Summer Lit Roundup 2016
Hystopia by David Means Publication Date: April 19, 2016 Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hystopia opens with an editor’s note clarifying that the events depicted in Eugene Allen’s novel Hystopia have been adjusted from the reality of the 1960s to fit a fictional universe. We are informed that within Allen’s universe, President Kennedy’s assassination takes place in mid-August in Galva, Illinois. The editor goes on to tell us that Hystopia was “hardly fit for the fiction market at the time (or any time)” and is now publishable only because of historical interest in the author—that is, historical interest in Means’s fictional author, Eugene Allen.
This is an interesting gambit in what is essentially the novel’s preface—Means informs readers that the book before them comprises the unpublishable delusions of a madman, interesting only for its historical import within a speculative historical universe. Means then frames his novel around testimonials from family, friends, and soldiers who served with Allen in Vietnam. What this frame accomplishes is to further illuminate the truths presented in Allen’s novel.
Hystopia—Allen’s Hystopia—concerns a government program intended via therapy and drugs to “enfold” returned Vietnam soldiers by suppressing their traumatic battlefield memories. The process of enfolding, however, is limited in its capability to erase past traumas, and soldiers too damaged by their experiences in the war, or those who were simply psychopaths before shipping off, are harmed further by attempts at treatment. As a result, failed enfolds rove the country in varying states of violent psychosis. Hystopia’s central narrative concerns Rake, a failed enfold who’s embarked on a killing spree throughout Michigan, and Meg, a brainwashed woman he’s kidnapped. Singleton, a successful enfold whose job is to track his failed peers, is assigned to Rake’s trail of murder scenes, which are marked with bloody fingerprints in a sadistic claim of responsibility.
Vietnam, here, is incidental; the conflict could easily be replaced with any of our currents wars. But by setting his story nearly five decades prior, Means renders criticisms more palatable in an environment where discussion of America’s current conflicts and their ramifications often leads to partisan bickering and little consensus. Means explores how trauma from war affects those who return and those around them, as well as the dangers that come from suppressing violent and harrowing experiences. His central enfolding metaphor illustrates this superbly.
The novel is much less didactic than it may sound, unfolding as both a thriller and a psychological mystery. As Singleton’s enfolding begins to unravel, his memories return. Initial exposition acquainting the reader with the novel’s alternative history forms the novel’s weakest moments; however, these quickly give way to a story that reveals itself more naturally. The frame story around which Means presents Hystopia adds to the complexity and power not only of the speculative universe but of Means’s Hystopia as well, as it forces the reader to re-evaluate what, if anything, can be deemed truth.
This Is Not A Confession by David Olimpio Publication Date: April 22, 2016 Publisher: Awst Press
Like many memoirs, David Olimpio’s This is Not a Confession structures itself around a central incident—in this case, the author’s childhood molestation by an older male babysitter. Olimpio approaches the event multiple times, circling, prodding, testing. This is a memoir’s right: to mirror the patterns its writer’s mind takes, and Olimpio’s work sometimes gestures at influences like Nick Flynn and Stephen Elliott. But what makes such patterns interesting in Flynn and Elliot’s work is not simply a review of information we’ve already learned, but a reexamination of that information from new angles.
Olimpio yokes together short self-contained essays, seemingly written without the goal of a cohesive collection. Many of the returns to the author’s molestation read less as intentional than as the result of an archive of blog posts or journal entries. This can be fascinating in itself, and at times readers can see the workings of a mind scarred by early trauma and compulsive in a quest for closure. For the first half of This is Not a Confession, Olimpio’s narrator feels open to epiphany, a tall order for a male memoirist in a culture where feeling and masculinity remain mutually exclusive.
In a recent article in The New York Times, “Teaching Men to be Emotionally Honest,” Andrew Reiner chronicled the challenges of convincing young men that feelings, introspection, and empathy are a strength rather than a weakness. Hypermasculinity, Reiner acknowledged, is so familiar a cultural archetype that many of us consider it biological destiny. But boys—at least until the age of five, when culture conspires to squash the feeling out of them—are overwhelmingly more emotive and socially oriented than girls. That so few male memoirists write candidly about their feelings, when mastery of craft is predicated partially on introspective ability, seems almost inconceivable (and also not, given memoir’s history of criticism as meretricious). Those who do enter a club in which they are both lauded with disproportionate verve—their willingness to wed authentic feeling and writing deemed groundbreaking—and criticized for being “soft boys”—a limpid brand of man who “wants you to know he has feelings and he is completely ok with it,” but capitalizes on those feelings to manipulate, cajole, and use the women he courts.
