Barcelona Review Book Reviews:
issue 11 & 12
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issue 12
Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): A Biography Stacy Schiff
Locas Yxta Maya Murray

Gardens in the Dunes Leslie Marmon Silko
Tomato Red Daniel Woodrell
The Ultimate Rush Joe Quirk
Bluebottle James Sallis

issue 11

Blind Items by Matthew Rettenmund
Stickleback by John McCabe
The Last Days by Andrew Masterson
Incubus by Anne Arensberg
Toyer by Gardener Mckay
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.
Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): A Biography  Stacy Schiff Random House 1999

Drawing on a wealth of unpublished material, including Nabokov’s diaries and his letters to Vera, former editor Stacy Schiff gives us an intelligent, well-researched and thoroughly engaging portrait of the life of Vera Nabokov, who, as the biography convincingly shows, was a full creative partner, completely indispensable to her husband’s work, and a thoroughly fascinating woman in her own right. The picture Schiff gives us of Nabokov is hardly the writer we know as a suave and posturing gentlemen, but more like a bumbling, forgetful sort who depended on Vera to do just about everything - including managing such details as handling his phone calls (in which Nabokov would often sit beside her while she would ask him questions from the caller and then relate the answers) and ordering for him in restaurants while he hid behind menus.

Born in Saint Petersburg in 1902 of Jewish heritage, Vera Slonim and her family were driven out of Russia by the pogroms of 1919 and through a circuitous route came to settle in the Russian émigré community of Berlin where she met the dashing young Nabokov. It was from the beginning a divine meeting of the minds. Vera shared with Nabokov a sense of "color hearing"; i.e., synesthesia: the ability to transfer the observations of one sense into the vocabulary of another. It is but one example of how the two were truly connected to each other by what they referred to as a "brain bridge." It was a marriage that was to last 52 years, threatened only once when Nabokov became involved with a young woman during his stay alone in Paris in 1937, which saw him in the literary limelight for the first time. Vera’s cool but calculating handling of the affair, which they both chose to forget as though it never happened, shows both her savvy and unerring dedication. The two were reunited on the Riviera as Berlin was becoming too dangerous a city with the Nazis on the rise; they were never to be separated again.

The next big move was to America where the "amazing Americans," Vera thought, were like "characters in a bad movie." Having secured a part-time teaching position at Wellesley and then later at Cornell and Harvard, Nabokov managed to eke out a living, but was always to remain the outsider, not having a Phd and not fitting the mold of a tweed-wearing professor. He was considered eccentric in his dress (pastel shirts) and his lectures (more idiosyncratic than academic). Vera did not join any faculty groups herself, preferring to assist her husband, as always, by helping with his writing.

The curious writing process was a dual effort: Nabokov had a habit of writing on index cards, which he later read to Vera as she transcribed them onto the typewriter. Then, she would read closely and write notes in the margins. Next would come a rewrite, which she would retype. She was, in short, very closely involved in the writing although she denied that she was anything more than a secretary. This was clearly not the case, however. If we are to believe the biographer, Nabokov could not have accomplished what he did without her. It is not that she did the actual writing, but she was a powerful muse and beyond that her keen eye and intellectual input undoubtedly helped form the narratives. Her margin notes were copious as well. Apart from this, she handled all the business letters and most of the personal correspondence, which grew over the years until it nearly overwhelmed her. This handling of affairs gave Vera a reputation in some circles for being a "shrew" who overly protected and overly spoke for her husband, but in truth, as Schiff convinces us, she knew his mind so completely that this was not the case.

It is amusing to read how Vera is remembered by students at Cornell who relate how they only knew her as Nabokov’s assistant. She would accompany him to class, help with his coat, run fetch his glasses, draw on the blackboard to accompany a lecture, give him non-verbal cues as the lecture proceeded (and sometimes verbal if he lost his place or forgot a date) by nodding her head or casting a cold glance at on off-color anecdote. Occasionally she even delivered lectures in his stead. The two worked entirely in tandem. She corrected the blue books and one student who had praised the poetry of V. Sirin (Nabokov’s pseudonym in Russia, one of his favorite writers to teach) was surprised to find a dinner invitation to his professor’s home by the "assistant." This was typical of Vera: those who praised her husband’s writing were accepted; those who did not weren’t.

