Tag Archives: summer 2000


Stardog by Jack Driscoll


Jack Driscoll
Dorling Kendersley ($22.95)

by Peter Ritter

The American road novel—that well-tread paean to joyous delinquency—has now been rewritten so many times that it's become something like a scruffy cousin to genre fiction: we know what to expect when the boyish rebel slips behind the wheel and guns off into the sunset, hell-bent on suicide or redemption. Neal Cassady and company blazed this trail decades ago, and there's little on the road to surprise us anymore. Jack Driscoll's latest novel, Stardog, may navigate by the entrenched conventions of the genre, yet, like any good potboiler, this charmingly droll trip down America's byways satisfies our expectations in surprising ways. We may know where we're headed, but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy getting there.

Driscoll's antihero, Earl P. Godfrey, is certainly a familiar type. He's a world-class lush teetering on the edge of the wagon, freshly divorced, and adding indignity to misery, employed as a school bus driver in the snow-bound wastes of rural Michigan. Life, Earl figures, can only get better. So he abandons his faucet-nosed charges in a blizzard, borrows his ex-wife's car from her garage, and heads off to the nearest casino with cash likewise borrowed from his wife's checking account, determined to stake solvency and sobriety on the luck of the draw. Says Earl, "I intend to follow the flight path to paradise or bust in this half car, half pickup, and drive it hard all day, far away from this place where I've overstayed without any honest plans or desires or possibilities."

Naturally, Earl begins to pick up trouble like a lint brush. Most of it comes in the person of Miranda Mountain, a drugged-out young drifter with whom he strikes up an unlikely partnership. The two scam the casino and go on the lam, seeking refuge in every fleabag motel and greasy diner between the Upper Peninsula and Massachusetts. Throughout, Earl is such a passive participant in the pair's evolving picaresque adventure that it often seems the windmills are tilting at him. The problem, he explains, is "chronic male insensitivity to the obvious danger signs, for which, no doubt, I should be instantly eviscerated, my entrails strung out along the coast as a reminder of what can happen to a fellow intoxicated by the lazy life, the slow, easy, dead drag of the days." Clearly Earl's desperate cross-country jaunt is as much a rearguard action against his miserable fate as it is a quest for new horizons. But fate, he quickly learns, tends to take the wheel when you least expect it.

Driscoll's novel, meanwhile, increasingly confines its meandering to the inside of Earl's head, where the voices of his ex-wife, his psychiatrist, and a detox doctor respectively nag, advise, and berate him. Especially in these internal dialogues, Driscoll writes in a dryly comic style that serves to simultaneously leaven the bathos of his subject's psychic quagmire and raise Stardog a grade above the standard highway odyssey. Earl's journey may indeed be a bumpy one, but in the sure hands of Driscoll, Stardog proves an exhilarating guidebook to redemption. Conventional though it may be, here is a trip worth taking.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


Valencia by Michelle TeaMichelle Tea
Seal Press ($13)

by Christine Kennick

Not quite a novel but more than a memoir, Michelle Tea's Valencia is a lesbian manifesto, a portrait of a life lived outside the mainstream. Tea's high-energy prose gives the reader a cinema-verite style peek at her world, bouncing us from street to bar to party in San Francisco's Castro and Mission districts, where all the action is.

The book begins with a graphic sexual encounter, the first of many; by page six we are past the prerequisite blurry seduction in a bar and on to the main event: "She placed the knife flat on my nipple and went at my throat with her teeth, all the while making these urgent little animal noises. Petra was really into the knife . . . I was really into processing the knife." Never mind that this S& M encounter is probably placed here for shock value; it also shows that nothing is shocking to Tea, that she'll roll with any punch and find something in it to consider.

The strength of this books lies in Tea's skills as an observer, one who can squeeze a bit of commentary into enthralling one-liners ("Gwynn ate an Orange Julius hot dog loaded up with so much garbage, I wondered if it was even vegetarian to kiss her"). At her best, the stream-of-consciousness narration is a delightful ride to be on, shifting us into other registers of memory and relationship: "Oh, I wanted one of Gwynn's cigarettes so badly and she wouldn't give one to me. Winston's are what my dead grandmother smoked. I loved her so much, Aquarian like me, big round glasses she wore even while swimming, a gauzy kerchief tied under her chin to keep the chlorine off her hair…" Unfortunately, though, for the bulk of the book Tea shifts gears a little too fast, preferring to keep the imagery cascading rather than examine anything in detail:

Donna had an original Howard Finster and that was kind of impressive, a wooden animal like a giraffe, covered with all his rambling scrawl, stuff about god and visions. But I hated Donna's house. The kitchen was under construction, with a plaster-filled sink plop in the middle of the kitchen, and the bedroom had this depressing yellowy lightbulb depressing. Donna was fanatically trying to get Iris to smoke more and more pot . . . It was kind of twisted, the obsessive hospitality of a southern drug addict.

