Book Roundup

Elizabeth McCracken

The Giant's House

The Dial Press

           "[HE WAS] ONLY a boy whose body was a miracle to others. You could believe in God, looking at James." Peggy Cort, the narrator of Elizabeth McCracken's debut novel, The Giant's House, would like to believe in God. Or something better. She's too smart for the '50s, too misanthropic for marriage, with an unknown history she deems "beside the point." Peggy is starving for something big, but doesn't realize it until he walks in the door. In her way, she's like countless nuns: intelligent women who harbored passions too huge for the conventions of their day--a consuming love of learning, solitude, God, or other women. Historically, such women had few options: Some went into the convent, some went mad, some became saints. Peggy became a librarian in a small Cape Cod town.

           On the surface, it's not so compelling a path. But McCracken--herself a former librarian--makes it seem the most intriguing profession in the world: "Nowadays, trendy librarians, wanting to be important, say, Knowledge is power. I know better. Knowledge is love.... A patron arrives, says, Tell me something. You reach across the desk and pull him toward you, bear hug him a second and then take him into your lap, stroke his forehead, whisper facts in his ear. The climate in Chad is tropical in the south, desert in the north. Source: 1991 CIA World Factbook. Do you love me?... Synecdote is a literary device meaning the part for the whole, as in the crowned heads of Europe. I love you." Love is being useful. It's the most selfish of all unselfish acts.

           Enter a 6-foot 11-year-old looking for something to read. Peggy falls in love at first sight with James the Giant, but the reasons for her passion remain the novel's central mystery. Peggy herself doesn't offer many clues--for someone whose job it is to convey information, she's one stingy narrator. (If it's true that first novels are overwritten, McCracken must have at least four other manuscripts in her desk drawer.) Peggy's in love with her own voice, but mostly with controlling what it reveals. When she describes her early, unfulfilled desire for closeness with James--"Lacking things was what I did. I might as well lack something interesting"--she could be describing McCracken's writing method. She has too little self-regard to bother describing herself physically, and the reader ends up feeling held at arm's length, even vaguely resented. Still, there's a fire somewhere under all that starch, and the smoke keeps one digging.

           So what about the boy? He peaks at 8-foot-7; he likes doing magic tricks, and he doesn't have many clothes--they're too expensive. His balance is poor. He has his own cottage (thanks to Peggy) in his family's backyard, with giant-sized furniture, where he lives, reads, paints, listens to records with his friends. He is besieged by tourists, but forces them to answer his questions. He is going to die young--giants, like dwarves, do that. And Peggy attends to him every day. Clearly, her obsession is partly an attempt to control him, but considering everything she gives, maybe that's not such a bad thing. We trust her judgment. This is real love.

           And these are real people: James is no mere symbolic device. His body is described in concrete detail: his tortured feet, his "beautiful, useful" hands, his oversized eyeglasses, even his urine. But why does Peggy love him so wildly--and not just spiritually? At some point, this ardor outgrows the question, settling into permanent mystery. Like James's giantism, there's no cure; it refuses to stop, growing out of all reasonable bounds. It's something so deep we could tap it over and over and never reach the center. And that's something to be grateful for. (Kate Sullivan)

Ben Neihart

Hey, Joe

Simon & Schuster

           PROBABLY THE LAST New Yorker story that truly wowed me was Ben Neihart's "Hey, Joe." The title character is a gentle, pot-smoking teen from an upper-middle class suburb of New Orleans--not an evil lout, not a tortured loser, not a chump. He is charmingly awkward and almost unbelievably sophisticated (he knows both Dutch painting and Digable Planets), and his favorite weekend activity is to go into the Quarter to check shit out and meet up with people. He loves hanging out with women but he's pretty much decided on guys in the romance department. And his bald honestly makes him immediately endearing: "I've got a lot to learn, dude, and I admit it," he tells his first love, the proverbial boy next door, "but I'm not the only one."

           "Hey, Joe" the story eventually grew into Hey, Joe the novel, which seems the key to the book's promise and its problems. While remarkable for a debut, the story contained in these barely 200 pages (with large type) feels both slight and rushed. Everything takes place on a Friday night in late summer when Joe, abandoned by his best friend Wyatt, hops a bus to the city, lookin' for love. This same night, a verdict will finally be reached in a scandalous trial involving boys at an orphanage who were allegedly molested by Rae Schipke, the director of a huge foundation that supported the orphanage.  

           I was more or less enraptured by the first half of Hey, Joe, and when I returned to finish it, became more or less annoyed. Basically, this book is more akin to a one-hour TV pilot than a feature-length movie: Numerous tantalizing characters and situations that don't go anywhere are briefly dangled before the reader, and the main plot just barely resolves itself. Joe's intriguingly complex, bittersweet relationship with his mother is only sketchily covered in the first chapter, and his big-sisterly, big-city friends--record store owner Kel and DJ White Donna--wind up as somewhat superficial trendmongers. Then, however, there are times when Neihart seems to be merely padding his word count ("For Joe and Donna, dinner was tossed salad in a kicky, fatty, anchovy-and-jalapeño dressing, roasted garlic and plum tomato pizza...").

