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Book Reviews

The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews


Donnybrook by Frank Bill
Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain
For Faughie’s Sake by Laura Marney
Love and Fallout by Kathryn Simmonds

The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews


by Frank Bill
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013

If you have read Frank Bill’s debut short-story collection, Crimes in Southern Indiana, you know what you’re in for here:  a world of raunchy fun with a cast of down and dirty characters who cook crystal meth, carry big guns and aren’t afraid to use them.

Brother and sister duo, Liz and Angus, who cook meth for a living, are nasty-ass siblings who even hate each other.  The rasta-haired Liz, with her knock-out figure (“she knew how to fill a concert T-shirt”), turns heads wherever she goes and likes to fuck, preferably for a bump of crack, though if she doesn’t like a guy, she has no qualms about popping a bullet in his brain pan while straddling his ass.  Angus, who, after an accident, had surgery that “jumbled one side of his face into flesh puzzle pieces that no longer fit,” takes out anybody who crosses his path. Fortunately for these two, the area is swarming with buyers:

 [Liz and Angus] met the second shift going, the third shift coming on, at the local auto-parts factory.  It’d be shutting its doors in six months because of a dying economy—men and women who skipped groceries, car payments, and rent.  Passed eight-hour shifts jonesing for an escape, their next dopamine rush . . . . The pinch-faced blisters with cooking-grease scalps, eyes punched into skulls like recessed lights, approached Angus’s goose-shit green Pinto. Passed their wrinkled wages through the rolled-down window of his car. Angus sat like a shadow while Liz took the cash, obliged the workers with a gram of marrow-clinched godliness, wiring up each buyer with the feeling of macho-supremacy.
Nothing like a depressed economy to boost sales. But not everyone is using.  Take Jarhead. The novel opens with him robbing a gun store in his hometown in Kentucky, taking one thousand dollars in cash, no more.  He needs just that amount to buy his way into the Donnybrook, the annual bare-knuckle fight on a thousand-acre plot in the boondocks of southern Indiana.  It’s a three-day fight-fest that only ends when one man is left standing. And the purse is big.  Jarhead is a natural fighter and he wants to win for the sake of his wife and kids.
     And then there is Purcell, who has premonitions of the future.  “Things come to me I can’t explain,” he tells Jarhead.  “Names. Faces. They actions.  I see them. Have to put them in place.  Sometimes it’s too late.  Other times it ain’t.  All I know is you need to get to Orange County.  I need to get you there.  So’s you can fight in the Donnybrook.  It’s your calling.  Our calling.”
    Of course, others are headed to the Donnybrook, too.  With hardly such noble intentions.  For one thing, there is a load of money to be made selling dope to the rough and rowdy crowd of onlookers. On the way we meet an array of bizarrely colorful characters, and once we arrive at the Donnybrook, run by the merciless McGill and his badass daughter, it’s like entering a particularly low rung of hell fueled by meth, greed, and foul intent of every sort.  Will Jarhead prevail?
     Bill’s pulp-style, back country grit lit is all his own.  I couldn’t get enough.  J.A.

The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews


bookcoverNecessary Errors
by Caleb Crain
Penguin Books, 2013

What happens when you come to the party late? So late that the music has stopped, all the fun people have left and only the lights left on? This is the landscape of Caleb Crain’s debut novel Necessary Errors.  The year is 1990. Czechoslovakia is in the wake of the Velvet Revolution following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Jacob, our twenty-something American protagonist, arrives just when the student radicals are back in their classes and the 500,000 non-violent protesters are off the streets.

Set in a Prague that is attempting to rid itself of its repressive communist past and find a new liberal, democratic future, Jacob has ambitions to write yet scarcely puts pen to paper. We follow Jacob around as he spends his evenings and weekends with a group of ex-pats. We follow him around Prague’s gay scene as he tries to shed the memory of a previous American lover. Jacob’s homosexuality is important to the book.  His difficulty in adapting to the repressive norms of sexual behaviour and conduct, still lingering from the previous era, symbolizes the city’s difficulty in transition to liberalism. Doormen turn him away and potential lovers find his direct behaviour uncomfortable; something starkly in contrast to Berlin where he decides to flee for two days and has no trouble getting picked up on his first night. 

Crain’s protagonist is trying to find a new identity of his own, just like Prague. The past is present in both the city and in Jacob; both are moving forward, both are leaving histories they don’t want to continue.  It’s the author’s skill in barely mentioning the connection yet bringing them into existence.  

