By Richard Russo
Knopf; 225 pp.; $24
"Slow and steady wins the race," believes one of the characters in Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo's first collection of short fiction, The Whore's Child and Other Stories. And it is most certainly a maxim Russo himself holds to in this collection. After painting the staggering canvas of last year's Empire Falls, for which he won the Pulitzer, it's fitting that the artist present us with a series of equally assured smaller works now, the consistently unperturbed pace of each betraying the timing of a seasoned novelist yet slowly accelerating toward a subtle, full-circle reckoning in 40 pages or less.
Seven spot-on stories make up The Whore's Child, and all are emotionally honed pieces illuminating the minor travails inherent to all human relationships, but the prevailing theme is one Russo has made his name artfully exploring in his novels -- that of the infidelity and vulnerability of men and women in the midst of perpetual marriages/separations. Also figuring wonderfully in several stories is childhood and its abiding, frustrating helplessness, both physical and spiritual. Academia makes a few appearances as well, but it is stagnation in it and escape from it that fuel the narrative engines.
A refreshing first-person tale, the title story introduces us to the epitome of a doormat kind of nice guy, a college professor who is teaching a fiction seminar disrupted by the arrival of an old Belgian nun. Intent on workshopping her autobiographical memoir, Sister Ursula settles in, the niceties of actual enrollment, prerequisites, and department protocol be damned. Our professor confides that he doesn't have the heart to kick a nun out of class, but it is her intriguing manuscript that cinches the deal: Just a little girl of 5 or 6, she was brought to a convent school by a man she knows was her father and whose ruin was his wife, Ursula's mother, a beautiful Rubenesque prostitute of whom she carried a picture. As her memoir grows and the professor and his other students uselessly encourage her to add fictive elements, Ursula relives a bitter, questioning life at the center of which is the dream of a father who should have returned, as he said he would, to rescue her and restore her life, minus his wife. A quiet, observant student sitting in the back picks up on much more than the poor nun is aware of and, in effect, hands her the key to freedom from her life's torment. This work will burn its way into your memory. As far as shattering denouement and brilliant resolution go -- the last paragraph is to be savored -- it is a tale up there with the best of them.
Another real doozy is "Joy Ride," a man's remembrance of a boyhood cross-country trip with his mother, in flight from his goofy father. With sometimes hilarious dialogue of such deliberate and natural precision and characters in which you can see yourself and your family, it ranks as a near-perfect modern archetype: There is the journey with its almost Odyssean circuit, the mother unconsciously seen as goddess through the eyes of a son whose cowardly sins he believes she cannot fathom, and the long shadow cast by the boy's father, who may or may not bother to pursue them.
Russo makes it all seem so effortless in The Whore's Child. The patient spirit of his work makes you feel so cozy, so pampered, you can get lost in it, forget it's all artifice, until it arrests you with its hard-won insight. Challenging work, this is not, nor should it be. Here is a mirror held up to a few lives, and there is much to be learned in it.
-- Jeremy Spencer
The Emperor Of
By Stephen L. Carter
Knopf; 675 pp.; $26.95
Stephen L. Carter explores a section of African-American life that is foreign not only to most Americans but many African Americans as well. In his debut novel, The Emperor Of Ocean Park, Carter, professor of law at Yale, looks at the lives of the privileged and the hidden responsibility that accompanies the glamour.
Carter's novel begins as more a childhood recounting of an upper-class African-American family than it does the suspense thriller that it is bound to become based on the last lines of the prologue: "My father died at his desk. And at first, only my sister and a few stoned callers to late-night radio shows believed he had been murdered."
The emperor of the title is Judge Oliver Garland, who has suddenly died and left behind three adult children. The story is told through the eyes of his son, Talcott Garland, who is not the oldest but is the most trusted. Throughout the novel, Talcott reveals the lifelong discord between him and his father. He even continues to use the nickname "Misha" (after a Russian chess champion), in rebellion against his father's rule.
