Barcelona Review Book Reviews:
issues 13 & 14
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issue 14
The Sea Came in at Midnight
by Steve Erickson

Toxicology and Slaughtermatic
by Steve Aylett

issue 13
Nude in Tub by G.K. Wuori
Gardens in the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko
The Sacred Willow by Duong Van Mai Elliott
Lie in the Dark by Dan Fesperman
CrowHeart by John Gist

Note: The BR encourages readers to buy books at their local independent booksellers, but not all UK books are available in the US and vice versa. For on-line book ordering of UK books Amazon UK and  Internet Bookshop carry all titles reviewed in the BR; all US releases carried by Amazon US unless otherwise noted.
The Sea Came in at Midnight by Steve Erickson:  Avon Books U.S. 1999

It has taken me a while to catch up with Steve Erickson here in Spain, but after reading this latest novel I’m eager to work my way back through his first five. I assume I’m part of a small but devoted audience, who has a soft spot for this brand of postmodern storytelling with its convoluted, chaotic plot that makes you want to keep notes to get all the ‘facts’ straight while at the same time knowing that any such attempt at a traditional reading is futile. You have to take the overview and roll with the narrative as it cuts into time lines, splices characters and dishes them up in a free-for-all millennium shuffle. Meet the Apocalyptologist, a.k.a the Occupant, who goes mad trying to chart the Apocalyptic Calendar. The year is just into 2000, but for the Occupant, the new millennium; i.e., the true Age of Apocalypse, began on May 7, 1968 when one of his parents shot a young girl in the bedroom of their Paris apartment at just the same time as the Sorbonne riots began. Put another way, this is the exact moment when irrational assassinations, killings, crime and general irrational behavior began to proliferate. As the Occupant’s Apocalyptic Calendar indicates - in no ordered sequence - there is running proof of the madness: “nuns in El Salvador (Year Thirteen or, by the old, now obsolete calendar, 27 December 1980), Hollywood Eurotrash in L.A. canyons (Year Two: 9 August 1969) . . . . airplane explosions off the coast of Long Island (Year Twenty-Nine: 17 July 1996) . . . . the hounding unto death of an English princess by tabloid photographers in a fatal car crash in Paris (Year Thirty: 31 August 1997), and the mass marriage of four thousand people performed by a cracked Korean minister who chose their spouses for them, on 16 July 1982 (Year Fifteen).”

Thus we are given throughout the novel thirty-plus years of "irrationality," and part of the fun - if fun is the right word - is matching names and specifics to the events, which isn’t hard to do and serves more to jog memory. These bizarre incidents take place mainly in countries of the developed world (fair enough, given that this is the Occupant’s personal chart) and exclude what may appear to be equally irrational acts, such as the assassination of Martin Luther King and the shooting of Reagan (and presumably pre-millennial events - working from the Occupant’s date - such as plagues, world wars, etc.) because these acts were “in the scheme of things.”

Our other protagonist is the precocious 17-year-old Kristen, who can’t dream and must fuck men to get theirs. Kristen was the 2000th female slated to walk voluntarily over a cliff at midnight, 1999, at the bidding of mysterious priests in white robes, but she escapes. She ends up a tough street kid who answers a personals ad by the emotionally wrecked, spiritually corrupt, middle-aged Occupant that begins: “I want you at the end of your rope, lashed to the mast of my dreams” and comes to hole up in his L.A. house in the hills, roaming around naked and catering to his occasional whims. As time lines cross time lines - events running nonsequentially between the 1960s and the near future; from Paris to L.A. to Tokyo to San Francisco - we learn of both the Occupant’s and Kristen’s pasts and of those with whom they crossed paths (often unknowingly): the Asian-American Angie, the Occupant’s long-time amour; the porno team of Louise and Mitch, responsible for unleashing snuff films on the world; the lovely young Marie, near victim of a snuff film; Maxxi Maraschino, punk diva and part-time stripper; and a host of others. Nothing but nothing is coincidence in this world gone mad: that’s the one absolute, which the Occupant tries vainly to chronicle by charting the chaos, and our omniscient narrator, reflecting the view of the Occupant, shapes into solid realization.

In this slightly futuristic setting, where "memory girls" are paid like whores of old to tell their young memories and listen to those of their male clients; where time-capsules with an individual’s memorabilia are buried like a dead body (and worth money on the black market); where people appear more depraved and unanchored than ever - here, everyone must chronicle his own millennium date and chart his own Apocalyptic Calendar. It’s a hip and happening novel - with that twinge of New Age millennial babblespeak, rather like Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 paid homage to the 60s; but like Pynchon, Erickson transcends the time and presents a highly readable (in case that point is not made clear) story. Pynchon, whose theory of social entropy would seem to be in full swing, and DeLillo, whose plot lines of coincidence are also evident, are the obvious mentors - as well as for the novel-as-game premise. But this haunting and visionary narrative is pure Erickson. Too bad about the crap, 50s title - my one and only complaint. J.A.

