Mercy of the Tide Review

I’ll admit that sometimes I review books by friends and acquaintances of mine. I do it often, actually. It is somewhat nepotistic in the sense that I choose my friends’ books as the subject of my reviews instead of books by strangers. It’s not nepotistic in the sense that I won’t review a book anything but honestly. Whether I know you or not, I say only what I genuinely believe in my reviews. That said, here’s my review of Keith Rosson’s book Mercy of the Tide. You can read the review in its original form here.

Rosson Mercy of the Tide

There’s a sense of impending disaster. The guy from TV is president. Moscow and the KGB threaten the American way of life. The doomsday clock ticks ever closer to midnight. People far from DC and national politics struggle to live lives without feeling overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness.

I’m talking, of course, about the alternate 1983 in Keith Rosson’s new novel The Mercy of the Tide.

The Mercy of the Tide opens in a sheriff’s office. A religious wingnut drops a mutilated seagull onto Sheriff Dave Dobbs desk. For the wingnut, the seagull portends something ominous and otherworldly coming to destroy this small coastal Oregon town. Dobbs feels slighted by the dead bird on his desk. Dobbs’ deputy, Nick Hayslip, grabs the wingnut and roughly evicts him. Dobbs and Hayslip aren’t interested in an abstract menace. Dobbs life was recently shattered when his wife Junie was killed in a car accident. Nick, for reasons that emerge later in the novel, is also devastated by this accident. Elsewhere in town, Sam and Trina Finster, the children of the woman who drove her car head-on into Junie Dobbs’ car, are trying to pick up the pieces after the loss of their mom.

Such is the backdrop for the novel. Something wicked is in the distance. Because this 1983 isn’t the one that happened but one that might have happened, nuclear apocalypse is still a looming threat. Trina, despite being nine, is obsessed with the threat. She believes the end is near. No one can comfort her. Her father is a commercial fisherman with no interest in international politics and little interest in raising his kids. Sam looks out for his kid sister, but he’s seventeen. The time is approaching when he should leave the confines of his hometown and reach for something bigger. The fact that Sam’s such an outcast doesn’t help matters. And what’s going on with this mysterious menace leaving mutilated animal corpses along the coastline?

The novel that unfolds somewhat defies genres. The mysterious menace lends a bit of a horror feel to the book. The small town cops forever driving in the rain gives it an air of noir. But Rosson’s willingness to show the consequences of the tropes of horror and crime novels take this out of genre fiction. When characters get killed, their death isn’t just a plot point. We care about the deaths. We mourn them, along with the characters in the book. When there’s a fight, the characters get hurt. They carry their wounds into subsequent chapters. The reader is never let off the hook.

At other times, The Mercy of the Tide feels like literary fiction. There are rich descriptions of coastal Oregon in a time that’s passed, and the depth of Rosson’s investigations into class, gender, disability, and anger go far beyond anything you’ll find in most mass-market paperbacks.

And it’s the anger aspect that carries the book for me. Understanding what anger is and how it operates may be the most important tool in navigating the next few years, because the one thing we see all around us today is a reason to be outraged. We seem to be trapped in an endless cycle of anger, and our anger is often justified. For Dobbs, there’s real reason to be angry. He lost his wife. Nick’s relationship with anger is valid, too. In both cases, though, they demand a form of payback. Whatever payback they get will prove to be unsatisfying. Their drive to enact that payback will doom them. But they hang on to it.

Sam Finster feels the anger early. He redirects it onto anyone and everyone. When his sister wipes out mud-sledding down a hill, his desire for payback leads him to laugh at her. Then he comes to his senses. He runs to help her and pulls her into his arms. As Rosson writes, “She was a slight weight that leaned against him, a weight nearly inconsequential. Christ, like she was mostly jacket. He felt blisteringly ashamed at his earlier resentment—he would take care of her. He would protect her. He would pick up Gary’s slack. She was so little, and she was nine, and afraid, and they had only each other now. He thought, I’ll do anything to make her safe.”

