Book Review

Sloth by Mark Goldblatt (Greenpoint Press, 2010)
reviewed by Duff Brenna

Air the color of khaki, soot on windows prismed with sunlight, neon-skewed dust, the smell of engine fluid and pralines, steam rising from the hood of a truck, a cluster of taxis. Throw into this assortment of images an unnamed narrator trying to prove he isn’t crazy: “Despite appearances, sir, I am not out of my mind. Quite the reverse, it is sanity itself which moves me to this exercise. Sanity itself which moves me to accost you … “

Dostoevsky permeates Goldblatt’s Sloth, especially Notes from Underground with its duality and layers of unreliable realities. Add a large lump of adoration for a TV aerobics instructor named Holly Servant worshipped and wooed from afar by the love-struck diarist of this story and you have what amounts to a word-rich ride, rollickingly inventive.

Will Holly ever respond to the letters of the man who gives himself the pseudonym Mark Goldblatt, whose Medieval beliefs rely, in part, on the notion that beauty of flesh testifies to higher virtues of the soul, the inside reflecting the outside? Truth is beauty, beauty is truth, that’s all ye know on earth and all ye need to know. The nameless narrator a.k.a. Mark Goldblatt builds his dizzying “metronomic dance” around Keats’ famous insight into what makes males tick, especially horny young males transfixed by “areolae shining like tulips through her leotard … pixied blond hair clinging to her moist back and shoulders.” Goldblatt, the real one, the author self-reflexively observing the fictional one, could easily (if he wanted to) write literary pornography that would rival (possibly surpass) anything Robert Cleland wrote when he was obsessed with Fanny’s fanny. But though Sloth doesn’t shy away from things sexual, titillating sex is not its primary purpose, which is rather a somewhat philosophical search for identity.

Who is a.k.a. Goldblatt? And who is Zezel (also known as Mark Goldblatt) who dips in and out of the narrative, playing the role of “best friend” and perhaps in the past a.k.a.’s lover, a great perhaps that a.k.a. denies. No: “He is my dearest friend, yes, but an odd case.”

Who is Mrs. Zezel? Mrs. Zezel is “a Vassar girl … summa cum sassy.
She is, in sum, the very locus of reason, a geometric proof of the soul …” And also trickster devil-may-care “cross between Lauren Bacall and Leo Gorcey.” Mrs. Zezel gets a.k.a. a date with Allison Molho, but he stands her up, an insult for which Mrs. Zezel will never forgive him, even after she finds out her husband Zezel has taken a.k.a.’s place and is in full-blown adultery mode. Mrs. Zezel’s revenge falls on a.k.a. This comes later in the book and is aided by a kitchen counter. Let your imagination loose, Goldblatt certainly does.

Into the author’s cheerful tongue-in-cheek muddle concerning the vicissitudes of love comes a.k.a.’s desperate need to make enough money to buy a VCR, so that he can rent Holly Servant’s Sunrise cassettes and watch her aerobic gyrations, until he is sweat-soaked and satisfied—at least for a few moments.

His main source of income comes from being a waiter. Not a waiter who waits on tables, but a waiter who waits in line, standing in for those who don’t want to show up too early and wait for doors to open for shows and/or events to begin. But the meager income a.k.a. earns from waiting is not enough to afford the coveted VCR. He reads an advertisement asking for volunteers for a scientific experiment. He signs up and is given some green pills, which might or might not contain a new psychotropic drug. His instructions are to take the pills and record his moods or behavior and return to the office every two weeks to have his finger pricked. Each time he is pricked he also receives one hundred dollars. What a deal! He’ll have that VCR in no time and will be able to spend his days and nights wallowing in Holly’s mesmerizing pulchritude.

The plot thickens when a young gay man is murdered and a.k.a. becomes a person of interest. At this point Zezel has already fallen for Allison Molho. The woman who pricks a.k.a.’s finger has also fallen for Allison Molho. Then Mrs. Zezel has that encounter with a.k.a. on the kitchen counter. But even before such a frightening event, Holly starts answering a.k.a.’s letters at last. Their correspondence moves them ever so slowly closer. Maybe he’s her soul-mate. He tells her he is a writer and sends her some of his stories. Problem is: Zezel wrote the stories. Zezel wrote them under the pseudonym Mark Goldblatt. So right away a.k.a. is misrepresenting himself. He’s already lying to the woman he loves more than anyone else in the world.

And then they talk about meeting.

And the detectives keep questioning him.

And a menacing-looking man is spying on a.k.a.

When Zezel breaks into the apartment and reads a.k.a.’s journal, what he finds there makes him want revenge for the kitchen counter incident with Mrs. Zezel.

