32. In the City of Shy Hunters, Tom Spanbauer

30 Aug

In the City of Shy Hunters, Tom Spanbauer

Here’s what Rob Hart from Litreactor has to say about Tom Spanbauer:

I’ve been planning to write this for months, and I’ve done everything I could to put it off. The reason for that is because I am afraid to write it. No matter what I write, I’ll never get across the thing about Tom Spanbauer’s writing that touches me so deeply.

The sensation of reading his books is that, while you’re reading them, it’s like he’s placed his hand on your chest, the warmth and pressure and intimacy of it reassuring you that you are alive, and you are not alone.

That doesn’t cut it. It gets close, but it’s not there. The best I can do is approximate.

I think Rob does get pretty close. I’ve written about Tom before. His latest book, I Loved You More, was one of my favorites of 2014 and just won a Lambda Award for gay general fiction. In the City of Shy Hunters is his AIDS classic, about New York in the early days of the epidemic. The hero, Will, is a Spanbauer stand-in who shares many points of his biography. He’s a gay man from Idaho who has come to the city to search for a lost love, a Native American named Charlie Two Moons. Charlie is a drop-out from the writing program at Columbia, and as the novel progresses and Will doesn’t find him, we begin to fear that he won’t, and that Charlie, like nearly everyone else, is a casualty of the epidemic.

Spanbauer makes a beautiful use of refrains, like his hero having “my mother’s nerves” (she killed herself) and “language my second language” when he’s nervous. One of the best is when he takes moments with people he’s loved and lost to AIDS, and claims the moment is still ongoing.  (In the below, “the monster” is AIDS.)

The monster’s heavy footfall.

I had to sit down right there on the curb, my head between my knees, my sensible black shoes on New York City pavement.

Big sobs, snot running out my nose, my chest up and down, up and down.

Who knows how long I sat there. I’m still sitting there.

I can’t think of a more generous and ongoing way of keeping a person in our hearts. Even the dead are not alone, thanks to Spanbauer’s wonderful humanity.

The book is more than just a tragedy, though it is that. It’s also a great old-time NYC book, evoking days I caught the last edge of when I moved to the city, when the East Village was alternative and Thompson Square Park was frightening. Will works as a waiter in a midtown restaurant that he calls Cafe Cauchemar and makes me think of Cafe Un Deux Trois (who knows if that’s even still there). The extended scenes of restaurant politics and after-hours partying deserve their own book. Here’s a scene of him at an alt performance space:

I felt I belonged there in my seat. Things had meaning and purpose. Fiona and Harry were my friends and they were up there on the stage and the audience was waiting—you could feel the anticipation, the hope of theater to lay bare the human heart. And I was there, I wasn’t in Jackson Holeewood or Boise, I was avant-garde in Manhattan in a basement theater on the Lower East Side.

The New York one can write things like this about has vanished as well.

31. Loving Day, by Mat Johnson

19 Aug

Loving Day by Mat Johnson

I can claim no credit, but I was Mat Johnson’s editor in the long-ago days before he’d published his first novel, and I was recently delighted to discover that he’s become a literary fiction success-story, who is just as hilariously funny now as he was back then. Loving Day, which came out May 2015, is his fourth novel and—breaking news!—just this week it was announced that Showtime has acquired the rights to the book as a potential TV show.

Johnson is one of those writers who you can’t put down because of the dryly funny lines, which just keep coming. A lawn is “utterly useless, wild like it smokes its own grass and dreams of being a jungle.” A dilapidated house is “covered in all the paint that’s failed to chip.” Of a man wearing a dashiki, Sudanese mudcloth pants and a kente hat, he says, “It’s like Africa finally united, but just in his wardrobe.”

Loving Day is about a very light-skinned, mixed-race black man, Warren Duffy, who suffers what he calls “a disconnect in my racial projection.” He is often taken for white, but as he says, “I know I’m black. My mother was black—that counts no matter how pale and Irish my father was.” The term the novel uses for him is “sunflower”—yellow on the outside, brown on the inside. As one of Johnson’s characters explains, it’s “a slang term for a biracial person who denies their mixed nature, only recognizing their black identity.'”

After a failed marriage to a Welsh girl, he’s back in his hometown of Philly to deal with his late, white, father’s inheritance when the story starts. The inheritance (yes, a loaded metaphor) is a crumbling, totally ridiculous mansion that he doesn’t want. (Whiteness, that’s you.) He’s broke. He’s recently discovered he has a teenage daughter, and hijinks ensue that require him to teach at the Melangé Center, a high school to help people like Warren find balance. He calls his tribe “the human equivalent of mismatched socks. The people whose racial appearance fails to mimic the ethnicity of their inner spirit.”  The school teaches “inclusion of all perspectives of the black and white, mixed-race experience.”

