Autumn Lit Roundup
Little Beasts by Matthew McGevna Publication Date: July 7, 2015 Publisher: Akashic Books
Matthew McGevna’s Little Beasts is the reimagining of a real Long Island murder: the killing of a 13-year-old boy in the 1980s, found suffocated with rocks stuffed down his throat. In the tradition of crime fiction, the reader is promised intrigue and suspense, but Little Beasts sags with long expanses of empty filler pages and characters we feel far away from.
In the first few chapters, the reader learns that one of three main characters—a gang of eight-year-old boys living in the working-class heat of a Long Island summer—will be murdered. The suspense of when, where, how, and who pushes the reader through the first 150 pages, as the author moves the spotlight of each chapter from the main youngsters, to their parents, and lastly to a group of high-schoolers. But the focus shifts defining each chapter work only to jerk the reader from feeling close to the characters. The intent behind adding alternative perspectives was to humanize the killer and give dimension to events, but it simply doesn’t land. Shifting perspectives takes away from the real meat: the three little “beasts,” whose dynamic is pure fire. The boys—James, Dallas, and Felix—spring to life in their adventures: sprinting through the forest, stealing wood to build the perfect tree fort, and drawing their own Ouija board and summoning spirits. There is an intimacy in being privy to their secret missions, and a magic to being young that the boys emit so perfectly. However, once the chapters shift away from them, the momentum drags.
Excitement picks up when McGevna repeats his old trick, and we discover one naughty character has come to possess a gun. Enter Chekov’s Gun principle: McGevna uses this technique to create an air of suspense, filling us with curiosity as to when the gun will fire. This pushes us through the next 100-plus pages to circle the when, where, how, who round-up once more, until we arrive at the last chapters, which follow the aftermath of the murder. This section is stunning in its depictions of grieving. The effect of wading through these pages slows the heart rate. For the young boys and their parents, the question of how to move forward in this new world takes different manifestations. Sinners are saved and angels unravel. It is here we see the strange characteristics of surviving tragedy, and what devices we need to become whole again.
McGevna, a Long Island native, reportedly grew up with the lore of this murder as a warning to stay away from the “big kids.” However, the book is not faithful to the real murder on which it is based. McGevna’s killer, for instance, is all fabrication, and the lie bleeds right through the page. Attempts to humanize the killer take center stage in the second half of the book, but the efforts are a waste since we feel neither hate nor empathy. This is the one character McGevna wants us to understand, but the aftertaste is bland and forgettable.
In sum, Little Beasts is a winded short story. There are knockout moments when the words are true and beyond beautiful, but these sweet nuggets are too scattered. There is a clear and enticing story, but its intensity gets lost in novel form.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates Publication Date: July 14, 2015 Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
There is much to be said about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest book, Between the World and Me, and much that has been said already, so much so that it is difficult to pen new words that feel appropriate. Praise is nearly redundant, yet to respond in any other way would be dishonest. This is a great book. It is not a perfect book—it is, at times, a book that moves in circular motion, a book that repeats itself, like a boat caught in a whirlpool, moving around the locus and never quite touching it. But how else could Coates approach a subject like race relations in contemporary America? We have heard all of these words before, and yet the problems remain. Coates’s great power is the way in which he uses these words, the way that he imbues them with spirit and makes them feel new and passionate and spellbinding. Modeled after James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Coates’s writing burns like Baldwin’s; it is not hyperbolic to say, as Toni Morrison did, that Coates serves as Baldwin’s heir apparent. But Coates’s writing is his own, and this book is an accomplishment altogether different than Baldwin’s, although the two tread similar ground.
Consider Coates’s title, Between the World and Me. Taken from a poem by Richard Wright, his selection marks a conscious turn away from Baldwin’s spiritual optimism, replaced here with a pessimistic humanism. There are no prescriptions in his pages; like so many Black Lives Matter protests, the declaration is both the means and the end. This proves alternately fascinating and frustrating: when he writes of how a Black police officer killed his friend Prince Jones, and how “the black politicians… seemed unconcerned,” it proves difficult, initially, to fit his reaction with his perspective. We are accustomed to seeing white police officers commit such atrocities; the outrage in such cases is easily understood. But if you believe, as Coates does, that “the police reflect America in all of its will and fear,” and that “the Dream of acting white, of talking white, of being white, murdered Prince Jones as sure as it murders black people in Chicago with frightening regularity,” then the contours of his anger begin to take form.
