Tag Archives: spring 2011


Andrew Wingfield
Washington Writers Publishing House ($16.95)

by Zach Czaia

Right of Way is fiction with an argument. Resisting the nomadic, rootless nature of much of contemporary American life, author Andrew Wingfield has written a series of stories about one fictional D.C. neighborhood, Cleave Springs. The first story, told by a one-time “hyena” of Capitol Hill now transformed into a “novice restaurateur,” reveals the book’s central claim. Enlisted by his wife to chase down the escaping dog of a woman outside the restaurant they own, the husband takes the time, mid-chase, to reflect on the neighborhood in which he lives and works:

America is a rich country growing poorer all the time in places. Cleave Springs was a real place, a place that rose early last century with the great rail yard that spawned it and then declined as the rail yard went quiet. A place that had tasted death and was waiting to be coaxed back to life.

Of course, the price of such eloquence is the reader’s suspicion that the narrator is merely a mouthpiece for the author. In the case of the opening story, the suspicion is warranted: not only is the central “message” of the collection neatly laid out, but it is done so in the midst of a chase which orients the reader to the neighborhood. Thus, our narrator runs by the Lily Pad café and into Brimslea, introducing settings for later stories. The rendering of place here, as elsewhere in the collection, is done well: Wingfield finds the precision of detail necessary to make the individual parts of his neighborhood stick in the reader’s memory. Passing through the Salvadoran neighborhood, still hot on the dog’s heels, the narrator remarks, “I endure the strong fish odor that wafts out from the Feria del Pescado, briefly savor the smell of grilled meat and spices around El Jardin.”

Unfortunately, Wingfield’s characters are often less fully realized than the place where they reside. In this story, after a long chase, the narrator finally corners the dog and grabs him, yelling “like a barbarian,” when it bites his hand. The twist is that the narrator’s wife (and the dog’s owner) have, unbeknownst to him, been following the chase all along; the barbaric yell, then, is supposed to be a revelation to the wife of another side of her husband’s nature. But it is a muted epiphany: the story hasn’t given us good enough sense of what their everyday interactions are like to make this “other side” of the husband seem strange. (“Hank Williams Dialogues,” a later story in the collection that takes up the same characters, is more revealing.)

When the characters are rendered as well as place, however, the results can be stunning. “Lily Pad” is a case in point. It is a simple enough story about the blossoming (interracial) romance between two high school students—Tre, a talented guitarist who is a regular at the cafe, and Yreka, the barrista who serves him. But Wingfield complicates it through use of the story’s form—first person journal entries from Yreka and class assignment reflections from Tre—one that allows the reader to experience (rather than merely be told about) the family conflicts and tensions inherent in the young couple’s budding relationship. In the story’s climax, an open mic night at the Lily Pad, Tre dedicates and plays a song to Yreka; overwhelmed by the burden of “everyone’s eyes” (including her father’s and Tre’s parents), she runs out into the street carrying Tre’s class project, a sack of flour standing in as his “baby.” When her father catches up with her, we learn that Tre’s family and her own have a shared history, that her father and Tre’s father knew each other in high school:

“You were friends?”
He smiled. “Friends wasn’t allowed. Friendly was. Me and Sal, we had things in common. Both liked jazz, both played horns. And then we both had baby girls we couldn’t keep.”
“Tre had a sister?”
He nodded again, sorrowful. “Still a baby when they lost her.”

Wingfield is adept at revealing the past of his characters’ lives through their present (new) relationships, and in stories like this one, the payoff for his technical skill is big. Besides introducing a reconciliation between Yreka and her father here, Wingfield sets the stage for the concluding scene, which presents the stirrings of a renovated father-son relationship between Sal and Tre. This scene that couldn’t have the emotional resonance it does without our knowledge of this history is itself more powerful because it has come from the voices that have experienced it firsthand, from Yreka and her father.

As commendable as such writing is, some readers might wish for more complexity in Wingfield’s overall vision. One of his implicit claims in the collection—that people in a neighborhood who reach out to one another can experience healing, consolation, and insight into their personal lives—fails to acknowledge that reaching out in this way is always fraught with risk, that true understanding is hard-fought, and that the fruits of these relationships come slowly and with great patience. In Right of Way, these harsher realities of neighborhood life are not given their due; every story ends with the protagonist extending or experiencing some gesture of consolation, or receiving some insight into his or her life. In stories like “Lily Pad,” in which the consolations are paid for by some commensurate struggle or suffering from the characters, the closing moments feel right, testifying as they do to the nourishing capacities of narrative. But when they happen routinely, the reader begins to be suspicious of them, as they seem too cheaply granted. What of the hardening of hearts? Of ongoing misunderstandings? Of quarrels that turn violent? Are not these, too, the stories of our neighborhoods?

