Okay. So I only technically loved four out of eight of these stories, but my love for those four is huge. Moore's scope, language play, wonderful dialOkay. So I only technically loved four out of eight of these stories, but my love for those four is huge. Moore's scope, language play, wonderful dialogue, and other-worldly command of pacing is...well...inspiring to say the least. "Places to Look for Your Mind," "The Jewish Hunter," and "Like Life," may be some of my favourite stories ever now. Whoa....more
"A Drug Called Tradition" "The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn't Flash Red Anymore" "This is What it MeansMy favourites of the collection:
"A Drug Called Tradition" "The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn't Flash Red Anymore" "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" "All I Wanted to Do Was Dance" "A Train is an Order of Occurrence Designed to Lead to Some Result" "The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor" "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" "Somebody Kept Saying Powwow" "Witnesses, Secret and Not" and "Junior Polatkin's Wild West Show"
That's ten out of ten out of twenty-four. Plus, I could probably add "Jesus Christ's Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation" and "The Fun House." And, also--possibly--"Amusements." So, guys, it's like more than half the stories that are so so good. The others I wouldn't say are bad necessarily; they might just be poetry--which, I believe we've discussed--I have a hard time stomaching. Like Raymond Carver meets Denis Johnson meets, well, Alexie himself, the best of the stories are lean and mighty. Also, I just realized that these titles read either like Carver titles or song titles from an early Bright Eyes album. Go figure.
I really liked 'Lone Ranger.' My problems with it are most likely my own and this continual argument I have with myself about what constitutes a short story and what doesn't. I have the same problem with some of Miranda July's short stories, though I never doubt that they are wholly hers, just as you can't deny that Alexie has made a world all his own. Sometimes I don't know what to do with lines like: "Sometimes her skin will flake, fall off, float to the ground. Sometimes I taste parts of her breaking off into my mouth. It is the taste of blood, dust, sap, sun." Beautiful, yes. Overwhelmingly so. But it's the same problem I have with 'Galveston' in places. Why is this poetry here, other than to be poetry? And--as a writer--how much can you get away with before a reader calls your bluff? But maybe that argument exists in a different sphere and is not fair to Alexie at all. As a reader, the line stuns me, thumps in my chest. But as I writer, I call just a little bit of bullshit. At the risk of sounding like a complete and utter asshole--I think I've also established this about myself in previous reviews--lines like this are "easy" to write. Not "easy" in the sense of, any idiot can do it, but just "easy," like, they don't have to mean anything in relation to the story. But--ah--this is where I'm at my most "assholishness." Perhaps these lines speak to a broader meaning in Alexie's work. They are the bigger canvas. And the book is good. Really good. It's just that some stories feel like they were written line for line with no connection between words. They don't tell "stories" in the Anglo-American sense of the "story" which is maybe why 'Lone Ranger' is such a wonderful book, but as an Anglo-American reader, I can't help but bring these traditions to my reading. As one Alexie's characters even says: "Even the watcher becomes part of the story." So, as a middle-class white male, can I accurately review 'Lone Ranger?' Probably not. See? Asshole. But I love the book, I just don't know what to do with some of the stories.
I'll say this as well: 'Lone Ranger' is didactic without even trying. The didacticism grows out of the stories, the characters. I love that. In this way, it differs from Barbara Kingsolver's 'Pigs in Heaven.' The characters of 'Pigs' feel like talking heads. Like, Kingsolver sat down and posed a difficult cultural and anthropological question (the adoption of Indians by whites) and tried to answer it with dialogue from her characters' mouths. Annawake Fourkiller is one side of the argument. Taylor Greer is the other. In-between these two characters is a lot of beautiful writing. But, when you come down to it, the novel is flawed because, I think, it tries too hard. What Alexie does is much more impressive. He doesn't try to answer any questions--he just poses them (nowhere near point-blankly) and lets you decide for yourself. There is much discussion about the same issue: the blending (unsuccessful and successful, but mostly unsuccessful) of white and Indian cultures. But Alexie never has a character say, out-right: "The blending of two cultures can be problematic." Kingsolver does. Over and over again.
But...where was I?
Oh, yeah: 'The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven' rocks. ...more
I don't know if I can do Banks' novel any justice with a review. Just a few hours after finishing it, I'm still awe-struck and a little numb. AOkay...
