A Review of Larry Smith’s Mingo Town & Memories by Mike James

 

 

A Review of Larry Smith’s

Mingo Town & Memories

By Mike James

 

Larry Smith knows what a penny tastes like. I kept thinking that while reading his fine new collection of poems, not because he says that but because his poems are so concerned with the absence of money.

Neither Eugene Debs nor Sherwood Anderson are mentioned in any poem, but any reader might notice them at the book’s periphery. Like Debs, Smith is concerned with the underclass and with how class can go a long way towards shaping destiny. And, like Debs, he has an almost mystical faith in the goodness of collective humanity.  Like Anderson, Smith is focused on day-to-day, small town, Ohio life. Also, just like Anderson, Smith is concerned with language spoken in diners and factories. There’s nothing ornamental in these poems. They are as sturdy and as practical as Amish furniture. His characters don’t always do right, but they seem to always recognize when they’ve done wrong.

Smith is an Ohio writer who has been publishing widely since the 1970’s. His books include poetry, novels, translations, biography, and non-fiction.  For his many readers, this new collection will arrive like an old friend. The things he’s always done well he continues to shine with.

Here’s a sample to illustrate what Smith is really good at, from his poem, “Wages.”

 

When I break a plate, Mom cries,
“Oh shit. Look what you’ve done.”
You can hear the sound of wind.
Then Mom hands Dad a fist full of bills,
and we kids go off to our rooms.
Tomorrow will mean our old clothes again
and the counting of our coins. 

 

Now poetry is about structuring language as much as it is about anything. Look at what Smith does with the endings of those lines. Only one word (again) is more than one syllable. Smith not only sticks to the vernacular here, but he also uses monosyllables to emphasize harshness and what it’s like to just get by. At the same time he allows the lines to play upon one another with off rhymes of wind/again and rooms/coins. This is an artful way to not draw attention away from the scene. Smith does a fine job of saying just enough in his poems.

These poems are often about the moments of just enough. Smith’s characters do a lot of waiting. Factory workers wait around to see if they will stay employed. Boys wait along the river. Old couples wait to talk. They are ordinary people killing time. Now and then a couple of his characters get together and are like, “two boats mooring along the shore.”

 

Mingo Town & Memories by Larry Smith
Bird Dog Publishing, 2020
Poetry, $15

 

 

About the Authors:

Mike James makes his home outside Nashville, Tennessee. He has published in numerous magazines throughout the country in such places as Plainsongs, Gargoyle, Birmingham Poetry Review, and Chiron Review. His fifteen poetry collections include: Journeyman’s Suitcase (Luchador), Parades (Alien Buddha), Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor (Blue Horse), First-Hand Accounts from Made-Up Places (Stubborn Mule), Crows in the Jukebox (Bottom Dog), My Favorite Houseguest (FutureCycle), and Peddler’s Blues (Main Street Rag.) He served as an associate editor of The Kentucky Review and currently serves as an associate editor of Unbroken.

Larry Smith is the editor-publisher of Bottom Dog Press in Ohio, also the author of 6 books of fiction and 8 books of poems, most recently The Pears: Poems. A retired professor of humanities, he lives and works along the shores of Lake Erie in Huron, Ohio.

 

More Reviews by Mike James:

Mike James reviews “Dead Letter Office: Selected Poems” By Marko Pogacar

Mike James reviews Beautiful Aliens: A Steve Abbott Reader and Have You Seen This Man? The Castro Poems of Karl Tierney

Chase Dimock reviews “The Premise of My Confession: A Dramatis Personae” By Sean Karns

 

Chase Dimock reviews

The Premise of My Confession: A Dramatis Personae

By Sean Karns

 

Many times, I have sat next to a random, drunk stranger at a bar, and he used the chance meeting to stammer and slur his words through his life’s story, the dizzying heights and crushing defeats. He has used my expressionless face as a sounding board for his ill-defined philosophies, raging impotently at foes he never really explained, pining for lost joys whose sweetness I couldn’t smell over his beer breath. He has seen a reflection of a younger self in my eyes, and tried to warn himself about the agonies of the future in which he lives.

Many times, that random drunk stranger at the bar was me. 

Maybe it’s because the bourbon has washed away all the specific contents of these tavern confessions, but I don’t remember any of them coming close to the philosophical depth and poetic craft of Sean Karns’ new book, The Premise of My Confession: A Dramatis Personae. 

