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REVIEW: DIRTBAGS by Eryk Pruitt (Immortal Ink Publishers)


DIRTBAGS is worth the read for the title alone. The writing is solid and the dialogue (dialect) spot on. And the satire is biting--a not-so-subtle indictment of modern suburban society with all its distractions, contradictions, and just plain stupidity.

Calvin Cantrell is a dirtbag, to be sure--the product of a failing society and the kind of pariah that is generally viewed as having no redeeming qualities. Oh, and he's an aspiring serial killer, something he makes no secret of. In broader, more literary terms, he might be viewed as a sort of vengeful Frankensteinian creation that comes back to terrorize the town. But he is not alone in his dirtbaggery. After all, the title is DIRTBAGS not DIRTBAG. Yes, his wife Rhonda is also a DIRTBAG and she, too, is the product of her bleak surroundings, both past and present. But no one gets a pass in DIRTBAGS, as on closer inspection, they're all just that, dirtbags. Tom London is the typically reviled businessman who is married to a manipulative, superficial socialite.Bubba Greene is an aging thug who has eked out a successful business via murder and the likes. There's also the token lawyer and self-righteous, bible-thumping judge. The cast of miscreants and misanthropes is set just so, so when the bodies start to pile up, the reader can't help but be secretly delighted by the demise of such unreformable riffraff.

But as Pruitt likely well knows, reading/enjoying the book is itself and act of dirtbaggery--a self-indictment, of sorts. In fact, I found it hard to finish this highly enjoyable if extremely dark novel without feeling a sour pang of guilt--without feeling a bit dirty and a bit tarnished myself. Without feeling that a bit of my humanity had been sucked from me. Which may very well have been Pruitt's point all along.

My only grievance with the novel--and it's a slight one--is that the character sketches, presumably meant to humanize the characters or legitimize their deplorable actions in some way, fall a bit flat. Okay, I have one more small complaint--the seemingly organic nature of the plot, ie. one event naturally leads to another--an approach that I typically like and admire, could have stood a bit more authorial guidance. For example, giving so much internal voice to a character who disappears twenty or thirty pages later is unsettling if not outright confusing to a reader. Nevertheless, these are minor infractions that don't diminish the overall enjoyability of the book. And DIRTBAGS is a guilty pleasure, to be sure. But we can all use a little more dirtbagishness in our literary diet, can't we? Having read it, I feel strangely fortified. Hell, I might even go read some Jane Austen.



REVIEW: RECKONING by Rusty Barnes (Sunnyoutside)


 If writers are builders of worlds, then Rusty Barnes may just be a master builder. The bleak world he pieces together in the pared down and finely crafted sentences of RECKONING is propped up with the stark realities of rural society in small town America.

The book is hard to classify. Ultimately it is a coming-of-age-story, and a novel of literary realism. But there are also certain elements of the “new noir” in Reckoning—complete with a socially detached protagonist who aims to solve a central mystery in the novel. In the end, however, as the title suggests, the novel is more concerned with a reckoning—a tallying and judgment of deeds committed by the whole community (and there are some doozies)—than it is with the rites of passage that young Richard Logan must pass through.

The word that kept floating to the surface of my subconscious mind as I read RECKONING was tension. This novel is full of it, which gives it the kind of intensity that keeps a reader turning pages. Violence teeming just below the surface is probably the greatest source of tension throughout the novel. The reader feels as if this rural world could explode at any moment, destroying not only Richard and Katie but the whole community. Richard seems keenly aware of this danger, too. Walking along the river, Richard notes:

The tress at the top of the ravine looked like they were about to fall, half their roots hanging out over the bank and a sandy cascade of rocks and dirt underneath and dropping down into the water. His father had told him one day the whole hill would fall into the ravine and the creek would redirect or no longer exist. Richard hoped he wasn’t here to see it.

The sense of tension caused by this looming destruction is only heightened by the long history of the people who lived there. In Richard’s case, “there’d been someone of his blood in this country for two hundred years.”