Tea may hope her pinball machine prose has the same effect as Finster's "rambling scrawl" but it instead begins to wear the reader down: rather than generalities such as "kind of impressive" and "kind of twisted" we begin to yearn for a focused look at something, anything. But everything is equal in Tea's world; when she accompanies her lover Iris to her straight sister's wedding in Tennessee, Tea writes: "For me it was an anthropological study and also kind of zany." Maybe so, but in conveying neither in depth it's hard to believe both are really there.

That wedding section, though, is the real core of the book. Away from the clichéd baggage of San Fransisco, Tea's observations of life in Tennessee have an otherworldly realness about them. There is real empathy for Iris's hapless mother and skate-punk friends, and the chapter's end finds humanity in the plight of a car-struck dog. Valencia certainly proves that Tea's a self-aware dyke comfortable in her rebellious milieu, but only hints at the intriguing possibility of a more sophisticated lesbian writer, one who can examine what she finds.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000

THE MIND'S EYE: Writings on Photography and Photographers

The Mind's Eye by Henri Cartier-BressonHenri Cartier-Bresson

Aperture ($19.95)

by Elizabeth Culbert

While the photographer faces a vanishing subject, the writer has time to reflect. It is our good fortune that Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century and one of the most important figures in the history of the medium, is gifted in both modes of expression. After a lifetime of capturing "the decisive moment"—that instant when the image in the viewfinder culminates in a harmony of form, expression, and content—Cartier-Bresson revisits his pictures and experiences with words, and delivers those words in an impassioned voice. Now in his early 90s, Cartier-Bresson was a student of painting and literature until he picked up a Leica camera in 1932. The 35-mm camera—the kind most of us carry around today—was a totally new kind of machine. Its light weight, sharp lens, and the rolls of film it held offered new potential to the photographer, and Cartier-Bresson used it to capture spontaneity and present motion in beautifully composed images. He began making photos that revealed profound content in the mundane and beauty in the simple gesture.

The Mind's Eye is collection of Cartier-Bresson's writings (some appearing in English for the first time) on the people he has known, the places he has visited, and his relationship with the world he found through the lens of his Leica. It features his essay on "the decisive moment," an important text for understanding the development of photography and photojournalism. His frank and insightful descriptions of time spent in China, Cuba, Russia and parts of Europe during volatile periods provide further context for some of his better known images. Comments on photographers and friends like Robert Capa, David "Chim" Seymour, and André Kertész are carefully composed, an admiring kind of poetry: of Tériade he writes, "—Velvet glove and fervor. / —Eye of lynx and lively pen..."

Cartier-Bresson believes that a successful photograph depends on a unison of the eye, the brain and the heart. As he now looks with his mind's eye, making pictures with words, he continues to contribute to an expansive record of our time and to the way we see.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


House of Leaves by Mark Z. DanielewskiMark Z. Danielewski
Pantheon ($20)

by Doug Nufer

Things aren't what they seem to be in this "second printing" of a novel that originally appeared in a different form on the Net. Proportions shift through and through, so that even the length of this 700+ page book seems impossibly dense, with an inner narrative layered by footnotes in different styles and fonts (one of which constitutes a major outer narrative), or practically weightless, as portions skim along with one word per page. At times, the dazzling array of book design elements threatens to overtake the writing, but what may seem frivolous or random is deliberate and well-conceived, while matters of the deadliest seriousness find their resolution in pure artifice. One's supernaturally bad architecture is another's fictionally viable malarkey texture.

Essentially or ostensibly, the narrative at the core is the story of a Pulitzer prize-winning photographer, Navidson, and his ex-model girlfriend Karen, who move with their kids into the ultimate house of mystery. Simple measurement glitches widen to become seemingly infinite interior chasms that open and close at the will of some sinister inner universe. Navidson mounts various explorations of the interior, and makes The Navidson Record, a movie documentary of these adventures—a documentary which, only in the context of the next layer of the book, enjoys the celebrity of a household name.