The Nabokovs' nomadic lifestyle saw them moving around the country with every sabbatical and school break, settling for a while in Taos, New Mexico, where Vera refused to meet Frieda Lawrence, who she thought must be a dreadful woman. Vera was indeed a paradox: on the one hand she entirely endorsed Lolita, which she saved from Nabokov destroying at one point; on the other hand, she could be oddly conservative. Many remember that Vera was not particularly anti McCarthy during the early 1950s, an attitude that shocked the liberal establishment at Cornell. She and Nabokov also supported President Nixon during the Viet Nam war years. The political stance is more understandable given their backgrounds, but it alienated them in the intellectual community nevertheless.

When Lolita was finally released in the States and hit the best seller list, immediately bringing instant fame and financial security to its author, the Nabokovs were then in their mid-fifties. When appearing at speaking engagements Vera was always at his side and people were surprised to find her a white-haired middle-aged woman (where was the nymphet?). In the limelight she was considered "delightful, sophisticated, smart." With book royalties allowing Nabokov to quit teaching, the two hit the road once again. Vera always drove, having taught herself how in the States. Following Nabokov’s lifelong love of lepidoptera, they chased after butterflies from one end of the country to the other, living much like Humbert Humbert and Lolita from one motel to the next.

The two finally settled at a hotel in Montreux, Switzerland where they lived until their deaths. Their one son became an opera singer in Italy when he wasn’t racing cars and spending money. Vera defended him and applauded his artistic pursuit in opera in much the way she supported her husband. Until her death, she continued to work long days answering his correspondence, translating his work (she translated Pale Fire into Russian while in her eighties) and helping correct bad translations as well as dealing with publishers and agents. Amusing stories come to light, such as Vera’s meeting with Arnoldo Mondadori in Italy. She had to teach herself Italian to wade through the Italian translations, which proved dreadful. Mondadori told her the Italians didn’t care if there were a few "howlers." Typically she told him that her husband did care and yet another battle ensued.

She died in 1991 at age 89, having outlived her husband by 14 years.

The two were never open about their private life and Vera at some point destroyed all of her letters to her husband (in the author’s assessment: "Discretion does not so much seem to have been at issue as merit."). But, the odd anecdote here and there builds nicely to give us a memorable picture of the two. Sometimes it is quite poignant, such as Nabokov still writing love poetry to Vera when the two were in their seventies. They even shared a date book.

Schiff presents a rounded picture of her subject, who, it seems, is not remembered fondly by everyone. Some claimed she had no sense of humor, but more likely it was the sort reserved more for herself and her husband - no one else was in on it: the multi-lingual word play, the "color hearing" which gave way to debates on the color of Monday, etc. The author says: "She was difficult to get to know, unforthcoming about herself, and vociferous in her opinions, an off-putting combination. With those she did not like she did not bother with phatic conversation . . . Repeatedly Elena [Elena Levine, one of the few friends she corresponded with until her death] discovered what could be called the reverse side of Vera’s obsessive devotion to Vladimir: She could be uncompromising, prickly, blinded by single-mindedness. Vera had so long steeled herself against the world’s indifference, its occasional hostility, that she seemed unequipped to respond to its welcome; the pride proved not so much a chink in the armor as a kind of armor itself. It left her, in Cambridge company, with no discernible sense of humor, seemingly self-righteous, priggish, isolated by her pride."

Schiff sets the balance aright by presenting both sides of her paradoxical subject. What one remembers amidst the plethora of interesting detail is how these two extraordinary individuals made a creative venture of their marriage; it is indeed a love story as beautiful as that of Van and Ada. One cannot help admire Vera’s devotion, cleverness, intelligence and ability to work ceaselessly towards handling and preserving her husband’s work. She was considered an exceptionally beautiful woman in her unique way, early on turning from blond to white-haired. The author creates a vivid picture of her over the years, including her manner of dress (and her shopping habits). One does not particularly warm to her, but rather feels an awe, as did many who met her. Schiff writes eloquently of her subject, revealing the double genius behind the literary creations and bringing the formidable Mrs. Nabokov to light at last. Truly fascinating. J.A.