There are also less prominent sources of tension within the novel. Mr. Barnes uses the third person limited narrative splendidly in Reckoning. In the right hands, it is a perspective that can be used to incredible effect. The third person limited allows the reader to get into the protagonist’s head and “hear” his thoughts, but also to get a sense of his voice. Yet it is a perspective that creates and maintains an unnegotiable distance between the protagonist and the reader because the thoughts and voice are not coming directly from the protagonist. In RECKONING, the author also uses the TPL perspective to enlarge the sense of detachment Richard feels from his surroundings, from his rural life. This sense of detachment is in direct opposition to Richard’s intricate and unfailing knowledge of the paths, trails, and roads that connect the lives of those in the community. Again, more tension.

The plot of RECKONING is somewhat pedestrian; yet this is in keeping with the understated realism of the novel. There are no twists and turns—no big surprises. And there probably shouldn’t be. There are also a few situations that might raise plausibility issues for some readers. For me, it was Richard’s good-intentioned if misled chivalric notion that he had to protect Mrs. Neary, Katie, and most inexplicably, Misty. (Chalk it up to youthful fantasies, I suppose). However, these are small matters within the larger story. Mr. Barnes authorial craftsmanship prevails throughout. And in the end, RECKONING is a compelling story that needs to be read. More impressive, even, given the fact that it is a debut novel. For my part, I will be watching for more great work from Rusty Barnes. And you should be too. (4.5 stars)



REVIEW: GOLDSMITH'S RETURN by Terry Richard Bazes (White Pine)


I’m a fan of Terry Richard Bazes and an admirer of his work. A couple of years ago, I read the wonderfully bizarre LIZARD WORLD. If you’ve read it yourself, you’ll understand why I raved about it in my review at the time. (If you haven’t read it, you really should—the novel that is.) GOLDSMITH’S RETURN predates LIZARD WORLD by about a decade and a half. In author years, that’s pretty much a whole other era, a different lifetime, a previous incarnation—you get the idea. GOLDSMITH’s RETURN has the same exquisitely rendered sentences and the same Helleresque satiric tone, yet it seems the author’s over-the-top creativity may not have yet been fully engaged. That is not to say that there is anything stock about GOLDSMITH’S RETURN—there isn’t. Well not really. Let me amend that by saying anything that might seem stock or “typical” (the overbearing aunt, the loveless marriage) is turned on its head by Bazes’ clear bent toward the offbeat, the eccentric and—dare I say it—the quirky. Nor is there anything wooden about Max Goldsmith. On the contrary, he is a refreshingly complex and painstakingly drawn character. Time is not linear in the novel and there is something nebulous about Goldsmith’s life story that has the effect of a literary tonic. In some ways, Max Goldsmith reminds me of Bellow’s Moses E. Herzog and Canadian Mordecai Richler’s Barney Panofsky (BARNEY’S VERSION). All three of them share some things in common. But more importantly, they are all bigger-than-life. They are memorable characters that stick in the psyche.

Although it’s fair to say that GOLDSMITH’S RETURNS is an understated work when compared to LIZARD WORLD, it is still a very, very funny novel. Needless to say, Bazes’ wry sense of humor is on display throughout, from beginning to end. Like this masterful tongue-in-cheek thumbnail description of Polly O’Malley, Goldsmith’s neighbor and aesthetic nemesis: “Polly—a small, drab battleship of a woman—was a published poetess. ‘Afterbirth,’ her obscure symbolist poem about pregnancy, had been serialized in Dermatology Today, a pretentious quarterly which was attempting to expand its readership by making a pitch to the mommy market. Like Polly herself, the poem made little sense. Nonetheless, it was the center of a small cult who sat in a circle, speaking in hushed tones while Polly sat at their center, dropping pearls of poetic wisdom.” Or how about this one: “Coach Polachek had a herniated soul and a metaphysical jock-itch which could only be scratched by sending fatties to run laps until they dropped.” The novel is not without its moments of introspection, like the brilliant final scene of the novel, which I won’t quote here. It suffice to say that you’ll never look at a cigarette being sucked down a toilet the same way ever again after reading it.