Warren, with typical humorous candor,  likes it because:

“Finally. I—lighter than some white people walking around this world, always the palest of any black person, a man who can barely hold on to that mantle–am like an Asante chief in this room…. These people, they are not black like me. They are less black than me, and therefore I don’t trust them. And I love it. Embattled groups have to police membership, for their own self-protection. But with policing comes power, and all power’s usual intoxicants…. This, I realize, is a singular element of the Black Experience I’ve been previously denied. The guilty satisfaction of sitting in judgement over others for their insufficient blackness. I forgive everyone who has ever done this to me maliciously. How could anyone resist such a pleasurable self-righteous indulgence!”

But it’s not that simple. As he knows, and as his friends point out, by embracing his whiteness, he’s betraying his race. The people at Melangé are “‘trying to cut black America loose, so they can live some post-racial fantasy. That shit is dangerous. It weakens us, as a people.'”

Warren’s ultimate revelations are more about loving his new-found daughter and himself than they are choosing one group over the other or solving this race dilemma. Which, in it’s own way, is the solution.  The “Loving Day” of the title is a real holiday, June 12th, on which people celebrate the Supreme Court decision in the case Loving vs. Virginia, which in 1967 struck down all the remaining miscegenation laws in the United States. Johnson, very nicely, in the end chooses to focus on not the mixed children but on the love that created them.

It was a great book, which I really hope gets made into a TV show. And if it does, pull this character from the margins:

“It’s called home. Oh yeah, you betcha,” an ebony-skinned woman says next to me in a thick white-girl accent that sounds like it was obtained in North Dakota.

And here’s one last laugh/insight that I really appreciated:

“‘Look, my life is hard and boring too, just like everyone else’s.”






30. The Imago Trilogy, by Octavia E. Butler

3 Aug

Lilith's Brood by Octavia Butler

I have just completed my fourth re-reading of Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler, also known as the Imago Trilogy or the Xenogenesis Trilogy, one of my all-time favorite works of science fiction, an eye-popping, queasy, deeply uncomfortable imagining of the issues that would arise if the human race were sexually absorbed by aliens.

The speculative framework for the books is that after an apocalyptic human war, when everyone on earth is dying or dead, a race of deep-space-traveling aliens comes along and offers a sort-of choice: Survive, while mating with us and breeding with us to create a third race, or you all die. The choice is framed through the personal struggles of the protagonist, Lilith Iyapo, a young black woman from Los Angeles who is the first kidnapped/saved human the aliens wake up from suspended animation on their space ship, and who is tasked with convincing other humans to cooperate.

The beginning is the perfect waking-up-in-a-locked-room-mystery. Lilith awakens, with no idea where she is. “The walls were light-colored—white or gray perhaps. The bed was what it had always been: a solid platform that gave slightly to the touch and seemed to grow from the floor.”

She proves to be strong-minded and adaptable:

“When her body calmed and became reconciled to reanimation, she looked around. The room seemed dimly lit, though she had never Awakened to dimness before. She corrected her thinking. The room did not only seem dim, it was dim. At an earlier Awakening she had decided that reality was whatever happened, whatever she perceived. It had occurred to her—how many times?—that she might be insane or drugged, physically ill or injured. None of that mattered. It could not matter while she was confined this way, kept helpless, alone and ignorant.”

The aliens are terrifying and repulsive to humans, but find humans erotic and compelling. They are vastly more evolved, deeply condescending, and can manipulate human bodies on a molecular level to produce pleasure. They stick their tentacles into us, drug us, and produce spectacular, instantly addictive sensations. They live in three-person, three-gender groupings, have wild sex, and hope to add human partners to make five-person households, plus children. Anyone who won’t cooperate with them, they sterilize. Eventually everyone ends up back on a repaired earth, either as a collaborator, living and breeding with the aliens, or as a resister, sterile and angry. Lilith is a collaborator, but is tortured by it. She has a family and is attached to her alien partners, at the same time as she cannot forgive them for coercing her, and cannot forgive herself for betraying humanity, which will cease to exist as a separate race after the last resister dies.

Butler is famous for being a black, female science fiction writer who came to prominence in the ’80s, and is unusual in the genre for putting “soft” “women’s” issues like reproduction, sex and love at the heart of a hard sci-fi series. She’s asking difficult theoretical questions—What kind of sacrifice is more noble? How much violation should we take for a good cause?—but always embodying them and grounding them in fully-realized characters’ lives.  It’s simply my favorite type of speculative book.