As a staunch conservative Republican, Judge Garland's career had been on the fast track, with an inevitable Supreme Court appointment by then-President Ronald Reagan. But his political views and influence mean nothing when his reputation is unraveled during televised nomination hearings, which reveal his dealings with organized crime. The judge never recovers, and neither does Misha. His father is relegated to speaking engagements, radio talk shows, and a memory of what was, while Misha becomes a law professor and attempts to escape his father's disgrace.
After his father's death, Misha is told by a relative that his father had planned for him to lead the family. Unaware of any such plan, Misha dismisses this as the mutterings of a madwoman until, at his father's funeral, the person responsible for his father's humiliation approaches him and inquires about "the arrangements."
While dealing with the possibility of foul play in his father's death, Misha also deals with his own affairs: ostracism from popular faculty at the university, his wife's possible infidelity, and an infant son. He must battle his own demons before those of his father's past overcome him.
The Emperor Of Ocean Park is definitely a page-turner: Readers are taken on a journey to the truth but must navigate several turns on the way there. Misha comes across as an average guy dealing with a parent's death until danger and deception are thrust upon him, forcing him to play the part of seasoned sleuth. But his character does not miraculously develop crime-solving skills. Through a car chase, an elaborate scam, and the final confrontation, Misha remains true to character: a weary, cynical law professor.
Already touted by The New York Times and seemingly everywhere else as a great summer read, The Emperor Of Ocean Park lives up to all the hoopla.
-- Janel Davis
The Real McCoy
By Darin Strauss
Dutton; 320 pp.; $24.95
Over the last decade or so, Andy Warhol's famous comment that "in the future everybody will be famous for 15 minutes" has gradually been replaced by Truman Capote's catchphrase, which hints at the malleability of celebrity: Today, certain people are "famous for being famous." People like Courtney Love, Madonna, Carmen Electra, Anna Kournikova, and Howard Stern, to name just a few, are all famous not so much for any intrinsic talent or skill or intelligence they possess but simply for their practiced ability to hold the limelight, to remain recognizable. Oddly enough, this highly postmodern concept drives Darin Strauss' historical novel The Real McCoy.
Set in New York City at the turn of the 20th century, The Real McCoy follows the life of Virgil Selby, aka Kid McCoy, aka St. Corkscrew LeFist, a "prairiebilly" pugilist from Indiana who becomes a national sensation and a symbol for the American dream. Described in newspapers as "a hatrack with ribs," Selby is an unlikely prizefighter: He's skinny, but he compensates with an ability to reinvent himself and a true gift for grift. A "born liar" and a practiced scam artist, he wins the welterweight championship through flimflammery -- he tricks his opponent into thinking it's a charity match. His victory in the ring earns him national notoriety, several lucrative product-endorsement deals, and a beautiful wife -- an actress named Susan Fields -- but he is damned to perpetuate the charade to keep his deceitful past at bay.
Strauss -- author of Chang and Eng -- ably re-creates turn-of-the-century America: the bustle and grind of its new cities and the slang and rhythm of its language. He tosses puns and one-liners like quick jabs. Asked to fight without pay, McCoy retorts, "I don't fight boredom for free." In addition, Strauss displays a keen eye for date and detail, effortlessly conjuring a world in flux. "The 1900s," he explains, "were a moment of unprecedented artificiality, of simulation and back-and-front dishonesty. Thirty-five years earlier, say, day-to-day life had been more or less as it'd been for generations. But now horses were being replaced by cars, candles by electric light, mailboxes by telephones, 'live' theater by pictures that moved, serious journalism by scurrilous 'rumor rags.'"
Such observations provide a fascinating context for McCoy's desire for everlasting fame and serve as connection to the 21st century. In his quest to make a name for himself -- even if it's not his own name -- McCoy is a distinctly postmodern presence in a world only just becoming modern. Unfortunately, Strauss seems to have figured this out from the very beginning. He knows exactly where he wants the story to go, so there is no thematic development, no surprise. McCoy means the same in the first sentence of the novel as he does in the last; in fact, the first and last sentences are the same: "Here was a champion before he closed his hand into a fist."
Consequently, The Real McCoy is as strangely guarded and controlled in character and theme as it is exuberant in setting and language. By the time Strauss rushes us through the blurry finale, we haven't learned anything about McCoy we didn't know in the first few pages.