For many Americans, this probably won’t be an easy argument to swallow. Coates admits as much: “To acknowledge these horrors,” he says, addressing his son, “means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be,” he declares, “if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.” Coates’s insight, and the power and clarity with which he is able to express it, makes clear the long struggle in which he has grappled with these issues. In that, he is not alone, but his skill in elucidating the frustration of so many has made him the voice of a generation, and rightfully so.
Between the World and Me is a book of urgency and despair, but it brims with positive emotion: love. Love for Prince Jones. Love for “The Mecca,” as he terms his time at Howard University. And, first and foremost, love for his son. “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession,” he writes. “You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made.” It may be hard to witness a world without Dreams, but only there can we find such honest, heart-wrenching beauty.
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin Publication Date: August 18, 2015 Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
“As far back as I can remember I have made a very bad first impression,” says the narrator of a story early in Lucia Berlin’s collection A Manual for Cleaning Women. She has just related the tale of a pastoral moment turned bloody and bleak: stray cats ravaging the wild birds she feeds, a neighbor entering the scene right in time to see the carnage. “There was no way I could explain that it had all happened so fast, that I wasn’t smiling away at the cats chewing the birds,” she says. The neighbor, on whom she had nursed a crush, never speaks to her again.
This anecdote encapsulates the tone of much of Berlin’s writing: brutal yet darkly funny, banal yet momentous. Berlin has a gift for honing in on life’s disturbing trivialities, on those seemingly insignificant moments that profoundly affect her empathetic characters. A teacher witnesses a charismatic teenage student molesting “an ugly, shy little girl”; an alcoholic mother embarks on an early morning search for liquor; a middle-aged woman is verbally abused in a laundromat. Steeped as they are in misfortune, Berlin’s stories run the risk of veering into misery; however, her honest, familiar voice and her unfailing compassion render them life-affirming instead.
Perhaps this sense of affirmation stems from Berlin’s incredible resilience. Born in 1936, Berlin suffered through an abusive childhood, debilitating scoliosis, a struggle with alcoholism, four divorces, and a battle with cancer. Though she was beloved by fellow writers, she failed to achieve commercial success; in the years before her death in 2004, she lived in a trailer on the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado, where she taught creative writing. Still, her friends and colleagues describe her as extraordinarily warm, funny, and compassionate. (See Elizabeth Geoghegan’s and Dave Cullen’s remembrances for examples.)
Much of Berlin’s work is autobiographical, and the range of stories here is remarkable: working-class nurses, Chilean private school students, wealthy West Texas dynasties, heroin-addicted jazz musicians, and other far-flung characters are dispersed among the pages. In one story, a college student writes to her friend that she was told to write only about what she feels, “not make something up about an old man [she] never knew.” If Berlin followed such advice, she must have lived an incredible life. Despite their diversity, most of these characters share one common characteristic: regardless of wealth or status, they are outcasts. Berlin gives a voice to the downtrodden, providing a perspective sorely missing from contemporary American literature’s current whitewashed landscape.
A Manual for Cleaning Women is not perfect. Several stories—e.g., one in which a nurse watches a coworker’s comical love affair unfold—feel trite next to her usually devastating work. But at her best, Berlin is one of our best. With this collection, she has finally gotten the recognition she deserves.
—Alyssa G. Ramirez
Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins Publication Date: September 29, 2015 Publisher: Riverhead Books
It never rains in the ruined American West. Vestiges of old Los Angeles linger like ghosts in the permanent drought, as Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus begins in the dusty, laurel-less husk that once was Laurel Canyon. Gold Fame Citrus is Watkins’s first novel following her internationally-praised story collection Battleborn. Watkins builds an original, immersive universe in literary territory where the surreal desert imagery is well worn, from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian to Frank Herbert’s Dune. The young author holds her own, painting a dystopian hellscape plagued by irreversible drought, terrible wind, and blinding sand. Part science-fiction novel and part American Western, Gold Fame Citrus is a resounding two-part cautionary tale. As a critique of a society driven by hubris and empty priorities, Watkins writes of a world where misuse of our natural and cultural environments has rendered both barren.
Watkins’s writing invokes horror because her desiccated universe is topical and eerily plausible. The novel’s release is concomitant with California’s very real drought, where the citizens of Los Angeles are being paid by the square foot to relinquish their grassy lawns. Years of drought beget the story’s formidable and beautifully described setting, the foot of the dune sea Amargosa, “a vast, tooth-colored superdune in the forgotten crook of the wasted west.” The intricate lore Vaye Watkins weaves around Amargosa gives the novel its consistent immersive strength. Amargosa is eerily sentient, full of energy and draw, giving those in its presence a “full feeling. Very full, but incredibly calm, like heaven, or the rush of warmth before you freeze to death.” Watkins’s prominent setting manifests the frightening possibility of environmental consequences we do not understand and cannot foretell.