This scene occurs early in the novel, but it sets up the power of the book. We can watch characters consumed by their anger, their lust to make someone pay. We can watch anger destroy them as the world races toward a potential apocalypse. We can release that anger, let ourselves grieve, and learn what it means to love. We can be human and waver between those contrasting impulses. We can find ways to take care of ourselves and one another; we can find meaning even when we feel powerless and hope is hard to find.

Go-Between Review

This is the April installment of my Flagstaff Live column. You can read the original here.

Brackmann Go-BetweenI have a love/hate relationship with crime novels. I love the heavy plots, the journeys into society’s seedy underbelly, the challenge of staying one step ahead of the mystery. I love how tough they are. I hate that most crime novels these days have cops, FBI agents, and the like as protagonists. I grew up a “white trash” kid, then became a punk rocker. Most of my associations with cops were as a kid or young adult getting harassed, shaken down, or cracked in the head by them. After suffering so many humiliations at the hands of the law, I can’t enjoy a book that makes those guys the heroes. Especially when the bad guys are so similar to the people I grew up with. So I mostly read old crime novels, stuff by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and writers like them, writers with a distrust of the system and of the wealthy, writers whose protagonists are outsiders just trying to make it. Where, I often wonder, are the contemporary equivalents?

Then along comes Lisa Brackmann’s Go-Between.

Go-Between begins with Emily, a restauranteur in Arcata, California who seems to have made her peace with her shady past. She employs undocumented labor and has a customer base of pot growers, but she tries to keep an arm’s length from everything and everyone. The one glaring exception is Emily’s boyfriend, Danny, a pilot who augments the cost of his plane by occasionally loading it with weed and hauling the cargo out of Humbolt County. He plans one last flight—a “minimum risk, maximum reward” haul that predictably lands him in jail. His arrest coincides with the return of a federal agent named Gary. Or “fucking Gary,” as Emily frequently calls him.

In another life, Emily was a pawn in one of Gary’s schemes. Now he’s back to move her around the chess board. He’ll hold Danny in jail for as long as he needs Emily. When he’s done with them, he hints that both Emily and Danny will be released. The project Gary has in mind is simple. He wants Emily to go to Houston and keep an eye on Kaitlyn O’Connor. Kaitlyn was the victim of a horrific carjacking that left her husband and son dead. Now she’s the public face of a tough-on-crime organization called Safer America. Safer America manages a lot of dark money and some important initiatives are on the ballot in the upcoming election. Emily just needs to keep Kaitlyn on message through the election season. What follows is a thrilling chess match between Emily and Gary. It moves the reader across the dark squares of power, money, and special interests that tend to run public policy on a state and national level. Gary is a complex villain. He’s charming and slippery. It’s never clear whose interests he serves (beyond his own) or how much power he has. Issues that we debate ideologically—specifically marijuana legalization and mass incarceration—are stripped from their moral standpoints and reduced to matters of money. Kaitlyn is inscrutable. She could become the Sarah Palin Gary wants her to be, or she could make a 180° turn once she learns her real role in power and money, much like Elizabeth Warren did. Emily’s motivations waver between the greater good and saving her own hide. Everyone involved—the reader included—loses a little bit of innocence.

Toward the end of the novel, Emily and Kaitlyn visit a law-and-order convention that looks eerily like any other trade show. At the core, the convention is full of consumables sold to consumers. The whole scene forces the reader to ask the question: what is all this law and order really about? Brackmann’s novel raises issues Michel Foucault explored in Discipline & Punish more than forty years ago. First, if the purpose of prison is to reduce crime, then we have to admit that three hundred years of incarceration (and thirty years of US mass incarceration) have failed. So, like Foucault and Brackmann do, we have to ask what purpose all this punishment and incarceration really serves. We have to investigate who profits off it. We have to become critical of the stories that do little more than promote the myth of justice in our justice system.