Unfortunately, it is women who close Olimpio’s book. They grace the last several essays, their bodies—rather than their pleasure—narrated in detail, often alongside disclaimers regarding Olimpio’s open marriage. This arrangement—ostensibly predicated on mutual respect—appears to function as an avenue for Olimpio to cover up the emotional wounds he bares in the book’s first half. “Is this behavior the result of being molested as a child?” Olimpio asks in “The Big Bad Wolf,” the essay in which he introduces himself as “ethically non monogamous.” “Is it about my parents’ divorce? Is it about trying to understand my dad?” Olimpio’s willingness to question himself here feels hopeful. But to the book’s detriment, he never answers. Instead, the book closes with a scene in which he has sex with his girlfriend on the front porch of his house while he wife sleeps upstairs: “I leaned over her and took her hair in my hand and tightened my grip on it, pulled her head back toward me, and told her that her pussy felt good. Then I leaned back and rested my hands on her back, and I let my mind wander.” As Olimpio slaps the “wonder” of this woman’s ass, he disassociates, thinking not about his partner but about his wife, and about the array of neighbors surrounding him who, he imagines, are universally miserable. “This is it, motherfuckers,” he writes, “this is all I am,” a sentiment whose contrived profundity foretells the collection’s final sentences: “We were all innocent once. I just don’t pretend I still am.”
Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo Publication Date: May 3, 2016 Publisher: Knopf
The goofy dog on the cover seems generic, but a dog named Rub is definitely one of this story’s boys (without the beer). More accurately, Rub is a little bit of each of the boys—Raymer, Gus and Sully. These are men one might refer to as elders, if that word didn’t suggest a certain wisdom and maturity, not to mention common sense and impulse control. Like theirs, Rub’s life is one of unplanned events and unintended consequences.
Russo writes in a creatively profane vernacular, delivering a precise, deadpan, pitch-perfect story lit by flashes of credible wisdom. I laughed out loud and almost as often as I reread perfect sentences and earmarked pages to revisit for the joy of good writing.
Russo’s characters lack self-awareness, except when they use it to self-inflict blunt force trauma. Sully recalls that he “had been in the middle of one of those exhilarating stupid streaks that characterized so much of his adult life.” Gus describes himself disparagingly as a “dim-witted optimist” Raymer, the town’s qualified and sensible police chief, goes slightly crazy and makes some bad and hilarious choices, hurting no one more than himself.
The story might be described as Northern Gothic. The town is a decaying speedbump on the verge of posh upstate New York resorts, with a prevailing attitude of “self-defeating pessimism.” Jobs and hope are distant memories; the aging characters fear they are decaying. While they are sharp and funny with each other, they struggle privately with dire health, piercing grief, old loves, financial disaster, desperate worry, and exhaustion.
In a few short days, events brought on by ineptitude, cowardice, chicanery, sheer stupidity, lack of attention, and several acts of God result in antic chaos. Someone faints into a grave, dangerous snakes are loosed, buildings fall down, stinking poisonous goo runs down the streets, coffins sail on floodwaters. A crescendo of bad news unfurls hilariously. Then Russo quietly begins to make it clear that the consequences of all this foolishness fall hard on the women—wives, ex-wives, business owners, mothers, ex- and future lovers—who are the functioning adults in this world.
These women, women of uncommon strength and good sense, exercise relentless vigilance to respond to crushing, avoidable disasters. They share a bone-deep persistence that has replaced both hope and disappointment. The men fear their women, love them, but do not understand them.
Russo’s prose barrels along, crisp and dry as he stealthily and compassionately reveals an alternate view of events. When bad things happen to women there is deadly peril, not pratfalls and hurt pride. A mother steps into a knife to protect her daughter. A feckless girl hooks up with a violent man and stubbornly sticks with him until a brutal conclusion. Russo seems to believe that every one of the female characters would be better off on her own. Intentionally or not, he does not make a strong case for the upside of marriage or romance.
Upon finishing the novel, I learned that it is a sequel to Nobody’s Fool, which focuses on Sully, and I look forward to going back and reading that story. That said, this new book reads as a standalone novel, with none of the awkward exposition an author shoehorns in to bring new readers up to speed, and while readers may want to read them in order, Everybody’s Fool is an accomplished story of its own, with a generosity of heart, wickedly good humor, and delightful language.