The plot of Gold Fame Citrus follows the desperate eastward flight of Luz Dunn and her lover Ray out of Los Angeles toward Amargosa, seeking water. The lovers blur the line between rescue and kidnapping as they escape the city with a small, strange baby girl. In the east, unwelcome refugees of the barren west are called Mojavs, denied work, and often imprisoned. Luz embodies the derogatory character of the Mojav, as Ray, an industrious Hoosier, explains: “California people are quitters. You’ve got restlessness in your blood. Your people came here looking for something better. Gold, fame, citrus… Eyes peeled for the flash of ore, the flash of camera, the wet flash of fruit.”
As a child, Luz was “Baby Dunn,” a famous political symbol and poster child for hope of drought reversal. By adulthood, she is a tragic character, a former model damaged by her industry and past. For the meat of the novel, Luz is a self-loathing, selfish, and repellent character; it is a feat of Watkins’s writing that her insufferable character does not make the story so. Fiction needs more strong voices from marginalized demographics and true, multidimensional, self-actualized female characters—so why write this feckless woman? The novel’s conclusion makes clear Watkins’s purpose for this device. Luz is the human equivalent of the irreversible environmental consequence, born of the same shallow values and misguided priorities that birthed the Amargosa dune sea. There is no redemption for Luz at end of the world, and through her, Watkins makes clear how our problems are profoundly of our own making. Under the weight of our own mistakes, we cannot gain an inch of footing in the sand.
—Sarah Jane Quillin
The Glacier by Jeff Wood Publication Date: October 13, 2015 Publisher: Two Dollar Radio
The back cover of Jeff Wood’s The Glacier describes the story as “A spellbinding work… that reimagines the American frontier at the turn of the millennium, a time when suburban development was metastasizing and the Social was about to implode.” I’m not exactly sure what this means (the Social was about to implode?), but the book does recall the late-nineties in a very specific kind of way, with its zany, postmodern critique of consumer culture in the vein of David Foster Wallace, albeit with uninspired, lukewarm results. The Glacier, like Infinite Jest, is complex and confusing, especially upon starting out. But whereas Wallace’s unorthodox structure (arguably) pays off, Wood merely strings the reader along to a cartoonish, uninspiring climax.
To be honest, I had to do some online sleuthing to understand the full depth of Infinite Jest, and maybe similar research would pay dividends here, but from what I can gather from the many, many threads Wood has balled into this densely woven knot of a story, there just isn’t a whole lot to come away with. There is a large cast of characters who offer varying levels of engagement. Jonah, the enigmatic protagonist, works as a surveyor, and he eventually finds himself face to face with the nefarious Mr. Stevens. Samson is an ice-cream truck driver who sells hot chocolate to kids and drugs to their parents. Simone is a waste of a character, and her interactions with Mr. Stevens are mind-numbingly boring. And Sue and Gunner are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-types that provide something akin to comic relief, only without the humor. They bicker with each other venomously and rail against the development dwellers. “I don’t know how in the hell they live like this,” Gunner rants. “I’ll tell you one thing, you unplug the mainline on these goddamn people and they wouldn’t last two seconds out here all frantic and helpless like little poodle dogs.” Meanwhile, the narrator tells us that the people shop at “epic super-stores” like this one: “a colorful explosion of radiant products and packaging lined up like the codified end of evolution. 300 different kinds of cereal. Aisle after aisle of everything that you could ever need, for what’s left of the entire family.” This kind of critique was edgy when Don DeLillo did it in White Noise, twenty years ago; at this point, it feels tired and trite. In fact, the whole Event Horizon pre-apocalypse scenario recalls DeLillo’s Airborne Toxic Event. We’ve seen this movie before.
Despite its faults, The Glacier occasionally makes for good reading. Wood does a great job of creating tension—the nature of the apocalypse at hand may be an enigma, but we feel it in the missing people, the emptiness of spaces, the strange interactions (or lack thereof) between characters. And as far as gimmicks go, the screenplay structure is much less annoying than Infinite Jest’s infinite footnotes, although the Morse code interspersed throughout the narrative is perplexing and, from what I can tell, pointless. Or maybe it spells out the key to the entire story. I guess I’ll just have to wait for someone to put it online so I can figure it out.