Tag Archives: winter 2012


Dan Zettwoch
Drawn and Quarterly ($19.95)

by David Kennedy-Logan

There’s an elderly man who lives in my neighborhood named Wally. He’s slow-moving, meticulous, set in his ways, and tends to be mildly grumpy. When I chat with him, he gives the distinct impression that all of the changes he’s witnessed in the 40-plus years he’s been living in our neighborhood have been categorically for the worse. Nonetheless, Wally takes an interest: he makes it his business to maintain an encyclopedic knowledge, in granular detail, of the goings-on around our block. He thinks more than he speaks.

In all of these ways, the title character of Dan Zettwoch’s accomplished and affecting debut graphic novel, Birdseye Bristoe, reminds me of Wally. Named after the townships Birdseye and Bristow in south-central Indiana, where he was born and lives, Birdseye, like Wally, is a curmudgeonly old man who takes an interest. His hard and abrasive exterior is a shield to protect a quick mind and a tender heart. And, although he’s a resourceful and inventive individual—evidenced by the plethora of ingenious devices he’s crafted out of bungee cords and empty plastic soda bottles—he is no fan of progress for progress’s sake.

Unfortunately for Birdseye, in the summer of 1998, progress comes with a vengeance. The town is getting its very first cell phone tower, and in the literal and figurative shadow of this looming symbol of modernity, convenience, and “connectivity,” Birdseye’s great-niece Krystal and great-nephew Curt come to visit. Their ensuing daily adventures—harvesting nightcrawlers, exploring ancient broken-down billboards, drinking Uncle Birdseye’s “Red Cow Hot Blood” ice cream shakes, and passing the time with Tump Junior, Carlene “Hippie Chick” Clay, Sonja Pike, and other residents—are captured by the author in a series of delightfully engaging free-standing vignettes. (In effect, the book is closer to a collection of very short graphic stories than a graphic novel.)

As the trio go about the business of their lives, their dorky, earnest, and tender souls are revealed in every lovingly rendered panel. The story begins as amusing, lighthearted fare, but by its conclusion has become something much deeper and more significant. As with David Lynch or Raymond Carver, the quirky genius of Zettwoch’s storytelling lies in his affection for his bizarre characters, and in how they face the risk of deep spiritual trauma in the very shallowness of the circumstances of their world.

Zettwoch eschews clean, flowing brushstrokes and tasteful ink washes in favor of a scratchy, brightly colored art brut style: his tools are basic ballpoint pen and whiteout. Visually, the work is reminiscent of Gary Panter or Ben Katchor (although Zettwoch also shares Chris Ware’s obsession with diagrams and blueprints.) But for all the homespun appearance of the visuals, Zettwoch is clearly a gifted draftsman with a mastery of the tropes and techniques of comic storytelling.

With this book, the author has captured the melancholy and heartache of childhood, adolescence, old age, rural life, and family ties; the casualties of the inexorable and unquestioned march of “progress”; and the bravery of the people who wage their own private battles against it. The treatment is entirely unsentimental and powerfully effective, makingBirdseye Bristoe one of the most impressive debut volumes in recent memory.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2012/2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012/2013


Choose Your Poison
Jon Lewis
Uncivilized Books ($19.95)

by John Pistelli

“I dreamed of a swamp the way the Romantics dreamed of ‘the East,’” writes Jon Lewis in an autobiographical afterword to this sturdy, beautifully designed volume that collects the first four issues of his cult classic mid-1990s indie comic True Swamp. Raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, Lewis fantasized about a microcosmic terrarium where “little things [go] about their serious business amid weeds and bushes”—in other words, a place where the troubles of our own human lives can be reduced to a comprehensible, even laughable, scale and reframed amid the humid glamour of nature at its most liminal, a hiding place both liquid and solid.

True Swamp follows the adventures of Lenny the Frog, a good-hearted but prickly slacker of a type familiar from many ’90s pop-culture products. Lenny moves through a world of alligators, herons, moles, marmots and, most disconcertingly, tiny humanoid fairies. This picaresque’s plot, such as it is, begins when Lenny kills a human researcher who mistakes his anti-predator camouflage for the skin markings of a rare species. Racked with guilt for this defensive murder, Lenny encounters a serial-killing reptile and his fungoid roommate, a collective of ants arrayed as a giant human body, and a sensitive mole-author composing tales in his labyrinthine burrow. Along the way, Lenny debates a number of interlocutors about the ethics of predation, the propriety of inter-species sex, and the merits of the intellectual life.

In True Swamp’s world, animals trade the names of cities like money; the names then provide their hearers with visions of other places, like young Jon Lewis’s own romantic dream of wetlands. Furthermore, instead of reading books, the swamp animals become them, researching and memorizing bodies of knowledge that make them walking texts. These intelligent tropes allow Lewis’s text to create an allegory of its own attempt at otherness, its status as dream-city and creature-book. Lenny, though, is what in our non-swamp speciesist vocabulary would be called a budding “humanist”—i.e., someone who doubts that all the cruelty of our lives is truly necessary. This leads him to voice skepticism about making art out of the brute realities of eat-or-be-eaten: “I think I’ve way over-romanticized books . . . being one seems to mean replacing good and evil with ‘boring’ and ‘interesting.’”

