Book Reviews:
issue 23

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19 Knives (short stories) by Mark Anthony Jarman
The Blood of Strangers: Stories From Emergency Medicine
by Frank Huyler
Gob’s Grief
by Chris Adrian
The Peacock Manifesto
by Stuart David
Moby: Replay – His Life and Times
by Martin James

index of book reviews for all issues

Note: TBR 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  carries all titles reviewed in TBR; all US releases carried by unless otherwise noted.

19 Knives (short stories) by Mark Anthony Jarman: Stoddart Publishing, Canada, 2000

This collection of 14 stories by Canadian author Mark Anthony Jarman is distinguished for its distinctive style and fine storytelling. Each story is good in itself - well plotted and engaging - but what elevates them to a higher level is the daring and bold writing style that pushes language to the limits.The author uses and combines words that one would not normally think to do. (He has been described as Joycean, although he’s far more accessible.) If at times I felt a line or phrase didn’t quite work, that didn’t matter. The rewards come when they do work and that’s most of the time.

A particular favorite is "Cougar." It opens with the dubious alliteration, "Motor to the mega mall and the mall moves me to a minor rage"; but thankfully takes off nicely from there. It’s about a man in the throes of a middle-aged funk, half-heartedly contemplating suicide. He’s a fairly typical character in the collection: a man of around 30-40 years old who has lived hard, worked a lot of odd jobs, etc. He’s been around. He’s smart, familiar with pop culture, listens to the latest alt. rock music, is a bit of a loner, not out to impress anyone. In this particular story, the out-of-work narrator is on his way to get a Christmas tree for the woman he’s living with. He goes into the woods to chop one down and is attacked by a cougar. It’s a scrawny cat, however, and the two have quite a go-round.

In the title story, "19 Knives," the narrator is a recovering heroin addict. His caseworker now trusts him to take his methadone home. That trust is rightly given, but destiny plays a mean role in this new stage of his life. "Eskimo Blue Day" is set at a public swimming pool where a father sits watching his young son in the pool. When the boy starts to struggle in the water and go down, the man jumps up to save him, but the ensuing action takes a strange and menacing turn; while in "Burn Man on a Texas Porch" a man with no real roots, living alone in a camper, awakes one night to a gas explosion:

Propane slept in the tank and propane leaked while I slept, blew the camper door off and split the tin walls where they met like shy strangers kissing, blew off the camper door like a safe and I sprang from sleep into my new life on my feet in front of a befuddled crowd, my new life on fire, walking to whoosh and tourists’ dull teenagers staring at my bent form trotting noisily in the campground with flames living on my calves and flames gathering on my shoulders (Cool, the teens think secretly), smoke like nausea in my stomach and me brimming with Catholic guilt, thinking Now I’ve done it, and then thinking, Done what? What have I done?

He survives, but must go through many skin grafts which never quite "fit’ and he ends up with a terribly scarred face. The story gives his view of the world: he’s bitter, of course, but there’s a sort of dark humor in the narrative too.

Fate often plays a strong role in the stories, suddenly throwing characters into a "new life." Jarman captures the moment and aftermath of such fate with a deft and slightly out-of-kilter prose that ingeniously conveys the shock and mental grappling of events that his characters must be experiencing. And where fate doesn’t strike in one fell swoop, it remains a Hardyesque force that moves and shapes lives.

In "The Scout’s Lament" the focus is on a hockey scout who talks of all the boys he’s seen in his years of scouting for the big leagues. So few of them make it - and this is part of his lament. "Song from Under the Floorboards" gives us a narrator who works lubricating cars, lying underneath them as they come into the garage. His mind drifts around while he works under the car, remembering two boys from his high school who committed suicide, etc. His "song" - a circuitous, slightly imbalanced yet poignant rhapsody in blue - ends on a perfect note of clarity.

"Skin a Flea for Hide and Tallow" is the only story that does not have a contemporary setting. Here the narrator is a drifter who has ended up in "Iron Butt Custer’s" army. He knows that it is madness to face all the Indians on the day of the big battle against the Sioux, but he goes along and gives us a rundown of events.

"Subterranean Homesick Blues" is about a young father reminiscing about his boyhood, growing up in a basement bedroom where he raised all kinds of hell. Now his own young kids have a basement bedroom and this sets him to contemplating. "Brighten the Corners" is another story about a young father who has just returned to his family after a trip to England. He is immediately thrust back into the familiar world of kids and all their demands after having had a bit of freedom.

