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issue 30: May - June 2002

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The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nuñez: Serpent’s Tail, 2002; Translation: Ed Emery

It has been said that the past is another country; if so, then Barcelona in the early 80s must be another planet. Dirty and grim, a capsized ship in the port, whores lining the Ramblas, a shantytown of squatter restaurants down on the open-sewer beach. These are my pre-Olympic memories. Then the city got spruced up and the tourists came in hordes. I mention this because this latest reprint of Nuñez’s book makes great mention of Barcelona and its landmarks on the cover blurb, and readers who only know the new, post ’92 city might be baffled by a thing or two, particularly the fact that the street and place names appear in Spanish rather than Catalan as they are now. No matter, as there is really no great reason the book couldn’t be set in any other seedy Mediterranean port. Knowledge or ignorance of Barcelona won’t hinder the enjoyment of this story one iota.

The original (1984) Spanish title was Sinatra because the protagonist, Antonio Castro, looks like the singer. Frankie, as he therefore gets called, is a forty-year-old night porter in one of those clapped-out no-star ‘hotels’ you can still just about find off the Ramblas. His wife has left him and he is lonely, leading a tedious, directionless life. He knows that things must be bad when he gets a severe case of diarrhoea. An answer may lie in an ad in a paper for a lonely hearts club. He joins up and the letters start arriving. Now Frankie is quite a sweetie in his way, generous and wouldn’t hurt a fly - but remember, he is a lonely, frustrated male controlled by macho pride. This brings out a nasty side, revealed at times in comments like: ‘She wasn’t much to look at but who cares’. The letters, however, aren’t just from plain, lonely widows and widowers, nothing that simple. There’s a boozy armed robber fresh from prison wanting to move to Barcelona, a gay barman, and a dwarf who writes lousy poems and is desperate to have a man inside her. Then there are those that Frankie just happens to bump into on and around the Ramblas; for example Natalia, a junkie teenager who believes a ratty doll is her baby. Somehow Frankie gets involved with all of them and it gives him bad dreams. He is himself too emotionally weak to help those who ask and he begins to crack. Then, just when it looks like his luck has changed, disaster strikes. His floundering makes a sad but wonderful human story.

Those who read a lot of Spanish literature in translation may notice that Nuñez’s style is noticeably different. Spanish writing typically consists of long sentences with a bucketful of adjectives thrown in. Nuñez keeps it short, sparse and blunt. This adds to the atmosphere, the humour and the sudden bursts of the grotesque; it is a lesson in the art of simple story-telling and is highly effective. MGS

Niagara by Mary Woronov:  Serpent’s Tail, 2002

Much has been written about the author’s ‘cult’ background, from Warhol’s Factory to starring in the excellent Eating Raul, but by a freak coincidence, while I was in the middle of reading Niagara, Catalan TV showed Death Race 2000 with the rather beautiful Woronov as Calamity Jane. A whole new non-art cult status grows up with that knowledge!

I am unfamiliar with her other books but was completely won over by the cracking opening chapter of Niagara where we meet narrator Molly drunkenly trying and failing to do some shopping. To find out why Molly is this hilariously sad drunk, we must delve into the past. Her real name is Mei Li, her mum is Chinese, her dad a drunk. Dad’s had a child from a former marriage, and son comes to live with the adolescent Molly. Mum and daughter fall in love with the newcomer, a situation that takes on a whole new meaning when Molly starts to become sexually active.

The family live within the roar of Niagara and the falls practically take on the role of a major protagonist. A legend has it that there was once an Indian ceremony where a female was sacrificed to the great god every year by paddling over the edge. One year the lover of one intended victim follows and also perishes. This tale of love inspires Molly and Kenny, her stepbrother. In fact, he becomes obsessed, and using a school enactment of the ritual with Molly as the ‘victim’, he goes over the falls in a barrel he made himself. His body is never found. Molly has lost the great love of her life and ends up a lush married to Bobby, Kenny’s best friend, and living miles from her beloved falls.

