I’m not giving anything away when I say Coyote is about a missing child. It’s the first thing you find out in the first line of Colin Winnette’s new nI’m not giving anything away when I say Coyote is about a missing child. It’s the first thing you find out in the first line of Colin Winnette’s new novella. But what follows is not stock mystery or suspense. All tropes are thrown out the window. The disappearance of the child is treated almost like a natural disaster. Something that couldn’t be avoided, much like a tornado. And now the parents must pick up the pieces and get on with their lives. Easier said then done. Things have become too quiet. The talk shows are no longer calling them, the investigation ground to a halt months ago, and one of the two might be losing their mind. Winnette expertly turns this into a twisted and morbid tale of a married couple falling apart one day at a time. It’s almost as if he heard “Song of Joy,” the macabre opener of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds Murder Ballads, and said to himself, “I can top that.” Coyote is also a confession of sorts, but the story swims in even murkier waters.
Winnette is an effortless writer. He has his tricks and his way of playing with the novel form, but his prose is so relaxed, so surefooted, you almost forget that you’re reading the blasted thing. The story flows out naturally, riding the waves of the narrator’s voice. The chapters are short and punchy, but full of amazing depth. A perfect example: the wife never refers to her spouse as her “husband.” Only as the child’s “dad.” It’s a simple swap in identities, but it speaks volumes about the distance between the married couple. Winnette shows real skill in making you feel as if everything that occurs in the novella is part of the natural world. You can see the trees and the field and the fence surrounding that tiny house out in the middle of nowhere. And then he gut punches you with this simple but dark story. At times you almost feel as if you’re watching a time-lapse video of someone losing their mind over many months. In lesser hands, Coyote would’ve been too caught up in the noir of it all or deteriorated into MFA writerliness. Instead, Winnette delivers a taut story that never feels overwritten. Each word counts and drags you deeper into the whole maddening tale. Bloody hell indeed. ...more
Imagine, if you will, a Shakespeare play dedicated entirely to the gravediggers in Hamlet. The interesting part about the Bard’s comic characters — noImagine, if you will, a Shakespeare play dedicated entirely to the gravediggers in Hamlet. The interesting part about the Bard’s comic characters — not only the gravediggers, but Lear’s fool and the under appreciated Autolycus — is that they are smarter and more honest than their neighbors of higher social standing. Sharp wits and true souls, always taking the piss out of the upper-class twits around them. Sam Pink’s characters share the same qualities. He’s as obsessed with the down-and-out as Shakespeare was and James Kelman is. So much so, that Pink devotes all of Witch Piss to the homeless and destitute of Chicago. They’re addicts and drunks and sinners and thieves. Most are a bit off their rocker. Like Shakespeare’s fools, insanity is part of the package. But they make no apologies. Nor do they operate under any delusions. Pink cares enough about the characters to show them at face value and not romanticize anything. Sometimes they’re extremely funny, other times sad and self-destructive. Denizens like Spider-Man (who is so named for the obvious reason that he tries to dress like Spider Man) and his girlfriend Janet come across not as cliches but living breathing complex human beings. Anyone who lives in a large city knows them well.
While Witch Piss doesn’t boast a plot, it still grabs you. The big draw is Pink’s use of language. It’s downright lyrical, percussive, and sharp. Even when writing in dialects or broken and slurred english, he finds a poetic flow to the characters’ voices. While not having a story per se would hamstring some authors, Pink turns the novel into the equivalent of a photo essay. Each chapter is a snapshot of a group of locals doing exactly what they do on any other day, laid out in Pink’s high-contrast delivery. The narrator, who is present in the story, but essential only as a recorder of events, is shoved to the side. Here and there he utters a platitude or two, from which we can tell that he is as lost as the others. In many ways, he finds his humanity by joining their circle. But the spotlight is not on him. For some this may strike a sore point, but it’s the smarter choice. The narrator really is a stand-in for the reader. Pink smartly keeps the focus on people like Spider-Man who naturally have more interesting things to tell us about human beings. The reader can’t help but get caught up in their stories. Sometimes there is a point, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s really funny. And at other times, the reality of their situations throws a gut punch. In the end, Pink never drags the novel down to a sordid level. Nor does he sugar coat anything. Like life itself, Witch Piss is funny and sad, often at the same time....more
If you've ever lived in the rust belt, so much of what Giffels lays down in The Hard Way on Purpose rings true. Having spent a decade there myself (inIf you've ever lived in the rust belt, so much of what Giffels lays down in The Hard Way on Purpose rings true. Having spent a decade there myself (including Akron, around Cleveland, and smaller towns), I think what Giffels nails most of all is that constant feeling that the circus just left town. Or I'll let the man say it himself:
"Give us something to root for. We'll take anything.