Toxicology and Slaughtermatic (stories) by Steve Aylett:  Four Walls Eight Windows   U.S.

Coming this September Aylett fans will have a reading fest with the release of Toxicology - nineteen stories and one poem, some collected from recently published anthologies, many of them new; and a new novel The Inflatable Volunteer. With the publication of Slaughtermatic (1998), nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award for best original paperback of the year, Aylett introduced readers to the slightly futuristic hick town of Beerlight, a burg as American as guns and senseless violence, which, not surprisingly, are both in abundance. (“Beerlight was a blown circuit, where to kill a man was less a murder than a mannerism.”) Sheriff Henry Blince and Benny the Trooper, insane caricatures of the doughnut-eating-racist-fat-slob-and-whinging-assistant brigade, attempt to capture Dante Cubit and the Entropy Kid, who with the help of Rosa Control and Download Jones, rob the local bank cyber-style and get caught up in the virtual reality of the caper. A keychip is needed to enter the vault, but without the correct combination the user is thrown twenty minutes into the future, conveniently handcuffed and on his way to jail. But, Download hacked a card swiper which Dante uses to alter the program and throw him twenty minutes into the past, before he’s even entered the bank. Problems arise when Dante now encounters Dante Two, and hells bells, seems Download got the virtual schematics to the bank building confused with that of another and Dante suddenly finds himself up against a wall that shouldn’t be there. Of course what Dante really wanted in the vault was Eddie Gamete’s last book . . . but he’ll tell ya all about it. Brute Parker, whose idea of "'passive aggressive' meant shooting someone from a lounger," is the hit man also on their tail. (Brute later appears as a psychiatric patient in Toxicology). It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad cyber-romp in a slick-dick, hip and psychedelic style reminiscent of Runyan, Chandler and ilk as well as Burroughs with the extra treat of a zany, laugh-out-loud funniness that recalls the original Saturday Night Live crew. Guess it takes a Brit to put a finger smack on the pulse of America, or rather dive right into the circulatory system, ‘cause Aylett’s got it down. Here’s his vision of future guns and gun control:

The old three-day cool-off period had enabled customers to plan ahead - it was a boon to those who knew themselves well enough to predict their next rage. Nowadays nobody ordered in advance. Shithead protocol had given way to bastard fatigue and stupid, arty guns. Drug guns, fax guns, fossil guns, wetware guns, anabolics, guns which fired calories, guns which charmed the birds out of trees, static-electricity guns you rubbed  on your sweater, microsoft guns which fired an hour after the trigger was pulled, glark guns which did something surprisingly different each time, deconstruction guns which turned everything to shit ...

Then there’s Dante’s favorite: the Zero Approach gun which works on the principle of  "etheric consent" and only fires when the target is asking for it - an ingenious weapon which increased the homicide rate by four hundred per cent. Chief Blince’s favorite: a Colt Demographic with a nine-inch barrel that can be set for age, color, and wage bracket; and the Entropy Kid’s choice: the Kafakacell cannon gun, which, once the trigger is pressurized, gives one an instant flash of his victim's eye-view and the barrel of his own firearm, supposedly designed to inhibit firing, but having the opposite effect and sending users on a kill frenzy, with the motive a repeatedly frustrated urge to self-destruction.

No use trying always to keep up with the plot (though there is one and it ties up nicely), the fun of Slaughtermatic is taking it line by line, page by page because its brilliance lies in wordmeister Aylett’s delightfully skewed vision which eschews the mundane, the familiar and predictable, and the literary norms (or is that a redundancy?) and pretensions; the accepted way of seeing and cruise-controlling through life, in short - and that demands a new use of language and the imagination to create it. It takes a major talent to pull that off - and Aylett is and does. 

