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issue 42: May - June 2004

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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.

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The Gravedigger’s Story by Ged Simmons: I.M.P Fiction, 2004

‘After I kill my Dadda, I’m going to kill myself’– so starts narrator Mason’s grim tale. Dadda is not Mason’s blood father but a widowed neighbour who hastily promised Mason’s mother’s Catholic parents to give the forthcoming child social respectability. Mason’s mother, referred to throughout as ‘my mother’, is a character and a half. Her promiscuous nature is more of a way to annoy her parents, but back in the very early 60s it was not a wise move to be seventeen and pregnant, so reluctantly she agrees to the sham marriage. From that point on she pretty much spends the rest of her life trying to ruin everyone else’s.

Dadda, a gentle carpenter, takes to Mason, and it is he who raises the boy and gives him his only fond childhood memories. His mother doesn’t want anything to do with her son, but seeing the bond, she deliberately breaks it by walking out on Dadda and taking Mason with her to live with a new lover, the first of many men to be trodden on. The separation is total and Mason loses all contacts with the only person who loves him and whom he loves. He grows up a distant loner, afraid of his sexuality and other people who sense his misfit persona. Tensions with his mother finally force him to leave and he skits around Europe doing menial work. Years later he returns to his hometown and with the few odd-job skills he has – a bit of gardening and carpentry – he gets work as a gravedigger and meets his only friend, Tom. Then a series of events, culminating in a reunion, lead to the tragic sentence that starts the book.

To give Mason a genuine narrative voice Simmons treads a dangerous path. Mason is not stupid, just a bit sociably challenged, but he is also not a writer so we end up with the typical prose that one expects to find in an autobiography by a model/footballer/actor, with corny lines like, ‘Another vivid memory from my childhood . . .’ and ‘For the first time I started to feel like a young man rather than a boy’. Simmons is in fact himself an actor and, though he has written some screenplays, this is his first novel. The reader, therefore, at first worries that maybe the naive style and its endless jumping about with childhood memories, is not so deliberate, but as the story progresses and events meld, one discovers that it is indeed very craftily created and presented.

I.M.F has yet again added another intriguing book with a misfit or oddball as protagonist. If this is your cup of tea then check out their wonderful, ever-expanding collection. MGS

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The Hollywood Dodo by Geoff Nicholson: Serpent’s Tail, 2004

Now living in LA, British born Nicholson is the author of fourteen novels, including some award winners, and is hailed as a ‘comic novelist’ (Independent), who will make you ‘laugh yourself sick’ (Time Out). Luckily the Financial Times says he ‘delights in defying categories’, which means for Dodo that Nicholson doesn’t have to be that funny and you don’t have to be sick because Dodo is actually a rather good, many-layered book and its humour is gentle with only one character trying for laughs.

Fifty-year-old Doctor Henry Cadwallader is chaperoning his aspiring-actress daughter, Dorothy, to a screen test in Hollywood when he is asked to attend to a young man, Rick McCartney, having a panic attack on the flight from London. Rick, who calls himself an ‘auteur of the future’, is reading a novel manuscript called The Restoration of the Dodo and has dreams of making a film, The Penultimate Dodo. The two take on alternative first-person narrator roles which are split up by chapters from the manuscript, telling the story of a trainee doctor, William Draper, back in 17th-century London, who becomes obsessed with dodos and actually manages to acquire one, possibly the last one.

Dorothy, basically a pain in the neck, hasn’t got what it takes and begins to fall into the Hollywood trap of changing herself to suit it. Yet her father seems to benefit from the place and meets a love interest in the form of Barbara – an ex-porn star, now an estate agent – as well as attract favourable comments for being a natural actor. Rick, give him his due, at least pushes to realize his dream. This means going to a one-legged, past-life therapist to see if she can stir up some images: she does, all too effectively, and his ‘past life’ seems to eerily match the events in the novel, which at this moment in time he hasn’t yet read. He then realizes that the only way to get the equipment to shoot his film is to make a quick porno flick one day and, with the borrowed gear, his dodo movie the next. The gear comes from a shady mob/porn king, so now Rick just needs a cast and a house to shoot the two movies in. Cue Henry, Dorothy and assorted friends, and borrowing a house off the unknowing Barbara. Also cue proverbial fan and a large pile of doo-doo hitting it.