Packed with narrative drive and giddy wonders, this interior story comes via a rather impeachable source. An old blind man named Zampanò has supposedly compiled a rambling annotated manuscript that shares the movie's name as it describes the movie and supplies essays, notes, and commentary from real and apocryphal sources (as well as real sources given phony quotes). When the old man dies, a young hedonist stumbles into the project and becomes the manuscript's editor and, thanks to long and often irritating footnotes, its co-author and de facto subject.

From his ribald Pynchonian sailor-style rambles around L.A. to endless appendices filled with his poetry and letters to him from his mother in an insane asylum, Johnny Truant makes Mark Z. Danielewski's book his book (or vice-versa). Truant, product of the proverbial broken home, seems to have thrown himself into this project as a way to find himself, or, more articulately, a way to find a place for himself. In one respect, this is a daring risk Danielewski takes: Truant is a lot less interesting than the core story about the house, which discusses the nature of space as it's defined by architectural perspective and the physical universe, and disgorges a brilliant range of references to art, science, philosophy, and semiotics. In another way, though, Danielewski's employment of Truant as his protagonist is the kind of pandering to cultural stereotypes you might expect from a book that was a cult hit on the Internet: he works in a tattoo parlor, gets high and/or laid a lot, has a friend named 'Lude.' But then, nowhere does the phrase "the benefit of the doubt" seem more applicable than to the world of House of Leaves. Doubt rules.

Although it's tempting to define this novel by retaliating in kind, i.e., trotting out the references until the cows come home, this can be deluding. Rather than take it for a Lost in the Fun Infinite Jest House Leaves Gravity at the End of the Rainbow kind of thing, you could run with the footnotes and compare it to Pale Fire, but rather than pursue Nabokov's interplay between characters, Danielewski stakes out a different territory. From Derrida to Camille Paglia, Einstein to Leonard Maltin, the notes celebrate wild and often irresponsible connections to the outside world as they delve into a quintessentially hermetic environment. Then there's the book design angle. As in Richard Grossman's The Book of Lazarus (FC2), the publisher (in this case, Pantheon) displays a heroic integrity to follow the author's or designer's practical and effective (if unorthodox) formatting directions. Thanks to the personal computer and the Internet, some authors have found inventive ways to deliver their works and have exploited elements of paratext as well as fundamental design in ways which, paradoxically perhaps, seems to compliment the kind of care that goes into hand-crafted letter-press book making.

And yet, people wonder. There lingers a conservative prejudice against experimentation, against audacity, particularly if the prose comes packaged in what many regard as gimmicks (manipulations of font, leading, title page, copyright page, index, contents, etc.), as if these basic decisions of what goes into a book must be taken for granted rather than put to work by the author intent on making art. But through all of the doubt, delusion, and disorientation of House of Leaves, there emerges a fully realized work, and if it is all the figment of one obnoxious character's imagination, so much the better.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000

Armand Schwerner Part II

Selected Shorter Poems by Armand Schwerner

Armand Schwerner
Junction Press ($16)

by Eric Lorberer

Not so much lyrics as discrete pieces of a larger tapestry, these shorter poems of Armand Schwerner combine the adroit playfulness and formidable erudition of the master architect of The Tablets. When placed beside that volume and his Cantos from Dante's Inferno, this book completes an essential trilogy in the annals of poetry.

As a reader of The Tablets might expect, several works here—mostly those presented in the section "Eskimo and Others"—derive from ethnographic sources, though these poems are also somewhat caged by their contexts. Schwerner's best work ranges over the page in powerful strides, an "endless speaking to voice" in which "it is impossible / to not overhear the endless speaking in all the bodies…" This attention to the infinite rescues Schwerner from being merely contemporary; though the world in which one can read to a friend "in his Datsun / by the Staten Island Ferry" exists in these poems, it exists simultaneously with, or perhaps even within, an intimate understanding of "the grief / of the stegosaurus, pointing / like all long grief / to nothingness."

A collagist of the first degree, Schwerner incorporated into his later poems material from a variety of other sources: fellow like-minded poets (e.g. Robert Kelly, Ted Enslin, George Oppen), but also obituaries, mystic works, philosophical texts, and, in a humorous piece of invention, "from second and third order American and Italian computer generated Shakespearean monkeys." Schwerner's formal range is revealed here to have been equally expansive; the book contains prose-poems, a "crypto-play," compositions by field, list, and aleatory technique, the rending "Bacchae Sonnets," and a group of truly astounding pantoums whose impeccably handled falling lines and rhythms perhaps best illustrate Schwerner's radically intuitive word-smithy.

