Tag Archives: summer 1999


Elaine Equi
Coffee House Press ($13.95)

by Mary Ann Koruth

. . . in poetry too
we like our lyricism
minus the garlic
on the poet's breath.

These lines from the title poem of Voice-Over, describe more than a poet's thoughts on the art; they describe the manner in which Elaine Equi practices it. Nowhere in this collection of Equi's work does one detect garlic in her breath—a few traces perhaps, but even those are too well framed and controlled for one to have to turn away.

Elaine Equi treads carefully; her expositions are manicured, and her reflections brief and tailored. Her poems are often a reasoning out, a controlled argument that ends in a conclusion or observation. They are striking not because they are epiphanies, but because they are often a reiteration of a final thought poised to make its appearance at the end of a conversation with oneself or the universe—a familiar realization, the question you knew was round the corner: ". . . not only digging / but flight too / creates depth."

This seems to be Equi's instinctive style. She is not, by default, given to emotional excesses—no outpourings or dams bursting. Hers is the voice of an afterthought, the bystander who goes home and stitches a neatly embroidered poem from what she saw on the street. Yet she does not come across as a writer struggling to subdue the personal; her tone is naturally temperate. Her poems are scripted to fit (and as she herself says in the title poem, "Scripted / it is not natural"), but this is done with a practiced ease and precision that makes her poems undeniably her own.

Elaine Equi's style may be transparent, but her poems are rarely revealing of her personality, except when she chooses to make herself a subject. But even here, she brings very little of her self to the poem—no more than a thought or a feeling—and her appearances never last long. They only serve to build an image, raise a question, or make an observation. The first person becomes a conduit for argument rather than the foundation for the poem: "If I have / an image of mind / it's as / general store . . . honey and vinegar, / on the shelf below." This underplaying of the personal might leave some readers wanting, but to me, Equi strikes a fine balance.

And yet she does provide the occasional outburst. "Why did I buy it? / What was I thinking? / It spells housewife. / Too nurturing. / I don't even have kids. / No one will take me seriously. / . . . Just get it out of here. / Throw it away," she writes in "Remorse after Shopping." Given Equi's inclination to be even-toned, this is an experiment, a special space set aside for a woman's rant. In fact, Voice-Over is full of experiments that, like "Monologue: Frank O'Hara ("Untie your muse / for an hour and stay with me. / I come in pieces / across a great test pattern. . ."), offer slight movements away from the author's norm. They invite the reader to watch the poet unfold a piece of herself that one would normally expect to be tucked away.

Another experiment, "Jerome Meditating," is a beautifully worked, lyrical piece that possesses the quiet, stationary feel of the situation itself. In this long poem, with its four-line verses and repetition of a line in two successive verses, the formal repetition and the steady, neutral commentary from the poet transport the reader into a space and time in which everything builds toward the ultimate silence in the subject's mind.

Some other pieces in the book are less able to hold themselves up, and they don't possess the same ease. In "Second thoughts," Equi presents a collection of 29 original thoughts and idioms. Some, such as "The sunflowers are the table's antennae," and "What speech shares with birds: both live in the air," are enjoyable. Others give the impression of being statements for their own sake, bringing a trace of predictability and commonness to the poem: "Every day I discover more and more products I can't live without," and "Once one has learned the trick of keeping up appearances—it's very hard to get beyond that." Though she re-frames the familiar in these statements, they are somewhat amateurish, and do not reveal her usual nonchalant air.

Another of Equi's favorite, and most effective forms, is that of reflection on other poets. In her previous work, Decoy, she briefly mentions Lorine Niedecker and Frank O'Hara, but in Voice-Over, she devotes three poems to these contemporaries: "Monologue: Frank O'Hara," "From Lorine," in which she takes lines from some of Niedecker's letters, and "Almost Transparent" in which Equi discusses Niedecker's poetry. Other poems in which poetry itself is the subject are "Thesis Sentence," "The Lost Language," and "Voice-Over," which discusses the function of the poem and why a lover of poetry turns to it for comfort.

Equi writes deftly and with brevity. Her poems are taut and compact, in spite of (and sometimes because of) a meandering within. In most pieces, her fluidity comes to a certain end—wrapped, ribboned, and presented to the reader. When writing, Equi seems to come back to a situation, provide it with a striking image, paint a scene, and work it into a planned array of words that move toward a final comment. This is her style and charm as a poet. In Voice-Over we may find Equi side-stepping now and then, yet she always returns to the center-path; her voice here moderates, unifies, and is, very often, soothing to the mind and ear.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999



Lee Ann Brown
Sun & Moon ($11.95)

by Chris Fischbach

The release of Talisman House's An Anthology of New (American) Poets is rapidly being recognized as a watershed. Whether or not the book will prove to be as influential as Donald Allen's New American Poetry is yet to be seen. But there is a changing of the guard, and a new generation is jockeying for publishing slots and notoriety. Like the successors in any movement, the new royalty will live or die not by reputation, inclusion in anthologies or magazines, but by the weight of singular book-length collections. Lee Ann Brown's Polyverse might be one of the best by the new avant-garde so far.