The premise of this chapbook is simple. A retired magician meets an nameless stand-in for the reader at a bar and in 25 pages, we hear the rise and fall of a magician addicted to and debilitated by his craft and the audience’s adoration of his spectacle. The longform poem is set up like a dramatic play, though the only other character who speaks and breaks up the magician’s monologue is a nameless narrator who addresses you, the reader, to provide exposition. Yet, the narrator does not just describe the scene and plot; he also tells you how you feel and react while listening to the magician:

You impatiently shift in your barstool
And stare at your hands and pick at your nails.
You have no clear exit strategy

Perhaps I am in the minority here, but this voice of a narrator explaining my own actions to myself replicates my experience of drinking and remaining silent as others prattle on.

Karns’ chapbook follows a tradition of random encounters with monologuing, philosophical drunks in literature. As I read the magician’s story, I thought about Crime and Punishment and The Fall. Raskolnikov listens to the drunken laments of barflies who squandered their family’s savings and reputation as Dostoevsky explores what he called “the present question of drunkeness.” In The Fall Camus places the reader in an Amsterdam bar. You are the unlikely recipient of the confession of a once prominent and respected defense attorney whose fall from grace came from the paralyzing realization he did not authentically believe in the values he championed in court.

Karns’ Magician is somewhere between the drunken oblivion of Mameladov and the weary introspection of Clemence. Like both Dostoevsky and Camus, Karns’ perspective is existential. All the world’s a stage, and that is where the crisis of authenticity opens the void, or as the Magician explains, a wound:

When you’re a spectacle, you can’t be something else.
There are consequences for acknowledging

There is an absence. I didn’t want to be
A lonely spectacle…how’re we spectacles,

You ask? Why so dismissive? The Wound will
Let you know what you are or aren’t.

We’re formed by a collection of the Wound’s 
Memories, and through these memories,

We become a spectacle, a viewing pleasure
For others, especially for the Wound.

Here, I feel as though I am under the gaze of Jean-Paul Sartre, thinking of how we internalize the gaze of others and become not a being in of itself, but a being for others. When how we perform for others pleases the other, we internalize that role and mistake it for an authentic self. As the magician puts it “While performing a pointless trick/ Perhaps our real selves are locked in trunks.” 

As a young queer scholar, a short passage from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness redefined my understanding of my own identity. To illustrate the problems with authenticity, Sartre presents a scenario in which a homosexual man refuses to come out to another person who believes he has the right to urge him out of the closet. The homosexual man is in a bind here. If he were to lie about homosexual desires, he would be inauthentic with his true desires. But, if he were to confess, he would would be accepting the definition and expectations of sexuality that the other man holds, which the homosexual man does not agree with. He can’t deny himself, but he also can’t validate the flawed thinking of others that would place a label and category on him that doesn’t come from himself.

Karns’ Magician presents a similar problem with authenticity and being turned into a being for others:

As a spectacle, for it was all
I knew, and I knew I’d regret it.

Hypnotize, I’d regret it. Don’t,
I’d regret it. Disappear and relocate

An audience member, I’d regret it.
Don’t I’d regret it. Unknowingly

The audience follows the spectacle
Into ocean bound trunks.

Like Sartre’s example of the closeted homosexual, you regret staying in the trunk and hiding, but you also regret pantomiming the expectations of the crowd on stage. Even celebrated figures like famous magicians become bound by the persona needed to achieve applause. I wonder if those 80s and 90s bands, well past their glory years, that you see playing county fairs every summer ever feel this way. Could you find the guy from Smash Mouth sitting next to you at the funnel cake stand, confessing that he’d rather lock himself in the mic trunk than sing “All Star” one more time?

But here’s the inherent problem with confessions that the Magician, the homosexual man in Sartre’s story, and maybe even the Smash Mouth guy knows: they are always given to someone who does not possess the power to forgive them. As the Magician says: 

And I longed for forgiveness for years
Of deception, but the Wound ignores confessions

And redemptions–the Wound requires you
To absolve your guilt, alone.

Since in this poem, the person receiving this statement is “you,” I wonder if this means that the magician knows this barroom confession is invalid since he is not alone and “you” cannot absolve his guilt, like some people assume priests can. Maybe this confession is as much a performance for an audience as any of his magic tricks.