The good news for Wingfield is that he can consult his own work as he goes forward. The voice of Tre, sampling a glass of wine with his father at the conclusion of “Lily Pad,” offers a useful analogy in the creation of good fiction:

now i lifted the glass to my lips and let some of the wine pore into my mouth and held it there for a few seconds before i swallowed. it didnt taste bad like it did when i was younger and it didnt taste good either but it tasted complicated.

There are a number of moments like this in Right of Way, moments worth holding on the tongue of one’s mind like that “complicated” wine that gives the reader reason to hope the complexities and complications of Cleave Springs will deepen if Wingfield explores its terrain further in the years to come.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

THE PERFUME RIVER: An Anthology of Writing from Vietnam

Edited by Catherine Cole
University of Western Australia Press ($32.95)

by Steve Street

This fat anthology of short stories, hybrid narratives, and poems offers an array of perspectives on contemporary Vietnamese experience—including experiences beyond Vietnam’s borders and within them by non-Vietnamese. The central focusing event, even when unmentioned, is unavoidably what’s called “The American War,” though editor Catherine Cole and most of the writers she’s collected are from Australia, which had a parallel but distinct involvement in that war. The total number of Australian troops who fought is comparable to the number of Americans who died, but participation in the war caused about as much dissention, especially as waves of immigrants arrived after the fall of Saigon in 1975, finishing off the official exclusion of non-Europeans known as the “White Australia Policy.” It’s a testimony to such changes that to non-readers of Vietnamese, most of the authors’ names in this volume will be gender-neutral.

Some of these authors and their characters have lived through the above events (or even earlier, the war against the French), and some were born since; some are steeped in cultural traditions, and for at least one, tradition is “When being Vietnamese [in Sydney] was not cool, and pho was not available everywhere.” Altogether, these readings celebrate the diversity, complexities, anguish, joy, and beauty of a culture with a 10th-century university that was called, according to Christopher Kremmer’s travel piece, “the Temple of Literature”; they also chronicle that culture’s invasion by and spread throughout the rest of the world, documenting effects on people that both those movements can make. In fact, the title of Chu Vu’s epistolary story by a tourist named Michelle might as well fit the entire collection: “Vietnam: A Psychic Guide.”

Like those three, many of the readings attempt to introduce or explain to outsiders aspects of Vietnam, from its history to its flora and fauna to its brands of cigarettes (e.g., Vina and 555). “On West Lake the paddle-boats are made from war debris. Old aircraft hulls have become painted swans and roses floating along on spent bomb casings,” Pam Brown writes in “The Hanoi Cycle”; Nguyen Thi Thu Hue’s lovelorn Thanh sings of “the fragrance of the ylang-ylang blossoms / And the sweet scent of the milk flowers.” In Le Minh Khue’s “The Concrete Village” we learn about lighting incense sticks at ancestor shrines, kapok trees, “land gangsters,” and urbanization that’s literally paved over the countryside. In Hoa Pham’s “The Daughters of Au Co,” a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Ho Chi Minh City is familiar enough to identify by its acronym alone. In poetry by Steve Kelen and others too, we learn how women in Hanoi ride motor scooters (side-saddle), as well as about “the people who sleep / in the street hammocks.” And from Vincent Lam, a physician and prize-winning, best-selling author in Canada, we learn about Chinese attitudes toward lineage, Australian clawless lobsters, and the perhaps-psychological power of healing extracts over divorce, remarriage, and renal cell carcinoma, as well as who “changed Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City.”

But even some of these readings, along with others that were perhaps originally published for a less self-consciously intercultural audience (or maybe simply written from stronger intercultural assumptions in the first place), lead with voice and story. What really compels a reader about the grandfather in Lam’s “A Long Migration” is not the exotic details of ever-changing place but the strength of the man’s endurance through the vicissitudes of love, war, and urination. Pham Thi Hoai’s “Sunday Menu” treads lightly on the resentment that must underlie any long-colonized culture’s consciousness and literature by treating it through cooking. In this high-energy story about a restaurant featuring dishes like Snow White Soup, White Cranes Saluting Flags, Chicken with Holothurian, and Steamed Quails in Holothurian Juices (if you don’t know what Holothurian is, don’t worry: it comes up), one of the older participants “blamed the French for the corruption of Vietnamese culinary taste.”