The poems in Polyverse, in traditional New York School or LANGUAGE fashion, are linguistic events, to be experienced on the immediate levels of (in possible order): diction, syntax, line, sentence, poem, section, and book. One of the epigraphs, by Gertrude Stein, points in this direction: "Any letter is an alphabet. When you see this you will kiss me."

If the ordinary poetry collection is supposed to be cohesive, with an overarching theme and consistent style, this collection will appear messy, thrown together. The acknowledgements and endnotes indicate that the book is made up of chapbooks, broadsides, exercises from workshops, poems culled from publication in magazines, and pamphlets: all contained in their own sections, all with their own distinct styles, and all of which can still be read separately.

Since they are presented in book form, however, one is forced to scrutinize how such disparate sections work together. Each section is like an alphabet, stacked like building blocks on other sections. The early poems are tributes to Emily Dickinson and later, in the beginning of the section titled "Comfit," Brown utilizes Dickinson's jumpy syntax to form short, epigrammatic poems that often appear glib and tossed off, as if paring down an already minimal style. Here is "Brochure," in its entirety: "A reading / folded into sections / free tamper / logic jumps logic." These poems are loose in a world where short poems tend to be tight; their logic syntactic rather than narrative or imagistic.

From there, the collection explodes into a hodge-podge of blended styles. Add lyricism to disjointed syntax and you get "Love": "I agree // when you say, 'She's cute.' / O my favorite cultural event, if you / squeeze my breasts, I'll suck your cock and we / will smell like heavenly slow motion manifestos of love." The grand campiness and ambiguous eroticism in this last stanza is reminiscent of Frank O'Hara, and it is this eroticism that helps to set Brown's work apart from so many of the poems in the other traditions she employs. In "Thang," for example, it is impossible to tell who is a man or woman or who is with whom or even when the sex is tender or violent: "Being on top pressing down with your bone on his or her thigh or pelvic bone your fingers in her or on you if you are a man and or a woman." The range of emotions, or even the fact that there is emotion, is Brown's triumph in a world where experimental poetry favors linguistic experimentation over sentiment.

But at the height of her lyrical experiments, Brown pulls back into language games. The section "a museme," ventures into Oulipo territory, where the letters in the title of individual poems are the only ones used in the text, though upon closer inspection, you'll notice she cheats from time to time. Such language games are dangerous, and rarely an end unto themselves. But again, in the section following, "CoLabs," it's easy to see how her use of different styles build on each other, and how she uses Oulipian playfulness to create lines like "i like the use of -emes like the way i want to eme you / like all of those Moxie filled women named Appliance / and fucksemes like the functuous fluxuous you / of the moment."

The anxiety of influence is a disease that infects most of the poets coming out of the Talisman House anthology. The trick, in whatever experimental poetry will become, will be to have full command over your influences, rather than drift into worthless imitation. Polyverse is Lee Ann Brown's poetry, not anyone else's, and it rises above St. Mark's Place where it will scatter into thousands of pieces and wind up on everyone's bookshelf who wants to know what's next.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999


Troubled Lovers in History

Albert Goldbarth
Ohio State University Press ($18.95)

by Jeffrey Shotts

Reading Albert Goldbarth's poetry is like simultaneously tuning in to late-night news, listening to a Hank Williams album, watching an Ed Wood science fiction flick, and all the time attending to the language of the book in your hands. Amazingly, all the plates Goldbarth keeps spinning never slow and fall. He is an immensely entertaining poet with a nimble sense of humor and a dizzying intelligence.

It is easy to be distracted by Goldbarth's digressive poetic style, but it is often his intention to take his reader seemingly farther and farther from the theme, even while never truly straying from the matter at hand. In his latest collection, Troubled Lovers in History, the matter at hand is contemporary romantic and familial relationships, how their "ups and downs . . . can be amplified by historic reference," as the author's introductory comments suggest. Goldbarth has always dared large questions: What have we collectively learned about love? Why do so many relationships fail?