Lewis keeps our eye on moral rather than aesthetic categories by drawing his comic in a deliberately rebarbative anti-style. The possibilities of the comics form go systematically un-exploited as Lewis casually violates the traditional artistic rules of graphic narrative on every page. Panels are filled with multiple word balloons that erode the illusion of a single moment’s capture in one frame; shot-to-shot continuity falls by the wayside as angles are reversed or directional lines mislead the eye; a marker or brush line heavily delineates every surface in a way that makes figure and ground sometimes impossible to distinguish; and, most impressively, the animal characters are barely anthropomorphized, which gives the reader, alert for human faces and figures, little purchase on pages dense with black lines and swampy scenery.

Given all this, reading True Swamp does sometimes feel like wading through a marsh. While one can appreciate that these punk stylings resonate with Lewis’s moral concerns, they at times make this comic unpleasantly difficult to read. Nevertheless, True Swamp is well worth the effort for its bracing mix of sentiment and cynicism and its DIY aesthetic that seems so refreshingly out-of-place in the overproduced atmosphere of contemporary pop culture. Lewis, like one of his foul-mouthed characters, is obviously “tryin’ t’ come up with an idea fer some goddamn thing t’make people’s lives a little less fuckin’ brutal.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2012/2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012/2013


Two Plays in Verse
Denis Johnson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($20)

by Robert Martin

Prior to the publication of Soul of a Whore and Purvis, Denis Johnson fielded a question at a reading I happened to attend. The questioner asked if Mr. Johnson ever felt like returning to poetry—his first three publications were collections, and he published two more before moving more exclusively into the world of prose. I remember him answering, “Actually, my next book is a collection of plays in verse.” He then laughed and admitted, “That might be the worst pitch for a book of all time.”

Soul of a Whore and Purvis were each written during Johnson’s stint as the resident playwright at Campo Santo for San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts in the early 2000s. Soul of a Whorepremiered in 2003; Purvis in 2006. Which is to say that these are plays, through and through. And drama in verse is nothing new (Shakespeare, anyone?). But Johnson’s response to the question above confirms that, in the author’s mind, these are also just as legitimately works of poetry—a form of which just happens to be designed for stage production.

Like Shakespeare, Johnson’s meter of choice is blank verse. In many ways, these plays can be read as experiments in form, and the results are evident from the start. Early in Soul of a Whore, reformed faith healer and profiteer Bill Jenks pumps out a quatrain of impeccable unrhymed iambic pentameter:

I ain’t the quickest rabbit in the pack,
I guess the record proves that much, but, God,
I hope to Christ by now I’ve learned enough
To leave that Holy Spirit shit alone.

Not every example of Johnson’s meter is this spotless, and the clarity and precision of the iambs here helps to drive the speaker’s point home: he is on the straight and narrow, he is reformed, he is hoping to be accepted as legitimate. Also apparent is that regardless of genre, Denis Johnson is still Denis Johnson—we’re in familiar thematic waters despite any formal rigidity. InSoul of a Whore alone, we see prominent roles for Greyhound bus terminals and capital punishment (recalling Johnson’s debut novel Angels), communing with spirits and demons (touched upon in 1997’s Already Dead), and of course, down-and-out characters who undervalue their own lives yet render the entire experience of existence as something miraculous and profound (everything the author has written).

In Purvis, the second of the two plays, the similarities to his oeuvre run thinner, but still hum when plucked. The story revolves around the titular Melvin Purvis, the famous G-man of the Hoover era. It reads as a work of historical fiction, and Hoover himself is the star of the show. Structured in seven acts that run in reverse chronological order, the plot reveals how Hoover’s peculiarities affected Purvis’s career—and, more broadly, American life in the 20th century. In its devotion to the mysterious political and bureaucratic arenas, the work relates a bit to Johnson’s National Book Award-winning Tree of Smoke (2007). But whereas his novel is a dense, epic, and deeply felt treatment of psychological uncertainty, Purvis is overtly irreverent, with sequences that hinge on absurdity, and at times the hilarity can become a bit obtuse. In all, it is one of Johnson’s best works to date. It has little in common with Soul of a Whore, however, beyond the two plays’ shared commitment to blank verse.

While Purvis develops relatively new terrain for Johnson, Soul of a Whore resumes the dramatic universe he introduced in 2002 with Shoppers, which consisting of the plays Hellhound on My Trail and Shoppers Carried by Escalators into the Flames. These two, along with Soul of a Whore, follow various members of the troubled Cassandra family, which functions across works similarly to J.D. Salinger’s Glass family. For instance, in Soul of a Whore, a character is about to be executed for a crime committed in Shoppers Carried by Escalators into the Flames, and a character tertiary to the plot of Hellhound on My Trail plays a central role in the newly published work. Taken together, these three plays make a more complete and fulfilling arc than can be found in any of the plays in isolation.