Such voices are distinctive and various in this book, from Hoai’s robust one cited above to Ho Anh Thai’s delicate, impressionistic one in “Installation” (which, in another testament to this culture’s high literary values, first appeared in Vietnam Airlines’ in-flight magazine). The narratives, too—such as Viet Lê’s raucous but wrenching story of refugee displacement to the point of substance and spouse abuse, “Hot Dogs for Dinner”; Andrew Lam’s “The Palmist,” which takes place largely on San Francisco’s 38 Geary bus; and Nguyen Thi Thu Hue’s sad story of a broken engagement, “Believe Me”—bring intercultural data to life.

It’s usually a hard life, though; most of this writing depicts harsh realities, past and present, along with the ways people cope. Often such characters are women, and often they have to cope in the way Nguyen Thi Thu Hue’s Hoai and Le Minh Khue’s Thanh Ha do: by finding a man. Perhaps the harshest character in the collection, a brother in “The Concrete Village,” gives voice to what may be the harshest reality when he tells his lame sister, “You’re a cripple, but your waist is small and your breasts are big—you still have value.” In the deep reflection this assault occasions in her, she feels “like life is the same as in wartime . . . I’m frightened all the time” and thinks, “there are so many like him now . . . people who are no longer human.” But in taking leave two lines later she tells her brother to take care, knowing that after the death of their grandmother all they have is each other. And even the tangled thoughts of the “homegrown backpacker” in Phan Huyen Thu’s “Doll Funeral,” the lone and lonely Vietnamese “in a Western backpackers’ café” are hard but tough, uplifting even when they’re grim.

In all, such evidence confirms what we might have suspected: that, as Adam Aitken’s poem title puts it, “The War Never Ends.” But that’s this volume’s point only in the way that “don’t cheat on your spouse” is the point of Anna KareninaMadame Bovary, or Effi Briest. The benefits of reading these selections are, as with all good writing, in the reading itself: every word opens up and contributes to the experience. Even the arrangement of these readings does; it’s unusual but deliberate, not only interspersing prose with poetry but also staggering the writers so that half a dozen reappear. The effect is something like that of walking down the ramps of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., a deepening into the phenomenon, then out into something else. In this case that something else is more familiarity with Vietnam. References identified in early stories—like Hanoi’s West Lake and those 555 brand cigarettes—need no explaining in later stories, and we recognize the young women on motorbikes, too. Reading The Perfume River, an actual waterway evoked in a couplet by Nguyen Trong Tao that serves as epigraph, is the next best thing to being on it.

There’s nothing fragrant or gradual, however, about the descent this book provides into the core of modern Vietnamese experience. The opening piece is “The Sorrow of War” by Bao Ninh, who lost 490 fellow combatants in a Youth Brigade and tells about it in fiction that features the sentence, “Not until after dark does the MIA Zil truck reach the Jungle of Screaming Souls.” Even with the buffer of years, the war is always with these writers. In the second story, Nam Le’s “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” from his powerhouse collection The Boat, the son of a war survivor writes about it in an Iowa workshop.

In the writing that follows are also sex and fashion and drunkenness and carp, not to mention haiku lines extolling “the street of hairclips” and “flashing kotex ads.” Adam Aitken’s memoir “Beyond Khe Sanh” samples Graham Greene’s The Quiet American like a DJ’s mix; other Western references include Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” as taught in a Hanoi classroom in an eventually ironed-out mis-translation, David Bowie’s “China Girl,” Catherine Deneuve filming Indochine, and Brahms and Coltrane. Around the war and Vietnam itself so many cultural, psychic, and emotional notes are struck here that when you arrive at N. B. Najima’s “At the Mermaid Stairwell,” one of the last selections, you’re deep into this story’s events—about an oblique nighttime encounter between an unidentified narrator, an Arab ambassador, and then a member of his support staff—before you realize that a reference to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is the first one to anything specifically Vietnamese. It comes as a bit of a shock, not that Vietnam and the war have fallen into the background, but at realizing how much they've become a part of the world—and of all of us.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011


Rachel Cusk
Picador ($15)

by Joshua Willey

The seventh novel from Whitbread winner Rachel Cusk is in many ways the epitome of a minor work. It examines mediocre characters living mediocre lives, constructing around them a narrative structurally analogous to such content: muted, conservative, quiet. What makes it not only Cusk’s best work to date but also one of the most engaging British novels of recent years is the extent to which the author commits to the insipid, the domestic, the mundane. If Virginia Woolf had gone for a jog everyday instead of smoking so much, she might have written The Bradshaw Variations (though this is still strict realism, much more Night and Day than The Waves). In an age where the likes of Zadie Smith and David Mitchell get all the hype, there is something refreshing about Cusk’s well-wrought traditional approach. Here are middle class fundamentals: work, family, and the omnipresent wild blue yonder which threatens to destabilize everything we build, be it in the form of a piano fugue or an ephemeral brush with a fellow commuter. Cusk’s minimalism challenges the sturdiness of our interiors, extremely sensitive to revealing and rendering every crack.