Locas by Yxta Maya Murray Grove Press 1997

Two years late is better than never. Last autumn the BR’s editor took a quick trip to the States to visit family; on a tight budget and without much time, she hit the local Barnes and Noble in search of new and exciting U.S. authors. She returned with about a dozen books that looked promising and one of them was Locas, which she turned over to me. This was the find of the lot. The cover blurb - with words like ‘teenage girls,’ ‘L.A. gang life,’ and ‘drugs’ - doesn’t quite send out the right signals, and potential readers, deflected by the stereotypical images, may have passed up something of raw beauty that captures the sadness and hopelessness of life for possibly millions of women throughout the world, and not just for Mexican teenagers/women in East L.A. Starting in 1980 and finishing in 1997, Locas tells the story of two teenage girls, Lucia and Cecilia. Told from their point of view and in a Spanglish patois, we follow the two girls as they struggle to survive, each in her own way, the harsh existence created not so much by poverty but by ignorance and male dominance. What the two very different girls do have in common is the same area, Echo Park, the same gang, the Lobos, and the same man, Lobos jefe Manny - brother of Cecilia, his adoring younger sister. Told in alternating chapters it is Cecilia’s story that is the most heart-wrenching. She is not good-looking - "short with flat Aztec features" - but being Manny’s sister she is a good ‘catch’ for rising gang members. She, like the other 15-year-old teenage girls in the gang, plays it safe by being a ‘sheep’. Lucia explains:

...The deal we made was to sex the boys hard, any time they wanted, and in return they’d take good care of us on the money end. They called us sheep, "good for fucking," was what they said. The more the money came rolling in, the tougher the vatos got, and you had to make like you love begging or else you wouldn’t get a dime . . . . I knew that sheepy game better than anybody else back then, giving him (Manny) sugar kisses and back seat jobs. I tried to tell myself it don’t matter, even when he teases me with dollars. "Gonna cost you, girl", he say sometimes, then grab at me too hard. Yah, so what, I’d think after. Better than where I came from, right?

Looking tarty, keeping their mouths shut when not in action, and being ready ‘to sex’ was not enough: some unwritten law also said it requires having a baby. Cecilia does the complete sheep route but her man beats her and the baby is stillborn. As a gang war looms Cecilia finds her first and only taste of true happiness in the shape of a girl from the rival gang. Lucia begins to see herself above the sheep and even most of the men. As Manny becomes more successful selling guns rather than drugs, it is Lucia who does the books and has most of the ideas. She is in no position to directly challenge the male dominance around her but nevertheless forms her own girl gang and causes waves by egging on pretenders to Manny’s increasingly unstable throne. The two girls have very different ways of confronting and dealing with the dead-end life they have, but whether it's by following the crowd or rocking the boat there never seems to be light at the end of the tunnel. It is the sense of futility that makes this book so powerful, realising just how few options, if any, so many women have. Motherhood, knowingly bringing another person into the same mess, is a way out? Copying the male role-model and turning to fat on the spoils of crime? Sad and moving, with little sentimentality, and linguistically dazzling, Locas takes the reader deep inside the heart and mind of the East L.A. Mexican females whose lives revolve around gang life. It is, as they say, a stunning debut that has easily moved into my list of all-time top-ten favourite books. MGS

Gardens in the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko

(see issue 13)

Tomato Red by  Daniel Woodrell    No Exit 1999

Woodrell’s last novel, Give Us A Kiss, was described as 'country noir,' which could be applied to Tomato Red for its UK release but would only confuse the Brits who’d think that it was about Agas, fox-hunting and wellie boots. A better term would be ‘white trash noir’. Right from the first sentence the reader is sucked into the bottom rung of the white trash world. But be warned: do not attempt to read this sentence aloud unless you are a pearl-diver or want to die.

You're no angel, you know how this stuff comes to happen: Friday is payday and it's been a gray day sogged by a slow ugly rain and you seek company in your gloom, and since you're fresh to West Table, Mo., and a new hand at the dog-food factory; your choices for company are narrow but you find some finally in a trailer court on Last Main, and the coed circle of bums gathered there spot you a beer, then a jug of tequila starts to rotate and the rain keeps comin' down with a miserable bluesy beat and there's two girls millin' about that probably can be had but they seem to like certain things and crank is one of those certain things and a fistful of party straws tumble from a woven handbag somebody brung, the crank gets cut into lines, and the next time you notice the time it's three or four Sunday mornin' and you ain't slept since Thursday night and one of the girl voices, the one you want most and ain't had yet though her teeth are the size of shoe-peg corn and look like maybe they'd taste sort of sour, suggests something to do, 'cause with crank you want something, anything, to do, and this cajoling voice suggests we all rob this certain house on this certain street in that rich area where folks can afford to wallow in their vices and likely have a bunch of recreational dope stashed around the mansion and goin' to waste since an article in The Scroll said the rich people whisked off to France or some such on a noteworthy vacation.