I was sad to notice on this reading, though, that as a speculative work about gender and sexuality written in the 1980s, the book has dated. Butler—in this work at least—has fairly intense gender essentialist views—men are biologically more violent and prone to wander, women are more domestic and care more about babies—and leaves same-sex pairings entirely out of her framework. In a book about extreme reproductive technologies and genetic mixing, nowhere does she question the idea that it takes a man and a woman to reproduce.

Another somewhat sad note from 2015, apparently the publisher has decided to tart up the cover to make the book look more lightweight and appealing to women, or something. Here’s the latest. I cannot imagine the author would be pleased.

Lilith's Brood New Cover


29. The Next Scott Nadelson, by Scott Nadelson

27 Jul

The Next Scott Nadelson

Oh, my beloved Hawthorne imprint, whose every book I like.

The Next Scott Nadelson is a memoir about a guy living in Portland who gets dumped by his fiancee and is depressed for a while, but eventually gets over it—that is to say, it’s a memoir about an ordinary person reeling around in the dramas of ordinary life. With something like this it’s all about the rendering of detail and the level of insight the person is able to achieve into their dramas. Scott Nadelson writes wonderful detail and treats himself gently but unsparingly.

It’s really, really good.

I enjoyed the parts about Nadelson’s depression and suffering—who doesn’t like to read about someone else moping, especially when they’re up-front about it? Here’s how the book begins:

“A few years ago, when I was still living in Portland, single and shadowed by a persistent and unaccountable sense of failure, I gave a reading in a downtown bookstore. It was late winter, and I didn’t expect anyone to show up.”

There’s something very comforting about a person sharing his “persistent and unaccountable sense of failure.”

Nadelson then travels back in time, explaining how ended up a mere month away from marriage with a woman of whom he says,  “she struggled with depression, she had a temper, she didn’t like my friends,” and who dumped him for a drag king named Donny Manicotti,  leaving him “bewildered and devastated.”

Then he goes further back, to high school, when he felt a vague, incoherent waiting for some adventure to occur (the teen scavenger hunt set-piece from this chapter is hilarious), and then junior high, when he longed to be invisible.

It’s this invisibility and minor cowardice that he ends up linking to his adult failures, that he finds when he sets out to “look at what you don’t want to see.” At the end of a particularly wonderful chapter about being hazed at camp, he writes:

“Now, once again, as I picture my younger self standing in that doorway, so small and unassuming, hair tangled with cowlicks, shirt marred with grass stains, I have a terrible urge to call out. Go on, I want to tell him. Get it over with. If you can stop hiding now, you’ll save us so much trouble later on.”

Just beautiful. Made me cry.

Hiding and denying his own desires is part of Nadelson’s depressive strategy and, nearing the end of the book when he’s soon to rejoin the world, there’s a house renovation he walks by:

“On a quiet side street, where the ground sloped up abruptly and the houses were built into the hillside, an old Victorian had been lifted off its foundation and propped a dozen feet above the ground to make room for another full story beneath…. My initial reaction was outrage, which surprised me as much as the sight itself. Why should people want so much? Why couldn’t they be satisfied with a beautiful house as it was?”

He becomes obsessed, visiting the house nearly every day, wishing the owners ill, spying on them, disturbed by the air and space beneath the house and by it’s inhabitants’ obliviousness to disaster. The image of a house floating up in the air is a wonderful one in a book about a man trying to establish a self and a life–a house, if you will, to live in. The lesson of his obsession with it is not if his response is reasonable or spiteful, right or wrong, but that he cares, deeply, and will have to get a house—though a less obnoxious one—of his own.



28. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

25 Jul

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

The first few chapters of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves are a tour de force of voice—so biting, witty and strange that the book is nearly impossible to put down. I skimmed them in a bookstore, and then forgot the book title, and have been itched and nagged at until re-finding the book.

The action launches in midstream, as a story told by a girl who was once a tow-headed toddler who couldn’t stop talking. She describes her child-self as “prettier than I turned out.”  This narrator tells us her family is fractured, then invokes the fairy tale of two sisters, one of whom speaks in flowers and jewels, the other in toads and snakes. Which one will she be? What shut her up? It’s all a mystery, a careening plot, every line a mordant masterpiece. Like this one:

“My father was himself a college professor and a pedant to the bone. Every exchange contained a lesson, like the pit in a cherry. To this day the Socratic method makes me want to bite someone.”