To attempt answers, Goldbarth enlists an extravagantly wide range of historical personas, from the famous to the obscure, and achieves a panoramic collage of how these historical figures influence contemporary relationships. In the opening sequence, "Travel Notes," the explorer Marco Polo, the isolated Emily Dickinson, and the physicist-theorist Stephen Hawking parallel the difficult and dutiful relationship of the poet's sister and her M.S.-inflicted husband, demonstrating that love comes "Not in miles; but in deepness / over time." In the poem "In," the scientist Wilhelm Röntgen first discovers the X-ray, photographing the bone structure of his wife Bertha's hand, then shows how to diagnose and heal Goldbarth's hospitalized father and his own troubled marriage. In the long sequence "***!!!The Battle of the Century!!!***," the early 19th-century sideshow wrestlers "Dragon Sam, the Great Exhaler" and "Liquid Dan, the Living Geyser" and 1939 Marvel Comics superheroes The Human Torch and The Sub-Mariner engage in hyperbolic battle, revealing the conflicts against death engaged by Goldbarth's inevitably dying mother and even by "two sixteen-year-old lovers / screwing madly, for the contrast, on top of a grave."

If not for Goldbarth's sometimes-wild references and ability to push the historical parallels with contemporary situations to their utmost, the collection would be in danger of becoming repetitive. But the poems in Troubled Lovers in History don't just dazzle the reader with a barrage of historical, scientific, and pop cultural references. Goldbarth often lifts the veil of allusions and lets down the defenses of humor to reveal himself as a poet who is as self-deprecatingly honest as he is wryly intelligent. In the best poem of the collection, "Complete with Starry Night and Bourbon Shots," Goldbarth mourns the death of his ex-wife's father, the drinking man Bob Potts, and shows a rare and surprisingly gracious tenderness: "But since you've asked for a poem, / my ex, my sweet and troubled one, I'll give you this / attempt, complete with starry night and bourbon shots: / Here, / I'm lifting a beer / for Bob Potts." The poem doesn't overtly suggest a historical parallel or allusion, but uses Goldbarth's own relationship with his ex-wife as history—as something past, but still attended to. The collection, despite its ambivalence toward autobiography and its insistence on creating fiction disguised as truth, has an exceedingly personal depth.

Goldbarth, whose Heaven and Earth: A Cosmology won the National Book Critics Circle Award, is a prolific writer; this is his second collection of poems published in six months, and a new book of essays is due in August. While Troubled Lovers approaches some of the same territory as Marriage, and Other Science Fiction, this latest collection is one of the most inclusive and ambitious to appear in recent poetry. In Troubled Lovers in History, Goldbarth's imagination is still ablaze, even after three decades of furious writing, and shows no sign of wavering.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999


Talisman House ($12.95)

Cadmus Editions ($15)
Gustaf Sobin

by Robert Baker

There are many complex reasons why some very good poets are too little known, but one of the simplest reasons for being out of the loop is geography. The American poet Gustaf Sobin is a good example; he lives in Southern France, where he emigrated in 1963 and where he married his Objectivist impulses to the lyric surrealism of Rene Char, with whom he "apprenticed." Were he stateside he might be held in the same esteem as Duncan or Creeley; from abroad, however, he is all too invisible. Two new Sobin releases should serve to remind us American readers why we need to expand the map.

Articles of Light and Elation is actually a long poem, or rather a sequence of 46 discrete poems that elaborate a single theme: the luminescence, to use one of Sobin's favorite words, of Eros. Such subject matter is rare in our cynical age, probably because to write love poetry of any worth one must battle an armada of difficulties, yet Sobin plunges in audaciously, drawing out both the mystery and the ebullience of carnal pleasure:

there where your curls
moved down over mine, my thighs
went blind, went
blond with your writhing. each
time urged, othered, mythed to
that immensity, the warp goes sleek
with so much unabated lathing.

As this example shows—and I hasten to add that in this sense it's representative—Sobin masterfully eludes the pitfalls of easy sentimentality and cliché. He uses synedoche to jarring effect, and creates a metaphorical physicality that celebrates the act without becoming precious. He of course employs an undulating musicality, rolling us to and fro, to stand in for what's unsaid. But most importantly, Sobin's articles nearly always swerve away from the bedrock of standard referents d'amour, at once revealing our extremely limited erotic vocabulary and how to expand it:

the 'thrust of life,' you
taught me, is toward its own
astonished tissues, the heart
plucked rose out of the
cold shrubbery of so much commotion; a
nest ablaze in the breath's

Those "astonished tissues" themselves astonish, as do all the nouns that follow it—note especially how "heart" and "rose" are so radically recontextualized by what surrounds them—before the poem finally ends in the held-for-as-long-as-possible note of "abeyance." This is truly a poetry of light and of elation. Sobin can stand with Auden and cummings as a master of this highly daunting area, though I doubt he will be as easily co-opted by the Hollywood feel-good love machine.