GOLDSMITH’S RETURN is one of those rare-and- getting-rarer literary gems that is routinely passed over by the mainstream. For any number of reasons, which is a discussion for another place and time. Terry Richard Bazes is an author worth getting to know. His books are not easy reads, not page-turners, but they pay big dividends. For my mental money, reading GOLDSMITH’S RETURN is more than a worthwhile investment of anyone’s time. (4.5 stars)



REVIEW: HELL'S HALF ACRE by Will Christopher Baer (McAdam/Cage)


The new trends being explored in neo-noir are impressive. Perhaps no author/voice in the genre is more interesting and compelling than Christopher Baer. The staples of noir are all intact here, although not always immediately recognizable. The themes are dark and the action is violent. The protagonist is guided by a moral compass, which rusty though it may be, results in a great deal of personal conflict. Therein is the real attraction of neo-noir. Protagonist Phineas Poe is a protagonist living in an abysmally cruel world in which he does and does not belong. To say he is deeply conflicted is a gross understatement. For the world in which is lives is undeniably of his own making, at least partially. As a character, Poe is intensely flawed: a sometimes nihilist, a drug addled ex-cop, and murderer in his own right. Yet there is still something undeniably sympathetic about Poe. He is not amoral, at least not when it counts, and especially not when compared to his foil, John Ransom Miller. Make no mistake this is a dark novel. But the writing is at times salient, and Baer almost waxes poetic--thankfully and wisely, not giving in fully to the impulse. The result is quite extraordinary--a wonderfully written novel of bleak, bleak substance. Highly recommended for noir fans and beyond.



REVIEW: BEST BEHAVIOR by Noah Cicero (Civil Coping Mechanisms)


There were times while reading Noah Cicero’s Best Behavior that I felt like I might be reading a less insane, more introspective Bukowski. Yeah, I know—saying someone writes like Bukowski has almost become meaningless, a kind of anti-populist currency that people tend to squander without much thought. But there are some Bukowskian moments in this book. Take for example the last few paragraphs of the foreword:

"But there are consonants between the generations that must be recognized, everybody from every generation shits, eats, needs shelter, has sex, and doesn’t enjoy when bad things happen.

So the questions are:

How do they shit, how do they inhabit those shelters, how did they have sex and respond to bad things. I guess those are the questions, and here is the really long answer:"

And answer he does. In fact, another way that Cicero’s Bad Behavior resembles Bukowski (aside from it being auto-biographical fiction) is the sparse, linear plot of the “novel.” In fact, the plot is more of a time-line on which the author hangs poignantly witty vignettes and pleasing bizarre character sketches. And each is an attempt to answer the question, how do they shit, eat, inhabit shelters, and have sex? Some of these vignettes are gold, as the characters run the gamut on socio-political leanings and bents.

But taken as a whole, Best Behavior doesn’t read like a novel. It’s more like the personal travelogue of a journey—yes, to NYC—but more importantly, a journey inward. A journey in which the author explores his place or lack thereof, as it turns out, in a self-aggrandizing literary scene and increasingly cannibalistic sub-culture.

There’s some beautiful writing here.

"Walk to the beach first. There was an ocean. It was large and blue. The wind hit me hard. Loved the wind. There was no wind in the city. Feeling the wind was good."

That kind of taut, pared down language hits like a low blow, a knot in the bowels. Dare I say, it’s Bukowskian in tone if not sentiment? And there’s plenty more where that came from. Plenty more.

Admittedly, Best Behavior was my first exposure to Cicero, and frankly, I’m impressed. More than impressed, truth be told. I now feel certain I’ll be spending some time with Cicero’s earlier works. And I’m looking forward to it. (4 stars)



REVIEW: MONKEYTOWN by Chis Vola (SAM)