Or, maybe this is why “you” do not speak in this poem, and why he speaks to a random stranger. Even though you’re there to hear him, he’s still alone in the bar.

 

The Premise of My Confession: A Dramatis Personae is available via Finishing Line Press

 

About the Author: Chase Dimock is the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be Magazine. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois and his scholarship has appeared in College LiteratureWestern American Literature, and numerous edited anthologies. His works of literary criticism have appeared in Mayday MagazineThe Lambda Literary ReviewModern American Poetry, and Dissertation Reviews. His poetry has appeared in Waccamaw, New Mexico Review, Faultline, Hot Metal Bridge, Saw Palm, Flyway, and San Pedro River Review among othersFor more of his work, check out ChaseDimock.com.

 

More Reviews By Chase Dimock:

A Review of All Seats Fifty Cents by Stephen Roger Powers

A Review of Willingly by Marc Frazier

A Review of Your Daughter’s Country by John Dorsey

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: NO

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from NO
By Ocean Vuong


TORSO OF AIR

Suppose you do change your life.
& the body is more than

a portion of night—sealed
with bruises. Suppose you woke

& found your shadow replaced
by a black wolf. The boy, beautiful

and gone. So you take the knife to the wall
instead. You carve & carve.

Until a coin of light appears
& you get to look in, for once,

on happiness. The eye
staring back from the other side—

waiting.



HOME WRECKER

And this is how we danced: with our mothers’
white dresses spilling from our feet, late August

turning our hands dark red. And this is how we loved:
a fifth of vodka and an afternoon in the attic, your fingers

sweeping though my hair—my hair a wildfire.
We covered our ears and your father’s tantrum turned

into heartbeats. When our lips touched the day closed
into a coffin. In the museum of the heart

there are two headless people building a burning house.
There was always the shotgun above the fireplace.

Always another hour to kill—only to beg some god
to give it back. If not the attic, the car. If not the car,

the dream. If not the boy, his clothes. If not alive,
put down the phone. Because the year is a distance

we’ve traveled in circles. Which is to say: this is how
we danced: alone in sleeping bodies. Which is to say:

This is how we loved: a knife on the tongue turning
into a tongue.



Today’s poems are from NO, published by Yes Yes Books, copyright © 2013 by Ocean Vuong. “Torso of Air” previously appeared in BODY Literature, and “Home Wrecker” previously appeared in Linebreak. These poems appear here today with permission from the poet.


NO: Anyone who has already sensed that “hope is a feathered thing that dies in the Lord’s mouth,” should get their hands on NO. Honest, intimate, and brimming with lyric intensity, these stunning poems come of age with a fifth of vodka and an afternoon in an attic, with a record stuck on please, with starlight on a falling bomb. Even as Vuong leads you through every pleasure a body deserves and all the ensuing grief, these poems restore you with hope, that godforsaken thing—alive, singing along to the radio, suddenly sufficient. —Traci Brimhall, Our Lady of the Ruins


Ocean Vuong is a recipient of a 2013 Pushcart Prize as well as fellowships from Kundiman, Poets House, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Poems appear in Poetry, The Nation, Beloit Poetry Journal, Passages North, Quarterly West, Denver Quarterly, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the 2012 Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. He lives in Queens, NY.


Editor’s Note: I’m just going to come right out and say this: Ocean Vuong is one of the best and most important poets writing in America today. I have not been so moved as I am by Vuong’s words since I first read Li-Young Lee. This poet has changed my life. He has renewed my belief in American poetry. That it can be emotional and heartbreaking. That is can be beautiful and full of hope. That modern American poetry can—and does—matter. In my humble opinion your poetry collection is simply not complete unless it houses both Vuong’s groundbreaking chapbook, Burnings, and his newest release from Yes Yes Books, NO.

NO is a surprisingly experimental collection, yet Vuong remains dedicated to the lyric and the narrative, guiding us through its formal twists and turns through emotive language and evocative imagery. Throughout its pages the poet intimately explores themes of love, sexuality, and belonging against a backdrop of devastating loss. It is a brilliant and beautiful collection, a true heartbreaking work of staggering genius. As the book’s publisher did when reading through the manuscript for the first time, when Ocean Vuong says NO to you, be prepared to say “Yes Yes!”


