Robert Beveridge's Reviews > Comfort Food: A Novel

Comfort Food by Noah Ashenhurst
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's review
Jan 23, 2008

did not like it
bookshelves: defenestrated, owned-and-gave-away
Read in January, 2008

Noah Ashenhurst, Comfort Food (Old Meadow Publishers, 2005)

I received a copy of Comfort Food back in the ice age, 2005. I was supposed to review it. I started reading it, and everything was going along swimmingly until a trip out to see my parents in the wilds of the Poconos-- where I misplaced the book. A year later, it turned up. Needless to say I'd forgotten everything I'd read of it previously, so I started over from scratch. So I'm a year late and quite a few dollars short, but I did finally get to the “review it” stage. Unfortunately, I think perhaps it would have been better for everyone involved had the misplaced book never turned up again.

I can't give you a plot summary; Mark Twain would have a great deal of fun pulling out the old blunderbuss and taking cracks at those who would attempt to find a plot here. This is, instead, a loosely-related series of stories revolving around a core group of characters who all (I'm pretty sure, anyway) know one another. Now, I rush to add that this is, in itself, not a bad thing. When it's done correctly, it can make for a stunning novel. Why didn't it work in the case of Comfort Food?

There are two aspects to the writing of a novel (and I hear all the novelists groaning as I say this at my oversimplification). There is the art of writing a novel, which involves all the mental and emotional process. It's the story you want to tell, the life you infuse into the characters. Then there is the craft of writing a novel. It's the way you tell the story. To translate this over to movie talk, the art of a film is the actors and the set. The craft is the script and the set design (or, to break away from the parallel, it's also the director and the cinematographer and the sound effects editor and the gaffer and the best boy and...). Ashenhurst has the art bit down; there are stories to be told here. The craft bit, on the other hand, goes wonky on a fairly regular basis. Even the back jacket copy gives you a basic idea of the confusing nature of the book. “Stan Gillman-Reinhart is a graduate student at a small university in Bellingham, Washington in 1993. Through his experiences and frustrations we meet Delany Richardson, a budding writer and old friend of Stan's; John Snyder, a local musician; Brian Fetzler, Stan's stoner roommate; Dave Griebing, a mountaineer and Delany's ex-boyfriend; and Bridgette Jonsen, a former heroin addict and Dave's current girlfriend.” Yes, you can follow it if you read it through a few times, but it's not exactly writing that sparks the interest, is it? Things don't improve once you open the book up. The list format of the jacket copy isn't just a convenient way to introduce browsers to the stable of characters, it's also a characteristic of the writing:

“He sighed as the tired departing passengers slowed to a trickle.
“He stood up and hoisted his heavy pack over his shoulders and picked up his guitar case, adjusting his hand on the handle. He moved out and walked down the narrow passage to the exit. He pulled on his shoulder straps, unsuccessfully trying to spare his back the strain.”
(p. 42)

Four sentences, a paragraph and a half, all starting with “He”. It lulls the reader to sleep, almost. As a bonus, you can add in a bunch of “his”es, plus “hand”, “handle”, and “heavy” in the second sentence in case you missed the alliteration. Which, again, can be all well and good when it's in the middle of a paragraph that scintillates, something where the writing is as good as the best writing you've ever come across, but here we have deadpan declarative sentences. There's no excitement to them at all. It might be possible to make a case for the old “if you want to write a story about boring people, write a boring story” adage-- that the tenor of the prose mirrors the character's boredom and exhaustion from his recent trip-- but in order to make something like that work, you have to be a master of prose. (The obvious example here is James Joyce's “The Dead”.) Here it just comes off monotonous.

I tried to find a way to give this book a decent review, but I just couldn't. There are books I revel in giving bad reviews to, books where the author has so totally blown it that there's really nothing to do but enjoy the ride as you spiral down a black hole of woeful writing, pathetic plot, and cardboard characters. Comfort Food is, emphatically, not one of those books. I understand what Ashenhurst was trying to do here, and I think that with a great deal of revision, this could be a fantastic novel. In its current state, though, it is not. It is the skeleton of a fantastic novel, but it seems to have been infested with flesh-eating bacteria. (zero)

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