This continuity illuminates the central critical dilemma facing Soul of a Whore and Purvis: this larger narrative functions much like a novel would, but these recent contributions are written in verse and demand to be dealt with poetically: likewise, they are undeniably penned for the stage, and have been performed on a stage, and therefore must be read not only as narratives and poems, but also as performance pieces. Johnson is determined, it appears, to confound any generic reading of this work.

Taken simply as plays, the work often refuses to cooperate. Time and again, Johnson poses challenges to potential actors and directors. At one point, a character returns to the stage after several scenes in the wings with longer hair and a beard. Purvis begins with a textual list of pertinent dates and events, providing context without which an audience would be utterly lost as the play unfolds. Perhaps the most pointed artistic statement in the book occurs with Johnson’s stage directions in the closing moments of Purvis’s fifth act, wherein Herbert Hoover fires Melvin Purvis for being, in essence, too good at his job:

Silhouetted in a purple light,
To the rhythms of a sexual, melting jazz
Composed in an exotic scale,

HOOVER enacts a private rite, making
Supplication to the numina
Who animate his trembling desires.

PURVIS looks on, utterly motionless.
And while the light transforms itself around him,
He, despite the onslaught of these powers,
Undergoes, himself, no transformation.

This is the first and only stage direction in the book to involve line breaks. The first line in particular, with its metrical implications, suggests a spillover from the world the author has created (the dialogue in verse) with the world in which he is creating (stage directions written for the performers). And then there is simply the language: how is a director to interpret “supplication to the numina?” In a sense, these stage directions read like a profound and perfect explication of Soul of a Whore and Purvis in sum: they are the whims of a talent unbound by the limitations of genre.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2012/2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012/2013


Peter Geye
Unbridled Books ($15)

by Amy Henry

Despite their brief time together as mother and son, Thea and Odd Eide’s lives run nearly parallel courses. Odd (pronounced Owed) is orphaned soon after birth, while Thea was orphaned years before when she arrived in America from Norway. Both are fiercely independent, yet in the unenviable position of being subject to those who want to dominate and control them.

Even though they have similarities, the protagonists in Peter Geye’s second novel have distinct narratives. Thea, homeless and only able to speak Norwegian, is sent to a remote logging camp to work in the kitchen until she can find her own way. Here she finds that brutally hard work eases her grief and allows her to sleep without thoughts of the tragic loss of her family. In the bleak cold of the camp, routine numbs her feelings, and yet at times, the harsh life seems almost magical:

Each day after Thanksgiving the hours of daylight shriveled until it seemed there was hardly any purpose to the sun rising at all. And with each short day a definite restlessness settled into her. The jacks returned for lunch and for dinner with frosted coats, their faces hoary as ash, wraithlike. As their coats melted in the mess hall’s heat, they appeared to be vaporizing. Where once she had needed all her powers of concentration to perform her tasks, she now found herself with time to daydream. While plating their slices of pie she would puzzle over their evanescence as though it were a religious rite. Day after day they entered and took their seats and began their disappearance.

The accounts of Thea and her son alternate, with the author offering clues to what caused their separation in the first place. Early on, Odd makes an extreme effort to prove his bravery, one that both marks him and alters his outlook forever. After this point, recovering from a life-threatening wound, he’s apprenticed to an old fisherman, “the least garrulous man in a town full of reticent men,” who introduces him to the sea. From then on, Odd lives for fishing and smuggling, and even begins building his own boat, a symbolic gesture that carries meaning through the remainder of the story. It appears that in Odd’s case, for better or worse, his boat is himself—a way of transport that carries far more meaning than simply traversing distance.

Odd’s childhood under the care of Hosea Grimm, who had cared for his mother before her death, leaves him with a quasi-stepsister and a questionable father figure. In his character and in others, Geye’s novel throws out many questions: Does one need a model of proper behavior in order to be a decent human? Can you start fresh when your past is bitter and foul? Who can you trust when you have no one to aid you? But questions can distract too, and to focus too much on these is to miss the point that this is a damn fine story. Geye has perfected the push and pull of tension that keeps readers glued to the page, and at times, genuinely surprises with a feint and a turn in another direction. It’s also apparent that significant research went into the story, detailing early medical treatments, the art of ship-building, travel in the Lake Superior region, and even attitudes and expectations about birth and motherhood.

While The Lighthouse Road has only five main characters, several others have a necessary place in the story to show the level of community cohesion and the implicit danger of trusting the unknown. Nothing is simple, and each character has qualities and faults that challenge our perception. Nostalgia often paints the past as so much simpler than our lives, but the scenes from 1896 to 1921 challenge that simplicity, and show, if anything, that peril had more places to hide and few suspected its danger.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2012/2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012/2013


Lyn Di Iorio
Arte Publico ($16.95)

by Peter Grandbois

The high octane, hilarious, sexy, and strikingly original voice in Lyn Di Iorio’s Outside the Bones will take you for a ride you will not soon forget. The voice beautifully matches the passion and energy of the main character, Fina Mata, a Puerto Rican living in Manhattan and a self-described bruja, or witch:

Animal blood is the offering favored by the nkisisand nfuiris. And I understand the primitive principle behind it all. Blood is the most sacred form of energy, and when the spirits drink they become enlivened to help us in this world. But shit, we ain’t on the island no more, we don’t sacrifice in the mountains of Africa or Cuba; we do it in our apartments. Can’t we substitute and modernize a little with the other aspects of the religion? Streamline and make it more up to date?