Delightful as Articles of Light and Elation is, however, it gives little indication of the full range of Sobin's poetry; for that one might turn to Towards the Blanched Alphabets, his latest full-length collection. The poems here, from short lyrics to long contemplations, are electric with the urge to push language through dazzle and breath, as if through a birth canal, toward the possibility of "ideation"—even if this process risks all kinds of erasure. As Sobin says in "Premises," "words, by their very nature, fall into the shadow of their facetted parts; / by their very agreements, undergo eclipse."

It is his staring into that eclipse that makes this book so powerful, and Sobin does this in various ways. In the shorter lyrics, he tends to break language down, wielding the line as if it were a smith's hammer tempering the material:

hold, then, to each
abandoned ellipse; crouch within the
wobbling contours of so much


The celebratory impulse of the lover in Articles is absent from these poems, replaced with an inquisitive and theoretically grounded discourse that conducts Wittgensteinian "philosophical investigations," coolly probing language with a knowledge-thirsty scalpel. Questions such as "for wasn't the visible—after all—our own invention?" abound, tethering all the expression in the book to this higher purpose, and Sobin's compressed language counterpoints the hugeness of this philosophical project so exquisitely that new insights glitter amidst these poems as the result.

To serve the same ends, Alphabets also contains two long poems that use very different means. "Late Bronze, Early Iron: A Journey Book" announces Sobin's poetic method right away: "plumbing sound, extracting fracture." His gaze toward the past is neither archeological nor personal but a weird hybrid of both. As such this poem literally stops time, allowing the poet to examine (and simultaneously produce) fragments—not to shore them against his own ruin a la Eliot, nor even to decode their meaning—but simply to think through them, and thus become a part of their lineage. This same approach is at work in the slightly shorter but even more magnificent "Reading Sarcophagi: An Essay," in which the poet—"reduced as you were to so much scenography"—approaches the dead text fully aware that it is a "disintegrated mirror" of his own writing.

These two books show why the expatriate American poet Gustaf Sobin is a national treasure—would that more American readers were aware of him.

Click here to purchase Towards the Blanched Alphabets at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999


Sex for the Millennium

Harold Jaffe
Black Ice Books/FC2 ($9)

by Trevor Dodge

Sex for the Millennium, Harold Jaffe's sixth collection of fictions, opens another front in his relentless guerrilla campaign to seek out (and eventually destroy, no doubt) a narrative expression that is appropriate and necessary for the deeply conflicted, hypersexual morality wonderland we live in at the razor's edge of the 20th century. As the new millennium's slouching birth is ticked away—picosecond by picosecond—on every website and wristwatch from Wendover, Nevada to Tirgoviste, Wallachia, Jaffe's extreme tales find our darkest sexual taboos as ready-made material suitable for broadcast in a society that is most turned-on by the things which turn its collective stomach.

Jaffe's collection of 12 fictions reads more like a recipe for a pipebomb than any sort of AA-inspired recovery program, each ingredient essential to the chef's master plan. In a hypertext companion essay of sorts, "Slash and Burn: A Narrative Model for the Millennium," Jaffe claims that the American artist must imbue herself with media culture, technology, and ideology, then, "in the spirit of a guerrilla, find a seam, plant a mine, slip away. These seams are the rents, or fault lines, in the web of interlocking ideology which prevents us from being ourselves."

Jaffe attacks moralist ideology with a barrage of narrative weaponry which includes the sexual escapades of a cancer patient, snuff porn, vampirical S& M among the blood of dismembered corpses, Oedipal orgies replacing bowling as a nuclear family activity, love letters to mass murderers, strap-on sex, partially transgendered she-males, child prostitution, serial killer as occupation, and a staged world-record-setting event in Madison Square Garden where a female porn star takes on 212 guys, one-by-one, until they are all spent. Sex for the Millennium heralds the new millennium as the ultimate gang-bang of technological discourse where, according to one of the collection's many disembodied voices, "having a dick ain't what it used to be. These days you're better off without it."