As I grew into early adulthood and observed a larger pattern of hope and loss and hope and loss and hope and loss, and the concurrent resilience thereof, I came to a begrudging conclusion: neither of these things--hope and loss--can exist without the other, and yet at every turn it is necessary to believe that at some point one will ultimately conquer. And that will be our legacy."...more
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 froWar 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....more
You can see how James Kelman can throw people. He’s not the first writer to spin tales of the down-and-out. These are gritty stories full of the hard-You can see how James Kelman can throw people. He’s not the first writer to spin tales of the down-and-out. These are gritty stories full of the hard-nosed and the hard-headed. But they have a deep internal quality to them. Kelman traps the reader inside the skulls of his characters. So you're stuck with their delusions and rambling inner monologues and paranoias and addictions and all the other mental issues. And often those inner thoughts are not the most pleasant ones. So there are no heroes, but a hell of a lot of humans. That is what makes Kelman's stories so compelling. Kelman's characters are the people that always wind up short and holding a grudge against the world (sometimes rightly, sometimes not). You do not root for all of them, but you understand their pain and despair. Often there isn’t a resolution. To some it may feel like the stories end abruptly or don’t reach their logical conclusion. That is Kelman’s point. Life just goes on, usually without a solution or resolution. And like a spending a month in Scotland, there’s not much sunlight. But as a Scotsman would, Kelman laces the stories with a dark sense of humor, as well as heaps of Glaswegian dialect, to help to cut the pain. Some, like “In With the Doctor” can be downright hilarious. Others blend that dark humor with a stark and bleak reality. Take Ronnie, the protagonist of “Greyhound for Breakfast,” who has no business purchasing a racing greyhound. His buddies at the local pub know it better than him and pull no punches when taking the piss. As the story winds it way, along with the Ronnie who is too scared to return home and face the Mrs. with his unwanted visitor, the question reveals itself: which one of these creatures is in a sadder predicament?
The collection is a mix of short stories and even shorter sketches. While it can be a little uneven, the good far outshines the pieces that fall flat. The sketches come across as inner outbursts, including the superb "This man for fuck sake" or "Samaritans.” Consider them aired grievances and observations. The longer pieces follow their protagonists as the drift through hard days, confronted by a society that has either left them behind or won’t give them a leg up. The opener “Old Francis” and “Band of Hope” are both excellent examples of the author’s great craft. And he even throws in a few surprises in the (slightly) shorter tales like “Benson’s Visitor,” “End of a Beginning,” and “A Hunter,” where he delves into great moments of absurdity. Overall, you’ll be knocked back by the really good stories and there’s no arguing with the authority of Kelman’s voice. Few writers nail that gritty tone and claustrophobia of the downtrodden better than him....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 p"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....more
That is the excuse at the heart of Tanzer's well-executed science fiction tale. Which at first seems odd for the author"I would prefer not to, but..."
That is the excuse at the heart of Tanzer's well-executed science fiction tale. Which at first seems odd for the author, but it is very Tanzer-esque. He's cut his teeth writing real-world stories of guys who are inept in their own skins. Men who aren't quite ready for the maturity required in a real relationship. Or definitely not prepared for fatherhood. And they'd rather just bury themselves in a pair a headphones and smother all those problems with a soundtrack that brings back all the good memories of the past (rather than the ever-encroaching present). So at the heart of his first and only science fiction novel, Tanzer is covering similar ground. The guy has an oeuvre. But he's also smart enough to know the best science fiction tales are, at their core, simple. They are meant to reflect our own foibles.