Fina falls hard for a musician named Chico. When Chico’s old lover returns from the island, along with a woman who may or may not be his daughter, Fina seeks out fellow bruja Tata Victor to help her win Chico over. Problems arise when the two of them unleash a spirit bent on revenge. If the plot sounds like a soap opera crossed with the movie Hellraiser, it’s because it is. But the voice, along with Di Iorio’s subtle working of class and race, keep the novel from falling into melodrama.

There is no heaven, fool,” said the Ancient One. He was more than three hundred years old, and in life had been a great sorcerer, a slave tortured to death for inciting slaves to rebel. His head had been rescued by Tumba Fuego’s ancestor and had spoken since then to the rescuer’s descendants.

The magic in Di Iorio’s novel comes from the Afro-Caribbean tradition, and the author mines the relationship between the masters of the black arts and the spirits they conjure to evoke rich comparisons to slavery. The question becomes who controls whom as the spirits summoned gain more and more power.

Outside the Bones is first and foremost a page-turner. Like so many of us, Fina has been scarred by her past, and the novel illustrates well how ghosts from the past can help one to heal, to become whole. The title refers to the spirits that have left their physical bodies and haunt this novel, but it also refers to the redemptive power to which only our traditions can give us access: “In the water. They die to live again, outside the bones.” The real mystery in Di Iorio’s ghost story doesn’t have to do with discovering the identity of the murderer, but rather with Fina coming to terms with what happened to her father, who was also a practicing witch: “I knew something bad was coming, and part of me didn’t want to hear it. But it was inevitable that I learn what it was, because in a sense, I already knew it. ‘It’s something I’ve been needing to remember my whole life.’”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2012/2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012/2013

ATLAS: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City

Dung Kai-cheung
Translated by Dung Kai-cheung, Anders Hansson, and Bonnie S. McDougall
Columbia University Press ($24.50)

by Lucas Klein

"No one, wise Kublai,” says Marco Polo in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, “knows better than you that the city must never be confused with the words that describe it.” In Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, Hong Kong’s Dung Kai-cheung writes, “All places are misplaces, and all misplaces are misreadings,” and “The prerequisite for the setting of boundaries on maps is possession of the power to create fiction.”

Calvino’s Invisible Cities has Marco Polo telling Chinese emperor Kublai Khan of the fabulous and fantastical cities he has visited, all named after women, like the idealized Venice (Venus) from which he hails. Dung’s Atlas, meanwhile, tells only of Victoria, a city named after a queen and, coincidentally, the ur-name of central Hong Kong. Coincidentally, because in line with Marco Polo’s admonition not to confuse the city with its verbal representation, despite any resemblance between actual Hong Kong and the city Atlas describes, its placement is misplaced and its maps are inscribed with the power of fiction: historical details mix with the made-up, and fact and the factitious blend in its pages.

Calvino, along with Borges, Barthes, Eco, and Sebald, appears throughout Atlas—on the back cover, in its pages, and in Bonnie McDougall’s excellent introduction (as well as in other works by Dung: he titled another book of fiction Visible Cities) —but these forerunners of international postmodernism do not strip away the novel’s locality. Not only has localism, in the form of essay-like entries on maps of old Hong Kong, “not been a barrier to international appeal,” as McDougall writes, its exploration of the multi-cultural and trans-lingual identity of the former territory keep it engaged at once with questions of defining what is Chinese against the international circuit and with defining Hong Kong against the larger foil of Chineseness. The fact that Atlas was first published in 1997, the year the territory was “handed over” from United Kingdom to People’s Republic rule, adds historical anxiety to the impetus compelling the novel.

As Calvino writes of one invisible city, “Of all the changes of language a traveler in distant lands must face, none equals that which awaits him in the city of Hypatia, because the change regards not words, but things.” This anxiety can be felt in Dung Kai-cheung’s language itself, as each section begins with a title in Chinese and its English translation. To negotiate these and other instances of the book’s bilingualism tests the translation, completed by Dung with McDougall and her husband, Anders Hansson, as certain of the English titles do not adhere to their conventional English usages; the first paragraph of the section titled “Commonplace” reads, for instance:

When we study ancient maps, we find repeatedly that places with the same name appear in different forms. These places lumped together under one name are not in fact the same place but common places. Although they are not the same place, they have something in common. This is how the term “commonplace” is defined.