—Patricia E. Nealon
The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest Publication Date: May 3, 2016 Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Kate Tempest began her writing career as a spoken word artist in the gritty hip-hop underground of southeast London. Now, at 30, the poet and rapper has a Ted Hughes Award under her belt, as well as a Mercury Prize nomination for music. She is also an acclaimed playwright, having re-written and performed—appropriately—The Tempest, in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The intensity Tempest wrings from language is so relentless and astonishing, it’s easy to see how she vaulted her way into literary celebrity, and it’s hard to think of a working-class poet who deserves it more. The Bricks That Built the Houses is her first novel.
The story opens with Becky, Harry, and Leon in a getaway car, speeding away from a heist in south London. This scene is itself a remarkable piece of writing, filled with half-rhymes and echoes of the diverse influences that Tempest is famous for mixing: William Blake, T.S. Eliot, the Wu-Tang Clan. The mood is volatile and dangerous. “Watch the city fall and rise again through mist and bleeding hands,” she writes. “Nothing’s for you but it’s all for sale, give until your strength is frail and when it’s at its weakest, burden it with hurt and secrets.… Suck it up, gob it, double-drop it. Pin it deep into your vein and try forever to get off it. Now close your eyes and stop it.” Tempest’s lyric talent is obvious here—it’s quite the explosive prologue.
From there, the story wobbles a little, and the friction between the spoken and written word is palpable. Delightful barrages of language make you want to read certain passages aloud, but they stutter against the more tedious business of plot, explanation, and moving characters around. Some passages fall into too much description, and the backstories of the main characters’ families could be trimmer. At the same time, it is fascinating to see a voice as unique as Tempest’s in its first attempt at crafting a novel. The book might feel a little choppy and under-edited, but by its end you have a distinct sense of its vitality.
Becky and Harry’s friendship unfolds in flashback: the two women meet at a drug-fueled record industry party. Becky wants to be a dancer, but she’s not had much success. By day, she works in her uncle’s café; by night, she gives adult massages. Harry, an androgynous, drug-dealing lesbian, is “all London: cocksure, alert to danger, charming, and it flows through her.” She falls, forebodingly, in love with Becky. The interactions between these two women—and, indeed, all the characters—possess a sharp understanding that brings Tempest’s characters to life. Quiet moments of observation end up as powerful as their notched-up counterparts.
As the plot thickens and spirals outwards, the bleak and lonely cityscape—and all the ordinary Londoners who inhabit it—is rendered with cinematic love and care. Tempest lives and breathes with her city’s underclass. Every character is made sympathetic by their thwarted dreams, their mistakes, their haggard appearances—“people forcing a good time out of their tired, broken hearts.” Tempest’s affection embraces everyone. For all the hardness in this novel, a sense of idealism pervades, and with it, a love for the distinct neighborhood of south London.
As Tempest puts it: “The houses are filled with people. The people are filled with houses.” Such beautifully worded observations remind you that Tempest is first and foremost a spoken word performer, and these are the moments that make The Bricks that Built the Houses such an enjoyable read.
The Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engel Publication Date: May 3, 2016 Publisher: Grove
Patricia Engel’s The Veins of the Ocean starts on a bridge—fitting, for a story about a woman suspended between love and loyalty on one side and desperate guilt on the other.
When sixteen-year-old Reina Castillo tells her brother Carlito that his girlfriend has been unfaithful to him, Carlito takes his girlfriend’s infant daughter in a rage and throws her into the ocean. Carlito is repeating the same violent crime of which he, as a baby in his father’s arms, was once victim. This time, the baby doesn’t survive, and Carlito is sentenced to death. Within the mythology of these twin stories, Reina erects her own internal prison.
The Veins of the Ocean is a big story, pulling a hundred threads into one cohesive narrative. It’s an émigré’s story, exploring immigration from Colombia and Cuba, and a love story, focusing on the romance between Reina and a Cubano refugee she meets in the Florida Keys. It’s a story of relocation and dislocation, a skeptic’s journey of faith and healing, an indictment of the American justice system, a discussion of animal rights, a chronicle of the Caribbean, a look at poverty, at violence, at sexuality, at family.Engel binds these stories together into a meditation on freedom, using her novel to explore its meaning, its manipulation, how the human heart can both crave and sacrifice it.
As a storyteller, Engel moves as swiftly and unexpectedly as life. As soon as she establishes Carlito and Reina’s relationship—he in prison, and she living half a life of devotion to him—Carlito commits suicide and cuts Reina adrift. As Reina struggles to free herself from her brother, Engel writes, “Again, I think of Carlito. The years I tried to serve his sentence with him, and how he let me. Maybe it was wrong of me, but sometimes I hoped that he’d see in my eyes how I’d stopped living for anything and anyone but him, and that he would tell me not to come back.”