-- Stephen Deusner
The Sound Of the Trees
By Robert Gatewood
Henry Holt; 289 pp.; $25
Southern authors acknowledging the reach and depth of William Faulkner look for ways to share the Southern landscape while offering original contributions. Cormac McCarthy now occupies a similar position in the fiction of the Southwest. The increase of McCarthy's literary stature continues in a fashion suited to the mythical nature of his prose. Robert Gatewood's first novel, The Sound Of the Trees, reads like a McCarthy primer, and despite his heavy borrowing, a talented young author emerges, one who writes with a quiet, simple eloquence. The Sound Of the Trees is a poignant eulogy to lost youth and a vanishing way of life. A learned disciple, Gatewood uses every McCarthyism one would expect.
Set in the 1930s but without a single reference to the Depression, Gatewood's book begins with its protagonist, Trude Mason, a time-warp cowboy, along with his mother, fleeing his abusive father. Born and reared on what had been a successful ranch in New Mexico, Trude and his mother escape just days before the diminished family ranch is repossessed, acre by acre having been siphoned off due to Hatley Mason's drinking -- Mason, a man "who could never settle on happy."
Forgoing the family truck, which neither Trude nor his mother ever learned to drive, and rejecting the offer of a car from a family friend, they instead ride horseback through the mountains, hoping to reach Colorado, a place glamorized in the young boy's mind. Gatewood's deft handling of Trude's mother -- her abundant love for her son and her sorrowful inability to protect him -- yields an inspired portrait. The still-beautiful but long-abused wife seems more adrift in the world than her 18-year-old son and soon succumbs. Their tender relationship lingers throughout the novel.
As he makes his way after his mother's death, Trude meets a host of extreme characters. Two sage-like figures -- an old hermit and a reclusive rancher -- take a liking to the boy and do their best to keep him from harm -- an utterly impossible task. The small town, more like a fiefdom, where Trude finds work is under the menacing rule of a power-hungry mayor. They clash over a beautiful but doomed black girl who steals Trude's heart before the couple ever exchanges words. The girl, whose treatment by a cohort of the mayor includes rape, infanticide, and a death sentence, tells Trude "[t]hat only the best things and the worst things that happen in the world are the ones you can never explain."
The hermit, who shares his cabin with Trude, spouts great gusts of mythology, always trying to help Trude see the diminished role of humans against the forces of evil and nature. Fringe characters along the way also offer wisdom. Happening upon a "ceremony of love," an Indian wedding, Trude is welcomed by a guest who senses his burdensome grief:
"She told the boy that love appears to people as the sky. That there is a landscape in the world of love that one may travel through. Free to pick and choose, she said. To discover hidden places. She said that with grief this was not so. She said grief was like a tree. ... It could not be moved or shaken loose. Nor could it be uprooted and carried away. It planted itself like a dagger clot of stone. ... But she said that no matter how complicated [love and grief] became, that when the heart found a place to hold them together as one, they could be lived with."
By the close of The Sound Of the Trees, redemptive grace and its accompanying peace find Trude at last. And here the novel, ultimately life-affirming, makes its cleanest departure from McCarthy's fiction. -- Lisa C. Hickman
The Life Of Pi
By Yann Martel
Harcourt; 319 pp.; $25
I loved this book. Can I make such a brazen declaration? If you'll allow me, I'd also like to bring in God or science or anything else that, when we reach the limits of perception, requires us simply to believe. That is exactly what Yann Martel succeeds in doing in his award-winning novel The Life Of Pi.
The book is about a boy, Piscine, who lives in Pondicherry, India, where his father runs a zoo. Much to the dismay of his family and his religious teachers, the boy, in his fervor to know God, is a practicing Hindu, Muslim, and Roman Catholic simultaneously. Piscine or Pi (yes, just like the number) finds himself, after a series of logical, believable events, fighting for his life in an incredible way.