Not a commonplace definition of “commonplace”! The fact that Dung, Hansson, and McDougall manage such moments successfully attests to the brilliance of their translation. Bringing instances of foreignized, displaced English into their lucid, fluid prose, they represent the rhythms of Dung’s original as they mirror the tension between official English, written Chinese, and colloquial Cantonese in Hong Kong, as well as that between the discourse of fiction and the lexicon of critical theory.

The divide between theory and literature sets off Atlas: its first of four sections, “Theory,” contains subheadings such as “Counterplace,” “Displace,” “Subtopia,” and “Omnitopia,” describing maps that meditate in metafiction on the relationship between depiction—whether via mapmaking or writing—and the thing itself. “Yet when for whatever reason you acquire or lose a map through an act of transfer,” we read in “Transtopia,” “you may not be sure of what is being handed over, whether it is the place itself or its sovereignty, knowledge, fantasy, or memory.” The following section of The Atlas, “The City,” gives a historical underpinning of memory to the previous theoretical fantasies, yet these underpinnings are susceptible to their own undertow: “Mirage: City in the Sea” begins, “The legendary city of Victoria was, like Venus [and like Venice], born from the waves of the sea,” but ends,

from then on, the small island was officially called Hong Kong, and with the exception of the continuous development of the city on its northern coast, the name, shape, and position of the island remained unchanged until recent speculations about its resubmergence. So if map readers today attempt to unearth the remains of the city of Victoria in the vast ocean of maps, what they are after might possibly be to perpetuate a love story born of imagination.

The next section, “Streets,” takes the question of the relationship between the object and its name further, with a series of stranger-than-fiction anecdotes about, for instance, a company on Ice House Street (“snow factory street,” in Chinese) producing snow for expatriates; or how differences in the availability of produce in summer and winter caused a street’s seasonal name change, causing delays in the neighborhood postal system. In “Signs,” the final section, Atlas’s structuralist poetics takes the turn towards cultural criticism in the present, even beyond what seems plausible for a book published in the late ’90s: “The Tomb of Signs” describes how

Digital maps, compared with the great quantity of maps produced as material objects, demolish the mythology of maps to an even more advanced extent . . . On the one hand, maps were a tool of political control at the exclusive disposal of the emperor, while on the other hand as unique material objects in themselves they were symbols of power.

“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears,” Calvino writes, “even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” Victoria, a displaced commonplace for colonial Hong Kong, likewise operates via deceitful rules and absurd perspectives. Exposing its secret thread of discourse, Atlas does not shrug, it reveals the structure beneath the city’s desires and fears, allowing for—even reveling in—the confusion between the city and its description Marco Polo warned about, but knew could not be avoided.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2012/2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012/2013

THE WEIRD: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories

Edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Tor ($34.99)

by Kris Lawson

The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories is the ultimate companion for readers who relish strange, luminous, decadent tales of the “other.” An essential addition to any bookshelf, the aptly named compendium contains 110 stories; it recently won the 2012 World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology. Compiled by the thorough and prolific husband-and-wife team of Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, The Weird is a long trip into the area beyond the everyday.

The Weird includes essays by Michael Moorcock and China Miéville who each attempt to define the weird tale. Moorcock defines the weird tale as “a term covering pretty much anything from absurdism to horror, even occasionally social realism” and that a weird story’s primary purpose is “to disturb.” However, Miéville suggests that the reader is what brings the weird to a story:

Weird travels with us, each reader a Typhoid Mary in every library. It passes from us into pages, infects healthy fiction (pretend for a moment that there might be any such thing). A virus of holes, a burrowing infestation, an infestation of burrowingness itself, that births its own pestilential hole-dweller.

As the VanderMeers explain, weird tales are not necessarily horror, fantasy or science fiction, but they sometimes overlap across those genres. The editors deliberately chose works that go beyond what they call “the rise of the tentacle” to the modern weird tale, “fiction in which some other element, like weird ritual or science fictional, replaces the supernatural while providing the same dark recognition of the unknown and the visionary.”

Drawing from a deep, murky pool of possibilities, The Weird includes stories published between 1908 and 2010, including the usual suspects (Shirley Jackson, H.P. Lovecraft) as well as other authors who are a bit of a surprise (Jamaica Kincaid). The VanderMeers cast their net widely:The Weird includes new translations from Japanese and Latin American authors, as well as selections from Eastern European, African-nation, and women authors (categories of writers too often left out of Western-published anthologies). Entries range in length from short stories and novellas to short novels. Arranged in order of first publication, the works, when read in that order, show layers of influence between countries, genres, and movements.

Although the editors say The Weird is not “as complete as an encyclopedia,” the volume’s breadth of field and substantial heft almost contradict their claim. With a thoughtful foreword for each entry, the VanderMeers refer the reader to additional works by each author, along with a short biographical note and the reason for the story’s inclusion. And, should over 1100 pages not be enough for the reader, the editors’ foreword even includes a list of additional recommended works that they were unable to secure for the anthology.

