War reveals humanity as much as it destroys it. At least that is the bent of Blasim's stunning collection of short punchy stories delivered mostly fro...moreWar reveals humanity as much as it destroys it. At least that is the bent of Blasim's stunning collection of short punchy stories delivered mostly from the heart of the Iraqi conflict. The title is apt. There is blood and carnage and death. But Blasim's stories are also full of black humor and small triumphs and irony biting people in the ass when they most deserve it.
Take the opening title story, which starts as a lecture in the proper aesthetics of displaying murder victims in Baghdad. The unnamed instructor, who works for an unnamed government department, begins his lecture with formalities of paperwork and communications. Quickly he moves on to his own opinions about the work of his peers. What starts as a chilling discussion on how to display the bodies of victims turns into a dark and quite funny parody of modern art criticism:
"We have for example, an agent whose code name is Satan's Knife, that I wish those in charge would get rid of as soon as possible. This guy thinks that cutting off the client's limbs and hanging them from the electrical wires in the slum neighborhoods is the height of creativity and inventiveness. He's just a conceited fool. I hate his classical methods, although he talks about a new classicism."
That mixture of the chilling and the violent with a macabre sense of humor permeates all of Blasim's stories. They're a tough read, but his writing skill knows how to cut the bleakness with the absurdity of life. "The Hole," "An Army Newspaper," and "The Reality and the Record" benefit from the ridiculous bleeding into the reality of a conflict zone. One can't help but feel a shot to the head with each tale, but it snaps you awake. Blasim adeptly serves up stories such as "Crosswords," that even in their darkness have a touching humanity. "Crosswords" is at its essence a ghost story, filled with regret, but also questions about the moral debt owed to the deceased. The dead had it easy, but the living must carry on.
Throughout, the prose is sharp and crisp. The tales, while tough and haunting, also feel fresh and alive, as if the characters are clinging to life just to relate their stories. "The Iraqi Christ," "The Killers and the Compass," and "The Reality and the Record" all have an urgency and tension that draws you in. Even if the outcome seems inevitable, you're compelled by the stories told.
It is the horror of reality and the absurdity of life all in one potent cocktail. Blasim gives us humanity at its lowest and most desperate. But he also gives us some pure and brave souls. Rarely does anyone win. And that is the point in a way. The Corpse Exhibition is one of those collections that doesn't loosen its grip, even after you've finished reading it.(less)
"We never sold any of his books."—Albert Erskine, Cormac McCarthy's original editor at Random House.
Is it any wonder? Released in 1973, Child of God p...more"We never sold any of his books."—Albert Erskine, Cormac McCarthy's original editor at Random House.
Is it any wonder? Released in 1973, Child of God pulls no punches. Murder, necrophilia, and incest to name a few things. It’s a dirty bloodbath of humans crawling through the muck. McCarthy was not giving readers anyone to relate to. In this day and age when there are way too many novels filled with overtly-relatable characters, almost as if the authors and publishers are too damned skittish about challenging readers, it comes off as downright refreshing. Bloody hell. But from the first few chapters, it's obvious that McCarthy's southern gothic approach — taking Flannery O'Connor's bent in novels like The Violent Bear It Away to new extremes — was not to meant to be a fun read. He wants you to squirm and feel sickened. Like O'Connor (and Faulkner even earlier), he wants you to see Lester Ballard stripped bare. The human animal in all his glory. And Lester’s counterparts are not exactly heroes either. McCarthy gives the reader no one to root for — an approach that would turn off people who favor black-and-white scenarios. But the author bravely chose to set the novel in the real world, not a fictional construct of heroes and villains.
The oft-quoted line "A child of God much like yourself perhaps," which is used in the opening chapter to describe Ballard, sets up the hinge for the story. Lester is us, but he's swung over to a darker side. As a character says later, "You can trace 'em back to Adam if you want and goddamn if he didn't outstrip em all." In that regard, Lester is the reincarnation of Cain. Rejected and spurned much like the latter, he lashes out in weird ways. He has no connection to his fellow man. His only interactions with his fellow humans are exercises in power -- either being bullied by the sheriff and the county (who sells off his home at the start of the novel) or shoving back at his fellow humans (via murder and other violent acts). With each interaction, Lester becomes less human. You could also view Child of God as the inverse of American Psycho: Patrick Bateman is a monster of privilege and wealth, Lester Ballard a monster of isolation and poverty. Bateman places himself above everyone else, Ballard is kicked down by society. Both have grown isolated and cold to their fellow humans. And this leads to the vile acts both pursue.
All of this is would be moot if the writing sucked. But McCarthy delivers. The prose is stunning, simple and cut to the bone. The way McCarthy paints the Appalachian hills is absolutely beautiful, almost rendered as prose poems. The setup of having an omniscient narrator following Lester and some of the other characters, mixed with first person accounts that fill in the back story, is still a refreshing approach to the novel form. And there are even some stellar moments of black humor. I won't spoil it too much, but the sudden appearance of a Lester in necro-drag makes you laugh out loud (even if you are horrified by the image). In the end, Child of God is dark, sordid, appalling, and macabre, and at the same time beautifully written, engrossing, often funny, and stunning in its simple delivery.(less)
Take Hitchcock's North by Northwest and transplant it to the wilds of Eastern Long Island. But instead of the sophisticated urbanite Roger Thornhill,...moreTake Hitchcock's North by Northwest and transplant it to the wilds of Eastern Long Island. But instead of the sophisticated urbanite Roger Thornhill, we're stuck with Bert Shambles. He's suffering through a three-year suspended sentence and has been exiled to his hometown of Mumfrey to work part-time in a church thrift shop. And yes, he still has to deal with 'mother' as did Thornhill. Much like Cary Grant's character, Shambles is dragged into a caper he didn't ask to be part of and winds up accused of a crime he didn't commit. All this over a dead golf-pro's stolen putter. Or so it seems at first. Luckily, Shambles has an Eve Kendall on his side in the form of a local mobster's daughter. And then there is his other ally who just so happens to be a wizard. On Long Island no less.