Chris Vola is a very good writer—perhaps even a great writer. There are moments in MONKEYTOWN when the lexical spark of his finely crafted prose threatens to pull back the curtain on the bleak and insensate world that the author has so meticulously rendered in this work of transgressive literature. And make no mistake, this is transgressive literature—a world in which information and misinformation freely intertwine, disseminated through a nihilistic filter of drugs and alcohol. This overarching theme of the novel is fortified by and reflected in the untrustworthy narrator, Josh, whom the reader is reluctant to trust due not only to his unmitigated substance abuse but to his mind-numbing apathy. Like Josh, himself, the reader finds him/herself awash in a sea of mis/information and not entirely sure which bit of flotsam or jetsam to latch on to in order to keep from sinking into the depths of authorial obfuscation. That is not necessarily a bad thing. It simply requires an alert and engaged reader—one who is not afraid to let go of the wall and grope around in the narrative blackouts from time to time. And as a reader, I was thoroughly engaged, which, admittedly, surprised me. I’m no expert on transgressive literature, but it seems to me that the anti-aesthetic bent of the sub-genre does not necessarily encourage readers to become emotionally invested in the work. Yet still I remained engaged from beginning to end. Perhaps it was some perverse desire in me to see how the world of Josh and his friends was about to unwind, or better yet, implode at any moment. In a word, I was a rubbernecker, a happy and complacent observer of pain and misfortune—the same as most of the characters within the pages of the book. In the end, I feel certain that my understanding of the work would benefit greatly from a re-read. But that’s another review at another time. I recommend this book to anyone who believes him/herself to be an adventurous reader not looking for simple platitudes or happy endings. 3.5 stars.



REVIEW: MAYBE by Jacqueline Valencia


One of the most compelling feats that Jacqueline Valencia manages to pull off in her collection of short prose and poetry Maybe is to show the reader that “maybe” is not just a linguistic theme around which she has built the collection but that “maybe” is somehow a symbol of something much greater. The collection itself becomes part of an extended metaphor in which maybe becomes the midpoint between forward and backward, the stasis and motion between life and death, and, yes, a kind of ontological stutter.

Despite being highly experimental (which is often code for emotionless), Valencia’s collection is highly affective and has the feel of postmodern confessional poetry. In short, it feels personal—unapologetically so. Yet it always opens up to something larger, a universe in which the reader may or may not step into and inhabit.

now my tea is as

tepid as the impotency

inside.

my keys sit quietly in my pocket

I’m sweating and

I’m feasting on the

dialectic of sour planets

by my door.

At this moment nothing moves; all is reified. Compare that to the movement in “Clara.”

This time Clara pushed off the plane. A big blue-green world stretched out in front of her. She laughed as the familiar feeling of ecstatic spars popped throughout her body.

This is the movement between life and death. What some people call living but others just call existing. From “Selwynn”:

I watched them fly off in different directions. Their lights shot off into the sky and I lost sight of them among the rest of the stars.

I am alone and my back has become smooth now, but hunched with time and travel. I see a giant fire in the distance and a giant blue planet up ahead. I wish I could tell Debra about finally knowing where I’m going. I am whole with a sense of purpose.

There is an organic sense of wholeness to Maybe. This whole is certainly enhanced by Valencia imaginative art work interspersed throughout. By the last line of the book the reverberations of the whole are loud and clear. That is not to say there is some underlying sense or meaning to be taken away from the book. I don’t believe there is, at least not in the way that most people want to know “what’s it about?”

Aside from its sense of wholeness, there are also some stand alone, literary gems in Maybe. Like this one from “scenarios: how do you see it?”

click “like” on status.

this moral technology;

an easy cake walk.

Or like this one from “Lake Ontario Carp,” a meditation on a school of common fish.

the carp have swum over

to hide under a nearby boat

and the waves are now small

ripples of vagueries.

The possibilities beyond death,

the possibilities beyond failure

are like leaping with a feeling of

infinity.

You see what I mean about the opening up into something larger? And although Maybe is not always pregnant with possibility, it is full of possibility at its most compelling moments. Maybe is equally cruel and kind. But its kindness is what the reader wants to cling to throughout. A longing which eventually lead to an end like this.

this is not the space to stop and

play the part; this is the place

to think

to fuck, to sleep, to drink,

to get out of the muck.

I adjure you

write

stop putting yourself on hold

This is visceral stuff, yet emotional in its confessional tone. Valencia has struck just the right balance between the two. And that, I think, is what makes Maybe such a remarkable collection. Certainly, it is one to read again and again, and I cannot for the life of me imagine anyone who enjoys the written word not enjoying this book. It is an investment that pays out big time.