The guy doing the talking is down-and-out twenty-something Sammy Barlach who has wandered into West Table, a small Ozark town, and possibly would have wandered out if he hadn’t fallen asleep during the attempted robbery and met up with Jamalee Merridew, who has tomato-red hair, and her beautiful brother Jason. Jamalee has no intention of ending up like her mother, "live fast, learn slow" Bev, a dope-smoking whore who accepts her fate of surviving on her back in the rundown area of Venus Holler. Jason is Jam’s key out: with his looks and the drooling female clients he gets at the hair salon, she sees the possibility of a bit of blackmail. The only problem is Jason is gay, and being queer in an Ozark town is not a wise career move. She asks Sammy to be their security, but he is as good at security as he is at burglary. He is also lonely and his acceptance into the Merridew family circle - Bev’s bed and even Jamalee’s - can lead to a dangerous possessiveness if he is rejected.

As can be seen from that mother-of-first-sentences, the style and language in this book is a rich and jangled concoction of high energy prose . Luckily, sentences return to normal length, so they’re not such an assault on the reader. Its conversational style (written, I presume, in an authentic voice) leads to little gems such as: "She, it turned out, had recently gotten to be nineteen, and he was about a quarter past seventeen," and odd words like ‘doohickey’. The sense of poverty, failure and hopelessness is overpowering. "You know, the regular well-to-do world should relax about us types. Us lower sorts. You can never mount a true war of us against the rich ‘cause the rich can always hire us to kill each other." Only Jamalee has the rage to find a way out and that means stepping on ideals, memories and the people who are close to her. Seemingly slow and brooding the story leaves the reader wonderfully unsure about what direction it will go; there are many possibilities - and the one taken is all the more surprising for being the most real. This was my first Woodrell and it will not be my last. I’m hooked. MGS

The Ultimate Rush by Joe Quirk  No Exit Press 1998

Chet Griffin makes a living as a messenger in San Francisco but leaves his bicycle buddies panting up the hills as he hangs on to a trolley car – Chet uses rollerblades. This makes him one of the fastest messengers around and obviously attracts the attention of the boss who seems to have few scruples where speed is of the essence. So with high-speed deliveries to some dodgy Chinese Mafia types, Chet’s paypacket increases. He trains a new recruit, weaning him from bike to blades, but on a delivery run to the Chinese a package is found to have been tampered with. This is an instant death sentence with the poor co-worker taking the hit as the more fortunate Chet makes his escape. Accused of the killing and therefore wanted by the boys in blue, Chet doesn’t seem to have any option but to hide and rely on his wits, two friends and computer skills. Friend number one is the unfortunately named Ho, a lesbian who seems to want to dress like Cyndi Lauper did ten years ago. Ho is also a ‘planker,’ preferring her skateboard to Chet’s wheels. Even though Chet rates ‘plankers’ well low on the food chain, he lusts after Ho but is reduced to lonely one-handed affairs with himself. Other bud is roommate Denny who is wheelchair-bound with cerebral palsy. Denny is also a hacker, controlling the computer by voice. What follows is a terrifyingly fast read with some very funny dialogue between the frustrated Chet and the ever cool Ho. If Chet isn’t rushing around on his blades being chased by all and sundry, he is busy rushing around the Internet trying to hack his way into a bank to find evidence to clear his name. On his tail is the anti-hacker, a Net vigilante called MP Phred. To have the time needed to get to where he wants to go Chet is going to have to do battle with MP first and win. This is all good frantic stuff, well told and tightly plotted with fast and vivid scene changes (you can already see the movie version). As a skater, Chet must be some kind of a poser, as well as vain and self-opinionated, and author Quirk takes great delight in humiliating or denting Chet’s ego: the sex scene with Chet hunting for his partner’s ever elusive clitoris is a great case in point. In fact it’s a classic scene - full stop! A very odd final chapter, "In case you want a sequel," brings the reader slap down to earth and reality and in it’s own way is the icing on the cake to Joe Quirk’s first novel. MGS