Toxicology continues in the same wry, absurdly comic vein. The opening story “Gigantic” takes place on New Year’s Eve, 1999. Professor Skychum is a welcome guest on the chat show circuit for his fruitcake theories, good for a laugh though never quite understood, but having to do with extraterrestrials arriving on the eve of the millennium. Midnight tells all. In “Repeater,” grey-haired Dogger and the young kid Jell are obsessed with recording, messing with sound and mixing - uncovering little-known facts such as: “Nixon’s resignation speech reversed was an invocation to the Devil in exquisitely pronounced Lithuanian”; trouble ensues when they rig the sound for a rave, which brings in the cops. “If Armstrong Was Interesting” is a rundown on what would make the moon walker interesting: “If Armstrong was interesting he’d take the initiative on stepdown. He’d emerge from the moon capsule wearing Mickey Mouse ears. He’d confess a major felony. He’d land lightly and trill, ‘Not bad for a girl.’ He’d shout ‘Jeez Louise I could use a bacon sandwich’ or ‘Praise be to Satan’ or ‘More land to pillage and despoil’ or “This is nowhere’ or ‘Lock up your daughters’ or ‘Who farted?’ . . . “ In “Tusk” young mobster Easy Fortezza pulls heists in the mask of "an amiably layered face of an elephant” which one day he unaccountably refuses to remove, leaving the mob to ponder the predicament. In “The Siri Gun” we meet Detective Atom, presently in jail and telling his story, which jokingly (and in homage) begins as the plot summary of The Big Sleep before it slides into a surreal tale of Siri Moonmute, the master criminal. Detective Atom appears again in “Tail” where, in true private-dick fashion, he’s hired by a woman (“If she found a spider in the bath she’d probably flirt with it”) to trail her fiancé, but quickly veers off into the zany: Atom: “He got any bad habits you know about?” Woman: “He doesn’t kiss the humidor, if that’s what you mean.” In “Angel Dust” the cassette of a recording angel finds its way into a porn store; “Tug of War” reveals the system of “contradynamics,” codenamed “the Runaround,” with Slorc McCain as the manipulation connoisseur; “Sampler” follows the undercover investigator Eddie as mad professor Kramer test a series of new drugs on him, which Hunter S. would’ve died for in his heyday; and, jeez Louise, there’s tons more! Chief Blince and Benny the Trooper even make appearances, most notably in “Maryland” and “The Waffle Code” (available as a taster in this issue of the BR). There’re some literary snickers, too: “That some kind of Walkman?” “It’s a Vollmann. Put it on, close your eyes and you think you’re changing the world.” And some Steve Wrightisms: “I rolled a nicotine patch and lit it up.” It’s all great fun, one absurd and frothing mix of cyber-play, detectives, cops and hipper-than-thou criminal punks, as Aylett tips his cool shades to the pastmasters while zooming headlong into some futuristic parallel universe that looks, after all the laughs, disturbingly familiar. J.A. [Slaughtermatic is published in the U.K. by Orion.]


Nude in Tub
G.K. Wuori: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (U.S.) 1999

This debut collection of roughly interrelated stories set in Quillifarkeag, Maine - jokingly referred to as “a U.S. protectorate tucked like a bug between the buttocks of Quebec on one side and New Brunswick on the other” - is sure to please lovers of the quirky and the offbeat. They breed a strange lot of characters up around Quillifarkeag: Maliseet Indians, tough loggers (who’ve “retained the toughness of the ... trade though the trade itself is now more of a machine trade that man made....”), plenty of flat-out eccentrics, and several seemingly ordinary folks, who don’t always act so ordinary. Take John and Jan, a local couple who run a filling station: one day two thugs drop by and duct-tape John’s hand to the freezer door while he has to watch his wife being tied to their car door handle and dragged around the lot. He chews his hand free and . . .let’s just say the story’s title, “Revenge,” is appropriate; but, typical of Wuori characters, the couples’ reaction veers a bit far from the norm. In “Skunk” we meet the blind Indian Frank Terrible and Jenny Rain-and-Patch - two misfits who shack up together for better or for worse. In “Nose” we encounter the six-and-half-foot tall Quitno Bled, the town hero for his act of heroism at the local McDonald’s. And in “Crime” we see Belknap Bleu, the town clerk, who dips into the town funds and, when exposed, makes strange self-imposed amends; while in “Madness” we meet a kid from hell who nearly drives his teacher round the bend and whose dad doesn’t help matters when, at a teacher-conference, he merely offers: “So we screwed up the boy. So what? Unscrew him. That’s your job.”

“Condoms” focuses on Alice Pawchawk and Fence Dzfru, who take to sitting on La-Z-Boys on the highway’s center line and even making love there: “They wanted to live the only truth that a young married couple can know: Life is short. Be weird.” In “Family,” a story reminiscent of Barthelme’s “The School,” we see what happens when idealistic outsiders move in to get away from the city and go rustic; and in “Glory” the childless Elsie Feuilleloop finally “nurses” a growing leg tumor which sprouts, then blooms into a pine tree. “Nude,” the longest story, begins when the middle-aged Pearson witnesses an eerie car wreck that leaves him in a slightly unhinged state of mind and accounts for the unusual thoughts and actions of the day, which involve - yes - a nude in a tub.