REVIEW: LIZARD WORLD by Terry Richard Bazes (Livingston)


Terry Richard Bazes is insanely creative. I could leave off writing this review having said only that, satisfied that I have made my point well. Because it’s true—so true. But somehow that is not enough, and there is more to say about Bazes’ wild imagination and his new novel, Lizard World. In Lizard World, the author roundly lampoons humanity’s seemingly unquenchable desire for immortality (at any cost) by pulling back the curtain and revealing it in a less than chivalric light. Griswold, a depraved three-hundred-year-old English earl, is no Perceval or Gawain, to be sure. Neither is his modern counterpart (quite literally, it turns out), Smedlow, a New Jersey dentist-cum-scoundrel. In actuality, Griswold is a monster—literally and figuratively—kept alive by Frobey “splicers” honoring the Frobey debt. Lem Lee, a kind of Renaissance reprobate who does a bit of this and a bit of that, and who also seeks immortality through the written word ( via his hack novel), is no less a monster. And in fact, the novel is peopled with monsters of every ilk, some more clearly unnatural than others, some true freaks and others simply callous misanthropes and miscreants only slightly less freakish. It could even be argued that the story itself is somewhat of a monster, as the narrative is skillfully “spliced” together—the result, however, does not feel unnatural. On the contrary, the juxtaposition of seventeenth century high prose and modern hillbilly patois serves as a kind of mock-heroic sleight of hand with devastating comic effect. This singular novel is so unique as to defy any meaningful comparison. Yet, readers and critics alike will do as they always do; they will try and fail, even though such comparisons are almost always ill-advised. Having said that, however, and having never been one to heed my own advice, allow me to try my own hand at a comparison: Bazes writes like Tim Dorsey—that is, if Dorsey lived in a cabin along the Cahulawassee River, had an IQ north of one-fifty blotter hits, and wrote like a cross-dressing Laurence Sterne. Oh, and wrote funnier, too—much, much funnier. Lizard World is a book you won’t soon forget; it will seep like a black sludge into your consciousness. It’s that good--really.



REVIEW: FOLLOWING RICHARD BRAUTIGAN by Corey Mesler (Livingston)


 Let me just lay it out there for you: Corey Mesler’s Following Richard Brautigan is not a masterpiece, but it’s close. No, I don’t mean Masterpiece, capital M—it’s not War and Peace, not Kind of Blue, not Don Giovanni. What it is is a close masterpiece of language and sensibility. And if that isn’t a description of poetry—albeit an unimaginative and pedestrian one—then I don’t know what is. Yes, it’s poetry—which is fitting considering the ghost that haunts this novel and its protagonist. And since we’re talking about what this novel is, let me add a few more isisms. It’s a road movie, sans the movie part. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s a bromance novel. But perhaps more than anything else it’s a modern day Odysseus. A few other GR reviewers have also alluded to the Greek Masterpiece, capital M. and the novel itself drops the O-bomb. But I would also add to that the Inferno. After all, who is the ghost of Richard Brautigan if not Virgil, the good poet and guide of Dante through the underworld of America?

The plot of the novel is unremarkable. In fact it is more of a skeletal framework onto which Mr. Mesler hangs his vignettes—some long, some short, but all delightful. And with gem-like headings such as Hot as Monkeys, and The Telephone Is Like a Two-Hour Old Streetcar Transfer: Or Ten Bergs A-Calving. In the novel, our protagonist Jack is haunted by ghosts: yes, by Richard Brautigan; but other ghosts, too. By Sharilyn, the proverbial one-that-got-away. By his brother, who regularly calls from Ithaca to tell him that suitors are everywhere storming the walls. By Vita, the woman who cannot (and does not live without him). But in the end, Jack does not follow Richard Brautigan, as his time is not yet. Nor does he follow Sharilyn or Vita. He returns to Ithaca as all adventurers eventually must.

Mesler is clearly a poet, and it shows. Not surprisingly, then, it is easy to take pleasure in passages like this:

It was raining a motherfucker.

It was raining a Dostoyevsky novel.

It was raining a Kurosawa film.

It was raining a Trout Mask Repilca.