Domestic drama? Yes and no. It turns into a sort of surreal soap opera that is, at times, loads of fun. One realizes that really there are two Mollies narrating the story. The teenage version tells a competent story but it is clear that she is not a ‘nice’ person, being spoilt and manipulative and self-seeking. Drunk Molly, however, verging on insanity, adds unintentional laughs through her excessive behaviour and usual inability to find her car. (Talking of cars, as Calamity Jane in Death Race Woronov gets blown up by driving over a mine.) It is this Molly, as the story unfolds and her stepbrother’s ghost takes on an aspect that is clearly not related to delirium tremens, who slowly gets a grip on her life and leads us, through some first-rate narration, to the logical conclusion.

It is the strength of the writing, especially towards the end, that always keeps this book above water and away from any ‘domestic drama’ pigeon-holing. One reviewer was critical of the presentation of Kenny who, although the source of everyone’s love and affection, comes across as an unlovable nonentity. The point here is that all the characters are portrayed as flawed, unlikable even. The reader is very much left to make his or her own allegiances - for example, I liked the obnoxious drunk Molly. There is a small quirk, and one that I think must have caused the author some soul-searching. For just a paragraph or two the point of view suddenly changes to the third person. It’s a nasty jolt and in reality the information given in this voice could be said to be laying down a point with a trowel.

In a nutshell Niagara is a love story. In a way it is the classic ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ tale mixed up with a blinding selfishness that only a hard dose of reality can clear. It is also very good. MGS

Hard Feelings by Jason Starr:  No Exit Press, U.K., 2002

I enjoy Jason Starr’s crime fiction for its good plotting and great endings. I’m also drawn to his books because I love the portrayal of the early thirtysomething male narrators who often find themselves in dead-end jobs and shaky marriages. Manhattan also provides the perfect setting: the cramped, over-priced apartments, the high cost of living, the overall rat race of the big city. These factors, along with the pressures of work and the harping of the young wife/girlfriend to make more money and move up in the world, all conspire to push the hapless narrators right over the edge. Of course, they’re never such nice guys to begin with, which allows us to take satisfaction in all that befalls them. At the same time, one always wonders what came first: the flawed character or the dire circumstances that formed the character. Sometimes you can’t help feeling that these guys just needed a break.

In this latest offering, we meet computer networking salesman Richard Segal. Times are rough. Richard hasn’t closed a sale since he came on board with the high-power company that ‘head-hunted’ him from another company. His young wife, Paula, is moving up nicely in her career (VP of equity research) and speaks of their buying a house in the suburbs (which neither of them, in debt up to their ears, should begin to contemplate). Richard suspects she may be having an affair with an old boyfriend, which leaves him paranoid (or is he?). On top of this, one evening after work Richard thinks he sees an old neighbor from his boyhood. This triggers memories that will eventually affect everyone’s life. Just what happened all those years ago? What must Richard do about it? And will he start drinking again?

There is always a lot of nicely dark humor in Starr’s novels and in Hard Feelings one of the most hilarious scenes takes place when Richard and Paula leave the city for a relaxing weekend in the Berkshires, which had seemed like a nice alternative to the Hamptons, but is fairly well deserted except for some senior citizens (horrors). Deserted, that is, except for Doug and Kirsten, a young, money-and-fashion-obsessed couple who confront Richard and Paula on the tennis court and push their way onto the court for a fiercely competitive game of doubles. Richard can’t wait to get away from these jerks, but Paula takes a shine to Doug and agrees that they should all get together for dinner, where Doug proceeds to flirt with Paula while Richard seethes through the evening. This couple, of course, will crop up again as lives become entangled - and not everyone will get out of it alive.

As I say, one of the best things about a Jason Starr novel is the ending: it never quite goes the way you think, and this novel is no exception. Another thing I like is the description of day-to-day life in New York, as experienced by struggling young couples with their maxed-out VISAs and all the pressures of their careers (or lack of career, as with Bill Moss in Cold Caller). Starr perfectly captures the trite, end-of-the-day dialogue between the tired, stressed-out partners, who often end up in a fight without knowing why. Dinner of an evening typically consists of calling for food to be delivered - Indian, Chinese, Thai, Italian, etc. I always enjoy reading about that, too, especially as I lack those options in Barcelona. OK, it’s just fast food of a sort, but it still gets my taste buds going - and amidst the growing tension, there is always lots of food in Starr’s psychological thrillers - the perfect accompaniment to my mind to what Bret Easton Ellis, in his praise of the novel, aptly calls "new-school noir." Great summer reading. J.A.