If this sounds like your kind of thing, you’re in for a treat because Wuori’s off-centered (and often grim, often violent) view is well rendered in a deadpan prose that’ll keep you amused the way Barthelme amuses - or, to cite a more recent comparison, George Saunders’ CivilWarLand in Bad Decline; but, as is often typical in this absurdist tradition, Wuori can be a disturbing read for all the dark humor: as he says, “As Maine goes, so goes the Nation,” and with America’s own brand of senseless violence on the rise, that maxim hits home, especially in the strangely haunting “Parents” in which Steven King comes to town to visit an old factory where a mass murder took place. Wuori strains a bit here and there (odd for the sake of odd), but nothing is predictable and the overall vision rings eerily true. As Pearson says in his “attempt to hold both love and savagery in his mind at the same time”: “Fantasy was the only thing left. All else was madness.” Or, to quote another character, who blandly tries to impart some Quillifarkeag wisdom to a wacko neighbor, “Don’t forget ... with the change of one gene you’d be a chicken.” No one becomes hysterical in Quillifarkeag; that’s its real mark of distinction. Shit happens, you expect it to happen, and you deal with it. Haunting, at times sad, and riotously funny, this deftly written collection has more to say about the times than might at first appear. J.A.
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Gardens in the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko: Simon & Schuster 1999

Set in the the 1890s, this latest novel by Native American Leslie Marmon Silko tells the story of Indigo, a young Sand Lizard Indian girl (from the dunes of Arizona) and a young married white woman named Hattie. Marmon’s aim is to explore the extreme social and cultural differences that exist between these two worlds; and not surprisingly the Indian world is spiritually far superior to the hypocrisy, prejudice, and materialism of the white world, although there are several kindred spirits among the whites, such as Hattie. Beginning in Riverside, California, and moving from there to Oyster Bay, Long Island, on across the ocean to England, Italy, Corsica and back to California, there is much to admire in the novel despite the fact that it is overlong and overwritten and lacks any subtlety in theme.

It begins with eleven-year-old Indigo and her older sibling, Sister Salt, and Grandma Fleet, who are among the last of the Sand Lizard Indians, "one of those renegade bands of desert Indians." Only the three of them now live among the sandy dune "gardens" in Arizona, surviving on "sand food," with no possessions to speak of, but they live in peace and harmony with the physical and spiritual world. When Grandma Fleet dies, the two girls bury her and keep on going with hardly any problems. They seek to find their mother, who disappeared after she’d been arrested once by the Indian police - those who work for the white man’s set-up of reservations for the Indians - and find her in Needles, California, where she is a part of a group of Indians and renegade Mormons who are following the "Messiah," a mysterious figure who appears to be a spirit of both Indian and Christian religions, but obviously not the Christian messiah because this divinity moves all around the world and only appears to believers after four days of dancing. For this reason the dancing ritual draws disapproval from the Christian community and the group is always on the move. During the break-up of one such ritual the mother and girls become separated again. Later, the girls are rounded up by the Indian police and Indigo is packed off to an Indian school while Sister Salt is sent to a work center. Both places are like prisons and the girls long to escape and be reunited.

Indigo finally escapes her school and is discovered hiding in the garden of the wealthy white couple Edward and Hattie. Hattie takes pity on the child and agrees to keep her over the summer until school resumes. We are then given detailed backgrounds of both Hattie and Edward, which take up too much of the narrative to too little purpose. We learn, in brief, that Hattie was a bright girl whose father encouraged her education. She was one of the first women to attend Harvard Divinity School, where she studied Gnostic Christianity with special attention to "the equal status accorded the feminine principle in the Gnostic Christian tradition." In her proposed thesis she stated that Jesus himself made Mary Magdalene and other women apostles in the early church. This is rejected as a "a peripheral detail" in the old Coptic scrolls, whose authenticity is doubted in any case, and she has a minor nervous breakdown over the rejection, abetted by the near rape of a fellow student who mistook her feminism for the "free love" espoused by Margaret Sanger.

Hattie returns home to her wealthy parents and there she meets the older Edward whom she marries. Edward travels the world collecting plants, particularly orchids. He leaves Hattie for an expedition shortly after they marry and settle in California. Before the marriage he had quite an adventurous (and failed) expedition along the Amazon, which takes up many pages of the narrative. This expedition left him with a bad leg which is the excuse for the marriage never being consummated, a circumstance that doesn’t seem to bother either Edward or Hattie.

When Edward returns from his latest trip and finds the young Indigo with Hattie, he is not very enthusiastic, but agrees to let her stay on for the summer, insisting, however, that they all travel with him to Corsica for another expedition. Reluctantly Hattie agrees and the long journey begins.