When the ship he and his family are on sinks in the Pacific Ocean, Pi's family is lost and replaced by a crippled zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Quite naturally, his new "family" is quickly reduced, according to Darwinian law, to an inconceivable pair: Pi and the tiger (who is named Richard Parker). Together, the two survive starvation, storms, and every sort of peril on a 26-foot lifeboat. Together. For 227 days.
The novel is Pi's first-person account of these 227 days, and he is apparently telling the story to another character, the author himself. The author creates the necessary illusion (if indeed it is an illusion) that the real-life Pi is actually telling the story of his 227-day adventure in a series of interviews with the author -- a narrative device vital to a novel that ultimately addresses the act of storytelling and faith.
Martel has managed to write a remarkable tale that leaves reality's shores, so to speak, with the reader in tow and abandons ordinary rules of narrative and circumstance for an extraordinary set of rules and circumstances. This is a story that reads as a journey, and when readers return from that journey, they may swear they are holding the human tooth Pi discovered or they may believe something as far-fetched as fiction is the truth. -- Lesha Hurliman
By Laura Zigman
Knopf; 210 pp.; $22
Neurotics have a special place in popular culture, especially in contemporary fiction. We laugh at them because they remind us of our own inadequacies and struggles and then top them off with an ice-cream-sundae ending.
That's if the fiction is done well. If done poorly, those same portrayals stop being funny and start eliciting less positive responses, such as annoyance. Think of poor Woody Allen. His schtick used to be funny; now, it's just old and sad.
Her by Laura Zigman, author of Animal Husbandry, walks on the decidedly unfunny side of popular neurotics: It is Bridget Jones's Diary without the lovable and charming -- though clueless -- heroine; it is the Ya-Ya Sisterhood without the divine secrets. In fact, if Her were a woman, she'd be in the throes of hysteria and trolling for a good slap across the face.
When the novel opens, Elise and Donald are planning their wedding and longing for days of wedded bliss. Elise is a bit of a snoop, but it's nothing that would be considered fatal to her upcoming nuptials. But then Donald's ex-fiancée, the gorgeous and long-legged man-killer Adrienne, moves to town. Not only is Adrienne ravishing, she's Yale-educated and well-connected to boot: an engagement's worst nightmare.
In all fairness, the book starts out as cute, even clever. It's a situation any woman would feel a little threatened to find herself in, and going a little crazy may be an appropriate response. Elise's preoccupation with the potential affair and her carefully devised plots to keep it from happening are amusing as they fall to pieces and everything goes wrong.
But obsession is a different matter. Obsession is bad enough when you have to listen to your friends go on and on about their latest love or their latest love hiccup. You listen because they're your friends and that is your job. Two-hundred-and-ten pages of that conversation would almost inevitably border on the tedious; it certainly does here.
One of the problems is that Elise is not a very sympathetic character. In fact, rarely have I hated a character more. Not only does the entire premise of the book rest upon the notion that you will think it's funny that she's insanely jealous (she spends so much time stalking Adrienne that Donald accuses Elise of having an affair), she is a main character with few redeeming qualities. She's mean and vindictive to her friends. She plots and schemes and then wonders why Donald would ever consider straying. One imagines she would be the woman at a wedding no one would want to talk to -- even at her own wedding.
In the end, it's Elise -- not Adrienne -- who is an engagement's worst nightmare. She -- and Her -- make it to the top of my worst-nightmare list too.
-- Mary Cashiola
By Jennifer Belle
Riverhead Books; 351 pp.; $13 (paper)
Many possessions worth having are "high-maintenance" -- dogs, swimming pools, boats, and roses, to name a few. However, I normally hear the phrase used by men to describe women. High maintenance is, of course, a bad thing. Cosmopolitan once advised against carrying a large purse on a date because it makes you seem high-maintenance. In When Harry Met Sally, Meg Ryan's character is high-maintenance because she gives too many orders when she orders food. Females, however, are taught that, to get and keep a man, keep your expectations and demands low. Jennifer Belle's novel High Maintenance should be read by any woman who has ever lamented having to carry a bag that could actually carry her make-up or who has ever ordered her salad dressing on the side.