Sex for the Millennium discovers us "being ourselves" by stripping its characters down to their most basic impulses and desires; simply being in the 21st century promises to be a constant and violent struggle between morality and eros. With a parade of talking heads like Dennis Rodman as cultural anthropologist, Charles Manson as TV voodoo personality extraordinaire, and the Unabomber as messiah-cum-teenage heartthrob, Jaffe's fictions always remind us that we are more "ourselves" when creating the spectacle than preaching against it. SEXFTM is the soundtrack of a cultural moshpit where we are most human through our inhumanity. Like Leonard Cohen before him, Jaffe too has seen the future. And it is murder, baby.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999



Hanif Kureishi
Scribner ($16)

by Brad K. Jacobson

“Nothing is as fascinating as love, unfortunately," Hanif Kureishi writes. But wherein lies the fascination? In the rush of experiencing true love, or in the emotional schizophrenia of infidelity? Or is it hidden in the drudgery of serial monogamy? Perhaps we find it most interesting when someone takes it upon himself to attempt to explain the convoluted map of love's warring provinces.

Kureishi, author of My Beautiful Laundrette and The Black Album, accepts the challenge of charting such muddy terrain in his slim novel, Intimacy. Unfortunately, neither he, nor his hastily drawn characters, seem up to the task. Nowhere is the author more direct in his musings on love and relationships than when the narrator, Jay, ominously states, "Tonight, don't worry, I will set the record crooked." Crooked, indeed.

Feeling stifled by his six-year relationship with Susan, a woman who "thinks she's a feminist but [is] just bad-tempered," Jay decides to leave her and their two sons. He believes that "anxiety handcuffed us to one another," and yet he tortures himself with his insipid mental—and, God help us all, literal—masturbation. Jay pines away for the intangible Nina, all the while vacillating every few pages between duty and lust. In Nina, Jay naively believes he has discovered the key to his becoming someone whom he can respect, or, at the very least, stomach. Nina is hardly the first woman with whom Jay has committed adultery, and yet he whines, "Is it too much to want a tender and complete intimacy?" without a shred of irony. For all of his morose gushing about the situation which he has created, he is hardly an articulate man. He is, in fact, a walking jumble of contradictions, making it all the more difficult to find him a sympathetic character. In a brief exchange with a happily coupled friend, Jay reveals himself as the most pathetic of all creatures, an inarticulate and unrepentant philanderer:

"I have my opinions," I say. "But they're unimportant. They change every day. It's always something of a relief not to have an opinion. . . . But I tell you, when it comes to this matter, it is an excess of belief that I suffer from. . . . In the possibilities of intimacy. In love."

Kureishi attempts to produce a delicate, filigreed commentary on the state of human intimacy at the second fin de siècle. What better time to cash in on everyone's feelings of apocalyptic despair and withering disdain for anything as genuine as true love? Yet as always, love continues to resist easy explanation, and will not be deciphered in so short a space or by so ramshackle a literary construction.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999


Rachel Pollack
Cambrian Publications ($29)

by Emily Streight

Rachel Pollack is critically acclaimed for her science fiction novels—she has won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the World Fantasy Award, and has been nominated for a Nebula—and she is equally renowned for her expert commentary on the Tarot. Burning Sky rounds up her short fiction, demonstrating yet another genre at which this prolific author has talent. Though "genre" may be the wrong word, as the stories here care less about adhering to conventions, and more about pushing ideas, situations, and language to their natural destinations. To read them separately one might not immediately conclude that these tales came from the same author, but to have that conclusion foregone by the collection yields the extra pleasure of seeing a single author approach her concerns in different ways.

This unified aspect of the book is enhanced by a peculiar strategy: Pollack has written brief afterwords to each story, often locating its genesis, sometimes discussing its themes, but always engaging the reader in the process of constructing the fiction. This intrusion of authorial explanation, as noted writer Samuel R. Delany says in the introduction, by all rights shouldn't work, but I am forced to admit (as is Delany) that it simply does here—Pollack, rather than intruding, merely opens the door to her study with these marvelous anecdotes. One could even argue that Burning Sky is really an autobiographical novel about a writer attempting to thread connections between the 27 stories she's written over almost that many years—and if one did, one would probably be just as delighted by this book. These notes are also gently pedagogical, teaching (and debating) aspects of the writer's craft; were more books constructed like this, writers' workshops might find themselves underenrolled.

The stories themselves are for the most part polished performances of speculative fiction, effortlessly dancing on the tightrope between magic realism, social commentary, psychological portrait, and true science fiction. Through all these the common denominator is Pollack's postmodern feminism, a tone well set in the title story's opening line: "Sometimes I think of my clitoris as a magnet, pulling me along to uncover new deposits of ore in the fantasy mines." It is no stretch of the imagination to read this as Pollack's writing method; in story after story, what is at stake is the creation and ownership of a new and viable sexuality, one that dares to imagine far beyond even current queer politics. Thus, "The Second Generation" examines a future in which people use pills to constantly switch gender, and "Out of the Broom Closet, Up, Up and Away" humorously deconstructs Superman's Clark Kent costume as a transvestite fetish.