Reina leaves her home for anonymity in the Florida Keys as a way to mourn her brother and escape him. There, she meets Nesto Cadena, a refugee from Cuba whose separation from his family is as much an act of freedom as a sentence of its own. As Reina and Nesto become friends and lovers, Nesto draws Reina into the Yoruba religion and his love of the ocean. Although she retains a skeptic’s disbelief, Reina begins to find freedom from her pain and guilt.
It’s a testament to Engel’s skill that, while stretching the narrative across countries, oceans, and generations, she manages to keep her novel small and intimate—a feat she accomplishes largely through language. In a novel about water, Engel treats her words like water, powerful but tender. She mimics the ebb and flow of the ocean, pulling the reader in and holding them under a kind of enchantment.
The Veins of the Ocean can be slow as it burrows deep into one woman’s fractured world. But once you’re in, Engel provides an extraordinary opportunity to ask one single, unending question: What does it mean to be free? Engel doesn’t provide easy answers, and she doesn’t end her novel so much as close it. The redemption and grace that her characters find may not resolve the complexity of their lives, but it alleviates the burden.
—Torrie Jay White
Allegheny Front by Matthew Neill Null Publication Date: May 10, 2016 Publisher: Sarabande
Earlier this year, Matthew Neill Null wrote an essay on the plight of rural literature. “Our literary culture has distended and warped by focusing so much power in a singular place,” he lamented. Null was referring to New York City, the publishing capital of the world. “You can't tell me that this doesn't affect what is… bound into books, marketed, and sold.”
Null had a point. In the 110 years since Upton Sinclair exposed the plight of factory workers in Chicago, cities have evolved into playgrounds for the wealthy. Some of the twentieth century’s Greatest American Novels portrayed poor Americans coping with the horrors of industrialization. Today, start-up culture entails catered lunches and ping pong at work. Physical labor has been relegated to rural backwaters, areas largely written off as cesspools of ignorance and poverty. Perspectives of such workers are rarely presented in urbane contemporary literature.
"Those fucking rednecks are my people," Null wrote in his essay. Real people—not just “simple characters hopelessly shackled to their id.” The stories in Allegheny Front present those people, the residents of rural West Virginia, in a fashion that goes beyond the stereotype. But the truth is no less sensational—in many ways, Null presents unrecognizable portraits of contemporary American life. Hunting black bears and bald eagles, running logs down rivers, kids with missing fingers and missing teeth: scenarios so far from city life it’s hard to fathom that Americans still live this way. These aren't stories of subtle family drama or existential malaise. These are stories where things happen. People get hurt. People die. Tragedy strikes. It can feel a tad exploitative, but it makes for good literature.
Descending into Allegheny Front is disorienting at first. Like any foreign land, it is a place with its own language, inscrutable to outsiders. When conversation turns to Melungeons, you just have to nod and smile. Eventually you will find your footing, and the world will bloom around you. The best literature broadens our horizons, and here Allegheny Front succeeds, shedding light on a land not so much forgotten as unexplored.
Null's prose is terse but vivid and authoritative, painting quick pictures with poetic clarity. “The river augured and torqued, a muscular green,” he writes in “Gauley Season.” “Shards of flotsam and jetsam: broken sycamores and garbage bags, bleached timber, a child's tricycle. A water-bloated calf wheeled down river, eyes blue as heaven.” At times, Null descends into unceremonious lists, but his penchant for unexpected adjectives (“muscular green,” “eyes blue as heaven”) renders his environs with insight.
The more remarkable beauty of Null’s fiction lies in his characters. Though he doesn't shy away from the sordid reality of rural life—alluding to prison terms, oxycodone abuse, and general crude behavior—he imbues his protagonists with empathy. In “Mates,” two old friends quarrel over the killing and display of a bald eagle. Sull pleads with Carter, a game warden who recently accepted a gift of deer meat shot and killed out of season. Won't Carter turn a blind eye to the eagle, too? “Look around you. This is ours,” Sull says. “When that judge has come and gone we'll be here holding the bag. We're on our own out here, bud.”
His argument is poignant in the age of Trump. Many Americans feel the brunt of urban bureaucracy, of a ruling class that disregards its own laws while offering no such leniency to its constituents. Null shows us who gets left holding the bag. His protagonists are complicated characters, with faults and failings of their own. It is refreshing to see a nuanced, sympathetic portrayal of "fucking rednecks" in today's literary scene.