Many-layered? Two of the three stories obviously connect, but both of these link with the past in odd details or coincidences, such as the appearance of a green beige door, or women with leg problems and men with skin diseases and so on. Apart from the fun of chasing these links as possible references to something else, you then have the coincidence that in George Elliot’s Middlemarch there is a Mrs. Cadwallader, and main character Dorethea is also known as Dodo. After chewing on all that, what else is going on? Is it about failure or that maybe your dreams, as in desires, should just be that, dreams? You be the judge, and at the same time be entertained by a well-grafted book that won’t make you throw up. MGS

Order from Serpent's Tail Website

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Handsome Harry or the Gangster’s True Confessions by James Carlos Blake, William Morrow 2004

‘Handsome Harry’ Pierpont was the heart and, more than likely, the real leader of the infamous Dillinger Gang, and here he presents his ‘confessions’ the day before he is due to be sent to the electric chair.

From teenage, petty thief to bank robber, Harry ends up in prison where he meets Dillinger, and the two become firm friends. Once Dillinger is paroled he sets up breaking out Harry and the rest of his prison buddies in what is still seen as today as a rather impressive escape. Once out, the gang learn that Dillinger is now himself in prison so they return the favor but this time a cop is killed and it was Harry who pulled the trigger. The next four months are extremely hectic with women, chases, untrustworthy friends, sudden house moves and robberies that make them rich but are close calls. After a long holiday in Florida the gang get back into the business of relieving the banks of their money, but Harry walks into a simple trap and the gang gets caught. Even though they are now America’s most wanted crooks, Dillinger manages to escape but he will find it impossible to break out his friend, now on Death Row. When Dillinger is then shot to death, Harry knows the game is really up.

Fast paced, very funny and with the added extra of women with balls it is at times a little hard to grasp that all of the main events are true and the people real. There does seem to be a small critical reaction against the seemingly endless tide of fact based fiction and tricked-up biography – in April Private Eye complained that the Booker prize is for fiction yet ‘fact-based historical epics’ dominate the list. James Carlos Blake is no stranger to mixing fact and fiction; his focus is always on the ‘desperado’ or the anti-hero, a characterization he has mastered. Handsome Harry may not be as racy or as violent as previous books, but it reads as good as genuine thanks to his narrator’s very convincing voice.

Harry is vain and therefore everything he does is pretty close to perfection. He dresses the best, has the best plans and of course has the biggest dick. He doesn’t like to use the ‘F’ word and sees the police as an occupational hazard, but is baffled as to why they want to get killed protecting something that isn’t theirs:

The cop killed was named O’Malley. The story mentioned more than once that he had a wife and kids…. As if having a family was supposed to give a cop some kind of special protection from harm. As if we weren’t supposed to shoot back if a family man shot at us. Christ, where do people get such loony notions? If a cop doesn’t want to risk making his wife a widow…. What’s he doing being a cop? Awfully irresponsible, if you ask me. There oughta be a law.

His delivery is as though he were speaking into a microphone, mostly simple and naïve, peppered with words like ‘scram’ in pig Latin (‘Let’s amscray’) or phrases like ‘And that’s all she wrote’. Living a knife-edged life that has so many possible ‘ifs’, choices and random factors (‘Shoulda, woulda, coulda’) makes for another recurring phrase: ‘What could’ve happened did’.

Blake tells his tale using unpunctuated quoted speech. This creates an unusual but effective style that plays havoc with punctuation as capitals suddenly appear mid sentence with no full stop in sight. One would think it rather unwieldy, but Blake manages to deliver snappy and hilarious dialogue (the gang discussing Oedipus is a real kick). A quick example that shows the style, the hard-drinking women and the humour:

…Billie had to step into an alley to throw up. She came back wiping her mouth with a handkerchief and said Well hell, no wonder I was sick, my stomach was full of puke. John was the only one who didn’t think it was funny.