There are so many writerly joys to enumerate here as well. Pollack loves to play with form: "Is Your Child Using Drugs? Seven Ways to Recognize a Drug Addict" creates a discomfiting fictional universe using questions from a propagandistic anti-drug pamphlet as cues; the "Fake Dreams" series parodies the overused device of somnambulist reminiscence; and "General All-Purpose Fairy Tale" is an exactly 100-word epic. And of course several stories are derived from Pollack's knowledge and use of Tarot. Yet the pleasures of conventional fiction are here in abundance as well. The fable-like tale of "The Woman Who Didn't Come Back" puts a human face to why "no one who dies has ever returned"; "I'm Not Alone, I've Got the Clone" inverts the stereotypical fantasies about this subject, and the book's closer, "The Bead Woman" is an incredibly moving tale of one woman's struggle to divine her true purpose.

I cannot end this review without a word about the physical book itself, because it is a beautiful tome that contains these tales. Cambrian Publications has issued this book as a gorgeously produced limited edition hardcover, each signed and numbered by the author, and in an audacious move they are circumventing the retail bookstore and selling it only directly to the public. I hope a more conventionally distributed paperback eventually comes out—Pollack's prose is well worth recommending to all sorts of readers—but meanwhile this first edition of Burning Sky is a fitting repository for her work, giving anyone who truly wants to read speculative feminist fiction at its finest quite a handsome book in the bargain.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999


Profiles in Murder

An FBI Legend Dissects Killers and Their Crimes
Russell Vorpagel
Plenum Press ($26.95)

False Confessions and the Politics of Murder
Jim Fisher
Southern Illinois University Press ($16.95)

by Kris Lawson

Russell Vorpagel, one of the founders of the FBI Behavioral Science Profiling Unit, now works as a consultant, training law enforcement personnel in the basics of profiling serial killers. As a lecturer and demonstrator, Vorpagel can be riveting, so it's too bad that Profiles in Murder presents his story "as told to Joseph Harrington," a ghostwriter who can't match his level of interest. The consuming mystery of this book isn't how to profile serial killers, but why didn't Vorpagel write his own story?

The book (which has a deceptively sleazy cover) is divided into extracts from Vorpagel's lectures and more anecdotal accounts of cases in which he was involved. Harrington puts the reader in the place of the lecture audience, listening to Vorpagel's basics of profiling. Once in a while Harrington throws in some amateur profiling of his own, giving trite descriptions of the audience members that sound like setups for bad ethnic jokes. That aside, the lectures are the most interesting part of the book, showing off Vorpagel's surprisingly active but dark sense of humor.

Vorpagel illustrates his speeches with stories and puzzles for those who think profiling is a matter of simply following charts and definitions. None of these puzzles have easy solutions, and investigators' failure to solve them results in death. There are a couple of classroom exercises the reader gets to take part in (descriptions of how to create a homemade crime scene are among the goriest in the book), yet Vorpagel keeps most of the profiling information general (he isn't so much training his lecture subjects in profiling as training them to call the FBI for help). Most of the anecdotes relate mistakes investigators can make and have made when investigating murders. And Vorpagel doesn't exclude himself from analysis either—one of the flashbacks involves a policeman in Vorpagel's department who kills an innocent bystander and then claims the dead man had a knife. For 20 years Vorpagel ruminated on this case before going back to prove the policeman wrong. The other cases are a bit more wacky, ranging from a vampire serial killer to a barber who preys on little boys to a murder attempt on Vorpagel by a crazed Rastafarian.

As a polished presentation of Vorpagel and his experience in profiling serial killers, this book is a failure; its back-and-forth structure continually distracts from the subject matter and the fawning tone of Harrington's presentation is equally offputting. Perhaps Vorpagel will be inspired to write his own book after seeing how this one turned out.

Fall Guys

Jim Fisher's Fall Guys: False Confessions and the Politics of Murder is a fascinating search for the truth behind two murder cases of the late 1950s. Fisher, a former FBI agent and current criminology professor, researched the facts and interviewed surviving participants in the investigations of these murders—murders in which each of the accused killers was a young boy and which were originally investigated by the same detective.

Fisher's path through the reports, clippings, and interviews is documented step by step. His writing style is refreshingly unmelodramatic—when he meets the two men who are the focus of his investigation, he avoids the tawdry talk-show sentimentalism which usually accompanies this kind of story. The first murder, that of Helen Zubryd, was mentioned in a clipping Fisher read while doing research for a lecture. Zubryd's 11-year-old son Charlie had confessed to the murder—28 months later, after a grueling interview with police. Curious as to why an eight-year-old would have left a hatchet in his mother's forehead, Fisher began looking for more information. As inconsistencies in physical evidence and alibis began to accumulate, Fisher's suspicions focused on one investigator, Sergeant Ted Botula, who headed the Zubryd investigation and who had been under immense pressure to solve the case.