Want to see more from Ocean Vuong?
Buy NO from Yes Yes
The Poetry Foundation
Interview in The Well & Often Reader
Ben Lerner on mentoring Ocean Vuong, Brooklyn College

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: ONLY RIDE

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from ONLY RIDE
By Megan Volpert:


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Today’s poems are from Only Ride, published by Sibling Rivalry Press, copyright © 2014 by Megan Volpert. “You are suspended” was first published in This assignment is so gay, edited by Megan Volpert and published by Sibling Rivalry Press. These poems appear here today with permission from the poet.


Only Ride: If Denis Johnson had written Tuesdays with Morrie, it’d feel like Megan Volpert’s book of prose poems. Clawing its way out through this minimalist checklist of suburban malaise is an emphatically optimistic approach to growing up. These tiny essays carefully detail how to avoid becoming one’s parents, how to manage a body addled by disease, and how to keep having the best possible time in life. After all: this is the only ride there is, and we can only ride it. Volpert’s is a story of Springsteenian proportions, a gentleman’s guide to rebellion complete with iron horses and the church of rock & roll.

Megan Volpert is the author of five books on communication and popular culture, most notably about Andy Warhol. She has been teaching high school English in Atlanta for the better part of a decade, and is currently serving as her school’s Teacher of the Year. She edited the American Library Association-honored anthology This assignment is so gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching, which is currently a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Predictably, www.meganvolpert.com is her website.

Editor’s Note: Megan Volpert’s Only Ride is a no-holds-barred journey through personal history, with sage wisdom bursting from its rough-and-tumble seams. The book is less Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and more Get a Grip and Ride Like it’s Your Only Ride. This is a book about how to live life. Suck it up and move past the childhood issues that scarred you. Don’t just cope with illness, thrive in the face of it. Live life full throttle no matter what it throws at you, because life is short and living demands fierce courage.

Throughout her journey Volpert takes personal and political stands, inspiring her readers to do the same. Sometimes you’ve just gotta smash things, because “a deep frustration that hurls pottery against the concrete floor… is not the thing to bottle up in shame.” Sometimes a teacher has a responsibility to teach more than just standard curriculum. As “the only openly queer faculty member in [a] public Southern high school,” Volpert is “fully equipped to teach both English & tolerance,” and she’ll write a student up for failing the latter.

Brimming with humor and hubris and wicked wit, the greatest gift of this book is the life lessons it relays. Stand up for what you believe in. Move past life’s bullshit and face adversity with a battle cry. Let go of the small stuff. “Many things annoy me,” Volpert confides, “but I seldom get really angry because now I just feel so lucky to be alive.” And we all should, the implication echoes. In a world where “[d]eath knocks twice: once for introductions & once to take you away,” why waste your precious life letting things get your goat? Having faced death, the poet gave her goat away; she has no goat to give. And we would all be well served to follow her example. “After all: this is the only ride there is, and we can only ride it.”

Want to see more from Megan Volpert?
Official Website
This assignment is so gay
Sibling Rivalry Press
FRONTIER PSYCHIATRIST

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: THE ARROW

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from THE ARROW
By Lauren Ireland


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Today’s poems are from The Arrow, published by Coconut Books, copyright © 2014 by Lauren Ireland, and appear here today with permission from the poet.


The Arrow: “It took almost a lifetime’s worth of emotions to read Lauren Ireland’s THE ARROW. She says Time eats at the edges of things so we hear her say other things, too, I am hating you from very far away and I am a grownup/flying right into the mouth of fear. This book is fraught with emotional emergencies, sometimes reckless, almost a little demented as one has to be when one faces who and what and where and how we are. Lucky for Ireland there are friends to whom many of these poems are dedicated who accompany her as she’s permanently lost in this very very mysterious flight we all share.” —Dara Wier


Lauren Ireland grew up in southern Maryland and coastal Virginia. She is a graduate of the MFA program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and an editor at Lungfull! Magazine. Lauren is the author of Dear Lil Wayne (Magic Helicopter Press, 2014) and two chapbooks, Sorry It’s So Small (Factory Hollow Press, 2011) and Olga & Fritz (Mondo Bummer Press, 2011). She co-curated The Reading at Chrystie Street in New York. Currently, she lives in Seattle with her husband and her husband’s cat.