This becomes the real power of Go-Between. Brackmann goes beyond the simple and harmful morality tales of good cops and evil criminals. She investigates the very nature of crime. She explores who really profits from it. And she does all this in a kick-ass thriller that’s nearly impossible to put down.

The Assignment Review

I write a bi-monthly review column for Flagstaff Live called “Words That Work.” This is a reprint of my June column. It ran on June 15, 2017. You can read the original here.

Durrenmatt AssignmentA few months ago, the US dropped something called the Mother of All Bombs on Afghanistan. It created an explosion the size of a small nuclear weapon, killed 94 members of ISIS and a handful of civilians who had the misfortune of being ISIS-adjacent, and made it through one quick news cycle during which most Americans responded by saying, “Wait. You mean we’re still at war in Afghanistan?” Yes. We are.

Shortly after that, the presidential budget came out with cuts to everything we love and a large increase to the military budget, which is already up around $600 billion and larger than the next 12 largest military budgets combined. All of this leads to a question that doesn’t get asked nearly enough: if we’re spending this much money building weapons and armies every year, don’t we have to do something with them? In other words, if we have this many people’s livelihoods based on warfare, don’t we have to generate warfare?

I don’t know the answer to that question. I’m just here to review books, and works of fiction, at that. Still, works of fiction are the places where we can take on these larger, somewhat philosophical questions. And fiction’s response to my questions about the Mother of All Bombs and military budgets lies in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Assignment.

The Assignment begins with the murder of an internationally-known terrorism expert’s wife. The terrorism expert flies her body, in its coffin dangling from a helicopter, from the North African country where she was murdered and raped to Switzerland. The coffin is dropped into the ground straight from the helicopter as part of a spectacular funeral. Documentary filmmaker F. films the whole affair. After the funeral, the terrorism expert offers to hire F. and her crew to go to North Africa and document their investigation into his wife’s murder and rape. F., despite her best judgment, agrees.

Once F. gets to Africa (the specific country is never mentioned, but any of the five nations that border the Mediterranean will do), she realizes that she’s in way over her head. First, she is ushered by the chief of police through a performance of the investigation. At no point does F. think the police chief is actually investigating the murder. Instead, he’s using her film crew to produce the impression that the police have done everything they can. Second, she’s enlisted by the head of the secret service, who is at war with the police chief because the police chief wants to lead a military coup. And from there, F. is just a pawn shuffled across a desert chess board.

The investigation into the murder never takes a back seat in the novel, but the murder itself pales in comparison to all the other mischief that power brokers are engaging in. F. struggles to understand her role and why she continues to play the game, all the while getting more entangled. Along the way, she meets a war photographer who maybe wants to kill her, but at least takes the time to explain to her what she’s gotten into. He tells her that this North African nation’s “principal source of revenue was a war with a neighboring country…a war that had been creeping along for ten years now and no longer served any purpose except to test the products of all the weapons-exporting countries.” He goes on to say that, “since the stability of the market depended on weapons exports, provided these weapons were truly competitive, real wars were constantly breaking out.” For the war photographer, wars like the one currently raging in Iraq and in this North African desert, exist solely to keep the military industrial complex running. Everything F. has seen proves this point.

The heartbreaking and ironic thing about reading The Assignment in 2017 is realizing that it was written 31 years ago. One of the wars Dürrenmatt criticizes is the Iran/Iraq conflict, in which Reagan’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, Donald Rumsfeld, helped bolster the power of a little-known autocrat named Saddam Hussein. Part of the deal brokered between Rumsfeld and Hussein was a cooperation agreement to limit the military might of Syria. Of course, at the same time, the US was selling weapons to Hussein’s enemy in Iran so that the US could fund the Contras in Nicaragua.

Three decades later, only the names have changed. This is why Dürrenmatt—a Swiss author who wrote mostly during the mid-twentieth century and died in 1990—is still so relevant today. His novels transcend the immediate and explore the larger frameworks of how society operates. The Assignment goes beyond that, beginning with a Kierkegaard epigraph and folding Kierkegaard’s views of the abyss into the plot. It’s a novel that is as thrilling as it is deep.