Bluebottle by James Sallis No Exit Press 1999

Lew Griffin wakes up blind in a hospital bed. It seems the black private investigator had left a club with an older white woman and then was shot. Was the bullet for him or her? The memory of the event slowly comes into focus, along with his eyesight, but it is now almost a year after the event. Fortunate to have an army of friends at his disposal, Griffin is able to quickly get an angle, but to really sort it out he needs to call in a favour or two from hoods who don’t really like blacks. The New Orleans backdrop - gumbo, okra and the strains of jazz circa the 1960s - all add up to a rich gumbo of its own, nicely set off by the odd Lew Griffin and the quirky jumps in time. This is the fifth, but my first, Lew Griffin book and although it does stand alone, threads go back that may have needed a bit of explaining here. The first part of the book was, for me, rather confusing, but it helped set the scene of Griffin’s own confusion as he’s coming round from his injuries. Once the reader gets the hang of the time shifts, it works quite well. Griffin is telling the story now and holes in his memory form part of the telling, as do the time leaps that reveal the very well-read Griffin once wrote a book and is/was an alcoholic. A faded image of a man’s life appears behind the ongoing investigation, with events - like his lover leaving him - coming into sharp focus. One wonders how much more the other books or future books reveal, but in this particular novel Griffin is a little difficult to fix. At 154 pages Bluebottle serves as a taster and I wish it had been packaged with another Griffin book, which proves I must have enjoyed it. MGS

© 1999 The Barcelona Review
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Issue 11

Blind Items by Matthew Rettenmund, St. Martin’s Press 1998

Rettenmund’s first novel, Boy Culture, was a much needed breath of fresh air for the gay novel. AIDS had not only decimated many potential writers but left a dark, gloomy cloud over the survivors, as seen, for example, in Joseph Olshan’s Night Swimmer and Andrew Holeran’s The Beauty of Men. By growing up in an AIDS world, never having known any different, Rettenmund’s perspective was radically different. His young protagonist basically wants his right to party - forget all the other weight - and because of this Boy Culture didn’t go down well with some of the older gays. Blind Items is not so in-yer-face; the humour is more subtle and the focus is clearer but there is some familiar ground. Through David Greer, his first person narrator, the author continues his pithy remarks aimed at the gay stereotype. To help combat that cliché he has David liking women as well as men and actually sleeping with one - hell, David even hates Donna Summer. But the author does fall for one corny stereotype: the love interest, closeted TV star Alan Dillinger, has a "body". Yawn.

There’re actually two stories going on: the light amusing tale of David meeting Alan, with Alan being Mr. Total Honesty and wanting to out himself at some point while David keeps his mouth very tightly closed about himself - he not only writes for porno magazines but his best friend is Warren Junior who writes for a gay gossip magazine and ‘outs’ the famous in his ‘Off the Lists’ column. Intertwoven with this is the story, set in the mid-eighties, of young John Dewey’s obsession with the old, long dead, silent-movie star Gil Romano. A reviewer likened this structural set up to Scott Heim's handling of multiple voices/stories in Mysterious Skin, and although it falls short of that level, this secondary narrative works well and, in fact, held my attention and my sympathies far more than the petty jealousies of David or the banal praise heaped on Alan’s stupid perfect body. In some respects it's a better book than Boy Culture thanks to a more mature style and clearer sense of direction, but that whiff of fresh air is missing. M.G.S.

Stickleback by John McCabeGranta 1998

It seems like a thousand years ago when I was a seven year-old in Miss Blenkinsop’s class hearing her talking about the tiny fresh-water fish, the stickleback, so it was very odd years later to actually see a picture of one of these beasties on a bookcover and to learn that the name now refers to people who are independent because they are not only boring but resist the idea of having or wanting friends. A new expression for me but not for others, ‘stickleback’ is a fine-tuned extension of ‘trainspotter’ and the wonderful ‘anorak’ and for the two main protagonists it is a fitting name. Twenty-nine year old Ian Gillick is a computer programmer in Birmingham (UK). He is a bit of a bore but his biggest fault is his inability to break the rigid routines he creates for himself. Just making breakfast is a perfectly choreographed set piece, day in, day out. No wonder his girlfriend left. He shares an office with Archie who, as an obsessive collector of Sci-fi films and TV series, is a total anorak. Ian spends most of his working day annoying Archie; he hasn’t got anything else to do anyway as he went on unofficial strike just to see if anybody would notice. He’s already on day six and at book’s end he's managed fifteen days of no work.