Interspersed with Indigo’s story, we are given Sister Salt’s tale: she ends up working with the black cook Big Candy on a construction site where her entrepreneurial skills lead her to set up a river-bed laundry for the construction workers and later to make money with a couple of other Indian girls by providing sex for the workers as well. Like Indigo, Sister Salt constantly dreams of a reunion with her sister.

Hattie follows through on her promise to help Indigo find Sister Salt and when the two finally reunite, Indigo immediately reverts to her old ways while Hattie must seek an identity of her own, and is frankly quite at a loss.

There are some nice passages and descriptions along the way, but the many digressions require patience and often fail to add much to the development of the narrative. The big set-up with Hattie’s interest in the feminine principle in the Gnostic tradition, for example, doesn’t particularly go anywhere. It simply comes down to her having a spiritual and rather mystical experience one night in her English aunt’s Celtic stone garden, where she has wandered in her sleep and sees a "luminous presence" which brings her peace. This presence comes to her again in Italy among the ancient stone sculptures of fertility. In other words, it comes to her around anything pagan, or "natural," as opposed to "civilized," which explains her attraction to Indigo and the Indians. Around the Christian, white man’s world - that patriarchal puritanical society of her heritage - she has terrible headaches and feelings of anxiety and nausea. This theme is drilled home heavily and can unfortunately leave the reader in danger of similar symptoms.

The novel’s strong point is the characters themselves: Indigo is delightful as the "wild child" who communes with animals and the earth; ditto for  the earthy and lusty Sister Salt; and Hattie, child of white patriarchal society, is potentially the most interesting character of all, although she fails to fulfil her earlier promise as a ground-breaking feminist scholar and ends up a mere caricature of female liberation. Candy is a character who shows growth, but the long and meandering section covering his plight is yet another digression in a novel overburdened with digressions. There are some superb descriptions, such as the huge Italian garden of all black gladiolus, but mainly the descriptions are overwritten, the narrative overlong, and the theme too heavy-handed. Still, Marmon’s deft and often lyrical prose brings the characters and their surroundings alive and provides some truly memorable passages. The turn-of-the-century period and detail are well researched and of considerable interest in their own right. For patient readers for whom subtlety is not a prerequisite. J.A.
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The Sacred Willow by Duong Van Mai Elliott: Oxford New York 1999


An extraordinary family and historical chronicle that tells the story of Vietnamese author (Duong Van) Mai Elliot’s family, covering four generations, from the 19th century to the present. Through the family history we also learn the history of Vietnam, but thanks to Mai Elliot’s superb writing skills, this is no dry account. It is about people - her family and countrymen - and her skill allows the reader to enter this strange and different world, making it fresh and alive and altogether fascinating. Beginning with the family’s rise to distinction six generations ago, it quickly moves on to the more detailed starting point in the 19th century, when her great-grandfather, Duong Lam, a resourceful mandarin, first fought the French invaders and then worked for them as a puppet in the imperial court. (Honored by the French with a medal of knighthood, he hung the medal in his pigsty and refused to ever learn French.) Mai’s father, Duong Thieu Chi, followed a similar path. After WW 11 he became the governor of the Haipnong area under the French and Emperor Bao Dai. He opposed French rule, but because of his strictly traditional Vietnamese ancestry - of scholars and mandarins - he was naturally at odds with the Communist movement, so he was neither a supporter of the fast-growing Viet Minh.

Interestingly (or rather typically, it would appear) this upper-middle class family was divided: some of the children, particularly daughter Thang, became ardent Viet Minh supporters, living in the communal compounds hidden in the hills and totally dedicated to the cause and Ho Chi Minh. Others did not. As the civil war between the French and Vietnamese heated up and the Communists began gaining ground in the north, most of the family moved, of necessity, to the south to Saigon. Here Mai came of age and like most young people in Saigon in the 1960s she adored things American - the music, the hairstyles, etc. Her loyalties at this time were to the south and its puppet regime, weak and ineffectual as everyone knew, propped up only by American dollars, but creating a false sense of stability and economic security. As America became more and more involved and finally all-out war was declared against the north, bringing in thousands of American troops, Saigon’s economy boomed even more.

In the early 60s, just before America’s total involvement, Mai got a scholarship to attend Georgetown University in Washington D.C., a dream come true. Here she perfected her English and met her husband-to-be, David Elliot. She speaks of the difficulties of being an outsider in Western culture and the still-existing taboo against mixed marriages of any sort. David enlisted in the army (knowing he was soon to be drafted) and the two met up again in Saigon, where Mai had returned after her studies in the States. There they married.