I don't know if I can do Banks' novel any justice with a review. Just a few hours after finishing it, I'm still awe-struck and a little numb. All evening, I've felt myself digesting it. Felt it seeping from my brain into my blood. 'Affliction' is the kind of novel I would love to write. So, much of my adoration comes from a craft standpoint. I've read a few reviews complaining about Banks' style and I will say that it's challenging, but really only at the beginning. When I took Jonis Agee's novel writing class at UNL, she warned us repeatedly of "long front porch" openings. The novel is a house, she said, and "long front porch openings" spend too much time outside the house, afraid to go in and, instead, describe, at length, the walk up. 'Affliction' does this. A lot. I'll admit, I tried reading this book a few months back and couldn't get through the first two pages. But I saw Paul Schrader's film adaptation and found myself thinking about it nearly every day. I can honestly say that the story haunted me. It kept playing in the back of my head. And the last line...well, I won't spoil it for you. But, I thought: if the ending of the novel is even half as powerful as the ending to the movie, I'll force my way through the beginning. And it is. The ending is there, in all it's depressing, heartbreaking glory. Schrader's 'Affliction' is faithful to Banks' book in every detail; it speaks, I think, to Banks' talent that someone (me) can know what's coming and still be riveted on each page.
Sure, there is more than a little myth-building going on. And that may be Banks' downfall and, quite possibly, his voice. Shortly after watching Schrader's film, I borrowed a collection of Banks' short stories from my friend Gunter, and had the same problem with the openings to those stories. I couldn't get 'in.' It felt, at times, like Banks was trying to sum up the human condition with each and every line. I ended-up thinking he was probably more than a little pretentious. I still do. Looking through his work, his other novels, I'm more than a little overwhelmed at the idea of touching another one. But this story, the story of 'Affliction,'--not the rise, but the horrible fall of Wade Whitehouse--is too good to stop just because, sometimes, Banks' artistry gets in the way.
I also think the myth-building may be necessary, given Banks' choice of narrator--Wade's educated, history teacher of a little brother, Rolfe. I've read more than a few reviews of 'Affliction' labeling Rolfe's narration as dull and overly-detailed. And, to be honest, there were times when I thought that Rolfe could simply be Banks himself. But there is, I think, a point to Banks' choice of Rolfe as our storyteller. I'm not sure what the point is yet, but I know it's there. Rolfe, as a student and teacher of history, is trying to relate the history of a family he long ago (and justly) abandoned. And through Rolfe, Banks is trying to tell the history of violent men at large. Sure, this is heady stuff. It's more than a little ambitious; but that's what I like about 'Affliction.' It wears its bigness on its sleeve. You could probably label it "the great American novel," and I doubt you would be wrong, at least in regard to Banks' intentions for 'Affliction.' You might not agree with me, but I think he pulled it off. 'Affliction' is the best novel I've read in years, mainly because I was utterly and completely absorbed in it, in its characters and location and, particularly in the plight of Wade Whitehouse himself. I love (but also dread, because it ties my damn stomach in knots) when a character starts down a path that ultimately leads to bloody tragedy. Again, I knew what was coming but I still found myself biting my coffee stirrers, balling my napkins, chewing the insides of my mouth, hoping, praying that Wade would make it out somehow.
I felt the same way reading A.M. Homes' 'Music for Torching,' another great novel with a similar gosh-bang-wow of an ending; I think, though, that Banks has a lot more compassion for his characters than Homes does. WIth Homes, I'm always wondering if I'm not being let in on the entire joke (that fact that a novel like 'Music for Torching,' might be, to her, a satire instead of just dead serious kind of pisses me off--but I could just be an idiot). At least with Banks, pretension and all, you get serious treatment of complex characters. That's what I like about 'Affliction' the most--Banks never lets you think, even for a second, that the citizens of Lawford, New Hampshire, are anything but real people. And that's what makes Wade and his environs all the more terrifying. The characters, the story, how Banks' people speak, they are never trying to make a statement or represent a certain condition. In the act of being, though, they make broader statements about the human condition.
I feel like I'm writing in circles. I'm indulging in a little pretension myself. So I'll stop and just tell you, point-blank, go and read 'Affliction.' You won't regret it.
