it would be unforgivably glib to say that the poet is enslaved by the past. On the other hand, calling Singing the Bones Together some great cry of African-American freedom would be missing the point altogether.
“Like an old woman retelling the same story,” as she says of the Mississippi River, Shannon is stuck with her one tale that stretches in time and place–from Chicago blues joints down the river and back across the Middle Passage to Africa, where “in the pulp of baobabs, / we carved homes, / tucked bodies back / into birth positions.” So the dead always return to us, and even when Shannon does something so contemporarily familiar as “put on my faded T-shirt, old shorts / and running shoes and head to the field,” they give chase, “some in chains, ropes dangling from their necks, / some missing arms.”
As in many ghost stories, what the dead want here is witness. Shannon’s voice is a soft one, not given to histrionics despite her subject matter, so the loose lyrics she constructs seem all the more honest. And if in the end no real healing occurs–if the dead still insist on showing us their “welts, marks, curses / carved in skin”–we’re better off accepting ghosts among the living. It’s kind of freeing. –Patrick Daily
THE STONES OF SUMMER
Barnes & Noble Books
Rescued from obscurity by the documentary Stone Reader– and getting a second print run courtesy of Barnes & Noble–Dow Mossman’s 1972 novel (and sole published work) uses the story of Dawes Williams, a young writer coming of age in the 50s and 60s, to try to unweave “the Americas myth that by changing place, you are also changing identity.” Instead he harkens back to a pagan mythos, native to Old World and New, in which our role in history isn’t linear but cyclical, recurring like the seasons, round like an endless dance around the bonfire. His America is dense with animistic spirits, “thick like a dream of falling timbers”–a favored metaphor that invokes not only the American dream of cleared acreage but the revelatory dream in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” Mossman dredges up these old ghosts with a steady stream of metaphors that reanimate the landscape–plain old Iowa–while staying grounded in the elemental: trees, grass, stones; shadows, mirrors, light.
Books One and Two tell the story of Dawes’s growth from wild-eyed kid to rabble-rouser. Book Three, a self-reflexive “antinovel,” reflects the schizophrenia of both the character and the late 60s, and here the endless dialogues among Dawes, his alter ego, and his enemies get to be a little wearying; the reader’s dragged along on countless trips in vehicles like “All moon was a clear water of light in her elm.” Like Dawes’s teenage buddies in Book Two, sometimes you just want to dunk him in the nearest watering hole.
But when the thing floats, it’s witchcraft. It’s a perfect stone circle that this book–whose other major theme is the life-giving power of language–has finally resurfaced, 30 years after it drowned in silence.
Given the geometric multiplication of addiction lit in the latter half of the 20th century, you’d think all the stories would’ve been covered by now. But while the brilliant madman, tortured soul, decadent aristocrat, doomed musi-cian, fading star, sociopathic crimi-nal, pleasure victim, and born-to-lose prole have all been amply investigated over the years, the quiet despe-ration of the alienated middle-class addict has received less attention–despite the significant subset of the druggie demimonde he comprises. Julie Hecht, however, has a singular feel for bourgeois anomie, evidenced in Do the Windows Open?, a collection of short stories first published in the New Yorker, and Was This Man a Genius?, a collage of interviews and remini-scences offering a rarely plausible guess at the enigmatic identity of Andy Kaufman. In The Unprofes-sionals, she sketches the friendship between her somewhat-surrogate narrator, a nameless woman “at the brink of being seriously over 49,” and the precocious, junkie son of a famous acquaintance, largely played out in late-night phone calls.
While the fragile, disembodied substance of their bond constitutes the novel’s wan foreground, Hecht’s underlying subject is their shared plight–the irredeemable isolation of souls temperamentally disinclined to find any pleasure in a privileged but plastic universe and the muted, mournful manner in which the sub-stitutive satisfactions of drug abuse can lead them, like lambs, to the slaughter. The frozen remove of their phone chats, like the narrator’s pained take on her warily con-sumerist existence, forms a persuasive critique of modern depersonali-zation. But on a deeper level, it underscores the sadder incompati-bility of some earthbound ghosts with any reality. And although Hecht’s measured, affect-challenged voice is as always mildly off-putting, in this instance it’s perhaps the perfect tool for the job.