Marilynne Robinson, if she’d grown up in the suburbs or turned her attention to them, might sculpt paragraphs such as these. Both writers are masters of drawing the numinous out of the normal. Tea time takes on the gravity of a mass. The nature of art is one of Cusk’s fundamental questions here, and it fits perfectly as a vehicle to explore the various layers of reality stacked on top of the material. But more specifically, she asks after the relationship between art and artist, as two of the primary characters are struggling with creativity. A woman has a painting studio in her backyard but she no longer paints. She claims it’s the burden of family life which keeps her from the canvas, but we learn that in fact the place painting once had in her heart is no longer there. The significance of this—of the urge to create, and of its coming and going—is constructed as emblematic of the evolution of our identity. It’s good to keep Nietzsche in mind as this novel speeds by: “at bottom every man knows well enough that he is a unique being, only once on this earth; and by no extraordinary chance will such a marvelously picturesque piece of diversity in unity as he is, ever be put together a second time.”

Normalcy is one of the central concerns of Bradshaw; the author neither deflates nor champions the notion, but rather analyzes it with terse precision. What is normal, what effect does the specter of normalcy have on our lives? Guy Debord wrote “I have most certainly lived as I have said one should; and this was perhaps even more unusual among the people of my day, who have all seemed to believe that they had to live only according to the instructions of those who direct current economic production and the power of communication with which it is armed.” Cusk evaluates various frameworks of “instructions,” with particular interest in what is left over after we give ourselves up to the various endeavors that formulate a life. She seems to search for the individual, for the character herself, embedded somewhere in a busy modernity. At the heart of the novel, we witness a character shedding the accessories of that modernity and reaching, equally full of fear and exuberance, for something eternal. Rachel Cusk has done the same.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011


Juan José Saer
translated by Steve Dolph
Open Letter ($14.95)

by Scott Bryan Wilson

Angel Leto and an acquaintance named The Mathematician—who, deeply tanned and always dressed in all white, “seems less like a flesh and bone person than one of those archetypes you see on billboards, those for whom every contingency inherent to humanity has disappeared”—walk twenty-one blocks together through the city, discussing a party celebrating politician Jorge Washington Noriega’s sixty-fifth birthday despite the fact that neither of them were in attendance. In long, clause-on-clause sentences, this ambling conversation forms the basic plot of Argentinian Juan José Saer’s novel The Sixty-Five Years of Washington.

The peripatetic plot is merely a device for Saer to try out unconventional methods of narration and storytelling, all while relating the form to the content. The novel asks the reader to learn to read in a new way, as the details of the story itself are unfolded very slowly, with many pages going by between lines of dialogue. Everything is related in a very fragmentary way, seemingly to echo a thought the Mathematician had during a dream, in which there exists an “elemental mechanical paradox that demonstrates that motionlessness is what creates motion, that motion is simply a reference to motionlessness.” Some of the novel is narrated in a straightforward manner, as when the Mathematician tells a story in which he attempted to discuss his treatise called The Fourteen Points Toward All Future Meter with a celebrated poet (strangely, perhaps, one of the novel’s most gripping sections). At times, however, the narrator just slams everything to halt, and seems to focus on these moments of motionlessness and possibility, as in this early bit:

It is, as we know, morning: though it doesn’t make sense to say so, since it is always the same time—once again the sun, since the earth revolves, apparently, has given the illusion of rising, from the direction they call the east, in the blue expanse we call sky, and, little by little, after the dawn, after daybreak, it has reached a spot high enough, halfway in its ascent let’s say, so that, through the intensity of what we call light, we refer, to the state that results, as the morning—a spring morning when, again, though, as we were saying, it is always the same time, the temperature has been rising, the clouds have been dissipating, and the trees which, for some reason, had been losing their leaves bit by bit, have begun to bloom again, to blossom once more, although, as we were saying, it is always the same, the only Time and, so to speak, from equinox to solstice, it’s the same, no?

It’s a kind of writing that certainly won’t appeal to everyone, but Saer often pulls back, offering slightly more succinct descriptions, such as when Leto and the Mathematician evade obstacles on their walk: “simultaneously [they] bent their left leg, lifting it over the cable with the intention, more unconscious than calculated, of planting the bottom of their foot on the sidewalk, no? Alright then: they plant their feet.” (Those “no?”s that appear here are sprinkled all over the novel, as a reminder that there is a listener who is not a part of the story.)