Someone at the University of Chicago Press has seen fit to bring several of Dürrenmatt’s works back into print. Whoever it is, we all owe this person a debt of gratitude. I recommend any and all of Dürrenmatt’s books, but definitely start with The Assignment.

 

Liberal University Professors

Holocaust Memorial BerlinMy university has a running column in the Ventura County Star on Sundays. Our public relations person asked me to contribute a column recommending books for the summer.  She also wanted me to make it newsy. So I did what everyone in the news is doing. I started with Donald Trump. This was my original first paragraph:

Here’s an experiment you can try at home. Starting tomorrow, see how long you can go before encountering a reference to Donald Trump. After the first, time how long before the second comes along. You’ll be stunned by how incessantly everyone talks about Trump. It’s like we’re all in a room with a small child wielding a knife. We know he’s just a narcissist trying to get us to pay attention to him, but we still have to pay enough attention to not get stabbed. We keep thinking someone is going to take the knife out of his hand. But, no. That’s not going to happen any time soon.

This situation can cause anxiety for anyone. Perhaps it’s causing some anxiety for you. If so, I can help. I can’t take the deadly weapons out of the narcissist’s hands, but I can help with the anxiety.

I sent it off to the PR person. She liked the column, but she didn’t like the part about Trump being a small child wielding a knife. She feared that some of the university’s donors would be offended. So she rewrote the first paragraph for me. This was her version:

Here’s an experiment you can try at home. Starting tomorrow, see how long you can go before encountering a reference to Donald Trump. After the first, time how long before the second comes along. You’ll be stunned by how incessantly everyone talks about Trump. For or against Trump, it’s a continual topic of conversation.

Those against him may feel like we’re all in a room with a child who has a knife and we must pay attention or be stabbed. Those who support him may feel they are constantly under attack themselves.

Either situation can cause anxiety for anyone. Perhaps it’s causing some anxiety for you. If so, I can help with the anxiety.

Not to be a prima dona, but I couldn’t let this opening stand. This tone isn’t me, and I wouldn’t let my name be associated with these ideas. I disagree with the whole idea of “for or against Trump” being equally valid positions. Trump is following the playbook for establishing a totalitarian regime. He has scapegoated an entire religion and tried to ban members of that religion from entering the United States. His nationalist rhetoric has led to unconscionable attacks on immigrants. He has marginalized academics, intellectuals, and the free press. These are the first three steps that every totalitarian leader takes: scapegoat a minority population, heighten nationalist feelings, and silence opposition.

The next step is to push for a war to solidify this ideology.

It’s personal to me. My wife immigrated to this country. I’m an academic. Trump’s stances are stances against me and my wife personally. I teach at a university that is largely comprised of white women (another group he has attacked) and Latinos. His attacks are directed at my students. The guy even took my sister’s health care away. Her premiums went from $190 a month to $1300 a month when he insisted on trying to repeal the ACA, then refused to fund parts of it.

None of this is okay. If you support Trump and you feel attacked for your support, that’s a good thing. I honestly believe most Trump supporters are better people than Trump is. If you’re one of his supporters, I hope you do feel attacked and this leads you to rethinking your attack on politically precarious populations.

I didn’t say all this to PR person. Instead, I wrote a compromised third opening. You can read it and my five recommendations for good books here.

13th Anniversary of Vermin

17-Aug-VOTM-PosterThis Friday, August 18, there’s another Vermin on the Mount. I’ll be doing a sort-of reading at it. Come out. Come out.

This will be my seventh or eighth performance at a Vermin. I guess I do one every couple of years. I read the title story for my short story collection Barney’s Crew at the second ever Vermin, back when it was still at the Mountain Bar in Chinatown. I read there to promote my last two novels, Train Wreck Girl and Madhouse Fog. I did not do a Vermin for my last short story collection, The Metaphysical Ukulele. I don’t know why. But I have the new book out, Occupy Pynchon, and I’m going to do something with that. It’s an academic book that doesn’t lend itself too well to a Friday night reading, so I won’t read straight from it. Instead, I’ll do something a little more fun and dynamic. You’ll be entertained. I promise.