Editor’s Note: As I read Lauren Ireland’s The Arrow I pushed against the book’s air of flippancy, its self-preservation in the guise of farce and self-deprecation, its false oaths of apathy. These are, as Naomi Shihab Nye would say, “the armor [the book] put[s] on to pretend [it has] a purpose in the world.” But this book does not need to pretend. It wears its armor as a tricked out husk around its fervent vulnerability. The poems within its pages are the bloodlettings of a twisted, tortured, and exceedingly human mind.

The Arrow is full of moments of lyric beauty and stunning, brutal clarity interwoven with equal portions of heaviness and frivolity that make for quite the witches’ brew. There is something unsettling about this book. Something that does not sit well. A wound or scab that begs to be healed yet must be picked at. I was often uncomfortable reading it, yet I could not put it down. I was drawn to the beauty and put off by the grotesque, and I believe this was meant to be the author’s poetic commentary on life. Life—like this book—is full of debauchery and death, fear and imagination, the mundane and the absurd. Love is inextricably linked with hate. There is a thin line between reality, waking dreams, and nightmares. This book is labyrinthine, in both the literal sense and the David Bowie sense of the word.

While it is easier to take some poems in the book more seriously than others, this, too, is an artistic reflection of the human life. As a work of art, however, I felt myself anchored throughout my journey by very deliberate artistic choices. Wickedly smart and poignant titles. Moments of lyric clarity that took my breath away. And a healthy dose of killer end-lines, which I am always a sucker for. “Now I am a grownup flying right into the mouth of fear,” “Now… I am running / from the nighttime wolves / in the forest that never was,” and that crushing Orphic echo, “Oh / I am exiled / my friend / this once / don’t turn.”


Want to see more from Lauren Ireland?
Official Author Website
Buy The Arrow from Coconut Books
Buy Dear Lil Wayne from Magic Helicopter Press
Small Press Distribution

Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, reviewed by Eric Kroczek


Official White House photo of President Richard Nixon NARA National Archives and Records Administration (public domain)

The most remarkable thing about Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland is that it was published four and a half years ago, before Barack Obama was elected president, before the Tea Party, before Occupy. Otherwise you might be forgiven for thinking that Perlstein was drawing meaningful parallels between our era and the 1960s and early 1970s of Richard Nixon’s heyday. There’s no way he could have been, of course. But it sure feels that way.

It is easy to forget that our current toxic “red state/blue state” opposition is nothing especially new, even if it has taken on a novel geographical aspect—a “big sort,” as Bill Bishop has it. We neglect to trace our current divide back through the Reagan era, through the Nixon era, to 1965, which is Perlstein’s starting point. The United States has been two oppositional yet intermingled nations for nearly fifty years, and Perlstein sets out to find out where it started and who stood to profit from exploiting that tension.

Nixonland is about Kulturkampf, American-style, and about Richard Nixon’s manipulation of it for political gain. Perlstein’s thesis is that the future president’s worldview was formed at Whittier College, where young Nixon was shut out of the world of the Establishment swells, known there as “Franklins”; Nixon formed his own social club for the lower-class strivers, which he called the Orthogonians. For the rest of his life, Perlstein claims, Nixon saw the world as divided between the Franklins and the Orthogonians. (This is an interesting tack for Perlstein to take, given that he prefaces every psychological insight he borrows from other sources—that is, virtually all of them—with “The psychobiographers might say that…” or something similar; more on that below.) What’s more, he had a gift for sniffing out these socioeconomic oppositions and using them to further his political career. Paradoxically, Nixon positioned himself as the champion of the traditional values of the working class in spite of his membership in the party of business and wealth, and he was the first to bring many blue-collar voters into that party, which so disdained their economic interests. Before there was What’s the Matter with Kansas? there were the Reagan Democrats, and before the Reagan Democrats, there was Nixon’s “Silent Majority.”

How did he do it? The answer is obvious to us, because it’s the political air we now breathe: cultural wedge issues. It wasn’t so obvious at the time. Nixon pioneered the alchemical transmutation of fear of change and class resentment (where class is a cultural category, rather than strictly an economic one) into virtues, a subtle manipulation that Perlstein calls “political jujitsu.” How dare those artists and movie stars, those pinko professors and Establishment liberals, that liberal-biased media sympathize with the Communists we’re fighting in Korea and Cuba and Vietnam, the druggie degenerates who are tearing apart the moral fabric of our great nation and perverting our children, the civil rights activists and Yippie political agitators who want to change our venerable Constitution and overthrow our government? How dare they throw their “tolerance” and “experimentation” in our faces? We just want economic stability and peace and quiet in the streets and the kind of life our parents had, only more prosperous.