These stories are important, but they would merit less attention if they weren't so well-written. The best ones—“Mates,” “Gauley Season,” “Telemetry”—present complex tales, dazzling with strength and beauty like the rivers Null depicts. Allegheny Front is a collection of uncommon vitality from a part of the world largely left for dead. Null’s stories prove just how alive it remains.
Man and Wife by Katie Chase Publication Date: May 10, 2016 Publisher: A Strange Object
It’s not often that a debut collection becomes one of my most anticipated books of the year, but I’ve been completely sold on Austin-based indie press A Strange Object’s ability to find those wonderful, odd voices that make for the most compelling reads. Katie Chase’s Man & Wife is no different, and it’s found a comfortable home in their catalog.
Even as it flirts with the fantastic—take, for example, a city that burns down every year in “The Creation Story”—the world of Man & Wife is instantly recognizable. A sense of day-to-day suburban life grounds these stories in a common experience. Yet it’s Chase’s ability to twist the familiar, even if only slightly, that generates narrative tension and transforms the landscape from something ordinary to something strange.
Each story’s environment defies expectation. At times, it feels as though Chase is stitching together different parts of the world, different times and societies, to create her own surreal realm: a refugee camp in middle America; the arranged marriage of a modern, well-to-do, young girl; a blood feud between neighbors separated only by a picket fence. Chase juxtaposes quiet modern life with a reality that is more violent, more barbarous, more feral. By magnifying the quotidian, she forces us to examine our familiar institutions in a way that makes clear the privilege inherent in our society.
Chase herself has said that Man & Wife is a rebellion against suburban stories whose endings carry small moments of epiphany. The pieces in this collection are full, robust, and at times, unexpectedly suspenseful. (The title story in particular is a gripping, white-knuckled read.) You’ll find no small epiphanies here—only big, dramatic encounters that challenge our social norms by pushing at the edges of a familiar, middle-class world.
The Fat Artist and Other Stories by Benjamin Hale Publication Date: May 17, 2016 Publisher: Simon & Schuster
The Fat Artist and Other Short Stories by Benjamin Hale is a frantic collection of the grotesque. It concerns ugly people doing ugly things: a father dumping his dead son into the Gulf of Mexico because he doesn’t want to delay retirement; a young fugitive wiping crap from her baby’s bottom after she carelessly drugged him with tainted breast milk; a dominatrix pondering her divorce while a politician “friend” lies dead on her whipping floor. Although darkness is no reason to shun a story, Hale’s book lacks a je ne sais quoi that saves the reader from asking, “Why am I reading about these people?”
The pieces begin and end without purpose, draining a reader in search of revelation. Sure, bad people can be bad, but humanity should shine through the holes in the fabric. Hale’s writing removes the reader from his morally skewed players when we need exactly the opposite. Moreover, his storytelling eschews “show, don’t tell” in favor of lards of explanation. Hale talks through the “why” of his stories without transporting us inside. Lists of overly specific items and descriptions, mixed with passages that feel like diary entries, flatline the flow.
The collection’s titular story, a lazy reversal of Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist,” follows a bourgie art-school asshole who has found fame by masturbating into raw meat flanks. Our “protagonist,” Tristan Hurt, makes a hobby of hating his parents and sleeping with beautiful women to feel more famous than them. Hurt affixes himself in a lavish bed at the Guggenheim with a tube up his rear and the goal of becoming the fattest person to exist. The situation itself is a great twist on celebrity culture and the contradictions between “an age of overabundance” and the cultural desire to be thin. But when Hale explains this, we lose the magic of discovery.
There always exists the potential to relate to strange characters we find in books, but Hale positions Hurt and the others in his collection in a way that precludes empathy. Because of Hale’s perspective, we are not physically with the characters. We see them moving instead of feel them; we read the litany of foods the Fat Artist eats but taste nothing. So when we read that museum viewers left Hurt’s exhibition “knowing they had caught a glimpse of something great,” we don’t believe it. A lack of trust in the author’s voice breeds distrust for his characters. From there the pages unravel.
Within The Fat Artist and Other Stories, Hale makes a series of last-ditch efforts to find a shred of beauty in the bile. “Leftovers” ends with a father dumping his son’s body, then spotting a school of dolphins in whose beautiful movements he revels. “The Fat Artist” ends with a former flame visiting the museum with a bouquet of flowers and news of Hurt’s father’s death. Hurt eats the roses. End scene. Hale’s endings fail to register closure or cosmic lessons. Maybe that’s the point, but most readers know the world can be a bad place and turn to books for something more profound.
If Hale really wants darkness, he should strive for it whole-heartedly. Dolphins and roses don’t mean a thing to us.