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issue 32: Sept - Oct 2002

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You Are Not a Stranger Here (stories) by Adam Haslett: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2002

This powerful debut collection of nine stories by Yale law student Haslett is loosely bound by common themes of mental illness, the pain of loss and how one copes with loss. It may sound depressing, but is in fact quite the contrary. There are no upbeat endings, but each story works its way to a catharsis of sorts - sometimes in a quiet and subtle way and sometimes more dramatically - that leaves one feeling acceptance of the situation, whether it be a man’s imminent death or a young boy’s profound grief. The plots are fresh and original, taking off in unexpected, but wholly believable, directions; the prose clear and crisp; and the dialogue strong and convincing. Some of the stories are set in the U.S. and some in England (where the author has lived), providing a rich and varied background.

In the opening story, "Notes to My Biographer," an elderly man is making notes to his supposed biographer. As he is doing so, he travels around trying to visit his family, but they all avoid him except his gay son. We soon learn that the old man is manic and full of delusions. Just why and how his son deals with his father’s outrageous behavior forms the basis of this moving and unique piece.

In "The Good Doctor" a young psychiatrist, working at an outpost, finds he must pay a home visit to a woman who keeps calling in for medication but won’t come to the clinic; it is an encounter that proves enlightening to the doctor; while in "The Beginnings of Grief," one of the best stories in the collection, we follow a young high school boy who has lost both of his parents in the space of a year. He now lives with two elderly neighbors and begins skipping school and exhibiting strange behavior, which he pushes to a danger point.

"Devotion" is the tender story of a middle-aged brother and sister who live together in their deceased parents’ home in England. Fifteen years ago a U.S. reporter on assignment in England had entered the lives of the siblings and won both their hearts. Out of the blue he phones to say he’s passing through and would like to drop by, thus awakening hidden fears and emotions in the two.

"The Storyteller" traces the final days of a severely depressed man who wishes to be done with life. A chance encounter with an old woman brings him in contact with her bedfast grandson who is dying of a horrendous skin disease. While the depressed man tells stories to the young boy, the two develop a silent and gentle understanding; they recognize that neither of them will be alive for long, but that is OK. For now the important thing is that they find some wee comfort in each other based on this mutual recognition. "Reunion" follows the life of another man who hasn’t long to live, this time due to AIDS, but his way of coping is to cruise the commons in the evenings in search of casual sex and writing confessional notes to his father.

"Divination" tells of a young boy with a budding gift of prophecy who senses the exact time of death of his old Latin teacher. His parents refuse to believe that he had divined it, although his older brother later tells him that their father had once had a similar experience. A second divination, which the boy hopes desperately to prevent, puts everyone to the test.

"My Father’s Business" traces the transcripts of a young, mentally ill boy from a time when he went about maniacally interviewing people on how they became interested in philosophy; while the long, final piece, "The Volunteer," presents the parallel stories of a heartsick teenaged boy, who has volunteered to help at a residential home for the mentally disturbed, and an elderly woman who voluntarily resides at the home. She’d once heard voices from a woman named Hester - a puritanically stern woman who echoes Hawthorne’s creation - and has now made a decision to go off her medication and get back in touch. When she does, the first thing she notices is that "colors are brighter." This would seem to be a good thing, but is it? The young boy in the story finds his life entangled with that of the old woman.

Each and every one of these stories is a gem. I felt mesmerized from page one and could not put the book down. Despite their losses, these characters generally maintain a quiet dignity. There is no sentimentalism, no self-pity, no cynicism, and no railing against the bad luck that has befallen them. Haslett goes beyond those superficial emotions and takes us to a deeper place. Although the future may be one of hopelessness, the present can, at times, inspire awe. J.A. (See "The Beginnings of Grief" in this issue of TBR.)

After the Quake (stories) by Haruki Murakami: translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin: Alfred A. Knoph, 2002

I have long been a fan of Murakami’s novels. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997), in which the protagonist spends a good part of the time sitting at the bottom of a well, stands as an all-time favorite. As one reviewer put it, your appreciation of Murakami’s work depends on how long you can handle being in that dark well. I loved the well and was quite comfortable, but others might not be. There is always a slight element of the surreal in Murakami’s work, but it is believable, and these six short stories, written after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, prove no exception. Feelings of dislocation and alienation have always been central to Murakami’s fiction, so he is working familiar ground here as he deftly explores the disturbed mental states of ordinary citizens, none of whom was in Kobe at the time, but all of whom were strongly affected in one way or another.

In the opening story, "UFO in Kushiro," a businessman’s wife becomes obsessed with watching the quake’s devastation on television, even though she knew no one there. Then suddenly she leaves her husband to begin a new life. The man’s boss asks him to deliver a mysterious package to his sister in Kushiro. He makes the trip and encounters two surprising females at the other end. In "Landscape with Flatiron" a teenaged couple befriend an older man who builds bonfires on the beach. One night the young girl forms a peculiar bond with the old man as the two sit together on the beach.

"All God’s Children Can Dance" follows twenty-five-year-old Yoshiya as he tries to track down the father he never knew. His beautiful and religiously fervent mother claims Yoshiya is the "son of God," but he suspects a local doctor. He tries to follow the doctor one day and ends up walking into an inner-city baseball field where he suddenly experiences a profound connection with the earth beneath his feet. Another profound moment occurs in "Thailand," the story of a female doctor’s holiday trip to a luxury Thai resort. Her chauffeur provides everything for her, including a trip to visit an old psychic whose message will subtly shift the focus of the doctor’s life.