And so, after a quick summary of Nixon’s boyhood, education, and early political career—including the all-important “Checkers” broadcast, in which Nixon gave an early virtuoso performance of his uniquely passive-aggressive brand of moral suasion—Perlstein throws us into the Watts riots of 1965, where the era of Great Society peace and prosperity promised by Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide victory (the 1960s equivalent of Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 premature prediction of the “End of History”) immolated itself before a shocked television audience. Nixon took in the violent cultural fault lines created by desegregation and protest against an already unpopular war. He understood that once equal rights became a statutory reality, oppressed blacks would not tolerate anything but the full and immediate fulfillment of that legal promise, which most whites, especially Southern and working-class whites, would not abide. He saw that the traditionally Democratic South was appalled by LBJ’s liberal turn on civil rights and desegregation, and that in the North, traditional Democratic stalwarts such as labor unions and big-city machines felt as though their interests were being ignored in favor of rights and privileges for blacks and the non-working poor. And in all this he saw opportunity—opportunity for a traditional-values based Republican party, led by Richard M. Nixon, to make inroads into perennial Democratic strongholds. Nixon was always a hard worker, and he put all his energy, stamina, cunning, and political influence to work.

Perlstein goes into great detail as he traces the disintegration of the Democratic party—first at the notorious 1968 nominating convention in Chicago and then at the less-infamous, but perhaps even more damaging, 1972 convention in Miami Beach—and the implosion of George McGovern’s presidential run. Perlstein rightly sees McGovern’s campaign as doomed from the start: though his ill-advised choice of Thomas Eagleton as his running mate was the coup de grace, it was the Committee to Re-Elect the President’s sabotage, the internecine skirmishes and philosophical contradictions between rival candidates and factions, and the neutering of the once-powerful bosses, capped off by a three-ring circus of a convention that showcased the party’s divisions and apparent frivolities, that preordained the Democrats’ failure. Simultaneously, he follows the rise, and the beginning of the political demise, of Richard M. Nixon.

Perlstein’s talent (at least here) is not with original research (Nixonland contains little, if any), but with sifting through secondary sources and collocating and analyzing his finds. He arranges his facts to speak for themselves, and his style of analysis is subtle and unobtrusive, interwoven into the narrative so well that the reader sometimes fails to notice that the story has taken a didactic turn. He is also an astute student of politics and a political realist, with a deep respect for the compromise, the coalition, the power play, and even machine politics to a degree (for an excellent short-form example of Perlstein at work, see this recent piece on Barack Obama’s roots in Chicago machine politics). It is here that the lessons he takes from the history of Nixon’s era differ from the usual partisan fare—even when he’s using source material written by partisan observers—and where his analysis of the politics of that time provides unsettling insights into our current situation. He stresses how radicals’ chronic aversion to compromise and coalition-building, and their incorrigible overestimation of the majority’s tolerance for rapid change and novelty, nearly always dooms their efforts to effect reform, and how the top-down reforms they are able to institute so often meet with resistance from the rank-and-file. The radicals’ fetish for open discussion and equal and democratic representation in all decisions, especially in combination with the aversion to compromise and coalition, creates deadlock and endless delay and forecloses any possibility of quick executive decision-making and nimble response—a lesson that the Occupy movement has yet to take to heart. And all too often, there is a Richard Nixon figure, an adept of Realpolitik, to capitalize on the chaos that ensues.

And about Realpolitik: an argument that Perlstein seems implicitly to make is that Nixon’s downfall was at least partly a function of his transformation from a sort of Manichaean figure, the scourge of State Department crypto-Communists and hippies and champion of the “Silent Majority,” to a disciple of Henry Kissinger’s amoral power-worship. His manipulations vis-à-vis the Vietnam war—of facts, of the lives of POWs—and his brute, naked lust to gain a second term as president, his increasing paranoia, his stonewalling of the press, his abandonment of principle in the economic realm as stagflation and competition from Japan and the Common Market created trade imbalances and degraded the value of the dollar, his need to surround himself with venal yes-men who would do literally anything to get a leg up on the president’s “enemies”: these were distortions and exaggerations of Nixon’s character flaws that only grew the more power he amassed. It is an interesting theory, if it can even be called a full-fledged theory, but it smacks of the kind of armchair psychoanalysis that Perlstein claims to disdain.