Both Mai and David were supporters of America’s involvement in Vietnam during this period although at the same time she had tremendous respect for her sister Thang’s dedication to the Viet Minh. Perhaps the most striking element in this entire family saga is Mai’s clear-eyed objectivity in recounting the conflicting elements and loyalties in her country. She beautifully - and often painfully, as it reads - presents both sides of the conflict, from the beginning days of French domination on to the more contemporary American involvement. She writes with love and passion for all the Vietnamese while refusing to turn a blind eye to atrocities which occurred on both sides.

When Mai received the job of interviewing Viet Minh prisoners for America’s Rand Corporation, she began to see the other side more clearly, and the Viet Minh - whom she’d suspected of being opportunistic peasants for the most part (albeit understandably) - she discovered were quite often intelligent and articulate and thoroughly dedicated to their cause, inspiring admiration in her.

Coming from the middle-class as her family had, the whole extended family had suffered great losses at the hands of the Viet Minh: their land was taken away and given to the peasants; an uncle and his wife were held up for ridicule by the local peasants after their land was confiscated, even though this uncle had been a Viet Minh supporter (his wife was tied to a stake and denied food until he came up with money to free her). Mai’s immediate family lost everything and her father, who had entertained the Emperor, was reduced to nothing in Saigon.

As the war escalated, Mai writes of the terrible chaos and destruction. After America pulled out altogether, no one in Saigon thought that America would desert them if trouble again arose. Of course it did arise, America troops did not magically materialize, and Saigon fell to the Communists - events which Mai captures in detail; i.e, with much personal detail about her family members. She herself was back living in the States with her husband, but her family desperately needed to get out and it is chilling to read the way they managed miraculously to do so - some of them anyway. A cousin was one of those who hung on to the rungs of a helicopter as it lifted off the roof of the American Embassy. Two others clung to him. Mercifully, they survived the fall when they could no longer hold on. Others had to escape by boat. The book ends as Mai recounts the family’s whereabouts - Paris, America, Australia, some still in Vietnam, where she returned for a visit in the early 90s.

On one level this is a solid history of Vietnam from the late 18th century on, which is of real interest in itself, but the history is always told with the focus on the Duong family, so it is a moving and personal account of human beings (whom the reader gets to know) in times of utter turmoil and later full-blown war and the aftermath of that period of history. It is filled with memorable details: little Mai’s peeking at Emperor Bao Dai from atop the family’s stairs; Mai’s one severely mentally ill sister wandering the streets with Mai running to retrieve her; another young sister’s stoic death from a painful disease; the camaraderie of sister Thang’s communal compound in the Communist camp; Mai’s Jackie Kennedy hair-do and love of Elvis; Mai’s mother’s pain at her husband’s long-time (and culturally accepted) affair with a singer. It is a memorable account from beginning to end, long as it is, and it kept me turning the pages all night. I confess to a personal interest in Vietnam, but that aside, I believe this is an important book - the only objective (and heartfelt) account of Vietnam’s history from the French occupation until today as told from the perspective of a native Vietnamese. Mai’s intellectual and emotional coming-of-age and the pain that arises from having to disobey her parents by breaking tradition (to marry an American, for example) are recounted poignantly. She brings the whole culture alive and pulls the reader into an altogether different world, allowing one to see and experience it from the inside. It might well have a slightly stronger appeal to Americans whose country was so involved in Vietnam, but the book is a classic in its own right and has much to say on a universal level. Truly fascinating. J.A.

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Lie in the Dark by Dan Fesperman: No Exit (U.K.) 1999

In the genre of crime novels the investigator/private eye/detective all have some impediment or problem that either holds them back or conflicts with something: age, colour of skin, sexual preference, dependence on the bottle and/or marital or family problems - you name it and there’s a dick out there who’s got it. But their problems pale into insignificance against the plight of Investigator Valdo Petric who is asked to look into a murder in Sarajevo in the middle of that city’s recent siege. His wife and baby fled two years before to safety in Germany, the kid growing up not knowing her father. Petric can only contact them at a certain time once a month. His flat is full of shell-holes and the freezing winter is at its height. Food is hard to come by and his car is destroyed so he must suffer the sniper-ridden streets along with the rest. As a homicide detective, a job Petric now views as akin to “that of a plumber fixing leaky toilets in the middle of a flood”, business plods on as usual until the chief of the Interior Ministry’s special police is found shot - and not by a sniper, as it was meant to look. By chance, Petric is the one who finds the body and he knows how to read the gunshot, one made at close range. This then is the set-up for a plot filled with intrigue, which reveals greed, bribery and foul dealings in all sectors from the Interior Ministry itself to the new Mafia to the U.N. and on to Petric’s own Sarajevo police force. Even the murder victim, who was thought to be one of the last men of principle, now appears to have been in on the action - or was he set up to look guilty? The United Nations, trying to keep an eye on the war and therefore looking for signs of political misdoings on either side, decides that the regular police should look into the death rather than the internal Interior Ministry themselves. Petric is given the case and whether or not the murder is solved, it looks as though he’ll end up a dead man simply for being involved in an operation clearly over his head.

