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issue 34: Jan - Feb 2003

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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.
High Life by Matthew Stokoe: Little House on the Bowery (Akashic Books), 2002

Compared to Stokoe’s first novel, the wonderfully gruesome Cows (see TBR review issue 15), High Life is almost mainstream, which is to say it has a beginning, a middle and an end, and, in that order; it has identifiable protagonists in a known city - L.A - and no talking cows. For those who thought Cows was going to be a dodgy one-off cult classic from a man with a diseased mind, the opening chapter or so of High Life shows an author of awesome ability. When the sex and violence kicks in the power of the writing dips a little but not the author’s control. The reader is compelled to continue, to wade along with the characters through the excrement, blood and gore and, like the characters, to become numb to the perversions that take place (in graphic detail) every step of the way. It’s grossly outlandish, but it’s not exactly new. Georges Bataille’s 1928 Story of the Eye, for example, has the heroine masturbating with a priest’s plucked-out eyeball, so getting off on the internal organs of others is normal on planet Sick. As I say, one becomes numb; it is almost with a clinical detachment, which is the author’s prose style, that one reads of the snuff rape by jackhammer, the shit eating, the necrophilia, etc., although I have to say I gagged at a line or two concerning some hawked up phlegm. Where it was placed. How it was used . . . er, there goes my dinner again.

Plot? Our protagonist Jack is one-dimensional, his sole ambition is to be a celebrity. All else is superfluous, but the killing and disembowelment of his junkie-prostitute wife awakens another side of him: he’d like to find out who did it. That desire soon sputters out, but he’s forced to pursue the investigation because a bent cop called Ryan, who makes Harvey Keitel’s Bad Detective look like an angel, has Jack tagged as the killer. Another distraction appears in the form of Bella; she’s beautiful, powerful and wealthy enough to buy Jack a rung up the ladder to fame. Jack, basically, has made it; he has everything he ever wanted, but Ryan won’t go away and he uses his power to further muddy the dirty waters.

The point? Yes, well. It’s not a satire so the graphic violence can’t be justified as in a novel like American Psycho. It’s seemingly gratuitous - very deliberately so – in much the way of the sexual violence/abuse in a Dennis Cooper novel. (Interestingly, High Life is the first title under Dennis Cooper's Little House on the Bowery series.) Like Cooper, I suspect Stokoe dregs up the sickest and most extreme scenarios to get the reader’s attention on a variety of levels. Could it be a finger-pointing exercise? Because of its pull, Hollywood, and therefore L.A, has always been seen as the centre for all types of perversions, easy sex or weirdness. People will do anything to get ahead and the casting couch is a reasonably painless ‘step one’. Maybe Stokoe is doing just that, making us look at the Pitts, Depps, Kidmans, etc, and asking "What did they really do to move up the ladder?" Then, with cases like Fatty Arbuckle or on a smaller scale Hugh Grant, maybe the author is also asking us to think about what these overly-rich people do in their spare time, knowing that they can buy any pleasure and knowing that people, like Jack, will do just about anything for money or a hike up the slippery slope. However one chooses to interpret it, High Life, with its highly improbable storyline, is some book, and for me one of the best to come out in 2002. But be warned: this is nasty stuff… now, where’s that spittoon? M.G.S

Note: Forthcoming in the Little House on the Bowery series is Victims by Travis Jeppesen (May 2003).

The Dutch Wife by Eric McCormack: Penguin Canada, 2002

I love a good story and Canadian author Eric McCormack sure knows how to spin one. In fact, he spins one after another throughout this latest novel. The narrator is a would-be novelist who moves into half of an old mansion in rural Ontario. His neighbor is the aging professor Thomas Vanderlinden who is full of obscure and esoteric knowledge and likes to share curious stories and tidbits with the narrator. One of his most bizarre accounts - that which serves as the structural set-up in the novel - is about his mother Rachel.

Rachel had married an anthropologist, Rowland Vanderlinden, who ended up, after a few years of marriage, going abroad and never returning. But about the time she was expecting him home, another man knocked on her door and said he was her husband, Rowland Vanderlinden. Rachel accepts this complete stranger into her life without questioning his identity. They are exceptionally happy together and soon Thomas is born. Then World War I breaks out and this second ‘Rowland’ is killed in action. Rachel goes on with life, raising Thomas on her own. Only when she is near death does she tell this incredible story to her son, now well over 50 years of age. And then she sends him off on a quest: to find the original Rowland Vanderlinden, if he is still alive, and to bring him back to her to explain the mystery.