The narrator jumps far into the future at times, explaining the ends of lives before we’ve even seen the end of the twenty-one blocks, and then back to the present, to slow the narrative back to barely moving. Saer plays a lot with this, all while peppering the novel with many quote-worthy sections, such as the Mathematician’s hatred of the “bloodlust bourgeoisie,” or this aside regarding another acquaintance, Tomatis, “for whom every example of the female sex whose measurements in the chest, waist, and thighs did not correspond to those of Miss Universe [was] an indistinct and transparent creature,” and the general nonstop flow of wisdom from the Mathematician, who insists that “whosoever looks to swim unaided in the colorless river of postulates, syllogistic modes, categories, and definitions should accompany his studies with a strict dietary regimen: fed on yogurts and blanched vegetables, the abstract order of everything, in its utmost simplicity, will be revealed, ecstatic and radiant, to the relentless, recently bathed ascetic.”

Saer makes use of that “utmost simplicity” with his easy plot, while ecstatically and radiantly writing of “the abstract order of everything” as well. It’s not a perfect novel—even at a slim 203 pages, it’s a bit overlong and the middle passage gets tiresome—but the opening and closing thirds are phenomenal, demonstrating a dazzling unification of form and function.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011


Skip Horack
Counterpoint ($15.95)

by Billy Reynolds

Reading a novel whose protagonist is a pygmy tribesman captured and sold into slavery (and whose canines and incisors have been filed into sharp points), you might become too conscious of the hero’s “otherness.” But this is not the case in Skip Horack’s first novel, The Eden Hunter. Horack, a former Stegner fellow and the recipient of the 2009 Bakeless Prize for his short story collection The Southern Cross, has here written a novel that is an effective mixture of the empathetic tradition and the best work of Cormac McCarthy.

Much of The Eden Hunter focuses on Kau’s life five years after being sold into slavery, when he flees into the Spanish Florida wilderness. His seemingly impossible quest is to find someplace like Africa: “That morning there had been a strong south wind and he had smelled salt air. How to say it? How to say that he somehow needed to see open waters?” From this excerpt, we can perhaps guess Kau’s ultimate destination, but his passage through a subtropical frontier of pinelands and lowlands littered with misfits and murderers is as compelling as the suspense surrounding his journey:

He was lying on his stomach in a purple field of blooming meadow-rue, his face buried in the folds of the saddlebags so as to block out the midday sun, when he heard the low buzzing of a honeybee. For a moment he wondered if all his pining for his home had finally confused his mind. He turned his head and opened his swollen eyes. The bee was hovering close, and he reached for it as if somehow hoping to prove the reality of the thing.

Kau is in pursuit of another life, but it is in his nature to reflect on the landscape’s natural beauty: “Kau lingered in camp until they were gone. A breeze came and the river cane swayed all around. He heard water frogs in the distance and could smell the river. It felt good to be alone and so he lingered still.” That Kau ultimately discovers the hidden resources of forest, lowland, river, and island speaks to his inner strength and steadiness, as well as his skill as a survivor. In his search for a place to call his own, he takes advantage of the raw materials life offers him: “a small knob of oak lying loose near a woodpile” that he fashions into a drawknife of sorts, a rowboat hidden in palmettos growing along a river bank, and a honeybee colony whose hive he considers “like a lost and frantic captain chasing seabirds across open water, all the while praying for land.”

What ultimately separates Horack’s The Eden Hunter from most other contemporary southern novels is its vision of humanity. Though violent, there is a dogged sweetness always limping behind the torture and the killing, moving slowly on its way across the Apalachicola River, drifting south toward the Gulf of Mexico, and finally seizing on the image of a man dancing in his solitary way “for the attention of some heathen god.”

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

THE COMPANY OF HEAVEN: Stories from Haiti

Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell
University of Iowa Press ($16)

by Lauren E. Tyrrell

Books based on calamities frequently gain quick popularity with their topical subjects, such as Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun on Hurricane Katrina. The Company of Heaven: Stories from Haiti, however, reminds readers of a country that struggled with fear and poverty long before its recent serial disasters of earthquake, flood, and cholera outbreak. This fiction debut by Haiti native and poet Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell contains twelve short stories and one novella that paint a resilient culture, heavy with grief and confident in better days ahead—whether on earth or in an afterlife.