That is the fictional character’s problem. Author Fesperman has the difficult task of trying to incorporate two different genres - crime novel and war novel - while explaining one of Europe’s most volatile powder kegs. I’d easily give him 10 out of 10 for the latter: nicely short and directly-to-the point facts and historical allusions sum up the overall situation while the fictional elements neatly explain the misery of the Balkans without too much finger-pointing, though the Serbs are the obvious aggressors. The crime novel also works well: the reader is usually slightly ahead but still ignorant of how or if Petric will escape the death sentence he is walking into. The war novel gets an 11 out of 10 for the simple reason that it is rare to find a novel set in wartime where a civilian carries out his normal duties while the enemy is, at times, only hundreds of feet away. What comes across is the resilience and adaptability of ordinary, boring old humans. Not those who are paid and trained to fight, kill and die, but the average guy who just wants to survive, have a Christmas, go for a walk with the dog (rather than eat it) and so on. For me, reading about the horrendous winter cold as the heat of Spanish spring began and yet another war in “the area” raged, I found it quite moving.

Fesperman convincingly portrays the day-to-day life in Sarajevo: the diet is meagre: mostly cabbage, rice and beans, if that. Water, especially hot water, is not always available. Nor is there much heat, if any. Phone lines are down as often as not; electricity as well. Coffee and tobacco are luxury items and in fact serve as currency. Prostitutes in front of the U.N. can be bought for cigarettes and unlikely women have turned to the profession, one of whom Petric comes to know. She is newly arrived from the country and she and Petric have an energetic discussion about the country “peasants,” whom Petric blames for inflaming ethnic zeal, and the urban Sarajevans whom she accuses of wanting to “keep the city the way it was” - meaning free of the dislocated country peasants whose villages were the first to be destroyed. The country’s history is thus discussed and debated and some perspective is given to the ethnic rivalries and hatred that have torn the country apart - which, as all agree, only Tito’s reign held tentatively in check.

The picture painted of modern-day Sarajevo is dire indeed. It shows how the war-torn climate opens the door to corruption of all sorts as everyone wishes to take advantage of the conflict (hello Milo Minderbinder!). As grim as the picture is, the novel itself is not so much depressing as insightful, and there is a good deal of suspense as well. The detective chase, in fact, serves to lighten the real-life horrors somewhat. As Petric slowly penetrates the mystery of the homicide, doing his footwork amidst snipers and bombs, one wonders why he bothers. But, as he says, he’d rather pursue his profession than be a soldier. Petric, whose mother is Catholic (which means he is classified as a Croat despite the fact his father was Muslim), is a typical native of Sarajevo where ethnic heritages are often mixed. Though there are clearly good guys and bad guys - often the “bad” being brought out by the war - the conflict itself is a deeply complex one and Petric takes no strong side.

Fesperman’s writing is clear, straightforward and always engaging. The characters and the city are vivid and memorable and one feels one learns something of the country and its bleak future as well as getting a feel for life there. I presume that with the more recent disasters in the area many people are fed up with the Balkans. I can sympathise but, in an attempt to sway readers to take in just a little more, will endorse Ian Rankin’s comment on the book: “This is a humane and moving book, a great crime novel. A great novel, period”. Compared to the latest John Le Carré, for example (Single Versus Single), I found this novel far more convincing and intelligent. Crime novel, war novel, modern historical novel - it’s a winner on every count. M.G.S.

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CrowHeart by John Gist:   Montfort Press U.S. 1999

Very dark and moody, Gist’s heavily detailed and atmospheric debut novel does manage to hold the reader’s interest, but as often as not it’s for the wrong reasons. The problem begins with the cover blurb, oddly enough, which tells us the climax "[will leave] the reader with a greater understanding of what it means to be human as the 21st century dawns”. A big claim which failed with me unless to be a human means to be some kind of humourless super-slacker. But apart from the obvious hype, the cover does something that I’ve never seen before: the blurb goes on about “swarms of pioneers” on their way over the Oregon/Mormon/California trail with some of them - called “crazies” by the other travellers - stopping off to make their homes in Wyoming in an area known today as “The Big Empty.” Crowheart, we are told, is the “haunted” story of the descendants of one of the “crazy” groups who left the main trail, yet there is no reference to this whatsoever in the novel. If the modern-day Daniels clan is supposed to have descended from these pioneer splinter groups, then one needs the book jacket to complete the text - i.e., the novel begins on the cover - and it is irrelevant in any case since there is nothing special about the Daniels, who come across as a Wyoming version of the Dallas or Dynasty clans. The bizarre cover goes on to state that “Although the novel is set in Wyoming, the thoughts and feelings of these memorable characters could have been experienced by an Aboriginal tribe in Australia or a group of Native Americans struggling to interpret the gravity of the first European fur traders.” All of which is to say that there are “crazies” everywhere, I suppose, but what it has to do with anyone’s first relations with European fur traders beats me. In has, in short, some of the strangest paratextual reading you’ll ever encounter.