All in all a fine book that sees James Carlos Blake going from strength to strength. MGS

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In The Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami: Kodansha International, English translation 2003

Modern-day transgressive crime fiction from Japan, Miso Soup will appeal to fans of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Our protagonist is twenty-year-old Kenji, a tour guide in Tokyo for the sleazy sex scene. Men hire him to take them around to the many establishments that offer sex in one way or another. He has a girlfriend, Jun, who is 16. She doesn’t mind his work, but wants to spend more time with him.

Kenji is hired by an American who calls himself Frank. From the beginning Kenji can see that Frank is odd. For one thing, he sometimes looks young, sometimes much older. His skin is unusual, metallic to the touch, and he never gets cold. But apart from physical oddities, Frank has a strange personality. He apparently lies a lot, telling contradictory stories about his past. He also occasionally goes off into a kind of trance. Kenji is repulsed by Frank, but also intrigued – and possibly hypnotized by him as well.

As Kenji takes his bizarre client on the circuit, we get a good overview of Tokyo’s sex industry – the "lingerie pubs" and peep shows, and the prevalent phenomena of "compensated dating" and "selling it" by Japanese school girls, who don’t need the money. Much is made of the fact that modern-day Japan is focused only on money and material things; it is this which defines them. At one point, Frank spends time with an older Latin American prostitute, who does what she does because she’s desperate for money to send back home. Frank understands this woman, but not the Japanese girls, who are so bored and apathetic that they don’t know what else to do. He says of the Latin woman: "She wanted to find out about the gods of this country, but she couldn’t find any books on the subject in Spanish, and she she doesn’t read English, so she asked a lot of her customers, but apparently none of the Japanese knew anything, which made her wonder if people here never came up against the kind of suffering where you can’t do anything but turn to your god for help." It is pointed out that . . .

. . .the Japanese had never experienced having their land taken over by another ethic group or being slaughtered or driven out as refugees - because even in WWII the battlefields were mostly in China and Southeast Asia and the islands of the Pacific, and then Okinawa of course, but on the mainland there were only air raids and the big bombs - so the people at home never came face to face with an enemy who killed and raped their relatives and forced them all to speak a new language. A history of being invaded and assimilated is the one thing most countries in Europe and the New World have in common, so it’s like a basis for international understanding. But people in this country don’t know how to relate to outsiders because they haven’t had any real contact with them. That’s why they’re so insular.

The only redemption ritual of any sort comes with the ringing of the "salvation bells" on New Year’s Eve, which is nearing.

Meanwhile, a young teen in the sex district has been murdered and Kenji suspects his client Frank; he also suspects him of immolating a homeless person. He shares his suspicions with his girlfriend Jun and they keep in touch by cell phones. Frank, for his part, says he feels like he’s "bonding" with Kenji and in one unusual episode they even go to a batting range together and hit balls.

All builds to a night in a sex club when Frank goes mental and the horror show begins, leaving a splatter of dead bodies. Kenji is left disoriented – is this the real world or has he slipped through some fissure into an alternative reality? He fears for his own life, of course, but when he does get a chance to call the police, he doesn’t. Curious! He tries to justify this by saying he doesn’t want to lose his (illegal) job, and the people are dead already, etc. Amazingly, Kenji continues to accompany Frank, now listening to him talk about other murders he committed back in the States as well as the many mental institutions where he’s been. (At one he had part of his brain removed.) Killing is his mission, Frank says. It’s needed to wake people up. All draws to a close on New Year’s Eve with the ringing of the bells.

Just as American Psycho was a commentary on the 1980s, Murakami’s book is, in a very similar way, a commentary on modern-day Japan (with obvious parallels to the U.S.). Highly improbable murders, gross to the core, turn the violence to scenes of dark humor. If you laughed at Patrick Bates, as I did, you’ll laugh at Murakami. Maybe Frank will be caught, maybe not; and maybe Kenji will be killed and maybe not – tension derives from this, but above all the novel is good at giving us a disturbing picture of modern-day Tokyo and the curious sex industry with its teenage girls and bored middle-aged women. It also throws out some provocative (although at times somewhat sophomoric) commentary on the skewed, hypocritical world in which we live – one in which murder is possibly the only catharsis. It creates an eerie mood where all seems just a bit beyond everyday reality, in this respect like that other Murakami – Haruki. J.A.