In the futuristic Chicago of Orphans, there are still hapless guys who need to provide for their families. For Norrin Radd, the protagonist, there are bills to pay and a family to feed and sacrifices to be made to achieve both goals. Society has fallen under the control of a single Corporation. If you want to work, you play ball. Or you get cast out. You can provide for your family and live in one of the sanitized districts (enforced by constant surveillance and black helicopters) or you can live on the streets with the unemployed. They have E.C.'s (electronic concierges) and Terraxes (robot labor) to handle the menial jobs. The latter work tirelessly until one day they malfunction and keel over, only to be recycled. Hence the constant refrain of "I would prefer not to, but...". Radd goes along, but not without consequences. He winds up having to travel back and forth between Mars, selling real estate to one-percenters who want to be 'pioneers,' and quickly growing weary of spending all of his time with sweet-talking E.C.s who only serve as reminders of how much of a sucker he is after all. Meanwhile, back home, a carefully programmed Terrax is filling in with his family. And all those insecurities about what happens while he is away start creeping into Radd's brain.
Giving obvious nods to Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick, Tanzer keeps the story focused on human frailty. We can make advances in science, but we're still the same at heart. Radd would prefer not to, but.... While this might feel like well-trod ground for Tanzer, the story is smart and absurd and even eerie in parts, which is a new bent for the author. The scifi elements never go off the deep end -- they always feel believable, trusting the reader to grasp everything without all the details. Tanzer is a confident enough storyteller that he doesn't need to produce a Total Recall like standoff at the end. Some folks might hate that, but Radd's ultimate fate rings true. The world is bigger than Radd and he could play the hero, but.... ...more
Take Hitchcock's North by Northwest and transplant it to the wilds of Eastern Long Island. But instead of the sophisticated urbanite Roger Thornhill,Take 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?...more
You could view The Violent Bear it Away as a companion novel to Flannery O’Connor’s earlier Wise Blood. The are the only two novels O’Connor publishedYou could view The Violent Bear it Away as a companion novel to Flannery O’Connor’s earlier Wise Blood. The are the only two novels O’Connor published and, separated by only 8 years, both focus on the author’s religious views.
But in many ways, both are novels about insanity. To O’Connor, religious zealots and secular absolutists suffer the same delusions. Hazel Motes of Wise Blood and Francis Tarwarter of The Violent Bear It Away are mirror images. One dedicated to anti-religion, the other obsessed with his destiny as a prophet. In the latter case, Tarwater quickly finds himself s at odds with his Uncle Rayber, a devout secularist, who having been raised by the same mad Uncle (or great-uncle) as Tarwater, has dedicated himself to “correct”-ing the young zealot. Rayber, having sworn off religion in favor of logic, feels a fervent duty to save Tarwater. Meanwhile, Tarwater, while still rejecting his great-uncle’s wishes, feels compelled to follow his instructions to baptize Rayber’s only son Bishop, who has Down’s Syndrome. You can see where O’Connor draws the ironic line on which the novel hinges. Both Tarwater and Rayber are zealots, out to save another at any costs. The tug of war that ensues, reveals the insanity O’Connor sees at the heart of both characters. It winds up being the source of their downfalls.
As with Wiseblood, The Violent Bear It Away is also a novel of destruction, both personal and physical. In its dark opening, Tarwater, upon discovering his great-uncle dead in the kitchen, does not heed the deceased’s last wishes for a proper Christian burial. Spurred on by a mysterious voice in his head, Tarwater instead gets drunk and sets their ramshackle cabin on fire with the body still inside. The violence of that act, becomes the fuel that sets the novel in motion. Even though an act of rejection, it leads Tarwater to Rayber, who in his effort to civilize the boy (as he sees it), actually forces him closer to a life of piety. Tartar struggles with the destiny his mad great-uncle laid out for him — be a prophet and baptize Rayner’s child or turn away from God. Without revealing the sad and very dark ending, things do not go well for either Tarwater or Rayber. For the latter, his logic and secularism leads him to realize that he has no love in his heart. Not only did he fail to ‘save’ Tarwater, but he also did not truly love his own son. And Tarwater goes down in defeat as well. Towards the end of the novel, hitching back to the old shack, he tells a driver,
“I’m going back there. I ain’t going to leave it again. I’m in full charge there. No voice will be uplifted. I shouldn’t never have left it except I had to prove I wasn’t no prophet and I’ve proved it…. Now all I have to do is mind my own bidnis until I die. I don’t have to baptize or prophesy.”
At that point, Tarwater refutes the idea of a chosen path by God. He has embraced Rayber’s secularism. Ultimately, though, the novel ends as it began with Tarwater lighting a massive fire. And that violent act leads to him to admitting his own defeat, his inability to escape what his Great-Uncle predicted for him. O’Connor with her dark southern gothic bent, turns that moment not into a triumph, but a downfall in itself....more