Or this salient, stream-of-consciousness rendering of the hippie generation (and I must include it in its entirety, for to not do so would be an abomination of sorts):

Most of the poets, writers, dreamers we encountered had already survived and witnessed Hendrix chopping down a mountain with the edge of his hand, Miles running the voodoo down, Mailer and Ginsberg and Cal and Abbie levitating the Pentagon, children with their souls tattooed with tie-dye bring the president to his knees and embarrassing him into ending a dishonorable war. They got hooked at the Hooker’s Ball. They were liberated by Art by the Artist’s Liberation Front. They’d seen fire and they’d seen rain. They’d seen the bomerdeathplanes turning into butterflies above the Woodstock Nation. They’d been lost in the rain in Juarez, reposed down on Rue Morgue Avenue, heard the electric violin on Desolation Row. They’d played the game of existence to the end. They had arrived without traveling. They had slouched toward Bethlehem. They’d turned on, tuned in and dropped OUT. They’d put flowers in gun barrels and seen those barrels curl back in humility. They had taken the acid test and passed. They’d seen Haight turned into Love. They’d freed Huey, eschewed Dewey and sang Louie, Louie. They’d fought in the Battle of People Park. They’d dug the diggers, paid their dues at the Free Store, Been at the Be-In. They had gone, ah, FURTHER. And the final sumup was : “Let it go. Whatever you do is Beautiful!”

Reading this slight, inspired, and thoroughly delightful novel, you will find yourself lost in milieu of language and sensibility. You will ponder the many allusions and tie them back to the page like ship lines to a pier. You will tell yourself to make sense of these later, as now you simply want to ride the tide further out (or is it in?). Reading Following Richard Brautigan is worth the time and effort, if effort is the right word at all (which it is not). It is more a labor of love than anything else. A peaceful sit-down.



REVIEW: BLOOMSDAY by David B. Lentz (Wordsworth Greenwich)


Perhaps the most striking aspect—at least initially—of Bloomsday: The Bostoniad is the decidedly striking parallels to Joyce’s Ulysses. These parallels are, of course, wholly intentional and justified in that Bloomsday is meant to be both a continuation and re-imagination of its predecessor. Clearly, it is a bold undertaking, and admittedly, as someone who admires Joyce and delights in Ulysses, I had my misgivings about such an enterprise. However, to put it plainly, author David B. Lentz pulls it off unequivocally with no small amount of flair.

Readers who are familiar with Joyce’s work will find the parallels between Ulysses and Bloomsday arresting at times—almost to the point of distraction—but will no doubt chuckle and even hee-haw at the ingenuity of the author. (For example, the Citizen throws bottles of beer at an escaping Bloom instead of a biscuit tin). However, after the first few chapters, the parallels become simply pleasing enhancements and the story of Rudy Bloom and Thomas Dedalus takes command of the reader’s imagination on its own terms.

The plot of Bloomsday resembles that of Ulysses only superficially. Bloomsday offers some notable variations, especially those pertaining to the surprising paternity of Bloom and Dedalus. Another important variation is both Bloom and Dedalus lose their jobs on the morning of June 16th, although as the day wears on, Dedalus unwittingly picks up the very copywriting job which Rudy Bloom has earlier lost. This is a significant in that it informs one of the major themes of Bloomsday—capitalist greed in a society where one’s value is measured by his/her net worth. The setting, too, is important to this theme: Beantown, the Dublin of America. The sense of alienation that Rudy Bloom feels in Beantown has nothing to do with his being Jewish (he has converted to Christianity) as Leopold Bloom’s sense of alienation in the Dublin of Ulysses does, but stems from the fact that he is jobless in a rampantly (rabidly) capitalist society. In fact, consuming is at the heart of nearly everything Rudy Bloom and Thomas Dedalus do throughout their wanderings in the day and night duration of Bloomsday, and money facilitates that consumption. However, the plain fact that Rudy Bloom has lost his job is a constant source of tension for Bloom, as well as the reader. Also at the back of Rudy Bloom’s mind is his wife Penelope’s supposed intimate rendezvous with Blaine Boylston, womanizer, and the publisher of her poems. Like Leopold Bloom, Rudy is reluctant to go home—to give up his wandering—for fear of what he believes he will find there. Also like Leopold Bloom, Rudy is guilty of his own romantic dalliances. (He writes suggestive letters to Maddy Dunne and lusts after Margaret Breen.) And in this way, Lentz manages to make Rudy Bloom as lovable and yet as flawed a character as Joyce’s Leopold Bloom.

