DOYLE REDMOND'S ON a family errand and, as is his habit in such matters, his traveling companion is a black .32 ladystinger. He's weaving south in a stolen Volvo though the scrub oak and red dirt of the Ozark hills, the same ones his daddy and his daddy before him suckled on, scraped some kind of livelihood from, sired and drank and finally laid down and died in--all of them fated with bum hillbilly luck that's blown through the Redmond family for a century. "I ofttimes feel that my genes have me cornered," Doyle figures upon entering the West Table town of his birth, and in that thought lies the seed of his undoing.
The gist of Doyle's errand is this: unearth his older brother, Smoke, from his lawless hideout in the sticks, haul him in--ready or not--to Kansas City to plea bargain out some stale charge from a past caper, and in the meantime drink enough Johnny Walker Red to see stars at noon. He finds his Smoke holed up with his true love, Big Annie, and her daughter Niagra, a champagne blond, hillbillyette beauty with a flair for pappardelle con il ragu di fegatini, notions of Hollywood stardom, and a virgin muff that makes Doyle's bird dog stand cocked at attention. Together the threesome have cooked up a scheme of riches: a money garden made of Razorback Red hooch that's ready to harvest shortly, why not stick around a few days and cash in? He does. They do. Plots and subplots ripen on the vine. Night falls.
It's a simple enough narrative, with characters full of twist and shards and a climax scene (for some unlucky soul) to die for. What gives this novel--Woodrell's fifth--its strong punch is the dialect: archaic, full of vernacular and kinked syntax, wry, raw, stilted--in all, a style which has caused some critics to scold Give Us A Kiss as a "writer's writer's book." Nonsense. It's a slow pleasure to wend through, full of hilariously rendered scenes and home folks who believe that, as the book's Marilyn Monroe epigram puts it, "all we demanded was our right to twinkle." There's a little Barry Hannah here, a little Frank Stanford, and enough of Faulkner's ghost to scare from its pages the kind of heat-warped, mad-dog Southern inevitability that comes to a grand total in the last chapters--right when that ladystinger comes in most handy. (Josie Rawson)
WATCHING SLACKER A few years back, I rejected its baton-like relay of the camera from character to character and scene to scene as conspicuous gimmickry, a quarter-ass excuse for a plot. Little did I realize then how persuasive (and pervasive) this visual technique could be as a metaphor for the delicate web connecting this society's fragmented post-communities.
Like his literary contemporaries Rick Moody and Will Self, first-time novelist Evan Dara expands on the Slacker model, bleeding a series of nameless characters into one another in transitionless, first-person segments that are more river-of-consciousness than any mere stream: A half-homeless college dropout becomes a character listening to an anecdote about fireflies, a child's drum set and Beethoven's variations becomes a person listening to a science-film animator becomes... Filled with heady meditations on everything from the music of Harry Partch and this culture's signal-to-noise ratio to the ethical eminence of Chomsky, these sketches gradually move toward an understanding of personal isolation. Imagining an extended conception of community--a psycho-ecology of remote souls--through formally challenging prose, Dara's humanity is as laudable as his considerable artistic achievement. We are, together, alone.
Yet there comes a time when a reader becomes fed up with even the best of authors. One acquires an immunity to the quirks and charms of her voice; only an involvement in plot and character can pull this reader-at-risk back from the precipice of terminal restiveness and possible book-abandonment. Like a series of short-short stories with few recurring characters (and, for that matter, no real story) Dara's novel anti-novel won't exactly turn the pages for you. Only the diligent may reach the emergence of an ostensible plot some 330 pages in, as the Missouri town of Isaura confronts the environmental treachery of the Ozark chemical company.
The last third of the book reads as the 1980s diary of a town's collective consciousness, each citizen speaking a single line or paragraph as they discover the methyl chloride contamination that hides at the bottom of their wells. As Isaura's civic life dissolves over a decade of collective denial, Dara reveals his circular riddle: the poisonous seeds and roots whose toxic bloom we have witnessed in the earlier, contemporary sections of the book. With a singular ability and sympathy, Dara suggests that like his spiritual hobos--lonely, transitory people without sure bearings--we are all of us the reapers of this legacy. (Michael Tortorello)
BILL BISSETT SAYS we are living in "totalee magikul times" that have the power to elevate us into an "unbeleevablee raging" state, even though in essence these times are no different than any others. This is just one of Bill Bissett's blurry ideas.