While searching for official reports on the Zubryd case, Fisher stumbled upon another case that Detective Botula was involved with: the 1958 murder of Lillian Stevick was solved when Botula arrested a 13-year-old boy, Jerry Pacek, who discovered her body after she was beaten to death. Pacek was interrogated for more than 60 hours and finally confessed, although he was unable to tell police what the murder weapon was or re-enact the crime for them. He went on to serve 10 years in prison.

Fisher found similarities between the two murders: the same lead investigator, the same kind of railroaded confessions, the same description of another suspect by witnesses, and the other investigators who had worked on the cases unconvinced of the boys' guilt. As he accumulated evidence, he also accumulated supporters, who helped him solve the 30-year-old mysteries—as far as they can be solved, at least. Over all, Fall Guys is a refreshing change for the true crime genre, which generally prefers sensationalist titillation (crime scene photos! never-before-told story of lone witness!) over a detailed account. But Fisher's methodical story, including how and where he finds the evidence he needs, is just as gripping as a thriller.

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Click here to purchase Profiles in Murder at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999


The Long Slow Death of Jack Kerouac

Jim Christy
ECW Press ($12.95)

by Brian Foye

In 1962, while working a 13-hour shift selling caramel popcorn at the Bazaar of All Nations in Clifton Heights, Pennsylvania, Jim Christy came across a paperback copy of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Like a few before him, and perhaps many thousands since, Christy's own road was changed forever by the encounter. Now a sculptor and writer living in Canada, Christy has been a rigorous reader of all things Kerouac for nearly 30 years. His new book, The Long Slow Death of Jack Kerouac, distills this close attention into roughly 100 pages.

Christy's idea is that Kerouac "was a religious writer and an alien." His method here is to bend this idea around a retelling of the last dozen years of Kerouac's life. It is, as many people know, a wobbly, troubled line from the sudden fame that accompanied the publication of On the Road in 1957 to his death in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1969. The strength here lies in Christy's familiarity with the material. He's read all of Kerouac's books, all the biographies and essays, and most of the unpublished letters and manuscripts. He's seen all the obscure movies. He's listened to all the bootleg tapes.

Very few people have a grasp of the Kerouac arcana to match Christy week for week, and he puts it all to good use in The Long Slow Death of Jack Kerouac. We learn, for instance, that Kerouac did not spend his last waking moments watching the Galloping Gourmet on television; this apocryphal story is dismissed by research into that day's program guide. It was a Georgia Pine that Kerouac's neighbor cut down in St. Petersburg, robbing the writer of a breeze through the trees. Robert Boles was Kerouac's neighbor in Hyannis. At his death, Kerouac had 62 dollars in the bank.

What's troubling, however, is that Christy chastises Kerouac biographers for mindsets shaped by "the media phenomenon of the '60s," then makes many of the same mistakes. When Christy writes that Kerouac "spoke not a word of English until he was six years old" or that "Kerouac had never met a Jewish person" until he attended prep school in New York, he's only offering up the same stale reading of Kerouac's boyhood in Lowell. (Kerouac, in fact, traded French and English words in the parks and playgrounds of the Centralville neighborhood where he was born, and at Lowell High School played on sports teams with Jewish athletes.) When Christy writes that Kerouac was born "in the Little Canada section of Lowell," he's simply wrong. This reviewer is quoted twice in Christy's book—once for something I doubt I ever said and once for something I wish I hadn't.

More interesting are the ideas that Christy weaves through The Long Slow Death of Jack Kerouac. He argues for more attention to Kerouac's Catholicism, sees Kerouac as one of the "gyrovagues" (wandering monks from the early Middle Ages), and points to the "beatas"—a Catholic sect that rebelled against the excesses of the Reformation—as grandparents of the Beats. The concept of Beat was once pure in Kerouac's heart, as the inebriated writer famously told William F. Buckley in 1968, and Christy seems on the mark with his emphasis on "a spiritual continuum across centuries."

Ultimately, a discussion of these ideas alone would be worth another hundred pages. Connecting these ideas to a more comprehensive reading of specific Kerouac texts would be a welcome addition to the study of Beat Literature. Christy is certainly the right person for the job. Thirty-seven years ago, at the very moment he picked up a dime copy of On the Road at the Bazaar of All Nations in Clifton Heights, Pennsylvania, Jim Christy may have been Jack Kerouac's ideal reader.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

GLAM!: Bowie, Bolan, and the Glitter Rock Revolution


Barney Hoskyns
Pocket Books ($15)

by Dominic Ali

The saddest thing about the 1990s is the way everything comes back into style. And now it's glam rock's turn. Is nothing sacred?