Haiti’s culture breathes through the collection’s assorted narrators. Grande Jesula, the Mother of Spirits, offers her wisdom to a young woman troubled by ill omens, revealing rituals of a people reliant on unseen forces that can and do alter their lives:

tonight, you light three candles on the floor. Arrange them in a triangle facing east or north. Place a glass of sugar water in the middle of the triangle. Stand and pray. Call out to all your Spirits—those on your mother’s side and those on your father’s side. Tell them your hopes.

A personified chapel narrates another story, offering a similarly poignant island portrait from its unique perspective: “Dogs neither sleep nor perch. They are tied down somewhere in the nearby slums whose gray fossils’ framework hangs amidst bushes at the foot of the mountain. It is as if everything is held, somehow, at the foot of something greater.” Powerful voices like these act as tour guides through Haiti’s singular society and blighted spots.

Many of these narrators have familial ties with other characters, though the collection may frustrate readers wishing to tease out a precise family tree. Characters receive minimal introduction. For example, “Down by the River” begins, “It is Saturday . . . so Angelina sits and waits by the phone. Most Saturdays she sits in the big office chair that used to be my father’s.” Here we meet three figures; however, instead of learning about them individually, we hear about a ritual that unites them. With this move, echoed in several stories, Phipps-Kettlewell succeeds in depicting the Haitian people as a community rather than emphasizing individual characters.

As might be expected, Phipps-Kettlewell also tackles weighty themes throughout The Company of Heaven. For example, the novella “River Valley Rooms” probes class conflict and, most memorably, the effect of AIDS on Haitian society. The narrator suggests that Alan, a vibrant homosexual, has spread AIDS to herself and her brother, Justin. Justin infected his wife and infant son, both deceased. Grappling with this widespread mortality, the narrator offers a terrifying view of death, as “water that slowly rises in the room, nearing the ceiling. There is little space left, and you try to stay above water. The ceiling is always too low, too close.” This narrator’s highly imagistic language limns AIDS’s protracted destruction of a life, rendering a moving firsthand account of the disease.

Phipps-Kettlewell balances the heaviness of those themes with a playful study of Haitian religions; the characters practice Christianity and Vodou in tandem, creating an interlaced spirituality that governs their lives. Take the priest, Djezél, in “Land”: he practices traditional Vodou ceremonies, such as placing land crabs on the heads of those afflicted with sexually transmitted diseases, while crediting God for his healing powers. “If something has happened,” Djezél explains, “God somehow allowed it. . . . People come to me with their problems and I do what I can.” Phipps-Kettlewell echoes his easygoing religious attitude in other characters, providing a unique look at the way these two religions coalesce in Haitian culture.

While not every piece here is equally successful, readers interested in the Caribbean and those involved in Haitian relief efforts will enjoy this perspective of Haiti. As one narrator in the collection describes the republic’s people: “We reshape ourselves from the void of hell. We are the people who can live how no people should, suffer what no people can spell out, the sacrificial lambs never comfortable on earth.”

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011


Alissa Nutting
Starcherone Books ($18)

by Peter Grandbois

Rarely does a reader experience an imagination pulsing with the vibrancy of Alissa Nutting’s Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls. Her bizarre stories inhabit the slipstream between literary fiction and science fiction, between fantasy and the fairy tale, all the while creating worlds where anything seems possible: “The medical adviser/cameraman tranquilizes Dick and straps him into a cocoon on the wall. It looks as though some giant spider caught him and hung him there. I keep watching the cargo door for a human-sized space arachnid to enter and devour him whole.” This passage is drawn from a story about a reality TV show called “Eat IT” where the winner gets to have anal sex on the moon with a porn star.

As that scenario might suggest, Nutting’s social satire bites as hard as George Saunders but with the frighteningly fabulist incisors of Julio Cortázar. Take the opening story “Dinner,” in which the narrator and several other characters sitting in a stewpot wait to be eaten by diners off screen. As the narrator boils, she tells herself, “You can bear anything . . . if you know you’re not alone.” That desire to connect with others propels each of the eighteen stories in this collection containing stories ranging in length from the two-page “Zookeeper”—where a zookeeper answers, “She was soft” when asked why she steals the zoo’s prize panda—to the twenty-six-page “Bandleader’s Girlfriend.”

More often than not, the need to connect leads to dissolution of the self, as is the case with the under-confident narrator of “Model’s Assistant,” caught in the gravitational pull of her beautiful boss: “I am feeling more visible by the second.” The desire to love another, to be part of something bigger, so often makes us feel small. Nutting’s dark catalog of desire extends beyond the human world, as in the story “Ant Colony,” where space on a future earth is so limited “it was declared all people had to host another organism on or inside of their bodies.” The actress narrator has holes drilled in her bones to house colonies of ants and soon finds herself lost in their united consciousness: “When my eyes were closed I could see various dark caves and swarming ant-limbs, and these images gradually started to feel preferential to anything I might view of the outer world.” As is so often the case in Nutting’s dementedly sublime fictions, what begins as an act of love, a joining with another, ends in desire that cannot be satisfied: “When I try to think, all I can feel is the sugary fluid, and a rage that comes when after our feedings I find myself hungry.”