The festivities kick off at 7:30 at Book Show in Highland Park (5503 North Figueroa St., LA). You can learn more about it here.

 

ME Review in Los Angeles Review of Books

ME HoshinoAt the beginning of the summer, I read the bizarre and amazing Japanese novel ME. I reviewed it for Los Angeles Review of Books. The review ran last week. You can check it out here.

I have to add that comment sections usually bum me out. I put all this time and thought into writing something. I revise it myself, hunt down a publisher–which isn’t always easy–and work with an editor who seeks further revisions. All of this care goes into what I say.

On top of that, I’ve published hundreds of stories, articles, reviews, and essays over the past 27 years. And I have a doctorate in literature. These are no small things. Still, anybody can log in and have the last word on my work.

With that said, I sure do love the comment at the end of the ME review. I’ll take comments like that all day.

 

Slab Review

Of all the novels I reviewed over the past few years, Slab was the strangest. It defies form and easy characterizations and sounds impossible, but it was mostly fun. This review originally ran in Full Stop.

saterstrom-slab

Early in Selah Saterstrom’s Slab, the narrator and protagonist, Tiger, tells the story of her life-changing striptease. After reading a book on profound women, Tiger decides to pay homage to Helen Keller. She buys a thrift-store Holly Hobbie dress and an Ace Hardware bucket to use as a prop. The deejay introduces her as “Miss Killer.” Tiger stumbles on stage with her eyes closed and performs the most famous scene from The Miracle Worker. She tells us,

The performance ended when, having completed the transformative contact with the pole/well, I arched a joyous backbend. The music came to a halt. I popped up, raised my bare chest to the audience, arms open. Water, I said.

As I read this scene, I couldn’t help placing myself in the audience for the striptease. Tiger works in a low-rent club in rural Mississippi. It’s the kind of place that only people who’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on the working-class side of the rural South would know firsthand. For better or worse, I’m one of those people. I have no trouble picturing myself at a chipped-linoleum table with a can of yellow American beer in front of me and poverty and desperation oozing from the dark paneled walls and buzzing neon signs, watching a stripper grope across the stage in a fantasy only accessible to her. It’s an intimate moment. A poignant one if you can release the illusion of a complete understanding and just recognize that something powerful and painfully human is being communicated to you.

On a meta level, this scene is instructive to the reader. You’re in the audience. Tiger is on a stage — more literally a slab among the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — performing for you. Sometimes she tells you what she has in mind and gives you an interpretive framework to understand her art. Sometimes, you’re in the dark and just have to go with it. Either way, you can find comfort knowing that Tiger (and Saterstrom) have a method to their madness. It all makes sense — not necessarily to you — but to Tiger at least. And, at the core of the performance, Tiger is out to entertain you.

Any summary of the book will elucidate the challenges it presents to its reader. The novel is laid out like an extended playbill. Each chapter is a scene in a performance by Tiger while she stands on the slab of a house washed away by Katrina. Ostensibly, Barbara Walters is in the audience for this performance. At times, Walters asks questions or Tiger addresses her directly. At other times, it’s easy to forget Barbara Walters is there and Tiger abandons traditional narratives. One chapter is titled “Tiger Draws Some Rebel Flags.” The chapter consists solely of illustrations of rebel flags. Another chapter is titled “Tiger Riffs on the Classics: Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.” It’s a prose poem that surrenders story for language play:

I am inside the fourth degree
(do you mind if I smoke for the remainder
of the seduction (Soul mothers I am inside
the seduction) I am inside (the fourth degree) watching,
mind if I smoke inside the remainder of the remainder
of the remainder of the seduction) . . .