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Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin byMarion Meade: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2004

Subtitled "Writers Running Wild in the Twenties," Bobbed Hair follows the lives of Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Zelda Fitzgerald throughout the 1920s. Meade effectively interweaves the individual stories of the four women, and the men in their lives. Sometimes their stories intersect, sometimes not. The common thread is the early feminism of the women – individual talents who did what they wanted, when they wanted – and the jazzy, romantic, alcohol-driven, sexually liberated era in which they lived.

Dorothy Parker’s life is familiar to many, but there is much to be learned here – details of her troubled love life, three suicide attempts (one over her incapacity to produce a novel), an abortion beyond normal term, her travels abroad and her opinions on all the other major players.

Pulitzer-Prize winner Edna St. Vincent Millay is shown as a wild youth, bisexual and sexually promiscuous "like a man," burning that candle at both ends; while the other Pulitzer winner, Edna Ferber, comes off drab by comparison to the glam dolls; it was her more conservative lifestyle, however, that undoubtedly spared her many of the afflictions of the others.

Zelda, we all know. She was nothing more than Scott’s pretty southern belle for the first years of their marriage, loving to drink and party. But Meade stresses her talent for painting and writing. She penned many short stories that she sold to magazines, often with her husband’s name attached to hers in the byline as it brought extra money. Later, of course, she would write Save Me the Waltz, her version of life with Scott. Meade describes Zelda’s well-known passion for ballet and the long time she spent obsessively studying ballet in Paris, although she started way too late in life to ever be a serious contender on stage (mid-twenties); she did, however, Meade reminds us, accomplish a certain standing and could have performed small parts had not her mental illness put an end to it all.

All of the women were heavy drinkers, as the prohibition era was a time of indulgence. And all of them spent time in Paris, and other places abroad, as the dollar went a hell of a long way in Europe before the crash; hence, a Paris full of Americans, which draws glib comments from Dorothy and Zelda..

The men in their lives include Edmund "Bunny" Wilson, Robert Benchley, Harold Ross (founder of The New Yorker, whose history is given as well), Frank Pierce Adams (the columnist who recorded Dorothy Parker’s Round Table witticisms), F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Kaufman and numerous others who appear briefly, such as Hemingway. Generally, but not always, they are supportive of the women. Meade stresses how Fitzgerald was such a drunk that he made life hell for Zelda in later years, although admittedly she was a handful herself, which is usually what is emphasized.

Although the book ends in 1930, in an Afterword, Meade tells us how they ended up: broken, in a word, except for Ferber, which seems inevitable but was probably worth the price, given that one glorious decade. I loved reading this book. The author’s style flows easily and the intermingling of the four women’s lives works exceptionally well. Meade movingly records their triumphs and their losses, covering illnesses (physical and mental), nervous breakdowns, depressions, abortions, alcoholism, etc. We learn of their writing methods and styles and how they were received by the public. Lots of good gossip along the way (Zelda always claimed Hemingway was a "pansy"), and some good Dorothy Parkerisms thrown in. Informative – of the era and the women and their circle – and utterly engaging. J.A


© 2004 The Barcelona Review
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issue 42: May - June 2004 

Short Fiction

Oscar Casares: RG
Ron Butlin: Colours
Kathryn Simmonds: This Little Piggy
Bruce Henricksen: The Celebrated Stripper...

Barbara F. Lefcowitz: The Luminaries of Marienbad
Neale de Sousa: Dromedary

picks from back issues
Frederick Barthelme: Driver
Dorothy Speak: The View from Here


Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald
answers to last issue’s quiz
19th-Century English Literature

Book Reviews

The Gravedigger’s Story by Ged Simmons
The Hollywood Dodo by Geoff Nicholson
Handsome Harry by James Carlos Blake
In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami
Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin by Marion Meade

Regular Features

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

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