Despite its dark tone, Nutting’s collection is anything but depressing, and readers may find themselves laughing out loud often at passages such as, “I am boiling inside a kettle with five other people. Our limbs are bound and our intestines and mouths are stuffed with herbs and garlic, but we can still speak. We smell great despite the pain. The guy next to me resembles Elvis because of his fluffy, vaguely-pubic black hairdo. It may be the humidity.” Morbid situations, desperate desires, and seismic humor make for a difficult recipe, but Nutting pulls it off with the panache of a master chef.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011


Lori Ann Stephens
Blooming Tree Press ($23.95)

by Kristin Thiel

The mark of a well-written book is layers: “It sounded good, but there was a threat behind her words.” To be clear, after a quotation such as that, Song of the Orange Moons is not a thriller—except in the way that all coming-of-age stories are scary and exhilarating—but there is an intensity behind each of author Lori Ann Stephens’s carefully chosen words that makes this short yet still sprawling history of three females so enjoyable to read.

Three friends, two young and one their grandmother’s age, take turns narrating: Rebecka, the first child born to a stern missionary and a Colombian woman who still practices her people’s religion in secret; Helen, who battles her perceived desirability, the communal lifestyle of her boarding school, and her family’s Judaism by keeping a Journal of Touches; and Adelle, the elderly widow who eventually comes to speak not only for herself but also for Rebecka, Helen, and future members of their “family.”

It’s sweet that Stephens plays obviously with images, such as those of the sun and moon and water and things that make our legs itch, and with colors, orange, black, and violet. It’s downright beautiful when she links her ideas with themes unnamed: The sun and the moon are present in Rebecka’s mother’s arms, which move “mechanically in circles, in arches, as though if she stopped moving, a sadness would cave in all around her” while she obsessively fills the days after her son’s death making “casseroles and empanadas, breads, cakes, flan, and the refrigerator slowly filled each day with unbroken breads and sealed dishes.” Her tic of grief becomes a life-sustaining necessity, nourishing things being also inaccessible. Adelle, too, rolls and kneads dough that she knows won’t turn out: “I never made pastry rolls for the end result.”

There are several ways to portray young characters well, and many more ways to turn every descriptor into a blinking red arrow. Stephens is solidly in the former camp. At one point, Rebecka is “watching a loaf of bread tucked under a thin cloth”; at another, she describes a silence as so deep that “I can hear my nose whistle.” When their aunt says someone else changes her hair color “like a whore changes underwear,” Helen and her siblings giggle not at the first noun, of which they have no understanding, but at the second. Yet with a subtlety that can’t be pinpointed in one stand-alone phrase, Rebecka convinces the reader that she at once believes that the sun sleeps in Helen’s west-backing house and understands that it cannot be so. In such ways, Stephens shows great skill in negotiating Rebecka’s late grade-school age.

Song of the Orange Moons is not a perfect book; more cross-description between the characters, for example, would have been welcome, and because Stephens so clearly takes care in making each phrase matter, the few times she slips stand out. But one of the best compliments a reader can give a writer is to pay this kind of attention. We hear every word Rebecka, Helen, and Adelle are kind enough to give us.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011


John Hawkes
Dalkey Archive ($13.95)

by Greg Gerke

Has there ever been a literary novel as saturated in sex and bodily fluids as John Hawkes’s The Passion Artist? Dalkey Archive’s recent reissue of this hypnotic work, first published in 1979, gives readers the chance to marvel at Hawkes’s unique blend of language and nightmares. The raw, unsettling, politically incorrect tones of the book make it a refreshing monument—a reminder of how daring, fevered, unapologetic writing can brand a reader’s consciousness, complete with a long sizzle of steam.

The Passion Artist is set in an unnamed Eastern European city ravaged by war and destruction: “in the single park the play equipment for children resembled a collection of devices for inflicting torture.” The city’s life revolves around its women’s prison, La Violaine, and the troubled main character, Konrad Vost—a man who thought “he was like some military personage striding with feigned complacency down a broad avenue awash with urine”—finds his mother is inside the prison, his wife is dead, and his teenage daughter is estranged. When a riot breaks out at the prison, he volunteers with other men to quash it, but they fail, resulting in Vost’s capture. It’s an apocalyptic novel more grimy and haywire than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where even dogs are monstrosities: “it carried an old spring-operated wooden clothespin sticking at a comic angle from its small toothless mouth. Something had misfired in the docking of the tail, which, curled briefly above the rump, was naked at the tip and revealed there a spot of wet pinkness very like the tiny anus that was always exposed.”