The Weird, encompassing everything from ancient horrors to modern angst, will delight any reader who likes fiction that both clouds and opens the mind. No matter what genre one enjoys, this collection will not only fulfill expectations, but also will introduce the reader to new authors or authors long buried in obscurity. From the supernatural to the surreal, The Weird’s more than 750,000 words propel the reader into another reality, one that in the editors’ words, is “unapologetically transgressive, imaginative, and strange.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2012/2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012/2013

ERRANTRY: Strange Stories

Elizabeth Hand
Small Beer Press ($16)

by Will Wlizlo

It’s a shame we’re not often genuinely baffled, not often presented with inexplicable scenarios or esoteric information to which we’re ill equipped to respond. But the enigmatic stories in Elizabeth Hand’s new collection,Errantry, all arouse the vertiginous feeling of being confronted with the incomprehensible. Jeffrey, a widower in Hand’s story “Near Zennor,” perhaps describes this plunging sensation best after finding a few revealing letters hidden in the attic by his late wife: “The sight made him feel lightheaded and queasy: as though he’d opened his closet door and found himself at the edge of a precipice.” It’s not just unsettling mystery that sets these stories apart, but also that they’re masterfully interwoven with the hum-drum of reality. The impossible merges with the mundane in a strangely believable fashion.

“Hungerford Bridge” offers a perfect example of this. In the story, Miles reveals one of London’s secrets to his friend Robbie: an emerald-scaled, hedgehog-like creature that roots around the underbrush of an inner-city park. The peculiar animal doesn’t strike Robbie as anything that’s been cataloged by science or, for that matter, noticed by the people bustling in the public space. After the creature retreats to its burrow, he makes his incredulity clear:

“What the hell was that?” I demanded. Two teenagers walking side by side and texting on their mobiles glanced at me and laughed.
“The emerald foliot,” Miles replied.
“What the hell is the emerald foliot?”
He shrugged. “What you saw—that’s it. Don’t get pissy with me; it’s all I know.”

By showing Robbie the emerald foliot, Miles also passes along the burden of keeping it secret. You’re only supposed to visit the foliot twice: when it is initially shown to you, and when you show it to the next secret-keeper. Why? Miles doesn’t know that either, it’s just what he heard from the person who showed him. With such circular logic, it begins to make sense how something so alien and implausible could remain hidden in plain sight.

Hand’s mastery of the inexplicable invites her to experiment in many genres and narrative styles, including horror, fable, middlebrow fantasy, and more. In “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon,” archivists at a flight museum rebuild an impossible contraption and set out on a steampunk adventure. In “Summerteeth,” artists at a retreat ride out the apocalypse while composing avant-garde music and painting landscapes. Nordic demigods, changelings, and conjurors walk among the characters—and probably drink at the same pubs too.

The stories confound yet delight, blurt unanswerable questions yet hold their tongue. Each will leave you scratching your head and asking, “Well, what if . . . ?” Overcoming the constraints of genre, Errantry is strange fiction at its finest.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2012/2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012/2013

OSAMA: A Novel

Lavie Tidhar
Solaris ($9.99)

by Kris Lawson

Winner of the 2012 World Fantasy Award, Osama is a mix of crime fiction, pulp noir, science fiction, and history. With Osama, Lavie Tidhar has created a dreamy, disturbing mish-mash of genres and tones. The book has many beginnings and layers, some of which move the reader sideways, slipping a little farther each time into disturbingly familiar places that may or may not exist.

One of the book’s beginnings is a section set in a jagged Courier font that describes in a matter-of-fact tone a terrorist bombing in Nairobi. This section turns out to be an excerpt from a pulp paperback that Joe is reading on a slow afternoon, another novel in theOsama Bin-Laden: Vigilante series. Joe is a private detective who not only has the gun, bottle of bourbon, and dirty office of a classic noir PI, but he also chain-smokes and drinks endless cups of coffee. When a mysterious, beautiful woman walks into his office and gives him a ludicrous-sounding assignment—find Mike Longshott, author of the Osama series Joe is reading—Joe accepts the assignment, and his travels take him further, deeper, and wider than he could have expected.

His point-of-view drives most of the rest of the book, but despite Joe’s origins in pulp stereotypes, he is not a predictable or even reliable narrator:

A long time ago Joe had learned that it was sometimes easiest to feel alone amongst people. He no longer let it disturb him, but as he sat there, isolated from the outside by the transparent glass windows, he felt for a moment disconnected from time, all contact between him and the rest of humanity removed, cauterized, his connection to the people outside no more than an amputee’s ghost-limb, still aching though it was no longer there.

Tidhar uses such reveries at the beginning of Joe’s journey, contrasting sharply with the choppy, disconnected text that informs Joe’s actions later on and building to an increased urgency even in relaxed situations, as when Joe watches the audience in a London lounge:

. . . there was something about them that didn’t read right. Bars of shadows fell on raised, expectant faces. The sense of a lingering wait, the eyes that stare into a fartherness. Clothes that did not quite fit. The thought of a tree felled, the roots torn out of the ground—helpless in the air. Expectant people—they looked like they did not belong, not here, not anywhere.

He thought—refugees.