On the morning of his 29th birthday Ian wakes up wrecked after a night of drink and drugs and forgoes his normal routine: he phones in sick and decides to take a bus trip around the city. An incident during a quick lunchtime drink changes his life and when he finally manages to get home he discovers that boring old Archie has been arrested and needs his help. Apart from being an absorbing ‘light’ thriller, Stickleback has the added pleasure of giving us Ian’s philosophy of life. As an insight into the end-of-millennium British male it offers some very astute observations. For example, at his regular Wednesday football game Ian muses over the problem of being elected goalkeeper. Although there are no set teams one’s loyalty should be for the friends on that night’s given team – should be but – took your turn [at being goalkeeper] and stood there and willed your team on. Only it was frustrating when your team were doing well. When your team had the ball you didn’t...So secretly you started willing your team to lose the ball so you might have something to do. Then worse. You would actually start willing the other team on. You would no longer be opposing the opposition - you would be actively, but silently, cheering them.
        Winning is abstract. Always, to win is to lose something. Winning is the moment. It does not matter if you win or lose the game. Victory is in the second you score...If someone else scores and your team wins, you have lost because you didn't score the winning goal. A team can therefore win nothing. Only lone people during isolated seconds can experience true victory.

If this is the attitude while relaxing, then imagine the workplace. The ‘me’ generation is very much alive and kicking and, apart from our reliance on the safety of routine, it is ‘looking after number one’ that is the underlying theme of this funny and highly enjoyable novel.

The Last Days: The Apocryphon of Joe Panther by Andrew Masterson, Picador (Australia) 1998

First published in Australia last year and due to hit the northern hemisphere any day now, The Last Days is going to make an awful lot of people jump with joy but leave many more screaming for the author’s head. The ‘grinners’ are going to be those who are fed up with the millennium hype and the very dangerous stance the religious right is taking. The ‘screamers’ are going to be the very same religious right plus a huge amount of devout Catholics joining forces to denounce Masterson as a heretic, a blasphemer, the anti-Christ, Satan and so on. His crime is to have his protagonist, Joe Panther - a badass, fun-talking, streetwise Melbourne drug-abusing pusher and occasional killer - believe himself to be Jesus Christ. O.K., you might think, a street low-life who is a sandwich short of a picnic, so what’s the problem? Well, you see it really could be you-know-who as this is the Jesus mentioned in the Talmud and echoed by the philosopher Celsus, who was fathered by a Roman soldier called Pantera and whose Aramaic name, Yeshu ben Pantera, has been "Anglicised to buggery" to Joe Panther. This Jesus survived crucifixion to be trapped in a cave: "...I never did find out who moved that rock. I suspect Joseph of Arimithea, back in the black hours for a spot more souvenir hunting. Glad he did, though. It looked a heavy fucker." From then on he never died or left Earth but roamed the planet, undead like an Anne Rice vampire, undergoing many human transformations while slightly changing his name to suit prevailing social conditions; for example, Hughes – pronounced like Yeshu - de Payens who founded the Knights Templer, and Pope Urban IV, whose real name was Jacques Pantaleon.

Now at the end of the second millennium Joe survives by selling drugs and being a sort of detective/finder for missing people - a job he finds easy as he is responsible for most of the disappearances in the first place. But a ritual slaying of a young street girl in a church leads Joe into a dangerous investigation involving cult pornography which in turn seems to be leading to Joe/Jesus being re-crucified for a millennium TV special. The "gospel noir" aspect of this novel is first class. Joe – street nutter or genuine Messiah? - is one of the most fascinating private detectives ever and one wonders if Masterson has future plans for his creation. The plot is fast moving, fun and well over the top with worrying thoughts about the possible reality of JC's second coming making itself apparent halfway through. The whole question of Joe being Jesus is intriguing: a mixed-up, presumably mad, murdering bastard like Joe Panther is just what the Christian right deserves as its Y2K leader - or at least it's fun to speculate. Joe and the Christian right have little to do with the forgiving, tolerant, foot washing pacifist in the New Testament, but at least Joe is closer to the ground roots and mixes, like Jesus, with the street life, whores and thieves of his time. Unfortunately, it is not the scary, horrendous right that takes the bashing but the creaking, out of touch Catholic Church which quakes at the problems the Second Coming would present to its establishment. This is an institution that in order to protect a value like honesty "...will lie, cheat, vilify, rob, murder and condemn with neither thought or mercy." Its interests then would prefer Jesus not to make a reappearance for another thousand years, if ever, so they can continue to reap what they have sown and not from what Jesus, or Joe, actually said. Yep, big business. The Last Days is a wickedly funny book that unfortunately contains a millennium bug that squiffs up the ending. But when it is good it is excellent and I hope - if Masterson’s head is still attached to his shoulders - to read a new Joe Panther story in the next millennium. M.G.S.

