Book Roundup

Daniel Woodrell

Give Us A Kiss

Henry Holt and Company

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)

Evan Dara

The Lost Scrapbook


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

th influenza uv logik


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.

Basically an old hippie from Halifax, Nova Scotia, this poet has struggled fervently for 57 years against a cruel "influenza of logik," which he defines in semi-existential terms as big religion, big money, and the kind of big ego/soul-deadening stuff that is draining the "human" out of humanity. He employs a defiant, dadaist medium, one he calls "sound poetree," in his fight against the ubiquitous dystopia of modern society: "sumtimes an angree or betraying subtext evreewher."

His newest collection, th influenza uv logik, is both rant and "raptur," and Bissett's mesmerizing lyrics are most effective when he approximates the narrative grace of the latter. In "Sensa," the poet sits in a London (presumably Ontario) coffee shop with two friends: "remembr jerry falwell needs anothr 2 milyun by th end uv th month or god will take him home me if i dont rais th rent by next week iul b having a length ee talk with my lanlord"--so Bissett and his friends devise an ingenious scheme, a new religion called Sensa, which is part Bob Jones University, part New Age Journal. The poet-evangelist implores his audience to experience the joys and spiritual uplift of Sensa, while also sending in checks for special products like Sensa toilet paper, Sensa "bubbal bath," Sensa Nintendo, and Sensa rings: "THEES RINGS CHANGE COLORS WITH YR SENSA MOODS."

In other poems Bissett rants against NAFTA, corporate greed, and "toxik lakes," yet he consistently confounds politics with philosophical and aesthetic rambling ("th rite wing nevr sleeps ther is no always"). Confounding the reader also seems to be part of the platform here, as both style and substance collude to give meaning to an ever-occurring phrase: "blurring 2 survive." However interesting this may be philosophically, Bissett's poetry is at its best in the "raptur" of storytelling, whether satirical or not; he ascribes the everyday life of the human soul with a Camus-like power of individuality, and transforms ennui into the stuff of "magikul times." (Paul Bennett)

Erik Belgum

Star Fiction

Detour Press

THERE'S BEEN A rash of intolerance among critics lately toward experimental and avant-garde writing. In most cases it's justified: After all, the problem with artists who break all the rules is that you generally can't count on them to create and follow any standards. Therefore, any hack can mount a urinal on plywood and call it art. Or cut up the Yellow Pages and call it a novel.

That said, I've never seen an exception as bold and striking as Erik Belgum. He's been writing a fierce brand of experimental fiction for several years, right here in our own backyard. "The Man Who Could Talk," a manuscript from this Minneapolis writer and sound designer, has been getting a lot of attention in underground circles for its innovative language and structure. More important, it's a damn funny story that couldn't be told any other way. Spinning language like a stainless-steel triple-loader, Belgum may break other people's rules, but he follows his own with a discipline any mother would be proud of.

Now comes Star Fiction, Belgum's first collection with Detour Press. A blunderbuss of storytelling, it showcases the author's wicked sense of humor, his facility with language, and his ability to juggle Hegelian philosophy and gratuitous violence with one hand. In the title selection, Belgum destroys any preconceptions you might have had about your reader/writer relationship with him. He's a literary trickster of the highest order, presenting short stories, providing his own absurd analyses, and pausing for brief intermissions of self doubt. He's conducting his own creative writing seminar, and frankly he doesn't want your misinformed opinion.

Where "Star Fiction" subverts narrative voice, "Blodder," the book's second half, consists of a chain of related stories with fractured chronologies and confused characters. You might call it hyperrealism, since the plot--which reads like a mixed-up police dossier on an armed robbery and several subsequent accidents--runs willy-nilly through some pretty gruesome territory, covering a wide range of true and false perspectives on trauma and crisis.

When Belgum decides to throw in the experimental towel and follow someone else's rules, he'll surely kick butt with the best writers of our time. On the other hand, maybe the best writers of our time will say "uncle" first. (Hans Eisenbeis)  

Kate Phillips

White Rabbit

Houghton Mifflin

IN THE LAST hours of our lives on Earth, what thoughts and memories will traipse through our minds? Will we know, beforehand, when our time is up? Kate Phillips's finely crafted first novel places these questions and others before the reader with charm and wit, and answers them with a surprising hint of hope. Ruth Caster Hubble is the whimsical, opinionated 88-year-old woman whose final day on Earth White Rabbit chronicles.

Her reality is a disorderly place layered with daydreams, flashbacks, and thoughts that "rattle around like coins in a large dark piggy bank"; it's a place in which her body has forsaken her, her true love has perished, and the world has lost all sense of traditional propriety. In dreamy scenes peppered with hints of Lewis Carroll, Ruth hears chuckling voices, and watches as a white rabbit and other visions mysteriously taunt her. The author, meanwhile, deftly leads us among Ruth's altered states.

Phillips has also brought to life an array of minor characters who leap from the page with welcome peculiarity. Perhaps the greatest of these is Henry, Ruth's second husband, a simple, childlike oaf whose Zen-like carelessness begs the reader for adoration. With the exception of a few contrived scenes, White Rabbit is often humorous, frequently illuminating, and, at the very least, offers readers a chance to ponder the fickle nature of time, along with what lies in store for us at the end of the road. (Matthew Sullivan)

Yi-Fu Tuan

Cosmos and Hearth:
A Cosmopolite's Viewpoint

University of Minnesota Press

THAT PATRICK BUCHANAN'S isolationism and attendant bigotry beguile many Americans should come as no surprise. Pulling back into our warm, homogeneous burrows for a simpler life of passionate moralism (e.g. "the family") is a universal human desire, one which has gained a lot of ground in the U.S. in recent years. We're living in a time that Yi-Fu Tuan, a geographer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, sees as a tenuous moment in our history, teetering between the poles of an essential dichotomy that has defined all humanity for all of history: that of the "cosmos" and the "hearth."

Tuan defines cosmos as, among other things, enlightenment. Western cultures, beginning with ancient Greece and dribbling on down to the contemporary U.S., strive to conquer their environment through reason, and erect massive structures of government and architecture to fortify an outward-looking philosophy. Theology, astronomy, and law are abstract tools with which cosmopolitan cultures order their universe. Conversely, many primitive cultures center themselves around the cohesion of a smaller unit, the hearth, and focus on its immediate needs; they relegate most of the cosmos to a misunderstood "otherland" which is perceived as dangerous and unkind. Sound familiar?

The United States is essentially a cosmopolitan place, founded upon an unwavering belief in the good of progress and the infallibility of the dyad "democracy" and "science." However, Tuan argues, this great era of reason has rapidly declined since the '60s, when critical skepticism began to break apart beliefs in government and other ordering institutions. As the fabric of cosmopolitan culture dissolves, people take refuge in smaller groups; minority groups look inward to reaffirm identity, as with Afrocentric or Aryan supremacist movements.

Tuan's brief book is remarkably sweeping in its conception, and eschews easy answers in favor of a more sensitive probing of human culture. In the end he neatly comes down just to one side of the middle (hence the book's subtitle) in his belief that Americans need to reestablish ties to the hearth, but only as a viable means of affirming diversity. Otherwise, we must also realize the "impermanence of our state wherever we are"--that we are never truly bound by a locale, other than our common membership in the cosmos. We are forever bound to look outward. (Paul Bennett)

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