Thomas discovers that Rowland is living on a remote island in an archipelago in the South Pacific. With great difficulty he makes the arduous journey and finds Rowland, now an old man, living with two native women, a mother (his partner) and her daughter. Here Thomas is exposed to the peculiar life and customs in this isolated and far-from-idyllic part of the world, customs such as the ritual of licking the spotted belly of a rare and tiny fish, which is passed from man to man and induces hallucinogenic sensations.

Anthropologist Rowland tells Thomas about his many adventures which have taken him from the wilds of the Andes to the great Monastery of Masalketse to all sorts of unwelcoming parts of the world (that being his predilection). The stories are mesmerizing, like nothing you’ve ever heard before. They are weird and far-fetched (as is the story of Rachel and its conclusion) and they can be gross. (You will never forget the story of the Guinea worm and how certain natives in the tropics must deal with it once it takes up residence in the body.) They are so good you’ll find yourself repeating many of the stories to friends. Like the author, I like to present them as though they were anthropological facts, like something I just read in the Encyclopedia Britannica or some recent journal. Often, a second or two of silence will follow while the listener takes it in, followed by a loud exclamation of some sort. All you have to do is keep a straight face.

It may seem as though the novel is merely an excuse to tell the tales, but that is not exactly the case. The basic plot on which the stories hinge is integral to the whole. It is rather like a Chinese box, filled with all sorts of hidden and fantastic treasures. Highly imaginative, thoroughly original, fun and entertaining . . . recommendesd to all lovers of tall tales.

A ‘Dutch wife,’ by the way, is the name given to a pillow between the legs while sleeping, used to prevent a rash in the tropics. Or so claims our narrator. J.A.

Desert Burial by Brian Littlefair: Henry Holt, 2002

That old cliché ‘never judge a book by its cover’ comes into play when one reads the author bio on the jacket: "Brian Littlefair is a consultant specializing in foreign direct investment and has worked with foreign joint ventures, international financial institutions and the federal government. This is his first novel". Words like ‘soulless’ and ‘formulaic’ pop into one’s head, but oh how wrong one can be! This was a page-turner of some magnitude. I read its 254 pages in one sitting, caught up by some fine writing, intelligent plotting and a convincing background.

Set in the near future and based mostly in Mali the novel kicks off with narrator Ty Campbell living hermit-like, in virtual obscurity, in the middle of the Sahara desert in a political no-man’s land. He is a geologist supposedly finding and mapping out possible water supplies but he is using his solitude to dwell on his murdered wife and not face life. Then one day Lila, an American aid-worker, appears on his ‘doorstep’ with 400 dying refugees. Campbell finds them water but the only person who can really save them is Bud van Sickle, who also appears out of the blue.

Up to this point the slow, heavily contemplative, descriptive writing matches the timelessness of the desert. One also sees that both Ty and Lila are potential loony-toons in the making. The arrival of Bud heralds a change of location and therefore pace. Bud offers survival at a price. He is head honcho of Timbuktu Earthwealth and they want to dig a rather large hole in the middle of the desert in which to dump the world’s atomic waste. He thinks that the money generated will help Mali, stabilize the area and, as a knock-on effect, stabilize Africa. The trouble is there are two other consortiums fighting for the same contract in two other parts of the world. The plan is to ‘place’ Ty, as a geologist, on the independent team that will judge the merits and award the eventual contract; he’s to serve as Bud’s eyes and ears. But Earthwealth is more than a company and it would seem the American government is very much involved. In an odd twist, instead of shedding the hermit role and becoming a gun-toting Bruce Willis type as expected, Ty is strangely inactive, zombie-ishly watching as Bud and partners gut their rivals. The fate of the refugees is in Ty’s hands but he seems slow to move – so, who will save the day?

From the misery of refugee camp life to describing the weird thinking behind global big business and usual government misjudgement, Littlefair does a more than good job. There is much here with an authentic ring to it but the need to make a thriller/adventure story does mean credulity has to be stretched. An unconvincing newspaper report towards the end of the novel, used as a kind of epilogue, was for me the only real letdown in an otherwise highly engaging, intelligent and readable story that introduces a new author who bears watching when it comes to future bestsellers. M.G.S.

© 2003The Barcelona Review
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 tbr 34           january - february 2003 

Short Fiction

Louise Erdrich: Naked Woman Playing Chopin
G.K. Wuori: You’re Stanley Now
Julie Orringer: Care
novel extract
Richard Manchester Potter: Digui Digui

pick from back issues
Alicia Erian: When Animals Attack
Sahayl Saadi: Bandanna


Graham Greene
answers to Children’s Lit Quiz

Book Reviews High Life by Matthew Stokoe
The Dutch Wife by Eric McCormack
Desert Burial by Brian Littlefair

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TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

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