Crain has said in an interview that this isn’t the first novel he has written but it is the first to make it to the printers.  Necessary Errors reminds me in many ways of another first published novel: The Victim by Saul Bellow.  Bellow went on to write to such high acclaim with boundless free spirit that many were confused by that first novel.  The Victim tracks another young man around Chicago as an over familiar stranger won’t leave him alone.  Bellow would later remark, before employing comedy so forcefully in his novels, that the history of western literature was fixated on portraying its protagonist as the victim: a character lost in his world, with the novel functioning an exercise in unraveling and understanding this internal confusion.  Bellow swiftly abandoned this formula and moved on to Henderson and Herzog. Crain’s first published novel is just as well written, as perfectly executed in its consciousness of plot and characters, but rigidly sticks inside the paradigm of the victim.  Just how far a reader is willing to accompany a character whose lack of will and confidence, self-knowledge and pity remains present for most of the book for the sake of exposing the tensions between the transition of communist Prague to democratic Prague is a question worth asking.

Nonetheless, Necessary Errors is a rich text written by a skilled writer.  It subtly envelopes the reader into this transitional time in Czechoslovakian history and a young man’s formative youth. 

Chris Finnigan; twitter (@chrisjfinnigan

The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews


bookcoverFor Faughie’s Sake
by Laura Marney
Saraband, Glasgow 2014

Those familiar with Laura Marney’s previous four novels can expect an equally good romp in this latest.  Here we have Trixie, who we first met in the popular and critically acclaimed No Wonder I Take a Drink, now a forty-year-old ex-medical sales rep, who, during a mid-life crisis, has pulled up stakes to move to the Highland village of Inverfaughie, settling in the home where her deceased mother had worked as a housemaid.  Instantly she sees her mistake:
When I’d first arrived in this wee village I’d tried to integrate:  I volunteered with the guitar group, worked at the annual gala day.  Ok, I’d got a big drunk at the ceilidh, aye, fair enough, I’d said some things, been a bit inappropriate, but it was hardly a hanging offence.  Highland villages were hard unforgiving places, loyal to their own.  I’d never be accepted here, I was a white settler, and a gobby Glaswegian into the bargain.  I was as welcome as an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease in high season.
Nothing to do now, but save up and get the hell back to Glasgow.  So when Hollywood comes to Inverfaughie to film a historical epic, Trixie turns her big home into a B&B and, like the other villagers, charges the moon to the out-of-town film crew. Like her mother, she’s now changing sheets and scrubbing toilets, but it’s her ticket out.
     She slowly makes friends with another outsider, Dinah, while both are walking their dogs.  But as Trixie learns, Dinah is actually Lady Murdina Anglicus, owner of Faughie Castle, who, the locals say, is “too posh to mix with the peasantry.”  Dinah, however, is not well off and needs to sell the castle pronto.  Fortunately there is a potential buyer, a sort of British Donald Trump-type who wants to buy the place and turn it into a luxury hotel with polo grounds.   
     Trixie also makes friends with the local shop owner, Jenny, who ropes her into joining the town council, where Jenny is planning to run for M.S.P.
     Trixie’s difficult teenaged son, Steven, drops in on her and decides to stay.  In fact, he eventually takes up with the local “New Age” commune, much to Trixie’s dismay as she was keen on him going to uni.
     Nonetheless, all is going fairly well until the Hollywood outfit claims it is their right, under some fine print in the contract with the town, to close off the machair for a few days which leaves farmers without grazing land for their cattle.  Just as the town is up in arms over this latest development, one of the council members finds an ancient manuscript in the peat bog, where the town had gathered as extras for the filming. Lo and behold, after the manuscript is translated and carbon-dated, it comes to light it is a legally binding agreement establishing Inverfaughie and the lands pertaining to it as a sovereign state, an agreement that predated the Act of Union of Scotland with England by some fifty years, known as The Faughie Accord.  The locals want their rightful independence from Westminster.  Jenny withdraws from the M.S.P. election campaign and runs as candidate for interim leader of Faughie.
            Here the fun really begins. There is to be a referendum where Faughies vote on whether or not they want full independence; while Westminster, and the few locals siding with them, go into overdrive to sabotage the effort.  Faughians are made out to be “lawless Mexican banditos” and the effects of independence are made out to be the ruin of the village.  Cut off from the rest of the country, the media portrays Faughians as starving villagers and shows footage of care packages being dropped over the “border.” Yes, Marney fully credits the Ealing Studios 1949 British comedy, Passport to Pimlico, for her plot line, but the delightful spin she puts on it makes it entirely her own.
    Will this tiny Highland village gain its independence or not?  In the very year that Scotland itself will have its own referendum for independence, this is a timely plot not lost on anyone, but here the roaring debate is softened by our metaphorical Faughie and the high good humor that accompanies it.
     Although politics gives us our structure, it is nevertheless the down-to-earth, all-too-human Trixie—who loves a drink and a roll in the hay—who propels the novel as she is pulled this way and that, and uncovers some family secrets along the way.  A bribe offered by her first friend, Lady Dinah, who has her own interest in the referendum’s outcome when the sale to the billionaire falls through, throws Trixie into a further dilemma – does she take the bribe money and get the hell out of Dodge or does she stand with the locals?
     For Faughie’s Sake is a right good frolic, full of satirical references to the times, and marvelously vivid in its portrayal of the Highland characters as well as the outsiders, such as the hippie-types at the commune—whose amazing agro- and electro-engineering smarts help save the day—and, of course, the delightful Trixie, who you would just love to take a tipple with (though you know you’d best not tempt her!)  J.A.