When the narrator was a loquacious child, her father told her to “Skip the beginning. Start in the middle” of any story. That’s what she does in chapter one, launching into a set-piece scene when she is at college, overhearing a couple fighting in the dining hall. The girl, who has “beautiful biceps,” yells:

“‘Can everyone please leave the room so my boyfriend has more space? He needs a fucking lot of space'”.

She flips over his table to make some more room for him. I really laughed. And then our mild-mannered narrator is mistaken for the girl by campus security and by the end of the chapter they’re both in a squad car.

All of that and we don’t discover until a little later that the narrator in early childhood grew up with a monkey as part of a ’70s-era experiment, and that what we are really in for, among many other things, is thorny questions about animal rights. Surprise. The narrator thought of the monkey as her sister, and asks, “What if we treated animals as our brothers and sisters?” (The idea wreaks eventual tragic havoc on everyone from the experiment, human and animal alike.)

The chronology, construction, and plotting are mind-boggling-ly good.

All of this though, and strangely I didn’t love the book. I was put off by the Hollywood premise (girl raised with apes), and by the relentless slickness of the voice’s appeal. Of course we like girls who say they aren’t pretty. Of course we think animal cruelty is awful. Still, I would recommend it for anyone looking for something really readable and fun.

27. Binary Star, by Sarah Gerard

22 Jul

Binary Star by Sarah Gerard

Unexpectedly, I loved this book and couldn’t put it down.

Binary Star, newish from Two Dollar Radio, is about a young, pill-popping anorexic and bulimic girl going on a road-trip with her deadbeat, rich-kid alcoholic boyfriend, starving, taking drugs, having ineffectual S/M sex, and eventually pseudo-embracing the cause of radical veganism, while actually doing nothing but flunking out of a grad program and getting fired from Starbucks.

I found it harrowing, funny, and very smart. A binary star is a two-star system, and the relationship with the boyfriend makes a good organizing principal for the loosely chronological story (subdivided into three “dredge ups”) about modern social isolation. Gerard’s evocation of the emptiness and loneliness of social-media-era, consumer-society American privilege is bleak. Her anorexic character is weightless in every way, without affect but also without illusions.

John bought me this mirror for my birthday. Or John used his parents’ money to buy me this mirror for my birthday. John used his parents’ money to buy me a gift card. I used the gift card to buy this mirror for my birthday.
I look at myself for hours each day.
I see myself and in that sense I’m real.
I practice saying no to various kinds of food.

I love the frictionless-ness of this passage, the slide from the gift purchased with someone else’s money to the gift card, to the mirror–an item that reflects not the giver but the lonely recipient herself, a self who feels unreal and is sliding, sliding, winnowing herself away. There is nothing to hold onto anywhere here, which is a quality of modern life, and Gerard makes the reader feel it.

The couple’s eventual embrace of radical veganism is equally without authorial illusion. John plans violent actions while being too drugged out to care properly for his dog. The protagonist sometimes admits that her veganism is just another pretext for saying no to food. The strength of the couple’s beliefs, far from saving them, feels as desperate, unhappily obsessed with consumption, and grasping-at-air as the rest of the book.

Maybe they’re not able to get jobs, says John.
Yeah, that’s it.
I don’t want a fucking job. You know what? I dropped out of business school.
That was dumb.
No, I had to. It was the only way I could live with myself.
Our friend snickers. Hope you enjoy welfare.
Fuck You.
Or maybe you have a trust fund? You and I aren’t so different.

The point is, he does have a trust fund.

In the end it’s a little vague but it seems like the girl actually carries out an attack, possibly on someone from her university, which I found less believable, or at least unnecessary given the context. The star system is functioning just fine when the two parties have only each other to hurt.



26. The Guild of Saint Cooper, by Shya Scanlon

1 May

The Guild of Saint Cooper, by Shya Scanlon

This post was cross-posted earlier this week at Volume One Brooklyn.

As an alternative teenager in 1990 I was friends with many people obsessed with the TV show Twin Peaks. I could see that it was cool, but I found it baffling, not in the right way. The Kyle MacLachlan character in his dark suit was handsome, strange, an outsider, and vibrating with something that looked romantically like misery—and the actor had been Paul Atreides in Dune, my God, my forever-love—but he was a hokey FBI agent?  I couldn’t get it.

If 20 years have given me any insight into a series I still haven’t really watched, I realize now that discomfort was the point. Twin Peaks’ pleasurable narcotic anxiety comes in the distance between its two peaks, from how each character is an archetype and its opposite.