Hall takes his skill at writing heartfelt and funny literary stories and creates a different kind of mystery novel. The pace is quick, the dialogue punchy, as you would expect with the genre. Bert Shambles, however, is more of an unhero, rather than an anti-hero. He's got self-esteem issues like a lot of people. And he'll be lucky to keep is job let alone solve the crime. What ensues is a mystery of errors -- suspenseful at points and really funny at others. As with North by Northwest, the leading man stumbles through it, completely unprepared for the shots coming at him, but Bert finds a way. Could there be such a thing as loser noir?(less)
Redemption doesn't come easy, especially in Fawzy Zablah's new novel. Serling would've dug the spin: the apocalypse has finally come and unfortunately...moreRedemption doesn't come easy, especially in Fawzy Zablah's new novel. Serling would've dug the spin: the apocalypse has finally come and unfortunately for the human race, our only remnants are three loners whom you're pretty sure won't make it a week, let alone years. I won't spoil the causes or the ramifications, because in many ways, that is what makes Zablah's story an interesting read -- we never really find out the whys or hows. Suddenly our less-than-heroes find themselves at ground zero and are completely unprepared for what lies ahead. The story is told in three parts, each from the viewpoint of one of the survivors. Zablah does a great job of weaving new threads into the tale each time sections are retold from a different perspective (think post-apocalyptic Rashomon). This is not a science fiction story, nor a suspense novel, rather we spend the narrative in the heads of the narrators, whose fears and shortcomings make them all too human, if not downright haunting when you hear their inner thoughts. One, when confronted with being one of the last people on earth, almost revels in the idea ("My life before this whole... thing had absolutely no meaning."). In the end, we realize that not all of the three have been absolutely truthful and their struggles will be less about how they survive the catastrophe and more about how they survive one another. (less)
I'm going to give all the credit to author Alan Beard who tipped me off to Breece D'J Pancake. I'll have to eat crow that a Brit new more about Pancak...moreI'm going to give all the credit to author Alan Beard who tipped me off to Breece D'J Pancake. I'll have to eat crow that a Brit new more about Pancake than I did, even though the latter was homegrown. Then again, Alan's stories of life in the Midlands share a similar a bent so its not too surprising he's a fan of Pancake's work (and do check out Taking Doreen Out of the Sky" by Alan, can't recommend it highly enough). Back to the matter at hand...
As I carried this book around New York City, I met a network of Breece D'J Pancake fans. Sit in a bar, there's one person who read the book and swears by it. I understand why. Pancake's prose was stunning. Like Salter, he's a fan of simplicity and lives and breathes his environment. The major difference is that Pancake's environment was the rough and tumble hills of West Virginia. Having spent my fare share of time there, Pancake is spot on and imbues it with such life (even if it is a dark and grimy one) that you can feel yourself in the midst of it all. The dive bars, dilapidated trailers, old farmhouses, abandoned sheds, dusty roads, and rough rocky hills feel all too real. As do the characters, who are shackled to the landscape -- sometimes of their own will, sometimes not -- unable to escape their fate. Pancake has a great love for his characters but is unflinching in putting them through the wringer. Mostly because he knows them well and knows what makes them tick. The tales are heartbreaking and sad. His stories are about the sinners, rather than the saints, who probably should've got the hell out ten years ago. The strength of his writing makes you feel for the bastards.
And my god, the prose. Any writer would be jealous of that scalpel-like skill with words. Take this bit from the opening to Trilobites:
"The air is smoky with summertime. A bunch of starlings swim over me. I was born in this country and I have never very much wanted to leave. I remember Pop's dead eyes looking at me. They were real dry, and that took something out of me. I shut the door, head for the café."
A sense of history runs like a thread throughout all the stories in the collection. An overarching sense that the characters are struggling not only with the ramifications of their own past, but the whole damn history of West Virginia as well. There is an obsession with trilobites and arrowheads and the shape of the hills, where the environment itself becomes an unspoken character. There is no escape from the past for these characters and that feeling of being trapped warps them. Some resort to violence, others just wish someone would understand them for once.
Not all the stories are gems -- short story collections are always tough on writers, you have obvious standouts and then some also-rans. You can instantly spot the stories that might have come from earlier in his career, such as "Fox Hunters," where he was still a little unsure in his delivery. But what writer doesn't suffer that in a short story collection? The good ones however, the ones that grab you and shake your soul, you can't deny them. "Trilobites," "Time and Again," "The Scrapper" (which outdoes Harry Crew's The Knockout Artist), "The Way It Has to Be," and "First Day of Winter" are all first-class stories. Rivaling Saunders, O'Connor, and the rest.
The only downside in all of this is that we're stuck with just this one collection. It was originally published in 1983, four years after Pancake committed suicide.(less)