Will he do something desperate? Will he hurt a.k.a.? Will the spy kidnap him? Will Holly really show up for the rendezvous? Will the detectives try to pin the murder of the gay man on a.k.a.?

Well, it just gets curiouser and curiouser.

Sloth is a work full of artistic flavor and Rabelaisian slumming. It is funny, serious, insightful and as unique in style and substance as any seriocomic novel I’ve read since Steven Gillis penned The Consequence of Skating or Junot Diaz wrote The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Some novels leave you with a smile. Some leave you thoroughly satisfied. Sloth does both.

***

DUFF BRENNA is the author of six novels. He is the recipient of an AWP Award for Best Novel, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel Award for Favorite Book of the year, a Milwaukee Magazine Best Short Story of the Year Award, and a Pushcart Honorable Mention. His work has been translated into six languages.

Book Review of Liam MacSheoinin’s GEORGE W. BUSH BUYS COKE IN MID-ETERNITY

An Agenbite of Inwit & Other Wits as Well

by Duff Brenna

“Hedonic Engineer” Brian Jordan has wandered off the straight path and is nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita (midway along the journey of life), when he falls madly in love with the luscious Rachel, a woman who should have a warning sign stamped on her gorgeous behind that reads Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate: Abandon all hope ye who enter here! Upon her tail hangs the tale of MacSheoinin’s wildly-word-rich, rollicking satire. READ MORE

Book Review: The End of the Circle, by Walter Cummins

BOOK REVIEW by DUFF BRENNA

Walter Cummins has published more than one hundred short stories in venues such as Kansas Quarterly, Virginia Quarterly Review, Confrontation and many, many other journals and magazines. His fourth collection of stories, The End of the Circle, takes place on the run, so to speak, in various places like America and London and Venice and Leiden, the Swiss Alps and Paris and other locations in Europe.

“Oxfords” dips into the lives of Stuart and Winnie and baby Tink; Elaine and Henry and baby Joy. Stuart and Winnie live in Oxford, a tiny farm town in America. They are prosperous and have a very comfortable home. Stuart has a large library that Henry envies. Both Stuart and Henry work at a nearby university, but Stuart is not a teacher. He’s a renowned scholar. A renowned scholar doesn’t need to teach; he does renowned scholar stuff. These contrasting personalities, especially Stuart and Henry, find very little in common. Their wives have babies, Tink and Joy, to help them connect, but Elaine and Winnie would never have formed a friendship otherwise. It’s what the story is about ultimately—connections, how vague and formless and happenstance they are, even those connections between parents and children.  This unlikely foursome never really coalesces. The men are awkward together, having only Stuart’s work to talk about (because he wants to talk, not listen), work which Henry finds only mildly interesting. What Henry notices more than anything other than the renowned scholar’s library is that Stuart can’t stand his son Tink, seems to hate him, actually. We find out the boy was an “accident.”

One day Henry and Stuart are talking and the thread of the conversation leads Henry to think that Stuart is going to explain his aversion to Tink. But instead of an explanation, Stuart wants to discuss Tristram Shandy, and Henry, trying to follow Stuart’s elaborate thesis, ends up “uncertain whether he was in the presence of genius or a bizarre form of madness.” The upshot of Stuart’s problem with his son? He’s a noisy kid, a distraction.  A magnificent mind needs quiet in order to work well. Stuart can’t have a screamer around the house. Too disturbing. Too bothersome. Ultimately, scholarship wins and Stuart leaves Winnie and Tink.

Later, after tragedy strikes Henry and Elaine, the story shifts 20 years into the future and a coincidental meeting in England. A grant has taken Henry to Oxford University. He runs into Stuart who is there doing research. But there’s a large problem for the renowned scholar who needs quiet. His son Tink is there too. Tink is searching for his daddy, who vehemently does not want to be found.

The second story in the collection, “Baggage,” might have been called “The Irritable Traveler.” Or maybe “The Rotten No Good Bastard.” His name is Howard. He’s on a train going from France to Italy. He’s packed into a compartment with five other people of various nationalities. They’re all kind to each other, affable, accommodating; all that is except Howard who decides (capriciously) that he doesn’t like any of his fellow passengers and will not speak for the entire trip no matter what language they use to communicate with him. An old woman in the compartment drops her passport accidently. Howard knows where it is, but he won’t tell her. Let her fret. To hell with her. The passport is found by one of the other passengers and given back to the fretful woman. But Howard’s baggage is on a rack over her head. He sees it is going to fall on her if he doesn’t do something. It is a moment wherein Howard can redeem himself and also spare the old lady from serious harm. Do it, Howard. Come on, man move. You could call this one a cliff-hanger to the last page.