For those who love language, Schwerner's Selected Shorter Poems will not disappoint. Sensuous, complex, and often elegiac, the body of work here delivers with shamanic force on its promise to be "song and arrow in the unrivalled moment."

Cantos From Dante's Inferno

translated by Armand Schwerner
Talisman House ($13.95)

by John Olson

Years ago when I was a student, I had an instructor who announced, with unabashed glee, that he was spending his summer vacation taking an intensive, eight-week course in Italian for the express purpose of being able to read Dante's Divine Comedy. My instructor's enthusiasm was eminently understandable. To read Dante's magnificent poetry in the original Italian was tantamount to cruising the Tuscan hills in a Lamborghini, a luxury of rare endowment, the only true way to engage Dante. To settle for anything else but the actual Italian was to compromise the integrity of the whole experience. Imitations are tacky. The idea of translating Dante's Commedia seems doomed from the start. Yet, paradoxically, the impossibility of matching the power of Dante's language incites more of a challenge than a deterrence. Translations abound. A good many of them ape Dante's original terza rime structure, stuffing the lines with extra padding or straining the meaning to get everything to fit, and end up sounding moldy and forced, a pale approximation.

Not so with Armand Schwerner, whose Cantos From Dante's Inferno stands out as one of the most radical entries into this much traversed realm. Schwerner has jettisoned the terza rime scheme altogether and focused on the real richness of Dante's poem, which is its vocabulary. The uncanny vividness of Dante's inferno--—the reason it draws so many into its labyrinths and bubbling fens—derives directly from the passionate devotion Dante concentrated in choosing his words and adjusting his grammar so that it would depict, as palpably as possible, the scenery and action of Hell. "There is no end to the number of qualities which some people can associate with a given work or kind of word," observed Pound in his ABC Of Reading, "you have to go almost exclusively to Dante's criticism to find a set of OBJECTIVE categories for words. Dante called words ‘buttered' and ‘shaggy' because of the different NOISES they make. Or pexa et hirsuta, combed and unkempt. He also divided them by their different associations."

Schwerner has demonstrated an equal devotion in his exacting choice of words. One of the real assets of this edition are the "Translator's Process Notes" in the back of the book. It is here that we can follow Schwerner's decisions with fascination, as in his translation of e poi se ne rammarca, from Canto VIII, the episode in which Phlegyas, the Boatman of the legendary Styx (which Dante chose to represent as a putrid marsh rather than a river), races toward the two figures thinking to find new souls for torment and howls with rage when he discovers they are not spirits but living, breathing Poets: Qual è colui che grande inganno ascolta / che li sia fatto, e poi se ne rammarca, fecesi Flegiàs ne l'ira accolta. John Ciardi's translation ("Phlegyas, the madman, blew his rage among / those muddy marshes like a cheat deceived, / or like a fool at some imagined wrong") stiffens the syntax with too much starch, whereas Allen Mandelbaum's rendition ("And just as one who hears some great deception / was done to him, and then resents it, so / was Phlegyas when he had to store his anger") devitalizes the energy of the drama with a lusterless literality, creating a storage depot for Phlegyas' unwarranted wrath. Schwerner's translation ("Phlegyas, in his tamped fury, was like / a being who in building vexation hears / he's been taken by a massive swindle") hews close to the complexity of the situation, paying attention to the dynamic force of Dante's vocabulary and devotion to detail. Schwerner explains his choice of phrasing with a keen emphasis on the boatman's psychology. Building vexation, he writes, "combines the relevant ambiguity of vexation accreting with the suggestion that Phlegyas represents the kind of person who to some degree willfully irrigates what may appear to others as spontaneously occurring emotionality." A figure, then, that is simultaneously fierce and comical, an irascible crank wholly unable to keep a lid on his feelings. A cartoonist would draw him with steam coming out of his ears.

Schwerner's translation—from a purely visual standpoint—has a spacious feel to it. Narrative is assigned to the left of the page, speech and oration to the right. "This lineation," writes Michael Heller in the preface, "focuses on the opposition between interior voicing of narration and rumination and the externality of speech, between psychic state and self-presentation." Essentially a work-in-progress (Schwerner's untimely death in 1999 prevented completion) the twelve cantos represented in this book nevertheless offer one of the most vital and revolutionary treatments of Dante's Commedia to date: Dante's rich Italian recast in an Americanized English that pulses with vividness and fresh creation. Indeed, it is not just a translation but a revival and a revelation.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000