Book Roundup


Sapphire

Push

Knopf

I HATE TO agree with Katie Roiphe, but let's just say I was Push-ed. Roiphe, having made a name for herself by dismissing date rape as feminist hysteria, has recently trained her sights on incest lit, asserting that popular representations of sexual abuse in American fiction tend to reduce complexities of human suffering to a riddle with incest as the answer. In general, her arguments are facile and self-serving, but in the case of the poet Sapphire's first novel, Push, they apply.

Push, which earned its author a half-million-dollar, two-book contract on the basis of its first 100 pages, is the first-person account of Claireece Precious Jones, a black, Harlem-born-and-raised, teenage welfare mom. After being raped by both parents, Precious gives birth at age 12 to a Downs Syndrome infant and at 16 to a son (both sired by her father), only to find herself homeless. Then, just when things are looking up, she finds she's HIV positive. If this sounds like a catalog of contemporary social ills, then so be it: It also reads like one.

Less a character than a poster child for urban blight, Precious is a composite portrait meant to teach readers about the troubled underside of urban life. Akin in its didacticism to medieval church paintings, Push is similarly 2-D. Instead of giving depth to people too often dismissed with simple slogans, Sapphire compounds their obscurity. Characters become little more than stand-ins for polemic: I big, I talk, I eats, I cooks, I laugh, watch TV, do what my muver say. But I can see...I don't exist. Don't nobody want me. Don't nobody need me. I know who I am. I know who they say I am--vampire sucking the system's blood. Ugly black grease to be wipe away, punish, kilt, changed, finded job for.

Even when the novel achieves poignancy, as it does when Precious enters an alternative school and begins to gain literacy and independence, the sentiment feels manipulated. The slim volume is divided into two sections: Precious's first-person account of her effort to gain an education and independence runs only 144 pages; to this are appended 36 pages titled "LIFE STORIES: Our Class Book," which ostensibly comprise the writings of the students from Precious's school.

Although gimmicky, "LIFE STORIES" contains some of the book's best writing, as well as its rare humor. One of Precious's classmates writes, "I get me a room...from old light-skinned dude...tell me...his mother...rent room to Marcus Garvey. My question is, did Marcus Garvey get heat?" In what seems an ironic commentary on Push itself, another classmate writes, "Foster care, rape, drugs, prostitution, HIV, jail, rehab. Everybody like to hear that story. Tell us more more MORE about being a dope addict and a whore!"

Mid-book, Precious spends the night in a house Langston Hughes once inhabited, and it's an apt metaphor for what Sapphire is doing with Push. There's a long tradition of literature humanizing people the culture denies and denigrates: Zora Neale Hurston did it; so did James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Virginia Woolf. But Sapphire, a lesbian poet admired for her collection American Dreams, is merely sleeping in a place where others made a home. (Ellen Levy)

Wayne Koestenbaum

Jackie Under My Skin

Plume/Penguin

DO YOU LIKE garage sales as much as I do? Even if I could've, I wouldn't have wanted to attend the mother of all sales: Jackie O's estate auction in New York last spring. It ruined the mystique of our first thoroughly modern First Lady; it made her too real. I mean, who wants her common ashtrays when we can visit Andy Warhol's iconic portrait at the Walker for a fraction of the cost?

On the other hand, Jackie Under My Skin is actually a fun de(con)struction of this icon, blandly academic as it sounds. Wayne Koestenbaum micro-dissects objects and events both common (hairdos, sunglasses) and momentous (JFK's assassination, marriage to Aristotle Onassis), giving them an equal, if irreverent weight. Should one take Koestenbaum's quote, "I was born into the world of Jackie: I did not create it" as cutting social critique or a message from the higher realms of camp? Perhaps both.

Jackie plants Jackie at the center of a world in which she becomes martyr for a nation, ultimate glam housewife, shop-till-you-drop jet-setter, and shameful, gold-digging hussy. Throughout all this, the author comes off as not so much a serious scholar as a Jackie-obsessive, which he is. Imagine the frightening number of Jackie-facts notebooks this man has! But then look at the genre we're dealing with: Pop-icon analysis always has its share of dime-store psychology and frivolous wishful-thinking daydreams. But Koestenbaum hits the mark more often than not, making Jackie engaging and biting where it needs to be. Jackie, to the author, eventually becomes nothing and everything. Her name is so overused it transforms from a proper noun into a plain one--albeit a golden one with a multitude of meanings. (Matt Keppel)

Don Bajema

Reach

2.13.61 Publications

TRY ADDING FOUR cans of water to a can of Campbell's tomato soup sometime and you'll have an idea of just how attenuated the Beat "vision" is in Don Bajema's Reach. A more apropos title I certainly can't imagine. Of course, one would think that the dedication "To my friend Henry Rollins, who worked many hours editing this book" would be all the red flag that any reasonable person would need, but no, apparently not; there are those of us who find this sort of foaming-at-the-mouth coffeehouse afflatus (from the Latin: 'to blow'), um, entertaining.

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