Nixonland is a big book, a sprawling history, given its seemingly narrow focus of a seven-year period, and its epic scope and accumulative nature have the virtue of presenting the reader with a wealth of trivial information and glimpses—foreshadowings—of things and people that will become important only later. We meet a young Karl Rove, a campus Young Republican who ingratiated himself into the Committee to Re-Elect the President by bringing to the ’72 campaign a bag of political tricks garnered in college elections. We meet a newly-divorced Senator Bob Dole on the prowl, sporting bell-bottoms and a fake tan. We see early abuses of the Political Action Committee in John Connally’s Democrats for Nixon, which produced one of those tasty if vapid statistical coincidences that really make reading history fun: the specious claim, in a TV ad, that George McGovern would make 47% of the population eligible for welfare. But the agglomerative method also has its drawbacks: one finds repetitions of unfortunate words and phrases—near-comical overuses of the phrases “slow, soiling humiliations” and “man bites dog,” and of the words “solons” for legislators and “exuberants” for conservative die-hards come immediately to mind—as well as the sort of minor factual errors that have the effect of calling into question the veracity of more important claims: the film Straw Dogs is not a western; Richard Nixon’s father was born in Ohio, not Indiana; and the chief official of a Nazi political district was a Gauleiter, a German word, not gauletier, a real-sounding but imaginary French one.

On a more macro level, while one shudders at the possibility of seeing scores more instances of “slow, soiling humiliations,” it might have been interesting had Perlstein lent his skills to taking the book all the way through Watergate to Nixon’s actual resignation, rather than leaving off shortly after the 1972 election. But that could well be an entire 900-page book in itself, and Perlstein succeeds admirably in proving his point in the period he allotted himself. What remains to be seen is whether American politics continue to exhibit—as in Nixon, in his pupil Ronald Reagan, and in Reagan’s student George W. Bush—the pattern of ruthless power-seeking by the Right, and rudderless floundering and fissile factionalism within the Left. The human cost of such recurrent dysfunction is higher than ever.

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.

Small Press Review Series: One Last Good Time and the Literary Platypus

One Last Good Time
Michael Kardos
Press 53 (2010), 185 pages, $14.95

The trouble with interconnected story collections is that they are interconnected.

I know, I know: the first rule of tautology club is the first rule of tautology club. But in this case, it’s not an argumentative fallacy to say that the qualities that make interconnected story collections theoretically interesting can make them disappointing in practice. It has to do with reader response: we come to a short story for a discrete experience – a world we enter and leave in the same sitting. If we recognize a character, a setting, or a matrix of events from a previous story the sense of separateness is lost. And at the same time, we don’t get the total immersion of a novel. READ MORE

French Connection

Two recent novels by French-speaking authors blend close psychological analysis with free-flowing lyricism to tell deceptively simple love stories. One of those books, In the Train, by Christian Oster, was released by Object Press this year. Object Press, out of Toronto, is an indie press established in 2008 and with only two titles to its name so far. But if In the Train is any indication, they are off to a promising start.

Oster’s novel is small, not quite 150 sparsely printed pages, and the story it tells is a modest one. Frank, nondescript in every aspect except his tendency to overanalyze and his habit of seeking out women on train platforms, meets Anne, a woman carrying a large bag at the Paris station. He offers to hold the bag for her and thus their romance begins. Anne is cautious at first, but Frank insinuates himself into her heart through a series of maneuvers ranging from half-gestures to outright stalking – or what would amount to stalking if we weren’t charmed by Frank’s voice and thus made to trust his motives.

I’ve not read another novel by Oster so I can’t say if this voice is his or one cleverly adopted for Frank. But whether he’s chosen the perfect character for his style or created the perfect style for his character, it’s a match. Comma-heavy, this style involves long sentences, full of clarifications, elaborations, asides, and disclaimers – many of them seemingly unnecessary; and yet they charm us while drawing us closer to Frank, and so, I think, are essential.

Here is Frank analyzing Anne’s reaction after he offers to hold her bag:

She looked tempted by my offer, although still undecided. Then she looked at me and thought that, at worst, I was interested in her, not her bag, and she handed it to me… I took the bag, thinking this woman was actually pretty relaxed, with men, unless she was doing everything possible to be left in peace, but I wasn’t sure this was the best way to go about it, with a man. But with me, I don’t know.