VERNON GOD LITTLE
This book fucken slays, as the narrator of this dark comedy, Vernon Gregory Little, might say. Vernon’s a sarcastic, cynical teenager in small-town Martirio, Texas, whose life turns to hell when his much picked-on best friend, Jesus, slaughters 16 classmates at their high school before turning the gun on himself. Though Vernon’s not involved in the shootings, the townspeople and the media that soon descend on Martirio are looking for a live scapegoat, and one of Vernon’s “learnings”–“that much dumber people than you end up in charge”–turns out to be damn well true: the cops are doofuses, Vernon’s mom and her coterie of yokel friends are self-absorbed ninnies, the townspeople are judgmental and shallow, the media people are ruthless sharks. Vernon keeps up a running com-mentary while the investigation proceeds to an indictment (“Fate’s always fucken against me these days”), when he flees for Mexico. He’s caught, of course, and returns to stand trial, where he’s convicted and sent to death row, of course–this is Texas–and only a timely if somewhat embarrassing discovery (he’s a little bit incontinent) saves him while he’s literally in the chair.
DBC Pierre (pen name for 42-year-old Peter Warren Finlay; the DBC stands for “Dirty but Clean,” owing to a recently kicked drug habit) just nabbed the Booker Prize for this debut novel, and it’s well deserved: some sentences you just have to read three or four times before moving on, they’re so pretty, and he’s given Vernon a unique voice equally wise, comic, and caustic. –Jerome Ludwig
WHERE THEY LAY: SEARCHING FOR AMERICA’S LOST SOLDIERS
Earl Swift’s exploration of the workings of a little-known unit of the U.S. military has particular resonance in this season of casualties. The account of his monthlong Laotian jungle dig with the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CILHI)–an obscure but well-funded and politically untouchable project to recover the remains of MIA soldiers from World War II and Vietnam battlefields–Where They Lay captures both the painstaking science (and luck) required to find fallen servicemen and the violence that stranded young Americans in distant locales like Laos and Papua New Guinea (site of another excavation).
Swift, a staff writer for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, intimately sketches the unusual band of military lifers and scientists who contend with formidable obstacles–from kraits and scorpions to unexploded ordnance–to verify whether a crash site contains the remains of four helicopter crewmen who died in 1971 during a fiercely contested operation supporting the South Vietnamese army. Swift shrewdly alternates this tactile account of the present-day excavation with a look back at the war’s grotesque cost–the increasingly dangerous helicopter campaigns and, movingly, the four ordinary lives that were ended by one of them. Improbably, Swift successfully balances anthropology and forensic science with the haunted tale of a war that consumed more than its share of young soldiers. The result is a sub-stantial and enjoyable military history that raises disturbing ques-tions about the nature of collective remembrance and what truly endures when warfare ceases.
THE ZOMBIE SURVIVAL GUIDE
Three Rivers Press
Max Brooks–son of Mel and a former Saturday Night Live writer–wins this year’s Monty Python prize for something completely different. He also takes home the Andy Kaufman award for never letting on it’s a joke. Well, maybe it’s not.
Subtitled “Complete Protection From the Living Dead,” this is a training manual for the average citizen who has realized that “personal choice, the will to live, must be paramount when the dead begin to rise.” In sections entitled “The Undead: Myths and Reality,” “Weapons and Combat Techniques,” and “Living in an Undead World,” Brooks walks the reader through reams of practical advice on what works best when one is confronted by zombies. The book is as monotonous and bare-bones as any training manual, its cover a solid gray with an ominously crossed M1 carbine and machete–both, by the way, judged excellent weapons for the job at hand. The research is exhaustive and, when possible (“The delicate plastic stock of the M16A1 obviates bayonet use . . . “), accurate; when not possible it’s plausible (“Compared to other motorists attempting to escape a zombie outbreak, dirt-bike riders have a 23-to-1 survival rate”).
Still, what’s the point? Why is this dry read such an enjoyable book? It certainly functions as a spoof of post-9/11 paranoia–but to see it as only that is itself a pretty dry response to such an imaginative work. Without using any of the usual devices of fiction–no character development or plot, exposition or denouement–Brooks has constructed a wholly believable world where the reader can wander alone–except for those damn zombies. –Patrick Daily