I may not be in the ideal state for reviewing Jay Gummerman's stories. I just spent six hours reading them--each and every one--in the overheated lobbI may not be in the ideal state for reviewing Jay Gummerman's stories. I just spent six hours reading them--each and every one--in the overheated lobby of an auto-body shop, watching seven different varieties of judge show (Judge Amy, Judge Mathis, Judge Who Cares) in the white space between breaks, swilling lukewarm coffee with powdered creamer, and watching the people zoo of hopeless car owners parade slowly in and out of the buzzing front door. But then again, maybe this makes me the PERFECT candidate for reviewing 'Moontown,' a collection not unlike the milieu of the waiting room I so lengthily endured: stifling (not in its temperature--as was the shop--but in its goodness), buzzed with caffeine (and booze, and cocaine), populated by desperate characters who will do anything to maintain their current statuses as hangers-on, as "squeak-bys" (my own term), as the upper-echleon of the marginal. Gummerman's subjects are not far removed from the guy facing total brake failure who forks over just enough money for a single caliper replacement.
Okay, enough with the allusions to car repair. I only wanted to make it very clear that I read this collection quickly (I usually spend weeks with a group of stories rather than one day). But to Gummerman's credit, his stories delivered for me. Consistently, too. I reached major fatigue by "Pinocchio's," but that may have had more to do with the dwindling meniscus curve of coffee in my dusty styrofoam cup. So, I refilled. I read on. The last four stories in the collection ("The Artichoke League," "The Camera," "Russell's Honor," and "A Minor Forest,") are all fantastic. Bleak. Funny. Desperate. Sad. Hilarious. And, more than anything, American. Gummerman inhabits Coen country here. He's Boyle without the incessant wink. "Fred's Lid" has Gummerman beating Bret Easton Ellis at his own game, and doing a funnier job of it. Jay is the Southwestern cousin of Tom Franklin and George Singleton in his ability to turn the ridiculous (the hijinks of a one-armed, drug-addled little league umpire, for instance) into, by the end of only a few short pages, something soberly poetic. Gummerman makes me want to laugh and cry and give him repeated hugs. He makes me want to be a better writer. He makes me feel bad for not trying hard enough. In short, I love Jay Gummerman.
Since I should probably pick at least one thing that bugged me about 'Moontown,' I'll focus my complaint around the blurb on the back of my edition, which says that "A Minor Forest" has the "might of a novel." I agree with this statement. Sort of. It's true, in its scant twenty pages "Forest" moves through no less than three genres (drug comedy, road narrative, and neo-noir) and does so with ease. My only complaint with "A Minor Forest," (and with the collection as a whole) is that Gummerman's openings tend to be rather disorienting. That can be a good thing (and most of the time it is, "Flag Day," "Lighthouse," and "Fred's Lid" being stellar examples of the opening as "hook") but can also, I think, kill the entire story if it goes on for too long (the title story is a primary example). In the "Moontown" story itself, I was very unsure of where I was and who the characters where. Sure, Keepnews and Sailor Boy are supposed to be on drugs, but I need my drug fiction to be somewhat grounded. Denis Johnson's 'Jesus' Son' masters this. The characters are hard but loopy, their actions and motivations not clear, but there always seems to be a sober, calm (and invisible) voice behind the anarchic narrative, guiding it along. Not so for "We Find Ourselves in Moontown." Keepnews is mistaken for a movie-star. His brother was a heroin addict. He's black. Or is he? I wasn't sure. There are descriptions comparing the landscape of Nevada to the landscape of the moon. Actually, as far as I can tell, there's no concrete mention of exactly where the story takes place. Only after glancing the book jacket and reading about "Morgan Keepnews...adrift...in the Reno night," did I start to put the story together.