"Super-Frog Saves Tokyo" veers into the hallucinatory with the appearance of a man-size, upright frog who mysteriously appears in a man’s apartment one evening after work. Super-Frog says that together they must fight "Worm" - who lives in the earth beneath Tokyo - in order to prevent his unleashing a devastating earthquake. It may sound silly, but the deadpan mix of fantasy and reality perfectly captures the mood of displacement and the story’s denouement lifts it to another level. The final story, "Honey Pie," is about a short-story writer, the self-deprecating Junpei, who tries to weave a story together for the daughter of the woman he loves, drawing from his own life to shape it. As Junpei says: "I want to write stories that are different from the ones I’ve written so far . . . I want to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so they can hold the ones they love. But right now I have to stay here and keep watch over this woman and this girl."

These stories were all written before 9/11, but Americans can now understand the trauma and sense of unreality that grips a nation after momentous tragedy (on the heels of Kobe came the subway gassing in Tokyo). Emotional scars run deep and feelings of loss and emptiness penetrate the psyche. These stories show how average citizens, removed from the centers of tragedy, are nonetheless deeply and eerily affected. J.A.

Ride The Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes: Canongate, 2002

No, this is not, as the title might suggest, another book of gay erotica, but rather a chance, thanks to Canongate, to rediscover a classic crime novel from 1946. I am not using the term ‘classic’ lightly either; this is a superb book that is still fresh and vibrant nearly sixty years on.

I’m not too sure just how much an over-familiarity and love of the old black and white film noir cinema affected my reading, but those old images seemed to complement the writing. Hughes sets up an atmosphere that oozes small town, fiesta, heat, rain, filth, dirtiness and boredom; the films just help fill in the imagery that Hughes, back in 1946, didn’t need to elaborate on. For example, when she mentions a man wearing a ‘suit and hat’ - a combination that hardly exists these days - we automatically picture Bogart et al, thereby completing the picture.

Reading the ‘real McCoy’, as it were, rather than a modern writer turning out a ‘period piece’, throws up some fascinating glimpses of bygone America: ‘pop’ rather than ‘soda’ or ‘coke’; words like ‘gimcracks’; and totally un-PC usages like ‘spic’, as in ‘They were talking spic,’ and ‘niggerpink’ to describe a dress colour. Yikes.

Then there is the rhythmic style. In one particular paragraph there are two sentences, one of seven words split by a semicolon and a second of 38 words broken by four commas, which include the words ‘leaning’, ‘windows’, and ‘tired’, the last appearing three times. This is followed by: "Tired, just tired. In the feet and the eyes and the guts, leaning like warm wax against the windows and the walls." The prolonged cadence wouldn’t look out of place in a current James Ellroy novel. It is something a writing class might frown on now but in its natural habitat the repetition and alliteration are magical.

There are one or two baffling sentences that might have meant something back then but left me in the dark; and a few awkward spots that would have been helped by editing, such as: "McIntyre was watching the Sen, feeding scrambled eggs mechanically into his mouth while he watched the Sen." I don’t know if Canongate has kept faithfully to the original by not cleaning it up or had their hands tied and legally couldn’t touch it or simply missed it. All a minor quibble in any case.

A fairly straightforward plot is the backdrop for a tale of bonding, friendship and eyes being opened. Sailor, the main protagonist, comes into a small town from Chicago on the heels of his ex-boss ‘the Sen’, a senator with a very dubious past. Sailor, who knows the truth behind the death of the Sen’s wife, intends to make the old man pay for him to keep silent. The town, a mix of Spanish/Native American, is gearing up for a fiesta and there are no hotel rooms. While wandering around, Sailor befriends a Spanish merry-go-round owner whom he nicknames Pancho. Also in town, but with a room, is McIntyre, an honest homicide detective who believes Senator Douglass killed his wife and is trying to put the pieces together. McIntyre and Sailor have known each other since childhood and are as friendly to each other as could be expected seeing that their career paths have gone in opposite directions. Sailor is willing to tell McIntyre the truth but only after he has got five thousand dollars out of the Sen. Of course, it being the weekend and ATMs decades away, this gives the Sen an excuse to hold off paying the blackmail and enough time to hire someone to kill Sailor. Sailor also befriends Pila, a fourteen-year-old Indian girl. He buys her a pop and a ride on the merry-go-round – she rides the pink horse. Sailor, basically a thug with a heart, decides that once he gets his money off the Sen he will make sure Pancho and Pila, who wants a permanent wave more than anything, get some money too. The die is cast.

An obvious theme of course is the merry-go-round that prompts the title. Sailor’s life, as well as Pancho’s and Pila’s, is one big merry-go-round that he can’t get off; while the senator leads him on a merry-go-round over the money. Luckily this is subtly presented, as too is Sailor’s slow change of perspective of the townspeople and a certain woman whom he thinks walks on water, which makes the ending even more poignant. A must for lovers of classic crime noir. M.G.S.

© 2002The Barcelona Review
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 tbr 32           september - october  2002

Short Fiction Adam Haslett: The Beginnings of Grief
Kate Atkinson: Inner Balance
Todd Sandvik: The Note

novel extract
Stuart David: Nalda Said
pick from back issues
Frederick Barthelme: Driver
Carole Maso: Rupture, Verge, and Precipice...
Interview Stuart David
Quiz Raymond Carver
Barcelona: The Answers
Book Reviews Adam Haslett, Haruki Murakami,
Dorothy B. Hughes

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