There are plenty of phrases here that an insensitive editor might remove, but to do so would be to miss the point. And besides, there’s enough meat in the story that we don’t get sick of this style. Not only is there Frank’s questionable behavior as he knocks on every door of the hotel to which he has followed Anne – is this gesture romantic or creepy, and more importantly, how will Anne see it? – but there is another man, a successful and interesting author who uses Anne as a plaything. When Anne first takes off her robe for Frank, in her hotel room while waiting for the author to return, we are not sure whether her behavior is the result of genuine attraction or revenge on a man who has hurt her. We go on questioning her sincerity throughout the story: even when she does succumb to Frank’s love, we can’t help but feel she’s settling.

The overly explanatory style doesn’t always suit Oster’s purposes perfectly. The bag in the aforementioned passage comes to symbolize many things – an obstacle to Frank and Anne being fully united; the weight of their separate pasts; the burden of love – but Frank makes all these meanings explicit to us, and in doing so, they lose some of the impact they might have had were we allowed to figure them out on our own.

All in all though, this is a strong novel in the European mode – if I might be allowed such a generalization. European novels tend to privilege abstraction and the explicit elaboration of thought and feeling, while American novels approach these things obliquely, through gesture, dialogue, loaded description and telling action. Both are useful and worthy methods, but it’s books like this that give rise to the lie at the heart of the worst American fiction: that we do not elaborate our feelings and thoughts to ourselves; that we are acting, not thinking, beings and that we approach our consciousnesses indirectly.

Running Away, by Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint, is roughly the same size and scope as In the Train. Released in 2009 by Dalkey Archive Press, it tells the story of an unnamed narrator who, on business trip to Shanghai, becomes involved with a mysterious woman named Li Qi. What follows is a whirlwind, dreamlike romance.

Like In the Train, much of this book takes place on the move – in trains, yes, but also on planes; and there is even a high-speed chase by motorcycle. As in In the Train, the romance is complicated by a third party – in this case, the narrator’s business partner, Zhang Xiangzhi, who has an ambiguous, probably romantic, relationship with Li Qi. And like In the Train, the story is told in the observant, lyrical voice of its first-person narrator. But while In the Train roots us in Frank’s head, Running Away focuses more on the physical world, providing lengthy descriptions of Shanghai, Beijing, and the Mediterranean.

At places, this book reads like the best travel writing. Here are the narrator and Li Qi after they first meet at a Shanghai art gallery:

Sound checks could be heard from the warehouse, and sharp bursts of Chinese heavy metal…filled the calm surroundings of the summer night, causing glass panes to vibrate and sending grasshoppers flying in the warmth of the air. It became difficult to hear one other on the bench and I moved closer to her…

Compare this to Frank’s meeting with Anne. In that passage, the focus is entirely on the two characters – just look at how many times the words “she” and “I” are used; and then notice how comparatively empty of pronouns the passage from Running Away is.

While it is nice to have a visceral experience of teeming China, Toussaint’s descriptive gifts often push us away when we should be drawn closer. Just as we become interested in the menacing, yet oddly passive love triangle (Zhang seems to know what’s going on between the narrator and Li Qi and yet doesn’t seem angry about it) we are dowsed in lyricism that gives a poetic lift to a situation that, psychologically, can’t support it. Where Oster uses lyricism to extract his characters’ motivations, Toussaint trains it on the outer world. And so the trio who races via motorcycle through the streets of Beijing could be anybody at all, the nice tension between them dropping away into mere action:

We turned off the freeway to escape our pursuers, braking to take an off- ramp, but the sirens kept following us, seeming to multiply in space, coming from everywhere at once, as when a number of police cars converge on the scene of an accident at high speed…

There’s a reason high-speed chases aren’t thought of as literary. Running Away does provide a deepening context to the passage: the narrator is “running away” from a previous romance; and the chase, his constant movement between countries, and his quick plunge into the arms of another woman all reflect that. However, Toussaint misses opportunities to complicate this idea, or I should say that the natural limitations of his style – its tendency toward superficial, poetic effect – prevent him from realizing these opportunities. It is when this book, yes, runs away from the very things that make it most European that it loses us, too.


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).