Other contrasts in tone include the Courier-font excerpts from the Osama pulp novels and frequent pop-culture references. The Osama excerpts are clinical reports of actual bombings or terrorist incidents, not at all close to the overblown bombast one expects from adventure novels; the pop-culture references span from Casablanca to The Wizard of Oz to a relatively obscure children’s novel, Astrid Lindgren’s Brothers Lionheart. The cultural references act on the reader to create an unsettling queasiness, though Joe himself seems unaware; the references are left to hang in mid-air with no closure, leaving the reader to wonder which world is real, ours or Joe’s?

As such, Osama is an engrossing study in urgency and malleable levels of reality. The reader becomes a co-conspirator in Joe’s investigation, which leads through a hazy mystery punctuated by terrorist reports and pop-culture jokes. Each section of Joe’s journey builds on what has passed before; the search for Mike Longshott, the mystery behind the men in black who pursue Joe, the disappearing woman, and finally and most importantly, who is Joe? Who is Osama?

In a foreword (another of the multiple beginnings), Tidhar says that the inspiration for the book came from a series of personal near misses with terrorist attacks (the 1998 Dar-es-Salaam American embassy bombings, the terrorist attacks in Gaza in 2004 and in London in 2005). But the most meaningful of those multiple beginnings may be: “The following is a work of fiction.” It works as an ending as well; after finishing the shifting realities of Osama, the reader craves that reassurance even if there is a lingering doubt that it may not be true.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2012/2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012/2013


J. R. Moehringer
Hyperion ($15.99)

by John Cussen

Of any two thieves, one is likely good—or so scripture recommends, and more or less, so we believe. Also, of late the feeling circulates that those who manage the banks are a worse bunch of crooks than those who stick them up. Both of these attitudes bode well for the reception of J. R. Moehringer’s novelized life of Willie Sutton, the folkloric bank predator of the American mid-century who is famously, if a-historically, recalled for having said that he robbed banks because “that’s where the money is.”

Moehringer—a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a successful memoirist (The Tender Bar), and widely-praised Andre Agassi ghostwriter (Open)—chooses for his novel’s present moment Christmas Day 1969, the day after Sutton’s sudden, unanticipated release from the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a former banker. History says that on that slow-news day, Sutton was shepherded around his old New York City haunts by a newspaper reporter and photographer assigned by their paper to get the legendary criminal’s inside story and, in particular, to get the straight dope on his involvement or non-involvement in the gangland style slaying of Arnold Shuster, the Brooklyn tailor’s son whose spotting of the then FBI-Most-Wanted Sutton on a subway train in early 1952 led to his last, definitive incarceration in 1954.

In actual fact, not much came of that day-long interview, says Moehringer in his prefatory note: a brief newspaper story “with several errors—or lies—and few revelations.” And now, “sadly, Sutton and the reporter and the photographer are all gone,” says Moehringer. Thus, he licenses himself to invent the day as he “guesses” it might have happened. In so doing, he suppresses the real journalists’ names, applying, instead, the epithets Photographer and Reporter to his novel’s characters. Also, he suppresses the name of the newspaper they worked for, calling it simply “the paper.”

So Moehringer’s sense of his historical license is liberal. Still, the autobiography that his Sutton mulls as he tours his wasted life’s principal scenes on that Christmas Day is both credible and sociologically convincing. Sutton got his first breathing start in the turn-of-the-century Brooklyn waterfront ghetto called Irishtown, a clapboard district of taverns and mean streets whose beckoning westward horizon was ever and always lower Manhattan’s financial district. In the first fourteen years of his life, the country went into recession four times; indeed, he was born in the year of the New York Stock Exchange’s first crash, the Panic of 1901. But by his reckoning, the lights never dimmed in lower Manhattan. In good times and in bad, the rich do okay for themselves, he concluded. Similarly, his dad’s doomed blacksmithing trade taught him that it was possible to work hard in America and go nowhere. Meanwhile, his elder, sadistic brothers’ cuffs to the back of his head drove home the understanding that those with the power to cuff in this world do so. And, lastly, he learned from his dead-end Irishtown buddies that the snitcher is the vilest of all creatures.

Because Willie was bright, his parents briefly imagined he might become a priest. Next, when that suggestion failed, his dad recommended that he follow him as a blacksmith. No, said Willie, not that either. He left school and for several frustrating months looked for work. Then, fate intervened and, of all places, a bank offered him a spot. He liked the job, liked the piles of money in the vault, and did well. However, the approaching First World War stalled the economy, and the bank let him go. Soon after, however, the same War put him back to work—in a munitions factory. The Armistice and a second layoff followed.

He was an unemployed, lightly educated eighteen-year-old when on the Coney Island boardwalk he met the girl who would put him on his lifelong career path. Her name was Bess Endner; she was the daughter of a ship-builder, a family friend of the Rockefellers, about two years younger than Willie, and a free spirit. When her father forbade the courtship’s progress, Bess suggested that Willie steal both her and her dad’s money. She knew where his company’s safe was and when it would be full. Next, a few days after the safe’s smashing, Willie, Bess and an accomplice were arrested in Poughkeepsie, NY. In front of the judge, Bess performed beautifully, claiming most of the blame for herself. As a result, the judge dropped light sentences on all three, and, thus, as Willie’s probation began, it looked as if he might with only minimal inconvenience go forward productively in his unfolding, if unpromising, life.