Thomas Dedalus’s predicament is just the opposite of Rudy Bloom’s. Having taken Bloom’s copywriting job, Dedalus now finds himself in a position to reap the benefits of living in a capitalist society. Like Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, Thomas’s turmoil stems from an unrealized sense of identity. In short, he is the artist who has sold his proverbial soul and along with it, his sense of self. Forced from the hallowed halls of academe, he now braces himself for a world of dining and drinking with wealthy clients who wouldn't know Prada from Proust. And in this way does he, the artist, “suffer” for his art.

In Bloomsday, Lentz has written a novel very much in the style of Joyce, replete with wit and wordplay, inner monologues, and dialogues based on rapid-fire repartee. (When Margaret Breen tells Bloom that the special of the day is “scrod,” he replies: “You rarely hear that word in the pluperfect subjunctive.”) It also comes loaded with both literary and popular allusions with a decidedly American bent. Like Ulysses, Bloomsday is a challenging but ultimately rewarding book. It demands to be savored and begs to be studied, for inevitably there is much that is missed in the first pass. At the same time, it is a highly entertaining book that can be enjoyed simply on the merits of Lentz’s remarkable command of the language and his ability to turn a phrase. In this sense, then, it really is about the journey and not the destination.




REVIEW: AMERICA INC. by David B. Lentz (Wordsworth Greenwich)


Despite my relatively limited exposure to author David B. Lentz, I think it’s fair to say that the James Joyce has significantly influenced his work. In Bloomsday, Mr. Lentz re-imagines Ulysses as an American tale through a lens of distinctly American sensibilities. Similarly, in America Inc.: A Stage Play, Lentz sketches out a lead character, poet Bob (Just), who recalls Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus. Much like Stephen Dedalus, who is doomed to confront the nightmare of history, Bob is destined to confront the political powers-that-be of 2020, an monolithic institution that can only be describe as a behemoth of power and greed. More on that later.

First let me say that the satire that infuses America Inc is barbed with witticisms worthy of the greats—luminaries in the field of political shaming. Luminaries like Voltaire and Sterne. It starts from the opening act—when Bob is called by the CEO of America Inc. to head up the “Department of Korporate Kulture” (a department with a decidedly Germanic handle and one that is only a single “K” off from being the Klan)—and the hits keep coming nonstop until the final credits roll. Believe me when I say, this is funny stuff. Of course, the target of the satire is America Inc., and every scene reveals another layer of depravity and corruption among the leaders of this corpornation. No one is more corrupt, more power hungry, and more purposefully debauched than the CEO himself, Travis T. Bash.

Under Bash’s command, the country has run totally amok: the Supreme Court has been disbanded, a great brick wall is being built between the Redfish and Bluefish states, the citizens—ie. shareholders—are forced into the Suicide by 95 program, or worse, gassed and made into dog food, and the list goes on and on. In fact, it seems no political stone is left unturned by the author, and every political absurdity one can think of is dragged out into the light of day. But even more unsettling is the fact that our hero and seemingly only hope in the face of this rampant corruption, Bob, is powerless before these atrocities. It seems he can do nothing but impotently observe the dark machinations of America Inc. and lament the fact that his beloved country has gone to the dogs.

At one point Bash and Bob have the following exchange.

Bash: When you own real power, people want you only for what they can take from you. It’s usually money, power, sex, prestige or position. But you seem different. What do you want, Bob?

Bob: I just want our great nation to heal. To be free. And unified again.

Unfortunately, Bob’s idealism accomplishes nothing, or so it seems at this point in the play, except perhaps aids his own demise. In the end, it appears that the artist has no natural defenses against the real world in which he must live, prompting Bob to utter one of the play’s most memorable lines: “If a genius lives in American culture…in a lunatic asylum of epic greed…who’d ever know it.” It is realization and a point of resignation that every artist comes to at some point in his or her life.