Incubus by Anne Arensberg, Knopf 1999

The title, the cover and the ‘blurb’ on the back all point to traditional Stephen King territory, but the contents reveal a whole different ballgame in which the author not only bows to King but takes a passing nod at Nabokov and other post-modernists in the process. The actual story of an incubus (a creature only concerned with having sex with sleeping women) and his/its adventures inside the sleepy Maine village of Dry Falls would warrant no more than a short story, but Arensberg’s intelligent and descriptive writing with the engrossing narrator Cora Whitman at its centre transforms the supernaturnal element into an intriguing and literarily appealing full-length novel.

Cora, writing in the present, looks back at a series of strange events that occurred in Dry Falls during the late spring, summer and early autumn of 1974 when she is convinced demons from the underworld began their invasion to control the upper-world in time for the millennium. At that time husband Henry was the Episcopalian rector and therefore Cora, as rector’s wife, is the un-elected leader for the village meetings and village fętes, overseeing flower arranging and cake or cookie baking for fund raising ventures. The first peculiarity is the unseasonably hot spring that leads into a summer of drought. This unnatural heat, a palpable and weighty backdrop to events, carries a sense of malevolence. Small, and at the time insignificant, events take place: a strange black dog 'guards' a naked sunbather, school girls see a ghost-like figure in the graveyard and so on. The first major oddity occurs when a load of naked schoolgirls find themselves passed out in their sex-drenched beds, legs wide open. Yep, there’s an incubus about and he/it starts having fun with everyone apart from Cora, our narrator.

Cora and Henry haven’t actually been overstressing the mattress, as it were, for quite a while and at some point in the novel, when the gothic horror ŕ la King fails to materialise, the reader slowly realises that a frustrated, egotistical flower grower, arranger and minor cook has taken control. As in a novel like Nabokov's Pale Fire, the narrator becomes a source of dubious information and the reader shifts attention to the shaky narrative voice behind the fantastical events. Cora Whitman has always been ignored. As a girl she was just a presence in the house as her sister and mother developed a bizarre relationship; now, with her village position and duties to support and sustain her, she sees herself as the centre of attention. What happens when that is threatened as it comes to be? With her ego on the slump she needs to reassert herself. Incubus is a fine, absorbing, very subtle, intelligent and clever book. As the horror novel it is dressed up to be, it is not scary but instead cleverly builds an atmosphere where real fear can breed, where fingers point and evil gossip emanates, especially when the women folk, long ignored by their spouses, are suddenly getting, from someone, very good rumpy pumpy every night. M.G.S.

Toyer by Gardner McKay, Little Brown 1998

Unfortunately not a misspelling of 1980’s Brit pop/rock lisp merchant Toyah but a rather contrived name for a Los Angeles serial offender who plays or ‘toys’, mentally not sexually, with his female victims before committing them to a fate worse than death: life without the ability to move or communicate thanks to a cervical cordotomy. Because Toyer, the handle given by journalist Sara Smith, doesn’t kill his victims, the police and D.A. aren’t that interested in tracking him down, even after Toyer cripples a policewoman and starts earning money selling his story. His foe is Doctor Maude Garance who has seen all of his victims (number nine starts the book) and still has most of them hooked to life support systems in the hospital where she works. Fighting for revenge on behalf of the semi-dead victims stirs the good doctor into battles with the D.A., putting her job on the line, and leads to her joining forces with the dim Sara Smith. It will also lead her into darker waters where her own, already dodgy, sanity becomes questionable.

McKay, like his villain, has done his homework on serial killers and come up with something less brutal than the usual slayings but in the end sicker. By having two females hunt Toyer the author tries to balance out the usual ‘females to the slaughter’ storyline, and possibly in Maude goes some way in achieving this. He also writes very well; this is no slash’n’kill comic-book trash novel, but his plot is heavily flawed by not only pushing the reader’s credibility too far – the police would be that slow to move? - but by imposing a sudden shift half way through which more or less hands the identity of Toyer over far too early. A clever but unwanted twist on serial killers and further proof that all women should be armed and have the right to blow away anybody who looks at them strangely. M.G.S

© 1999 The Barcelona Review
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