The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews

bookcoverLove and Fallout
by Kathryn Simmonds.

Seren, 2014

Love and Fallout by Kathryn Simmonds is a neat but passionate piece of fiction.  Highly disciplined in its narrative, disparaging in its portrayal of the liberation of women, convincingly critical of the dry cultural world of lower-middle-class Britain, it sets its aim on the banal and mundane elements of British life and doesn’t omit one claustrophobic detail.
     For Tessa, 48, suburbia has become an uncomfortable mix of lifeless realities. Wine ‘sloshes’ around her glass while she waits for dinner to cook, the garden needs weeding and her office job is stuttering to an end.  Her husband adds to her malady as he helps arrange for a national television programme to look through her wardrobe and Make Her Over with the aim of injecting a little life into her—a badly veiled attempt to increase his attraction towards her. (We soon discover he’s been having an affair.)  Tessa, entirely uninterested in such matters has both her sexual identity privately and publically assaulted: her husband is cheating and a camera’s spotlight is nosing around in her sock draw. She reluctantly agrees only because she is convinced that the power of TV can help her ailing environmental charity Easy Green. 
     The popularity of daytime television is a deeply odd phenomenon in Britain. For a few hours in the middle of the day, between leaving for work and waiting for the children to return from school, thirty-minute programmes obsessed with self-improvement perniciously flicker on a TV set.  It is this world where Love and Fallout begins and it is to a revolutionary feminist, anti-nuclear missile camp at Greenham Common circa 1982 that it quickly retreats.
     The narrative is taut. It jumps back every chapter where we meet Tessa as a late adolescent: independent, strong, uneasy with the expectations set before her. From a chapter of Tessa bursting with the courage of youth, back we return to her present day, coming into violent collision with the reality of her current life. These jumps backwards and forwards—which happen every other chapter apart from the middle section—are where the novel generates its energy and produces much of the material for discussions on the expectations of a women, crude opinions of feminists, unrelenting cynicism towards their idealism and what life is like in parochial Britain. 
     The courage of youth is contrasted with the banality of middle age for this closet feminist.  The TV shows stands in for a discussion on sexual identity and the overwhelming pressure women are put under in the modern media to present themselves a certain way.  Simmonds was spoilt for choice when selecting a style of TV programme to kick start her novel and I wonder if she considered the equally detestable Snog, Marry and Avoid, that still airs today.
     Many successful female writers now go to the city (Zadie Smith) or back a few hundred years (Hillary Mantel) to write about negative female experiences. Besides Simmonds, only J.K Rowling’s recent The Casual Vacancy, where a single mother on benefits is fighting for a voice in a small English town, attempts to address the current pressure faced.  
     Simmonds has already published two books of poetry and her prose often highlights this fact. In keeping with the English setting of the novel, her prose reliably uses the weather to ignite and close chapters. Her writing is usually strongest at the start of a chapter where she employs these poetic skills, showing a poet’s eye for everyday language.
     While the book is a polemic, her tone isn’t didactic and it doesn’t lack for humour. She doesn’t alienate the reader; she engages. She lets the historical narrative explain her discontent. Libertarian, Marxist, Socialist—it’s never quite made clear what the camp’s ideals are; however, her dissatisfaction with how events have ended is abundantly clear in this coming-of-age novel. 

Chris Finnigan;  twitter (@chrisjfinnigan

© tbr 2014

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