Yours Truly, Pierre Stone by Sam Bain:  I.M.P Fiction, 2002

At this year’s Wimbledon there was a picture of Serena Williams being protected by police from an unseen but rather aggressively in-love admirer. Last year UK TV presenter Jill Dando was killed outside her house by a fan, and of course there was John Lennon. Who’d want to be famous? Who’d want to attract the attentions of someone like Pierre Stone? Certainly not TV game hostess Marie Mitchell, but someone, possibly in PR, replied to a request from Stone and sent a signed photo of Mitchell. Big mistake.

The story is told in a series of letters from Pierre Stone to the luckless Mitchell. Slowly the reader begins to uncover the weirdo behind the pen. At first, as the references to toys and kid show, it would appear Stone is a precocious young teen, but then why would adults refer to him as ‘Mr’? Maybe because he is an adult but with problems. ‘Arrested childhood’ is a difficult enough condition to contend with, but when it ceases to be ‘arrested’, and sexual awareness, lust and jealousy suddenly pop up in a fully grown male - one that has finally realised that the letter writing is all one way - well then it’s time to get a bodyguard. Only it’s doubtful that Ms Mitchell ever received one letter; ergo, no guard. It is also the early 1990s and stalking is not yet big news.

OK, a simple story with only a handful of possible conclusions, you might think – my lips are sealed - but what makes this an absolute riot of a book is Stone’s perception of the world, his excruciating detail of his every movement – including bowels – how he makes his breakfast, how many supermarkets or certain shops there are on certain streets, etc. "On the way I saw Londis, Spar, Woolworths, Waitrose, Safeways and Rockinham’s Garden Centre. We also stopped at two zebra crossings and a pelican crossing". If that isn’t worrying enough, could you imagine getting a letter that starts off . . .

Dear Marie,
This afternoon I woke up feeling a bit sweaty and uncomfortable, because I had fallen asleep on the settee after playing computers all night. I was still wearing all my clothes when I got up, so I went upstairs, took them off and put them in the dirty clothes basket. I decided not to bother having a shower, so I just wiped myself with a towel and put on some clean clothes. Then after that I went downstairs and had a can of Heinz Baked Beans with Sausages."

Or reading the one that describes the writer’s mother having a brain haemorrhage and the resulting visit to hospital, seeing his mother in a coma, dying, and finishing: "After that I sat down and wrote you this letter. I hope you’ve enjoyed it." Oddly, alarm bells are not ringing in the Mitchell camp.

Then there are the TV shows he likes, the comic books, the ads, early computer games and his clothes. It’s absolutely superb, though obviously sooo England of the period that the average overseas reader is sadly going to miss a thing or two. Pierre is interested in the smallest things and, as above, shares his observations, plans and thoughts with Marie:

Dear Marie,
This morning I emptied out the jar I have of one and two pee pieces, and after counting them, I had £1.46, which is enough to rent one video from the video shop. I went to the shop and had to choose which one to take out of all the ones I had selected the previous day. I couldn’t choose Lambada Nights because the boy there said it was a New Release and it cost £2.50. I had to choose between The Cannonball Run, Hooper, Xanadu, Footloose and Hercules In New York. After some deliberation I chose The Cannonball Run. In case you didn’t know, it stars Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore and two girls who look like Daisy from The Dukes of Hazzard.

Maybe I am a sick puppy but this in-depth look at early 90s ephemera was hilarious and anything but boring. It’s great stuff and I could have read a whole lot more.

The darkly funny Yours Truly adds yet another loner, misfit character to I.M.P. Fiction’s growing collection of the same – for example the unnamed narrator of Nalda Said, Hit from The Bad Book and Alby Starvation from Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation. Not too sure if it’s an intentional theme but should William Kotzwinkle’s Fan Man ever get republished, I.M.P. would be its natural home. MGS

© 2002The Barcelona Review
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 tbr 31           july - august  2002

Short Fiction Laura Hird: Of Cats and Women
Rusty Haight
: Strange Things Afoot...
John Michael Cummings:
Visiting My Dead Friend
      from the Spanish
Enrique Ferrari:
Half an Hour
pick from back issues
George Saunders
: Sea Oak
Juan Goytisolo:
Khaa and Ghayn
Quiz Barcelona
Cormac McCarthy Quiz - Answers
Book Reviews Raul Nuñez, Mary Woronov, Jason Starr, Sam Bain

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