Again, this might have had to do with my surroundings. I may have started to rapidly dehydrate at this point. I may have had to pee. The Latina on "People's Court" suing her big brother for towing her car from private property may have momentarily highjacked my attention. I'm also willing to admit--blatantly so--that Jay Gummerman is smarter than me. So, I may just be too stupid to comprehend some of his genius. As a sophomore in college, I once interpreted Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' as a lark about two angels visiting Earth for one night of good-hearted mischief. True story. So, grain of salt, people. Grain of salt. But I do read short fiction pretty regularly, and I think there must be at least a little something to my criticism. I have the same problem with George Singleton. Sometimes, for the first four pages of his stories, I find myself saying, "What? Huh? What's going on?" and then I read them later (more slowly, more out-loud) and curse my low intellect. I just think that Gummerman's brain works faster than most readers' brains. That being said, it still bugs me that I have no idea who King White Daddy is in "A Minor Forest," or how old the narrator is until near the end of the story. I thought I was dealing with kids, teenagers, but instead, I was wrestling with aging hippies. And, "Pinocchio's," I thought, didn't fit with the collection. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it was a little "mundane" for me, lacking in the Gummerman humor that saturates every other story. Sure it's a functional, solid story. It just doesn't belong with all the weirdos in Moontown, Again, grain of salt. But salt is still food. And this is food for thought. Or something like that. ...more
I read "Carry Me Across the Water" last summer and thoroughly enjoyed it; so, I decided to give "Emperor of the Air" a try. Not bad. In fact, I wouldI read "Carry Me Across the Water" last summer and thoroughly enjoyed it; so, I decided to give "Emperor of the Air" a try. Not bad. In fact, I would go so far as to say great. Canin's true strength is in his use of language. You'd be hard-pressed to find a misplaced word in the entire collection. He is a simple poet of domestic fiction. The only problem is that some stories soar and others merely have the language going for them. The title story made me cry upon reading it; however, it is followed by two or three clunkers (at least when you're comparing them with the first story). "American Beauty" and "Star Food" are other standouts, but the rest of the stories seem to fade away. They're not bad. Don't get me wrong. In fact, they're great. They just seem forgettable placed amongst the other three, very unforgettable stories. I'll continue to go back to Canin for his faculty of language. Like Mark Twain advised, he uses the right word each time.
Finally, I will agree with the press for "Emperor of the Air" in that it remains relatively upbeat compared to most modern fiction. While that works for the title story and "American Beauty," (also, "Where We Are Now," and "We Are Nighttime Travellers") the positivity merely puzzles in "Pitch Memory," as well as in the second story. Still, Canin is a master. He knows what he's doing. After all, he was only twenty-eight when he wrote this. Touche, salesman. Touche....more
I'm not sure what else to say other than "Wow." Chaon's style of writing is not unlike floating. He carries you along with an eerie, heartbreaking styI'm not sure what else to say other than "Wow." Chaon's style of writing is not unlike floating. He carries you along with an eerie, heartbreaking style. I'm not sure if I think this collection is better than "Fitting Ends," but it comes close. Chaon has a knack for flooring you with the final stories in his collections. "Burn With Me" is no exception. Particular favorites in this one: "Saftey Man," "Here's a Little Something to Remember me By," and "I Demand to Know Where You're Taking Me," and "Passengers, Remain Calm." An inspiration! My only complaint is that I maybe read them too quickly and, therefore, some of the stories ran together. ...more
This is an amazing book of short stories. Chaon's prose has the quality of floating. I really don't know how else to describe it. Only a few feel unevThis is an amazing book of short stories. Chaon's prose has the quality of floating. I really don't know how else to describe it. Only a few feel uneven but the last three stories back such an emotional punch, it's hard to fault earlier parts of the book. "Fitting Ends" is one of the best stories I've read in a long time. I was at Barnes and Noble Saturday, reading it, and when I finished, I almost started crying, right then and there. Erik Campbell told me about this guy, and I'm so glad he did. He makes me want to write! I just picked up his novel and hope to read it soon....more
This may be one of the best short story collections I've ever read. Brent Spencer is hilarious, but also has the ability to knock you flat with the loThis may be one of the best short story collections I've ever read. Brent Spencer is hilarious, but also has the ability to knock you flat with the longing and depth of his stories. The coolest thing is...the guy's from right here in Omaha! I met him a few times this past year. We ate finger foods at one of Jonis' readings. He's the nicest guy in the world. Possibly most talented? I know, I'm using hyperbole. If you like Raymond Carver and pop culture, check this collection out. He's also got a story in the "Best American Mystery Stories 2007." That one is great. I literally couldn't move after he read it at the Nebraska Summer Writers' Conference. ...more