Highly recommended for both the memorable stories - many of which you can relay to others in the old-fashioned tradition of storytelling - and the unique prose style that gives them a sharp cutting edge and lifts them to another dimension. J.A. [See "Cougar" in this issue of TBR.]

The Blood of Strangers: Stories From Emergency Medicine by Frank Huyler: Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999; Fourth Estate U.K. 2001

In these twenty-eight, short interrelated stories emergency physician Franker Huyler gives us a real-life glimpse of the drama of the emergency room as viewed from the perspective of the attending physician. We're far from the world of St. Elsewhere and E.R. here, far from all that frenetic hustle bustle. Huyler's compassion quietly permeates the narrative; he's just who you'd want if you or a loved one were being wheeled in, but he is also starkly honest and human, not afraid to share some all-too-human feelings when they arise: "The family, as so many before them, sat in the consultation room. I'ts quiet, off the hall, clean, with two couches and a chair, and I've grown used to going into it. It's one of the rare moments when I feel powerful. Events emerge with my voice, families hang on my every word. A dark vanity, vaguely resisted. Speak the worst: they'll be happy if you're wrong." He also frankly discusses the mixed sensations he has felt, such as when he is giving a beautiful, 15-year-old girl (the girlfriend of a gang boy) her first gynacological exam: "There's no avoiding the power of the moment, what floats out of you like a secret. You just don't acknowledge it. You banish it with an act of will. You are breezy, conversational . . . but she's beautiful anyway, and you feel dark, ashamed, you do not like what you see in yourself. But then you're inside, you open the speculum, and it looks fine, and then you flick in the swabs and you're done."

The collection covers his years as a medical student and resident doctor while weaving in stories of his current practice. He speaks of his first day of anatomy: "Our cadaver was sixty-two years old, and after a while, when we had gotten used to it, we cut around his tattoos and saved them, like a little pile of photographs which we left by his intact head. Mother. A read rose, and woman's silhouette. The United States Navy . . . . even as we reduced him to pieces I knew that he was real, that he had stories to tell, that he had looked out at the sea from the decks of ships. I could feel it when I chose to. Mostly I chose not to. Mostly it was anatomy." He does become sick, however, three days later when "we carried his leg to the sink and washed the green stool out of the attached portion of his rectum."

Certain characters appear more than once, such as the sixty-something Mr. Santana with his "heavy silver necklace, dark with inlaid turquoise, and polished hand-woven cowboy boots," who comes in smelling faintly of alcohol and cologne. He's had three heart attacks, four heart surgeries, six catheterizations and was once dead for four minutes; he's even had a leg amputated for gangrene; but whenever he can, he signs himself out against medical advice. He always "holds court" in ER, flirting, wisecracking. He's one of the ER regulars. We last see him signing himself out after another heart attack "because my girlfriend is expecting me." Huyler likes them when they are "brave in the face of it," likes the men "who flirt with the nurses, even though the EKG is unmistakable."

At times, he confesses that he is tired of "staying up all night with bleeding alcoholics, overdosing drug addicts, murderers, and gang members . . . tired of families who remade history for the convenience of personal loss. . . sick of giving my sleep and my personal thoughts to them." But he does. Even Mr. Garcia - a 45-year-old murderer ("The Prisoner") who has overdosed and is brain dead - is very human. Huyler postpones the inevitable by checking on other patients, calling his girlfriend, etc. because "I did not want to turn Mr. Garcia off." Even when the family is ready for it. And the nurses.

Throughout it all, Huyler's attention to personal detail never fails. No one is ever referred to as simply a patient. The dead, black teen wheeled into ER after a car accident has "hair, cascading to his shoulders, dark and shining, each strand braided and tied with red and black beads. It was the labor of hours." The relatives of patients are humanized as well. The father of a teen boy who has just died is described as "perhaps forty, white, with long hair, tattoos on his arms, wearing a muscle shirt"; the man "fumbled under the sheet for the boy's hand. Then he bent down, his long brown hair falling into the boy's face, and kissed him on the forehead . . . It suddenly seemed very important that I look closely, as closely as I could, at this man taking on for the moment the role of father to the dead son, kissing him softly, holding his hand, then turning back to me and the doorway."

We know that the noise of sirens is in the air, that chaos looms in ER, but Huyler chooses to focus on the intimate details that turn bleeding bodies on gurneys into the individual people that they are. The 28 stories, more like vignettes, cover sketches not only of the patients and their families but of other doctors as well, with of some of Huyler's own history thrown in. His prose is deceptively simple, at times lyrical, and powerfully moving. I was left in awe of both Huyler the doctor and the writer. J.A. [See two stories from the collection in TBR: "The Unknown Assailant" and "Speaking in Tongues."]

