It’s probably no accident that so many of Denis Johnson’s characters find themselves in cars heading to nowhere. The misfits and sinners that populate his stories are lost, sometimes physically, but most often emotionally. They’ve succumbed to their past, which usually didn’t set them on a good path, so they can only keep driving forward even if its going in the wrong direction. The enthralling part of Johnson’s writing is that no matter how appalling we find the characters, we understand and sympathize with this motley crew of addicts, bad husbands, deadbeats, and alcoholics. Mostly because Johnson is able to show the reader how much those nine-time losers resemble us.
From the opening story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” Denis Johnson ropes you in with his raw, stripped-to-the-bone prose. You feel as if Johnson has nervously gnawed down each of his lines, like a rough set of dirty fingernails, leaving pure and simple prose that can be ugly, beautiful, sick, and sad all in a single short sentence. Descriptions such as “I knew every raindrop by its name,” and “The blood ran off him in strings” knock you back with their ability to say so much with so little. Even when he gets more expansive, he makes every word count:
“Under Midwestern clouds like great grey brains we left the superhighway with a drifting sensation and entered Kansas City’s rush hour with a sensation of running aground.”
Certain novels are of a place. In the case of The Day of Judgment, that place is Sardinia. Or more specifically, the small city of Nuoro, Salvatore Satta’s home in his youth. I was lucky enough to read this book while travelling through Sardinia and even took the opportunity to visit Nuoro. The small world depicted by Satta is still there, maybe because Sardinia really is its own place, much like Sicily, even if it has been absorbed into Italy. There is something in the soil and seawater and rough-hewn mountains that gets into the veins of the local citizens. Satta knew that all too well and breathed so much life into the characters in this posthumous (and unfinished) book.
Granted, the world of The Day of Judgment is pre World War II, before the fascists but right as socialism begins to creep into Italy and the rest of Europe. So Nuoro has still retained some of its agrarian roots including the constant obsession with land ownership, which builds wealth for some but destroys others. Told as reminiscences from his youth, Satta revives the ghosts from the graveyards of Nuoro and delivers a cast of characters who betray themselves with their own ambitions and beliefs. With a great ear for satiric twists and an effortless flowing style to his writing, Satta weaves together these sad and ironic tales into a beautiful canvas. You walk away feeling as if the author told you the stories while sharing a bottle of cannonau, the dark and dry wine of Oliena just south of Nuoro.
What haunts you? Sitting there late at night, in the silence, while that beer on the table gets warmer, and the rollback of the years flashes before your eyes? In many ways, the tales in Alan Beard’s superb collection feel like ghost stories. Not in the traditional sense — no white spectres wandering the halls or loud rappings on the walls from unseen hands. Rather, the citizens of the council flats in and around Birmingham are all haunted by their own past. What could they have been? Or how could their lives have been better?
With razor sharp prose, a dry British wit, and fearless dedication to not pulling any punches on his characters, Alan Beard gives you the West Midlands in all its grim glory. Akin to great Japanese writers, Beard cuts his prose to the bone, not bothering to waste any words on showing off his writing skills. It’s important, as that style gives the stories much more character as well as imbuing them with that superb reserved understatement that is born and bred in citizens of the Midlands.
The subtitle of Dirty Snow should have been, Take That Camus! While not a specific counter-punch to Camus’ L’Étranger, Simenon’s dark story of a murderer with no regrets shares a similar bent, neither pulling any punches with the reader. Maybe that is why the book, along with Simenon’s The Widow, which was published in the 40s as well, is so often compared to Camus first masterwork. While L’Étranger is infused with Camus’ humanistic worldview and the influences of his Algerian upbringing, Dirty Snow one-ups the score with Simenon’s cold remove and stripping of existential underpinnings. There is no philosophy to be had here — the world is an ugly place and that’s the short of it.
To call Dirty Snow bleak would be an understatement. It makes Simenon’s own The Man Who Watched Trains Go By read like a Sophie Kinsella novel. You leave this book covered in a disgusting film of human degradation (and yet somehow, all credit to Simenon, eagerly along for the ride). This is a testament to Simenon’s skill at trapping us in the head of man we detest, unable to look away as he drags us through one vile act to the next. There is no letup. We are never given leave of his gaze, never allowed a moment to gasp for clean air. And when the tables are finally turned on this horrible creature, we see the downfall through the antagonist’s eyes, causing our perception of him to change.
It is not surprising that readers, even if they are devout fans of Kōbō Abe, don’t take to The Face of Another in the same manner as The Woman in the Dunes or some of his other novels. It may be because of the uncomfortable feeling a reader gets being stuck in the narrator’s head for an entire novel (much like Camus’ The Stranger). The story is built on the premise of a wife finding her husband’s notebooks which are filled with solipsistic meanderings, repeated excursuses, counter-arguments directed at her, and endless musings about identity and self. But you can forgive the man — after all, he’s had his face horribly scarred and burned in a laboratory fire. He is isolated and alone, even from his wife. But he has a plan, a carefully schemed revenge, and it starts with getting a new face. Thus, Abe takes us into fascinating exploration of identity and self.