Liv Kellerman, daughter of a famous fashion designer, is an extremely low-maintenance version of her former, constantly manicured self. Twenty-six and uneducated, she divorces her wealthy husband as well as her magnificent Fifth Avenue duplex with a view of the Empire State Building. With only some street clothes and her La Perla lingerie, she moves into a tenement with a shower, marred with bullet holes, in the middle of the kitchen. She sleeps in the former tenant's grungy bed and stores her clothes in the refrigerator, which doesn't work. Her only post-separation love interest comes in the form of Andrew, a cheap married man she finds "totally rude and unattractive with dutiful brown glasses that made him look like a lesbian." He also bites her ear during sex and by way of apology gives her a football helmet to wear during future encounters. Which she does. Her honest account of her daily trials and horrible decisions makes you want to weep, but even she acknowledges the absurdity of her actions and knows that she "deserves a man who didn't talk about passing big loads ... and lived alone in his own apartment with his own condoms. And ... a fridge with food in it instead of clothes." And she's right.
Thankfully, High Maintenance does not end with Liv homeless, friendless, and wandering the streets of New York like some character in a Tama Janowitz novel. But the book does not end with Liv finding the perfect man to live happily ever after with either. She does become a successful real estate agent. And she does get rid of her ugly, married, and perverse boyfriend. Plus, she gets to keep her prized possession, a police-issued gun. She even escapes the tenement and buys a wonderful loft. The maintenance on the loft is high even by New York standards, but she knows that she and the new place are worth it.
-- Leah Ourso
My Loose Thread
By Dennis Cooper
Canongate Books; 121 pp.; $18
You keep having to remind yourself that it's just fiction, every word. Kids aren't really like this, are they? They aren't all a bunch of cold-blooded sexual predators with a total disregard for human life. And yet there is something about Dennis Cooper's latest novel, My Loose Thread ... at 121 pages, a simple read ... something that is undeniably true and unimaginably awful. That's why, no matter how hard you try, you can't read it in just one sitting. And once you've finished it, you'll wish you'd never picked it up in the first place. The nauseating images, like something out of painter Francis Bacon's worst nightmares, linger. Cooper has long proclaimed his obsession with torture, mutilation, and murder, and while he has produced a body of significant work that is far more accomplished than My Loose Thread, almost none of his previous efforts has seemed either as enduring or as necessary. And as horrible as the violence can be, you are left to wonder if it all doesn't amount to so many mercy killings.
Larry, a fairly typical Cooper protagonist, is a troubled teen given to sudden and extreme acts of violence. His father, a cancer patient, is vacant and ineffectual, and his mother is an alcoholic who, unable to change her environment, avoids it at all costs. The complex sexual relationship Larry maintains with his younger brother Jim, like something cut and pasted from a lost Jim Thompson novel, is alternately sweet, casual, and cataclysmic. While both brothers struggle with their sexuality, they seem to have little trouble expressing themselves physically when the need arises. Larry, who regularly claims to be confused and maintains that, in spite of his sexual proclivities, he's not gay, has been hired by a schoolmate to kill another student, the self-mutilating son of a whore, who worked as a hustler himself until his scars became too horrible. It's not the first time Larry has killed, though it is the first time he has done so on purpose.
The reasons for all the killings seem abstract and only become concrete in the book's closing paragraphs. The victims represent the physical manifestations of fears and deeply rooted prejudices. They also represent aspects of the killer they would like to see surgically extracted. Infrequent references to Columbine and the Matthew Shepherd murder do little to cheapen Cooper's tale. Rather, these references haunt the reader like a nagging I-told-you-so.
At one point, Larry, while contemplating a starry night, comments that the universe seems more interesting when you think of all the twinkling lights as a big city turned upside down. It's as close as Cooper comes to a romantic notion, and even this idea is somehow diseased.
Cooper's prose has never been leaner than in this dialogue-driven story. But it is a little disappointing that, within the space of 121 pages, the author repeats himself so often. It's a device to give us a clearer picture of the characters, sure, but at a certain point, it reaches overkill. Even Cooper's hypnotic, sing-songy prose can't mask this glaring deficit, which in no way lessens the story's ultimate impact.
-- Chris Davis