The novel’s title can be considered highly ironic. Throughout the book, as childhood memories of his mother killing his father and his punishment at an orphanage of sorts torment him, Vost is engaged by seductresses of all ages, including a teenage girl he pays for (“the girl’s face was buried in his disheveled groin. It was as if her head had become suddenly the head of a young lioness nuzzling at the wound it had made in the side of a tawny and still-warm fallen animal,”) and a women from the jail both during and after the revolt. Yet Vost is more the object of passion’s nemesis—inertia. All the women in his life and in society have turned against him, and some of the almost ritual scenes of sexual domination of Vost by each of these women—including a tall, red-haired femme fatale who accompanies his mother as they patrol the prison—produce a disjointedness as traditional masculinity is upended.

Aside from its transgressive content, The Passion Artist amply displays Hawkes’s trademark ornate, inventive prose—the aforementioned tall woman’s red hair is “so dark it resembled the meat of plums,” and a derelict landscape is colored with umbral tones: “the strong cold salty air was impossibly heavy with the smell of human excrement and of human bodies armed and booted and decomposing under the ferns, behind piles of rock, in the depths of wells.”

One can forget that Hawkes is simply describing air here, first imbuing it with three plain but solid adjectives before letting it trail an olfactory blanket that cinematically tracks backward so the sources of decomposition and death are highlighted. With Hawkes, things happen in such extreme slow motion, as so many colors and sensations of smell, taste, and touch appear, it is like seeing Monet’s painting of lilies while sitting by the actual lilies, feeling the sun that touched them and Monet and smelling the air they all breathed.

Certain novels showcase how writing can jab, fluster, and puncture—how fiction can be unafraid to put readers in precarious positions, where they have to scramble to survive the living nightmare of existence.The Passion Artist is undoubtedly one of these books, and it is a pleasure to have it restored to print.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011


Frances O'Roark Dowell
Atheneum ($16.99)

by Carrie Mercer

“Quiet girls who weren't shy, girls who talked in riddles but were never actually rude”—such is the group of girls to which Isabelle Bean belongs. Isabelle makes the other middle school students roll their eyes, and the teachers throw up their hands. She's quirky. She doesn't exactly daydream, but instead tunes into some strange buzzing in the air that no one else hears. Put simply, Isabelle doesn't fit in, and she knows it. Imagine her delight, then, when she falls into an alternate universe.

In Falling In, Frances O'Roark Dowell has created a strong, interesting character who can take her place happily alongside Alice of Wonderland and Dorothy of Oz as an adventurer who escapes her dull existence. An avid reader of fairy tales and fantasy, Isabelle is ready for magic and elves and fairies. In a funny twist on Dorothy, Isabelle arrives in red boots she scrounged from a roadside junk pile, and instead of being heralded as a hero for killing a witch, she is greeted with horror, as a plain-looking girl shouts, “Run away, everyone! It's the witch, and she's come to eat us!”

Dowell has a wonderful sense of humor as she upsets Isabelle's expectations. Isabelle keeps thinking she must have some magical powers in this world, and is disappointed that she cannot summon the least sandwich or even an apple as she trudges through the forest alone and hungry. When Isabelle meets the real witch—“not the least bit scary, no evil fumes steaming off her skin, a house filled with sunlight and healing plants”—she is bewildered.

Isabelle prefers to think of herself as a changeling, a belief not uncommon in tweens. “If only you could go back to your real home, to your real family, everything would fall into place and you would be loved and admired all hours of the day”—or so you think, points out the narrator, directly addressing the reader. This technique, which Dowell uses throughout the book, has the effect of drawing the reader in closer, and making what's at stake feel important and real.

Things aren't falling into place at all for Isabelle, because Falling In is more than a fantasy; Dowell has deftly created a coming-of-age tale for tweens. Although Young Adult literature is a well-defined category for coming-of-age stories, we tend to forget there are earlier transitions.

To understand her new environment, Isabelle must look beyond the allegorical world of fairy tales, where characters are either good or evil, there is a clear moral, and everything is sorted in the end. In a subtle way, Dowell also addresses the disease of entitlement. For beyond having a more complex understanding, Isabelle must then choose whether or not to act. Even in an alternate universe, she learns life is not handed to you on a platter. You still have to get up off the couch, or toadstool, as it were, and do what you can do.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011