The scientist, who is as scarred psychologically as physically, has it in for his wife. Continue reading
Having already been a fan of Caleb J. Ross from his short story collection, Charactered Pieces, it was nice to see him make a big leap with his first novel, Stranger Will. In fact, he jumped himself right into Ira Levin territory with this macabre tale of evil that lives right next door (if not right inside the protagonist). It’s been a while since I have read a solid, eerie tale of actual human depravity — let’s face it, most writers are too zombie and vampire obsessed these days — but Stranger Will hits the mark perfectly. As Levin did with Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, Ross sets Stranger Will in a our world, one too familiar, where a slight twist, a nudge in the wrong direction send’s the protagonist Will into the presence of secret movement that exists just beneath the surface. Their plans… well, without giving anything away, are as nefarious as the old folks in Levin’s satanic opus.
I’m not sure which came first: the photography or the writing. What I do know is that Kristin Fouquet’s love of photography infuses her storytelling. Her tales have that feel of old photographs you discover in a thrift store bin — you don’t know these people, but you can see their lives boiled down into that moment. It’s because of this that the stories in Rampart & Toulouse and her previous collection Twenty Stories never feel over-told. They unfold simply and capture that poignant moment for the character. You don’t need to know the rest. Everything is in that snapshot.
“Becoming Obsolete” and “Paris is the Pretty One” — two of the short stories in this collection that also includes a novella — both capture that quality in Fouquet’s writing. The former is a tale of refrigerators and New Orleans social hierarchy, the latter is a story of two sisters and a horror-show trip to Paris. For the characters in each, there is a line of demarcation, a point of no return that comes to them not as a sudden surprise but a moment they can only accept with resignation. The author doesn’t force them upon the reader, but with some confidence, lets us see what ultimately becomes obvious to the character, even if they are powerless to change that fateful day.
In all these stories, there are wonderful scenes that Fouquet conjures up, never forced, suddenly unraveling in the midst of a story. A woman standing in her bedroom window, watching a bottle of wine in she left in the courtyard, waiting for it’s intended recipient to appear. A Soprano, dressed in a robe and towel, waving her arms while practicing an aria in the privacy of her Paris apartment, unaware of the spectator watching her from across the street. A procession of ad hoc mourners singing “Sweet Sue Just You” as they march from the St. Louis cemetery in New Orleans, honoring a woman they never knew.
Like a perfect photograph, Fouquet’s stories leave one feeling as if they’ve only caught a glimpse of these lives, but that’s enough to tell the tale, and to know the fates.
Jesuachristo, the prose! More than any other writer I have read, Salter could do so much with so little. He has a scalpel-like precision with his prose — it is always just enough, nothing more. Quite a few writers should read Salter if for no other reason than studying how a few simply crafted sentences can say more than endless flowery paragraphs that serve more as literary gymnastics than good writing. The opening chapters of A Sport and a Pastime, where the narrator is travelling via train through the French countryside, read like a Van Gogh painting.
“Canals, rich as jade, pass beneath us, canals in which wide barges lie. The water is green with scum. One could almost write on the surface.
Hayfields in long, rectangular patterns. There are hills now, not very high. Poplars. Empty soccer fields. Montereau — a boy on a bicycle waiting near the station. There are churches with weathervanes. Smalls streams with rowboats moored beneath the trees…. The pattern of fields is passing, some pale as bread, others sea-dark.”
James Salter discusses the relationship between writing and travel from an old Paris Review interview:
INTERVIEWER: Does the travel help your writing?
SALTER: It’s essential for me. There is no situation like the open road, and seeing things completely afresh. I’m used to traveling. It’s not a question of meeting or seeing new faces particularly, or hearing new stories, but of looking at life in a different way. It’s the curtain coming up on another act.I’m not the first person who feels that it’s the writer’s true occupation to travel. In a certain sense, a writer is an exile, an outsider, always reporting on things, and it is part of his life to keep on the move. Travel is natural. Furthermore, many men of ancient times died on the road, and the image is a strong one. Kings of Arabia, when they are buried, are not given great tombs. They are buried on the side of the road beneath ordinary stones. One thing I saw in England long ago struck me and has always stayed with me. I was going to visit someone in a little village, walking from the railway station across the fields, and I saw an old man, perhaps in his seventies, with a pack on his back. He looked to be a vagabond, dignified, somewhat threadbare, marching along with his staff. A dog trotted at his heels. It was an image I thought should be the final one of a life. Traveling on.
Don’t let the title of this book, or the those of the 20 poems in this collection, fool you. Hosho McCreesh is razor sharp in his poetry. Not a word is wasted. And flying through all 20 in one sitting, you get caught up in McCreeh’s view of the world. It’s soaked in whiskey-and-wine and the disappointment of every challenge that we’ll never be able to overcome. Yet, it has a beauty to it, like a good Mark Lanegan song.
In the first nine poems, McCreesh has an axe to grind. Not with you, or me for that matter, but with us. In McCreesh’s eyes we’ve pissed it all away, or are incapable of redeeming the pile of crap that was handed to us. It’s dark, hell-bent, screaming, confrontational poetry, and in most hands it would be an clichéd and ridiculous homage to Bukowski. But McCreesh has heart and as angry as he is, he empathizes with us. He knows we can’t help it:
“We are forced to search out
small fires, a little light,
some warmth, &
a little bit of
to help drag us through
all this so-called
It’s usually not much.
It usually doesn’t last
But it helps…
In the second batch of poems, McCreesh gets optimistic, but in his own cynical way. Sure, we’re still screwed, but there are the small victories. And again, it is McCreesh’s economy with words that wins you over. Such as the simple argument he makes in “Seems Everyone These Days Wants Some Magical Cure for Death…”
I want a
Amen to that brother.