Just when it seems Bob/the artist/we, the audience, can sink no lower, the play’s author cracks a door and a glimmer of hope appears, and only then does it become apparent that Mr. Lentz has deliberately led us to this low point in order to tell us something important. For, as the author goes on to suggest, only through his art can the artist transcend his surroundings, and only in doing so can he become free. This is a realization that Stephen Dedalus comes to at the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And Bob also realizes it in the final moments of the play.

Bob: In the midst of bedlam. Above the brimming ambitions of cruel megalomania. Amid such tumult in the dark. You arose from the dust of the chaos like an angel phoenix—an epiphany from the ruins. And in your ascent I became transcendent, too.

The “you” here refers to Paige, Bob’s love interest in the play, specifically, but more broadly, “you” refers to Bob’s own art. This sentiment is more than cold comfort. The author would have us believe that this is an epiphany and a truth that every artist must eventually come to in order to keep from perishing. And in this realization, Bob saves himself. The implication is that anyone else who will listen and follow Bob’s lead will also free him or herself from the shackles of a broken, deeply flawed society, whether it be America Inc. or not. This, it seems to me, is the point of Mr. Lentz’s inspired and poignant stage play. Through all the belly-laughs, chuckles, and fart-snorts, wonderful as they might be, the author seems to be saying in a calm, assured voice, “Artist, heal thyself.” And he does.




REVIEW: I WILL ROT WITHOUT YOU (Fungasm)

 Let me think--how to put this…. Here goes: Danger Slater’s latest offering, I Will Rot Without You, grabs you by the boo-boo and doesn’t let go until the last bit of fetid flesh implodes into oblivion (sort of). Even by bizarro standards, this is a bizarre tale of love and betrayal--bizarre in the best sense, that is. I Will Rot Without You conjures metaphysical images that must certainly have Donne (yes, the John Donne) rolling in his grave. These are conceits that the mind almost refuses to concede, synaptic leaps that that the brain is loath to make. Yet when it does, the effect is a kind of cognitive inebriation that leaves one wanting more.

Within an absurdist framework, Slater probes and prods familiar themes of love and longing between protagonist Ernie Cotard, ex-girlfriend Gretchen, and girl-next-door Dee. But the author turns these themes on their collective head by rendering the figurative literal, quite literal, actually. Themes like lover as possession turns morbidly creepy when Dee’s abusive boyfriend, Cutter, literally, that is physically, possess her, the object of his obsession (you’ll have to read the book to find out exactly how he manages to that particular feat). Similarly, the theme of love gone bad is taken to its logical and very literal end, as the title of the novel suggests, when Ernie heads corpse-ward in a big way after his faltering relationship with Dee turns toxic and leeches the life from him. In this way, Ernie Cotard is less like Cronenberg’s Seth Brundle (or Langelaan’s François Delambre) and more like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, whose growing sense of alienation and otherness in modern society manifests itself as a physical metamorphosis. The point is these are tried-and-true themes, but it’s doubtful that readers have ever encountered them in quite this context before.

There can be no doubt that Slater spins a lively tale in this novel. The story moves quickly from beginning to end, twisting and turning, or perhaps more accurately, writhing and gnashing, only momentarily coming up for air with brief--almost ethereal--moments of contemplation. Take, for example, this little gem:

    “Black like pen ink. Like the fur of a bad luck cat. Black like the water at the bottom of the Ganges. I am adrift in the tide of this black dream. And I wonder if I were to shrink down so that I were the smallest thing in the universe, what color would the space between electrons be? Is emptiness black? Can you touch it? Does emptiness even exist at all, or does the black-ink cat-fur deep-river water of our subjective experiences rush in to fill up the gap.

Which leads me to the one complaint I have about the novel: I wish there were a few more moments like this one. A bit more time to breathe. It’s a small critique, true enough. Oh, and there are several strands of the plot that seem to fall out of the weave and are never quite gathered back in. But these are small issues in the larger story. And this story is much larger that its page count would suggest. It’s as big as the universe that exists between the space of electrons. Yep, a conundrum--but one that seems to work, just like I Will Rot Without You works--very well, in my estimation. You can thank Danger Slater for that.