The whole novel plays with form. Some pages are only a sentence or a paragraph. There are sections laid out like stage directions that give no stage directions. The “Players” section of the playbill gives little information about the players. Slab could be categorized as a novel or an extended prose poem or a script for an impossible-to-produce performance art piece. It’s all of those things and more.

Any summary of Slab is also a bit misleading. Works that sound difficult typically sound like a chore to get through, and Slab is not chore. It’s fun from beginning to end. Because it’s so inventive, so different from standard novels, comparisons are hard to come by. The closest I can come is Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America. Both works have a poet’s ear for language and a comic’s feel for timing. Both are disjointed but somehow whole. Both have a tendency to dazzle and frustrate the reader. When I finished my first read of both, I knew second, third, and possibly more readings of the books would come.

Beyond all the experimentation, Saterstrom’s (and Tiger’s) talent for storytelling carries the work. Saterstrom gives voice to one of the American untouchables. It’s a complicated, beautiful, whimsical, troubling, and heart-breaking voice. It’s a voice that you can’t turn away from, not because it’s a spectacle, but because it’s art. Tiger tells the tale of how she went from a poor, rural stripper to a performance artist, but this is no rags-to-riches story. There’s no reason to believe that the transformation happened anywhere outside of Tiger’s head. All of her work as a performance artist is done in low rent strip clubs. She starts in rags and ends in rags. By her own description, she’s “a stripper who worked in what could only be called a ‘sub-genre’ way.” And, despite the temptations her occupation holds for a novelist, Saterstrom resists any urges to make Tiger a spectacle or a metaphor. Tiger is a deep, rich character. She has close ties to her reconstituted family. She understands the complexities of American South, interacts with troubling views on gun ownership, racism, and Confederate fetishes, yet still feels an affinity to her southern Mississippi homeland. She mourns her grandfather’s suicide. She meditates on dogs. She struggles as an artist and a woman. For all the distance she creates by telling her story on a slab while the reader sits in the wreckage of Katrina, Tiger feels human. Saterstrom’s ability to make Tiger so human carried me through my first reading of the novel.

Saterstrom’s choice to set this novel against the backdrop of Katrina is telling. She doesn’t discuss the storm much directly. She avoids tales of want and looting, starvation and death. Still, this context undeniably surrounds the novel. It raises questions about Katrina and its place in our collective memory. Certainly, we’ve faced bigger and more destructive storms in our lifetimes. As global temperatures continue to rise, we’ll face more of them. Yet Katrina — which was neither the first or worst of these recent storms — haunts us. And Tiger as the narrator to this storm helps explain the undercurrent of this haunting.

We have a term for women like Tiger. It’s white trash. Thirty years of political correctness have eradicated every longstanding, hateful term from our speech except white trash. Understanding Tiger as trash — a disposable person — helps explain the real tragedy of Katrina. The storm wouldn’t have done nearly as much damage if the levees around New Orleans had been repaired when they started to falter years before Katrina struck. And they probably would’ve been repaired if wealthy people lived near them. The aftermath of Katrina could’ve been mitigated if a combination of state and federal agencies had reacted like they did when Hurricane Andrew pummeled wealthy sections of Miami in 1992 and Hurricane Sandy hit the shores of New Jersey and New York in 2012. In short, the disaster would’ve been far less of a disaster if, culturally, we didn’t classify poor people as trash and see them as disposable when nature lays waste to their homes and leaves them with nothing but the slab once the water recedes.

During a short stint in juvie, Tiger takes a class in the art of Japanese flower arranging. She learns that, “At the moment of its extinction, the flower is perfect. It is in accordance.” Her teacher tells the story of a monk who gathers the debris from a storm and makes an arrangement of the trash on the temple altar. The monk explains, “I am practicing the art of decay appreciation.” These ideas, in a sense, give passage into Slab. Saterstrom is gathering the detritus of Katrina, narrating it through someone who is culturally viewed as trash, examining the rural American South on the verge of its extinction, and practicing the art of decay appreciation.