           All of this is frustrating, because elsewhere, the author brings a beautifully fresh simplicity to the heavy atmospherics of New Orleans, to the physicality and outright eroticism of its people, and to a teenager's psychology (here's Joe, who, for lack of any suave response to the advances of a hunky older guy at the health club, simply throws himself into the swimming pool). In the end, the time spent reading Hey, Joe is worthwhile more as an introduction to Neihart's promising literary talent than for the novel itself. (Julie Caniglia)

Maxine Chernoff

American Heaven

Coffee House Books

           IN THE MOST touching moment in Maxine Chernoff's second novel, American Heaven, Irena Bozinska, an emotionally drab mathematician and Polish immigrant, is visiting Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo with friends when they come across a black leopard who was raised as a housepet before being incarcerated in the zoo. The animal lolls on its back in its cage and reaches a paw out towards the visitors, clearly desiring some contact. "We are not allowed to touch her," the keeper says. "She must grow used to us in this way. It would be cruel to confuse her further." Later, outside, Irena admits to her companion that the incident has saddened her. "It is dangerous to care too much," the man--also a Pole--says. "We mustn't do that."

           American Heaven is situated smack-dab in the middle of an America lost in computer solitaire, where strangers fumble for connection. Chernoff used the immigrant's naiveté and confusion previously (in the title story of her collection, Bop) to illustrate and amplify the American crisis of alienation and loneliness; here, Irena's confusion collides with so much confounding American idiom and so much entertaining company that it is possible to overlook her own role as the grave and muddle-headed Eastern European girl straight from Central Casting.

           Briefly, Irena has left Poland--"a place where telling the truth was a crime"--after the death of her father, leaving behind her mother, a cat, and a boyfriend too lousy to believe. In Chicago she assumes the care of Harrison Waters, an elderly and esteemed jazz pianist with arthritis and a bad heart. In the laundry room of their apartment building overlooking Lake Michigan, Irena meets the beautiful and morose Elizabeth O'Conner--obvious emotional wreckage burdened with a secret--who is taking care of her own "old man," Jack Kaufman, an archetypal Chicago gangster and real estate shark now dying of cancer. This unlikely foursome hits it off in unlikely fashion, and in between dinner parties, an excursion to a casino, and a final, rather too convenient trip back to Poland, we get shifting viewpoints in the form of letters, confessions, lamentations, and monologues. Lots of monologues.

           Not the least of Chernoff's accomplishments in American Heaven is that the most entertaining and even likeable character in the book is Jack, a winking and ruthless American opportunist, a philanderer and murderer for whom "eating, drinking, and fucking are about all there is." The other characters don't fare as well because they frankly don't have much to say. Harrison Waters, it is apparent, lost his ability to really communicate when arthritis silenced his piano. It would have been nice to know what that feels like, that period when a musician begins to lose his means of expression, but Harrison is merely a quiet fellow, one who--inexplicably--reads five newspapers a day and likes his mashed potatoes. Of Elizabeth O'Conner, Jack says: "This Elizabeth doesn't have a story in her head." What she does have is her secret, and once she unburdens herself of that she is gone, off to California and one more try at another life.  

           And then there is drab, mousy Irena, with her "beautiful interest in numbers," stranded amongst the idioms and the crass mysteries of America. She observes early in the book that "to those who know how fragile the heart of an old man is and how much applesauce is really worth, nothing is very funny." What could such a woman possibly expect to find in a country where, as she quickly learns, attention is not simply paid, but paid for, and where the engagement she seeks is almost too much to hope for?

           In American Heaven everybody's either desperately remembering or trying hopelessly to forget, and everyone has learned the lesson that it is "dangerous to care too much." The old fellows are hoping to sneak their way into heaven, leaving the young women who cared for them behind, still trying to find a haven here on earth. (Brad Zellar)

Victoria A. Brownworth

Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life

Firebrand Books

           I REMEMBER THE first time I saw a human body torn in half, the legs still clad in trousers, shoes still on, the belted waist from which the vertebrae rose like some unflowering stalk. I based many of my life's choices on my memory of that body dumped at a Managuan roadside by Somozista thugs. What radicalizes individuals to action is the subject of Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Victoria Brownworth's collection of essays, Too Queer, which is intended both to document and exhort the reader to radical engagement in an age of queer assimilation.

           This collection of 27 essays, penned in 1995 and culled from various national publications, including The Village Voice and The Philadelphia Daily News, ranges broadly in subject from breast cancer to outing, criminal law to monogamy, lesbian chic to the troubling idealization of the Stonewall riots. Many were published as newspaper columns and bear the distressing marks of the form: Peppy and reductive, they read at times like a lefty Ann Landers dispensing counsel to beleaguered rads. For example, in "The Name Game," a column on reclaiming derogatory terms, Brownworth eschews semiotic complexities in favor of chipper counsel: "We may not be sure how we want to be identified, but most of us would like to have choices. Taking back the language of oppression--whether it is black or queer or dyke--does just that: it gives us choices."

           Nevertheless, she brings to our attention facts and images too often kept from sight, which have the power to change us. Her accounts of unjustly imprisoned lesbians and of the politics of artificial insemination are as powerful as her unflinching description of her post-op breast, "hard and black as macadam, [with] a long, plastic drain hung from the scar, blood and fluid leeching out of the wound for days." Moreover, Brownworth's certitude about the necessity of moral action is heartening in an era of Foucauldian relativism. "This," she writes, "was the rote lesson of my childhood... Do what is right." (E.J. Levy)

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