“The Happy Frenchmen” is a story about funny doings. Man. Woman. Love affairs. Let’s get away from it all, darling, away from your wife, away from our colleagues who might rat us out. Let’s go to Italy and call the trip our honeymoon. Sex, good food, wine. And sex and sex, yes lots and lots. Grand idea. Except fate steps in and the couple suddenly have to deal with the man’s dislocated sacroiliac. Sex? What man can have sex when he can hardly get out of bed or dress himself or move other than in a crimped crab sort of way? He’ll find things he doesn’t want to know about his new lover. She’ll be enlightened as well. And there’s that pesky wife waiting back in the States. This story isn’t a belly laugh, but it’s full of irony and knowing chuckles and wise insights into the nature of “lovers” like these two. “Awful Advice,” “Poaching,” and “The End of the Circle” come at the same theme of illicit love in various ways.  All three narratives are little gems and perhaps the most haunting stories in the book.

Other treasures include “Stef,” “What Eamon Did,” “The Beauties of Paris,” and “Missing Venice.” Stef shows us a father visiting his estranged daughter in London. She has a new baby and she’s not married. Her flat is a rundown disgrace. The father has married a younger woman and he doesn’t want to tell her about Stef, but he also wants somehow to connect with his daughter. He is clumsy and awkward. He tells Stef that her baby looks well-behaved. Rapidly, caustically Stef says, “You’ve only seen her for ten seconds.” He asks if the baby gives her problems. With obvious annoyance Stef replies, “She’s a baby, isn’t she.” Then this telling exchange:

“I only meant that some are easier than others.”

“So are some parents.”

And therein hangs a tale of parents and children and everyone going their own way, cutting themselves off from their blood ties and finding how impossible it is to backtrack or start a relationship over. Too many mistakes, heartaches, failures, lapses in caring that turn things so sour nothing can sweeten even an hour when you haven’t been around for years, Daddy. But surprisingly this story concludes on an encouraging note, an ending suggestive of the hopeful possibilities it uncovers.

Carter in “What Eamon Did” is a loner. He saves just enough money at teaching each year to set out for the countryside, living in the woods sometimes, or renting a room when the weather turns bad and he has to. When he stops at a pub for a drink one day some musicians show up to entertain the patrons. One musician who plays a pipe aggressively taunts a man in the audience named Eamon. There is obviously bad blood between them. Carter wants to know what in the world the problem between the two men is. He tries in various ways to find out. By the end of the evening the piper has provoked a fight, not with Eamon, but with Eamon’s overwrought wife. A fight because of something Eamon did, “some crime or sin or stupid error.” Carter knows that the people in town won’t ever let the man forget, not for as long as he lives.

In “The Beauties of Paris” we have another father estranged from his daughter. Her name is Ariel. She has nursed her mother through to a painful death and it is obvious that she, Ariel, is still deeply grieving and angry and emotionally exhausted. The father wants to distract her from her grief by showing her the beauties of Paris. Like the father in “Stef,” he also wants to connect. In an odd way a tentative connection happens when he gets them both lost at night in the middle of a Parisian riot.

“Missing Venice” has David and his son Donny on a train to Venice. David is divorced from Donny’s mother. The fourteen-year-old brat has been making trouble for her. She has remarried and is having another baby and she wants Donny out of her hair, so she guilts David into taking his son on a trip that was originally planned for David and his new wife Virginia.

David and sullen, pissed off Donny meet Maria, a homely woman who doesn’t know when to shut up. She barrages the father and son with her knowledge about Italy and the places the train is passing through. When the three of them reach Venice they can’t find a place to stay, so they end up searching for lodging, wandering the city at night with their cumbersome luggage. It’s very late and very dark and Maria is in an alley crying, David trying to comfort her, Donny standing by angry and bitter at the whole stupid world. When two women and a man they had seen earlier show up and start beating David and Maria, “This is death,” David believes. The sensation of “an absolute emptiness” shudders through him. But finally Donny has somewhere to put his anger. And he does. The result creates one of the most satisfying endings in the entire book.

All of the stories in this latest Cummins’ collection tell us how difficult it is for human beings to really know one another—to really connect—and how unpredictable our futures are. With subtle symbols (trains, unknown streets, crumbling towers to nowhere, dark alleys, claustrophobic hotel rooms) and character insights that only the finest writers have at their command, Cummins reveals another fact over and over: nothing turns out the way you think it will, so don’t create scenarios for your tomorrows. Don’t make inflexible plans, dear traveler—unless you want to hear God laugh.


Duff Brenna is the author of the novels Too Cool (a New York Times Notable Book), The Altar of the Body, and The Book of Mamie (an AWP Best Novel selection).