The Guild of Saint Cooper by Shya Scanlon, a novel coming out in May from Dzanc Books, is an homage of a sorts to Twin Peaks and MacLachlan’s Special Agent Dale Cooper. Scanlon’s hero is a struggling writer named Blake, who pursues a mysterious Dale Cooper through a post-apocalyptic Seattle and across various meta-fictional hijinks. Dzanc is a small imprint known for cultural insider-ness, and this is a manhood tale for the type of reader who knows he’s chasing archetypes, necessarily ephemeral, fictional, hey, based on a surrealist TV show, fuck it, it’s what we’ve got.

When the story starts our hero Blake is living with his mother in a Seattle that has been evacuated for a happening-any-minute global-warming catastrophe (melting polar ice cap, tsunami) and left to the survivalists, cult members, bicycle-pot-dealers and other people who won’t leave. At first there’s kind of a pleasant summer-in-a-college-town vibe. Blake has stayed—actually he’s come deliberately from elsewhere—because his mother lives there and she’s dying of breast cancer. But he’s also slacking, avoiding writing a follow-up to a first novel and has been abandoned by his wife.

Scanlon’s prose is wonderful and very funny. An emergency radio crackles “like a dog eating bones,” a pretty girl’s shirtsleeves fall back “to reveal pure white arms like lines of cocaine.”

Men other than Blake—his younger brother, a survivalist neighbor, a man building a bathysphere to protect his wife and child during the upcoming flood, are grappling with the situation. Of himself, Blake says that “neglect was a lifestyle decision.” The action opens with him stealing a TV from a neighbor’s abandoned house instead of doing anything useful.

I found this flawed character engaging because he cares what kind of man he is. Most of the book’s riffs and variations seem to ask, on one level or another, What am I doing in this emergency and what does it say about me?, a question that can be extrapolated to all of life. Blake’s answer is nothing, or storytelling, or having, as he once puts it, a “deep faith in symbols.”

Scanlon has published a book of poetry as well as other novels, and he uses resonance like a poet. Most of the book’s ideas come out in riffs and juxtapositions, which are both messy and thought-provoking. For example, in one scene Blake and his brother are trying to install a broken sculpture sent by their absent father, who most likely seems to have abandoned them. Kent, the competent brother (banker, kids, survivalist mojo), has poured cement and Blake says,

“…without him, I would never think to use cement. Intellectually, I recognized that it was doubtless a simple task, and the bag indeed bore clear instructions for its use. But there was something remarkable about my brother’s seemingly native expectation that such instructions would be perfectly suitable, would fill the gap between experience and effort. I had no such faith.”

A few sentences later Kent asks,

“‘Blake, are you going to help or just stand there?’”

Blake can’t take on the man-of-action ethos, which requires you to grab tools and do home improvement projects with confidence. But, broken sculptures are one of the book’s beautiful echos, and they join many broken things, from Kandinsky paintings to disassembled clocks as metaphors for the book itself. And Blake, we know, is a writer of books. So which brother is the more successful inheritor of the father’s gift, the one who can pour concrete or the one who is making a sculpture?

It doesn’t matter, Blake is disappointed in himself, and in a conflicted, half-assed way wants more from himself, and the increasingly broken narrative rises to the challenge. The book is divided into five sections, with chapters labeled Day 1 through Day 38, and there are enough structural innovations as we move through skewed versions of Blake’s adventures that I don’t want to spoil anything by saying more about the plot. I was not ultimately sure how it all tied up or if it perfectly did so.

The post-apocalyptic and metafictional elements slowed me down as a reader, which might go back to the fact that I am not a Twin Peaks fan and have limited patience—and specific tastes—when it comes to the surreal. But still I was seduced by the prose and the puzzles. The book needs to be read forwards and backwards, several times, underlining symbol groups from birds to aliens to underage girls in order to get the drift. Do it that way and Dale Cooper, manly man, FBI agent, fake, lover of New Ageism, trafficker in symbols, becomes more and more interesting as the focus of a manhood-quest, especially as his existence becomes more questionable and theoretical.

Here’s another riff: Our hero Blake’s absent wife is also named Blake, a really nice post-gender twist that creates an equivalency between two human beings and allows Blake to compare himself  as well to the women in the book. How do his actions stack up to the coping skills of his mother and wife? And he’s not emasculated by them, either, always a sexist trope; it’s a sincere comparison. In this leveled world “manhood” itself is questionable, theoretical, and surreal. Sort of like Dale Cooper. Pretty brilliant, no?


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