However, the fact that his and Bess’s outlandish caper had been in all the newspapers made Willie hard to hire. Also, his family had disowned him, and, worse still, Mr. Endner banished Bess to Europe. Heartbroken and without prospects, Willie starved for a time. Soon, however, Prohibition put him back on his track. By quintupling New York’s outlaw community, the national liquor interdict made likely the chances that a young man like Willie would be taken in by people of unsophisticated morals, by people with “bankable” skills to teach—skills such as safecracking.

And that’s what happened—with the long-term result that Willie would spend the largest segment of his adult life working his way into and out of penal institutions. By the end of his career, the novel’s present moment, he had robbed countless banks and escaped three prisons thought to be airtight. His signature method in both of these activities was the donning of a disguise, usually a uniform of one official sort or another. Most famously, in a guard’s stolen uniform, he walked a ladder right up to the wall of Pennsylvania’s Holmesburg Prison and simply climbed out.

For deeds like these, Sutton’s was the eleventh name ever to be posted on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Ironically, also for deeds like these, he became the Truman-Eisenhower Era’s folk anti-hero par excellence. For that large, working-stiff segment society who admired him, he was Slick Willie and Willie the Actor. He wrecked their vengeance on the hated banks; he did no physical violence to anyone (save, perhaps, to Shuster), and he said (that which, in actual fact, he never said)—that he robbed banks because that’s where the money is.

Of course, had he said it, he would have been one of the smartest philosopher / psychologists who ever lived, for he would have been talking about all of us—Americans and lots of foreigners too—and why we really do the things we do. Also, his deadpan confession, had he said it, would have offered a fairly succinct analysis of how things actually work in America, making him a first-rate social scientist. Still, though he didn’t say it nor anything remotely like it, Moehringer’s novel clings to the hard-knocks felon-sage notion of Sutton. To him and to his associates, Moehringer attributes a tommy gun’s round of clipped, scapegrace utterances.

Several make for enjoyable reading. Apt, for example, is the shouted response of Eddie, one of Willie’s best boyhood buddies, to the fact that he, Willie, and another boy were catching nothing—absolutely nothing—as they fished one day in the sewage enriched waters of the New York harbor entrance called the Narrows: “Whole fuckin thin is rigged! Whole fuckin thin is rigged!” shouted Eddie, meaning, of course, just what he says, not just the fishing. Amusing, too, is what Willie’s first hooker acquaintance says to him as the Depression ends and as Wall Street regains steam. In those flush times, when most of her clients were financial guys, she warned Willie about bankers: “[They] don’t ask, Willie, they take.” And, lastly, entertaining is Willie’s response to the Reporter’s remark that “every generation says that the world is getting worse”: “And every generation is right,” said Sutton.

However, over the length of the novel, this sort of talk detracts from the bio-fiction’s credibility. Of the novelized life of an iconic American criminal, we expect more than a Bogart-Cagney fix for the rare weeknights when our thousand-channeled televisions are not carrying their movies. We ask for history, context, and Dostoyevskyan insight into the criminal mind.

Moehringer’s text makes feints at these greater goods. As per history, for example, it reminds us that the longtime felon was released from prison in the year of Norman Mailer’s mayoral run, the Apollo 11 moonwalk, and the Manson family murder spree. However, if any substantial reflections might be drawn from those facts, either about Sutton or about the year, they don’t occur to me. Again, the text in several instances makes the point that Sutton was an avid reader of quality books. When the list of novels found in his Staten Island apartment at the time of his last arrest was published, says Moehringer’s narrator, those books—Proust’s among them—leapt to the top of the bestseller charts. To be sure, however, one does not go to In Search of Lost Time for an enriched reading of Sutton, nor vice versa. That sort of genuine intertextuality is not at play in Sutton. In fact, for a reader who is likely to chase literary allusions, the novel’s several returns to Willie’s curiously learned reading habits—see, for example, the new inmate’s and his last warden’s brief discussion of Ulysses, in which the warden-Willie relationship is paralleled with that of Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus—is merely literary window dressing.

On the other hand, if Sutton has a saving grace, it is its convincing portrait of the legendarily cipherous ne’er-do-well. The novel is particularly good in this regard in its climax, when Willie finally gets where he most longs to get on the day of his release. In his encounter with the now deceased Bess Endner’s stand-in, her granddaughter, Willie destroys the fond notion that good thieves and bad are equally numbered. Or, at least, he demonstrates that he’s not among the good. His bad grace at novel’s end makes for a good scene in a novel marred by its influences, among them Dashiell Hammett’s—who reportedly once said, “I’ve been as bad an influence on American literature as anyone I can think of.” If only Moehringer had heard him.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2012/2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012/2013