Gob’s Grief by Chris Adrian: Broadway Books, 2000

Quite why the main protagonist is called Gob is never made clear, but it makes for a dreadful title and that, in its own way, might serve as a warning. Inside is an incredibly rich palette of ideas, imagery and themes drawing from elements of Goth (Frankenstein, etc.), spiritualism, early feminism, engineering, the brutality of civil war - all set against the backdrop of historical reality and surreal fantasy. It is epic, with some nicely vivid descriptive passages and dramatic scenarios, but completely unconvincing; and its attention to detail and irritating plotting eventually drag it down to a plodding, tedious read. There is a hell of a book in here waiting to get out and some readers might actually enjoy the task of prising it out. This reader didn’t.

It begins in 1863 in the middle of the American Civil War. Eleven-year-old Tomo Woodhull runs away from home and his twin brother, Gob, to be a bugler. The twins are the fictitious offspring of feminist Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to attempt to stand for the presidency. Tomo promptly gets himself killed and in his grief, Gob decides that he must do something and the logical thing to do in these times of science is to build a machine to bring back the dead. Enter Walt Whitman who helped Victoria’s husband, Canning, in the military hospitals. Walt has a ghost called Hank following him around and it is Hank who forces Walt to talk to the now grown-up Doctor Gob. The two become fast friends and Walt gets involved in building the machine. As does another ex-soldier, Will – also with a dead brother - who has a whole army of ghosts urging him on and an angel who warns him about the abomination he is helping to create. Next to join this barmy army is Marci, Gob’s wife-to-be, whose dead brother (you guessed it, another war victim) communicates through her left arm via automatic writing and drawings.

As every character is introduced, so must we return to the civil war and learn each one’s story; fine, this happens in hundreds of books with the unpreventable result that it has to stop dead any momentum carried in the previous story. In, let’s say, a Stephen King novel the momentum is back within a few pages, if not paragraphs, but Adrian’s excessive detail slows everything down to such an extent that you resent the intrusion. By the way, the fact that 600,000 war dead never did come back to life might lead one to suspect the machine was a failure and the end of the book a rather foregone conclusion – think again. Like I say, there is a book in there somewhere.

In short – well written, boldly conceived and with some epic parts, but far too long, irritating, and at times confusing due to the convoluted plotting. Despite the negative comments, however, I am impressed enough by this debut to look forward to a second novel. I would just find it hard to recommend this first one. M.G.S.

The Peacock Manifesto by Stuart David: I.M.P. Fiction, 2001

Peacock Johnson got his name from the tattoo on his shoulder and the fact that he likes the way the actual bird looks and struts. He somehow translates this into an embarrassing look of his own where a Hawaiian shirt is total fashion along with one of those dreadfully uncool moustaches that go down to the chin like that of the late Glenn Hughes in Village People. Peacock is just a regular working-class guy and on his own turf in Glasgow wouldn’t draw much unwanted attention, although if he did he is streetwise and tough enough to get out of any situation. A money-making plan that will make his fortune has taken him from his normal environment and plopped him in the alien world of Chicago, into a world where the majority of the people can’t understand his accent and when, in exasperation, he tells them to ‘fuck off,’ leads to the inevitable gun being waved in his face. His first setback comes when his contact in the States, Evil Bob, turns out to think it is Peacock who can help him rather than the reverse. But once Peacock explains the beauty of his idea, he and Evil Bob decide to team up. There then follows a kind of ‘road’ book as misinformation and bad ideas send the witless two around the States, Peacock slowly coming to terms with this phenomena called America. To add to the confusion Peacock’s attractive but rather gormless wife, Bev, arrives on the scene.

What follows is in large part a slapstick comedy, but one rather odd, dark moment arises and a strange souvenir of it seems to cast a shadow over proceedings. A film version would have something like the Dumb and Dumber team hooked up with the ubiquitous Meg Ryan, but that would be to completely miss the point, which isn't to emphasise the stupidity of the characters. The characters here are actually very normal, regular people in a fish-out-of water situation, fighting for survival. With Peacock as narrator, the tale is told in a precise, simple style, double negatives and all, that says so much in so few words, and makes the photos at the end a big mistake for me. For starters, Bev looks like Dame Edna Everage (an Australian ‘drag’ comedian) when I had imagined her as a Jennifer Jason Lee-meets-Courtney Love type; and Evil Bob doesn’t even look American; he looks typically northern English/Scottish circa 1985, again hardly how I’d imagined him.