The actual novel starts in the past with a Grandpa Tom telling his grandchildren and other relatives about his brother burning himself to death. One of the listeners, Gabriel Daniels, later receives an odd-looking amulet that is described as the Crowheart. The novel then switches gear and a decade or so later we meet one of the major protagonists, Gabriel’s brother Isaac (Ike), who, on his way back from college to the Crowheart ranch to meet his dad’s young wife-to-be, stops to inspect a dead horse at the side of the road and removes one of its eyes. He later makes an amulet out of the eye and both amulets (or was it just the one?) get passed around here and there, supposedly signifying some thematic relevance akin to that ring in Velvet Goldmine. The head of the Daniels clan, Jedidiah, is meant to be a self-centered bastard - the cause of everyone’s woes - yet there’s more telling than showing (a fault with the entire novel) and he never comes to life. Ditto for Ike, who is a hard-drinking and oddly moody sort, presently trying to complete a thesis at the University of Wyoming, but unable to get on with it because of the weight of some mysterious past events which keep him hard at the bottle.

To round off the cast, there is Rebecca, the young Indian bride-to-be; the coke-snorting Cassandra, in love with Ike but getting married to his brother Gabriel while giving Rebecca the eye (and later on a whole lot more). Then there is Clytie, Ike’s dead mother who possibly had sex with her son. Ike’s hazy about that, as one is, but it could mean that the youngest brother of the clan, high school-age Thomas, is actually . . . well, screw it, best have another drink. Michael is the oldest brother, married to Sarah, who appears only to cook huge breakfasts of elk steak, bacon, eggs, and biscuits and gravy every morning for whoever is at the ranch. No one seems to work except young Thomas who does manage to feed the animals. Most of the work is done by hired hands, one of whom has his own dark secret.

A salient point: Every smell, mostly good ol’ farming smells, but also human smells (farts abound, as they would with those breakfasts), crop up everywhere and, though over-emphasised, are certainly memorable. Small insignificant things such as grass seeds on a pair of boots are noted, as are bugs, stains, plants, sweat from horse and man; also, almost every morsel of food as it hangs in spittle from an eater’s mouth or falls on to clothing (there is a lot of food eaten and not eaten) gets full mention, reminding me of a scene in Sergio Leone’s Giu la testa.

Interspersed in the text is a brief exchange of letters between Ike and old friend Paul. These letters cover things such as the recounting of a murder and the murderer's suicide (the victims having been mutual friends) and a reworking of the Jesus story, but also contain the fact that Ike is/was in love with Paul’s current, Eva. Some very sophomoric philosophising bogs down the soap at this point and the murder/suicide is never again referred to, so how it relates to anything remains a mystery. Maybe something to do with early fur trading?

The impending wedding between old Jedidiah and the young Rebecca opens up a few old sores and reveals some family secrets, such as an unknown sibling coming to light. The wedding keeps the plot plodding along and for some unknown reason this triggers a sort of lethargy in the menfolk of Crowheart and the women have to rally round and sort it out. Yes, it is remarkably soap-operaish, a sort of Dallas-in-Hell with many (deliberately?) predictable outcomes, but with just as many left hanging in the air - maybe to be continued. The undertow of lesbianism and incest creates an eerie eroticism that could have been better developed, but popular Gothic romance doles it out far more satisfyingly, and for a more realistic and literary take on modern-day ranch life - love, sex, sweat and all - Thomas McGuane (Montana) still holds reign. Gist does manage to create a dark mood which so pervades the novel that even when the sun is out there is no sense of warmth or cheer. I didn’t feel any empathy with the characters, but I sort of enjoyed watching them muddle through in the background as I concentrated on whatever the latest smell or stain was. And for some comic relief, a lack of proofreading offers up some amusing misspellings (and numerous typos): “Gabriel breathes lude remarks in her ear while pinching the nipples on the hanging breasts” and “He feels as if he is experiencing the de-ja-vous of a stranger.” M.G.S.

© 1999 The Barcelona Review
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