The current retro-glam hype shows no signs of fading: Velvet Goldmine, a film about Britain's glam scene won an award and critical praise at the last Cannes film festival; kitsch rockers Kiss are back on tour in full makeup, packing in fans faster than you can say "Rock and Roll All Nite"; and in a serious case of bandwagon-jumping, '90s shock rocker Marilyn Manson's latest CD, Mechanical Animals, pays homage to this style. According to the arbiters of hip, glam rock is back. But for a younger generation of rock fans, glam—or glitter rock as it was known in North America—remains a mystery. All that's known is that it was a strange 1970s musical phenomenon, where male rockers dressed better than their female groupies.

To solve the mystery, British writer Barney Hoskyns presents a respectful look at a musical genre that never got much respect. Hoskyns explains how glam's camp image and pansexual leanings brought rebellion back to rock and roll, just as it was about to drown in the progressive rock excess of groups like Yes and King Crimson, who revelled in Spinal Tap-inspired musical explorations.

Unlike similar pop music styles that have faded over the years, there's very little documentation about glam rock. Glam has been derided for years, especially by critics who believed its playful hedonism sacrificed substance for style. But the elitism overlooks the music's most enduring legacy: glam was musical theater with a good beat. "Glam rock was all about putting on a spectacle," writes Hoskyns. "The records, too, were constructed to be seen, whereas in the '60s they were constructed to be heard, preferably with a joint dangling from your lip."

"The genius of glam was that it was all about stardom. It said flaunt it if you've got it, and if you haven't got it fake it—make it up with makeup, cover your face with stardust, reinvent yourself as a Martian androgyne," writes Hoskyns. "Glam was prefab, anti-craft, allied to artifice and the trash aesthetic. Its plasticity and cartoonish bisexuality were all about giving pop back to 'the kids', yanking it from the hands of droopy introverts and pompous Marshall-stacked overlords." Who would've thought a bunch of cross-dressing cocaine freaks could give rock a makeover and save the world from 40-minute guitar solos?

Glitter rock emerged at a unique time: feminism was still brewing, the Stonewall Riots had given birth to gay politics, and the Woodstock generation had just cut its hair and started filling out job applications. Just as rock started taking itself too seriously, glam dressed it up in high heels, fishnet stockings, and satin jackets. And those were just the male performers.

Hoskyns does a thorough job explaining the history of glam from its beginnings in 1970, when an effeminate-looking David Bowie—outfitted in a sparkling costume—was laughed off stage. The gig was legendary, not just for the crowd reaction, but because of a young audience member named Marc Bolan. Bolan, and his band T. Rex, eventually made glam a household word by dressing outlandishly and writing catchy pop songs with crunchy guitar riffs.

From Bowie and Bolan, Hoskyns tracks glam's influence as it filtered through Gary Glitter, Slade, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Elton John, Roxy Music (featuring keyboardist turned producer Brian Eno), and the New York Dolls. Glam faded out of the pop consciousness by 1975, but its influence carried over into other musical sub-genres, like the acid-funk of George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic and the studied hard-rock theatricality of Alice Cooper and Kiss.

Although the costumes had toned down as it entered the '80s glam continued to swish around on-stage, with New Wave groups such as Japan, Culture Club, and Adam Ant, along with funksters like Patti Labelle and Prince. Hoskyns cheerfully points out there was more than a bit of androgyny in '80s big-hair metal bands like Poison and Quiet Riot. In the 1990s, glitter music still abounds in the music of British nouveau glamsters Suede and Marilyn Manson's latest incarnation.

Glam merged worlds that had traditionally remained apart. For the first time, gay culture, art, and theater were fused with rock music. Mixing high and low art always results in interesting products, and glam was no exception. Productions like the Rocky Horror Picture Show and the Who's Tommy might not have been possible without glam. But academic explanations and sociological ramifications aside, the best thing about glam was that it rocked.

If there's anything missing from Glam! it's lack of first-hand research with some of the movement's major players. But this is a minor quibble. Hoskyns writes with a fan's enthusiasm that's infectious.

It may be worth mentioning that Glam! will likely attract stares if you read it in public. The garish book jacket, with its title in shimmering silver lettering, features a lurid photo of David Bowie kneeling in front of heavily made up guitarist Mick Ronson. The not-so-subtle homoerotic pose is bound to shock and confuse. But then, that's what good rock and roll is all about.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999