Stuart’s first novel, Nalda Said, has been hailed by critics, TBR included, as a little classic, so this follow-up is going to come under some very close scrutiny and of course comparisons will be made. What Stuart has come up with here is almost the opposite of Nalda;he has let his hair down, gone for the laughs (and as much swearing as possible), and created huge vistas and open spaces rather than the claustrophobia of Nalda. Perhaps it is a necessary move to clear the way for the third novel. Peacock Manifesto is a light, clever, amusing read in its own right with a feel-good ending, but lovers of Nalda may well be disappointed. I hope they appreciate the dilemma the author must have had and see this second book as an important stepping stone to whatever comes next. M.G.S. [See TBR review of Nalda Said]

Moby: Replay – His Life and Times by Martin James: Independent Music Press, 2001

I normally leave rock music biographies well alone, knowing that they are usually written by sycophants whose subjects are fairly uninteresting people made interesting by the amount of drugs they consume or money they make by creating ephemera. My bookshelf contains a 1969 edition of Hunter Davies’ The Beatles (they hadn’t even split up yet!), Philip Norman’s 1984 book The Stones and a signed copy of The Boy Looked At Johnny by Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons. I keep abreast of interesting bands and biographies through magazines like Uncut or Q and the only book on the subject I’d like would be the Zimmerman brothers’ one of John Lydon - my hero, and, coincidentally, also one of Moby’s. So why read about Moby? Good question, considering I agree with Melody Maker’s review of Moby’s world-wide hit Play: "Bar a few isolated outbreaks of talent, it’s all rubbish."

My motivation is that Moby is part of a new breed of ‘musician’ whose work seems to be pretty much an audio collage of other people’s toil and original thought. Moby seemed a more serious option to explore the genre than The Prodigy as he has certainly taken it to a new level. His story is not going to be nearly as interesting as, let’s say, Bob Marley, but he has been around for ten years helping to create sounds, beats and dance tracks that are enjoyed by countless thousands. He has worked with, or been asked to work with, some of the major names on the planet and his influences are close to my heart: the aforementioned John Lydon and Pil, Joy Division, even early Roxy Music. No mention of The Cramps though.

His personal life wasn’t as interesting to me as were his studio and working methods. I wish there could have been a bit more in this particular area but understand how it could easily have got bogged down in technical detail, so all in all a good balance is struck. Raised by a hippyish mother (dad died in an accident) he half-revolted against the 60s communes he was dragged to by becoming a Christian, which at first sounds grimly restrictive, but he has his own definition of the word and is very anti the right-wing Christian groups that are currently giving the religion such a bad name. In recent times he has certainly become a bit lapse in his beliefs and is drinking, whereas he was once a teetotaller, and bedding every famous babe around. This is the boon of fame as the scrawny, bald Richard Hall (to give his real name) possibly wouldn’t have a chance in hell, or the nerve, if he hadn’t made it. He is also wonderfully human and makes mistakes, such as once using ALL CAPS on an Internet chat line while defending (correctly in his case) his right to use DAT backing tapes at gigs. The fact he was pissing off the pedants and bores who thought their views on music the only correct ones was something I could certainly appreciate, but the bonus (and added fun) came with the fact that he was accidentally SCREAMING at them in the process. Unfortunately, he later bowed down and apologised.The fool.

The book nicely covers the birth of techno, acid house and the million offshoots and variations that were eventually to lead to all sorts of snob dance-wars. It covers so much ground, in fact, that what this book really needs is two CDs, at least, of the music mentioned. It is very doubtful that many readers have all the Moby tracks and re-mixes, let alone the many tracks that were of influence (Joy who?). And dance music was so fashionable that in just a matter of weeks a hot new sound/beat/song was history. Listening now to early Prodigy, 808 State, et al, you can hear how dated the music is (mind you, so is a lot of Joy Division). It is possibly Moby’s desire to be listened to in two years' time that has encouraged him to fiddle with music that has survived from as far back as the 20s and 40s (Play). Shoving a beat and soppy strings on old blues/spiritual loops doesn’t cut the mustard for me, but for thousands it does, and this very well-written book – in clear, straightforward prose - is as much an important introduction to the man, his music for the new fans who came with Play as it is a vindication of the fans he has made and lost along the way as he shifts his styles to fit the weather, fashion, and his love of punk. Martin James has done well to give fair coverage to a musician he obviously likes a lot, leaving Moby to come across as a likeable, but somewhat directionless, nonentity; and it’s done in a style that doesn’t treat the reader as a brain-dead ecstasy victim. M.G.S.

© 2001The Barcelona Review
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